Short Cut to Hell
By Sue S.
“You ain’t gonna like this.”
Scott Lancer paused in the task of packing his saddlebags and turned around to look at his brother standing in the doorway.
“What won’t I like?”
Johnny stepped further into the hotel room they had been sharing and tossed his hat down on one of the beds. “The 1 o’clock stage. It’s been cancelled.”
Scott blew out an exasperated sigh. “Cancelled? Why?
His younger brother shrugged. “Dunno. Axle’s bust or something. All the fella at the stage office went on about was it’s a miracle folks didn’t get hurt. They’re stuck at some relay station waiting for repairs.”
“So when’s the next one?”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” Johnny replied. “That’s if they can get a replacement from Sacramento.”
“Great!” Scott retorted, slumping down on the bed. “What are we going to do about Teresa’s birthday now? The party's the day after tomorrow and you know we’re expected to be there."
Teresa was their father’s ward, the daughter of his late foreman, and was looked upon by Scott and Johnny as a younger sister. The two brothers had been in Stockton for a few days on business for Murdoch, and had taken the opportunity to buy her some expensive gifts. Now it looked like she was going to be disappointed.
Although Johnny was as upset as his brother at the possibility of missing Teresa's birthday, he had to admit he was a little glad that they might be too late for the party. Their 'sister' was a pretty young woman who enjoyed dressing up in her finery and entertaining her friends. She was also in the habit of trying to pair off her two attractive ‘brothers’ with her girlfriends. Perhaps he and Scott had had a lucky escape after all.
"Of course, there is another way."
Johnny glanced at the blond, suspicious of the sudden gleam in his eyes. "Another way?"
Scott got abruptly to his feet. "We could hire a couple of horses and ride home!"
Johnny had to smile at the other's keenness. It was unusual for the older man to be so impulsive. Of the two of them, Scott was the one to think before he acted. However, although the ex-gunfighter found it refreshing, he did have a few concerns.
"Scott, there's a long ways to go between here and home. We still might not make it back in time."
His brother was not about to be dissuaded. "Come on, Johnny, we can at least try! It’s better than being stuck around here waiting for a stage which may or may not turn up" he pointed out. "We could cut across the Badlands and....”
"Oh no,” the younger man cut in. “You know what happened the last time you tried something like that, Scott." The damn sun nearly killed you."
Now it was Scott's turn to smile. "But then I didn't have my little brother to look after me!"
Johnny hesitated for a moment. It was true they could save a lot of time if they had their own mounts and they could easily carry all they needed for the journey home in their saddlebags. He looked at the older man’s expectant face and could not help but return the infectious grin.
“All right. Let’s do it!”
Scott reached out and ruffled his brother's dark hair.
"That's the spirit! I'll go down to the livery and arrange it."
Scott had no difficulty obtaining a couple of horses, a flea-bitten grey and a nondescript sorrel, from the stable at Stockton. Their fellow passengers who were also booked on the stage seemed content to wait for its eventual arrival, so the two were able to set off on their way within the hour.
Now they were on the move, they did not feel inclined to force the pace. Their mounts were sturdy, fit and more than capable of covering the distance. If they rode steadily, they were confident of reaching the ranch in good time. Scott, for one, found this mode of transport much more preferable to spending hours sitting in a cramped, uncomfortable stage.
"So what did’ya get Teresa in the end?" his brother asked, as they slowed their horses to a walk.
Scott smiled as he turned towards Johnny. "You remember those earrings she spotted last time we were all in Stockton?"
The younger man frowned as he considered the question. "You mean those fancy, dangly things with the green stones?"
"Emeralds, Johnny," he admonished. "They're called emeralds."
Johnny smiled, his bright blue eyes sparkling mischievously, and Scott realising that his brother was teasing him, reached over and punched him playfully on the shoulder. The Bostonian shook his head. It never ceased to amaze him just how well he and Johnny got along within such a short period of time. Born of different mothers, Scott's a cultured easterner, Johnny's a beautiful Mexican woman, they had only met each other for the first time just over a year ago. Indeed, they had never known of the other's existence, until their father had tracked them down and asked them to help defend the Lancer ranch from marauding land pirates. In return, Murdoch had offered them each one third of the ranch if they stayed.
The decision should have been easy, but the fact that Murdoch had never taken the trouble to get in touch with them before caused Scott and especially Johnny to show a degree of animosity toward their estranged father. The two young men also came from vastly different backgrounds. Scott Lancer had been educated at Harvard, served in the US cavalry under General Sherman and was used to the civilised lifestyle back in Boston. Johnny on the either hand had grown up on the Mexican border having lost his mother by the time he was ten. Forced to fend for himself, he had eventually made a name for himself as Johnny Madrid, a notorious gunfighter.
Although the half-brothers had got off to a shaky start, they had soon developed a close and binding friendship and were never happier than when they were in each other's company.
"Well, what did you buy Teresa?" Scott enquired, interested to learn what the other had decided upon.
Johnny was about to answer him, when a sudden, sharp gust of wind caused their horses to break their even stride and toss their heads nervously.
"Where’d that come from?” Scott asked in surprise, tightening the reins and patting the grey’s neck to calm the skittish animal down.
At first the ex-gunfighter was not certain. The wind was certainly picking up a pace, blowing loose bits of sand and vegetation across the ground. Whipping his head around, a puzzled frown crossed his face when he spotted a large dust cloud on the horizon and his first thought was that it was a herd of horses heading their way. Even as he watched, the cloud seemed to double in size and start to veer swiftly towards them. Then his eyes widened with fear as he suddenly realised what the phenomenon was.
"We got trouble, brother.”
"What?" Scott looked back to where his brother was staring.
"There’s a mighty big dust storm brewing and it’s heading our way," Johnny said urgently. "Come on, we've gotta move. Now!"
Scott needed no second telling and immediately dug his heels into his horse’s side, motioning it forward to follow his brother. The two men urged their frightened mounts into a full gallop, knowing that their only chance was to try and outrun the storm. The sheer rock face to their right gave them no cover at all so they had no choice but to keep going.
In a matter of minutes it became harder to see as the sun was almost obliterated by the fine particles of sand blown upwards by the gusting wind. It stung their faces, clung to their clothing, but there seemed to be no escape.
Bringing his horse to a halt, Johnny pulled out his bandana. "Cover your mouth and nose, Scott," he ordered, before tying the cloth around his face.
The blond followed his example, finding momentary relief from the harsh weather, but the storm was gathering strength all the time. It surged towards them like a mighty ocean, roaring and howling like some giant beast. The hot dry wind snatched their hats from their heads, blowing sand into their eyes and terrifying the horses.
Scott looked back and was horrified to find that the dust cloud was almost upon them. He could not believe it had travelled so far so quickly and when he glanced at his brother, he saw the same look of fear mirrored on his face.
“Come on!” Johnny yelled, above the din.
“We’ll never make it!” Scott shouted back, his voice muffled by the bandana across his mouth.
"We have to. Come on. Ride!"
Spurring his horse forward, Johnny once again led the way, searching desperately for any form of shelter. The only way they were going to survive was to get out of the storm’s furious path, but within seconds the torrent was upon them, doing its best to batter them into submission. The two men clung tenaciously to the reins, heads bent low as they tried to force their way forward. Even with their bandanas tied around their faces, the cloying sand found its way into their mouths and eyes. It was virtually impossible to see, but after almost ten minutes of struggling against the screaming wind Johnny chanced a glance up and his heart leapt with relief when he spotted a large cleft in the rocks to their right.
"Scott! Over there," he shouted.
There was no answer from his brother, but when he turned in the saddle he saw the other’s shadowy form close by. Realising that Scott could not hear him, he pointed urgently to the place where he had seen the sheltering rock. Lowering his head once more he guided his struggling horse over to the rock face. Although it was only a short distance away, it seemed to take Johnny forever to reach this sanctuary and he slid gratefully from the saddle and led the sorrel further inside the cleft and secured it to a dead tree stump.
Turning he expected to find Scott right behind him and his blood ran cold as he realised that the blond was nowhere in sight. Racing back to the opening he looked out, straining his eyes for any sign of his brother and his mount, but all he saw was billowing sand and dust.
“Scott? Scott! Where are you?"
Only the howling wind answered his despairing cry. Johnny cupped his hands and called again and again, his voice growing ever more frantic, but there was nothing.
Both man and horse had been swallowed up by the storm.
The Badlands region of Northern California was a hostile environment even in the mildest of conditions, but for Johnny Lancer the place had turned into his worst nightmare. It had now been over two hours since his brother had disappeared and Johnny was growing more anxious with every passing minute. His throat, already made dry by the driving sand, was hoarse from calling out for Scott, but the answering call he was desperate to hear never came.
The storm had abated almost as quickly as it had started, although a strong wind still whipped across the arid plain and the sun shone brightly down on the desolate landscape, further adding to Johnny's misery. Wearily he brought his equally exhausted horse to a stop and reached for his canteen to slake his considerable thirst. It felt as though he had swallowed half the desert and his eyes stung as he scoured the endless vista of rocks and sand.
'Where are you, brother?' he thought despondently. He wished now that he had done more to dissuade Scott from coming this way. Their comfortable hotel room in Stockton seemed like a distant memory now even though they had only left it that morning. Right now, he would have given anything to be back there with Scott.
Hooking his canteen back over the saddle horn, Johnny forced his tired mount into a slow walk. He knew that he had to stop and rest the animal before long. If it dropped with exhaustion, he would be stranded out here till he perished from thirst, but there was no way he was going to abandon his search for his brother.
Another half an hour dragged by, but there was still no sign of Scott. Johnny fell into a kind of stupor, stifled by the oppressive heat beating down on his dark head and plagued with the very real fear that he would never see his older brother again. His chin sank to his chest as he let his horse pick its way across the uneven ground and it was only when the animal stumbled and nearly fell that Johnny lifted his heavy head.
Patting the sorrel's drooping neck, the ex-gunfighter peered about him. The heat haze coupled with his own blurred vision made it difficult to see anything, but then suddenly he spotted something a little way off to his right. Sitting up straighter in the saddle, Johnny rubbed at his sore eyes and looked harder. Although the image was far from clear, he knew instinctively what it was.
The word formed on his dry lips, but no sound came out. He urged his mount forward into a reluctant trot, cursing as it refused to move fast enough. In the end, he brought it to an abrupt halt, leapt from the saddle and ran the last few yards towards the prone figure sprawled on the ground.
Scott lay face down in the dust, his slim form half buried by drifts of sand. Throwing himself to his knees beside the fallen man, Johnny hurriedly brushed aside the cloying particles and gently turned his brother onto his back. Under the thin covering of grime, Scott's face was as pale as a sheet and his eyes were firmly closed. The blond hair was streaked with blood and as Johnny carefully parted the matted strands, he found a ragged gash on his brother's right temple. Rusty brown stains on a nearby rock told their own story.
"Please don't be dead!" he breathed, as he bent his head to the other's chest. At first Johnny could not hear anything, but then he detected a faint heartbeat and he closed his eyes momentarily in relief. He had found him, he was alive, but they were both still in trouble.
Scrambling to his feet, Johnny hurried over to fetch his horse that was still standing patiently where he had left it and led it back. Grabbing the canteen, he sank back down beside his unconscious brother and pulled off his bandana. He moistened it with some water and began to wipe away some of the dirt and blood which covered the right side of Scott's pallid face. His careful ministrations were eventually rewarded when he heard a soft groan.
"Scott?” he called, hopefully. "Can you hear me? I really need you to wake up now."
The injured man moaned again and his eyelids flickered as he tried to respond to a familiar voice. Johnny placed his left arm under Scott's neck and gently lifted his head.
"Got some water here," he coaxed. "Come on. Drink."
The blue-grey eyes slowly opened as Johnny held the canteen to his lips. The ex-gunfighter trickled a little water into his mouth, but stopped when Scott began to cough.
"Easy now, not too much," he warned.
Scott took a steadying breath before letting Johnny give him some more water. It felt good to his parched throat and he closed his eyes briefly as his brother took the canteen away.
"Thought I lost you, Boston," Johnny murmured softly, as he smoothed back the blond hair from the bloody brow.
"Th...thought so...too." Scott's voice was barely a whisper as he forced the words past his cracked and blistered lips.
The blond swallowed hard before answering. "Tried to…follow you, but horse to…took off. Fell....” He had a vague memory of his grey bolting in terror from the violent storm, and although he had tried he had failed to halt the panicked animal's flight. When the horse came to a sudden stop, Scott had no chance to save himself as he hurtled over its head, and then there was nothing. He raised a trembling hand to his temple, but Johnny firmly brushed it away.
"Got yourself a nasty crack there," he said. "You hurting anyplace else?"
Scott hesitated for a moment and then lowered his hand to his right side. "Here."
Johnny looked at him worriedly before he placed his fingers against the other's lower chest.
"Arrgh!" Scott gasped as his brother touched a particularly sensitive spot, and Johnny sat back on his heels with a heavy sigh.
"Reckon you cracked a couple of ribs too."
Scott cursed softly under his breath and sank back on the ground with a despairing groan. It was all his fault that they were in this predicament. If he had not insisted they return home by this route, none of this would have happened. As it was, he had placed both their lives in danger.
Seeing the grim expression on the other's face, Johnny reached out a hand and squeezed the blond on the shoulder.
"Hey, brother. We ain't done yet." Scott did not look convinced, but Johnny refused to be downhearted. "Now the first thing we're gonna do is get you out of this damned sun. There's an overhang over there where we can get some shelter.”
Johnny grinned. "Then I'm gonna patch you up and get us back home. We've got a birthday party to go to, remember?"
Scott returned his brother's smile, grateful for the younger man's optimistic attitude. He only wished he could share it, but it was difficult when he felt so wretched. His head was pounding, his ribs ached with every breath and his queasy stomach threatened to rebel at any moment.
"Come on, let's get you up," Johnny said, his strong arms reaching out to grasp the injured man.
Somehow, he got the taller man to his feet, taking most of Scott's weight as his brother sagged against him. Pulling the blond's left arm around his shoulder and placing a supporting hand around the slim waist, Johnny half-lifted, half-dragged Scott over to the overhanging rock face and carefully lowered him to the ground. Apart from the low hiss of pain when he had helped him up, Scott had not made any other sound during the short move, but Johnny could see the stiff set of his jaw and the sweat trickling down his face.
"You just sit there and rest for a minute," he ordered. "I'll be right back."
Scott gave a tight nod as Johnny moved away. He let his head drop back to rest against the rock face and tried to quell the dizziness and nausea. His vision blurred alarmingly as he turned to see where his brother had gone, and he could feel the dark hand of unconsciousness start to overwhelm him.
"Scott? Scott, come on. Wake up!" Johnny was shaking him hard, and he opened his eyes a fraction to see his brother's anxious face inches from his own.
"Tired," he mumbled, thickly.
"Know you are, but you can't go to sleep yet, you hear?"
Judging from the unfocused look in the blue eyes, it was obvious that Scott was suffering from concussion and Johnny knew it was important to keep his injured brother awake. He waited a moment until he was certain that Scott was more aware, and then he reached for his saddlebag. Opening the flap, he pulled out a flat, brown-wrapped package and ripped it open.
"What are you doing?" In spite of his weariness, Scott was curious.
"I need something to bind your head and ribs," the younger man said.
"But that's your new shirt!"
Johnny shrugged. "It's just a shirt, Scott. 'Sides it's a mite cleaner than the one I got on."
That much was true. Both men's clothing was filthy and travel stained. Their hats had long since disappeared during the storm, leaving them no protection against the harsh sun. It was going to a long and difficult ride home.
"I promise I'll buy you a dozen new shirts when we're next in Stockton," Scott replied, as he watched Johnny rip the garment into long strips.
"I’ll hold you to that, brother,” he answered with a grin, “Now shut up and lemme do this."
Scott shifted forward, grimacing as the movement jarred his chest, and Johnny started to wrap the makeshift bandage around the blond's forehead. When he was done, he reached down and pulled Scott's shirt free from his pants so that he could bind his ribs. The pale gold flesh was already starting to darken with bruises, but Johnny knew he would have to make the bandages as tight as he could if the ribs were going to have a chance to heal.
"There," he said, sitting back to admire his handiwork. "Any better?"
Despite the constriction around his chest, Scott had to admit that it felt more comfortable.
Johnny clapped him on the shoulder and smiled. "Any time, Scott."
He got to his feet once more and led the horse over, ground hitching the sorrel in the shade of the rocks and loosening its girth. Retrieving the canteen, he poured some water into the palm of his hand and gave it to the thirsty animal. It was not much, but it would have to suffice until they reached the next water hole. Johnny gently stroked the horse's muzzle and then came back to drop down beside his brother.
"We'll rest here till the sun starts to set," he stated.
The older man nodded briefly, but made no reply. Johnny regarded him, blue eyes narrowed in concern. Scott still looked pale and fresh blood was already starting to show through the rough bandage around his head. He wished there was more he could do to ease his brother's suffering.
"You want some more water?"
Scott eyed the canteen uncertainly. "How much we got left?"
"Don't lie to me, little brother."
The blond Lancer always seemed to know when Johnny was not telling him the whole truth, and the ex-gunfighter gave a resigned sigh.
"Less than half."
'Dammit," Scott breathed, closing his eyes and resting his aching head back against the rock face. "The next time I suggest taking a short cut across the Badlands, you have my permission to shoot me."
“Okay.” Johnny gave a rueful smile as he settled himself more comfortably on the hard ground. He went to take a drink out of the canteen, but then changed his mind and screwed the top firmly back on. They would find more water soon - they had to.
The afternoon wore on and although the wind blew just as strongly, it did little to bring down the temperature. The brothers shelter protected them from most of the sun's rays, but it was still oppressive and Johnny found himself growing drowsy. He fought it for as long as he could, speaking to Scott to keep them both awake, but eventually he succumbed to the sultry heat and he dropped off to sleep.
The eagle soared high above the harsh rocky landscape, gliding effortlessly on the warm thermals in the late afternoon sun. Its keen eyes were constantly on the lookout for prey and every so often the bird swept down low if it saw any sign of movement. It was on one such pass that the eagle spotted the two men slumped against the lee of the cliff face, a horse standing nearby. Had it human eyes, it would have wondered if both young men were dead or merely sleeping.
Lying close together, the taller man had his head resting on the other's right shoulder, who in turn had his dark head pressed against the blond hair of his companion. Neither man moved even when the eagle let out a piercing cry, and it was only when the bird screeched again that one of the two men stirred and slowly opened his eyes.
For a moment, Johnny Lancer completely forgot where he was and what had happened. Then his foggy brain registered the fact that Scott was slumped heavily against him and it was obvious from his breathing that he was deeply unconscious. Johnny swore softly as he straightened up, angry with himself for falling asleep. The sun was low in the sky now and he reckoned that there were only a few hours to go before it got dark. He also knew that it was going to get cold when night fell and their meagre shelter would be useless and could be hazardous to Scott in his condition. They had to move and find somewhere more substantial.
Easing the injured man up, Johnny scrambled around so he was in front of Scott and reached out to cup his brother's face with both hands.
"Scott, you hear me?"
The other moaned a little and made a feeble attempt to move his head, but his eyes remained steadfastly closed. Undeterred, Johnny got to his feet, unhitched the horse and tightened the girth before bringing it closer. He re-hung the canteen around the saddle horn and crouched down once again.
"Come on, Boston," he insisted. "Time to go."
"N....no," Scott whispered. "Leave me..."
Johnny shook his head and caught the older man under the armpits. "I ain't leaving you anywhere, brother. We stick together."
Hauling the limp form up, the ex-gunfighter dragged Scott over to the horse, which shifted slightly as Johnny lifted his brother's left foot into the stirrup.
"Whoa, steady boy," he said, grabbing the reins with his free hand. The sorrel's ears pricked up at the sound of his voice, but it made no further attempt to move.
Johnny practically threw Scott up into the saddle and then scrambled up behind, wrapping his arms securely around the lean frame. He had intended to lead the animal, but he knew that Scott was in no condition to support himself on the horse. At least the sorrel had had some rest while the two men were sleeping, although it was hardly enough. Mindful of this fact, Johnny prompted the horse forward, careful to maintain a slow but steady pace.
Scott was aware that they were moving and struggled to gather his reeling senses. His head was still pounding fiercely and every jarring step of their mount send fresh shivers of pain through his temples. He was still feeling extremely dizzy, which in turn was making his stomach very queasy. Nevertheless, he was reassured by the comforting presence of his brother just behind him and was content to lean back against Johnny's broad chest.
They had been travelling for about three quarters of an hour, hardly saying a word as Johnny concentrated on the trail ahead, before Scott felt constrained to speak.
"Johnny........need to stop."
The younger Lancer did not hesitate and immediately reined in the horse and slipped to the ground. Reaching up, he pulled Scott from the saddle. It was not a moment too soon; as soon as his brother's feet touched the surface, his knees buckled beneath him and he was violently sick, bringing up all the water that Johnny had patiently got down him.
"Easy," he said, sinking to his knees beside the stricken man. "I got ya."
Scott slumped weakly against his brother's chest. He was breathing hard and a cold sweat broke out on his face as his rebellious stomach churned noisily.
"S....sorry," he muttered.
Johnny continued to hold him close, stroking the sweat-damp blond hair as he tried to soothe the older man.
"It's okay, brother," he assured. "At least you didn't puke over my boots!"
Scott gave a snort of laughter that unfortunately turned into a cough and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut as the spasms tore painfully through his chest. Johnny blinked back tears of helplessness as he kept a firm grip on the stricken man and cursed their misfortune at running foul of the elements.
Peering up at the darkening sky, he knew that there was barely an hour of daylight left and they were no nearer to finding shelter. It was obvious that Scott needed to rest and recover his strength if they were going to continue, but it was impossible here - they had to go on.
"Come on, Boston," he coaxed gently. "We can't stay here."
Scott looked up at him and nodded mutely. He hated showing any sign of weakness even to his own brother. That was something that his grandfather had drummed into him when he was growing up back East.
‘Be a man, Scotty, and make me proud'.
Harlen Garrett's words echoed in his brain as he struggled to rise, grateful for Johnny's support as he staggered to his feet.
The younger Lancer helped him carefully back onto the horse, but this time Johnny did not climb up behind. The sorrel was the only means of getting clear of the Badlands, and the ex-gunfighter was anxious not to overtax the animal.
"You okay?" Johnny asked, peering up into the ashen face of his brother.
Scott nodded again and wrapped both hands around the saddle horn, a look of grim determination on his features. “Let’s go.”
Johnny gave him another concerned glance and then took up the reins to lead the animal off. However, it was not long before the swaying motion of the horse set off Scott's queasy stomach again, but he clamped his jaws tightly shut and managed to fight off the rising nausea.
It seemed to be growing darker with every step they took, so much so that it was becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the rough terrain. They had been travelling for another fifteen minutes before Johnny realised that the main trail was curving sharply to the right, disappearing from view around a large rocky outcrop. The path appeared definite and well used - the type of path that might well lead to a town. With that hopeful thought in mind Johnny brought the horse to a stop and glanced up at his brother.
"Hey, Scott," he called.
The blond was hunched forward in the saddle, his head bowed, but he slowly looked up and blinked owlishly at the younger man.
"Gonna take a look up ahead," Johnny told him. "You gonna be alright for a minute?"
Scott gave a vague nod and the dark-haired Lancer wondered if his words had even registered in his brother's confused brain. He hesitated for a moment, reluctant to leave his injured sibling, but he needed to see what lay ahead.
Dropping the split end reins, Johnny hurried forward and scrambled up the nearby rocks, carefully watching his footing in the darkness. It would do neither of them any good if he slipped and hurt himself too. Several minutes later, he reached a good vantage spot from which he could overlook the trail. His keen blue eyes scanned the area below, as he searched for any sign of habitation. The setting sun had almost disappeared below the horizon now and with it Johnny's hopes were fading fast. Then, just as he was about to turn away in despair, a final thin finger of sunlight picked out a regular, oblong shape in the distance.
Johnny tensed, stepping forward slightly as he strained his eyes to try and make out the outline, oblivious of the small stones that crumbled beneath his boots and tumbled down the rock face. It could just be a small homestead, he thought, but hell, if it meant getting Scott to safety that would be good enough. Then he started to smile as he discerned more rooflines and he realised that there was indeed a town up ahead.
Turning on his heel, Johnny quickly made his way back down, almost sprawling headlong in his haste to get back to his brother. Scott was exactly where he had left him, his head still bent low, but he glanced up when Johnny grabbed the reins.
"We just struck lucky, Boston," he said. "There's a town about a mile away."
"Town?" Scott queried in surprise. "What town?'
Johnny shrugged and swung himself into the saddle behind the blond. "Don't much matter. We can get help there. That's all that counts."
Before Scott could argue any further, his brother touched his heels against the sorrel's side and they set off at a slow canter. The injured man gasped and squeezed his eyes tightly shut as the movement of the horse once again sent shivers of pain through his battered skull. He felt Johnny's left arm curve around his waist, holding him firmly in place and he tried to relax in the other's reassuring embrace, but darkness was gathering at the edge of his vision.
Johnny could feel the Easterner start to sag in his grasp and he swore softly under his breath.
"Come on, Scott, don't pass out on me now," he pleaded. "We're almost there."
Hearing the desperation in his brother's voice, the older man made a conscious effort to rouse himself and he forced his eyes open. Seeing the ground rushing by beneath the horse's hooves made him dizzy again and his stomach lurched ominously, but he knew they were close and he managed to hold on.
Even though it took them little more than five minutes to reach the outskirts of the town, it was now fully dark and Johnny slowed the horse to a walk as they approached. As it did so, he knew something was wrong, terribly wrong, but his tired brain only told him what it was when they stopped at the edge of the main street.
Not a light burned in the buildings, nor was there any sign of life. Large clumps of tumbleweed blew across the empty street and the blustery wind tore at the loose shutters and doors of the deserted buildings. Johnny stared at the desolate scene before him and his heart sank in despair
"Ghost town," he breathed, his voice barely a whisper. "It’s a damn ghost town!"
"Not...your fault, brother," came the faint reply. "You weren't to know."
"But I should have guessed." Johnny refused to be pacified by Scott's words. His gut instinct should have told him not to trust what he had seen from the rocks - instead he had gone haring in like some damn greenhorn. Had he stopped to think, he would have realised that he had acted purely for the sake of his injured sibling. Instead he blamed himself.
"Must be ...somewhere we can rest."
Scott sounded utterly exhausted, and Johnny sensed the older man was close to collapse. "Yeah, you're right," he answered. "Let's take a look around."
Motioning the horse forward, they made their way slowly down the main thoroughfare eventually stopping by a low building on their right.
"We'll try here, first," the younger Lancer suggested.
"Sheriff's office," Johnny clarified. Scott's confusion was really starting to worry him now. He just hoped that a good night's rest would see an improvement in his weakened condition.
Slipping down from the sorrel, the former gunfighter secured the horse to the hitching rail before reaching up and carefully pulling the semi-conscious man from the saddle, taking the blond's weight easily as Scott's trembling legs threatened to give way beneath him. Drawing his brother's arm around his neck, Johnny led him up the few steps to the office and kicked open the door.
The smell of musty paper assailed their nostrils as the two men stumbled into the room, no doubt emanating from the tattered 'Wanted' posters on the left hand wall. A large desk dominated the opposite side of the room, and behind that was a wall-mounted gun cabinet now empty of its contents. There was another half-open door slightly to the left and even in the dim light Johnny could see that it led to the cells. Hopefully the bunks might still be in place.
Taking a firmer grip on his injured charge, the younger man half-dragged, half-carried Scott through to the next room, sighing with relief when he saw the low cots in the two cells. Even better was the fact that both still held mattresses, albeit grubby and thin affairs.
"Home from home, Boston," Johnny murmured with a slight grin, as he led the blond inside the nearest cell and lowered him on the bunk.
The Easterner subsided onto the palliasse with a barely suppressed groan, his left arm coming up to cover his eyes. Johnny sighed and stood for a moment, hands on hips as he regarded the stricken man, a worried frown etched on his handsome features. Then he turned and left the cell, intent on retrieving his saddlebags and canteen.
Unaware that Johnny had gone, Scott Lancer lay with his eyes closed, wrapped in his own private version of Hell. His head throbbed incessantly with every heartbeat, his chest felt like a mule had kicked him and the continuous waves of vertigo were making him sick to his stomach. However, all his aches and pains were nothing compared to the fact that he knew he was letting his younger brother down.
Everything that had happened to them today had been down to his own stupidity. He was the one who had persuaded Johnny that cutting across the Badlands was a good idea. All right, neither of them could have predicted the duststorm, but he should have been able to control his horse when it had bolted. Dammit, he had been a cavalry officer for four years. Now all he had succeed in doing was to get himself hurt and it had all fallen on Johnny's shoulders to get them out of trouble.
Scott gave a low groan and forced himself to sit up, ignoring the searing pain in his side and head as he swung his legs over the edge of the bunk. Eyes still shut, he leaned forward with his head in his hands as he fought down the rising bile in his throat. 'Come on, Scott' he thought to himself. 'Pull yourself together, man. You faced worst things in the War, you can beat this.'
He sighed wearily and rubbed at his sore, gritty eyes before slowly opening them. So far, so good, he thought, as the dizziness he had been experiencing seemed to have abated for the moment. Scott blinked in the semi-darkness, cursing his blurred vision as he glanced around for his brother.
There was no reply, and mystified and slightly worried by the other’s disappearance Scott took a deep breath before pushing himself gingerly to his feet. Pain exploded in his head and he could not help but cry out from the sheer ferocity of it. His senses reeled alarmingly and although he bit his lower lip hard in an effort to stay upright, he could feel himself falling.
Strong hands suddenly gripped his upper arms, catching him and firmly pushing him back down on the bunk. Scott swallowed hard and found himself looking into a pair of concerned blue eyes.
“You alright?” Johnny asked, crouching down in front of the older man. “Where d’ya think you were going?”
Johnny gave a slight smile. “Well, I’m right here, big brother,” he murmured softly.
The ex-gunfighter had been about to re-enter the sheriff’s office when he had heard Scott’s cry of pain. He had been puzzling over as to why the town had been abandoned, especially as it seemed quite recent, but everything had gone out of his head when he heard that anguished sound. Tossing the saddle bags and canteen onto the desk, Johnny had run through to the next room to find Scott swaying precariously on his feet and quickly caught him before he fell.
Now, as reaction set in, the younger Lancer frowned anxiously as the blond started to shiver. Scott’s face was grey and there was blood on his bottom lip where he had bitten it. Johnny quickly went back out to the office and returned with a blanket and the canteen.
“Here,” he said, draping the blanket around the lean shoulders.
Scott nodded his thanks, grateful for the added warmth, but waved a hand away when Johnny held out the opened canteen.
“You need to drink, brother,” Johnny admonished. “We got enough. ‘Sides there must be somewhere around this ole town where we can find more.”
The Bostonian considered the other’s words for a moment and then took the canteen and held it to his mouth. His hand was so unsteady that he almost spilt the precious liquid, but he managed a few swallows before giving the container back to Johnny.
The dark-haired man smiled and tipped a little water into his mouth before replacing the cap. He just hoped he was right in his assumption that there was more to be had.
"Why don't you lie back down and get some rest, while I'll see if I can make this place more hospitable."
Scott nodded and obediently sank back on the lumpy mattress and wearily closed his eyes, not even opening them when Johnny lifted his feet on the bunk.
"Thanks, brother,” the blond said drowsily.
The ex-gunfighter smiled and clasped the other's forearm affectionately. "No problem, Boston."
Satisfied that Scott was reasonably comfortable, he walked back to the outer office and sat down on the rickety chair behind the desk.
"You know, Scott," he began, pulling open the top drawer. "I can't figger out why this town was abandoned. By the look of it, folks ain't been gone long."
"Maybe there was just no money coming in," the older man suggested.
"Thought of that," Johnny answered. He opened another drawer, but that was just as empty as the first one. "Only that don't seem right." From what he had seen, the town had seemed quite prosperous with the buildings in good repair.
"Perhaps they all struck gold and moved to San Francisco."
Johnny smiled. In spite of what had happened, it appeared that Scott had not lost his wry sense of humour.
“Yeah, you could be right,” he replied. “You reckon they buried a big pot of it someplace?”
Now it was Scott’s turn to grin. He realised that Johnny was deliberately trying to lighten the mood and he was grateful for it. They still had to make the difficult journey home, but whatever happened, they would be together
He sighed and tried to make himself more comfortable on the mattress, half-listening to the sounds of Johnny moving about in the next room. His head still hurt, but the small amount of water he had consumed seemed to have settled his stomach a little. Thus content, it was not long before he started to fall off to sleep, only to jerk awake when a hand touched his shoulder.
“Sorry, Scott,” Johnny said hastily. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
The blond rubbed at his tired eyes. “It’s all right. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Johnny replied. “Just came to tell you I’m gonna find a place to bed down the horse. Then take a look around for some water and mebbe some food. You hungry?”
“Not really.” The very mention of the word made Scott’s belly grow sour, but he would be grateful for more water.
“All right,” the younger man answered. “You just take it easy, big brother and don’t try getting out of that bunk. I don’t want to have to keep picking you up off the floor.”
The dark-haired man started to leave, but Scott reached out and grabbed his arm. “Johnny,” he began, slowly. “I’m sorry I got us into this…”
“Boston, it don’t matter,” the ex-gunfighter cut in. “I ain’t blaming you for anything.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Would it make you feel better?” Johnny countered.
Scott looked up into his younger brother’s azure eyes, recognising the teasing glimmer he loved so much and the corners of his mouth curved in response. Johnny smiled and placed a hand over the blond’s.
“Get some rest. I won’t be long.”
Scott was standing alone on the high ridge overlooking the Lancer ranch. Far below the white walls of the large hacienda gleamed in the bright sunshine, and for as far as the eye could see the sprawling property was surrounded by soaring mountains which faded into the purple horizon. Ever since he had come out West, Scott had never tired of this scene and he knew he would always be happy here. In plain and simple terms, it was home and at its centre was his family.
As if on cue, four figures suddenly emerged from the house and gathered on the front porch and Scott smiled as he recognised the tall, well-built frame of his father, Murdoch, standing proudly in front of his domain. The shorter dark-haired man beside him was of course Johnny, the brother who Scott had grown to love and trust with his life. An attractive young girl and an older man made up the quartet – Teresa, not related by blood but as dear as a sister, and Jelly, the old horse wrangler whose gruff manner hid a heart of gold. They were his family – his home. Then Scott frowned as he suddenly realised that there was something wrong, and for a moment he could not fathom what it was, but then he knew. He was not with them.
Just as he was about to wonder why, a loud rushing sound to his left made him turn his head and his blood froze in his veins at the sight that greeted him. A huge cloud of sand and dust was hurtling rapidly towards the hacienda, destroying everything in its vicious path. Whipping his horrified gaze back to the group on the porch, Scott was appalled to discover that they seemed completing oblivious to the danger. His family remained where they were, talking and laughing as though nothing was wrong.
His heart pounding painfully in his chest, Scott called out to them, but they did not seem to hear his urgent cries. Looking back at the storm, he could see that it was almost upon them and when he tried to run and warn them, he found that he could not move. The terrible roaring noise grew louder – so loud that Scott had to cover his ears with his hands and shut his eyes as pain ripped through his head. Then, amazingly the sound stopped just as abruptly as it had started, and with a sigh of relief Scott opened his eyes again. He wished he hadn’t. Far below, the once immaculate house was gone, reduced to so much dust and rubble. Of his family, there was no trace. They had been totally obliterated by the force of the storm.
“Nooooo!” Scott screamed as he fell to his knees, tears streaming from his eyes, but the swirling sand drifting around the ruins of his home only served to mock him.
A hand on his shoulder made him jump and he leapt to his feet in shock as he saw the white-haired figure of Harlen Garrett standing next to him.
The old man smiled. “So you’re finally free of them, Scotty. They’ve gone from your life forever and now you can come home to Boston with me.”
Scott stared at him in horror. “No, never.”
There was pity on Harlan’s face as he regarded his blond grandson. “There’s nothing for you here, my boy. Come back where you belong. With me.”
Fierce anger suddenly overcame his grief and Scott threw himself at his grandfather, his hands reaching for the other’s throat, but the old man had disappeared, his triumphant laughter ringing in the air.
Scott woke with a violent jolt, his cry of rage dying on his lips as he realised that it had all been a terrible dream. He took a shuddering breath, feeling the cold sweat break out on his skin and he discovered that he was trembling uncontrollably. The blanket, which Johnny had wrapped around him, was now in a tumbled heap on the floor and as Scott ran his hands over his clammy face he remembered where he was and what had happened.
The vivid images of his dream were starting to fade now as the reality of their situation resurfaced in his mind and he turned his head to see if Johnny had returned, but there was no sign of his brother. The faint glow in the other room indicated that Johnny must have found some lamps that still contained oil and again it set Scott to thinking what had occurred to make the people leave this town. Of course there could be any number of reasons, and they would probably never know. For his part, Scott was just pleased to be resting indoors and away from the howling wind that had haunted his dreams.
A soft, metallic click made him look towards the open door leading to the office, half expecting to see the familiar figure of his brother, but he frowned in consternation when no one appeared. Scott was positive he had heard a door open somewhere, and he carefully raised himself on his left elbow.
“Johnny? Is that you?”
There was no answer, and Scott felt the hairs at the back of his neck rise up when he sensed that there was someone watching him from the shadows. His right hand slowly moved towards his revolver still resting in his holster, but he never got a chance to draw the weapon. There was a swift flurry of movement and a large hand was suddenly clamped tightly around his wrist.
“I wouldn’t if I were you, boy!”
Blinking through tears of pain caused by the vice-like grip on his flesh, Scott stared up at the newcomer. The man was very tall, well over six feet and heavily built. Dressed entirely in black, he looked to be in his early fifties, and the lower half of his florid face was covered with a thick dark beard. His piercing brown eyes seemed to bore into Scott’s very soul, and he could barely suppress the icy chill that ran through his body.
“Who are you?” he managed, trying to keep his voice steady.
The stranger did not answer at first, but turned his head as another man appeared at his side. Acting on an almost imperceptible nod of the tall man’s head, the other reached down and deftly removed Scott’s gun and tucked it into the folds of his coat.
“I think that’s the question I should be asking you, boy,” the dark clad man replied solemnly. “This is our town and as I see it, you’re trespassing.”
“Trespassing?” Scott exclaimed, snatching his wrist away as the older man loosened his grip. “This place is abandoned.”
“Not by us.”
The stranger’s menacing tone sent a thrill of fear racing down Scott’s spine and for a moment he thought he was back in the throes of another nightmare. He tore his eyes away from the intense gaze and looked at the other man standing in silence. This one was a lot younger, probably nearer Scott’s own age. Dusty grey clothing hung on his lean frame, and there was a perpetual sneering smile on his thin lips. Greasy dark hair and cold grey eyes completed the unappealing visage, and when Scott looked down, he shuddered at the sight of the large, savage looking knife hanging on the man’s belt.
“What’s your name, son?”
Scott jumped as the big man spoke again. His mind was a mass of confusion. Who were these men and why did they claim the town was their own? The only things that inhabited this desolate place were rats and mice and maybe the ghosts of the absent townsfolk. Ghosts? No, Scott dismissed the thought as soon as it popped into his head. These men were as real as he was - weren’t they?
His delay in answering prompted a hiss of anger from the soberly dressed stranger and drawing a large revolver from his belt, he thrust it under Scott’s chin.
“I asked you your name.”
The blond swallowed convulsively as the cold metal dug into his skin. If he had any doubts before about these strangers being apparitions, the gun reinforced the reality of the situation.
“It’s Lancer. Scott Lancer.”
The stranger smiled and took the weapon away. “See that weren’t so bad, was it? Now we’re acquainted, I can introduce myself. Name’s Benjamin Fox, and my young friend here is Lucius Paige. Maybe you’ve heard of us?”
Scott shook his head. “Sorry, can’t say that I have.”
Fox looked disappointed. “Oh, that’s a shame, but I’m sure you’ll have cause to remember us when we eventually part company.”
The element of menace was back in the man’s voice, but Scott refused to be intimidated by him. He was, however, becoming increasingly worried about Johnny’s whereabouts.
“What happened to your head, son?”
The change in mood caught Scott by surprise and he stared at the older man in confusion. Now Fox seemed to be genuinely concerned, whereas Paige remained impassively quiet.
“My horse threw me during a dust storm,” he replied, seeing no reason to hold anything back.
Fox nodded. “Ah, that’s too bad. Terrible thing those storms. Come up out of nowhere. The story goes that was one of the reasons folks left,” he explained affably. “Them winds kept a-howling and blowing things down, so in the end they gave up and moved on.” He paused, and the grim stare returned to his dark eyes. “We just made sure they didn’t come back.”
Paige suddenly laughed, a high-pitched cackle that set Scott’s teeth on edge. He did not know who these men were purporting to be, but he was in no doubt that they were not in the habit of making idle threats. What had Fox meant by his last remark? How could just two men have prevented a whole community from returning to their rightful homes? The blond was starting to realise that he and his brother had made a very bad mistake when they rode into this town.
“So, who’s Johnny?”
Scott flinched at Fox’s mild inquiry. How could he know he was just thinking about Johnny? It was as of the man could read his mind. However, there was still a chance that they had not yet encountered his brother, and Scott was determined it remained that way.
“Who?” he responded, innocently.
“Don’t play games with me, boy.” Fox said, his voice hardening. “We heard you calling out to him.”
“You must be mistaken. I…”
The big man’s hands shot out and grabbed at Scott’s shirtfront, lifting him up effortlessly. The blond gasped as his cracked ribs protested against the rough treatment, but he stopped himself from crying out.
“You telling me you bandaged your own head?” Fox demanded, harshly. He paused as he caught a glimpse of the bindings around Scott’s chest. “Ribs too, eh? No, you had help, Lancer, so you’d better tell me who or I’m gonna turn you over to Paige. He’ll soon loosen your tongue.”
Scott glanced over at the younger man. The sneering smile had disappeared now, and the thin, cadaverous face was twisted with malicious anticipation. His hand had dropped to his knife and he was fondling it with almost obscene pleasure. The blond licked dry lips, knowing he had no choice in the matter.
“Johnny’s my brother.”
Fox smiled and shoved him back hard on the bunk. “Your brother?” he mused, thoughtfully and he shot a quick look over at Paige. “Ah well, you won’t have to worry about him for a while.”
Scott’s blood suddenly ran cold. “What have you done to him?”
“Nothing – yet.”
The Bostonian was growing sick of this cat and mouse game. He was tired and hurting, but in his eyes Johnny’s welfare was more important than his own troubles. From what Fox had said so far, he suspected that his brother was still free from the man’s clutches. At least he hoped so. Scott was also well aware that Johnny was more than capable of looking after himself and with any luck the two of them would come out of this with their lives.
“What do you want from me, Fox?” he asked, looking his adversary in the eye.
The older man appeared a little disappointed by Scott’s direct approach, but he quickly recovered his composure.
“Well, money is always a good incentive,” Fox replied, emphatically “Do you have any money, my friend?”
Scott’s heart fell. He could see where this was leading to now. The two men were just plain and simple outlaws who used threats and intimidation to rob unsuspecting victims. That did not mean that they were not dangerous, and peoples lives probably meant very little to them. Fox had intimated that the harsh weather in the area had been one of the reasons why the townsfolk had left. Scott now realised that some other factor was also to blame.
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck, gentlemen,” he said with some degree of satisfaction. “I lost most of my belongings when my horse ran off.” That much was true, the most devastating loss was Teresa’s earrings, long since disappeared into the wilds. ”You’re welcome to the few dollars I have on me.”
Paige cursed vehemently and spat his disgust onto the floor, but Fox held up a placating hand.
“I think you’re underestimating your own value, Scott,” he insisted. “It just so happens that I’ve heard the name Lancer before.” Fox paused, seeing the flash of alarm in the blond’s eyes, and he knew his assumptions were correct. “There’s a large spread over by Morro Coyo way, owned by one Murdoch Lancer if I’m not mistaken. Your father?”
Scott looked away, knowing he had been caught in the older man’s trap, but he was not prepared to admit the truth.
“How much would he pay to get you back, I wonder?” the outlaw added.
“It’s not as simple as that, Fox,” Scott told him. “Most of Lancer money is tied up in the land. My father is not as rich as you think.”
“Not even to save his own son’s life? He must think very little of you.”
The blond winced inwardly at the last remark. There was a time when he had thought just that. In the twenty-four years he had been growing up in his grandfather’s house, he had almost forgotten he had a father. It still hurt to recall that Murdoch had never come to claim him during his formative years and Scott had only recently discovered that his father had come to see him on his fifth birthday. The pain of that rejection had cut deep into his soul and Scott wondered if it would ever completely heal.
“In that case, perhaps we should just kill you now and take your brother instead.”
Scott glanced up at him in horror. Not because of the fear of dying – he had faced death many times during the War – but at the thought of Johnny being held hostage by these two unpredictable men.
“No! Leave my brother out of this.”
Fox grinned. “Oh, how touching. It’s so refreshing to discover such filial devotion.” He stepped away from the bunk and pulled out his gun. “Now stand up.”
Scott hesitated for a moment, only because he was not sure if he could indeed get up without falling flat on his face again. The verbal sparring with Benjamin Fox had escalated the pain in his head so much that he felt like screaming. The dizziness was still just as bad and as he slowly sat up, he felt his stomach lurch once more.
Paige grabbed his arm impatiently and pulled him off the cot. Caught off balance, Scott fell to his knees, but the other hauled him to his feet and went to push him towards the open doorway. However, the young outlaw wasn’t prepared for Scott’s elbow to be dug sharply into his stomach. He gasped as the blow drove the breath from his body, and he lost his grip on his prisoner.
The blond’s attack took Fox by surprise too, and before he realised it Scott had stumbled into the outer office and was heading for the door. Pushing the unfortunate Paige aside, Fox moved with a speed that belied his large frame, catching his prey just as he had placed his hand on the door handle.
Scott knew he was lost as soon as the man’s powerful grip fastened on his shoulder. Fox spun him around and sent him crashing heavily into the chair by the desk. The blond heard the distinctive crack of bone as one of his damaged ribs finally gave way, but his cry was swiftly cut off as Fox dragged him up again and then drove his fist into his jaw. Pain exploded all around him and he felt himself falling helplessly into a black void. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
Bang, bang, BANG! Johnny Lancer vented all his pent up anger in his savage kicks on the stable door, his boots forcing small splinters of wood to drop to the ground. He could not believe that he had been fooled so easily, but he was determined that whoever was responsible was going to pay the consequences.
After he had left Scott quietly dozing in the sheriff’s office, he quickly watered the horse in a nearby trough and then led the tired sorrel down the street to the livery stable that he had spotted on their arrival. Although the main door squeaked in protest as he heaved it open it, like the other buildings in the ghost town, was far from being beyond repair. As Johnny walked the horse inside, he wrinkled his nose at the smell of stale straw and accumulated dust, but it seemed relatively dry and would certainly serve the animal for the night.
Leading it into the nearest stall, he tied the split end reins together behind the horse’s neck and then unfastened the bridle, hooking it over his arm. Taking the rope from the saddle, Johnny fashioned a rough halter and slipped it over the sorrel’s head, tying the other end to the rusty iron ring on the wall.
“Sorry this might not be what you’re used to, ole fellar,” he murmured softly to the animal, “but it’ll have to do for now.”
The sorrel snorted loudly in his ear, and Johnny smiled and patted it on the neck before he removed the saddle and blanket. Although the horse had drunk some water, it needed food it was going to get them home, so the ex-gunfighter’s next task was to hunt around the livery for any supplies, which might have been left behind.
When the main door slammed shut, Johnny was not overly alarmed. The wind was still blowing quite strongly outside and he simply thought that a sudden gust had caught it. He shrugged and continued looking, eventually discovering a bundle of hay in a far corner. When he bent to pick it up a large family of mice ran out, startling Johnny before scattering into the shadows. He shook his dark head ruefully and carried the hay back for the patient animal.
“There you go, boy,” he said. “Eat up. We got a long way to go in the morning ”
Leaving the sorrel happily munching, Johnny made his way over to the exit, easing the kinks out of his aching shoulders. He was anxious to get back to Scott now and check that he was all right. Hopefully, if their luck held, they might reach Lancer by nightfall tomorrow.
Pushing at the door, he was mildly surprised when it did not open. He tried again, harder this time, but the door remained firmly shut. Frowning in consternation, Johnny pushed once more, this time using both hands, but it refused to budge. He sighed as he realised what must have happened. Something was blocking the stable door from the outside, probably as a result of the same gust of wind that had blown it shut in the first place. However, the harder Johnny tried to push, the more he got to thinking that whatever had occurred was no freak accident.
“Dammit!” he growled, resorting to using his shoulder and finally his feet to batter the door down and although it gave a little, it was not enough. Johnny pounded his fist angrily against the wood knowing with absolute certainly that he had been deliberately been shut inside. The obvious question was – by whom?
When he and his brother had ridden in, there had been no visible signs that anybody had lived here for months, but there was no doubt in his mind that a human hand was at work here. For one crazy moment, Johnny thought it might have been Scott playing a trick on him, but that notion was discounted almost as soon as it popped into his head. His brother was barely able to stand, let alone walk down to the livery.
Johnny’s stomach clenched with fear as he thought of his sibling lying injured in the sheriff’s office. If there was someone around who was malicious enough to imprison him in the livery, Scott might well be in imminent danger. That terrifying thought set him off kicking and pounding at the wood again, but he knew it was futile. He had to find another way out fast.
Moving away from the stable door, Johnny prowled around hunting for a weak point in the livery’s walls. The sorrel skittered away from him nervously as he came near its stall, disturbed by the loud noises he had been making, and Johnny paused to calm the animal with a reassuring pat before resuming his search. His eyes were well accustomed to the darkness now, but it still took him several minutes to find what he was looking for.
Near the back of the stable, the ex-gunfighter discovered some damp, rotting timbers near the base of the wall, and he guessed that it would not take much to break them down. Turning around, Johnny tried to locate something he could use, eventually finding a broken, pitchfork handle. Testing it for weight, he reckoned that it would do the job, so he set to, grim determination lending strength to his blows.
It proved much harder than he anticipated, and by the time he had make a hole large enough to crawl through, Johnny was dripping with sweat. Tossing the handle aside, he dropped to his knees and scrambled through the rough opening, snagging his shirtsleeve on the splintered wood.
Standing up, Johnny glanced around, momentarily disorientated by his unfamiliarity with the town’s layout. Then he spotted the main street away to his left and ran quickly up the alley around to the main entrance of the livery.
“Sonofabitch!” he hissed vehemently, as he stared at the door. The wooden locking beam had dropped into place, but when Johnny looked closer, he could see the metal pin had rusted away meaning that the beam could have easily fallen down when the door slammed. A simple accident or was there really someone else hiding in the town? Johnny sighed in exasperation. He had wasted too much time already. Right now the most important thing was to get back to Scott.
Turning swiftly on his heel, Johnny sprinted back down the street, slowing when he neared the sheriff’s office. Pulling out his Colt he stepped noiselessly onto the boardwalk. Ducking under the main window, he straightened up and paused by the closed door. He pressed his ear against the wood and listened carefully for sounds of movement inside, but there was nothing.
He glanced around at the empty street, his blue eyes probing the darkness for any flicker of shadows, anything that might indicate that someone was lurking amongst the deserted buildings. However the place was as quiet as a graveyard. Johnny shivered as a sudden chill ran through his tense body. This town was giving him the creeps and he would be glad to see the back of it. Maybe the ghostly atmosphere was just making him jumpy, imagining dangers that were not really there. He might have believed that if it was not for that bar on the livery stable door. That was real enough.
Taking a deep breath and a firmer grip on his revolver, Johnny placed his hand on the doorknob and slowly turned it. The door swung open and the ex-gunfighter peered inside before venturing any further, but the office appeared empty. He shot another quick look behind him and then slid in to the office. With his back close to the wall and his gun levelled, Johnny reached out his foot and toed the door shut, but no one was lying in wait.
Johnny let out a long sigh of relief, and wiped the sweat from his upper lip. You’re getting paranoid, boy, he told himself, but then again maybe that was what had kept him alive in the years when he was Johnny Madrid. Then he had lived by his wits and the speed of his draw. It had held him in good stead then and he saw no reason to stop now. With that thought in mind, he moved toward the other room, his gun still in his hand. However, as he stepped through the open door, all coherent thought fled as he realised that not only was the office empty, but Scott was gone too.
Johnny stood in shocked silence, staring in disbelief at the empty cell. The rumpled mattress was lying askew across the cot and the blanket was heaped on the floor. The ex-gunfighter ran an unsteady hand through his dark hair unable to comprehend where his brother had gone. He thought back to the crazy idea that Scott had trapped him the livery, but even if he had managed to make his way down, Johnny doubted that he would have had the strength to heave the door shut. Surely that could not have been an accident – could it?
With growing anxiety, Johnny turned and ran back outside, looking frantically along the main street for any sign of Scott. Knowing how confused the injured man was, he might have tried to come looking for his brother. His heart drumming with fear, Johnny started to hurry back toward the livery, but he stopped when he reached the next block of buildings. No, Scott could not have come this way as he would have seen him on the way back - unless of course he was lying unconscious somewhere else.
His earlier caution forgotten in his near panic over his brother’s disappearance, Johnny holstered his gun and cupped his hands to his mouth.
“Scott!’ he shouted, his voice carrying down the deserted street.
There was no sound but the creak of the swinging signs and the banshee howl of the wind. He called again, although he knew in his heart that there would be no answering cry. For the second time that day he had lost his brother, and he was at a loss to know where to start looking. With dragging footsteps, Johnny made his way back to the sheriff’s office and wandered through to the cells, but his head suddenly jerked up as he spotted a folded sheet of paper lying on the bunk recently occupied by his brother. His blood started pounding painfully in his temples as he realised that it had certainly not been there before.
Johnny leapt forward and snatched it up. As he opened it, something fluttered out and fell on the bunk, and the ex-gunfighter reached forward to pick it up. It was a lock of human hair, ash blond in colour; the edges were tinged with dried blood and he knew without a doubt that it was Scott’s.
Dragging his horrified gaze away, Johnny looked at the note clutched tightly in his fist and his breath seemed to constrict in his lungs as he read the words.
‘Don’t bother looking for your brother. We’ve got him where you’ll never find him. If you want to see him alive again, come back here in three days time with $6000. Come alone or he’s dead.’
Johnny swallowed hard and he looked back at the lock on hair in his other hand, twirling it slowly between his trembling fingers.
“Oh God,” he whispered, closing his eyes in despair. “Scott.”
His worst fears had been confirmed in those four sentences. Someone had deliberately shut him in the livery, and while he was trapped inside they had snatched his brother. The dried blood on the blond hair might have come from Scott’s original head injury, but knowing his brother as he did, Scott would have not been taken without a fight. However, he reasoned with rising hope, the note could have only been planted in the last few minutes, so the kidnappers had to be close by and Johnny was determined to find them.
The question was where? Surely if they had horses, he would have heard them riding off. That meant they had to be in town somewhere and Johnny was prepared to tear the whole place down if he had to. Dropping the piece of hair onto the paper, he crumpled it up and stuffed into his pocket, before exiting the cell. As he did so, he noticed another door in the corner that he had obviously missed before. Going over to it, he tried the handle, but found that it was locked.
Johnny’s fragile control on his temper finally snapped. Drawing his gun, he fired at the lock and wrenched open the door, stepping out into a back alley. Darkness surrounded him like a vast cloak, but the ex-gunfighter’s jittery nerves had disappeared. He was now as mad as Hell and tired of unseen shadows playing tricks on him. Johnny just wanted to get even.
“I know you’re here!” he shouted. “Come out and show yourself!”
He did not expect a response and he was not disappointed. Johnny went back inside and walked through to the main street, but no one appeared to meet his challenge. Giving a mirthless grin, the young man continued down the boardwalk to the next building along.
“I ain’t giving up on you, Scott,” he muttered as he opened the door. “I’m gonna do whatever it takes to find you.”
Over an hour later, a tired and very dejected Johnny Lancer found himself back at the sheriff’s office. He had made a systematic search of the entire town and found nothing to give him any clues to Scott’s whereabouts. Johnny was not even sure now that his brother and his captors were still in the vicinity. Whoever had taken Scott had covered their tracks very well and had vanished completely.
Johnny walked back into the cells, half expecting to find another note there, but it was just as he had left it. Straightening up the mattress, he slumped down on the bunk and dropped his head in his hands. He felt sick with worry over his brother, but there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. Even if his horse was ready to ride, there was no way he could look in the dark. Tomorrow he would have to make the painful journey home without Scott at his side. Murdoch needed to know what had happened and make arrangements for the ransom money to be raised.
There would be endless questions from his father, Teresa, and Jelly and he knew he owed them the answers. Then there was his own guilt and anguish about leaving Scott to the mercy of his abductors. Johnny had never felt more helpless and the thought of abandoning his brother was tearing him apart. Bitter tears stung his eyes as he lay back on the bunk and stared up the cobwebbed ceiling.
“Hang on in there, big brother,” he said softly. “I’m coming back for you.”
Jake Summers whistled cheerfully as he climbed down the ladder to the lower galleries. Summers, or ‘Rat’ as he was called by his companions, liked it down here. In his eyes, it was warm and comforting like a mother’s womb. To him the dank, cloying smell of damp earth and the constant stench of stale air did not exist. It was simply his home. A small, slight man, Summers was in his early thirties, although he looked about ten years older. His sharp, pointed features and prominent front teeth had earned him his nickname, but it was the fact that he preferred to haunt the fetid bowels of the earth that made it doubly appropriate.
Still whistling, he made his way along the short passage and stopped by a low doorway. Producing a key from his pocket, he inserted it into the lock. The hinges were stiff with under-use and he had to force the door open with his shoulder. Snatching a lantern from the wall, he held it above his head and entered the small chamber. The meagre light barely illuminated the gloomy interior, but it did pick out the unmoving shape lying in the centre of the room. Locking the door behind him, Summers stepped cautiously forward and stood over the prone figure, his hand lightly resting on his gun.
The young man did not stir, not even when Rat slid the canteen off his shoulder and let it fall within inches of his face. Summers frowned and kicked him over onto his back, but still he got no reaction. He glanced nervously towards the door and then turned back to stare down at the unresponsive form. The other’s pallid features were in stark contrast to the surrounding darkness. His blond hair hung limply over the grimy, bloodstained bandage around his forehead, and the once white shirt was torn and filthy.
“Hey, Mister. Wake up!” Summers called, kicking him again. This time he thought he heard a soft groan, but he could not be sure. With an impatient huff of breath, Jake turned and walked back to unlock the door. He paused briefly and glanced back, then shrugged and went out plunging the chamber into darkness once again.
Scott Lancer had been drifting in and out of consciousness for several hours now. Every time he surfaced from its clutches, he was greeted by pain and it was easier just to escape back to the safe haven where there was none. He had stirred when he heard the door scrape open, heard someone walking towards him, but he had kept his eyes closed and remained curled on his left side, not even flinching when something dropped nearby. The first kick surprised rather than hurt him, but he had barely suppressed a groan when a second sent ripples of agony through his upper body. Scott was greatly relieved when the man gave up and went away.
When he finally opened his eyes, Scott thought he had gone blind. The darkness was so complete, so overwhelming and his heart started to pound with fear. Then he realised he could see slight variations in the shades of black and he felt himself growing calmer. As he started to relax a little, snatches of memory began to return, although it was difficult while his head was throbbing with pain.
He remembered the dust storm and falling from his horse. He recalled Johnny’s concerned face and the arduous journey to a deserted town. Scott also remembered the two mysterious strangers appearing out of nowhere and trying to escape from them. The rest was a blur of confusion, pain, and darkness. Now he had no idea where he was or how long he’d been here. The only thing he was certain of was that he was alone and he hurt a lot.
Scott shifted slightly on the ground, gasping as fiery tendrils spread across his chest. He knew that he had broken a rib, probably one he had damaged in his initial fall. If he kept his breathing light and shallow, the pain was bearable and he was glad that his brother had been able bound his ribs earlier.
Where was he now? Had he managed to get away from the two strangers or was he a prisoner also. They had said that they wanted money, but the Bostonian had no idea how long they would be prepared to wait to get it.
Suddenly remembering that something had been dropped beside him, Scott stretched out his left arm, his fingers searching carefully for the object. It was too dark to see what he was looking for, but then he felt a leather strap and realised that it was a canteen. Pulling it towards him, his other hand fumbled for the lid and he quickly unscrewed it. Lifting his head a little he raised the canteen to his cracked lips. Most of the water tricked down his chin, but he managed to gulp down a few mouthfuls. He knew he should be careful not to drink too much, but he had not realised how just thirsty he was until he started.
Eventually his greed got the better of him and he started coughing, which aggravated his chest once more and he slumped back on the ground, gasping for air. The painful spasms left him exhausted, but he was careful to screw the lid back on the canteen and keep it close by. He did not know when or if his captors would bring him more and his chances of survival were virtually non-existent without it.
He must have fallen back to sleep again, because the next thing he knew was that he could hear voices and he also became aware that there was a dim light wavering before him.
“Mebbe you hit him too hard, Ben.”
“Shut up, Rat. What do you know?”
Scott recognised the deep tones of Fox, but whom was he talking to?
“Lucius, see if he’s breathing.”
There was a name he did know; Scott suddenly tensed as he felt a calloused hand close over his mouth and nose. He gave an involuntary gasp as his air was cut off and then he heard Paige give a low chuckle.
“Yep, he’s breathing.”
“Then wake him up, my friend.”
Although he should have anticipated it, Scott was still caught off-guard by the heavy slap around the face and he yelped with pain.
“Come on, Lancer. Ya beauty sleep’s over.”
Scott opened his eyes to find the grinning face of Lucius Paige looming over him, but then the man stood aside as Fox came over.
“Welcome back, Scott,” he said cheerily. “Rat here was getting quite concerned about you.”
The blond shifted his gaze to the small man standing a little way back and wondered just how many others Fox had working for him.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you haven’t met,“ Ben apologised, drawing the other closer. “This is Jake Summers, affectionately known as Rat. You should thank him. He’s the one who brought you the water.”
Scott realised that this was not a request and looked back at Summers. “Thank you.”
The other seemed slightly embarrassed by his gratitude and lowered his head. Fox gave a mocking smile and then turned his attention back to his prisoner.
“How are you feeling, Scott? You look very uncomfortable lying there.” He glanced up at his companions, “Lucius, Rat, bring that crate over here and sit our guest up.”
Paige muttered something under his breath, but went over to help Summers. Positioning the crate behind the blond, the two men grabbed Scott’s arms and pulled him up. Pain flared in his chest and head, and he gave a sharp hiss as he was pushed back against the rough wooden surface.
“There, isn’t that better, my friend?” Fox asked.
Scott curled an arm around his aching ribs and glared back at him. The big man saw the defiance in the blue-grey eyes, but he was not overly concerned. He was the one in control here, as Lancer would soon find out to his cost if he caused any further trouble.
“Rat, give Scott some more water. He looks like he could do with some.”
Summers fetched the canteen and opened it, but Scott shook his head.
“You’d better drink or it will be taken away.” Fox warned.
Once again, the Bostonian knew he had no choice in the matter, so he took the canteen and drank a few sips before handing it back. His reluctant compliance seemed to please the black dressed man and he crouched down in front of his captive, a beaming smile on his face.
“We can’t have you dying of thirst, can we?” he said, pleasantly. “After all, you’re worth a great deal of money to us.”
Scott leaned his head back wearily against the crate. “I already told you. My father isn’t as well off as you seem to think he is.”
“And we both know that’s a lie.” Fox replied. “It’s a well known fact that Murdoch Lancer owns thousands of acres of land, and a splendid house to boot.”
Scott felt a sudden chill of fear run through him. “How do you know so much about my father?”
The other grinned. “Let’s just say I make it my business to find out.”
The blond frowned, wondering just how Fox had obtained such information about his family. Perhaps he and his father had crossed paths in the past? They looked round about the same age, but even now there were a lot of things that Scott did not know about his father, and would probably never find out.
Fox stood up and walked back to join the other two, before turning to Scott again.
“Well, you’ll be pleased to know that your brother left this morning to fetch the money. He didn’t seem too keen to go, but he went in the end.”
“Johnny?” Scott hoped the man was telling him the truth – not for his sake, but for Johnny’s.
“Don’t worry,” Fox assured him. “He’ll be back in a couple of days with the $6000.”
“$6000!” Scott was appalled. There was no way on earth for Murdoch to raise that amount of money in a few days.
“Oh, you think you’re worth more?” the other asked, misunderstanding the dismay on the blond’s face. “Maybe we should have demanded more, boys?” Paige and Summers both sniggered at their leader’s comment, but he did not join in with their laughter. “Let’s hope your precious Johnny gets back here in time,” the older man said, his eyes fixed directly on Scott. “Otherwise I’ll just have to turn you over to Paige here.”
The thin-faced man stepped forward at Fox’s offer.
“Why don’t you hand him over to me now, Ben,” he suggested. “That purty lock of hair I loped off don’t seem much.”
Scott instinctively reached up to touch his head and his trembling hand found the shorn area almost immediately.
“Lucius wanted one of your fingers to leave for your brother,” Fox explained, “but I persuaded him otherwise.”
The blond looked at both men in turn in mute horror. He remembered another time when someone had used a similar threat. When Drago and his men had taken him hostage at the ranch Scott had undergone all kinds of terror, but in spite of all that had happened to him, he had come to admire and even like the outlaw. Somehow, he did not think he would feel the same about these men.
“I suppose you expect me to thank you for that, too?” he asked.
There was a sudden flurry of black as Fox darted back to his captive and backhanded him brutally across the face. Scott’s head rocked back across the crate, but he was too stunned to cry out. The big man grabbed a handful of blond hair and wrenched him forward.
“I expect you to show me some respect, son,” he snarled. “I hold your life in my hands and if I decide to end it, then I will and it won’t be quick. I may let Paige loose with his knife, but I’ll be the one who’ll finish the job, do you understand?”
With his senses reeling and blood streaming from his nose and mouth, Scott was incapable of answering, but Fox took his silence as a sign of further defiance and raised his hand again.
“I said, do you understand?”
“Y…yes,” Scott croaked.
Fox gave a satisfied nod and thrust him away. Barely conscious Scott watched the three men leave, taking the lantern with them. As the heavy door closed behind them and he was once again left alone in the darkness, Scott felt as through he had been buried alive in a vast tomb – a tomb from which there was no escape.
Twilight was fast descending when Johnny spotted the large white archway that designated the entrance of the Lancer ranch. Swaying in the saddle with exhaustion, he pulled the blowing sorrel to a halt and gazed towards his home. Normally it would have been a welcome sight - a time to relax and enjoy the company in his family. However, now it just filled him with dread.
Johnny had left the ghost town just after first light, having snatched a couple of hours of uneasy sleep. He was surprised that he had managed to sleep at all, but after spending countless hours worrying about Scott, he eventually dropped off a few hours before dawn. When he awoke in the cold grey light of morning, there was another note waiting for him.
As he sat slumped in the saddle, Johnny could feel the anger bubbling up inside him again as he recalled that moment. Someone had crept in while he slept and placed the carefully folded sheet of paper squarely in the middle of his chest. Frustrated and humiliated by the kidnappers audacity, Johnny had grabbed it and ran outside into the street, but it was too late. Whoever had left the note was long gone and he was left to fume in impotent rage. Going back inside, he had sat down at the desk and opened the sheet, his anger quickly giving way to fear as he read the words.
‘You’d better get going, Johnny. Your brother isn’t going to get any healthier the longer you stay here. Remember you have 3 days starting today. Bring the money back here at 2.00 o’clock on the third day or he dies.’
Both of the notes, together with the lock of hair were safely stashed in his saddlebags and he now faced the painful task of telling his father what had happened. The ex-gunfighter’s guilt weighed heavily on his heart and he felt sure that Murdoch would blame him entirely. Rightly so in Johnny’s eyes. He should never have left him in the office, nor been foolish enough to be duped into being shut in the livery. He had let his guard down, and now his brother was paying the consequences. If Scott died, his blood would be on his hands.
Johnny sighed and pushed a hand through his unruly dark hair before touching his heels to the sorrel’s sides. There was no sense staying here. The truth had to be told and there was no going back.
Jelly Hoskins was just coming out of the hacienda when he heard the sound of an approaching horse. Turning, his eyes narrowed with curiosity at the sight of an unfamiliar animal, but then he recognised the rider.
“Well, you took your sweet time getting back here,” he admonished. “You miss the stage or summat?”
Johnny ignored the older man’s question and slid down from the saddle, stumbling slightly with fatigue.
“Murdoch in the house?” he asked quietly.
“Now where else do you expect him to be?” Jelly stopped, seeing the lines of strain on the young man’s face, then glanced around expectantly. “Where’s yer brother?”
Johnny had no answer and removed his saddlebags before holding out the sorrel’s reins. “Can you take care of the horse for me?”
Jelly nodded and took them wordlessly, seeing the pain in the other’s blue eyes and watched as Johnny walked slowly to the front porch.
Murdoch was sitting in an armchair, enjoying a pre-dinner whiskey when he heard the door open and the familiar sound of his younger son’s spurs jingling on the wooden floor. Setting his glass down, he rose to his feet with a welcoming smile on his lips.
“At last! We were beginning to give up on you two…” His words trailed off when he saw Johnny standing alone just inside the room and he felt a sudden stab of fear. “What’s happened? Where’s Scott?”
Johnny lifted his dark head and looked directly at his father.
“Scott’s been kidnapped.”
“What!” Murdoch exclaimed, staring at his son in horror. “Who by? Where…?”
The younger man put up his hand as Murdoch began to fire questions at him. The long ride had taken its toll on the ex-gunfighter and he could feel his aching limbs trembling with exhaustion. Seeing his white face and dusty, travel stained clothing, Murdoch quickly stepped forward and took Johnny’s arm and led him over to the armchair.
“Here, sit down,” he said, pushing the other into the seat. Picking up his discarded drink, he placed it in his son’s hand, wrapping his fingers around the glass. “Drink,” he ordered.
Johnny hesitated for a moment, and then took a few tentative sips.
“All of it,” Murdoch insisted.
Johnny drank, feeling the fiery spirit burn all the way down to his stomach, and then gave the empty glass back to his father. Murdoch set it down on the table and drew up another chair.
“Now tell me everything.”
The younger man sighed wearily, but then started to recount everything that had transpired since he and Scott had left Stockton the previous day. His father’s craggy face grew more concerned as he went on, but Johnny spared him nothing. It gave him a small measure of relief to share his burden with someone else, although the guilt remained as strong as ever.
When Johnny finished speaking, Murdoch stood and walked over to pour himself a large whiskey. The news had left him stunned and he needed a few minutes to collect his thoughts. Taking a quick gulp of the liquor, he wandered over to the large picture window and stared out into the gathering darkness.
Johnny glanced at his father’s broad back and sank back in the chair, closing his eyes briefly. It was obvious from the older man’s silence that he held him accountable for what had happened to Scott. The two brothers had vowed to look out for each other and Johnny felt that he had failed Scott when he needed him most.
“I shouldn’t have left him.”
The words were softly spoken, almost to himself, but Murdoch heard them and turned.
“You weren’t to know those men were in that town,” he stated. “It could just as easily have been you they snatched.”
“But it wasn’t!” Johnny surged to his feet, blue eyes flashing with anger. “It was Scott. In the condition he was in, he wouldn’t have stood a chance against them. I should have been there for him.”
His father put down his glass and came over to place his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder.
“Johnny, I’m not blaming you for anything. The most important thing now is to get Scott back.”
There was no argument there, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
“You still have the notes?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny nodded and went over to fetch his saddlebags from the dining table. Carefully removing the two sheets of paper, he handed them over to his father who walked back to his desk and sat down. Murdoch opened the first one, his face paling under its tan as the lock of blond hair fell out. He swallowed past the lump in his throat as he picked it up and looked at it. It was the same colour as Catherine’s, Scott’s mother, lost so many years ago giving birth to his eldest. I’m not going to lose him too, he vowed as he glanced towards her picture.
The brief notes from the kidnappers gleaned no clue as to their identity. His two boys were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and the men had taken full advantage of the situation.
“How quickly can we get the money?”
Murdoch looked up at Johnny’s weary face and sighed heavily.
“$6000 is a lot of money, son. You know I don’t keep that amount of cash here, and even if I go to the bank in town, I doubt if they’ll have enough.”
“What’s the matter with you, old man?” Johnny snapped. “This is Scott’s life we’re talking about here, not some prize bull you want to buy!”
“I know that!” Murdoch retorted. “If we just had more time…”
“Scott doesn’t have time,” the younger man stated. “If I’m not back the day after tomorrow, they’ll kill him for sure.”
His father nodded grimly and placed the notes away in his desk drawer.
“Then they’ll have gained nothing.”
Johnny gave a bitter laugh. “Somehow, I don’t think they care.”
Murdoch stared up at his dark-haired son, wishing there was something he could say to ease the young man’s pain, but he knew anything he said would be inadequate. Scott and Johnny were so different in temperament, yet when they were together they were in perfect harmony. The senior Lancer had missed out so much when they were growing up, and he liked nothing better than to see his two boys sitting close to each other, listening to their teasing banter. Whatever the cost, he was determined to see that continue.
“We’ll go into town first thing, Johnny,” he said. “We’ll get the money even if I have to rob the damned bank!”
In spite of everything, the ex-gunfighter had to smile as the unlikely image of his father in the guise of a masked bank robber popped into his head.
Murdoch picked up the lock of hair again, staring morosely at it for a moment before putting it safely away in the drawer.
“Why don’t you go and get cleaned up,” he told the younger man as he stood. “I’d better go and tell Teresa.”
“Teresa!” With all his worry over Scott, Johnny hadn’t given his ‘sister’ a thought when he had arrived back. “Where is she?”
‘Upstairs,” his father replied. “She was having the final fitting for her dress for tomorrow’s party, but now….”
Johnny cursed under his breath. What was to have been a happy family occasion was now overshadowed by the actions and greed of Scott’s abductors. Teresa’s birthday would be ruined, but he knew she would be more upset about the fate of her older ‘brother’ to care about herself. One thing was certain, it made Johnny more determined to get Scott back and come what may, he was going to succeed.
It was the cold that finally woke him. A deep, penetrating chill that crept into the very marrow of his bones and made them ache. Unaware of the passing of time, Scott Lancer stirred and opened his eyes to find that he was shivering uncontrollably, his thin shirt scant protection against the icy atmosphere. Staring into the ever-present darkness, he groaned softly as the pain of his various injuries started to re-assert themselves. Although his headache had receded to a dull throbbing and his face felt stiff and sore where Fox had hit him, it was his damaged ribs which troubled him most.
Scott was still propped up against the wooden crate where Paige and Summers had left him, but he knew he had to move soon. His limbs were beginning to feel numb and the longer he sat here, the worse it would get. Ever since he had first found himself in this cold and dismal place, Scott had wondered why his captors had not bothered to tie him up. That must mean only one thing - that they did not expect him to be able to escape from his prison. If that was the case, Scott was going to prove them wrong.
Taking a deep breath, the blond started to push himself up, using the heavy crate as support. Pain sliced through his chest and a cold sweat broke out on his brow, but somehow he managed to get to his feet. However, even that small effect tired him and he had to sit down quickly on the edge of the crate. Panting heavily, Scott cradled his arm around his ribs and focused his blurred vision towards what he believed was the direction of the door. From what he could remember, he guessed that it was situated almost directly opposite. Well, there was only way to find out.
He took another steadying breath and moved slowly forward, his hands stretched out before him. It seemed to take him an age to reach it, but his fingers finally connected with solid wood and he fell against the door in relief. Passing both hands over it, he traced the outline down to the metal lock and he crouched down to put his eye to the keyhole, but it was as black outside as it was inside. Scott straightened up and leaned his head against the thick wood as despair threatened to overwhelm him.
Being locked up in this dank and cheerless room inevitably brought back memories of the time when he had been incarcerated in Libby Prison during the War. The huge building, a former tobacco warehouse, had been home to nearly 125,000 Union prisoners of war and it had been a living Hell. Food was scarce and mostly inedible, the water was just as bad, and sanitation virtually non-existent. As a result, hundreds of men had died there and the lucky ones who survived would never forget their experiences within its notorious walls.
The one thing that always filled Scott with dread was the rats. Surrounded by the squalor and filth of so many unwashed human bodies, the rats grew as big as cats and infested every corner of Libby. Starving prisoners used to catch and kill them, their desperate hunger driving them to eat them as food. Many subsequently died from disease, and Scott vowed that he would never follow their example. Ever since Libby, the blond had suffered an aversion to the creatures, although he had never admitted it to anyone, even his own family. He hated their scurrying movements and he shuddered as he remembered how they used to run across his body while he slept. Now Scott was convinced that there were rats inside this room. He had heard them rustling in the shadows and knew if he had to spend any length of time here, he would go mad with fear. Feeling his panic starting to rise, he pounded his fist against the door, hating himself for his weakness, and angry with his captors for confining him here.
‘Dammit,’ he thought, there had to be a way out. Stretching out his left arm, he began to feel his way along the wall and he was surprised to find that it appeared to be made from irregular lumps of rock. Was he being held in some kind of cave? No, who had ever heard of a cave with a fixed door?
Scott went on a bit further, his curiosity increasing as he realised that the rocky surface was curving around to the left. Suddenly, his legs connected with something hard and before he knew it he had fallen to his knees. He swore in frustration, the pain from his bruised shins adding more misery to his battered body. Reaching forward, he tried to identify what had tripped him up and discovered that the obstruction consisted of several long blocks of timber piled on top of each other. Sitting back on his heels, Scott considered what they might have been used for. The wood was roughly hewn, but appeared very strong – just the type of thing that would be used to support a tunnel. Yes, that was it, he thought. A mine, deep underground where no light could penetrate and the chamber in which he was imprisoned must be some kind of storage area.
Determined to prove his theory, Scott climbed slowly to his feet and continued his careful exploration. He was tired, cold, and aching in every muscle, but it was better than sitting around doing nothing. It took him about ten long minutes to negotiate his way around, stumbling like a blind man until he eventually found himself back at the door. Utterly weary now, he turned around and let himself slide down to the floor, leaning back against the wood. His captors had chosen this place well. The mine chamber was made of solid rock and there was no way out except for this door.
Scott ran a hand through his tousled blond hair, dragging the makeshift bandage from his head. The gash still stung, but the bleeding had ceased some time ago. Twisting the strip of material in his hands, he could not fail to recall Johnny tearing his new shirt into shreds so he could bind his wound. How long ago was that? Time seemed to have lost all meaning for him here. Fox had given his family three days to come up with the money. Had those three days come and gone? What if Johnny had already returned and been gunned down by his captors? With his brother dead and the $6000 in their hands, they would hardly have bothered to release him.
He could feel the panic starting to rise again as these grim thoughts tumbled into his tormented mind. No, don’t think that, he told himself. Johnny was alive, and in a few days he would be free. Scott had to believe that. He had to convince himself that everything would be all right. In the end, hope was all he had to cling on to.
“I’m sorry, Mr Lancer, but it’s simply impossible!”
Tiberius Lawson stared hard at the grim-faced rancher. He knew that that was not the answer the other man wanted to hear, but he was determined to stand his ground.
“In that case, I demand to see the manager!”
The senior bank clerk - and acting manager - blew out his cheeks in exasperation. How dare this arrogant man treat him like a humble junior? Murdoch Lancer might be a wealthy and influential citizen around these parts, but Lawson had been with the town’s bank for nearly fifteen years and expected customers to treat him with a little more respect.
“I already told you, sir,” he replied, struggling to remain polite. “Mr Newnes is away on business in Sacramento and won’t be back until next week.”
Lancer muttered something under his breath, but Lawson ignored him as he glanced towards the dark-haired man lounging against the closed door of the office. It was a known fact that Lancer’s youngest son had been a gunfighter before coming back to live at his father’s ranch, and Lawson was in no doubt that he was still a very dangerous man. The intense blue gaze directed his way was starting to scare him now and he cleared his throat nervously as he turned his attention back to the rancher.
“If you could only tell me why you need so much money…”
He broke off abruptly as the young man darted across the room and reached across the desk to grab the front of his jacket.
“You really wanna know, you pompous old goat?” Johnny growled. “My brother’s about this close to being killed if we don’t come up with the money by tomorrow. Now if I have to break your scrawny neck to get it, then believe me I will!”
“Johnny!” Murdoch barked as he laid a restraining hand on his son’s shoulder. “Let him go.”
The younger Lancer shot him a fierce glare, but after a moment’s hesitation released his grip and walked away. Lawson, white-faced and trembling, straightened his jacket and looked back at Murdoch.
“I’m very sorry for your trouble, sir,” he said. “But to be honest, there’s nothing I can do about it. Have you been to the sheriff?”
The rancher sighed and shook his head. “He’s out of town, too.”
“Seems to be catching.” The sarcastic comment came from Johnny as he went back to resume his place by the door.
He and his father had ridden into town soon after breakfast, not that either of them had had much appetite. The whole household had spent a restless night worrying about the missing member of their family. Johnny in particular was dog-tired, but even when he lay down on his bed he could not sleep and was up again at dawn pacing the floor in the Great Room, waiting impatiently for everyone else to rise. Now it was gone eleven in the morning and they were still no nearer to obtaining the money. As a result he was irritable and short-tempered, as the bank clerk had found out to his cost.
“Mr Lawson,” Murdoch began, “You know how much Lancer land is worth. Surely I can use that as collateral to raise the six thousand?”
The other looked doubtful. Right now, he was cursing Newnes for being absent, forcing him to take on the responsibility of running the business.
“In normal circumstances, yes,” he replied. “Please understand, I’m not being deliberately awkward. It’s just that at the moment, the bank doesn’t hold that amount of money. Even if I were to arrange for a transfer, it would be at least a week before it arrived here.”
“A week!” Johnny exclaimed as he moved forward again, his threatening presence causing Lawson to shrink back in his seat. His father gave him a warning glance before looking back at the clerk.
“Just how much money does the bank have at the moment?” he asked tersely. His own patience was starting to wear very thin now, but he knew he had to keep a cool head.
“Well,” Lawson answered, reaching for a thick leather bound ledger book and flicking it open. “We have precisely four thousand, one hundred and sixty-six dollars and forty-three cents.”
Murdoch heard Johnny hiss with anger, but he concentrated his attention on the man behind the desk. “And how much of that is in my account?”
Lawson flushed slightly and then looked back down at the ledger. “Err…you have the sum of three thousand, two hundred and eleven dollars, Mr Lancer.”
Murdoch permitted himself a small smile as he did a quick calculation in his head. “Then I want to withdraw all my money and I’ll give you a draft for seven hundred and eighty nine dollars.”
Lawson’s eyebrows rose in surprise and he picked up his pen and jotted some figures down on a sheet of paper.
“But that only leaves one hundred and sixty-six dollars and forty-three cents left in the bank!” he cried in alarm. “I can’t possibly allow that. What will Mr Newnes say when he gets back?”
“I can arrange a transfer from my other bank in Stockton,” Murdoch assured the panicking man. “The money can be repaid before he gets back.”
Lawson looked up at the tall rancher in consternation. What would his manager do if he were here? Surely he would refuse point blank to comply. On the other hand, most of the money in the bank belonged to Lancer anyway. Newnes was not due to return until next week, and even if Lancer were true to his word, how would his employer react when he found out what he had authorised? In the end the choice was easy.
Johnny fixed his sapphire gaze on the indecisive man and casually rested his right hand on the butt of his gun, placing the other flat on the desk.
“This is how I see it, Lawson. You can do this my father’s way, or you can do it my way. What’s it gonna be?”
The clerk swallowed hard, seeing the grim resolve on the young man’s face. He turned his gaze to Murdoch Lancer, but could see that he would get no help from that quarter. The man seemed more than happy to condone his son’s behaviour.
“All right,” he said, opening a drawer and pulling out a withdrawal slip. “I just hope I’m doing the right thing.”
Murdoch took the slip and picked up the pen. “You are, Lawson. Believe me, you are.”
The sound of a key being thrust into a lock jolted Scott back to consciousness and he jerked his head up. To his surprise he was still sitting on the floor with his back against the door and he blinked in confusion wondering how long he had been asleep. The door shifted slightly behind him and then he heard a man speak.
“Better move away from the door, Lancer.”
Scott recognised it as Jake Summers’ voice and he climbed slowly to his feet, annoyed with himself for being caught unawares. He should have been formulating an escape plan, not feeling sorry for himself. Peering through the gloom, he tried to see if there was anything to use as a weapon, but then he heard Summers call out again.
“If you’re looking for summat to hit me with, don’t bother. There’s nothing.”
Scott turned around in astonishment. Could the man see through solid walls or was he just second-guessing what his prisoner was intending to do?
“I’m coming in and I’ve got a gun,” the other said. “So get back and you won’t get hurt.”
The blond sighed and stumbled his way back to stand beside the packing crate. His opportunity was gone for now, but he could wait.
The door edged open and a dim light picked out Summer’s slight figure as he entered the chamber. True to his word, he held a gun in his left hand and a lantern in the other. He regarded Scott warily for a moment and then hung the lantern on a hook just inside the room. Taking something from his jacket pocket, Summers moved forward and tossed the item down on the ground a few feet away.
“Brought you some food.”
Scott eyed the wrapped package for a moment and then shook his head.
Summers shrugged. “That’s all you gonna git, so yer better eat.”
The Bostonian stepped forward and bent down to retrieve it, barely suppressing a grunt of pain as the movement jarred his chest. Summers watched him impassively as he sat down on the edge of the crate, the gun in his hand never wavering for a second. Scott unwrapped the package and found it contained a small piece of jerky and a square of hard tack. The weevil-infested biscuit make his stomach churn and he hurriedly set the food down beside him.
“Suit yourself,” the older man said, as he turned and walked back to the door.
“Wait!” Scott cried. “Can’t you at least leave the lantern?”
Summers laughed. “What’s the matter, Lancer? Afraid of the dark.”
Scott had to admit that being shut away in the pitch-blackness was starting to tell on his nerves and some human contact, even in the form of Rat, was a welcome relief. However, his real intention was to try and get some information from the other man as to where he was being held. He was also not ruling out the chance of an escape. The door of the chamber was still open and so far there seemed to be no sign of the other two. However, Summers was armed and he knew he had to tread very carefully. First of all he had to try and gain the man’s trust.
“No, but how do you expect me to eat this delicious concoction if I can’t see it?”
Jake Summers grinned and stepped a little closer. “You’ll cope”
“Well, it’s probably better than I had in prison.” Scott’s shrewd comment was guaranteed to get a reaction and it worked.
“You been in prison? When?”
Scott nodded, seeing that he had gained the other’s interest. “During the War. I was in Libby for a year.”
Summers shook his head. “That ain’t real prison. I bet you were a damn Yankee with yer fancy manners. I don’t see you as no Johnny Reb.”
The blond permitted himself a small smile. “I served in the cavalry under General Sheridan.”
His captor looked far from impressed. “That figgers.”
“By your comment, I gather you fought for the Confederates.”
Jake smiled. “Didn’t fight for nobody. Was doing time in San Quentin.”
Summers seemed quite proud of the fact that he was safely locked up in jail while the rest of his fellow countrymen were doing their best to kill each other.
“Is that where you met your two friends?” Scott asked warily. He was worried if he had overstepped the mark when he asked that question, but Rat did not seem to be too bothered.
“Nah, only known ‘em a few months.”
The blond digested this piece of information with interest. If he had only met Fox and Paige a short while ago, how far did the man’s loyalty go? Scott remembered the way the soberly dressed leader had spoken to Summers and wondered if he felt any resentment.
“You like them?”
“If they make me rich,” the older man answered shortly.
“$6000 won’t go far between three,” Scott pointed out. He hoped to see some doubt creep into Summers’ narrow face, but he was disappointed.
“I don’t mean that,”
“What then?” The blond was puzzled now. If his kidnappers were not relying on the ransom money, what else did they have in mind?
“You ask a lot of questions, Mister,” Jake replied, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
Scott held up a placating hand. “Hey, I’m just making conversation. It’s pretty lonely down here. What is this place? Some kind of mine?”
“What makes you think that?”
The Bostonian waved a hand toward the pile of timber. “Pit props, storage crates.” Scott paused, as a sudden thought popped into his head. “Are you looking for something?”
There was a slight flicker of uncertainty in Rats’ eyes at his question, and although he quickly recovered, Scott guessed that he was on the right track.
“You’ve got it wrong, Lancer,” Summers told him, as he turned away.
“I don’t think so,“ the blond persisted. “What is it? Gold? Silver?”
The man ignored him and started to walk back to the door, but Scott was certainly not going to let another opportunity slip away. Suddenly remembering the makeshift bandage that he had tucked in the waistband of his pants, he snatched it free and launched himself at Rats’ retreating figure. Taken by surprise Summers dropped his gun, and before the man could react further Scott had whipped the strip of material around his throat and pulled it tight. His intention was not to kill, but simply to render the other unconscious so that he could escape. However, the smaller man lived up to his name by squirming vigorously in Scott’s grasp, and the blond, already weakened by his injuries and lack of food, realised that he could not retain his hold. Pushing him away, Scott picked up the fallen weapon and ran to the door. Behind him he heard Rat coughing and gasping for breath, but the blond spared him no pity – he had to run.
Snatching up the lantern, he hurried from the chamber and turned to lock the other in, but then saw that the key was missing. Summers must have put it in his pocket, but there was no going back now. The older man was already on his knees, rubbing his bruised throat. Pulling the door shut, Scott turned and ran. Holding the light in front of his face, the young Bostonian stumbled along the narrow passageway with no clear notion of where he was going. As he went further along, he could see that he had been correct in guessing that he was in some kind of mine; the question was how did he get out?
Scott ducked down another gallery, but soon discovered it was effectively blocked off by fallen rock. Doubling back, he carried on down the main passage, growing more frantic with every faltering step. His chest was really starting to ache now and his legs felt like lead weights, but he could not afford to stop. When he heard Summers yell his name, he almost dropped the lantern in shock. The man was loose already, and unlike Scott he knew this place like the back of his hand. Turning yet another corner, he almost sobbed with relief when he saw a ladder in the distance and he increased his pace, only to trip headlong over a loose piece of stone.
This time he did drop the lantern and it immediately went out, leaving him in darkness once more. In pain and badly winded, Scott came close to giving up there and then, but then he realised that up ahead where he had seen the ladder, a dim light beckoned. Dragging himself to his feet, he started towards it, carefully feeling his way along the passageway. He was well aware that Fox and Paige might be up on the next level, but he still had the gun and was prepared to use it if he had too.
Reaching the ladder, Scott cast a wary glance behind him, but there was no sign of Rat, so tucking the weapon in the waist of his pants, he began to climb. The light he had seen came from a flickering torch positioned at the top of the shaft and the blond cautiously raised his head and looked about him. This upper gallery was better lit and wider and as Scott peered along to his left, he spotted another ladder about fifty yards away. Climbing the last few rungs Scott stood for a moment with his gun drawn, but he could hear nothing. Not quite believing his luck, the Bostonian stole along the passageway, listening and looking all the time. He had almost reached the second ladder when he suddenly heard voices.
Scott froze, the echoing acoustics of the mine making it difficult to work out where they were coming from. Then, to his horror, he heard someone starting to come down the ladder. Flattening himself against the wall, the blond glanced back to the ladder that he had just climbed up, half expecting to see Rat appear. Caught like an animal in a trap, he would have no chance of escape against the three of them.
Blinking the sweat from his eyes, Scott desperately searched for somewhere to hide. He did think about climbing back down to the lower gallery and taking his chances with Summers, but then he spotted a possible solution. Just to his right, the blond saw a gap at the base of the one of the roof supports where the rock had fallen away. The cavity was not large, but it was half in shadow and might prove big enough to conceal himself in. Wasting no more time, Scott hurried back and squatted down low, forcing his tall frame into the tight hole. He told himself that he would only have to be there for a few minutes, but he knew that they would be the longest minutes of his life.
Scott had only just managed to squeeze into position when he heard approaching footsteps. Recognising the voices of Fox and Paige, he struggled to make himself as small as possible, although he was certain they would hear the pounding beat of his heart. He need not have worried for as the two men passed by, he realised that they were arguing loudly and were too pre-occupied to worry about him. Scott shut his eyes and prayed that Rat did not appear and raise the alarm, but to his relief nothing happened.
When he was sure that Fox and Paige had turned the corner of the gallery, Scott crept out of his hiding place, grimacing with pain as his cramped muscles protested. Checking that no one was in sight, he moved swiftly to the second ladder and gave another quick glance over his shoulder before tucking the gun once more into his waistband and starting to climb.
He was almost halfway up when disaster struck. There was a sudden flurry of activity at the other end of the passageway and then Rats’ urgent cry echoed around the walls.
“Lancer! He’s getting away!”
Scott’s head snapped around to see the small man reach the top of the first ladder, but his stomach clenched in fear when he saw the lanky figure of Paige turn the corner and dash towards him. Letting go of the rungs with his right hand, Scott half swung around and grabbed the gun to fire at his pursuer, but he was too late. With the speed of quicksilver, Paige had drawn his knife and thrown it with terrifying accuracy.
Even when the sharp blade tore into the flesh of his right thigh, Scott was so stunned by the rapid chain of events to react. It was only when he looked down and saw the knife sticking out of his leg that the pain registered, so sudden and so severe that he dropped the gun before falling like a stone to the hard ground. As he lay writhing in agony at the base of the ladder, Scott did not realise that his three captors had surrounded him until Benjamin Fox spoke.
“That was real stupid, Lancer!” he said, as he bent down to retrieve the fallen weapon. “How far do you think you’d have got?”
The young Bostonian opened his eyes and peered up at the black-dressed man. “F..far enough,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
Paige grinned as he crouched down beside the injured man and grasped the handle on the knife. Scott screamed as he viciously pulled it out and wiped the blade on his sleeve. The blood immediately began to flow freely and although Scott clamped both hands over the wound, it quickly soaked through his pants and pooled on the ground.
Fox shook his head angrily and drew a large handkerchief from his jacket pocket. He wrapped it quickly around the blond’s thigh and tied it off in a tight knot causing another whimper of pain to escape from Scott’s lips. Straightening up, he took Summer’s gun from his other pocket and thrust it back into the small man’s hands. The look in his eyes made Jake shudder with fear and he knew that he was in serious trouble for letting Lancer escape.
“Get him back down below!” he ordered. “And tie him up this time!”
Paige and Summers moved forward and grasped the younger man under the armpits.
“Nooo!” Scott pleaded, but the two ignored him as he was hauled to his feet. His anguished cry became a gasping moan as pain ignited in his leg, spreading right down to his foot. He was utterly helpless as they half-dragged, half-carried him along the passageway and manhandled him down the ladder.
By the time they got him back inside the storage room, Scott was close to passing out. He could feel the warm blood seeping through the rough bandage and trickling down his leg. The welcome embrace of unconsciousness was beckoning to him, but even then there was no respite. Thrown to the floor, he was rolled onto his stomach and his arms twisted behind his back as Summers pulled some rope from his coat pocket and deftly tied his wrists. His ankles were similarly secured and he was left on the ground, breathing harshly as the battering waves of pain washed over him. Paige watched the suffering blond for a moment with a malicious gleam in his eyes and then he crouched down and pressed his face close to Scott’s ear.
“One more day, Lancer and I get to gut you for sure!”
He stood up grinning and then moved to the door. Summers glanced at him and then back down to the injured man before following him out.
The darkness descended upon Scott once more as the door was slammed shut behind them and he buried his face in the dirt as the tortuous fire in his leg intensified. As he gratefully slid towards unconsciousness, a whispered cry tumbled from his mouth.
“Johnny, help me.”
The large white bulk of the Lancer hacienda slumbered quietly under a cool, starless night sky. Not a light shone in its many windows and to the outside world the house looked peacefully serene. In reality, this was far from the truth.
Up in one its many bedrooms, Teresa O’Brien tossed and turned in her feather bed, but like the rest of the occupants of the house, sleep remained elusive. The young woman sighed and sat up. Leaning towards the bedside table, she turned up the lamp and pushed back the blankets before climbing out. She slipped on her dressing gown and slippers and then crossed over to the chest of drawers to light a candle. Picking up the holder, Teresa moved softly to her bedroom door and went out into the silent hallway. The rest of the doors were all firmly closed, and as she passed Scott’s room she paused, wishing that this was all some horrible nightmare, and that if she peeped inside, he would be sleeping safely in his bed. The heaviness in her heart told her otherwise, and she walked quickly by, shivering a little in the chilly air.
Perhaps a cup of hot chocolate would help her sleep, but somehow Teresa doubted it. This was the second night that the Lancer household had agonised over Scott’s fate and it was getting worse with every passing hour. Murdoch and Johnny had returned from town late in the afternoon, tired and disgruntled, and as a result supper that evening had been a sombre affair. Normally a hearty eater, Johnny had pushed the food around his plate for about twenty minutes before throwing his fork down with a resounding crash and rising abruptly from the table. As he headed for the French doors, Teresa had tossed aside her napkin and stood up to follow him, but Murdoch urged her to stay. He had left his youngest son alone for a whole five minutes before getting up to join him outside.
Going over to the window, Teresa’s heart had came close to breaking as she watched Murdoch put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and talk quietly to the distraught man. Johnny stood with his head bowed, his boot scuffing up the dust and nodding every so often, although Teresa was certain that none of his father’s comforting words had sunk in.
Now as she came down the stairs and turned into the Great Room, she wondered if her ‘brother’ had managed to get any rest or was he pacing his bedroom floor as he had done the previous night? He seemed to be carrying so much guilt, guilt that in her eyes was totally unjustified, but Johnny refused to be pacified. Teresa sighed again as she headed towards the kitchen, and then she heard something that made her pause.
“Who’s there?” There was a slight tremor in her voice as she turned and raised the candle higher to peer around the shadowy room.
“Only me,” came the soft reply.
Teresa stepped closer and saw that it was Johnny sitting slouched down low in his father’s chair behind the desk. The heavy leather armchair had been pulled around so that it faced the large picture window and the dark-haired man was staring out morosely through the glass.
“Oh, Johnny. You frightened me,” she said.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to,” he answered, not looking round.
Teresa placed the candlestick on the desk and regarded him with concern. Johnny’s face was lined with worry and his eyes were red-rimmed with fatigue. Although he was sitting quietly, he was fiddling with the ring on his middle left finger, turning it backwards and forwards – a sure sign of his deep anxiety.
“Did you get any sleep at all?” she asked.
“Some,” Johnny lied. He had gone to his room shortly after midnight, but did not even bother to undress. He knew he would never be able to sleep, although his body was desperately craving rest.
“I was going to make myself some chocolate,” Teresa went on. “Do you want some?”
He shook his head. “No, you go ahead.”
The young woman went to leave, but then turned back. “Johnny, you mustn’t keep blaming yourself for what happened to Scott.”
This time he did look at her, blue eyes flashing with anger. “Then tell me who else I should blame.” Teresa shrank back, her face paling with shock and Johnny cursed himself for being so insensitive. “I’m sorry, honey,” he apologised. “It’s just that….”
She caught hold of his hand and squeezed it gently. “I know. I’m scared I’m going to lose him too.”
Johnny glanced down, unable to look at the fear on her face. “Hell of a way to spend your birthday.”
In all the worry over Scott, Teresa had almost forgotten about her birthday. The party that was to have taken place the previous evening had of course been cancelled. Although the guests had not been informed of the real reason behind it, most had accepted the decision without question.
“I already told you and Murdoch that it didn’t matter,” she affirmed.“ Scott is much more important than some silly party!” Johnny nodded absently, but his dark head remained bowed. “It’ll be all right, Johnny,” Teresa insisted, painfully aware how hollow her words sounded. “We’ll get him back.”
The ex-gunfighter looked up at her and although he gave her a slight smile, his eyes were shining with unshed tears.
“Yeah, ‘course we will,” he answered. “I ain’t gonna be the only one for Murdoch to yell at.”
Teresa bit her lower lip as her own tears threatened to fall, and Johnny realising that she was about to cry, placed his own hand over hers.
“Why don’t you make your drink and go back to bed, “ he said softly. “I’m gonna go up in a minute.”
Teresa nodded quickly and pulled out of his grasp. She knew full well that Johnny had no intention of going up to his room and she was proven correct when she emerged from the kitchen ten minutes later and found him still sitting there staring out of the window. The young woman hesitated for a moment longer and then quietly padded out of the room.
Johnny heard her leave and breathed a sigh of relief. As much as he valued her presence, he wanted to be left alone right now. Rubbing his weary eyes, he looked out at the moon blessed night. Scott was out there somewhere and he was hurting. Johnny did not know how he knew that – he just did. He had refrained from voicing his misgivings to Teresa. She was scared enough already.
It still seemed hard to believe that he and Scott had only been together for just over a year and the thought of losing him now was unthinkable. Johnny may have grown up never knowing he had a brother, but when he discovered he had and that he belonged to a close-knit loving family, he had embraced the idea with open arms. Scott had become so much a part of him, and he was not going to let a bunch of nameless strangers rob him of the man who was not only his brother but his best friend as well.
Right now all Johnny wanted was to see the dawn creep up over the mountains so that he could get back to the ghost town. The four thousand dollars that he and his father had managed to coax from the bank had been supplemented by some money that Murdoch kept in the house. It was still not enough, but it would have to suffice. Johnny had no idea what he would face when he finally reached the town and confronted the kidnappers. He was not even sure if he and his brother would come out of this alive, but whatever happened the terrible pain of guilt would be lifted from his heart. No matter what anyone said about him not being the one to blame over Scott’s abduction, Johnny was still convinced that he was, and he had to put things right.
Someone was calling him, but surely it was too early to get up yet?
“Go away,” he muttered thickly and he tried to burrow himself deeper into the layers of sleep, but it proved impossible.
Whoever it was now tried to wake him by shaking him hard by the shoulder and he groaned out loud. It had to be his brother he decided, and he made a mental note to pay him back the next time he wanted to lie in. Why couldn’t people leave him alone when all he wanted to do was sleep the day away? He moaned again and tried to unglue his sticky eyes, wondering why he felt so tired.
“Damn you, boy. Wake up!”
Boy? Who the hell was calling him that? His father of course! There was a sinking feeling in his stomach as he realised that he was about to be bawled out for neglecting his work, so he rolled over and prepared to meet the other’s wrath. Sudden pain screamed at his waking senses and he gave a ragged gasp of panic when he discovered that he could barely move.
Scott Lancer opened his eyes and tried to focus on the blurred figure crouched down beside him, but it was hard to concentrate when everything hurt so much. His right leg seemed to be the most affected, but the pain was quickly spreading up his body and he ground his teeth together as it threatened to overwhelm him again. He tried to move his arms to wrap them around his aching chest, but as he felt the ropes cut into his wrists he remembered why he was unable to move.
“You hear me now?”
Scott blinked several times and gradually the small frame of Rat swam into view.
“Y…yes, I hear you,” he croaked. He shifted his head slightly to see if the others were present, and was relieved to find them absent.
“Good. You want some water?”
The blond glanced at the canteen suspiciously and Summers grinned. “Don’t worry, it ain’t poisoned. Look.” The older man removed the top and took a hefty swallow and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “See. You want some or not?” Scott nodded, and Rat reached forward to lift his head and tip the tepid water between his lips. “Not that you deserve any after what you did,” he added. Although it was now several hours since Lancer had attacked him, his throat still felt sore and bruised.
When he had drunk his fill, Scott nodded again and sank back on the ground. He was puzzled by his captor’s apparent consideration, but he was grateful just the same.
“Why d’you do it?”
Summers screwed the top back on the canteen and laid it aside. “Try and escape. You knew you’d never make it.”
Scott dragged in a shuddering breath before answering. “Seemed like a g..good idea at the time.”
“Yeah, and look where it got’ya.” Rat said, casting an anxious glance at the open door, “‘Sides he wouldn’t want you wandering around down here. He don’t even like me coming down.”
Scott guessed that he was referring to Fox and he was just about to ask why when a piecing pain suddenly shot up his leg. It was as if Paige’s knife was still embedded in his flesh and he gasped with the intensity of it. He shut his eyes for a moment, trying to will the pain away and eventually it eased to a dull throb.
“S…so are you going to tell me what you’ve got hidden here?” he asked. The Bostonian was determined to find out just why Fox and his two companions were holed up in an old mine.
“It’s best you don’t know,” Rat answered, throwing another furtive look at the door.
“Why?” Scott insisted. “You’re going to kill me anyway.”
The young rancher’s prophetic comment gave Summers a guilty start. He knew full well that Fox intended to kill Lancer and his brother once the money was in his hands, and he had to admit that he was uncomfortable about it.
“That ain’t my decision,” he said defensively.
Scott looked up at him, noticing the way the older man avoided his gaze and saw that his assumptions were correct. Well, he thought, it would not be the first time he had faced the prospect of death. During the War and his time in Libby, there had been several occasions when he believed that he would breathe his last. The thing that really scared him was the fate of Johnny when he came to deliver the ransom. He knew that his brother was more than capable of looking after himself, but this time he was outgunned and Scott would be unable to help him.
“No, it may not be up to you, but you would be foolish to leave any witnesses,” he reasoned. “So you might as well tell me.”
Rat hesitated a moment longer. He knew that if Fox ever found out that he told Lancer about the mine, his life would not be worth living. On the other hand, maybe this young man deserved an answer, so he took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Well, Ben is convinced there’s a whole heap of gold just waiting to be found. ‘Course I know he’s wrong, but he won’t listen to ole Rat.
“How do you know that?” Scott asked.
“My pa worked this mine over twenty years ago and I used to help out sometimes. In them days there was some down here, but not so’s you’d get rich on it. Gold does strange things to a feller. It sent my daddy loco, and if I stick around with Ben, I reckon I’ll end up the same.”
‘‘Then why do you stay?” Scott enquired.
Summers was loath to admit that the real reason he stayed with Fox and Paige was that he was too scared to get out.
“You never know,” he replied with a nonchalant shrug. “We might strike lucky.”
Scott stared at the older man in amazement. He could not believe that the torment he and his family were undergoing was all down to the vain hope of finding gold.
“So even though you believe there’s nothing left, you think it’s worth the cost of a man’s life?”
There was a thread of anger in the blond’s words, but Summers refused to take the blame and immediately went on the defensive.
“Hey, don’t go heaping all this on me,” he protested. “This is Fox’s doing and there ain’t nothing I can do about it.”
Scott fixed him with an intense gaze. “You could help me escape.”
Rat looked at the younger man in disbelief. “You’re crazy! Why should I help you? You almost killed me with that last stunt.”
“My father could make it worth your while.” Scott responded quickly. He knew he was clutching at straws here, but he had to try. It must only be a matter of hours before Johnny returned with the ransom money. If there was any way he could get away, he could save both their lives – Rat’s too if his instincts were correct.
Summers fell silent as he considered the blond’s proposition. He knew it was risky remaining with Fox and Paige, but it would be a whole lot worse if he double-crossed them.
Scott watched the indecision on the other man’s narrow face and could feel himself holding his breath as Rat wrestled with his conscience. If he agreed, there was still the problem of how they were going to get out, but if Summers knew the network of tunnels as much as he implied, then surely there was a way.
“Rat? That you down here?”
Both men jumped guiltily at the sound of a deep voice and when they looked towards the door the tall figure of Benjamin Fox appeared carrying another lantern.
“Yeah, Ben.” Jake replied as he hastily stood up.
“What are you doing?” The other glanced quickly between Summers and Scott, distrust in his dark eyes.
“Just checking his ropes,” came the nervous reply.
Fox shot the smaller man a dubious glare, and then laid a large hand on his shoulder. “Good. Can’t have him getting free again, can we?”
Scott could see from Summers’ cowed expression just how afraid of the black-dressed man he was, and he had to admit that he too was more than a little scared of him. Any glimmer of hope he might have held that he could call on Summers as an ally was swiftly quashed by the intimidating presence of this man.
“Now you head back topside and keep a look-out,” Fox ordered. Rat nodded and gratefully freed himself from his leader’s grip. “Oh, and leave me the key,” he added, turning his gaze to his prisoner “Scott and I are going to have a little chat.”
Summers hesitated for a moment, seeing the way the young rancher tensed with apprehension, and then he reluctantly pulled it from his pocket and placed it in the other’s outstretched hand. Fox smiled and followed him over to the door and locked it behind him.
“You know,” he muttered, almost to himself. “I have the feeling that Rat is getting soft on me. I might have to do something about that.”
Scott watched him warily as he came back towards him. Tied hand and foot, he was utterly defenceless against Fox and he hated the hopelessness of his situation.
“Don’t look so worried, Scott,” the older man said affably. “Your brother will be here soon and it will all be over.”
The blond swallowed hard at his ominous words, but any reply he might have uttered was forgotten as Fox stood over him and tugged at the ropes about his wrists.
“Just making sure,” he explained and then moved down to Scott’s ankles.
“D..don’t!” the injured man gasped, but it was too late. Fox took hold of the bonds and jerked them sharply.
Scott could not suppress his agonised cry at the sudden jarring pain in his leg and he squeezed his eyes shut as they filled with tears.
“Hurts, does it?” Fox asked. “Well, you’ve only got yourself to blame, haven’t you?”
“Damn you t..to Hell,” the blond hissed, as he felt the ripples of pain radiating from the stab wound.
“Oh, I rather think it’s you that’s in Hell, my young friend.”
At that moment, Scott certainly felt like it. Unlike before, the agony in his leg did not seem to be easing and when he opened his eyes again, he saw the reason why.
Ben Fox was crouched down behind him and his hand was resting on the bloodstained bandage. Scott’s breath caught in his throat as he saw the older man’s fingers tighten around his wounded leg.
“Now, are you going to tell me what you and Rat were talking about?”
The blond licked his dry lips as he stared into the other’s dark brown eyes. Fox was only exerting the lightest of pressure on his wound at the moment, and that was bad enough. He knew that if he wanted to avoid further suffering, he should speak the truth. However if he did, Rat’s life would certainly be forfeit.
“Nothing,” he managed at length. “Like he said, he was just checking…..” The scream was torn from his throat as Fox pressed down hard on his leg and he felt his senses reeling as the pain spiralled out of control.
“Don’t lie to me, boy!” Fox snapped. “I heard you talking before I came in. I didn’t hear all of it, but I did hear you try to bribe Rat into helping you escape!”
Scott could hardly breathe as the white-hot agony pulsed through his entire body, but he realised that the older man would not stop until he got answers.
“He…he told me…about the m..ine,” he gasped out.
“What about it?” His antagonist demanded, his grip strengthening again.
“G..gold.” The blond hated betraying a confidence even if it was from the mouth of one of his captors. “He said …that you thought there was…gold here.”
“And so there is,” Fox said, a smile curving his lips. Removing his hand, he stared for a moment at the blood smeared across it before wiping it away on his pants. Then he stepped back over Scott’s hunched form and stared down at the young Easterner. “I know he and Paige don’t believe it, but the gold is here. It’s only a matter of time before we hit the mother lode and then I’ll be a very rich man.”
Although his brain was foggy with pain, Scott could not fail to notice the use of the singular.
"Wh..what about the…others?”
Fox shrugged. “They might get a small percentage.” He paused and then crouched down and laid a hand on the blond’s shoulder, his grin widening when he felt the other flinch.
“You see, Scott, the $6000 I get from your family will go a long way to help finance my operation. I can buy specialist equipment and supplies. Believe me, it’s nothing personal. It’s just business.”
It was evident from the man’s fervent expression that he was a fanatic, and a dangerous fanatic at that. He was obsessed with the idea of finding gold and nothing or nobody was going to stand in his way. Like Rat had said, the thought of pursuing the precious metal had sent men crazy and Scott was certain that Fox was heading down that path too. There was however, one thing he had to know.
“Where does…that leave me and my brother?’
Fox looked at him for a moment, and then shook his head.
“I think we both know the answer to that.”
Although Scott had anticipated the reply, it was still a hammer blow to his hopes and it was impossible to ignore the sickening clutch of fear in his belly.
“Kill me if you have to,” he breathed softly, “but leave Johnny out of it.”
Fox regarded his young prisoner almost sadly. “You know that’s not possible, son. I can’t allow anyone to discover the whereabouts of the gold.”
Scott felt a sudden surge of bitter anger. He couldn’t save Johnny any more than he could save himself. They were both going to die as a result of one man’s wild dream of riches. Closing his eyes in resignation, Scott let his head drop back to the ground, the fight and strength leaking out of him like the fresh blood which trickled from his leg. He could hear Fox still talking, but the words merely washed over him as he edged towards unconsciousness. His last thought was of Johnny and the fact that at least they would die together.
Rat was a frightened man. He had been sitting on the high ground overlooking the main trail since first light, reflecting back to when Fox had discovered him talking to Scott Lancer. Summers was sure that the big man had overheard the younger man’s proposition about helping him to escape, and subsequently he was keeping out of the other’s way. However, he knew that some kind of retribution would soon follow his near-betrayal. If Fox had not come along when he did, would he have helped Lancer? Rat shook his head. He did not know the answer to that. The situation had not arisen, so why should it worry him? What did he owe Lancer anyway? The man had tried to kill him in his first escape attempt. Why then did the image of the young rancher lying in that dank chamber, tied up and at the mercy of Ben Fox, keep surfacing to haunt him?
Rat was certain that he had heard Lancer scream after Fox had all but thrown him out of the room. That meant that his leader had made the injured man talk, and now Fox must know what had been said about the mine. However, if that was the case, why had he not come after him and demanded the truth? Fox was obviously biding his time, and with every passing hour the fear grew worse.
He should run, Summers told himself. It would be so easy. Their horses were nearby and no one was keeping him here, so what was he waiting for? Then he realised that his fear was just as much a prison as any locked door.
“Dammit!” he swore as he lurched to his feet and started to pace nervously. He was nothing but a lily-livered coward, quaking in his boots whenever Fox fixed him with that intense dark gaze. It had been all right at first. Rat’s knowledge of the tunnels in the mine had stood him in good stead. No one had been harmed. Sure the three of them had robbed and intimidated a few folks along the way in order to finance the operation, but that was all. Maybe this time it was the large amount of money at stake that had turned Fox’s mind to commit murder. The fact that they had not found any gold yet was also making Fox desperate and this fact, coupled with his unpredictable temper, boded ill for anyone who tried to cross him.
Rat strode backwards and forwards across the sun-baked hilltop as he struggled to make a decision on what to do. Cut and run or stick it out and face whatever would come? If he ran, Fox would hunt him down like a cowardly dog. And if he stayed, he would probably end up just as dead! Some choice, he thought grimly. Might just as well toss myself off this damn rock now and have done with it!
A sudden rustling noise startled him and he spun around in terror, but he relaxed when he saw the tail end of some small animal. Jesus, he was as jumpy as a jackrabbit! He knew that despite his size, Ben Fox had the uncanny ability of creeping up behind you like a ghost. Rat could feel himself trembling at the thought, but even as he considered the consequences something else caught his attention.
Someone was coming, riding fast if the large plume of dust was any indication. Rat quickly moved to the edge and lay down on his belly to take a closer look. He squinted in the afternoon sunshine and after a while was able to make out the hazy image of horse and rider. Lancer’s brother? It had to be! Who else would be racing Hell for leather across this empty barren landscape? The man was a fool. Did he not know what he was up against? Even as that thought came into his head, Rat knew the reason why. Johnny Lancer did not care that the odds were against him. All he wanted to do was to help his imprisoned brother, even if he lost his own life in the process.
What must it be like to care about someone so much that you would risk everything? Rat almost envied the two Lancer brothers. Their bond must be very strong. There had been no one like that in his own life. His mother had died giving birth to him, and his father had worked himself into an early grave in the mine. No brothers or sisters to turn to and precious few that he could call friends. It was no wonder that he had eventually run into bad company and ended up in prison. When Rat had got out of San Quentin, he had wanted to make a new life for himself, but then he had met up with Fox and his good intentions had rapidly taken a downhill spiral. He knew that it was his own fault, but there was no going back now.
Or was there?
For a moment, Summers considered the notion of intercepting Scott’s brother and warning him of the danger he was riding into. Then he realised that Lancer would probably just shoot him before he had the chance to say anything, and who could blame him? No, despite of everything, Rat knew he had to go and tell Fox that Lancer was coming. Perhaps the older man would overlook what had happened earlier and he could redeem himself in his leader’s eyes. There was still a chance of riches and they could come out of this on top as they had planned. One way or another, the waiting was finally over.
Oblivious to the spy on the hilltop, Johnny urged his lathered horse onward. He knew that he was nearing the ghost town and he did not have to consult the watch that Murdoch had given him to know that it was almost 2 o’clock – the deadline set by Scott’s abductors. Since leaving the ranch that morning the ex-gunfighter had made steady progress, alternating between galloping and walking Barranca to conserve the palomino’s energy. He had also stopped for brief periods to give the resilient animal some of the grain he had brought with him. In spite of this, the hard ride had taken its toll on both man and horse and there were still harsher trials to face.
It took Johnny another fifteen minutes to cover the remaining ground, and as he approached he slowed his horse to a cautious walk before finally stopping at the edge of town. Pushing back his hat so that it hung by the storm strap he scanned the main street for any sign of movement, but there was nothing. Dismounting, Johnny started to lead the palomino along the street but he had only taken a few steps when his boot connected with something solid. He stopped and looked down, his face creasing into a puzzled frown. A rectangular wooden sign lay almost buried in the sand and Johnny gave a wary glance around before crouching down and brushing the dirt away. The wording was badly faded, but he was still able to read what it said.
pop 212 souls
The ex-gunfighter gave a mirthless grin. The place could not be more appropriately named. Even today with the hot afternoon sunshine blazing down, the deserted town still retained its eerie atmosphere. It certainly felt like Hell on earth.
Straightening up Johnny continued walking, his unease growing with every footfall. Where were they? Was this rendezvous all some cruel hoax with the kidnappers not even in the town at all? For all he knew, Scott might be dead already and they could have dumped his body somewhere. No, Johnny did not believe that - he was certain that his brother was still alive. The people who had taken him would hardly pass up the opportunity to get that amount of money, would they?
Johnny shook his head. Too many sleepless nights and cups of strong coffee had stretched his nerves as taut as a bowstring. A sudden noise behind him made him jump, but when he looked round, he saw that it was just a pile of tumbleweed rolling across the street. He walked on, feeling the sweat trickling down his back and he knew that it was not just from the heat of the day. It was important that he stayed focused and prepared for any eventuality, but in the end he was still caught off guard.
“You’re late, Johnny.”
For the second time in the space of a minute, Johnny almost jumped out his skin and he spun around, his hand reaching for his gun at the sound of the deep voice.
The man had seemingly appeared from nowhere and he stepped down from the boardwalk to block his path. He was an imposing figure garbed in black, heavily bearded and he fixed Johnny with a cold penetrating stare. Although he held no weapon, Johnny was in no doubt that he was armed and well able to take care of himself.
“I’m here now,” he answered. His voice might have sounded steady enough, but Johnny could hear his heart pounding wildly in his chest. The tall man gave him a faint smile
“So you are.” Two other figures emerged from a building to Johnny’s left, but he concentrated his attention on the man before him. “You brought the money?”
The smile widened. “Then let’s see it, my friend.”
‘You ain’t my friend, you sonofabitch!’ Johnny thought as he led Barranca to a hitching post and loosely looped the reins. Right now all he wanted to do was smash his fist into the older man’s smug face, but he knew that that would do his brother no good at all. Pulling the saddlebags off the palomino’s back, he swung them over his shoulder before turning back to face his three adversaries.
“Of course he is, Johnny,” the other replied. “Did you think we’d break our word?”
It was obvious that the man was playing with him, testing his nerve, but he knew he had to keep a firm grip on his temper.
“Kinda like to see for myself.”
For a moment Johnny thought the black-dressed man was going to refuse, but then he glanced over to his silent companions.
“You two go fetch our guest,” he ordered, and then turned back to the ex-gunfighter. “Johnny and I are gonna get better acquainted.”
“Where d’ya go?”
“What?” Rat answered, as he and Paige made their way to collect their prisoner.
“You been gone all day,” the other went on. “Where the Hell d’ya go?’
Summers gave a non-committal shrug although he was feeling far from secure. “I was just keeping a look-out as Ben ordered.”
Paige grunted and turned to look at the smaller man. “You wouldn’t be thinking of running out on us, Rat?”
“’Course not.” His hasty reply did little to convince his partner and Rat suddenly felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. Before he knew it he was being slammed up hard against the wall.
“You better not be lying,” Paige growled. “Or there might just be three graves when we leave here.”
Rat gulped with fear, but the younger man was already turning away and heading for the locked storage room. He knew that he should have run when he had the chance, but no, he had foolishly believed that rushing back to tell Fox that Johnny Lancer was coming would restore his trust. However, it was obvious that the other two still had their doubts about him and he would have to tread very carefully if he was going to survive.
Hearing Paige already start to unlock the door, Rat sped after him. In the mood he was in, he was likely to kill the young prisoner there and then and to Hell with the ransom money.
This time there was no gradual awakening. One minute Scott was dozing fitfully, the next he was forced back to reality with brutal awareness. A hand was fisted in his shirt and a stinging blow across his cheek made his eyes snap open with sudden shock.
“Wh..what?” he gasped.
“It’s time, Lancer.”
In the harsh light of the lantern, Lucius Paige’s thin face resembled a grotesque death’s head and Scott’s blue-grey eyes widened in horror when he saw the knife in the other’s hand.
“Noo!” he cried as he tried to squirm away, but Paige ducked aside and to his surprise Scott felt the ropes binding his ankles give away as the man sliced them through. The relief at being released was swiftly cut short as the blood rushed back into his veins with excruciating effect. He squeezed his eyes shut as the pain rapidly spread up his legs and centred on his injured thigh.
A firm grip fastened on his upper arm pulled him into a sitting position and Paige’s voice grated once more in his ear.
“Get up, boy.”
“He can’t walk, Lucius!”
Scott recognised the other voice as that belonging to Rat, and when he opened his eyes he was relieved to see the small man standing just behind Paige.
“Sure he can,” the other retorted. “Give me a hand with him.”
Rat hesitated for a moment, reluctant to comply, but then he saw the murderous look in his accomplice’s eyes and he quickly changed his mind. Together they heaved the young Bostonian to his feet and dragged him towards the door.
Scott tried to struggle free, but his hands were still tied behind his back and his unsteady legs threatened to give way any minute.
“What’s the matter, Lancer?” Paige demanded. “Thought you’d be glad to see yer brother.”
The blond’s heart gave a sickening lurch. “Johnny?”
“Yeah. He’s come back to save yer sorry hide,” the other told him, a cold smile on his face. “Pity, ‘cos all he’s gonna get is a bullet in the head.”
“You bas…” His words were abruptly cut off when Paige pulled him to a halt and wrenched his head back.
“Watch yer mouth, boy,” he snarled, as he pressed the tip of his knife to Scott’s neck and drew a small bead of blood. “I’d like nothing better than to slit your throat, but Fox wants to play this out to the end.”
Scott winced as the sharp point dug a little deeper into his flesh. Paige thrived on inflicting suffering on others, and the blond was suddenly filled with hopeless despair that his brother had returned and deliberately placed himself in danger in order to save him. Now they would both be senselessly murdered and Scott could not do a damn thing to prevent it.
“Come on. Move!” Paige snapped, hustling his prisoner forward again.
Unable to resist, Scott was hurried along the long passageway by his two captors, eventually fetching up by a rusting ladder. A hand in the small of the back thrust him against the rungs and he flinched as he felt the cold steel of Paige’s knife against his bound wrists.
“Sorry, Lancer. Did I cut ya?”
Scott bit his lower lip and cursed under his breath as once again he felt the sharp edge of the other’s blade. Although his hands were now free, he could feel the warm blood trickling from his lacerated wrists and his whole body was burning with pain. He slumped forward, blond head lolling across the ladder as the effects of his three-day ordeal caught up with a vengeance, and he was very close to passing out there and then. Paige, however, did not give him that luxury.
“Come on. Climb!”
“Go to Hell,” the blond breathed, wearily shutting his eyes.
The crippling punch to his back knocked the breath from his lungs and he fell to his knees coughing and retching. Paige bunched his fist to hit him again, but to his surprise Rat grabbed his wrist in a firm grip.
“You’re gonna kill him, for God’s sake!”
The younger man turned his slate grey eyes on Summers, but for once Rat did not cower away. “Ain’t that the general idea? Why stop now?”
“’Cos we still need the money, that’s why,” Rat reminded him. He realised that the situation was unravelling faster than a ball of string and someone was going to have to put a stop to it before it was too late. Rat held his companion’s gaze for a long moment, willing the man to see sense and he was relieved when Paige finally gave a grudging nod.
“All right,” he conceded reluctantly, reaching down to grab the blond by the shoulder “You get up the ladder and help him. We’ve wasted enough time already.”
Somehow the two of them managed to get the groaning man up to the next level and then they half carried him along to the next ladder. Scott could do nothing to help himself. He was in too much pain and his stomach was still churning with nausea. All too soon they reached the second ladder and he was ordered to climb up once again. He hesitated, this time not through any show of defiance; he just did not think he had the strength.
Not wishing to antagonise Paige any further, Rat quickly scrambled up the ladder before him and leaned down with his arm outstretched.
“Come on,” he coaxed. “Gimme me your hand.”
Scott looked up, his eyes blurry with tears and it was only the thought of seeing Johnny that encouraged him to climb. His injured leg was useless and he knew it was bleeding once again. With Paige right behind, he had no choice but to move. It was pure agony as he dragged himself up and he was grateful when he felt Rat’s hand close around his right wrist.
Just as he thought he was going to make it to the top, he suddenly lost his footing and slipped. Summers instantly tightened his grip, and Scott cried out sharply as his shoulder was wrenched painfully out of its socket. He would have fallen, but Paige quickly grabbed him around the waist and held on while frantically trying to retain his grasp with his other hand.
“Jesus, Rat! Pull him up!”
“I’m trying!” the smaller man yelled back, his muscles straining as he struggled to hang on to the young rancher.
He inched forward and tried to grab Scott’s other arm that was flailing blindly above his head. Eventually he caught it and dug his toes into the ground, pulling with all his might while Paige pushed from below. When they finally reached the top, all three men collapsed on the ground breathing heavily from their exertions. Lying face down, Scott was in a sea of pain and was barely conscious as his captors slowly recovered their breath. He was very close to the end of his endurance now, but he knew that his brother was waiting for him. If there was still a chance that he could save Johnny’s life then he would take it, even if it meant losing his own.
Paige was the first one to his feet and he bent down to place his hands under Scott’s armpits
“Come on. Yer rested long enough.”
He dragged the blond up, ignoring his soft whimpers of pain and the stony look on Rat’s face. Paige was anxious to get this over with and lay his hands on the ransom money. He was convinced that Fox was out to double-cross him – he did not care a damn about Rat – and he was determined that he was going to be the one who got the full $6000 and not some measly third.
Scott drew a shuddering breath and forced his eyes open. The agonizing pain in his dislocated right shoulder was making him feel sick, but as he looked around he suddenly realised that they were not in the mine anymore. He frowned with confusion as he stared at the wooden shelves, some of which still contained jars of dry goods. Larger hessian sacks were stacked on the floor, and one had fallen over spilling its contents of mouldy grain. A short distance away, a door stood half-open and Scott was amazed to see daylight beyond.
“Wh..where are we?’ he murmured, his curiosity briefly overriding the pain of his injuries.
“Ya really have no idea, do ya?” Paige asked, his tobacco stained teeth bared in a malicious smile.
Scott shook his head wordlessly.
“Ya remember that town that you and yer brother stumbled on a coupla days ago? Well, ya never left. You’ve been underneath it all the time!”
Outside in the main street, Johnny was growing ever more anxious and impatient. It had been over twenty minutes since the two men had been sent to fetch Scott, but so far there had been no sign of his brother. The dark-clothed man, who had introduced himself as Benjamin Fox, still had not relieved him of his gun, nor had he drawn his own weapon. It was a measure of the older man’s arrogance and confidence and was designed to intimidate the ex-gunfighter. Unfortunately it was working.
“I must say, Johnny,“ Fox begun. “You and your brother bear little resemblance to each other.”
“You saying I’m lying?
An aggrieved expression appeared on Fox’s face. “No. Not at all. I was merely passing a comment.”
Johnny sighed in exasperation. He was getting sick of this man’s mind games. His eyes kept flickering towards the building where the others had disappeared inside, but there was still no sign of movement.
“We had different mothers, alright?” he admitted at length.
“Really!” Fox exclaimed in genuine surprise. “That’s most interesting. Tell me more.”
“I didn’t come here to discuss my family history,” Johnny growled, resisting the temptation to shoot the man down where he stood. “I came to get Scott back.”
“Of course you did,” the other answered. “And you shall once you hand over the money.”
Johnny glared back at him, his blue eyes ice cold, but Fox remained impassively calm. Paige and Rat did seem to taking longer than he expected, but he was certain that nothing had gone wrong. He was the one who was holding all the aces and was totally in control of the situation. The young man standing in front of him was understandably nervous, but Fox knew better than to underestimate him. It almost seemed a pity to kill the two brothers; they were both worthy of some respect, but business was business and he could not let anybody get their hands on his gold.
“What’s taking so long?”
“Patience, my friend,” Fox replied. “They’ll be along any minute.”
Even as he spoke, Benjamin Fox felt a slight twinge of uncertainty run through him. Was it possible that Scott Lancer had been able to strike back at his captors? He undoubtedly possessed the courage and stubbornness, but Fox was positive that he did not have the stamina. The young rancher was weakened from his injuries and lack of food, but desperation often gave a man hidden strength. No, it could not be the case, he decided. He refused to believe that all his carefully laid plans would end in disaster now.
The sudden banging of a door across the street made both men tense with anticipation, but it was Fox who relaxed first when he saw Paige and Rat emerge from the old General Store with the limp form of Scott Lancer held between them. Johnny drew in a sharp breath, and the colour drained from his face as he stared in mute horror at the slumped figure of his fair-haired brother. Scott’s head had fallen forward to his chest, and for one heart-stopping moment Johnny thought that he was dead. However, as the two men dragged him forward, the ex-gunfighter heard him groan softly.
Johnny’s relief quickly turned to anger when he saw the grimy, blood-stained bandage wrapped around Scott’s right thigh, and the unnatural slope of his shoulder which implied a dislocation. There was also fresh blood dripping from his wrists. He turned his gaze to Fox, his hand straying involuntarily towards his gun.
“What the Hell did you do to him?” he hissed.
The older man shot him a warning glance as he reached for his own Colt and then he smiled.
“Your brother was foolish enough to try to escape,” he explained. “Paige naturally had to stop him.”
Johnny looked back and saw the acknowledging grin of the lanky man who stood to the right of Scott. ‘You’re a dead man’, he vowed grimly as he glared at the other. The smaller man opposite appeared uncomfortable under Johnny’s piercing stare, and he shifted his eyes away as Paige forced the injured blond to his knees and yanked his head back.
“Scott?” Johnny breathed, his concern increasing when he saw his brother’s pale and bruised face. Looking closer, he could tears trickling from Scott’s half-closed eyes, and he was not sure if they were tears of pain or because of the bright sunshine that was slanting down from the clear blue sky. “Scott!” he called again in a louder voice and this time his brother slowly opened his eyes
“Wh…why did you c..come back?”
The reply was hardly the one which Johnny had been expecting but, although he felt a little hurt by Scott’s question, he could recognise the hopeless despair in his brother’s weary tone. He took a step forward, ignoring Fox’s threatening gesture with his gun and fixed his gaze intensely on the older man.
“Why d’ya think, Boston?” he said softly. “You think I was gonna leave you here?”
Scott swallowed hard at the raw emotion in the other’s voice and met Johnny’s eyes with his own, seeing the unspoken message in the blue depths. ‘I’m gonna get us out of this, brother’. Despite his own pain and their precarious situation, Scott found the strength to give the younger man a faint smile.
“I hate to break up this touching little reunion, boys,” Benjamin Fox stated, “but I reckon it’s time to get down to the real reason we’re all here.” He had decided that enough was enough and now he needed to re-assert his authority. “Johnny, hand over the money.”
The ex-gunfighter tore his gaze back to the bearded man. He was seething with rage at what had been done to Scott, but he knew he had to keep a firm grip on his temper or he would lose everything. Moving back to face the tall, soberly dressed figure, he willed himself to remain calm in the only way he knew how – by reverting back to his cool, ruthless Johnny Madrid persona.
“I told you before,” he insisted. “Scott’s only my half-brother, so I figgered I’d only give you half the money now.”
His glib remark produced a variety of responses from Scott’s kidnappers. Fox looked slightly taken aback, but he was not unduly surprised; it was an action he would have taken himself under the circumstances. However, Paige was not so magnanimous. All he could see was his share of the ransom rapidly dwindling away. Completely forgetting his role in the proceedings, he stepped away from Scott and confronted Johnny himself.
“What d’ya mean?” he demanded.
Johnny deliberately ignored him and focused his attention on Benjamin Fox. “You’ll get the rest of the money when we’re both safely out of town.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” the older man asked.
“You don’t,” Johnny answered, “But the choice is up to you.”
“This is stupid, Ben” Paige spat. “Can’t you see he’s lying? Why don’t we just gun them now, grab the money and hi-tail it out of this stinking town?”
“Shut up, Lucius!” Fox was thinking hard. $3000 was what he had hoped for, but it was better than nothing. Yes, he still intended to kill both brothers, and if he could locate the hidden remainder of the money he would still come out the winner.
“All right,” he decided. “It’s a deal.”
“I can’t believe yer falling for this!” Paige’s temper was almost at boiling point now. Fox was throwing it all away and he could not see it.
“Let’s have it, Johnny.” Ben held out his hand for the saddlebags and after a moment’s hesitation, the ex-gunfighter passed them over. Fox permitted himself a satisfied smile as he eagerly opened the flap, but his face fell when he peered inside.
“Is this some kind of joke?” he growled.
“What?” Paige leapt forward and grabbed the saddlebags for himself. Stuffing his hand inside, he pulled out a wad of banknotes and looked at them in utter disbelief.
“What the Hell is this, Lancer?”
Now it was Johnny’s turn to grin. “Like I said. It’s half the money.”
Paige stared at him and then looked back at the dollar bills in his clenched fist. He had never held this much money before, but what he was looking at now was useless. The crisp new banknotes had been neatly cut in half and therefore totally worthless!
“All you need is a little flour and water and you can paste them back together when you find the rest,” Johnny finished.
“Sonofabitch!” Paige cursed, tipping the saddlebags upside down and shaking the rest of the contents onto the ground in the hope of finding a complete wad of banknotes, but Johnny had been extremely thorough. A sudden burst of laughter made him look up sharply, and he was surprised to discover that it was Fox. The big man could not help himself. He realised that he had met his match in Johnny Lancer and he could not help but admire the young man’s ingenious and daring act. He had hood-winked them all!
However, Fox’s laughter proved to be the last straw for Lucius Paige, and he finally snapped. Hurling the empty saddlebags down, his hand snaked for his gun, but Johnny was already moving. He had guessed that Fox and Paige were the most dangerous of the three kidnappers, and had been anticipating their next step for some time. As he dropped and quickly rolled behind the shelter of a nearby water trough, Johnny just hoped that his instincts about the other man left guarding Scott were correct.
Paige’s first bullet smacked into the wooden trough and then all Hell broke loose as Fox started shooting as well. The ferocity of their concentrated firepower momentarily surprised him, and he was forced to take cover without firing a single shot as his two adversaries split up and tried to flush him out. Pinned down for the moment, Johnny prayed that his brother had the presence of mind to keep his head down.
When Scott saw Johnny drop to the ground, his first thought was that his brother had been hit and he gave a sob of relief when he saw him scoot down out of sight behind the water trough. Fox and Paige also hit the dirt and starting laying down a relentless hail of bullets, giving Johnny no chance to return fire. Frustration and a sense of helplessness screamed at Scott as he made an instinctive move to help his brother, but then he felt a firm hand fasten on to his shoulder.
“Let go of me,” he yelled as Rat started to drag him away.
“Stay down!” the other shouted back. “You can’t help him.”
Undaunted, Scott tried to grab Summer’s gun, but found that he was unable to use his right arm at all and he sank to the ground with a bitter cry of anguish. Turning his head, he saw that Paige was trying to work his way around to Johnny’s position while Fox continued to put down covering fire, and once again he struggled to get loose from Rat, but the older man threw himself on top of him and pushed him back down. Pressed face down on the ground, Scott could only watch in mounting horror as Paige moved closer to Johnny.
Time was fast running out for his brother.
On the opposite side of the street, Johnny knew that he was in serious trouble. He had managed to loose off one shot, but it was hopelessly wild and he had no choice but to stay put. Johnny was also aware that Paige was edging around to his right, but the blistering fire from Fox was preventing him from taking any action. However, his opponents had to run out of bullets very soon and would have to stop to reload. Then he would have his chance.
“Give it up, boy!” The shout came from Ben Fox during a brief lull in the firing. “You’re outnumbered three to one!”
His remark was a painful reminder to Johnny that the third man still held Scott hostage. Even now he probably had a gun to his brother’s head, and would have no hesitation in pulling the trigger if Fox so ordered it.
For a brief second he considered giving up, but he knew that his surrender was unlikely to be a guarantee of Scott’s safety. Instead he answered with a bullet, which hit the ground inches from Fox’s head, and the big man scrambled backwards in a frantic attempt to find more shelter.
“Paige! Get the bastard!” All trace of humour had disappeared from Fox’s voice now. He just wanted Lancer dead.
Johnny turned his head sharply and was appalled to discover that Paige had almost closed the gap between them. He was already stepping onto the boardwalk, but Johnny did not give him the chance to shoot. Flipping swiftly over onto his back, he gripped his gun with both hands and fired.
Lucius Paige gave a convulsive jerk and his pale eyes widened with shock. He glanced down in horrified disbelief at the spreading crimson stain on his belly and the gun dropped from his numb fingers as his hands clutched at the gaping wound. Johnny watched grimly as the man fell to his knees, his mouth open in a silent scream, and then he toppled sideways, his lifeblood leaking out onto the dusty boards.
“Damn you, Lancer!” Fox barked. Enraged at witnessing the demise of one of his men, Benjamin Fox forgot his earlier caution and jumped to his feet to take his revenge. However, instead of turning his gun on Johnny, he started to swing around to where Scott was lying.
“Nooo!” Johnny screamed, realising what the man was about to do. He scrambled to his knees and raised his Colt, his finger tightening reflexively on the trigger. For a heartbeat he hesitated as the credo by which he had lived his adult life flashed through his mind.
Never shoot a man in the back.
In all his years as a gunfighter, Johnny had abided by that, but this time there was much more at stake – Scott’s life was worth more than any moral code.
Fox gave a gasping cry as the bullet hit home, but managed to stay upright for a moment before finally tumbling forward to hit the ground.
In the silence that followed, Johnny found that he was trembling with reaction from the fast and furious action and he took a ragged breath to steady his pounding heart. It only took a quick glance over his shoulder to realise that Paige was dead. His sightless eyes were already glazing over and the look of horror was frozen on his face.
Fox lay unmoving on the ground, and when he looked across at the other man he saw that he was rising shakily to his feet, staring numbly at his two fallen comrades. The man’s shoulders were slumped in defeat, and although he still held a gun loosely in his right hand Johnny could see that he proved no threat.
Pushing himself up, his eyes flickered to where Scott was still lying and he sighed with relief when he saw that his brother did not appear to have suffered any further hurt and was struggling to raise himself on his elbow. Johnny stepped forward, his Colt trained on the last remaining kidnapper.
“Drop the gun!” he ordered sharply.
The small man jumped at his harsh tone and looked down at the weapon in his hand in surprise. Rat had forgotten that he had grabbed his gun to prevent Scott Lancer taking it from him, but he had no intention of using it. As the younger man approached, he raised both arms away from his sides to indicate that he was giving up. He could hardly believe that it was all over and that Fox and Paige were out of his life forever. Rat realised that he would probably be going back to prison maybe that was what he deserved after all - but he was not sure he could cope with that again.
Still keeping his eyes fixed on the man, Johnny stepped around Fox’s prone body and kicked the gun away. The man’s black clothing was darkened with blood, but the ex-gunfighter felt no remorse. He had saved Scott’s life and that was all that mattered.
“I said drop it, mister!” Johnny repeated, a flicker of annoyance running through him when he noticed that the other was still armed and standing guard over his brother. He looked scared, but his gaze was directed past Johnny, and alarm bells suddenly started ringing in the younger man’s head. However, before he had a chance to turn, a hand was clamped around his ankle and he was jerked off his feet.
Johnny landed hard, face forward on the sun-baked ground and the breath was driven from his lungs as his gun spilled from his hand. Half-stunned he struggled to rise, but then he heard the loud report of a revolver booming above his head and then a pained cry. A heavy thud behind him made him squirm around in time to see Benjamin Fox, the man he thought he had killed, fall back to the ground, a large bullet wound square in the middle of his chest.
Turning back around, Johnny saw the small man standing in shocked silence, the gun in his hand still trailing smoke. Scrambling to his feet, Johnny retrieved his own weapon before going back to snatch the revolver from Fox’s hand, and then glanced at it curiously.
“It’s Scott’s.” Johnny looked up in surprise as the older man spoke. “He’d hidden it under his jacket.”
The ex-gunfighter looked at it again, and then glanced across at the other weapon, which was still lying where he had kicked it.
“Rat’ gave a slight smile and threw his own gun on the ground. “Look after your brother, Lancer. He needs you.” Then before the younger man could react, Summers turned and raced off down the street.
“Hey, you…” Johnny exclaimed, instinctively raising his Colt.
He looked back at the sound of his brother’s strained voice and then the fugitive was forgotten when he saw Scott collapse back on the ground.
Holstering his gun, Johnny ran forward and gathered the injured man into his arms. The blond’s eyes were closed and he did not seem to be even breathing.
“Scott!” Johnny felt the grip of panic clutch at his heart. “Don’t ya do this to me! Not now!” Alarmed at his brother’s lack of response, he shook him hard. “Scott!”
“No…need to shout.” Scott cracked open his eyes and peered up into the younger man’s anxious face. “Hey.”
“Dios, Boston,” Johnny replied. “I swear ya enjoy scaring me half to death!”
Scott lowered his gaze. “Sorry.”
“Come ‘ere.” Johnny muttered softly as he pulled him close to his chest. Although the crushing hug sent daggers of pain through his damaged shoulder, Scott welcomed the warmth of his brother’s affectionate embrace. Johnny could so easily be lying dead in front of him if it had not been for Rat. Like Summers, Scott had seen Fox move and reach for the gun inside his jacket. He was just about to call out a warning when he saw his brother pulled to the ground and Fox start to get up. The cold clutch of fear had turned to sudden surprise as the gunshot echoed in the street and the black clad figure had fallen back down. It was only then that Scott realised it had been Rat who had pulled the trigger.
“Glad you didn’t shoot him.”
“Who?” Johnny asked, relaxing his tight grip to hold the older man at arm’s length.
Scott was unaware that he had spoken his thoughts aloud and he gave a faint smile when he glanced at his brother’s perplexed face.
“Rat. That’s what they called him.” The blond broke off, biting his lower lip as a sharp spasm of pain shot from his shoulder to his injured leg. “He saved your life, Johnny. And mine.”
The ex-gunfighter looked back down the street, but the man had long since disappeared. Johnny nodded slowly. Scott was right. He had been careless in not checking that Fox was really dead, but he knew that it had been his concern over his brother that had made him forget his normal caution. Judging from the pained expression on Scott’s face, he could see that his anxiety was well founded.
“Lemme take a look at you.” Scott winced as Johnny eased him up into a sitting position and eyed his sibling critically. “That shoulder dislocated?”
The blond gave a tight nod. He knew that it would hurt like Hell when it was put back into place, and he was not relishing the prospect one bit. Scott gave a nervous swallow as Johnny shifted around to his right side to place one hand firmly on his upper arm and the other around his wrist.
“You done this before?” he asked anxiously.
Johnny tilted his head slightly and met his brother’s troubled blue-grey eyes. “Have you?”
As intended, his swift reply distracted Scott for a few seconds and Johnny took the opportunity to quickly twist and push the afflicted limb back into its socket. His brother’s anguished cry hurt him just as much as if he had endured the pain himself, and he hated being the cause of further suffering. Johnny pulled him close again, his lips pressed against Scott’s matted blond hair as he whispered soothing words of comfort. However it was several minutes before the older man managed to get his ragged breathing under control.
“I’m okay” The Bostonian pulled away and glanced up at his brother, seeing the doubt in the other’s eyes. Although the sickening pain in his shoulder had now receded to a dull ache, Scott was still nauseous and he could feel the cold sweat trickling down his brow.
“Reckon that leg could use some attention too,” Johnny observed, his gaze drawn to the bloody rag around the blond’s thigh.
“No!” The word came out harsher than intended, and Scott instantly regretted his sharp tone when he saw the younger man flinch. It was just that he did not think that he could bear anyone, not even his brother, poking around his injured leg. “It’ll keep,” he added, his voice softer. “Just get me out of here, Johnny.”
The ex-gunfighter looked closely at Scott, his keen blue eyes seeing the pain and fatigue of three day’s captivity etched on his face and he reached up to lightly squeeze his arm.
Johnny got to his feet and glanced down the street before putting his fingers to his lips. His shrill whistle brought an immediate response, and when he called out his mount’s name the golden horse came running. Barranca was trained to turn tail and run at the first hint of gunplay, but Johnny knew the gelding never ventured very far and would always return when summoned. As the palomino came to a stop, Johnny gave the animal a rewarding pat on the neck before looping the reins around the hitching post. Then he set about the task of retrieving the discarded money.
Scott stayed where he was sitting, slightly hunched forward on the ground, lacking both the strength and inclination even to move. His head was starting to pound now in time with the throbbing of his leg and he closed his eyes wearily, happy in the knowledge that he was once again reunited with his brother. Although he had only been a prisoner for three days, it had seemed much longer and had brought back long suppressed bad memories of his time in Libby. Maybe it was because he had more to lose now – a father, a brother, even a sister of sorts along with many good friends at the ranch. It was very different to when he had returned home to Boston after the War, to a grandfather whom he respected, but who was sometimes difficult to love. Now his heart and soul belonged to Lancer and right now that was where he wanted to be. A hand on his shoulder startled him and he opened his eyes again to find Johnny leaning over him.
“You ready to go home?”
Scott smiled. It was as though his brother had read his innermost thoughts. He nodded and Johnny helped him slowly up. The blond gritted his teeth as renewed agony flared in his leg and he knew he would have fallen if it were not for the younger man’s strong arms about him. Mounting Barranca was just as difficult, but they managed it in the end. The sight of Scott’s pallid, sweat-streaked face as he clung precariously to the saddle told Johnny that they had wasted too much time already. Grabbing the reins, he quickly climbed up behind his brother and wrapped a supporting arm around the lean waist. Then without a backwards glance the two Lancer boys finally took their leave of Hades Hill.
Further down the street their departure had not gone unnoticed.
Rat emerged from the building where he had been hiding and stood watching on the boardwalk as they rode out. He smiled wistfully and wished them a silent good luck, for he guessed their journey home would be long and arduous. When they had disappeared from sight, his thoughts turned to his own future. To be honest, he was amazed he still had a future, as he never believed he would live to see another day. But he had, and he was not about to squander that opportunity. This time he promised himself that he would stay out of trouble. Find a town where he could settle down, get an honest job, and who knows, maybe meet a good woman and get hitched. Rat smiled again as those thoughts ran through his head. He had been given a second chance in life and he was determined to make the most of it.
With his subsequent leaving, silence once more settled over the deserted town. The gunfire and violence was over leaving the place to the birds and animals that had made it their home before man had taken up residence. A small gopher appeared from its hiding place and peered cautiously along the main street before scurrying out in search of food. The smell of blood stopped it in its tracks and it squatted on its hind legs as it ascertained if there was any danger. After a few minutes the animal moved on again, secure in the knowledge that the body lying on the ground posed no threat. Another patch of blood lay further on, but although there was nothing to block its route this time, the gopher’s tiny heart started to race with fear and with a flash of grey fur, it disappeared as swiftly as it had appeared.
The night was closing in fast when Johnny finally found a suitable place to stop. They had left the Badlands behind now and the terrain was less harsh and afforded more shelter. Even in the failing light, Johnny could see that their proposed camp site was well enclosed with thick vegetation and several scattered boulders. Hopefully this would provide some protection against the chill air and any prowling predators.
Although they still had many miles to cover before they reached home, Johnny knew they could go no further without rest. Exhaustion lay about the ex-gunfighter’s shoulders like a weighty cloak, and the limp form of his brother was pressed heavily against his chest. When they had first left the ghost town, Scott had been quite coherent and aware of his surroundings. During that time, the blond had revealed exactly where he had been held captive, and how Fox and his colleagues had scared the inhabitants of Hades Hill out of the town in order to find an alleged fortune in gold. Johnny had been furious to learn that his brother had been imprisoned literally under his feet all the time, and he cursed himself for not being more diligent in his search. Scott, however, had pointed out that the three men had covered their tracks extremely well, and that it was hardly surprising that Johnny’s frantic efforts had met with failure.
His story told, Scott had then lapsed into a weary silence, and his blond head had gradually fallen back to rest against his younger brother’s shoulder. Although Johnny had tried talking to the injured man he got very little response and his concern increased as he felt the rising heat emanating from Scott’s slim form.
Pulling Barranca to a stop, Johnny sat for a while as he tried to ease the kinks out of his aching back and neck shoulders before dismounting.
“Why…have we stopped?”
His brother’s mumbled words took Johnny by surprise and he was pleased to see Scott lift his heavy head.
“It’s getting dark, Boston,” he answered. “We need to rest.”
Scott slowly prised open his eyes and peered up at the gathering night clouds in surprise. He had lost all track of time and had been lulled into a semi-conscious state by the steady rhythm of the horse’s hooves. Stifling a groan, he straightened up and grabbed the saddle horn as he prepared to climb down.
“Hold up there a minute,” Johnny admonished, laying a firm hand on the other’s shoulder.
The ex-gunfighter slid off Barranca’s back and grabbed his bedroll and blanket. Unfastening the strings, he walked over and quickly spread the bedroll on some flat ground beside some rocks. Moving back, he was relieved to find Scott still sitting slumped on the palomino. His head was bowed and the knuckles of his hands were showing white where he retained a fierce grip on the pommel.
“Come on, big brother,” Johnny reached up and gently lifted the injured man from the saddle and then proceeded to carry him the short distance over to the campsite.
“C..can walk,” Scott protested.
“Sure you can,” the dark-haired man replied, smiling at his brother’s stubbornness.
Johnny slowly lowered the older man onto the bedroll, and although he was careful Scott hissed sharply with pain and squeezed his eyes shut. The flush of fever was now present on his haggard, unshaven face, and when Johnny touched his forehead he found that his skin felt hot and dry. Cursing softly, he pulled the blanket up to the other’s chin before getting to his feet to fetch his canteen.
“Scott? You thirsty?”
The blond’s eyes opened a fraction as Johnny held the canteen in front of his face and shook it a little. “We got plenty this time, brother,” he continued. “I think I can even hear a stream nearby.”
Scott gave a faint smile, remembering the time when he and Johnny had been stuck out in the burning heat of the Badlands and were running dangerously low on water. He nodded and the younger man leaned forward and lifted him up to trickle some liquid past his dry lips.
“More?” his brother prompted, but Scott shook his head.
Johnny laid him back down and regarded him worriedly. Scott needed a doctor and a warm bed, but they were unlikely to find either between here and the ranch. Even if they left at first light, he doubted if they would reach home before noon. His brother’s weakened condition meant that they could only make slow progress and riding double all the way would soon deplete his mount’s energy. He just hoped Scott possessed the strength to hold on.
“All right, you get some rest,” he suggested, laying a hand on his arm. “I’m just gonna see to Barranca and then I’ll be right back.”
“’kay..” Scott sighed as his eyes flickered shut.
Johnny stood, but did not move away immediately. The last time he had left his brother had resulted in his abduction by Fox and his men, and he knew from the flare of panic on Scott’s face that he was thinking the same thing. However, it was different now. Fox was dead and could not hurt anybody ever again. Why then did Johnny still feel the guilt and the irrational fear about leaving Scott alone again? At last, he turned away and as his footsteps faded, the blond’s eyes flew open in sudden alarm.
‘Don’t be a fool! He’s only going to tend to his horse and will return soon,’ Scott told himself reasonably, but the rapid beating of his heart refused to ease. He took a couple of deep breaths, feeling the pull of his sore ribs as he tried to relax into a more comfortable position on the bedroll, but he felt too hot and only succeeded in jarring his injured leg once more. Scott suspected that the wound was bleeding again, and when he pushed this hand down under the blanket, his fears where confirmed when his fingers encountered a patch of sticky wetness.
Lying back, he stared up at the velvety sky and welcomed the sight of the bright moon as it rose higher in the heavens. When it disappeared behind a large bank of clouds, it was as through a lamp had suddenly been extinguished, and Scott shuddered as the darkness shrouded the landscape. It was almost the same inky blankness that had been his sole companion in the three days of his captivity in the mine. Then, as now, he had craved human companionship, and Scott lifted his head slightly and strained his ears for the sound of his brother’s return, but heard nothing. Refusing to give in to his rising panic, he shut his eyes and thankfully it was not long before he found himself drifting off into an exhausted sleep.
“Don’t ya look at me like that!” Johnny scolded.
Barranca snorted, his ears flickering back as he expressed his disapproval to his owner. The palomino was less than happy at being hurriedly unsaddled and without so much as a proper rubdown. Johnny, however, had had no time to worry about his horse’s feelings; he was more concerned about getting back to check on his injured brother.
His guess was right about there being a stream nearby, and he let Barranca drink his fill before replenishing his canteen plus the spare that he had brought along. Like he told Scott, they were not about to run out of water this time. After he had done at the stream, Johnny led his mount back to the small camp and set up a picket line near to where they were to spend the night. Dragging the heavy saddle off the golden horse’s broad back, he reached up and ran a placating hand down the gelding’s face.
“Look, I’ll make it up to ya when we get home, ya hear?” he added softly. Barranca dipped his head and whickered once as if he acknowledged the apology, and Johnny gave a brief smile as he picked up his saddlebags and started walking back.
It was with a profound sense of relief when he returned to find his brother exactly where he had left him. Scott was seemingly asleep, but as Johnny crouched down beside him he could see that he was not resting comfortably. The older man’s eyelids twitched uneasily and when Johnny smoothed the sweat-soaked blond hair from his brother’s brow, he found that he felt hotter than ever. Soaking a bandana in the water he had drawn from the stream, he folded it and laid it across Scott’s forehead. The Easterner moaned a little as the coldness touched his burning skin, but he did not wake up.
Johnny regarded him anxiously for a moment before getting up and collecting wood and kindling for a fire. The night was likely to be clear and cold, and although Scott might be feverish now it was important to keep him warm. The injured man remained restless as Johnny got the fire going, throwing aside his blanket as his temperature climbed. The ex-gunfighter bathed his brother’s face again and tucked the blanket firmly back around the lean body. Scott muttered something unintelligible, but then settled down once more.
Although he had packed some supplies of food Johnny was not hungry, but he did brew some coffee. He had a feeling that he was going to need it to stay awake and tend to Scott. He was just about to pour himself a second cup when he heard movement and then a faint voice.
The dark-haired man hurriedly put down the pot and went to his brother’s side, a relieved smile on his lips as he saw Scott’s eyes open.
“Hey. How ya feeling?”
The blond frowned as though he had trouble understanding the question and then took a painful swallow.
“Would you believe it if I said terrible.”
“Yeah, I would.” Johnny gently placed the back of his hand against Scott’s flushed cheek and sighed when he felt the heat. “You’re getting a fever, Brother. I think it’s time I looked at that leg of yours.”
The older man grimaced at his suggestion, but he knew that it could not be put off any longer.
“All right,” he agreed reluctantly.
Johnny gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze and then moved over to Scott’s right side and carefully peeled back the blanket to reveal the injured limb. He sucked in a breath as he examined the dirty, soiled bandage with its mixture of dry and fresh bloodstains and he wondered what other horrors he would find when he removed the dressing.
“The bullet still in there?”
Scott took a ragged breath; his body was already stiff with tension even through Johnny had not touched his leg yet.
“No bullet,” he replied, closing his eyes briefly as he recalled the searing pain when the blade had torn into his flesh. “Knife.”
Johnny looked up at his brother in surprise. He had naturally assumed that Scott had been shot, not stabbed.
“When’d this happen?” he asked, a touch of anger creeping into his voice.
Scott had to think. The days of his imprisonment had seemed to merge into one long period of pain, darkness, and fear and the oncoming fever was confusing his brain.
“Yesterday…I think,” he answered at length. “Tried to escape. Hadn’t counted on …Paige being so handy when it ..came to throwing knives.”
Johnny pursed his lips in annoyance, glad that the man responsible for his brother’s injury was dead and that he had been the one who had killed him. Getting to his feet, he went over to fetch his saddlebags and canteen.
“Got some bandages here,” he told the older man as he opened the flaps. “Wish I’d fetched some whiskey too.”
“You planning on d.. drinking, little brother?” Scott asked, a hint of amusement in his voice.
Johnny smiled. “Sounds like a good idea, Boston. Fact is, I was gonna use it on your leg first.”
Scott sobered at that thought. For what Johnny had in mind, he would not have minded a stiff drink beforehand. He flinched as the younger man fingered the blood-encrusted knot and his fingers tightened convulsively on the edge of the blanket in anticipation of the pain to come.
“Gonna have to soak this off,” Johnny said picking up the canteen. “You okay?”
At his brother’s quick nod, the ex-gunfighter unscrewed the lid and carefully poured some water over the dirty bandage. Scott gave a sharp hiss as the liquid filtered through the material and penetrated the raw wound, but Johnny knew that he could not stop now. Like Scott he wanted to get this unpleasant task over as soon as possible. Little by little, the water worked and Johnny slowly unravelled the soiled cloth and threw it into the fire.
Casting a swift glance at his brother, he saw that Scott’s eyes were now shut and that the sweat was trickling down his face. Although he had made no sound, Johnny could tell from the tight line of his pale lips and the rigid set of his jaw that the other was in agony. Forcing his gaze back to the injured leg, Johnny saw the rip in Scott’s pants where the blade had penetrated and he drew his own knife to cut through the stiffened material and expose more of the wound.
It was only about an inch and a half long, but from the amount of blood that stained Scott’s pants, Johnny suspected that it was deep. Although the wound itself did not appear infected, the edges looked red and slightly puffy and some blood was still sluggishly oozing from the cut. Taking a clean cloth, Johnny moistened it and started to bathe the area, taking care not to press too hard near the actual wound.
“Noo…stop!” Scott gasped, unable to stay silent any longer.
Johnny immediately ceased, the bloody cloth still clasped in his hand, and he edged closer to the older man and laid his other hand on the blond head.
“I’ve gotta do this, Scott,” he insisted, gently stroking his brother’s sweat-darkened hair.
“I..know,” the Easterner replied, opening fever bright eyes to stare up at him. “Just…give me a minute.”
“All the time in the world,” Johnny told him, patiently.
He waited, his fingers still resting lightly on Scott’s head until his brother managed to force back the fiery tides of pain to a more bearable level, and then he indicated that he was ready for him to continue. Johnny wiped the remainder of the dried blood and dirt away from the wound, tears glistening in his blue eyes as he listened to Scott’s muffled cries. Anxious to put an end of the other’s suffering, he folded another clean cloth into a thick pad and bound it firmly into place with the rest of the bandages.
“There. That ought to hold it till we get home.”
“When..?” Scott breathed, his tenuous grasp on consciousness waning.
Johnny reached down and wiped his clammy face, frowning as his noticed the tremor in the sick man’s limbs. “Soon, real soon,” he said soothingly. Stripping off his jacket, he laid it over the upper part of his brother’s body, but Scott looked up at him and shook his head in protest.
“No. Y..you need it. C.. cold.”
“Not as much as you,” Johnny replied. “’Sides, I got the fire to keep me warm. Now you just try and get some sleep. I’ll be right here.”
Scott gave a weak smile and let his eyes slide shut. Johnny carefully tucked the blanket around his freshly bandaged leg and then stood up and stepped over to the fire. Slumping back down on the ground, he barely stifled a huge yawn as his tiredness closed about him once more. He could not remember how long it had been since he had a good night’s sleep and he doubted whether he would enjoy one even when they reached home. His brother seemed to be getting steadily worse and Johnny would not be able to rest until Scott was on the mend.
Reaching forward to pour himself more coffee, he stopped when he noticed that his hands were trembling slightly and still smeared with Scott’s blood, and his eyes were drawn back to the blanketed form of his brother. Johnny was aware just how easily it could have gone wrong back in that town, how he could be bringing home Scott’s body instead. That was of course if he had survived the shoot-out himself. But they both had, and Johnny intended for it to remain that way.
Rinsing his hands, he settled down beside the small fire with his coffee cup cradled between his palms. As he sat, he got to thinking about the man – Rat, Scott had called – and why he had saved their lives by shooting Fox. When Johnny had first seen him, he had not considered him to be much of a threat to them. He had seemed scared, but then anyone would be a fool not to be. And yet, he had found the courage to kill the man who was obviously in charge. The question was why, and the only person who could possibly give him the answers was Scott, and he was in no condition to do so. There were many other questions that Johnny wanted to ask his brother, but for now they would have to wait.
The ex-gunfighter had been so deep in thought that he had not noticed that the fire had burned down low and that a chilly wind had got up. Throwing some more kindling on the flames, he set down his empty cup and got stiffly to his feet, rubbing his arms briskly in an effort to keep warm. Going over to check on Scott, he frowned in concern when he noticed that his brother was still shivering in spite of the blanket and the added protection of his jacket, and when he crouched down beside him he could tell from the his pinched features that he was still in considerable pain.
“Scott?” he called softly.
The blond turned his head towards him almost immediately, confirming his suspicion that he was finding it hard to get to sleep.
“W…what’s wrong?” There was a spark of worry in the Easterner’s eyes, and Johnny was quick to allay his fears.
“Everything’s fine. Just seeing if you’re okay.”
“M’fine,” he lied. His leg was throbbing remorselessly, and the feverish heat he had felt before was now replaced with bone-shaking chills.
Johnny, however, was not fooled by his words. “Na, you ain’t,” he affirmed. “You’re cold and so am I.” Picking up his jacket, he quickly slipped it on and then bent forward and gently raised his brother into a sitting position.
“John…?” Scott started breathlessly.
“Shh, Boston,” Johnny replied, as he slid around behind the injured man and leaned back so that he was supported against a large rock. Then he carefully eased Scott towards him so that the blond head was resting against his chest. “There, ain’t that more comfortable?”
Scott was too surprised to answer at first. Being raised in a society where human signs of affection were frowned upon, it was still strange to know how to react to his naturally tactile brother. Perhaps it was the Mexican blood that ran though Johnny’s veins that sometimes brought out his strong emotions. However, Scott had also seen the reverse side of his sibling whenever he had assumed his Madrid persona, and it only demonstrated what a complex person he really was.
Taking his brother’s silence as agreement, Johnny’s right arm curled lightly around Scott’s waist, despite the Easterner’s initial awkwardness he felt himself relaxing into the other’s comforting hold. The blond sighed softly as he realised that it was the first time in days that he felt truly safe. Even the persistent pain in his leg seemed to be receding, and he closed his eyes as the welcome warmth and sense of belonging eased his tired and battered body towards sleep.
Johnny gave a fond smile as he watched Scott’s head slowly slide down to rest against the crook of his left arm, and he was glad that his brother was finally going to get some much-needed rest. He reached out and adjusted the blanket around both of them and then allowed his dark head to sink back on his rocky pillow. Although he knew he ought to be staying alert and awake, he too found himself becoming drowsy and he almost jumped out of his skin when he heard Scott’s voice.
“Johnny? Did I miss Teresa’s birthday party?”
“What?” The ex-gunfighter sat up straighter, confused by this sudden and unexpected question.
“The party,” Scott insisted. “Did I miss it?”
“There weren’t no party, Brother,” Johnny told him. “It was cancelled.”
The older man raised his head and turned to look up at him curiously. “Cancelled? Why?”
Johnny had to laugh. “We weren’t about to have a party without you there, Scott.”
The other seemed surprised by this information, but he made no reply. He lay back down and was quiet for a while which made Johnny think that he had fallen asleep, but then he spoke again.
“She mad at me?”
“Course not.” Johnny replied hastily. Scott obviously believed he had somehow let his ‘sister’ down by not being around, but that was far from the truth. “She just wants you home, Boston. We all do.”
He raised his hand and ran his fingers gently down the side of the injured man’s lightly stubbled cheek. “Now why don’t ya hush up and get some shut-eye, big brother. It’ll be dawn in a few hours.”
“’kay.” Scott muttered sleepily. As he closed his eyes again, Johnny settled him into a more comfortable position so that he was supported against his left shoulder, and his arms encircled the slim waist to stop him slipping down. He smiled to himself when he eventually heard Scott’s faint snores and he dropped his head back, his blue eyes drooping with fatigue. Johnny did not even bother to fight off sleep now; he was too weary and too worn out with worry to care. However, there was one thing he was aware off before he finally succumbed to his exhaustion, and that was Scott’s hand as it crept out from under the blanket and fastened firmly on his own.
Thus with fingers intertwined, the Lancer brothers slept on, oblivious to the rest of the world and safe and secure in each other’s company.
It was the sound of coughing which finally woke him. That and the pounding rain.
Johnny’s eyes flew open and he sat up in sudden panic. Scott was hunched over onto his side, the violent spasms tearing at his lean frame, and his breath was punctuated with painful gasps.
“Scott!” he cried fearfully, as he scrambled to his knees and gripped his brother’s shoulders hard. “Estupido!” He berated himself for falling asleep and not looking out for the sick man. Johnny had no idea how long it had been raining, but judging by the puddles on the ground, it must have been some time. Both men’s clothing was soaked through as the rainwater dripped off their hair, and the blanket was also saturated. Johnny held on to Scott until the coughing fit ceased and then the blond slumped limply against him, his chest heaving as he fought for breath.
“I’m sorry, hermano,” he murmured, rubbing the other’s back in an effort to ease the Bostonian’s suffering.
Scott had no strength to answer him; it was hard enough just to keep breathing. His chest was racked with pain and his throat felt as though he had swallowed a whole bunch of nails. Wretched as he was, he could not place any blame on his brother. He knew how tired Johnny had been the previous evening, and he could not begrudge the younger man his sleep.
The ex-gunfighter looked up at the miserable grey dawn clouds, and cursed the cold rain which still fell in great sheets from the skies. Ill-fortune had dogged their footsteps ever since they had left Stockton three, no, four days ago, and there seemed to be no end to it. One thing was certain – they had to start moving and they had to leave now.
Pulling Scott up, Johnny half-carried him to a clump of bushes and placed him under the meagre shelter. Although it seemed a pointless exercise, it at least protected the older man from the worst of the pouring rain.
“You wait here,” he told his brother. “I’m gonna saddle Barranca.”
When the blond nodded, Johnny got up and ran over to his horse who stood forlornly under the sopping branches of a hawthorn tree. Ignoring the palomino’s baleful stare, he hurried to get the animal ready, but his haste made his usually deft fingers clumsy. Even from where he stood, he could hear Scott coughing again and he cursed to himself as he struggled with the last few straps.
Leading the horse back, Johnny quickly cleared the camp and then returned to his brother who was sitting huddled under the bushes. The older man looked awful, and was shivering with the cold and wet. His breathing sounded harsh to Johnny’s ears, and his eyes narrowed with concern when he noticed that his cheeks were tinged with blue. Masking his worry behind a smile, the ex-gunfighter put his hand on the blond’s shoulder.
“You set to ride?”
Scott glanced at him wearily. “Do ..I have a ch..choice?” he asked through chattering teeth.
“Thought not,” the Bostonian wheezed, fighting the urge to cough again. He took another ragged breath and then shifted forward, wincing as pain tore through his leg and chest. Johnny waited. He realised the injured man’s limitations even if his brother did not, but it was up to Scott whether he admitted defeat or not. In the end it did not take long.
“Johnny, I think I might n..need your help here.”
The dark-haired man nodded and immediately reached out to him. “Scott. You’re my brother. As long as I’m around, you never have to ask.”
The incessant ticking of the grandfather clock was really starting to get on her nerves now.
Teresa looked up from her pile of mending and glared at the offending timepiece. She was certain that the hands had stopped moving, or was it simply because only been a few minutes since she last checked? The young woman sighed and looked across at the other occupant of the Great Room. Murdoch sat behind his desk with his account ledger and various receipts laid out in front of him. At first glance it appeared that he was deeply immersed in his book keeping, but Teresa knew otherwise. It was all a sham, this pretence at normality, just as she was seemingly engrossed in her sewing, but she was not sure how much longer she could stand it. Teresa sighed again and tossed her mending aside before she rose and went over to the desk.
“Murdoch, shall I make a start on supper now?”
“What?” The grey-haired rancher looked up with a start. “Oh, Teresa.” He paused and rubbed a weary hand over his face. “No, sweetheart. I’m not really very hungry.”
Tears prickled at the back of her eyes as she regarded his careworn face. Like everyone else in the hacienda, he had had precious little sleep these past few days, and his powerful shoulders were slumped like an old man’s. Conscious of her scrutiny, he made a positive effort to straighten up in his chair and he gave her a brief smile.
“Maybe some coffee?’’ he suggested.
“All right,” she answered a little too brightly. and she had to turn away quickly as the threatened tears started to fall.
On hearing her muffled sob, Murdoch got to his feet and came around his desk to stand behind her. “There don’t cry, my dear,” he soothed, resting both hands gently on her shoulders.
Teresa swung around and buried her face into his broad chest. “Oh, Murdoch,” she cried. “I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to Johnny before he left. What if they’re both…”
The Lancer patriarch hugged her close and stroked her long dark hair. “We mustn’t think that, honey. We have to believe that Johnny will find Scott and they’ll both be home soon.”
“But it’s been so long.”
“I know. I know,” he muttered softly.
In reality, it had not been that long since his youngest son had ridden out in search of his brother. Johnny had left at first light the previous day and it was now approaching five in the afternoon. However, it seemed a lifetime for the anxious family waiting back home. Murdoch had already made his mind to ride out in the morning if Johnny had not returned by nightfall, but by then he feared that it would be too late for his two boys. He continued to hold the distraught woman until he was certain she had composed herself and then he gently pushed her away.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” she sniffed, her eyes still glistening with tears. “I’m all right now. Really.” Teresa wiped her face with her hands and then put on a brave smile. “I’ll go and make that coffee,” she added as she started to turn towards the kitchen. “Maybe I can rustle up some cookies as well. That’s if Johnny hasn’t eaten….” She broke off abruptly when she realised what she had said, and her eyes began to well up with tears again.
“Teresa…” Murdoch said stepping forward, but his young ward turned and fled from the room. The tall rancher started to go after her, but stopped as he changed his mind. It was more than likely that she wanted to be left alone at the moment and frankly he was at a loss to know what to say to her.
Crossing to the table, he poured himself a generous glass of whiskey and carried it back to his desk. Ignoring the headache he could feel building in his temples, he took a large gulp and sat down heavily on his seat. He seemed to be drinking a lot lately, but the alcohol did little to help his anguish. Setting the glass down, he gazed at the piles of paper before him and barely resisted the urge to sweep it all to the floor. What was the use of all this if he did not have his sons to hand over the ranch to when he was gone? Since Scott and Johnny had come home over a year ago, he had been secure in the knowledge that everything he had worked for would be cared for and nurtured by his future generations. Now that dream could all be thrown away.
Raising his head, Murdoch looked around the large room which was normally the focus of the Lancer family life – now achingly empty without the presence of his two boys. How he wished that they had both been here when they were growing up and not separated by hundreds of miles. So many years wasted, so much heartache, and just when it seemed that everything would turn out right, it looked as though it be all would snatched from his grasp again. Perhaps it was just punishment for not bringing them home sooner. Maybe the excuse that he had always made to himself about having no time because he was busy building up the ranch was simply a lie after all.
Murdoch has no idea how long he sat in brooding silence nursing his whiskey. He barely registered the fact when Maria brought in a tray of coffee and put it on the end of his desk. It was only when the Mexican servant turned to go back out to the kitchen that he realised who had entered the room in the first place.
“Maria? Where’s Miss Teresa?”
The middle-aged woman looked up at her employer, her features pinched with worry.
“Oh, Senor Lancer. The little nina she has gone up to her room. She is much upset about Juanito and Senor Scott.”
Murdoch got to his feet and went over to her. “We all are, Maria,” he said, patting her awkwardly on the arm. “But we mustn’t give up hope.”
“No, Senor,” the woman replied, although her dark eyes were full of doubt. Turning, she walked away, but not before Murdoch saw her cross herself swiftly.
Sighing, he walked back to his desk and poured himself a cup of coffee. He knew he should go up to see if Teresa was all right, but he could not face her tears at the moment. Perhaps he should saddle up and go looking for his sons now? Murdoch Lancer was not a man who could simply wait around for news of his boys - he had done enough of that in the past. No, he needed to do something, anything, to stop this mental anguish and frustration.
Looking at the clock, he calculated that there was only about two hours of daylight left and he swore inwardly. What could he hope to achieve in that short time? Nothing. He should have gone before or, better still, insisted on going with Johnny. At least then he would have known the outcome.
Cup in hand, Murdoch gazed out of the picture window, but this time the splendid view of rolling pasture and mountains did nothing to ease his troubled mind. If the worst happened, he would have to write to Scott’s grandfather and inform him of the tragic news. Murdoch had never seen eye-to-eye with Harlen Garrett, and his former father-in-law had been dead set Scott coming to California. On one occasion he had even resorted to blackmailing his grandson to get him to return to Boston. There was no doubt in Murdoch’s mind that if Scott was dead, Garrett would hold him personally responsible and the old man would hound him to the end of his days.
Murdoch turned around, slightly confused to see one of his ranch hands standing in the room, but then he saw the man’s face and he knew. Slamming down his cup, the rancher ran out of the French doors into the yard just in time to see the familiar shape of Johnny’s horse running past the bunkhouse towards the hacienda. However, any elation he might have felt at such a welcome sight swiftly dissolved when he saw the two riders. Scott was slumped forward in the saddle, his blond head almost resting on the horse’s neck, and Johnny’s grim face was grey with exhaustion. As the palomino was reined to a halt, Murdoch hurried forward and held up his hands.
“Let me take him, son,” he offered.
Johnny gratefully relinquished his precious burden to the waiting grasp of his father. His arms were almost completely numb from holding his injured brother for so long, and every muscle screamed in protest.
Holding his eldest’s limp form in his arms, Murdoch turned towards Jelly who had suddenly appeared at his side. “Get one of the men to ride into town for the doctor.”
“Already done it, boss,” the older man replied. The horse wrangler had seen the two coming in and guessed that they were in serious trouble. As Murdoch moved towards the front door, Johnny slid off his mount to follow him, but his knees buckled under him and he almost fell.
“Hey, you hurt, boy?” Jelly cried as he caught the young man under the elbow.
“Nah, just cramp,” Johnny answered, pulling out of his grasp. “You see to Barranca for me?”
“Goes without saying,” the other asserted. “Now git inside and take care of yer brother.”
The ex-gunfighter clapped him on the shoulder and hurried inside as fast as his stiff limbs would let him. Murdoch was already half way up the stairs and as he reached the top, he saw Teresa come out of her room.
“Scott!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with fear.
“Teresa, get some hot water and bandages,” her guardian ordered.
She nodded quickly and ran for the stairs, almost bumping into Johnny as she started down. He gave her a tired smile as he passed by and followed his father into Scott’s bedroom. Murdoch laid his unconscious son gently on the bed and looked up as Johnny entered.
“You all right, son?”
“I will be when I know Scott is gonna be okay,” the younger man replied, his blue eyes fixed on his brother’s unmoving form. The journey back had been horrendous, and Johnny had never been so glad to see the ranch again. Although the early morning downpour had eased within the first hour of them breaking camp it had stayed overcast all day, and an unseasonably chill wind had sprung up, cutting through their damp clothing like ice. Despite the cold, Scott’s fever had continued to rise to the point of delirium and he had become increasingly agitated, making it doubly difficult for Johnny to keep him in the saddle. Several times during the trip, Johnny had considered stopping so they could both rest for a while, but in the end he decided that it would be wiser to press on. Then, when they had some fifteen miles left to go, Scott had lapsed into a deep unconsciousness which at first Johnny had found a blessing, but the longer it went on, the more worried he became.
“Let’s get some of these filthy clothes off him.”
Murdoch’s voice brought Johnny back to the present and he stepped forward to help his father. The tall rancher was appalled at the condition of his oldest son. Although Scott had only been held captive for three days, he had obviously been badly treated by his kidnappers. His unshaven face was hollow-cheeked and bruised, and when he had carried him into the house he had felt frightening light and fragile. As Murdoch eased Scott’s boots off, his eyes were drawn to the blood-encrusted bandage around the younger man’s right thigh and he glanced up at Johnny.
“What happened to his leg?”
“Knife wound.” Johnny replied bitterly. “It’s pretty deep and he’s lost a lot of blood.” He saw the shock in his father’s eyes, and knew that he was waiting for him to explain the circumstances behind the injury, but this was not the time. The main priority was to get his brother’s wounds treated properly.
It was not the answer that Murdoch had been expecting, but he could see the worry on his youngest son’s face and he did not press the issue.
“His breathing’s sounds bad,” he observed as he sat on the edge of the bed and laid his head against Scott’s chest.
“I know, I know,” Johnny said tersely. “He started coughing real bad this morning and then when the damn rain came down…”
Murdoch looked up, concerned by the despair in his son’s voice and he rose to put a comforting hand on the other’s shoulder.
“Johnny, I’m not blaming you for anything. I just thank God that you’re both back home.”
The younger man nodded in acknowledgement and lowered his gaze back towards the figure on the bed. He realised that his father had not really been blaming him for Scott’s poor state, but he had assumed responsibility for his brother and somehow believed that he had failed him.
However, before either of them could make any further comment, they heard Teresa’s quick footsteps in the hallway, and then she hurried into the room bearing a bowl of hot water, clean cloths and bandages. With her arrival, the three of them set about the task of tending to the injured man, Teresa discreetly turning her back while the men carefully removed Scott’s torn and grubby pants and underclothes so they could bathe and redress his leg. Although the wound had stopped bleeding the angry inflammation had worsened, and Murdoch knew that it would have to be thoroughly cleaned and stitched when Doctor Jenkins arrived.
Scott was finally settled into bed and warm blankets piled over him. In spite of their joint ministrations the blond had not stirred once, much to the consternation of his anxious family. Eyes blurred with tears, Teresa gathered up the stained dressings and dirty clothes and after casting a last concerned glance at her insensible ‘brother’ she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Murdoch sighed worriedly as he drew a chair closer to the bed and sat down. “Why don’t you go down with Teresa and have something to eat before getting some rest. I’ll sit with Scott until Sam comes.”
“I ain’t leaving him.”
“Johnny, you’re dead on your feet,” Murdoch reasoned. “You’ll be no good to your brother if you collapse yourself.”
The dark-haired man knew that he was right. He was so tired that he was finding it difficult to keep his eyes open, but he dreaded the thought of going even though Murdoch would be there all the time. On the other hand, what could he do that his father could not? Crossing to the bed, he laid his hand lightly on Scott’s sweaty brow for a moment and then looked round at the other.
“I ain’t much up for food, but I might snatch an hour’s sleep.”
Murdoch gave a brief smile of relief. “Take as long as you need, son.”
Johnny lingered a bit longer before finally moving over to the door, but just as he touched the handle, he heard a faint groan.
The breathy whisper was enough to pull him back to his brother’s side in an instant, and he sank down on the edge of the bed, catching the other’s hand as it moved feebly against the blankets.
“Hey. I’m here, Boston, “Johnny said, reaching up his other hand to caress the blond’s flushed cheek. Scott gave a short, pained gasp and slowly opened his eyes struggling to focus on the figure beside him. “Murdoch’s here too,” Johnny added, shifting aside slightly so the injured man could see his father.
“Welcome home, son,” the older man said, swallowing past the lump in his throat
“Ho…?” He broke off abruptly as the sudden cough burst from his lips.
“Sit him up!” Murdoch quickly rose from his seat to fetch more pillows from the cupboard.
Johnny leaned forward and lifted his stricken brother up, supporting him against his chest as he rubbed soothing circles on his back.
The coughing fit was short but it left Scott completely spent, and he slumped weakly in his sibling’s arms as he struggled to draw air into his heaving lungs.
“Here, now lay him back. He’ll be more comfortable,” the rancher said, piling the extra pillows behind his oldest son’s shoulders.
Johnny eased the blond against the soft bolster and then wrung out a cloth and proceeded to wipe Scott’s sweat streaked face. The injured man flinched a little, but remained silent as he reclined against the bedstead with his eyes closed. Hearing the ominous rattling of his brother’s chest, Johnny exchanged an anxious glance with his father before dropping the cloth back into the bowl of water.
“How long will it take the doc to get here?” he asked, his blue gaze turning back to Scott.
“Sam will come as soon as he can, son,” Murdoch assured him. Doctor Jenkins was an old and trusted friend of the senior Lancer and had been called to the house on a number of occasions. Murdoch’s sons had the uncanny knack of finding trouble wherever they went, and he knew that once more he had to place his trust in the physician’s skill to make everything right again.
“Johnny. The men who did this…”
“You don’t have to worry about them, Murdoch,” the dark-haired man replied quietly, his eyes never leaving Scott’s stricken face.
The rancher looked at his son sharply, seeing how Johnny’s expression had changed from one of the concerned brother to the visage of a hardened gunfighter – the cold, impassive face of Johnny Madrid - and Murdoch knew without doubt that the men responsible for Scott’s condition were dead. Naturally he wanted to know how they had met their fate, but Johnny’s grim demeanour made him kerb his tongue for now.
Scott gave a sudden gasp and both men steeled themselves for another attack, but thankfully it did not come. Instead he gave a soft groan of pain, and his hand came up to rub at his chest.
“Ribs troubling you,” Murdoch asked, seeing the gesture.
“Some,” came the hesitant reply.
Johnny glanced at his father and saw how the older man’s face reflected his own worries. It was extremely rare for Scott to admit that he was in pain, so it was a clear indication that it must be bad.
“Know that, brother,” he said, as he gently smoothed the blond fringe away from Scott’s closed eyes, “but the doc will be here real soon and he’ll take care of ya.”
“Lo…look forward to it.” Scott tensed and his fists knotted in the bed sheets as he felt the cough forming in his lungs once again, and he struggled hard to suppress it. His chest was on fire, so too was his injured leg, and he wanted nothing more than to go to sleep and escape the agony. However, he was more frightened that this was all some kind of dream. Maybe he was not home after all, in his own bed with his family at his side. If he slept, perhaps he would wake up in that cold, dark mine once again with nothing to hope for but a quick death.
A strong feeling of deja vu washed over him, and Scott suddenly realised that he had experienced this kind of thing before, when he had come home from the War. Then, as now, he had lain in bed after his confinement in prison, hardly daring to believe that he was safe from harm. The terrible nightmares he had suffered after Libby had faded completely when he had come to live at Lancer. Now he was afraid that they would resurface with the coming of the night.
“Noo,” he breathed, shaking his head as the long forgotten images materialised in his brain.
“Scott! What’s wrong?” Johnny asked, alarmed by the other’s sudden agitation.
The blond’s eyes snapped open and his long fingers fastened around Johnny’s right wrist, gripping it with surprising strength.
The raw panic in his brother’s voice only served to fuel the ex-gunfighter’s fears and he closed his other hand around Scott’s.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he replied softly. “I ain’t going anywhere.” Johnny ignored Murdoch’s hiss of disapproval and keep his eyes locked on his sibling’s face. “I’m staying right here.”
Although his last remark was directed primarily at Scott, Murdoch knew that it was a firm statement of intent from his younger son. Johnny would remain with his sick brother no matter what. Murdoch gave a resigned sigh as he regarded his two boys, and he could not help but feel a twinge of jealousy. His sons were more than bound together by blood – they were best friends and trusted each other implicitly. They were also never afraid to show their affection for one another, and Murdoch wondered if he would ever be able to demonstrate his own love for them. Even through Scott and Johnny had been home for more than a year neither young man had ever called him ‘Father, and that hurt more than he would admit. He could not blame them as he had hardly acted like their father in all the time they were growing up.
Murdoch hoped he had earned their respect, but their love was still something that had to be worked on. Until that happened, it was difficult to believe that they could be a complete family and now given the seriousness of Scott’s condition, Murdoch was very much afraid that he would lose that opportunity forever.
Doctor Sam Jenkins made good time reaching the Lancer ranch, arriving just over an hour after he had received the summons. More than familiar with the house, he made his way straight up to Scott’s room and after a cursory examination of his patient ordered everyone outside. It came as no surprise to anyone when Johnny refused to budge, and although Murdoch started to remonstrate with him Sam allowed the young man to remain.
Finding themselves back downstairs once more, Murdoch and Teresa had no choice but to wait in anxious silence. After about fifteen minutes of nervous pacing, Teresa excused herself and went off to the kitchen on the pretext of helping Maria. Left alone with his worries, Murdoch’s first instinct was to fetch himself a large whiskey, but this time he refrained and walked outside instead. Planting his large frame onto a bench, he breathed in the cool evening air and watched dourly as the activity around the ranch slowly started to wind down for the night.
At first, he had been annoyed that Sam had ignored his protests about letting Johnny stay with Scott, but now that he thought about it Murdoch knew that the doctor was right. There was no way that his younger son was going to leave, so it was pointless arguing about it. Besides which, his strong presence might well serve to help the injured man and that was all that mattered. Despite this, Murdoch was still saddened by the fact that Scott had not insisted he stay as well, and it only went to prove that he had a long way to go before he gained both his boys’ complete trust.
“The doc still up there?”
“What?” Murdoch glanced up, startled by the sudden appearance of Jelly. He had been so immersed in his own dark thoughts that he had not heard the old handyman’s approach.
“Oh, Jelly, “ he replied, rubbing a hand across his face. “Yes, he’s still here.”
The rancher simply gave a weary nod of his grey head. There was no need for words. Jelly knew how close the brothers were, and that it would take nothing less than Hell and high water to drag Johnny away from the Easterner.
“Scott will be jest fine,” he asserted. “Don’t ya worry none, boss.”
“Guess that's the price of being a parent,” Murdoch mused quietly.
Jelly huffed indignantly. “Ain't just up ta parents ta fret over the young’uns.”
Murdoch looked at the older man in surprise, a faint smile hovering on his lips when he noticed the flush of embarrassment on Jelly's be-whiskered face. His sentimental words had caught him out ,and he was struggling hard to recover his normal gruff manner. Hooking his thumbs around his braces, Jelly thrust out his chest and squarely directed his gaze to a point above Murdoch's head.
“Johnny tell ya what happened?” he asked, deliberately changing the subject.
“No,” Murdoch answered, all trace of humour gone now. “Only that the people responsible are dead.”
Jelly gave his employer a sharp glance. “He tell ya that?”
“He didn’t have to,” Murdoch replied, recalling the steely-eyed look n his son’s face. Although Johnny had not actually admitted killing the men who had kidnapped and injured Scott, he knew that retribution had been swift and sure. Murdoch was also in no doubt that despite Johnny’s violent past, his son had only acted in self-defence in order to save his brother’s life.
“Ya gonna tell the Sheriff?”
The rancher shook his head. “As far as I know, he’s is still out of town and besides what can he do now?” Murdoch paused, gazing pensively beyond the older man. “No, Lancer looks after it’s own and it’s no different this time.”
Although surprised by the other’s response, Jelly had to agree with his boss. What could the law do now that justice had been dispensed from the gun of Johnny Madrid Lancer. From what he had seen when Scott had been brought home, Jelly was positive that the men had got what they deserved. He was just about to comment on such when a flicker of movement inside the hacienda caught his eye.
“Looks like the doc’s about done.”
Murdoch immediately rose from his seat and went back through the French doors with Jelly at his heels. Jenkins was standing over by the fireplace with his back to the two men so he did not see them enter. He was talking quietly to Teresa with a hand on the young girl’s shoulder and the tearful look on her face sent a bolt of fear racing through Murdoch’s heart. Painfully aware of the anxious pounding in his chest, he stepped forward. “Sam?”
The doctor turned at once. “Ah, Murdoch. There you are.”
Although his tone was serious, his face did not appear grim.
“He’s sleeping right now,” Jenkins explained, coming over to stand in front of the tall rancher. “I was just telling Teresa that although his fever has lessened, it‘ll probably return overnight.”
Murdoch nodded. “What about his leg?”
“There’s some infection there,” Sam replied. “We’ll have to keep a close eye on it. Make sure it doesn’t get any worse.” He paused briefly before continuing. “I am a little concerned about that cough though. His lungs sound a mite congested.”
“Pneumonia?” Murdoch asked, his heart starting to pound with alarm.
“No, I don’t think so,” the doctor assured them. “From what Johnny told me about where Scott was kept, it sounds more like he’s picked up a severe chill. Being caught out in the rain didn’t help any.”
Murdoch looked at his friend in surprise, feeling slightly annoyed that Johnny had revealed details about Scott’s incarceration to Jenkins rather than to his own father. Sam, however, did not seem to notice Murdoch’s discomfort and turned again to Teresa.
“I’ve left some medicine with Johnny. When Scott wakes, try and get him to take some. It’ll help the cough and ease the tightness in his chest.”
“Yes, Doctor,” the young woman replied, thankful for something to do after the hours of anxious waiting.
“Sam, why don’t you stay for supper,” Murdoch suggested.
The other gave a weary smile. “Love to, Murdoch, but I’ve got to check on Sophie Meadows before I can go home. She’s expecting her first any day now and that young husband of hers panics at the slightest twinge she gets! We’ve had a number of false alarms already. I suspect he’s going to be the worst patient when it finally happens.”
Murdoch grinned in return and accompanied Jenkins to the front door. The doctor picked up his hat and bag from the hall table and looked up at his old friend, a serious expression on his face.
“I know it won’t be easy, Murdoch, but try and drag Johnny away to his bed. The boy’s all in, though he won’t admit.”
The rancher sighed. “I’ll do my best, Sam but you know how pig-headed he can be sometimes.”
“Yes I do. He’s just like his father!” Jenkins retorted with a smile.
Murdoch laughed and placed a large hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Thanks for coming out, Sam.”
“Anytime, Murdoch. You know that.” He reached for the door. “I’ll be back first thing in the morning. Try not to worry too much about Scott. The Lancer stubborn streak should pull him through.”
His reassuring words gave him some comfort, but as soon as he shut the front door behind Jenkins, Murdoch was hurrying up the stairs to his injured son’s room.
Creeping quietly inside, he found Johnny sitting slouched in an armchair, which had been drawn, up bedside the bed. Although it was not yet fully dark, the drapes had been closed and the lamps lit. Murdoch bent over his eldest son and placed a hand on the sleeping man’s brow. It was warm, but not burning hot as before. Murdoch was also pleased to see that a little colour had returned to Scott’s cheeks, although then again it could be attributed to the flush of returning fever.
Murdoch turned as Johnny spoke, his eyes narrowing with concern as he stared at his son’s drawn face.
“Yes,” he replied, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “But he’ll be back in the morning.”
Johnny nodded, his troubled blue gaze never leaving the still form of his brother. Murdoch hesitated, wondering how he was going to persuade his youngest to rest. The boy needed some respite from the strain and worry of the last few days. Scott might not be out of the woods yet, but at least he was home and safe.
“They kept him underground.”
“What!” Murdoch was startled by his son’s sudden words. Johnny’s voice was low and filled with bitterness. His eyes, still fixed on his brother, were ice cold and angry as he recalled what Scott had told him.
“Scott. They kept him in some old mine tunnels under the town. Tied up and in the pitch dark.”
Murdoch turned his shocked gaze towards his unconscious son, his own anger rising as he considered what Scott must have been through during the past three days. What could he have been thinking of as he was kept in a cold, dark tunnel, never knowing if the next moment might be his last? Murdoch knew that Scott had experienced much privation during his year long imprisonment in Libby, but then at least he had had the company of other soldiers to share his suffering. It might only have been three days totally alone in complete darkness, but to Scott it must have brought back terrible memories and had probably seemed like a lifetime.
“These men who kidnapped him,” he began, as he struggled to keep a tight rein on his temper. “They have a name?”
Johnny made an effort to sit up a little straighter in the chair, stifling a groan as stiff muscles protested.
“The leader was called Fox. Ben Fox, he said. There was another called Paige and Scott said the last one was called Rat.”
“Fox,” Murdoch repeated slowly. The other two names meant nothing to him but the leader’s sounded vaguely familiar. His forehead furrowed as a tenuous thread of memory flashed through his brain.
“You know him?” Johnny asked, seeing the expression on his father’s face.
No, the memory was gone now. Not that it mattered anymore, Murdoch thought grimly. Johnny had killed him, and if he had been in that town confronting the man who had hurt his son so badly he would probably had done the same.
Johnny grunted and sank back once more, rubbing at his tired eyes. The action was not lost on Murdoch and reminded him of his earlier intention.
Murdoch sighed with exasperation. “I was only going to say why don’t you wash up and put on a clean shirt. Then maybe we could get some coffee. I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”
The younger man glanced up his father and then down at his grimy, travelled stained clothing. Maybe he would feel better if he washed and changed. The idea of a strong cup of coffee sounded good too.
“All right,“ he agreed after a slight pause.
His father was surprised, but pleased that Johnny had at last heeded his words. The dark-haired man rose gingerly to his feet, hands kneading the small of his back. “I’ll be right back.”
Murdoch smiled. “I’ll get the coffee sent up.”
Johnny gave a grateful nod and with a last glance at his brother, left the room. Crossing the hallway, he entered his own bedroom and shut the door, leaning wearily against it for a moment before going over to the washstand. Pouring some water into the bowl, he unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and rolled up his sleeves. The cool water felt good on his face and revived his senses a little, but when he looked up into the mirror he was shocked at the haggard face that stared back at him. His dark hair was more untidy than ever and his eyes were red-rimmed with fatigue. Johnny could not remember feeling this tired for a long time. He knew he was not just suffering from physical tiredness. The emotional strains of the rescue and the subsequent journey back to the ranch had taken their toll on the young man too, but he could not give in yet. He splashed some more water onto his face and reached for the towel. Moving over to the bed, he sat down heavily on the edge and wiped away the excess moisture.
The bed felt so damn comfortable and for a moment Johnny looked longingly at the plump pillows and soft blankets, but then he shook his head. He needed to be with Scott and his own welfare could wait. Unbuckling his gunbelt, he hung it on its customary place over the headboard. Johnny knew Murdoch did not approve of this practice, but even here at Lancer the ex-gunfighter found it hard to relax without knowing his gun was nearby. Rubbing a weary hand across his face, he started to kick off his boots. That was as far as he got – a minute later he was sprawled across his bed, fast asleep.
Murdoch was on his second cup of coffee before he went to Johnny’s room to check on him. A smile crept over his face as he heard his younger son’s soft snores. Johnny was lying on his right side, dark head burrowed into the pillows, one boot on and the other halfway across the floor. Murdoch moved over and gently tugged off the other boot and settled his son more comfortably on the bed before reaching for a brightly coloured Mexican blanket. Johnny gave a slight murmur as his father draped it over him, but remain blissfully asleep. Murdoch straightened up and moved back to the door.
“Sleep well, son,” he whispered, glancing back at the younger man. Then he quietly left the room to return to his other son.
Scott knew he was dreaming, but there seemed to be no escape from the nightmare. He was back in the ghost town and Johnny had come for him. The sun was too bright and his eyes were streaming with tears. Tears of pain and tears of sorrow. His brother was lying dead on the dusty street, surrounded by a rapidly spreading pool of blood. His three kidnappers had gunned Johnny down before he had even time to draw. And then they had emptied their guns in their victim, Johnny’s lifeless body twitching helplessly as the bullets hit.
Now they were done and they all looked up, staring at him with soulless eyes and Scott knew his time had come. The one called Paige drew his hunting knife and walked slowly towards him.
“Now, I get to carve you up, Lancer,” he sneered. “Fox said I could take my time and that’s just what I intend to do.”
Despite his acceptance of the inevitable, the instinct to live suddenly kicked in and Scott tried to scramble away. A hand closed over his shoulder and searing pain cut across his chest as Paige slashed at him with the knife.
“Take it slow, Lucius,” Fox cautioned. “I want to hear him scream for mercy.”
Scott shook his head and forced himself to look up the big man. “That’s…not going to happen, you bas..”
A heavy boot crashed into his wounded leg and he could not prevent the agonised cry spilling from his lips.
“Oh, I think it will, my friend” Fox replied smugly. ”Carry on, Lucius.”
Paige smiled and took a firmer grip on his bloodstained weapon. “Now I’m gonna have me some fun!”
The panicked cry brought Murdoch out of his doze immediately and his eyes flew open in alarm. Scott was writhing restlessly in the bed, his hands raised as if to fight off an unseen adversary. Murdoch leapt out of his seat and onto the bed, gripping his son’s wrists tightly.
“Scott! It’s alright, boy! You’re safe.”
“Let..go!” the injured man hissed, and then the breath caught in his throat and he started to cough.
Murdoch quickly sat him up and held him against his chest as the cough tore at his aching lungs. Scott struggled weakly in his grasp and then realised he was finally awake. He tried a gasping breath, but gagged as thick phlegm rose in his throat. Hearing his distress, Murdoch grabbed a basin from the bedside table and thrust it under his chin. The blond coughed and retched into the basin, and Murdoch paled in horror when he saw the blood-streaked sputum trickle from his son’s pallid lips.
The attack left Scott fighting for breath and barely conscious. He desperately wanted to sleep again, but was afraid that the dreams would return. Then a terrible thought struck him. He knew his father was with him, holding him in his strong grip, but where was his brother? Had he really only been dreaming when he had seen Johnny gunned down before his eyes, or was he recalling what had really happened?
“Joh..Johnny?“ he gasped painfully as he forced open his eyes.
“Your brother’s not here, son.”
Murdoch’s words gave him a jolt of fear and Scott tried to wrest himself from the older man’s grasp. “What’s... happened? Where is he?”
“Nothing’s happened. He’s fine, Scott,” Murdoch said hastily, realising the sick man had misunderstood him completely. “He’s asleep in his room.”
“Asleep?” the blond breathed, looking up at his father’s face to ascertain he was telling the truth.
“Yes, you’ll see him in the morning. Now let’s you get settled back.”
Murdoch gently eased his elder son against the pillows, propping them firmly against the headboard. Scott’s face was deathly pale except for two patches of red on his cheeks. The fever was returning as Sam had predicted and Murdoch was certain that Scott’s wheezing breath had worsened. Picking up a damp cloth, he wiped his son’s face and mouth and then turned to pour some water into a glass.
“Come on, Scott. Drink this for me.”
The blond looked at the glass and then glanced suspiciously at the bottle standing on the bedside table.
“It’s just water, son,” Murdoch assured him. “Come on, you must be thirsty,”
He was – very. His mouth and throat felt like a dried-up water hole and his chest seemed as tight as a drum. Scott raised his heavy head and sipped gratefully at the cool liquid.
“Take it slowly,” his father warned. He did not want Scott to have another coughing fit.
The younger man heeded his words, but even taking a few mouthfuls exhausted him and he sank back with a sigh. He felt as weak as a kitten, which was not all together surprising since he had not eaten for four days. Scott could sense Murdoch’s concern for him and he made an effort to rouse himself from his lethargy. He peered around at the darkened room, thankful for the lit lamp at the side of his bed.
“What time is it?” he asked hoarsely.
Murdoch fished out his pocket watch and squinted at the hands. “Almost two.”
The older man frowned with surprise. “Sorry for what, son?”
“My fault .. we got into trouble,” Scott replied breathlessly. “Should have… listened to Johnny and wa..waited for the next stage.”
“It’s nobody’s fault, Scott,” Murdoch answered. His two sons were always quick to blame themselves when someone got hurt, but it was often unwarranted. In this instance, it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time. However, it made him realise just how close he had been to losing his boys and he knew he never wanted to face that prospect again. Shaking himself slightly, he summoned up a faint smile and gently brushed Scott’s damp hair away from his forehead.
“It’s over now, and you’ve just got to get yourself better.”
The blond nodded and closed his eyes briefly as another wave of weakness swept over him.
“Why don’t you try and sleep some more,” Murdoch suggested. “We’ll talk in the morning.” He reached over to turn down the wick of the lamp, but Scott’s hand suddenly shot out and grabbed his wrist tightly.
“No! Leave it on!”
Murdoch was shocked to see the naked terror in his son’s grey-blue eyes, and he cursed himself for his stupidity as he recalled what Johnny had told him about Scott being confined for days in total darkness.
“All right, Scott. It stays on, but you do need to get some sleep.”
Murdoch gently prised his son’s long fingers away from his wrist and tucked both hands under the blankets. The blond’s hesitant voice sounded almost like a little boy’s and Murdoch wondered if Harlen Garrett had ever soothed Scott if he had woken from a nightmare when he was still a small child. Knowing the man, he somehow doubted it. It should have been me, Murdoch thought guiltily. I should have been there for him, not his damn grandfather, but he had convinced himself that building up the ranch had taken up more of his time than trying to retrieve the son who was being cared for much better than he ever could back in Boston. Murdoch knew he should have fought harder to get Scott back, but he did not have the means nor the stamina for a long court battle for custody. He would carry that guilt for the rest of his days, but it did not mean he could not be here for both his sons when they needed him most.
“They’re just dreams, Scott,” he said softly. “They can’t hurt you. I won’t let them hurt you ever again.”
The younger man looked up at him in surprise. His father barely ever showed any kind of emotion, especially towards his sons, but the unmistakeable signs of love were now openly present on his craggy features. Slightly embarrassed, but strangely comforted by this display, he shut his eyes once more and lay back, forcing himself to relax. Although his chest and leg still ached fiercely, he was surprised to find himself drifting off to sleep and this time he did not fight it.
Murdoch watched and waited as Scott’s breathing slowed and deepened. His chest still sounded congested to him and he was worried about the blood-streaked saliva that Scott had coughed up. He covered the basin over with a towel with the intention of showing Sam Jenkins when he arrived in the morning. Pneumonia was the last thing Scott needed after all he had been through.
He sighed, running his hands through his grey hair and settled back in the armchair. He had told Johnny that it was going to be a long night and now it looked like he was going to spend it alone. However, he was glad that his younger son was resting. Johnny certainly needed it and Murdoch would welcome his support if they were going to help Scott make a full recovery. That might be a long time coming, but he was determined that he would be there every step of the way.
Johnny woke with a start, his eyes snapping open to find bright sunshine streaming through the window. Throwing back the blanket, he was momentarily surprised to find that he was fully clothed, and then he remembered. Swearing vehemently in Spanish, he scrambled out of bed and hurried over to the door, throwing it open violently.
“Murdoch!” he shouted. He was convinced that his father had somehow managed to slip him something to make him sleep last night.
The door opposite opened almost immediately and the elder Lancer emerged, looking decidedly dishevelled and weary.
“Keep your voice down, Johnny,” he admonished. “The doctor’s inside examining your brother.”
“Scott? How is he?” Johnny demanded, suddenly afraid.
His father sighed worriedly. “His fever’s up and his breathing sounds worse to me.”
“Why the hell didn’t you wake me?” the younger man stormed. “Did you give me something to make me sleep?”
Murdoch looked at him appalled. “No, of course not. How could I? You never ate or drank anything last night. You were plain exhausted, son. When I came to find you, you were fast asleep on your bed.”
Some of the anger leaked out of Johnny on hearing the other’s explanation. God knows, he had been so damned tired last night. He remembered going to his room to rinse his face and then nothing.
“Can I see him?” he asked, calmer now, but very anxious to see his brother.
“Let’s go check with Sam.”
Heart beating with trepidation, he followed the tall form of his father into the room, hesitating at the door while Murdoch approached the bed.
Jenkins turned to face to the two Lancers and saw the deep concern on both their faces. Removing the stethoscope from around his neck, he stood up and drew them aside.
“As expected, his temperature’s up and his lung’s are still congested,” he told them. “I’m going to redress his leg and check for infection again, although that might not be the main cause for the fever. It’s my guess that after his time in Libby, Scott is more susceptible than most to infections and fevers. We’ll just have to keep a close eye on him for the next few days.”
The doctor’s words washed over Johnny as he stared over at his sick brother. Scott lay propped up in bed, swathed in blankets. His eyes were closed and his blond hair was darkened with sweat. Even from where he stood, Johnny could hear his stertorous breathing and see the thin lines of pain on his flushed face. Once again, he felt consumed with guilt for leaving him in the hands of his kidnappers in the first place. He should have stayed in Hades Hill and hunted the men down before they had a chance to hurt his brother. If he had done so, Scott would have been spared all this suffering.
“What about that blood?”
Murdoch’s question brought him back to the present with a nasty jolt and he looked back at his father with shock.
“Scott coughed up some blood last night.”
“Dios!” Johnny breathed, paling with fear. “That’s bad, ain’t it, Doc?”
“Could be, “Jenkins agreed, “but the blood may have come from anywhere - his nose or his throat when he had a bad coughing fit and there’s been no further sign of it. He certainly does have a chest infection, but there’s nothing to suggest he’s developing pneumonia.”
The news brought a sense of relief to the Lancers, but they both knew Scott’s condition could still deteriorate and they could not afford to become complacent.
Johnny turned at the sound of his brother’s raspy voice, but it was Jenkins who moved over to his patient’s bedside first. The blond’s blue-grey eyes were open, unnaturally bright as he peered groggily at the physician.
“What is it, Scott?” Jenkins asked anxiously.
Sam nodded and wrung out the almost dry washcloth and laid it back over the younger man’s forehead. “You’ve got a fever, son,” he replied. “But you’re going to be just fine, trust me.”
Scott swallowed painfully and closed his eyes for a moment. His throat was still extremely sore and he could not remember feeling this bad for a long time. His right leg throbbed remorselessly, it hurt just to breathe and to top it all, he had a raging headache. If someone gave him a gun right now, he would be sorely tempted to put himself out of his misery.
That quiet voice close to his ear prompted him to open his eyes, and his mood of despair lifted immediately when he saw his brother’s smiling face.
“Johnny,” he whispered, reaching out a trembling left hand.
The younger man folded it in his own warm grasp and rested his other hand lightly on the sweat-soaked blond head.
“You look terrible, brother.”
Scott managed a wan smile. Johnny was never one to mince his words. “Thanks, I feel it.”
“And there’s me thinking you just wanted a few days in bed so I have to do all the work round here.”
The sick man gave a short laugh, which unfortunately turned into a cough. The other three tensed, but Scott quickly recovered his breath and waved them off. Murdoch poured some liquid into a tumbler and gave it to Johnny to offer to his brother. Scott sipped it gratefully, frowning a little as he tried to identify the taste.
“It’s honey and lemon mixed with water, son,” Murdoch explained. “Teresa’s idea. It should help to ease your throat.”
Thus reassured, Scott took a few more sips, feeling it slide down his scratchy throat and ease the discomfort.
“It’s good,” he said, as Johnny took the glass away. “Glad it wasn’t one of Jelly’s concoctions.”
“Oh, he brewed up one especially, Scott,” Murdoch informed him, “but I wouldn’t let him bring it.”
The blond smiled and exchanged a look with his brother who rolled his eyes. Both boys had sampled Jelly’s so-called ‘cure alls’ before and vowed never to try them again. Scott lay back against the pillows and regarded his father, concerned at his haggard look.
“Were you here all night, Murdoch?” he asked, recalling the older man’s strong presence.
“Pretty much,” the rancher admitted, a weary smile on his lips.
“You look tired. You should get some rest.”
Murdoch was touched by his son’s concern. “I will, Scott. Later.”
Sam stepped forward again, a serious expression on his face and addressed his young patient.
“Scott, I need to check your leg again and change the bandages.”
The blond flinched, not relishing the thought of anyone touching his injured leg even through he knew it had to be done.
“I know it’s going to be unpleasant,” Jenkins went on sympathically, “but I promise I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Scott nodded grimly. “All right.”
The doctor turned away and started to prepare what he needed. Murdoch left the room to fetch some more water and ask Teresa to fix them some fresh coffee, leaving Johnny sitting with his brother.
“Want me to stay?” the younger man asked, seeing the apprehension on the blond’s face.
Scott tore his gaze away from what Sam was doing, suddenly feeling nauseous as he faced the prospect of further pain.
“No problem, Brother,” Johnny answered with a warm smile.
The examination and bandage changing was every bit as unpleasant as Sam had predicted. The skin around the stitched knife wound was now an angry red and badly swollen, indicating that the infection had worsened. He decided that the best option was to make a further small incision to drain the wound and then thoroughly cleanse the area again. Knowing how painful this procedure would be, Sam insisted that Scott took a dose of laudanum before he started. However, he was aware that he dare not give him too much as it might further affect his breathing.
Johnny held his brother’s head, as Jenkins tipped the bitter liquid past his lips, tears prickling the back of his eyes as he heard Scott gasp and gag. In spite of the pain relief, the blond suffered more agony and Johnny was convinced that his brother would break his fingers the way he was gripping them so hard, although Scott stubbornly refused to make a sound. Sam watched worriedly as his patient’s face grew paler and paler during the difficult procedure and tried to go as swiftly as he could. Finally he was done and he applied clean bandages to the wound, wrapping them firmly around the affected limb.
Scott was almost out of it by then, heavy in his brother’s firm grasp and as Jenkins carefully arranged the blankets back over the injured man, he noticed him lose his tenuous grip on consciousness
“Lay him back now, Johnny,” Sam said, hating what he had had to do. “He’s asleep now.”
The younger man did so, pulling the blankets up to Scott’s chin and wiping the perspiration off his sibling’s face.
“Hope you don’t have to do that too often, doc,” he said, flexing his bruised fingers. His attempt at humour was his way of hiding his deep concern for his sick brother.
“I hope so too, Johnny.” Sam glanced up at Murdoch, who was standing behind his younger son, staring down at the still figure of his firstborn.
“He should sleep for a good few hours now, Murdoch. Sorry I had to do that, but I think most of the fever stems from the leg wound. It’s cleaner now and hopefully his temperature will start to come down.”
Murdoch sighed and ran a shaky hand through his grey hair. “Thanks Sam. I understand it had to be done.”
“He’ll probably need more laudanum when he does come too, but make sure you only mix one teaspoon with the water. Don’t be tempted to give him more, however bad the pain may be.”
Murdoch nodded, knowing how hard that would be, but he realised that his old friend only had Scott’s welfare in mind.
Sam gave him an encouraging smile as he washed his hands and started to pack his things away. “Now, you ought to take Scott’s advice and get some sleep,” he told him. “I’m sure Johnny will want to sit with his brother for a while.”
“You got that right,” the dark-haired man said emphatically. “I ain’t planning on going anywhere.”
“Seems I’m outvoted then,” Murdoch said ruefully. “I’ll see you out, Sam and then maybe lie down for a few hours.”
“You do that.”
After the two older men had left the room, Johnny settled back down into the armchair, watching his brother’s face intently for any signs of discomfort. The laudanum, however, now seemed to be doing the trick and Scott was sleeping peacefully. Drawing his stockinged feet up on the chair, Johnny sat with his chin resting on his hands, thinking back on the dramatic events of the last few days. Was it only yesterday that he had stood in the dusty main street of the ghost town trying desperately to save his brother’s life and making sure he stayed alive himself? The final shootout had been over in a matter of minutes, but at the time they had seemed to be the longest ever in his short life.
Living as Johnny Madrid, he knew it was only a matter of time before he came up against someone who was faster than him. It was something a gunfighter faced all the time. It was not something that he dwelt upon, but he accepted that it could happen. Now it was different. He had a new life, a second chance even. Johnny had a family now, a father whom he admired more every day and a brother whose life was so precious to him. He cared more about people now, cared what happened to them. He also realised that the fatalistic attitude he had assumed as Madrid was fast disappearing. However, Johnny knew he could never afford to lose his edge. The world was still a dangerous place out there, and he would do everything he could to protect his family and friends. The incident at Hades Hill was just the latest example and Johnny had no doubt that there would be more in the future. For now, he was just glad that he and Scott had come through it alive and for that he was thankful.
Just over two weeks later found Scott Lancer sitting on the large sofa in the Great Room, his bandaged right leg stretched out in front of him on a footstool. For the past few days he had driven his family crazy with his constant demands to get up. Eventually that morning, Sam Jenkins had granted him his wish, so with Johnny’s help he had dressed and made his way slowly downstairs, armed with a stout cane and leaning heavily on his brother.
He had to admit that he felt a little breathless and dizzy when they reached the main room, but he was just glad to be up and about and not lying down all the time. As expected, Teresa fussed around him, insisting he was still too pale and that he should be back in bed, but Scott had merely flashed his most disarming smile and told her he was feeling fine.
He had a lot to thank his ‘sister’ during with his recovery. The hot lemon and honey drinks she prepared soothed his sore throat, and the nourishing broths she forced down him helped the blond build up his strength and fight off the fever that had so worried everyone in those first few days. The chest infection took a lot out of Scott, and when it eventually cleared up it left him feeling as weak as a new born foal. However, his normal good health and careful nursing had finally pulled him through.
Now he was just happy to lounge in front of the fire, enjoying the company of Johnny who sat in a nearby armchair dozing lightly while their father working quietly at his desk. Laying his head back with a contented sigh, he was considering following his brother’s example when the door to the kitchen banged open and Teresa bustled in carrying a full tray of coffee. Scott’s inbred good manners prompted him to help the girl with her heavy load, but he was severely incapacitated by his bad leg.
“Don’t you dare try and get up, Scott Lancer!” she scolded. “You shouldn’t be up for at least another week anyway.”
“Teresa…” he began, but she ignored his protests and scowled at the younger Lancer instead.
“Johnny,” she called. When the dark-haired man merely groaned, she called him again and kicked him in the ankle for good measure.
“Huh?” Johnny came awake with a surprised jerk and squinted up at his tormentor. “What?”
“I think she wants you to take the tray, little brother,” Scott replied, with an amused smile on his lips.
“Right,” Johnny sprang to his feet and took it from Teresa, then looked round for somewhere to put it.
Teresa gave a sigh of exasperation and snatched it back off him and set it down on the table with a force to make the cups rattle. “Men!” she hissed as she started to pour.
Johnny gave a puzzled frown and plopped down next to his brother. “What did I do now?”
Scott laughed and reached out to ruffle his sibling’s unruly hair. “Ah, if we knew what goes on in women’s minds, brother, we’d be geniuses!”
The younger man eyed him curiously and then shook his head.
Teresa gave a cup to Murdoch, who thanked her quietly before going back to his bookwork and then came over to the boys.
“Is that for me?” Scott asked hopefully as she held out a cup of the strong brew.
“No, this is Johnny’s” she replied. “Not that he deserves it,” she added with a sniff. “This is yours,” handing him a glass.
Scott sniffed at the contents suspiciously and then took a tentative sip.
“Buttermilk!” he exclaimed with a grimace. “You know I hate buttermilk, Teresa.”
“It’s good for you,“ the girl insisted. “And besides, Doctor Jenkins recommended it.”
Johnny laughed and punched his brother playfully on the arm. “Now drink it up like a good boy, Boston.”
Teresa shot him a stern look and Johnny wisely turned his attention to his coffee.
“Are you feeling alright, Scott?” she asked anxiously reaching to feel his forehead. “Do you need a blanket?”
“I’m fine, Teresa. Really.”
“Oh, you boys always say that, even when you’re at death’s door,” she retorted.
“No, we don’t,” Johnny interjected indigently.
“Yes, you do,” their ‘sister’ answered, with an impatient stamp of her foot. “Now drink your buttermilk, Scott and no swapping with Johnny.”
She stalked back to the kitchen and the brothers looked at each other for a moment and then burst out laughing.
“How did she know we were gonna swap?”
Scott shrugged and took another sip of his beverage before setting it down with a shudder.
“She means well,” he told his younger brother with a fond smile.
“I know,” Johnny replied. “She just….”
“Fusses too much?” Scott suggested.
The two sat in silence for a moment, listening to the crackling of the fire and then Scott cast a quick glance around at his father before leaning conspiratorially towards his brother.
“Has Murdoch asked you what happened to the ransom money?”
Johnny too looked briefly at the man sitting behind the desk before answering. “No, not yet” he said, softly.
“What are you going to tell him when he does?” Scott asked, keeping his voice low.
“I dunno.” Johnny admitted. To be honest, he had not given the subject much thought since he brought his brother home. They had been too pre-occupied with Scott’s health to worry about anything else. The saddle bags with the cut-up money were still stashed away in Johnny’s wardrobe where he had left them. However, he had to tell Murdoch something soon as the bank would be expecting the loan to be repaid.
“Anyhow, I didn’t chop it all in half.”
“You didn’t?” Scott glanced at him in surprise. From what he remembered in those tense moments when Paige had emptied the worthless banknotes out onto the street, there seemed to be an awful lot of money lying on the ground.
“Nah, there was only about five hundred there.”
“Five hundred!” Scott exclaimed, a little louder than he intended. “Then where’s the rest of it?”
“That’s what I’d like to know, Johnny.”
Both boys started guiltily at the sound of their father’s gruff voice. They had not noticed him leaving his desk and coming over to stand behind them.
“You accusing me of stealing it, old man?” Johnny demanded, blue eyes flashing in sudden anger.
“I never said that, Johnny,” Murdoch replied, sitting down in the armchair. “I’d just like to know what happened.”
The younger man sighed and ran both hands through his hair. “Well, ya know we couldn’t raise the whole six thousand in just three days…...”
Murdoch nodded, remembering how worried he had been at the time when he knew Johnny was going to meet the kidnappers without the full amount they had demanded.
“Well, I only packed around five hundred dollars in my saddlebags and padded out the wads with newsprint. Then when I headed back, I stopped along the trail and cut the money in half.”
“You did what?” his father exploded.
Johnny ignored him for a moment as he continued his explanation.
“I knew they’d check the money first, so when they pulled it out they were so damned surprised to see if all cut up, they didn’t realise how much was really there.”
“Then where is the money we got from the bank?” Murdoch asked, mystified as to how his son had found the time to doctor the money.
“Still in your safe where you put it.”
Murdoch’s gaze shot across the room towards the small safe behind his desk. He had not even looked inside since Scott and Johnny had returned home.
“So the money you took….”
“Was the money you put towards the four thousand you loaned from the bank,” Johnny finished.
There was a stunned silence from the two older men for a moment and then Scott reached across and squeezed his brother affectionately on the shoulder.
“Johnny, that’s brilliant!”
The other flashed him a cheeky grin. “Yeah, it was kinda good, weren’t it? See, you’re not the only smart one in the family!”
Murdoch was still shaking his head in amazement, still at a loss to fathom out how Johnny had managed this audacious feat without his knowledge.
“You took an awful risk, son,” he said at length, realising for the first time just how close he had come to losing them both to the kidnappers.
“Yeah,” Johnny replied, his eyes fixed on his brother, “But I figgered it was worth it.”
“Thanks, Brother,” Scott managed, swallowing past the huge lump in his throat. He dipped his blond head, slightly embarrassed by the intensity of the other’s stare, but Johnny laughed and pulled the older man towards him in a rough embrace.
“So, when are you gonna stop playing the invalid and start helping me out around here,” Johnny asked, a teasing smile on his lips. “Ya know Murdoch’s running me ragged!”
His father opened his mouth to protest, but Scott spoke first, a serious expression on his face.
“Oh, I thought I might be able to begin tomorrow,” he stated. “Murdoch told me that there’s about five miles of fencing that needs doing, then there’s the creek near the South Pasture that has to be cleared out. After that I thought I’d make a start on the branding…”
Johnny stared at him open-mouthed. His brother could barely walk let alone stand and he was still too weak to even consider going back to work yet.
“You’re kidding, right?”
Scott looked at his shocked face for a moment and then broke into a huge grin. “Yeah, I am.”
“You damned idiot!” Johnny exclaimed. “I almost believed you!” With that, he grabbed a cushion and proceeded to hit the older man around the head and shoulders.
The blond put his hands up in mock defence. “Hey, I’m a sick man here,” he cried as he tried to fend off the soft blows.
Murdoch chuckled as his sons continued their good-humoured fight. It was good to watch them and hear their laughter. This was what he had wanted so much after all the trials of the past few weeks. To see his boys together again and to know that they were safe and happy was like a dream come true. He knew they been lucky, especially now he had heard how Johnny had tricked the kidnappers with the ransom money. Murdoch still did not know how Johnny had managed it and kept it from him when he had ridden out that morning. If he had known then what he knew now he would never have let him go alone.
Now thankfully it was over. Given a few more weeks’ convalescence, Scott would be fine and normality would return to the ranch. His elder son was right when he said that there was a lot of work to be done around the spread, and the prospect of good honest labour would be a way of alleviating the stresses and worries they had all experienced.
‘Thank you, Lord for giving my boys back to me’ he thought to himself. He could never regain those lost years when they should had been by his side as a family, but Murdoch was more determined than ever to prove that he was a good father to them both and earn their respect, and more importantly their love. That was all a man could wish for and Murdoch hoped and prayed that it would be so.
Epilogue (Six weeks later)
The small town did not have much to offer. A muddy main street with a few poorly stocked stores, a run-down boarding house, and a saloon. Mid-afternoon trade in this particular establishment was fairly slow with just a few hardened drinkers inside, many of whom had been there since it had opened its doors. Joe Farrow scooped his beer from the bar top and wove his way back to his table. Careful not to spill a drop, his gaze was concentrated on the brimming glass so he failed to spot the man’s foot until he tripped over it. Somehow he managed to stay upright, but the contents of his glass did not and three inches of the precious liquid slopped out onto the dusty floor. Joe swore and glared angrily at the figure seated at the table.
“Hey Mister, you made me spill my drink!”
There was no reaction from the man. His head was bowed as he ran his finger slowly around the top of his half-filled whiskey tumbler and he acted as though he had not heard a thing.
“Say, are you deaf or jus’ plain stupid?” Farrow retorted, exasperated by the lack of response. “I’m talking to you!”
The man stopped toying with his glass and lifted it to his lips, downing it in one gulp before looking up.
Joe Farrow considered himself a tough, no-nonsense type of guy and was not easily frightened, but the sight of the stranger’s face scared the Hell out of him. The middle-aged man was heavily bearded and his all black attire added to his menacing appearance, but it was his eyes that scared Joe the most. They were soulless, empty, and to Joe it was like he was staring at a living corpse.
Farrow swallowed nervously and took an involuntary step back. His earlier aggression was swiftly forgotten with that one look, and he muttered his apologies before shuffling back to his table. He had a wife and daughter back home and the last thing he wanted was trouble. Hunching down low in his seat, he put out his hand to pick up his glass and realised that he was shaking with fear. Taking a swig of his depleted beer Joe stood up, clapped his hat on his head, and scuttled out of the saloon as quickly as his trembling legs would carry him.
Benjamin Fox permitted himself a small smile as the man hurried out. Then he reached forward and poured himself another drink. He liked to intimidate people, see their fear as he turned his gaze upon them. It made him feel special, superior even, and reinforced the power he held over others.
Placing the bottle back on the table, he felt a momentary twinge of pain in his upper body, but a shot of whiskey soon took the discomfort away. By rights, he should be dead – he nearly had been, but once again he had cheated the dark angel. Two bullets had stuck his body, but thanks to the sturdy iron jerkin he always wore under his clothing they had not penetrated deep enough to do any lethal damage. Yes, he had lost blood and suffered severe pain and bruising, but he had survived and now he was set to seek his revenge.
The first in his sights would of course be ‘Rat’. Fox knew that the snivelling coward had escaped, but he would not get far. He was disappointed in the man. He had tried to do his best for Summers by recruiting him into his scheme to find the gold. He had promised him riches beyond his wildest dreams, but how had he rewarded him? With a bullet to the chest. Betrayal was a heinous crime in Fox’s book, he expected respect and loyalty from his inferiors, but Jake Summers had broken his word and he was going to pay for his treachery. Pay for it with his life.
Then there was the Lancers, and with that part of his revenge he would take the most pleasure. Fox had not yet decided which of the brothers he would go after first. He just knew that when he took one of their lives, the other would be present to see it happen. Perhaps it should be Johnny, the man who had shot him in the back. He had expected more of the young man he now knew as Johnny Madrid. The boy had been a gun-fighter, a pistolero valiante, and one of the best, but he had broken one of the unwritten rules when he fired that bullet. Granted Madrid might have been out to save his brother, but that still did not condone his actions. Yes, maybe he should kill Johnny first and do it in front of Scott. How he would love to hear their screams as he slowly took his revenge while the other looked on helplessly. He could also picture the moment when one brother was almost dead and the other was begging for mercy. Fox could hardly wait, but he knew he had to plan carefully if he was to succeed.
When he was finally done with the boys, he then fully intended to take their bloodstained bodies back to their father. How wonderful it would be to see Murdoch Lancer in front of his big fancy ranch, grovelling and weeping in the dust beside the corpses of his two sons. Fox smiled as he savoured that appealing image. Should he kill Lancer too, he wondered, or leave him to grieve forever for his boys? The former option sounded more favourable. He could then take his money, his ranch and use his considerable wealth to extract the gold from Hades Hill. Fox had not forgotten it was there and he still intended to make it his and his alone.
Sighing with anticipation, Benjamin Fox took another drink and settled back in his seat.
“Enjoy yourselves while you can, Lancers,” he breathed to himself. “I’m coming for you soon. Real soon.”