Word Count 16,000
The sound of laughter could be heard through the open French doors of the hacienda. Johnny, Scott and Murdoch were discussing the dance the previous Saturday and the misfortunes of one of the neighboring cowhands at said party. He’d had the audacity to ask the daughter of one of the more prominent cattlemen in the area for a dance.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t been aware of the young lady’s recent return from finishing school nor of her propensity to turn her nose up at her father’s choice of business since obtaining that higher education. He had been put in his place in no uncertain terms by the girl and not in the most private manner either. In fact, she chewed him up and spit him out in front of the entire valley.
“Well, all I can say is, better him than me,” Johnny laughed.
“You said it, brother. The man definitely has guts,” Scott agreed.
“Well, I better get to the bank. I’ll be back soon, I want to start on those ponies today,” Johnny remarked as he fastened his gun belt snugly to his hips.
“I’ll get the papers for you, son. Try not to run into you-know-who while you’re in town,” Murdoch chuckled as he went to his desk and retrieved the documents the bank needed for tax payments.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Murdoch. I’m sure she wouldn’t be caught dead walking the streets of Green River anyway,” Johnny replied, grinning.
Johnny headed to town, still laughing about the woes of the poor cowboy. He felt good, laughing and joking with his father and brother gave him a warm sense of family and home. Even now, a year later, it was hard sometimes to talk to Murdoch. Moments like this morning renewed him, made him feel a part of something bigger, more important than himself.
He dropped off the papers with the bank president and stopped off to say hello to Val Crawford before heading home. It was 9:30 and it was already starting to get hot. After a quick hello and the usual banter, he once more mounted up and turned Barranca to the south. Val watched and waved to him as he rode out of town.
Murdoch paced the living room floor for an hour. His mind racing with thoughts, none of which were good. It was noon and Johnny wasn’t home yet. Something was wrong, he could feel it in his bones. They had been laughing, joking this morning. No pent up anger, no arguments, nothing that would make Johnny not want to come home. He was so anxious to work the new ponies. It made no sense, something wasn’t right.
“Lunch ready? I’m so hungry, I could eat as much as Johnny,” Scott laughed as he walked in. “Murdoch? What is it?” he asked, seeing the frown etched in his father’s brow.
“Johnny’s not back yet,” he said.
“What? But … he’s been gone over three hours. I wonder where he could be?” Scott mused.
“I’m going to go look for him. Something’s wrong, Scott. I just feel it. Johnny wanted to get right back to work those horses. Something must have happened,” Murdoch said as he donned his gun belt and hat.
“I’m going with you,” Scott said as he put his hat back on and followed his father out.
“Yes, Murdoch. Johnny dropped off the papers as soon as we opened this morning,” the bank president answered the patriarch’s inquiry.
“Did he say anything about stopping somewhere?” Murdoch asked.
“No, but I did notice him walk across to the sheriff’s office,” he replied.
Murdoch nodded and they walked across the street.
“Val?” Scott called.
“Here. Oh, hi Scott, Mr. Lancer,” Val said as he came out of the cell area.
“Have you seen Johnny today?” Scott asked, getting right to the point.
“Yeah, seen him this mornin’. Stopped by to say howdy. He stayed a few minutes then headed home. Why?”
“He never made it. Are you sure he didn’t say anything about stopping someplace else?” Murdoch asked.
“No, as a matter of fact, he said he was anxious to get home. Had some new horses he wanted to work,” Val answered, becoming concerned now.
“This makes no sense. We didn’t see any sign of him on the way in,” Murdoch murmured.
“Well, I know he headed south, Mr. Lancer. I watched him ride off, even waved. Maybe we better ride the trail again, see what we can find,” Val suggested.
The three men made their way slowly down the road leading to Lancer, watching for any sign of Johnny or anything indicative of trouble. Three miles from town, Val pulled up and stared at the ground off the side of the road.
“What? Tracks?” Scott asked.
“No, no tracks but …” Val dismounted to take a closer look, “looks like somebody covered up some tracks, here,” he said and pointed.
Murdoch joined them and nodded his agreement. “Yes, it’s been brushed with a tree limb or something,” he surmised.
“What does it mean?” Scott asked.
“Maybe nothin. Maybe though, somebody covered Johnny’s tracks,” Val said, rubbing his chin stubble.
“Let’s ride up this way and see if we can find anything,” Murdoch said as he mounted up.
They rode up through the hills on the side of the road where they’d found their clue. They found some broken brush and stomped down grass that told them horses had been through recently. Then the trail ended abruptly, as if it had never been there to begin with.
“Now that’s damned odd,” Val said.
Shivers ran down Scott Lancer’s spine. If this was Johnny’s trail, it seemed he had fallen off the face of the earth. They rode on but found no more clues. It had been seven hours since Johnny was last seen in town. Murdoch’s anxiety was growing steadily. Something was wrong, Johnny was in trouble. He knew this as well as he knew his own hand. They decided to return to the road and search further along. Maybe this meant nothing at all and they would find more definitive answers.
Murdoch and Scott returned to Lancer just after nightfall. There was no way to search in the dark, especially with no moon. Teresa and Jelly were waiting for them when they walked in.
“Where is he?” Teresa asked immediately.
“There’s no sign of him, darling. No sign at all,” Murdoch said, disheartened.
She thought she had never seen him so sad, so dejected.
“There’s got to be somethin’. Nobody just disappears! We’ll start out again at first light. Don’t worry, Boss. We’ll find ‘im,” Jelly said, more assuredly than he felt.
“I hope so, Jelly,” Murdoch answered distantly.
“Well, you both need to eat and get some sleep. I have your supper waiting,” Teresa said, putting on a brave front.
They sat at the kitchen table and tried, but neither man was very hungry now. They both picked at the food until it was cold and settled for the coffee instead.
“I just don’t understand. What could have happened to him?” Scott asked, frustrated.
“I don’t know, son. We just have to keep looking and hope we find him, soon,” Murdoch answered.
The Lancers and their vaqueros searched the ranch and the entire valley for a solid week. Nobody had seen Johnny, nobody had seen anything unusual or different. No strangers, nothing that would explain the disappearance of the youngest Lancer. Scott’s fear for his brother grew to almost unbearable depths. He knew Johnny needed him, wherever he was and he had to find his brother.
Sitting by the campfire, Murdoch stared into the flames as if seeking answers there. Abruptly, he got up and began to pace. “Scott, you don’t think …. Johnny wouldn’t just … leave, would he?”
“No! Absolutely not! There’s no reason, Murdoch. He was happy. We were all joking that morning and he was looking forward to working those horses, remember?”
“I know. I know! None of this makes any sense!” the patriarch lashed out.
“Someone took him. It has to be that, nothing else makes any sense,” Scott voiced his fear.
“I’ve been thinking the same thing. But who and where? Nobody has seen any strangers around, Johnny wasn’t having any trouble with any of the locals. Who could have come in and taken him without anyone noticing? They only had a three hour head start at most. Surely we would have seen some sign.”
“I think we should head toward where we found those tracks scrubbed away again. I know we checked but we really didn’t go that far. Maybe… I don’t know, I can’t think of anything else,” Scott said, dropping his voice.
An entire week had passed and there was nothing, no clues, no ransom. Murdoch had thought it might be a kidnapping but he wasn’t very convinced. Anyone who knew Johnny probably wouldn’t have the guts to try a stunt like that. No, he feared this had to do with some kind of revenge against his son for something in his past. He was bone-tired and worried and not just about Johnny either.
Scott looked like a ghost, pale with dark circles under his eyes. He hadn’t slept much, neither of them had. Â Murdoch didn’t think they could keep this up much longer. He had insisted they return to the ranch, hoping there was some news.
But there was no news. Teresa was showing the strain as well. Lines formed around her mouth and eyes, worry lines. Murdoch found he could offer no reassuring words for his young ward. It had been a long time since he had felt this defeated. His worst fear, his nightmare, was that Johnny was already dead, his body dumped somewhere in the hills or mountains of Lancer and they may never find him. He had continually shaken this thought away but it was getting harder as the hours turned into days and still there was no sign.
He had put Scott to bed immediately and lay on his own bed, trying to sleep. It was an impossible chore, though. His mind raced with the horrors he imagined his son was going through. Finally, he fell into a fitful sleep filled with nightmares and ghosts with no names or faces.
They started out again the next morning with fresh mounts and supplies for another week. They were going back to the original clue, the only clue, Val had found that first day. Neither of them spoke as they trod along the road to Green River. Neither was willing to voice the fears that clutched at their hearts. They turned off the road at the spot they had found that first day. Had it only been a week ago? It seemed a year to Murdoch. They trudged up through the hills, knowing this path would take them to the high country. Knowing that, if this is where Johnny had been taken, it may be near impossible to find him.
“Murdoch, this is useless,” Scott sighed despondently.
“Don’t give up, son. Not yet,” Murdoch tried to encourage his boy.
They had stopped to rest the horses in the shade of the trees. They were almost to the top of the mountain now and Scott had never felt so totally helpless.
“We have nothing to go on. Nothing! He just dropped off the face of the earth!” he vented as he threw a rock hard against the nearest tree.
Murdoch walked over and laid his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “I know but he is out here, somewhere, son. Somewhere,” he said sadly.
“Maybe Val or Jelly have found something by now,” Scott said hopefully.
“Well, if they have, they’ll send for us. They know where we are. Come on, let’s make it to the top before dark,” Murdoch said and headed for the horses.
“He’s not dead,” Scott said suddenly and Murdoch whipped around to face him. “I would know it …. feel it, if he were,” Scott explained.
Murdoch forced a small smile for his son but he had to turn away quickly to hide the tears forming in his eyes.
They rode on to the top of the mountain and stopped again. Murdoch looked out over the valley and sighed. “Where are you, Johnny?” he whispered to the wind.
Scott sat down under a tree and forced himself to think logically. He called on his education from Harvard about critical thinking and began to map out in his mind the events as he knew them. Closing his eyes, he started at the beginning. The morning Johnny left for Green River.
He went over the conversation they had ver batim, saw his brother riding away, saw himself as he returned home and discovered Johnny was missing. He went through the trip to town, the conversations with the banker and Val, every single thing they had said and done for the past week.
“Scott, are you alright?” Murdoch asked, concern flooding his voice.
Scott opened his eyes and looked up at his father standing over him. “I was thinking, I just need a little time to think quietly,” he explained.
Murdoch nodded his understanding and walked away to give his son some privacy.
“It’s been ten days, Val. Ten days!” Scott said vehemently.
“I know how long it’s been, Scott!” Val shot back.
“Alright, we’re all tired and worried and at the end of our ropes. Let’s try not to take each other’s heads off,” Murdoch said calmly.
They fell silent then, three more miserable faces could not have been found. Scott sat down on the sofa and buried his face in his hands. He could feel Johnny slipping away from him and he was scared. Scared and angry.
Jelly walked in solemnly and proceeded over to the map of Lancer, studying it with some fervor. Murdoch watched him for a minute then returned to his own grief.
Val watched Jelly with great interest as the old man’s finger traced the map. He walked over and stood behind Jelly, frowning as he tried to figure out what the man was doing.
“Lotsa mines up there,” Jelly said absently.
“Yeah, lots,” Val agreed.
Jelly turned and looked at him and they both came up with the conclusion together.
“You think?” Val asked.
“Cain’t hurt ta look,” Jelly replied.
“What are you two talking about?” Scott asked, noticing the pair.
“There’s lotsa mines up in that mountain, Scott. Plenty of places to get lost in or to get put in ta be lost,” Jelly explained.
Murdoch’s head shot up. “Dear God! Let’s go!” he bellowed and fled the house without another word.
“There must be hundreds of mine openings around here, Jelly. Where do you propose we start looking?” Scott said sarcastically.
“How about with the first one we come to? You and Murdoch start there and me and Val will go to the next one,” Jelly said, nonplussed by the sarcasm in Scott’s voice.
No one said anything, the plan was agreed to by silence. Murdoch and Scott stopped at the first mine entrance as Jelly and Val headed on to the next. By Jelly’s suggestion, they would mark the mines they checked by etching an ‘L’ at the entrance with a knife. This way, if they happened to miss each other, they would know which mines had already been checked. It would be an arduous task but one all four men were more than willing to undertake.
By dusk, Scott and Murdoch had managed to check three mines thoroughly. They set up camp for the night, feeling more defeated than ever.
“I suppose Jelly and Val haven’t gotten much further than we have,” Scott said as he stared into the fire.
“Probably not. At least we’re doing something, Scott. I couldn’t stand just sitting at home. I won’t accept that he’s gone, I just won’t,” Murdoch said quietly.
Scott thought he sounded very old just then. “Murdoch, why can’t you tell him how much he means to you? Show him at least?”
“Scott, please, I’m too tired,” Murdoch said.
“I’m tired, too. But I know you love Johnny. If you think he’s sure about that, you’re wrong,” Scott said defiantly.
“Of course he knows!” Murdoch defended.
“No, he doesn’t. Believe me, he doesn’t,” Scott said more softly.
Murdoch thought he looked like he wanted to say more and an understanding came to him. “I love both of you more than I can say,” he whispered as he moved to sit next to Scott.
Scott leaned over and, uncharacteristically, laid his head on his father’s shoulder. “We love you, too,” he murmured.
Murdoch wrapped an arm around his eldest son and hugged him close. “I’ll be sure I tell him when we find him,” he promised.
Johnny awoke with a train running through his head. The pounding was incessant and he tried to turn his head hoping it would ease up. This only brought on another explosion of pain and he saw white lights flashing in front of his eyes. He closed them tight but the lights were still there.
Slowly, painfully, the lights went away and the pounding eased to a persistent throb. He gingerly opened his eyes once more and looked around. He was cold, so cold. The walls surrounding him were damp and he peered through the darkness, only a shadow of sunlight cutting through the velvet. Was it night time? No, it was definitely the sun, not the moon.
He tried to stand but found his feet were tied together as were his hands. He looked at the ropes binding his wrist in front of him and frowned. Where the hell was he? He made himself be patient and his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. He looked around again and saw he was in a space no more than three feet in diameter. He looked up and saw the source of the light a good ten feet above him. I’m in a hole, a hole in the ground. A well? No, there was a tunnel or something off to his left. A mine shaft maybe. Yeah, a mine, an air shaft, that was it.
So, what the hell happened? He started retracing his steps. He remembered going to the bank, then seeing Val and heading home. Then he remembered the explosion of pain in his head and the sensation of falling, then nothing. He reached up and warily touched his forehead at the hairline, bringing his hands back down, sticky with drying blood.
He wondered how he got down here. He wondered who put him here and why. He sighed as he thought that once more, his past had come back to haunt him. He reckoned whoever it was would make themselves known soon enough. He leaned back against the cold wall and closed his eyes.
They would be looking for him, his family. But how could they find him down here? Wherever here was. How long had he been here? Stop thinking about it! Just keep your head on straight and don’t panic. Keep your senses about you, boy. I got a feeling I’m gonna need them.
“Is anybody there?” Johnny yelled out again. He had tracked the coming and going of the sun and realized he had been in this hole for at least two days if not longer now with no food and only the trickle of water that seeped down the walls of his prison. He had sucked at that cold stone wall for a taste of the refreshing water. It wasn’t enough to sustain him for very long, he knew.
He wondered if this wasn’t the plan. To leave him there to starve to death slowly, alone. He felt like he was going crazy. He was used to being alone but never like this. It was always of his own choosing. He had never faced an imprisonment like this before. Always, there was someone to talk to, another prisoner, the guards, someone. Suddenly, he felt dirt and small pebbles falling on his head. Looking up and covering his eyes from the debris, he could make out a shadow above.
Water drenched him from above and he sputtered as he wiped his face. Shivering from the additional cold of the icy liquid, he huddled himself up as best he could. He heard laughter above him and tried once more to see who his tormenter was. But he couldn’t see anything, he could only hear the sinister laughing.
“Thought ya might need a drink! Was that enough, or do ya need some more?” the voice shouted.
Just as he was about to shoot back a sarcastic reply, another bucket of water was dumped in the hole, covering him once more.
“How’s that?” came the laughing voice. “Sorry, ain’t got no food for ya but I’ll bet ya can find a nice fat rat down there somewheres. That is, if he don’t find you first!” The voice guffawed with an ugly snorting laugh that chilled Johnny more than the water had.
There was silence then, he could hear no more laughing and he knew instinctively that he was once more alone. Â The light was waning from above and another day was passing him by. ‘How am I gonna get out of this mess?’ he thought as he strained to see his surroundings. He thought about what the voice had said about rats and he shuttered involuntarily. He hated rats!
He awoke with a start, blinking his eyes as he regained his orientation. He began to work on the ropes that bound his hands again. He thought he was making some progress but at this rate, it might take a week. He moved his feet and heard rocks scatter around his boots. Reaching out, he felt around until he found a fairly sharp, if small, rock and started using it against the ropes.
“How ya doin down there? Still with us?”
The voice startled him and he jumped a little.
“Oops, whatâ€™s the matter, Madrid? Losin your hearin, now?” That laughter again, the same sickening sound.
“Who are you?” Johnny shouted. “What do you want?”
“Got what I want … YOU! Who I am don’t matter right yet. You’ll know before you die though. I promise you that!” spat the voice and once more he was suddenly covered in ice cold water.
Johnny cursed softly as the water drenched him, causing more uncontrollable shivering. He strained to look up toward the opening, hoping to catch at least of glimpse of his captor. Still, he could see nothing but the light from the sun, faintly filtering in through the hole. He didn’t recognize the voice either and he was totally perplexed as to who this man could be. Once more, silence fell above him and he knew the man was gone.
He worked ardently on his bindings, feeling the blood oozing from his wrists as the ropes cut into his flesh. His eyes had grown used to the dim light now and he could see the ropes giving. For the first time, he felt a ray of hope.
It squealed loudly as it flew through the air and gave a cry of pain when it thumped at his feet. Johnny gasped and tried to move away when he saw the huge rat in front of him.
“Thought ya might be hungry! If not, maybe ya can make it a pet!” More guffaws from above as the man seemed to roll with laughter.
Johnny’s stomach turned over as he watched the varmint intently. It was knocked silly, but didn’t seem to be injured as it scrambled to it’s feet, tentatively taking a few steps.
The water came again and this time, he caught a little in his cupped hands and slurped it up greedily. It was the first real drink he had had and he really didn’t care at this point how clean it might be. Still, it drenched him once more but he almost hoped the man would throw another bucket.
No more water came though, as the silence fell above. He kept his eyes glued to the rat as it skittered around, looking for an escape. He watched while it found the tunnel he had seen on his left and it scuttled down into the abyss. ‘I’ll be joining you soon as I can, ya little bastard,’ he thought morosely.
‘Thank you, God,’ Johnny thought as he finally freed the bindings to his wrist. He set about working on his ankles then with a renewed ferocity. He was angry now, he had finally found that inner defense, that strength he had relied on so many times in the past. His resolve was set as he determined to escape this hell.
He cut through the last of the ropes and stretched out his muscles, stiff from the immobility and cold. The pain in his head had subsided days ago and the wound he had noted there was scabbed over with dried blood and … he didn’t want to think what else. He was finally able to move a little, scooting toward the tunnel to his left. It was dark inside and he could see nothing. Still, he thought it was his only way out. He couldn’t climb the ten feet to the top of the shaft, the walls were too slick and smooth. He wriggled his way down feet first, noting the narrow passage and wondering if he weren’t getting himself into an even bigger mess. It was all he had now, though. His only hope of escape.
He felt the earthen walls of the tunnel as he made his way further into the depths of God knew what. They were wet but still firm, not muddy yet. He thought that was odd but dismissed it. ‘Where the hell am I?’ he thought again. It was getting even colder as he felt his way. No longer was there even a shadow of light to guide him. He was in total darkness and it reminded him of when he had been blinded. “Okay, I can handle this. I’ve done it before,’ he thought as he steeled himself to continue. The tunnel widened a bit and he thought maybe his luck was changing. Just as this thought crossed his mind, his feet slipped and he started sliding down the tunnel, unable to find anything to grab hold of to stop his descent.
“Gone? Whatya mean he’s gone?”
“Just what I said. I went ta check and he weren’t there! I even dropped a lantern down on a rope ta be sure. I’m tellin ya, he’s gone!”
The tall, black haired man stood and paced the floor of the hide out. He stopped and smiled, looking back at his cohort. “He’s gotta be in the mine. Shouldn’t be too hard ta find him. Come on, we gotta figure out where that mine comes out.”
They went to the lean-to where the horses were being kept and the tall man saddled up. The golden palomino whinnied his displeasure, but the man simply grinned at it. “You ain’t goin nowhere, goldy. Just relax, soon as this is over, we’ll find you a nice home down Mexico way,” he sneered. “What’re the Lancers up to, anyhow?” he asked the shorter man.
“Runnin around in circles near as I can figure,” he snorted.
He kept falling, falling, for an eternity. Just when he thought he was falling through the earth itself, he tumbled out and landed with a hard thud in a pool of ice cold water. Johnny moved quickly to get away from the freezing water, pulling himself up to his knees, gasping for air. He tried to see where he was but the darkness was all around him, enveloping him like a cold blanket of death. He felt defeated then, unable to see where he was, unable to get his bearings at all. He hung his head and sighed heavily.
“What next? What are you going to do to me next? Haven’t I been through enough? What more do you want from me?!” he cried out to the darkness.
He sat there for a while, thinking maybe someone or something would answer him this time. But there was only silence, only his own breathing to listen to, his own heartbeat to feel. Then he heard a sound that made him cringe. That squeal that he knew could only be made by one thing. He sighed and braced himself against the images racing in his mind, determined not to let the rodents frighten him.
He felt around and found the wall, then slowly tried to stand up straight, but the ceiling was only four feet from the floor and he had to bend over. He started moving, slowly to the side, away from the water. He hugged the wall and began his trek to whatever was in store for him now.
‘God, what do you want from me? Am I in hell? Is this where it all ends?’ he thought as he groped his way along. He stopped then, his body trembling with the cold and fear he felt. He hated being afraid, but he had been scared before. Scott and Murdoch would never find him here. It was up to him to find his way out, if he could. It was up to him, as always, to survive.
He felt like he had been walking for days. He knew his strength was waning. He hadn’t eaten in about a week now. He had managed to drink from the rivulets of water that constantly ran down the walls of this prison. He didn’t even want to think about what that water looked like, at least it hadn’t made him sick yet. Still, he knew he didn’t have much longer. He knew his body would betray him from lack of food and warmth. He could only go so long with only water.
He was already feeling it, that insistent call to rest, to just lie down and sleep. He resisted with everything in him for he knew to stop now would be to die in this hellhole. He drew on his anger to help him keep going. His reserves of this particular weapon were seemingly endless. He needed only to think of his life, his childhood, his enemies and the anger would burst forth in a flood of energy to sustain him.
‘Just gotta stay on my feet, that’s all,’ Johnny thought as he kept walking. He hadn’t slept for, how long now? He didn’t know. Without some light he had no way of telling if it was day or night or how many of each had passed. Each time he stopped to rest his aching back, he would doze off unwillingly. He knew he was starting to get delirious, he could feel it. He would start laughing for no reason, great fits of laughter at his predicament. The first sign of insanity, he thought.
“Well, you sure got me this time, didn’t you? So this is to be my hell, forever walking through the darkness, never finding the way out? Is that how you want it to be? Well, I ain’t playin that game. Do you hear me? I am not dead!” he shouted out.
He stopped to listen to the echo of his own voice reverberating through the curtain of blackness. When it had dissipated, he stood perfectly still and listened longer. Will you answer me this time? What he heard was not what he expected. It sounded like running water off in the distance, not the constant trickling but real running water, like a river or stream. His heart skipped a beat as he thought he might just find his way out. He followed the sound of the water, groping the walls of the mine as he tried to move just a little faster.
He stopped suddenly, unsure if it was real or if he was hallucinating now. It just seemed to be … brighter. Yeah, brighter. God, please let it be light, any light. He stumbled forward toward the dim glow, the grin on his face was unmanageable. He fell to his knees, pain shooting up his thighs, but he ignored it and got to his feet. ‘Can’t stop now,’ he thought.
He kept moving, trying to stay calm, trying to go slow so as not to injure himself severely. The sound was getting louder now, it was definitely louder. He suddenly felt very dizzy and he was forced to stop for a minute. Leaning heavily against the wall, he closed his eyes.
Johnny’s body jerked with a start. He had fallen asleep standing there! He shook his head and felt the faint rumblings of a headache beginning. ‘No wonder,’ he thought sardonically. ‘Okay, Johnny, pull yourself together and get the hell out of here!’
He started out once more, listening to the water flow, grateful it was still there and hadn’t been in his imagination. ‘If I can just get to that water, I know I can find a way out.’ The glimmer of light was almost gone but he didn’t give up hope. He figured maybe it was nighttime now.
He felt the dizziness come upon him again and he fought like a bear to ward it off. He refused to give in to hunger and exhaustion. It wasn’t his way to give up, he had fought so hard all his life. Why, he had not known until less than a year ago. It was then that he realized why he had never given up. It was then that he knew what he had been waiting for …. Lancer.
That was his true destiny, his birthright, his heritage. The reason he wouldn’t lay down and let them win, let them destroy him. Now it was his, it was all within his grasp, and he’d be damned if he’d give it all up now!
The sound of rushing water was getting very loud now and he held his breath unwittingly as he forged ahead. ‘Please, God, give me a break here.’ He felt a rush of cool air hit his face and he couldn’t stop the tears of relief that flooded down his cheeks. He could see a little now, there was some light. Moonlight!
He ran toward the fresh air he felt, stumbling but never falling as he propelled himself out into the cool dark night. He fell to his knees and laid down in the sweet green grass. Rolling over onto his back, he gazed up at the blanket of stars above him. ‘My God, how beautiful!’
He felt his entire body relax into the soft lush grass and his eyelids threatened to close. He jerked himself awake and shook his head hard. ‘No time to fall asleep now. I ain’t out of the woods yet,’ he chastised himself.
“Ya think we’re gonna find that mine? There’s gotta be a million of ’em up here,” the shorter man grumbled.
“Ain’t got much choice, now do we? I ain’t lettin him get away from me again!” the dark-haired man growled.
“Sure wish you’d tell me what it was he done to ya.”
“Ain’t your concern, Andy. You just do like I tell ya and you’ll stay in one piece!”
“Geez, Manny, take it easy! Ain’t I always done what ya said? Ya know we’re in this together. I was just wonderin what Madrid done is all,” he exclaimed.
“Yeah, well maybe I’ll tell ya sometime, but this ain’t the time,” he sneered.
Johnny sat up slowly, hoping to stave off another bout of dizziness. He succeeded, a little anyway. The ground spun for only a minute before he was able to pull himself to his feet again. He took another long deep breath of the clean air and allowed his eyes to adjust. It seemed almost like daylight to him after being in the dark for so long. He walked carefully so as not to stumble over some unseen obstacle. He still didn’t know exactly where he was. At the moment, he was just grateful to be on the earth instead of inside it.
It was a stream, a good sized one, and he found it without trouble. He laid on his belly and hung his head over the bank, taking slow drinks of the refreshing liquid. He knew he had to find food and soon. Without a gun or a knife, it was going to be rough but he had been in this situation before.
He walked through the trees, trying to figure out how soon dawn would come and if he could wait. He thought he couldn’t, shouldn’t, so he began to search the bushes in the moonlight for some berries. He knew this was dangerous, not being able to see completely what he was eating, but he felt he had no choice at this point. He ate slowly, knowing to try and gorge would only result in losing what he had ingested.
Sitting on the ground, he ate his fill of what he hoped were blueberries, at least that’s what they tasted like. ‘Now, I can rest for a while,’ he thought. He laid down and closed his eyes, giving in to the exhaustion that had pursued him for days now.
He awoke with a start, disoriented to his surroundings and his instincts were on high alert. He finally managed to recall what had happened. Dawn was breaking now and the first rays of sunlight spilled through the trees. He was sure he had never seen a more beautiful sight. He got up and looked around, trying to decide what he should do first. Eat, that was the most important thing. He looked at the bush he had lain next to and sighed with relief as he saw a few blueberries hanging there. ‘Guess I won’t die from poison berries at least.’
He walked back to the mine entrance and stared into the black depths. An involuntary shiver escaped him and he averted his eyes. Walking away from the mine, he stumbled and nearly fell again. His legs were shaky and he felt so weak. He knew he had to find more food. That was most important. He wandered away, up into the hills, searching for more berries or anything to sustain him.
“Think they found somethin?” Andy asked as the two men hid in the trees, watching Scott and Murdoch.
“Sure looks like it. We’ll follow them. Maybe they’ll lead us right to Madrid,” Manny whispered.
“Sure are scouring that area down there. Must’ve found something,” Andy reckoned.
“Yeah, course they might be looking for horse tracks, too. May be they won’t pay no attention to a few footprints. Don’t matter. One way or the other, we’re gonna find ‘im and this time, I’m gonna kill ‘im with my own hands. Nice and slow, too. He ain’t gonna get off with a quick bullet to the head!”
Andy stared at his partner and once more wondered what Johnny Madrid could have done to make this man hate him so fiercely. “What about them two?” he asked.
“Hmmph! They get in the way, they’ll be dead, too.”
Johnny stumbled up the hill and stopped to rest once more. He was so tired, but at least the sun was warming him now. The chill did not seem to reach deep in his bones anymore. He had found more berries and nearly made himself sick eating them. He laid on the ground and stared at the wispy clouds above him. ‘Best time of the year,’ he thought idly.
He loved those few weeks when spring was turning into summer, while it was still cool at night and not too hot during the day. When the sun was a comfort, a friend and not an enemy ready to knock you out of the saddle if you didn’t take care. He bolted upright, sitting there with his heart in his throat. For the first time since this nightmare began, he realized something that seized his heart and squeezed tight with fear.
Where is Barranca? Oh God, what did they do with his beautiful horse, his amigo? ‘Please, God, let him be alright,’ he prayed silently.
He pulled himself together, knowing there was nothing he could for the palomino at the moment, and stood up once more. His goal was the top of this mountain. He would be able to see where he was if he could just reach the top. It seemed like an impossible task. To a rational mind, it was only less than a half mile, but to his weak and weary brain, it looked like he had to cross an entire desert to get there. He started out once more, slowly stumbling his way higher. ‘Maybe, if I just lay down and sleep for awhile, I’ll feel better,’ he thought. ‘No! Can’t do that. Have to keep going.’
He was covered in mud and muck, dried to him like a second skin. He felt filthy and miserable and he wished more than anything, he could just have a shave.
He started laughing then. Laughing hysterically until he had to stop his ascent. Here you are, fighting for your life and all you want is a razor. The thought tickled him to no end and he reckoned he’d been hanging around Scott too long.
He stopped laughing suddenly as he thought of his brother. He could just feel Scott’s pain as he searched for him. Don’t give up on me, brother. I’m not used up yet. He hated what he knew they were going through. He thought about his father then. Did he think I just ran off, left without a word or does he know I’m in trouble? He prayed the old man had more faith in him by now and would know he needed him. Needed him, he shook his head slowly at the thought. Yes, he supposed he did need Murdoch. How and when did that happen? Can’t think about all that now, got to keep goin.
Johnny had to stop every so often as his body screamed at him to rest. He ignored the plea to sleep however, and continued on, climbing ever higher to reach his goal. His mind was a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions as he forged ahead. Memories of other hard times when he’d been alone and hurt or on the run. He had hoped those times were over now but evidently, someone had other ideas.
He wondered who had done this to him. At the moment it didn’t seem too important. All he could focus on now was getting to the top of this mountain. After that, he would know where he was and figure out how to get home.
Home, it sounded so good but so far away. He was reminded of other times when he had wished he had a home. There were so many. When he was so alone, afraid and lonely with no one who cared about him, his mother dead at the hands of some maniac.
He stopped to rest then and closed his eyes against the thoughts invading his mind. He didn’t want them there, didn’t want to think about that, but it seemed he was unable to stop it this time. He supposed it was because he didn’t have the strength to fight them now. He was using what little he had left to keep himself in motion.
Looking to the heavens, he wondered idly what sin he had committed at such an early age to put him on the path he had led. He wondered if it wasn’t some kind of a plan that had been mapped out for him before he was even born. What dark star he had been born under to make his life so hard all the time. Why it was that he fought so ferociously against that star’s power.
Oh hell! This is crazy thinkin! Stop whinin and get on with it, Johnny. Stop feelin sorry for yourself, you know you hate that!
Johnny reached the top of the mountain and collapsed on the thick, soft grass. He was soaked with sweat which only lent to his second skin of muck. He thought he might never feel clean again. He was tired, so very tired and all he wanted to do was sleep. Why not? he thought. Can’t hurt to just close my eyes for awhile.
Nerve endings jumped and screamed as his eyes slid shut and he jerked up to a sitting position. Something was wrong, everything in him told him so. Danger was around him, somewhere. He could feel it and he was never wrong. No matter how tired, how hurt he was, his instincts were so sharply honed, they never let him down.
He stood up and listened intently but all he heard was the soft breeze rustling the blades of grass below him and the trees above. He looked at the panorama before him and sucked in his breath. The beauty of the land never ceased to amaze him. He knew exactly where he was now but it was a small comfort. He was miles from home, miles from town and he slumped his shoulders in a moment of defeat.
Quickly, he found his resolve. He realized it had been some time since he had eaten so he searched for more food, wishing he had some matches or someway to build a fire quickly. He could snare a rabbit or something but he knew it would take too much time to start a fire from scratch and he had a deep sense of urgency that he not stay here too long. He found some berries and settled for that, wondering how long he could survive on the small fruit.
They reached the top of the mountain and began their search for the enemy. Andy thought Manny was growing mighty anxious and he remembered something he’d heard once, a phrase. Bloodthirst. He knew what it meant now, Manny was thirsty to spill some blood, a particular blood. He was starting to become afraid of this man. He had only known him a little over a year now but he had never seen him so … obsessed.
“Are you ever gonna tell me what Madrid done to ya?” he asked.
“I told you, maybe, but not now!” Manny growled.
“Can ya see any sign of them Lancers?” he asked.
Manny scoured the incline below them. “Nope, reckon we beat ’em here,” he grinned.
“Manny, we did cut around. Could be they’re up here too only we ain’t seen ’em yet,” Andy reminded him.
“Doubt it. They were too busy followin tracks. Any fool could see where he’s headed. Don’t need no more tracks for that. Come on, I wanna find him before dark.”
“I hope we’re right about this,” Scott said.
“He couldn’t be headed anywhere else, son. I think he needs to get up high so he can figure out where he is,” Murdoch surmised.
“Johnny knows how ta take care of himself out here, Scott. We’ll find him,” Val reassured the man.
“Sure, ‘sides, just ain’t his time yet,” Jelly said quietly.
Scott looked at him strangely but didn’t pursue the odd comment. He was more focused on what shape they would find his brother in at the moment. He had convinced himself that Johnny was out here somewhere and needing him desperately. He was determined he would not let his brother down.
Murdoch let Jelly’s comment slide as well, not quite sure what the man meant but unwilling to let him elaborate. Sometimes, Jelly said things without thinking and Murdoch would just as soon not hear anything negative at the moment. He, too, had convinced himself that it was Johnny they were trailing and the need to get to his son was overwhelming in his mind. Johnny was in trouble, being hunted by those men who had disappeared from view some time ago and he wasn’t too sure his son even knew how much danger he was in.
Johnny sat on the grass and figured his route, how to make it as short as possible. He knew there was danger here and that it wasn’t going to go away just because he kept moving. He needed shelter, some place where he could see without being seen. He knew this area but not as well as most of Lancer. He couldn’t remember ever seeing a cabin or line shack this far up and he had no intentions of going back inside a mine. If that meant facing whoever was after him out in the open, so be it.
He gathered some sturdy but small branches and found some sharp rocks then began fashioning himself some weapons. It wasn’t much but if it was good enough for the Indians, he figured it was good enough for him. Not that it would stop a bullet, but at least he wouldn’t be totally disadvantaged.
He found a small clump of closely trunked trees and situated himself in the middle of them. No one could see him from here but he could see all the way around himself. He was still sweating and this was starting to worry him, it wasn’t hot here. He had been so chilled in the mine maybe he had caught a cold. Just what he needed.
He was still hungry and so very tired, his vision blurred at times, causing him even greater anxiety. He didn’t know how long he could stay here, he would need water and food again soon. From the position of the sun he reckoned it was around four o’clock, hours before sundown when he thought it would be safer to move from his spot.
The foursome reached the top of the mountain and immediately fanned out to search for the missing Lancer. They had figured they were pretty close to the same route Johnny had used climbing the mountain so they were hopeful he was nearby. The sun was starting it’s descent from the sky and Murdoch felt an urgent need to find his boy before it fell all together. He decided to risk calling out and the others followed suit.
Johnny’s eyes flew open. Did he hear his name called or was it a dream? He waited what seemed an eternity as he watched the sun dipping closer and closer to the horizon. He silently cursed himself for falling asleep and shook his head to try and clear the cobwebs. Must have been a dream, he thought.
He readied his weapons and waited for any sign of danger. Then, he heard it again. Someone was calling to him and he could swear it was Murdoch! He closed his eyes and listened, afraid he was hallucinating.
“Johnny!” Murdoch bellowed. The sound of his voice seemed to shake the very ground.
Scott winced a little, hoping his father’s voice didn’t bring those men down on their heads before they found Johnny. Just as this thought left his head he heard the report of a rifle. Leaping to the ground, he dove for cover behind some bushes and drew his gun. Searching frantically, he located his father who was several feet from him in his own hiding place.
Jelly and Val had been a little further along and both came running on foot to join the battle. There was silence though, no more gunfire, nothing.
Johnny heard the rifle shot and prepared himself for a fight. It didn’t quite seem fair to him but then, he had been here before as well. Shaking his head slowly, he wondered if it would ever end.
“Madrid! I know you’re out there! Show yourself before I take your old man’s head off!” Manny shouted.
Johnny tensed, it was Murdoch he had heard.
“Johnny, don’t listen to him! I’m alright, we’re all alright!” Murdoch called out.
“Suit yourself,” Manny yelled and opened fire again.
Johnny heard the firefight and cringed at the thought of his family in danger because of him. He slipped out of his hiding place and stealthily made his way toward the battle. The sun was all but gone which was helpful as he could move in the shadows undetected. He didn’t know where this sudden burst of strength was coming from, all he knew was he had to get to his family.
The shooting stopped once more as did he. He listened closely and heard slight movement near him. Peering into the growing darkness, he saw Murdoch crouched behind a boulder, staring in front of him. The urge to run to his father was almost overwhelming, but he fought it down and looked in the same direction as Murdoch. He could see someone moving in the trees ahead and he knew it was his unknown enemy. He had no idea how many there were but it didn’t really matter. He would not allow them to hurt his family.
“Madrid! I can keep this up all night. Sooner or later, I’m gonna hit one of ’em. Up to you, half-breed. Come out now and nobody else will get hurt!”
He knew that voice but he couldn’t place it just then. The shooting started again and he watched closely. He could see where the rifle fire was coming from and he could see there were only two of them. He moved through the trees like a panther, slinking up to pounce on it’s prey. They had separated, taking up positions where they couldn’t see each other. Stupid! he thought.
Andy was firing for all he was worth. Why, he didn’t have a clue but still he fired. He felt an arm wrap around his throat and squeeze tight. He froze under the grip and felt warm breath on his neck.
“Put it down,” whispered the voice and he dropped the rifle.
Johnny squeezed as hard as he could, hoping the man didn’t realize it was all he had. Once he had dropped the rifle, Johnny placed his left hand on the side of the man’s head and with one violent jerk, snapped his neck. He was surprised he had the strength but the sudden anger that surged in him so violently, was not to be ignored. He had killed the man before he knew what he had done. He stared at the figure at his feet for a second, stunned by his actions. The sound of the firefight once more reached his ears and he went into action. He picked up the rifle and slipped into the darkness.
Once more, the firing stopped and silence hung thick in the air along with the acrid smell of gun smoke.
“Madrid! I know you’re out there! Give it up!” Manny yelled once more.
Johnny stopped in his tracks. He recognized the voice and his rage multiplied tenfold. Manuel Ortez!
“Madrid! I swear I’ll kill ’em all if you don’t show yourself!”
“I’m right here, Manuel,” Johnny whispered.
Manny swung around to be met with the butt of a rifle in his face, he dropped like a rock to the ground. Johnny stared at him, aiming the rifle at his head. His hands began to shake with anger and he fought for control with everything he had left. He closed his eyes for a second and lowered the rifle.
“Murdoch!” he shouted.
“Don’t shoot!” he called back as he stepped into the clearing.
The four men all stood at the same time and stared at the figure in front of them. Covered from head to toe in filth with a thick black beard covering his face, Murdoch nearly didn’t recognize his son.
“Johnny! Thank God. We’ve been looking everywhere for you, boy!” Scott exclaimed as he hugged his kid brother.
Johnny nearly lost his balance when Scott lunged at him, but he managed to hang onto his brother instead.
“Let me get a look at you. What the hell happened, son?” Murdoch asked, concern shadowing his face.
“I’ll tell you what I know as soon as you get me home,” Johnny said softly. “Val, one of them is over there out cold, the other one is off to the right, dead,” he said flatly.
“I’ll take care of it, Johnny. Go home with your family,” Val smiled at his friend.
“I’ll help ya, Val. Sure am glad ta see ya, Johnny,” Jelly croaked.
“Val? I … I don’t know where Barranca is,” Johnny said, his voice trembling.
“I’d imagine this scumbag can tell me that. I’ll find him, Johnny, and I’ll bring him to ya, don’t you worry,” Val promised.
Murdoch and Scott rode on either side of Johnny as they made their way carefully down the mountain. Murdoch had wanted to wait until morning but Johnny was adamant. He wanted to go home. They used Andy’s horse for him, it was a sorry mount and he once more prayed for Barranca’s safety. His mind told him there was no gain in killing such a fine animal but Manuel Ortez was an evil, hateful man and Johnny knew what he was capable of.
It was nearly midnight by the time they got home. Scott immediately took his brother to the bathhouse and drew a steaming hot bath, soaking Johnny for a good hour while he shaved his brother. He gently washed Johnny’s back for him, surprised that his brother didn’t buck at the coddling. He wondered just exactly what Johnny had been through to make him this docile. The imagery made him shudder. Still, he was grateful when he saw no other injuries on his brother’s body, save a few scrapes.
Murdoch came in, thinking Johnny would soon be a prune if they left him in there much longer. Together, the two older Lancers dried and dressed him in night clothes and led him to his room. Murdoch had been busy in the kitchen, preparing a hot nourishing meal while Scott bathed Johnny. Once settled in the bed, sitting up against the headboard, Murdoch fed his son as if he were a baby. Johnny was too exhausted to protest or even do more than open and close his mouth, chew and swallow. The food tasted like heaven but he couldn’t eat too much as his stomach began to rebel.
Once fed and watered, Murdoch and Scott eased him down into the bed and covered him with warm comforters. They each took a spot on either side and watched as he melted away into oblivion. They exchanged a glance and a smile and quietly slipped out of the room. Both exhausted themselves, they decided it was time to get a few hours sleep. It would be a good sleep now; now that Johnny was safe in his own bed.
Murdoch bolted up in the bed as he heard the shouting. He ran into the hall at the same time as Scott bolted out his own door and straight to Johnny’s room. When Murdoch got there, Scott was already trying to wake Johnny from the nightmare he was engulfed in.
“Easy, Johnny. Come on now, wake up,” Scott said softly as he gently shook his brother from sleep.
Johnny opened his eyes to find his brother holding him in a firm grip. He was sweaty and hot and he threw one of the comforters off him, wiping his face with his hand. “I’m okay,” he mumbled.
“Are you sure, son?” Murdoch asked as he sat on the edge of the bed.
“Yeah, just a dream is all. What time is it?”
“It’s seven, I guess we all needed a good rest,” Murdoch answered.
Teresa came tearing into the room and stopped cold when she saw Johnny. Tears filled her eyes as she went to him, hugging him so tightly, he found he couldn’t breathe very well.
“Thank God they found you. I’m so glad youâ€™re home,” she sniffled.
“It’s good to be home, querida,” he whispered as he hugged her back.
She pulled away to look at him and frowned. “You look hungry, I’m going to fix you some breakfast,” she announced and darted out the door.
“What does hungry look like?’ Johnny asked with a grin.
“What happened to you, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
The smile left his face then as his eyes dropped. “I’m not really sure, I don’t remember everything,” he said.
“You have quite a rut on your head here. How did that happen?” Scott asked as he lightly touched the now healing scar.
“Well, that’s part of what I don’t remember. I remember leaving town and heading home, then I felt this burning in my head and felt myself falling. The next thing I knew I woke up in a hole.”
“In a hole?” Murdoch exclaimed.
“Yeah, I couldn’t see real well. I finally figured out it was an air shaft about ten feet deep. I was tied up and couldn’t move too much. I didn’t know what was happening.”
“How did you get out?” Scott asked.
“I managed to get my hands free then my feet and I went down the shaft into the mine. I walked until I heard running water and followed that until I came out,” Johnny shrugged.
Murdoch knew this wasn’t the whole story but he didn’t press the point. “So you have no idea where the air shaft was?”
“None. Felt like I walked through that mine forever. That was after I fell down the shaft. I have no clue how far it was,” Johnny said. “When I came out, it was dark. I was so turned around, I didn’t know where I was so I decided I needed a better vantage point.”
“I figured that’s why you were headed up the mountain. But, why didn’t you hide your tracks, son?”
“Wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t know anybody was after me. I figured if I didn’t know where the mine came out, they probably didn’t either. I was just trying to get home, Murdoch,” he said softly.
“I imagine going so long without food played a part in that,” Scott said.
“Yeah, I had water, a little anyway until I got outside but I sure was hungry. All I could find was blueberries,” Johnny laughed softly. He sobered then. “How long has it been?”
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other, both uncomfortable that Johnny’s sense of time was complete mush.
“Two weeks,” Murdoch answered.
Johnny stared incredulously at him. “Two weeks?” he whispered in amazement. “I didn’t …. I thought it was about a week at most.”
“I don’t mind telling you we were all about to lose our minds trying to find you,” Scott said.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, son. I’m going to have Sam come take a look at you and I want you to rest. When you feel better, maybe you can tell us about those men,” Murdoch said gently.
Johnny nodded but he wasn’t sure he wanted to tell his father about Ortez.
Johnny awoke to sunlight streaming in his window and thought he must have dozed off for a couple of hours. He stretched his aching muscles and sat up in the bed. Swinging his legs over the side, he realized he was very hungry.
He touched the wound to his head but it was completely healed now and scarring very nicely. He grimaced at the thought of yet another scar to add to his collection. He got up and dressed himself slowly, not wanting to challenge his body to another duel just yet.
He sat there and stared at his boots sitting on the floor by his feet wondering where he was going to find the strength to put them on. There was a light knock on the door and a blond head popped into view.
Scott smiled at the sight of his brother up and dressed, well almost. He took in the scene before him and, without a word, walked over and knelt in front of Johnny. He slipped his boots on for him and sat beside him on the bed.
“Thanks, Boston. I was wonderin how I was gonna do that,” Johnny grinned.
“I thought I would see if you were still breathing,” Scott teased.
“Why? What time is it?” Johnny frowned.
“Yeah, I thought I’d just dozed off for a few hours,” Johnny said, nodding.
“No, Johnny. It’s ten o’clock the next day. You’ve been asleep for a good 26 hours plus the six or so you had before that,” Scott explained.
Johnny’s eyes widened in surprise and he shook his head. “No wonder I can’t move.”
“I don’t suppose you’re hungry?”
“A little, got a side of beef around?” Johnny grinned.
“Come on, I’m sure Teresa can find a crumb or two for you,” Scott laughed and put his arm around his brother as they headed to the kitchen. “Teresa, I have a very hungry boy on my hands. Think you could help me out?” Scott called as they entered the kitchen.
Teresa turned and her face exploded in a huge smile. “Oh, I think I might have something for him. It will take me just a few minutes,” she said as she walked over and hugged Johnny.
“Why don’t we work those muscles and take a quick walk while Teresa works her magic?” Scott suggested.
“Sure, I could use some fresh air,” Johnny smiled, then Scott saw a darkness cross his face for a split second.
Scott walked Johnny outside, still with his arm around the shorter man’s shoulders. He subtly guided his brother toward the corral, catching the eye of Jelly who nodded imperceptibly.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Scott observed.
“Yeah, it’s nice,” Johnny replied and Scott noticed he had grown sullen, but he hid the smile from his own face.
They reached the corral fence and leaned against it. Johnny stared out over the land, seemingly searching for something.
“What’s wrong, Johnny?” Scott asked.
“Nothin. I was just thinkin about Barranca,” he shrugged.
“Oh, right. I’d forgotten,” Scott said.
Johnny flashed him an angry look but said nothing. He couldn’t expect Scott to understand how much that horse meant to him. He simply hung his head and tried to force the sadness away.
He heard it before he saw it and his heart leapt before he even looked up. There, standing in the corral with Jelly was the golden palomino.
“Barranca!” Johnny exclaimed as he bolted over the fence.
Scott grabbed at him, knowing he wasn’t ready to make such sudden moves, but Johnny was gone.
He grabbed the horse’s ears and scratched them, while hugging the animal tightly. Barranca got skittish but he never backed away from the welcome he had been waiting for.
“Where’d you find him?”
“Old shack up in the mountains. He was tied up there, pretty hungry and thirsty but I took care of ‘im. Brushed him out real good fer ya,” Jelly said with a grin that stretched ear to ear.
Johnny laid his head on the horse’s neck, stroking him gently and whispering in Spanish. Barranca turned his head and nudged his friend affectionately. Johnny explained everything to the palomino who seemed to understand all too well.
“Well, is all forgiven?” Came the question from behind. They all turned to see Murdoch grinning at the sight.
Johnny laughed softly and nodded. “Yeah, he understands.”
“I was gonna put him out in the back corral, let ‘im run some,” Jelly said.
“Thanks, Jelly. Thanks for … everything,” Johnny said huskily.
Jelly dropped his eyes and simply nodded as he led the horse away.
“Teresa is ready for you, son. She cleared the kitchen and gave strict instructions not to disturb you,” Murdoch laughed.
Johnny smiled and started toward his father when a sudden wave of dizziness assaulted him. He swooned only to find himself supported by the arms of his brother.
“Guess I’m not quite a hundred percent yet,” he whispered.
“Come on, brother. You need food and lots of it,” Scott said.
Johnny sat back in the chair and thought he might just explode. He was sure he had never eaten so much in his life. The only downside was Teresa hovering, warning him to slow down with nearly every bite. He was grateful though, he knew he wouldn’t be able to control his appetite on his own. He felt better but very tired and he wondered how much sleep a man needed. His eyelids felt very heavy and he thought he might just fall asleep right there.
“Alright, I saw that. Time for you to go back to bed,” Teresa said, being very motherly.
“Bed? I just got up!” Johnny protested.
“I know that but you also went days without sleep, Johnny. You need to catch up,” she explained patiently.
“You sound like my mother,” he groused.
“All better now?” Murdoch asked as he walked in.
“Much, except she wants me to go back to bed,” Johnny pouted.
“Sounds like a good idea to me. Come on, I’ll take you up.”
“You gonna tuck me in? You’re as bad as her!”
“Move it, young man and no arguments,” Murdoch said firmly.
Johnny sighed and gave in, he knew he couldn’t win this fight.
Once settled snugly in bed, Johnny was glad to be there. He was still so tired, he wondered if he would ever feel himself again.
Murdoch watched as he relaxed into the soft mattress with some amusement. “Better?”
“Yeah,” Johnny smiled.
“Ready to talk about it?” Murdoch asked.
The smile left immediately. “Not really.”
“Johnny, I know you went through something awful. You need to talk about it, son,” Murdoch said gently.
“Why? What good will it do?” Johnny asked a bit harshly.
“You’re getting angry,” Murdoch observed.
“Sorry, I just don’t want to talk about it. It’s over, can’t we just forget about it?”
“Can you? That nightmare you had, it was about what happened, wasn’t it?” Murdoch asked with concern.
Johnny sighed and looked away. “It won’t happen again.”
“Oh, so now you can control dreams! That’s a neat trick,” Murdoch said, half-amused.
Johnny glared at him. “I meant, I won’t let it bother you again!”
“Johnny, you’re not bothering me. I want to help you, son. Why won’t you let me?” Murdoch said, trying to sound fatherly.
Johnny swallowed hard and looked away again. “Guess I’m not used to anybody wanting to help me,” he said huskily.
“I, uh, I promised your brother something while we were looking for you. I promised him I would tell you how I feel about you. He seems to think you don’t know,” Murdoch stammered.
Johnny turned back and looked at his father with some suspicion. “Don’t say anything just because you think it’s what I want to hear,” he said softly.
“No, I … I only wanted to say that I, uh, I was so worried about you. I kept imagining what horrible things you were going through. It nearly killed me to think we might not find you. Scott …. he was so … desperate, we both were.”
“I’m sorry, I knew it was tough on you. I kept thinking I hoped you didn’t think I just ran off. I hoped you knew I wouldn’t do that,” Johnny whispered.
“I must admit, the thought crossed my mind. I guess I just had to let it so I could get rid of it and find you. Something …. that first day … I just ‘knew’ something was wrong. You wanted to get back home to work those ponies, I knew you wouldn’t just not show up.”
“That’s a switch, huh? I mean, usually you’d be mad at me for bein late,” Johnny said with a half-smile.
Murdoch smiled at this. “I can’t argue with that but I’ve realized in the past few months that you are serious about the ranch and I know it means a lot to you.”
“Not just the ranch,” Johnny mumbled.
“Why don’t you get some sleep. We can talk later,” Murdoch said, suddenly fidgety.
Johnny couldn’t hide the disappointment on his face. “Sure,” was all he said and turned on his side.
Johnny recovered quickly, nothing unusual about that. He had made a concerted effort to exercise his aching muscles during his convalescence and he felt almost normal by the time Sam Jenkins released him two days later. Truth be told, he had not stayed in bed as he’d been ordered to but he got the feeling he had not fooled the sage doctor, though Sam said nothing about it.
Val rode out to see him as he sat on the veranda, trying to get some sun. “How ya feelin, Johnny?” he asked as he joined him.
“Pretty good, Val. Almost back to normal,” Johnny smiled.
“I need ta ask you about what happened. What can you tell me?” Val asked, turning serious.
Johnny told him much the same thing he had relayed to his family about the ordeal. Val just kept nodding his head as Johnny spoke.
“What about up on the mountain when them two was shootin at us?” Val asked.
Johnny’s face paled and he looked out toward the barn. “I took care of it,” he murmured.
“You broke that man’s neck, Johnny. Why?” Val asked.
“He was trying to kill all of you! I snuck behind him and grabbed him. It just … happened. Val, I don’t know what came over me. I was just so damned mad!”
“Okay, Johnny. Okay. Now, tell me about Ortez,” Val said calmly.
Johnny’s face darkened and he once more looked away from his friend. “What does he say?”
“He ain’t said nothin. Just sits there lookin like he could chew the head of a rattler. I ask him a question and he just sneers at me,” Val said, disgusted.
“Do you have to know?” Johnny asked.
“There’s gonna be a trial, Johnny. It’s gonna come out,” Val said.
Johnny jerked his head around and stared at his friend. “A trial?! No, no trial,” he said adamantly.
“No, Val! I said no trial!” Johnny reiterated.
“Look, if you don’t press charges, he’s gonna walk away. Is that what you want? You think he won’t just come after you again?”
“I don’t care.”
“What about your family? Do you care of they get caught in the cross-fire again?” Val said sarcastically.
Johnny glared at him then his eyes turned dark and cold. “I’ll take care of it,” he hissed.
“How? By killin him?”
“Sounds like a good solution to me. He needs killin!”
“What did he do, Johnny? Why does he hate you so much?” Val asked.
“Leave it alone, Val. Just leave it alone,” Johnny whispered.
Val left in a foul mood, disgusted with Johnny’s refusal to talk to him. He saw Scott riding in and stopped him to explain the conversation he’d just had with the stubborn gunfighter. He hoped Scott could pound some sense into that hard head.
Scott sat down next to his brother and was quiet for a while. Johnny said nothing either as he waited for the questions to start.
“You have to talk about it at some point, brother,” Scott said gently.
“No, I don’t,” Johnny replied just as softly.
“So, you’re just going to let him go free. No trial, no punishment,” Scott said.
“Never said nothin about no punishment,” Johnny said, his voice cold.
Scott shook his head slowly. “Gunfighter’s code? Forget the law, just handle it yourself. Is that it?”
“Think what you want,” Johnny replied flatly.
“I think this man did something horrible and you either stopped him or did something to make his life miserable and he’s pissed off about it. That’s what I think. The only question is, what?”
Johnny smiled slightly. “Think that highly of me, do you? What makes you think I didn’t just do something to him for no good reason?”
“Because I know you and you never do anything without a good reason,” Scott replied matter-of-factly. “Whatever happened between the two of you, you don’t want it coming out publicly. That’s why you don’t want a trial,” he surmised.
“You shoulda been a lawyer, Boston.”
“Well, I hope you have a good explanation for Murdoch. He isn’t going to just let this go,” Scott said as he stood and walked in the house.
Johnny sat there for a long time alone, remembering and hating Manuel Ortez. He was not going to air his dirty laundry for the whole valley to hear and he didn’t much care what Murdoch said about it.
“How are you feeling, son?” Murdoch asked from behind. He had been watching Johnny, watching the flood of emotions cross his son’s face for some time now.
Murdoch nodded and sat down beside him. “I spoke with Scott. He tells me you don’t want a trial and that you don’t want to say why,” he said.
“You want Ortez released and you want to kill him,” Murdoch continued.
“Never mind the hell he just put you through or the fact that he tried to kill us all,” Murdoch said, his tone had not changed from the soft nonchalant character he was maintaining.
“He won’t bother you again.”
“So my son is gone. Nobody left but Johnny Madrid. Is that it?”
Johnny closed his eyes and hung his head. “Leave it alone.”
“I can’t do that. This man did something to you before. Something so bad that you’ve closed yourself off, made yourself into Madrid so you can deal with him. Is that how it’s always going to be, Johnny? You’ll just revert to your old ways whenever you have a problem?”
“What do you want from me?”
“The truth,” Murdoch said. “Just the truth, son.”
Johnny stood up and walked a few feet away. “The truth is he killed someone I cared about and he did it for one reason. Because he hates me!”
“Yes, I think it does matter. Who did he kill, Johnny?â€
“A woman. No, not quite a woman yet, a girl. My girl. He killed her because she wouldn’t have anything to do with him, because she loved me! He’s a snake! He’s evil and it’s time he paid!” Johnny shouted.
“Why didn’t you kill him when it happened?” Murdoch asked, trying to remain calm.
“He shot me first. Ambushed me. Then he went after her. I couldn’t get to her. By the time I did, it was too late and he was gone. He …. raped her and killed her,” Johnny said barely above a whisper.
Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. “I’m so sorry, son.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not going through that again in some trial. No, Murdoch, it’s time he paid for what he did to her. It’s time for revenge, pure and simple,” Johnny fairly hissed.
“What about the law, back then I mean?”
“What law? It was in Mexico. You think the law cared what happened to me or anyone who had anything to do with me? As far as they were concerned, it wasn’t their problem. Just a couple of gunfighters and one …”
“Johnny, I can understand why you hate this man so much. But, you can’t take the law into your own hands. You have to let Val handle this,” Murdoch said.
“Can’t I? I’ve been doin it most of my life. No, prison is too good for him. Hell is too good for him, but it’s all I got. You’re not going to talk me out of this, Murdoch,” Johnny replied.
Murdoch knew he wasn’t talking to his son anymore. He could see the mask form on the face of a gunfighter. He didn’t know what to do, he only knew in his heart that Johnny was wrong.
“If you kill him, you’ll be hung. Is that what you want?” he tried.
“It’ll be a fair fight, more than he ever gave me,” Johnny said.
“And if he kills you? What do you think will happen then? I’ll tell you. Scott will go after him or I will,” Murdoch said.
“No, you won’t! You’ll leave it alone and figure that’s how it was meant to be,” Johnny said firmly.
“You don’t even care, do you? You don’t care about Lancer or your family. You don’t care about yourself,” Murdoch said sadly.
“That’s not true. I…”
“You what? You what, Johnny? You love us? You couldn’t possibly. Not if you’re hellbound and determined to do this! If you care about any of us, you’ll realize that killing that man or getting yourself killed might destroy us all.”
“Yes! Do you think that once this is over, things will just go back to normal? How can they? You are talking about murder, Johnny. Don’t you understand that?”
“I can’t go through that again! Don’t you understand? I loved her!” Johnny cried out.
Murdoch stood and went to him, putting his hands on Johnny’s shoulders from behind. “Yes, I understand that and I know it hurts. But you’re not doing her justice. Don’t you see? Ask yourself this, would she want you to do this?”
Johnny turned and looked at Murdoch with tears brimming in his eyes. “I loved her so much,” he whispered as the tears brimmed over and fell down his cheeks.
Murdoch folded him into his arms and held tight.
Val Crawford was getting tired of this prisoner. He knew the circuit judge wouldn’t be in town for another two weeks and he wondered if he wouldn’t end up killing Ortez himself before it was over. That is, if Johnny changed his mind and pressed charges. He shook his head at his stubborn young friend.
“Sheriff! Ya gonna starve me in here?” Ortez shouted.
Val walked into the cell area and glared at him. “Sounds good ta me, like you tried ta starve Johnny Lancer,” he sneered.
“Lancer, hmmph! You can call ‘im whatever ya want, don’t change what he is. A half-breed scumbag!” Ortez spat.
“You’d know all about bein a scumbag, wouldn’t ya, Ortez? Just shut your yap. I’ll feed ya when I get good and ready,” Val shot and slammed the door.
He sat down heavily in his desk chair and stared at the new wanted posters, uninterested in sorting through them at the moment. The front door swung open and Murdoch Lancer walked in.
“Sheriff, I’d like to see the prisoner,” he said.
“You sure about that, Mr. Lancer? He’s an ornery cuss,” Val said.
“I’m sure,” Murdoch replied and handed his gun to Val who simply shrugged.
Murdoch walked into the cell area and stared at Ortez. “I assume you know who I am,” he said flatly.
“Sure, the half-breed’s old man,” Ortez sneered.
Murdoch held his temper though it took everything he had and ignored the jab. “Johnny has decided not to press charges against you for kidnapping.”
Ortez stood up and approached the cell bars. “That a fact.”
“Yes. I imagine you know what he has in mind,” Murdoch said.
Ortez laughed sinisterly. “He’s comin for me? Well, that’s just perfect!”
“Don’t get your hopes up. I’ve spoken to a lawyer and I’ve decided to press my own charges against you for attempted murder,” Murdoch replied.
Ortez narrowed his eyes and stared at Murdoch. “Madrid know that?”
“Not yet and, for the record, it’s Lancer. It always has been.”
“Whatever. Name don’t change what he is,” Ortez grinned.
“You shouldn’t be so eager to face him in a fair fight. Especially since you won’t have the advantage of ambush,” Murdoch clipped.
“I ain’t afraid of Johnny Madrid. Just because he’s made a name for hisself, don’t mean he can’t bleed. I oughta know,” he sneered again.
“Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought,” Murdoch said and walked out.
Johnny stormed into the house later that day, madder than a wet hen. “Why?” he hissed at his father.
“It’s my right, Johnny. If you don’t want to see justice done, I certainly do. That man tried to kill me and Scott, Jelly and a sheriff! I have every right to press charges against him,” Murdoch rebuked.
“You’re just trying to keep me away from him,” Johnny accused.
“You damned right I am! I won’t let you destroy yourself over that piece of trash!”
“Murdoch, you can’t fight my battles for me!”
“Maybe not all of them, but I can fight this one. Johnny, try to understand,” Murdoch said, lowering his tone.
“I understand that you’re trying to run my life!” Johnny shot.
“What’s the matter with you? Why are you so hellbent on killing all the sudden? You never have been before. This isn’t like you, brother,” Scott asked as he walked in on the argument.
“Stay out of this, Scott! You don’t know what youâ€™re talking about!” Johnny shouted.
“Then explain it to me!” Scott shot back.
“Alright, that’s enough!” Murdoch bellowed. “This whole thing has gotten out of control. We spent two weeks trying to find you. Two weeks of worry and fear, Johnny. I thought it might make us closer, stronger as a family but all that’s happening is we’re being torn apart by this trash!”
Johnny took a deep breath, knowing his father was right. “How am I supposed to deal with this, Murdoch? You tell me,” he whispered.
“It’s hard, I know, son. I don’t have an answer for the pain you feel. But I do know that revenge is never the answer. It can only bring more pain and trouble,” Murdoch said gently.
“Do whatever you want, just leave me out of it,” Johnny said and walked out of the house.
“Will you please tell me what is going on?” Scott asked, exasperated.
“Sit down, son. I’ll explain everything.”
Val’s new deputy was young, twenty-three, but he was honest and loyal and had a true interest in law enforcement. Val had left him in charge so he could eat one meal in peace. Something he hadn’t had since Johnny went missing.
Max served the prisoner his supper, scooting the tray beneath the cell door as he’d been taught, careful not to get too close.
Ortez watched him closely, grinning at him the whole time. “Gracias, gringo,” he said as he reached for the tray. Something seemed to catch his eye on the floor of the room behind Max and he focused intently on it.
Max saw the look and turned to see what was of such interest. Ortez grabbed him around the neck and banged him against the cell bars hard. He increased the grip while the boy struggled to get free, finally surrendering to the blackness that overwhelmed him.
Ortez reached out and grabbed the keys, setting himself free and dragging the young man into the cell, locking it back. He hesitated for a second, deciding if he should cut the gringo’s throat but figured he could waste no time. He snuck out into the office and searched until he found his gun. Slinking out the door, he grinned at the quiet street and snuck away.
Val Crawford galloped into the Lancer yard full on. He jumped down before the horse could fully stop and ran to the door banging loudly. Murdoch answered with a frown at all the noise.
“Ortez escaped last night,” Val said, coming right to the point.
“Where’s Johnny?” Val asked, not bothering to repeat himself.
“He’s in the south pasture rounding up strays,” Murdoch answered as he grabbed his gun belt and hat.
Scott was keeping a close eye on his brother as they worked the strays. He had said nothing to Johnny about what he’d learned from Murdoch. He wanted Johnny to tell him.
Johnny rode up the slight hill, chasing down a stray heifer, mad as hell at the dumb animal for some reason. The fire exploded in his shoulder as he was knocked out of the saddle. He grabbed his gun as he fell and rolled to his right, away from the pain. Laying flat on his stomach, he scanned the landscape for his attacker.
Scott heard the shot and took off toward where he’d seen his brother fall, his heart pounding as loudly as his horse’s hooves. He jumped down a few feet away and dropped to the ground, crawling up beside Johnny.
Murdoch and Val heard the shot in the distance and urged their mounts on at full gallop, praying as they went.
“See anything?” Scott asked.
Johnny only shook his head and kept watching. He didn’t have to wonder who it was, the style was enough to tell him Ortez was free. He raised up and took off at a dead run toward a tree, making it just as a bullet whistled by him. More angry than he thought possible, he started shouting.
“Ortez! I see you’re still a coward! Let’s get this over with. Show yourself and we’ll settle this once and for all!”
There was no response and Johnny decided the man needed a little persuasion.
“I guess you’re only good at killing women face to face. You couldn’t face me then and you can’t face me now!” he shouted. He heard another volley of shots ring out and pressed his body to the tree.
Johnny looked over at Scott and conveyed his thoughts without a word. ‘Stay out of it.’ Scott only shook his head no and Johnny looked like he could kill him right then.
Taking a deep breath, Johnny rolled away from the tree and started firing toward the direction the ambush had come from. He quickly hid himself again as he was answered with more bullets flying. ‘At least he’s only aiming at me,’ he thought. He reloaded quickly and saw Scott raise up and start firing. ‘Dammit!’
More shots rang out from Ortez only this time, they were aimed toward Scott. Johnny would not allow this to touch his family for another minute and he stepped out into the open.
“Johnny, no!” Scott shouted.
Johnny started firing and running in a zig zag toward his enemy, diving Â behind a large rock as he gained a good fifty feet. He took a chance and peeked over the boulder as he was being fired at. He saw Ortez then and ducked, smiling to himself.
He reloaded and took off again, this time in the opposite ‘zag zig’ to throw Ortez off. It worked and he lunged behind some bushes for cover. He was within twenty yards of Ortez now. Having not fired on this run, he was ready and stood up, emptying his revolver into the clump of trees.
There was no retort and Johnny stepped toward the hiding place. He was jolted back and fell to the ground as another bullet tore through his body. He laid there stunned, trying to regain his senses.
Scott saw his brother go down and took off running, firing his rifle as he went. He ran past Johnny to the trees and found Ortez sprawled out on the ground with pistol and rifle wounds littering his body. He checked for a pulse and found none. He removed the gun from the man and ran to Johnny.
Murdoch and Val had just topped the rise when they saw Johnny go down and Scott race toward him. Murdoch was puzzled when Scott didn’t stop at his brother then realized what the blond was doing. He and Val took off toward Johnny and reached him just after Scott.
“Johnny? Hey, brother, talk to me,” Scott whispered, his voice trembling.
Murdoch kneeled down beside Johnny, opposite of Scott and stroked his boy’s cheek. Val headed off to check Ortez for himself.
“Johnny, wake up,” Murdoch said.
Long black lashes flickered as sapphire eyes looked up toward the sky, dazed and confused. Johnny blinked and looked at his brother. It was not a nice look. “Told you to stay out of it,” he whispered.
Scott grinned. “Guess I’m not too good at taking orders, either.”
Murdoch took note of the bullet wound in Johnny’s left shoulder but it didn’t worry him as much as the one he saw in his torso. The blood was pouring from the hole just below Johnny’s left rib cage.
“We have to get him home,” he groused as he stood and saw his vaquero’s riding toward them. He ordered the wagon to be brought over and emptied of the cook’s contents. They laid out their bedrolls, all of them, and eased Johnny into the wagon.
Doc Jenkins arrived and started working on his patient after shooing everyone but Teresa from the room. Murdoch paced the living room floor, glancing toward the staircase every few seconds.
“I guess Johnny got his revenge after all,” Scott mused.
“Ortez brought it on himself. I warned him not to go against Johnny again,” Murdoch gruffed.
“He was a coward, Murdoch. Johnny tried to call him out but he stayed hidden like the rat he was!” Scott vented.
“I know what he was, Scott. I just didn’t want Johnny to … shoot him down. I wanted this to be legal,” Murdoch said.
“It was legal, Mr. Lancer,” Val said from the doorway. “Johnny shot a fugitive who was trying to kill him. He can’t feel guilty about that and you shouldn’t either. Ortez was hellbent on getting to Johnny. Damned near killed my deputy,” he grumped.
“I know, Val. I just wish…well, it doesn’t matter now,” Murdoch said, looking once more toward the staircase.
Doc descended the stairs an hour later and they all stood, waiting for the news.
“Well, he lost a considerable amount of blood. The bullet hit his spleen and I had to remove it. The shoulder wound isn’t serious, though. He’s going to need a lot of rest and he’s going to be very prone to infection until he heals. We’ll have to watch him closely and keep those wounds clean,” he announced.
“Is he going to be alright, Sam?” Murdoch asked the ultimate question.
“He’s a strong boy, Murdoch. It’s going to be a battle, especially with everything he’s gone through recently. I can’t say for certain he’ll make it but he has a chance,” Sam replied.
“That’s all he needs,” Scott mumbled. “Can we see him?”
“Of course. He’s under anesthesia so he will probably sleep the rest of the night.”
Scott sat on one side and Murdoch the other as they watched Johnny sleeping. He was pale, too pale and Murdoch was worried. ‘How much more can he take?’ he wondered.
They scheduled shifts, knowing this was going to be a long recovery. Murdoch sat with him through the night and into the morning. He stood at the window watching the first rays of dawn kiss the land.
He was beside the bed in a flash. “Hey there. How do you feel, son?”
“Tired. Hurts,” Johnny answered softly.
“You’ve been through a lot. Doc had to operate. You’ve lost a lot of blood, Johnny. It’s going to take some time to recover, but you’re going to be just fine,” Murdoch told him.
“We never finished our talk,” Johnny whispered, closing his eyes.
“What talk?” Murdoch asked, perplexed.
“Said we’d talk about it later. How you feel about me,” he mumbled, trying to hold on and stay awake.
“Oh, yes. Well, son, that’s easy. I love you, Johnny. I always have,” Murdoch said softly as he bent and kissed his son’s forehead.
Johnny smiled and started to drift off. The last thing he managed to say was, “Te amo.”
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.