Of Blood and Rain Chapter 1
“Damn rain!” Johnny muttered irritably as he glared up at the oppressive rain laden clouds. All night it had rained, and it seemed the heavens were determined to rain down all day too.
Closing the hacienda door behind him Johnny pulled his hat further down over his eyes and sprinted across to the barn dodging countless puddles as he went. The biting wind cut through him and Johnny cursed it just as he’d done the heavy downpour.
The barn door slammed shut just as he reached it, and Johnny wondered who the fool was who had left it open, and at the mercy of the gale that had blown incessantly since dawn.
Maria had been about to set breakfast on the table when Murdoch had asked his younger son if he’d mind braving the elements and put an end to the constant banging and jarring of his nerves. Johnny had started to protest; surely it could wait until after he’d eaten, but the rankled look on his father’s face told him he’d enjoy his meal much more if he did as he was asked.
He’d had the sole intention of securing the door and heading right back to his Sunday morning feast, but Barranca’s nervous nickering had captured his attention and altered his plans. Concern quickly turned to unease as he made his way inside the barn; striding over to the palomino’s stall he was surprised to find his horse saddled. Blue eyes stared in puzzlement only to widen in surprise as a voice to his rear ordered him to move away from the horse before his head boasted an extra hole.
“NOW!” The voice demanded impatiently as Johnny failed to do as he was bid.
“That’s my horse!” Johnny stated indignantly, raising his hands “But I ain’t got a problem with you takin that one” Johnny gestured to his father’s mount.
Turning cautiously, the dark-haired Lancer caught his first glimpse of the owner of the desperate voice, and his simmering anger was instantly replaced with concern. Before him stood a boy Johnny judged to be around fourteen or fifteen years of age, his black, collar length hair dripped a steady stream of water down onto his already sodden clothes. Overly bright, blue eyes stared out from a face mottled with color, vivid purple-blue bruises merged with the telltale blush of fever; the boy was hurt, sick, and as far as Johnny was concerned the only place he was going right now was to bed.
“I said get away from that horse.”
The blue eyes flashed angrily, but fear was evident on the young stranger’s face. Johnny glanced quickly at the gun the boy held, it was, Johnny noted with alarm, pointing directly at his heart, and the way the boy’s hand was shaking Johnny knew he had to be very careful in the way he approached the situation.
“I heard ya; I just don’t think you takin him is such a good idea,” Johnny stated softly as he turned away. His back now turned on the would be horse thief, he began to unsaddle Barranca.
“Hey mister, leave it be!” The voice soared in disbelief.
“I told you kid, he’s mine, now if you’re that desperate you can saddle up that one” This time Johnny pointed to his brother’s treasured steed then stared back over at the boy. “But I’m warning you now; his owner’s the meanest son of a gun…”
The boy swayed alarmingly and Johnny knew now wasn’t the time to try and outwit the kid. “Look! There ain’t any need for this. I’m prepared to give you a horse but not until you’re up to ridin him. Come inside, we’ll get you dried off, warmed up, and somethin hot to put in ya belly. What do you say?”
The blue eyes narrowed, sizing up the man before him and the offer he’d been made. For one long moment Johnny thought he’d won the boy around, but as the stranger shook his head, Johnny had to accept defeat.
“Are you in a hurry to get somewhere or running from somewhere?” Johnny ventured softly.
“That ain’t none of your business,” the boy yelled back, the effort initiating a fit of coughing.
Johnny watched anxiously as the intruder wrapped his left arm around his chest, bracing himself against the agony that ravaged him. Recognizing the signs, Johnny’s concern grew. “You’re sick! You’re not gonna get very far in that condition, I know. I had pneumonia once, chest feels like its on fire and you almost wish each breath was your last!”
“Yeah! Well you’ll be taking your last breath if you don’t move away from that horse,” the boy spat back.
Deciding it was best to just play the game Johnny stepped away from Barranca. With baited breath he watched the boy place one foot in the stirrup and as he levered himself upwards his weight served to finish the job Johnny had started. As the cinch gave way he fell backwards, the saddle following him to the ground.
Johnny leaped to the boy’s side, deftly removing the gun from the lax fingers. Gently sweeping the bangs away from the now shuttered eyes he rested his palm on the feverish brow and sighed, the kid was burning up.
The heavy oak door crashed open and Johnny’s shouts for help brought the family members rushing to assist.
“Found him out in the barn,” Johnny said breathlessly as he made for the stairs.
One look at the unconscious youth in Johnny’s arms had Scott hurrying to the door “I’ll send one of the men for Sam."
Teresa headed into the kitchen to retrieve the medical supplies while Murdoch led the way up the stairs, throwing open the door to the nearest guestroom.
“Wait,” Murdoch instructed, pulling back the bed covers and throwing a blanket across the sheet to protect it from the rain soaked clothing.
Easing his burden down onto the bed Johnny worked with his father to gently strip the boy of his clothes.
“Well?” Murdoch asked as they removed a dirty, torn jacket the boy had all but outgrown.
“Well…” Johnny began, struggling with wet fingers to unbutton a shirt that had also seen better days. ”He was, uh, borrowing Barranca…” Johnny stopped abruptly, the angry red welts that covered the boy's back robbing him momentarily of speech.”
“Dear God!” Murdoch exclaimed appalled at the bruised and lacerated skin.
Johnny swallowed hard, anger rising in his chest. “Fists and a belt!”
Murdoch glanced knowingly at his son; Johnny had been on the receiving end of the same such abuse. “Did he say anything John, his name?” Murdoch asked as he gently fingered away the bangs from the boy’s eyes.
“No but...” Johnny watched, moved by the older man's show of tenderness.
“But what son?" Murdoch encouraged.
“He was obviously running from something, guess we know what now.”
With all his clothing removed and discarded in a heap on the floor, the two men hurriedly dried the unconscious youth off, finally removing the damp blanket to position him carefully against a mountain of pillows, and between cool, crisp cotton sheets.
Teresa swept into the room closely followed by Scott. As Teresa cleaned and applied salve to the abrasions on the boy's face, Johnny explained to them all about his encounter in the barn.
Scott helped his brother roll the boy onto his side, and though warned about the boy’s injuries, an involuntary gasp escaped Teresa's lips as she saw for herself the extent of the beating.
“Why would anyone do this?” Teresa looked at her guardian but before he had a chance to respond Johnny spoke absently “To teach him some manners maybe!”
Three sets of troubled eyes settled on him and realising he’d given something away Johnny tried to turn their attention back to the boy in the bed “We need to get his fever down.”
Doctor Sam Jenkins sank wearily into a chair beside his old friend, a smile accompanying his words of gratitude when Teresa set a steaming mug of coffee and a plate of sandwiches on the table before him.
“That’s one very sick boy you’ve got up there, Murdoch!”
Murdoch leant forward resting his arm on the table.
”Yes, that’s my main concern right now. He’s very weak and has quite a fight ahead of him to get well.”
“We’ll get him well!” Murdoch insisted.
Sam nodded; he had no doubts about that. “Thankfully he had the good fortune to fall into your care, and sadly, care has been decidedly lacking where that boy is concerned.”
“He took quite a beating,” Scott stated angrily.
“Yes, he did and it wasn’t for the first time either. That boy’s been abused repeatedly!”
“Fists and a belt,” Murdoch mumbled.
“Sir?” Scott queried having not quite heard his father.
Murdoch shifted uncomfortably “Something Johnny said…fists and a belt!”
Sam nodded sadly “Yes, Johnny would know, he bears similar scars.
“The boy’s of mixed heritage, too,” Murdoch stated flatly.
“And you think that’s the reason behind the abuse?” Scott asked although certain in his own mind it was.
“I think that’s the reason Johnny’s up there with him now.” Murdoch stated quietly “Insisting he be the one to take care of him!”
“He’s bound to feel some sort of connection with the boy Murdoch. Sadly they appear to have a lot in common.
Johnny stood at the window, staring through the panes at the rain that was now pounding the earth without mercy. Liquid fingers brutally stabbed the tender ground, ripping her pliable flesh, like blood flowing from the wounds as the earth opened to admit the cruel, yet so cherished, nourishment. The past collided with the present, as the memory of another time, another place invaded his being. The sickly, sweet smell of the blood filled the room; crimson covered his back and hands, the agony of each blow robbing him of the ability to breathe, to think. In terror he braced for the next assault, the belt like a living, breathing soul, hungering for more, and yet more, of his life sustaining fluid. The precious blood escaped its boundaries, poured through the now torn body to soak his shirt.
In agony he pleaded for mercy, but the beast would not be appeased and the torture continued, the pain growing and enveloping him in anguish he could no longer escape. Yet mercy heard his cry, she raised her ear to his pain and at last offered him the comfort of the darkness. Gratefully he swam with the current, until at long last the pain ended, as oblivion took him into her embrace.
Gasping for another breath, Johnny grabbed for the window frame, holding tight as the room tilted and swayed, bucking as a stallion resisting a rider. The memory had been so vivid, so real; he felt the blood soaking his shirt, reached cautiously with one hand to pat his back, relieved when he felt only warm, dry cotton.
"Dios," he groaned, staggering to the dresser, seeking the water glass still standing where he had left it. In one gulp he emptied the glass of its contents.....
“I’ll call on the boy first thing in the morning,” Sam promised. “But if you need me in the meantime you know where I am!”
Murdoch thanked the doctor, and watched him climb somewhat stiffly up into his buggy. It seemed the indomitable Sam Jenkins was beginning to feel the ravages of time…just like he himself was, although neither one of them would ever admit to that. With a none too gentle snap of the reins the buggy lurched away, Murdoch watched his friends haste filled departure as he worryingly assessed the weather. Thankfully the rain had eased off into little more than a miserable drizzle and the gale had almost blown itself out, but the slate gray sky threatened…rather promised, further downpours. The Lancer patriarch hoped the doctor would make it home before the heavens unleashed their wrath again, and that there would be no need to call his good friend out again on such an atrocious day.
Striding back into the warmth and comfort of the great room Murdoch again found himself dwelling on the sick boy upstairs, the boy and whatever circumstances had brought him into their lives. The whole situation made him uneasy left a very bitter taste in his mouth and a burning anger inside that he knew would never be completely extinguished.
Sam was convinced the boy had been living rough for several days, a combination of exposure to the elements, his injuries, particularly several bruised and maybe even cracked ribs, and little or no food the cause of the pneumonia. Whatever the case the boy was now safe…had Johnny ever found such a refuge? Murdoch feared not.
The doctor was also confident the boy would recover; certain that as long as he received the care and attention needed he’d make a complete recovery. That confidence had offered little reassurance to his younger son, who had stubbornly refused to leave the boy’s side since finding him that morning. Murdoch was naturally concerned for the unknown boy, but if he was completely honest, just as concerned for his son. Johnny would get involved…was already involved, and he couldn’t help but worry what effect that would have on him. The tall rancher had already noticed a change in his son; he was quiet almost withdrawn, brooding over something he wasn’t prepared to share with his family. It wasn’t hard to guess the reasons behind Johnny’s mood but it would be difficult to broach the subject with his son. That part of his past was something Johnny had always kept to himself, making it clear it was something he wouldn’t discuss. Murdoch had had to respect that wish but he hadn’t wanted to. What he’d really wanted, desperately wanted in fact, was to know who had abused his son and why?
He could still remember the surge of parental rage he’d experienced when first seeing the scars his son carried, the horrifying proof of brutal and repeated thrashings, of unbelievable cruelty to a child…his child. Unconscious following the battle with Pardee, Johnny hadn’t been able to hide those scars, and both his father and brother had learned some harrowing facts about the youngest Lancer.
Murdoch made his way upstairs, meeting his elder son in the hallway.
“How’s the boy?” Murdoch asked.
“No better. Neither is Johnny’s mood,” Scott warned before slipping past his father to head downstairs.
Murdoch nodded his head, silently acknowledging his oldest son's assessment of Johnny's frame of mind, before resolutely entering the guest room. The boy was sleeping, his breathing still harsh and labored. Johnny stood staring morosely out the window. The Lancer patriarch stepped to his son's side and laid an arm around the tense shoulders; he sighed in relief when Johnny accepted the contact without complaint.
"He will be ok, you know," Murdoch softly reassured his son. There was no response from the younger man, just a catch in his breath. Murdoch absently moved his hand, tracing small circles over the salmon shirt. Abruptly Johnny moved away, pacing in agitation while his right hand tapped the Colt on his hip.
"I could kill the son of a bitch that done this!" He ground out between clenched teeth, the muscles in his jaw tightening with the emotion he was struggling to conceal. He rounded on his father, icy steel in his eyes, "I’m going to find him!"
Gripping his son’s shoulders firmly Murdoch peered intensely into the irate, blue eyes. "Johnny, son, I understand how you feel, the memories you are dealing with now, but you are needed here. Finding the bastard responsible is not our main concern right now…”
"NO! He’s used his fists on me for the last time!" Johnny growled, the unexpected admission hanging between them, the fury of the declaration electrifying the air in the room. The anger radiating from the younger Lancer was tangible, alive, swirling like a vortex around the young man. It breathed and grew, searching for a victim upon which to take its revenge.
"Do you know what you just said?" Murdoch queried softly; trying to hide the anxiety caused by his son’s use of the word ‘me’ and the very context in which it had been used. He watched helplessly as realization dawned on the younger man’s face, shock turning swiftly to chagrin as Johnny realized the significance of his words.
As his son strove to regain his composure it was soon apparent to Murdoch that Johnny was determined to steer his father’s mind away from the troubling exchange. The now familiar mask of Madrid shuttered Johnny's eyes, captured the rage and buried it deep, out of sight of Murdoch's anxious stare.
"Yeah, sorry Murdoch. I guess you’re right. I need to settle down." Sheepishly Johnny offered his father a hint of a smile. "It’s scary don’t ya think?”
"What is scary, son?"
"How you’re starting to think like me. You seem to understand me a little more each day."
"Yes well, if you ever start to think like me, we will have problems." Murdoch smiled broadly at his son, willing for now at least to put their conversation aside. “Now get yourself downstairs and have something to eat. I’ll sit with him a while.”
“He might wake up,” Johnny stated emphasizing his reluctance to leave the boy by sitting down in the chair situated strategically beside the bed.
“Yes he might, and I’m more than capable of seeing to him if he does,” Murdoch replied sternly.
“Yeah I know, it’s just that he might feel more comfortable seeing another…” Johnny bit back on the hateful term knowing how much his father hated, it “…seeing me!”
“Another what? What were you going to say…another half-breed?” Murdoch urged, not liking what his son was intimating. Lowering his voice and softening his tone Murdoch continued, “The boy has nothing to fear from me Johnny, and the sooner he understands that the better!”
Met with an uneasy silence Murdoch decided to try another approach. “Johnny I can understand you believing he’ll be more accepting of you than either I or Scott, and I’m sure he will be initially, but that’s not something we want to encourage.”
Johnny contemplated his father’s words. The older man had a point, but if the kid had grown up like he had, and Johnny couldn’t imagine it being any different for him, then he’d been made to believe himself inferior to both white and Mexican alike, belonging to neither world, an outcast unwanted and shunned. He could just imagine the boy’s fear and suspicion on waking up and finding himself at the mercy of a stranger, and a white stranger at that! How did he explain that to his father; the older man had absolutely no idea how his kind were treated, how rare a kind word or gesture was bestowed upon them by either side…his kind!” Johnny flinched. Murdoch would have torn a strip off him for that one, but prejudice was an ugly bitter thing. It left deep festering wounds that even when healed were easily reopened. The boy needed to know he wasn’t alone, that there was someone else just like him. Someone he could trust.
“I hear ya Murdoch but when he comes to he’s gonna be scared. Seeing you ain’t gonna ease his fears but seeing me might, just a little!”
Murdoch sighed. Defeated for now he patted his son’s shoulder. “I’ll bring you up a tray!”
“Thanks.” Johnny watched his father reluctantly leave the room then turned his attention back to the bed. The boy was now stirring, murmuring softly in a garbled mix of Spanish and English, obviously in the grips of some fever induced nightmare. Standing quickly, Johnny moved toward the nightstand and the bowl of water sitting there. He quickly wet and wrung out the excess moisture from a cloth, then set about gently wiping the boy’s face, gingerly maneuvering around bruises and broken skin. Sam had said those injuries were superficial and would heal in no time, but as the older man had examined his patients back he’d commented on the scarring already present, on the ferocity used to have left such marks. Johnny knew hate and disgust had been behind each blow, that the boy hadn’t just earned himself a licking for stepping out of line but that he’d simply been the outlet for a man’s uncontrollable rage…just like he had been more than once.
Bandages now hid the stark evidence of what the boy had endured, but the image remained ingrained in Johnny’s mind as did the memories of all the times he’d felt the cruel leather and the cold steel cut into his own flesh.
Murdoch watched with some amusement as Teresa heaped an overgenerous amount of food onto a plate destined for her dark haired brother’s consumption.
“He must be hungry. He never did get his breakfast!” Teresa proclaimed in her defense.
“I’m sure he is and knowing Johnny he’d make short work of that normally. But I think sandwiches might be a better idea right now.”
“You’re right,” Teresa conceded flashing an understanding smile up at her guardian, “I’ll make plenty!”
Murdoch chuckled to himself; the tiny brunette was determined not to let Johnny starve! The patriarch’s attention then moved and firmly settled on his older son sitting rather too quietly at the kitchen table. He sat down directly opposite Scott; where he soon noted the younger man’s appetite had deserted him, that he was more interested in pushing the food around his plate than in eating it. Scott was worried about Johnny too. Murdoch waited patiently for the smoky blue eyes to meet his, and they did finally and very reluctantly.
“He wants to do this all by himself,” Scott stated unable to keep his concerns to himself any longer.
“I know.” Murdoch sighed “and he’s got his reasons and we are going to have to make him see that those very reasons are why he can’t do this all by himself.” Murdoch stated determinedly.
Johnny’s distress grew as he listened to the boy repeatedly beg for mercy, beg and plead just as he had done and obviously just as ineffectually as his attempts had been.
“Sshhh” he tried to sooth the boy, gently dabbing away tears that had begun to trickle from the still shuttered eyes. “Sshhh, it’s alright, you’re safe now. No one’s gonna hurt you like that ever again, I promise!”
Johnny kept up the steady stream of reassurances until the boy finally quieted, and he found himself blinking away hot tears of his own, but who were those tears for? The boy lying so sick in the bed or the boy he himself had been? Johnny wasn’t sure, maybe it was for both of them!
Just as he’d regained control of his emotions the boy began to stir again. Johnny held his breath watching bruised and swollen eyelids flutter open, waiting quietly as the blue eyes fought to focus on him, and seeing the initial confusion rapidly turn into fear.
“Usted no tiene que tener miedo de mi.” Johnny said softly desperate to allay the boy’s fears. Tenderly he laid a hand on the boy's forehead, and was rewarded by a timid grin.
Johnny set the glass of water aside; he’d managed to coax the boy into taking a few sips but the effort had proved too taxing and the wary blue eyes had soon drifted shut. Exhaustion claiming him he’d again fallen into a restless sleep. Johnny had hoped to get something out of the boy, his name at least, but his gentle probing had been met with only stubborn silence, the bravado he’d witnessed out in the barn again evident in the young stranger's countenance. The kid was scared but determined not to show it, and as he recovered that fear would undoubtedly manifest itself in various disguises, and that worried Johnny. He’d held a gun on him out in the barn and threatened to use it. Johnny would like to believe the boy incapable of doing so, but desperation could drive a man…even a boy to the extreme. The boy was harmless enough now, too weak to lift his head off the pillow but he was no stranger to violence, and had probably come to accept it as normal, which meant he himself could react violently when faced with a situation that scared or confused him.
Johnny couldn’t help but be concerned for his family; the boy would find it very hard, impossible at first, to understand their good intentions. He would be highly suspicious of any kindness shown; the dark haired Lancer knew that simply because that was how he himself had been. Whenever someone had offered him a kind word or gesture he’d backed away from it, treated it with disdain, unwilling to lower his defenses, not able to believe someone actually cared!
Johnny let out a long sigh as a mix of disbelief and contentment invaded him. He’d come along way since then, and despite choosing a lonely and dangerous road to travel he’d met a lot of good people on the way, and had learned to accept them as such. Eventually he’d found a home…come home, and all that made it so. He’d been lucky, he knew that, but something told him the boy’s story wouldn’t have the same happy ending.
The door creaked open and Johnny turned expecting to see his father, and was more than a little relieved to see that it was his brother stepping into the room, the promised tray of refreshments held in his hand.
Scott flashed a warm smile in his direction before allowing his concerned gaze to linger on the boy in the bed “Any change?”
“He’s been awake, just for a few minutes!”
“And?” Scott handed his brother the tray then sat down on the edge of the bed.
“And nothing! He took a mouthful of water then went back to sleep.”
“He didn’t say anything?” Scott pushed.
“No!” Johnny bit into a sandwich “It’ll probably be like getting blood out of a stone!”
Scott nodded his understanding, it had been equally as hard getting Johnny to talk at one time, still was on some things. “Maybe Val will be able to…”
“Val?” Johnny glowered at his brother.
Scott crossed his arms, his steady gaze unwavering under the angry scrutiny of his younger brother. “Murdoch asked Sam to fill Val in on the situation.”
“What the hell for? The law’s the last thing that boy’s gonna want to see!” Johnny snarled, jumping to his feet and heading for the door, the tray of food clattering forgotten to the floor. “Stay with him and if he wakes call me!” Johnny ordered as he stomped downstairs.
Murdoch raised his eyes from the ledger, surprised to see his younger son enter the room, and a little alarmed by the ice in the blue eyes, the jangling spurs further proof of his son’s displeasure.
“You couldn’t leave things alone could you, Old Man! You just had to interfere!” Johnny glared angrily down at his father.
Murdoch stared back at his irate son in bewilderment, not having a clue as to what he was supposed to have done, his son’s unexplained anger stirring his own. “Johnny I don’t know…” he began forcing himself to remain seated.
“No, you don’t! You don’t know a damn thing where that kid is concerned, but it doesn’t stop you sticking your nose where it don’t belong!”
“John!” Murdoch’s voice rose in sharp warning.
“Val!” Johnny snapped as he paced back and forth.
“Val?” Murdoch repeated. Now he knew what had set his volatile son off; he just wasn’t sure why?
“What makes you think he’s gonna want to talk to a sheriff? That he’s gonna put any trust in a badge?” Johnny stopped his pacing and looked his father directly in the eye “There are some sadistic bastards hiding behind those tin stars...” Johnny suddenly stopped his tirade realizing with a jolt that he was about to give something else away, and then that it was already too late, as he watched the pale, blue eyes cloud over with grave understanding. The older man had guessed the rest.
“He doesn’t have to speak to Val, not if he doesn’t want to.” Murdoch finally spoke, anxious to get past the tense moment. “But I stand by my decision to let him know about the boy. We don’t know anything about him Johnny. Maybe Val does, or perhaps he in his capacity as sheriff can find out, and maybe, just maybe, the law can help him.”
Johnny shrugged; Val was a good man and a good friend, and Johnny trusted him with his life…the man…not the badge.
“Johnny…” Murdoch began tentatively “Hopefully he hasn’t experienced some of the things you did.”
Unable to meet his father’s eyes Johnny started to walk away growling derisively over his shoulder at the older man “Hopefully!”
The Lancer patriarch watched his son leave the room, then snapped the ledger he’d been working on shut. He wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the columns of figures now, not now he had yet another ugly snippet of Johnny’s life to ponder on!
Johnny took the stairs two at a time. A quick glance at the boy told him he hadn’t stirred, but his brother was now down on his knees cleaning up the mess his hurriedly discarded tray had made.
“I’ll do that!” Johnny insisted crouching down beside Scott, the elder man picking his way through shards of broken china.
“Well, did you put Murdoch in his place?” Scott asked eyeing his brother with a mix of concern and annoyance.
Johnny stared back, fully aware of his brother’s displeasure, realizing he’d again turned on his father without any real provocation. He shrugged knowing he’d been the one put in his place, and that Scott would have already guessed that. “What do you think?”
Scott couldn’t stop the grin creeping across his face, his countenance suddenly turning serious as he offered his brother a sobering observation. “He was acting purely out of concern for the boy.”
“I know.” Johnny conceded. His father had shown nothing but concern for their unexpected guest, yet Johnny had given him little, if any, credit for that.
“Then try not to forget it!” Scott urged gently, aware the boy’s presence was causing an air of tension between father and son. It worried him and he wasn’t sure why.
The sapphire eyes grew heavy as the hour grew increasingly late. At that very same time the night before Johnny had slumbered peacefully in his own bed, blissfully oblivious to the world around him. It troubled him deeply knowing that while he had lain in comfort and warmth, the young boy in the bed beside him had spent the night without shelter; cold, wet and no doubt hungry. Johnny had spent many a similar night, too scared to close his eyes, too cold to sleep, but the worst thing had to be the gnawing in his belly! Hunger had driven him to steal, and he’d been caught red handed many times, caught and almost always punished.
It was a risk he’d been prepared to take but a risk he’d on several occasions come to deeply regret. He’d known stealing was wrong even then but still, it was a lesson some thought he needed to learn the hard and painful way. He’d gotten many a backhander, found himself cowering from just as many angry and unforgiving fists. He’d also seen the inside of countless jail cells, and had felt the wrath of his jailors too!
He’d not just stolen food, he’d helped himself to clothes…to whatever he’d needed, but he’d only ever taken what was needed, never anything more. Not that, that had made it any less wrong, just a little easier to live with.
The boy had been forced into stealing today…and probably not for the first time, but maybe fate could help make it the last!
Johnny’s eyes lingered on the bruised face; the kid was going to be as sore as hell when he finally did come round, his back alone the cause of intense and fiery agony. Sam had known that and had left some laudanum; Johnny was going to have to coax a little of that down the boy’s throat too.
The boy hadn’t shown any further signs of waking though and since the fever had broken an hour back had become a lot more restful. Johnny had insisted his father and brother go to bed, promising them he’d call them if needed. They’d left him alone reluctantly and Johnny felt sure both would put in an appearance at some time during the night…coffee in hand, words of reassurance on their tongue!
Teresa hadn’t liked the fact she’d not been allowed an active part in the boys care but she’d accepted the decision without question as always, sensitive to the situation, and especially sensitive where he was concerned. Johnny knew she’d hover in the back ground, her support as important as that of his brother’s and father’s. If only he could let them all know what their support meant to him!
Suddenly Johnny was aware of a set of blue eyes watching him, studying him closely.
"Hi! Are you feeling any better?”
There was no answer forthcoming, no response, no movement, only the vivid blue stare. The boy seemed to be boring a hole into Johnny's very soul, searching for answers, reassurance, and discovering nothing more than emptiness, a black void where the core of a being should reside. The man was at once guarded and relaxed, confident in his ability to master the situation. Reluctantly the boy relaxed somewhat as curiosity consumed him, the enigma of the man perched beside him on the bed peaking his interest and yet somehow, none threatening.
As the man waited patiently for an answer to his query the boy realized something even more startling, the man bore a striking resemblance to himself. Startled by the revelation, the boy could only stare, his mouth gaping wide, as a smile graced the handsome features of the other man.
"So, what are you staring at?" The man questioned, a laugh hidden behind the innocent words.
"You…you…you look like...." The boy was unable to put thought with words as conflicting emotions vied for attention, questions screamed for answers.
"Yeah, you could say that," Johnny agreed intuitively. "Are you thirsty? Hungry?"
The boy nodded and shifted against the pillows, his discomfort then igniting into agony. He groaned pitifully, squirming in his misery, desperate to extinguish the flames that now licked mercilessly across his back.
Johnny clasped the boy’s hand. “I’m gonna give you something to help with the pain!” He was on his feet in an instant, deftly adding a small amount of the bitter liquid Sam had left to a small measure of water already in a glass.
The boy eyed Johnny suspiciously as the glass was held to his lips.
“It’s laudanum! Come on, take a little. It will help,” Johnny urged gently, anxious to ease the boy’s suffering. The boy hesitated then began to do as bid, earning a relieved smile from Johnny.
“You know…” the youngest Lancer began, determined to get at least one answer from his charge before he inevitably fell back to sleep. “I still don’t know your name. I’ve told you mine, remember?” Johnny had offered that information the last time the boy had awoken, but it had earned him no response then.
The blue eyes narrowed in contemplation “Johnny?”
“Yeah, Johnny! Now how about you tell me yours?” The dark haired Lancer waited as the boy seemed to mentally weigh up the risks involved in parting with such information, and finally decided it could do no harm.
“Carlos!” Johnny repeated, pleased to have finally wrangled something from the boy, but still not satisfied. “Carlos what?”
The boy shrugged, grimacing in pain, his eyes closing as he whispered, “Just Carlos!”
Father and son sat in weary silence, neither having slept, both only having tossed and turned until finally deciding that that energy would be better spent on something more productive. They’d met up in the kitchen, both seeking some solace in the contents of a mug. Scott, not at all surprised to see his father already there, or the older man to find himself joined by his elder son.
Scott watched his father fill three mugs with a hot, strong brew of coffee before offering “I’ll take it up to Johnny.”
“I’ll take it if you don’t mind, son,” Murdoch requested softly “I’m worried about him, I know you are too but…” the older man shrugged, not sure how to put his concerns into words.
“I understand, sir.”
“Do you?” Murdoch asked earnestly, “Because I don’t!”
The despair in his father’s voice troubled Scott, yet it simply echoed his own fears where his brother was concerned
“This is all
just a little too close to home, isn’t it? You and I look at that boy and see
Johnny; Johnny looks at that boy and sees himself! It’s an ugly and painful
insight into what Johnny endured, what he won’t discuss…what he hasn’t been able
to share with us! We both know the reason why, he’s scared to face what he’s
kept buried for so long, what he couldn’t deal with as a child, what he hasn’t
been able to deal with as an adult …what he can’t start to deal with without
help. Help he’s too scared to ask for.”
”But he should feel able to ask that of us, Scott!” Murdoch's shoulders slumped, weighed down by the weight of his perceived failure. “I thought…I’d hoped, he looked at me now and saw his father, someone he trusted, someone he knew he could depend on.”
“He does!” Scott insisted, very much aware of just how hard their father had worked over the last twelve months to earn Johnny’s trust and respect. “But this isn’t about him trusting you Murdoch. It’s about him not trusting himself!”
Johnny yawned and stretched, he’d nodded off at some point, cat napped really. Carlos had stirred several times, his rest disturbed by a dry hacking cough, a few sips of water and some reassurance from Johnny and he had settled back to sleep and Johnny had returned to the twilight world too.
The footsteps outside his door had not gone unmissed, first his father and then his brother had hovered outside before making their way downstairs. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved they’d passed by or disappointed, for some reason he wasn’t quite sure about he was having trouble holding his tongue with both men and he didn’t want to start the day off with more cross words.
He could smell coffee; and breathed in its rich aroma allowing it to chase away the last remnants of sleep, simultaneously trying to guess which of the two men would bring him up a cup. Scott seemed the most likely, things were still a little strained between him and his father, Johnny particularly uncomfortable about the way he’d spoken…yelled at the older man about involving Val. Murdoch hadn’t mentioned it again but Johnny knew he’d been way out of line and that bothered him. The Old Man deserved better from his son.
Again he heard footsteps, again approaching his door, and again they seemed to linger outside rather a little too long, as if the man standing there was in two minds whether to enter or not. He couldn’t blame his father, he was probably a little wary of having his ear chewed off again before breakfast! The door finally opened and Johnny flashed his father a warm smile hoping the older man would relax a little, tension on one or both sides could again lead to raised voices.
"Morning, Murdoch," Johnny softly greeted his father.
"Son. Did you get any sleep?"
"Yeah, some. How about you?"
"Oh yes, I slept fine." It was a lie and Johnny knew it. Further he knew his father knew he knew it. Ducking his head to hide a swift smile, Johnny sighed heavily, then met his father's gaze. "About yesterday, pa..."
"Forget it son. You were upset. Maybe I should have talked to you first." Murdoch pressed a mug of the liquid morning into Johnny's hand before positioning another chair along side his son and easing his large frame down onto it.
Johnny tentatively blew into the mug to cool then timidly took a sip. The coffee felt wonderful going down, warming his body much as his father's love now warmed his soul. Again meeting Murdoch's stare, Johnny took a deep breath and plunged in, no time like the present...
"No. You did the right thing. I over reacted.” Johnny admitted lowering his voice as he glanced towards the boy in the bed “Of course we need to know as much about him as possible, and there are questions he might not be willing to answer! Does he have family? Is he in trouble?”
Once he’d calmed down the day before Johnny had realized what was behind his father’s actions, as always his father had looked at the broader picture. “Is that trouble going to come here? I guess I didn’t think beyond him or consider anyone else. I should have given you credit for thinking about all of us. I mean there are a lot of people at Lancer whose safety depends on your decisions. I should have known that. I...I am sorry."
Now this was the Johnny that Murdoch had grown accustomed to this last year, the reasonable, willing to discuss an issue Johnny, rather than the spitfire of the day before! That was the old Johnny, the Johnny who once questioned everything his father said or did and nearly always just for the hell of it, testing him, pushing him to see just how far he could push him!
"Thank you John. That means a lot to me.” Murdoch gently slapped his son’s thigh in an affectionate gesture before adding in a gentler tone “You know…you are quite a man.” The unexpected praise startled Johnny, heat flamed his cheeks warming them much as the coffee was chasing away the morning chill.
Murdoch forced himself to ignore his son’s embarrassment and ploughed on “Johnny all I’m trying to say in my own clumsy way is that I know why you reacted the way you did, why you’re so protective of the boy. I know you’re prepared to do whatever is necessary to help him at whatever cost to yourself…I just wanted you to know that your brother and I are not only behind you 100% but willing to stand along side you too…and there is a difference there son. You don’t have to do this alone and I don’t think you can do this alone Johnny…” Just as Murdoch found himself getting into his stride, confidently working his way up to discussing what he’d just before been thrashing through with his elder son, both men’s attention was suddenly claimed by a groan from the bed. Both sets of eyes staring intently at their awakening guest. They watched the eyelids flutter open and waited as the blue eyes grew accustomed to the half light cast by the bedside lamp.
“Buenos dias” Johnny smiled across at the boy aware the blue eyes had immediately found and settled on his father, suspicious and fear filled.
“Carlos, esto es mi padre Murdoch Lancer.” Johnny stated the warmth in his voice unmistakable.
“¿Su padre?” The boy stared in confusion at the stranger.
“Si. Mi padre.”
Johnny repeated resting his hand on his father’s arm.
Murdoch listened intently, realizing Johnny had at least found out the boy’s name at some point, the fear shining in the boy’s eyes made him decidedly tense, but knowing he couldn’t show that he offered a simple but warm greeting.
“Buenos días Carlos.”
The boy remained silent his gaze wandering back to Johnny, troubled and searching, trying to make sense of a situation he was seemingly unfamiliar with. Unable to understand how Johnny could be so comfortable with a white man…or was it the fact that the white man was also his father. Was he reading things into the situation? Murdoch didn’t believe he was.
The boy was far from comfortable in his presence, just as Johnny had suspected he would be the night before. Murdoch met his son’s apologetic gaze then turned back to the boy.
“I’m sure you’re hungry, I’ll go see what I can rustle up.” Standing Murdoch squeezed his son’s shoulder gently aware the boy was watching his every move “John you’re hungry I’m sure?”
“Yes sir!” Johnny smiled up at his father, then waited for the older man to leave the room before turning his attention back to Carlos.
“He’s a good man. You can trust him.”
The boy seemed to contemplate Johnny’s words of assurance but made no comment.
“Carlos, give him a chance, don’t let your opinion of other…other white men affect your view of him…”
“Does he treat you well?”
The question surprised Johnny “What? Yeah, of course he does!” Johnny wanted to take back his words immediately; there was no ‘of course’ about it! It wasn’t something that went hand in hand in his experience and obviously not in the boy’s.
“It’s a long story but I’ve been in your shoes, I…I’ve been a white man’s punch bag and Mexican men treated me much the same way! But as far as Murdoch Lancer is concerned I’m his equal, his son and he loves me.” He hadn’t had to think about it, and his words had spilled from his lips with a surprising depth of emotion, which it seemed had only served to trouble the boy more. He watched Carlos turn his head away, blinking back tears. Johnny knew that feeling too, knew what it was like not to have a father’s love, and he knew no words would heal that pain.
“Look I…we want to help you but we can’t not unless you tell us something about yourself, where you’re from, why you’re on your own…who…who it was that beat you?”
Tears rolled freely down the bruised cheeks as the boy stared determinedly into Johnny’s eyes “It doesn’t matter anymore! He’s dead! I killed him…”
Johnny felt the shock of the declaration hit him in the chest with a force that would have had other men gasping for their next breath. Only the strict control of Madrid kept his reaction from manifesting in his expression, or his body. He leisurely rose from the bed aware of troubled eyes following his every move, and carried his cup of coffee to the window, to stand staring out at the new sun rising above the far hills.
Johnny loved this view, the panoramic display somehow new each morning, always fresh, always promising, full of hope. The searching in his soul responded to nature's splendor, giving rise to his spirit like a bird on the wing, as that hope and promise embraced his mind. Mother Nature kissed his heart as surely as the sun caressed the earth. He sighed, breathing deeply of the balmy breeze, welcoming the tranquility of the moment, yet knowing he would need all his focus, all his strength to help the young man laying in the bed so intently studying his every movement.
Peace and control now reigned supreme in his soul, as Johnny turned to face his next challenge, one he had never faced.
"So, was it self-defense?"
Murdoch had returned to the kitchen and to the much needed steadying presence of his elder son. The young man was so very like his mother, he had inherited all the qualities Murdoch had so admired and cherished in Catherine, her kindness, her quiet wisdom, the calm rationality that had so many times gently persuaded him into seeing things from a different, and usually a much clearer, perspective. Perhaps above all else Scott possessed the very same depth of empathy. He rarely had to explain himself or his actions to his elder son…he’d had to acknowledge when he’d been wrong about something or someone of course. In those first difficult months he’d made so many mistakes with Johnny but Scott had understood why, and had surreptitiously and at times not so surreptitiously, guided him in the right direction. It was Scott who had suggested he ride out and find out why Johnny hadn’t come home with the work crew the day after the shootout with Striker, tactfully hinting that Johnny might not be quite sure of his place at Lancer and that his father might be the one needed to put that right. It had been excellent advice of course and had helped heal yet another wound he’d so carelessly caused his younger son.
Now he had what he considered a thriving relationship with both men and he found himself turning more and more to Scott when, like now, he couldn’t make sense of the world or of his feelings.
“How is he? How are they?” Scott pointedly rephrased his question as he poured his father a mug of coffee and noted he looked in need of something a little stronger.
“Better I think.” Came the solemn reply “and your brother’s hungry!” Murdoch grinned weakly; his younger son was always hungry. “I promised to take Carlos something up, some broth I think…”
“Carlos?” Scott interrupted
“Yes, we have a
first name at least. He seems to trust Johnny.”
Scott simply nodded, sensing a distinct air of unease emanating from his father and calmly awaited the explosion he felt sure would be forthcoming; he didn’t have to wait long.
“That boy was terrified of me!” Murdoch slapped the table in utter disgust.
Scott knew where this was going, and he was pleased, if pleased was the right word, that his father was opening up albeit through anger. He watched the older man stand and start pacing the length of the kitchen, eventually stopping as he drew level with his son, meeting the calm gaze with his irate one and gesturing vehemently up in the direction of the guest room. “You know your brother was ‘that’ scared of some…some ‘white’ man once!”
Scott remained silent, eyes fixed on the older man as he resumed his pacing and his anguish filled rant.
“The thought of him cowering from a fist or a belt…the thought of some bastard beating Johnny that way!”
The elder Lancer son tensed as his father turned his grief stricken face toward him, his voice now barely more than a whisper.
“I…I can’t stand the thought of him being hurt that way Scott!”
Scott stood quickly and stepped towards the older man wrapping a supportive arm around him and quietly shepherding him toward a chair. His father wasn’t handling this very well and he wasn’t at all sure how to comfort or reassure the usually emotionally reticent Murdoch Lancer. The giant of a man didn’t look so big at that moment, just very tired and a great deal older than his years.
“Murdoch…” Scott crouched beside his father uncharacteristically lost for words.
The pale blue eyes met his son’s “I couldn’t help your brother, I couldn’t protect him but I swear to God no one will hurt that boy ever again.”
His question had received no response and Johnny decided to try again. “Carlos, did you kill in self defense…were you trying to protect yourself?”
Still the boy failed to answer, the blue eyes staring at the wall, mouth clamped shut as if he’d decided he’d already said too much.
Johnny moved back to the bed, and sat next to the boy. “Carlos…” he began gently. “I want to help you but I need to know what happened.”
The blue eyes
closed and Johnny felt the boy was not just dismissing the matter but him too.
“This isn’t going to just go away! Running from what happened isn’t the answer.
I know…I know how scared you must be but you have to face what you did.”
Johnny stared at the shuttered eyes and the bruises that littered the youngster's face and told himself for now it was probably best to admit defeat. The kid was still pretty sick, certainly not up to confessing all even if he wanted to, and right now he seemed to be regretting revealing what he had to Johnny. He’d give him a little time then tackle the matter again.
“Okay, we’ll drop it for now but we WILL talk about this Carlos!”
Scott made his way upstairs, taking advantage of the brief episode of solitude to put his turbulent thoughts into some resemblance of order. He’d been very reluctant to leave his father, but the older man had insisted he was fine, shrugging off his earlier outburst and burying his emotions just like he always did. The brief glimpse of his father’s anguish had served to trouble Scott deeply, only a day after finding the abused boy emotions were already running high and so far they knew next to nothing about him! The more details that came to light the more hurt and grief Scott was sure it would evoke.
Murdoch’s pain had been tangible, and Scott had recognised the fact that he was going to have to distance himself a little from the situation. He wouldn’t be able to provide the support his brother and father needed if he too were to become emotionally involved.
He paused on reaching the top of the stairs and stared thoughtfully along the hallway and toward the guestroom.
//Distance himself!// He already felt set apart from his father and brother in this instance. Johnny’s involvement needed no rationalizing of course and Murdoch’s…well he was quite simply Johnny’s father, that direct blood tie somehow made an unequivocal difference and this was, or so it seemed, partly about the blood that ran though Johnny’s veins! Blood he didn’t share! Telling himself he’d have time to ponder over that thought later he moved along the hallway wondering what the boy’s reaction would be to him. Hopefully a younger and less stern face would be a little more agreeable!
Johnny had moved to a chair and in the uneasy silence had allowed his mind to wander back to his earlier conversation with his father. He’d not known what to say to the older man then, his concern and support welcome, but not so the veiled references to his past. He’d told his father and brother all he’d wanted them to know about that, all they needed to know, or at least he’d hoped it was.
The light rap on the door came as a welcome diversion from his thoughts and it had also served to force the boy’s eyes open.
“Come on in!” Johnny hollered toward the door.
“Good morning.” Scott peered around the door. “Breakfast!”
“Great I’m starving.” Johnny grinned from ear to ear rubbing his hands together in expectation.
“Good! Because yours is awaiting you downstairs.” Scott moved into the room gesturing with the mug held in his right hand “But I have some broth for Carlos.”
Johnny looked crestfallen then glanced across at their guest and saw again the mix of suspicion and fear on the boy’s face. “Carlos, this is my brother Scott!
“Older brother! Let’s not forget that one rather important fact.” Scott winked conspiratorially at the boy in the bed.
“Like he’d ever let me.” Johnny rolled his eyes and grinned at the bemused boy watching as his brother placed the mug into Carlos’ hands before casually dropping down into the chair beside him, obviously intending to stay.
“Well…” Johnny shrugged. “It seems the only way I get to eat is if I follow my nose downstairs. Carlos, Scott will sit with you till I come back.”
“No hay necesidad,” Carlos replied quietly.
“No, but I’d like to all the same,” Scott answered quietly before turning back to his brother and insisting, “Go on. Your food will get cold.”
Johnny hesitated, the boy was as uneasy in Scott’s company as he’d been in their father’s but he was going to have to accept both men sooner or later, and the way things were heading it was going to have to be sooner!
“I won’t be long.” Johnny felt the need to reassure Carlos but the boy seemed indifferent as he sipped the contents of the mug. So telling himself that if anyone could win the boy around it would be Scott, Johnny left the room giving his brother one last meaningful look.
Johnny hurriedly ate his breakfast, ignoring the reproachful looks from Teresa as he did so. Thankfully Maria wasn’t there or he’d have had more than a set of brown eyes scolding him. Maria’s tongue could cut a man to the quick if she put her mind to it, and bad table manners was one thing she did frown upon. He’d had many a rap on the knuckles for forgetting his manners, and he hadn’t washed or shaved either, yet here he was sitting down to table. He was on very dangerous ground where the womenfolk were concerned, yet he was getting away with it all this morning.
Johnny nodded in response to Teresa’s non stop chatter and found himself giving the girl permission to raid his collection of shirts and pants because as Teresa put it “Carlos’ clothes were beyond repair and he’s nearer your size than Scott’s,”
Not that he minded, the boy was welcome to anything he had.
“Murdoch said he’ll take him into town to buy new clothes when he’s up to it.” Teresa smiled warmly, the love for her guardian shining in her eyes.
Johnny smiled back, that was the sort of thing his father would do. Murdoch Lancer was a charitable man, known through out the area for his benevolence. He was also known to be rigidly law abiding, insisting on keeping everything legal and aboveboard. So how would he view Carlos’ ‘crime’? Johnny decided it wouldn’t be right to withhold that piece of information from his father no matter how sketchy it was at present.
He found his father at his desk, meticulously working his way through a mass of paperwork.
“Have you eaten?” The patriarch asked, concerned because he knew his son hadn’t eaten a proper meal the day before.
“Yeah,” Johnny replied fidgeting a little as he wondered how best to broach the matter that would he knew affect them all.
Murdoch studied his handsome but decidedly dishevelled son and asked dryly, “Growing a beard John?”
“Thinking about it.” Johnny grinned, amused by the twinkle in his father’s eye. “You busy?”
Setting his quill down Murdoch shook his head. “No. Not if there’s something on your mind son!”
Johnny pushed a pile of papers aside and heaved himself onto his father’s desk. “There is!”
“Yeah,” Johnny confirmed but still found himself hesitating.
“What about him?” Murdoch pushed.
“He started to tell me something then he just clammed up.”
Murdoch sat back in his chair a little puzzled by his son’s words “Are you saying he told you something and then refused to elaborate on it and that, that something’s worrying you now?”
“Yeah,” Johnny replied that about summed it up!
“Well, what did he tell you?” Murdoch couldn’t help but feel a little exasperated. Why did everything always have to be dragged out of Johnny?
“I want your word not to mention anything to Val, not until I know more!”
“Johnny that’s not fair…” Murdoch began to protest.
“Life ain’t fair, Old Man! That boy’s life ain’t been fair, now has it?” Johnny snarled derisively.
Murdoch tensed, sometimes his younger son’s insolence was hard to ignore no matter the circumstances. “Alright I won’t say anything to Val. I trust you to do the right thing.”
Johnny squirmed uncomfortably regretting the way in which he’d again spoken to his father, the older man had simply brushed it aside and come back with more words of support “Thanks,” he offered meekly.
“What did he tell you?” Murdoch asked anxious to hear whatever it was Johnny thought Val shouldn’t know about the boy. With a heavy sigh, the younger Lancer stiffened his resolve and plunged ahead.
“Carlos said…he said he’d killed the man who beat him.”
Murdoch held his son’s searching gaze, desperately aware he had to temper his reaction. Forcing down his horror he calmly asked, “And that’s all he said?”
“Yeah.” Johnny relaxed a little.
“He gave no indication of who it was?”
“So he’s on the run?”
“Yeah, I guess so…it had to be self defence Murdoch…he’s just a kid.”
“Like you were Johnny!” His words took him by surprise; he’d spoken his thoughts aloud and Johnny now stared back at him in disbelief.
The tall, stoutly built stranger studied the lifeless gelding and shook his head; the horse had been mercilessly ridden into the ground and lay where he’d fallen, the saddle still secured to his back.
“Worthless little bastard,” he growled under his breath, itching to get his hands on the cause of the animal’s demise and his thundering headache.
Pulling his heavy frame up into the saddle he surveyed the surrounding area. The boy couldn’t have got far, not on foot. It had been quite a while since he’d been up this way, but he was sure he was now on the Lancer spread. It was the only place for miles and the boy might have stumbled upon it. He’d try there, see if they were missing a horse or food maybe, someone might just have seen him, after all a half-breed stuck out like a sore thumb especially in this neck of the woods. No matter he’d find him and when he did…
more than a little surprised that Johnny had remained seated; that he hadn’t
begun the agitated pacing he usually resorted to when angry or when he felt
threatened by an intrusion into his past. The older man was now very wary of
opening his mouth, in case he unwittingly said something that would cause the
young man to bolt, but equally scared of letting the opportunity presented him
slip through his fingers.
”You were about the same age as Carlos when…”
”Fourteen…”Johnny interrupted, avoiding eye contact with his father as he fought to control the anger he felt towards him right then. Why couldn’t he leave the past where it belonged?
”And you ran too didn’t you, just like Carlos…” Murdoch stated quietly ignoring the angry glare his observation earned him. “And you’re still running, John!”
Both men started at the loud knock on the door. “I’ll get it,” Johnny declared, relieved to have a reason to bring their increasingly uncomfortable conversation to an end.
”No, leave it!” Murdoch insisted grasping the smaller man’s arm, anxious not to lose the opening he’d finally found.
”Now ain’t the time!”
The blue eyes almost seemed to be pleading for a reprieve but that only increased Murdoch’s resolve.
”Yes it is…it has to be because otherwise you…” The knock came again and Johnny shrugged his father’s arm away, hurrying towards the door distancing himself from his father’s concern with each purposeful stride.
Scott watched the long fingers grow lax around the mug. The boy had finally fallen asleep after doggedly ignoring every single attempt Scott had made to make conversation. He’d found the effort to persuade the boy to talk quite grueling, and maddeningly for his pains he’d made no progress at all. He was more than a little disappointed in himself; he’d wanted to put the boy at ease, do something positive, do something to help, not only the boy, but something that would inevitably help his brother, too. The wary blue eyes had managed to make him feel so very ill at ease, and he understood now why his father had been so affected by, not only the fear and suspicion shining there, but the loathing, too. It was the intense loathing that troubled him the most, how could a boy hate a complete stranger so?
Murdoch had been haunted by images of Johnny at that age, and he too had found himself visualizing his brother looking back at him through the same fear-filled eyes, but he couldn’t imagine Johnny having such loathing for anyone and certainly not for someone who had done him no harm. Carefully, trying not to wake the boy, Scott removed the half full mug from the boy’s hands, but the blue eyes flickered open. Alarm spread across the boy's countenance and he began to cough, his face contorting in pain as his weakened and battered body protested.
The elder Lancer son moved to sit on the bed reaching inside his pocket and taking out a clean handkerchief. He held it to the boy’s mouth and gently encouraged him to expel the secretions from his congested lungs, at the same time calmly demonstrating how to support his injured ribcage to lessen the discomfort.
Carlos had obeyed, finally flopping back exhausted against the pillows but taking a sip of the water that was then held to his dry lips.
The boy studied the concerned face as if seeing the stranger clearly for the first time “Gracias.”
”De nada.” Scott smiled, elated when the boy actually granted him a hint of a smile in return.
Doctor Sam Jenkins watched his old friend’s younger son exit the great room fully aware he’d interrupted some sort of heated exchange. The tension in the room was palpable and he found himself impatiently snapping at the man he believed to be the cause.
”What have I told you about thinking twice before you open your mouth to that boy?”
”I did!” Murdoch snapped back in no mood for a lecture of any kind “And I was actually doing quite well until you arrived!”
Sam harrumphed, casting a questioning eye over the bigger man.
”Yes really!” Murdoch insisted “But now we’re right back to square one and he’s still…still…”
”Still what?” Sam pushed irritably half expecting a derogatory remark about the young man he knew could purposefully go out of his way to rile his father.
”Still keeping things to himself. Things he needs to talk to me about.”
Murdoch’s impassioned words surprised the doctor, and finally recognizing the situation for what it was, he wrapped a supportive arm around the taller man.
”And he will talk to you about them Murdoch, but only when he’s ready to. You should know that by now!”
”Yes I do,” the rancher replied wearily, “but there are some things he needs pushing into discussing...there are some things he needs cornering on and made to face. That’s the only way he’s going to open up to me on some things Sam!”
Sam pondered his friend’s words, pleased the man was now so sure of his dealings with his once estranged son; Murdoch was proving quite adept at being a father to the young man when he set his mind to it.
A gentle slap on the patriarch’s back acknowledged his faith in him before Sam turned to the reason for his visit. “I’ll take a look at your guest now.”
The two men walked toward the stairs, curiosity finally getting the better of Murdoch as they reached the bottom of the stairwell.
”Sam, have you heard of any trouble in the area?”
The doctor stopped in his tracks; aware now that there was something he wasn’t being told. “Trouble? What sort of trouble and why do you ask? Has the boy said something?” The gray eyes searched his friend’s troubled face.
”No!” Murdoch watched the gray eyes narrow suspiciously and realized he’d have to elaborate a little. “Well, not to me. But to Johnny, yes and Johnny’s asked me to keep it to myself.” The patriarch was determined not to expand any further.
”That’s what you were arguing about?”
”We weren’t arguing Sam,” Murdoch snapped. “I was just trying to get him to share something from his past.”
”What does that have to do with the boy?”
Murdoch sighed miserably. “Everything. It’s history repeating itself!”
Johnny poked his head around the guest room door and found two sets of blue eyes looking at him.
”Yes,” Scott assured him.
”Sam’s here, he’ll be up shortly. I’m gonna get washed up before Maria see me and threatens me with the horse trough. I won’t be long.” With that Johnny closed the door and left Scott to answer the questions that now burned in the young man’s eyes.
”That’s Doctor Sam Jenkins, he cared for your injuries yesterday and he’s come back to check on you, to make sure we’re looking after you. Maria is our housekeeper, you’ll like her, you’ll like them both,” Scott said confidently.
”Yes she is.” Scott replied. “Not that that makes any difference here Carlos.”
”Johnny’s mother she is Mexican?”
”Yes…was, she died. My father loved her very much.” Scott wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to say or not, but it had seemed important he did.
The dark head bowed and Scott was reminded once again of his brother. “Your mother is Mexican too?” he probed gently but his question was met by silence. It didn’t surprise him but he again felt disappointed. He’d hoped the boy was beginning to realize he had nothing to fear from him. At least Carlos was talking to him, asking questions, if not answering them. Scott regarded this as some sort of progress. Encouraged now he continued talking.
”Carlos I’m only asking all these questions because I care and because I want to help you. We all do, Johnny especially. He’s been through the same things you have, he knows how you’re feeling right now, he understands…” Scott paused as the blue eyes once again met his “trust him Carlos, he won’t let you down.”
Johnny found his father and brother at the older man’s desk discussing a business venture. He listened as the two men weighed up the pros and cons and realized neither man’s heart was in the conversation, they were just going through the motions. All three of them were finding it hard to concentrate on anything other than Carlos right now.
Sam had banished them all from the room as he tended the boy. Johnny had lingered a little while outside the room, but on hearing Sam’s soothing tones drifting through the door he’d decided he really wasn’t needed and made his way down stairs.
”Take a look at that son and tell me what you think.” Murdoch handed his younger son a letter and waited for a reply.
Johnny studied the proposal, reading its contents several times but not really taking in any of the information there.
”It looks promising,” Johnny finally answered hoping his father wouldn’t want him to elaborate further.
”I think so too.” Scott began, making his way over to answer the rap on the front door.
”Yes, I’m Scott Lancer can I help you Mr…?”
”Barley. Jake Barley. I’m trailing a boy…a half-breed good for nothin’ that…”
Scott had never hit a man before, not without what he’d considered due provocation but the rage that suddenly stirred and exploded inside proved beyond his control and Scott found himself lashing out with his fist, sending the stranger backwards, crashing to the floor.
Immediately the man made a move for the gun strapped at his hip, freezing his motion toward it when he heard the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked. He looked up into the barrel of the oddest looking colt he had ever seen, but instinctively knew it for what it was, a gunfighter's weapon. Even had he been so inclined to take his chances, knowing a professional was holding the gun had him quickly rethinking his course of action. Cautiously he raised his hands, palms upward and looked into the face of death. The eyes boring down on him were darkened with anger and challenge.
"You don't want to be dead and I don't want to make a mess on our floor. Toss that gun over here." The voice was soft yet deadly, the gun unwavering. The tall blonde who had struck him moved to take his proffered weapon before backing up and motioning for the stranger to rise.
Jake Barley climbed unsteadily to his feet and as he rubbed his aching jaw he tried to make sense of the situation he found himself in. The young blonde man before him certainly packed a punch and looking into his eyes Jake knew he was more than willing to dish out more of the same. He turned his attention to the dark-haired gunman, studying a little more closely the icy countenance and realized what had possibly been the reason for the unexpected explosion of anger. He was a half-breed too, an older version of the boy he was tracking; maybe they were brothers?
For the first time Jake noticed an older man standing at the door also looking more than a little perturbed, he decided to address his next comment to him; hopefully he was a little more rational.
“I ain’t looking for trouble… just a horse thief!”
“Horse thief?” Johnny growled stepping nearer to the stranger.
“Johnny!” Murdoch placed a restraining hand on his son stopping him in his tracks.
“Now look…” Jake began irritably as his own temper soared. “I caught this kid in my barn…helping himself to my best stallion. When I tried to stop him he pistol whipped me. I found that horse dead a few miles from here, ridden to death. If that kid’s here I want to know, the law will want to know too.”
Murdoch had listened intently and decided the stranger’s story had a ring of truth about it, after all Carlos had tried to steal a horse from them too. “You’d best come in.”
Jake considered the invitation, eyes flitting between the two younger, and obviously still angry, young men. “Considering the welcome I’ve had so far I ain’t sure that’s such a good idea.”
“Well, if you’d been a bit more civil yourself!” Murdoch snapped before reluctantly offering. “Feelings are running a little high here at the moment, but I think my sons have realized that they may have over reacted.”
“Your sons.” Jake glanced quickly at Johnny then back at Murdoch “That boy ain’t yours too by any chance?”
“No, unfortunately he’s not.” Murdoch stated leading Jake Barley inside under the wary eyes of both his sons.
“Barley says you attacked him, stole his horse, run him into the ground…is that true?” Johnny addressed the bowed head.
“Si,” Carlos replied quietly refusing to meet the older man’s eyes.
Johnny was relieved the boy hadn’t tried to lie to him, pleased he had felt secure enough to admit the truth.
“You were that desperate to get away, huh?” He asked gently and waited patiently for a reply. It eventually came, even quieter this time.
“Si. I was scared!”
“I know.” Johnny clasped the boy’s hand. “But you don’t have to be scared anymore Carlos, you’re safe here.”
The dark head jerked up, fearful blue eyes met Johnny’s. “But this man, Barley. He’s come for me?”
“Barley’s gone. My father’s paid him for his horse and his trouble. He won’t be back.”
“Your father? Why?”
“Because, like I told you before, Murdoch is a good man. He wants to help you. We all do.”
“You can’t help me.” Carlos blinked away a sudden rush of tears. “No one can!”
Johnny knew that wasn’t the case, he believed he could help Carlos, but it would mean talking about a time in his life he’d tried so hard to forget. With a sigh he decided the boy’s needs far outweighed his own and ploughed ahead.
“How old are you?”
Carlos hesitated briefly the question having taken him by surprise. “Fifteen.”
“I killed a man when I was fourteen,” Johnny stated flatly watching the boy’s eyes widen in disbelief.
Johnny knew Carlos didn’t believe him and so chose his next words carefully, certain the boy would identify with them. “Because it was either him or me!”
Jake Barley rode until he was certain he was not being followed before pulling his tired mount to a stop. He patted the envelope in his shirt pocket thoughtfully, then slowly dismounted. A grove of oak trees on a gentle slope of hill was just ahead, offering shelter from prying eyes while at the same time giving him an advantageous view of the surrounding area. He led the gelding into the cover of the trees and quickly tended to its needs before taking a seat at the base of one the oaks.
Settling himself comfortably, he stuck a blade of grass between his teeth and thought over the events of the past hour. Murdoch Lancer had listened intently to his accusations then had offered to pay him for his stallion and trouble. The offer of payment had been made without hesitation, and the offered amount far more than Barley would have expected. He knew the boy was on Lancer, the fact he had been so willingly paid had confirmed his suspicions. If the Lancers were harboring the boy and wiling to pay for a horse, perhaps they would be willing to pay even more for the boy. A wicked smile twisted his lips as he considered his next move.
The Lancer patriarch could be reasoned with, of course, he was after all a business man but the sons were a different matter altogether. The one called Scott had a vicious left hook and had been too quick to react, and the other one, the one called Johnny was obviously a gunhawk. A memory tickled his mind, a vague memory of a dark-haired, blue-eyed pistolero facing down two men in a dusty street. He struggled to wrap his mind around the scene before his eyes, yet it flitted away, lost in the moment at hand. He would have to do some digging, someone in town could perhaps give him clues to the young man's history, with a little encouragement if need be. The boy was retired perhaps but still deadly. That had to be a major concern but then he was prepared to take certain risks if the price was right. Another grin twisted his lips at the thought. Get rid of the gun, then he could make Scott Lancer pay for his hasty introduction.
Out of the corner of his keen and inquisitive eye Barley spied a rider, heading it seemed toward the Lancer hacienda. He didn’t recognize the lone figure but the sunlight reflecting off the piece of metal on the stranger's chest gave an excellent indication of what the man was. Was it just a coincidence that the sheriff was making his way there or did the boy have something to do with his visit too? He was going to have to do some snooping and find out exactly what was going on.
“At least this man Barley was able to give some indication of the area the boy may be from,” Sam reasoned, sipping on his coffee.
“Yes, it could prove a lead of some kind I suppose, “Murdoch agreed “But Johnny’s hoping the boy will tell him something more himself. He doesn’t want to go behind Carlos’ back; he wants the boy to trust him.”
“Well, if anyone can gain his trust it will be Johnny,” the doctor stated confidently.
“And you’re happy with him, Sam?” Murdoch felt the need for further reassurance on the boy’s condition.
“Yes, like I said earlier, the wounds are free from infection and healing nicely and more importantly his lungs are a little less congested. Considering the condition he was in the yesterday, I’m delighted with his progress. Keep on doing what you’re doing and he’ll be fine.”
Murdoch smiled, relieved the boy was healing, physically at least, but his old friend saw through the smile. “You’re having a hard time with this, aren’t you?” Holding his hand up he silenced the rancher's attempt to protest. “Now don’t deny it Murdoch, it’s not healthy bottling it all locked up inside…isn’t that what you tell Johnny?”
“That’s different!” Murdoch growled.
“Johnny’s needs are greater, I agree, but still the situation with Carlos has to be an incredibly harsh insight into Johnny’s past. Hard for you and Scott to deal with?
“Yes,” the patriarch reluctantly admitted. “But my first and major concern has to be for him Sam, for him and that boy upstairs. Scott and I can work through this together…we’ve already discussed it a little, so don’t you worry your head about me.”
The doctor scrutinized the worry worn face, and satisfied with the answer he’d received, he nodded. “Alright but if you ever want to talk, you know where I am.”
“I know and I appreciate the offer Sam…” Murdoch broke off in mid-sentence as Teresa entered the room, Sheriff Val Crawford following behind with long leisurely strides.
“Look who I found outside.” Teresa smiled. “He’s looking for you, Sam! Whatever have you been up to?”
“A wanted man am I.” Sam chuckled at the thought.
Val grinned back “Yep, wanted over at the Nelson place… Billy’s broke his arm.
“Again!” Sam’s eyes widened in disbelief. “I spend nearly as much time tending to him as I do Johnny. He gets into almost as many scrapes as that boy of yours Murdoch.”
“Then his father has my utmost sympathy.” Murdoch chuckled before turning knowingly to Val. “That’s not alI that brings you here, though?”
“No. Sam mentioned the boy to me last night, that’s how come I knew to find him here. Thought I’d kill two birds with one stone,” the sheriff acknowledged easing his lanky frame down to sit onto a chair beside Murdoch. “How's he doing?”
"Thankfully he's recovering.” Murdoch stated looking across at the doctor who nodded his head in agreement.
“Have you found out anything about him?” Val asked hopefully, he didn’t know the boy; at least the description Sam had given him the night before rang no bells.
“No!” Murdoch almost choked on the lie but he’d given his word to Johnny and he wasn’t about to break his promise to his son. Then he realized with some relief that he did have something to share with the sheriff “But we had an unexpected, and most unwelcome, visitor this morning." Murdoch chuckled softly, the look on Barley's face after he found himself prone on the floor, leaping unbidden before his eyes. "I'm afraid he received a rather shocking welcome." At this Murdoch broke into laughter, the memory breaking through the last remnants of his self control. Uncharacteristic laughter erupted, as brokenly he managed to choke out the events of the morning. Listening attentively, Sam and Val found themselves engulfed in the picture their old friend had painted, and were soon laughing without restraint, along with the oldest Lancer.
It was at this moment that Scott Lancer entered the great room. The sight of his normally stoic father, the solemn doctor, and gruff town sheriff, reduced to near tears, sides heaving in laughter brought him abruptly still, his mouth gaping open in wonder.
"Oh Scott, care to join us," Murdoch coughed, his struggle for self control tenuous, almost fleeting. Silently Scott stood his ground, patiently observing as the three older men regained their composure. "Coffee, son?" Murdoch offered gruffly.
Val cleared his throat before stating poker-faced, “I heard there’d been some sort of ruckus out here and that one of the Lancer boys had thrown the first punch. I was kinda surprised to find out it was you Scott!”
“Yes well…” Scott grinned. “I just thought I’d save Johnny the trouble.”
The room erupted into hearty laughter once more, the sounds carrying upstairs and into a room where the atmosphere was anything but light. Carlos listened intently as Johnny quietly and in hesitant, emotion filled sentences described the night he’d used a gun on his tormentor, putting an end to two years of humiliation and abuse. The drunken assault had turned more violent than ever before, the rage powering the brutal beating heightened by some reason Johnny was never to discover. The blows were endless, the huge fists merciless until he had lain barely conscious but still terrifyingly aware of the man towering over him, and of the filth spewing from his irate mouth. The knowledge that the long made threats about ending his worthless life were finally to be turned into realization exploded in Johnny's consciousness as the man had pulled a knife, crouching down to hold it to Johnny’s throat. He felt the cold blade on his skin, the sting as it slowly teased into his flesh, then the warmth of his blood trickle from the wound. In a moment of horrifying clarity he knew he was about to die and slowly, choking on his own blood. Then the adrenaline had flowed, from somewhere came the strength to defend himself, and the courage to reach for the gun holstered around his step-father’s waist. In a split second one nightmare was over but in truth it had only been the start of yet another.
Sweat beads dropped off Johnny's brow, stinging his eyes as he recited the events of long ago. Breathing heavily he moved to the window, the movement providing an opportunity to concentrate on gathering some semblance of composure, acutely aware of two visual daggers piercing his back. Once more in full control of his faculties, Johnny turned to meet the boy's shock filled, blue eyes. Long moments passed as the boy held Johnny's stare, before he lowered his head, his words coming softly. "Dios, you could have been talking about me and my father."
"We are two of a kind, you know, Carlos. I can help you. Let me help you."
It had been as painful to listen to Carlos’ story as it was for Johnny to tell his own. By the time he was in possession of the facts the dark haired Lancer was seething inside, his rage tempered only by the knowledge that the sadistic bastard who had beaten the boy was dead.
Tears of shock, fear and regret had fallen from the blue eyes, the boy’s misery hard to witness and harder still to ease. He wasn’t ready yet to listen to Johnny’s assurances that if he was guilty of anything then it was of simply defending himself.
Carlos was incapable of rationalizing the act, insisting that because he’d pulled the trigger he had in fact coldly murdered his own father. Self defense was something he wouldn’t yet accept but Johnny knew that was how it had been and that there wasn’t a court in the land that would see it any other way. The boy had been openly distraught, in both mental and physical pain, and Johnny had coaxed a dose of laudanum into him, gently holding him until he’d fallen asleep.
As he eased the boy out of his arms laying him back against the pillows, Johnny realized that one thing was painfully clear; Carlos had feelings for his father. The man might have half beaten his son to death but the boy had apparently loved him. How could he? Johnny asked himself, he’d hated every one of his abusers.
Troubled by a complication he hadn’t expected he sat and watched the boy sleep.
Violent images had roused him from the depths of sleep and on opening his eyes he’d found himself alone, alone for the first time since he’d stumbled across the folk at Lancer.
He was tired, so very tired but he didn’t want to go back to sleep, not if it meant reliving that night over and over again.
His mouth was dry, unbearably, dry and his gaze settled first on the empty glass, and then the pitcher of water Johnny had earlier placed on a table across the room.
It was only a matter of a few steps, Carlos was sure he could make it that far, further if need be. Gritting his teeth against the pain that seared across his back he threw his legs out of bed and with sheer willpower alone forced his shaking frame up onto two leaden legs.
The pitcher suddenly looked a lot further away and he faltered as the room began to spin around him. Inhaling deeply he told himself that all he needed was some air and somehow persuaded his reluctant feet to shuffle over to the window.
Movement below instantly caught his eye and he looked down at the two figures engrossed in conversation. He recognized Johnny immediately but the other man he didn’t think he’d seen before, maybe if he was to turn around and show his face he’d know for sure. Just seconds later the man did just that as he swung himself up onto his horse. Carlos’ keen eyes spotted the badge immediately and panic raced through his veins, so too the excruciating pain of betrayal.
He’d trusted Johnny! Trusted him just like he'd promised him he could. Angry, bitter tears stung his eyes and he stumbled blindly back towards the bed, the whistling in his ears growing louder, the light fading around him until finally darkness claimed him.
Armed with the information his friend had provided Val turned his mount and headed back toward Green River. Johnny's new friend Carlos had trouble that was certain, but the lawman was more worried about the possible implications to his friend, and his friend's family. Johnny attracted trouble like a man was drawn to a sweet smelling woman, even when he went out of his way to avoid it, and Val had no doubt this boy, Carlos, was trouble incarnate. Well, maybe the boy wasn't actually trouble but in Val's mind the boy sure as hell was bringing it with him. With these grim thoughts first and foremost in his mind Val hurriedly made his way to town.
Johnny watched until his friend could no longer be seen before turning back toward the hacienda. Shoulders bowed under the burden of the past, Johnny took a deep breath before turning to face the massive structure he now called home. A slight movement in the window overlooking the courtyard where he stood quickly drew his attention. Senses heightened by the figure in the window, a figure which hastily drew back out of sight, had Johnny moving determinedly toward the heavy front door. As his hand reached for knob, the door was suddenly flung open, Johnny almost colliding with Scott.
"Where you off to in such a hurry?" Johnny snapped before shouldering past his brother.
"Johnny, what’s wrong?" Scott's hand snaked out and grasped Johnny's shoulder, effectively halting his forward motion. With a quick twist Johnny escaped his brother's grip and headed for the stairs, his focus firmly on his destination.
Murdoch was already in the room, gently easing the unconscious form back into bed. Johnny hurried toward them, “What the hell was he doing out of bed? He was asleep when I left him.” Anxiously Johnny felt the boy’s brow, before tucking the covers around the unconscious form.
“He’s alright, son.” Murdoch reassured.
“He saw me with Val!” Johnny hissed before beginning to pace the floor.
Murdoch glanced briefly across at his older son who had just entered the room. “I see, but that doesn’t necessarily mean…”
“He saw me talking to a sheriff! He’s no fool; he’ll know what we were talking about!” Johnny snarled.
“That may be but when you explain it to him, your reasons for doing so, he trusts you…” Scott began, the ire in his brother's eyes telling him instantly that he had said the wrong thing.
“DID trust me!” Johnny exploded, storming from the room.
His bedroom door slammed behind him only to be swiftly reopened. Johnny turned and found his father staring at him, concern in his pale blue eyes.
“You did the right thing.”
“Right for who, Old Man? For you maybe! The great Murdoch Lancer can’t be seen to be doing anything illegal like harboring a killer, now can he?”
“John!” Murdoch uttered in exasperation as he shut the door behind him; the whole house didn’t need to hear what promised to be another heated exchange. “Telling Val was the right thing to do for Carlos. Like you said, he’s no fool, he will understand…!”
“No, he won’t! Putting his trust in me was a huge step for him. I told him I’d help him that I’d sort it out but I never mentioned involving the law!”
“How else could you sort it out?” The patriarch reasoned. “If you tell him Val is on his side, that he can be trusted!”
“And it’s that easy for you, isn’t it? Trusting someone!”
“Easier for me than you, I know…” Murdoch offered quietly, knowing his attempts at reasoning with his son were only serving to make things worse.
“That’s just it! You don’t know! You don’t understand…”
“Then tell me!” Murdoch pleaded, effectively silencing his son; he watched as the young man turned his back on him and stepped dejectedly toward the window.
“Johnny, he can’t run from this, not like you did.”
“This ain’t about me!” Johnny snapped in frustration. Why did his father have to keep bringing it back to him?
“But it is son. You’re trying to deal with this in a way that will put an end to Carlos’ nightmare; you don’t want him living with it day in, day out like you have done. There has to be some sort of closure or it will haunt him like that night haunts you…that’s why you’re doing this, that’s why you told Val.”
“I should have told Carlos first!” He’d had every intention of doing so, just as soon as he woke up.
“You didn’t have chance to but when he wakes up you can.”
“If he’ll listen!” Johnny replied turning to face his father.
“He will, like Scott said he trusts you. He’ll know what you did was for the best.”
Nodding, his belief in his father’s words slowly growing; Johnny lowered himself wearily to sit on the bed.
“Johnny, we need to talk about that night.” Murdoch stated calmly, determined not to miss another opportunity.
The dark head snapped up, the sapphire eyes flashing angrily. “Why is it so damned important to you?”
“Because you are so important to me, John!” Murdoch watched the anger evaporate from his son’s eyes before they suddenly looked down and away. “I want to help you like you are trying to help that boy in there. There was no one to help you then, no one you could trust, but you can trust me now and you can tell me anything. You know that, don’t you?”
Johnny sat silently, yes he trusted his father but there were things he didn’t want the older man to know, things that would hurt him, things that he was deeply ashamed of, and that night was one of them.
Slowly he met his father’s expectancy filled eyes and found his intended reply change as it left his lips. “I don’t think I can!”
Scott heard the door shut the muffled raised voices and then the apparent silence. He sighed deeply; it seemed his father had managed to say something to soothe Johnny’s troubled soul.
His eyes fell on the reason for all the upset and his heart went out to the boy. He’d been forced to take a life, his own father’s life but the man had been no father to him, had shown him only cruelty and neglect. Scott swore a silent oath; Carlos would learn what love was here at Lancer, just like his brother had done.
Time passed slowly his mind frequently moving to and wondering about what was taking place in his brother’s room. The silence finally broken when a moan escaped the boy’s lips and his eyes fluttered open, Scott met the dazed stare with a warm smile.
“Would you like some water?”
Carlos nodded the panic beginning to rise once more in his chest, as he remembered what he’d earlier witnessed. He had to get away, desperation once again forcing his hand. As the older man turned to reach for the glass, Carlos concentrated all his strength on reaching out and grasping the lamp on the nightstand, as Scott turned toward him he slammed the object at Scott’s head, watching him slump unconscious to the floor.
Carlos watched in horrified fascination as Scott slumped to the floor, the blonde Lancer's eyes wide with shock before his heavy lids shuttered closed. With a low groan Scott settled in a heap at Carlos' bedside. Holding his breath, fearful the sound of Scott's collapse may somehow have been heard, the boy strained to hear the night noises of the great house. Soft, yet obviously impassioned, voices drifted from Johnny's room across the hall, evidently the two men were too involved in their own conflict to have been aware of any sound save that of their determined wills.
As quietly as his trembling limbs would allow, Carlos rose from the bed, small drops of perspiration beading on his forehead as weakened limbs protested the enforced activity. He staggered to the bureau, grasping the aged oak with both hands, his eyes closed as he fought for control. Minutes passed at an agonizing crawl, finally the boy's breathing slowed, less painful now and his legs seemed resigned to accepting his weight. Hesitantly he opened the first drawer, searching for his clothing, and was rewarded when he found a familiar shirt and pair of pants. A soft moan came unexpectedly from behind him; Carlos froze, heart thundering, the sound wrestling with the constant roaring in his ears. Once more Scott settled into the darkness Carlos' rash act had dispatched him to. //At least he is ok.// Carlos sighed heavily.
Carlos dressed as quickly as his protesting body would allow, with one last glance at Scott Lancer he timidly opened the bedroom door, pausing only to assure himself that Murdoch and Johnny Lancer were still otherwise distracted. The argument across the hall having reached a crescendo was now softer, yet the intensity remained. Fearful of discovery, the boy crept down the stairs and exited the hacienda. The air was moist, heavy, clouds hung broodingly in the velvet sky, their bulk and weight blocking the moon and smothering the stars. The darkness would shelter him from prying eyes; it was a good night for prey....
Johnny stared out into the darkness, the evening shadows having turned quickly into night. He sighed, the days were growing increasingly shorter, the nights colder and it had been on a similar such winter's night that his life had changed, when he had taken his first step to becoming Johnny Madrid.
He didn't know where or how to start telling his father this dark and ugly tale. He had shared some of his past with the old man and Scott these past few months, and they had seemingly taken everything in their stride, listening, supporting, uttering encouraging words, never showing any shock or revulsion and never once judging him.
His tentatively made revelations had, he knew, been either a confirmation or a denial of the events laid out in the report his father had tucked away in his desk. The Pinkerton file was filled with little actual fact but plenty of rumor and hearsay; they had admitted that much to Murdoch. When offered Johnny had refused to read it, he didn't need reminding of the things he'd done nor would he dwell over things he was alleged to have done. He had told his father none too politely in one of their many early arguments, "You can believe what the hell you like, I don't give a damn what you think of me!"
But it did matter what his family thought of him, he wanted their good opinion, their respect, and above all else their love. And it had all seemed to come so easily, so freely. That still surprised and confused him. It was if they could see something in him he himself couldn't. Although there had been many head-on collisions, especially with his father, they had mostly managed to ride out his stony silences, fiery outburst and mood swings with a patience he couldn't quite fathom.
He knew he had read his father all wrong, his first impression of the man less than favourable; he had seemed so cold, so remote that first day. A complete stranger yet this stranger had the very same blood running through his veins. Johnny had wanted to hate him; he had done so most of his life, but on coming face to face with the man it had proved impossible. There had been something in the pale blue eyes, something in the way Murdoch had looked at him. He hadn't known what it was then, but now Johnny knew it had been love, the love a father has for his son. Despite their years apart that love had never waned, and Johnny could sense that same love now, steadfast and true. Despite that reassurance his mouth was dry, his heart thundered painfully beneath his ribs and the usual steady hand of a gun hawk trembled uncontrollably. What to say? How to start retelling the nightmare? Slowly he turned to meet the older man's gaze.
"What does the Pinkerton report say about that night?"
The cold air entered his lungs, irritating the already inflamed air passages; and Carlos coughed involuntarily, agony engulfing him he slumped against the hacienda wall, unable to stifle either the cough or the ensuing moan that escaped his lips.
With faltering steps, he made his way painfully, tremulously toward the barn. He would need a horse and this time he was determined no one would prevent him from fulfilling his objective. Breathlessly he reached the barn door, pausing to lean precariously against the structure, its firm support like a life line. Moments later found the boy struggling to pry open the massive door, his heart hammering in his chest as the creaking of hinges threatened to betray his presence. At long last he stood within the safety of the dimly lit barn, reassured by his success so far.
With careful tread he made his way to the first stall. A chestnut mare stood within the stall, eying the stranger ominously, her ears flat against her dainty head. A swift glance at the foal laying nestled in the straw at her feet, and Carlos moved away. The next stall housed the tall sorrel, Scott's horse Johnny had said in their first encounter. A moment of guilt flooded the boy's soul as he recalled watching the oldest Lancer son crumple at the side of his bed. Swallowing back tears, he grasped the bridle hanging just outside the stall and stepped inside.
"Easy, boy," he crooned. "We are gonna take a little ride."
The question hadn't really surprised Murdoch, Johnny was adept at being evasive, a master at deflecting any intrusive query into his past but the patriarch was ready for that and replied calmly. "Not very much and what is written there doesn't interest me. I want to hear what really happened, and I would like to hear it from you. That way I know it's the truth."
Sitting down on his son's bed Murdoch tried to maintain an air of calm, but inside his stomach roiled and the palms of his hands oozed moisture. He waited patiently; frightened any further attempt to push Johnny into talking would have the reverse effect.
The sapphire eyes gazed miserably at him, the young man's turmoil visible in their depths. It would be so easy now to say, "Alright if you don't want to talk about this, we won't." But he wasn't about to say those words, he had more backbone than that and so did his son. Johnny was brave, fearless, recklessly so, and they would get through this together.
The small copse was, he was sure, just up ahead and he urged his stolen mount on up the hill. He'd recently sought shelter there from the endless rain, spying the ranch from the vantage point; he'd realized it was his only chance of escape. But Johnny had discovered him just like the man Barley had, only Johnny hadn't been angry or verbally abusive, and he hadn't tried to intimidate him or wrestle the gun from him. From the minute Johnny had set eyes on him he'd tried to reason with him, had shown concern, he and his family showing nothing but concern for him since. But today Johnny had betrayed him...but had he though? Had he betrayed him? Carlos didn't know, not for sure. He'd seen a badge and panicked. He'd not stopped to think about things, he'd not given Johnny chance to explain. He’d simply run; he was doing a lot of that lately.
It's too late, he told himself, he couldn't go back, not now, he'd hurt Scott.
Scott had been good to him; he was the first white man to ever show him any kindness. He closed his eyes against the tears that again threatened, shivering with cold and fear. He was scared, so scared he couldn't think straight. Now once again he found himself in possession of a stolen horse, and soon there would be more men hunting him down, angry and perhaps even vengeful men, and he couldn't blame them for that. What was he to do?
Unaware of the figure concealed by the trees Carlos rode on, the sorrel's gait slowing as his young rider's control of the reins grew lax. The dark head bowed as the tears finally fell.
The pair of hands came from out of the darkness; stunned he could do nothing to prevent their actions and he crashed violently to the ground, the impact with the cold hard earth driving the air from his lungs.
"Got ya!" A disembodied voice snarled. "And I got a little something here for ya boy!"
The huge fist delivered its first brutal blow jerking Carlos’ head sideways, he groaned as yet another found its mark, the third mercifully delivering him into oblivion.
Breathing in deeply, and slowly, Johnny fought to calm his thundering heart, fully aware that his father was maintaining his vigilant, expectant stare. That his old man was determined to have this conversation was more than obvious. There would be no backing down, no reprieve, the thought he was trapped felt at once terrifying and yet, oddly comforting. With a start, he realized he did not want to escape. It was time to put aside the facade, face his fear, his past; his father's presence strengthening him. With a boldness he had heretofore been unwilling to display Johnny took another breath and prepared to expose the whole ugly truth of his past.
"Murdoch, I..." he began, but the sudden inward swing of the bedroom door had Johnny whipping around to face the intruder, his father rising from his place on the bed. Shocked the two Lancers stood momentarily frozen in place as Scott staggered into the room. Then Johnny was moving, his arms outstretched, grasping his brother's shoulder, steering him to the bed. Dismayed he noticed the trickle of blood on Scott's left temple. Now Murdoch was beside him, a glass of water in one hand and a clean kerchief in the other.
"Damn Scott, what happened?" Johnny breathed.
"Carlos what?" Johnny growled, the adrenaline began to rush through his veins as the realization Scott had been attacked pounded into his mind.
"Calm down, son, let Scott catch his breath." Murdoch gently held the glass to Scott's mouth, steadying his oldest son while he took a sip of the cool, welcome liquid.
"Carlos, he hit me from behind. He's gone...” But Johnny was gone as well, his rapid, determined strides taking him knowingly to the barn.
Jake Barley was beginning to regret his hasty fists, the boy could have answered a few of his questions if he’d been conscious, but the boy would talk soon enough, he knew just how to loosen his tongue. Hauling the limp form up, and none so gently, across the sorrel's back he decided not only to tie the boy's hands and feet together but to secure him by rope to the saddle. The kid was as slippery as they came; no doubt he’d done a runner from the Lancers too. Well he wasn’t going to escape from him, not a second time; he’d make damn sure of that!
the boy had no chance of freeing himself from his bonds Barley urged his horse
into a gallop, the sorrel reluctantly following on behind.
Earlier as he’d searched for the boy Barley had come across an abandoned shack. It was he estimated about an hour's ride away, out of sight and probably long forgotten, and he felt sure he’d be undisturbed there. Hopefully he could find it again, and long before anyone noticed the kid was gone.
The curses flowed freely as Johnny realized Scott’s horse was gone, he was angry with Carlos but mostly angry with himself. This was entirely his fault. The boy was out there again, alone and scared, running from someone he had placed his trust in, someone he believed had let him down, someone he would never trust again.
//And God knows that boy needed to be able to trust someone// Johnny silently raged at himself.
Storming back to the hacienda his father met him at the door. “Well?”
“He took Scott’s horse,” Johnny explained as he made his way over to the couch where Scott sat, eyes closed, holding a cold compress to the large, painful swelling that had been inflicted on him.
“How do you
”I’ve felt better," Scott admitted.
“Look, I’m gonna go fetch him back. He can’t have gone far, not in the condition he’s in. He ain’t up to sittin in a chair, let alone sittin a horse.
“Johnny it’s too dark, wait until morning. I’ll get the men to help you." Murdoch tried to reason with his son, although he knew it would prove futile.
“No, anything could have happened to him by then and I don’t want the men lookin either. He’ll think there’s a posse after him.”
first light a tired and dejected Johnny Lancer returned to the ranch. He’d found
no sign of Carlos and the ground was too sodden after days of rain to promise
any help with tracking now that he would soon have the benefit of daylight.
Teresa had placed a heaping plateful of bacon and eggs in front of him but he’d failed to attack the food with his usual gusto, his appetite like his heart sinking fast. His father had watched quietly and with dismay. After answering Johnny’s questions about his brother he had thought it best to hold his tongue knowing his younger son was in no mood for conversation.
“Scott’s really ok this morning?” The blue eyes found the patriarch's, needing further reassurance about his brother’s health.
“Yes, or so he tells me. Whatever, he’s determined to help find Carlos,” Murdoch stated and waited for his son’s reaction.
“Oh no, he ain’t!” Johnny snapped determinedly. His brother had had a concussion the night before and no matter how mild it might have been Johnny wasn’t about to let him go anywhere so soon.
“Yes, he is!” Scott entered the kitchen his tone sounding equally as determined as his brother’s. Sitting down at the table he continued, “Since when do I listen to you…that would be a surefire recipe for trouble.”
help but grin, fact was Scott was right; he usually managed to get them both in
”I can spare a few men Johnny to help you look,” Murdoch offered again.
“No, we’ll find him and when we do he’s got some listening to do!”
Carlos had awoken in the dark, cold cabin completely at a loss as to where he was and why. All he knew was that his hands and feet were bound together and that he lay shivering on some damp wooden floor. Bit by bit, piece by piece, his aching head put together the events of the past few days and he realized that it had to be Barley holding him captive. But why? Johnny had said his father had paid Barley off, that he wouldn’t be back…was that yet another lie?
He could hear the soft, even breathing of his captor and knew he was asleep; maybe he could somehow take advantage of that and escape. But he was so weak, the cold, dank air seemingly sucking the remaining strength from his bones. With supreme effort and iron will he forced his protesting body to obey and heaved himself up onto his knees. He sighed, knowing the hardest part was still to come; edging toward the timber made wall he maneuvered himself into a position in which he could use the solid frame to help lever himself upward. Slowly, laboriously, and above all else painfully, he struggled to his feet.
//Dios!// He felt so ill, his lungs burned, his back screamed with every little movement made, and he was completely exhausted. All he wanted to do was sleep, sleep and never wake up. Maybe that was the answer to all this, maybe it was the only way out for him?
Resisting the urge to sit back down and await his fate Carlos shuffled over to where he believed the door was. He couldn’t really see its outline but he could feel the draught sneaking under it. Turning his back, he reached out with his fingers feeling for the door handle. With his hands bound he had so little movement in them and it took a while before he located what he wanted. Holding his breath, afraid it would be locked he turned, tugged and pushed at the handle, almost wanting to cry with relief when it opened.
It was raining and pitch black outside, and he had no idea where he was, but he decided he’d rather take his chances out there than with a man like Barley. Just as he was about to move out into the night a hand grabbed him, violently hurling him down onto the floor. His heart thundered in his chest, fear raising its ugly head yet again; he heard a match being struck and suddenly lamplight spilt all around him.
“You’re a persistent little bastard I’ll give you that!” Barley snapped getting hold of the boy by the scruff of the neck and dragging him roughly into the corner of the cabin, where with one well aimed blow he rendered him unconscious for the second time.
Dawn struggled to break through the clouds, which still hung heavily over the earth. Beneath the dim sky, the men of Lancer also struggled to wrestle themselves out of the shroud of gloom which lay heavily upon the kitchen. Morosely Johnny scowled at his plate of eggs, angrily spearing one forkful after another into his mouth. Irritation etched lines firmly across his face, broken only as he swallowed a gulp of hot coffee, the liquid searing his throat.
"Damn, Teresa, did you have to make the coffee so hot!" He growled.
"Johnny!" This came sharply from Murdoch, his fork clattering against his plate as it fell from his fingers, his attention now fully on his youngest son. "Look, we know how this is bothering you. Scott and I are concerned about Carlos, too. It is, however, no excuse for such manners."
Johnny opened his mouth to argue, the retort balanced precariously on his tongue, before a pleading look from Scott broke his resolve. With a heavy sigh he laid his fork down, rested his elbows on the table and met his father's stare.
"Sorry, Murdoch. I’m just worried about the boy."
"Of course you are, son. We are too."
A nod of agreement from Scott was answered by a hesitant grin from the youngest Lancer.
"He didn't even ask me what I was talking to Val about. He just assumed. Why does he have to be so damned hot-headed?"
"Kinda like the pot calling the kettle black, right brother?" Scott teased quietly.
suppose so. I just don't know how we are going to track him. All this rain is
washing away any tracks. We don't even know where he could be heading." Johnny
sighed heavily, before picking up his fork, his movement’s automatic, the
“At least the rains stopped.” Scott stared up at the sky studying the clouds; blue sky was trying to peep through the scurrying masses offering the promise of a dry spell.
“I hope he’s got the sense to find shelter somewhere.” Johnny muttered eyes falling on the dense woodland up ahead.
Scott nodded; the boy was sick, exposure to the elements already having played a hand in that. The longer he was out here now, the sicker he would become.
The brothers rode on in silence, each scouring the area for signs the boy had passed that way.
The brooding silence was proving too much for Scott though and he decided to
question his brother on something that had been on his mind since the night
”Did I interrupt something last night, between you and Murdoch?”
Johnny instantly looked away. “No!” Knowing better than to lie to his brother he quickly added, “Well, nothing that won’t keep.”
“He’s worried about you.”
“I know,” Johnny acknowledged softly.
“Don’t push him
away, Johnny.” Scott knew it was a risky comment, one that could result in
Johnny spouting some vicious retort but he was willing to take the risk.
”I don’t mean to Scott.” The youngest Lancer son sighed; weary of his constant battle with his past. “It’s just that…” he shrugged, not knowing how to explain.
“Just that it means letting him in, letting him get a little closer to you?
Johnny’s shoulders slumped. “It ain’t that.”
Scott pushed determined to get to the heart of the matter.
”I just don’t want to lose him…that’s all,” Johnny stated quietly, uncomfortable with such openness even with his brother.
”You still don’t give him much credit, do you?” Scott waited for the blue eyes to meet his, finding the mixture of anger and helplessness he knew would be there.
”There’s nothing you can tell him that will change the way he feels about you. Isn’t it time you started to believe that?”
A forlorn sigh escaped Johnny’s lips. “I do most of the time but like I said I’m scared of losing him, and sometimes that fear takes control. But I will talk to him Scott; I made my mind up about that last night.”
Scott simply nodded; taking Johnny’s assurance to mean the subject was now closed. The two men rode on for another mile or two before Johnny decided it might be a good idea to separate and widen the search.
“Alright, but you take care. I promised Murdoch I’d keep an eye on you.” Scott grinned.
He asked me to
keep an eye on you too! You’re the one with a lump the size of Texas on his
head.” Johnny replied smugly as he urged Barranca on.
looked quite run down, uninhabitable in fact but smoke curled from its chimney
proof that life still went on inside.
//Maybe Carlos has taken shelter there// It was, he supposed, the ideal place for a runaway to hold up but he knew the odds were slim and that it could just as easily and more likely be some drifter.
Spirits suddenly rising he told himself that with a bit of luck he would find the boy there, and be able to put everyone’s mind at rest. It was probably too much to ask for but they’d been searching for hours and were due a bit of luck. But luck, he decided as he crashed violently to the ground, was not on his side today. Winded he lay still, aware the bullet that had sent him sprawling from his horse was lodged in his shoulder and if the pain was anything to go by it was lying up against bone. Fighting off the encroaching darkness he told himself now wasn’t a good time to pass out, but despite his resolve he closed his eyes and knew no more.
The boys had been gone all morning and Murdoch hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything for worrying about them. A very uneasy feeling had settled on his shoulders and he had decided the only way to alleviate his concerns was to ride out after them. Grown men they might be but they were still his sons, and he had a feeling they needed him.
//Needed him// the thought made the patriarch balk. They and Johnny in particular, had needed him as they had grown to manhood but he had not been there for either one of them. It had been, and still was, a heavy cross to bear and he would go to his grave with the guilt and regret he carried.
The rancher had an idea in which direction his sons were heading. They knew the
area pretty well by now and had planned their search before leaving, hoping to
find the boy quickly, but it seemed they had been unsuccessful. Two hours after
leaving the ranch Murdoch had not set eyes on either one of his sons and his
concern grew; was he being irrational? His heart told him no.
Finally off in the distance he spotted a rider, narrowing his aging eyes he felt a small measure of relief //Johnny!//
Urging his horse on he was soon met by an equally concerned Johnny.
“We were supposed to meet up an hour ago,” Johnny explained, concern for his brother evident in his voice.
“We’ll do another sweep of the area he was searching; he can’t have strayed too far,” Murdoch stated trying to reassure his younger son.
“Something’s wrong!” Johnny snapped. “You know it too.” He’d been certain he’d heard a gunshot but his father didn’t need to know about that.
Murdoch nodded, afraid his voice would betray his deep concern; they both sensed Scott was in some sort of trouble but they could do nothing about it until they found him.
“Scott?” The hushed voice cut through the haze, dragging him reluctantly back to awareness. Forcing his protesting eyelids open he fought to focus on the shadowy blur beside him.
“Carlos?” Relief mingled with alarm, had the boy shot him?
“Si. Lie still, don’t make ‘him’ angry,” the boy pleaded quietly.
Nodding his understanding, Scott allowed his eyes to slide shut, the pain in his shoulder now radiating down his arm and into his hand. Careful not to jar his injured limb, he settled back against the cabin wall as comfortably as possible. The floor was hard and cold; moisture seeped through the wooden planks into his all ready chilled body. Carlos moved closer, seeking warmth through contact with Scott's body. Through the clothing that separated them, Scott could feel the fever ravaging the boy, the heat at once dangerous to the boy, yet welcome to the blond Lancer. Alarm invaded his thoughts; the realization that the boy, and he himself, required medical attention, exploded painfully into his thoughts. Struggling to remain quiet, to conceal his fear that the boy could die, Scott fought down the panic. He called on reserves his time in the army had afforded him, fought for control. Concentrating on stilling his thundering heart, Scott counted his breaths, still his breaths, in, out, in, out. At long last, a semblance of calm flooded his body; he then turned his attention to the sounds in the cabin.
moving around the cabin, the smell of coffee wafted through the air and
assaulted Scott's senses. Heavy footsteps moved closer, hot breath washed over
Scott's face, as the unknown assailant made sure of his captives. Satisfied they
were secure, he moved away once more.
Slowly Scott opened his eyes, letting them grow accustomed to the half light, what little light there was filtered in around the door and the small shuttered window. The blue eyes settled on the man responsible for their predicament.
//Barley! What the hell was he up to? Surely he could be reasoned with.//
“Barley,” Scott called the man’s name calmly, feeling the boy flinch beside him.
The older man turned around to face him, his face contorting into a sick grin. “You took your time coming round. I was beginning think you were a goner!”
“This boy is sick, can’t you see he needs help, a doctor.”
“I know what that half breeds needs, Lancer, and it ain’t a doctor.”
“Please. Let us go, let me get...”
“Please!" Barley mocked. You remembered your manners now, have you? Well, you’re a little too late boy. I aim to make you pay for what you and that kid did. No one lays a hand on Jake Barley and gets away with it!”
“I’ll take the woods this side of the stream; you take the other side,” Murdoch instructed his younger son.
Johnny nodded his consent and was soon urging Barranca through the water’s icy depths; what had once been a gently flowing stream was now a gushing torrent. With a quick nod of acknowledgement to his father he turned and began yet another search of the area. He must have missed something, Scott couldn’t have just vanished into thin air…but he had, and so had Carlos, or so it seemed. Maybe they were together? That thought offered a little comfort.
He didn’t know
this particular part of Lancer very well, was unsure of the woody terrain, and
if he wasn’t sure of his exact whereabouts maybe Scott hadn’t been either and
had simply lost his way. Johnny wasn’t so sure if that was an encouraging
thought or not. At the forefront of his mind was the thought Scott could be ill,
suffering the effects of the head injury. He should never have let his brother
//Damn the boy// Johnny’s anger surged but just as quickly it ebbed. He understood why Carlos had acted the way he had. Hadn’t he been as scared and as mistrustful of others at that age? Thankfully the boy’s actions hadn’t affected Scott or Murdoch’s determination to help him; in fact, it had seemed to strengthen their resolve. If only he’d had someone looking out for him when…when he’d been running scared.
Still worriedly pondering over what could have happened to his brother, Johnny noticed an area up ahead where the trees seemed to thin out into a small opening. //Could be a track leading somewhere// he mused.
On reaching the
spot Johnny realized he’d been right, and that the hoof prints in the muddy
ground looked pretty fresh. With hope surging inside he began to follow the
meandering dirt track.
The sun was casting long shadows when the track came to an abrupt end. Johnny reined in Barranca, stroking the golden neck as the stallion impatiently tossed his head. Silently he dismounted, and dropped the reins, knowing the stallion would not wander. Eyes and ears straining against the fading light, Johnny felt, more than saw, the presence of others. He glided forward through the trees, senses on full alert, and came to a small clearing. A dilapidated shack was situated against the trees on the far side of the clearing, and just to the side stood a barn in even worse condition than the shack. Through the cracks and broken timber Johnny could make out three horses, two of which he recognized as Scott’s. A thin trail of smoke from the chimney of the shack sent fingers of gray heavenward, and the faint smell of coffee invaded his nostrils.
Nothing moved in the clearing; but years of experience had taught Johnny well and he sank to the ground, prepared to wait and observe, at least for a while. Dim light flickered in the small window in the wall of the cabin facing Johnny but still no movement could be detected.
briefly tended to Scott’s wound, doing the minimum required to help keep him
from bleeding to death. He had also untied the boy’s hands after much reasoning
from Scott, and now the two of them sat huddled together sipping on the steaming
mugs of coffee their captor had given them. It seemed Barley had realized that
it was in his own best interest to treat them less harshly, that his plans to
extort money for their safe return wouldn’t come to fruition if they were dead.
One thing was clear to Scott; Barley was not as clever as he believed himself to be! He’d been found once and could, would be again, yet he had lit a fire and placed a lamp burning low in the window as if inviting company. His over confidence was a source of hope to the oldest Lancer son. Silently Scott prayed his brother had heard the gunshot, and would find his way along the same track Scott himself had followed. He knew Johnny's tracking skills and keen senses would lead him directly to the shack, if Johnny were anywhere nearby. Estimating the passage of time since he and his brother had split up, Scott knew he had to remain alert. If Johnny made an appearance Scott had to be ready to assist him in any way he could. His resolve strengthened, Scott greedily drank the hot brew, seeking the warmth and adrenaline the caffeine could provide.
They had not been permitted to talk, Barley threatening to “Shut the boy up for good,” if he caught them whispering again. The only words they had been able to exchange had been when Barley had stepped briefly outside, just enough time for Scott to question Carlos on his condition. The boy had reminded him yet again of Johnny when he’d assured him that he was fine. Scott knew he was anything but fine, but he had then been gratified to hear the boy apologize for his actions the night before, his words spoken with obvious sincerity. Scott knew Carlos had been desperate to get that message across.
“The next time
and hopefully there isn’t going to be a next time, just you remember what I said
about trusting Johnny! He won’t let you down, he’s out there looking for you…us
now, and he’ll find a way to help us.”
”Si.” Carlos nodded a faint smile on his lips.
Barley had returned then, sitting down at the dust laden table to clean and load his gun.
The man came
outside, taking a casual look around and checking on the horses before once more
entering the shack, Barley! Johnny recognized him immediately and suddenly
everything made sense. Barley was holding Scott and Carlos…but why? Money? Yes,
Johnny felt sure this was all about greed.
//Thankfully Barley ain’t the sharpest tool in the toolbox// Johnny acknowledged wryly, //he certainly ain’t expecting to be found!// Johnny was going to have great pleasure in surprising him. A cold grin curved Johnny's lips; he was going to enjoy this. Murdoch was not here to interfere and Johnny was going to have his say.
Silently Johnny rose from his position under the oak, slinking backwards into the trees, merging with the darkness he made his way to the back of the shack. There was no back door, no window; obviously whoever had built the shack had never expected an approach from the rear, the line of trees making the approach too difficult for an effective attack. But Johnny Madrid never did anything the easy way. Grinning at the prospect of facing Barley once more, Johnny approached the shack.
As night had fallen so had the temperature in the shack. The fire on the far side of the hovel emitted very little warmth their way, and cold was something neither of them could endure for long, not in their respective conditions.
Scott could feel his strength ebbing with each moment that passed and the boy was failing fast, the pneumonia taking a renewed and more fierce a hold. The elder Lancer son knew he himself was not in any real danger of succumbing to his injury, not if he was found fairly soon and knowing his brother he would be, but Carlos was a different matter. The thought of the boy dying before help arrived tortured Scott’s thoughts. It was all so unnecessary, all so unfair, just as the events in Johnny’s life had been.
The boy’s head rested on Scott's shoulder, the blue eyes closed, the heat radiating alarmingly from the slender and now so very fragile frame. Carlos was asleep, temporarily unaware of their plight, but his sleep was fitful, disturbed by the dry hacking cough that had returned with a vengeance. Each spate of coughing served to weaken him further.
//Where are you brother?// As the silent desperate plea escaped his troubled soul Scott’s gaze drifted upwards to the mix of dust and debris now wafting down from the roof timbers. Momentarily perplexed Scott’s eyes widened as he realized what, or rather who, was causing the roof to protest its burden.
what the hell was he doing up there?//
Instantly diverting his gaze, Scott’s mind sought an answer and just as enlightenment came smoke began to billow into the room, the chimney choking back the pungent matter it had sought to exhale.
Barley was on his feet instantly, loudly cursing the derelict shacks inadequacies. Scott breathed a sigh of relief; so far it hadn’t occurred to the older man that it could be a ploy to help rescue the captives. He watched as Barley strode to the door throwing it open, coughing helplessly as the smoke traveled the same path seeking some escape.
“Carlos! Carlos!” Scott whispered urgently, shaking the boy lightly. The dazed, blue eyes instantly found his. “Stay down; what ever happens you must stay down on the floor do you hear me?” Before the boy had chance to reply Scott had with his uninjured arm maneuvered the boy down to lie flat on the floor. He then quickly removed his neckerchief and pressed it into the boy’s icy hand guiding it up to Carlos' mouth, firmly ordering him to “Breath through that!”
The chimney stack had been sorely neglected; it’s opening now but a fraction of the chimney's width. It had taken very little effort and wood to completely close the scant opening. Grinning mischievously Johnny watched as the once slender fingers of gray were slowly choked out. He grinned even wider as he imagined the smoke fighting to escape, rising persistently up the flume to hastily retreat and pour into the room below. In his mind's eye he could see Barley attempting to clear the clogged artery that had once been a chimney. Carefully, silently, Johnny edged to the front of the house, tentatively testing each plank that made up the roof before fully settling his weight on the aged wood. Satisfied that he was now in position he drew his gun and squatted down, prepared to wait, albeit briefly he hoped. Scott and the boy would not be able to breathe either and the thought of the two people he had come to rescue suffering, made him decidedly uneasy. He shoved the distracting thought aside as activity could be heard from below
Johnny's wait was not long, as expected the front door burst open and Jake Barley staggered out, his hands vigorously wiping at his eyes. Momentarily blinded by stinging tears, Barley was not aware of Johnny dropping from the roof, until the weight of the falling man struck him firmly in the back. Collapsing under the assault, Barley clawed too late for his weapon, his hand never reaching the Colt as blackness surrounded him; Johnny effectively landing an incapacitating blow to the man's head.
Johnny rolled Barley over onto his back, confirming the man was indeed unconscious before covering his mouth with his hand and plunging headlong into the shack.
"Scott! Carlos!" Johnny called desperately.
"Here, brother. We're over here."
Then Johnny was there, squatting beside his brother, touching his shoulder, the white of his teeth breaking the smoke covered landscape of his face.
"Come on, Scott, we have to get out of here."
"I'm ok. I can walk, but Carlos is in bad shape."
"Go ahead, Boston, I got him." Johnny stood up, hefting the boy over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes before following his brother from the shack.
The brothers stepped over the still unconscious form of Jake Barley, walking further into the fresh air of the clearing before coming to a halt some twenty paces from the smoking building. Over head the clouds had broken allowing a stream of moonlight to shower their position with a welcome glow. Scott sank down, gratefully breathing in the clean air, as Johnny laid the boy down beside him.
"He's got a fever again."
"Yeah, he's burning up." The tension was broken by wide smiles as the brothers realized the irony of the comment. But Johnny’s smile withered the instant he saw the blood stain spreading across Scott’s shirt, his hands reaching out to examine his brother’s injury and finding a ragged and bleeding bullet hole. “We have to get you both home!” With that Johnny fired his Colt twice into the air.
“Murdoch.” Johnny acknowledged the puzzled look on his brother’s face. “He was worried about you!”
“Ok…us!” Johnny grinned before focusing his attention on Carlos. Solemnly he addressed the boy, his hand fingering away the heavy bangs from his forehead. “I thought we trusted each other? If you’d given me chance to explain I…”
It was over in the blink of an eye, a blur of action so fast that it left Scott in utter awe of his brother’s proficiency with a gun. He had not heard Barley stir behind them, had been blissfully unaware of the gun Barley had trained on his brother, the first inkling of trouble being the bitter utterance of the alias Johnny had once used. In the exact same second Johnny turned and fired his gun, the aim sure and the bullet true. Bailey yelped in pain, the gun falling from his lax fingers he turned and fled into the night.
“He’d better have got the message this time!” Johnny snarled meeting Carlos’s gaze, finding something new shining in the blue depths, unadulterated veneration. Johnny’s blood ran cold and a shiver ran down the dark haired Lancer’s back when the boy whispered reverently, “Usted es Johnny Madrid!”
It had been a week since the rescue, seven long and very worrying days. Both young men had had to battle to recover from their injuries. For Scott, previously in good health it had been a fairly straightforward but still uphill fight for recovery. The fever that had gripped him after the bullet had been removed lasted for several unpleasant days, proving difficult to shake off, leaving one exhausted and frustrated young man in its wake.
Carlos’s recovery had been an all out fight for life. At one point Dr. Sam Jenkins had warned the family that the boy was dangerously ill, that at that very moment in time he had more chance of succumbing to the pneumonia than he had of defeating it. The Lancer’s had rallied, death not an option to be considered and they had intensified their care of the boy. The crisis point had lingered on for hours, through what seemed an endless night but as the day had dawned, gray and cold, so had the first flicker of hope. The fever abated, the boy’s level of awareness improved, the pneumonia seemingly bowing down to a much greater determination.
watched helplessly as his younger son had run himself ragged. Constantly moving
between the two sick rooms, he had wanted to be with both patients, needed to be
with his brother but Carlos had needed him more. Johnny hadn’t slept apart from
dozing fitfully in a chair and had barely eaten, his own welfare shoved to one
side as someone else’s had again taken precedence.
If there was one good thing to come out of all this, it was that Carlos had begun to accept Murdoch, responding tentatively to the gentle but firm care he had shown the boy in Johnny’s brief absences. It seemed that if Johnny could trust the formidable figure so he could too, and that was why Murdoch now found himself sitting with the sleeping boy while Johnny ate breakfast with his brother.
”He asked me why I didn’t just kill Barley!” Johnny spat out the distasteful words.
“What did you tell him?” Scott asked quietly.
“I told him that killing a man isn’t something I would do lightly, that disarming him had been my first choice!”
“And?” Scott encouraged.
ultimately it meant one less black stain on my soul, one less ghost to haunt my
dreams and one less burden to carry around.”
”Is that how you see it? Is that how…?” The mournful sigh Johnny emitted silenced his brother and Scott waited with baited breath knowing Johnny was about to impart something never aired between them before.
“I can remember
every man I took down, not their name. I didn’t know most of them but I can
remember their faces, their eyes. One minute life is dancing there the next only
a chilling emptiness is staring back. Extinguishing that vital spark is
something I can never atone for, it’s a crippling weight on my shoulders,
a burden I’ll carry with me into hell.”
as the boy slowly surfaced from the laudanum induced sleep, noting with
satisfaction the hint of color in Carlos’ cheeks. Blue eyes fluttered open and
met his gaze, suspicion no longer to be found in the startling blue depths.
”Hungry?” Murdoch smiled. The boy’s appetite had returned the day before and with a voracity that reminded the patriarch of a recovering from injury, Johnny Lancer.
“Si senor.” Carlos had smiled back aware the older man was teasing him.
Murdoch had intended on going straight down to the kitchen but on making his way along the hallway he had collided with his younger son as he made what seemed to be a hasty retreat from his brother’s room.
“Not now!” Johnny snapped leaving his father to watch him move with alarming alacrity down the stairs. Murdoch stood then pondering his next move, his mind made up when the sound of the front door slamming reverberated through the walls. Opening his elder son’s bedroom door he peered around it, the disgruntled look on his elder boy’s face confirming his two sons had had words.
“Is it safe to
come in?” He ventured hoping his attempt at humor would pour some oil on one
troubled soul at least.
”Please do.” Scott replied the tension audible in his voice.
Settling himself down on Scott’s bed he forced the next word out past his lips knowing it would breach the dam. “Well?”
“He will not listen to reason! Stubborn mule headed know it all that he is!” The words tumbled angrily off Scott’s tongue and Murdoch listened resignedly as the young man continued to vent his spleen. “I never realized just how much guilt he carries, how much self abhorrence he has! It’s all kept deep inside, hidden, locked away where he doesn’t have to deal with it, where it’s eating him up inside, where it’s slowly killing him!” Scott sank back into his pillows, his ire exhausted, struggling to regain his composure in front of his father.
his son's hand with his own and squeezed reassuringly. “I know Scott, and we
just need to find the key to unlocking it all!”
Johnny stormed into the barn, the thunder of his frustration as loud as that of the impending tempest. He stalked to Barranca's stall, hurriedly grooming the mighty stallion before saddling and leading him outside. A brisk wind tore his hat off his head, the saddle string the only anchor preventing it from becoming airborne. With no regard for the oncoming deluge he swung astride and gently urged the stallion into a ground eating lope. In the eerie gloom of despair, Johnny headed away from Lancer.
The muffled sound of horse's hoofs announced the departure of a loved one. With a sigh Murdoch turned from the window, his shoulders slumped under the weight of love and pain.
"Johnny’s gone." Though voiced audibly, Scott felt like an intruder into the world of his father's anguish.
"Murdoch, he'll be back. You know Johnny, he just has to get off by himself and think. That's all." Confidence propelled Scott's words into the whirlwind swirling around the older man, reaching into his despair and lovingly resting on his shoulders. The gray head lifted, the shoulders squared once more, as the older man allowed his son's reassure to infiltrate the dark recesses of regret.
"You are right, of course, son. He just has to cool off, find his center. He'll be all right."
"Yes he will."
A brief pause followed as Scott sought words of comfort. "Murdoch? We will find
a way to reach the boy and help Johnny. We will!" Scott declared passionately.
Soaked to the skin Johnny shivered uncontrollably in the saddle. Lack of sleep and sustenance had left him decidedly below par, his muscles ached, his bones protested at the exposure to the damp air and his stomach groaned mercilessly. He had pushed his limits he knew, but worry and fear for the well-being of his brother and the boy had demanded he set aside his own needs.
”You’re getting soft Madrid,” He growled. But he wasn’t Madrid now, he was Lancer, at least he was trying to be. But being Johnny Lancer was fraught with difficulties and matters of the heart. And as Johnny Lancer he struggled to master both. Madrid had no such grief; he dealt with everything in his usual cold, calculating and efficient manner. Johnny knew without question which world he preferred to walk in, in which world he wanted to belong yet at the back of his mind there was always doubt. Did he deserve what Johnny Lancer had, what he was surrounded by?
He never tried to hide the fact but it wasn’t something he boasted about either but Madrid was part of him, would always be. There were times when he wanted to lay that mantle down, step away from it and forget what he had been. If only it were that simple, if only it were possible to wash his hands clean, but the sickening red hue was indelible. He was forever tainted by the blood he had spilled.
Gunfighters weren’t meant to have a conscience, weren’t supposed to have a soul, the devil claimed such trophies as his own. But his conscience and soul were intact albeit as battered and bloodied masses of pain he had no hope of ever healing. He had somehow over the years managed to suppress that pain, but every now and again like now it broke free of its chains and screamed for freedom, freedom Johnny was unable to grant. Why? He didn’t know. At least that’s what he told himself and it wasn’t a topic he would dwell on. Scott had pushed him on the subject earlier, and he had turned on the older man spouting a mouthful of hurtful and condescending comments before losing it completely and telling his brother to “Go to hell!” as he’d stormed from the room.
Now he had
calmed down, he could imagine the scene he’d left behind. Scott would fill their
father in on their heated exchange and both men would now ache with
helplessness, the helplessness he himself felt.
Resignedly he turned his mount around and headed back to Lancer. He’d been gone long enough, had thoughtlessly worried his loved ones yet again with his selfish need to escape their concern. He was like a little boy running away. He was always running from something…just like his father said he was. Well he couldn’t run for ever. His father had made that clear; he had to face certain things before he could finally be at rest. The only thing that made that task seem possible was the knowledge he wouldn’t have to do it alone.
expected that question; the boy was used to Johnny’s almost constant company and
his longer than usual absence was bound to raise a query.
”He’ll be in shortly; he had some chores to do. How are the eggs?”
seemed appeased by the patriarch’s reply, finishing off the rest of his meal in
Murdoch busied himself with reading some business papers; he had fallen behind with everything since Carlos had arrived at Lancer. When the silence was finally broken it was by Carlos who stunned the older man with his comment.
“I heard Johnny
Madrid was dead, shot down in Mexico.”
Murdoch struggled for a reply; the boy’s words a painful reminder of how close his son had been to death, but when the words finally did come they were spoken with undeniable finality “That part of Johnny’s life is over!”
He’d hoped to sneak in unseen, but his father was waiting for him by the door, concern written all over the older man's face.
“Johnny! You’re soaked through!”
“Yeah, I’ll just go…”
“Yes, and when you have, I’d like a word with you.”
Johnny sighed, and headed up to his room where he hurriedly stripped off his
sodden clothes. He quickly dried himself off only to then linger over getting
dressed, purposefully delaying the meeting with his father. Finally, forcing
reluctant feet out of his bedroom, he stuck his head first into Scott’s and then
Carlos’ room. Finding them both asleep he made his way downstairs to join his
father in the great room.
The older man was not where Johnny expected to find him, sitting at his desk; instead he stood looking out through the large arched window, out at the great expanse of Lancer, and the rain that continued to fall incessantly upon it. Johnny moved to stand along side the taller man.
”You worried? I mean about all the rain?”
“Yes, but right now I’m more worried about you.”
The pale blue eyes bored into his and Johnny had to look away. “I know and I appreciate it but…”
“Don’t tell me there is no need!” The patriarch stated firmly. “One look at you tells me the exact opposite; you haven’t eaten or rested properly in days and have just spent several unnecessary hours out there in that deluge. I’d say you give me just cause to worry.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little too late to be worrying about me?” Johnny snarled sarcastically at his father seeing the familiar flash of hurt in the older man's eyes. He wasn’t proud of his tactics, but it was a tried and tested method of throwing his father off course, or had been up until now.
Murdoch pulled himself to his full height, visibly armoring himself against his son’s words. “I’ve spent the last twenty years worrying about you, the last year trying to gain your trust… trying to be a father to you. Don’t throw it all back in my face John! I don’t believe I deserve that!”
between the two men, their eyes locked on each other.
”No, you don’t,” Johnny finally conceded, regret burning inside, shame coloring his pallid cheeks. “I’m sorry.” As the apology left his lips emotions surged up inside and Johnny felt himself sway. Instantly his father’s long arm swept around his shoulder, steadying him and guiding him toward the couch where he sat, flopping back in exhaustion against the cushions. Eyes closed, he was aware of his father placing more logs on the fire before his weight settled beside him.
“Yeah.” Johnny nodded eyes open, but fixed on his hands resting in his lap.
“Scott was right.”
“About what?” Murdoch asked softly.
Shyly Johnny admitted. “He said I push you away.”
Murdoch sighed. "You push us all away, son, even Scott.”
“Guess I don’t
give anyone much credit.”
”You have your reasons. We understand that.”
father’s eyes, Johnny shrugged. “I wish I did.”
”You’ve got a lot of healing to do, John.”
//Wasn’t that the truth.// Johnny silently acknowledged his father’s words. He still couldn’t quite let go of all his fears and insecurities. His heart told him one thing, but his head told him not to listen, not to trust, not to trust even them, the people who loved him…his family.
He’d been hurt
and let down so many times, all his life it seemed. His trust had been abused
just like his body and soul had been, the wounds still open, still so very raw
His father, his brother, they understood. They understood what made him hold back, distancing himself from their concern, but their attempts to reach him were slowly and surely wearing down his resolve to not let them in. Just like earlier with Scott, his brother had come a little too close, and he’d panicked and run. Murdoch was now treading the same path, only now he had no energy left to fight, only the overwhelming need to stop hurting.
Letting out a long, shuddering breath, Johnny stared determinedly into his father’s eyes, accepting that in order to move forward he had to look back.
“You want to
know about that night? I’m ready to tell you.”
Murdoch only nodded his relief at finally receiving the answer to the riddle of his youngest son plainly etched on his face. With a growing feeling of apprehension, the older man steadied his nerves, prepared himself to know the truth.
With a slow, shaky breath, Johnny hesitantly told him what he had so long wanted, no needed, to hear.
"We moved around a lot. When she couldn’t pay the rent we’d up and leave, usually during the night. One border town seemed much the same as the next, just the people changed. Except, there was this one man, a gringo. He always seemed to know where to find us, and mama, she always seemed pleased to see him, and so we lived with his drunken rages for two years. He’d beat on mama and he’d beat on me.
It was raining that night, hard too, like it has been the last week or so. He was drunk, but not too drunk to want mama. He didn’t want me there when he… but I had nowhere to go and mama promised him I’d be quiet, that I’d stay out of his way. I lay by the door, under a blanket, trying not to listen to them!
She laughed at first, then it changed. I’m not sure why. Back then I didn't know much about the way of a man with a woman. I only knew most times mama seemed to be having fun. She had a certain laugh. I knew that laugh..." Johnny paused. His hands twisted in his lap, the memories coming quickly now. Murdoch watched his son reliving the nightmare of that night, saw the horror wash over his son's face and could do nothing, nothing except place a hand on the boy's shoulder and squeeze reassuringly, offering comfort.
With a tremulous breath, Johnny plunged ahead, lost now in the past, seeing the events unfold before him once more.
"I heard her crying, she wasn't having fun any more. But he was laughing. There was something cruel about the laugh, like the man was the devil, or, or something. I tried; I tried so hard to ignore it. I didn't want to anger him or upset mama, but I couldn't stand to hear her cry again. Not any more. Before I knew what I was doing I had jumped up. I yelled at the bastard, told him to stop hurting her, to leave her alone. He got off of her and looked at me. Mama was begging him to leave me alone, said she would make him happy, that he could pleasure himself if he would come back to bed. But he just laughed, pulled on his pants, his gun belt… and then he started coming toward me."
Johnny leaped up from the sofa, agitation obvious in his posture; he stalked
back and forth in front of the fireplace, his words coming faster and ever
Murdoch watched, frozen in horror, his son's anguish hard to bear.
"He was a sadistic son of a bitch. The last couple of years he’d let me know just how much he hated half-breeds. I knew what was coming, knew he was going to hit me, beat me. Well, I had been beat enough, so had mama. I was tired of the beatings, of waking up in a barn somewhere after I ran. I was tired of it and I told myself he wasn't going to beat me again. Never again! I stood my ground, told him to get out!”
Johnny's breath was ragged, anger at the events of a night long ago now renewed, exploding about the boy. His determination to exorcise his demons was undeniable, inevitable.
"He had this grin, this evil grin. “I'm gonna beat you, boy, make you bleed. When I get through with you, you are gonna wish you were dead. I'm gonna make you my woman'. He was out of control and I thought I was too. But I wasn't."
Murdoch forced himself to his feet and walked slowly to the liquor cabinet, poured a glass of tequila, then offered it to his son. Automatically Johnny accepted the proffered glass, drinking it without tasting it, without a conscious thought.
"He was so
close I could feel his breath, his foul breath. Mama was still beggin. She
jumped on his back, trying to hold him offa me. But he just tossed her aside
like a, a rag. She fell, I heard her sobbing, and then she was still. He started
in on me and for the first time I fought back, but he was so much bigger than
me, so much stronger, I was helpless against his fists. I lay at his feet
praying he’d finished with me but then he pulled the knife and I knew that this
time I was going to die, that this time his threats to rid the world of a white
man's mistake were about to be carried through. I looked over at mama…her eyes
were open, but lifeless and I realized she was gone.
He held the knife to my throat and I knew what I had to do. I reached for his gun, held it to his chest and shot the son ova bitch. He fell, slow like a dream. His, his, blood, it was everywhere, all over me, on my face. It was sickly sweet. I held the wall and threw up. Murdoch I threw up."
Murdoch stood helplessly mere feet from Johnny unable to do anything, but listen and let the harrowing truth flow from his son.
Johnny's eyes momentarily searched his father's, pleading for understanding, forgiveness. A wild light began to glow in the younger man's eyes then as he slipped away, once more traveling back in time to another place, another shack in another storm.
"I ran outside, saw his horse and I took him. I just rode, as fast an as hard as I could til I found a small clearing. Then I stood in the rain, til it washed the blood off me. But it’s not washed off, Murdoch. Its not! I still see it, blood, all over me, in my face. I thought," Johnny's voice broke then, sobs coming without tears. "I thought I could ride away today, get cleaned once and for all but...”
Wrapping his arms around himself Johnny shivered his face contorting in self disgust. “How can you love me?”
Murdoch was in front of his boy in two strides, his arms going around the slender shoulders, holding his boy, supporting him, accepting him until finally came the tears, the hot and brutal release of all the pent up hurt, anger and shame. The grief erupted out in shuddering sobs of anguish. Murdoch clung desperately to his son, terrified to let him go, and as the boy’s knees buckled beneath him he sank to the floor with him, gently holding him in his arms and rocking him as he had done to comfort him as a child.
Scott grasped the door for support, his stomach roiled mercilessly. His heart pounded ever faster in his chest, tears stinging his eyes as his brother’s pain seared through his very soul.
Through his tears he watched silent ones fall freely down his father’s face, the older man’s pain finding some release.
It was a heart crushing sight, but one Scott couldn’t tear his eyes from. He wanted, needed to be part of the agony, knowing that his brother had taken the first steps to letting go of the past and the specters that haunted and tormented him. Like the phoenix rising from its ashes Johnny could now take back his life, and start it anew.
The change in his brother had been subtle at first but in the weeks since the younger man had broken down in their father’s arms, it had become more and more apparent. Johnny was more relaxed, more settled than he had ever been. The change was, Scott supposed, most visible in Johnny’s eyes, the blue depths free from doubt and suspicion, and shining with a new intensity a new zest for life.
The younger man remained oblivious to the fact his brother had heard him retell his nightmare, Murdoch knew, had spied him out of the corner of his eye, but the matter had not been discussed, there was no need, both men recognizing it for the catharsis it was, and so they had all moved determinedly on.
Today their focal point for concern was the early morning visit from the local lawman.
The news that Sheriff Val Crawford had at last managed to trace Carlos’ origins and had found his father to be alive had come as a great relief to the three Lancer men, all now listening intently around the breakfast table. But that relief mingled uncomfortably with concern, the information raising the question of what was to happen to the boy now, Carlos’ welfare being their one priority.
“He wants the
boy back!” Val explained hesitantly
”No!” Johnny slammed his fist down onto the table “Carlos ain’t going back to that! That bastards gonna have to find something else to beat on.”
”What did you make of him Val?” Murdoch ignored his younger son’s outburst, the boy’s father had rights and unfortunately as abusive as he was, he could legally take back his son not that the patriarch was about to let that happen without a fight, but hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.
“He sure ain’t the friendly sort, not by any stretch of the imagination. All he’d say was the boy was trouble, needed a heavy hand to keep in line, but I’d say things ran a lot deeper than that.”
“What do you mean?” Scott asked.
uncomfortably, aware his explanation would prove a painful reminder of the past
to some at the table. “I asked around, seems Carlos’ mother died in childbirth,
Carl Davies took her death pretty hard, blamed the boy and left his wife’s
father to raise him. The old man died a few years back and Carlos having nowhere
else to go ended up with his father. From what folks said Davies ain’t happy
about him being around, still can’t accept him.”
”Yet he wants him back?” Johnny snapped in disbelief.
Val shrugged “That’s what he said!”
“Did he mention the shooting?” The dark haired Lancer demanded.
“He said, the boy had earned himself a thrashing, was out of control and according to Davies had proved that when he shot him and left him for dead.”
”He was defending himself, that bastard had just beaten him half to death…” Johnny’s voice trailed off as the kitchen door opened and Carlos stepped into the room.
“Carlos, this is Sheriff Val Crawford.” Johnny gestured toward his friend.
“Mornin’ son!” Val smiled, pleased to see the boy up and about and looking a darn sight healthier than the last time he’d seen him.
“Senor!” Carlos answered quietly, painfully ill at ease in the Sheriff’s presence.
Deciding the boy needed to hear about his father in private Johnny excused himself and led Carlos into the great room.
Carlos waited expectantly, watching with a growing sense of foreboding as Johnny stared into the fire, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. Something had happened, of that Carlos was certain, yet he trusted the dark-haired Lancer. In spite of the feeling of dread, which was knotting his stomach, Carlos forced himself to remain calm, and wait.
With a heavy sigh, Johnny turned to face him, carefully gathering his thoughts before addressing the boy. He had to broach the subject with caution; he did not want to alarm the young man. But he knew the news would be disturbing, to say the least, and would not be well received. Still the blue eyes gazed intently at him, unquestioning trust shining in their depths. //No time like the present// Johnny almost laughed. It had taken him almost twenty years to face his own father. How could he expect Carlos to do the same in a matter of days? Taking a cleansing breath, Johnny plunged ahead.
"Carlos, Val found your father. He's alive." Johnny watched intently, awaiting the eruption that did not come. Instead, the boy merely nodded, his eyes downcast and unreadable.
"I suppose the sheriff came to arrest me, didn't he?" he questioned softly.
"No, nothing to arrest you for. You didn't do anything to be arrested for. Davies isn't dead. Your father, I mean. He isn't dead."
"I don't understand."
"He is alive and well, and he wants to take you home."
The awaited explosion came then, the boy leaped from his place on the couch, moving rapidly toward the front door. Johnny crossed the span between them in two giant strides, grasped the boy's collar, and hauled him around until they stood face to face, mere inches apart.
"You are not running," he hissed, his grip on the boy's neck tightening. "We are going to face this together, and WE are not going to allow him to take you without a fight. Now, you are going to trust me, and sit still, do you understand me?" Johnny demanded, his voice rising in intensity, each word hammering painfully into Carlos' confused thoughts, until suddenly he understood with shocking clarity.
"You aren't going to turn me over to him?" he whispered.
"No son, no way." Johnny shifted his grip, his arms encircling the boy's neck and pulling him into an embrace. "We are not going to let that bastard hurt you. Not ever again," He vowed.
Things were finally falling into place, Johnny understanding now why Carlos had admitted to shooting his father but had not then felt able to share anymore of their history. Johnny knew how it felt to feel unwanted, to believe your own father didn’t want you. He’d been wrong of course but it seemed in Carlos’ case to be irreversibly true. Carl Davies might have said he wanted his son back but it was obvious it wasn’t to heal the rift between them. No. Carlos’ father sounded like a man who didn’t like to lose, who might not want what he had but was loathe to let it go, his son was just such a commodity!
The gunshots startled Murdoch and he lurched up from behind his desk, striding out through the French windows to see who it was shattering the calm that had resided around him all morning. With both his sons and most if not all the hands occupied with various ranch tasks he knew it wasn’t them firing round after round in the pasture.
The boy whirled
around to face him, eyes dancing with excitement “I’m getting better no?”
”What are you doing?” Murdoch asked not wanting the answer to be the obvious one.
“One day I will be as fast as Johnny!”
wrenched the gun from Carlos’ hand and demanded, “Why would you want to be?”
The blue eyes darkened, the young man' countenance turning cold and ugly. “So men will treat me with respect!”
“There are other ways to earn respect Carlos!”
“Not for a half-breed!” The boy snarled storming back to the hacienda.
hesitated briefly before striding after Carlos, knowing he couldn’t let the
boy’s beliefs go unchallenged.
”Carlos!” Murdoch demanded as he entered the hacienda. The boy turned to face him, fear now evident on his face.
“I just want to talk to you.” Murdoch softened his tone; chastising himself for what he realized must have seemed a threatening approach to the boy. “Come, sit over here with me.” Making his way to the couch the older man waited for Carlos to join him.
“It was different for Johnny, he had no one. For him it was simply a matter of survival, not a way to earn respect. If I’d found him sooner, if someone had been there for him he would never have needed to turn to a gun for protection. He would never have become Johnny Madrid. The name Madrid might be respected, be revered by some, but Johnny would rather have you and anyone else he cares about respect him for the man he really is and that is Johnny Lancer.” Murdoch paused not sure the boy was listening, let alone thinking about what he’d just said. “Carlos, you are not alone. There are people who care about you, we care…”
“My father doesn’t.” The boy’s eyes finally met Murdoch’s; unmistakable hunger for the answer as to why, burning there.
Murdoch searched desperately for words that would help the boy understand something he as a father couldn’t. How could a man not love his own son?
“It seems he stopped caring about everything when your mother died, that’s how some men deal with their grief. They simply stop caring so they don’t have to feel such pain ever again.”
“He blames me!”
“And he’s wrong,” Murdoch stated quietly before turning to see who had just entered in through the front door.
“Everything ok?” Johnny asked, sensing the tension in the room.
“Si," Carlos replied, jumping to his feet and quickly leaving the room.
Johnny moved swiftly after the obviously distressed boy.
“Let him go, John!”
“He was upset?” Johnny eyed his father questioningly.
“I know and there’s only one person who can do anything about that and that is his father.”
“That ain’t likely now is it?” Johnny snarled.
Thoughtfully rubbing his fingers across his chin Murdoch faced his younger son, knowing his decision would not go unchallenged.
“I’m going to
ride over and see Carl Davies!”
Shaking his head determinedly Johnny stated calmly “No! If anyone’s going it’s gonna be me!”
“I don’t like it!” Johnny growled, watching his father tighten the cinch of his mounts saddle.
“So you’ve told me… at least a dozen times!” Murdoch replied weary of the hour long argument he’d been having with his younger son.
“That’s because you ain’t listening, not to reason!”
“I heard you and I still say Davies is more likely to listen to someone with similar experiences than a hot head like you!”
Johnny studied his father and sighed “I got your temper Old Man!”
Murdoch chuckled “So I’m told.” Pulling himself up onto his horse Murdoch stared down at his younger son “You stay put!”
“Scott ain’t going to like it.”
Murdoch smiled; having sons worry over him was something he was still getting used to. ”I should be back by Sunday!”
“And if you ain’t?”
Dismissing his son’s concern with a simple “Bye John.” Murdoch rode away.
Johnny scowled through the large picture window at the sky, his patience with the weather and his father's absence, now exhausted. It seemed even nature was conspiring to task his tenuous grip on his temper. The clouds were rolling in again, dark and ominous, the promise of another deluge now audible. In the distance the unmistakable rumble of thunder was heard and as Johnny watched a bolt of lightning punished the earth.
With barely concealed anger, Johnny turned from the window, his eyes locking immediately on his brother.
"Don't sneak up on me!" he thundered even as nature unleashed her fury on the world outside the great room.
"I wasn't sneaking. And since when can anyone sneak up on the great Madrid," Scott teased, an expression of mock fear on his face, his hands raised in surrender.
As Johnny considered the ludicrous stance his older sibling had adopted, the humor in Scott's posture broke his resolve. In spite of his determination to indulge his anger, a grin twisted his lips upward.
"You look silly," he teased.
Scott lowered his hands and squared his shoulders before responding with an answering grin of his own. "What? I don't look purty?"
Outside the thunder rolled, lightning lit the evening sky.
The brothers sat together at the kitchen table, Johnny filling the older man in on their father’s sudden departure.
“Murdoch’s likely to land one on him!”
Scott shrugged; his father’s temper might be quick to ignite but he was not so ready with his fists as his brother was. “Not without provocation!”
“Yeah well, just looking at Davies would be enough provocation for me!” Johnny suddenly rammed one fist violently into the palm of his other hand.
“And that’s…” Scott gestured at his brother’s hands “the very reason he wouldn’t agree to you going!” Scott was fully aware of the sensitivity of the subject and recognized there was a need to talk his brother’s anger through. “What exactly would it accomplish?”
Glaring at the older man Johnny shrugged “Not much more than a bloody nose and a bloody knuckle I suppose but it would sure feel good!”
“No doubt!” Scott conceded sipping on his coffee “But how would it help Carlos?”
“It wouldn’t!” Johnny admitted eyes downcast. “But is talking to the bastard going to help Carlos any either?”
“It might, Murdoch obviously felt it was worth a try, we just have to wait now and see what if anything comes of it!” Scott set down his mug and then stood making to move into the great room.
“I ain’t much good at waitin.”
“I’ll find some work to keep you occupied!”
Johnny leaned back in his chair eyes locked on his brother’s “Since when have
you been finding me work to do?”
”Since Murdoch left me in charge!” Scott grinned.
Johnny shook his head “He didn’t!”
“Now Johnny me being the eldest automatically means…”
“No it don’t!” Johnny smirked aware his brother was simply trying to wind him up
“I think you’ll find it does, that and the fact that I’m about to take up residence behind Murdoch’s desk!”
“You think so huh?” Johnny challenged as he leapt to his feet.
Carlos watched the two older men scramble in through the door and career across to the huge desk situated in the far corner of the room. Each man apparently trying to sit in the chair their father could usually be found sitting in! It was soon obvious that their antics were good natured, their laughter echoing around the room as they jostled and wrestled for supremacy. The boy strolled over for a closer look, not sure what to make of it all.
“Carlos!” Scott released his grasp on the desired object and stood erect, straightening his disheveled clothes “We were just…”
Flopping down into the suddenly undefended chair Johnny grinned “We was just deciding who was boss! Guess I am!”
A wide grin spread across Scott’s face and he pointed to several ledgers placed neatly on the desk “You might want to start on them then! Murdoch was going to do them tonight but now it seems you will have the honor!”
Johnny’s grin faded, knowing he’d been well and truly had!
He cautiously peered around the door. Scott was reading in an armchair in front of the fire; Johnny still sat at the desk, his head bowed as he studied the ledgers spread before him. Satisfied that the older men were occupied, he tiptoed into the foyer, his eyes fixed on the object that had fascinated him since his rescue from Barley. With trembling hands he gently lifted the Colt from holster, admiring the gleam of metal in the lamplight. The weapon was odd, the modification to its length and sight designed with one thing in mind, a quick draw and accuracy in firing. He turned it over and studied it before tucking it under his shirt and returning to his room.
Johnny slammed the ledger closed and jumped from the chair. He stalked to the cabinet and poured a glass of tequila. In one gulp, he tossed the liquid down, then poured another shot.
Aware of eyes on his back, he turned to face his brother.
"What’s the matter brother? Can't balance the books?"
"Its everything, Murdoch leaving without me, Carlos, this damned rain. How long is it going to rain like this?" he ground out.
"First things first, we've been over this. You know why Murdoch had to go alone. Right? Johnny, right?"
"Yeah, I know."
"Ok, now Carlos will be fine, too. AND little brother, there is nothing we can do about the weather. Enjoy the break. At least we don't have to deal with any hard-headed cattle."
Forcing his attention back to the ledger, Johnny decided he was indeed in need of a break, that he needed to do something that always seemed for some reason to have a steadying effect on him. He looked at the grandfather clock; Teresa said supper would be ready by eight, which gave him just enough time to clean his gun. Striding purposefully to the foyer Johnny pulled up short, his eyes settling on the empty holster.
“Carlos!” Johnny growled. It had to be, no one else would take his gun without permission.
“Did you say something?” Scott craned his neck around to find his brother pacing agitatedly and mumbling something under his breath.
“I said…” Johnny fumed stomping toward his brother, holster held up for the older man to see.
“He took my gun!”
“Carlos?” Scott eased himself to his feet, his book now lying forgotten on the chair.
“He obviously didn’t listen to Murdoch!” Johnny snapped “Well he’s gonna have to listen to me!”
The sun struggled to overcome the thick clouds, at times successful, only to be driven back as the dark mass covered her face once more. The respite from the night's storm was temporary, and Lancer hurried to attend to tasks left undone in the night's deluge.
Murdoch Lancer had woken beneath the same oppressive sky. Although his campsite had provided ample shelter from the elements he had not slept well. Six hours later he was still in the saddle, and every mile that passed served as a reminder that he was getting a little long in the tooth for such comfortless ventures.
The small town of Huntsville had proved welcoming enough. Its storekeeper had pointed the tall stranger in Carl Davies’ direction, along with a dour warning about the man's unpleasant demeanor.
An hour out of town had been an accurate estimation and Murdoch had found the small wooden shack quite easily. Wearily, he climbed down from his horse, grateful to feel the earth beneath him once more. Rapping loudly on the door Murdoch silently lectured himself on the need to remain calm.
The door opened and Murdoch forced an air of civility into his voice.
“Who’s asking? A set of blue eyes so reminiscent of the young boy back at Lancer stared back at Murdoch. Wavy brown hair crowned a face that could be described as handsome if it not for the scowl ingrained there.
Should I know the name?” Davies asked derisively.
Murdoch studied the younger man still closer. He was about Scott’s height, but much stockier, his stance hostile.
“I’m here to discuss your son.”
Understanding flooded Davies’ face. “So, you’re the one who found the worthless little bastard!”
Murdoch stared down at the suddenly prostrate figure; clenching and unclenching his bloodied fist as he roared. “Get up!”
Johnny stared at Carlos’ bedroom door undecided about whether to enter the room or not. He was still angry with the boy, still so very scared for him, and at a loss as to how to squash what he so hated to admit was hero worship.
The boy had understood his friend’s displeasure at him taking something without permission, apologizing and insisting he’d only wanted to look at the gun. What he hadn’t understood was Johnny’s views on his fascination with the subject. He refused to see that a gun was no solution to his, or anyone else’s, troubles.
Last night Johnny had barged into the boy’s room ignoring the startled and wary look on his face.
”Don’t touch my gun again!” he’d ordered, snatching the object of his concern from Carlos’ hands and setting it back into its resting place. “It ain’t a toy and it ain’t an ornament, and it sure as hell don’t belong in a kid's hand!”
“You were younger than me when…” Carlos had begun. Johnny had instantly halted that line of attack with, “Yeah, and part of me died that day too. I did what I had to do then, but from that moment on I chose to pick up a gun. I made a lot of wrong choices and why? Because there was no one to tell me differently, no one to tell me there was another way.
I’m here to tell you there is another way. That your life doesn’t have to be as ugly and as empty as mine was, and that you have here, if you want it, what took me twenty years to find.”
The boy had eyed him with an expression akin to disbelief, his attitude belligerent, haughty. Exasperated, Johnny had attempted to sway the boy's blossoming obsession with guns by carefully revealing part of the truth of his own past. He had exposed his intimate secrets, yet was concerned he had not prevailed.
"They are two very different lives Carlos, and I soon realized I couldn’t have both. It was one or the other, and for the first time I made the right choice. I chose to become part of something better, something bigger. Something I can be proud of without guilt and regret weighing me down."
The boy was determined to explore his skill with a firearm, Johnny was equally determined Carlos would do no such thing. The battle of wills had lasted a heartbeat before the boy lowered his eyes, hiding his face from the angry Lancer. Johnny had left the room then, tossing a "think hard about the road you are choosing" over his shoulder.
Now, this morning in the cold light of dawn, Johnny stood outside the boy's room. He had failed to get through to the boy last night, of that he was certain. Something in the way Carlos had lowered his head, shut him out, indicated Johnny's efforts had been futile. Yet, there had to be a way to save the boy from walking the same road Johnny himself had trod. Some way to save the boy from himself. But Johnny had to admit, in despair, he was not sure how he was going to do it. With a weary sigh, Johnny turned and made his way downstairs.
Part of him regretted his act of violence, part of him itched to dish out more of the same. If Davies had at that moment gotten to his feet, Murdoch was sure he would have hit him again; his anger was that intense. Images of not only Carlos filling his senses, but of his own abused son. But this was not about Johnny and he had to separate the two. Davies was not responsible for the abuse Johnny had suffered.
Davies lay stunned at his feet, aware of nothing but the buzzing in his ears and the aching in his jaw. Minutes passed and the patriarch’s patience finally played out. Stooping down he grabbed hold of the smaller man’s arms and hauled him up off the floor dropping him heavily into a chair. The rough handling had the desired effect and Murdoch soon found the object of his anger looking up at him.
”What the hell did you do that for?” Blue eyes focused in confusion on the older man.
Another wave of anger flowed through Murdoch and it took all his self control not to answer with his fist. Instead, he forced his rage down. Like he’d told his volatile younger son, violence wasn’t the answer to Carlos’ problems
“You’ve got a fine boy there Davies. A boy to be proud of but instead you…”
“Get out! Get out and shut the door behind you!” Davies snarled “He ain’t any of your God damned business.”
“He is my business; a child is everyone’s concern or should be! You beat your own son so badly he…”
“He asked for it, he’s no damn good”
Before he could stop himself Murdoch had lunged at Davies, dragged him to his feet to violently pin him up against a wall. “You’re the one who’s no damn good! What sort of a man turns his back on his own child? What sort of a man beats his own son to within an inch of his life? A man doesn’t! You can’t call yourself a man Davies! A child beater yes! A violent bully, yes that too, but what you are mostly is a coward!”
Murdoch’s gaze moved from the cold emotionless eyes of Davies and settled on his own white knuckled hands. He loosened his grip; quickly stepping back several feet as physical contact with Carlos’ abuser suddenly disgusted him.
His voice lower now, his tone less threatening Murdoch continued. “You lost your wife and God knows I understand how that can bring a man to his knees but to punish the boy.”
“Shut up!” Davies barked, moving to stand at a window. He gazed out through it, his back now turned on Murdoch.
“Instead of dealing with your grief, accepting your loss and moving on, you punished an innocent child for something no one was responsible for. You ran away from your responsibilities. You took the easy way out and just stopped feeling. You stopped caring for everything that should matter to you. You lost your wife but she lives on in your son. He should be something you cherish, someone you love and not something you beat on and call worthless. You loved his mother and she’d want you to love him. She’d expect that from the father of her child.”
“You’d better leave now, Lancer” Davies growled, whirling angrily around to face Murdoch.
“The truth isn’t easy to listen to is it, Davies? Facing up to your mistakes is…”
“That boy is my only mistake”
Murdoch shook his head at the unbelievably callous declaration “Then, you will have no objections to him living with me, with him becoming part of my family and to giving up your rights as his father?”
“You want him, you can have him! I sure as hell don’t want him!”
Murdoch had left then, storming from the shack before he did something else he would later regret. Hauling himself up into his saddle his eyes fell on the bruised and scrapped knuckles of his right hand. His mood darkening a little more as he pondered on how to explain his actions to his younger son.
He was cold and decidedly damp, and his bones ached for the warmth of a fire and his soul for the warmth of his family.
Solitude was not a good thing, not when you had so many ghosts clamoring to be heard. The past few days had been long and very lonely. Endless hours with only his thoughts to keep him company, thoughts that kept returning to the time he had lost Catherine.
Davies blamed the death of his wife on their child; it was completely irrational and an abhorrent belief in Murdoch's eyes, one he could not understand nor tolerate. Murdoch had lost Catherine in childbirth but he had blamed himself, and to this day her death haunted him. There were so many 'if onlys'. If only he hadn't sent her away. If only he had been there. If only they had never met. But he would never wish that part of his life to have never happened. The time they had together was something he treasured and the son she had given him one of the two most precious things in his life. He cherished his sons; they were final gifts to him from two women he had loved more than life itself.
Catherine's death had been the cruelest of blows and he'd staggered blindly through the next few months, grieving and hating the world and God above, and more than anything himself for his loss.
Then, one morning as he had awoken in his empty bed in a silent empty house he had realized he would awake to that same nothingness every day of his life if he didn't start to live again. He owed it to the woman he loved and more importantly to their child.
It hadn't been
easy moving on, it meant letting Catherine go and for a long time he felt his
every breath betrayed her. But life has a surprising knack of carrying on around
you; the sun still shone even on his darkest days and his heart, although
broken, continued to beat in its own stubborn way. That same sun had slowly
broken through the black clouds that hovered around him and his heart had
refused to be ignored. Slowly, he had opened his eyes to the world again,
letting people in, letting them get close, letting himself love again. But even
as his heart had soared, a wild, raven haired beauty had awakened his passions.
He had ached, yearning for the son he had so far failed to bring home.
Davies didn't know how lucky he was. His boy hadn't been spirited away; he hadn't been kept from his son. Bitter lies and thousands of miles hadn't separated him from his first born. He wished he could open Davies' eyes, make him see just how much he had missed, just how much he had lost, tell him, force his heartache down the cold bastard's throat.
Life was unbelievably unfair; he'd wanted his son and had been outwitted, out maneuvered, and finally, blackmailed into giving him up. Davies had chosen to push his son away, to first ignore and then to brutally punish him, to leave scars that would never heal. Davies had turned his back on the child who could hold his wife's memory near and dear. The child was the very epitome of the woman's love for the man and Davies had thrown that gift away.
The only thing left for Murdoch to do now was take Davies' place, be a father to a boy whose life in so many ways mirrored his younger son's. He'd learned enough about Johnny, and from Johnny himself how to approach the task. It wouldn't be easy, and he'd make mistakes, but he was determined to try. Hadn't there been enough fatherless boys in the world as it was?
The evening shadows were beginning to fall and the Lancer arch just feet away, but even as his heart lightened at finally being home Murdoch frowned, suddenly a little irritated. It was Sunday; he was home just as he had assured Johnny he would be so why were his sons riding in his direction now? With a little reasoning he realized he was probably later than expected, but then a man couldn't argue with Mother Nature, to do so was much like arguing with any woman. It usually meant defeat. Rain had made the trail treacherous in parts and he'd gone with the thought of getting home late rather than in a pine box. A small smile settled on his face, content in the knowledge his boys cared about him.
Johnny groaned and shrank in the saddle. "Do you think he's seen us?"
"Either that or he's waving at thin air."
"Where are we going?"
"What? Oh. Well, I was under the impression we were going to look for Murdoch." Scott grinned.
Johnny rolled his eyes. "You're no help."
"He's late. We were worried so we thought we'd come looking for him. He'll understand."
"He'll think we didn't trust him."
"What! That YOU didn't think our enfeebled old man could deal with a man like Davies?"
"Yeah," Johnny admitted sheepishly.
"I'll leave you to explain that to him." Scott laughed, lifting his hand to greet their father.
The youth stared belligerently out the window, his disappointment a living, breathing entity. Narrowed eyes glared through the glass. Only one rider was approaching. Only one. Furious with himself for daring to hope, to believe Murdoch Lancer could sway his sire, and even angrier with his father, the boy stalked back and forth across the open expanse of his room to stand once more before the window. He stood, brows knitted, watching as two more riders rode out to meet the oncoming horseman.
Darkly, he observed as the three men sat their mounts, gesturing and talking, too far to hear, to see their expression, but he knew. He imagined their conversation, their pity and his hate grew. Hate for the man who had sired him and turned his back on an innocent child, denying him the father he deserved, and needed. The light in his soul turned dark, flickering, gasping for air, as a candle flickers in a wind, dancing in agony before being snuffed out. Darkness filled his mind, and hate mixed now with anger as the men turned toward the barn, intent on unsaddling their horses, the purpose for their journey extinguished as that last flame on the candle.
Briefly, Carlos indulged his disappointment, his pain, but briefly only. He had hoped and prayed that his father would come to Lancer, riding with the tall rancher, eager to meet his son. Carlos had imagined running to meet his father, throwing himself into the open arms of the man. He had dared dream of their joyful reunion but now? Now the anger grew, a rage that slowly simmered, until it boiled over, building to fever pitch. And suddenly, as he had hungered for his father's love and acceptance, he now hungered for his death. He saw his father, stone faced, and uncaring, staring sullenly at him, his loathing quickly replaced as he saw the Colt in his son's hand. The man would beg, declare his love, beg forgiveness, his lies dripping from his lips, as horrified; he felt the pain of the bullet piercing his traitorous black heart. The image of his father lying in the dirt, his proclamation of love pouring into the sand as his blood stained the earth, brought a smile to Carlos' face.
His father did not love him, did not regard him with anything but loathing. Well his father was going to regard him in his final moments. He was going to regret turning his back on his son.
With a smile of satisfaction Carlos turned from the window.
"Going somewhere boys?" Murdoch called out, still a little distance from his sons.
"We thought we'd check on the herd," Johnny began.
"Really?" The patriarch's finger pointed at Johnny. "A bedroll and saddlebags?"
Johnny let out a resigned sigh. "Alright. We were coming to look for you. Scott was worried."
at his elder son, the young man's face alight with mirth. "Scott was?"
"That's what I said!" Johnny snapped, his eyes then falling on his father's bruised knuckles. He turned to his brother and gestured at their father's hand. "See, I knew I should have gone!" Blue eyes scorched his father's. "What the hell happened?"
Scott raised an eyebrow and settled a little further into his saddle. This was going to be good.
Carlos listened intently before offering a grudging “Gracias."
The boy's face and eyes were void of emotion, his posture sullen, and Murdoch could do nothing but stare after him as he left the room.
"I'm sure it’s what he wants," insisted Teresa, squeezing her guardian's hand.
"He doesn't know when he's well off!" Johnny snapped, all eyes turning instantly to him. He stood and began pacing. "You offered him a home, Murdoch. How much better could it get?"
"Johnny. He just needs time."
"He needs to wake up! He needs to realize what he has here!"
"Maybe when he's accepted what he's lost he will," Murdoch tried to reason. He'd been a little disappointed in Carlos' cool reception to his proposal too, but believed the boy would come around.
"You can't lose what you never had. That bastard Davies never…" Johnny's temper flared.
"Watch your mouth," Murdoch warned, glancing at Teresa.
unrepentant. "Well, Davies ain't never been a father to him."
"No, but to be told he's again been placed in someone else's care must be very painful, not to mention disappointing."
"Exactly! Someone that does care. And will care for him and, “Johnny paused, suddenly realizing why he was so angry, "like I said, he doesn't know when he's well off."
Scott watched his brother storm from the room before turning to his father, offering the older man a sympathetic smile. "I'll go make sure he's alright."
As expected Scott found his brother in the barn, the young man leaning against a stall, eyes locked on his palomino.
"You coming in for supper?" Scott asked, easing himself down onto a nearby bale of hay.
Johnny nodded, his voice barely above a whisper. "That's something else; he'll never know what hunger is here."
"No, he won't," Scott replied quietly, knowing what was on his brother’s mind and wondering, hopefully, if he would share it with him. The blue eyes finally met his and Johnny moved to sit beside him, letting out a long sigh of frustration before he began to speak.
"If a man like Murdoch had offered me a home when I was Carlos' age I'd have…" Johnny shrugged. "He doesn't know how lucky he is, Scott."
"Maybe not, but did you trust anyone at that age, Johnny? If a man like Murdoch or Murdoch himself, had offered you all this on a plate then, would you have snatched it with both hands or taken a step back to examine it closer?"
"He knows what he's getting Scott."
"Then maybe it’s not what he wants."
"It's not. But what he wants is gonna get him killed and I don't know how to make him see that."
Carl Davies was getting a little tired of all the strangers knocking on his door, first the sheriff, then Lancer and now yet another man.
"Yeah. What do you want?"
"Ten minutes of your time."
"What's this about?" Davies studied the stranger; the man had a hardness, a meanness about him and was not someone he'd ever like to cross.
"Folk sticking their noses where they don't belong."
"Murdoch Lancer for one, his sons for another."
Davies pondered over the man's hate-filled answer before opening the door a little wider. "You'd best come in."
Jake Barley eased his heavy frame into chair, nodding in reply to Davies' offer of coffee. "I hear they've got your boy."
"It ain't no loss."
"But it could be your gain."
"What do you mean?"
"The Lancers have a big spread north of here, and more money in the bank than you'll ever see. I reckon that boy is worth something to them, the way they've been looking out for him."
"They don't know trouble when they see it."
"Reckon they're used to it. Murdoch Lancer's got a half breed kid himself, goes by the name of Johnny Madrid."
Davies' eyes widened. "The gunfighter?"
"Yeah, and just like his father he needs bringing down a peg or two."
closer, his heart hammering expectantly in his chest, an evil grin creasing his
face. "I'm listenin'."
The patriarch watched his younger son stare unseeingly into his coffee and wondered just how to broach the topic that was troubling the younger man so deeply now. With everyone else in bed, the house was silent. The silence between the two men sitting at the kitchen table was an uncomfortable one, at least as far as Murdoch was concerned. He wasn't even sure if Johnny was aware of his presence, so lost was the boy in thought.
The rancher knew he had to be careful in his approach. Johnny’s irritation with Carlos could just as easily be turned on him. His son was having a difficult time separating his feelings right now, and was likely to lash out verbally at anyone who tried to help him put the situation into some sort of perspective. Johnny was just too close, too involved. He was unable to stand back and see things with anything other than a biased eye but an unbiased eye was what was needed right now.
It was too easy for Johnny to put himself in Carlos’ shoes, and easy for him to believe he knew what was best for the boy. Their lives had run a terrifyingly similar path, but what Johnny failed to acknowledge was he had the benefit of maturity and hindsight behind his decisions now.
Murdoch could only imagine a fifteen year old Johnny and the image evoked was heartbreakingly unpleasant. He saw an angry, hostile, hate-filled youth who despised the father he believed had turned his back on him. If he had found that angry and hurting boy Murdoch wasn't sure he could have reached him and he doubted he'd have convinced the boy to come home without using force.
The blue eyes finally met his apologetically. “Did you say something, Murdoch?”
He was probably
biting off more than he could chew but still the older Lancer plunged ahead.
“Perhaps you are being a little too hard on Carlos? Give him a little more slack
and I'm sure he'll…”
”Give him a little slack and he'll hang himself!” Johnny glared at his father.
“Not necessarily…” Murdoch began his reasoning.
“And what the hell do you know?” came the derisive remark the patriarch had anticipated.
“I know that if I'd found you at that age you would not have wanted to listen to me. You would not have wanted to hear my side of the story. Am I right?”
find me!” Johnny snarled bitterly. “Maybe if you had, if you'd looked a little
harder Old Man, you'd already know the answer to that!”
Murdoch hadn't intended for the conversation to take that turn. He had hoped to keep it centered on Carlos but the pain in his son’s eyes insisted he address the issue now. “I looked for you, I hired the Pinkerton’s. I did everything I could do but I failed you, I know and I'm sorry.”
“I didn't mean…” Johnny hung his head ashamed of his outburst. “I know you tried.”
Finding out how hard his father had indeed tried to find him had up to now been enough for Johnny. It was ample proof of how much his father had cared but tonight that desperate search seemed insignificant, inadequate. The old man may have saved him from a firing squad but not from all that had gone before. Now, Murdoch Lancer was reaching out to help a boy in need like he had been, trying to prevent what had happened to his son from happening yet again. Help, salvation, the love he had craved all offered up so willingly, yet seemingly looked upon with such scorn and ingratitude. Not that Murdoch or anyone of them wanted any thanks. They, and he in particular, just wanted some acknowledgement, some sign of acceptance, some proof that it wasn't all going to be in vain, that they would be met half way at least. But the hunger and need he had seen so recently in Carlos’ eyes was not for what was being offered him at Lancer. Johnny had seen it before and in so many eyes, eyes he'd stared into before his Colt had put an end to their quest.
Carlos did not want their help, or at least he didn't believe he needed it. Murdoch’s words echoed inside his head. He might not have wanted to listen to a gringo back then, he might not have wanted to hear his father’s side of the story, but he knew his old man would have worked on him until he did. Murdoch would not have given up on him and he would have come around eventually. A little time and a little patience and the love that was so evident in the older man's eyes would have eventually broken through his walls but Carlos? Murdoch would never reach Carlos, not in the way he needed to be reached. Perhaps no one could now. The boy was turning cold inside, closing himself off, distancing himself from further hurt…just like his father had done.
But Carlos was withdrawing too far, beyond reach, beyond compassion and Johnny felt fear. For the first time, he was truly afraid, but not for himself. For a boy, a boy whose life could have been so different if the fates had not conspired to deny him a chance.
Johnny felt so helpless. The outcome seemed inevitable, but like his father had searched endlessly for him, he knew he could not give up on Carlos. Maybe, just maybe, he too would be saved from his fate just in the nick of time. At least he prayed it would be in time. But could he turn the boy? Could he offer Carlos hope for a different future than the one seemingly looming ahead of him?
Finally meeting his father’s troubled gaze, Johnny sighed. “It’s just that it’s so…so…”
Murdoch watched his son shrug. He knew Johnny didn't believe in self pity but it was obvious he was feeling betrayed by circumstance right now.
it is son. It’s hard to watch as something you so desperately wanted for
yourself is tossed so casually aside. It’s hard to watch the chances you were
denied be trampled so callously into the earth…” Murdoch voice trailed off when
he saw the understanding in Johnny’s eyes.
”Murdoch,” Johnny whispered. He'd been too wrapped up in Carlos, and what he himself had been deprived of, that he'd failed to acknowledge the effect the dealings with Davies had to be having on his father.
Reaching out to squeeze his son’s arm reassuringly, Murdoch pressed on. “I don't understand why things happen the way they do, and I despair at the unfairness of it all too, but at least for us it all worked out in the end and I'm just grateful to be able to say that.”
“I'm not so sure it will for Carlos,” Johnny finally admitted.
The rain had eased a bit, was nothing more now than an annoying drizzle. But the boy still practiced. Drawing and firing at the cans on the broken tree limb, then he would reset the targets only to shoot again. Three cans still stood and the boy kicked the ground in frustration. It had looked so easy. He could feel his draw getting faster with each passing day but his aim was not quite right. He snorted, then pulled the Colt from the holster.
Carefully he hefted it, testing its balance, the feel of it in his hand. It fit his hand like a well worn glove yet something was off, the weight was not as it should be. He raised the weapon, eyeing it intently. Then he knew. The sight on Johnny's Colt had been filed down. Perhaps if he modified this gun in such a manner as the odd Colt Johnny used, he would gain more control. He could handle it more the way Johnny could.
Johnny Madrid. Now, there was a gunfighter. Deadly and compassionate. Well, compassion would be his undoing. He would want to help the boy and Carlos knew exactly how Madrid could help. He could die.
Carlos had never seen Johnny Madrid in action; he had heard the rumors though and had seen the expression that crossed the faces of the people whenever Madrid's name was mentioned. Fear battled respect for supremacy. Carlos wanted respect. He could taste it. He hungered for it, more than he had ever wanted anything before.
His resolve strengthened, his purpose clear, he tucked the gun into the waistband of his pants and headed back to Lancer. He grinned smugly confident in his newly discovered course of action. He would file the site off, while he hid in the barn and tomorrow, well tomorrow, he would be on his way to greatness, and revenge. If it meant facing Madrid to get the respect he required then so be it. First the gunhawk, then his father. No one would ever tell him what to do again. No one would ever raise a hand to him. All who dared would die. With a soft chuckle he mounted his horse and headed home.
Teresa had angrily filled him in on Carlos’ latest disrespectful address to her guardian. The young woman had shook with rage and knowing that the boy’s mouth had managed to not only assault his father, but upset his ‘sister’ too, had sent his own temper dangerously close to boiling point.
Johnny knew Murdoch had few options where disciplining the boy was concerned. Physical punishment was out of the question for obvious reasons, not that he believed Murdoch would ever resort to that. The big man favored a much different approach, but sending Carlos up to his room had been met with an angry and oath filled refusal. The boy had then stormed from the hacienda and ridden off.
Seeking out his father Johnny had found him only a little put out by the boy’s actions, and he'd had to listen to him try to defend Carlos. It seemed the older man believed the boy was testing him, daring him, seeing how far he could be pushed. Johnny had to admire his old man’s patience and had found himself wondering where he had found it. Sadly Johnny's own patience had been sorely tried the past few weeks. The boy was increasingly rude and uncooperative, down right disobedient in fact. Well, he for one had had just about enough.
It hadn't taken him long to track the boy down, he’d simply followed the gunshots. He’d watched unseen as Carlos practiced his draw. One of the ranch hand's guns had been reported as missing weeks back. Carlos had denied all knowledge but it was obvious now that the boy had lied. He had somehow managed to hide the stolen item from them. Johnny’s despair deepened, the boy was stealing from, and lying to, the very people who were doing all they could to help him but that wasn't what troubled him the most. Even from that distance Johnny could see Carlos was a natural as far handling a gun was concerned. He was already good, too good, and unfortunately he could only get better. Watching as the boy rode towards Lancer Johnny realized the situation was now out of his control. The boy had seemingly made his choice.
Johnny strolled despondently into the courtyard. He stopped and inhaled appreciatively, the aroma of that evening's culinary delight assailing his senses. Stepping into the great room he forgot himself and headed directly toward the table, but on getting there he received one look from his father, changed direction and headed upstairs instead. Mouth watering and stomach now growling in anticipation, the dark haired Lancer hurriedly washed and threw on a clean shirt. As his long, slender fingers attempted to tidy his rebellious hair he sighed. He used to look forward to meal times. He enjoyed the time spent with his family, the easy atmosphere, the idle chatter, but in the last week or so he had come to almost dread it. No one lingered over their empty plates any more, instead they would excuse themselves and drift away from the table as quickly as good manners would allow.
changed in so short a time? Only Carlos' belligerent attitude, and after today's
discovery Johnny knew the situation was unlikely to improve. He'd wait until the
boy had gone to bed before filling his brother and father in on the development.
He didn't know what more they could do and the older men's involvement troubled
him. It would be hard for them to admit defeat with the boy and it seemed ever
more likely that they would have to.
By the time Johnny had made his way downstairs everyone was seated at the table, everyone except Carlos. Johnny glanced toward the grandfather clock. The boy had five minutes before he would be considered late to table, and that was one thing Murdoch did not appreciate. It seemed to Johnny that the boy was intentionally heading for another confrontation with his father.
Ten minutes into the meal the conversation was halted when feet were heard thundering down the stairs. Johnny's posture stiffened noticeably and Murdoch eyed his younger son determinedly. "I will deal with this"
Johnny bit down on a biscuit, swallowing his angry retort as the boy swaggered towards the table, and without acknowledging anyone present, slid into a chair beside him.
"Carlos, I would appreciate it if you made an effort to be on time for meals."
No reply was forthcoming; instead the sullen boy took up his fork and started to eat.
"Hey!" Johnny growled. "Murdoch is speaking to you."
"So!" Blue eyes locked with blue eyes
fork from Carlos' hand, Johnny's voice deepened with anger. "So you answer him
and show him some respect!"
Casting a scathing look in the patriarch's direction, Carlos then turned to again meet Johnny's irate gaze. "Why?"
Struggling to hold onto his temper, Johnny leaned closer to the boy. "Because you're sitting at his table, eating his food and..."
"Johnny!" Murdoch pleaded, hoping to stop the situation from spiraling out of control.
Dragging his gaze from the boy's icy stare, Johnny looked down at his plate, aware his father's eyes were upon him but movement beside him told him the boy was getting to his feet, and his head snapped up just in time to see the boy spit into his plate of food.
Johnny lunged to his feet. Grabbing the boy's shirt front in both hands he yanked him violently towards him, Spanish spewing from his lips in an ire filled tirade.
Scott was instantly on his feet, moving swiftly to separate the two younger men but it was the boy's hissed dare that finally caused Johnny to release the boy and step away from him.
"Go on, hit me!"
Shaking his head in disbelief, Johnny stalked from the room and as the front door slammed behind him Carlos shrugged off Scott's restraining hand and silently headed up to his room, leaving three very troubled people in his wake.
Upstairs in his room Carlos stomped angrily back and forth, his eyes flashing with fury. Didn't they know who he was? What he was becoming? Had they no respect? Suddenly, he halted, the sounds of determined footsteps easily heard through his open window. Cautiously he peered outside, not wanting to be discovered, yet eager to know where the owner of that all too familiar tread was heading. //I shoulda known.// A sinister thought flashed through his mind quickly. More predatory now, he stalked from his room, bent on following the slender form to its destination.
Carlos paused at the top of the landing, straining to hear the sounds of the house. In the dining room, three voices were engaged in quiet conversation. The grandfather clock in the main hallway chimed the hour, its melodic tones resounding throughout the great house. As lightly as he could, he descended the stairs, his back against the wall as he sought to blend into the shadows. In the foyer, he stood still once more listening intently. Satisfied that his presence had not been detected, he left the hacienda, easing the massive door closed.
The moon struggled behind the covering of the clouds and the boy used the cover of darkness to his advantage. He slithered to the side of the barn door. Breathing heavily, his pulse racing from excitement, Carlos entered the gloom of the huge structure.
Johnny was sitting on a bale of hay beside the palomino's stall, meticulously cleaning his Colt. His head was bowed as he handled his weapon. His hands moved deftly over the sinister blue gray of the barrel, studiously polishing the gun. A faint stirring alerted him; he was not alone.
breath Carlos stepped into the light of the lantern, his own gun held at the
ready. In a split second, faster than he could breath, the barrel of Johnny's
Colt was pressed forcefully into his throat. "Were you lookin' for me?" the soft
Staggered by the speed of Johnny's reaction Carlos froze, the cold steel jammed into his neck making it difficult to swallow the lump in his suddenly dry throat. He'd never feared Johnny before but right now his heart pounded frantically in his chest and his legs threatened to buckle beneath him. There was no warmth or understanding in the blue eyes, no anger, no emotion at all, only a chilling emptiness and he realized with startling clarity that he was looking the legendary Johnny Madrid in the eye.
"Drop the gun!"
although hushed, was laced with menace and Carlos quickly uncurled his fingers
from around the weapon leaving it to fall to the ground with a dull thud.
"The last man who sneaked up on me still don't know he's dead!"
"I wasn't sneaking up on you!" Carlos forced the words out.
Johnny ignored the pleading in the boy's eyes and continued to hold his Colt where the boy could both see and feel it. "Scared Carlos? You should be! I could kill you just as easily as I could stomp on an ant!"
"I ain't gonna do it of course, like I keep telling you, I learnt a better way to deal with trouble. But then some troubles just can't seem to take the hint."
Finally releasing his hold on the boy Johnny steered him to a bale of hay, forcible making him sit. Jamming his gun into its holster, Johnny rounded angrily on the boy.
"Do you see
how easy it is to die? The better you are with a gun the harder it is to stay
alive! There is always someone looking for a name, always someone wanting to try
their hand and always someone better than you! Remember how scared you were just
then? Well that fear doesn't go away. You just learn to hide it and hope no one
sees it in your eyes because if they do, you're a dead man."
His anger ebbing a little, he lowered his voice. "It’s not too late for you. You still have a choice. You still have a future but not if you choose to live by the gun. You could be part of all this. Murdoch, he..."
"He's not my father!" Carlos spat the words bitterly.
"No! And for a long time he wasn't mine, but I gave him and this place a chance. I've never looked back. All we are asking is that you give us a chance."
Aware of the piercing blue eyes striking him between the shoulder blades, Carlos walked as casually as he could across the courtyard though every nerve screamed at him to run. Finally, closing the front door behind him, he gave in to his fear and raced upstairs. As his bedroom door slid to a close, he leaned back against it, his heart hammering painfully in his chest, his breath coming in ragged gasps.
In all his life he had known fear but he had never experienced the overwhelming raw terror that had engulfed him when he had looked into the icy cold, blue eyes of Madrid. In their depths he had seen pain and death, his death. On trembling legs, he staggered to his nightstand, seeking the pitcher of cool water that was kept there. He poured a glass, never noticing as the liquid soaked his hand and the lace cloth covering the table. He drank quickly, water streaming down his chin, and then vigorously wiped his mouth on his sleeve. At long last the train thundering in his chest where his heart used to be slowed, and resumed a more normal rhythm, his breathing slowed and he felt more in control. The sheer terror had given way to a more sedate fear, time, though minutes only, providing him with much a needed feeling of security.
He paced to the window, studying the small circle of light spilling from door he had left open in his haste to escape the man sitting so nonchalantly within the structure. Johnny had caught him completely unawares. But had he been the one to get the drop on Johnny would he have been as merciful? Thinking about the episode with the gunhawk, Carlos' fear finally gave way to anger, and as the anger reasserted itself, hate for the youngest Lancer began to bloom. Lancer or Madrid, it didn't matter. It was going to give him great pleasure to watch the fear he himself had experienced moments ago take hold of the man. Madrid would know fear, he would know he had been beaten and he would beg for mercy. Grinning in satisfaction, Carlos threw himself across the bed, falling quickly asleep, dreaming of the day he killed Johnny Madrid.
Johnny recognized his father’s heavy tread immediately. No doubt the older man had grown impatient with his son's prolonged absence and had come in search of him, a reprimand ready on his tongue for the unpleasant scene he'd caused at the supper table. Mercifully Murdoch hadn't witnessed the scene in the barn, although maybe it would have been better if he had. At least then he would be aware of the extent of the threat posed by the boy now. The situation was rapidly escalating out of control, Carlos slipping further and further out of their reach.
Suddenly, the boy’s very presence at the ranch was menacing, a dark ominous cloud hovering over them all. Johnny could clearly see the risk Carlos now presented his family, but he doubted they would see things the same way, and knew not one of them would be prepared to turn their back on the kid.
Aware the older man had entered the barn, Johnny turned to face him.
“Murdoch, we need to talk.”
The patriarch was more than a little taken aback by his usually reticent son’s impassioned plea. “What about?”
Murdoch studied the troubled young man before him, uncomfortably aware that something had happened to cause the haunted look in the blue eyes.
“I found him practicing his draw this afternoon.”
Murdoch nodded. That hadn't really come as any great surprise. ”I see.”
“No, you don't!” Johnny snapped irritably. “He’s good, real good.”
“He’s not the boy I found Murdoch. He’s so filled with hate there’s no room left for anything else. He cares about nothing, no one, not anymore. The respect he had for you, for Scott, it’s gone. I don't trust him, not around you…”
“Johnny. He’s hurting, hitting out at…”
“You're not listening, Old Man!” Johnny snarled, desperate to get through to his father.
Murdoch swallowed his rising anger aware his son’s concern was borne out of something other than the disrespect witnessed at the supper table. “Go on.”
“He was sneaking in here with his gun drawn.”
“Sneaking up on you?” Murdoch asked horrified.
“He said he
wasn't but…” Johnny shrugged. “He’s a loose canon Murdoch and the fact he’s
under our roof scares me.
Murdoch sank down onto a bale of hay, deeply disturbed by his son’s revelation. He knew better than to ignore Johnny’s instincts but at the same time found it difficult to imagine the boy would ever turn on any of them. Staring up into the vivid blue eyes Murdoch asked, “You really think he’s capable of hurting one of us?
”I think he’s capable of anything.”
Carl Davies tossed more wood on the camp fire and edged a little closer to the writhing flames. It was a cold night, the wind cruel and the air damp and the blanket wrapped around his shoulders totally inadequate against the elements. He reached for the bottle of whisky he had tucked in his saddle bag and pressed it to his lips, the liquid warmth reaching him where no fire could.
His companion's snoring echoed around him, the other man seemingly unperturbed by the cold that seeped up from the ground they lay on. Davies had to wonder if anything bothered Jake Barley; the man was hard, ruthless, and seemingly single-minded in his quest to teach the Lancer family a lesson. They had it coming too. Murdoch Lancer had some nerve knocking on his door and preaching to him about being a father when his own half-breed kid was little more than a hired killer. The Lancer’s thought themselves better than they were, and he was going to enjoy his part in knocking them down to size.
Another gust of wind lifted Davies' hat from his head and the man made a quick grab for it, catching it between two fingers as it left his head. In the distance a bolt of lightening stabbed the tender earth as the thunder he had heard all evening rumbled ominously. The storm had pursued them relentlessly, its destination on a collision course with his own, on a path to Lancer.
He scowled at the oncoming storm, silently cursing the elements and their conspiracy to inflict misery on his person. The cold was insulting enough, but adding to his torment by drenching him, was as salt to a wound. Forlornly, he swept his gaze once more around his surroundings, seeking shelter of any kind, meager as it may be. When no safe haven was to be seen, he huddled deeper into his flimsy blanket and prepared to ride out the storm.
It won't be long now," he grumbled. "Only a few more days." Soon he would be safely in the great hacienda of Lancer, drinking fine whiskey and smoking the best cigars. Only a few more days. Warmed by the thought of ending the Lancers' reign in the Valley and rising above his station in life, he smiled grimly as the first drop of rain splattered on his cheek.
Dawn crept slowly, timidly across the land, her arrival more like a whipped puppy easing back into her master's lap. The clouds hung low, arrogantly eyeing the approaching light. As the sun broke through the thick blanket of gray hovering above, the clouds slammed the door once more successfully denying man and beast beneath the heavens the benefit of the sun's warmth and cheer. Carlos stared morosely out the window. Lightening raged in the distance and the low growl of the thunder could be clearly heard. The storm was marching across the land; the next obstacle in its forward trek was the ranch. But the sound of the rumbling thunder was welcomed by the boy. He had spent the better part of the hour staring out the window, his mind drifting from one scenario to another.
The day of his vengeance drew ever nearer and he eagerly embraced the hate, allowing it to flow through his soul, his heart. The force of its power made him feel heady, breathless, as his mind welcomed its strength. Anticipation of the coming bloodshed that would be wrought by his hand set his senses reeling. Finally his thoughts were organized, his direction clear. Finally, he would have the respect he so desired. Finally.
The sound of breakfast being served in the dining room below drifted up the stairs and intruded into his thoughts. Adopting his best Madrid impression, he left his room, intent on partaking of a pleasant meal.
He didn't like it, it just didn't follow somehow. Carlos’ sudden change of attitude and demeanor had taken them all by surprise. The polite and respectful manner at breakfast had been a far cry from the obnoxious and aggressive stance the boy had presented the night before. The meal had passed quietly, pleasantly and a collective sigh had drifted heavenward at the change of atmosphere. But while he was sure his family would lean towards the belief his confrontation with the boy had the desired effect, Johnny was highly suspicious of the change. He'd waited until the boy had left the room before stating his concerns, had met his father’s reproachful stare with a steady one of his own. “He’s up to something Murdoch.”
“Johnny. Isn't it possible that he spent the night thinking things through? That he’s realized he was wrong?”
“Yeah, it’s possible but after the stunt he pulled last night, not very likely.”
“But don't we have to give him the benefit of the doubt?” Murdoch’s questioning gaze encompassed everyone seated at the table and silently awaited their response.
Teresa nodded. “I think he’s trying Johnny.”
Scott shrugged. “I don't know, it’s hard to forget his actions here last night and what transpired later in the barn is something we can't ignore. But he certainly does seem to be making an effort this morning.”
Everyone’s eyes were now settled on him and Johnny shifted uncomfortably. He didn't want to write the boy off but he'd known men, kids just like Carlos. They hit bottom quickly and once they did nothing could bring them back. This was the calm before the storm, a brief interlude of normality intended to fool them all. He just didn't know why. He couldn't, wouldn't trust the boy again; he had too much to lose.
“I don't trust him, Murdoch.”
The patriarch lowered his gaze, pondering his younger son’s reply before meeting the blue eyes once more. “And you have good reason not to Johnny, so we remain on guard. But we can do that and still provide the support he needs. Perhaps if we spent a little more time with Carlos, involved him more with ranch life, find something for him to invest his time and energy in…”
“There’s only one thing he’s interested in Murdoch and we all know what he’s gonna be investin' his time and energy in this mornin’!” Johnny growled irritably.
“Alright! I'll go round him up,” Johnny snapped as he lunged to his feet. “I'll try teachin him how to rope and brand. I'm sure that'll help satisfy his thirst for blood!”
Murdoch cringed as the door slammed behind his younger son. He looked at his elder boy for his opinion, which was soon forthcoming.
“Johnny understands Carlos better than we could ever hope to but I don't see how we can ignore what could prove to be the first signs of hope for the boy. We are committed; we have to see this though.”
Johnny stomped towards the barn, eyes scanning the pasture for signs of the boy. Horse and rider were heading towards the area they'd been the day before. Johnny would give himself a little time to calm down, then he'd ride out after the boy and for his father’s sake try to believe the boy wasn't as hopeless a case as he himself now believed him to be.
Carlos watched triumphantly as the last can took flight, gravity bringing it to land mere inches from the five other mutilated pieces of metal. A proud smile illuminated his face softening the cold countenance, and breathing life into his stony features.
Reloading his gun, the smile waned; his supply of bullets was quickly running out. The finely fashioned bits of lead were growing increasingly difficult to lay his hands on, and he knew who was to blame for that. Still, it only took one bullet to kill a man, and he’d make sure he had that bullet when the time came.
Foolishly, he'd made Johnny suspicious of him, and for now that gave the older man the edge. Carlos knew he wasn't quite ready, not quite fast enough, not quite good enough to outgun Madrid, and until he was he planned on avoiding any further confrontation with the man or his family. But once he was sure, once he was confident he'd left no margin for error he would challenge Johnny and he would end his reign.
his plans to take down a legend and become one in the exact same breath, Carlos
failed to hear the approaching riders. His concentration fixed solely on the row
of cans again set up before him, he was unaware of the distance closing between
them until he had fired all but his last two rounds. Only then did he hear the
derisive laughter he was all too familiar with.
Despite the promise he'd made he found his courage wavering, and he turned hesitantly to face his father, his mouth growing still dryer when his eyes fell on Barley.
He'd been right of course; his ears now confirmed what his head and his heart had told him that morning. Carlos’ destiny was inextricably entwined with his ability with a gun. Johnny understood exactly what power that cold piece of metal held over a boy. He, too, had been bewitched and dazzled by its promise but not for long. Mercifully for him, its luster had tarnished quickly and it had become nothing more than his security. His life line had been his tenacious grip on his soul.
And his soul was the distinct difference between himself and a hate-filled boy. The boy fancied himself a man with a mission but his lack of judgment was propelling him willingly along a path of self-destruction. He would learn through experience about the hell a gunfighter lived and died in. A hell in which Johnny had once lived.
Yet, Johnny had escaped purgatory, his compassion and deep rooted respect for life saving him from an early grave, and an eternity in torment. But there was no such saving grace within Carlos' soul. Indeed, the young man seemed void of respect for any and all living things. Carlos' own new found sense of self-worth robbed him effectively of the ability to place value on all life; rather he despised the life of his perceived enemies. His confidence was now mistakenly placed in the cold harbinger of death. His Colt had become his lifeline, but it was a process of nothing more than an end to all life, including his own.
Anger and self-doubt warred within Johnny Lancer as he leaned over the golden neck. Wind whipped his face, stinging his cheeks, but the torrent of emotions battling within made him oblivious to all but his destination. Sitting the galloping stallion, in the wind of their passage Johnny heard the questions that swirled tauntingly around him. Questions that became more persistent the closer the animal bore him to his objective.
Could he stop Carlos before any harm was committed against the Lancers? Could Johnny pull the trigger and end the life of the young man? Could he outdraw Carlos? Lightning cracked across the distance sky, its explosion as merciless as the fist that hit Johnny's heart. Johnny reined in the golden stallion, its hooves spewing mud upon the feet of his rider. Shaking his head in protest, Barranca sought to free himself of the firm grip on his tender mouth. Still Johnny sat, unaware of the painful grip on the reins. His heart hammered rapidly, its tempo matching that of the oncoming storm.
Could he outdraw Carlos? Again the question screamed around him. Anger retreated before despair. In anguish, Johnny jumped from the saddle, dropping the reins to ground hitch his horse. Barranca snorted at the sudden release and sidled a step away.
As despair robbed him of breath, Johnny sank to one knee. Clearly now, he could see the collision course of Carlos and himself was inevitable. The boy would face him one day; the boy was gifted and would test his skill. And Johnny would have no choice but to stand before him. Yet, the question remained. Could he win? Even a victory in the draw was loss. How could he face off with a child? And if he was the one who fell, how could his death be forgiven. Slowly, his breath slowed. He stood, the knowledge he was blameless pounding her fist on the doors to his mind, demanding a voice. Calmer, he stepped lightly to the stallion, stroking the muscled neck as he found his seat on the saddle.
In the distance the sound of gunfire called to him, fates withered finger beckoning him on. Barranca loped eagerly to the top of the rise, his exuberance swiftly curtailed by his rider upon registering the disturbing confrontation below. The sprawling, gnarled limbs of an oak tree hampered his view a little but he could see that Carlos stood facing two men. Johnny recognized one as Jake Barley, the other a complete stranger but whose stance he recognized to be of equal threat.
Slipping off Barranca’s back, Johnny moved stealthily, slinking almost catlike between the aged trees of the small copse, the wooden sentries providing excellent cover as he edged closer to the scene.
From the shadows came the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked and both Davies and Barley froze, the danger as yet unknown.
The wind gusted through the trees, the leaf laden branches groaning in protest as they vied against the sudden and invisible onslaught. Thunder rolled closer, blindly chasing the elusive shards of light that intermittently shattered the heavens. Large drops of rain began to fall from the billowing clouds, the scurrying masses eager to shed their burden onto the already sodden ground. Leaden sky darkened still further mirroring the mood of the men caught in the path of the encroaching storm, all four now oblivious to the powers that clashed in the firmament.
Two sets of eye raked the shadows, impatiently waiting for the threat to take form. Softly, silently the brooding figure stepped into view.
Blue eyes settled on the taller of the two men, his features familiar, his identity quickly discerned. Unease settled upon Johnny’s shoulders like a cloak, the situation having taken an even sinister turn. Barley he understood, he was the proverbial bad penny but Davies? What the hell did the man want? Not his son that was for sure.
A side on glance towards Carlos told him the boy was masking any fear well. No. It wasn't a case of hiding his fear, it was a more a case of him feeling no fear. Not any more. Fear had long since turned to hatred and that hatred had turned a needy and vulnerable kid bad. Hatred was all he felt now, all he knew. It eclipsed all else and right now that hatred looked like it was going to be given some release.
Johnny recognized the stance, the confidence that now oozed from the boy, his air of supremacy. Davies and Barley were dead men unless he could turn the situation around.
Boldly, Johnny stepped to his right, his movement bringing him effectively between the boy and the objects of his hatred. Johnny deliberately rested his hand on the butt of his Colt, his intent clear to the approaching men. He squared his shoulders before adopting his notoriously infamous cat-like slouch.
Silently, he waited, observing the newcomers as they took their positions.
"Get the hell outta the way, Lancer!" Davies yelled above the roar of the storm.
"I don't think you gentlemen realize the trouble you are buying right now," Johnny drawled.
"We only want the boy," Barley lied.
"Git outta my way Madrid. This is my fight!" Carlos had been outraged when Johnny had moved in front of him, his anger seeking release, his pride aching. Listening to the curt exchange, the other men behaving as he were not present, as if he did not exist, pushed his anger to a frenzy. With the words, his fury exploded around the four men. Carlos threw himself to the right, his Colt releasing the rage, its bullets seeking victims, his heart hungry for blood.
The roar of the Colt to his left had Johnny diving for cover, his own weapon now securely gripped in his hand. Chaos erupted as four Colts ground out the fury of their handlers. As the storm exploded over head, two men fell as one.
Johnny sprang to his feet. Gun in hand he stepped cautiously towards the fallen men. Carlos’ aim had been true, a bullet to the heart had sealed Barley's fate, and the boy’s gun was now trained on his wounded father. The older man was bleeding heavily, crimson paling to soft pink as the downpour diluted the stain.
Angrily, Johnny contemplated the youth; the elation on Carlos’ face sickened, but sadly, didn't surprise him. Carlos' callousness was simply confirmation that he'd been right about the boy.
“See, Johnny? You ‘have’ to kill ‘em! That way they won't bother you again!”
Ignoring the boy's comment, Johnny bent to retrieve Davies’ gun.
“No! It ain’t over yet! Him and me have some unfinished business.”
“It is over,” Johnny declared firmly, meeting the boy’s resentful glare with an icy one of his own. “I'm taking him into town; Val will see he gets what’s coming to him.”
“Ain’t no need for that Johnny. I can see to that right here!” Carlos snarled angrily.
“Shooting an unarmed and wounded man ain’t gonna get you a reputation boy. At least not the sort of reputation you want! It could get you hung,” Johnny ground out, staring the boy down. “Go on home; tell Murdoch I’ll be along later.
Eyes now locked thoughtfully on his father Carlos re-holstered his gun, “Alright! I'll see you later Johnny!”
Johnny watched the boy mount his horse and ride away, uncomfortably aware of the challenge in the boy’s voice. With a heavy heart he turned towards Davies, the older man now struggling to get to his knees.
“I told your pa that boy was trouble! Seems he’s about to find out just how much!”
Rounding angrily on Davies, Johnny hauled the bigger man painfully to his feet; ignoring the man’s groans he manhandled him the few yards to his horse.
his eyes from the ledger, unconsciously holding his breath as Carlos strolled
into the room. A smile graced the boy's face, a proud yet contemptuous smirk
that unnerved the older man.
"Carlos?" The pale blue eyes narrowed on the youth's countenance, not liking what he saw.
Momentarily stunned, Murdoch quickly recovered, his younger son's whereabouts taking precedence. "Where's Johnny?"
"On his way to Green River."
"What happened?" the patriarch breathed, praying the boy was being truthful.
"My father came looking for me."
"Your father!" Murdoch lurched to his feet, that piece of news heightening his alarm. "Did Johnny?"
"No!" Carlos interrupted. "Johnny didn't!"
The boy's voice dripped with scorn, and although sure of the answer, Murdoch felt compelled to ask. "Who killed Barley?"
"I did!" Carlos proclaimed before stalking from the room.
Sinking heavily back into his chair, Murdoch watched the boy leave, finally accepting he had no choice now, but to let him go.
The trip into Green River had been a torturous one. Johnny had struggled with the constant urge to pound Davies into oblivion. The older man's manner had been deliberately belligerent, that and the bitter knowledge that the man was responsible for Carlos' ill treatment and subsequent spiral into inhumanity simply enraged the youngest Lancer.
What a cold and callous piece of scum Davies was and Johnny had found himself wondering if maybe the fact his blood ran through Carlos' veins had something to do with it, too. Maybe there was such a thing as bad blood. Not that it mattered now, Carlos was a proven killer, had reveled in the power taking a life had seemingly endowed upon him. He would have so easily killed again, and his own father, and despite the abuse the boy had suffered at Davies' hands Johnny knew that step was a step too far. The boy continued to head down the wrong path, seemed hell bent on taking those who cared about him with him. Johnny was equally determined to stop him
Barranca powered beneath him, the stallion sensing his rider's urgency battled through the waterlogged pasture, flying hooves seemingly skimming the surface as the hacienda loomed up ahead. But home suddenly seemed less than welcoming, morose looking clouds hovered overhead, threatening the apparent stillness that reigned below.
With a sense of both relief and foreboding, Johnny dismounted and led Barranca into his stall. Carefully, he tended the stallion, knowing he was avoiding the inevitable confrontation with Carlos but needing the time to gather his thoughts and slow his racing emotions. It was a grim Johnny Madrid who strode determinedly out of the barn and into the house.
Murdoch met him at the door but the expression, or lack of expression, drew the older man up short. With a weary gesture he pointed up the stairs in response to Johnny's unspoken question.
Johnny made his way up the steps passing his brother, Scott stepping quickly out of the way. Scott watched his brother's straight back, his nerves jangling eerily as he considered the cause of Madrid's appearance. Shaking his head sorrowfully, he joined his father in the great room. Accepting the glass pressed into his hand, he sat on the couch and waited, as the grandfather clock in the hall chimed the hour and the heavens unleashed her fury once more.
"It's mighty quiet up there. What do you think they are doing?" Scott asked above the thunder rumbling overhead.
"Well, if they had killed each other, we would have heard the shots. So, we must assume things are going ok. Right?" The two men eyed each other, both knowing it was not going to be so easy.
Johnny paused briefly in front of the boy's door, his hand snapping the safety thong off his Colt. Without knocking he entered the room. Carlos stood before his full length mirror, his arm going through the motions of the quick draw, but he whipped around angrily to face the intruder. As the door slid shut, he raised his eyes to the icy cold stare of Madrid.
"What do you want?"
"It's more a matter of what you want Carlos. You've made your decision; it's time to move on."
"You telling me
"No. Asking you to," Johnny replied softly.
A cold smile crawled across the boy's face. "You scared Johnny?"
"Of you? No! For you? Yes, and for anyone who gets in your way. That's why you have to leave. The people here care about you. They won't understand your decision."
"You do, Johnny."
"I understand you. I've been there Carlos, remember? Only I came out the other side, you won't."
"I'm good and
that's what scares you, knowing I can take you."
"I know you'd like to try, but like I told you before, I don't live that way anymore. I chose a home and family over a cold piece of steel. Nothing, no one will change that." For one long and meaningful moment vivid blue eyes void of all emotion stared at the youth and when certain he'd got his message across Johnny left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
Scott stood to meet him, their faces betraying their concern. Looking Murdoch in
the eye, prepared for an argument Johnny declared. "I've asked him to leave."
The patriarch nodded, a strange sadness clouding his face. "I think that's for the best." Wearily Murdoch moved over to his desk, opened one of the ledgers and tried to loose himself in the columns of figures.
The brother's exchanged looks before both moved towards the front door, like their father they had work to immerse themselves in.
Johnny lifted the trunk, muscles straining, bulging beneath under the effort. It would have been so much easier to simply tie the old oak trunk to Barranca's saddle and use the stallion's superior strength to ease the massive obstruction out of the creek bed but he had needed to rid himself of the unbearable emotions the boy had forced upon him. With a groan, he realized the futility of further effort and trudged up the bank toward the waiting stallion. He stroked the muscled neck, crooning softly to the giant horse, then removed the canteen from the saddle horn. He tossed back a gulp of the cool liquid before his eyes were drawn to the rapidly approaching horseman.
Miguel pulled his laboring gelding to a sliding stop, his voice screaming over the sound of flailing hooves. “Senor Johnny, Senor Johnny!"
Johnny moved to the gelding's side, grabbed the bridle of the nervous animal, "what the hell's the matter?"
"It’s Senor Scott, Senor!"
His stomach dropped, his heart stood still but he had to know. "What's wrong with Scott? Settle down and tell me," Johnny asked, his gentle tone soothing the flushed rider, while seeking to control his racing emotions.
"He was in the south pasture Senor. Carlos...”
"Carlos, what!" Johnny demanded.
"Carlos challenged him to a fight, Senor. With pistoleros. Carlos, he say, if you will not meet him, someone else can." But no one was listening.
In a flash of gold, the stallion leaped into a full run, his body stretched out low, skimming the ground in tremendous strides, his rider sitting quietly forward over his withers. Above the racing animal the heavens rumbled, drops of rain like accusing fingers stabbing the man's face, drumming a cadence on his back, each drop keeping time with the strides of the palomino racing beneath the darkening clouds.
Panic gripped him, dread gnawed deep inside and his heart hammered up into his dry aching throat. The agony he felt was unparalleled, his emotions colliding, melding into an eddy of anguish and horror.
He loved his brother, but not until now had he realized just how much. The threat to Scott’s life was real, and the pain of that loss suddenly thrust into the realms of reality. Not even Madrid’s mantle could quell the desperation that pervaded his entire being.
The south pasture had never seemed so far away, the distance passing excruciatingly slowly beneath Barranca’s thundering gait. He sat still, low over the stallion's withers, asking nothing because he knew his horse was giving all he had. Images, stark bloody images, taunted him, tormented him and for the first time ever he began to pray, the words flowing unbidden, their release a strange sustenance that somehow helped quiet his troubled soul.
Blue eyes scoured the lush valley, eager and keen until finally they settled on the object of their concern. Scott was alive, standing with his arms raised slightly, well away from his gun. The message was clear, he would not draw against the boy but even from that distance Johnny could see that no was not an answer Carlos would accept. The youth stood proud and deadly, his right hand mere inches away from the Colt that promised him glory and reward.
In the distance Johnny spied another rider, the very same fear driving him to violently urge his mount on. The dark haired Lancer’s heart lurched, aching for the older man. His father was again facing the very real possibility of losing a son, and about to witness something that would forever haunt them all.
He'd hoped to talk the boy into seeing sense, but his wise, well chosen words of reason had been ignored, simply discarded to one side like his own life promised to be at any moment. He didn't feel any fear just a strange numbness, disbelief the basis for the cushioning that had him stand aloof and emotionless. He'd faced death before but this time it would be meaningless, just another notch on a killer’s gun, and he did not want to die that way.
To his right and off to his left he was suddenly made aware of the fact they were no longer alone, he knew instantly who the men were, and he silently cursed fate. Death waited in the shadows, blood would be spilled and life would ebb but he was certain now it would not be his life that was lost. In desperation, he implored the boy,” Carlos, please, put the gun away. It doesn't have to be like this.”
The boy merely laughed a hollow, maniacal sound.
Johnny pulled the stallion to a sliding halt, Barranca's hooves digging furrows into the soggy earth, sending mud splattering in all directions. He was out of the saddle in an instant, stalking anxiously toward the two men who now stood so still. "Carlos! Stop!" he demanded. The boy turned to face him then, an eerie gleam shining in the blue depths of his eyes.
"Aw, Johnny Madrid. I've been expecting you."
"What the hell are you doing?" Johnny demanded.
"I am going to seal my fate, and yours. I will become the fastest gun in the west today and you are going to be the one who puts me on top."
"I prefer to keep my fate in my own hands if you don't mind."
"Johnny," Scott whispered tremulously. He made a move toward his dark-haired brother but was waved off. Seemingly out of nowhere Murdoch materialized, to stand beside his older son. The aged rancher placed a hand on the young man's shoulder, offering support.
"Scott, you and Murdoch stay out of this," Johnny ordered.
"Oh, you have finally figured it out, eh Johnny?" Carlos taunted. "You have a choice Madrid. You can face me, or I will start drawing down on the people you seem to care about. I'm gonna start with Scott here."
"Don't you understand, boy. You can't win! Even if you do take me, you lose."
"You're losing your edge, Johnny. Are you scared?"
"For you and my family, yes. For me, no! I have lived this life. You don't want it. Trust me!"
"Ah, but you're wrong. I can't think of anything I want more. And I'll have it too. Now, enough talking. Are you gonna draw or am I just gonna shoot you? Either way is ok with me."
"Carlos, please son...” Murdoch moved closer to the two gunfighters “Listen to me."
"I ain't your son and I'm done listening. Now back the hell off. This is 'tween me and Johnny here."
It was over, Johnny knew, it was inevitable. The cruel hand of fate had planned this day, set all the players in motion. From the time Madrid had become a legend, to the time the boy had been conceived, the path had been set. Nature was in one accord with fate, the thunder rumbling lowly, the wind temporarily still, as if she and fate were watching the events being played out. All eyes were now on the boy, as he stood straight and proud, reveling in his skill, hungering for the taste of blood, glaring at his intended target.
With a heavy sigh, Johnny closed his eyes, and opened the doors to the dark place in his mind, the place where Madrid lived still, and as always the alter ego rose and came to assume his place. Transfixed the other three men watched as the transformation occurred. Two men feared the arrival of the gunfighter; one boy craved the attention of his idol.
Johnny raised his head, opened his eyes, and the icy cold stare of death pierced the boy. Vaguely, Johnny heard his father and brother gasp. He had always hoped they would never be forced to witness Madrid in action; he had strove to contain his alter ego, allowing Madrid to live in their imaginations only. But now there was no choice, he couldn't let his family pay the price, and he couldn't face Carlos as Lancer. Resigned, his shoulders slumped as he fell naturally into the cat-like slouch. His hand hovered near his colt, and he waited...
Carlos stared in awe at the transformation, all the more apparent in the day light, so different from the night in the barn. Then he had seen but a shadow, a figment conjured by an over active imagination. Or so he had convinced himself. But now? Now, the reality was the more terrifying. As the thunder rolled overhead and a raindrop stabbed his cheek, doubt invaded his confidence for the first time. But it remained only a brief moment to be quickly replaced by hatred unparalleled in the boy's short life. How dare Madrid threaten his supremacy, attempt to usurp his gift? In that moment of cold rage, the boy made his last assumption, his last mistake.
In a heartbeat it was over. In a blink of an eye Carlos had drawn his gun, the Colt belching lead as it fell from lax, lifeless fingers, hitting the ground just seconds before the boy’s body fell along side with a harrowing thud.
Two sets of eyes lingered briefly on the still form, the two men standing stunned and repulsed by the death of one so young, yet simultaneously overwhelmed with unmitigated relief. Then in unspoken accord they moved swiftly to stand on either side of the youngest Lancer, and it was a Lancer who stood there now. Gone was the Madrid persona, leaving a dazed Johnny Lancer in his wake. Murdoch eased the gun from his son’s hand, watching in silence as his elder son then wrapped an arm around his brother’s shoulders, turning him away and leading him a little distance from the scene.
The patriarch forced his attention back to the dead boy; compassion surmounting the intense anger he had felt. He knelt down, his eyes drawn to the inanimate features. The blue eyes stared unseeingly, the leaden sky reflected eerily in their empty depths. Gently he shuttered them closed and the boy was finally at peace.
Overhead lightning split the sky, violent testimony to an equally violent death. The storm raged as if screaming in frustration and anger for the three men who stood mutely beneath her. Murdoch lifted his head to the pounding fingers of rain that stabbed his face. Only then did he feel pain but briefly. So too, he was aware of a fleeting twinge of sorrow. For he would not mourn this boy, he would bury him and place him where he belonged, in the past. Silently, he begged God for the strength to help his younger son do the same.
Stiffly he rose to his feet, feeling every one of his forty-five years. Removing his jacket he placed it over the boy, a boy who had reminded him so much of his own son. Their physical likeness and hurt-filled past was strikingly similar, yet no two boys had ever been as dissimilar, no two souls had ever been so opposed. He stared at his sons. His oldest had his arms wrapped protectively around his brother, who stood mutely, head bowed, accepting the embrace. Murdoch Lancer moved to join them.
Lacy & Seren 2006
Of Blood and Rain Epilogue
The urge to run had been overwhelming. The wind had called to him, promising him a depth of solitude in which he could wallow and take refuge. But if he'd learned anything since coming to Lancer, since coming home, it was that isolation was no cure for the ills that plagued a man’s soul.
He had always buried his feelings, his emotions. Rendering them mute and benign, and he'd once been foolish enough to believe that an end to them. Now he accepted that hurt refused to lie dormant and grief would not stagnate, instead they seethed silently beneath the surface, merging and intensifying until it was impossible to hold back the encroaching tide.
It had not been easy; turning his back on what had always brought him through heartache, a tried and previously trusted method whose latent flaws he had wanted to ignore. The alternative was all so new, all so scary, yet somehow it had held immense appeal and he had effortlessly succumbed.
Silently, they had stood beside him, radiating their strength. His father had calmly removed the still smoking Colt from his trembling hand. His brother removed him from the anguish, biting back words that would later soothe and placate him, his arms offering the desired comfort instead. He had willing accepted the embrace, bowing his head against his brother's chest, hearing the storm raging above die as surely as the boy had died. As if they had been kindred spirits, one being torn between two dimensions, with the boy's death, so too the storms died their ending anguished, as violent as the death of Carlos.
As the rain ebbed and slowed, the boy’s blood had seeped into Lancer soil, the stark scarlet flow ebbing into nothingness as the pure liquid of the heavens washed all trace away.
There would remain no scarlet stains to haunt the slumber of the Lancers, no grim reminder of the tragedy that had occurred here this evening. No voices would scream from the grave. Instead, the boy had found in death what life had denied him, peace.
As Johnny had ridden away he'd not looked back, instead he'd focused on a break in the clouds and on the arc of color and its silent promise. The wind had changed direction, lapsing into a mere breath of a breeze, and the gentlest of all tailwinds. As the storm within the Lancer household calmed, so to the storms in the heavens found sanctuary in the shining sun, which now appeared. Her sabbatical at an end she resumed her reign above and kissed the earth with her promise.
Sharing, unburdening himself to people who understood, who cared, who above all else loved him had been the first step in letting go of the grief and guilt he felt. Carlos would not haunt him; his death would not lie heavy on his soul. All he felt for the boy now was a quiet sadness. He mourned only what might have been, what had been so wantonly thrown away. In his heart he knew he, they, had done all they could, that no one could have done anymore. That he was not to blame.
They had buried him beneath a blue and cloudless sky, the recent, seemingly endless storms, finally having blown themselves out. Words of forgiveness and peace had been spoken over him, death offering what life had been unable to bestow.
Again, he had not looked back, eyes eager to settle on the familiar. The hacienda had glistened in the sunlight, drawing him like a beacon on the darkest of nights. Briefly he'd contemplated an if only…if only Carlos had seen it the way he did. He'd urged Barranca on then, his father and his brother holding back, sensing what he could never express.
Faces raised to the bright light above, they raced, their bodies moving as one. One dark, one gold, they ran, reveling in the wind kissing their cheeks, one snorting his pleasure, one smiling full of new found peace. At the top of the knoll overlooking the hacienda they came to a stop. No words needed, each blowing, their hearts racing with the adrenaline of flight. As they surveyed the panorama spread out below them they knew the freedom of life, the freedom of choice and one man knew he could have done nothing more. Choices are presented to all men and Johnny Madrid Lancer knew Carlos had chosen his path.
"Rest in peace, young man," he whispered, tipping his hat in salute. One more glance around and he urged the mighty stallion down the hill, toward family, toward home, toward love.
Lacy & Seren 2006