Sleeper by Winj

Word Count 43,600

Some mild profanity spattered here and there. This is a work of fiction. Bear this in mind when reading some probably not so factual details.


Johnny slowed down just before reaching the white arch that led to his home. He spied his brother coming over the rise and eased back so Scott could catch up – and catch hell.

Once the older man was near enough not to have to shout, Johnny started.

“Where the hell have you been?”

Scott looked up, seemingly surprised by the voice. “What?” he asked as he pulled to a stop.

Johnny only needed to tug gently to bring Barranca to a full halt and he did so. “You heard me,” he said angrily. “I waited for over an hour, Scott. Where were you?”

Scott frowned deeply and shook his head slowly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Johnny’s shoulders slumped and he rested his hands on the saddle horn, crossed one over the other as he leaned forward slightly. With a voice reminiscent of a beleaguered parent, he spoke slowly.

“You were supposed to meet me on Hardy Ridge at three o’clock.”

Scott’s mouth fell open and his eyes widened then closed as he dropped his head with a loud sigh. “I completely forgot. I’m sorry.”

“You forgot? How come?” Johnny asked.

“What do you mean, how come? I forgot, Johnny. It’s that simple,” Scott said, a feeling of defensiveness rising.

Johnny was not deterred, however. “Well, what were you doing that was so important?” he asked, cocking his head to one side.

Scott’s jaw flinched then tightened, his lips pressing into a thin line. “Since when do I have to explain myself to you? I was busy! That’s all you need to know!” He pulled the reins hard to the left and kicked Remmie’s sides causing the chestnut to take off quickly.

Johnny stared after him, stunned at his brother’s behavior just now and in general lately. It seemed Scott had been spending more and more time alone the past week. Coming home late or not showing where he was supposed to be then giving no explanation. Johnny knew if he’d pulled a stunt like that, they’d all be all over him. Well, what’s good for the goose, he thought and spurred Barranca on.

By the time Johnny got to the house, Scott was already inside, leaving Remmie tied to the hitching post. Johnny looped Barranca’s reins loosely over the post and headed inside seething.

He found Scott standing in front of their father’s desk talking softly to Murdoch. He couldn’t hear what they were saying and he didn’t care at the moment.

“Johnny, good. Come in, son. I was just telling Scott I need to go to Sacramento for a few days. Teresa will be coming along. She never passes up a chance to shop.”

Murdoch was smiling at him and Johnny wished he could return the favor. But, his father’s good mood did nothing to quell his own frustration. He took a deep breath, removed his hat and stepped closer.

“Before you leave would you mind having a talk with your son about manners?” he asked sarcastically.

The smile left Murdoch’s face as he glanced at Scott who was turning to face his brother.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You could try it, Scott, but right now it won’t do any good,” Johnny shot.

“What is going on here?” Murdoch demanded.

“Ask him!” Johnny shouted, throwing a hand in Scott’s direction. “All week he’s been showing up late, if at all, and with no reason. I’m getting pretty tired of carrying your load, brother.”

“No one asked you to, Johnny,” Scott seethed.

“Well, I guess I’ll just let everything go to pot while you do …. who knows what!” Johnny retorted, throwing his arms up.

“Alright, both of you calm down! Let’s talk this through,” Murdoch demanded, then lowered his tone. “Now, someone explain to me, reasonably, what is happening here.”

Johnny and Scott glared at each other, neither willing to break the contact. Finally, Scott turned to his father.

“I’ve missed a few appointments. That’s all.”

Johnny, stunned by the statement, leaned in and cocked a brow. “Excuse me? You missed a few appointments? You sound like you skipped out on seein the doc. What you have been doing is keeping me waiting half the day – twice this week – not showing up to help like you promised – every day – and generally being a pain in the ass!”

“Johnny, please,” Murdoch sighed.

“Please what? Let him do whatever he wants while I break my back? I don’t think so!”

Murdoch had to fight hard to remain calm though why, he didn’t know. Neither of his sons were attempting anything remotely similar.

“Oh, come on, Johnny! How many times have you skipped out on a job?” Scott sneered.

Johnny straightened his shoulders. “Twice in the past year,” he answered with surety.

Murdoch rubbed a thumb along the side of his nose as he fought back a smile.

“You want to keep track, Scott? I figure you got me beat by a long shot this week. And I don’t care about the work. Some courtesy would be nice.”

“Courtesy?” Scott raised a brow.

“Yes, Scott, courtesy. As in, sorry I couldn’t make it because …..” Johnny left the ending open, his hand snaking out and away from him, inviting Scott to fill in the blank.

Murdoch cleared his throat loudly. “Scott, would you like to explain why you’ve been lax in your work this week?”

Johnny rolled his eyes at the polite question but he kept his mouth shut and waited.

Scott turned to his father once more and, pulling himself up, simply stated, “no.”

Murdoch suddenly didn’t feel very polite and he glared at his son. “Do it anyway,” he ground out.

Scott held his ground and stared back. “I’m not inclined to, Sir. I had things to take care of. That’s all you need to know.”

“Very well. Can I assume these ‘things’ have been taken care of and you will not be shucking any more chores?” the rancher asked through barely parted lips.

Scott’s jaw flinched. “I believe so.”

Murdoch turned to Johnny. “If your brother stands you up again, leave whatever the job is for him to finish. When he gets around to it.” Pulling his attention back to Scott, he went on. “We will discuss this when I get back from Sacramento. In the meantime, I expect you to do your work, Scott. No work, no pay. It’s as simple as that. Understood?”

Scott nodded curtly and turned on his heel, marching out of the room and up the stairs.

Johnny tossed his hat on the nearest surface and plopped down on the arm of a chair.

“What in the world has gotten into him?” Murdoch mused.

“I don’t know but I’m gettin pretty tired of it,” Johnny sighed.

Murdoch ducked his head then looked up at Johnny as he approached. “Have you tried talking to him?”

Johnny let out an even bigger sigh. “All week, Murdoch. I just got fed up with his attitude today. He says he forgets then he won’t tell me what he’s been doing. He ain’t been actin right. I’m starting to worry.”

Murdoch almost laughed out loud. “It’s hard to tell.”

Johnny shot him a perturbed look. “I guess you think I’d just go off on him like that?”

“No, no, son. I know it would take a lot to get you that angry with your brother. Maybe I should postpone this trip,” he said thoughtfully.

“Don’t do that. Whatever is eatin at Scott, he’ll work it out. He always does. Usually don’t take this long, is all,” Johnny gave a small grin.

They heard the footfalls on the stairs then the front door open and close. Johnny walked to the French doors just in time to see Scott ride off. He hung his head and leaned a hand on the wall.

Murdoch walked up behind him and looked out the door. He didn’t like this. Not at all. It wasn’t like Scott to behave so erratically.

“Johnny, if he’s not himself by tomorrow afternoon, I want Sam to see him.”

Johnny whirled around, nearly falling into his father. But he caught his balance and leaned away, against the wall. “You think he’s sick?”

“I don’t know. I have no explanation for his behavior, son.” Murdoch walked back to his desk and stood alongside it. “He hasn’t received any mail lately.”

Johnny had to smile. “You mean the old goat ain’t on the prowl again.”

Murdoch’s face was pensive. “Something like that.”

Johnny stepped closer to his father. “I’ll figure it out. If he won’t tell me, I’ll either worry it out of him or beat it out of him.” He wasn’t joking.

Scott had not shown for supper the previous evening. As Murdoch and Teresa readied for their trip, one of the hands informed them Scott had ridden out early stating he was getting a jump on the day.

“Well, maybe he’s trying to make up for lost time,” Murdoch mused.

“Hope so. Anyway, don’t worry, Murdoch. I’ll keep an eye on him,” Johnny promised.

“Maybe I should stay here,” Teresa offered.

“No, sweetheart. I won’t let Scott’s strange mood ruin this trip for you. I’m sure Johnny can handle his brother,” Murdoch winked at his younger son.

Johnny walked up to the surrey where Teresa was seated and took her hand. “Don’t worry, honey. I’ll have Boston whipped into shape before you get back,” he teased.

“I hope so. I don’t like this. It isn’t like him, Johnny,” she answered seriously, unable to find the humor.

Johnny’s face fell. “I know, querida, I know.” He squeezed her hand and gave her a peck on the cheek then backed away as Murdoch took up the reins.

“We’ll be back by week’s end, son.”

“Have fun,” Johnny called and waved once. He stood there, hands on hips as he watched their dust for a while.

Sighing, he hung his head and thought about Scott. Scott and his strange mood. He’d never seen his brother like this. Then again, they’d only known each other a little more than a year. Maybe Scott got this way sometimes. That was fine as long as he just explained it. That’s all Johnny needed.

Just tell me this is how it is and I won’t say another word, he thought. But Scott hadn’t or wouldn’t do that and Johnny had to admit, he was really worried. He decided that they’d talk it through tonight. Now that they had the house to themselves, there would be no chance of interruptions.

If that was Scott’s way, he had only to say those words and Johnny would leave it. Otherwise, he reckoned there’d be a lot of yelling going on tonight. He grinned and headed off to start his day.

Johnny rode into the yard feeling as if he were carrying all the dust in the world. At the very least, all the dust on Lancer. He was tired and hot and hungry and generally put out with life in general at the moment.

A hot bath and supper sounded very appealing, along with a soft bed. Then, he remembered his resolution to talk with his brother tonight. He suddenly felt very heavy as he pulled himself out of the saddle.

Remmie was already there so he resigned himself to not a minute of peace first. He couldn’t pretend things were okay just for the sake of having a wash.

Removing his hat at the front door, he slapped it against his thigh producing a dust bowl of surprising size. Sure, why not leave a little outside, he thought wryly.

Johnny walked in the house and tossed his hat on the table beside the door before stepping on into the great room. He stopped on a dime, his hand snaking to his right side.

“Don’t.” Came a hard voice.

He immediately felt the cold iron of a barrel against his neck and froze in place. A hand went behind him and pulled his gun from the holster. His eyes went around the room. Three men counting the one he couldn’t see; the one with the gun pressed into his neck. The other one was leaning against a wall with a rifle nestled in his arms. Not bad odds only, where’s Scott? The thoughts whirred through his head.

“Nice of you to join us.”

A tall, thin man came to stand before him. Graying at the temples with blond curly hair and light brown eyes, he wore a black suit with white shirt and string tie. He reminded Johnny of a gambler type.

“Well, it is my house,” he replied.

The man laughed not unpleasantly. “True enough.”

“What do you want?” Johnny asked, knowing it was expected of him.

The man raised a brow as if considering this question. Johnny hated him already but now, he really hated him.

“Well, actually, I have what I want from your household, Mr. Madrid. Just tying up a few loose ends. Or, to be more precise, making a test run, if you will.”

Johnny sighed softly to himself. Why don’t you just bore me to death, he thought but held that from his tongue. “Name’s Lancer,” was all the response he gave.

The laugh again. Still not unpleasant but unnerving now. “Of course. How thoughtless of me.”

Johnny heard the twang now and recognized a southern accent. He cringed a little and wondered again where his brother was. Did they have him or was Scott lying low, planning his attack and waiting for the right moment?

“Oh, I suppose you are wondering about your brother. Fear not. He’s just fine. Aren’t you, Scott?” he asked.

Scott stepped from his spot behind and to the left of Johnny who felt like he might pass out at any moment.

“Scott?” he breathed.

Scott stared at him unseeing. It was as if he didn’t recognize his brother. He didn’t answer or move. He simply stood there, face flat, gun still trained on Johnny only now, it was aimed at his heart.

Johnny blinked several times and tried to make sense of what he was witnessing but he couldn’t.

“What are you doing, brother?” he asked softly.

“Don’t bother, Mr. Madrid. He won’t answer you unless I tell him to.”

Johnny’s eyes fell on the stranger. “What did you do to him?” he seethed.

The man smiled, his demeanor taking on an air of superiority. “I’m not sure you would understand, Mr. Madrid. It was a complicated process that took several months to accomplish. That was a few years ago. I couldn’t know if it was successful until I found him again. And, of course, there was no point in finding him until I decided I needed him. That time has come, as has yours.”

Johnny frowned at him. “What does that mean?”

He smiled again and Johnny wanted nothing more than to bash his face in. The stranger walked to the door accompanied by the third man who had not spoken.

“Scott, come over here,” he called.

Scott walked over to him, backing away from Johnny, gun still trained on his brother.

“Scott? Where are you goin?” Johnny asked.

“You still don’t understand. Well, unfortunately, you may never. That all depends on how long it takes before the darkness comes.”

Johnny looked past his brother to the man who seemed to control Scott’s every move.

“Carpe diem, Lieutenant Lancer,” the man spoke.

Johnny watched as his brother’s shoulders tensed and his hand tightened around the gun.

“Scott, don’t,” he whispered.

“Kill him,” the man ordered.

Johnny’s eyes widened as he saw the trigger tighten and the cylinder begin to turn. “Boston?”

It was the last word he spoke as he was thrown back, spun round by the propulsion. Johnny landed on the floor with a hard thump. One arm splayed above him, the other hanging off his side as he crumpled. He tried to suck in a breath but couldn’t seem to as the world spun around him. Bright red spots danced in front of his eyes and he felt them closing of their own accord. The only sound he heard was a rushing, like water over a falls. Then, nothing.

Scott Lancer strolled into the Green River bank bright and early the following morning. He greeted Frank Hamilton warmly and accepted a cup of coffee from the man as he sat in Hamilton’s office.

“What can I do for you, Scott?” the bank president asked.

“I need to make a rather substantial withdrawal, Frank. All very discreet, of course,” Scott smiled.

Hamilton frowned at him and nodded. “I see. Well, how much?”

“Five thousand dollars,” Scott replied causally then took a sip of coffee.

Frank Hamilton’s mouth fell open. “That is substantial,” he said in an odd voice. “May I ask what you need the money for? I mean, if there’s anything the bank can do,” he offered.

“It’s a business transaction. Murdoch asked me to handle it while he’s in Sacramento. And, no, there’s nothing the bank can help with.”

Hamilton nodded and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His face reddened slightly as he thought of his next sentence. “You realize of course, I’ll need two signatures for such a large sum.”

Scott nodded, leaned forward and set his cup down then reached into his jacket pocket. “Johnny signed this morning before I left,” he replied and handed the man a bank draft.

Hamilton looked at the signature as he rose to leave. Scott asked after his family as soon as the man held the paper in his hand. Frank smiled and bragged, as always, on his daughters then excused himself to head for the safe.

Scott stood and walked to the office window, peering out. He saw the two men waiting for him beside the building and nodded. He turned as the door opened and Hamilton returned with a sack.

“Scott, it will be hard to conceal this amount. Are you sure a draft won’t do?”

“I’m afraid not in this case, Frank. Don’t worry, it will be fine. I have two hands with me.”

Hamilton nodded then handed over the sack. “This signature of Johnny’s….”

“What about it?” Scott asked nonchalantly.

“It’s a little hard to make out, is all,” the man shrugged.

Scott smiled charmingly. “Well, I suppose it’s hard to sign your name with fork in hand and mouth full.”

Hamilton chuckled and bid him good day. Once Scott had left, an uneasy feeling came over the man. Something about Scott didn’t seem exactly right but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He shook it off and felt foolish for even thinking something might be amiss.

“I’m sorry, Teresa,” Murdoch apologized again.

“It’s alright, Murdoch, really. I’m the one who wanted to stay home in the first place,” she patted his arm.

“Still, I promised you some time in Sacramento and I turn us around the very next day.”

“You’re worried about Scott. So am I. I’d rather be here anyway. He needs us,” she answered, a frown on her face as she thought about her elder ‘brother’. A thought that had plagued them both since they’d left the ranch yesterday morning.

Murdoch couldn’t even bring himself to make it to Sacramento. He’d had an uneasy feeling in his gut all day and when they stopped for the night at a way station, he had discussed coming back with his ward.

Teresa had immediately agreed, relieved in fact. She had a similar feeling that all was not well with Scott. She wasn’t so sure Johnny could deal with his brother this time. Especially given the anger the younger Lancer was feeling. She didn’t blame him. Scott was being impossible to them all but mostly to Johnny. She knew that was because Johnny would push where she or Murdoch may not.

And so they had taken a very early morning stage back, making it to Morro Coyo before the town had fully awakened. Renting the surrey had been, well, an exercise in impatience. Murdoch simply harnessed a horse to the buggy and left a note for the owner along with payment.

He knew Teresa thought him acting oddly and maybe he was. He only hoped he would have egg on his face. But, yesterday evening he had gotten the most horrific feeling in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t really describe it other than to say it felt as if part of him had just been ripped out. Torn away violently from his very being. And, he had been afraid. Very afraid.

A dread so deep, it was almost a physical pain had rushed through him. It had been so brief, though. Yet, he knew he hadn’t imagined it. Murdoch knew something was very wrong at his home.

As these thoughts reemerged in his mind, he unknowingly slapped the reins a bit harder, propelling the surrey along at a quicker pace.

He pulled up hard on the reins and set the brake quickly. Teresa didn’t wait for a hand down and he was glad. Murdoch saw the palomino standing asleep at the hitching post and, though he didn’t stop to check the animal, he knew something was terribly wrong.

“Stay out here, darling. Just until I check inside,” he ordered quietly and she nodded her head.

Murdoch drew his gun and entered the house quietly. He knew he’d feel foolish if his sons walked out to greet him with smiles on their faces. At this moment, he didn’t care.

They were short on hands as it was so he knew there was no one about the house. Or, shouldn’t be. If anything had happened, there may not have been anyone here to help. So many of these scenarios ran through his mind as he stepped into the great room.

He scanned the area seeing nothing disturbed then took two steps toward the sofa and stopped. His knees began to shake as did his hand. He stumbled forward dropping down hard.

Murdoch reached out a trembling hand that wavered just above Johnny’s head. He could see the side of his son’s face and it was white. He could see the pool of blood under his body and it had turned almost black.

Swallowing back the bile that rose in his throat, Murdoch touched the cold skin at his son’s throat and pressed lightly. He held his breath and stayed that way for two full minutes before breathing again.

“Teresa!” he bellowed.

She had been pacing outside the front door, hands wringing together roughly as she waited what seemed hours for a word. When she heard Murdoch’s voice, her heart stopped for a second. Just as long as it took for her to react.

She flew into the room and to his side. She gasped aloud and fell to the floor. Tears, once held back stubbornly while outside, streamed down her face.

“Is he?” she asked with trembling voice.

“Alive. Barely,” he whispered.

Suddenly, Murdoch flew into action. He scooped Johnny up like a rag doll and carried him to the sofa. He could now see the front of his son’s shirt and it was drenched in blood.

Teresa gave a small gasping shudder and headed out the front door to find someone; anyone. It took entirely too long to find Julio digging new outhouses far from the old ones. She sent him for the doctor, not bothering for now with questions that plagued her mind. Then, she ran back to the house, using the back entrance and began collecting supplies.

Murdoch ripped the shirt open and gaped at the hole in Johnny’s chest. A hand slapped down on the still oozing wound without thought. Probably wasn’t bleeding anymore until I moved him, he thought morosely.

Yet, he knew he could do nothing else and soon, Teresa brought in the first of the supplies. “I sent for Sam. It took forever to find someone,” she explained breathlessly.

Murdoch cleaned the area well and tightly wrapped Johnny’s chest in bandages. He sat back on his heels then and looked at his son’s face. Shaking his head, he thought Johnny couldn’t possibly look that white. Not with his complexion. It wasn’t possible.


He looked up at the incredibly child-like voice.

“Where’s Scott?” she asked.

Murdoch stared at her, dumbfounded. He had no answer and as he was about to get up, Frank ran in.

The hand stared wordlessly at Johnny’s still form, his mouth opening and closing.

“Frank, have you seen Scott?” Murdoch asked.

The man looked at his boss and could only shake his head.

“What the hell happened here?” Murdoch demanded.

Again, Frank could only shake his head.

“You heard nothing? No one heard or saw a thing?” Murdoch asked with incredulous anger.

“No, Sir,” he managed to get out. “A bunch of us went to town last night.”

Murdoch sighed out through his nose and looked back at his boy. “I want you to round up all the men. All of them. Send for Sheriff Crawford and start a search party. Scott is missing.”

Frank nodded and ran out the door.

Teresa sank to the floor next to her guardian. “What is happening?” she whispered.

“I don’t know, sweetheart. I just don’t know,” he answered with a trembling voice.

Sam was in shock when he laid eyes on Johnny. He and Murdoch carried the young man to a bedroom downstairs and he began his examination.

“How long ago?” he asked.

Murdoch stood to the side, near the foot of the bed to give the man room. “I don’t know. Teresa and I left for Sacramento yesterday but we decided to come home. I had a bad feeling.”

“I can imagine so!” Sam exclaimed.

“Scott’s missing,” Murdoch added.

Sam’s head jerked up and he looked sympathetically at his friend. “I’m so sorry, Murdoch. Does Val know?”

He nodded. “The men have formed a search party. I wanted to go but….”

“You can’t leave Johnny right now.” It wasn’t a suggestion or an explanation. It was an order.

Sam stopped for a minute and went to his friend. “Murdoch, Johnny is going to need blood. You’ll need to bring a cot in here to lay on. Why don’t you do that while I have a look?”

Murdoch nodded and stiffly walked out.

Sam bent down over his patient and whispered in his ear. “Hold on, Johnny. Don’t leave us, now. Murdoch can’t handle that. He really can’t handle losing you. I know what I’m asking and it isn’t fair of me but I’m asking just the same. Please, son, stay here.”

He straightened and sighed then swiped his eyes.

Four hours passed and Sam finished the transfusion. Murdoch laid perfectly still, his head turned so he could see Johnny. His eyes never wavered. He watched the entire thing. Watched Sam cut his son’s chest open; saw him dig the bullet out; heard the ping as it was dropped in the metal basin. Looked on as Sam cleaned out the wound, stitched it up and stuck a huge needle in Johnny’s arm. He barely flinched when a similar needle entered his own flesh. And he watched as the life blood poured from him into his boy. He watched as Sam inserted a tube in Johnny’s nose and fed it to his stomach. And he watched as Sam poured fluids down that tube.

Sam looked over several times during the process and noted Murdoch’s vigilance. He couldn’t imagine giving witness to someone doing such things to his son. But the rancher hadn’t wavered for an instant.

Now, however, those pale blue eyes were blinking more frequently, laboring to stay open and afraid to look away. Yes, Sam knew Murdoch was afraid that, if he lost his focus, Johnny would slip away from him. He wished he could tell his old friend it wasn’t true. But, he couldn’t in all honesty.

Not that it would matter if Murdoch was watching or not. If Johnny was going to die, nothing more he could do would stop it. Now, it was a matter of time, patience and his own will to live.

He also wished he could say Johnny looked better. But, his pallor had not changed. The blood was not nearly enough. He would have to really push the fluids now and pray – a lot.

Sam sat down on the side of Murdoch’s cot, having instructed him that getting up was not prudent if he wanted to stay conscious.

“It’s mostly up to him and the good Lord now, Murdoch. You should try to sleep a little. The blood loss has made you weak. I’m not leaving this room so if anything happens, I’ll wake you right away.”

Murdoch didn’t look at him. He reached out but Johnny’s arm was across his stomach and he couldn’t get to it. Sam leaned over and gently picked that arm up, moving it so Murdoch could hold the young man’s hand in his own.

“Thank you, Sam. Thank you so much,” he whispered. Tightening his grip, he closed his eyes and fell into sleep.

Sam smiled. If he can’t see him at least he can feel him, he thought. He shook his head in awe at the love this surly rancher had for his sons. Love he could hardly express to them verbally and that was sad. But, Sam knew both boys felt their father’s love. It was in his actions and, yes he supposed, even in his words, though he had probably never uttered those ‘three little words’ themselves.

Sam leaned his head back and said a deeply felt prayer for both Lancer sons. Wherever you are, Scott, may God be with you, too.

Scott Lancer sat bolt upright, his eyes flying open wide. His breathing was labored and short and his heart was pounding in his ears as sweat broke out on his forehead.

He looked around the small room wildly as he tried to figure out where he was.

“Carpe diem, Lieutenant Lancer.”

Scott immediately calmed down, his breathing slowed as did his heart beat. His face fell flat and his blank eyes turned to the man sitting at a rickety table across the room.

“Good day, sir. I was beginning to think you’d sleep hours longer. One of the side effects of my little experiment. Unfortunate as it is. But, don’t worry. I’ve planned things so that you’ll have an opportunity to rest after each of our excursions.”

Scott stared at the smiling face. A face that was so familiar to him though the name escaped him. He listened intently to every word, waiting for an order. There was none yet so he simply stayed where he was.

“Come over here and sit down, Scott. You need to eat.”

He swung his legs over the side of the cot and sat erect. Then, he pushed himself up and marched to the table, taking a seat and sitting impossibly straight. A bowl was placed before him and he began to eat keeping his shoulders straight and his head up.

“See that, Murphy? That is a true soldier. Always obeying orders without a thought. No matter what that order may be. Isn’t that right, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, Sir,” Scott answered loud and strong.

Murphy scratched his three day growth of beard and squinted his eyes. “Well, I’d a never believed it, Suh. You shorely had ta show it to me. He really went and done it.”

“Of course, he did. Just as I said.” The man sighed with pleasure. “This has worked out even better than I had anticipated.”

For three days, Johnny hung between life and death. Murdoch never left his side, keeping the cot in the room to rest on.

The search party had turned up no sign of his elder son and Murdoch’s heart broke a thousand times over. What had they done to Scott? Why take him and do this to Johnny? If they wanted ransom, why hadn’t they made their demands?

Val was as puzzled as Murdoch but he was having a hard time of it. He liked Scott but Johnny was his best friend and he was having a hard time concentrating on the task at hand. Fortunately, he had several men to help him. Experienced trackers among them. Yet, they had turned up not a single sign. It was as if Scott Lancer had simply disappeared off the face of the earth.

Sam was pleased with Johnny’s progress, having practically drowned him with fluids down that tube. Murdoch was not as optimistic. Johnny had not so much as flinched in three days and he knew how very near death his son still was.

There had been no fever, one hopeful sign. Yet, Johnny was still unconscious and even though Sam said it was to be expected, Murdoch disagreed. It may be expected from anyone else, but not Johnny. No, not this son.

And so he talked to Johnny until his voice turned hoarse. Then, he went to whispering. He spoke of nothing and everything and when he ran out of things to say, he’d start all over again. He couldn’t say why he was acting this way. Johnny had been hurt before. Still, it had never been this bad.

Watching his son shot out of the saddle during the firefight with Pardee had been, he thought, the worst moment of his life. Until now. Finding Johnny so still, so pale and death-like had been much worse. Maybe it was because he’d gotten to know his son over the past year. Or maybe it was because he’d allowed himself to remember how much he loved them both. He couldn’t say.

He shook his head and looked back up at his son, willing him to awaken. He heard a soft sigh and eagerly leaned closer, taking Johnny’s hand and squeezing tightly.

He felt the fierce yet familiar burn in his chest and let out a soft breath. Johnny felt fuzzy and lightheaded. Another all too familiar sensation. He was coming out of the depths of unconsciousness and he knew it would take a few minutes. He didn’t try to force it, knowing that would do no good. His eyes would open when they were good and ready to.

He felt someone squeezing his hand rather tightly and frowned. The hand was big, almost swallowing his own. Murdoch, he thought with certainty.

Slowly the light returned to the back of his eyelids and he managed a fluttering peek, albeit brief. Over several seconds, he waited to be able to see his surroundings even though he knew where he was.

Murdoch was here so he must be at home. The next question would be – what happened?

His eyes opened fully and he sought out his father. It took less than a second for Murdoch to come into view. The man was leaning so far over him, he was practically atop him. Johnny made an effort to smile but was pretty sure he’d failed.

“Son, take it easy now.”

He licked his dry lips and tried to swallow. Instantly, it seemed, a glass was at his lips and he drank slowly and with some difficulty. He coughed once then thought better of that idea as the pain awakened in his chest. Frowning as his head was eased back on the pillow, Johnny’s hand started up toward his face.

Murdoch took hold of it quickly but gently. “Don’t, son. Sam had to put a tube down,” he explained.

Johnny’s frown deepened. “Why?” he croaked out. He nearly sucked in a breath when he met his father’s sorrowful eyes. Johnny couldn’t remember Murdoch ever looking so incredibly sad. He squeezed the hand that held his.

“You’ve been very ill, son. Very ill.”

His voice was feather soft but, still, so sad.

“What happened?” he asked and saw the disappointment on his father’s face.

“I was hoping you could tell me. Johnny, where is Scott?”

Confusion adorned his still too pale face and his mind began to work at clearing the cobwebs. With sudden clarity, Johnny tried to rise up, whispering his brother’s name mournfully.

“Easy, son. Lay back down, now. You’ll rip those stitches and Sam will have my head!” Murdoch spoke softly yet firmly.

“Scott,” he breathed out raggedly as he closed his eyes tight.

Murdoch waited until his breathing calmed some, keeping close vigil for any signs of further duress. His heart sank at Johnny’s reaction, knowing it could only mean Scott was in deep trouble.

After several minutes, Johnny opened his eyes and Murdoch sighed aloud. The mask was there, eyes blank, face expressionless. He could only try now.

Before he could do that, there was a knock at the door and Val popped his head in.

Murdoch stood to get to the doorway before the sheriff could enter. He didn’t want Johnny further upset by any news the lawman may have.

“He just woke up,” Murdoch said.

“Does he remember anything?”

“I don’t know, Val. He got very upset when I asked after Scott. I’m just letting him settle down.”


The rancher returned quickly to the bedside upon hearing his son call for him. Val followed hesitantly.

“I’m here, Johnny. Can you tell me?”

Johnny looked in his father’s eyes and the mask slid off. He had no strength to keep it there and it wasn’t fair to Murdoch anyway. His eyes found Val and he tried a small smile for his friend.

“Hey, buddy. You sure know how ta mess up a quiet day,” Val teased.

Murdoch held his tongue. Though he desperately wanted answers, he knew Johnny was in no shape to be badgered.

“Reckon so,” Johnny mumbled. His eyes were growing heavy and the dizziness was back with a vengeance.

Murdoch saw it and tensed. “Son, please try. We need to know what happened. Who shot you and where is Scott?”

Johnny’s brows knitted together as he tried to concentrate. He felt like he was listening from under water and the words were starting to jumble together.

“Scott,” he muttered.

“Yes, Johnny. Where is Scott?” Murdoch urged, grabbing Johnny’s arm tightly without knowing it.

“What are you doing?” Sam Jenkins asked as he came upon the scene.

Murdoch’s head shot up as he stared at the man. “He’s awake. I was asking where Scott is.”

Sam frowned and went to the opposite side of the bed. “Johnny?”


“Can you open your eyes for me?” the doctor asked.

Johnny tried and managed a half-way attempt. He could see Sam but not his face and he frowned deeper.

“Johnny, look at me,” Sam said.

Johnny’s head rolled back and forth on the pillow slowly. He sighed and raised his brows, hoping that would help his eyes open. But, he couldn’t. He just couldn’t and he slipped away to sleep.

Sam sighed and looked over at Murdoch. “He’s exhausted.”

Clearly disappointed, Murdoch leaned back. “He tried to sit up. It was like he remembered what happened. Then he said Scott’s name. After that, he didn’t say much else.”

“It’s no wonder. Murdoch, I know how worried you are about Scott but I’m afraid Johnny isn’t going to have the answers you need for a while yet. He’s very weak still no matter how hard he tries. You can’t push him.” His voice was gentle as he made his point.

Sam could not imagine being in this man’s boots. It was hard enough on a family friend. One son nearly dying and not out of the woods yet, the other missing. Â

“Val, have you come up with anything?” Murdoch asked despondently. He knew the answer already. If Val had news, he would have told it by now.

“Fraid not, Mr. Lancer. We ain’t givin up though.”

“Murdoch, Mr. Hamilton is here,” Teresa announced from the doorway. “He wants to see you and Val.”

“I’ll stay with Johnny. Go on,” Sam said.

“Frank,” Murdoch greeted with hand extended.

The banker accepted the handshake but his face was long. “Murdoch, I just heard about it. I wasn’t sure if I should come but when I heard Scott was missing….”

Murdoch led his friend into the great room and seated him on the sofa.

“You know somethin about Scott, Mr. Hamilton?” Val asked.

“I’m not sure if I do or not. Scott was in the bank three days ago. He withdrew five thousand dollars.”

“What!?” Murdoch boomed, coming to his feet.

Val winced a little and remembered Johnny’s stories about his father’s bellowing. He had thought they were exaggerated. He knew now, they were not.

“Easy, Mr. Lancer,” Val placated. “Three days ago, you say?” he turned back to the banker.

Murdoch retook his seat and leaned forward.

“Yes. I thought something was off but I didn’t know what. When I heard about Johnny I went to Sam. He told me Johnny had been shot the day before you found him. That would have been Monday evening. Â Scott came to the bank Tuesday morning. Murdoch, he handed me a bank draft with Johnny’s signature on it and told me Johnny had signed it that very morning. The signature was hard to read, as if it were scribbled hastily.”

“Did ya mention that to Scott?” asked Val.

“Yes, but he said Johnny was having breakfast at the time. He joked about it. And there was something else. I didn’t even realize it at the time.”

“Well, get it out, man!” Murdoch growled.

Frank flinched a little but quickly recovered. “Scott kept calling me by my first name. He has never done that before. Always, he calls me Mr. Hamilton – always.”

“And he took all this cash with him. Did he say what he needed it for?” Val continued.

“He said it was a business transaction for Murdoch. I asked about a bank draft but he said it had to be cash. He told me not to worry because he had two hands with him. I didn’t think to look outside. He seemed to be acting normally. It wasn’t until after he left that I felt something was off. I’m so sorry I didn’t say something sooner,” Hamilton said ruefully.

“You couldn’t have know’d anything was wrong, Mr. Hamilton,” Val sighed.

They were quiet for a time afterward. Each man taking in the implications. Murdoch stood and paced the room, hands clasped behind his back, head down in thought.

Val was tapping his leg furiously as he tried to piece it all together. “Do ya have that note from Scott? The one Johnny was supposed to’ve signed?”

“Yes. It’s right here,” Hamilton said, retrieving the paper from his jacket pocket and handing it over.

Val had only to glance at it to know. “This ain’t Johnny’s signature,” he stated.

Murdoch strode across the room and took the paper. He stared at it for a long time, rubbing a thumb over the ink. “No, it isn’t but it is Scott’s signature below that.”

“Don’t make no sense, does it? If Scott was forced into goin to the bank, why forge Johnny’s signature?”

“Because withdrawing that large a sum of money requires the signature of two of the account holders,” Hamilton explained.

“And, o course, Scott knew that,” Val surmised.

“What does that mean?” Murdoch demanded.

Val looked at him with furrowed brows.

“Are you suggesting Scott forged that signature of his own accord?” the rancher continued.

Val took to his feet. “Ain’t sayin that at all, Mr. Lancer. But, if Scott was bein threatened and couldn’t see no way out, he might’ve let whoever’s with ‘im know that, if they didn’t already, ta keep the peace.”

“Johnny had already been shot. What more could they do?” Murdoch grumbled.

“There’s you and Miss Teresa and maybe a whole town full of people. We don’t know what they’re threatenin him with,” Val reasoned.

Murdoch deflated though his face was still a mask of anger and frustration. “No one can simply disappear, Sheriff. There must be tracks or signs or something.”

“You’d think so only we ain’t been able to trace none. Plenty of tracks out there. Any of ’em could be their’s or any hand comin and goin. Speakin of that, I wanna talk to all the hands. Mr. Hamilton said Scott told ‘im he had hands with ‘im.”

“None of my men….”

“Probably not,” Val cut him off. “But, it’s a lead and I gotta check it out all the same.”

Murdoch inhaled deeply and let it out slowly as he nodded his head. “I’m sorry, Sheriff. Of course, talk to whoever you need to.”

“Don’t worry bout that, Mr. Lancer. Just tell Johnny I ain’t givin up til I get whoever shot him down in cold blood!” Val decreed as he shoved his hat on his head and walked out of the house.

Scott sat rigidly in the chair, staring into space. Murphy watched him in fascination.

“Don’t he get tired of sittin like that, Suh?”

The man smiled and looked at Scott. “I suppose he does. At ease, Lieutenant,” he called.

Scott relaxed his shoulders and allowed his head to dip a little.

“How long will he do what ya want?” Murphy asked.

“For the rest of his life,” the man grinned. The smile faded as he thought of the next phase of his plan. He paced the room, turning on his heel as he went the opposite direction.

Murphy watched him now. Marveling at the ease in which he held his military bearing. He’d always been fascinated with the officers. Educated men in smart uniforms with all kinds of medals and doodads adorning their chests. He knew he’d never aspire to such heights so being here with this man among men was as close as he could ever dream of getting.

The man turned sharply then stopped, facing Murphy.

“I believe it’s time to begin again, Murphy. Tomorrow morning, we will put phase three into action.”

Murphy smiled a wide, yellow-toothed smile and nodded his head enthusiastically. “Then we can go home?”

“Yes, boy. Then we can go home,” he sighed longingly and walked outside.

He stood on the small porch of the small cabin and inhaled deeply of the fragrances around him. They weren’t the same, though. He missed the peach and magnolia scents. The pine and rose fragrances. He stared out at the trees which perfectly ensconced their little hideaway.

No one would find them here, of that he was certain. And he was certain because he’d been here for two months and had not been discovered. It was a stroke of pure genius on his part and he was unabashed with his self-praise.

Yet, he longed for home and was impatient to see it again. Now, he could return to his native state, rebuild his plantation and prosper. He’d lost it all in the war and now, he intended to have it back. It had taken him years to devise a plan and even then nothing was clear. But, when he’d gone in search of his prize experiment and found what had happened to Scott Lancer, he’d been thrilled.

Out here in this wilderness, he could carry out his plan to regain his wealth much easier than a big city like Boston. Out here, he could hide right under their noses. And no one would ever even know his name. He would never pay for any crime for he had committed none. Scott Lancer would surely swing from a rope but he would return to his glory.

Two more days passed and Johnny barely awakened for any period of time. Though, each time he did, Murdoch tried to get something – any information from him. He knew it wasn’t fair but he also knew Johnny would want him to do this. Would want to help any way he could. Yet, every time Murdoch asked what happened, his son would only call for his brother.

Val stopped by this afternoon. He’d talked to every hand on Lancer and none had accompanied Scott to the bank. He figured it was a waste of time but he couldn’t ignore what he’d been told. Still, they were no closer to finding Scott.

He stood at the bedside looking down on his friend. Johnny looked a little better to him. His color was returning at long last and the lawman was hopeful.

Murdoch sat in his chair and stared at his son; waiting.

Johnny made a soft moaning sound that perked both men up. His eyes fluttered open and he blinked several times to focus.

Murdoch helped him drink then adjusted his pillows and covers, biting his tongue the entire time. Finally, he asked again.

“Johnny, can you tell me anything? Who shot you, son? Where is Scott?”

“Scott,” he whispered.

“Yes, son, Scott. He’s missing. Who took him, Johnny and why?” Murdoch managed to keep the frustration from his voice.

Johnny swallowed hard. He didn’t want to tell it. Didn’t want to speak it lest that make it true. But he knew it was true he just could not wrap his mind around the why of it.

Val stood back and listened to the conversation, if you could call it that. It seemed to him Murdoch was pushing too hard and asking too many questions. He wasn’t sure if Johnny was answering his father or simply asking for his brother. He decided to step in. After all, it was his job to question witnesses. Even this witness. He steeled himself for the onslaught from Murdoch Lancer but he no longer cared. He wanted to find the bastard who had done this. Shot his unarmed friend.

Val cleared his throat. “Scuse me, Mr. Lancer. Mind if I give it a try?” he asked, yet stepped forward at the same time. Val nudged his way to the bedside and kneeled by his friend.

Murdoch gave him a disgusted look and scooted his chair back before Val ended up sitting in his lap but he said nothing.

“Hey, amigo. Can ya hear me?” Val asked more softly than anyone would have thought he could.

Johnny’s eyes opened once more. He locked onto his friend and Val saw the deep sorrow there. An idea that had been plaguing him that he refused to really consider, grabbed at his chest.

“Johnny, who shot you?” Val asked simply.

Johnny swallowed again as if the words stuck in his throat and refused to be heard. He opened his mouth and, though he fought hard against it, his eyes glistened.

“Val,” he breathed.

“Yeah, it’s me, buddy. Who shot you, Johnny?” he repeated, annunciating each word of the question and giving Johnny a no nonsense look.

Johnny took a hitching and painful breath. “Scott.” It was barely audible, barely believable but the sheriff only nodded.

But Val needed to be absolutely sure. “Scott shot you?” he asked nonjudgmentally.

“Yes,” he mumbled miserably.

Murdoch jumped to his feet, a frightening scowl on his face as he glared at his son.

“Please, listen,” Johnny whispered.

The look of pure agony on his son’s face tore at the rancher’s heart and he softened his own expression then nodded as he once more took his seat.

Johnny took as deep a breath as he could manage. He’d been trying for so long to tell his story. To let them know what had happened though he wasn’t sure himself exactly what had transpired.

“Two men – strangers, were here with Scott when I got home. I didn’t see Scott at first. Someone was holding a gun at my neck.” He stopped and took a couple of breaths.

“This man did all the talkin. Said he needed to make a test run.” Johnny shook his head, still not understanding what the hell that man was talking about.

“Then, all the sudden, Scott stepped from behind me. He was holding the gun on me. I … I didn’t know what to think. I tried to talk to him but he just looked right through me. It was like he …. he didn’t know who I was.” He paused again to breathe.

“This man called him over and they were standing by the door. Then, he said something weird to Scott. Some words …. it almost sounded Spanish but it wasn’t. Scott got all tensed up. Then….”

He stopped here, fighting with all he had to maintain his decorum. He didn’t want to break down but he wasn’t sure he could say the words and keep his dignity. He felt a hand in his own and looked at Val, a weak smile coming briefly to his lips.

“Take your time, buddy,” Val said.

“The man, he said I wouldn’t understand until it was too late. Then, he said those strange words and then he said ‘kill him’.” Johnny closed his eyes but the nightmare would not fade from his mind’s eye.

“That’s when Scott pulled the trigger.”

Val sucked in a breath. “Can ya remember anything else this man said? Any names he mentioned? Anything at all, Johnny?”

Johnny had his eyes closed again and he shook his head slightly before opening them again. “He said this had happened years ago and took months to accomplish. He wasn’t makin much sense. He had a southern accent, I remember.”

“What were the words he said, Johnny?”

They all looked up to see Sam standing near the door.

Johnny frowned at him as he stepped closer and sat on the edge of the mattress.

“You said he said some strange words you didn’t understand. What were they?” Sam clarified.

“I don’t know, Sam.”

“Try to remember, Johnny. It may be very important.”

He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to go fully back to that day. He made himself focus in on that minute and he frowned more deeply.

“Carp …. I thought the second word was dias at first but that’s not right. Carp dim?” Sighing he looked at the doctor.

Sam studied the words, turning them over in his mind. “Carp dim, Carp dim. Carpe Diem?”

“That’s it!” Johnny said too strongly and winced at the pain in his chest.

“Easy, Johnny,” Murdoch said as he gained his senses. He retook his spot as Val stood up and laid a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“What does it mean, Sam?” Johnny grunted out.

“Well, it’s Latin. It means ‘seize the day’ but I don’t think the meaning is so important.” Again, Sam frowned deeply in thought. “You said Scott didn’t seem to recognize you. That he was staring right through you and only moved when this man told him to?”

“Yeah,” Johnny almost shrugged but stopped himself.

“Is that all he said. Carpe diem?”

Johnny thought again and groaned. “No, he said carpe diem, Lieutenant Lancer. Just like that. Carpe diem, Lieutenant Lancer,” he repeated.

Murdoch sighed heavily. “Someone from the war.”

“What’re ya thinkin, Doc?” Val asked, knowing this was not idle curiosity.

The doctor gave him a sidelong look, unsure if he even wanted to broach the possibility of what was on his mind. He looked at Johnny and saw the fine sheen of sweat on his forehead and the waxy pallor. He shook his head and opened his mouth.

“Don’t even think about it. You ain’t leaving me out of this so spill it!” Johnny said angrily.

Sam stood and hid the smile. Johnny had come to know him well. “It could explain why Scott would shoot you.”

“Then tell us, Sam, because I swear I can’t believe Scott would do such a thing to anyone let alone his brother!” Murdoch asserted, still reeling.

Sam glanced at Johnny then drilled Murdoch with his eyes. “Without a very good explanation, you mean.”

Murdoch dropped his own eyes from that glare. “I didn’t mean I don’t believe you, Johnny.”

“I know. I can’t hardly believe it myself,” Johnny said softly. “What are you thinking, Doc?”

Sam bit his lower lip. “During the War Between the States, there was talk about certain experiments on mind control.”

“Experiment. He used that word,” Johnny said mostly to himself.

“Both sides had an interest in it. I mean, if one could get a highly trusted officer to betray top secret information like troop location and artillery count and the like, it could have ended the war much sooner.”

“How do you know about this, Doc?” Val asked.

“I was a Union doctor during the war, Val. I gave up my practice here for a few years to serve.”

Murdoch nodded, remembering the time when he’d feared so for his friend’s safety. He had not known at that time he should have been fearing for his elder son’s as well.

“I was assigned to the top echelon for a time and was involved in some of the early research. I couldn’t condone it, though and asked to be reassigned. I never heard anymore about it other than rumor.”

“Are you saying Scott could have been one of those experiments?” Johnny asked.

“It’s possible. Especially given he was a prisoner of war. He would be an easy target. Someone they could ‘practice’ on to see if it would really work.”

“He’s never mentioned anything,” Murdoch commented.

“He would never know it. That was the whole point. The victim would never remember what had happened, what he had done or to whom,” Sam said, casting a look toward Johnny. “The controller would use a certain phrase to reawaken the conditioning. The victim’s were called sleepers for that reason.”

“How could the army condone this?” Murdoch shook his head.

Sam smiled. “You would be surprised what men are capable of, Murdoch. During war or peacetime.”

The stagecoach pulled to an abrupt halt as Pete Winslow practically growled.

The well-dressed passenger stuck his head out the coach window and asked the problem.

“Ain’t hard ta figure out,” Pete groused as he climbed down to the ground. He walked over and kicked at the tree lying across the road and effectively blocking their path.

The man left the coach to take a closer look. “A storm, maybe,” he said mostly to himself.

“Reckon it don’t much matter. It’s got be moved ‘fore we can get goin again. Smiley! get over here and help me!” Pete shouted to his shotgun rider.

The man’s hand went to his sidearm as he heard a horse approaching the bend ahead of them – on the other side of the tree.

“Ain’t no need fer that,” Pete told him then smiled and waved. “Hey, Scott!”

“Pete,” Scott Lancer nodded and smiled. “Seems you have a bit of a problem.”

“Reckon we do at that,” Pete laughed.

Scott dismounted and got closer to the tree, giving it a thorough once over. “Too heavy for my horse alone. If we unhitch your team and use two of your horses, we should be able to pull it aside,” he surmised.

“Sounds good ta me. Only, this trip I ain’t the boss,” Pete said and looked at the man.

Scott looked at him as well with an expectant expression. But the man was unsure how coincidental this all was. He had a very important package to deliver – the payroll for the railroad workers in central California was on this stage.

The railroad had heard a rumor of a possible robbery and decided to try the stage lines, hoping to throw off any potential threats.

“McIntyre. Pinkerton Agency,” he introduced.

“Scott Lancer,” he extended his hand and shook.

“Scott’s a rancher other side of town. He’s a good man,” Pete explained.

McIntyre raised a brow and nodded then.

They unhitched the team and, using Scott’s lariat, tied the tree off to the horses. It took several attempts and McIntyre and his aide were growing more terse as the minutes ticked by. Still, they managed to pull the tree out of their path.

Pete and Smiley, who never spoke, worked on untangling the rope from their team on the other side of the coach.

Scott walked to the stage and reached under the front seat, retrieving a canteen. He took a long pull then offered it to the Pinkertons as he strolled over to the shade.

McIntyre and his aide stood with their backs to Scott as they refreshed themselves and discussed what the delay could mean.

Suddenly, the aide went to the ground and, before he could react, McIntyre fell in a crumpled heap alongside him.

Scott had the bags pulled out from the inside of the coach before Pete and Smiley reappeared. He pulled his pistol and trained it on them.

Smiley stopped smiling and Pete gawked.

“What’re ya doin, Scott?”

“I don’t want to hurt you. Just use that rope to tie Smiley’s hands to the wheel,” he said coldly.


“Do it now!” Scott cut him off.

Pete stared at him for a split second then did as he said. Scott used the remainder of the rope, tucking his gun in his shirtwaist and tying Pete alongside his partner.

“I can’t believe this, Scott Lancer. What in the world’s got into ya? Your daddy is gonna have your hide!” Pete rambled.

Scott ignored him and picked up the sacks. He walked to his horse and threw them across the saddle horn then mounted up. Without a backward glance, he turned and rode back the way he’d come.

Val Crawford was one put out man. He stood on the boardwalk in front of his office and stared at nothing. Over a week and no sign of Scott Lancer. No tracks they could use – nothing! He sighed heavily then spat.

“Good morning, Sheriff.”

Val turned, ready to take off anyone’s head at that point. But, he relaxed when he saw who spoke. “Mornin, Mr. Hamilton,” he replied with anything but cheer.

“I suppose I don’t have to ask how things are going?”

“Nope. Well, Johnny’s doin better but other than that, no good news,” Val answered as he stepped off the boardwalk and leaned against the hitching rail.

Frank Hamilton joined him and they both simply stared down the street. One man looking east, one looking west past each other.

“It simply makes no sense, does it? Murdoch must be out of his mind. I really should go back out there and visit,” Frank chattered.

Val nodded, not really listening, then he straightened a bit, his eyes training on the general store.

Hamilton didn’t miss it and he started to turn but Val clamped a hand on his arm.

“Just relax and don’t act suspicious,” he said quietly.

“If anyone is acting suspicious, Val, it’s you,” Frank responded.

Val grimaced but his eyes stayed where they were. “Stranger over there. Looks like he’s layin in a lot of supplies.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Hamilton pointed out.

“Maybe. Maybe not. But, he’s the first stranger I seen in a while.”

Hamilton looked at him. “Are you going to question everyone who rides through town, Sheriff?”

Val glanced at him with annoyance. “Nope. I’m gonna follow ‘im though. Can’t hurt nothing. ‘Sides, I ain’t doin no good standin here!”

The scraggly man finished packing his saddlebags to overflowing and mounted up. He headed east and Val waited until he was almost out of sight before mounting up to follow.

He knew he was being overly cautious and probably wasting his time but Val had a feeling and it wasn’t a good one. Johnny wasn’t the only one who lived on his instincts. In fact, it was one of the things that had drawn the two men together.

He stayed off the road, opting for the higher ground to the left side. He used the trees and boulders for cover as he stalked his prey. Part of him was kicking himself for becoming paranoid. Part of him didn’t give a damn at this point. It had been a long time since he’d been this frustrated. He didn’t think he could face Johnny again until he had some news about his best friend’s brother. Â

Val kept thinking over what Sam had told them the other day. He wasn’t a lawyer, for sure, but he was fairly certain Scott didn’t have a leg to stand on if he did anything ….. well, anything more than he’d already done. Val knew Johnny would not press charges. That wouldn’t mean a thing if this stranger who held Scott got him to actually kill someone.

The lawman shivered in the hot noonday sun. He couldn’t fathom one man having that kind of total control over another. If he were honest with himself, he’d admit he really didn’t believe it. He only hoped he was wrong, for the Lancers’ sake.

His quarry turned to the right off the road a mile from the turn off to Lancer and Val’s interest piqued even higher. He would have to tread carefully now. He thought about the area but knew of nothing in that direction of interest. He crossed the road and dismounted, tethering his horse deep in the trees as he went the rest of the way on foot.

He hadn’t spent any time up here, though, so he really hadn’t a clue what was about. He moved stealthily through the woods, keeping a far-off eye on his prey.

Val was sure he’d fall over from exhaustion soon and was beginning to doubt his instincts. He reckoned he’d walked about two miles now and wondered if this fella was simply goin right on over the mountain.

Then, he stopped cold as he spied a structure up ahead. Val could see the man riding up to the building and he scanned the immediate area. Picking a likely path, he made his way closer.

Johnny grabbed hold of the large bicep as he leaned into his father. Using his right hand more as his left was still so weak from the injury, he squeezed his eyes shut against the pain.

“Not too tight,” he ground out.

“And not too loose,” Murdoch retorted gently. He wrapped the bandages around his son’s chest as quickly as he could manage.

Still, at that moment, with Johnny’s head on his shoulder, his heart thumped faster. He was so close! All Murdoch had to do was lean his head a little to his right and rest his cheek on the soft black hair. Just a little. It could be construed as him trying to see what he was doing better. He could shrug it off as incidental. He could grab the young man up and hug the stuffing out of him, so very grateful his son was alive.

But he didn’t. He continued with the chore at hand and fought his own selfish needs. He knew this task was hard on Johnny. That it took so much strength for the boy to do something as simple as lean forward like this.

Yet, this simple contact was so precious.

Murdoch tied off the bandage and placed one large hand on the middle of Johnny’s back with the other at the nape of his neck as he lowered his son to the pillows awaiting him. He went along with Johnny, leaning down to ease any suddenness from the movement, trying to assuage any further pain for his son.

Johnny relaxed into the bed and sighed. Beads of sweat covered his face. Murdoch grabbed a cloth off the bedside table and gently patted his face dry.

“Thank you.”

Murdoch looked down into the cobalt eyes, so tired from the simple movement, and he smiled. “You’re welcome, son. Now, try to get some rest.”

Johnny nodded, his eyes half closed. Suddenly, they flew open at the sound of galloping hooves outside the open window. He looked at his father who simply shrugged and went to look out.

“It’s Val,” Murdoch commented.

Johnny started to rise, but Murdoch was right there, pressing him back down.

“Stay. I’ll go see what’s happening and let you know.” He gave no room for argument as he hurried to the great room.

Johnny lay there for about a second before throwing the covers back.

He stumbled to the chair across the room and grabbed his pants then sat down slowly on the seat. Johnny wasted no time and paid no mind to the burning pain in his chest as he pulled on the clothing. Not bothering with a shirt, he started out of the room.

Murdoch had the door open before Val could knock. The sheriff nodded and walked on in, removing his hat as he did.

“I need some help, Mr. Lancer,” he started right in.

“Of course, Val. What’s happening?” the rancher answered immediately as he came to a stop in the middle of the room.

“Well, there was a stranger in town today loadin up on supplies. Only, he was on horseback. I thought it was strange and, well, since I got nothin else ta go on, I followed him.” Val was a little breathless as he spoke and Murdoch strode to the sideboard, pouring a glass of water and handing it off.

Val nodded gratefully and downed the glass in one gulp, breathing even harder for a few seconds afterward.

Once he’d collected himself, Val continued. “Followed him to a turn off about a mile from where ya leave the main road for Lancer. Then, he went a couple more miles into the woods. Didn’t think he’d ever stop. Anyhow, there was this cabin up there. I didn’t see anyone else but there was two more horses and, well, I think one of ‘im was Scott’s.”

Murdoch’s shoulders tensed and his expression hardened. “Are you sure?”

“Nope. Not a hundred percent. But, if it is Scott’s, I figured I’d need a little help. Three against one ain’t the best odds for comin out alive,” Val replied.

“Three against one? Thought you said there was only three horses. If one is Scott’s, that makes it two against two.”

“Johnny!” Murdoch yelled and walked quickly to his son’s side. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“I wanted to hear what Val had to say. He wouldn’t come tearin in here unless he had news,” Johnny replied, his voice growing softer with each word.

Murdoch gave him an unfriendly paternal look and wrapped an arm around his waist. “You are going to bed,” he ordered and made to turn back.

But Johnny resisted and tried to go on into the living room. “No! I want to hear this. Now, you wanna stand here and play tug-o-war with me or help me to the couch?” he retorted angrily, his voice no longer soft.

Murdoch pulled back and looked at his face. With resignation, he nodded and helped Johnny sit on the sofa.

Val dropped his head to hide a grin.

Once settled and having slowed his breathing, Johnny looked at his friend. “Now, you want to explain that three against one thing?”

Val looked him dead in the eye. “I can’t trust Scott to back me up, Johnny. It’s as simple as that. This fella still has a hold on him I reckon and I ain’t about to count on nothin.”

Johnny ground his teeth but understood Val’s point. Finally, he nodded. “Okay, where are they?”

Val explained the location and Murdoch’s face fell. “Right in our own back yard the whole time. The whole time!” he ranted.

Johnny shot him a look then turned back to Val. “Can’t go riding in there with an army.”

“Don’t plan to. Figured two extra men would be plenty,” Val said, huffing a little.

Johnny nodded and lowered his eyes, his brow wrinkling in a frown. “Well, I’ll need a shirt and my gun.”

“No, you will not! You aren’t going anywhere. Johnny, you can’t sit a saddle. You were almost dead a few days ago!” Murdoch countered.

When he raised his head, Johnny’s eyes were stone cold, his face blank. “I can and I will and no one is going to stop me. I’m not about to send anyone else out to get Scott. Besides, he won’t listen to anyone else.”

“And you think he’ll listen to you? How well did that work last time?” Murdoch argued.

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “I was surprised last time. I’ll know what to expect now,” he seethed quietly.

The two men locked eyes and began the staring game. Val wasn’t sure who would win. Ordinarily, he’d bet a month’s pay on Johnny. But this wasn’t ordinary. No one could get Johnny Lancer to back down. No one except Murdoch or Scott Lancer. So, he waited to see the end result.

And maybe a little to his surprise, it was Murdoch who broke the stare. The big man walked over to the large plate glass window behind his desk and stared out.

Johnny watched him, knowing he was thinking it through. Weighing his arguments. But he didn’t have time for that. He looked at Val and asked with his eyes.

Val Crawford did not want to induce the ire of Murdoch Lancer but he also could not let his friend down. He nodded and walked quietly from the room.

Murdoch turned back at the rustling sound to find his son struggling into a shirt. His jaw tightened but he kept silent and watched as the sweat broke out on the brow.

Johnny buttoned the shirt with trembling fingers, cursing himself the entire time. But, he got it done and took as deep a breath as he could, then slowly got to his feet.

Val held out a hand to help but he waved it off, getting to his feet and trying to hide the fact that his legs were shaking badly. He held out a hand for his gunbelt which Val offered up.

Head down, he swung the belt around his hips with a practiced ease that his condition did not halt. He fastened the belt more easily than the shirt and Murdoch let out a soft sigh.

“Ready to fall over yet?” the rancher asked sardonically.

Johnny slowly raised his head and glared at his father. “Not by a long shot.”

“Are you going to saddle your horse, too?”

Johnny straightened his posture, pushing the pain away as inconsequential. “If I have to!”

Murdoch pulled an angry face and turned sharply, walking to the door and muttering to himself about stubborn streaks. He grabbed his own gunbelt and put it on, then shoved his hat on his head and walked out.

“You sure know how to bring out the best in that man,” Val commented.

Johnny grimaced a little. “Look, Val, you know I have to go.”

“No, I don’t know that!” he shouted, then sighed. “But, I reckon you’re a goin no matter what so let’s get on with it,” he added and headed for the door. “Be midnight ‘fore we ever get there,” he mumbled under his breath.

Johnny looked toward the heavens with a quick prayer that he could mount Barranca then followed the sheriff.

Murdoch led the animals out of the barn and tethered them in front of the house. He shot another angry look at his son then simply stood beside Barranca.

Johnny dropped his eyes for a moment as he realized Murdoch was only trying to help him. But, he didn’t understand, well, maybe he did, but couldn’t agree. Johnny had to be there. Had to be the one to bring Scott home. No matter what the consequences.

He walked over and looked at the stirrup. It seemed higher to him than usual but he knew that wasn’t the case. He also knew he couldn’t reach up to the saddle horn with his left hand. He studied the problem for a moment, then felt a hand on his back.

“I’ll give you a lift,” Murdoch said softly.

Johnny looked up at him and smiled appreciatively. No words were spoken just an understanding between the two.

He sucked in a breath as he landed in the saddle, closing his eyes for a moment to gain his equilibrium. Johnny let air out between clenched teeth and opened his eyes. He refused to look back down to where he knew his father was watching closely.

Murdoch gave up and went to his own horse.

“I know that cabin, Val. There is a way around the back,” Murdoch said once aboard his steed.

“Lead the way,” Val nodded.

They started off, Murdoch in the lead with Val behind him and Johnny bringing up the rear. He was grateful for that, too. If he faltered, they wouldn’t see. IF? He almost laughed.

Murphy checked the cinches once more then walked back into the cabin. He glanced over at Scott asleep on the cot.

“All ready, Suh. Ya sure ya don’t wanna wait til mornin?” he asked quietly.

The man was sipping coffee as he sat at the small table. He shook his head as he swallowed. “No, there’s enough daylight left. We can make it over the mountain before dark. I want to get some distance between us and Lancer before the stagecoach robbery is reported. There will be a posse combing the entire valley when that is discovered,” he smiled.

Murphy sat at the table and poured half a cup of coffee for himself. “What about him?” he jerked his head toward the cot.

The man smiled widely. “Oh, he’ll be just fine right here. He won’t remember a thing when they find him. It’s really been so perfect. With the railroad payroll and Lancer’s five thousand dollars, I’ll be able to rebuild my home.” He sighed whimsically as he stared into space.

“Shore will be good ta get back ta Georgia,” Murphy commented.

“Yes, it certainly will.” His mood darkened then. “No less than those yankees owe me for what they did. Senseless pilfering! ” he spat.

Murphy said nothing. He’d seen this side of his boss before and knew to just keep quiet and let him get it out. He hated yankees as much as the next southerner but he never had much to call his own before the war. They hadn’t taken anything of value from him. His boss, on the other hand, had one of the most beautiful and profitable plantations in the south.

It seemed the boss wasn’t going to rant and rave today, though. He simply stared into space for a while before seemingly making a decision.

“It’s time to go. Wake Lancer,” he ordered.

Scott awoke easily and sat up then walked to the table with Murphy guiding him. He was seated facing the front door.

“Carpe diem, Lieutenant Lancer.”

Scott pulled his shoulders back, his chin jutting out along with his chest.

The man smiled. “Lieutenant, I want you to watch that door. If anyone comes through it, start shooting to kill. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir!” Scott responded.

“Good! Use this gun,” he went on, placing Scott’s own Colt on the table in front of him.

Scott laid his hand on the pistol but, otherwise, didn’t move.

“You may have some coffee but don’t leave this chair.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You will remember nothing of me or my associate. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Murphy, make sure you have everything. We wouldn’t want to get ourselves killed because we forgot some item,” he turned and smiled at the shorter man.

Murphy grinned. “I got everythin, boss.”

The two men walked outside and mounted up, then turned to the east and started up the mountain, rounding the cabin.

“How long ya reckon it’ll take us ta get back, Suh?” Murphy asked.

“Oh, no more than a week, I’d say. We still have to be cautious. A wise man is always cautious, Murphy,” he advised.

Johnny had more than once, caught himself leaning to the left. He straightened up again and blinked his eyes. Pushing his hat back on his forehead, he wiped the sweat away with the back of his hand and licked his lips.

He unhooked the canteen from the saddle horn and pulled the cork, taking another long drink. It was already half empty and he knew he had to stop doing this. Otherwise, he’d be puking his guts out and probably at the most inopportune time.

He shook his head gently and cleared the cobwebs. The route they’d taken cost them twice the time but it was the most prudent way. He smiled a little at his father’s ingenuity.

They were now above where the cabin would be located and slowly winding their way down the mountain. He scanned the surrounding foliage but found nothing of interest. Then, he pulled up and clicked his teeth.

Murdoch and Val stopped and turned to him. Johnny pointed ahead and to their right then cupped his hand behind his ear to tell them he’d heard something.

Neither man dismissed this, knowing Johnny’s hearing could rival that of any young pup. They dismounted quietly but when Johnny’s feet hit terra firma, he couldn’t help the soft grunt.

In the woods, it sounded like a trumpet to him and he held his breath as he waited. But the horses he’d heard were still moving and hadn’t broken stride. He nodded to his companions.

The three of them moved silently through the brush. Johnny was, once again, impressed with his father’s abilities. He made a mental note to tease the old man about it – later – after Scott was safe at Lancer.

Val put a hand on Murdoch’s shoulder and pushed down to stop the man. He couldn’t quite relay what he wanted without speaking so he simply moved past the older man. Johnny cocked a brow at this and grinned widely as, he too, squeezed past his father.

Murdoch gave them both an evil glare and reminded himself to discuss this decision at length with both men. He didn’t allow his disgruntled feelings to guide him at the moment, however. There were more important things to think about.

As he approached the two younger men, he watched as they spoke to each other with their hands. He couldn’t make out some of the gestures but he saw Johnny’s face and he was not happy. Then, Johnny’s shoulders slumped and he made a sign with his finger that Murdoch definitely could recognize. His eyes went to Val who was grinning at the insult.

Val waited until the two men were practically on top of him, then he moved swiftly. Jumping out from the trees, he grabbed the bridle of the nearest man and held it firm in his left hand as his right pointed a gun.

The second man made a move to turn around as his own hand went to his side.

“I wouldn’t,” Johnny said with icy harshness.

The man saw the gun first, pointed at his chest. Then, he saw the face and his eyes widened. “You’re dead!”

Johnny’s grin slid up the side of his face. “Don’t seem so, does it? Now, real easy, throw the iron down.”

“Same for you, hombre,” Val ordered, jabbing his Colt forward once.

Murdoch appeared and retrieved the weapons, throwing them far and wide.

“Now, both of ya, slide on down here,” Val ordered.

Murdoch stood face to face with the man who had nearly cost him his younger son. He towered over the southerner and glared.

Val slapped handcuffs on the first one, then used rope to tie the leader’s hands tightly behind his back.

“That is most uncomfortable, Sheriff,” the man responded.

Val stepped up as Murdoch shifted to the side a little. “Awww, is it? Tough!”

It was Johnny’s turn and he slid between Val and the man. “Where’s Scott?”

The man smiled at him and didn’t answer. Johnny raised his Colt and slammed it into the man’s left shoulder. He went to his knees and Johnny grabbed his hair, pulling his head back.

The man’s eyes sought out the sheriff but he, too, was simply glaring at him and made no effort to intervene.

“This must be the legendary western justice I’ve heard so much about,” he sneered.

Johnny leaned in and smiled. “You got that right. I ain’t gonna ask you again. Where is Scott?”

“At the cabin just down the mountain,” he answered simply. But Johnny saw a gleam in his eyes and knew something else was going on here.

“Did you hurt him?” Murdoch asked.

His eyes went to the rancher. “I never laid a hand on him.”

“Did anyone?” Johnny asked, glancing toward the second man.

“Scott Lancer is unharmed, I assure you,” he replied.

“Mister, you damned well better hope he’s unharmed. If he isn’t, you’ll answer to me,” Johnny hissed and released his grip.

“Let’s tie ’em to a tree for now. Then, we can go get Scott,” Val suggested.

“Val, why don’t you go back to the ranch and get some men to help you take these two in? Johnny and I will go after Scott,” Murdoch suggested.

The sheriff looked at the rancher and considered then nodded. “Alright, Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch and Val secured the two men as Johnny stood watch. When they were finished, Val stretched his back then grinned at them both. He reached down and fingered through their boots, finding a knife on each man and tossing them away.

Johnny smiled and shook his head. Val Crawford may not look like much but he was the best lawman Johnny had ever come across.

Before they mounted up, Johnny regarded the stranger. “When I get Scott home, I’ll be back to have a nice chat with you, mister. Be ready to answer my questions about how to undo what you’ve done to my brother.” Seeing the astonishment on the man’s face, Johnny smiled. “Yeah, we know all about your mind games.”

Val mounted up then and gave a nod to both Lancers. “I’ll have these two stowed away then come back in case ya need anything.”

“Thank you, Val. Hopefully, we’ll be back at Lancer by then,” Murdoch replied as he hefted himself into the saddle. He looked around and saw Johnny disappear into the trees. His son’s voice had been so strong when talking to the two prisoners, he’d almost forgotten how ill Johnny still was.

As he was about to go after the young man, Johnny reappeared astride Barranca.

“I don’t even want to know how you did that,” Murdoch said, a bit aggravated. But Johnny simply shrugged and moved his horse on down the mountain.

“What’re we gonna do, Suh?” Murphy asked when they’d been left alone.

“Not one thing. We haven’t broken any laws and the Lancers are about to be very dead. The sheriff can’t prove a thing other than Scott Lancer is about to murder his family.” He smiled wickedly at the thought.

Johnny figured his lower lip would be mush by the time he got off this blasted mountain. The trail, if you could call it that, was rough and uneven. Every jostle, every refooting Barranca took nearly sent him reeling into the darkness. He kept his eyes closed half the time and his head down.

Murdoch was behind him, watching warily and knowing this was simply too much. But, he could do nothing for it now. Johnny was hellbent and nothing he said would make the young man stop. Especially now that they were so close.

Something else was bothering him, though. Something about the strangers they’d just left. The older one seemed so self-assured and Murdoch had seen a look in his eyes. It was the look of a man without a care. He had some sort of plan for getting himself out of this. Murdoch was quite sure Scott figured greatly into that plan.

He couldn’t worry about that right now, though. The only thing that mattered was getting both his sons home. He only hoped it would be in one piece.

Johnny pulled up as he spied the back of the cabin, letting Murdoch come alongside.

“Well, how do you want to handle this?” the older man asked.

“Just go on in and get him,” Johnny shrugged as he spurred Barranca on.

Murdoch held back for a second then followed, wondering if it would be that easy. They had no idea what shape Scott was in. The man said he was unharmed but Murdoch could hardly take his word for anything.

He dismounted in front of the cabin. Johnny was leaning against Barranca and he made his way quickly to his son’s side. Wrapping an arm around Johnny’s waist, he gave it a try.

“Stay here, son. I’ll go bring Scott out.”

Johnny shook his head slowly and raised it, opening his eyes. “I’m okay now. Just needed to get my bearings.” He pushed away from his father and walked to the door.

“Johnny, wait!” Murdoch called but the younger man was already pushing the door open.

Johnny threw himself against the outside wall, pressing his body against it with a loud grunt as Murdoch crouched and instinctively drew his gun. He made his way to the other side of the door and mimicked Johnny’s stance.

“Someone’s in there,” Murdoch stated the obvious.

Johnny sighed. “It’s Scott, Murdoch. Dammit! I’m gettin real tired of him shootin at me!”

“Are you sure? There could be someone else.”

“I’m sure. He’s sitting at the table pointin a gun at the door,” Johnny argued lightly.

Murdoch chewed his lip and realized now why that man had seemed to sure. “He must have told Scott to shoot anyone who came here.”

Johnny drew in a slow, deep breath and let it out. His head was spinning and his left arm was stinging. Now was not the time to tell his father about the blood running down that arm, however.

“I’ve got an idea,” he whispered. Louder, he called into the cabin. “Carpe diem, Lieutenant Lancer!”

There was no reply but Johnny wasn’t sure there was supposed to be. “Throw the gun out the door, Lieutenant!” he ordered.

They waited only a second before the Colt flew past them and both men relaxed their shoulders.

Murdoch peeked around the door to make sure no other weapons were available. He nodded at Johnny and stepped inside.

Johnny wanted to stop his father; wanted to be absolutely sure first but Murdoch didn’t give him the chance. ‘He better not say one word to me about bein stubborn,’ he thought before entering the cabin himself.

Scott sat there simply staring past them both. Murdoch approached and knelt beside him laying a hand on his arm. Scott looked so pale and tired.

“Scott?” he tried.

There was no response.

“Time to go home, brother,” Johnny said softly.

Still nothing.

Sighing loudly and losing any patience he may still have left, Johnny forced his voice to be strong. “Let’s go, Lancer.”

Scott stood up and walked to and out the door. Both men stood and stared after him.

Murdoch dropped his head and shook it sadly then followed his son outside. He checked Remmie’s cinch for Scott and wondered if the horse had been without a saddle at all this past week. There was nothing he could do about it now, however.

He looked to Johnny and nodded, figuring quickly that too many voices giving orders may confuse Scott.

“Mount up, Lancer,” Johnny ordered, his voice quivering with a pain that had nothing to do with his injuries.

Scott did so, sitting straight and tall in the saddle. Like always. As Murdoch passed Johnny, he stopped cold and took gentle hold of the left arm.

“Were you planning on telling me about this?” he demanded.

“It’s a scratch,” Johnny breathed out, suddenly feeling no energy at all.

Murdoch frowned even deeper and wrapped his bandana around the wound tightly.

“Come on. I’ll help you up if you think you can stay there,” he grumbled.

Johnny jerked free of his hold and scowled at him, then swung into the saddle and tilted to the right.

Murdoch grabbed his belt and pulled him back to center. His lips set in a thin tight line, he said nothing, knowing it would serve no purpose.

He mounted his own horse and grabbed Scott’s reins, leading Remmie. He had no intention of letting go or making any assumptions about Scott’s condition. Lord only knew how they were going to get Scott back.

Sam was waiting, pacing the great room. Val had returned, told him everything and the doctor had nearly taken his head off. Val, not a patient man himself, gave as good as he got until Sam retreated.

He knew it wasn’t the sheriff’s fault. It wasn’t Murdoch’s fault. Hell, it really wasn’t even Johnny’s fault. That boy could no more stay behind than he could make himself stop breathing. Plenty of people were trying to do that part for him, Sam thought bitterly.

He walked quickly out the front door when he heard the horses riding in. One look at Johnny told him all. He was right there when Johnny’s feet hit the ground.

“In the house and in the bed. Right now!” Sam growled.

Johnny opened his mouth to argue but changed his mind. Bed sounded damn good right now and he couldn’t argue it. He closed his mouth, gave a look to his brother and father then walked inside slowly.

“Johnny,” Murdoch called.

He turned at the portico and sighed. “Dismount, Lancer and follow Murdoch’s orders,” he called.

Scott did as he was told then turned his attention to the man beside him now.

At least he knows my name, Murdoch thought with a heavy heart.

Sam watched it all in wonder but he had no time to hear about it just now. Johnny was in trouble and he needed to be seen after first and foremost. The doctor knew it wasn’t a simple matter of physical injuries, either. He had seen the look Johnny had given his brother. He knew how hard Johnny had been fighting any ill feelings toward Scott. He also knew Johnny was only human. How could he not be resentful?

Taking his thoughts with him, he found Johnny lying on the bed he’d spent the last week in. Sam frowned then realized the boy probably had no strength to make it upstairs to his own room yet. Then, he saw the bandana.

“What happened here?”

Johnny opened his eyes and regarded the man. “Scott shot me, what else?” he said bitterly.

Sam sighed and went about examining his patient thoroughly. He had every intention of talking to Johnny about all this but not now. The young man needed to heal his body first. Healing his heart was going to take more strength than he could muster at the moment.

Murdoch led Scott to his room upstairs and sat him on the bed. He removed his son’s boots and gently pushed him back. Scott laid down and allowed his feet to be brought up. He didn’t speak, never made a sound. Murdoch covered him and watched for a few seconds trying to see something of his boy in there.

“Go to sleep, Scott,” he whispered and the young man closed his eyes.

Murdoch paced the living room waiting for Sam to appear. He’d had a struggle with himself about going to Johnny but he knew his temper would not be held back. He was angry with his son for taking so many chances with his health. He knew the why of it but that did nothing to assuage his anger.

Sam walked in and looked around. “Where’s Scott?”

“I put him to bed and told him to go to sleep and he did,” Murdoch answered shortly.

Sam raised a brow. “If only you could get them to do that on a normal day.”

“I find nothing humorous about this, Sam!”

“No, I don’t suppose so,” the doctor smiled tiredly. “Johnny is asleep as well. He’s exhausted but I don’t think he did any major damage.”

“What about his arm?”

“It was just a flesh wound. That young man has a lot of turmoil spinning around inside him, Murdoch,” Sam reported.

Murdoch nodded. “He knows it isn’t Scott’s fault but still…” he trailed off.

“Yes, still,” Sam agreed.

“What about Scott, Sam? He’s not even there.”

Sam heard the anguish and sympathized. “Murdoch, I really don’t know. He’ll need professional help and soon. Right now, he needs a lot of rest, good food then more rest. He seems to have gone without much sleep. I’ll examine him when he awakens but I didn’t see any outward signs of physical harm.”

“Neither did I. Maybe that man who took him has some answers,” Murdoch mused.

“Most likely. Getting him to talk won’t be easy, though.”

Murdoch’s reply was lost when the knock on the door came.

“Please tell me those two are locked up,” Murdoch said as Val entered the room.

“They are and they ain’t goin nowhere. How’s Johnny and Scott?” the lawman asked.

“Both asleep. Johnny didn’t do himself too much damage. Scott is simply exhausted,” Sam answered.

Val nodded, his expression sorrowful.

“What is it, Sheriff?” Murdoch asked.

“I don’t rightly know how ta tell ya this, Mr. Lancer. The stage was robbed this mornin. Pete Winslow just gave me his statement. He said Scott did it and that he was alone.”

Murdoch fell into the nearest chair and sat there stunned and silent.

“Well, we know it wasn’t his doing,” Sam said.

“Yeah, we know that but …. look, I’m sorry but I got four eye witnesses that say Scott done it. I can’t ignore that. Now, I figure he can stay here under some kinda house arrest but soon as the judge comes through, I gotta take him in,” Val spilled.

“Was anyone hurt, Val?” Murdoch asked, his voice taking on a distant quality.

“Couple of Pinkerton agents got bad headaches. Pete and Smiley was tied to the stage wheel for a few hours but that’s all. The Pinks was guardin the railroad payroll. Them two yahoos had all that money plus your five thousand on ’em. Reckon the railroad won’t be too hard since they got their money back. The Pinks are another story. Them two is madder than wet hens,” Val said.

Murdoch rubbed his left temple but said nothing at first. “When is the judge due?”

“Not for another three weeks or so. Depends on what he’s got goin on.”

Murdoch nodded. “And about those two. Do they have names?”

“Well, neither of ’em are bein chatterboxes but I’ll find out. Might take some time unless, of course, Scott can say.”

Murdoch looked up at him with weary eyes. “Scott isn’t saying anything at the moment, I’m afraid. I don’t know if he’ll come out of this or not.”

For two days, Scott Lancer ate, bathed and slept and never spoke. He followed instructions like a good soldier and he hadn’t been asked a thing.

“It’s looking very good, Johnny. Very good!” Sam pronounced happily as he stuffed his stethoscope into his bag.

Johnny gave him a smile and leaned back against the mound of pillows supporting him. He was simply grateful to be sitting up in some fashion.

“How long?” the young man asked.

“Another week of bedrest at least,” Sam said, then added quickly, “and no arguments. You came closer than ever before this time, Johnny. You can’t risk this and I mean it.”

Johnny lowered his eyes, the shocked expression fading as he sighed and nodded. He frowned, then looked tentatively at the doctor.

“About Scott. How do we fix him?”

Sam had to smile a little. This young man would never give up on his brother even though, Sam knew, this whole thing was affecting him much more than he’d ever admit. The smile faded quickly as he thought of his answer.

“I’m afraid I really don’t know, Johnny. My experience is limited to what I’ve already told you. It’s going to take professional help.”

“What’s that mean?”

“A psychiatrist.”

“You mean one of them head doctors?” Johnny asked, feeling overwhelmed.

“Yes, that’s what I mean. Not only will Scott need help breaking free of the conditioning, he’ll need a lot of help dealing with what he’s done.”

“But, it wasn’t his fault,” Johnny protested.

Sam gave him a fatherly smile. “And you know as well as I that doesn’t matter. Scott will blame himself, Johnny. He shot you.”

Johnny opened his mouth for another protestation but clamped it back shut. Sam was right, of course. Scott would blame himself for this. See himself as weak for allowing it to happen. Johnny could hear him now. He sighed despondently. God, how he wished he could hear Scott now! He knew from Murdoch that his brother had not uttered a word and he was more concerned than ever.

“I wanna see him, Sam.”

Sam found Murdoch at the kitchen table and joined him. “Johnny is doing much better than I expected. He still needs plenty of rest. He wants to see Scott.”

Murdoch looked up from his coffee cup. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Sam.”

“I think you’re wrong, my friend. Scott isn’t responding to anything. Maybe, with a little time, he’ll respond to Johnny. And Johnny needs to see his brother, period. He’s waited a long time for this, Murdoch. Even though he understands Scott has no control over his actions, it still hurts to know his own brother damned near killed him,” Sam argued with passion.

Murdoch heard the tone and saw the look and he thought through the words.

“Well, I’m certainly not doing Scott any good. I suppose it can’t hurt but I will not leave them alone together. We really have no idea what Scott has been conditioned to do or what might trigger it.”

Sam sat back in his chair, stunned. He hadn’t considered this eventuality and he certainly could not argue the truth of the possibility.

Once he’d gained his senses, he told Murdoch he was awaiting replies to several inquiries, trying to find a doctor who could help Scott. Val had asked him to let them know he still had no word from the judge as to when he’d be passing that way. As long as Scott stayed in the house, Val had no problem with him being there.

Johnny opened his eyes at the knock and waited as the door opened. Murdoch stood there, half in, half out of the frame.

“You comin or goin?” Johnny teased.

Murdoch gave him a small smile. “I have no idea most of the time. Are you up to a visitor?”

Johnny frowned at the response. He knew this was hard on the old man but he was beginning to realize just how much of a toll it was taking. He nodded at the question and braced himself.

Murdoch led Scott into the room and to the chair beside the bed. He told him to sit and Scott did so.

Johnny looked at the blank face and shuddered. This wasn’t his brother. This was a ghost.

“Hey, Scott,” he started simple. “How are you?”

“Fine, thank you.”

Both Johnny and Murdoch tensed as they heard actual words come from Scott’s mouth. Finally heard his voice again – something other than “Yes, Sir” – albeit that voice was still formal and clipped.

Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed, part of him glad Scott responded, part hurt his son had not responded to him.

Johnny watched the emotions play out on the older man’s face and felt some guilt. He knew what his father was thinking but then, an idea jumped into his mind.

“Murdoch, have you actually asked him anything since he’s been back?”

The rancher frowned as he thought back over the past days. He had given Scott instructions because he knew the man would respond but…. “No. Dear God, I didn’t even think …..”

“Not like we’re used to this sort of thing,” Johnny facilitated and chewed on another idea. “You think if we just told him to be himself, he would?”

Murdoch’s brows raised. “Maybe but, what if he doesn’t remember any of the rest?”

“Would that be so bad?”

“Johnny, I told you about the stage,” Murdoch reminded.

The younger man sighed and nodded. He looked at Scott in contemplation. Drumming his fingers on the mattress, he wondered if he was about to make things worse.

“What are the names of the two men you were in the cabin with, Scott?” he asked and saw Murdoch inhale sharply.

“Murphy and Howard.”

“Which was in charge?”


“When did you first meet him?”

Scott frowned then and didn’t answer. Johnny and Murdoch felt the disappointment and the fear that a mistake had been made.

“I can’t remember,” Scott finally answered.

“I think that’s enough for now, son,” Murdoch admonished gently. He took Scott’s arm and pulled and the man rose then followed him out the door.

Johnny leaned his head back and thought about everything he knew which wasn’t much, he admitted. But, it seemed as if Scott would answer any question posed to him. It seemed like there wasn’t any emotion on his part, either.

Would he tell them everything he knew? Could they ask that of Scott not knowing what the consequences may be to the man’s mind? He decided quickly he wasn’t willing to risk it. Better to wait until Sam found one of those head doctors who knew what the hell he was doing.

Only, Johnny thought, Sam best be quick about it. He had a feeling they were running out of time.

Four days past quietly and Scott had shown no change in his condition. Johnny was moving about in the bedroom though no one knew it. He would wait until night when they were asleep to test his fortitude and regain his strength. He knew laying in bed would only extend the recovery time. Some day, Sam would get that, he smiled.

And as the doctor finished this exam, he sat back and studied his patient. “How long have you been getting out of bed?”

Johnny feigned shock and looked innocently at the doctor. The expression slid right off his face as Sam leered at him. Busted, he thought and grinned.

“Well, apparently you haven’t been overdoing it. You can start moving around the rest of the house but I want you to go slow, Johnny. I mean it now,” he wagged a finger.

“I will, Doc. I swear. So, how long before I can sit a horse or a wagon?”

“Why? Do you have a date?” Sam smiled.

“Yeah, I sure do.”

Sam noted the coldness in the voice; the hardening of the features and knew exactly who Johnny wanted to see.

“You are not up to a confrontation. Leave it alone, Johnny,” he advised.

“I can’t, Sam! That man has the answers, I know it. I could see it in his eyes when I talked to him before. He knows how to bring Scott out of this. Speaking of that, have you heard anything?”

“I have. I found a doctor who’s had some experience with hypnosis to this extreme degree. He has consented to come here and treat Scott. Evidently, this is an area of great interest to him.”

“Well, as long as he remembers one thing. Scott ain’t no experiment. He’s a person!”

Sam smiled and nodded. “I’m sure you’ll remind him of that in the most polite way, of course.”

Johnny grinned but to himself, he thought he’d remind the man in whatever fashion was necessary.

“Oh, before I forget. Val said he’d be out this afternoon to talk with you and Murdoch. He acted as if he had some news.”

“Ain’t sure if that’s good or bad at this point,” Johnny frowned.

Val did arrive just before the supper hour. He had not heard from the judge but he had found some information on his prisoners.

Archibald Howard had been a Captain in the Confederate Army. He was assigned to the same prison Scott had been held in. Reportedly, he had shown a great interest in Scott Lancer and spent a great deal of time behind closed doors with his prisoner.

Val wasn’t sure and he could find no evidence but it seemed to him the man must have done his damage to Scott during that time.

Sam had stayed for the evening meal and agreed with this. He told them all that being a prisoner of war made Scott, or any other man, an ideal target for this type of mind control. He’d been reading all he could get his hands on about the subject. There was more than he would have thought written.

Prisoners could be manipulated easily because they already had lost their freedom. The conditions in which they were held would be fodder to use in the programming. Breaking a man down with lack of food and water, lack of other human contact, the use of sensory deprivation, would all make it much easier.

Murdoch didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to be reminded his son had been treated so cruelly. But, he had to know the truth of it. The details were important if they were to help Scott come back to them. For, even though he was under the Lancer roof, Scott wasn’t there. Not at all.

Val interrupted these thoughts as he continued with his report. Howard had been a plantation owner before the war and had been very successful. His home had been gutted when the union army marched through Savannah. Nothing was left salvageable. So, Val figured, part of his motive was revenge. But, he also figured Howard needed money to rebuild his dynasty.

“Why’d he wait so long?” Johnny asked.

“From what I hear, he tried to make a go of it on his own. But, he never could get things goin his way. The government taxed him ta death and the carpetbaggers pestered him til I reckon he figured the only way to get back on his feet was ta steal some money.”

“Reconstruction in the south has been a huge undertaking,” Murdoch said.

“Should’ve thought a that before they burned everything to the ground. Never made no sense ta me,” Val grumbled.

“There was a reason for the war, Val,” Murdoch said.

“Yeah, there was. It didn’t include destroyin your own country,” the sheriff retorted.

“I don’t care!” Johnny lashed out. “All I care about is fixing my brother!”

“What about the other one?” Murdoch asked after a length of silence.

“Roy Murphy. He was one of the guards at the prison. Hooked up with Howard afterwards. Reckon Howard offered him a job,” Val shrugged.

“Has either of them talked yet?” Johnny asked.

“Not a word ta me. I hear ’em in there whisperin sometimes. I ain’t let on that I know who they are yet. I wanted ta wait and talk to ’em separately.”

Johnny smiled at him and nodded. “I want to be there.”

“I told you it’s too soon,” Sam chastised.

“Didn’t mean right this minute, Sam,” Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch rubbed a hand over his face and scratched his cheek. “When is this doctor coming?”

“Day after tomorrow on the morning stage. His name is Josiah Craig,” Sam answered.

“Two days. I should be able to get around by then, right?” Johnny asked the man.

Sam shook his head. “Maybe, in a buggy but no horseback.”

Two days later found Murdoch and Johnny pulling up in front of the Green River Sheriff’s office bright and early. Two hands were watching Scott along with Teresa. Neither man was completely at ease with leaving him but it couldn’t be helped. Murdoch was not about to let Johnny go to town alone.

They walked into the office and Val took his feet off the desk, straightening himself in the chair.

Johnny smiled and headed for the stove. He grabbed a cup and filled it then grimaced with the first taste.

“Are you ever gonna learn how to make coffee?”

“If ya don’t like it, don’t drink it,” Val shot.

Murdoch sat in a chair and waved off Johnny’s offer with a small smile. “How did you want to do this, Val?”

“Figured I’d go for the weak link first. Murphy. He’s just a pawn in all this,” Val answered.

“Why don’t you work on him while I have a little talk with Howard,” Johnny suggested.

Murdoch looked over at him leaning against the wall by the stove. He saw the face and he didn’t like the idea.

“I ain’t so sure about that, Johnny. I know how you get about Scott,” Val said.

“I won’t lay a hand on him, Val. You can keep the cell locked. Only, let me keep my gun – for show,” he said.

Val looked at Murdoch who shook his head then back at Johnny whose eyes pierced through him. He hated it when Johnny looked at him like that. Saying everything with that one look.

“One of these days, you’re gonna ask too much of me, Johnny,” Val sighed.

“I don’t want you going in there alone, son,” Murdoch intervened.

“Why not? Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course, I trust you. I just …..” Murdoch sighed heavily. “Just hold your temper.”

Johnny nodded curtly.

Val unlocked the cell door and hooked a finger at Murphy. “Come on. You and me are gonna have a little talk,” he said.

Murphy looked at Howard who shrugged. He followed the sheriff out of the back room. Howard watched them disappear and noticed the door had been left open. He didn’t have to wonder why for long.

Johnny rolled around the corner of the opening and leaned against it casually, a grin sliding over his face. He pushed off and sauntered into the room, giving the door a kick with his heel as he went, effectively shutting them in.

He walked to the open cell and tugged on the bars, then past Howard’s cell to the back door. He tugged on that as well. Satisfied, Johnny moved to the bench along the wall opposite the cells and sat down. He crossed one ankle over the other knee and leaned back, fixing Howard with his eyes.

“Told ya we’d be talkin again,” he drawled.

Howard sat on the stool near the bars and regarded the young man. “So you did, Mr. Madrid. I must say I am impressed with your propensity to stay alive.”

Johnny smiled, ignoring the use of his former name. “You talk real pretty, Mr. Howard.”

He saw the man tense and gained enormous satisfaction from it.

“How did you know my name?” Howard blurted out.

Johnny laughed softly. “Did you think we were all just a bunch of dumb cowboys?”

Howard glared at him for a second then regained his composure. “From what I know of you, cowboy does not apply.”

Johnny continued to smile. “That’s right, it doesn’t. I can’t imagine what you do know of me, Mr. Howard. I can guarantee though, it isn’t nearly enough. Now, then. You and me, we got some business to discuss.”

Howard stared hard at him but the man before him never so much as blinked. He had stared down many men in his day. A shrewd businessman with a reputation for having no mercy, he had been used to getting what he wanted. Before the war, that is.

“I want to know what the secret word is,” Johnny said.

Howard frowned at him and shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

Johnny leaned forward so suddenly that Howard involuntarily leaned back.

“Carpe diem. Seize the day. I like it. Now, tell me what fancy Latin words to use on Scott to get him back to himself. I know there’s something. I know you were working on him for at least a week before you showed your face.” Johnny’s expression never changed from the calm veneer.

Howard smiled. “It is a rather nice saying and one I believe in. As for any other phrases, Mr. Madrid, figure it out for yourself.”

Johnny gave a short laugh and stood up, moving fluidly to the bars. He leaned his left side against them, ensuring his gun was not in reach. He was taking no chances with Val’s faith.

“I’m afraid you don’t seem to understand, Mr. Howard. I’m not asking, I’m telling. Now the sheriff is a very good friend of mine,” he started as he moved away again, opting for the wall this time. He crossed his arms and settled one foot flat against the wall he was leaning on. As you can see, he let me in here and – will ya look at that? He let me keep my gun,” Johnny grinned as he unfolded his arms and patted the Colt then let his hands hang loose.

“You know my reputation, or you think you know it. I can almost guarantee, you don’t have a clue what I’ll do to get what I want, Mr. Howard.” Johnny shook his head. “No, you have no idea the lengths I’ll go to get what I want.” His voice had hardened to a finely honed edge that matched his eyes perfectly.

Howard swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down and he blinked several times. “You won’t shoot me down in here,” he said, a slight tremor in his voice.

Johnny cocked one brow. “I won’t?”

Howard’s eyes darted toward the door leading to the main office.

“Oh, the sheriff is real busy talkin to your friend, Murphy. Ya know, when he gets all wrapped up in interrogating a prisoner, Sheriff Crawford turns plumb deaf. Never seen the like,” Johnny ticked his tongue on his teeth.

“You won’t do it,” Howard repeated.

Johnny shoved off the wall and assumed a stance that may have been unfamiliar to Howard as being Johnny’s own, but he definitely understood what it meant.

“I will do it. You turned my brother into a statue and used him to try and kill me. Now, I just don’t take kindly to that, Mr. Howard. Not kindly at all. In fact, if you were to ask any man who’s tried to kill me …. oh, wait, you can’t. They’re all dead.” Johnny’s mouth grinned but his eyes were hard as blue diamonds. His hand hung just at the butt of his gun, fingers curling and uncurling deftly. “Up to you. You got two seconds.”

Howard gawked at him, his eyes moving from the right hand to the eyes and back. Johnny started for his gun, making sure to move slower than normal.

“Alright! It’s compos mentis!”

Johnny relaxed his hand, the Colt slipping easily back in place as he stared. “What does it mean?”

Howard breathed out heavily and sucked in more air. “It means of sound mind.”

“And what happens when Scott hears that? DON’T lie to me!”

“Nothing. I mean he’ll be himself and he won’t remember any of it. He’ll won’t know more than a week has gone by. The last thing he’ll remember is riding the range. That’s where I found him that day.”

Johnny put his hands on his hips and hung his head in thought. “Okay. So, how do I know this will never happen to him again?”

Howard shook his head. “The only way it can is if someone says the words to him again. It has to be the whole thing. Carpe diem, Lieutenant Lancer. Just like that. Not likely to happen.”

“Not likely but I’m not a man who takes chances like that,” Johnny said, mostly to himself. His head came up and his eyes remained hard as did his voice. “We have a head doctor coming to see him. Will it do any good?”

Howard hesitated. “I really don’t know. I swear it! If he knows anything about mind control and hypnosis, maybe.”

Johnny nodded curtly. “I’m gonna get you a pencil and some paper and you’re gonna write down everything that happened starting with the prison. You’re gonna tell everything you did to my brother then and now. You might get off with a few years,” he paused and grinned. “Reckon it’s better than a bullet in the gut.”

Howard frowned at this.

“You’ve been in war, Howard. Did you see any action?”

“More than my fair share,” the man stated.

“Ever seen a man gut shot?” Johnny asked.

“Yes, but he was already dead.”

Johnny cocked his head to one side and took two steps forward. Howard cringed and tightened his grip on the cell bars.

“It’s the worst possible way to die, Howard. The worst possible pain you can imagine. The least likely to survive, too.” Johnny gave a short laugh, almost a snort. “Believe me, I know.”

Johnny turned and left the room, leaving a shaken Archibald Howard wondering why he didn’t get more information on Johnny Madrid and kicking himself for his own stupidity.

“Any luck?” Val asked.

Murphy turned around to face Johnny then quickly turned back.

“Mr. Howard needs a pencil and some paper to write his confession on, Val,” Johnny smirked.

Murdoch rolled his eyes and didn’t even think about asking how that came to pass.

“Reckon that means you’ll be doin some writin, too,” Val turned his attention to his other prisoner.

“Can’t write ner read,” the man said.

“Well, we can take care a that,” Val promised.

“The stage is due soon, Johnny. You can tell me everything while we walk,” Murdoch interrupted, wanting to get out of there.

Johnny told his father everything as they walked down the street to the stage depot. Murdoch frowned deeply at the information. He wasn’t sure what would be best for Scott. He was only glad the doctor was arriving today. Hopefully, he would have a much better understanding of this whole mess.

What he didn’t ask, didn’t want to know was exactly how Johnny managed to extract the information from Howard. He’d always been a law-abiding man but right now, he didn’t care about anything but helping his son.

The stage arrived and Sam joined them to greet Dr. Craig. He was a short, balding man with brown hair and eyes. He wore a dark blue traveling suit which was covered in dust much to his chagrin.

Sam introduced himself then the Lancers. Murdoch practically insisted the man stay at their home so he could be on sight with Scott around the clock.

Johnny wasn’t impressed so far. The man seemed pretty snooty to him but he held his tongue.

As they drove the surrey toward the ranch, Dr. Craig began to recite the history of hypnosis. The entire history. Johnny never wished he was riding his horse so much in his life. At least then, he would’ve been able to get away from the pompous man sitting next to his father in the front seat.

Johnny was more tired than he cared to admit. This trip and the talk with Howard had taken a lot out of him and he was surprised by that. By the time the surrey stopped in front of the house, he was ready for a nap. He was also ready to get away from Craig. Now, he was going on about finding someplace called the Taj Mahal in the wilderness or some such malarkey.

Dr. Craig was impressed with the estancia. He looked all around at his surroundings and decided he’d be spending the majority of his time indoors. The aromas coming to him were most displeasing. He finally bothered to notice Johnny since he’d been silent throughout the ride.

“Young man, you look horrid. Are you ill?” he asked.

Johnny raised his eyes slowly. He was standing at the back of the surrey retrieving the doctor’s luggage. He smiled tightly but he wanted to throttle the man for bringing Murdoch’s attention to bear.

“I’m fine, Doc. I’m not the patient.”

“Be that as it may, you don’t look well. I do have a degree in medicine and I can tell when a person is sick,” Craig responded haughtily.

“Johnny has been ill and he’s still not completely recovered. I’m sure he’s going straight to his room for a rest. Isn’t that right, John?” Murdoch asked but it wasn’t really a question.

“Just what I was plannin on doin. See you at supper,” Johnny smiled brilliantly at his father as he strode past, handing over the bag.

“It seems you’ve had a time of it, Mr. Lancer. What with both of your sons unwell,” Craig offered.

“It’s been difficult,” Murdoch muttered then turned his full attention on his guest. “I’m sure you’d like to rest before supper as well. I’ll show you to your room. Perhaps we can discuss Scott then.”

“Of course,” the doctor gave a slight bow.

Scott was left in his room with a tray for supper as the rest of the family gathered at the dining room table. As usual when they had guest, Teresa pulled out the good china.

Murdoch went into detail about Scott’s experience and all that had transpired. He ended by telling him about Johnny’s conversation with Howard.

Dr. Craig listened intently and was fascinated by the depth of the training. He told them Scott had most likely undergone intense sessions to become so deeply entranced.

“How would Howard know how to do this? He was a plantation owner. As far as we know he had no medical training?” Murdoch asked.

“That is a puzzle, Mr. Lancer. Unless, he had the help of a physician.”

Johnny frowned at the thought. “So, there could be someone else out there that knows about this? Knows how to set Scott off?”

“It is conceivable,” Dr. Craig answered just before taking a sip of his wine. “That is why it’s so important to rid Scott of this illness. And it is an illness of sorts.”

“What if we were to say that phrase to Scott? Wouldn’t that make him better?” Teresa asked.

“It would, young lady, but it would be temporary. He would not be cured and the triggering phrase would still work,” Craig explained.

“So, what do you plan on doing?” Murdoch inquired.

“I’ll talk to him. You said he answers any question posed him honestly. This is the best time to evaluate the depth of the hypnosis. I will, eventually, need to hypnotize him again but that will come after he is no longer in this trance.”

“So, no matter what, he’s gonna have to know everything that happened,” Johnny surmised.

Dr. Craig looked oddly at him. “Of course. Why would you want him not to?”

Johnny nearly growled at the man but Murdoch intervened.

“We were hoping he wouldn’t have to be told he shot his own brother.”

Craig gave an ahh and nodded. “Well, I’m afraid he will have to know. I can help him with that as well when the time comes. I should start with him first thing in the morning.”

Johnny lay awake most of the night thinking about Craig and what he was about to do. The man had settled down a little and Johnny decided he wasn’t really a snob. He just used the language he knew. Just like anyone else. He reckoned it just made the man sound smart.

He also knew his initial reaction hadn’t much to do with the man himself but what he represented. Scott needed help but Johnny had hoped the family could provide it. In his heart he knew the truth. Couldn’t blame him for hoping, though.

He sighed and got out of bed, pulling his pants on. He wandered into the living room and gravitated toward the fireplace. That’s when he first noticed he wasn’t alone.

“Couldn’t sleep either?”

Murdoch looked up at him and smiled. “No. My mind won’t stop.”

Johnny sat down on the ottoman in front of his father. “Yeah, me neither.”

Murdoch noticed the grimace as Johnny sat down and the tightness of his voice. He leaned forward and looked at the bandages, happy they were clean.

“I’m okay. Sore, is all.”

“Uh huh. Do you ever think about yourself?”

Johnny looked up, stunned at the question. “What’ya mean?”

“I mean, you would move heaven and earth for this family or any of your friends and most of the time for a stranger. Yet, you put your own life and health at risk time and again. Why is that, son?”

Johnny shrugged. “I ain’t no saint, Murdoch.”

“No, you certainly aren’t. You are too giving sometimes, though. You could be a little more selfish. It isn’t a bad thing, you know.” His hand was resting on the arm of the chair, mere inches from his son’s face.

Do it. Reach out. But he didn’t.

“I think you’re exaggerating a little, Murdoch. I can be selfish. I didn’t share any of my pie with you tonight.” Johnny grinned as he met his father’s eyes.

“That is not what I meant and you know it. And I believe you would have had I asked, anyway,” Murdoch responded.

Johnny looked away, staring into the cold fireplace. “I been meaning to tell you something. Out there on the trail when we were going after Scott? You were really somethin, old man. All fire and brimstone. I thought you were gonna take Howard out right then.”

Murdoch smiled at the compliment. “You were pretty remarkable yourself, son. Especially given the circumstances. I would love to know what kind of sign language you and Val were using. Well, aside from that last little motion you made.”

Johnny laughed aloud and shook his head. “It’s Indian. Kiowa. Val and me learned it some years ago. Comes in handy.”

“Maybe you could teach it to me?”

Johnny looked up in surprise. He simply stared at his father for a long beat. “Yeah, sure.”

“What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked, bewildered by the reaction.

“Nothing. It’s just … I didn’t think there was anything I could teach you.”

He did it then without a thought. He put his hand on Johnny’s head and stroked the soft hair. “You’ve taught me a great deal, son.” Murdoch realized where his hand lay and was struck dumb by it. So that’s the secret then. Don’t think about doing it just let it happen.

The next morning, Dr. Craig entered Scott’s room with Murdoch. Johnny was made to sleep in which wasn’t really hard to accomplish. Murdoch simply did not awaken him.

“How do you want to go about this?” the rancher asked.

Craig regarded the young man sitting in a chair near the window seemingly staring at nothing. “The direct approach is usually best,” he answered and walked over to sit opposite Scott.

Murdoch sat on the bed, eyes glued to the two.

“Scott, my name is Dr. Craig. How are you?”

“Fine, Sir,” came the sharp response.

“I’m going to ask you some questions and I want you to answer honestly and completely. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Craig cocked a brow then took a pad and pencil from his jacket pocket and began.

“Scott, I want you to go back in your mind to the time you spent in a prisoner of war camp. Are you there?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Craig noticed the voice soften and maybe just a slight tremble in the tone.

“Do you remember Captain Archibald Howard?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Do you remember being taken to a private area, a room perhaps where Captain Howard was?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Tell me about the place where you were alone with Howard.”

Scott didn’t answer but he frowned as if not understanding the question.

“Answer, please,” Craig pressed gently.

“I can’t, sir. I was never alone with the Captain.”

“Who else was in the room?”

“Dr. Stafford.”

“I see. Tell me about the place where you were alone with the captain and the doctor then.”

Scott’s face relaxed as he was certain what was being asked of him. He continued to sit straight, his back stiff, his head perfectly level.

“It was a small room with one window on the east side set up high. One was not able to look out the window without a chair or ladder. There was a cot in the north corner and a table in the middle of the room with two chairs.”

“What transpired in this room, Scott?”

“My training, Sir.”

Murdoch hitched his breath as he heard the nonchalant response. Scott had shown no emotion since returning home but the flatness of his voice with this statement gave Murdoch’s heart a jump for some reason.

Craig shot him a wary look to stay quiet. “What did your training entail, Scott?”

“I was repeatedly left in the room without food, water or light during the night. In the daytime, I was repetitively told I was a coward and a traitor and that I would be court-martialed for these crimes. I was told the Union was the wrong side in the war and that I would be held accountable for the lives I’d taken. When I became weak from lack of food, water and sleep, I was hypnotized. I do not recall the events that took place during hypnosis.”

Murdoch’s mouth hung open as he listened to his son speak of these atrocities as if reading a book or newspaper article about someone else. He shook his head sadly and closed his eyes for a moment.

“Scott, how do you feel about these events?” Craig was asking.

Scott frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Dr. Craig thought for a moment. “How did you feel at the time about these events?” he rephrased.

“I was frightened and angry and rebellious.”

“Do you have any feelings about that time now?”

“No, Sir.”

“Compos mentis, Lieutenant Lancer.”

Murdoch’s shoulders rose in tension as he leaned forward, ready to react however need be.

Scott blinked several times and shook his head hard as his hand went to his right temple. He closed his eyes and massaged the area for a long few minutes. Finally, he raised his head and looked at the man sitting across from him. Scott leaned back with a surprised expression.

“Who are you?” Scott asked.

“Scott?” Murdoch called.

He found his father’s eyes and asked him who the man was.

“It’s alright, son. This is Dr. Craig. He’s here to help you,” Murdoch spoke softly.

Scott took quick inventory of his person and shook his head. “I’m not hurt. Where’s Sam anyway? Murdoch, what is going on here?”

“What’s the last thing you remember, Scott?” Craig asked.

Scott’s brow creased once more as he thought. “I was out on the range. How did I get home?”

Murdoch sighed out heavily. He was at a loss as to how to even begin to explain this.

“Scott, I am a psychiatrist. Now, before you get defensive, allow me to explain,” Craig began.

The younger man tensed and his lips formed a tight line. “Very well.”

“You have been under the influence of someone else. Someone from your past and you are not going to remember anything I’m about to tell you. The last thing you remember is being out on the range. That was two weeks ago.”

Scott’s eyes widened then narrowed quickly. He sought out his father’s gaze but Murdoch’s face was granite and he couldn’t read it. “Alright, what’s the joke? Is this an old friend, Murdoch? It isn’t April first but then, that would make it even less obvious, right?”

Scott smiled and stood up, moving to the wardrobe and placing a hand on it. “And just where is my brother? Hiding in here waiting to jump out with the punch line, no doubt,” he pulled the door open and looked inside.

Scott turned and smiled again at his father. “Don’t tell me he’s under the bed.”

“Johnny isn’t in here, Scott, and this is no joke. I wish to God it were, son. Please, sit down and listen to Dr. Craig,” Murdoch pleaded, his heart in his stomach.

The smile slid from his face as he looked in Murdoch’s eyes and saw he was telling the truth. Scott swayed a bit as realization hit and Murdoch was up and at his side in a split second. He walked Scott back to the chair and eased him down, kneeling at his side.

“I’m so sorry, son. There’s just no easy way to tell you about this. Your brother and I have been so worried. Sam sent for Dr. Craig. Let him help you, Scott. Talk to him.”

Scott turned to the doctor and set his jaw. “Tell me everything.”

Craig nodded his head. “You are going to have to be honest with me, Scott. It may be painful but it is necessary,” he warned.

“I understand.”

“Do you remember a Captain at the confederate prison named Howard?”

Scott sighed softly and thought back. Finally, he shook his head. “No.”

“What about a guard named Murphy?”

Scott cocked his head to one side and slowly nodded. “That name sounds familiar. But, nothing really stands out about him.”

“And what about Dr. Stafford?”

“No, I don’t remember that name either. What is happening?” Scott asked in frustration.

“You are impatient, aren’t you? Well, young man, this is going to take some time. You’re about to hear some things that will be very difficult for you. I’m allowing your father to stay because I’m a stranger and you need someone here you can trust. I will promise you nothing I say is anything but the truth as I know it.”

“Very well, Doctor. Just get it said,” Scott clipped.

Murdoch had to smile. Scott was a no nonsense sort when he was …. well, himself. This thought caused the smile to fade quickly.

“Two weeks ago two men accosted you. Two men who were stationed at the prison while you were there. One of them was Captain Howard, the other Corporal Murphy. When you were a prisoner of war, Captain Howard and this Dr. Stafford hypnotized you. For lack of a better word, they brainwashed you.”

Scott snorted at this ridiculous notion and looked at his father incredulously. “You don’t really believe this? Murdoch, it’s asinine!”

“Scott, it’s the truth, son. We have proof. We have a confession from both Howard and Murphy and your own words. You just told Dr. Craig how they ‘trained’ you. I heard you, son. He brought you out of the …. trance. That’s when you first saw him sitting across from you and asked who he was,” Murdoch explained and held his breath.

Scott fell back against the cushion and stared disbelievingly at his father. “How is that possible?” he asked in a weak voice.

“It isn’t something that’s widely used. Both sides experimented with it during the war. There were no reports of any success, however. I can only assume that is because, in your case, these men had even more nefarious reasons. I don’t know where this so-called doctor is but Howard has been keeping you in a cabin nearby for over a week. He had you go to the bank and withdraw five thousand dollars. Then, he had you rob a stagecoach.”

Dr. Craig forced his voice to be clinical and gave only the facts. He knew Scott would need time to ingest the information. He waited for the young man to do just that, knowing he would have questions.

The silence in the room was almost a tangible thing as the two older men waited for the younger.

“I robbed a stagecoach? I don’t believe that!” Scott suddenly spew out, latching onto that part for now.

“It’s true, son. Pete Winslow was the driver,” Murdoch responded calmly.

Scott stared at him. “Did I …. was anyone hurt?” he asked in a trembling voice.

“Nothing serious,” Murdoch replied quickly then looked away. He couldn’t let Scott see his eyes. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hide the truth.

Scott nodded with relief, then, “wait a minute. You said I withdrew five thousand dollars from the bank? That’s not possible. Murdoch or Johnny would have to sign as well.”

There, he thought. The first part of the story was unraveling. For the life of him he could not figure out why his father was believing any of this.

“You forged Johnny’s signature,” Craig replied. “The bank president said you distracted him from looking closely and told him Johnny had been in a hurry when signing. He had no reason to doubt you.”

“If I robbed a stage, why aren’t I in jail?” Scott retorted.

Dr. Craig was not fazed. He expected Scott to refute the idea.

“Val said you could stay here until the judge arrived to sort it all out. He’s been in the middle of this from the start,” Murdoch answered.

Scott chewed his lip as he thought. “What else?” he finally asked.

Murdoch looked at the doctor, nearly begging him with his eyes not to say it. But, it did him no good and he knew it. He knew Scott had to be told.

“Perhaps the hardest thing for you to hear, Scott. Please, believe me when I say no one here would tell you what I’m about to tell you merely to be cruel,” the doctor facilitated.

Scott swallowed hard as his gut began to twist in a knot. A thought struck him so hard, he nearly flew from the seat. He was on his feet and headed to the door when Murdoch grabbed hold and swung him back around.

“Where’s Johnny? I want to see Johnny!” Scott demanded.

“Scott, please listen ….”

“No! I want to see Johnny right now!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.

His breathing was erratic and panic flooded his face. He saw his father’s eyes and his knees buckled.

“Please, Murdoch. Where is he?” he whispered.

“Right here, brother.”

Scott whirled around, relief flooding him as he saw his brother standing in the doorway – his normal self. Leaning against the jamb with one ankle crossed over the other. Scott’s face lit in a smile.

Johnny smiled back at him, he could do nothing else. Scott was so happy to see him and he seemed to be back with them. He had listened at the door as they told his brother of his deeds. As Scott told them in an unemotional voice how he’d been treated in that hellhole. He was sure he couldn’t go in that room but Scott’s panic pushed him through the door.

“Johnny,” Scott breathed out and stumbled over.

Johnny grabbed his arms to steady him and kept the smile on his face despite the pain the movement caused him.

Scott took measure of him and, though the smile would not leave, it was mixed with concern and confusion.

“You’re pale. What’s wrong?” Scott asked.

Johnny laughed softly. “Now, that’s the pot callin the kettle black, brother. You look like one of Teresa’s sheets. Best sit yourself back down before you fall down.” He gently led Scott back to the chair where Dr. Craig was patiently waiting.

Once reseated, Scott breathed out heavily. “I thought there might be something wrong with you,” he explained a bit sheepishly.

Johnny walked to the bed and leaned on the footboard, crossing his arms. He didn’t reply. He didn’t know what to say. Everything in him screamed to stop the doctor from telling Scott; to protect his brother but he couldn’t.

Craig watched Johnny and Scott for a while before calling the older brother’s attention back.

“Scott, I need to finish what I was saying. You remember what I just said about this being the hardest part? In a way, I’m glad Johnny is here so you can see him.”

Scott felt the dread wash over him again. “What did I do?”

Murdoch had taken up residence beside his younger son, ready for whatever might occur; he hoped.

“The night after Murdoch and Teresa left for Sacramento, Howard came here to the house with you. When Johnny arrived home, you were in a deep state of hypnosis and completely under Howard’s control. He gave you an order and, as you had been trained to do, you followed it.”

Scott paled visibly and sweat broke out on his face.

“Doc,” Johnny said softly.

“It has to be done,” Craig countered. “Scott, you shot Johnny in the chest.”

Scott shook his head vehemently. “No!”

“I’m afraid it’s true,” Craig argued lightly.

“No, no, no! I did not do that!” Scott’s eyes went pleadingly to his brother. “Tell them, Johnny. Tell them I didn’t do that. Tell them I could never do that!”

Johnny felt the world tilting around him, his vision blurring and his stomach rebelling. His mouth was dry as a desert and he had no voice. His heart ran wildly in his chest as he looked into the tortured eyes of his sibling.

Scott got up on shaky legs and traversed the short distance between them. He grabbed Johnny’s arms, leaning in as he lost his equilibrium. “Tell them that’s not true, Johnny. Tell them!” he demanded as he shook his brother.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Johnny managed to whisper. His eyes filled with sympathy and regret for his brother’s pain.

Scott’s hand’s clasped each side of Johnny’s face and he forced himself into some semblance of calm. He looked his brother dead in the eye.

“This has gone on long enough now. It’s time to stop playing games. Tell them I didn’t shoot you, Johnny. Tell them!”

“Scott!” Murdoch shouted as he grabbed one arm, pulling Scott away from his brother.

Johnny grabbed the footboard with both hands as he struggled to stay on his feet.

Murdoch wrapped his arms around Scott’s chest and pulled him back against himself.

“Tell them, Johnny!” Scott once more demanded.

Murdoch saw the pallor, the beads of perspiration and knew, could he feel Johnny’s skin, it would be icy. He pulled Scott back and plopped him in the chair then went to his other son.

“Alright, just sit down on the bed, son,” he spoke softly as he guided Johnny to the side. Rethinking his idea, he altered his command. “Better yet, lie down, son.”

Johnny never said a word but did as he was told. He wasn’t sure his stomach was going to settle anytime soon and he really didn’t want to throw up in front of a bunch of people.

Murdoch quickly unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it apart as he examined the bandages on Johnny’s chest and arm. The one on the arm was leaking a little and he grimaced. The chest wound seemed to be doing alright, though.

Dr. Craig put a hand on Scott’s arm. “For your brother’s sake, sit right here for now,” he advised then headed to the bed. “Let me see, Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch found a pair of scissors and the doctor cut away the bandages. The chest wound was healing well but the arm had lost some stitches.

“I’m afraid I don’t carry a medical bag anymore but this needs to be tended,” he informed Murdoch.

“Sam will be here any time now. He promised to stop by to see how things were going,” Murdoch replied as he rewrapped the arm tightly.

Scott had moved to stand at the foot of the bed and he stared mesmerized at Johnny’s chest. He shook his head, unable to believe he had done this thing and backed toward the door.

“Murdoch, Scott,” Johnny whispered.

The rancher turned and saw his son ready to run. He sighed and went to Scott, taking his arms. A struggle ensued as Scott tried to get away. “Scott Lancer! Since when do you run from your responsibilities?” Murdoch demanded.

The harsh words had the right effect and Scott stopped fighting then stood perfectly still. Then, he collapsed.

Murdoch caught him and pulled him back to the damnable chair, leaning him back and propping his feet up.

“It’s been too much for him. I should have waited,” Dr. Craig said.

Johnny pulled himself to a seated position. “Is he okay?”

“I think he fainted,” Murdoch mumbled then glanced around. “Lie down, son. I can’t take care of both of you at once.”

Johnny grimaced at the man’s voice. He sounded on the edge himself, too much to deal with all at once. Johnny knew how he felt and he did lie back down, shifting to his side so he could see Scott.

“Reckon you could take a break, Doc? I think we could all use it,” Johnny said after a minute.

“A wise idea, young man. You all need to rest for a good long while,” Craig smiled. He hadn’t been sure of this one at first. Johnny seemed angry and disagreeable. But, he supposed with all that he’d been through it was certainly expected.

“If you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand, Doc, I’ll go back to my room so Scott can lay down.”

“Of course. I’ve got him, Mr. Lancer,” Craig said as Murdoch made a move toward them.

“It’s okay, old man. Take care of Scott. I’m alright now. Just need a nap til Sam gets here,” Johnny commented, trying to sound light. He didn’t feel light, though. He felt like he weighed a ton.

Craig ushered him out of the room and Murdoch maneuvered Scott into his arms, carrying him to the bed. He was heavier than he looked and the older man grunted as he leaned over and put him down.

Scott roused just then and Murdoch sighed. Sure,


I hauled you over here, he thought. He sat on the bed and waited for his son to come fully awake.
Scott rubbed his forehead and squinted. “What happened?”

“You passed out.”

He raised up and looked around, panic once more threatening to overtake him. “Where’s Johnny?”

“Dr. Craig took his to his room. He’s alright, son. Just tired and still weak.”

Scott laid back down and closed his eyes briefly. “Tell me.”

Murdoch took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I had a very bad feeling at the stopover that night. I asked Teresa would she mind turning around. She didn’t, in fact, she said she had a bad feeling, too. When we got home the next morning, we found Johnny lying on the floor.

“I didn’t know what had happened and you were gone. I sent for Val and they searched for days but came up empty. That’s when Frank Hamilton came out and told us about the withdrawal you’d made the morning after Johnny had been shot. Frank showed us the draft and we knew it wasn’t Johnny’s signature. None of it made any sense, son. We thought you were being forced to do it. It wasn’t until Johnny woke up, well, some time after that when he was coherent, that he told us what happened.

“He said you’d shot him. Well, I naturally assumed he was confused. It was Val that got it to make some kind of sense. When Johnny described what had transpired and how Howard had ordered you to shoot him …. then how strangely you were acting; as if you didn’t recognize him and wouldn’t answer him. Sam put it together.”

Scott listened, wincing at the part about shooting Johnny. “Sam?”

“He’d been a doctor in the war, son, and had heard of some experiments. When Johnny told us Howard said a strange phrase, Sam put it together.”

“Phrase? What phrase?” Scott asked.

Murdoch almost said it before nearly biting his tongue off. “Not a good idea, do you think?”

Scott turned red. “No, Sir. Not a good idea at all.”

He stared at his hands lying across his chest for long time. “I really shot him.” It wasn’t a question but more of a realization. He looked up at Murdoch then. “How bad?”


“Please, just tell me,” he said, frustrated.

“He was almost dead, Scott. He’d lost so much blood, Sam didn’t know how he was still alive. He has no business being out of bed now, much less ….” Murdoch stopped himself but knew it was too late.

“Much less what?” Scott croaked out, his heart pounding in his ears.

“Val found the cabin. He’d followed Murphy on a hunch. He came here for help because he was so close. You know your brother. He was going no matter what,” Murdoch told angrily. “I swear, sometimes I want to throttle that boy!” he added after a beat.

Scott smiled briefly. “How’d he hurt his arm?”

Murdoch closed his eyes and prayed for strength. “We figure Howard ordered you to shoot anyone who came through the door so you did. It was just a flesh wound. We had already caught up with the two of them making their escape before we got to you. Then, yesterday, Johnny and I rode into town to get Dr. Craig. Johnny ‘talked’ to Howard and by the time he was through, Howard was writing out a complete confession.”

“I shot him again?!” Scott’s eyes were wide.

“It wasn’t bad,” Murdoch tried weakly.

Scott sat up and moved quickly to the other side, reaching the wash basin on the bedside table just in time.

Murdoch got fresh water and wet a towel then waited for him to finish. He handed the towel over and waited with eyes averted.

Scott flopped back on the bed, wiping his forehead and breathing heavily. “How will he ever forgive me?” he asked.

“There’s nothing to forgive, son. It wasn’t you’re doing. It’s as if someone took your hand and forced you to pull that trigger.”

Scott shook his head. “No, it isn’t. I did this. I almost killed my brother.”

“No, young man, you are wrong,” Dr. Craig stated from the doorway. “Dr. Jenkins just arrived. I met him in the hall and let him know what was happening. He’s in with Johnny.”

“I’ll be right back, son. I just want to check,” Murdoch said almost apologetically.

“Of course,” Scott replied distantly, not really hearing either of them.

Sam glanced at the door when he heard it open then went back to his examination. Murdoch stepped inside and waited, unable to see Johnny’s face.

After a few minutes, Sam stood up and sighed. “Well, that arm needs to be restitched but the chest wound still looks good. I swear, Johnny, do you ever listen?”

“It wasn’t his fault, Sam,” Murdoch jumped in.

Sam turned and frowned. “I know what happened, Murdoch. However, it wouldn’t have if he’d stayed in bed.”

“You know I couldn’t do that. Not with what Scott’s going through, Sam,” Johnny answered.

Murdoch was concerned when he heard the tired voice. He stepped up to the bed and sat beside his son. “You really do need to rest, Johnny. We’ll look after Scott.”

“How’s he doin?”

“Well, he came to pretty quickly. He insisted on knowing all of it then he threw up,” Murdoch grimaced.

Johnny sighed and nodded, knowing he’d been very close to the same reaction himself. In fact, his stomach had only just now settled enough to convince him that would not be the case.

“I’ll check on him after I stitch you up – again,” Sam emphasized the last word.

Johnny could only grin at the man.

Scott stared at the ceiling for hours, it seemed. They had finally left him be and he was glad. He needed time to sort through it all and he had. The hypnosis, or whatever they cared to call it, he could take. Well, mostly.

It was what he’d done to Johnny and to Pete and Smiley he was having difficulty with. He had seen the look in Murdoch’s eyes when he told how close Johnny had been to death. He knew he could not have lived with himself had his brother died. He wasn’t sure he could ever face Johnny again.

How did one make up for nearly killing a person they loved? How did one ask forgiveness after pointing a gun and pulling the trigger so cold-heartedly? So… blithely. Scott shook his head. He hadn’t a clue.

He was fairly certain Johnny would forgive him but hadn’t he seen something in his brother’s eyes? Hadn’t there been a hint of anger and disappointment? Of anguish? He knew there had and could no more deny it than he could deny he’d put it there.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed as he sat up, shoulders hunched over and head bowed. He sat there a moment longer before rising. He didn’t bother with his boots but padded out the door and across the hall.

Slowly, he eased the door open, not knowing if someone might be sitting with Johnny. He peeked around the door and sighed relief. Stepping inside, he decided not to close the door tight lest it awaken the younger man.

Scott moved to the bedside and sat in the chair there. He stared at his brother’s face, so relaxed in sleep. He thought to reach out and his hand was in midair before he snatched it back. Why would Johnny want to be touched by him?

His anger rose and he leaned back in the chair, clenching his hands into fists held tightly in his lap. He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and allowed his shoulders to relax. And he stared.

Noting every contour and line of his brother’s face, he committed them to memory. The decision he struggled with was not an easy one to be sure. How could he stay here, though? How could they want him to stay? Scott didn’t think they would. Oh, they’d say they did, even be angry with him for suggesting leaving. But at the end of the day, wouldn’t they be relieved?

No, brother, not at all. Scott started as he heard his brother’s voice so clearly in his mind. Closed his eyes as the voice soothed his tortured soul. Those eyes burned with deep regret and deeper guilt. When he opened them again, a tear trickled down his face.

Scott didn’t bother to wipe it away, wasn’t really aware of it. He kept watching Johnny and waiting to hear his voice inside his head again. Needed desperately to hear the balm of his brother’s words.

How long he sat there, he didn’t know, but he heard the door creak ever so slightly as it opened further. Scott sniffed and ducked his head, wiping his eyes.

Murdoch stepped into the room and heard Scott’s sniff, saw him turn his head. He walked over to the window and closed it.

“It’s cooling off. Don’t want him to catch a chill,” he spoke quietly.

He had never closed a window so slowly in his life. Once he felt Scott had time to regain his composure, he turned. “Has he awakened?”

“No, Sir,” Scott barely breathed out.

“That’s good. He needs the rest.”

“He’s been very still and quiet,” Scott replied.

Murdoch stood behind his older son and laid a hand on his tense shoulder, squeezing lighting as he kneaded the knots.

“He’ll get better a lot quicker now that you’re back with us.”

The shoulder tensed even more and Murdoch saw the jaw line tighten.

“I highly doubt that has anything to do with it,” Scott said tersely.

“Johnny doesn’t blame you, Scott.”

“Are you sure? Maybe a part of him does.”

“Maybe, but that’s only human. A much bigger part understands it wasn’t your fault. Knows you would never do anything to hurt him under normal circumstances,” Murdoch replied, keeping his voice level and sure.

“I don’t think I can stay here.”

Murdoch leaned in to hear the barely audible words and was shocked when they did travel to his ears. Unwittingly, his hand tightened on Scott’s shoulder.

“Scott, come to your room with me. We can talk better there,” he said, his voice brooking no argument.

As soon as Scott closed his bedroom door, Murdoch started.

“Aren’t you the one who used to tell Johnny running was never the answer? That a man had to stand and fight for what was his? Or was that all a lot of hot air?”

Scott was taken aback by the anger coming from his father. His own ire rose to the fore.

“How can you expect me to stay here now? After what I’ve done?!”

“YOU didn’t do anything, Scott. You were as much a victim as your brother. My God, man! How blind are you? Have you any idea what leaving here would do to Johnny? Or to me for that matter?” Murdoch heaved.

Scott stared slack-jawed at him and Murdoch forced himself to calm down.

“Listen to me, son. It’s taken a long time and a lot of hurt feelings and misunderstandings for this family to get to where we are now. Don’t throw it all away because of some madman. Give yourself some time to recover, Scott. Give us all some time. This whole mess has torn through us all. Everyone has been affected, including our friends. I’ve never seen Val Crawford so angry and frightened. Sam, too, for that matter. We all need time to heal. That’s why Dr. Craig is here. Not just for you, Scott. For all of us.”

Silence fell like a heavy woolen blanket over the room. The two men stared at each other for an eternity before Scott turned his back.

“I feel so helpless. So weak and scared. I can’t even control my emotions,” he finally said in a quivering voice.

Murdoch moved quickly to him, wrapped his arms around his son. “How could you not feel that way? You don’t have to control your emotions, son. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of. Let it out, Scott. Please, just let it all out.”

Scott’s knees buckled and Murdoch held him tighter, moving him to the side of the bed and sitting him down. He never let go and pulled Scott into his chest once seated. He felt his shirt become wet and rested his chin on Scott’s head.

They sat there for an hour or more as Scott let go of the fear, guilt and frustration. He grew limp in his father’s arms and Murdoch laid him in the bed, not bothering with bedclothes. He covered his son with a quilt and brushed a hand over his forehead, moving back the errant and sweat-soaked hair.

“Go to sleep, my boy,” he whispered.

For three days, Scott spent the majority of his time with Dr. Craig. Usually, they took a ride out away from the estancia. He went through a painful catharsis, as needed as it was.

Scott started dealing with what he’d gone through. Not only with Howard, but during his imprisonment and the war. He talked through the nightmares that had plagued him for years and began to understand some of his own demons.

They discussed the need for hypnotherapy to rid Scott of the possibility of this ever happening again.

What he had not done, and what Dr. Craig would not leave until he had, was face Johnny.

Five days after Scott was brought out of the trance that threatened everything he loved, he settled on his bed to go back into one.

Dr. Craig had been adamant that no one would be in the room when this transpired. Scott wasn’t happy about that and neither was his family but they acquiesced.

Slowly, Craig took him deeper and deeper until Scott was in a place of complete relaxation and peace. It took two hours to undo the damage, to ensure Scott was free of any further attempts to control or manipulate him.

Dr. Craig brought him out of the depths and, as Scott opened his eyes, he felt better than he had in days. He looked up at the doctor and smiled.

“Well, young man, I believe you are cured. The only test left needs to be done in someone else’s presence. Do you prefer your father?”

Scott grimaced and nodded. He had yet to have a meaningful conversation with Johnny. Nothing more had passed between them than daily greetings. A few mumbled words at the table.

Craig left to retrieve Murdoch and Scott sat up on the bed, waiting with held breath and praying this would work.

Murdoch walked in smiling, pleased with the doctor’s report. He made the smile leave as he regarded Scott’s pensive expression.

“Alright, Mr. Lancer,” Craig urged.

Murdoch nodded and faced his son. “Carpe diem, Lieutenant Lancer,” he spoke loudly and with authority.

Scott looked at him and frowned. “That’s it? Carpe diem? Seize the day?” he asked incredulously.

“Were you perhaps expecting some mumbo jumbo?” Dr. Craig asked amused.

Scott cocked a brow. “I suppose I was.” He smiled then as he thought how silly that would have been. Imagine being controlled with abra cadabra or some equal nonsense.

“Now, Scott, your greatest challenge awaits you,” Dr. Craig announced.

Scott frowned as his stomach turned over. He nodded and pulled a face.

Murdoch chuckled a little. “I’m sure you’ve built it up to be much harder than it will be.”

“I hope so, Sir,” he said softly, still unconvinced his brother didn’t want to tear him apart.

For his part, during Scott’s therapy, Johnny had been going through some of his own – of the physical kind. He’d been allowed to walk about the house and yard but no further. He spent a great deal of time with Barranca, currying the horse and promising him a ride soon. He gave the palomino so many treats, he could swear Barranca had gained twenty pounds.

That is just where Scott found him – in the barn with his horse. He walked in quietly and watched for a while, waiting for Johnny to acknowledge his presence. Scott began to think his brother had not heard him and this concerned him. But as this thought entered his mind, he heard the soft voice.

“Gonna let the flies in.”

Scott laughed softly. “Out, don’t you mean?”

Johnny looked over Barranca’s neck and smiled. “Reckon so.”

Scott walked hesitantly nearer the stall as Johnny’s head disappeared. Soon, the younger man stepped out and latched the gate. By then, Scott was right in front of him.

He stroked Barranca’s nose and took a good look. “He looks like he’s gained some weight.”

Johnny sighed longingly. “Yeah, he needs a really good run. I’ve been spoiling him lately.”

“Lately?” Scott’s voice rose an octave at this incredible statement.

Johnny cocked a brow. “What’re you sayin?”

Scott stared at him until he saw the easy grin slide up his brother’s face then he relaxed and bowed his own head.

It was quiet for a minute, long enough to grow uncomfortable.

Scott looked up and frowned. “Dr. Craig says I’m cured. Murdoch said those words to me and it had no effect.”

Johnny nodded, his face impassive. “That’s good. Really good.”

“I thought you and I should talk if that’s alright,” Scott continued, unsure with his brother’s reaction.

Johnny eyed him for a beat then nodded and walked over to the hay bales, plopping himself on one. His legs dangled and he swung his feet, his hands hanging loosely in his lap as he looked at Scott.

Scott joined him, sitting alongside his brother so he didn’t have to face him. Neither spoke.

After a few minutes, Johnny sighed again. “This is going well.”

“Yes, it is,” Scott retorted out of habit. Pain crossed his face then as he realized this was no time for banter.

“I guess I don’t really know what to say, Johnny. Other than to ask for your forgiveness and how you feel about all of this.”

“Nothing to forgive,” the younger Lancer shrugged.

Scott came to his feet and turned to face his brother then. “Nothing to forgive? I almost killed you! You


to feel something about that!”
If Johnny was affected by the outburst, he didn’t show it. “What do you want me to say, Scott? Yeah, it bothers me. But, I know you had no control. The hardest part is realizing that my ‘always in control’ brother wasn’t. It …. scared me to see you like that. I was worried you wouldn’t make it back to us.”

Scott relaxed a measure but not much. “That’s your head talking, younger brother. What does your heart say?”

Johnny stood and began to pace, clenching and unclenching his hands as he thrummed them against his thighs. Â “I want to know why you couldn’t fight it, I guess. I want to know how anyone could get you to do that.” He stopped and faced Scott. “I want to know why you didn’t move heaven and earth to keep from pulling that trigger. Because you didn’t, Scott. You just did what you were told. There wasn’t a sign of you fighting against it. Not one sign. I know, I was watching your face. You didn’t even know who I was.”

Scott watched the torment in the young face, saw the anguish in the eyes. The heavy breathing that always indicated Johnny was hurting in one fashion or another. His heart broke and his legs felt like jelly.

“I wish I had an answer for you. Some explanation but I simply don’t remember it, Johnny. Not any of it. And I suppose I never will.”

Johnny raised a hand and pointed a finger at his brother. “That! That right there is what I’m talking about. In control. All easy and smart and right. Always with the answer. But not that day, Scott. Not that day! Why?”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Johnny. You have to know how very sorry I am,” Scott answered, a slight tremble in his voice as that control slipped.

Johnny turned away sharply and faced the wall, crossing his arms over his chest.

“What do you want from me, Johnny?”

“I want to be able to trust you again. I thought ….. I never would have …..” he stopped and shook his head, frustrated at not being able to explain. “It just should never have happened, that’s all. It’s not so much even what you did as that you did it so easily.”

Scott’s eyes widened as a thought assailed him. “I’m not perfect, Johnny,” he said with just a bite of anger.

“Yes, you are!” Johnny argued, whipping around.

Scott could only stare at him, sitting back down on the hay bale, stunned.

“You are perfect, Scott. You’re the perfect brother, the perfect son, the perfect friend.  The perfect person to let in. And I did let you in. You before anyone else. Did you know that? Did you know I have never let anyone get as close to me as I have you? How could you let them do that to you?!” His voice was  loud now, shouting loud, as he waited – expected – an answer.

“Let them? I didn’t


them do anything! How dare you imply I allowed this to happen? I fought it with everything in me, Johnny. You have no idea what I went through in that prison!” Scott shouted right back.
“No, I don’t! And you know why? Because


never let


in! You. Always tryin to get me to talk about the past. Always sayin how it’ll make me feel better. But you never did, Scott. You never talked about it. You never let me in!”
Johnny’s breathing was much more labored than it should be, even in his height of anger. Scott watched as he did nothing to try and control it but simply glared expectantly.

“You need to calm down, brother. You don’t look too good,” he said as he stood and walked toward the younger man.

But Johnny backed away. “Don’t change the subject!”

“I’m serious, Johnny! Stop it now. You’re going to be sick!” Scott ordered and caught him up, pulling him close with an arm tightly around him. He could feel the heat rising from Johnny’s tirade, hoping that’s all it was and he tried to guide the man to sit.

Johnny resisted him, resisted the touch as he pulled back. But the world suddenly started spinning around and he found himself leaning in closer, hanging on as Scott pulled him down on the bale.

Scott was torn between staying and going for help. To his immense relief the barn doors opened and the figure of their father filled one side.

“Murdoch!” he shouted, knowing he need say no more.

The rancher was there in an instant, kneeling beside them both on Johnny’s side.

“What happened?”

“He got all worked up and …. I don’t know. He got so pale and he’s not breathing very well,” Scott explained quickly.

Murdoch lifted his son’s face so he could see better. “Can you make it back to the house?”

Johnny only nodded, knowing he was going to throw up any minute and desperately trying not to. Murdoch pulled him up, wrapping an arm around his waist and walking him to the door. They almost made it.

Johnny stopped short and jerked away, doubling over as he lost the battle. Scott looked around quickly and found a bucket of water near Barranca’s stall. It would have to do for now. He wet his kerchief and handed it off to Murdoch then stood back, unsure Johnny even wanted to see him.

Murdoch pressed the cool cloth to his forehead and Johnny closed his eyes at the relief.

“Better now?” Murdoch asked softly.

Johnny nodded and started out the door again, his father clinging to him.

Scott stood there, unable to move as he watched them disappear from view. He wondered if he was watching a premonition. For if this is how Johnny truly felt, he knew he’d accomplished the inevitable. Disappointing his brother.

There could never have been any other outcome if Johnny really thought him perfect. Incapable of making a mistake. How could his brother feel that way? Scott knew he’d made mistakes plenty of times. Yet, none of them had been to Johnny’s detriment. None had challenged his brother’s trust in him.

Fear grew up from the pit of his stomach and he knew, he could never stay here under the circumstances. He inhaled deeply and left the barn, wondering how he could ever live up to the high standards Johnny had set for him. Indeed, knowing he couldn’t.

By the time Scott made it to Johnny’s bedroom door, Murdoch had the young man settled in bed and was soothing his brow with a cool cloth. Scott made no move to go any further into the room. He leaned against the door and listened.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Johnny breathed out heavily. “I need to let him know I didn’t mean it.” He tried to sit up only to be pushed back down.

“Whatever you said, you can apologize for later, son. You have


to get some rest, Johnny. No arguments,” Murdoch spoke with authority.
“I told him he was perfect. I told him he should have stopped himself,” Johnny reported, his voice full of anguish. “Why did I do that? I know he couldn’t stop it. I know….” he trailed off, exhaustion overcoming him.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. “It’s alright, Johnny. I’m sure Scott knows you didn’t mean it. You just needed to …. yell at him, I guess.”

Johnny nodded weakly. “Yeah, I needed to yell at somebody. Only, not Scott. Lo siento, Murdoch. Dios! Lo siento.”

Scott hitched a breath as he listened to the pure agony in his brother’s voice. ‘He’s been through so much. Too much,’ he thought. He stepped into the room and went to his brother’s side.

Murdoch, hearing him approach, looked over his shoulder and moved to give Scott room.

Scott laid a hand on Johnny’s arm. “It’s okay, Johnny. Everything is okay,” he reassured.

The blue eyes opened and focused on Scott, relief flooding his entire being. He raised his arm and grabbed Scott’s hand. “I didn’t mean it, Scott. You ain’t perfect,” he implored.

Then, a sly grin fought to break through as Johnny added, “not even close.”

Scott laughed softly and gripped the hand tighter. “Thank you, younger brother. I didn’t think I could live up to such a high standard.”

“Nah, no way you could, older brother.” Johnny’s expression darkened then. “It’s just … well, you’ve always had my back.”

“And you let me in,” Scott reminded him. “And now you’ve discovered that I really can hurt you and it’s scared you to death.”

Johnny contemplated for a minute. “I always knew you could just knew it would never happen.” Then, locking onto his brother’s eyes and getting a death grip on the hand, he went on. “And it hasn’t happened. Okay?”

Scott swallowed hard unable to tear his gaze away. He nodded, his voice abandoning him momentarily.

“Only, it’s time, brother. Maybe not right this minute but at some point soon, you are gonna have to let me in.”

“I know, Johnny. I really do. It’s …. it’s just so hard,” Scott said huskily.

“Nothing worth havin is ever easy,” Johnny sighed. “It’s just gonna take some time to get past, is all. We’ll do it, though. We have to.”

Scott cocked his head to one side. “Have to?”

“Yeah,” Johnny shrugged his right shoulder. “What choice do we have? None of us are going anywhere.”

Scott read the deeper meaning behind the statement easily and smiled to alleviate his brother’s fear. “Murdoch has already informed me that I’m not a coward and I don’t run from my responsibilities.”

“He’s right,” Johnny smiled then lifted his head off the pillow, leaning in close to his brother’s face. “Just don’t let him know it.” He then plopped his head back down and let out a long breath.

Scott smiled. “I won’t. Now, he was right about something else. You really do need to sleep for about a week.”

“I know. I just had to make sure you were okay,” he replied, eyes closed and voice growing softer with each word.

Scott squeezed his hand once more than placed his arm across his stomach. He pulled the covers up higher and stroked the side of Johnny’s head. “Go to sleep,” he whispered and stood up.

Johnny made some sort of noise that Scott supposed was an acknowledgement. He turned away and walked quickly and quietly from the room, his emotions overpowering him once again.

Murdoch stayed behind for a moment longer to assure himself Johnny really had drifted off. Once convinced, he sought out his other son.

He found Scott outside in the garden, staring into space. Dr. Craig was watching him as Murdoch approached.

“Let’s leave him to his thoughts for a while. I’d like to know what happened with Johnny,” Craig suggested.

Murdoch nodded and led the man into the great room.

Craig simply nodded here and there as Murdoch related what he knew of the talk between the brothers. The doctor frowned at the physical manifestations Johnny had endured.

“Well, I’d like to talk with Johnny once he’s rested some. I think I can help him through this.”

Murdoch shook his head. “He understands.”

“Does he? Or does he simply think he does? Mr. Lancer, Johnny may know logically the why of it but his emotions go much deeper than that. This one talk will not be enough for him to work through the feelings he has. They will show themselves again. He needs the skills to cope with them when that happens.”

“You mean so he doesn’t go off on his brother again?” Murdoch asked.

“Yes, and so he doesn’t make himself sick again. Scott is still quite fragile. From what I’ve gathered, those two are not only brothers but best friends. This whole incident could fracture their relationship beyond repair if one of them says the wrong thing. I know you don’t want that to happen,” Craig replied.

“No, of course not,” the rancher murmured.

“Well, I can’t help Johnny right this moment so why don’t you and I talk?”

Murdoch’s head snapped up and he stared at the doctor in confusion. “About what?”

“About how this has affected


. Nearly losing one son to death and the other to a madman has to have affected you deeply. Am I wrong?” Craig cocked a knowing brow.
Murdoch scowled at the man, suddenly not liking him very much. He started to argue the point when the door opened and one of the hands popped his head in.

Murdoch came back into the room after a lengthy discussion with the ranch hand. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but something has come up I need to handle. I shouldn’t be more than an hour or so.”

Dr. Craig stood and nodded. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll wait.”

Murdoch’s scowl deepened but he said nothing. He simply nodded and walked out of the house.

Scott stood in the garden and stared at nothing. He thought about Johnny’s words to him in the barn then in the bedroom. His talks with Dr. Craig had been very hard but he didn’t think anything would be harder than opening up fully to his family.

His time in a prisoner of war camp had been brutal. And he supposed a part of him was ashamed but another part thought about how much more Johnny had suffered in his short life.

Scott always thought it was much more important to help his brother face his demons. To quell the nightmares Johnny sometimes had. He never thought about the reverse. That talking to his brother might help him, too.

Johnny had been through so much, Scott figured he would think that short stint in prison was nothing in comparison. Only, if he were honest with himself, he’d know that was his thinking, not Johnny’s.

His brother would never belittle him. Never make less of Scott’s past; his hurts. So why was it so damned hard to talk about it? It had felt so good, so liberating to break down in Murdoch’s arms. Nothing could be harder than that, surely.

In fact, he thought, talking to his brother should be a natural thing. He shook his head at his own mule headedness, if that was even the problem. He still wasn’t sure and didn’t think it mattered anymore. Johnny trusted him for some reason. How could he not return that trust? How could they even truly be close if he didn’t?

Johnny opened his eyes and blinked, scrubbing at his face. He glanced at the window and figured he’d been asleep only an hour or so. Sighing, he closed his eyes for a couple of minutes then gave up. His thoughts would not be stilled and he knew it was pointless to lay there.

He raised up slowly, testing his fortitude. Satisfied he wasn’t going to throw up or pass out, he sat on the side of the bed.

Walking somewhat steadily to the dresser, he splashed the cold water on his face and stood there, hands leaning against the dresser, head hung and water dripping from his chin for a minute. He raised his head and looked in the mirror, pulling his hands through his disheveled hair.

“You are a mess, Lancer!” he told the mirror then snorted in disgust.

When he walked into the living room, he found Dr. Craig staring at the Lancer ‘L’ brand above the fireplace.

“Beautiful work,” the doctor commented without turning around.

“Yeah,” Johnny replied simply.

“You didn’t sleep long.”

“Nah, hard to sleep during the day no matter how tired I am,” he admitted.

Craig turned to face him then, taking in the pallor, the tired eyes, the slumped shoulders. He watched as Johnny walked to the couch and plopped down heavily.

“Where’s Murdoch?”

“Oh, there was some issue he needed to handle on the ranch. He said he’d be back in an hour or so. Should be any time now.”

Johnny grinned. “An hour around here could turn into half the day. What about Scott?”

“The last time I saw him he was in the garden,” the doctor answered.

Johnny frowned and thought to find his brother but the doctor’s words stopped him.

“You and I should talk, Johnny. I’d like to help you deal with what’s happened.”

“I’m fine,” he said curtly.

Craig raised both brows quickly. “Is that why you threw up and nearly passed out earlier?”

The look he received shocked and frightened the man. Never had he seen a man’s demeanor change so dramatically. Johnny’s face turned to stone, his eyes glaciers.

“If I need your help, I’ll ask for it. You’re here to help Scott so tend to it.”

“I see you’ve met my brother’s alter ego, Doctor,” Scott said from near the dining room table. He strolled in and sat next to Johnny as he regarded the doctor.

“I think Dr. Craig would be fascinated by you, Johnny. Something to write a paper about,” he went on, a slight smile on his face.

“Alter ego?” Dr. Craig asked, latching onto a phrase he knew well.

“Scott likes to use them fancy words. I have no alter ego, though. This is me, period,” Johnny replied in a hard tone.

Craig looked between the two, realizing there was something deeper going on here than he could understand. He began to see this family was much more dynamic than he’d first thought. He chastised himself mentally for assuming. He knew better.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, Scott. Something I should be aware of?”

“Nope,” Johnny answered.

“I guess not,” Scott agreed, knowing he’d put his foot in his mouth.

“Gentlemen,” Craig started. “What I really want to focus on is how this incident has affected each of you and all of you as a family. It would be helpful if I knew more about this family’s history.”

Both young men grew silent with this and Craig narrowed his eyes with his own stubbornness. Â

“Do you want my help or not?”

Johnny studied his hands which were resting in his lap and Scott glanced up at the doctor then back to his boots.

“Neither of us grew up here. I was raised by my maternal grandfather in Boston and Johnny grew up in Mexico. We’ve both been here almost two years now. It hasn’t been easy but we’ve grown to know each other and Murdoch.” Scott kept it as brief as possible.

“I see. That is helpful information. You all seem very close now,” Craig observed.

Johnny looked up at the man and smiled. “We are. So, I guess history don’t really matter so much, huh?”

“Oh, it matters, Johnny,” he answered then turned to his patient. ” So, Scott, you went into the army?”

“Only during the war. I studied at Harvard and was set to go into business with my grandfather when Murdoch asked me to come here. I decided to stay.”

“Yeah, I decided to stay, too,” Johnny mumbled.

“Why?” Craig asked.

Johnny snorted. “Why not?”

Craig ground his jaw at the reply. A couple of real chatterboxes, these two. He was more convinced than ever that Murdoch Lancer needed to talk to him as much as these two. IF he could get any of them to talk other than Scott.

The front door closed hard and Murdoch stalked into the room, pulling up short at the scene before him.

“Everything okay, Murdoch?” Johnny asked.

“What? Oh, yes. It wasn’t anything major. What’s going on in here?”

“Doc wanted to know our history,” Johnny explained.

Murdoch didn’t think he could feel anymore tense but he was wrong. He sighed and headed for the sideboard. After pouring a drink and downing it quickly, he joined them.

“It’s important that I know as much as possible if I’m to help you all. It seems you all keep your feelings well hidden,” Craig began.

“Don’t most people?” Murdoch mumbled.

“I suppose that’s true, Mr. Lancer, but in this case, you can’t. At least, not about this problem. As I see it, Scott blames himself for something he had no control over, Johnny is resentful and feels betrayed even though he knows his brother could not control the situation. And you, Mr. Lancer, have had to suffer through what any parent would dub a nightmare.”

“It’s over now,” Murdoch noted.

“No, it isn’t. The initial danger is over, yes, but the emotions are far from past. That is what you all have to deal with before it eats you alive. Now, Johnny and Scott have made a start though it wasn’t a great one. They are, at least, still speaking to each other. That is in large part due to you, Sir.”

Murdoch’s head came up and he frowned at the doctor.

“Yes, you are the one who has kept this family from falling apart. You are the one who has been there for both your sons. But, who has been there for you, Mr. Lancer?”

Scott made probably the quickest decision of his life as he sprang to his feet. “Dr. Craig, may I have a word with you outside?”

“Scott, I really think we need to talk this out,” Craig argued.

“It’s important and it can’t wait,” Scott insisted. He turned on his heel and headed for the door, fully expecting the man to follow. With a frown, he did.

Johnny was stunned by Scott’s abruptness but if he hadn’t stopped the man, Johnny would have. They both knew Murdoch would go off on this man. Would start bellowing and shaking the rafters. And they both knew why.

Silence filled the great room for a few minutes as Johnny watched his father stare at nothing. He drummed his fingers against the arm of the couch as he figured out what to do.

“He’s right, you know,” he said quietly.

Murdoch’s frowned deepened and Johnny plunged in.

“Look, I don’t want to talk this to death either. I know Scott doesn’t. It’s hard to talk to a total stranger, on top of that. Still, Murdoch, he


right. You are the one who’s had to stay strong through this whole thing. This ain’t the first time I’ve realized that. Just never had a chance …. no, just never had the guts to say so before,” he gave his father a sheepish look.
“I just want you to know that, if you hadn’t been so strong. If you hadn’t stood by me through this whole thing, I’d have lost my mind.”

At least Murdoch was looking at him now. So, he decided in for a penny and all that. Johnny slid down off the couch and ended up at his father’s feet.

“Old man, I told you the other night you were really somethin out there on the trail. What I didn’t say was how glad I was to have you there. I couldn’t have done this alone. I needed you and you were there. I’m really proud of that. Proud of you. And, I’m sorry I’ve been such a pain in the ass. I know I have. It’s just my way, I guess.” Â Johnny reached up and took his father’s hand.

Murdoch smiled. “I was proud of you, son. How you fought for your brother even though it was killing you – literally. I was angry with you for putting your life at risk but I was also proud. I have to confess, this whole thing has worn me out. You said I looked like I wanted to throttle Howard out there. You were right. But, I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to kill him for what he’d done to you and your brother. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone so badly before …. except one other time.”

Johnny lowered his eyes. “When that gambler took us away,” he fairly whispered.

“Yes, son,” he answered, laying a hand on the top of the bowed head. “That was the time.”

Johnny looked up at his father. “Are you okay? Do you need anything?”

Murdoch smiled affectionately. “I have what I need, son. You and your brother on the mend.”

Johnny returned the smile briefly. “What about the charges against Scott?”

Murdoch inhaled deeply. “I’m going into town tomorrow and see what I can do. I’ll talk to the Pinkertons and the stage company. With Howard’s confession, they may not press charges against your brother.”

Outside, Scott paced furiously for a moment before coming to a stop in front of Dr. Craig.

“I realize you don’t know us so I’m going to explain something to you. My father does not respond well with being told what he has to do. He’s used to calling the tune and he will not open up and pour his heart out to you, Doctor.”

“I see. And you wanted to make sure you stopped me,” Craig surmised easily.

“That’s right.”

“You were protecting him.”

Scott glared at him. “Did you expect me to do anything less?”

Craig smiled. “No, Scott, I did not. But, I don’t want to leave you all hanging in the wind, either. I can’t in good conscience leave here with so much still to work out.”

Scott continued to stare at him though some of the fire had died down in his eyes. “I realize you are trying to help but you’re going to have to take our lead here. This family is not what you may be used to dealing with. We are three very stubborn and proud men, Doctor. We don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves for the whole world to see.”

Craig sighed. “Do you let each other see?”

Scott pulled his shoulders back. “Sometimes. When it’s necessary. I can guarantee you that at this very moment, Johnny and Murdoch are talking this through. You see, we can talk better with each other than strangers. And, believe me, it’s hard to talk to each other sometimes.”

“All right, Scott. Let’s test your theory. Do you think they’ve had enough time?”

Scott smiled a little. “Yes, I think so.” He led the way back in the house, praying he wasn’t about to be made a fool of.

And he wasn’t. When they walked back in, Johnny was still sitting at his father’s feet, the two of them talking quietly. Scott smiled with relief.

Dr. Craig smiled a little and decided Scott was right. He still felt a need to be close by but he realized this family needed some time together. Something they had not had for quite some time. He excused himself and went upstairs.

Scott entered the room and sat on the sofa. “Are you alright, Sir?”

“I’m fine, son, and thank you. I appreciate you running interference.”

Johnny laughed softly. “I’ll bet Doc really appreciates it. If he thought I was scary, he’d be runnin for the hills by the time you got done with him.”

Scott chuckled at this but Murdoch frowned. “Why would he think you were scary?”

Johnny moved back to sit on the sofa, not eager to tell his father he’d done it again.

“Dr. Craig was gently pushing Johnny and my brother bucked,” Scott explained.

Murdoch gave a quick grimace, knowing what that meant, but he also couldn’t hide a small grin.

“He only has our best interest at heart. He really has helped me through this. If he hadn’t been here, I’m not sure I could have ever faced either of you,” Scott said softly.

Johnny put a hand on his arm and squeezed.

“I can’t imagine what you’ve been feeling, son. You do know we would never abandon you, I hope,” Murdoch said sincerely.

“I do, Sir. It’s just ….. so overwhelming. The things I’ve done,” he shook his head.

“Hey, whatever dumb things I said on the barn, I do know it wasn’t your fault, Scott. I guess I just,” Johnny paused then grinned, “felt overwhelmed.”

Murdoch smiled at them both. “I think we are all going to be just fine.”

“If I manage to stay out of prison, you mean,” Scott said glumly.

“Murdoch’s gonna fix that, Scott. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m going to do everything in my power, Johnny. But, I don’t want either of you to depend on that. We all need to understand this is a very tricky situation,” Murdoch warned.

Johnny smiled at him, that cheeky grin. “Hey, after what I’ve seen lately, my Old Man can do anything.”

Murdoch nearly swallowed his tongue and he dropped his gaze. Emotions sprung up in him that were foreign but welcome. His son was proud of him. He’d said as much. But this statement and the pure faith instilled in the tone of it, brought that feeling home crushingly. But he wasn’t done with those emotions just yet.

“I agree completely,” Scott smiled softly.

Murdoch walked into Val’s office the next morning bright and early. The sheriff was just coming from the back with two empty trays.

“Mornin, Mr. Lancer. I’ll say this, bein in jail ain’t curbed them two’s appetites none,” Val greeted.

“Have you heard from the judge?” Murdoch asked, not caring about ‘them two’.

“Late last night. Was headin out your way in a bit. He’ll be here in three days.”

Murdoch nodded. “Are those Pinkerton agents still around, Sheriff?”

Val grimaced and scratched his jaw. “Yeah, still mad, too. At me mostly for not lockin Scott up. I tried to tell ’em what happened but they ain’t in a mood ta listen.”

“I see,” Murdoch ground out. “What about Pete and Smiley and the stage company?”

“Well, that’s better news. Pete and Smiley were real understandin. Well, ya know they’re both good men. They talked to the stage company and smoothed their feathers. So, that part won’t be a problem.”

Murdoch sighed. “Well, that’s something, at least.”

Val nodded then looked sideways at the man. “Ya know, as much business as you threw at the Pinks, I’ll bet they’d think twice about pressin charges if you was to talk with ’em.”

“That’s just what I’m hoping, Sheriff. I’m going to send a telegram then I’ll talk to the two of them. What are their names?”

“McIntyre and Phillips.”

Murdoch sent his wire to the San Francisco office of the Pinkerton Agency then headed to the hotel. He sent a note to the agents asking them to join him in the dining room.

He settled at a back table, away from prying eyes. It hadn’t escaped his notice that the whole town was staring at every move he made. He hadn’t made it through his first cup of coffee when the two men appeared in the doorway. It didn’t take a genius to figure who they were. He waved them over and stood to greet them.

“Mr. McIntyre, Mr. Philips, I’m Murdoch Lancer,” he shook hands with them and they settled at the table.

“Gentlemen, I’ll get right to the point. Scott Lancer is my son. Now, I know you’re both upset about what happened and rightfully so, but, Sheriff Crawford tells me he’s explained the situation.”

“He came up with some cock and bull story,” McIntyre said harshly.

Murdoch ground his teeth and held his anger. “It is not a story, gentlemen. The real thieves have given written confessions and I have a psychiatrist at my ranch who can attest to the facts. Scott was under the influence of this Howard man. He didn’t know what he was doing.”

McIntyre eyed his partner who, evidently, did not have the gift of gab. He turned back to Murdoch. “It’s pretty far-fetched, don’t you think?”

Murdoch inhaled deeply. “Yes, it is. I may not have believed it myself but for a few facts. One is I know my son. He is an honorable and law-abiding man. The other is that he shot his brother and nearly killed him while under this influence. So, you see, I can believe Scott is not responsible for his actions.”

Both men stared slack-jawed at this information. They hadn’t been inclined to listen to the sheriff once he’d tried giving them such an insane story so they didn’t have all the facts.

“Maybe he just doesn’t like his brother,” McIntyre argued.

Murdoch leaned forward and glared at him. “Look, I am not inclined to discuss my family with you only to say, Scott thinks the world of his brother. The very idea that he would willingly hurt Johnny is unconscionable!”

Leaning back in his chair, he went on. “Now, I am prepared to pay restitution for any pain and inconvenience you’ve suffered. But, really, gentlemen, my other son and I helped to recover your stolen money. The real culprits have confessed. What else is there?”

“Justice, Mr. Lancer,” McIntyre spat.

Murdoch was about to reply when they were interrupted by a messenger delivering a wire for the agent. He read it and scowled.

“It seems your son is off the hook. Our home office has instructed us to drop all charges against Scott Lancer and return to San Francisco immediately.”

Murdoch gave him a satisfied nod.

“I suppose there’s nothing else to say. Good day, Sir,” McIntyre said curtly and walked out with his partner.

Murdoch sighed with relief. Now, there was only the judge to contend with. He only prayed the man saw things the same way. Even if no one pressed charges, Scott could still stand trial if the judge deemed it so. The robbery had taken place on a public road making it the jurisdiction of the county and, ultimately, the state.

He decided to go back to the sheriff’s office and let Val know what was happening. He was sure the Pinkertons would be in no hurry. Then, he went home to tell his family the good news.

Johnny was sitting on the veranda, lemonade at his side and a throw blanket crumpled at his feet. Murdoch didn’t even have to ask, he simply chuckled at Teresa’s strong will.

“Looks comfortable,” he commented.

Johnny smiled but his eyes remained closed. “It is. Join me?”

Murdoch sat down beside him and sighed. “Where’s Scott?”

Johnny opened his eyes and looked over. “He’s talking to Craig again. Guess he felt like he needed to bend the man’s ear some more.”

“If it helps him, I’m all for it.”

Johnny nodded. “What happened in town?”

The rancher smiled. “Good news. The Pinkertons dropped the charges and the stage company is not going to press the issue. The judge will be here in three days.” The last sentence caused him to grimace.

Johnny didn’t miss it. “The judge won’t have anything to hold Scott on.”

“Maybe. We’ll have to wait and see. Those agents were not about to give up.”

Johnny leaned forward and looked over at his father. “What’d you do?” he grinned.

“I wired the San Francisco office.”

Johnny laughed, his eyes dancing. “Bet they didn’t like that any.”

“No, they weren’t very happy about it but I don’t really care,” he sighed tiredly.

Johnny chewed the inside of his cheek as he glanced sidelong at the older man. “I know this is a foreign concept to you,” he grinned at his use of words, “but, why don’t you take a nap?”

Murdoch almost laughed out loud but he didn’t think it was such a bad idea. “I might in a …..”

He didn’t get to finish as the front door slammed shut and Scott tore out of the house heading for the barn.

Two seconds later, Dr. Craig came after him. He stopped when he saw the other two men and walked over.

“What happened?” Murdoch asked.

“I’m afraid our session didn’t go well. Scott doesn’t want to hear some of the things I have to say,” the doctor reported.

“What things?” Johnny asked tersely.

“About his grandfather.”

Johnny closed his eyes and hung his head. He could easily see his brother’s reaction to any condemnation of Harlan Garrett. No matter what the old goat had done, Scott still defended him.

“I’ll go,” Murdoch said and stood up.

“Thought you were gonna lay down,” Johnny clipped.

“Later,” he said and held up a hand to ward off the protestation.

Johnny slumped back and watched him walk across the yard. “Your timing stinks, Doc.”

Craig eased himself into the chair recently vacated. “I see and I’m sorry. He really does need to rest.”

Johnny frowned in thought. “Yeah, but, maybe he needs to talk to Scott more. They haven’t really much. Ya know?”

Craig smiled. “You are astute, Johnny.”

Murdoch found Scott saddling Remmie and he watched for a while. It was most apparent that Scott was as mad as a wet hen, as Val would say.

“You might want to give the horse a break, son,” he remarked lightly.

Scott whirled around, fists clenched at his sides. He glared at his father for an instant before reining in his ire.

“I just need to go for a ride,” he clipped.

“I see. Mind if I join you?” Murdoch asked, heading toward his bay.

“Actually, I do, Sir. I need some time alone,” Scott stood firmly.

Murdoch changed direction and walked over to Remmie’s stall. He hung a forearm over the top rail and watched as Scott, more slowly, finished with his tack.

“Dr. Craig has upset you,” he pitched in.

Scott paused, sighed then continued his chore.

“He’s only trying to help, Scott.”

The younger man turned again, eyes flashing. “I don’t see how my relationship with my grandfather has any bearing on any of this!”

Murdoch cocked a brow. “Well, neither do I. How did it come up?”

After a brief hesitation, Scott answered. “We were talking about the war and when I got out of prison. How I recovered in Boston.”

Murdoch nodded. “And he questioned that recovery?”

“That self-righteous ….. he doesn’t know anything! He has no right to judge!”

“Scott,” Murdoch started calmly. “Did he judge or did you mistake what he said?”

Scott stared into his father’s eyes for a long beat.

“What exactly did he say?” Murdoch forged ahead.

“He wondered why Grandfather didn’t seek professional help for me,” Scott replied, his anger almost quelled.

“I see,” Murdoch said, wondering the same thing himself. “And you took exception. Why?”

“What makes him think I needed any help? I did just fine with it on my own!”

Murdoch laughed, he couldn’t help himself. For the first time he saw a similarity between his sons and he wondered if it had always been there or simply rubbed off.

“I find nothing funny about this, Sir!” Scott spat.

“I’m sorry,” Murdoch held up a hand. “You just reminded me so much of Johnny just then. Never needing any help. Always ‘just fine’. Even if he’s passing out on the floor.”

Scott smirked then smiled a little as his anger defused. He dropped his eyes then looked back. “Was that a compliment?”

Murdoch chuckled. “I’m not sure.” He sobered then went on. “Son, I’m sure Dr. Craig didn’t intend to insult Harlan. He was simply trying to learn of your experiences and how you handled them.”

“I suppose. I don’t really know why I reacted so …. well, so angrily,” he replied in a soft voice.

“Maybe because you have some anger about it yourself? I’m only guessing.” Murdoch quickly added the last.

Scott frowned deeply and turned away, placing his back to his father. “I guess I have wondered why Grandfather swept it under the rug. Pretended everything was fine. That I was just fine. I tried to talk to him about it but he wouldn’t listen. Maybe he couldn’t.”

Murdoch fought back his anger and resentment for the man. It was not an easy task but Scott needed him to listen, not lambaste Harlan Garrett.

“After a while, I stopped trying. I guess I just buried it and went on with things.” Scott laughed sardonically. “I’m such a hypocrite. I’m always telling Johnny not to bury his past; his feelings. But, that’s exactly what I’ve done for years. Maybe …. maybe if I could have talked about it then, Howard wouldn’t have been able to do what he did.”

“I don’t know about that, son. Doesn’t seem the two are connected in that way. But, Scott, it


good to talk it out. You know, you can talk to me.” Murdoch stepped up and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.
Scott relaxed under the touch and turned half-way around. “I didn’t want to. I never wanted to talk about it. I thought the longer I kept it under wraps the easier it would be to just forget the whole thing.”

“And has that worked?”

“No,” he admitted.

“Why don’t we sit down and talk about – anything you want to talk about,” Murdoch suggested. Â

Johnny was getting bored with watching the doctor pace across the porch – back and forth, back and forth. More than that, it was starting to wear on his nerves. He finally sighed loudly.

“You wanna maybe sit down, Doc? That tiles gonna wear clean off pretty soon.”

“I’m sorry,” he replied as he turned to face the young man. “I just hope I didn’t make a mistake.” He took a seat.

“If Scott was gonna tear out of here, he’d have done it by now. Reckon the old man got him talking things through,” Johnny explained then leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

Craig smiled. “I’m not sure you all need me.”

“Scott did for sure. And I guess it’s good you got him riled up. If it gets him talking about things to anyone, that’s a good thing, right?”

“Yes, that is the most important thing,” the doctor agreed.

“Anyway, he never has talked about it. I’ve tried a couple of times but he just closes off. I think he thinks he had it so much better than me that I’ll think he’s just whining.”

Craig turned to look at him with a raised brow. “Now that is an interesting theory. What makes you say that?”

Johnny cracked one eye and looked at the man. “Just that his grandfather is a wealthy man. He grew up rich. I didn’t. Scott feels guilty about that. I know it’s dumb but that’s my brother,” he grinned.

“What was your life like, Johnny?”

He came forward in his seat, eyes wide open. “Poor. Excuse me,” he said and walked inside.

Craig sighed with exasperation. He had never come across such an obstinate bunch in his life! He settled back in the chair and wondered if there was anything more he could do here. Oh, he was sure they all needed intensive and extensive therapy but that just simply would never happen.

If they could talk with one another like they were doing now, he was confident all would be well. But, from what he could gather, they only got to this point when there was some crisis.

He sat there another thirty minutes before he saw Scott and Murdoch walk out of the barn, arms around each other’s shoulders. He smiled and slipped inside and up to his room.

“How’re we gonna get outta this, Suh?” Murphy asked as he lay on his cot, hands behind his head.

“I’m not sure but it’s going to require some ingenuity,” Howard replied. He was sitting on the side of his cot.

Murphy raised up and looked at him. “In…what?

Howard sighed and shook his head. “Smart thinking,” he simplified, tired of this impudent man and his yammering.

He had thought to pin it all on Murphy but he knew that would never work. No one in his right mind would believe the man had enough brains to pull this off. Somehow, he was going to have to get himself out of this mess. And the first order of business was getting out of jail.

He’d been watching and timing the sheriff. Knew when he retired for the night and that inept deputy took over. The one that slept all night in the office chair. He would be easy to take as soon as Howard devised a plan of action. A diversion to get the young man in the cell area then render him unconscious.

That left their ultimate escape. Getting out of Green River and California. That was the part he had trouble with. They could steal some horses and make a good start but he didn’t know how far they could get before the sheriff was made aware.

The deputy was of no concern but the sheriff – that was a different story. Howard had watched him closely and knew that his appearance was most deceiving. He was smart and quick and he’d used Madrid to make him confess.

Looking back, Howard cursed himself as he realized Madrid would not have shot him. No matter how untamed this land, they still had laws. Even for accused persons. And in all his information on the notorious gunfighter, he’d never read anything about the man killing an unarmed man.

I may not know you well, Madrid, but I know enough, he thought angrily. Revenge would be so sweet but he hadn’t that luxury. His main concern was getting out of this jail and a prison sentence. And now that they had his confession in his own hand, there was no other option but escape. He laid down and began formulating a complete plan.

Howard sat up and swung his legs off the cot. He stood, grabbed the small stool and sat it close to the bars that separated the cells. He hooked a finger at Murphy who was watching his every move and the younger man scooted closer.

In soft whispers, Howard began. “The judge will be here in three days. We need to make our move tonight. We’ll get the keys from the deputy and make our escape.”

“How’re we gonna get the keys?”

“I’ll act as if I’m sick. Start moaning and yelling for help. He’ll come in to check on me and I’ll get him in the cell. Then, I’ll attack. I’ve loosened the rail on the cot and I’ll hide that until he’s close enough. Then, I’ll knock him out and get the keys. We’ll lock him up and by the time the sheriff finds him in the morning, we’ll be long gone,” Howard smiled at his plan.

Murphy nodded and frowned. “What if he won’t come in the cell?”

Howard sighed. “He will. Don’t worry about that. You just tell him I’ve been complaining all day of feeling sick but didn’t want to tell the sheriff. Tell him how bad I’ve looked. Play it up. He’ll have to check on me then. And even if he doesn’t, he’ll get the doctor and we can use him as a hostage.”

“How’re we gonna get outta town?”

“We’ll wait til almost midnight. This town closes down with the sunset. We’ll steal some horses and make our escape, heading south.”

“South? But we wanna go east,” Murphy argued.

Howard rolled his eyes to the heavens. “And that is exactly what they think we’ll do. Don’t you see? We have to throw them off the trail. We’ll head south then east into Texas. Then we’ll head home.”

Murphy ahhh’ed silently and Howard swore as soon as they were clear, he’s get rid of this excess baggage.

Val stumbled into the office the next morning, bleary-eyed. Ricky wasn’t there but he figured the boy was still making his last round. He set to pouring coffee, frowning when he found the pot completely empty. Ricky always had at least a cupful left in the mornings for him.

He sighed and started a fresh pot then plopped down in his chair and started going through the new batch of wanted posters.

He glanced at the back room door, seeing it was closed but thought nothing of it. It usually was closed.

After ten minutes, Val looked up. The hairs on his neck stood on end. Ricky wasn’t back yet and …. it was just too quiet. He stood up quickly and headed to the back door flinging it open and immediately cursing.

Val unlocked the cell and checked Ricky. He couldn’t feel a pulse and he tried and tried. Taking a deep breath, Val got hold of himself and took off for Sam Jenkins’ office.

Val was ready to go by the time Sam came out of the cell. He shook his head sadly and Val’s rage intensified. He grabbed his saddle bags and his rifle and headed for the door.

“You’ll need help, Val,” Sam called.

“Nope. Them two ain’t got a chance,” he spat and slammed the door behind him.

Sam went and opened the door, watching as the sheriff headed east out of town. He sighed and headed for the undertaker.

Johnny stepped out into the bright sunshine, happy he’d awakened at a decent hour this morning and enjoyed breakfast with his family.

Murdoch wouldn’t allow him to work until Sam said so and he knew Sam wouldn’t for a while yet. Maybe, though, he could talk the doc into some chores around the house. Something to get him moving with less stiffness. He knew it would take a while to get back to his normal self and he hated it.

When Scott had rode out this morning, complaining of feeling the same complacency, Johnny had felt a twinge of jealousy that his brother got to run around. Then, he’d laughed at himself as he thought of how hard Scott would be working today and how he could tease him about it tonight.

The smile stayed on his face now as he realized things between them would be just fine. He’d had his temper fit and it had hurt his brother but they’d been talking and, well, it seemed like old times almost. He knew it wouldn’t take much more for that feeling to come back completely.

And he was grateful for it, too. He still worried about Murdoch, though. He seemed okay but Johnny knew he was tired. Maybe I can get the old man to go fishing today. Get him to relax, he thought.

His eyes went to the road and he saw Sam tumbling toward him. He waved and smiled at the doctor. But as Sam grew closer, Johnny saw the look on his face and braced himself. Sam had lost a patient. Johnny knew that look too well.

He heard Murdoch walk up behind him, apparently having heard the approaching buggy.

“Something’s wrong,” Johnny commented as Sam came to a halt. He walked over to the doctor’s side and waited for the news.

“Sam, what’s happened?” Murdoch asked as he joined his son.

“Howard and Murphy escaped last night. They killed young Ricky Harmon,” the doctor relayed with sadness.

Johnny’s jaw tightened. “Where’s Val?”

“Already after them. He’s very upset, too.”

“How many men did he take?”

Sam looked at the ground and Johnny ducked his own head to try and see the man’s eyes. “Sam? How many?” he asked again.

“He went alone. He said he didn’t need any help. He was so angry, Johnny. I’m worried,” Sam spilled.

Johnny felt the big hand grab his arm as he headed for the barn. He swung around and glared at his father.

Murdoch looked at Sam for help.

“You shouldn’t, Johnny. It’s too soon,” Sam said.

“I’m fine. I can sit a saddle all day long. My chest is all healed and the arm, too,” he argued.

“You’re still weak and you tire easily,” Sam rebuked, his own anger rising.

Johnny stared at him then at his father. “Who found Scott?”

When neither man answered, he repeated the question.

“Johnny, we are grateful to Val but it is his job,” Murdoch pointed out. Â

“He’s my friend, Murdoch. I’m not gonna let him go after those two alone. We know what they’re capable of and Val ain’t thinkin right!”

All three heads came up at the sound of a horse and Scott pulled up, seeing an argument of some sort.

Murdoch explained the situation and no one could miss Scott’s fury.

“I’m going with you,” he said to his brother.

“Neither of you are going,” Murdoch ordered.

“Look, old man! I


going. Val needs help and that’s all!” Johnny said, cutting his hand through the air like a knife. “The longer we stand here arguin the longer it’ll take to catch up!”
“Johnny’s right. Which way did Val go, Sam?” Scott asked, nearly torching the doctor with his glare.

“East,” Sam answered without thinking.

Johnny shook his head. “You see? He ain’t even thinking clearly. Why would they head east when they know that’s the first place Val would look? If he was in his right head, he’d know that.”

Murdoch threw his hands in the air. “Scott, watch your brother. He is NOT well,” he groused.

“I’ll saddle Barranca. Meet me in five,” Scott said and took off.

Dr. Craig had been listening to the entire exchange and he strode quickly up to Murdoch. “This is going to be very hard on Scott. He hasn’t faced these men since this whole thing started. I have to say, I’m worried about his reaction.”

Murdoch sighed, his shoulders slumping. He turned and shouted at Scott who pulled up short and turned.

“Saddle my horse, too!” he ordered.

Scott only nodded and continued on his way.

Ten minutes later, all three Lancers were saddled and loaded for bear. Dr. Craig and Sam stood by watching, both with worried frowns.

Johnny laughed. “You two are a sorry sight.”

“You’re a sorrier one. I wish you wouldn’t do this, Johnny,” Sam said seriously.

He dropped his eyes for a minute then raised them with a smile. “I’m fine, Sam. I got my old man and my brother to watch my back.”

Scott’s head snapped as he looked over at his brother. A look of amazement mixed with gratitude lingered on his face. Johnny trusted him. It was more than he could ever hope for. While they’d been getting along well and there had been no more painful scenes like in the barn, Scott was not convinced he deserved his brother’s trust.

He was still having problems dealing with what he’d done. No matter how much he talked with Dr. Craig, Scott could not escape one glaring fact. He had very nearly killed his brother.

Murdoch’s baritone broke his reverie. “We’ll keep a close eye on him, Sam.”

Without further conversation, the three turned and rode down the road.

“Which way?” Scott asked.

“South, I think. Only way that makes any sense,” Johnny replied, spurring Barranca into a quicker gait.

“Aren’t we going after Val first?” Murdoch asked, once he’d caught up to his son.

Johnny looked over and shrugged. “Takes too long. Besides, once he cools off, he’ll figure it out.”

Val Crawford rode about a mile out of town before stopping. He allowed himself the time to gain control of his ire. And his guilt. Those would have to wait. Right now, he had two murderers to catch and he vowed he would do just that.

He shifted in the saddle and looked around, removing his hat and resettling it. With a firm nod to himself, he reined his horse to the right and headed south.

Don’t know what made me think they’d take a direct route, anyway. Must be gettin old, he chastised himself.

In his mind, he thought through the possibilities. Howard was smart, no doubt on that score. He’d head south then turn east. Maybe into Texas then on back home.

Only, he wasn’t going to make it. Val decided he would chase the mangy son of a bitch all the way to Georgia if he had to. Howard would pay for all he had done!

The sheriff topped the ridge that lead to the road proper and pulled up. Slumping his shoulders and shaking his head, he stared at the threesome down below. And he waited a minute for Johnny to spot him.

It didn’t take that long. He watched as the Lancers, one by one, came to a halt and looked up at him. Johnny waved and Val growled.

He loped down the hill to meet them. “Goin for a nice ride?” he asked sarcastically.

“Nope, we’re goin with you,” Johnny replied casually.

“No, ya ain’t! I don’t need no help, Johnny. ‘Sides that, you ain’t fit!”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me when I’m fit and when I ain’t!”

“And don’t go givin me that look. Ya know it don’t work. This is my job and I aim ta do it!” Val shot back.

Murdoch cleared his throat loudly, figuring this could go on all day. “Just think of us as your posse, Sheriff. We’ll do whatever you say.”

Val glared at him, then Johnny, then Scott. “Reckon you’re as fit as a fiddle, too, huh?”

“I feel fine, Sheriff. Now, shall we go? We’re wasting precious time,” Scott replied tersely.

Val growled loudly again then jerked the reins and set off, the Lancers right behind him.

Murdoch’s calm voice of reason finally made it through to the obstinate ears of the three men with him and they stopped for the night. It was pitch black by this time and there wasn’t much of a moon.

Scott took care of the animals as Murdoch started supper. Val and Johnny sat at the fireside, both looking ready to bite the head off a rattler.

They ate in complete silence, the only sounds the slurping of coffee and the clink of tin on tin. Scott silently cleaned up and Johnny silently helped him. Murdoch watched with wary eyes over his sons.

“I’ll take first watch,” the rancher offered.

“No!” Johnny exclaimed quickly. Then, giving a shy smile, he went on. “I mean, I’ll do it. Val can spell me then Scott.”

Murdoch’s brows went up as did his back. “I am perfectly capable of keeping watch, Johnny.”

“I know that. I just …. you could use some sleep, that’s all,” he mumbled.

“I won’t be able to sleep anyway. I’ll take first watch,” Scott offered, knowing his brother was thinking the same as he.

Scott had been worried about their father for days now. He could see the weariness lining the man’s face more heavily than normal. He could not imagine what Murdoch had been through since this whole debacle started.

“Why don’t ya all bed down and hush about it! I’ll stand watch,” Val grumped.

“You ain’t fit company for a coyote, amigo,” Johnny said, giving his friend a little nudge.

“Go home, then. Didn’t ask for your help in the first place!”

Johnny glanced at his father and shook his head as he saw Murdoch was about to start one of his speeches. He leaned in toward Val. “Ricky was a good boy. I’m real sorry, Val. Those two have taken a lot from my family and from you – the whole town now. We’re all invested in catching up with them. We just want to help, is all.”

Val’s feathers smoothed then. “I know it and I’m sorry, I reckon. Just shoulda never happened.”

“It’s a waste, Val. But, they will pay for it,” Murdoch said gently.

Scott sighed and looked at them all. “So, who’s standing first watch?”

Johnny chuckled and slapped his brother’s arm. “I guess you are, Boston.”

They headed out again the next morning just before the sun had a chance to awaken. Val was still in a bad mood but he kept it mostly to himself.

Johnny watched for signs but he didn’t expect much on a public road that was well-traversed. He began thinking of what lie ahead. Not much. There were a couple of one dog towns nearby and Howard would need money, he was sure.

Murdoch watched both his sons closely. Johnny for physical symptoms, Scott for emotional. So far neither had given any indication they were ailing in any way. Scott’s face was granite, his lips almost white in a thin pressed line. His shoulders were two giant knots and Murdoch wished he’d relax a modicum.

Johnny was ever-searching. His eyes and ears alive. Murdoch would swear he could hear the sizzle and he smiled to himself.

Val, still in the lead, came to a stop and rubbed his cheek. Johnny came alongside with Scott and Murdoch just behind.

“Reckon they’ll need ta lay in some supplies soon,” Val thought aloud.

“They don’t have any money. I guess that means they’ll be robbin someone,” Johnny noted.

“Wonderful. The list of crimes just keeps growing,” Scott remarked snidely.

Johnny resisted the urge to turn around and see his face. He really didn’t have to. He knew exactly what he’d find there. He was more worried about Scott than anything. As far as his brother could remember, he’d never met these two and coming face to face with them out here – well, that wasn’t the way it was supposed to work.

“We’ll check Brightstone real quick. See if anyone’s spotted ’em,” Val decided, oblivious to the Lancer turmoil. He was in one of his own, still blaming himself for Ricky’s untimely death. Without waiting for any kind of acknowledgment, the lawman headed out again.

Brightstone was probably a no dog town, Johnny decided. If Howard thought he could steal some supplies here, he’d be hard pressed. There didn’t seem to be anything for the taking. They rode down the narrow main street. The only street really. Half the buildings were in shambles, the other half barely hanging on.

It was, or used to be, a gold mining town. Long ago abandoned by most who’d sought their fortune here. Now, only a few hard cases or just plain too lazy to leave folks eked out an existence. How, was anyone’s guess.

They stopped in front of the general store, noting the broken glass pane but not terribly worked up just yet. It could have been broken for ten years for all they knew. Val still intended to check it out.

When the sheriff walked back outside he had a scowl on his face of a different sort.

“They were here late yesterday. Took what they could find and lit out again. Storekeeper said it was dusk so we ain’t too far behind ’em,” he reported.

“Did he see which way they went?” Scott asked as he corked his canteen and settled it back on his saddle.

“Still headin south,” Val replied and mounted up.

They rode out fast, hoping to gain ground and catch up before day’s end. Johnny watched his friend’s face as they rode side by side. Val was on the scent and serious about the chase.

No one knew Val Crawford very well; except Johnny. When he’d found his friend again after two years, he’d been thrilled. Someone he could confide in during those early days at Lancer. Val was a contradiction on many levels.

Outwardly, he appeared gruff and ornery. But, Johnny knew, inside beat a heart of pure gold. A man who would use most of his money to buy Indian blankets from the family of a man he’d had to kill. A man who became downright flustered before a pretty girl. A man savvy and smart and perfect for the job he held. Val was brave and trustworthy and too many people underestimated him.

He was also slowing down. It was midafternoon and Val had pulled the reins up, slowing them to an easy canter. Johnny scanned the area. He could smell it too.

There was no true scent. It was the instinct, the intuition that brought his back up. His right hand settled high on his thigh and his eyes kept constant vigil.

Val stopped and the rest followed. Murdoch and Scott pushing in close to hear what the sheriff might say. But, he said nothing. His hands began to dance as he looked at Johnny who was staring intently at the signs. He replied and nodded and watched as Val headed up the hillside to their right.

“Where’s he going?” Murdoch asked quietly.

“Thinks they’re close. He’s goin to higher ground to take a look.”

Scott shook his head. “What did he see?”

Johnny shrugged. “Nothing. It’s a feeling is all.”

Scott’s expression was pure perplexity and Johnny fought down a laugh.

“Just trust it, brother. I felt it, too,” he added, as if this might concrete the idea for his brother.

Scott tensed slightly. A movement that would be lost on anyone but his family. Murdoch eyed him carefully, seeing the taletell signs that his son was readying for a fight.

“Just remember, boys, this is the sheriff’s call. We do whatever he wants. He’s in charge,” Murdoch reminded them both.

Scott snorted lightly but he didn’t look at either of them. Johnny’s mouth tightened as he stared at his brother, willing him to heed Murdoch’s words. It would not do for them to go vigilante on the sheriff. Not this sheriff and not now that they were so close. He would keep an eye on his normally controlled brother because he didn’t think Scott would keep that control once face to face with Howard.

Val returned with almost a smug look. “They’re around the bend by the river sunnin,” he snorted sarcastically.

Johnny raised a brow then smiled at him. “How do ya want to play this?”

Val scratched at his scraggly beard and squinted his eyes. “On foot. Me and Johnny’ll get the drop on ’em, then you two come on with the horses.”

“Wait a minute. Why you and Johnny?” Scott argued.

“Cause we move the quietest and I ain’t got the time or the inclination to find out how silent you can move, Scott,” Val shot with irritation.

Murdoch put a hand on his elder’s arm. “He’s right, Scott. Johnny and Val work well together. They can read each other and they have that whole sign thing going on. It’s the best plan.”

Though he had plenty of arguments in his arsenal, Scott realized they didn’t have time to debate them. He nodded curtly and took Barranca’s reins from his brother.

“We’ll give a holler when we got ’em. If ya hear gunfire, come on in,” Val instructed and started down the road on foot.

Johnny hesitated and grinned widely. “Yeah, especially if you hear gunfire.” With a soft laugh, he followed his friend.

The two men crept slowly to the turn in the road and peeked around. Standing behind Val, Johnny couldn’t see their prey. Val turned back and indicated his plan to which Johnny simply nodded.

He turned back for about ten feet then started up the hillside as quietly as he could. Val timed him for a full five minutes, then drew his gun and continued down the road and out of sight.

Scott began to pace as soon as he lost sight of the sheriff. He’d watched his brother’s ascent with worry but Johnny was moving easily.

Murdoch watched him pace back and forth, keeping his spacing tight. He wasn’t sure Scott realized it but it seemed to him the young man was counting off cadence. He smiled and shook his head almost imperceptively.

Val kept to the side of the road, using the trees as cover. The two of them were lying by the river on their backs, hats over their faces as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Val’s teeth were grinding, he was so mad.

He glanced up the hill and saw a flash of movement. Knowing Johnny had his back, Val walked easily up on the two men.

“Don’t make no sudden moves,” he announced loudly.

Murphy jerked upright, his hat falling in his lap, and looked to his left side where Val stood pointing a gun at him. Howard moved more slowly, taking his hat away and looking up with one eye open.

“Just get yourselves up real slow and toss them guns over here,” the sheriff went on.

Murphy did as he was told, exactly. He stood with his hands out to his sides after relieving himself of his weapon. Howard moved more slowly, more methodically as he took in the situation.

He stood up but made no further move.

Val, ready to shoot him for any reason, growled. “Toss the iron, Mister. Right Now!”

Johnny watched it all from his perch. He’d moved down to almost the road by now. Howard was hesitating, calculating, Johnny figured. And, knowing his friend had no qualms about putting a hole in the man, he cocked his rifle with aplomb.

He saw Howard’s shoulders slump and the man gave up his gun quickly.

Johnny eased on down and walked over, opting for his Colt now, the rifle hanging from his left hand. He whistled shrilly and Val shot him an aggravated look to which he only grinned.

Less than a minute later, Scott and Murdoch rounded the bend.

Howard suppressed a grin, or tried to. Johnny didn’t miss it and for the first time, he wondered. Did Howard have an ace up his sleeve? Was there some other trigger he could use on Scott?

Scott walked over and stood next to his brother and Johnny kept a wary eye.

“So, you’re Howard,” Scott started. “Funny, I thought you’d look more …. formidable.”

Howard grinned and gave a slight bow of his head. “Carpe diem…”

“Don’t even try it,” Scott interrupted sharply. “It no longer has an effect. In fact, hearing those words may very well set me off in a fit of rage.” He grinned then. A small smile filled with pure animosity.

Howard’s face fell and he stared at the man he’d once controlled so efficiently.

“Congratulations. You must have found a remarkable doctor to break such a strong hold,” he drawled.

“Yeah, he’s a real sweetheart. Now, turn around,” Val barked. He handcuffed them both with veracity. “Scott, get their horses, will ya?”

Scott nodded and brought the animals over. Val and Johnny shoved them into the saddles.

“How’re we gonna ride like this?” Murphy spoke at last.

“You ain’t. You’re gonna be led. Just shut your yap and worry about that rope around your neck!” Val answered.

Johnny looked at his father and Murdoch stepped up, easing the reins from Val’s hand. He glared at the rancher then felt a hand under his arm pulling him aside.

Val walked to the other side of the road with Johnny, yanking free of the grip half way across.

“What?” he growled.

“You need to settle down, amigo. Now, we’ve got ’em and they’re gonna swing for what they did to Ricky. But, Val, it ain’t your fault.”

“Oh, it ain’t? Whose is it then? That boy was working for me!”

Johnny sighed and looked sympathetically at his friend. He couldn’t help it but he knew it would anger Val. He was right.

“Don’t look at me like that, dammit!”

“Okay,” Johnny quickly appeased. “Look, I’m sorry but there’s no way you could know they’d try this. Besides, how many times have you told Ricky to never go into the cells with prisoners?”

Val only glared at him.

“Well? How many?” Johnny asked again, daring him with his eyes to answer.

“Not enough, I reckon,” he answered begrudgingly.

“Plenty, Val. Plenty and ya know it. Now, stop beating yourself up and let’s get these two back in jail where they belong. Okay?” Johnny tagged his arm with a loose fist.

Val dropped his head and nodded then looked back up with half a smile. “Gracias, amigo.”

Johnny grinned and shrugged. “De nada.”

They were two days away from Green River at least. It would be slower going now with their prisoners and the need to take a slower pace.

Val rode rear guard, taking no chances and not wanting anyone else to be responsible should something go wrong. Johnny was right in front of him. Murdoch had insisted on taking Howard’s reins and Scott had Murphy’s. They were a bit ragtag and mostly silent.

They made camp for the night, each man going about their self-appointed tasks silently. Scott, once more, took the animals, knowing his brother was not yet well. Johnny could put on all the bravado he wanted but heavy lifting was not an option as far as Scott was concerned.

Johnny didn’t seem to notice. If he did, he made no remark. He gathered firewood and stones for a fire as Murdoch and Val pulled out the provisions. Johnny’s eyes were on his brother’s taut face, knowing Scott was restraining himself and really quite impressed at the job he was doing. And always, Val’s eyes were on the prisoners.

Once the beans were warmed and the coffee ready, they settled around the fire and ate, still in silence.

“Are you gentlemen planning on starving us to death?” Howard popped off.

“Ain’t gonna need no food where you’re goin,” Val hissed.

Murdoch shot him a sidelong look then dished out two plates and poured two cups of brew. “Johnny?” he asked with one word.

The young man stood and pulled his gun, walking over with his father.

Howard raised both arms, extending them with an expectant look on his face. Murdoch only scowled.

“You can manage,” he clipped and offered the plates and cups.

Howard snarled but made no remark as they both accepted the supper. Murphy considered throwing the hot coffee for a second but quickly changed his mind when his eyes caught Johnny’s. He ducked his head and started eating.

Once supper was cleaned up, the four men sat quietly around the fire, their prisoners propped against a tree some ten yards away.

Suddenly, Scott stood and walked the opposite direction, disappearing into a copse of tree. Murdoch started to rise but Johnny placed a hand on his arm and shook his head, then followed his brother.

He found Scott leaning against a large oak with his head down and his arms crossed over his chest.

“Hey,” Johnny said softly.

“Hey,” came the duplicated tone.

Johnny took a couple of glances at his brother as he stood beside him, hands tucked in his back pockets. He arched his back and leaned backward. “Gonna be a clear night.”

Scott looked up as well. “How can you tell?”

Johnny smiled. “Saw the sky back at camp. You okay?”

Scott shrugged. “Sure.”

Neither spoke for a while after that. Johnny didn’t want to push and he wasn’t sure what to say anyway. He could feel Scott’s turmoil and understood it. That didn’t make putting it into words any easier.

“I thought he’d be …. bigger or ….. something,” Scott finally mumbled.

Johnny toed the earth beneath his boot, head down. “Yeah?”

“I guess I’m not sure what I expected really.”

Johnny chewed his lip for a minute. “Horns?”

Scott looked over at him, his eyes wide with surprise. Then, his face relaxed into a smile. “Maybe.”

Johnny laughed softly. “Want me to look?”

Scott laughed, too. “No, I’d hate for you to be right.”

Johnny took a couple of slow meandering steps until he was facing his brother. “So, what’s eatin at you so much?”

The older man sighed and released his hold on himself, allowing his hands to hang loosely at his sides. “All of it, I suppose. I really want to smash his face in about now. But, I know it won’t do any good.”

“Might make ya feel better. We won’t look,” Johnny grinned.

“It might but I doubt it,” Scott answered seriously.

“I wish I knew what to do, Scott. I don’t have any …..” Johnny trailed off and looked to his left, suddenly very interesting in the forestry.

“Any what?”

He shrugged. “Nothin.”

“Hey,” Scott tapped his arm. “What?”

Johnny looked back quickly then dropped his head. “I was going to say I don’t have any magic words to make it all go away, okay?” he answered, angry with himself for his insensitivity.

Scott chuckled though and swung an arm around his shoulder. “It’s hard to help when there are no words. I know.”

“You want to talk about it? The prison, I mean,” Johnny chanced. “Might help,” he added quickly.

Scott looked at him, the indecision easy to read. “Maybe later? When we get home?”

Johnny turned away to hide his disappointment. “Sure,” he said softly and started to walk away.

Scott grabbed his arm and he turned. “It’s just that it’s late and we need to get some rest. Stay sharp for tomorrow. I promise when we get home.”

Johnny smiled and nodded. “Sure, brother.”

Calling it dawn would have been a lie. Val had them ready to go before the sun had even had a chance to yawn.

It was another quiet start as no one was awake yet. Coffee and biscuits had made up the breakfast and if anyone thought to complain, the thought was squelched by Val’s mood. Johnny was really worried about him. He’d seen his friend get all het up before but this was different. This was …. more.

Johnny watched his tightly wound amigo all day as they trekked toward home. Val begrudgingly allowed them to break at lunchtime for ten minutes. It was during this break that Johnny had the intervention.

They had all found a shady spot to rest while the horses nibbled at the tall grass by the river. All except Val who paced the entire time.

Murdoch sat near his younger son and leaned over to ask. “What’s gotten into him?”

“Don’t know but I’ll find out once we get back,” Johnny shrugged and bit into an apple.

“Shut up that whisperin! Neither of ya needs ta say a word!” Val bellowed at his prisoners hovering close together.

“Just passing the time with idle chatter, Sheriff,” Howard drawled with a smile.

Val strode over and yanked him to his feet. “Don’t give a damn what ya were doin. Stop doin it!” he ordered as he pushed the man toward the horses.

Scott was nearest and as Howard stumbled away, he took hold of the sheriff’s arm. “Take it easy, Val.”

Val jerked away and glared at him. “Mind your own business, Scott!”

“I believe it IS my business, Sheriff!” Scott shot back.

This is when Johnny intervened. Not wanting his friend and brother in a row, he moved quickly between them.

“Okay, that’s enough, Val! Whatever is eatin at you, tuck it in! Let’s get this over with!” he shouted.

Val glared at him, too. But he seemed to be thinking it over before laying into Johnny. He stalked away to the river’s edge and stood there.

Johnny sighed wearily and walked down to him. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothin. Just want them two back in jail,” Val answered in a more subdued tone.

“Val, you’re too wound up. You have to stop this.”

He turned and looked at Johnny then. “How can you stand bein around them two? Don’t ya wanna tear their heads off?”

“Sure I do but I can’t. And neither can you, Sheriff,” Johnny replied, emphasizing the last word.

Val snarled then turned away again. “They almost killed you. They did kill Ricky and they messed your brother’s head all up. Can’t believe you’re bein so calm about it. That’s all.”

Johnny was watching his profile as he spoke but it was the slight tremble in Val’s voice that made him see. He put a hand on his friend’s shoulder and squeezed. “You’re a good friend, Val. The best, in fact. Those two will get what they deserve. Let’s do it the right way, though. Like we always have, okay?”

Val inhaled deeply and let it out. He nodded his head and turned back. “Mount up!”

It was nearly dusk by the time the group rode into Green River. Most of the stores were closing up for the night and most of those shopkeepers came out to the road to watch. All smiling approvingly as the sheriff brought in his prisoners. All glaring at the prisoners as well.

“Good job, Sheriff!”

“Thata way, Val!”

These and various other greetings could be heard. Val nodded absently at them and pulled up in front of the jail. He moved around to Howard and ordered him down, then Murphy.

The Lancers followed them inside as guards until Val had his prisoners in their cells. He’d slammed Murphy’s cell and turned the key resolutely. He stood in front of Howard’s, staring at him. “Home, sweet home,” he sneered at the two.

Johnny smiled a little from the doorway.

“Judge outta be in by now. Reckon you’ll have your day in court first thing. Shouldn’t take too long,” he continued.

“We are allowed a trial, Sheriff,” Howard said.

Val snorted. “Sure, you’ll get your trial. Then, you’ll hang!”

Murphy, at long last, spoke. “Hang?” His voice was an octave higher.

“Hang for what?” Howard demanded.

Val leaned in. “For killin my deputy, ya fool!”

Howard stumbled back and plopped on the cot. He was speechless for a long moment. “I …. didn’t mean to kill him. I didn’t hit him that hard!” he protested.

“Reckon ya did. He’s dead as dead can get!” Val spat.

“And you just confessed to it, Howard,” Johnny said softly.

Scott came up to Johnny’s side when he heard the exchange. He couldn’t help the smile of satisfaction that came across his face. He stepped past Johnny and into the small room to stand in front of the open cell door.

“For a supposedly intelligent man, you’ve made some monumental mistakes, Howard. It’s no wonder you were assigned to a prison. You certainly don’t possess the skills to lead an army.”

Howard regained his equilibrium and glared at Scott. “It would have worked perfectly if he had died,” he pointed an accusing finger at Johnny.

Scott shook his head. “No, it would not have. Do you think they wouldn’t have found me anyway?”

“Yes, they would have because I wanted them to. But without him, they would have hung you,” Howard responded and followed with a wicked grin.

Scott’s face pinked a little as he began to feel himself losing control of his anger. “You have no regard for human life. I certainly hope there are no more at home like you. Otherwise, I may just have to make a trip!”

Howard lunged at him but Scott was ready. He landed his right fist square in the bridge of Howard’s nose. The man went down like a sack of flour, grabbing his face and whimpering loudly.

Johnny grinned widely and Val chuckled. Scott simply stood there glowering down at the man and praying he’d get up again. Just one more time.

Johnny moved silently to his brother and took his arm in a firm grip. “Come on, Scott. You’ve been itchin to do it and you have. Let’s get out of here,” he said as he tugged at his brother.

Val closed the cell door and locked it then herded Scott out of the room from behind.

“Reckon I outta call the doc over,” Val mumbled as he tossed the keys on his desk.

“Send me the bill, Val. I’ll be happy to pay it,” Scott said brusquely.

Judge Cameron listened intently as the whole incredible story was laid out for him by Val Crawford. He sat on the bench and nodded here and there. Raised an eyebrow once in a while. Glared at Howard and Murphy a few times and even inhaled sharply in a few places.

It took Val a good hour to tell the tale and once he was finished, he felt worn out. He sat down and waited for the judge to say something.

Cameron sat there, deep in thought for long moments until he looked back out at them all.

“How do you plead, gentlemen?”

Howard stood and straightened his jacket, two black eyes swollen half shut and bruises extending across his face reminded one of a raccoon. “Not guilty, your Honor.”

“Not guilty? Good Lord!” Cameron exclaimed. “Very well. We will set the trial for two weeks hence,” he sighed out and marked his calendar. He looked back up then. “You both had better get yourselves a lawyer.”

No one was really surprised. Most men would not plead guilty to a charge of murder even with the evidence mounted against the two.

“Your Honor, there’s the matter of Scott Lancer,” Val hesitantly reminded him.

“What matter? The stage company and the Pinkerton’s aren’t pressing charges. And unless Johnny Lancer wants to, I see no case against Scott Lancer.”

The judge looked expectantly at Johnny. “Well, young man? Do you want to press charges?”

Johnny stood up, surprised he would have to even answer the question. He looked back down at his brother sitting next to him and smiled devilishly. “Welllll.”

“Johnny,” Murdoch hissed under his breath.

“No, Sir. I don’t want to press charges.”

Judge Cameron slammed his gavel down. “The case against Scott Lancer is dismissed. Now, get these two out of my sight until the trial, Sheriff.”

The Lancers stood on the boardwalk watching Val take his prisoners to their new homes.

“I can’t believe they plead not guilty,” Scott said.

“Why?” Johnny asked, truly surprised at the comment.

“Because, there’s too much evidence against them and most of it out of their own mouths.”

Johnny nodded then cocked a brow. “No man is anxious to face a hangman, brother.”

“Let’s go home, boys,” Murdoch sighed tiredly.

Once inside the estancia they all breathed a sigh of relief. Teresa was on the spot with lemonade and sandwiches for them. Murdoch never said a word about eating in the living room. He was too tired.

“Well, I see you’re all back in one piece,” Dr. Craig smiled pleasantly.

“Yep, no trances, no holes, not a drop of blood lost. Well, not ours, anyway,” Johnny grinned.

Craig raised a brow at this then focused on Scott. “Would you like to talk, Scott?”

The young man looked up at him seemingly deep in thought. “Yes, Sir, I believe I would. Only, not with you. Johnny?”

His brother’s head jerked up and he looked questioningly.

“I made you a promise,” Scott reminded.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, you did but we don’t have to do it right now.”

“I’d like to if you feel up to it.”

Johnny smiled softly and nodded then stood. He turned to look at his father first. “Are you going to bed?”

Murdoch raised both eyes nearly off his head as he regarded his son. “Are you talking to me?”

“Yes, I am. I thought you were gonna take a nap three or four days ago.”

Murdoch smiled, he couldn’t help it. “I think Dr. Craig may need to examine you, son. You seem delusional thinking your the father and I’m the son.”

Johnny grinned. “We’re all someone’s son.” But he stood there, still awaiting an answer.

Murdoch wanted to roll but he managed to hold it in.

“Well?” Scott asked. After getting Murdoch’s attention, he went on. “Are you going or do we have to carry you?” He crossed his arms over his chest and gave his father his most authoritative look.

“I think you’re outnumbered, Mr. Lancer,” Craig said, barely containing his own laughter.

“It would appear so. This time,” he said, giving them both a meaningful look. “I’ll rest as soon as I’ve finished my lunch.”

Johnny and Scott nodded simultaneously then went upstairs together.

Murdoch shook his head. “I can’t believe those two. They think they rule the roost all the sudden,” he said, trying to sound aggravated.

“Yes, it’s a nice feeling though, isn’t it?” Craig asked, as he sat down on the sofa.

Murdoch’s face softened and he smiled. “It surely is, Dr. Craig. It surely is.”

Johnny bounced onto Scott’s bed, lying on his left side, propped on his elbow and waited.

Scott paced the room for a few minutes, trying to get his thoughts in order.

Johnny saw this as a bad sign. If his brother had to think that hard on it, maybe he really didn’t want to talk.

“You don’t have to,” Johnny said, sounding irritated and figuring he was.

Scott turned and looked at him. “No, I’m just trying to figure out where to start.”

Johnny shrugged his free shoulder. “The beginning is good.”

Scott smiled and plopped on the bed next to him. “That’s just it. I’m not sure when it began. I mean, I suppose it started when I first enlisted. War was nothing like I thought it would be.”

Johnny cocked his head questioningly.

“I mean, I knew there would be battles and men would die. But, it was so …. bloody and brutal, Johnny. Some of those men had a real bloodlust.”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah,” he sighed out.

“You know, don’t you?” Scott asked.

“Some. But, this ain’t about what I know, Scott. It’s about what you went through. Go on.”

He sighed a heavy, tired sigh, an old man’s sigh. “It was October 19 and we were at Cedar Creek,” Scott began, scooting back and resting against the headboard.

They talked into the night and for the first time, Scott spoke of the horrors he’d endured. He had not gone into this much detail with Dr. Craig. He couldn’t. But, the more he talked, the easier it got for the most part. Johnny’s hand had, at some point, found it’s way to his arm and had not moved for hours.

They sat there, side by side on the bed as Scott recounted the second most horrendous event in his short life. He knew the worst had happened a short month ago in this very house. But he didn’t say that, not yet. He knew it would only upset his brother and Johnny was already upset enough.

Scott felt that hand squeeze his arm a hundred times, it seemed, during the telling. This was what he’d never had. Someone to tell his story to. Someone he knew would never judge him, never feel ashamed of him, never belittle him.

In the end, they fell asleep like that. Side by side. Two heads, one dark, one light slowly leaning toward each other as exhaustion claimed them.

The trial lasted a week much to everyone’s surprise. But, Howard had managed to find a windbag of a lawyer and the man pulled out every trick in his impressive bag. He attempted to disparage the witnesses to the degree that Judge Cameron warned him he’d throw the man in jail with his clients if he didn’t stop.

The jury deliberated for all of five minutes before rendering their verdict. Howard was convicted of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, escape and a multitude of lesser crimes.

Murphy was convicted of all of the above except murder. His additional charge was conspiracy to commit murder, two counts. Since he had not landed the fatal blow to the deputy, the jury felt they could not find him guilty on that charge. The punishment, however, was no less.

Both men were sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead. The sentence would be carried out in one week’s time. Val took his prisoners away and began the preparations.

The Lancers stood in front of the throngs of people on the day the sentence was carried out. None of them wanted to be there particularly. There was no morbid fascination for them as was the case for most of the onlookers. They felt they had to be there. To end this totally and completely. To have closure and begin to rebuild their lives.

Dr. Craig had left them before the trial, convinced this family only needed each other to heal now. His part was done and he was pleased with the result for the Lancers.

All three gave a small start as the lever was pulled and the two men fell through the opening in the floor of the platform. The snap could be heard as necks broke and stomachs rolled at the sound.

It was always the same, Johnny had found. People were attracted to hangings like moths to flame. Only when the brutal reality hit did they truly understand they had just witnessed a man, or men’s, death.

The Lancers walked away, mount up and rode slowly toward home. Three strong and sure men, secure in the tight hold of family.


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.

2 thoughts on “Sleeper by Winj

  1. Wow, amazing story that won’t let you stop reading till the end. Don’t want to spoil anything so just saying it is one worth reading.


  2. I really enjoyed this story. I loved how it described the strength of the relationships and how well the Lancer men really know and care for each other.


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