[Third in a series of four - Together, Alone, Quest, Paying the Debt]
As the sun rose over the mountains near Lancer, a lone figure sat on his palomino. At first he could only see the barest hint of light. Then as the minutes passed, the majesty of the white hacienda unfolded below. When he had first seen this sight, he'd been just one step removed from the violent world of gun fighting. Johnny Madrid had a well-deserved reputation for speed and deadly accuracy. He had cultivated it, made it his own--as a way to discourage those were too stupid to know when they were out-matched.
True, any man could get lucky. A particle of wind-blown dust in the eye, one beer too many or sheer arrogance could work against a gunslinger. Realistically, Madrid knew that it was only a matter of time before his edge would wither away to nothing, Until he had come to live at Lancer, he'd never really thought that much about this inevitability. He'd honed his skills to blinding-quick perfection. He'd pared his existence down to survival on his terms. Make it through another day, another fight. He'd come close to dying several times, but something had always kept him alive.
Standing there in front of the Mexican firing squad had chipped away much of the air of indifference to his fate. It had been a close-run thing, but now the gunfighter had miraculously become a ranch owner. One-third of all he surveyed belonged to him. One-third belonged to his father. The remaining part belonged to Scott Lancer who had disappeared while on a trip to Sacramento some months before.
His half-brother had not been found, dead or alive, despite Johnny's efforts. Middle River was a small community so one or two citizens had vaguely recalled the blond-haired young man but nothing else. Finally, Johnny had returned to Lancer to inform his father and Teresa about his failure to find any trace of his sibling.
Things had been at a standstill since. Not the ranch of course. Ranches and cattle aren't subject to feelings of compassion for personal loss. Cattle have to eat, be branded and do the dozens of things cows do. The people, too, did their work-- clothes were washed, meals cooked, horses shod. No, it was something more indefinable--like the great ranch was holding its breath until its lost son came home.
Sitting there watching the glowing red ball ascend the sky, Johnny thought about the note which accompanied the telegram proclaiming Scott's disappearance.
The first two words were blunt enough: "He's dead." It was the remaining nine words that puzzled him. He just could not decipher their meaning. Unfortunately, the sheriff of Middle River had had his own interpretation of the words. In a less-than-subtle manner, he had made it clear that Johnny was a suspect in his brother's disappearance.
Enraged that anyone would question his concern for his older brother, Johnny had nearly snapped out in anger, but fortunately Jelly's presence had diffused the matter. Hoskins had calmly pointed out the near-impossibility of Johnny making it to Middle River without being missed at Lancer.
The Sheriff had grumbled but did accept Jelly's word that the dark-haired young man had been with his father during most of the questioned time frame. Even the Sheriff of Middle River was not anxious to call Murdoch Lancer a liar.
Of course, it probably had not helped the lawman's equanimity to find out that according to Scott's will, Johnny was the only heir.
Murdoch had been horrified to find out that the lawyer had volunteered this information. Needless to say the lawyer no longer tended to the Lancer account.
Barranca was restless. He was used to this sitting on the hill watching the sun bloom into incandescent brightness, but the stalwart horse also sensed the sadness of his rider. His touch wasn't the same. His voice carried a timbre of regret. Even the brushing of his golden coat felt different. Naturally, Barranca could not understand the whys, he just knew it was.
Finally Johnny allowed himself to think about going back to the ranch. Murdoch would have orders for the day. Hard, physical, demanding work was a solace in a way. It left little time to think and Johnny Madrid Lancer certainly didn't want time to think--especially not about the last time he'd seen his brother.
He still asked himself why he had been so offended by a simple joke—a joke that had only taken five minutes in all. There seemed to be no answer, but the pale face of his brother as he apologized haunted the brunet.
He knew he had been anxious to visit Kate, but that was not an excuse for his treatment of the other man. Ironically his relationship with Kate had taken a different turn as a result of Scott's disappearance.
Before leaving for Middle River, he had sent a note to the young woman telling her that he would be gone for some time. Upon his return, he had expected to find her cool and aloof, but that was definitely not Kate's reaction.
In fact, Kate Miller had expressed her understanding of the situation. She reassured him that, while she welcomed his company, she knew that finding Scott would be his ultimate concern. Johnny felt grateful for her tact since the last thing he needed was the wailing of a scorned woman.
During the nearly four months that had followed, Johnny managed to see the blonde woman only two or three times. Strangely, he always felt better after talking to her. She seemed to understand his need to talk about Scott. At Lancer his name was rarely mentioned. Teresa had, at first, but then even that had stopped.
His last visit with Kate, just a week before,
had been on a perfect spring day. Kate had worn a lightweight green dress,
which complimented her green eyes. She carried a parasol because her mother
was afraid of freckles. However, as soon as the buggy was out of sight
of the small house, she had taken the parasol down.
At first neither one spoke of anything more serious than the weather. Then Kate had asked if Johnny had had any news of Scott.
Usually, Johnny just growled a, "No, nothing!" Today, he decided he needed to talk. Johnny Madrid did not like feeling helpless at any time. Four months of it was eating away at his soul.
"It's the not knowin'. I lay there at night 'n I can just feel he's alive, but where is he?"
Kate did not immediately reply. Johnny seemed so vulnerable that she wanted to take care with her words. "Are you sure you feel he's alive or just that you want it to be true?"
The sapphire eyes looked at her. "I'm not sure," he whispered. "Sometimes I'll be lyin' there and I can almost hear his heart beatin'. Then I'll realize it's mine--beatin' with fear. What if he's truly gone?"
"Johnny, I understand your confusion and apprehension. . . .I don't think I ever told you about my brother."
"Brother? I never knew you had a brother."
"That's because Caleb doesn't...live with us anymore. He was seventeen when he ran away to join the army. My pa was furious. Being out here, he felt that my brother was safe, but Caleb wanted to go with some of his friends. They all thought they should do a man's duty.
"He wrote me a couple of letters which I still have. We were close even though I was six years younger than him.”
"Then he disappeared after the Battle of Cedar Creek. For the longest time we didn't hear anything more than that. I cried every night begging God to bring him home safe.”
“Even after Appomattox, we still heard nothing. My mother had never lost hope, but I could tell that Pa thought Caleb was dead. Then one day in the summer of 1865, I heard a knock on the door and there stood my beloved older brother.
"He had been taken prisoner and it had taken him months to get back home. He was the only one of the ten local boys who returned.
""Naturally, we were overjoyed. I hung around him practically night and day. I just couldn't get enough of his being here.”
"Unfortunately, it wasn't the same with Caleb and Pa. Caleb was no longer the young, trusting boy who thought Pa's word was law. He was a man who had seen and probably done some terrible things.”
"I remember one night my brother had a nightmare. He woke everybody up with its ferocity. My mother tried to comfort him, but Pa ordered her back to bed. Then he...he went in to talk to Caleb. My brother never told me what was said between them, but it wasn't too long after that, that he left our house. I haven't seen him since."
"Kate, I'm so sorry. Scott told me a little about the horrors of the war and prison camps. I'm sure Caleb went through a terrible time."
Tears rolled down the lovely face. "I know.
I wanted to help him so much. I wanted him to talk to me--but I guess he
thought I was too young. He did send me a short note about two years ago.
He said he was well, but who knows if that's still true? I don't even know
where to reach him so I can tell him about Pa's death."
Johnny put his arm around the young woman. "Kate, I hope we both get our brothers back. There's a lot we need to tell them."
"This is for Johnny Madrid." The words reverberated around the earthen cell. Five words that shattered the silence and mind of Scott Lancer.
In a breathy, hoarse voice the blond wailed, "What do you want from me?" His voice sounded odd even to himself. "Tell me what you want!"
Once again the silence poured over the prisoner like cream over berries. He needed to know more; he had to know what Johnny had to do with this obscene situation. Did his jailer hate the gunfighter so much that he would even imprison Scott for revenge?
The mention of Johnny's name opened up the Pandora's Box of memories which he had tried to suppress after the first few weeks of imprisonment. They just hurt so damn much. Now the thoughts sprang forth like weeds after an April rain.
This time Scott welcomed the memories. The pain gave him a reason to keep going. Tumbling, twisting, rambling--some good, some bad—the memories kept blinking in and out like one of the lighthouses in Boston harbor.
He loved Boston. He loved his grandfather, but at this point in time they seemed almost another universe. Lancer and his life there seemed to be the only reality. Lancer had brought him a family, a place to call home. Scott had tried so hard to fit in, to do what was expected. He just couldn't risk losing it all. He might have the deed to one-third of Lancer, but there would always be only one true owner.
In spite, of his misery the prisoner began to chuckle I wonder if Murdoch realizes he could have kept his money and deed and I would have still stayed? For indeed, it was not the vast ranch that held him there, although he did love it. The vistas and the raw power had caught his imagination almost immediately. Even the back-breaking work could not dim his joy in being a part of Murdoch's dream.
No, what held him at Lancer was the memory of 4 small boys. As an only child, Scott Lancer had learned how to play by himself at an early age. His nanny, SPIN, had made up wonderful games, but after all, she was still an adult--not a best friend or playmate. Obviously, he did have other children to play with occasionally. Harlan Garrett recognized the benefits of cultivating the scions of prominent families, but it wasn't the same as having a brother. So Scott decided to give himself four of them.
One liked to read, one was good at outdoor activities, one was quite mischievous and tended to play tricks, while the fourth brother specialized in getting dirty. No matter how hard Scott tried, he just couldn't persuade that boy to keep clean. Sometimes he would play with all of them, but usually he preferred them one-on-one. They were easier to control that way. It took all of Scott's juvenile diplomacy to keep the brothers from getting out of hand. Each one wanted to be Scott's "special" brother. The small blond boy tried not to play favorites, but sometimes it was difficult. He loved each of them passionately.
The only person who knew about his brothers was SPIN. She would sometimes refer to them as the 'Messy One" or the 'Reader' and then wink at her charge. If a small boy spilled his milk, it was always the 'Tricky One', never Scott.
And when Scott came in from play with a banged-up knee, she always knew that it was because 'Sport' had been a little bit too rambunctious that day.
At first, the small boy had been surprised that SPIN understood about the brothers. After all, she was a girl. Then she told him about her imaginary sister, Constance. Constance had been a great source of comfort to a young girl who wasn't pretty and tended toward gawkiness. Constance saw only quiet beauty and grace. She had admitted that she still confided in her 'sister' on occasions.
Of course, Scott had outgrown his need for his brothers eventually. School and other activities took their place. Then, at the end of a long stagecoach ride, all the brothers made one more appearance—to coalesce into one figure--Johnny Madrid Lancer. Well maybe, the reading brother was hidden somewhat, but there was no question that he was quite intelligent as brothers go. Deep down, Scott knew that as long as Johnny remained at Lancer, he would never willingly leave.
Sitting there in his cell the gaunt figure reflected on those wonderful memories. Unhappily, he was not able to keep the less-pleasant thoughts at bay. They flooded his soul with doubt and terror. Didn't anyone care that he was here? Had they forgotten him already? Maybe Johnny was so busy with Kate that he welcomed Scott's absence. Despair lurked everywhere. He didn't want to believe that no one cared. It was just so difficult to hope as one day slid into the next.
At least twice a day for the next week, the blond would rasp out in as loud a voice as possible, "Tell me what you want." There was never an answer. In fact, he began to wonder if he'd imagined that voiced reference. Maybe he was going mad from the isolation? Perhaps that wouldn't be so bad. Madness had to be better than reality at this point.
That night he dreamt that he was once again standing in front of the wall with bullets from the gatling gun slamming into the stones behind. Little shards of stone and brick pierced his flesh. Terror made his knees tremble. He kept breathing to a minimum. Don't do anything that will attract a bullet. Then Scott saw that Chapel had changed the aim of the merciless weapon. It was pointed straight at his heart. This was the end. . . . .
But no, there was only silence. He was still in his cell. Scott remembered that he hadn't given into the shakes in front of Drago, but he knew that nothing could ever terrify him like that ordeal had—until now.
After many hours of trembling in the night-time
chill, Scott Lancer returned to a dreamless sleep. When the older Lancer
son awoke, he found a larger supply of food and water than usual. Why had
the jailer left him this much food? A cold, hard knot of horror grew in
his stomach. What if his tormentor had taken off, never to return?
"'Scuse me, do you know how ta get ta Lancer from here?"
"Sure do. Just follow that road outta town and ya can't miss it. Fact is, I work there and I'm leavin' in five minutes if ya wanna ride along."
"Thanks, I'd like that. I've been ridin' a long ways 'n it'll be good to have someone ta talk with. By the way, the name's Billy McCoy."
"Mine's Jelly Hoskins. Ya lookin' for somebody at the ranch?"
"Mattera fact, I am. Name's Johnny. He said if I was ever in this part of California to stop by 'n he'd give me a job."
"Well, the Boss can always use a good hand."
"The Boss? Is that Johnny?"
"No, no, the Boss is Johnny's father."
"Oh that's right! He mentioned somethin' about his father and a brother."
Jelly's eyes shifted down. "Yeah, well his brother's not at the ranch right now."
"That's too bad. Johnny told me alot about him. You do think there's a place for me, don't ya? I'm good at ridin' 'n drovin' Ain't half bad with a gun neither. 'Course I'm not as good as Johnny. He saved my life, ya know."
"Yeah, less'n a year back I got into trouble over a poker hand. Some guys took a dislike to my Aces over Jacks 'n accused me a cheatin'. Later on they jumped me in an alley. They'd a beat me ta death if'n Johnny hadna come along 'n stopped 'em. They knew not to mess with Johnny Madrid."
"I'm sure they did."
"Whooee! I saw 'im draw against another feller 'n that man was dead afore his gun cleared the holster. That Johnny is one hell of a man."
"Well, yes he is, but he's a rancher now so he doesn't...he's not..."
"Oh come on, Mr. Hoskins, a man like Johnny Madrid ain't gonna change. You cain't tie 'im down. He's jest like that hawk circlin' up there in the sky--he just sits in wait 'n then pounces on his prey."
"That may have been Johnny at one time, but now, well he's got family 'n responsibilities."
"Oh yeah. I s'pose some men do settle down--get hog-tied to some female. I do know Johnny likes the ladies. One evenin' after we had a beer together, he treated me to an evenin' with a fine lady. Well, mebbe she weren't no lady, but she surely was fine!"
Jelly grimaced. "Uh, I get your drift."
"We spent a coupla evenings together. He tole me all about his ranch and his family. He seems real fonda his pa."
"Sure he is."
"He didn't seem as fonda....Scott. Is that the name?"
"What do you mean? The two are real close."
"Oh well, if ya say so. It just seemed ta me he kept complainin' about him bein' a mother hen 'n bein' too serious or somethin' like that. I guess all brothers have fights.
Never havin' a brother, I don't know for sure. Do have me a sister though. She must be alla eighteen or so."
By this time, Jelly and Billy had arrived at Lancer. "Johnny's probably over at the stable, why don't you go over ta look?"
"Will do and thank ya, Mr. Hoskins, for bringin' me out this way."
Billy McCoy walked into the stable. He immediately noticed the young man brushing a palomino. "Mr. Madrid?"
The brunet turned to face McCoy. For a moment there was no recognition then the sapphire eyes lit up. "Billy! What are you doin' down this way?"
"Well, I thought...that is I could sure use a job if'n you have one. I didn't take your advice 'n give up poker so I'm a little short on money."
The younger Lancer laughed. "Sure, you can stay. Come on in and I'll introduce you to my father."
"I'd be pleased to meet 'im."
The two young men entered the house. Murdoch was working on the ranch books--something he professed to dislike.
"Murdoch, this here is Billy McCoy. I signed him on to work."
"All right. We are a few men short. Take him over to the bunkhouse and see he gets settled. Oh, are you hungry? Teresa just baked an apple pie. Go have a piece. I know how you young fellows are always hungry."
"Well thank ya for sure. I haven't had much ta eat of late."
Going into the kitchen, Johnny introduced Billy to Teresa. Over pie and coffee the two men caught up on their travels since they had last met.
"Ya know, Mr. Madrid, when ya tole me 'bout your ranch, I never 'spected nothin' like this."
"It is big, but I usually go by Lancer now."
"Oh, that's right. Sorry, I forgot. Your pa seems a nice man, but that Mr. Hoskins said your brother wasn't here. Is he a travelin'?
"No. Uh, come on, let's go get you over to the bunkhouse so you can get settled before dinner."
"That's fine. I sure do appreciate this."
Johnny chuckled. "We'll see if you say that after bein' in the saddle all day!"
"I ain't afraid a hard work. Besides I owe ya a debt. Ya saved my life. It's my pleasure ta pay ya back."
"Is that why you came down here--because you think you owe me somethin'?"
"Not just somethin' My life, Mr. Ma...Lancer. Us McCoys always pay our debts. My pa taught me that."
"Well, you just do a good job and we'll be even."
"Yessir, thank ya sir."
Billy McCoy turned out to be an excellent ranch hand. He was willing to help with any job but his favorite spot was out on the range with Johnny. The dark -haired Lancer was amused by the obvious hero-worship in the boy's brown eyes. Billy listened to every word the gunfighter spoke, saving them in his memory like the tablets from Mt. Sinai.
One day out on the range, Billy confided his concern about Teresa. "Ya know, Mr. Ma...Lancer, that Teresa is sure a pretty girl. She even gave me some cookies. She said she had some ta spare, but ya know sometimes she gets this look in her eyes--real sad like."
In a monotone, Johnny explained, "She misses my brother."
"Were they a sparkin'?"
"No, no, she's like our sister. It's just that she misses him."
"I see. Ain't he acomin' back?"
"We don't know. Now let's go. Murdoch wants those last two sections of fence done by tonight."
Just riding along the fences reminded Johnny of that last weekend before Scott's disappearance. In fact, his stomach roiled at the very thought of fences but knew they had to be done. Billy did an expert job. The young man was proving to be quite a find.
During the next three days Billy made a point of spending as much time with the gunfighter as possible. Johnny found himself laughing more than he had during the last terrible months. It felt good to laugh, to have someone to laugh with. Everyone, not just Johnny, seemed to enjoy the company of the new hand. Even Murdoch had commented on the young man's common sense and willingness to work.
So when Johnny decided to pay a visit to Kate's house, he invited Billy to come along. On the ride to town Billy inquired, "Is this Kate your girl?"
"Not exactly, we're just friends."
"Never been jest friends with a woman."
"Yeah, I know what ya mean. They always seem to want to tie ya down to marriage and kids. But Kate's not like that. We talk about all kinds of things.""
"Includin' your brother?"
The sapphire eyes turned towards Billy. "Yes, we do."
"Mr. Lancer, I know it's none a my business, but where is your brother? I heard one of the hands say he's disappeared."
Johnny's face hardened. "That's right...Soon it'll be five months. He was up near Middle River. They found his horse--but not him."
"Oh golly, I sure am sorry. I just...well, mebbe he's still..mebbe he'll come back."
The dark-haired man nodded. "I sure miss him."
Johnny looked up in surprise. "Of course. Why would ya think I didn't?"
"Guess I'm not too bright. Ya remember when I met ya, ya kept a talkin' about him like ya didn't think much of 'im."
The sapphire eyes narrowed in puzzlement. "I...I don't....Oh wait. I remember now. That was my first trip for Murdoch after I decided to stay at Lancer. Scott and I were just gettin' to know one another. He's a stubborn man and I thought he was too "Eastern" to make it out here. In fact, I still call him 'Boston' once in awhile, just to remind..." The brunet stopped. "Uh, do you mind if we talk about somethin' else?"
"Oh sure, sorry. I was just curious. Won't ever mention it agin."
The two men arrived at Kate's house only to find that Kate was entertaining her friend Victoria. The four young people spent a pleasant evening talking. Billy had been to many places despite his youth so was able to tell some funny stories. They even enjoyed some homemade ice cream since Johnny and Billy volunteered to turn the crank.
Finally, though, they returned to Lancer. "That Victoria surely is a nice girl and right pretty too. I liked your Kate too."
"She's not my Kate."
"But she could be."
"Mebbe but I'm not thinkin' about that right now."
"No, s'pose not."
When they arrived at the hacienda, both horses were stabled, then they went their separate ways.
For Johnny the night was a restless one.
During the first weeks after Scott's disappearance, he had awakened to
the hope that somehow he'd walk into the older man's bedroom and he would
be standing there. After a month or two, that idea had faded. Now Scott
seemed real only in his dreams, but the ending was always the same--Scott
Lancer was never coming home.
The next morning Johnny rose early. He had surveying to do. Usually, Scott would take care of that but now it had fallen to him. At first, he thought he'd ask Billy to go with him, but then decided to let the boy sleep. Maybe Jelly could go instead.
Approaching Jelly's room, he heard the familiar honk from Jelly's goose. "You are one great watchbird, Dewdrop!"
As soon as Johnny knocked, the bearded man answered. "Oh, it's you. I thought someone was asneakin' up on me."
"Just wanted to ask if you'd like to do some surveyin' this mornin'?"
"Sure. I'll get my hat."
The two men set off. The ride out to the old Tate place was quiet. Even Jelly's gregarious nature had been subdued of late. "Johnny, you...uh...haven't heard anythin' new have ya?"
"'Course not. I'd tell ya."
"I know. It's just that--what if we don't ever hear?"
The dark head nodded. That was his great fear too. "I know he'll be back. He knows how much I hate this surveyin'.
Jelly grinned. "Yeah that and brandin' and diggin' fence post holes and ..."
"Why Jellifer Hoskins, you make it sound like all I do is charm the pretty girls!"
"Well, ain't it?"
Johnny swatted at the older man. "No, it ain't! Now let's get a move on. I wanna get back so I can go see Kate tonight."
Jelly chortled in a "See I told ya!" way.
The surveying did take longer than expected so both men were tired on their return to Lancer. Walking into the house, the brunet found an agitated Murdoch Lancer.
"Johnny, good to see you back! Did you complete the surveying?"
"Yep, all done. I think I'll go clean up now."
"Wait a minute. Have you seen Billy today?"
"No, we got back late last night and he went straight to the bunkhouse. Why?"
"He was supposed to go into Spanish Wells for me; but when I went to find him, the men said he pulled out early this morning. He just upped and left, didn't even ask for his pay."
"That's strange. He said he was flat broke."
"Consarnit! I'm going to have to handcuff people to the ranch from now on!"
For an instant Johnny swayed with dizziness. "Son, are you allright?"
"Sure. Just tired."
"Well, go get something to drink and take it easy for awhile. I'm sorry about Billy, but I guess it can't be helped."
"No, guess not."
The gunfighter walked into his bedroom, removed his holster and sat down on the bed. Opening the drawer of the bedside table, he took out Val's handcuffs. He turned them over and over in his hands. "It was just a joke," he whispered to himself. "Just a joke." He, then, lay down with the cuffs nestled on his chest like a shining bird. Soon he drifted into sleep.
//Johnny Madrid didn't like creepy, crawly things, and there were plenty in this tunnel. True he couldn't actually see them since it was so dark-- but he could hear them with their scritch-scratchings. He could smell the putrid remains of dead critters. He wanted out of this horrible place, but there was no light to tell him which way to go.
He bumped against the wall of the tunnel. Maybe if he felt along it . . . Suddenly, he stumbled over something. He started to reach down, then stopped. Maybe it was an animal. He started to back away then heard a moan. Carefully he took out one of the two matches he had saved for emergencies. Striking it on his boot, he peered towards the moaning sound. He had been right the first time; it was some kind of animal curled in one corner. But then, just as the light flickered and went out, the animal's face turned toward the lingering glow. It was the face of his brother.//
Johnny awoke, heart pounding, just like that at the door to his room. It was Murdoch. "Son, dinner's ready."
"Uh sure, I'll be right out." Gingerly standing, he walked over to the basin to rinse off his face and hands, then headed to the dinner table.
"Johnny, aren't you hungry?"
"Sorry, Teresa. Guess I'm tired."
"I thought you were going to go see Kate."
"It wasn't definite. Maybe I'll just stay in and have an early night."
“Maybe that's a good idea. Well, I'm going to do the dishes then I have some sewing I want to do."
"I'll help you with the washing up."
Teresa stared at him in surprise. "Well, sure if you want to."
It didn't take long for the two young people to wash and dry the dishes. Johnny said nothing but Teresa knew there was something going on in his mind.
Finally, he blurted it out, "Teresa, do you think Scott's alive?"
Taking a deep breath, she replied, "Yes I do. Why? Don't you?"
"I don't know what to think." He started to tell her about his dream when they heard a commotion outside and a knock on the door.
A few seconds later Murdoch entered the kitchen with a telegram in his hand. "It's from the sheriff at Middle River. He says they found a...a partially decomposed body in a storm cellar. He wants us to go up to see if we can identify it."
Tears filled Teresa's eyes as Johnny put his arm around her. "I'll leave first thing in the mornin'."
"No, Son, we'll leave first thing in the
"Sheriff Davis, this is my father, Murdoch Lancer."
"Pleased to meet you, Sheriff. When could we see the body?"
"Right away. We put him in the old ice house. . . .It's not going to be easy to tell if it's your boy."
"I understand. Let's go."
The three walked down the street until they came to an old building half-buried in the ground. "I'll just let you two go in by yourselves. Here's a lantern."
Murdoch had to duck to get through the door. Over in one corner was a slab with a bundle covered by canvas on it. Murdoch picked up the canvas. His stomach heaved and bile flooded into his throat.
"Whooee, it's not him!"
The tall man looked at his son. "You're sure?"
"Well, I think so."
"I know so. That's not Scott."
Murdoch smiled, "Good. Let's go tell the sheriff."
Returning into the light, they found Davis waiting for them.
"That's not my brother."
"Positive about that?"
The sapphire eyes flashed. "Absolutely."
"Fine. I guess the town'll just have to give that poor feller a place in the cemetery without a name then. Sorry I brought you up here for nothin'."
"Believe me, Sheriff, we're more than happy it was nothin'"
"S'pose ya are."
The three men walked back towards the Sheriff's office. "I think we'll stay in town for the night. My son and I are both tired. You will let us know if you find...if you hear any other news?"
"Sure will. By the way, try the hotel, the sheets are cleaner."
The two men laughed, " We will and I'd like to contribute towards the grave of that poor man. Everyone deserves a decent burial."
"Thanks, Mr. Lancer. The town appreciates it."
Turning to Johnny, Murdoch announced, "I'm going to send a wire to Teresa and Jelly about this. Why don't you get us a room?"
That evening, with their appetites restored, the father and son enjoyed a huge dinner in the hotel dining room.
"Murdoch, uh, would you mind if I stick around here for a coupla days?"
"I just got this feelin' he's around here."
"But you looked before."
"I know but...." He hesitated.
"All right. I intend to visit Stockton for a few days before I head back to the ranch. If you want to stay here, that's fine."
"Yes, Victoria Barkley wrote me a wonderful letter right after Scott...disappeared. I realized that it's been awhile since I've seen her family so I think it's time to visit old friends."
"Well, say hello to all of them for me."
"Aw, Nick and I get along!"
"As long as you don't touch Audra, you mean!"
The patriarch chuckled at Johnny's flushed face. "Come on, finish your chocolate cake. I want to get some sleep. It's a long ride to Stockton."
After seeing Murdoch off the next morning, Johnny strode over to the Sheriff's office. "My father forgot to give you this money before he left."
"It sure is nice of him considering...well, considering...."
"Considering you thought I did something to my brother?"
"Yeah. . . .I sure am sorry about that. I can see now you think a lot of him."
"Yes, I do, but I also know you were only doing your job. That's why I want to ask for your help."
"Sure. I owe ya that much."
"Is there any place around here like a tunnel or a mine shaft where a man might have fallen or something?"
"Nope, no mine shafts. Can't think a any tunnels either. 'Bout the only things down in the ground are them storm cellars like the one that man was found in."
Disappointment flooded the handsome face. "Oh well, it was just an idea. Thanks for your help. I think I'll just keep lookin' around the area some. It's better 'n doin' nothin'."
"You're right there. Listen if'n I think of anythin'. . .Wait!" Slapping his forehead, he continued, "There's a kinda tunnel over at the old fort."
"Yeah some fancy easterner with lots of money built this small fort as his home if'n you kin believe it. He wanted a feel of the wild west without the danger. It's been abandoned for years. I think he even put in a powder magazine. I 'member cause one of the local kids hit out there from his folks for awhile. Like ta never a found 'im. He eventually gave up and went home cause he was hungry! After they told me 'bout it, I put up signs everywhere warnin' people away."
"Do you think you could show me where it is?"
"Sure. It's not all that far, just by its lonesome."
"Good. I'll get my horse."
At first, Scott Lancer had stuffed some of the food into his mouth, but when his stomach rebelled at the largesse, he forced himself to eat only small quantities. He also rationed the water. <<Should last a long time.>> But he knew it couldn't last forever. If the jailer was truly gone, then he was a dead man. <<Oh well, even dying's better than this hellhole forever. You'd think I'd be used to it after Libby; but there, at least, I had other men to talk too, and we all knew the war had to end someday. Here there's just me and my memories.>>
Days passed. Because of the extra food, a small portion of his strength returned. He was also more alert. In some ways, this was a curse since reality had little comfort for the prisoner. Drawn to the food little rodents made nighttime forays upon his supplies. The scurrying and gnawing infiltrated his sleep as did the itch. Once again, the scratching became unbearable, but this time his shouts for relief went unheard. No soap and water balm--nothing. Scott Lancer curled himself into a ball and waited for the end.
The cerulean eyes opened to see the iron door was now ajar. He'd had this dream so many times. What kind of man could take pleasure in this torture?
There it was again. The voice. He hadn't left!
Painfully, Scott rose to his feet, staggering towards the door. This time the door did not shut just as he touched it. It swung wide open. Ahead he could see a dimly-lit tunnel. Fear shook him. It had to be a trap but why? The jailer could have killed him at anytime.
The blond Lancer staggered two more steps. For the first time in months, he was outside his cell. Another step, another. A door! So that was it! Make him think he was free, then another locked door!
The young man reached out to touch the wooden exit. It moved. It opened. Dazzling sunlight blinded the man. After months as a mole, so much light was excruciating. He fell back into the comforting darkness of the tunnel.
He lay there rubbing at his eyes. The pain eased, but he knew it had to be faced if he wanted out of this place.
Stumbling up the short steps, he covered his eyes with one hand while he again pushed open the door with the other. Then before his courage could fail again, he thrust his body out into the light. Vertigo assailed his senses. Immediately falling to the ground, his disorientation continued for several minutes. Finally he spread his fingers slightly.
Through the pain he could make out some kind of fence and a gate. What lay beyond he could not imagine, but he knew that he had to make the effort now before his body shut down in weakness.
Again forcing himself up to his feet, Scott moved slowly forward. The bolt on the gate proved stubborn, but he intended to get through it or die trying. Tears dripped down his face at the frustration. So close.
He pounded on the gate with his remaining strength, begging the jailer to let him out. He heard a voice on the other side, then the voice was beside him.
The cerulean eyes looked into the eyes
of the jailer for the first time. As he collapsed onto the ground,
his head told him what his heart couldn't believe--Johnny and the jailer
were one and the same.
Johnny Lancer collapsed on the bed. Aching and exhausted from the long trip back to Lancer, he wanted only to sleep and forget. Forget the sight of Scott pounding on the gate--a gate attached to only one remaining fence post. Forget the terror on the gaunt face of a man barely recognizable as his brother. Forget the partially-healed gashes on the thin wrists. Just forget.
At least, the doctor had said that Scott had no serious injuries, merely dehydration and lack of food--as if they weren't enough. Of course, it had taken of all of the Sheriff's 'persuasion' and Johnny's $20 gold piece to get Dr. Morgan to even look at the filthy scarecrow they had carried into the examining room. Indeed, it was Johnny himself who had cut off the remaining ragged clothing, sponged off the worst of the dirt and clipped the unkempt hair. Then as soon as possible he'd bundled Scott into a buckboard to head for home.
Upon arrival, Teresa had taken charge of the still-silent patient. After giving Murdoch a brief description of Scott's prison, Johnny was ordered to bed by his father. At first, he had protested until he had started to sway on his feet. Then he had taken himself off to bed. Johnny knew Scott would need him soon.
Waking after five hours of refreshing sleep, the young man walked into Scott's bedroom. "Johnny, I'm glad you're here. He's been so restless the last few minutes. I think he's having a nightmare."
"Okay, Teresa, I'll see if I can quiet him down." Gently he shook his sleeping brother. "Boston, it's okay. You're free. You're safe."
Dimly the words penetrated the confused mind. Free? That's what the jailer had said in the tunnel. The blue eyes flew open. There was the face of his tormentor.
"Nooo! Get away from me!" Johnny tried to grab his flailing arms. "Don't touch me! Get away! Get away!" The slender body turned to protect itself, hands over head. "Please...." The near whimper tore at Johnny's heart. He backed away, then hurried out the door nearly running his father down.
The tall man called after his son, but the brunet fled the house.
"What's the matter with him?"
"Scott had a nightmare and yelled at Johnny to get out. He seemed to think that Johnny was going to hurt him."
"It was probably just the nightmare."
"I know, but does Johnny?"
"I'll go look for him." The older man did look but to no avail. Johnny had disappeared into the night. Walking back to his own room Murdoch could only shake his head and hope both sons would come to their senses by morning.
Meanwhile, Teresa again curled up in the chair. At least, Scott was now quiet.
Some two hours later, just as the fist light of dawn pierced the Lancer sky, the cerulean eyes open. At first he thought that once again, he was dreaming of Lancer. But this time was different. In all of his previous dreams, a sleeping Teresa had never sat in a chair beside him.
It was true then, he really was home. Vague memories kaleidoscoped through his tired brain. He remembered Johnny saying he was safe, and then someone yelled at his brother. Someone told him to get out. A nauseating feeling settled in his stomach. He knew the someone was himself. He had to go tell Johnny that he was sorry. He didn't mean it. With considerable effort the former prisoner got up to find his brother. Exhausted by the time he reached Johnny's room; he shuffled over to the bed. He would lie down and wait--wait for Johnny's return.
Sitting out in the stable with Barranca, Johnny Madrid debated about what to do. He had to find out why Scott was so afraid of him. As he sat there, his eyes began to close. Jerking himself awake, he decided to go back to bed for a few hours. Right now, he was in no condition to confront his vulnerable brother. Right now, he didn't think he could even convince the palomino that he was a horse.
Walking slowly back to his room, the brunet was astonished to find his blond-haired brother curled up on his bed, one hand flung out while the other was under his cheek. The younger man sat on the floor then gently took his brother's free hand in his own.
Not long after, Murdoch entered Scott's room to check on the patient. He was astonished to see an empty bed. Quickly waking Teresa, the two began a search of the house. It was the young woman who discovered the remarkable sight in the other bedroom. There on the floor, sound asleep, sat Johnny Madrid holding his older brother's hand.
"Let 'em sleep. They need it. You go on to bed. I'll be around if they need anything."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, you go on."
Two hours later Scott Lancer started to turn over, then he realized something was holding on to his hand. He looked down to see a dark head slumped over in sleep.
"Johnny. Wake up."
Immediately the sapphire eyes turned to encounter those of his brother. "Well, Boston, are you talkin' to me now?"
"What did I say to you before? I just remember thinking you were him. I didn't mean it whatever I said."
"Are you sure?"
Scott nodded. "I know you'd never do that to me or anyone else. I trust you more than anyone alive."
"Well thanks but you're wrong." At the question on his brother's face, he explained, "If I ever get my hands on the man who did this to you, I'll make him sorry he was ever born."
Just then, Murdoch entered. "So you two are up! Good! Who's ready for a big breakfast? There's flapjacks and bacon for Johnny and oatmeal for you, Scott."
"Now, Johnny! His stomach probably isn't ready for flapjacks or bacon yet. Oh, I almost forgot, there's biscuits too."
A gleam came into Scott's eye. "I can always eat Teresa's biscuits and I like oatmeal." Johnny made a face.
"Well, uh, Teresa didn't exactly make the biscuits or the flapjacks."
"Who did?" growled Johnny.
"I did, young man."
Both boys grinned. "You did?"
"Yes and I'm sure they're good. I'm not totally helpless in the kitchen, you know."
"Oh, we know," they chorused.
Surprisingly the flapjacks weren't bad and the biscuits only slightly burnt. It didn't really matter to either son as the two brothers were just happy to be together.
After breakfast, Johnny insisted that Scott go back to sleep. "The doctor said that's what you need, so you're going to sleep. I've got to go outside for a bit so you can just stay here where it's quiet."
A strange, apprehensive look crossed the pale face. "All right. Go ahead. I'll try."
"Fine." The gunfighter started out the door to the corral then stopped. There was just something about the look on Scott's face--like that of a lost little boy. He started to turn back when a vaquero came running up.
"Senor Johnny. Ramon has been hurt in the corral. Come please." The young man rushed out to help the ranch hand.
Nearly an hour later Johnny returned to his room, being extra quiet in case Scott was still sleeping. To his surprise the blond was not in the room nor in any part of the house. Calling for Murdoch, the two men began to search the immediate area.
Johnny headed into the stable to see if a horse might be missing even though he didn't think that Scott was strong enough to ride.
As he entered, he could see Scott talking to someone in the stall. Breathing a sigh of relief, he walked over to his side. "Hey, Boston, whata ya doin'? I thought you were going to sleep?"
The thin face turned to Johnny. "I brought Sport out here to see the horses. He loves horses. He wants to be in the cavalry when he's big."
Johnny looked all around the stall. There was only the horse munching hay. "Who's Sport."
"My brother. I have four, you know. Reader's afraid of horses, but I'll bring the other two out later. They were bad; so they're being punished."
"Scott, you don't have four brothers. You have only one--me!"
The blue eyes flashed in anger. "Don't say that! You're not my brother. My brothers would never leave me alone. They were even with me in that place. They tried to help but they were too small. If you're my brother, why didn't you do something? Why did you leave me there?"
Johnny's face paled at the words. "Scott, I tried to find you. I looked everywhere."
Just then Murdoch walked in. "You found him."
The dark-haired Lancer nodded. "He doesn't remember who I am."
"What? Let me try. Scott, do you know who I am?"
"I'm your father."
"No, you're not. He lives in California. He left me with my grandfather."
"That was a long time ago. You live with Johnny and me now."
The handsome face crumpled. "I don't believe you. I live in Boston with my grandfather and SPIN."
Murdoch started to protest but Johnny took his arm. "Murdoch, it's not important right now. Maybe we can discuss it later after Scott has something to eat."
Turning to his brother he inquired if the too-thin man was hungry. "Teresa baked a cherry pie."
The wistful look turned into a grin. "I love cherry pie. SPIN makes them sometimes."
"Well, then why don't you and I and Sport go in an have a piece? Is that okay with you?"
"Sure, and then could we take a nap? Sport's real tired."
The exhausted look on the thin face melted Johnny's heart. "Of course, you can. Your bed's just waiting for you."
The three men headed towards the house. Murdoch, confused by what was happening, let his younger son handle the situation. "I'll just leave you gentlemen alone to go at that pie."
Scott did manage to consume a small piece of the pie with some milk, but soon the blue eyes would not stay open. Gently, his brother led him to the bedroom and helped him take off his boots. "Go to sleep. I'll be right here."
Stepping just outside the door, he encountered Murdoch. The dark-haired son adjusted the door so that he could still see the blond on the bed and yet talk to his father.
"What was that all about?"
"As far as I can tell, he believes he has four brothers who somehow take care of him--never leave him alone."
Running his hand through his hair, he continued, " I think it's my fault. I thought he was okay. He seemed fine after breakfast. Then I told him to go to sleep. He had this look on his face as I left to go outside. I think he's still terrified of being left alone. Whatever he went through is going to be with him a long time."
Murdoch nodded. "I guess you're right. I remember how he was after Dan Cassidy left. So what do we do?"
"Let him sleep and hope his mind will heal along side his body. And I don't think he should be left alone for the time being."
"Do you want me to stay with him now?"
"No. I will. Come back in four hours or so."
"All right. Oh and Johnny, it wasn't your fault." But the younger man didn't hear because he was already back inside Scott's room.
The minutes ticked away on the clock in
the great room. Johnny just sat there watching the other man sleep. How
could he reassure his brother that he was indeed safe? Mere words were
not enough. Then an idea crept its way into his mind. Maybe, just maybe....
Three hours later the blue eyes flickered open to a sense of unease. There was something wrong.
"Scott? You awake?"
The blond looked over to see the familiar face of his brother. Starting to sit up he realized that the two of them were connected by handcuffs.
At the question in the cerulean eyes, Johnny explained, "I thought you'd feel better if you knew I couldn't get away from you."
"I don't understand."
"I met Sport."
The pale cheeks became almost colorless. "Sport? How do you know about him? Only SPIN knows...knew...."
"When I returned from the corral, you were out in the stable with him. You said that he and your other three brothers were with you in that cell--that they didn't leave you alone like I did."
"Oh God! I...I don't... They used to be... Please forgive me. I was confused."
"There's nothing to forgive. If you needed them to survive, then I'm glad you had them. I just regret what you had to go through. Now what do you say we take these handcuffs off and talk awhile?"
The blond head nodded.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?"
"No. There's no point. It's over."
"Would you at least tell me about your wrists?"
"I cut them. I didn't think I could face another minute there. The jailer bandaged me. I don't know why. I hated him so much for that."
"I'm glad he did because I don't want to lose you."
"You're sure? Sometimes I worry that I'm not what you...well, what you need in a brother. I try, I really do, but sometimes I can see the disappointment in your eyes."
Pain started in his gut, moving up to squeeze his heart. "Scott, you're not a disappointment--ever. You're my best friend and the most important person in the world to me."
"What about Murdoch?"
"You know I care about him and Teresa and Jelly, but there's a bond between us that can't be broken--no matter what."
Silence grew as the blond stared into the intense sapphire eyes. "I know. I just wasn't sure you did."
"Well, I do. Now I want you to tell me about our brothers."
"Well, they're your brothers and I'm your brother so...."
Scott chuckled. "Okay. Well, you met Sport. There's Reader..."
"The one who doesn't like horses?"
"Ummm. Then there's Tricky One and Messy One."
"You didn't give them names?"
"Yes, I did, but not until years later."
"Oh, what was it?"
"I didn't realize that until I met you."
"I'm not all that messy."
Scott's eyebrows arched. "No? Then why is Teresa always yelling at you to clean up your room?"
"The woman has a dirt problem! And as for being tricky--who is it who's always getting me to take his turn at branding?"
"Is it my fault that you're not all that good at gambling?"
Johnny's mouth dropped open. "What?...I...You're going to be sorry for that!"
"By the way, I did have one other brother who is just like you, but we didn't play together all that much. I did give him a name though."
"Yeah? What was it?"
"Well, if that's what he was then the two of you must have been twins!"
Laughter from Scott's room drifted into
the kitchen where Murdoch and Teresa sat waiting. The happy sound washed
away much of the sadness of the last few months. Lancer's lost son had