(Note: This is a sequel to Pawns. To understand the characters it would help to read Pawns first.)
Murdoch Lancer sat motionless in the overstuffed chair that had been hauled up from the Great Room three days ago, and realized for the first time in twenty five years, that the thirty thousand acres that lay beyond the four walls of this bedroom were not as important as the twelve by twelve square feet of space that dominated this room. For in that space resided one of the two most precious gifts he had ever received.
And what had he done with that gift? He had berated and chastised Johnny at every step. Nothing the boy did was right. Why had he reacted so harshly to the simplest mistake? Why did he feel the need to curb what made Johnny, Johnny? Did he remind him so much of his mother that he could not see past the hurt she had inflicted on him, or was it pride? Was it the fact that everyone knew that his son, his flesh and blood, was the infamous Johnny Madrid? Did all the snide remarks in the beginning, when they first came to rescue, not just his land, but the whole valley, lay heavy on his ego? Why was it so much easier to accept Scott, raised in a world apart from theirs? A tenderfoot at first. Was it because he was not soiled by a notorious past? Was he so sanctimonious that he could not separate the man from the legend? Scott had, and so had Teresa. Without a blink of an eye, without one condemnation, they had accepted Johnny into their lives. Three years. How much had he lost in those three years?
The love, he had. There was no denying the love Johnny held for him. Why, in a million years he would never know. But it was his friendship that he had lost. The easy camaraderie Scott and Teresa shared with him. Hell, even Jelly was closer to him.
And yet Johnny persevered. He took and returned verbal blow with verbal blow. He stormed out of the hacienda, only to return the very same night, ready for the next fight. Or was he just waiting for the time when acceptance replaced ridicule. When hurtful words were replaced with kind words.
Oh Johnny…how could I have wasted such a gift?
Teresa knew. From the very beginning, Teresa knew. She felt it in her heart that you were still alive. Why couldn’t I feel that?
With infinite care he reached forward from the chair he had been sitting in for the past two hours, and lifted the limp hand of his youngest son.
Johnny had barely moved since they brought him home. Dr. Sutter had prescribed Chloral Hydrate, and Sam had agreed. They assured him that the colorless crystal grains mixed in a little water and infused through the nasal tube would keep Johnny in a calm, dreamless sleep, giving him the rest he so desperately needed.
But he was in desperate need himself. He needed to see Johnny with his eyes open. He needed to tell him everything he had not said, everything that needed to be said.
But the drug induced sleep kept Johnny a million miles away.
Murdoch took a deep breath. So many things had happened in the past three days. Thankfully Jelly and Cipriano had taken over the everyday needs of the ranch, allowing him and Scott to devote their full attention to Johnny.
Dr. Sutter stayed on to help Sam with Johnny, leaving Sam time to still maintain his practice during the day and spend his nights at Lancer. Val had already stopped by to inform them that the Colonel and his men were being transported to Stockton where they had room to house so many prisoners until their trial date. And it was decided, unanimously, that although the doctor would have to pay for his part in the Colonel’s plans, he was of far greater use here at Lancer then languishing in some prison in Stockton.
Anna also stayed on. She was invaluable, not just to help nurse Johnny, but for moral support for both Scott and Teresa.
His thoughts were disturbed by the sound of the door opening behind him.
Before he could look around Anna was standing behind him, her hands resting gently on his shoulders. “Sam will be here soon with the nurse. I thought you might like to freshen up before she arrived.”
Murdoch gently laid Johnny’s hand back down on the bed and turned to look up at Anna. “I guess you’re right. I just wish I was as sure about this as Sam. I know Johnny needs the care, but he also needs family.”
Anna walked closer to the bed, looking down on Johnny. “He does have family. You will be here for him every step of the way. But, he does need the kind of care none of us can give him. Murdoch, I know I have been a terrible old woman for a lot of years, but Johnny…Johnny opened my eyes. I love him like the sons I lost so long ago. To me he is as precious as anything in my life and I will do anything to help him and protect him.”
Murdoch chuckled knowingly. “Johnny does have a way of getting to you, doesn’t he?”
“That he does. Now, why don’t you get along.”
Murdoch nodded, standing up slowly. He had aged the last few weeks. As he bent down to gently caress Johnny’s cheek, he wondered what the future had in store for them.
Teresa smoothed her skirt for the umpteenth time as she saw Sam’s buggy make its way under the Lancer arch. She didn’t know why she had such an uncomfortable feeling about the arriving nurse. She had gotten past the hurt feelings, the disappointment that she could not take care of Johnny herself. After both Sam and Dr. Sutter sat her down and told her the complexities of Johnny’s care, she understood that she was not trained for what he needed. So why did she have the feeling that her world was about to be turned upside down?
Murdoch joined them, Scott, Teresa, Jelly and himself, standing in a straight line waiting. Each one with their own thoughts, their own worries. Would life at Lancer ever return to what it was?
Sam opened the French doors and ushered in a woman a full head taller than him. Dressed in a black cotton overcoat and a starched white nurse’s cap over a tightly secured bun.
She was in her mid fifties, Teresa guessed, her hand seeking Murdoch’s for security. She was probably never a pretty woman, as standards go, but there was a hint of striking cheekbones and curved chin. Her skin was unnaturally white as if she never ventured out into the sun. She arched an eyebrow and Teresa felt a chill run down her spine. She had never felt so scrutinized, so analyzed in her life.
Sam cleared his throat, feeling the tension in the room. “Murdoch, I’d like to introduce you to…”
The nurse stepped forward, extending her hand to Murdoch. She was nearly as tall as him, and he suspected, beneath the overcoat she was as formidable as her height.
“Mr. Lancer I presume.” she said, extending her hand. Her grip was stronger than some trail hands he had met over the years.
Murdoch nodded. “Miss…”
“My given name is Veronica Adelaide, but I prefer Nurse Ada, it is more convenient for my patients.”
Murdoch’s lips formed a semi smile. “Allow me to introduce my family….”
“There is no need, Mr. Lancer. Dr. Jenkins and I had a long talk on the ride from town. I find it very useful to know the family as well as the patient.”
Murdoch shot Sam a steely look. This was NOT the nurse he had in mind.
She proceeded down the line, shaking each hand firmly. “You are Teresa O’Brien,” she said. Teresa nodded, feeling as if she was standing before Miss Stanton, her third grade teacher who she feared more than God Himself. “Dr. Jenkins tells me you are a fine nurse. I have no problem having you watch and learn. But I will not abide by your interference. That is not to say that I am not open to suggestions. But I expect that to be done outside the patient’s room.”
“The patient has a name, John…Johnny Lancer.” Murdoch fought hard to contain his temper. If he didn’t like her, how was Johnny going to react when he regained consciousness?
She continued down the line. “Scott Lancer,” she said as she stopped before Scott. “I was sorry to hear of your unfortunate ordeal. If you have not done so yet, I suggest that you talk to someone who can help you move forward.”
“I’m fine.” Scott bristled.
Nurse Ada arched an eyebrow again. “Perhaps you think you are.”
Before Scott could respond she was standing in front of Jelly. “Mr. Hoskins.”
“I understand you are very close to the patient. Family and friends will be very important in Mr. Lancer’s recovery. I am sure I can count on you.”
Jelly rose to his fullest height, jetting his chin out in defiance. “Ma’am, Johnny is just about the most important person in my life. Ain’t nothin’ I won’t do fer him. And I ain’t gonna let anything happen to him neither. Nobody messes with Johnny while I’m around. Nobody.”
“Commendable, Mr. Hoskins. Just remember, when it comes to Mr. Lancer’s health and care, no one messes with me.”
“Now hold on just one minute here!” Murdoch’s voice soared. “Miss Adelaide, I appreciate the fact that you have come all this way. But this is my house. I call the tune…”
“Mr. Lancer.” Nurse Ada was in his face now. “Your son is very ill. He will need care, special care. I am the best one to provide it. I don’t require your friendship, just your cooperation. I will take my meals in Mr. Lancer’s room. I require two half days a week off so I can take care of personal matters, and four fifteen minute breaks a day at which time one of you will need to stay with the patient. As you can see, I am not your typical kind hearted nurse, wearing my feelings on my sleeve…”
“That’s an understatement,” Scott mumbled.
“I am however the best person to help your son. If that is amenable to you then I would like to see my patient.”
Sam quickly slipped in between Nurse Ada and Murdoch. “Right this way.” As they made their way from the great room toward the stairs, the family followed, each one bristling inside. They knew that their world was about to be further turned upside down…
Anna heard the sound of raised voices downstairs and quickly closed the door. Even though Johnny was in a drugged sleep, she didn’t want him coming around, confused and alarmed by the goings on in the great room.
She didn’t have long to wait before the cause of the commotion walked into the room.
Flanked by Dr.’s Jenkins and Sutter, a tall, robustly built woman entered. Unbuttoning her overcoat, she slipped it off and handed it to a surprised Teresa, revealing a white nurses uniform with a light blue apron.
Taking stock of the sick room Nurse Ada harrumphed once and proceeded to raise the shade and open the window.
Anna jumped to her feet. “Johnny has a fever. He needs to be kept warm.”
“Then put another blanket on him if need be, he needs fresh air.” She walked over to Johnny’s bed and began to lift the covers. “If you ladies would rather leave the room while I examine my patient…”
“There’s no need.” Teresa said defiantly, “Anna and I have been taking care of all of Johnny’s needs.”
“Very well.” She began a thorough examination, feeling his forehead with the back of her hand for fever, checking his pulse, leaning down and listening to his heart beat, lifting his eyelids and looking for pupil dilatation, lifting his hand to study his fingernails. Everything done with a cold professionalism, not even a glimmer of compassion for the boy who lay so quietly amongst the pillows.
“Drs. Please remind me of the medications he is receiving.” She pulled a pad of paper and a pencil from her apron pocket.
Sam nodded to Dr. Sutter. “15 to 20 grains of Chloral Hydrate every four hours, infused through the NG tube. 20 drops tincture of Corn Flower four to six times daily and sufficient willow bark tea to reduce the fever. We have morphine ready if the pain breaks through.”
Nurse Ada dutifully jotted down the medications. “And how long ago was his last dose of each?”
“A couple of hours,” Anna answered.
“A couple of hours will no longer suffice. There will be a strict schedule of medications. If one of you gives him anything, including water, I want it noted here on this pad. We must keep an accurate account of how much fluids he takes in and eliminates. Patients who are bedridden like this tend to have kidney problems.
Also, you will wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water then rinse them in carbolic acid before you touch the NG tube. He does not need the complications from infection.”
Finally she began to examine the elaborate wood and wire splint. “I understand you performed surgery on a kitchen table?”
Dr. Sutter nodded. “It was necessary.”
“I have seen this particular type of surgery only twice. Both performed in a well equipped, sterile hospital.”
“And the outcome?” Scott asked.
“One patient recovered completely, the other succumbed to infection and died.”
A chill went down everyone’s spine.
“But we will not let that happen.” She leaned her hands onto the mattress and felt for its firmness. “This mattress will not do.” She pronounced, “It is much too soft. We will need a board of some kind placed beneath the mattress to firm it up.”
“I’ll get on it right away,” Jelly promised, happy for an excuse to get out of the room. He and Nurse Ada were not going to see eye to eye, he knew for a fact. Before long, they would be locking horns. He could see it coming.
“Very well. If someone would bring my bags to my room. And I also will require a cot in here. Mr. Lancer…” When two heads looked her way she grimaced. “I detest using first names, it is quite unprofessional, but with all of you answering to Mr. Lancer, I suppose I must start. Scott, I know I am not your nurse, and you need not follow my suggestions, but I think you should rest. Dr. Jenkins told me some of what you and your brother went through. It will take time for you to regain your strength.”
“I’m fine,” Scott insisted, though his voice belied his words.
Nurse Ada looked down at her patient. “How much longer do you plan to keep him sedated?” she asked.
“Another two to three days,” Sam speculated.
“Three days.” She looked back at Scott. “When your brother regains consciousness he is going to need you, all his family. I would hate to have to tell him that you are too tired to sit with him.”
“She’s right, son.” Murdoch wrapped an arm around his shoulder and ushered him out. “You can see your brother after you have rested.”
“Stubborn one, that man.” Ada muttered.
“Nurse Ada,” Anna laughed, “To coin a phrase, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Teresa agreed, “Scott is a puppy dog compared to Johnny when it comes to taking orders from the doctor. Last year, Johnny had a bad fever, sick as a dog, Sam ordered him to stay in bed at least two days after the fever broke. We found him that very night in the stable grooming his horse. Murdoch was so mad he threw Johnny over his shoulder and carried him upstairs. Johnny stayed put after that. Didn’t have a choice. Murdoch put a lock on his door, only opened from the outside.” Teresa looked down at Johnny and all her levity drained from her. Johnny’s face was so pale, so thin. “If only it was that simple this time,” she whispered.
Nurse Ada straightened her shoulders, adding an inch to her already overpowering stature. “There is no room for sentimentality here, Miss O’Brien. We have a fight here. A fight to save this young man’s life; to return him to the man he was. I won’t sugar coat it. It is going to be a long hard road. This part is easy. We are simply caring for his body. In the weeks ahead we will be caring for the man. A man filled with pain, anger, self-pity, hate. His emotions will run the gambit. He will love you one day and hate you the next. He will fight you every step of the way. And when, and if, he stops fighting, you are going to have to make him mad again. So mad that he will do the impossible just to spite you. It’s a long road, and it will change you forever. If you don’t think you can handle it, if you don’t think you can stay the course then say so now. Because if you walk away from him, once he has started his fight it could end all we have worked for. I have seen it happen.”
Teresa took a long deep breath and let it out slowly, “You don’t have to worry about me, Nurse Ada. I will do whatever it takes to make Johnny well. But understand this, he will never question my love for him.”
“We will see, Miss O’Brien. Now, if one of you ladies would stay with him while I get settled in, I will return in thirty minutes and we can bathe him and change his sheets. Sheets are to be changed daily. If that is a problem then I suggest you buy more sheets. We will bathe him once, twice, three times if necessary. If someone could show me to my room?”
Teresa nodded and led Nurse Ada down the hallway to the guestroom.
The next three days were a blur for Teresa. Nurse Ada barked orders constantly. Medications were carefully administered and duly noted on the pad next to Johnny’s bed. His water intake was increased. Despite the fact that Johnny shivered violently from the high fever, Nurse Ada ordered her to remove the blankets and cover him with a thin sheet.
“It’s a vicious cycle. The fever causes the chills,” Nurse Ada explained patiently when Teresa wanted to layer Johnny with more blankets, “the body shivers and the fever goes up. We are going to stop that cycle.”
Anna bristled at the overbearing nurse but had to admit she knew what she was doing. So, holding her tongue and swallowing her pride, she did as she was told.
Johnny’s nightshirt was removed and he was bathed from head to toe every three hours to help bring down the fever.
There was no room for modesty, but Teresa knew when Johnny was aware again, that she would no longer be able to care for him this way. The humiliation would be far too great for him.
Dr. Sutter would visit late morning and early evening each day to unlash the splint and check the sutures. Infection was his prime worry and the stubborn fever was an indication that his body was fighting the wire inside his leg. If it persisted he would have to reopen the incision and look for abbesses.
Murdoch and Scott were allowed in the room for only short periods of time. Nurse Ada insisted they could do nothing for Johnny now but get in the way of his care.
Murdoch fumed as he paced the Great Room. “How dare she keep us out of Johnny’s room. He’s my son, your brother. We have every right to be in there with him.”
“You agreed she was the boss when it came to the sickroom,” Scott reminded him. “Her ways may be antagonistic, but she is good at what she does. I have met nurses like her, in the army hospitals and the hospitals in Boston. It is just their way. Remain emotionless and you can’t be hurt.”
“I still don’t like it. Johnny needs his family.”
“I agree. And when he regains consciousness I think we should insist on it. But for now, let her have her way. If Teresa doesn’t throw her out of the house first.”
A weak grin came to Murdoch’s face. “A rock and a hard place. Those two will have at it before long. I’m not so sure Nurse Ada will come out on top.”
On the afternoon of the third day Sam returned early. It was time to cut back on the doses of Chloral Hydrate and allow Johnny to regain consciousness.
Murdoch and Scott stood just behind Sam as he gently began to shake Johnny’s shoulder.
“Have the morphine ready,” he ordered, but Nurse Ada already had the pain killer in her hand.
Dr. Sutter stood on the other side of the bed with Teresa.
Sam continued to shake Johnny. “Johnny…come on Johnny, it’s time to wake up. Murdoch and Scott are here.”
A low soft moan was the only indication that Johnny heard him.
“Come on, Johnny,” Scott called over Sam’s shoulder. “It’s about time you opened those eyes of yours little brother.”
Scott’s voice had an immediate effect on Johnny and his eyelids fluttered.
Sam reached behind him and grabbed Scott’s arm, pulling him forward. “Talk to him,” he ordered. Scott leaned over the bed, gently brushing the hair out of his brother’s eyes. “Come on Johnny. That’s it. Just open your eyes for a little while.”
Johnny’s eyelids fluttered again and as he opened his eyes Scott leaned in closer. Lids at half mast, Johnny tried to make sense of the blurred shadows that moved around him. He heard Scott’s voice soft and plaintive. He wanted to open his eyes all the way, see Scott… Someone touched his shoulder with a gentle hand and he moaned in frustration that he couldn’t make sense of the world around him.
“That’s it John…“ Murdoch’s voice. That was Murdoch. “We’re right here for you son.”
His confused mind couldn’t bring it all together. More shadows moved in closer around him and he suddenly felt trapped. He needed to get out of there. He tried to move and an electrifying pain shot through his right leg, so strong that a cry of pain ripped up his throat and exploded around his ears.
“The morphine!” Sam barked, and Ada handed him the syringe. The effect was almost instantaneous. His body relaxed and his eyelids slid closed.
Shaken to their core, Scott and Murdoch stepped back, letting the doctors work on Johnny. They remained silent while the splint was checked closely and unlashed to check the incision.
Satisfied, Sam nodded to Dr. Sutter and they collected Scott and Murdoch as they left the room.
“That was to be expected,” Sam assured the two visibly shaken men. “We will start combining the Chloral Hydrate and morphine and bring him too a little bit more each day.”
“He was in so much pain.” Scott choked back a shudder.
“He will be for some time. This is why we need Nurse Ada. She will administer the doses as needed. I want you two to understand something. This is not going to be a short recovery. It’s going to take time, small steps…but we’ve now begun. We will keep him sedated tonight and try this again tomorrow.”
Murdoch was pale as a ghost. “Can he do it Sam?”
Sam nodded slowly. “I think he can. With everyone’s help. God be willing.”
Scott sat staring into the fireplace, a glass of bourbon forgotten in his hand. He could not get the image of Johnny in the hot box out of his mind. Every moment of that terrible morning played itself out in his mind. Every vulgar detail. He could feel Johnny’s weight in his arms, feel the heat from his fevered body against his chest as he carried him toward the metal box.
He tried to escape the memory of his brother’s eyes, the whispered promise he had begged Scott to make. The promise he knew he could not fulfill.
The heat from the fire, most times warm and comforting, only dredged up more memories of the horrible heat, the smells and sights as he opened the box after how many hours, revealing a nightmare far worse than any dream his mind could conjure up.
He didn’t hear Lewis Sutter walk up behind him. Sutter stood there for a long time, watching. He saw the sag to the young man’s shoulders, the trembling hands that held the glass of whiskey. He had devoted so much time to his younger brother he had little time to talk to Scott. There was so much to be said. He wanted to tell the boy how sorry he was. But there were no words that could convey what he truly thought. To express the depth of his pain for what he had let happen. He looked down at his own hands, old and wrinkled now, hands that had at one time been used only to heal the sick and injured, then somehow they no longer served to help, they became instruments of pain. And now, he was trying, so desperately, to undo the harm he had done.
He laid a gentle hand on the blond man’s shoulders and Scott jumped, spilling bourbon on his hands.
“Sorry I startled you,” Sutter said softly, waiting for Scott to acknowledge his presence.
Scott looked up, over his shoulder, uncertainty in his eyes. “…Johnny…?”
“He’s resting. It will be a couple more hours before he comes to again. I thought we could take the time to talk.”
Scott turned his face away. “Unless it’s about Johnny’s recovery, we have nothing to talk about.”
“You have every right to be angry with me.”
Scott stood up slowly. “Angry?” Turning around to face the doctor, the fear in his eyes was replaced by barely suppressed rage. “Angry doesn’t come close to how I feel. What you did to Johnny. What that bastard Colonel did to Johnny. Rotting in Hell would be to good for you. Both of you should be up there in that bed instead of Johnny. You should be the ones fighting to stay alive, facing a painful, uncertain recovery.”
Scott took a menacing step closer to the doctor. “You kept pouring that carbolic acid into his wounded leg, listened to him scream in pain then shot him up with morphine, just to return to do it again. You didn’t put the bullet in his leg, but you are every bit as responsible for him lying up there.”
“That’s not fair, Scott.” Scott turned to see Anna standing in the doorway leading to the upstairs, her arms crossed, her expression rigid.
“Dr. Sutter has done everything he could to save Johnny’s life. Even Dr. Jenkins said he wouldn’t have had the courage to perform the operation. If Johnny has any chance of leading a normal life after this, it is because of the doctor’s efforts.”
Scott set his untouched glass on the mantle and brushed past the doctor. “If the doctor had acted like a doctor in the first place Johnny wouldn’t be up there.”
“You can’t say that for sure, Scott.” Anna reached out to grab his arm as Scott walked past her toward the stairs. “It wasn’t Dr. Sutter who put those three bullets in Johnny. It was the Colonel’s men.”
“And it was the Colonel’s doctor who kept Johnny hobbled and in pain to force me to do his filthy work.” Scott spat. “Nothing will change that.”
Anna tried to hold onto his arm but he jerked it free. “Nothing will change what he did.”
Anna made to follow but the doctor’s voice sliced through the air. “Let him go.”
“Anna, in many ways Scott’s recovery will be every bit as hard as Johnny’s. If hating me helps him to confront his pain then who am I not to let him? I did everything he said. And more.”
“And you also helped Johnny. He would be dead if you had not operated.”
Dr. Sutter turned to look into the roaring fire in the fireplace. “There are worse things in life than death, my dear. Far worse.”
Voices drifted through his mind, intangible, but comforting sounds. He wasn’t sure where he was, or why. To make sense of it was too much bother at the moment. He was content to just drift. No worries, no pain. But someone on the outside was not content to leave him be.
He tried to ignore the feel of someone shaking his shoulder, or the increasing volume of their voice. And with that voice came other annoying sensations. An antiseptic smell biting at his nose, nagging pains throbbing and aching throughout his body.
The voice grew louder and more persistent. And so did the pain.
At last Johnny had no choice but to give in.
Nurse Ada firmly shook Johnny’s shoulder. After he rallied somewhat yesterday, she had reduced the dosage of Chloral Hydrate as she was directed. The plan was to wean him off the sedative during the day and use it only at night to assure a sound sleep.
Murdoch and Teresa stood behind her and watched. Johnny’s eyes snapped open then slid closed again. Nurse Ada continued to shake him.
“Leave him be.” Murdoch admonished, “Can’t you see he’s not ready to wake up yet?”
“It’s not up to him, Murdoch. Teresa, pour a glass of water please.”
Nurse Ada gently lifted Johnny’s head and placed the glass next to his lips. “He needs something to stimulate his mind. Drinking is a natural reaction.”
They watched as Johnny sipped at the water.
“That’s it Mr. Lancer.” Nurse Ada slipped another pillow behind his head. “It’s time to wake up.”
Teresa watched Johnny’s eyes flutter and stay open this time.
“Mr. Lancer. I want you to tell me how you feel,” Nurse Ada directed, her voice emotionless.
Johnny blinked his eyes, trying to bring the stranger into focus.
“Tell me how you feel.”
“Tired…” Johnny grunted.
“That’s to be expected. You are recovering from a serious injury.”
Memories, like pieces of an unfinished puzzle, filled his mind. “Scott…?”
“Your brother is downstairs.”
“Yes. But not seriously. You are the one we are concerned with. I need to know how you feel, where you hurt.”
“I want Scott.”
“You can talk to him after you have answered my questions.”
Johnny’s eyes finally focused and he stared at Nurse Ada. “Who are you?”
“I’m your nurse. “
Johnny turned his head away. “I don’t need no nurse.”
“Your doctors think differently. Now, tell me how you feel.”
“I feel fine,” Johnny snapped.
“Mr. Lancer, I think we had better come to an understanding here.
You are my patient. Whether you wish to believe it or not, you need me. Until your doctors say otherwise I am here to stay. You can make things pleasant or you can make them unpleasant. It’s up to you. But it won’t change the fact that I’m here, for the duration.”
Johnny turned his head back. “Teresa can take care of me just fine. She always has before.”
Teresa jumped forward but Nurse Ada struck her hand out keeping her out of Johnny’s view.
“Miss O’Brien is not a trained nurse. I am.”
“You will get what you need. If you cooperate, you will see Miss O’Brien and your brother next time you wake up. Now, how do you feel?”
Johnny’s eye’s flashed. “I hurt.”
“Exactly where do you hurt?”
“Shoulder, ribs, legs.”
Nurse Ada nodded. “I’ll give you some morphine to ease the pain.”
“No!” Johnny rasped out. “No drugs.”
“You want to lay here in pain?”
“Nurse Ada, Johnny doesn’t like…” Teresa began before Ada cut her off sharply.
“It doesn’t matter what you want Mr. Lancer. It is what the doctor has ordered.”
Johnny saw the syringe in her hand and tried to yank his arm away, but he was too weak to fight.
“Where’s Murdoch?” Johnny looked around, desperate to find anyone but Nurse Ada. She successfully screened Murdoch and Teresa from his sight.
“Your father is not in charge of your sick room. I am. He can’t help you.”
Johnny looked at her incredulously.
“There,” she said, “the pain should be easier any minute now.” She removed the extra pillow behind his head and straightened the sheets. “I believe in telling my patients everything. Keeping you in the dark will not help. You’ve been running a high fever, it is down a bit now. Your shoulder wound is healing nicely, as are your ribs. Your right ankle is healing as well…”
Johnny tried to follow what she was saying but he was floating away. Damn how he hated drugs.
Murdoch watched his son slip back into a drugged sleep. He held his tongue while Johnny was conscious, but now he felt ready to explode.
“Nurse Ada, I would like to talk to you in the hall,” he growled, trying, but not succeeding in keeping the anger out of his voice.
Ada stood up straight, squaring her shoulders. “If you are questioning the care of your son, then we have nothing to discuss.”
Murdoch felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. The insolence! “I have every right to question your care. That is my son. He is hurt and he is scared. Do you have any idea of what he’s been through? Where is your compassion, your sympathy?”
“There is no room for compassion or sympathy. When Mr. Lancer wakes up he has to know that I am the only one who sets the rules. If he follows the rules he is rewarded, if he doesn’t he is punished.”
“He is not an animal to be trained!” Murdoch exploded. “He is a man. He is my son.”
Teresa stepped forward. “I thought nurses were kind and caring. All I ever wanted to be was a nurse. Sam always said I’d make a fine nurse. But if this is how a real nurse treats her patients…I never want to be like you.”
“It takes more than kind words and the ability to follow doctor’s orders Miss O’Brien. It takes a strong hand. The patient has to know who is in charge. A patient is like a willful child. He has to depend on you for everything. How do you think Mr. Lancer is going to feel when you have to tend to his every need? He’ll be embarrassed. He’ll resent you. You will never have the same relationship as you enjoyed before.
And he’ll test you, every chance he gets. Are you strong enough to say no?
Soon Mr. Lancer will be awake for longer periods of time. He’ll be scared, angry, confused. He’ll want to rip that splint off no mater what the consequences. He’ll try every trick in the book to get out of that bed. When the NG tube is removed he’ll refuse to take his medicine. He’ll have to be checked constantly for signs of infection from the wire.
In a few weeks he will feel stronger. The pain will be manageable with laudanum. And just when he can see the end of the long road he’ll be facing another surgery to remove the wire.”
Murdoch gave her a curt nod. “You’ve made your point Nurse Ada. But I want you to add one thing to that list. Respect. Johnny needs and deserves respect.”
Ada looked at her patient through the open door. His face was still flushed with fever, his thin body lost in the mass of pillows propping up his injured ankles and shoulder. “Respect is earned,” she replied, “in both directions.”
Five days later, life at the Lancer ranch returned to somewhat of a routine. Strained, but routine never the less.
Murdoch was convinced to return to running the ranch, with frequent detours to Johnny’s room. Scott, still nursing his wounded arm, tackled the books that were nearly forgotten in the chaos that followed their return.
Anna retuned home, with frequent trips back to spell Teresa or Nurse Ada when they needed her.
Johnny was waking up more often, and staying awake for longer periods. He was still too weak and sick to put up much of a struggle when he was subjected to the day-to-day indignities of an invalid.
He would awake asking the same questions, and receive the same answers. The morphine during the day kept his mind addled, and at night the combination of both morphine and Chloral Hydrate made him sleep throughout the night.
But this morning was different. This morning he awoke with a new question, and a new grasp of reality.
For the first time he was aware of his inability to do anything for himself and it rankled him. He watched the tall austere woman move about his room, sorting through towels and sheets piled high on his dresser, then opening the door when someone gently knocked. He heard Jelly’s voice and saw him hand the woman a basin of steaming water. He wanted to call to him but his voice was lost in his throat, and he watched the door close again. He felt a profound sadness that Jelly had not stayed.
“Good morning, Mr. Lancer.” Johnny couldn’t help but cringe at the emotionless voice. “How are we feeling this morning?”
“I don’t know how you’re feeling, but I feel lousy.” Johnny groused. It startled him that just one sentence left him exhausted.
“You’ll feel better after a bath and clean sheets.”
“I don’t want no bath. Least ways not until I can get out of this bed and take a proper one in a proper tub. Without an audience.” he added.
“I’m afraid that will be some time. For now you will just have to settle for a sponge bath.”
“Not by you. Call Jelly back,” He hated the sound of his voice, weak and breathless.
“Mr. Hoskins has his own work to do. I have mine.” She walked over to the bed and whipped the sheet off Johnny, revealing nothing but his birthday suit.
Furious, Johnny tried to reach the sheet to recover himself but found that he didn’t have the strength.
“This is as good a time as ever to explain the rules here.”
“Where’s Murdoch?” Johnny demanded.
“Doing what ever he does to run this ranch. And before you ask, Scott is resting in his room, Miss O’Brien is helping Maria prepare lunch and Mr. Hoskins is tending to his chores. So it is just you and me.”
Johnny felt incredibly vulnerable. Weak as a kitten, he couldn’t even cover himself. When was this nightmare going to end?
“My name is Veronica Adelaide. I prefer to be called Nurse Ada, it makes things simpler. Your family, upon your doctors’ advice, has hired me as your nurse. My job is to dispense your medication, tend to your needs and make you as comfortable as possible until you are strong enough to walk on your own. Your job…”
“You’re fired,” Johnny barked.
“Your job is to obey my instructions. We can make this as pleasant, or unpleasant, as you want. I don’t expect you to like me. Few of my patients do. But I am good at my job.”
Johnny felt the first pangs of real pain in his left leg but he tried to hide it. He didn’t want to show any weakness in front of this Nurse from Hell.
“Are you in pain, Mr. Lancer?”
Johnny turned his head away. The pain was becoming worse with every breath. But he couldn’t let it show. He couldn’t, wouldn’t give her an excuse to poke him with that needle. He remembered the old man, the relief he felt each time he injected the morphine. He wouldn’t go there again. He would sooner die than become a prisoner of the drug. He remembered the chills, and the vomiting, the horrible need his body had for the drug…
“Mr. Lancer. Are you in pain?” Nurse Ada asked sternly.
No.” Johnny hissed. “Just leave me alone, it’ll go away on its own.”
“No it won’t.” Ada brushed Johnny’s hand away easily as she injected the morphine into his arm. “You may see morphine as your enemy, but right now, it’s your friend.”
“You don’t understand.” Johnny moaned, his voice already beginning to slur. “No one understands.”
Ada studied the scars on the young man’s bare chest, wondering how many times morphine was needed. Which time had the drug taken control? It didn’t matter. He needed it. Plain and simple. Without it the pain would be intolerable.
She began bathing him, as he slipped back into the drug induced sleep, reinforcing the wall of dispassion that allowed her to be the nurse she was. It was too dangerous letting them inside. She had to remain strong, remote. The first sign of weakness and she would lose.
"You miss him too, don't ya boy?" Jelly asked as he brushed Barranca down, a daily ritual he left to no one but himself. "Well, you don't go worrying yourself over Johnny. He's gonna be fine. Take some time, but he's gonna be right as rain. And I'm gonna make sure you're as ready for him as he's ready fer ya.
I tell ya, I ain't never seen nothing like you two together. Sometimes I think you was born to be together. The way Johnny's eyes light up the minute he hits the saddle. And you…you love that boy with a passion. I know. I heard tell that Johnny took one look at you and he knew you was his. I figure that works both ways, you knew he was yours too."
As if the horse could understand his every word, Barranca nodded his head.
"Never did see a man who could tame a wild horse like Johnny. It's a true pleasure to watch. That boy is special. Real special. He's got the gift. Must make all them other horses mighty jealous to know that his heart belongs to you."
Jelly pulled a carrot out of his back pocket and let Barranca nibble on it.
"I just can't figure out why this had ta happen to them two boys. Ain't they both been through enough? Scott with his time in Libby, and Johnny, well things couldn't be much worse for a boy growing up than what Johnny had. Seems ta me like they both deserve a break. And now, Johnny is stuck up there in his room with that harpy. Never did meet a more cantankerous woman in all my years. Plumb mean, that's what she is. Plumb mean. And ugly too. I bet ya there ain't a mirror made that wouldn't crack when she begins ta curry herself."
"Well, I best be getting back. The boss has been as prickly as a cactus. Can't blame the man with all he has ta worry about. But I'll be back later ta take ya out for a run. I know as soon as Johnny is feelin' like hisself, he'll be asking about ya."
Jelly walked out of the stable, his heart heavy. Having Johnny home was a relief. But having the boy so sick was getting everyone down. Lancer had taken a hard hit. He wondered if it would ever return to what it once was.
Scott made his way up the back stairs, hoping to avoid anyone in the house. He just wanted to check on Johnny before he headed over to Anna's place. Murdoch had sent Cipriano ahead to help recruit new hands and survey the damage the Colonel's men had done. With his arm still in a sling he couldn't do much in the way of handy work, but he could go over the books and determine exactly where Anna was financially.
But first he had to satisfy himself that Johnny was resting comfortably. As comfortably as possible, least ways.
He knocked lightly on the door three times and waited. He heard the rustle of skirts then the door opened just a crack, just enough for Nurse Ada to peek out.
"Mr. Lancer is resting. You should come back later," she whispered, indignant that he had intruded into the sick room.
"I'll be gone all afternoon, I just wanted to check on Johnny."
"I won't disturb him. I just want to make sure he's all right."
"He is." Ada snapped.
"Look." Scott fought back the urge to just kick the door open. "I just want to see for myself that he is all right. Now, you can let me in, or I can let myself in. It's your choice."
Ada stood her ground for a long moment, then stepped back. "I was about to wake him anyway. It's almost time for him to be turned. You can sit with him while I gather some supplies."
Scott walked into the room fully aware that he had not won the battle. Nurse Ada had not backed down; she had simply turned the situation to her advantage.
He had only been in the room a couple times when Johnny was turned and it devastated him. It magnified just how weak and helpless his brother really was. But to her credit, Nurse Ada had orchestrated the difficult move into a simple ballet. Two men were positioned on either side of the bed and carefully lifted Johnny, supporting his shoulders and hips while a third person carefully moved his splinted leg. When he was laying on his side pillows were placed beneath his left leg.
He walked over to the bed, feeling a lump in his throat, nearly suffocating him. The changes their ordeal had wrought were devastating. There was only a ghost of the real Johnny Lancer laying amongst the pillows supporting his injured legs and shoulder. Would he ever see the Johnny Lancer of old? The devil -may -care free spirit that kept him at Lancer when the obstacles seemed too great. There was no doubt in his mind that he would have returned to Boston after Day Pardee was killed if it hadn't been for Johnny.
The curiosity of who his father was, was answered at their first meeting. He was a man who devoted his entire life to the ranch he had built from nothing. A laudable achievement. But at what cost?
How much pride did he have to swallow when he sent for his two estranged sons? One a man raised in the privileged life of Boston society, and the other an infamous gunfighter. Offering them shares in the ranch was a gamble, and he had to admire the guts that took. But in the end, when all the gunfire was over, when Day Pardee lay dead, it was Johnny Madrid that made Scott stay.
And he never looked back. Until today. Was the Colonel right? Had he picked Johnny to hobble knowing that he couldn't control the ex-gunslinger, but could control the older, supposedly wiser brother?
If he had fought back, would Johnny being lying here like this? He tried to squelch the questions that constantly drummed in his head. What if…What if he had defied the Colonel? What if he had gone to Lancer for help instead of returning to Anna's place? What if…?
He was suddenly distracted by Nurse Ada as she filled a glass syringe from a small brown bottle and infused it into the feeding tube.
"That's laudanum… Johnny doesn’t like…" he began.
"Doesn't matter what he likes or dislikes. It's what he needs. It's painful enough turning Mr. Lancer on his side even with laudanum. But it has to be done."
Scott studied Johnny's gaunt face, still flushed from fever. It seemed like a lifetime ago that they were riding said by side on their way home to Teresa's surprise dinner. He never did find out what was so special about habaneras.
"Are you gonna say hi, or are you gonna daydream all day?" Johnny's voice startled Scott and he blushed when he saw Johnny staring up at him.
"Well, if it isn't Prince Charming." Scott grinned. "Trying to catch up on some beauty sleep?"
"Can't improve what's already perfect." Johnny smiled back. It tore at Scott to hear Johnny's weak voice. But he was always ready for a quick rejoinder, no matter how sick he was. It constantly amazed Scott the lengths Johnny would take to hide his illness or injury. It was as if, even here, in the safety of his own home, he was afraid that his weakness would make him vulnerable to attack. All those years living alone, constantly watching his back, always on alert, would be ingrained in him forever. A sad commentary on his life.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, little brother, remember?" Scott shot back. "Besides, I never could figure out why all those women seemed attracted to you. I guess there's just no accounting for taste."
Johnny looked around the room surreptitiously, motioning Scott to lean down closer. "Is she still here?" he whispered.
"I believe she went to get some hot water for your bath."
The look of horror on Johnny's face was almost comical. Scott fought to keep from laughing out loud.
"She's a good nurse, Johnny. Her ways are just a little abrupt."
"Abrupt! Scott, you gotta get rid of her. I'd rather face an angry mother bear protecting her cub than face her. She's about the scariest thing I ever saw."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Fire her. Tell her to pack her bags and get out."
"Sorry, Johnny. She stays. At least until that splint comes off."
"I can manage now." Johnny's voice almost sounded desperate. "I feel stronger every day. I can do for myself. I don't need her hovering over me day and night, giving me baths ten times a day, putting who knows what in this damn tube." he fingered the feeding tube. "It ain't natural having something shoved up your nose and down into your belly."
"It's necessary, Johnny."
Johnny turned his head away, his voice catching in his throat. "I just want it to be like it was."
Scott had to turn away himself. Johnny's voice sounded so lost.
"It will be," Scott promised. "Just give it time." It seemed like such a hollow promise when he didn't know if he believed it himself.
"Did Murdoch tell you that Val stopped by late last night?" Scott asked, looking for something to divert their attention. He felt on the verge of tears. But it could do Johnny irreparable damage if he saw his despondency. He couldn't know how hopeless Scott truly felt about his recovery. A dark cloud had moved over the Lancer house, obscuring all hope. "They found the money the Colonel…I…stole." Scott faltered.
Johnny looked back up at him. "You didn't have a choice."
"I could have said no."
"No Boston, you couldn't. And if the tables were turned, neither could I." The first effects of the laudanum were beginning to take effect. Johnny's eyelids were suddenly too heavy to keep open. His speech slurred, but he was determined to finish his thought. "I was wrong…" he said, "I was wrong to make you hold to a promise you could never keep."
"No…" Johnny's hold on consciousness was evaporating. "You can't blame yourself… you can't…"
Scott watched Johnny's body relax. If only he could convince himself that Johnny was right.
The door opened and Scott quickly took charge of himself. He would not allow himself to look weak. He didn't have the right. Johnny was the one who was hurt, who was tortured. He simply stood by and watched.
Nurse Ada walked in, clean towels draped over her shoulder and carrying a steaming bucket of water. She easily poured some of the hot water into a basin and placed it on the nightstand next to Johnny's bed.
"Good, the laudanum took effect." She placed a bottle of oil on the nightstand and when she pulled the stopper the fragrance of almonds filled the room. "Bedsores are a problem for any patient who is forced to remain sedentary. In Mr. Lancer's case he is already fighting the infection in his leg. His body doesn't have the resources to fight anything else. Therefore we must alter his position every two hours, from his right side to his back then onto his left side. This time we are going to turn him on his right side."
Scott nodded. He had only witnessed the procedure twice. He found it too hard for him to watch. It brought a startling clarity to exactly how weak and helpless Johnny truly was. He remembered the first time he watched, bile rose in his throat as Johnny's limp body was lifted like a rag dolls.
There was a light tap at the door and three vaqueros walked in. Scott watched in amazement as the three men wordlessly washed their hands in hot water and strong soap then took their positions around the bed.
Two men stood on either side of the bed and carefully lifted Johnny on Ada's count of three, supporting his shoulders and hips while a third man carefully lifted his splinted leg while Ada quickly changed the sheets and laid a length of sheepskin beneath his side. The sheepskin allowed air to circulate and the lanolin in sheep's wool acted as a barrier cream. When he was lowered back to the mattress, pillows were placed under the splint.
The only sound was a muffled moan of pain from Johnny.
Ada thanked the three men and they left without ever speaking a word. The ordeal was hard on everyone who ever knew Johnny.
"Help me with this," Ada ordered, and handed Scott a folded sheet. "I'm going to wash the pressure points, make sure the bedding stays dry."
Scott followed her directions, wedging the sheet between Johnny's body and the bed to keep the mattress dry, watching her deftly wash his skin with green soap, dry and then rub alcohol on his elbows, shoulder blades, buttocks and heels to toughen the skin.
"These are the places we're most concerned with."
She finished with a few of drops of rosewater on his elbows and heels. The smell helped to disguise the medicinal smell to the room.
"He will sleep now until the laudanum wears off."
Scott laid a gentle hand over Johnny's forehead to reassure himself that his fever had not risen any higher. "I'll stop by when I get back this afternoon."
"You can sit with him for a short time tonight after dinner."
Scott held his tongue. It would do no one good for him to tell her exactly what he thought of her. But the temptation was overwhelming.
The morning had started out peaceful enough. Murdoch made his way downstairs to the dining room, his mug of steaming hot coffee waiting for him as it always was. He eased himself into his customary seat at the table and went over in his mind the things that had to be done that day. He missed the morning routine of Johnny and Scott's easy banter, as they dived into their breakfasts, the camaraderie of two brothers who had been separated for far too long filling the room with joy.
It had been two long weeks since they brought Johnny home and a routine had established itself. He visited Johnny in the morning after breakfast, at noontime, if he was home, and then an hour, if he was lucky and Nurse Ada was in a good mood, in the evening after dinner.
But this morning he noticed that his breakfast was not yet on the table and he had already been sitting there nursing his coffee for fifteen minutes. Suddenly the quiet was shattered by the shrill voice of two angry women coming from the kitchen. Alarmed, Murdoch stepped into no man's land, and regretted it for the rest of the day.
Maria stood toe to toe against Nurse Ada, a full two heads shorter than the nurse, but never the less holding her ground. She held a cup of steaming broth in her hand.
"My Juanito, my chico, he needs comfort food." Maria insisted. "Food, it is, how do you say… A doorway to his alegria…his happiness."
"Mr. Lancer isn't ready for food of any kind yet, but when he is he will require bland, but nourishing food."
"Nourishing yes, but bland no. I know Jaunito. He lives a gringo life, but he is still Mexican. You, you feed him through that tubo...he needs real food."
"And you want to feed an invalid tamale soup?"
"Tamale broth. For now. Then soup. It is his favorite."
"No tamale broth or soup." Ada stood firm. "It will be chicken broth."
"You deny him the small pleasures of life. You make no effort to understand him. You know nothing of what makes Jaunito happy. He needs to be surrounded by familia. To know he is loved. You are insensible…cold…you make his body well but you forget his alma…his soul."
"And you received your nursing instruction at what college?" Ada snapped.
"I do not need the school to teach me how to care for the hurt. I know what Jaunito needs."
"What Mr. Lancer needs is a strict regiment of medication, diet and rest. He does not need tamale broth or doting family and friends hanging over him like worried mother hens."
"Mia deios!" Maria cried, "You are a idiota! I feel sad for you. To live your life without amor in your heart for others. What fantasma…ghost… haunts you? To be so alone."
"My personal life is none of your business." Ada warned. "You are simply the cook here. I suggest you return to your duties. When I require your expertise, I will let you know. Until then, keep your nose out of my personal life and out of the sick room. You are hereby banned from Mr. Lancer's room."
Maria's face turned a livid red as her hand reached for the wooden spoon on the worktable behind her.
"Nothing will keep me away from my Jaunito! Especially you!"
Murdoch stepped in just in time to catch the wooden spoon before Maria could haul off and smacked the nurse across the nose.
"Maria! That is enough. Nurse Ada, the kitchen is off limits to you. Wait for me in the great room."
"I will do no such thing. I have to get back to my patient."
"You will not have a patient if you don't do as I say. Now go!"
Murdoch waited while Ada slowly left the kitchen, her shoulders squared, ready for a fight.
He turned to Maria. "I will not tolerate that kind of behavior under my roof. Do you understand, Maria?"
"Si Senor. But she…"
"I know. She is hard to get along with, but Johnny needs her. You will find ways of avoiding her until she is gone. Do I make myself clear?"
"Si Senor, perfectly."
"Good. Now make Johnny the chicken broth Nurse Ada requested so it will be ready when he needs it. I happen to agree with her on that point. Johnny does not need tamale broth."
"Si." Maria returned the wooden spoon to the work table and grabbed her soup pot, making as much noise as she could as she began to prepare the chicken broth.
Murdoch found Nurse Ada staring out the French doors at the hills in the distance.
"Beautiful land isn't it," he said.
"If you say so," Ada replied, not turning away from the windows. "I hadn't noticed."
"Maybe you should take the time. Scott or I could take you for a ride, in the buggy of course, so you can see what it is that we love about this land."
She finally turned to look at Murdoch. "I'm not here on vacation. I am here to nurse your son. That is all. When he is well enough to take care of himself I will go on to my next assignment, where ever that takes me."
"And that's that, huh? Keep your distance from everyone, including the patient? Heaven forbid that you should make a friend or two. That you should get to know your patient. How long do you think you can continue to just pass through people's lives like this? What part of yourself are you sacrificing to remain aloof like this?"
"It's none of your business. I'm good at my job. I come into people's houses where illness or injury has decimated the family. I heal the sick and injured. I am not required to treat the family as well."
"Would that be so bad? You said it yourself, injury or illness decimates the family."
"That's not my concern. In another week or two your son is going to start feeling the effects of his confinement. He has to know that there is nothing he can say or do that will alter the fact that he must remain in that bed. He will try every trick in the book. I've seen them all. Nothing can change my mind, because if I weaken, then he loses. "
"What's the harm in a little compassion?"
"A little compassion leads to more compassion. Before you know it, he's a friend and not a patient. You can't stand to hurt him, even if it is something he needs. You give in to what he wants, because you can't stand to see his pain. You skip one or two doses of medication because it makes him feel sick, you ease up on the exercise because it hurts too much. You let him out of bed to sit at the window, because what can just a few minutes of freedom from the bed cost?"
Silence filled the room then. Nurse Ada had said more then she intended, and Murdoch was not going to pry deeper. Maria was right, there were ghosts in Ada's past.
"Very well." Murdoch said, "I will tell Maria that she is to prepare only what you order for Johnny. But, she will be allowed to visit him. She is the closest thing to a mother he has and they love each other. He needs her strength, and she needs to know that she is needed by him."
"During visiting hours then." Ada conceded.
"As for visiting hours…there will be none. This is a house, not a hospital. When we want to visit Johnny I expect you to let us see him."
Ada harrumphed, but remained silent.
"Dr. Sutter will be back from Sacramento in another day or two, it shouldn't take him much longer to give his statement to the judge there, then I want a meeting with you and both doctors to find out exactly where we stand with Johnny."
"Is that all? Mr. Lancer is due for his medications in a few minutes."
"Yes, that's all."
Nurse Ada nodded and turned to the hallway leading upstairs. Murdoch sank into the overstuffed chair facing the cold fireplace. What demons lived inside that woman?
Johnny’s mind wandered as the medications began to drag him toward sleep. He hated this feeling of drifting in limbo. The short time between cognizant thinking and befuddlement. Horrendous pain and numbness. He fought the inevitable, clinging to thoughts and memories.
He had to admit there were few things that truly scared Johnny Madrid Lancer. He had experienced almost everything a man could experience in a lifetime in just a few short years. At times he found it hard to believe he was only twenty-three. He felt as old as Moses some days.
He realized as a young boy that life was not meant to be easy. It was the fighting and winning that made a man strong. And sometimes, it was the losses that made him smart. And the few truly good people who crossed his path that made him humble.
He thought back on his time before Lancer. The times when he didn’t see much of a future, just a gravestone, hopefully with his name on it so someone would know he existed in this world.
He tried to recall the moment in his life when being a famous gunslinger wasn’t enough. When having money in his pocket no longer seemed the most important thing in his world. When he was satisfied with tortillas and frijoles as payment for his gun.
Teresa had once said that Johnny Madrid was the child, just trying to find his way in life. But Johnny Lancer was the man who had found his way.
If he could only believe that.
The specter of Johnny Madrid always loomed just around the corner; sometimes bold enough to show its face in the guise of a young kid looking for a name but meeting death instead. Or insidious, like the fear in the eyes of someone who believed the legend.
But it was the likes of the Colonel that scared him most. A man who knew him better than he knew himself. And, sadder even, a man that knew Scott.
The Colonel had preyed on them both. Used brother against brother. What had Scott done in an effort to keep his own brother alive? What price had he paid? What would he pay in the future? Would they ever be as they were? Johnny doubted it. And it made him sad. And angry. The betrayal of innocence, no matter what the circumstances, was a terrible loss.
No matter what the punishment, the Colonel would never truly pay for what he had done.
And, so like a circle, he was brought back to the beginning. To the scared child who could not understand why his mother thought more of the strangers who slept in her bed than she did her own son. To the all-consuming hatred he felt for the man who lay at his feet, dead, a bullet through his heart. To his mother’s dark brown eyes staring lifelessly up at the ceiling, looking for what, God’s forgiveness for what she had done?
And now the newest fear, the most ugly fear.
Just when his life had seemed to fall into place. When everything in his past seemed to lead him back to the beginning, back to his father, Murdoch Lancer, to the house he was born in, to the destiny he was promised, to a brother he never knew existed…
Everything that was sure and good and meant to be, was shattered by a sniper’s bullets.
Now he was truly scared. Now his life, his very existence, was in the hands of doctors and a nurse who hadn’t a true feeling since she left the womb.
In the end, after all he had been through, all he had survived, it was the lack of control that he feared most.
As the drug finally pulled him down into its black nothingness he felt a tear run down the side of his face…
There was no dignity in being sick.
This morning Johnny awoke, just like he did the day before yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. At first groggy and confused, the combination of Chloral Hydrate and morphine dulled the pain throughout the night, sending him into a deep dreamless sleep. Then as his mind cleared he would see Nurse Ada hovering over him. Never a smile, never a word that didn’t pertain to his recovery. In a way he was glad, he wasn’t in the mood for idle conversation, but her coldness added to his feeling of isolation.
Then the day’s routine began. Medications and broth were infused into the feeding tube. Food by mouth was still being withheld from him after the unsuccessful attempt to drink chicken broth two days ago. His stomach had rebelled violently and the episode left him trembling with fatigue for the rest of the day.
“Your fever is up a little from yesterday.” Nurse Ada informed him. “I’ve increased the salicylic acid to try to bring it down. It may be an indication that your body is reacting to the wire in your leg again.”
“Take it out then,” Johnny snapped. “Never heard of a man being wired up from the inside. Don’t seem natural. And while you’re at it, take this damn tube out too.” He could barely see the tube snaking out of his nose, but he could feel it laying against his cheek, a constant reminder that he had no control over his life.
“They both stay in until the doctors say differently.”
“How long will that be?”
“As long as it takes. Dr. Jenkins will be here tomorrow afternoon. You can ask him then. Meanwhile, Mr. Hoskins will be here soon to help with your exercise.”
“You mean you’re letting the prisoner have visitors?”
“You need your rest, which you will never get if I allow visitors to traipse through here all hours of the day and night.”
“Allow…?” Johnny asked incredulously. His anger rose as she continued to stare down at him. “Look lady, this is my house and my room.”
“And I am your nurse. I have the final say. On everything that goes on in this room.” Ada straightened to her full height, her shoulders pushed back, her chin held high. “We have had this discussion before, Mr. Lancer, but perhaps you didn’t pay attention, so I will repeat it. I was hired by your family on the recommendation of your doctors. In this room I am God. You will do what I say, when I say it. You will take the medications prescribed by your doctors on schedule. If, and only if I think you are strong enough for visitors will they be allowed in.”
Infuriated, Johnny tried to grab hold of the edge of the mattress to pull himself up to a sitting position, but the movement ignited the pain in his left leg and he dropped back down, cursing the pain and his nurse with a string of descriptive words that would have sent a lady running.
“If you think a few cuss words are going to make me pack my bags, you are sadly mistaken. I’ve heard worse.”
“Get out of here,” he yelled.
Ignoring him she reached for a glass syringe and drew up the dreaded laudanum, “You had better get some rest.”
“I don’t need that stuff.”
“You will. The exercises will be painful, but necessary.”
“It’s my body and my pain. I’ll tell you if I need it.”
“You don’t listen very well, do you?” She leaned over to open the cap on the feeding tube when Johnny smacked her hand away, sending the syringe flying half way across the room to shatter on the floor.
Nurse Ada stood up slowly. “Proud of yourself?” she asked sarcastically.
“I told you I didn’t want it.”
She stared down at him, her eyes never wavering off his. “All right,” she conceded, “we’ll try it your way. No laudanum.”
Johnny’s determination faltered for just a moment. Why did she give in so easily? She would never deliberately let him win. He suddenly had the feeling that he was going to regret not taking the pain killer. But it was a small victory. A war could be won with small victories.
There was a knock at the door and Jelly shuffled in. “I ain’t late, am I?”
“No Mr. Hoskins, you are right on time. Mr. Lancer and I were just having a bit of a disagreement. But I’ve decided to let him have his way this time. No laudanum.”
Jelly looked from Johnny, whose mouth was set in a tight sneer, to Nurse Ada, who stared down at him, her arms folded across her bosom.
“Well, I brought ya want ya wanted, but I cain’t for the life of me figure on what ya want em fer.” Jelly held up two horseshoes.
“It’s time that Mr. Lancer started an exercise routine. Laying in bed his muscles will atrophy.”
“His muscles will become weak from inactivity. These exercises will strengthen his muscles, and make for an easier recovery when the splints come off.”
Jelly walked toward Johnny, scooting to the opposite side of the bed from Nurse Ada. “Well, what ya want me ta do?”
Ada grabbed the sheet and whipped it off the bed, leaving Johnny laying naked on the mattress.
“Ma’am…don’t you have no decency?” Jelly yelped. “Let the boy cover his self.”
Johnny’s faced turned red with anger. “She don’t know what decency is,” he barked.
“As I told Mr. Lancer, modesty is not an option here.” Ada held her hand out for the horseshoes. “I have to monitor his arm and leg muscles to make sure he is not over straining.”
“Jelly…” Johnny reached up and grabbed Jelly’s vest. “Get her out of here, please. She ain’t nothing but a mean spirited old woman. I can take care of myself. I don’t need her. You…” he tried to pull Jelly down closer, but Jelly was twisting his head up and down trying to watch both Johnny and the nurse. “You can take care of me. I’ll take all the medicine you want me to. I only need a bath once a week, not a thousand times a day like…And I’ll stay in bed. I promise. Just as long as it takes to get better. You just got to get her out of here.”
“Johnny…” Jelly grabbed Johnny’s hand. “You know I’d do anythin’ for ya, but this nurse here, she is what you need. Look at these exercises here she’s got ya doing, I wouldn’t know how ta make sure you was doing em right. I’m sorry boy. But…” and Jelly stood up, jutting his bearded chin out as far as he could, looking up definitely at Ada. “There ain’t no reason to embarrass the boy neither.”
He grabbed a towel sitting on a chair behind him and covered Johnny. “Ain’t nothing wrong with leaving a man his dignity.”
Ada nodded. Never for a moment admitting that Jelly was right. “Alright Mr. Hoskins, shall we begin. Raise Mr. Lancer’s arm up like this…” Jelly watched her lift Johnny’s left arm up and supporting his upper arm above the elbow. “Now, Mr. Lancer, I want you to slowly lift this horseshoe up a little and let it down, slowly.”
Johnny did as he was told, grimacing at the pain in his biceps.
“Now, you will do the same for Mr. Hoskins.”
“But ma’am,” Jelly looked up at her startled, “That’s his bum arm. He was shot in that shoulder, remember?” It was hard to forget with the bandage still covering the wound.
“I’m well aware of Mr. Lancer’s injuries. Now Mr. Lancer, lift please, slowly, three times.”
Johnny did as he was told, hissing at the pain. He was beginning to understand why she wanted him to take the laudanum. But he wasn’t about to give in. He was not going to let her win.
“Very good. Now your right leg.”
Johnny looked up at her, startled. His right ankle still throbbed.
“No. Today. I’m going to lift your leg and I want you to try to keep it down on the mattress. Ready?”
Johnny tried, the pain in his right leg suddenly overshadowed by the piercing pain in his splinted leg. He tried not to cry out in pain, but it was just too much. His fingers clawed at the mattress as she lifted again, and again he tried to force his leg back down.
“One more time,” she said and he tried, the sweat running down his face and chest in rivulets.
“That’s it.” she said at last. “We’ll try again in a few days.” She handed Jelly a washcloth. “Wipe him down for now. He needs a bath but I’ll do that later when he feels stronger.”
Jelly accepted the cloth, surprised at the gesture.
“Are you ready for the laudanum?”
Johnny nodded, barely able to breathe through the pain in his leg.
Ada filled the syringe and infused a large dose of the pain killer in the feeding tube.
“He’ll be asleep in a few minutes. You’ll find a clean sheet on the dresser. If you could stay with him after he falls asleep I would appreciate it. I will return in an hour or so.”
Jelly watched Ada straighten her skirt, her hair then step out of the room. Would he ever figure out that woman?
He turned his attention back to Johnny. “How you doin’ there Johnny boy? That laudanum ’ll kick in any second now. You done good, ya know.”
“Jelly,” Johnny whispered as the drug pulled him down into blessed sleep, “Don’t let her come back.”
Jelly carefully wiped Johnny down with the cloth and covered him with the clean sheet. How were they ever going to get through all this? How?
Scott noticed Nurse Ada slip out of Johnny’s room, a pensive look on her face. He saw her brush something from her cheeks before she squared her shoulders and headed down the hall. Was she crying? He dismissed the thought. Not the nurse he had grown to detest over the past two weeks. She was as cold and unfeeling as the ice that ran through her veins.
Still it nestled in the back of his mind as he quietly opened the door into Johnny’s room and found Jelly sitting next to Johnny’s bed, the old man’s head bowed.
“Jelly…!” he whispered and the old whiskered face turned to look his way.
“It’s ok.” He motioned Scott to come closer, “Johnny’s out for the count. The old hag gave him an extra big dose of laudanum after she nearly tortured the poor boy ta death.”
“What are you talking about, Jelly?”
“She had some blame notion that making Johnny lift horseshoes and move his hurt leg around was good for the boy. I tell ya, it was almost more than I could watch. And ta make matters worse, she made me help.”
Scott scooted a chair over to the bed and collapsed into it. “When I was still in Boston I read something about that. Doctors in some of the more modern hospitals were experimenting with exercise to get a patient back on his feet sooner. I believe the results were promising.”
“Promising my eye, you wouldn’t think much of them if you could a seen Johnny’s face.”
Scott studied Johnny as he slept. Even in sleep he could see the ravages of pain.
He reached out and lifted the sleeping man’s limp hand, squeezing it lightly. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
Jelly raised an eyebrow, hearing something in Scott’s voice that he didn’t like. “Sorry for what, Scott?”
“It don’t seem nothing ta you.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Scott rose to leave and Jelly caught his wrist.
“Sit. Just for a spell. It ain’t often we get the time ta spend with Johnny here. Even when he’s asleep it’s…”
“I know…it’s comforting.”
“That’s the word. Comfortin’. Ya know, even though things, they ain’t like they should be yet, with Johnny so sick and all, it’s a darn sight better than it was. This place was like a ghost town without the likes of you and Johnny around.”
“Seems to me that Murdoch was doing alright, thinking that Johnny was dead and I turned outlaw.”
Jelly snapped his head up. “What gave you that blame fool notion? Nothin’ could be further from the truth.”
“I’ve heard the vaqueros talking. Hell, I even heard you and Tray talking out by the line shack. Murdoch had Johnny dead, and me…he promised Val that he would turn me in if I stepped foot on Lancer land. I guess I was lucky the Colonel recaptured me. I might be swinging from a rope by now.”
Silence filled the room, making the air feel heavy and unsettling.
“Oh lordy, what has happened to this family? Scott…” Jelly struggled to find the words that Scott would understand. He never was much good at getting his ideas across, especially the important ones. But this one, this one was too important to mess up.
“Scott, your…Murdoch never was very good at telling you and Johnny how he really felt about ya. I mean, ya just have ta see how much he loves ya in his eyes. How proud he is ta call ya both his sons. When…after ya robbed the bank…I know, I know…you did it to save Johnny, and ya did the right thing. The only thing ya could do. But ya got ta understand what it looked like to Murdoch. And through it all, he stood by ya.”
“…Jelly, I know…”
“You know nothing!” Jelly raised his voice and Johnny stirred. They both held their breath until Johnny’s breathing returned to normal and he sagged back into the softness of the pillows.
“You know nothing,” Jelly repeated. “The first night you two went missing Murdoch stayed up all night. He knew in his gut that something was bad wrong.”
Jelly looked over at Johnny. The Johnny he knew was a prisoner in the body he saw. He could only imagine the pain Scott was going through as he looked at his brother’s pale face. At the feeding tube that was such an abomination. If he could pull it out himself he would in a second. It was a constant reminder of just how much the Colonel had taken from them.
“The next morning we found your shirt, all bloodied and figured it was you that was hurt. We searched every acre for hundreds of miles, never once thinking to look at old lady Marlow’s place. Then ya up and robbed the bank. Right in front of Murdoch and Teresa. What was the man ta think? Ya had a gun in your hand. Jonas was dead and the money was a missing.”
“He should have had faith in me.” Scott growled. “I’m his son for God’s sake. Surely he would know that I was not capable of robbing a bank and killing a good friend.”
“Scott,” Jelly laid his hand on Scott’s knee, “as much as he wanted to believe you was innocent, the cards, they were a stacked against ya. We thought Johnny was dead, everyone that is but Teresa, she never once stopped hoping. But everyone else, God help me, even I thought Johnny was a gonner.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” There was a coldness to Scott’s voice that scared Jelly. A bitterness he had never heard from the boy before.
“No. It’s not supposed ta make ya feel better. It’s supposed ta make ya see that there are two sides to this thing. No…three sides: Your side, Murdoch’s side and the rest of the world. Ya got to let go of the hate, Scott, or it’ll eat ya alive like the hot sun in the middle of the desert without no water. That damn Colonel, he hurt more than just you and Johnny. He hurt everyone.” Jelly stood up adjusting his suspenders. “You sit a spell with Johnny and think about what I told ya. And Scott…no matter what it is I’m willin’ to talk about it. Cain’t say that I’ll have any answers, but I sure as shootin’ can listen.”
“Thanks Jelly, you’re a true friend.”
Jelly nodded, embarrassed. “That’s a rare compliment Scott Lancer, I thank ya.”
He stood up and leaned over the bed, brushing the hair from Johnny’s forehead. “Ya sleep well,” he whispered, and patted Scott on the shoulder as he headed for the door and disappeared into the hallway.
Scott resumed his watch over Johnny. He knew the things Jelly had said were true. But the old man didn’t know everything, not the important things that only resided in his head. He could not know the horrors that came to him in the night. The memories that tore at him like the vicious claws of a wild animal, leaving him fighting to catch his breath, soaked in his own sweat.
He sat back in his chair closing his eyes. He was so tired. More tired than he had ever been in his life. He slept very little at night, fearing the return of the nightmares. So he napped, when he could, where he could.
He listened to the sound of Johnny’s soft even breathing, and he felt himself relax. Sleep lured him, and he followed.
Murdoch brushed the layer of dirt off his pants and shirt before lowering his head under the water pump and washing the dirt and sweat from his gray hair. Since the boys’ abduction, work normally done by them had to be spread out amongst the rest of the hands, making the days longer and harder for everyone. But he would not take the next step and hire new men to ease the burden. He didn’t want it and neither did the men. Both Scott and Johnny would soon return to them. To hire new help would seem akin to defeat, admitting that the two Lancer men would not be able to resume their old jobs.
He stood up, shaking the water from his hair like a dog, spraying everything with water drops.
Teresa stood on the patio, a welcoming smile on her face.
He returned the smile. “Either I’m getting old or the days are getting longer.”
“A little of both, I’m guessing. Dinner is waiting.”
“Great. I could eat a whole cow and still come back for seconds.”
Teresa couldn’t contain her laughter. “I’m afraid beef is not on the menu tonight, Murdoch. I think Maria is trying to send you and Nurse Ada a message.”
Murdoch cocked a suspicious eyebrow and followed his ward into the house, smelling the rich aromas of Mexican food.
Maria bustled out of the kitchen carrying a large tureen. “Senor Murdoch, you are just in time. Sit, while it is still hot. I will bring the bread and butter uno momento.”
She lifted the lid and Murdoch couldn’t help but laugh. “Let me guess, tamale soup.”
“Si senor. And there is mucho left on the stove. I have even strained some into broth if someone would like it.”
“Thank you Maria. The soup will be fine. I know you mean well, and I know Johnny would love some of that tamale broth, he is just not up to it yet. When he is you can bring it to him personally. Now, where did Teresa get to, and where is Scott?”
Maria turned on her heel, her skirts swishing as she headed back into the kitchen. “They have eaten, senor, steak and potatoes, mashed. They tell me it was muy bueno.”
Murdoch watched her disappear into the kitchen. He had to chuckle to himself. So, Maria has thrown down the gauntlet.
Annabelle Marlow pulled up to the front of the Lancer hacienda and marveled at the changes in her life. It was as if she had awakened from a fourteen year dream, played on a canvass of black and white, devoid of love and happiness, to a world filled with color. She saw everyone, everything in a new light. She had friends she loved, and friends who loved her.
She smiled at the surprise she had for Johnny.
While Cipriano had been at her ranch helping her with the new hires and overseeing the work needed to bring the ranch back to working order, she had asked the Mexican Segundo to teach her some basic words in Spanish. She couldn't wait to see Johnny's face when she greeted him in his mother's tongue.
So many things had changed since the day that the Colonel appeared on her patio with Johnny draped over a saddle, bleeding freely from three gunshot wounds.
She remembered her fear and revulsion recognizing the black hair and dark coloring as that of a Mexican. Only under the threat of death from the Colonel did she allow him in her house.
How could she have known in a very short time she would look upon that Mexican as the man who freed her from a life of hatred and bigotry. That he would mean as much to her as her sons had. He could never replace her lost sons, but he filled an empty spot in her cold heart and filled it with kindness and compassion.
She had learned what true love and loyalty meant by watching Johnny and Scott, strangers brought together by blood and united by friendship and trust. Never once wavering in their devotion to each other.
Even the horrors committed upon them by the Colonel could not break that bond.
Jumping down from the wagon, she rapped on the heavy wooden front door. The last time she was here, Johnny was improving. Enough that he was beginning to complain about the lack of food and the nasal tube. Her heart went out to him, but it was necessary. She worried that the long recuperation was going to be difficult for him. She hadn't known him well enough before the Colonel, but she had listened to many of his exploits courtesy of Scott. The boy certainly knew how to get into trouble. And according to Scott, used his flashing smile and fast legs to get out of more than one predicament. Scott also hinted at a past he wasn't comfortable talking about. That was for Johnny to do if he wanted.
The door opened and Maria stood there.
"Buena dias, Maria." she grinned, "Como es usted?"
Maria's hands flew up to her face and she burst out in laughter. "Muy bueno, Senora Anna. Usted habla espanol bien."
"Si, it is good." Maria gently pulled her into the house, leading her toward the kitchen. They had become fast friends during her stay there. Maria was a woman to be taken seriously.
"How is Johnny?"
"Ah mi Jaunito, I worry so. He needs the food to stick to his ribs. He needs my food. Pobre chico. The enfermera, the nurse, that, that curandero, she knows nothing."
"Maria, I know she is hard to take, but she does know what's she's doing. I've not known Johnny for a long time, but I know that he is going to be a handful when he feels his oats again. Be patient, Maria. I'm sure everyone else around here feels the same. Especially Johnny."
"Si. You are muy right, Senora Anna."
"Good. Now I'll go up and say hello to Johnny. I want to try my Spanish on him."
"No, no, enfermera not allow visitors. Only familia. No one sees Jaunito. Even me. Senor Murdoch, he say it is OK. But no, endermera, she no listen, never let me in to see chico."
Anna looked past Maria toward the stairs with a raised eyebrow. "We'll just see about that."
As Anna strode purposely up the stairs Maria watched her with a satisfied look. "Ah, now we see the fur fly."
For Johnny, each day seemed to merge into another. He seemed to sleep his life away, except when the Nurse from Hell was subjecting him to one of her many tortures. Either she was robbing him of his dignity with her sponge baths or causing him nerve shattering pain with her insistence that he be turned from side to side every two hours like a roast in an oven. He once growled that it would be easier for everyone if she just put him on a spit and have done with it.
The worst was the feeling of helplessness. He had been hurt before, too many times to start counting. Bad hurt at times. But he had never felt like this. He couldn't budge the heavy splint that imprisoned his left leg, even if he had the strength to move, which he didn't. He even needed help to raise his head to take the occasional sip of water the nurse allowed him now. Not too much she warned. She didn't want a repeat of the episode of a few days ago when the chicken broth had almost done him in.
He wasn't sure what time it was. Bright sun shone in through the open window, and he felt a light breeze touch his hot face. He still had a fever, not a high one, but a fever none the less. He could tell by the ringing in his ears and the cycle of heat followed by chills. Today it was a little worse. He could tell because he was shivering more with the chills, and despite all his efforts to make her listen to reason, Nurse Hell would not give him an extra blanket. She said it would only prolong the fever.
Anna thought Johnny's reaction was priceless. As soon as she entered a big smile played across his face. At last, someone to save him.
Nurse Ada spun around from the dresser, her arms laden with towels and washcloths for another sponge bath. Instantly her surprised expression turned sour. "Mr. Lancer is not well enough to see anyone but immediate family," she warned, her eyes like flint.
"That's all right." Anna smiled. "I qualify. Don't I, Johnny?"
Johnny nodded. "I think we adopted each other," he said with a wink.
Nurse Ada straightened her back and jutted out her chin, a stance she knew intimidated most people. But not Anna.
"I see I'm just in time for Johnny's sponge bath." She deliberately walked over to Ada and took the towels from her arms. "Why don't you take the opportunity to take a breather and I'll give Johnny his bath." She said in her most solicitous voice. "I'm sure you could use the rest. And you needn't worry about me. I took care of Johnny just fine before you were called in. Isn't that right, Johnny?"
Johnny nodded with a smirk. There was a glow in his face that tugged at her heart.
Nurse Ada fumbled for words. Never had she been usurped so easily.
"The first few days of Johnny's recovery I was here round the clock. Remember?"
Ada remained silent.
"I'm perfectly capable of tending to him for an hour or two. In fact…" Anna's smile grew with each new idea that formed in her head. "…why don't you take this time and run any errands you have outstanding. I know if I need any help Teresa will be more than willing to help."
"I don't know…" Ada looked at Johnny, his face animated like she had never seen before. A pang of jealousy gripped her stomach for an unguarded moment. "His treatment is very specific."
"Which," Anna pointed out, "you have diligently recorded. I promise, I will see to all of Johnny's needs. And don't worry…" she looked back at Johnny with a no-nonsense glare, "I will stick to the regiment, no matter how much he complains, no matter what he promises."
"Well," Ada straightened her skirts and patted her hair into place. "I think I will accept your offer. I was going to ask Murdoch for a few hours off as per our agreement when I was hired. It would appear that this would be the perfect time. I have a few personal errands in town, and Mr. Lancer does need more supplies. I will be gone most of the day if that is acceptable with you, Mrs. Marlow."
"That will be just fine, Ada. You enjoy yourself. Johnny and I will be fine."
Ada nodded, crossing over to Johnny's bed before leaving the room. She checked his forehead and frowned. "Increase the Salicylic Acid, his fever is rising. I will bring Dr. Jenkins back with me if I can."
"Good idea. Now, you run along and have a good time." Anna threaded her arm through Ada's and steered her toward the door. "Trust me, I will take good care of your patient."
Ada harrumphed as Anna closed the door behind her.
Johnny let out a hoot of laughter, a grin plastered across his face from ear to ear. "That was some pretty slippery moves." He chuckled. "I knew she was no match for you."
"And neither are you, young man," she warned with a strict expression which crumbled almost immediately.
Johnny relaxed into the mattress, feeling at ease with Anna. If only she were his nurse.
"But first," Anna put the towels on the bed and looked at him very seriously, "I have a very important question to ask you."
Johnny was suddenly ill at ease and his smile disappeared. "What?" he asked cautiously.
"Como usted se siente hoy, Juanito?" She tried to pronounce the words just as Cipriano had taught her.
Johnny's mouth fell open. He stared at her, his expression unreadable.
Anna was suddenly afraid that she had insulted him. "Johnny…?"
Tears pooled in his eyes and his mouth quivered as he asked, "You learned that for me?"
Anna nodded. "Cipriano has been teaching me."
Silence filled the room between them for a long moment, but it was a good silence. Warm and understanding. And ever so grateful.
"Gracias." Johnny's voice trembled.
"I'm afraid I'm not very good yet. I have a lot of years to catch up."
"No, muy bueno.
Nunca lo he oido hablado
"Slow down, Johnny. I'm still learning. I understood very good', but the rest…"
"I said, I have never heard it spoken better. And it's true."
Anna leaned down and kissed him on the forehead, noticing how hot he felt from the fever.
"Now that my Spanish lesson is over for the day, why don't we start on that sponge bath, then it will be time to turn you."
He reached for her hand and he used his best puppy dog look. "Come on Anna. Nurse Hell isn't here. She'll never know. You just sit and we can talk."
"I'm sorry, Johnny." She combed her fingers through his hair, "but these things must be done."
Johnny resigned himself to the fact that he was not going to get out of it this time. But there was always next time.
A little while later he was relaxing in her gentle touch as she bathed him, moving the sheet around to preserve his dignity, and when it was time to finish washing him, she did so without making him feel embarrassed.
"There," she said as she pulled a fresh sheet over him, "that should make you feel a little more comfortable. In a few minutes I will have your farther and brother help me turn you on your side."
He nodded his thanks. She was doing everything to help him regain his self respect. Nurse Ada seemed to work under the assumption that a patient was easier to handle when she broke their spirit. She had almost succeeded.
"I'm going to give you some laudanum before we start. I know you don't like this tube," she soothed as she infused the medicine along with some broth and water, "but it is very necessary."
Tears welled in his eyes once again, and he cursed his inability to hide his emotions. He never wore his emotions on his sleeve. Few people, even his family, truly knew what he was thinking. But now, one kind gesture and he was bawling like a kid.
Anna saw the tears again and her heart broke. But she turned away, letting him regain his composure.
"I'm going to round up your father and brother," she said as she headed for the door. "The sooner we get that nasty turn over with, the better."
Johnny took a deep breath, grateful to have the time alone. It was so seldom he wasn't being hovered over by someone. Mostly Nurse Hell.
He stared up at the ceiling watching the shadows of the trees play across the white paint, reminding him that he was not outside. That he could not go outside for a very long time. That he was condemned here as a prisoner, as sure as if he had been tried by a judge and jury and sentenced to hard time. Only, the warden was a heartless nurse and the guards were well meaning relatives, lost as to what they could do for him.
He knew they were hurting as much as he was and it made him mad that it was causing them pain. Much easier when you didn't have connections. He had lived all his life without anyone caring about him. No one to give a damn if he lived or died. He passed through lives, through life, his only constant companion, his gun.
Suddenly he realized he had not thought of his gun in weeks. That which made him who he was. That both saved him and dammed him.
He desperately wanted to feel the cold metal warm to his touch. Become an extension of himself. With it he could regain control. With it he could steer destiny to the ultimate end.
He had to have that gun.
With strength he didn't know he had, he struggled to push himself up on his elbows. The pain in his shoulder and ribs was just a twinge compared to the pain in his leg, but he continued. He would not rest until he at least knew where his gun was. It was all that mattered in his world at that moment.
He felt cold and sweaty, blackness edging in around him, but he continued. Somehow he was sitting up. The room spun and his stomach heaved but he grabbed onto the wires on the splint, keeping himself sitting up. The room swam dizzily in front of him. But there…slung over a chair by his dresser…was his holster. He couldn't tell if his gun was there too. He had to know.
Gritting his teeth he tried to bite back the strangled cry that threatened to expose him. They would not understand his need to have his gun. They would placate him, force him to lay back and pump him full of pain killers that just addled his brain. No, this he had to do on his own, in secret.
Collecting all his strength, he flung his upper body toward the edge of the bed.
The momentum carried him further than he thought it would. Shocked, he felt himself begin to slip toward the floor, his belly snaking over the edge of the mattress. The heavy splint was the only thing that kept him from sliding all the way to the floor. The wire holding the splint together caught in the mattress like a hook. He hung there, upside down, his hands laying uselessly on the floor, the blood throbbing in his head, his face inches from the carpet. He had absolutely no strength left in his body.
He cursed his stupidity. Now they would find him. Hanging over the bed, stark naked.
His biggest regret was that Anna was here to help him. Why did he always do stupid things? Leaped before he looked? She would be mad at him. No, she would be furious. And what about Murdoch? He didn't even want to go there.
His leg was in a vice grip of pain. He prayed he would pass out, that the blackness that was edging in around him would just swallow him up forever. But his adrenalin kept him conscious. And suddenly he felt one wire, then another tear through the mattress material and he was moving again. He couldn't stop himself. His weight crushed, first his forehead, then his cheek into the carpeting.
He heard a startled cry, then hands were pulling him up.
Murdoch opened the door, and the sight of Johnny slowly slipping toward the floor at first stunned him, then galvanized him into action.
Scott and Anna were at his side, grabbing Johnny's shoulders, stopping his descent to the floor.
Scott flung his sling off and jumped on the bed, grabbing Johnny's shoulders as Murdoch lifted him back on the mattress. Anna guided his splinted leg, trying to avoid any further damage.
"How the hell did he do this?" Murdoch roared.
"I don't know. He shouldn't have had the strength." Anna was beside herself. She had only left him unattended for a few minutes. She rearranged the pillows, her face ashen white, her tears held at bay only for Johnny's sake.
"For God's sake, boy, “Murdoch cried, leaning over Johnny, "what possessed you to try such a stupid stunt?"
"Needed… my… gun." Johnny hissed as pain racked his body.
Suddenly Anna was in control again. "You can ask the why of it later," she barked, as she filled a syringe with morphine. "Let's hope he didn't cause any more serious damage."
She injected the morphine in Johnny's arm, then leaned over him, brushing his hair from his forehead. "You're going to sleep for awhile,” she said, as she watched his eyes dull and his lids close. "Then, you are going to explain yourself."
Johnny laid quietly enduring Sam's ministrations and lecture. He had awoken to the almost unbearable pain of Sam re-lacing the wire on the splint.
Nurse Ada stood by his side, arms folded, watching Johnny's every flinch and stifled cry of pain.
"Sorry if this hurts, Johnny," Sam said, "but I want to ease up on the morphine and you just had a dose of laudanum. Just answer me one thing, what kind of blame fool stunt were you trying to pull?"
"I'd like to hear the answer to that one myself." Ada agreed.
Johnny glowered up at her. "I'll tell you Sam, but not her. Get her out of here."
"She stays, Johnny. You've already proven you can't be trusted. "
That statement hurt and Johnny looked away. How could he tell Sam what he was feeling, how much his gun meant to him with her listening? She knew nothing of his past, even a hint at what that gun represented would open a flurry of questions he was not about to answer. In his mind she had not earned that kind of trust. Sam, on the other hand, earned it two fold.
"Well, I'm going to be honest with you, Johnny. That little stunt may have set you back several weeks. I told your father in the beginning that you should be hospitalized. I wanted to send you to San Francisco where they could look after you properly. But Dr. Evens assured me that you would be fine here at home provided you had a competent nurse. I tried to warn him, and Murdoch, that it wasn't the competency of the nurse that worried me, but the patient. You are a terrible patient, Johnny. One of the worst. You are even worse than your father, and believe me, you have to go a long way to top him."
Johnny tried to melt into the mattress under Sam's grilling, but he was trapped, just like he'd been trapped for so long.
"I'm warning you just once, young man," Sam continued, "one more stupid stunt like that and you're on the next train to San Francisco. Do I make myself clear?"
Johnny nodded. He hadn't felt this foolish since he was caught sneaking a piece of Teresa's chocolate cake and denied it while his mouth was covered with chocolate icing.
"I didn't hear you, Johnny." Sam pressed.
"Yes. I understand." Johnny tried to pull the sheet up over his chest, but Ada swiped it from his hands.
"Dr. Jenkins is not finished with his examination yet," she said, a wisp of a smile on her lips. Johnny caught it and cringed. The old battle ax was enjoying herself at his expense.
Sam finished with the splint and gently felt Johnny's forehead. "Your fever is a little higher than I expected. There's signs of infection under the sutures so I put in a rubber tube to drain it off. I want Nurse Ada here to start applying hot compresses several times a day. It will help with the infection. But I want you to listen to me closely, Johnny. She will have to loosen the splint, so you will have to remain perfectly still while she works. I can't emphasize too much how imperative it is that you not move that leg around. You may have already done more damage than we can mend. Anything else and…well you're a smart boy."
"I understand…" The implication left no room for interpretation. He watched Sam begin to pack up his bag and reached over, grabbing the doctor's arm. The effort brought a new stab of pain to his leg and he couldn't hide the hiss of pain.
"You must remain still, Johnny." Sam ordered.
Johnny nodded. "Sam, can you take this thing out?" he touched the nasal tube and shivered at the mere touch. It reminded him constantly that he was in control of nothing. "I've been drinking water. Even had some of that tasteless broth yesterday."
"I'll make you a deal. You continue drinking the broth, and when you can hold it down for three days in a row I'll think about taking the tube out."
"That's the best you can do?"
"It's the best I can do. Oh, and one more thing." Sam walked over to the chair next to the dresser and retrieved Johnny's gun belt and hung it over the headboard behind Johnny’s head. "You've come a long way Johnny from the first time I met you. And I'm proud of how you have changed. But I also know that this is still a large part of your life. If it makes you feel better that it's close, then what harm can there be."
"Dr. Jenkins!" Ada reached for the holster. "This is out of the question. I will not have a gun anywhere near my presence. Have you lost your mind? That is why he is in this condition in the first place. Guns! They are the greatest curse on mankind. I will not…"
Sam turned on Ada, clamping his hand around her wrist. "You will leave that gun there. If you can't take orders I will find a nurse that can."
"This is highly irregular."
"This whole damn mess is highly irregular. Now, you leave the gun or you leave this house."
Ada looked down at Johnny, daggers in her eyes. "If anyone is hurt because of that gun it will be you who answers to it, Dr. Jenkins."
Sam nodded. "I will take full responsibility. Now, I think there is someone who wishes to speak to his brother. Ada, if you'll join me downstairs we can go over Johnny's treatment."
Sam opened the door and motioned Scott inside as he guided Ada into the hall.
He caught Scott’s arm. "He's been through a lot," Sam cautioned, "take it easy."
Scott nodded curtly and waited for the door to close behind him before slowly walking over to the bed.
"Proud of yourself?" he demanded.
"Not really," Johnny answered dully. "Please, just leave me alone. Sam already gave me the lecture. I don't need one from you too."
Beneath the flush of fever his face was as white as the pillow he laid on. Gone were the laugh lines around his eyes, replaced by the dark circles caused by pain and fatigue.
Johnny's eyes slid closed, exhausted from his ordeal. He looked so much like a child, surrounded by a mound of pillows and sheets. The feeding tube a mockery to the person Johnny Lancer really was.
Scott's anger disappeared.
He had been so ready for a confrontation. He had waited downstairs while Sam and Nurse Ada had tended to Johnny, trying to undo any damage his ill fated attempt to get out of bed had caused. He was furious that Johnny was so single minded that he would jeopardize everything everyone had gone through to save his brother's life.
Suddenly the memory of seeing Johnny splayed over the edge of the bed, helpless, triggered something deep down inside him. Until now he could find no one to blame but himself for what had happened. It was his own weakness that had caused Johnny all the pain. It was his arms that had carried Johnny into that hot box, it was his inability to get Johnny out of the house to safety that forced him have to leave his dying brother behind, searching for help. It was he who had robbed the bank. Reason enough for Murdoch to think him guilty. Hold him responsible for everything. Not in words. Never in words. But it was there in his eyes. Every time Murdoch looked at him, there was always the accusation.
Suddenly Scott realized it didn't matter which brother was taken.
The outcome would have been the same.
In a moment of blinding clarity Scott realized the Colonel had known that. Used it to his advantage. Neither brother would have jeopardized the other. Johnny admitted it. On his mother's grave.
The saddest part of all…Johnny in reality was the weaker of the two brothers. Not him. Johnny was the one who could not accept injury or illness. Who felt betrayed when his body was not one hundred percent. Who could sabotage his own recovery in a moment of fear and anger.
Scott gently lifted Johnny's hand. "We are going to get through this together, brother. I won't let you fail. I won't let the Colonel win this one."
Three slow weeks passed, and Johnny felt stronger each day. But the feeling of being trapped was growing sequentially. He read as many books as he could stand, mainly because he enjoyed discussing his thoughts about them with Scott. There were also the daily checker games. And each day, as if on a pre- determined schedule, each member of the Lancer's extended family paid him a visit. He could set his clock by their visits. First Maria in the morning, talking a mile a minute in Spanish about everything and nothing. Just hearing her talk eased his mind. Then Jelly came next, posturing about something or other. Always a new disaster. But he made him feel connected to the world outside his room. Next Cipriano stopped by. Here he learned about the crew and the jobs that did or did not get done. Teresa dropped in mid-afternoon, with a snack and a glass of brandy. Dr. Sutter had prescribed two glasses of claret or brandy each day as a stimulant. While he would have preferred tequila, he took what was offered. Lastly Murdoch and Scott would stop by in the evening after dinner. Sometimes together, sometimes alone. They would sit and talk, or just quietly read until Johnny fell asleep. It brought Johnny great comfort.
Johnny knew these visits irked Ada to no end. But Sam said he was ready for visitors. The old doc knew that there was more to medicine than just healing the body. The soul needed mending too.
He was thankful for the attention. He appreciated everyone who came to see him, and was extremely sad when work demanded their time. But it didn't make up for the feelings of isolation. Stuck up here in his room, day after day, night after night.
And last night Nurse Ada had relented to his constant pleas and let a half dozen men crowd into the room for a poker game. But to his dismay, half way through the second hand his leg began to ache and his strength disappeared as fast as his money.
Sitting by the window watching intently, Ada saw the signs and quickly intervened, sending everyone out of the room and ordering Johnny to lie back down.
If he had not felt so miserable and disappointed, he would have fought her, but he simply relented and allowed her to take away the pillows that had him propped up. She handed him a tall glass of iced tea and he raised an eyebrow at the bitter aftertaste. He knew it was lauduman but drank it down anyway. The insistent pain was too nerve shattering, had lasted too long, not to accept the relief from the pain killers.
This morning he was feeling very angry. He seemed to have no control over his emotions. One minute he was complacent, the next mad. He even felt like bursting into tears for no reason. It was like he had no control over his life. If he didn't get out of this bed soon he was going to go insane like the cows who wandered into loco weed.
It was hotter than usual this morning. By the afternoon it would be sweltering. The window was wide open and the curtains pulled aside. He could hear the shouts and taunts of the men outside in the corral. Someone was breaking a horse.
He heard Cipriano yell playfully, "Senor Scott, do you need the pillow for your asno?"
Delighted, his anger turned to glee as he imagined Scott flat on his back, bucked off by another horse. Scott had learned many things since coming to the ranch. The one thing that still eluded him was breaking a horse. More often then not, he was eating dust and rubbing his backside, cursing the damn horse for being so stubborn.
He heard another roar of laughter. He had to see this. Ada would be gone for another hour or more. She had found Teresa's rose garden one day and now she spent an hour every morning there. He noticed when she returned she always had a far away look in her eyes.
He remembered his last fiasco, when he had tried to get his gun. But that was weeks ago, and he was feeling stronger. He was even able to turn over with only Ada's help guiding the heavy splint.
He looked at the distance between the bed and the window. Never had it seemed so far. But there was a chair there for him to sit in to rest before he headed back to bed.
He took a deep breath and made his decision. It was now or never. If he waited too long Ada would return. If he was clever, he could make it over there, check out Scott and his comedy of errors and get back in bed before Ada retuned. She would never know what happened. Maneuvering himself so his right leg dangled over the mattress, he threaded his fingers through one of the wire lacings on the splint and lifted his leg, swinging it over the edge. The weight was more than he expected and he nearly crashed to the floor. He steadied himself with his right leg, the carpet feeling funny beneath his foot. He hadn't felt anything but a sheet touch his skin for well over a month.
Carefully he stood up, putting most of his weight on his right leg. Standing for the first time, a wave of dizziness nearly toppled him over, but he clenched the sheets behind him and waited for his head to clear.
He was much weaker than he expected. The weight of the splint felt like a fifty pound sack of stones wrapped around his leg.
Now that he was standing, the distance between the bed and the window seemed to double. He heard another shout of glee from the corral and he anxiously stepped forward. He didn't want to miss Scott eating half the dirt in the San Joaquin Valley.
But his first step was not what he expected. His right leg gave out and the floor raced up to smack him solidly in the face. Dazed, he remained motionless, listening to hear footsteps running up the stairs. Nothing. No one had heard him.
So, now what should he do? He was out of bed. That was the first step. Obviously walking was out of the question. But not crawling. He gathered himself up, thankful that Nurse Ada had finally seen fit to give him a nightshirt, and began to lever himself across the room. He found if he raised his torso off the ground and used his elbows he was able to make some progress. But it was time consuming and draining. He was covered in sweat and his arms were already beginning to shake from the exertion.
Just a little further, he told himself, as the chair beneath the window seemed to taunt him, forever moving further away. He kept moving forward. Reach, pull, drag. Reach, pull, drag. Slowly he made his way across the room.
When he thought he didn't have the strength to drag himself one more inch, his right hand touched the chair leg. He was elated beyond belief. It was the first thing he had accomplished on his own since being bushwhacked by the Colonel's man in the canyon.
With strength he didn't know he still possessed, he pulled himself up into the chair with his splinted leg stretched out in front of him and folded his arms over the window sill, dropping his chin into his arms.
He had a fleeting moment of seeing Scott sail through the air as his horse twisted and bucked in a frenzy of fear and anger before blackness overcame him.
Johnny wasn't sure how long he had been out. The temperature had risen by several degrees and the corral below was empty.
He pushed himself back upright in the chair, his strength all but gone. Another dumb idea to add to the long list of dumb ideas. Why couldn't he be more like Scott and think things through first?
He couldn't think about that now. He had to get back to bed before anyone found him.
He closed his eyes in disgust. If they found him like this…Nurse Ada would be furious. Scott and Murdoch would lecture him until they were both hoarse, and Sam…God, Sam…would he keep his promise and put him on that train?
He had to get back in bed before Ada came back.
The throbbing pain during last night's poker game was beginning to make itself known again and the effort to lower himself back to the ground left him breathless.
Grunting from the pain and the exertion, he began the laborious trip back to the bed. Reach, pull, drag. He glanced over at the closed door after every other pull, watching for Ada to enter. He could do this. She would never be the wiser.
His night shirt was soaked through and through with sweat. He finally reached the bed and grabbed at the mattress, pulling himself up. His right leg shook under the weight of his body as he pushed with is leg and pulled with his arms until he was half way onto the mattress.
Pulling himself the rest of the way proved to be the hardest part of all. He was exhausted and his trembling arms barely obeyed his orders. With a last Herculean shove of his right leg he was on the bed.
Struggling to right himself on the center of the mattress with the pillows behind his head, he at last took a deep breath and sighed in relief. He had done it. Only one more thing left to do; pull the sheet up over himself.
He looked down at the splint that stretched out in front of him and fear, like a bucket of cold water, poured over him. The wires threading the splint together were pulled and twisted, and a dark track of dirt stained the white wrappings from the embedded dirt and mud in the carpet.
No…He quickly arranged the sheet over himself. Maybe she wouldn't notice. The wires could have been damaged when she unthreaded them twice a day to lay scalding hot towels on his leg. The first few times it took Murdoch and Scott to hold his shoulders down until he gathered the will power to just endure it in silence. That was it. Nurse Ada had twisted them herself. He just never bothered to notice before. The dirt. That could be explained away somehow. He just had to think on it.
Pain and fatigue overwhelmed him and he couldn't keep his eyes open one more minute. But whatever happened, he had made it. Clear across the room and back.
When Johnny awoke it was dark outside his window. The light from one lantern sitting on his nightstand, its wick turned low, cast deep shadows in the corners, forming strange patterns dancing on the ceiling.
He felt inexplicably tired. More so than he had in weeks. Almost like he did when he first awoke from surgery.
His leg throbbed with a new kind of pain…dull and heavy…making his limb feel as if it weighed a hundred pounds.
The rest of his body ached. His arms and chest protested from the slightest movement. His right ankle, nearly free of pain until now, burned with a renewed vengeance. For the first time since he awoke here in his own bed, how many weeks ago, he felt scared.
He tried to gather his thoughts, but his mind felt muddled. They had given him drugs again. Damn them. Damn them all. He just wanted out of this bed…
Suddenly the memory of dragging himself across the floor, toward the chair…the mangled wires of his splint, the track of dirt from toe to thigh. He shivered at the memory.
He looked around the room, trying to see into the deep shadows. He had the uncomfortable feeling that someone was lurking there in the darkness…watching him.
Nurse Ada. She had to have seen the evidence. It was hours ago that he had finally made it back to bed. Exhausted and covered with sweat, he had succumbed to the ordeal.
In the dim light he could see that he wore a fresh nightshirt and he could feel the cold touch of his wet hair on his forehead. A sponge bath and a change of dressing gowns…he had not felt a thing.
The vague uneasiness he felt began to grow stronger. There was someone in the room with him. Silent. Predacious. Like the hair along a hound's spine, his hackles stood on end. He was being watched. A prey to what? Nurse Ada?
He listened intently, waiting for the smallest of sounds. He heard the music of the night, crickets, frogs, cows mewling, the occasional snort from a horse, comforting sounds most nights. But tonight it was intrusive. It masked the sounds he strived to hear, hidden within the dark shadows of his own room.
And then he heard it. The rustle of cloth, the squeak of wood.
He glanced toward the chair beneath the window, the one he had fought so hard to reach this morning. It was missing. In the moonlight that filtered in through the window he could see the empty space.
Anger overrode fear. That was his chair. The one thing in this house, the Lancer House, that was his. He had found it sitting in the corner and placed it beneath the window the first day he arrived. No one touched it. Teresa cleaned around it, dusted and polished the strong wooden arms, mended the torn cushion when it ripped from age and the ravages of constant sunlight. But it was never moved.
Staring into the corner to the right of the door he tried to pierce through the dark shadows, visualizing Ada sitting mutely in his chair watching him.
"I know you're there," he said, looking into the shadows, trying to keep the tremor of fear and anger out of his voice.
But silence was the only reply.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He would not allow fear to take charge.
He knew fear. He had met it head on too many times. It was both monster and savior. It could grab you and twist your insides until you could not take another breath, until your body turned numb and your mind fled. Or it could heighten your senses, awakening every nerve in your body, making you aware of everything around you. From a blade of grass to a current of air.
So far in his life, fear had been his friend. It helped him to survive. He would not be here if not for fear. So, why this time, did fear grab him and shake his very foundation?
Was it because he was trapped in this bed, a prisoner to his broken body? Or was it the insidious and never ending attack on his very being by Nurse Ada? She had systematically eroded his self confidence, his dignity. She whittled away at his nerve, tried to destroy the bravado that kept Johnny Madrid Lancer alive all these years.
"Are you going to hide in the shadows or show yourself?"
Still no reply.
Fear heightened a notch. He needed help.
"Scott, Murdoch!" he yelled.
Not a sound. Nothing to break the stillness.
Even with the door closed he always heard sounds from the house. A door closing downstairs, a pot or a dish dropped in the kitchen, Murdoch's bellowing voice.
But not this night…This night there was nothing.
It was too quiet. There should have been sounds of vaqueros in the yard below. Unless it was later than he thought. He looked back toward the window. It was well past midnight for the moon to be streaming directly into his window. Why hadn't he noticed that before?
"Teresa, Jelly!" he tried to hide the growing desperation in his voice.
He had to get out of here. He'd made it to the chair and back this morning. He could make it out the door into the hallway. Someone would surely hear him there.
Taking a breath that spiked a pain through his chest muscles, he tried to rise. Disbelief and dread struck at the same time. His wrists were bound to the bed, his fingers touching either side of the mattress. Why hadn't he noticed before? The position left him helpless to even raise his shoulders off the bed.
"Why?!" he shouted toward the darkened corner. "Answer me! Why?!" He tried to wrestle his wrists free, but with every tug the loops tightened.
This couldn't be happening. Someone had to be home. Lancer was never empty.
"She's not here," a disembodied voice whispered from the darkened corner. "No one is here. Just you and I."
No. That was impossible. Lancer was never left deserted.
"Where are they?"
More rustling of clothing and the squeak of the chair as someone stood up.
Johnny's heart began to beat faster, sweat beaded his forehead, running down his check. He yanked at the straps around his wrists and he felt the bindings dig into his flesh.
Why was he so afraid? He had faced gunmen standing twenty paces from him, ready to gun him down if his draw was a fraction of a second slower. Hell, he faced the federales with less fear than he did this stranger in the darkness.
"Answer me!" he demanded. "Where are they?"
From the darkness a figure emerged, wearing a full length black rain slicker. Johnny could not see the face hidden beneath the shadow of a wide brimmed black hat.
Johnny sank back into the mattress, aware he was at the mercy of the woman approaching him.
"Ada?" he asked. It was little doubt in his mind that it was her. Few women were as statuesque as she was. But, where Nurse Ada stood straight and strong, shoulders always pulled back as if waiting for inspection, this woman seemed defeated. Her shoulders rounded, her head bowed.
"Ada…?" he asked again.
Slowly the old nurse raised her head, her face coming into view…
Johnny felt a rush of fear so powerful that it nearly strangled the one word that escaped his lips.
Like the most malignant nightmare, the Colonel stepped out of the shadows, the meager light from the oil lamp catching the cruel smile frozen on his face.
Johnny's overpowering instinct to escape was tempered by the knowledge that he was trapped here in this bed. He sucked in a breath and stared back at the monster who was the nexus of all the hell he and Scott had endured the past two months.
He raised his head slowly, as far as his shoulders would allow. "I thought you would be six feet under by now," Johnny said coldly, forcing his voice not to betray the fear that squeezed in around him.
"I'm surprised no one told you." The smile continued, ugly and dangerous, like a rabid dog's. "I escaped four days ago. There was a fire at the jail house. Everyone in cellblock seven was lost. Nothing but charred bones and burned trinkets to sift through."
"Let me guess, some nameless drifter took your place."
The Colonel nodded. "A few of my men managed to escape your brother and father at the Marlow ranch. They bided their time, waited until the jailers got careless, then rounded up four vagrants. The fire was so hot only the mangled ring I slipped on the old drunk's finger was recovered."
Johnny let his head fall back on the pillow. "And you're here for payback."
The Colonel's smile faded. "Your brother and father threw me in that inferno of a box. No one does that to me. No One!"
"It seems that Scott made only one mistake, he should of left you there." Johnny regretted the words the moment they spilled out of his mouth. Stupid. But he was beyond wise judgment.
The Colonel took five long strides across the room until he was standing over Johnny, his face now lit by the flickering lantern, catching the blazing hatred in his eyes.
With his hands cupped together he slammed his fists into Johnny's mid-section.
Johnny only felt a moment of exquisite pain as burning bile shot up his throat, then darkness enveloped him. But not before he heard a familiar voice cry out in anger. "…No…!"
"Senor, Lancer, the fire, it is spreading." Cipriano yelled over the din of noise created by the inferno. "It will reach Senora Marlow's ranch if we do not pull everyone off the fire line here and surround her estancia."
Murdoch squinted against the smoke and heat that burned at his eyes and stung his skin. The roar of the fire nearly drowned out all other noise
He stared at the raging fire as it gathered strength, speeding toward Zeke Campbell's ranch, creating its own wind as it sped up and then down the dry hills, ever closer to the house. The sky was alight with red and yellow embers, falling like snow around them. The ground shuddered again as another tree exploded from the heat, not fifty feet away. There was nothing they could do to stop nature's onward march. The valley was hers tonight, to do as she wished. For man nor beast could stand in her way when she was hungry.
The fire had started at dusk two miles west of Seth Kendall's ranch. With the tinder dry grass fueled by hundred plus degree days of and stifling nights, it was inevitable. Every year they fought the wildfires. When they were lucky they saved the ranches, when they weren't they gathered together, just as they did to fight the fire, and helped to rebuild.
Murdoch nodded, his heart going out to the man who stood beside him. Zeke was a good man. He didn't deserve to watch his life's dreams destroyed in one night. But he and his family were safe. They could rebuild. And they would.
Murdoch looked to his left where Maria and Teresa comforted Zeke's wife and daughter by the chuck wagon, their base of operations.
Jelly rushed around the wagon, tending to the injured and handing out canteens of water. The old geezer was invaluable in times of crises. Murdoch knew that more than anyone.
Scott ran up beside him, his hair and face caked with black smoke and rivers of sweat.
"I'm headed over to Anna's place; get her ready to evacuate if necessary." He gently shook Zeke's shoulder as he passed by. They had all been through so much in this valley the past few months.
"We'll be right behind you, Son." Murdoch hated to say the words in front of Zeke, but they needed saying. "We can't do anymore here. I'll set some men to start digging a fire line around her house and some to wet down the buildings. I'll be damned if I'll see that woman go through anymore hell."
Zeke reached out and grabbed the shovel from Murdoch's hand. "This fire will take none other tonight," he roared in fury. "Let's go!"
Johnny couldn't figure out if what he remembered was a dream or reality. It had to be a dream. The Colonel was safely behind bars in Stockton. No one escaped Stockton jails.
As he struggled up through the layers of consciousness, he dismissed the idea more and more. Just another nightmare. More real than the rest, but a nightmare all the same.
He felt someone comb their fingers through his hair and recognized the heavy hand of Nurse Ada. There were times, very few he reminded himself, when she actually seemed concerned. That he was more than just a patient to her, but someone she cared about.
He forced his heavy eyelids half open, only to find the room darkened except for the oil lamp next to his bed. Just the way he remembered it. A twinge of fear played at his gut. No…it was always left like this, so Nurse Ada could check him throughout the night. She had moved her cot out of his room when the nasal tube was removed and both Sam and Dr. Sutter certified him on the road to recovery. Such a small step, but it felt like such a milestone.
But tonight she was beside his bed. He could feel her presence, smell the antiseptic soap she used to wash her hands.
And there was a new pain to add to his collection. A throbbing pain, along his right side, that caught with each breath.
Then he remembered his ill fated trip across his room. Had she noticed the ravaged splint? She would have to be half blind to miss it. But nothing accounted for the fierce pain along his ribcage.
Curious why his side hurt so badly, he tried to feel for the pain with his right hand.
Fear washed over him like a cold pail of water. His wrists were bound, pulled to either edge of the bed. Just as he remembered.
He snapped his eyes open fully, searching the darkened room. He found Ada standing next to him, a look on her face he had never seen before…fear.
Beyond her, just as the shadows turned from heavy to black, the Colonel stood, arms folded over his chest, watching.
"You are a stubborn man, Mr. Madrid."
Ada tensed, hearing the unfamiliar name, but made no show of interest in front of the Colonel.
"What do you want?" Johnny asked, his voice steady. He would never let the Colonel know the fear that raged inside his mind. The man had nearly killed him, nearly destroyed Scott. Thank God his brother wasn't here. But where was he?
"That's simple. I want revenge. I want your brother and father to feel the pain and humiliation I felt. They made a big mistake when they left me to bake in that hot box. They will pay. You and your family robbed me of what was mine. This valley." He looked toward the open window, a tinge of red in the black sky. "Now, no one will have it."
"Do you smell it?" he asked, his voice as cold as death. "Hell is claiming this valley tonight."
Johnny smelled it then, the faint odor of smoke. He looked toward Ada, imploring her for answers.
"It started this afternoon near one of the other ranches. Everyone left to fight the fire. Two hands stayed behind…they…"
The Colonel smiled. "Your men were very loyal, Madrid. It's too bad it cost them their lives."
Johnny cursed himself for taking the bait, but he couldn't help himself. He jerked his body forward, the ropes yanking him back. He stifled the cry of pain, his side and leg screaming in protest.
The Colonel took a step closer, the feeble light casting harsh shadows across his chiseled face. "When I picked you and your brother, you were merely pawns in my plan to gain control of this valley. Now you are bait, Mr. Madrid. Your father and brother will pay for what they did."
The door opened behind him. Lieutenant Crenshaw stepped in, a cruel smile spreading across his face when he spotted Johnny. "Never thought you'd make it boy. Last time I saw you, you were being hauled out of that hole. I would a taken odds on you not making it through the night."
"Enough, Crenshaw," the Colonel warned.
"Yes, Sir." Crenshaw stood at attention.
"How are you progressing?"
"We'll be ready, Sir."
"Ready for what?" Johnny ground out.
The Colonel ignored him. "Very well." He looked back at Ada and nodded toward Johnny. "See to your patient, nurse. He will need all his strength. We will be back for him soon."
Johnny watched the door close slowly behind the Colonel and Crenshaw...what did he have planned this time? Johnny shivered, he couldn't take much more. The only thing that kept him from rolling up in a mindless ball was the thought of Scott and Murdoch. They had been through a hell even worse than his. He had laid unconscious through most of the ordeal. Scott and Murdock did not have that luxury. They faced everything, every moment with clear eyed reality. They were the ones who had suffered the most.
Ada leaned over the bed to feel Johnny's forehead. "Fever is a bit higher."
"Doesn't matter." Johnny answered blandly, his eyes shifting to the window and the red tinged black sky.
"It does to me. You're my patient and I plan to see you healthy before I leave this place." She took a chance. "Or are you planning on letting the Colonel win after all?"
Johnny turned his eyes up to look at her. The hatred she saw in those blue eyes so vivid that it made her fall back a step.
"The Colonel is a dead man," he breathed.
Ada silently began mixing medication in a glass, her hand trembling imperceptibly. The look in Johnny Lancer's eyes shook her to the core. She knew hate. She had felt the burn of revenge. But nothing compared to what she saw in those eyes.
"Drink this," she ordered and stood motionless until he had finished the glass.
He glanced back to see his holster and gun missing. "Untie me," he ordered.
She quickly untied the ropes and helped him to sit up, letting him catch his breath as she stuffed pillows behind his back. The Colonel's latest assault had cost him another cracked rib at the very least.
"I need something I can use as a weapon." He still sounded winded. His face had paled a shade whiter. Ada was afraid he would pass out if he didn't rest.
Ada looked around the room. The Colonel's men had ravaged the room when they first entered, collecting anything that they thought could be used for a weapon. Everything was gone…syringes, scissors, pointed forceps. Then she remembered, in the dirty apron she had discarded in the hamper this morning, sitting deep in a pocket, was the surgical wire cutters the doctors used to tighten and adjust the wire lacing the heavy cast on Johnny's leg.
She retrieved it, and when she slipped it into his hand she got her first genuine smile from Johnny Madrid Lancer
Taken aback, she squared her shoulders and cleared her throat. She had the first glimpse of the charisma people spoke of when they talked about Johnny Lancer, the man who could melt winter snow with just his smile.
"Help me hide it."
She looked around the bed…no, it would have to be on his person…Her own smile played at her lips as an idea was born…she pulled the top of the splint away from his leg and she watched him push the wire cutters down far enough so only he could see them from his angle. Ada caught her breath as she saw him grimace in pain. But she knew pain was not going to be a deterrent against saving his brother and father.
Only a few short hours ago she had been livid when she returned to his room to find him splayed across the bed, deeply asleep, the sheet pulled haphazardly over his legs. It only took a moment for her to see his pale sweaty face and labored breathing to know that he had tried something foolish. She did not realize the extent of his foolhardy escape until she saw the condition of the splint and the rug burns on his right knee. But she had scarcely the time to formulate a proper punishment when half a dozen riders raced into the courtyard below, yelling fire. Within twenty minutes the Lancer ranch was deserted except for two hands, and her, watching over the willful Johnny Lancer.
"What do you think he has in mind?" she asked, wringing a cool cloth over the basin of water and sponging his face and chest.
She felt a shiver of fear almost imperceptibly arch his back. "Something that will make Scott and Murdoch suffer."
Suddenly Johnny was staring into her eyes, not allowing her to look away. "Promise me, that whatever happens…" he grabbed her hand, startling her…"Scott and Murdoch…they are the important ones…"
She tried to yank her hand free, but he held tight.
"You don't know who I am…what I was…"
Ada turned and looked toward the window, seeing the growing light highlight the night sky. The fire was moving closer. The smell of smoke growing stronger.
"I know that you used to be a gunslinger. I've heard the stories of Johnny Madrid. I know…" She turned to look back at him, the light from the oil lamp catching the wetness in her eyes. "It was a gunslinger like you who killed my husband."
The pain of regret once again filled Johnny, for what he had been, for what he had done.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "Why did you stay?"
"I'm a nurse. I was a nurse before Jack was killed, and I will remain a nurse. You were a patient who needed my services. I don't select only the patients I like. And maybe…"
"And maybe you wanted to find out what drove a man like me. What made a man turn to the gun? Or," his voice lowered, "exact a little revenge of your own?"
"You're not the first, but…you may be the last. Ada…you've got to make me that promise. Scott doesn't deserve…"
The stillness of the night was suddenly shattered by the sound of hammering in the courtyard below.
Panic was not a feeling Johnny experienced often. He had trained himself to move beyond the debilitating emotion. But Ada read panic in his eyes.
She rushed to the window. Below she saw torches staked into the ground giving two men enough light to build what looked to be a large tripod.
"What is it?" Johnny asked, his voice uncommonly husky.
"I don't know." She answered truthfully. "It looks like…"
She spun around at the sound of the door opening.
The Colonel walked in. "Your brother and father will be here at first light. Time to get you ready."
Johnny looked from the Colonel to Ada. He saw her take a step forward and two guards jumped in front of her, grabbing her arms and twisting them behind her back.
"Tell her it's useless to fight, Mr. Madrid."
"Very wise. You have surprised me in many ways, Mr. Madrid. Your tenacity to cling to life, when most others would have given up long ago. Your devotion to a family you hardly know."
He walked closer to the bed, reaching down and fingering the wire on Johnny's splint. "It's too bad, that after all you have been through, that it falls to you to be the sacrificial lamb."
Johnny looked toward Ada. "Leave her out of this," he said. "She doesn't mean anything to you."
The Colonel chortled. "It just adds a little excitement to have someone watching the show."
It took all of Johnny's resolve not to react. He would not give the Colonel the pleasure of seeing how truly scared he was.
"I had a long time to perfect my plan for revenge, Mr. Madrid. I thought of every contingency. I waited my time in that hellhole of a prison. I assembled the right men. Everything is in place. Before long your brother and father will be here, and just to ease your mind," he motioned toward the open window, the smell of smoke stronger in the air, "no one will bother us. They will have their hands full with yet another fire. It will start in about an hour, up near Harpers Crossing. One wayward gust of wind and it could burn its way right into Morro Coyo."
"You're a sick bastard," Johnny whispered.
"Perhaps, but I get what I want." The Colonel turned from Johnny to his men, "Let's get him downstairs, I want him in place by sunrise. It promises to be a particularly hot day today."
Johnny's stomach dropped…not the hot box again. He couldn't take that. He had survived a lifetime of pain, but another minute in that box would destroy him. He couldn't do it. He looked at the wire cutters, the metal handle just poking out from beneath the split. It was useless now. Would he ever get the chance to use it?
The Colonel pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and unfolded it to reveal a hypodermic syringe.
He motioned the two guards to push Ada closer. "Nurse," he displayed the syringe in his hand, "please administer this to your patient."
Ada flung her shoulders back, her height bringing her eye to eye with the Colonel. "The hell I will."
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders. "You decide, Nurse Adelaide, either this injection of morphine or one of my men will knock him out, probably break his jaw in the process."
Johnny nodded to Ada. There was no other alternative. The more she fought the more likely she would be hurt, and as much as it pained him to admit it, she meant something special to him.
"Johnny," she whispered as she took the syringe from the Colonel. For a split second she thought of driving the needle into her abductor. But that was futile. Best to play the game, making the Colonel think that he had won the first fight. Perhaps he had won this battle, but he would not win the war.
Johnny watched her accept the syringe, a flicker in her eye told him she was waiting for an opportunity to use the morphine on the Colonel. But none came.
He held his arm still, watching the needle pierce his skin, then the euphoria of the drug coursing through his body, deadening all the pain, pulling him down into its warm caress. The last thing he felt as the darkness enveloped him was her hand squeezing his.
Scott speared his shovel into the burned ground beneath his feet and leaned heavily against the handle.
All around him lay miles of burned grassland. The stench of wet ashes fouled the air. The fire had nearly won…but in the end, the fire line they cut in the fields leading up to Anna’s house held and the estanica was saved.
He was nearly too tired to think. Three fires…two families left homeless, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. He glanced over at Seth and his heart bled for the man’s loss. He would rebuild. And he would not be alone. Every man, woman and child in the valley would give their all to help him rebuild. But never could they replace the memories that were destroyed forever.
“But for the grace of God…” Scott muttered under his breath.
He looked around, searching for his father. The last time he saw Murdoch he was standing in a billowing cloud of acrid smoke, beating at the flames with a burlap sack.
For a moment he had a pang of fear…but he dismissed it immediately. There were only looks of exhausted triumph on the faces that surrounded him. They had won, and not a soul had perished.
With a herculean effort he pushed himself away from the shovel to look for his father.
He didn’t notice the stranger walk up to him until he felt a strong hand clasped around his bicep.
“Don’t say a word, Lieutenant,” the man warned, his voice meant only for Scott’s ears.
Scott’s knees nearly buckled when he heard the name Lieutenant. There was only one person since the war who called him that…
“If you want your brother to see another sunrise you’ll come with me quietly.”
Scott nodded. He had no choice.
He allowed himself to be led away from the chuck wagon, swallowed up by the darkness.
His mind whirled as he saw the two horses waiting near a skeleton of a tree. Suddenly he realized the three fires were not the act of nature, but instead, a precisely executed plan, the work of a deranged killer who would do anything to exact the revenge he thought he so rightfully deserved.
Scott took one last look back toward the base camp. The night sky was darker than most, hidden beneath a cloud of dense smoke. The lanterns around the chuck wagon were the only source of light, and he hoped fervently that he would see Murdoch standing there, still safe. But he had the sickening feeling that the same invitation was being delivered to his father. And to his horror, he knew who the guest of honor would be…Johnny.
Murdoch bent over, his hands resting against his knees as he finally caught his breath. One last death knell from the fire had nearly trapped him, cut off by four walls of burning hell. But like an angel, albeit, a very old hairy angel, Jelly had forged his way through the flames battling an escape route for him.
“You all right boss?” he asked, his eyes flashing with pride. He knew he had just repaid the Lancer matriarch for a small portion of what Murdoch had done for him over the past three years.
“Thanks, Jelly,” he coughed. “That was too close.”
“Teach ya not ta take mother-nature for granted.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more.” He looked over toward the chuck wagon, Scott was standing just beyond the light, haggard in the wisps of smoke that still rose from the burned ground.
“Is everyone safe and accounted for?” he asked.
“As far as we know…it was pure luck and damn hard work that saved this valley tonight.”
"Thank God, Jelly. Thank God. Now why don’t you get some breakfast started. You’ve got a lot of hungry mouths to feed this morning.”
Jelly nodded, pleased that Murdoch understood how important his contribution was to their fight. “Right away, boss.” And he disappeared into a circle of people all vying for his attention.
Murdoch didn’t hear the stranger’s approach until he felt the hard barrel of a gun pressed in the small of his back.
“Don’t make a sound and your boy lives,” the unseen voice warned. “You do as you’re told and Madrid sees another sunrise. You don’t…” The implied threat was enough.
Murdoch looked toward the chuck wagon, hoping someone would look his way, would notice something was wrong. But no one did. They were all huddled around Jelly and the makings of a hot breakfast. He took one last look to the spot where Scott had stood just a moment before. Murdoch’s heart skipped a beat. Scott was nowhere to be seen.
The stranger steered Murdoch to waiting horses far from the light of the chuck wagon and when they were both safely mounted he was handed a black hood.
“Put this over your head and tie it tight around your neck. One wrong move and both you and your kid die.”
Murdoch snatched the hood from the stranger, and swallowed hard as he slipped it over his head, plunging his world into complete darkness. A minute later he felt his hands pulled behind his back and roughly tied. There was no escape now.
Scott wasn’t sure exactly where they were, but it was away from the burned fields. He could still smell smoke but it wasn’t the acrid throat burning remains of the firestorm.
His stomach churned at the thought of Johnny back in the hands of the Colonel. The monster who had nearly destroyed both of them.
How did he escape? Why weren’t they told? Of all the people in the world who should have been alerted immediately, it was them.
He raised his head, trying to picture what was happening beyond his hood. The sound of two more horses joined them. No words were spoken, but he felt the decline in the road and knew they were headed toward home. Headed back to Lancer.
Thirty minutes later and the procession came to a halt. Scott was pulled off his horse and thrown roughly to the ground. Beside him he heard someone else hit and ground hard and the gasp of surprise and pain was unmistakable. Murdoch was at his side. What the hell did the Colonel have in mind this time?
To his surprise, his boots were pulled off and his socks yanked off his feet before he was grabbed from the back and made to stand up.
He waited. It was the Colonel’s party. He would wait until he made the first move.
The wait wasn’t long before he was shoved forward, his bare feet scuffed by the sun baked sand.
“Welcome,” the Colonel’s voice made Scott jump. Memories of the torment he had put himself and Johnny through came flooding back, and it took all his strength not to turn and run, blind as he was, just to escape.
“I told you we would meet again.” Scott could hear the smile in his voice. The bastard. He would die this time. The Colonel would take his last breath… Scott solemnly swore.
“What do you want?” That was Murdoch, his voice remarkably calm.
“What I promised,” The Colonel answered. “Revenge.”
“Were these fires your handy work?” Murdoch again. Where was the old man finding the strength to sound so calm?
“Of course. A perfect plan, carried out to perfection. You see, Mr. Lancer, I had many weeks to develop this plan. Twenty four hours a day in a filthy cell…thinking of nothing else but exacting the proper punishment. And then it came to me. I remembered a story an old timer told me over a bottle of whiskey years ago. An old Indian torture. Only it wasn’t meant to torture the victim as much as his family. By the time the bottle was empty he had told me every detail.”
Scott strained to keep his head as the Colonel’s words surrounded him in the darkness. He could feel the first rays of sunlight warm his back. Had anyone noticed they were missing back at the chuck wagon?
“It is simplicity itself.” The Colonel continued. “The old man said he’d never seen the likes of it, never really got it out of his head. But why should I try to explain it when you can see it for yourselves?”
If Scott lived to be one hundred years old he would never forget what he saw as the hood was yanked off his head and his eyes adjusted to the light…
In the center of the courtyard stood a ten foot wooden tripod, its legs secured to the ground with large tent stakes. From the top hung two pulleys. Hanging from each pulley was a bulging grain sack sitting in a spider web of rope to reinforce its strength. Protruding from each sack was an Indian arrow. The sacks twirled slowly from ropes threaded through the pulleys and tied in a simple slipknot on opposite tripod legs.
But that is not what nearly made Scott fall to his knees in disbelief…
Scott heard his father gasp as his hood was removed.
“No…” Murdoch muttered. “No…”
For in the center of the tripod Johnny laid spread eagle in the dirt. His wrists and ankles bound with rawhide strips to stakes pounded into the ground. The heavy wood and wire splint on his left leg was wrapped several times with the rawhide strip and secured to the stake like his other limbs.
His nightshirt had been ripped off his torso and covered him only from the waist to his thighs. The rest of his body lay exposed to the sun.
“Whatever punishment you think we deserve, surely you know that Johnny has already suffered the most.” Murdoch said, his voice betraying his emotions. “Do what you want with me. In the end I am their father and ultimately responsible for whatever they do.”
The Colonel chuckled, “So gallant, so self-sacrificing. But you are all responsible. All of you must face the punishment.”
Murdoch could not pry his eyes off his son. Johnny was so terribly thin. The fever and the pain had eaten away at the strong muscles Murdoch remembered. Now he was a shadow of the son he remembered. How could he endure even the simplest of tests? Let alone the ordeal that lay before him. He had not moved a muscle. His face was gleaming with sweat, no doubt from the lingering fever. Even a few hours in the hot sun could prove fatal in his weakened condition.
“What will it take to spare my son?” Murdoch asked.
Before the Colonel could answer Nurse Ada was shoved out the great room French doors and pushed to the ground.
She came up spitting mad, brushing her hair out of her face, ready to take on the Colonel or anyone. Then she saw the tripod and Johnny strapped beneath it and she fell back to her knees, all the fight drained from her.
“Excellent. Everyone is here. We only have to wait for the main attraction to come around. Soon, I hope. It was a sizable injection of morphine the kind nurse gave him, but it’s been two hours now. The festivities should begin soon.”
Scott worked at the ropes that bound his wrists behind him and had to admit the Colonel’s men were no slouches when it came to tying a strong knot. But the worst part was looking at Johnny. In the long weeks of recovery he had mapped out every bruise, every laceration, every trauma to his brother and now he saw a new livid bruise on his left side. There was little doubt that Johnny had received another major blow to his ribs. Cracked, but knowing the Colonel, more than likely broken. Johnny would be in intense pain when he awoke with his arms spread eagled.
“Perhaps this would be a good time to explain what you gentlemen will be facing soon. It is rather simple, which makes it all the more rewarding. Each bag contains exactly one hundred pounds of rock. Not an extraordinarily heavy load for strong men like yourselves. The arrow you see has seventy-five pounds of rock above the shaft so it will not give an inch. It will be up to you two to keep the arrow from impaling Mr. Madrid.
One of you will either run out of strength or simply decide to put him out of his misery. Which one of you will have Johnny Madrid’s blood on your hands? Or will it be both of you? Will you deem it more compassionate to just let go of the ropes together? End his agony? Or will you listen to him when he begs you to end it and ignore his pleas? Will it be bravery or compassion that rules your actions?” He looked toward the sun as it began to warm the land. “It promises to be a very hot day today. And, oh, if you expect help from your ranch hands or family, don’t. Another fire is about to start at Harper's Crossing. With luck they can keep it from spreading all the way to Morro Coyo.”
Scott looked over at Murdoch. His father had never looked so old.
“One last thing.” The Colonel walked over and helped Ada to her feet. The nurse slapped his hand away and tried to take a step toward Johnny but a guard stepped in her way.
Unfazed by the nurse’s rebuke, he continued on. “One last thing you should know. The arrows are tipped with poison. Oh, rest assured it will not kill him, but he may wish it would. Another old Indian torture. It is the sap from a plant I could never begin to pronounce, but it causes extreme pain when it touches the skin. If it is allowed to enter the bloodstream, then I am told it is quite uncomfortable. I am confident that you will take the remaining day to reflect how stupid it was to…”
Johnny suddenly moaned…and silence moved over the estancia like a suffocating cloud.
Johnny balanced somewhere on the fringes of consciousness. Sounds and sensations teased him, letting him come to the brink of realization, then falling back. It was as if he knew, even in the last moments when the morphine still held him safe from pain and worry, that something terrible was awaiting. He wasn’t sure if he really wanted to rejoin the world. It had not been kind to him of late. Pain and debilitation were his constant companion. But he was getting better. Even the nurse from hell had told him so.
The nurse from hell…Nurse Ada. She was scared. Staring down at him in the dim flickering light…Why…
Suddenly everything that had happened before he felt the needle stick in his arm came hurtling back to him.
The Colonel…His promise that Scott and Murdoch would pay for what they did...
Now he couldn’t stop the rush toward full consciousness. New feelings replaced those he remembered as he drifted off, Ada holding his hand, trying to comfort him. Instead he felt hard ground beneath his naked back and legs. His arms were pulled painfully away from his body. His legs too were spread wide, and all four limbs were tied down tightly.
A gentle warm wind tugged at his hair. He was outside.
He opened his eyes.
Confusion overwhelmed him at first. He saw the tripod rising above him, and the heavy burlap sacks hanging over him. He had to study the arrows sticking out of the bottom of the bags for a long moment before he realized in a sickening realization what they were.
He couldn’t suppress the moan of disbelief. He had heard of this torture before. It was used by the Indians and the Commancheros.
He strained to raise his head to see Scott and Murdoch. He knew they would be there. This torture was designed to drive the family and friends of the victim crazy with guilt. He wished one of the straining bags would break free now, halting the inevitable, and releasing Scott and Murdoch from the hell they were about to face.
He saw them, just on the other side of the tripod, their faces frozen in fear. Did they understand what they were about to endure?
“Mr. Madrid, I’m glad you could join us.” The Colonel smiled, his voice sending a shiver down Johnny’s spine. “It wouldn’t do to start the festivities without the guest of honor. Now…” he nodded toward one of his men who stepped into the tripod with a canteen of water and began soaking the rawhide strips around Johnny’s wrists and ankles.
“You know, of course, what happens to wet rawhide? It shrinks. Nothing will stop it until it completely dries. I am told a man’s wrists were nearly severed by the time the rawhide was dry. Just another thing for your family to think about today.”
Johnny struggled against the rawhide throngs, knowing that it was useless, but unable to stop himself.
“Shall we begin?” The Colonel nodded to the two men who had circled behind Scott and Murdock. Scott was pushed toward the nearest rope on the tripod. Murdoch was led around to the other side of the tripod and positioned in the same spot.
“Once you are untied you will have a moment to decide before the rope descends to its ultimate destination. You might think about it twice before you act. It could be over for Mr. Madrid in minutes, not hours.”
Scott looked down at Johnny, their eyes meeting. “Leave it, brother,” Johnny said softly. “You too, Murdoch. You can’t win this time.”
Murdoch’s face was as pale as his hair. He knew instinct would force both of them to fight to save Johnny. God help them…God help them all.
Scott studied the rope tied to the tripod leg with one slip knot. Would he have the strength to keep the rope from plummeting down, crushing Johnny’s chest with the hundred pounds of rock and driving the arrow through his stomach to the dirt beneath?
How long could he hold onto a hundred pounds of rock before his body betrayed him? He was still not over the ordeal of his first encounter with the Colonel.
He looked across the courtyard at his father. How long could Murdoch hold on? The man was big and powerful, but he still carried Pardee’s bullet in his back, how long before his back gave way?
There was no way Johnny could survive.
His eyes locked on his brothers, and it shook him to the core to see the pain in those blue eyes, not for himself but for his family.
Scott watched as a calmness came over his brother. His arms and legs relaxed. His eyes closed slowly, his chest rising and falling slowly, evenly. He would not give the Colonel the satisfaction of watching him grovel in fear. He would find a place within himself and wait.
The Colonel smiled, self-satisfied. A nod to his men and Scott and Murdoch’s hands were freed and they were pushed up to the tripod.
The ropes holding the sacks were untied and before either man could protest the ropes were thrust into their hands.
Scott was unprepared for the tremendous weight and the rope slipped through his palms, ripping flesh and drawing blood. The weight yanked at his shoulder muscles, tore at his still healing arm.
He dug his bare feet into the already warming dirt and pulled the sack back up slowly, the pulley creaking beneath the strain of a hundred pounds of dead weight.
The arrow had come within an inch of Johnny’s bare skin.
He looked over at his father. Murdoch seemed unfazed by the weight. He had held the rope steady, the sack still dangling high above Johnny. Would it be him? Would he be the one who could not hold on?
He looked down at Johnny, his eyes still closed, seemingly oblivious to everything going on around him.
The Colonel stood by Ada, his arms crossed, the faintest of smiles on his face.
“So it begins, gentlemen. How long can you hold out? No rest, no water, just the unrelenting sun and Johnny Madrid’s life in your hands.”
He threaded his arm through Ada’s and steered her toward the house.
“I will be back after I’ve had a refreshing glass of Teresa’s lemonade. I understand it is quite good. Sorry that I can’t share it with you.”
Scott watched Ada shoved into the house and prayed the Colonel would not hurt her. So many people had been hurt by that madman.
He looked back down at Johnny. Only a flicker of an eye spoke of the pain Johnny was feeling with his arms and legs stretched out. Soon the rawhide thongs would begin to tighten.
Scott closed his eyes, trying to gain the strength he would need to hold out until help arrived. If it ever did.
(Warning: This chapter contains
violence and the death of a major character.)
Two hours. He looked at the timepiece, old and worn to a dull finish. He had taken it off Madrid as he laid unconsciousness that first day so long ago. The sun would have had time to make an impact on all three men.
The Colonel pushed his chair away from the table, leaving behind the remnants of breakfast and two cups of coffee.
Nurse Adelaide may have been a fine nurse, but she didn’t know the first thing about making a decent meal.
But it was of little consequence, there were more important matters to attend to. This was a simple way of passing the time.
“Why…?” The nurse asked, her eyes glued to the scene outside the kitchen window.
“Revenge,” the Colonel answered coldly. “An eye for an eye.”
“But why Johnny? He has suffered the most through all this. Hasn’t he had enough?”
The Colonel stood up slowly. Ada took a step backwards as he brushed past her to look out the window.
“It was the perfect plan, you know. This valley should have been mine. But Scott Lancer ruined it all.” The Colonel slammed his fist into the window frame, just missing the glass. “The Lieutenant defied my orders. He was the one who caused all the pain and suffering to his brother. Now he’s doing it again. It’s because of his punishment that Johnny Madrid must suffer again.”
Ada stared out the window. She couldn’t help but think that she was looking at a painter’s macabre rendition of a still life. The three men posed, motionless, as if caught in the artist’s demented nightmare. Scott and Murdoch, their bare feet dug into the hot sand, their faces glistening with sweat, their arms pulled taut as they leaned back against the rope that held the hundred pound sacks dangling above Johnny.
She saw the thin rivers of blood traveling from the palms of their hands, down their arms, to stain their sleeves. Their faces expressionless, devoid of emotion. Their mind, body and soul eclipsed into one objective: keeping Johnny alive.
“Look at them,” The Colonel commanded. “They are fighting a lost cause. Madrid is a dead man. His life ended the moment the Lieutenant and Murdoch Lancer touched the ropes. It’s only a matter of time before one of them collapses. Can you see the beauty in it, Nurse Adelaide? The Poetry? I remember the day I listened to the old man as he described the most perfect torture. I knew I would use it someday. I thought about it before. Times I wanted to use it. But I waited. Because I knew there would come a perfect time. And this is it.”
Ada jumped as she saw Johnny’s left leg suddenly jerk and his back jack-knifed.
“At last, it begins.” The Colonel smiled. “The mind can only do so much. Eventually the body succumbs. You are a nurse. You know what is happening. The rawhide thongs are tightening, squeezing his wrists, squeezing his ankles. The pain must be unbearable as it tightens around that splint. Add that to the dehydration…you know in your heart the most merciful thing they could do is end it now. But it would destroy the father and the brother. And that is the beauty of it.”
The Colonel grabbed Ada’s elbow. “Remember,” he warned as he squeezed her arm until she nearly screamed in pain, “you do anything to help them and you will be a dead woman.”
Ada steeled herself as the kitchen door opened and the stifling heat hit her like the inside of an oven. And it was only eleven AM.
Johnny lost it. He had successfully partitioned his mind…the pain locked away in its own dark place, his fear in another, time…intangible…in still another, and he lay there, barely breathing, until white-hot pain exploded in his left ankle. He couldn’t keep from crying out, lost for a moment in its intensity.
He held his breath, waiting. There wasn’t an inch of his body that didn’t throb with pain or burn with fire.
The rawhide thongs were biting into his wrists, digging into his flesh. The sun was baking his skin, the heat from the hot sand rising up around him, making it hard to breathe. His right ankle throbbed as the rawhide shrunk and squeezed against still healing tissue. But it was his left ankle that brought tears of pain to his eyes.
He began to fight the rawhide ropes, lost in a frenzy of pain and disorientation. The more he pulled at the thongs the more they tightened. Every move he made brought him more pain, but he couldn’t stop.
The voice cut through his frantic mind like a knife. Murdoch.
The Colonel smiled, pushing Ada closer to the tripod. She could see the sweat glistening on Johnny’s body. The sun was already turning his legs red, his skin unaccustomed to the burning rays of the sun.
His hands and right foot were turning blue; she couldn’t even imagine what his left foot looked like beneath the wire and wood splint.
“A boy who listens to the wisdom of his father.” The Colonel chuckled, “Very exemplary.”
Murdoch ignored him, his concern for Johnny overriding his hate for the Colonel…for the moment.
“Try and ride it out, Son. Just for a little while longer. Help will be here soon.”
“The boy trusts you, and yet you tell him lies. I’m disappointed in you Murdoch Lancer. You see Johnny…” The Colonel pushed Ada into the arms of a guard and crossed the courtyard, walking beneath the tripod until he was standing directly over his victim. “It’s alright that I call you Johnny, isn’t it? We have so little time left, and you are after all the innocent one here.” He noticed his shadow was crossing Johnny and stepped aside, allowing the full effect of the sun to bake down on him. “You see, everyone is busy fighting a fast spreading fire. If it breaks the fire-line it could wipe out Morro Coyo. That was not my initial plan, but it does add icing to an already very sweet cake.”
“You’re a sick bastard,” Scott yelled. “If its me and Murdoch you want to punish, then punish us. Leave Johnny alone. He’s already been through enough.”
The Colonel looked up slowly. “Did you ask permission to speak, Lieutenant?”
A nod from the Colonel and the guard standing behind Scott drove his rifle butt into Scott’s back.
Scott hissed in pain and surprise. His left foot slipped, his feet numb from the pressure of keeping his body taut against the rope. His right knee buckled and he fell forward. The sack hit the top of the pulley and Scott hung onto the rope at the other end. He spun slowly as he tried to bring his legs back under him. His shoulders screamed out with pain. His arms began to shake violently. He wasn’t going to be able to hang on.
Murdoch watched in horror. He looked from Johnny, his eyes open wide with terror as the sack rocked gently above him, then back to Scott. Scott didn’t have the strength. He could see the blood stream down his arms as the rope cut deeper into his palms.
He looked at his own sack, dangling above his youngest son, the poisoned tipped arrow positioned just below his heart. He looked back at Scott…he couldn’t let Scott take the blame. He couldn’t allow Scott to live the rest of his life with the knowledge that he had killed his own brother.
Murdoch slowly swung his head toward Johnny, catching his son’s eyes. He knew. Johnny knew and there was that hint of a smile.
This was it. In a moment it would all be over. The Colonel would at last have his revenge.
He closed his eyes, ready to loosen his grip. He didn’t want to see the look in Johnny’s eyes when the hundred pound sack of rocks drove that arrow deep into his chest.
He forced his numb fingers to release their grip slowly. He felt the rope begin to slide ever so slowly through his palms…
Scott’s cry of alarm made him grab the rope and look.
The rope sped through Scott’s hands.
Murdoch looked toward the tripod. The sack with its arrow glinting in the sun hurdled toward Johnny.
Johnny heard Scott’s cry and saw the sack falling, straight and true, right for his stomach. He knew it was inevitable. He even thought he wanted it, an end to all their suffering, but as he stiffened his body for the agony just a second away, he would have done anything to prolong his life.
This was not the way it was supposed to end. Not at the hands of his brother. How was Scott going to live after this?
The sack blocked out the sun as he felt the brutal puncture as the arrow pierced his skin.
And then it stopped.
Murdoch clenched his rope tighter. He saw the sack hovering just over Johnny’s chest, the tip of the arrowhead sunk into his skin. Johnny lay motionless, stunned. A hush filled the yard. The only sound was the pulley straining under the weight as Scott slowly began to reel the rope back, slowly lifting the sack up.
Johnny gasped in pain as the arrowhead was pulled free, a thin steady thread of blood oozing from the puncture wound.
Scott pulled the rope, hand over hand, his face frozen in pain and determination. Four feet off the ground was all he could manage. The fear of losing Johnny gave him a rush of energy, strong but fleeting. Now his arms and legs shook, sweat and tears nearly blinded him. He cried with the knowledge that Johnny would have to go thorough this again. It was almost over. Why hadn’t he let it be over? Just like the box…he wasn’t strong enough to do what was truly needed.
Johnny began to shake, searing pain filled his stomach. Blisters began to form around the wound.
da broke away from the guard, falling to her knees next to Johnny, quickly checking the wooden splint. His thigh was swollen from the pressure of the rawhide thong squeezing his ankle. She turned to his chest and saw the angry red blisters forming around the wound caused by the arrowhead. She needed water to dilute the poison on his skin. She could do nothing about the poison that now coursed through his system. She knew about the Buttercup plant… It caused terrible pain, dizziness, vomiting and convulsions… not fatal in a healthy man. But Johnny was not a healthy man.
A guard grabbed her roughly by the arm and yanked her up, throwing her away from Johnny. She landed in the dirt and stayed there. Biding her time. In her hand she felt the hard steel of the wire cutters.
Lieutenant,” the Colonel tisked, “you have just prolonged your brother’s agony. If you had just let the rope go all his pain would be gone. Now he must endure still more…you are indeed the weak one. Johnny would have let it fall, would have known the end was inevitable. Now it’s prolonged. For how long? How long can you stand there and watch your brother wither in pain, knowing you could have ended it, so simply.”
“Shut up!” Murdoch demanded. “Scott, don’t listen to him. While Johnny lives, there is still a chance.”
The Colonel turned slowly to look at Murdoch.
“You are more of a fool than your son, Mr. Lancer. There is no help. I made sure of that. But…” The smile on his face sent shivers down Murdoch’s spine, “…I am a man of compassion. You both need rest, for a short time. Guards…the ropes. Secure them.”
Murdoch collapsed to the ground as the rope was yanked from his frozen hands. He saw Scott fall to the ground across from him. He hardly recognized his son. His face dirt and sweat stained, his eyes wild with fear and rage. He hoped the rage was directed toward the Colonel and not himself for doing what any caring human being would do, go to any length to save his brother.
“Johnny…he needs rest too.” Murdoch looked towards the Colonel. “He needs shade, water.”
The Colonel shook his head. “Johnny remains where he is.”
Scott tried to crawl toward Johnny but guards stopped him. He began to drag himself toward Murdoch.
He reached out, his bloodied hands grabbing his father’s arm. The pain in his eyes made Scott catch his breath. No matter how this turned out, no one here would be the same. He looked toward Johnny and saw him begin to shiver. The effects of the poisoned arrow were coursing through his system. He could have ended it. If he had only let the rope go.
Ada slowly crawled back toward Johnny, expecting to be thrown back at any moment. But the Colonel just watched. She reached Johnny just as he began to vomit. She grabbed his head and forced his face to the side to keep him from chocking on the bile, the only thing in his stomach. She held him, trying to shade him from the sun.
He was hovering on the ragged edge. There was nothing left. Pain, fever, dehydration had taken their toll. There was nothing she could do.
She looked toward Murdoch and Scott and saw the agony of defeat. They had lost. The Colonel had broken them. He used Johnny, and he won.
She surreptitiously showed him the wire cutters and Murdoch nodded, his mouth trembling as he held back stinging tears.
She looked back down at Johnny. Gently she brushed the hair off his forehead, leaning down close to whisper in his ear.
“It will all be over in a few minutes.” She promised.
Johnny tried to smile, his eyes dull, his body struggling with each breath.
She had come to his bedside hating him. She fought hard to keep him from getting to her, to ignore the gentle, good person he was. How she wished she would have treated him with kindness when he needed it.
But she was here for him now.
There was nothing she could do for him, his systems were shutting down. He had stopped sweating. His skin beneath the red tinge of sunburn was gray. The only thing left for him was suffering.
She leaned down and kissed him gently on the cheek, wiping away a tear that ran down his face.
“I will never forget you Johnny Lancer.”
He smiled. “Thank…you…” he whispered, and closed his eyes.
With lightening speed she scrambled to her feet and ran for the tripod dragging the wire cutters from her waistband and cutting through the rope that held Murdoch’s sack aloft.
Silence and shock filled the courtyard as the hundred pounds of rock with its lethal arrow dropped toward its’ target.
Johnny gasped as the arrow plunged into his chest. His body jerked once then lay perfectly still.
Ada dropped where she stood. She heard the wail of disbelief from Scott, saw Murdoch grab him in his arms. They sobbed together. Broken men.
The Colonel slowly walked toward the tripod. He looked down at the still features of Johnny Madrid Lancer. Even in death the boy mocked him. He had won, but at what cost?
He heard the soft sobs of the remaining two Lancer’s and looked over to see them lost in their own world of misery.
He felt a modicum of triumph.
In the end he had won.
The Colonel stood over the body of Johnny Lancer. It was over. Even though he was denied the satisfaction of knowing that a Lancer had killed one of their own, he could still enjoy the sounds of anguish.
He looked over at the two men hovering together, Nurse Adelaide sharing their grief. He would not kill them as he had first planned. That was too easy. He would allow them to live with the horror of what they had seen, what they had done.
Yes…death would be too easy...
He ordered his men to begin removing the rocks that had burst the seams of the sack as it landed on Madrid.
He kept a careful eye on Murdoch and the Lieutenant as the rocks came away bloodied. He smirked with pleasure as he saw their reaction as they watched his men cut the rawhide thongs and arrange Madrid's limbs close to his body.
He would allow them to lie in the hot sun for a while longer, let them wallow in their pain. Then he would break camp. There was still a possibility that he could reclaim what was rightfully his…this valley.
He would face little resistance from the Lancers. Two ranches were burned to the ground and the town was in jeopardy. Perfect time for a takeover.
"Would you look at that," one of his men laughed as they leaned over the body, "that arrow went plumb through him and is half way to china."
Slowly Murdoch Lancer stood up to his full six foot four stature, his face a mask of utter hatred, his eyes red rimmed from crying, but dry now.
"You are a dead man," he promised, a savagery to his voice that sent a fleeting shiver of fear down the Colonel's spine. "There is no place you can go, no place that you can hide that I won't find you."
Murdoch walked toward his son, his legs unsteady, and dropped to his knees, his right hand gently brushing the hair from Johnny's forehead. Heat from the sun kept his face warm, but there was no life in the body. Only the stillness of death.
Slowly, deliberately, he looked back up at the Colonel. "Before I'm through with you, you will wish for the hangman's noose…"
The sound of metal clanging on the iron bars brought the Colonel out of his dream.
He looked around for a moment, the warmth of the dream fading away, replaced by the grim reality of the cement walls and prison bars.
"It's almost sunrise," the jailer called, "time to meet the hangman's noose."
The Colonel smiled; if the guard thought that would send him into a bout of panic he was sadly mistaken. He had waited three long months for this morning. The past four days he had looked out the small window above his bunk at the scaffolding taking form day after day. The pounding of the nails, the sawing of the wood…all for him.
He shook off the last of the dream. Each night he had brought what should have happened to life. He entered the mind and body of each person, feeling their exquisite pain, both physical and mental. He reveled in that pain, awoke sickened by what he saw and felt, then strengthened by the sheer power of it.
The cell door opened, squealing on rusty hinges. His hands were manacled behind his back and leg irons were locked in place around his ankles. He was led down the hall toward the back door, the other prisoners silent. Most were his own men, sentenced to life without parole in the state penitentiary.
The door flung open and he walked out into the cool morning air.
The street was crowded with onlookers. A row of seats had been set up close to the front of the gallows. As he was paraded past them he made eye contact with each one. Murdoch Lancer, his face emotionless. He looked at the Colonel for just a moment, then turned away.
Sitting next to him was the Lieutenant. His biggest mistake. He had underestimated the depth of love and loyalty Scott Lancer had for his brother. He had meant to destroy him. But in the end he had only fractured the man, never broke him. In his dreams he had hammered him down to submission…but in real life, Scott Lancer had beaten him.
Then there was Johnny Lancer…his left leg propped up on a wooden carton, still encased in a heavy cast. His face thin and drawn. Still too pale. He was wrapped tightly in heavy blankets to ward off the chill of the morning. He was told, from his prison cell, that the kid had been sent to a hospital in San Francisco to undergo more surgery and to keep him confined to bed. He had to laugh, and admire the boy's antics. He showed the same hardheadedness that kept him going at the Marlow ranch.
He admired him in a way. He had struggled to survive. A lesser man would have died in the first few days.
He made eye contact with Johnny Lancer, but he knew in that moment he was looking into the eyes of Johnny Madrid. Cold and dangerous. The hate he saw there made him falter in his step.
As he was escorted toward the steps that led to the top of the gallows he could still feel Madrid's eyes on him.
He was determined to die with dignity. But the moment his foot touched the first step his nerve deserted him.
It took two men to drag him up the stairs. They pushed him to the center of the platform, atop the trap door that would open soon, plunging him to his death with a hangman's noose around his neck.
He began to shake. He wanted to run. All eyes were on him.
The rope was placed over his head and tightened.
His heart was beating in his throat so hard he felt the veins pulse in his forehead. He tried to swallow back the fear but there was no spit left in his mouth.
He looked out over the sea of people. Hatred frozen on each face.
Standing behind the Lancers, Annabel Marlow stood stoically, her hands on Scott's shoulders. Next to her Nurse Veronica Adelaide, her hands likewise on Johnny Lancer's shoulders. At the other end behind Murdoch Lancer, Dr. Lewis Sutter stood motionless, his eyes far older than the last time they had met. The old man had been charged with conspiracy to kidnap, torture and second degree murder. He was convicted and sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary, heading the medical department. Murdoch Lancer was an important rancher in California, his request for leniency went a long way.
"Any last words?" the hangman asked.
The Colonel shook his head. He felt the tears of fear begin to roll down his face. The noose scratched his neck. He gulped back a cry and he felt the knot of the noose constrict.
"Sorry I forgot the blindfold, you're just gonna have to watch the satisfaction on everyone's face as you meet your maker," the hangman whispered.
The Colonel felt himself lose control, a hot flush running down his legs.
He began to whimper, looking for an understanding face in the crowd. The only thing he saw was hatred.
His eyes fell on Johnny Lancer's.
There was no forgiveness there, no redemption.
The Colonel heard the sound of the trapdoor handle slam into place and the floor disappeared beneath him. He heard the loud snap of his neck, felt the fiery pain and then his body went numb. He twisted slowly at the end of the rope. As his vision dimmed he saw Johnny Lancer sitting beyond the scaffolding. Then nothing….
A drape was pulled around the bottom of the scaffolding, affording some privacy as the Colonel was cut down and Sam Perkins declared him dead.
Murdoch stood up slowly. "Let's go home boys," he said, his voice emotionless. He didn't like the killing of any man. But this was necessary. It was a closure to this part of their lives.
Jelly rolled the buckboard to a stop in front of Johnny. Murdoch and Scott lifted him into the back to a mound of pillows and blankets. Ada and Anna climbed in beside him. Nurse Ada would stay on at Lancer until Johnny was free of the cast and the painful exercises needed to strengthen his leg were completed. Anna would return with them for a few days because now was not the time to be alone.
As they pulled away, Johnny settled back into the arms of both women.
In time the Colonel would be history. In time Lancer would return to the way it was. He would join Scott in mending fences and herding cattle. And he would once again ride Barranca, wild and free.