#1 in the Pawns series, which should be read in sequence
Rated PG: For Violence
Word count: 66,270
“I’ll tell you somethin’ Boston, for a city dandy you did pretty good today,” Johnny grinned. “I mean, in another two years you may just get the hang of this ranching business.”
“Is that right, little brother?” Scott countered, “I’ll have you know, I had that barbed wire singing this afternoon. You’ll never find another fence strung tighter than that.”
“Or more crooked. A blind man could of set a straighter line. Or were you planning on confusing the cows so much they’d never know where to break through.”
“If it works I’ll take credit for it.” Scott smirked. He glanced over at the dark haired man who rode so easily at his side. Two years ago he didn’t even know Johnny Madrid Lancer existed, let alone that he would turn out to be his brother. And yet in that brief time they had formed a friendship, a bond seeded in trust and love, so strong that at times it scared him. It was as if their lives intertwined so much that one could not live without the other. But maybe that’s what it felt like to have a brother, a kindred spirit.
He acknowledged that he couldn’t remember a happier time in his life. This was far better than the privileged life he led in Boston at his Grandfather’s house or his years at Harvard. That all paled in comparison to this land called Lancer, to the men and women he shared his life with. How could he explain to anyone back in Boston how getting up before dawn to ride thirty miles through open country and towering canyons just to get to a fence line in time to spend the entire day mending posts and stringing barbed wire brought him a sense of pride and accomplishment he had never felt before. He was truly happy here. This was a good life. His life.
“You plan on gabbing like an old lady all the way home?” he chuckled, “I’m hungry. Teresa said she was fixing something special tonight. Said she would save some habaneras for me.”
“She did?” Johnny could barley contain his laughter. If only Scott knew what he was in for. Teresa was a real spitfire when she wanted to be. The analogy sent the younger brother into a fit of laughter that brought tears to his eyes.
“And what’s so funny? And why do I think that I am the brunt of your amusement?”
“Because big brother, you…”
A single rifle shot echoed through the canyon and Johnny sat ram rod straight in his saddle for a split second, looking over at Scott, confused, a swatch of blood blossoming on his shirt near his left shoulder, before his eyes rolled back in his head and he pitched forward, sliding off the saddle and hitting the ground with a bone jarring thud. Barranca reared up in panic and galloped away.
“Johnny!” Scott jumped from his horse, dropping to his knees next to Johnny, checking his brother with one eye and searching for the shooter with the other. He expected to feel the white hot fire of a bullet plowing into him, but all was silent. He felt for a pulse, fearing that he would find no signs of life in the still body. But he did find a pulse, weak but steady. He ripped Johnny’s shirt open, finding the bullet hole up high, near his collarbone. He reached under his back and cursed silently when he didn’t find an exit wound. The bullet was still inside.
“It’s going to be all right, Johnny.” He promised. Desperate to find shelter for his wounded brother he spotted an outcropping of rocks fifteen feet to his left and decided he had to chance moving him. They were sitting ducks out here in the open waiting to be slaughtered if there was still anyone around. He hefted Johnny under the arms and began dragging him toward the rocks. Another shot rang out sending a shower of sand just inches from Johnny’s ankle.
“Stay where you are Lancer,” a voice ordered “and I won’t put another bullet in your brother.”
“Who are you, what do you want?” Scott shouted back, easing Johnny back down on the ground, searching the rocks for the sniper. The canyon walls rose up around them, heat shimmering off the sun heated rocks, hiding an army if need be.
“You’ll find out when the time is right. Now, step back from your brother.”
Scott looked down at Johnny; his face was drained of color. Blood was flowing faster from the wound since he had moved him. Cursing, he pressed his hand against the gaping wound trying to stop the flow. “He’s hurt.” He yelled. “He’ll bleed to death without help.”
“I said, step away.”
Scott couldn’t bring himself to leave his brother. He stared at the flowered shirt, Johnny’s favorite shirt, now soaked with blood. “I’ll do anything you want, just let me help him first.”
“All right, let me explain this to you in the easiest terms, one even a Boston dandy like yourself could understand. I give an order, you obey it. Immediately. If you don’t someone has to be punished.”
Another shot rang out and Johnny’s right ankle twitch violently. Scott jumped back. The next bullet could be through Johnny’s head. Anger and fear wrestled with the instinct to protect his brother with his own body, but his remaining alive was Johnny’s only hope for survival. Instead, he watched helplessly as blood bubbled up through a small hole in Johnny’s boot where it followed the leather strap of his spur to form a small pool of blood beneath the metal rowel.
“Good, now we understand each other. Listen to me very carefully and do exactly what I say or I take out his other ankle.”
Bile rose in Scott’s stomach. The hot sun beat down on his head, but he didn’t feel anything except a cold realization that he was watching his brother bleed to death before his eyes and he couldn’t help him. What would Johnny do if the roles were reversed? He would probably damn the odds, throw caution to the wind and try to get them both to safety behind the outcropping of rock beside them. But Scott couldn’t do that, he believed in playing the odds. It had got him through the war. It would get him through this, both of them.
“Ok, that’s better. I want you to take your shirt off the put it over your head. Tie it tight so it don’t slip off.”
“This isn’t necessary,” Scott yelled back. “I’ll willingly go with you, do anything you want if you let me tend to my brother”
“Hurry up, Lancer, or your brother won’t have the other ankle to hobble on.”
Scott complied reluctantly and unbuttoned his shirt pulling it over his head and tying the sleeves beneath his chin. The smell of sweat, from hard work and fear, permeated the material, but it wasn’t as bad as the sweet coppery smell of blood. Johnny’s blood. The thought sickened him and it took all his will power not to empty his stomach inside the shirt.
“Very good.” The voice praised. “You learn quick, Lancer. On your knees,” he ordered, “hands behind your back.”
Scott complied. He sank to his knees and threaded his hands behind his back. Even through the material of the shirt he could see hazy shapes. He heard the crunch of rock beneath boots to his left and saw a lone figure approaching. One man. Could he take out just one man? He couldn’t make out the man’s face, see into his eyes. The eyes told everything. They told if a man was a cold-blooded killer. When he was ready to strike. Johnny had taught him that. The man was too casual, too sure of himself. He cradled the rifle over his shoulder. Scott tensed. When he got close enough…
“You see there, Mr. Lancer,” the attacker stopped, just out of Scott’s reach, “I knew you were the smart one. Madrid would have tried to shoot it out and got you both killed. Now I know you can see a little out of that shirt. So, we’re going to play this game my way, no one else has to get hurt.” He walked over to Johnny and stared down at him before lashing out with a vicious kick to the unconscious man’s side. Johnny moaned in pain and attacker smiled. “Still alive. Tough brother you got there.”
It was too much for Scott and he jumped to his feet, rage consuming him. He whipped off the shirt just in time to see Johnny’s other ankle jerk violently and spasm. A low guttural moan escaped his brother’s lips then silence again.
“You see what you made me do?” The attacker tisked. “Poor boy, holes through both ankles. I hope he didn’t have a date at the Sunday Social this week. He ain’t gonna be doing any dancing for awhile.”
Scott took long ragged breaths, willing his heart to slow to a regular beat, demanding that the pulse in his temples slow down. He held Johnny’s life in his hands. What he did or said meant life or death to his brother. He had to set aside all emotion. “What do you want?” he demanded. The only thing he could do now was obey and hope where ever the attacker was taking him he would take Johnny along. He looked down at his brother. An ever growing swatch of blood soaked his left shoulder, pooling at his side. Two other smaller pools of blood puddled beneath his ankles. Even if they did survive this, would Johnny be crippled? Sometimes ankles didn’t heal right. Sometimes….
It was late afternoon when the sun was at its hottest. Sweat dripped into Scott’s eyes making him blink. He had to get Johnny out of the sun. Sun poisoning would kill him just as easy as the bullets in his body.
“What do you want?” Scott demanded again.
“Easy no,” the attacker cautioned, “you don’t want ta make me put another bullet in your brother do ya?”
“What do you want from us?”
“In time, all in good time.” The man was enjoying himself. He would pay. Scott made a firm vow, the man would pay for this. If it took a lifetime. He would never forget that voice.
“Johnny needs water and shelter or he’s going to die.” Scott took a calculated risk. “And I bet your boss won’t like that. I bet he wants both Lancer men alive.”
Scott held his breath as the sniper raised the rifle and aimed it straight at Johnny’s heart. Then he chuckled, “Maybe you’re right, Lancer. Two of you are better than one. Put the shirt back on your head then kneel on your hands.”
With shaking hands Scott put the shirt over his head again and stuck his hands beneath his knees, the hot sand burning his skin.
“Very good, Lancer. You do know how to take orders.” Scott saw the opaque figure of the sniper walk behind him and steeled himself for a rifle butt across the back of the head, but instead he suddenly smelled something sweet clamped over his nose and mouth and realized as the ground rushed up to meet him that the sniper had used chloroform.
Teresa sat silently at the dinner table. She had eaten at Murdoch’s insistence. The special dinner she had prepared for Johnny, his favorite tamales and frijol, was in reality made for Scott, with his tamale stuffed to overflowing with habaneras peppers for his remark about her tame cooking. Maria’s cooking could scorch his mouth, he had said, but hers was excellent but benign. She would get her revenge…if they ever showed up.
It was annoying when the two Lancer brothers were an hour late, frustrating when they were two hours late. Now they were four hours late and frustration turned to worry. Teresa could read it on Murdoch’s face. Four hours late when Johnny knew his brother was in for a lesson in humility dished up by Teresa was nothing Johnny would ever be late for.
“I’m sure everything is fine.” Murdoch assured her, but his voice lacked conviction. “They probably just forgot about dinner and decided to camp out for the night and finish the fence line in the morning. Besides, there is nothing we can do tonight. If they are not back by morning I’ll take some hands out myself and check on them.”
Teresa smiled fondly at her guardian. He so tried to act gruff and unfazed by his two sons, sons he had longed for all these years. But she saw the worry on his face. She bent to kiss him lightly on the cheek as she made her way into the kitchen. She had a feeling that she would be brewing more than one pot of coffee tonight.
Scott awoke to a grueling headache and a mouth that tasted like cotton. Squinting against the glaring sunlight, he waited for his eyes to focus and the world to stop spinning. Jumbled memories of fear and worry gripped his stomach. They were on their way home, back to Lancer, he and Johnny…Johnny! He sat up too quickly and pain exploded in his head. He pressed his fingers to his temples willing the pain to go away. Images of Johnny falling from Barranca, blood covering his shirt came hurtling back to him. He saw his brother’s ankles jerk each time a bullet hit them. The suffocating shirt covering his face, the smell of blood, Johnny’s blood, the coy smell of chloroform …the birds circling overhead. Had they smelled blood that quickly?
“Hey, Boston, you ok?”
Scott followed the sound of his brother’s voice and found him stretched out on the bed next to him. He was propped up against a mound of pillows behind his back. His chest and left shoulder were heavily bandaged. Blood still oozed up through the thick padding on his shoulder where the bullet had hit. A blanket covered him from his bare waist to his knees, leaving his equally heavily bandaged ankles exposed. Cushioned by pillows Scott saw the discolored swelling from beneath the bandage on his left ankle to his knee. There was infection there. His right ankle was swollen beneath the wrappings, but didn’t appear to be infected.
“Johnny…” He swung his legs over the side of the bed and waited for the room to right itself and took the three steps separating the beds. Johnny’s face was as pale as the pillowcases he rested against. Deep lines of pain around his mouth and dark circles beneath his fever bright eyes told of his discomfort. “Looks like someone’s patched you up.” Scott said softly. With shaking hands he drew back the bandage on his shoulder to see the raw hole left by the bullet. Someone had removed the bullet and cleaned the wound best they could. But some degree of infection almost always followed a gunshot wound. Hopefully the bullet had been removed in time. Moving down to his brother’s ankles he saw blood staining both sides of the bandaging wrapped tightly around his right foot and nearly to his calf. The bullet had gone in one side and out the other, just above the ankle bone. With luck it didn’t nick or worse break a bone. Johnny would not be putting any weight on that foot for some time to come, but it would heal. He moved around to Johnny’s left ankle and his breath caught in his throat. Blood still oozed beneath the dressing and heavy bandaging around the wound. His foot was swollen three times its size and his calf was bruised and just as swollen. Scott gently laid his hand against his brother’s leg and felt the heat of infection.
He moved back to the head of the bed and found a pan of water and a wash cloth. He squeezed the excess water out of the cloth and gently wiped Johnny’s flushed face. “Any idea where we are?” he asked.
Johnny’s blue eyes found and caught Scott’s, a slight smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. “The widow Marlow’s ranch.”
“Annabel Marlow?” Scott looked around the room. Just large enough to hold the two beds and two dressers, the walls were decorated with meticulously hand-painted pictures of horses galloping through prairie grass and cowboys sitting around campfires. Annabel Marlow had lost her husband and two young sons to a band of bandoleros ten years ago. After that she hated all Mexicans. To her, they were all responsible for the deaths of her family. She would not hire anyone with dark skin or an accent. When Johnny arrived at Lancer she sent a note to Murdoch informing him that he and Scott were welcome at her ranch anytime. Johnny Madrid was not, and would be killed as a trespasser if he put one foot on her property. Now Johnny was laying in one of her son’s beds. The irony was not lost on either of them. “How did we get here?”
“Don’t know how or why. Last thing I remember is sitting in the saddle. Where’s Barranca?”
“He took off as soon as you were shot. I imagine he headed for home. Which means Murdoch will be looking for us.”
“Lot of good that will do. He’d never look here. Would you?”
Scott snorted softly, “Guess not, which means we’re on our own.”
Johnny reached out weakly and grabbed Scott’s arm, “They didn’t hurt you did they?”
“No. Not even a scratch. They used chloroform to knock me out. I think whatever they have in mind they need one of us healthy and the other…”
“Very observant of you, Mr. Lancer.” The door opened and a well dressed man walked in. Nearly six feet tall, he was an imposing figure. Scott thought ex military by the way he held himself and the way the three men slipped in behind him, assuming guard positions around the small room. “I knew I picked the right brother. Mr. Madrid is too unpredictable. You, on the other hand, think before you act. You use your brain first, not your gun.”
Johnny tried to rise but Scott held a restraining hand to his good shoulder. “You have us at a disadvantage, Sir.” He said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice, “You obviously know us, but we don’t know who you are.”
“And why should you?” He walked around to the other side of the bed and looked down at Johnny. “How are you feeling, son?”
“Like I got shot three times.” Johnny replied sarcastically.
He raised an eyebrow at the boy’s insolence. “I’m afraid that was your brother’s fault. If he had obeyed orders you would have only had to contend with the shoulder wound. Now…”
“What do you want from us?” Scott demanded.
“All in good time, Mr. Lancer. These kinds of things take time. Months of planning. In fact I have been watching you two for three weeks now, deciding which one of you would lay in this bed and which one would…but I’m getting ahead of myself. You have a few days to rest Mr. Lancer, before we begin. If you need anything just knock on the door and one of the guards will assist you. And by the way, you may address me as Colonel.” He turned to walk to the door and Scott jumped up.
“Wait, Colonel. Johnny needs a doctor, his left ankle is badly infected.”
“I’m afraid a doctor is not possible at this time.”
“If he dies, then where does that leave your months of planning?”
The Colonel took a step back towards Scott, but the young blonde stood his ground. “Don’t you ever question me Mr. Lancer. You will not like the consequences. As for your brother’s poor health, I’d do everything in my power to keep him alive. Remember, every well thought out plan has a buck up. If Mr. Madrid should expire, there is always a pretty young girl named Teresa to take his place.”
Stunned, Scott and Johnny watched the Colonel and his guards leave the room, the silence they left in their wake palpable. Scott dropped to his knees wringing out the cloth over the basin again and wordlessly began cooling down Johnny’s fever- hot body. Everything had changed now. Teresa could not be involved in this. No matter what they had to do, Teresa could not be involved.
Scott began pacing the small room. He found that they were on the second floor with the lone window facing out over a small cemetery with three white crosses and fresh-cut flowers set beside each grave. Two armed guards stood beneath the window to discourage any escape attempts. Two more men were stationed near the corrals and a third sat atop the barn roof, towering above all the other buildings. It appeared the Colonel was well prepared.
A light rap came from the door and a guard opened it slowly motioning with his rifle for Scott to back up to the far corner of the room while a woman in her late fifties carried in a tray of food and fresh bandages.
Annabel Marlow had been a handsome woman at one time, high cheekbones and full lips attested to a beauty long forgotten. Destroyed in one afternoon by a band of murderers who robbed her of her family and her happiness. A warm, kind smile and easy laugh were lost now in a perceptual sneer, warning everyone around her that she neither wanted nor needed anyone’s sympathy. Or friendship. She lived alone, as she wanted. Her hired hands, were just that, hired hands. She was lucky if she knew more than half their names, and some of them had been working for her for years. But she was fair and honest. A good day’s work was repaid in kind by a good day’s wages.
The door was locked behind her and she set the tray on the empty bed. “You hungry?” she asked Scott, “I brought you fried chicken and biscuits. I also brought your brother some broth.” Scott noticed that she deliberately kept her back to Johnny. “See if you can get him to keep some down. He needs nourishment to fight the fever.”
“Thanks, I’ll try giving it to him later when he wakes up. You know you did a good job on Johnny’s shoulder and ankle. Thank you.”
“No need for thanks. The Colonel gave me little choice.”
“But I’m afraid his left ankle needs more tending than I can give him.” Scott picked up a piece of chicken and bit into it not realizing how hungry he was until he took the first taste. “This is good. This is really good. You’ll have to give the recipe to Teresa, she makes good chicken, but nothing like this.”
“Teresa…” Mrs. Marlow looked out past the window and to some far away place only she visited. “It’s been years since I saw that child. How is she? She must be a beautiful woman by now.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Why Johnny and I…” Scott saw the flash of anger at the mention of Johnny’s name and his own anger swelled for a moment. How dare she judge Johnny by the color of his skin? She would be hard pressed to find another man more gentle or loving.
“Mrs. Marlow, I know how you feel about Johnny and his ancestry, but right now he’s just a man who needs your help. His fever’s rising and his left ankle is looking worse by the minute.”
Mrs. Marlow picked up a roll of bandaging, strips cut from a sheet, and held it to her breast. “I told your father that I never wanted to see him on my property. His kind aren’t welcome here.”
“He really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. But right now you are going to have to put your emotions aside for a while. You’re in this just as deep as we are.”
An anguished cry came from Johnny’s fevered nightmare and he thrashed beneath the sheet, fending off unseen demons.
Without hesitation Scott was at his side, holding his uninjured hand in his, brushing the raven black hair back off his sweat soaked forehead. “Johnny, wake up, Johnny. It’s just a dream.”
Johnny opened his eyelids. His normal crystal blue eyes glazed over by fever and pain.
“Johnny, Mrs. Marlow is here to help us. She’s going to take care of your ankle.”
Johnny searched the room and finally found her, blinking his eyes to get a clear look at her. He saw the look on her face, the look of disgust he saw far too often as a child. When he got older and strapped on a gun those looks stopped. He was now the feared one, not the one to step on like a homeless dog in the streets, looking for someone, anyone to bring him in out of the cold nights and give him a hot meal.
“She don’t want to help me,” he whispered, his voice weak and breathless. “she don’t want to help no mestizo.”
He tried to turn his body away from her. He didn’t want her looking at him, it made him feel dirty. But the exertion made him gasp for air and it caught in his throat sending him into a coughing fit.
Alarmed, Mrs. Marlow threw the bandages on the empty bed and started grabbing pillows that were strewn around the bed. “Who took these pillows away from him?”
“I did,” Scott, admitted, “he said his back was hurting and he wanted to lay flat.”
“Well, he can’t lay flat, he needs to be elevated so he can breathe proper. I noticed he had a rib stove in.”
Scott nodded, “The sniper wanted to make sure Johnny was still alive.”
“Fine way of doing it.”
Johnny’s coughing fit ended at last and he sank into the mounds of pillows, his strength wasted.
“What about his ankle?” Scott asked, moving down the bed to look at the increased swelling on his left leg.
“I tried, but I couldn’t get the bullet out. It’s lodged in his anklebone. If I do any more damage to the bone while I’m prying the bullet out he could be crippled for life.”
“And if you leave the bullet in?”
Mrs. Marlow sighed heavily. “He will die.”
“Kind of takes the decision out of it, doesn’t it?”
“You don’t understand, Scott, I’m not a doctor. If his foot moves just a fraction of an inch while I’m digging that bullet out…” She started to reach down to brush the heavy black bangs from Johnny’s forehead. He looked so much like a child. Her instinct was to cradle him in her arms, kiss away the pain and fear etched on his face. But he mumbled something in Spanish and her heart turned cold again. He was one of them. She pulled her hand back. She had watched her own children murdered by the likes of him. Her husband dragged from her arms and stabbed until his blood covered the floor. The pain in her heart was more than she could bear. She stood up slowly, her face stoic. “I can’t help him.”
“Yes you can!” Scott grabbed her arm and pulled her around to face him. “Listen to me. Johnny had nothing to do with your boy’s death. Ten years ago Johnny was a twelve-year-old boy himself, fighting to stay alive in the border towns. You can’t blame every Mexican for their deaths, the same way Teresa can’t blame every white man for her father’s death. Johnny needs help.” He turned her back to look down at Johnny, his lips pulled taut with pain, his face flushed with fever. “If you let this boy die because of the color of his skin then you will be tainting their memories with his blood.”
Mrs. Marlow tried to pull free of Scott’s hold but he held tight. “I can’t.”
“Then think of this.” Scott’s anger was seething just below the surface. He remembered Johnny talking about the hatred he had encountered growing up. Had seen it on occasion, the guarded looks, and the whispers. But he had never encountered it at this depth. It was so unfair. “The Colonel plans on replacing Johnny, if he doesn’t make it, with Teresa. Do you want that child laying here in this bed, in the kind of pain Johnny is in now?”
“Oh, dear God, no.”
“He’ll do it. You know he’ll do it. And if Johnny dies because you refuse to help him, what are you going to say to her when the Colonel puts her in his place. How are you going to face her when she finds out that the man she loves like a brother died because of your hatred?”
Scott felt her muscles weaken beneath his hands and her shoulders start to shake. “I don’t know if I can help him. I’m not a doctor.”
“I know. But at least you can try.”
She took a deep breath and steadied herself. “All right. I’ll do what I can. But…” She turned back to look at Scott, her eyes cold again, “I’m doing it for Teresa. Not him.”
Scott nodded, “Fair enough. What do you need?”
“Boiling water, more bandages, light…lots of light.”
Scott hurried around the bed that he had awoken in and pulled the curtains open letting the sunlight stream in.
“Will this do?”
She nodded. “And we’ll need help to hold him down.”
“Maybe not.” He strode to the door pounding on it until a guard yelled back, “What do you want?”
“I need to see the Colonel, now.”
“He’ll be by later this afternoon.”
“I need to see him now. Tell him if he wants my brother alive he’d better come now.”
“I’ll deliver the message,” was the answer.
Scott nodded toward Mrs. Marlow. The Colonel had too much invested in his plan, what ever it was, not to come.
Murdoch pulled up on the reins, Jelly and Cipriano at his side. He saw a cloud of dust and a speck of color in the distance. They had started out at daybreak with six vaqueros, headed for the fence line where Johnny and Scott had been working the day before. As the long night slowly passed by Murdoch was more and more certain that his boys were in trouble.
Cipriano stood in the stirrups, his horse fidgeting, feeling his rider’s nervousness. “It’s Barranca!” Cipriano shouted, “And he rides without Señor Johnny.”
Murdoch’s heart skipped a beat. Johnny was never without that horse. They waited as the animal approached. He was Johnny’s animal, and only Johnny knew how to quiet him. Jelly slowly slid off his horse stepping away from the riders, raising his hands. “It’s ok Barranca,” he said gently. “It’s ok. We only want to help ya boy.”
The Palomino stopped ten feet from the old man, snorting, a wild look in his frightened eyes. “Where’s Johnny?” Jelly asked softly, moving closer to the animal. “Where’s Johnny and Scott?” The horse stood its ground, allowing Jelly to grab his reins, as if he knew that this was the way to help his owner. “It’s ok fella, its ok Barranca.”
The horse nuzzled the old man’s neck. Jelly saw the burrs and the dried lather on the horse’s flanks. “He’s been on the run, most like since yesterday.”
Murdoch slowly dismounted, not wanting to spook the horse. He ran a firm hand over Barranca’s nose and down his neck. “Good boy, Barranca.” His hand froze when he saw blood matted in the horse’s blonde mane.
Scott began preparing for the operation. He slid a straight-backed chair beneath the center of the window then slid his bed out of the way. Mrs. Marlow was specific in what she wanted. Johnny’s bed would be carried over to the chair and shoved against it then Johnny would be positioned so his left leg lay on the chair. The height was better for her and the hard surface of the chair would keep his foot from moving.
Scott was beginning to worry more and more about his brother. Johnny’s completion had gone from ghostly white to a pasty gray. His breathing was labored, as if every breath was a challenge. He feared that the infection that coursed through his ravaged body had taken too great a hold on him. He lifted the warm compress off his forehead, it seemed to take only minutes now for his fevered brow to drain the coolness from the rags.” Come on Johnny,” he whispered, “you’ve got to fight this. You and Teresa still have a surprise waiting for me at home. I know its something good because you were laughing so hard yesterday that you were nearly in tears.”
Scott felt Mrs. Marlow’s hand on his shoulder and he looked up to see the Colonel standing in the open doorway, two guards at his side, guns at ready.
“You requested to see me, Mr. Lancer?”
Scott nodded, standing up straight. The Colonel was military, through and through, which meant he required discipline and respect. Well, Scott would give him both if it would save his brother’s life. “Yes Sir.”
“It’s hard to forget the training, isn’t it son? It just falls right back in place, as natural as breathing. I’m glad to see it.”
“My brother is failing. Mrs. Marlow thinks she can remove the bullet from his ankle. But we need supplies.”
“What makes you think we would have the kind of supplies you need?”
“You do. I’m guessing that whatever your plan is that you have thought of everything, including casualties.”
The colonel relaxed, just a fraction, enough to tell Scott that he had made a connection. Exploiting the Colonel’s military zeal could be the key to their escape.
“What exactly do you need?”
Mrs. Marlow stepped forward. “Boiling water, bandages, carbolic acid, thread for suturing, wood for splints and laudanum for the pain.”
“And,” Scott added, “Chloroform.”
The Colonel chuckled, “You recognized the odor.”
“There are some things you never forget.”
The Colonel’s smile faded, “Libby Prison. That was a hell no man should have endured.”
Scott stiffened. “How do you know about Libby Prison?”
“I told you. I’ve been watching you both, learning everything there is to know about you. I know all about Johnny Madrid and his dubious past. I know everything about everyone. Murdoch Lancer, Teresa O’Brien, Jelly Hoskins. Shall I continue?”
“No.” Scott said curtly, “I get your point.”
The Colonel walked over to the bed looking down at the injured Lancer, “Looks like a waste of time to me. But you may have your supplies.” He looked up at Scott, a mocking look playing across his features for a moment, “Half of me hopes the boy doesn’t make it. Miss Teresa O’Brien would be a lovely addition to my guest list.”
Nerves stretched to their limit, Scott lunged toward the Colonel.
Mrs. Marlow grabbed his arm, pulling him back. “No! This won’t help your brother.” She stepped in front of Scott. “I’ll need some men to help move the bed closer to the window for light.”
The Colonel nodded, “Very well. You’ll have everything you need within the half hour.”
As the door closed and they were left alone again, Scott sank into the chair next to Johnny. “I think we’re in big trouble Johnny. Big trouble.”
There was no question of who was in charge of the sick room. Mrs. Marlow ran the show like she a seasoned General. She ordered four men to carefully lift Johnny’s bed and carry it over to the window, chastising one of them when he caught his heel in a loose floorboard and nearly dropped the bed. She painstakingly explained exactly how she wanted her patient placed on the bed, his ankle centered on the chair, his back supported by a mound of pillows to ease his breathing. She dropped the medical instruments the Colonel had provided in a pan of scalding hot water and retrieved them with a pair of scissors arranging them on a table next to the chair. She then took a seat of her own and looked up at Scott.
“Ready?” she asked.
Scott looked down at Johnny and noticed his eyelids fluttering open, his fever bright eyes searching the room.
“Hey there,” he smiled, trying to hide the fierce worry.
Johnny struggled to bring the wavering figures scattered throughout the room into focus. There were so many people. It didn’t make sense. “What happened?” he asked, his voice barley a whisper. Nothing seemed real. Only the pain. The throbbing pain in his shoulder and right foot paled in comparison to the agony he felt in his left leg. It felt like his foot had fallen into the fire. He tried to snatch it back but the pain made him scream.
Scott grabbed Johnny’s free hand letting him squeeze it as he fought through the pain. ‘It’s going to be all right.” He promised. “We’re going to get the bullet out. Mrs. Marlow…”
Johnny spotted Mrs. Marlow hovering over him in his haze of pain and confusion. “No!” He tried to struggle away from her touch. “No…” He yanked Scott closer to him, gaining new strength in his fear, “You do it…you do it.”
“Johnny, it’s all right.”
“No!” He pleaded, “I don’t want no intolerante touching me.”
Scott’s composure nearly failed him. He saw the fear in Johnny’s eyes. He had seen his brother stand before gunslingers, intent on killing him for his reputation and not bat an eye. He had seen him tame the wildest horse with just his voice. But this was a side of Johnny he had only seen in nightmares, a boy scared by a life filled with hate and prejudice.
Mrs. Marlow looked at him with questioning eyes, startled by the boy’s reaction.
“I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise.” Scott tried to pry Johnny’s fingers free of his arm but his brother tightened his grip.
In Johnny’s delirium, he was a child again, running from the taunts of Gringo and Mex…He was neither. Wanted nowhere. Belonging nowhere…Mrs. Marlow was like all of them, slamming the door in his face, keeping him on the outside, away from the warm fire, the hot food to fill his empty belly. She would only hurt him. They always hurt him.
“Let’s get this done.” Scott ordered, his voice ragged. “You…” he pointed to a guard standing near the bed, “hold his arm down.” Forcing back the instinct to cradle Johnny in his arms until the nightmare was gone, he grabbed the chloroform and cloth mask fitting it over Johnny’s nose and mouth and poured six drops onto the mask. Johnny’s look of wide-eyed betrayal cut Scott like a knife. He held the mask tightly against his face until Johnny’s struggles subsided and his eyelids fluttered and closed.
He handed the bottle to the guard. “Six drops every fifteen minutes. If it feels like he’s coming ’round, give him more.”
He moved down to stand behind Mrs. Marlow and watched her cut away the old bandaging exposing the fiery red wound just above the anklebone, swollen and discolored.
It was the longest forty-five minute ordeal Scott could remember. Mrs. Marlow had to continue to cut wider and deeper into Johnny’s leg to get an angle on the bullet. He followed her every direction. Wiping away the blood, handing her the instruments, as she needed them. Finally he saw her drop the misshapen bullet into a pan. Without hesitation she probed the hole with her index finger. “The bone is cracked, but not broken. The bullet chipped a piece of bone off but I was able to retrieve that too. We need to keep his leg absolutely still for the next twelve weeks while it knits back together and grows new bone. If we weren’t in the situation we are in I’d have you build a wooden splint, tie it to the bed and not let the boy move from that spot the whole time. Done it before, and it worked.”
“Will he be all right?”
“Too early to tell.” she said honestly as she began cleaning and disinfecting the wound. “If we can get the fever down now that the bullet is out, he should be all right.” She expertly sutured the gaping hole closed, leaving the center open to drain. “But he’s not gonna be getting out of this bed for awhile. Here, help me with these splints.” Together they wrapped the splint in place, making sure that he couldn’t move his foot even a fraction of an inch.
Satisfied, they sat back exhausted. It would be several hours before the anesthesia wore off.
Scott hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep until he heard the faint cries of pain and confusion from Johnny. He bolted from his chair nearly falling over the blanket Mrs. Marlow had draped over him.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded as he leaned over Johnny. Johnny’s face was glistening with sweat even though he was shivering uncontrollably.
“His fever spiked awhile ago. Help me get these blankets off him.”
“But he’s freezing.”
“It’s a vicious circle, Scott. The fever causes chills, the body begins to shiver and the shivering raises the fever. We have to break the cycle. Now, do as I say. One sheet is all he needs. And tell the guards we need more cold water.”
Scott began soaking towels in a basin of water, wringing them out then handing them to Mrs. Marlow. He watched as she expertly wiped down Johnny’s face and chest, raising his arm to guide the cloth from his shoulder to his fingertips. She repeated this over and over, each time returning the cloth to Scott, the heat from his brother’s body turning the cool rags warm.
And suddenly the shivering stopped and he was quite. So quite. Scott watched and waited, almost afraid to breathe. Then Johnny’s lips began to move. “Lo siento, Mama…Lo siento,” he whispered.
Mrs. Marlow looked up at Scott.
“I’m sorry, Mama…I’m sorry.”
Mrs. Marlow looked back down at Johnny and her hand holding the wet towel wavered above his chest.
“No muera…… no mueren por favor.”
“Don’t die, don’t die, please.
“No lucharé detrás, promiose.”
“I won’t fight back, promise,” Scott whispered to the unspoken question.
Johnny’s eyes fluttered open and he saw Mrs. Marlow hovering above him. But it wasn’t the woman he had feared just a few hours ago that he saw, it was Maria. She smiled down at him, her face streaked with tears. “No llanto…” he whispered softly, and weakly brushed away a tear that slowly ran down her cheek. “Lo siento…” he whispered.
“No…” Mrs. Marlow leaned down close to his face, gently caressing his cheek. “No, child, you have nothing to be sorry for.”
Johnny stared at her face, seeing the beauty that was his mother. He loved her so much. Missed her every day of his life. In the harsh reality of daylight he hated her for what she had done to him, for what she had deprived him of. But in the quietness of night, in the beginnings of all his dreams he could only see her beauty. He felt her cool hands on his hot face, always brushing aside the hair from his eyes…
Suddenly Johnny was struggling to rise up, his hand clawing for something only he could see. “Le mataré!” he raged.
“I’ll kill you.”
And Franklyn was there standing behind her. Johnny felt her arms cradling him against her chest. He was so frightened, his body so full of pain from the beating. And there was the knife again. Franklyn held it high in the air so the light from the candles sparkled off it and then he plunged it into her back. She didn’t scream, she just looked at him, her eyes filled with so much sorrow, “Lo siento mi hijo.”
“Who?” Mrs. Marlow’s face had drained of all its color.
“The man who killed his mother.”
Scott reached out and gently grabbed Johnny’s hand forcing it back to his side, his voice was soft and reassuring. “It’s all right, Johnny. You’re safe. You’re safe.”
“I know, little brother, but you don’t have to be. You rest now. I’ll watch your back.”
A smile brushed Johnny’s lips, “Hermano mayor.”
“That’s right. I am your big brother, and don’t you forget it. Now, you sleep.” Scott carefully raised the sheet up around Johnny’s shoulders and squeezed his good shoulder.
“You sleep.” Scott brushed the tangle of dark bangs off Johnny’s forehead, “You see, Mrs. Marlow, Johnny isn’t the savage killer you envisioned. He’s just a man who survived more than any of us will ever know.”
“He lives with the nightmares too.”
Scott nodded. “Difference is, he never let his turn him bitter.”
Murdoch stared at the freshly washed shirt so carefully folded on the table in front of him. It was two days, and still no sign of Scott or Johnny. They had found the shirt, crumbled and stained with blood, halfway through the canyon. He leaned forward and touched the dark blue material. Scott’s shirt. There was enough blood on the ground to give him cause for concern. However Scott was injured, he had lost a lot of blood. He only hoped that Johnny could keep a level head. At times the younger son could be more detrimental than helpful. His hair-trigger tempter had got him into trouble more than once.
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of heavy boots and jingling spurs walking along the tile entranceway.
“Nothing!” Val Crawford growled. “Nothing.” He slapped his hat across his pants leg and a cloud of dust billowed around him. “We even backtracked every foot you and your men traveled yesterday. The tracks just disappear in those canyon rocks.”
“I know.” Murdoch walked to the table and poured two double shots of whiskey into two glasses. “I just don’t know what to think. If it’s a kidnapping you’d think they would have contacted me for money by now. If it was vengeance…”
“There’s no telling what they’d do. Maybe Scott was hurt and Johnny took him somewhere to get help.”
Murdoch shook his head, “Johnny may be independent, but he wouldn’t leave us hanging like this. He’d get word to us somehow. No, something’s happened. I can feel it in my bones. I just hope to God that wherever they are, they’re safe.”
Scott and Mrs. Marlow took turns throughout the night keeping Johnny cool and as comfortable as possible. He had ranted and raged in his delirium, speaking in Spanish and English, his mother almost always the focal point of his nightmares, until just before dawn when rivers of sweat began rolling off his body as the fever began to burn itself out.
Mrs. Marlow pressed the back of her hand against his forehead and smiled. “He’s much cooler.” she pronounced. “He still has a fever, probably will for a few more days, but I think the worst is over. Now the hard part comes, keeping him quiet.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” Scott signed, but he was plainly satisfied that this part of the ordeal was behind them.
There was a knock at the door and the same instructions as always “Move to the far corner of the room.” Another tray of food was brought in. Mrs. Marlow’s kitchen had been commandeered by the Colonel’s cook, and while the food was not the best Scott had ever eaten, it was hot and nourishing. And despite the fact that he had no appetite at all, he forced himself to eat to keep himself strong. Johnny was not going to be in any condition to be of any help for some time, and Scott was determined that he was going to get Mrs. Marlow and Johnny out of there.
The door opened and the Colonel followed the cook inside. “Lieutenant Lancer. How is your brother this morning?”
Scott decided to continue to play the game and stood at attention. “He’s much better, thank you, Sir.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear that.” The colonel walked over to the bed studying the young dark haired man on the bed. The ravages of the last three days showed on his face. But the grayish pallor of life threatening illness was replaced by the paleness of blood loss and acute pain. He was anxious for the ex-gunslinger to regain consciousness. He wanted to talk to the great Johnny Madrid. “Perhaps we’ll have time to talk before your first assignment.”
“Assignment, Sir?” Scott remained at attention. “What kind of assignment?”
“When the time comes, you’ll be informed, Lieutenant. Meanwhile, take care of your brother. When you are on your errands, he will have errands of his own.”
“No!” Mrs. Marlow stepped forward, her hand touching Johnny’s arm protectively. “He won’t be ready to…”
“It doesn’t matter what you think, Mrs. Marlow.” The Colonel took a menacing step forward, standing ramrod straight. He would not be questioned…by anyone. “I am in command here. Not you, not Lieutenant Lancer, not the gunslinger. I am. I am the only one who gives the orders. I will excuse you this time and allow the Lieutenant to educate you on the finer points of military courtesy. This is your first warning, and your only warning. And that goes for you and Mr. Madrid, Lieutenant. The consequences of disobeying an order won’t be pleasant.”
Scott wrapped his arm around Mrs. Marlow’s waist squeezing her tight enough to let her know he was serious. He had seen men like the Colonel before. Brilliant military minds, gone over the edge. Powerful and ruthless, they would stop at nothing to complete their mission. At the moment, Scott would give anything to know what that mission was.
The Colonel took one last inspection of the room, lingering on Johnny for a long moment, then turned and left the room, followed by his guards.
“That man…” came a weak voice from the bed, “has been in the loco weed a little too long.”
“Johnny?” Scott nearly toppled the old woman in his haste to reach Johnny. “You been playing ‘possum, little brother?” he laughed.
Johnny nodded gently. But even his head hurt. He could never remember feeling so helpless in his life before and it terrified him. He was stretched out on the bed, his left leg trapped in a heavy wood splint and elevated on pillows, with his right ankle wrapped in more bandages and likewise cushioned on a pillow. If he were a horse they would have put him out of his misery a long time ago. To add to the pain and the indignity, his left shoulder was heavily wrapped with his arm bandaged tightly to his side. “How long do I have to be trussed up like a turkey at Thanksgiving?” he mumbled.
“A few weeks.” Mrs. Marlow said as she moved out from behind Scott.
A shadow came across Johnny’s eyes, “What’s she doing here?”
“Actually, the question should be, what are we doing here?” Scott answered. “This is her house, remember?”
“How do you feel?” Mrs. Marlow reached out to test his forehead for fever but Johnny whipped his head away, a motion that cost him dearly. The room spun wildly and his stomach heaved up what little he had in it. The old woman had anticipated it. She shoved a bowl under his chin just in time. She knew that the shock from blood loss and the after effects of the Chloroform would be too much for his fragile stomach to handle. She held his forehead until the spasms finally subsided and held a glass of water to his lips. “Rinse your mouth then spit it out,” she ordered. He did as he was told only because he was too weak to fight her. But as soon as he was strong enough, he would be out of this bed, and out of this house. He would not stay with an intolerante.
Mrs. Marlow handed Scott the bottle of Laudanum, “Here, he’ll take this from you easier then he will from me.”
Scott snorted, “You don’t know Johnny. He won’t take any painkillers. Says it dulls his senses too much.”
“He doesn’t have a choice this time.” She looked down at the boy and saw his mouth clenched tightly against the pain, drawing ragged breaths through his nose. “He’s not going to get well without proper rest. You get him to take it or I will.”
Scott realized that Johnny may have met his match. After cajoling, pleading and down right threatening to unleash the old woman on him, he got Johnny to take the laudanum. He watched Johnny’s mouth relax and his breathing slow until he was in a deep sleep. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was putting Johnny through all this when in the end the Colonel would only kill them all…
“Are you just going to sit there and do nothing?” Teresa’s voice was raised in near hysteria. “You’ve had your head buried in those ledgers for hours. Why aren’t you doing something? It’s been five days. They could be lying out there, hurt. There was so much blood. Scott…”
Murdoch stood up slowly and drew her into his arms. He had neglected her. Had tried to hide his own fears in everyday work. “I’m so sorry sweetheart, I didn’t mean to close you out.”
“I just want them back.” she smothered her face into his chest, feeling his chest throb with his own pent up emotions.
“I know. We all do. But we have been over every inch of this territory. Now, the only thing we can do is wait.”
“I can’t. I can’t wait. I can’t loose them. Murdoch…I love them.”
“I know child. I know.” Murdoch held her close, laying his chin atop her soft hair. “I love them too. It has taken me so long to find them…and now…”
“Well, ain’t you two a gal darn sight.” Jelly was standing in the doorway, unshed tears making his glassy eyes, “if I didn’t know better I’d say you two was givin’ up on my boys. Well, let me tell ya a thin’ or two. Those two got more guts in ten men put together. And I ain’t about to do no mourning. What would Johnny say, huh? You know how he’s always hating bein’ fussed over.”
Teresa reached a hand out to Jelly and he slowly moved toward them. “Those two boys…” Jelly shook his head. Teresa drew him into a tight circle and the old man felt Murdoch’s heavy arm fall across his shoulders. Silently they all prayed.
Five days. Scott was pacing the room like a caged animal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were brought to the room at the same time each day. Two guards stationed themselves in the doorway while the food tray was set on a table beneath the window. When nature called his ankles were chained in leg irons and one hand was cuffed behind his back before he was blindfolded and escorted down the stairs to the outhouse. Mrs. Marlow was likewise escorted downstairs when needed, but she was spared the chains.
The inactivity was taking its toll on Johnny too. His shoulder had healed to the point where it was not constantly giving him pain, and his right leg was nearly painless as long as he didn’t move. His left leg was a different story. Infection was still a problem even with Mrs. Marlow’s constant attention, and the heavy wooden splints made it impossible for him to even shift his weight on his left side. He endured Mrs. Marlow’s ministrations silently, even though she made an attempt to talk to him. He didn’t trust her. He had been hurt by people like her before. A person didn’t turn off their hatred in a flash like she had done. It had taken her ten years to build up her animosity. It would take time to undo the scars.
Scott sat at the window watching a dozen new riders hand their horses off to the wrangler and head toward the barn. The Colonel’s regiment was growing by the day. He estimated that there were at least forty men here. Whatever the Colonel had planned was big. But why did he need the Lancer brothers? There was a reason. A man like the Colonel was meticulous in his planning, and uncompromising in its execution. A shiver went down his spine. He had to get Johnny out of here before it was too late for both of them.
Scott looked back toward the bed and noticed Johnny was awake again. He was becoming restless and easily agitated. Scott couldn’t blame him. The pain in his leg was constant, even though he lost the fight and took the laudanum at night, the days were filled with pain, and the worry over what the Colonel had in mind for them was weighing heavy on all their minds. He spoke only when spoken to, and only to Scott.
Mrs. Marlow noticed he was awake too and gathered her medical supplies. “I’m glad you’re up, I didn’t want to have to wake you. Your leg needs tending again.”
“It feels all right,” he said glumly, breaking his silence.
“I doubt that. There’s still infection there and you’re running a low-grade fever. I’d say you’re probably feeling pretty lousy.”
“I said it feels all right.”
“Easy Johnny,” Scott chastised him gently as he watched the old woman slowly approach the bed. “She’s just trying to help.”
“I just want to be left alone,” he muttered.
“Not a problem. But you’re still going to have to let Mrs. Marlow change the dressing.”
Johnny raised his head toward Scott, his eyes daggers, “If its so important to you, why don’t you do it?”
“Because I’m not the expert, Mrs. Marlow is.”
Johnny retreated back into his silent shell.
Mrs. Marlow carefully unbound the splint around Johnny’s leg and cut away the dressing, discolored by the seeping infection. She wasn’t happy with what she saw. The wound was still red and swollen. “This needs a thorough cleaning again.” she said. “Scott, bring me the laudanum.”
“No.” Johnny brought his eyes up to meet hers defiantly, “you promised. Only at night.”
“Or when it was necessary,” she countered. “It’s necessary. I can’t have you moving around disturbing the bone that has just begun to knit.” Mrs. Marlow carefully laid a clean dressing over the wound for protection and pulled up a chair. “If you got hopes of ever walking on that leg normal again you’re gonna have to start listening to me. That means when I say it’s time for the Laudanum I expect you to take it, and not complain like a little baby.”
“I ain’t no baby,” Johnny snapped back.
“Then stop acting like one.” The stinging words hung in the room,
“Why don’t you just leave me alone?” He sagged back against the pillows, his ribs hurting with each angry breath, his leg on fire. “Just leave me alone. I’ll be out of your house as soon as I can. Just leave me alone.”
Mrs. Marlow sat down heavily in the straight-backed chair. “I got something to say, if you’re willing to listen.” She sat forward, waiting for an answer. Johnny stared up at the ceiling. “I owe you an apology, Mr. Lancer.”
Johnny looked down at his leg stretched out in front of him. If not for the pain he would not have thought it belonged to him. He felt trapped. He needed to get out of this bed, away from this woman. There was nothing she could say that would make up for the years of hurt her kind had inflicted on him. “If you’re going to say you’re sorry, I don’t want to hear it.”
“Even if it’s the truth?”
“Most of the time truths just turn out to be lies anyway.” Johnny said softly.
“Cynical words from a man so young.” Mrs. Marlow sat back in her chair, her hands folded in her lap, facing the man she had hated with such a passion just a few days before.
“I haven’t been young for a long time.” Johnny replied.
Mrs. Marlow nodded sadly, “Once innocence is lost, it’s gone forever. My boys were innocent.”
Scott caught his breath. He saw Johnny’s head snap up. “I didn’t kill your boys.” he said defensively.
“I know you didn’t…now.” She walked to one of the dressers and pulled out a crude carving of a horse. “Billy carved this, a week before…Billy was eight and Mathew was seven.” She sat back down, looking out the window as if she could see into another time. “It was Thursday afternoon. Three o’clock. I’d just finished kneading the bread dough for supper. Hank was in the barn…he was…he was gathering supplies for the boy’s first hunting trip. One more day and they would have been gone for the week.”
“I don’t want to hear this.” Johnny’s voice was little more than a whisper. He was suddenly caught between pity and anger. Anger was easier. It had been his constant companion for most of his life. It was what kept him strong, kept him alive.
“You deserve to know. It doesn’t make what I did right…There’s no excuse for that…But…I heard the horses coming, it sounded like a stampede, then the hollering and yelling…all in Spanish. I heard the gunshots, so many I couldn’t count.”
Johnny watched her softly caress the carved horse.
“Billy and Mathew were in the vegetable garden pulling carrots for supper. I…I heard them scream for help. By the time I got to the door…Hank made it into the kitchen where he kept his rifle. Three men, they broke down the door…Hank tried to protect me.” She shivered at the memory of their dirty hands clawing at her body… “They…Hank was never any good with a rifle. He never got a shot off. They stabbed him…again and again…”
“…Don’t,” Johnny said softly, “It won’t bring them back. I know.” Johnny closed his eyes against the vivid visions. The brutality of it. The senseless brutality.
“After that I hated all Mexicans. I thought they were all the same. If I could have killed every last one of them, I would have. For ten years I’ve hated. I’ve grown old and bitter.”
Without saying a word she mixed the Laudanum in a glass of water and handed it to Johnny. He took it without complaint. His fingers brushed hers and for the first time in years she didn’t recoil from the touch of darker skin.
She sat back in her seat, composing herself. She stared at Johnny lying there in Mathew’s bed. He was so different. And yet he was so much like a child. Lost and hurt. She had been filled with her own pain for so long that she forgot that others were hurting too. Like this young man. What was it that haunted those eyes? “What was she like?”
“Your mother. You spoke of her with such love. Most of the words I couldn’t understand, but I didn’t need to.”
Johnny’s mind whirled. Not from the pain or the weakness, but from the emotion. His world had been turned upside down in two short years. First Murdoch, the father he had grown up hating more than Satan himself. And Scott, the brother he never knew he had, bestowing him with more love than he ever deserved. And now…His preconceived ideas were being stripped away. The very things that made him who he was. That kept him alive when by all rights he should have been dead, years ago. Johnny Madrid was dying.
“She was beautiful,” he said softly. “Her hair was long and as black coal. She said she gave me her hair and her skin, and my father gave me los ojos del cielo- the eyes of the sky.”
“Los ojos del cielo…I like that.”
“She laughed a lot in the beginning. I remember when there was food on the table and warm clothes to wear. Then there was no more food. We had to move.”
“How old were you?”
“I don’t know. Six maybe. Each town was worse than the last. They called me mestizo-half breed. Only the men without orgullo-pride, visited my mother.” Johnny looked up and saw the disgust on the old woman’s face. It was happening again. He was a fool to have thought otherwise. “It makes you feel dirty, doesn’t it?” he asked. “To be this close to a mestizo, and the son of a…”
“No!” Mrs. Marlow slid the chair closer, pulling his right hand into hers. “No, no Johnny, it pains me to think that any child should have to live like that. What happened Johnny? What happened to bring the nightmares I’ve seen these past few nights?”
Scott shifted to a chair next to the window. Was Johnny about to open up? Was he at last going to hear what drove the nightmares night after night? What made Johnny Lancer so sad and Johnny Madrid so angry? He had heard bits and pieces. Enough to put two and two together. But never the full story.
Johnny’s eyes grew tired. The laudanum was taking effect. “They beat me.”
“The men. Her men. I was in the way. They wanted her, not her kid. Emerson. Jake Emerson. He was the worst. He said I was suciedad…”
“Filth…” Scott whispered.
“You’re not filth.” Mrs. Marlow squeezed his hand tighter, forcing the tears back.
Johnny’s eyelids grew heavy.
“What happened, Johnny?”
Johnny felt himself drifting. He was no longer retelling the story, he was reliving it again. “She pushed me away. He had a knife…She never even screamed, she just laid down next to me and fell asleep. She was so cold, so still. I couldn’t keep her warm any more. I… buried her two days later…”
“Alone…?” Her voice was husky with anguish.
Johnny nodded, falling back into the world that was his in the dark of night. “…Mamma…” he whispered as the laudanum pulled him under its spell and he sank into a deep dreamless sleep.
Mrs. Marlow looked over at Scott, her face ashen, “Why did Murdoch let them leave?”
“He didn’t. Maria left with Johnny in the middle of the night. Murdoch searched for years. Didn’t find him until the day he was facing a Mexican firing squad.”
Scott sighed. He had heard more in half an hour then the past two years. “That’s another story for another day,” he said. “You better get to Johnny’s leg before that laudanum wears off.”
It was late afternoon when the Colonel entered for his daily visit. Walking in behind him was a man they had not seen before. Short, with a rotund belly, he wore a black suit, that was clearly bought when he was a much leaner man, and a stained white shirt with a string tie. The bag he carried with him got Scott’s attention immediately. It appeared to be a doctor’s bag.
“What is this all about?” he asked, taking a step away from the wall. Two rifles were raised and he stepped back.
“This is Dr. Lewis Sutter. I asked him to have a look at Mr. Madrid.” The Colonel looked down critically at Johnny, “I expected more improvement by now.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have put three bullets in him,” Scott snapped.
The Colonel eyed him with distain. The Lieutenant knew better than to breech protocol. “Your assignments begin in three days.”
Johnny looked back at Scott then at the doctor as he approached. Scott’s stomach dropped. He was everything he remembered about the hospital tents, hurriedly set up on the fringes of an encampment. The doctors, knowing only enough to treat the least severely wounded, going from patient to patient, never washing their hands, never changing their clothes. He saw the red rust color of blood on the doctor’s right sleeve. He was an abomination to the medical profession, and he was not about to touch his brother.
“Wait!” Scott raised his hands. “Mrs. Marlow is doing a great job with Johnny. He’ll be ready in three days, right, Johnny?”
“We’ll see. Doctor?”
“No!” Scott lunged for the doctor, gripping his wrist and pulling him away from the bed. “I’ve seen what you butchers do,” he yelled. “You are not going to touch my brother.” He swung him around, throwing him against the wall. “You’re not touching him. You understand me?”
Two more guards rushed into the room dragging Scott off the doctor and throwing him on the empty bed.
“Chain him!” The Colonel yelled. Chains were brought in and Scott’s hands were locked behind him and secured to the bed frame. “The only thing that stops me from putting a bullet between your eyes, Lieutenant Lancer,” the Colonel seethed, “is the fact that I need your services. However I don’t need your brother.” He stepped over to Johnny, his hand hovering over his leg. “Remember, it will be your brother who will suffer for your misconduct. Now Doctor, if you please, you can begin your examination”
Mrs. Marlow moved closer to Scott, not taking her eyes off the doctor as he pulled instruments out of his bag, laying them carelessly on the bed. “Doctor, I could bring you hot water to sterilize those instruments.” she offered.
The doctor ignored her, cutting away the bandage around Johnny’s shoulder. Pressing at the wound, Johnny flinched in pain. “Looks to be healing.” He moved onto Johnny’s right leg and unwrapped it, causing Johnny some major pain. He longed for Mrs. Marlow’s gentle hands. “This,” the doctor said after prodding and moving Johnny’s foot in a circular motion, “seems to be healing also. Nothing broken. You’re a lucky boy.” Johnny didn’t feel so lucky when the Doctor moved to his left leg and began to unwrap the splints. He gritted his teeth as he watched the dirty hands pull away the dressing and push and prod at the wound. “Nasty infection here,” he declared. “And it looks like you ran out of thread. Not to worry, Colonel. We’ll clean it out with Carbolic Acid and stitch it up the rest of the way.”
“No…” Mrs. Marlow was on her feet, the Colonel’s warnings forgotten in her haste. “The carbolic Acid will only irritate the wound more, and I left the center open on purpose to let it drain. The infection will clear up if you just keep it clean with warm water.”
“And where did you get your medical degree, madam?” The doctor asked, indignantly.
“The same place you did,” she snapped back.
The doctor met her steely eyes. “Colonel, this woman has done a fine job, within her limited knowledge. However, I am the doctor, and she is not. If she says one more word I will request that you remove her from this room. And now,” he turned back to look down at Johnny, “let’s get you fixed up young man.”
Johnny looked from Scott back to the doctor, trying to keep the fear from showing. He was trapped on this bed, not even able to crawl away. He watched nervously as the doctor took out a small black box from his bag and opened it to reveal a large syringe.
“No! I don’t need that,” he sputtered, real fear taking over. He couldn’t let them put him under. He had to stay alert. With Scott chained…”Do what you want, I won’t fight you.”
“Nothing to be afraid of young man, just a small injection of morphine. When you wake up everything will be fine.”
“No!” He struggled to pull his arm away from the doctor, but the guards surrounded the bed, and his arm was held steady. He watched the needle touch the inside of his elbow…”No…!” A warm euphoria spread across his body and he slumped into the pillows. All the fight was gone. Everything was gone. The pain, the fear…he tried to reach for Scott, someone to hold on to….and even Scott was gone.
Johnny found himself lost in that world between drugged sleep and semi-consciousness. When the drug no longer masked the pain but the mind was to muddled to control the hurt. And the hurt was fierce.
His leg throbbed from his toes to his thigh with every breath he took. He wanted it to go away. He needed it to go away. Then he remembered the needle. It touched his skin and the pain was gone. Morphine. He needed more, just a little more. Always just a little more. The desire scared him and he cried out in pain and fear. He wouldn’t go there. Never again. Never again. Memories he kept repressed for so long came hurdling back. He was in so much pain then too. Alone and afraid. A bullet in his gut, lying helpless in the tall grass, day after day, night after night. No one would find him, not there. But someone did and he awoke to fire in his belly and the promise by an old man that it would all go away. And he kept his word. Day after day the pain flared, only to be knocked back by the needle. Then the pain wasn’t so bad anymore but the needle felt so good. The day the old man said he’d exhausted his supply he thought he would die. But it was a different kind of death. More horrific than lying alone in the fields dying from a gut wound. Then the old man gave him laudanum. It wasn’t the same but it took the bite away. And he found he could function, almost normally with it. But he had to have it. And it scared him. He never wanted to feel that scared again. He never wanted to feel his body crave anything like that ever. He would sooner die first…But it would be so good to escape the pain in his leg, just for a little while longer.
Scott watched helplessly, still chained to the bed, as Johnny feebly thrashed beneath the thin sheet draped over his torso. Mrs. Marlow left his chest and legs exposed, letting what little air there was from the open window dry the sweat form his body. The travesty of a doctor had stopped by twice more in the past twenty-four hours, each time injecting Johnny with more Morphine and pouring more carbolic acid into the wound. He knew Johnny’s almost frenzied fear of painkillers and often times wondered where it had come from. It was easy to see, from the scars left behind, that he had been in the position of needing the medication more than once. But what was it that he feared so much that he would rather endure horrible pain then submit to the drugs?
“The man should be hung.” Mrs. Marlow seethed as she unwrapped the bandage around Johnny’s ankle again. “The carbolic acid is destroying all the healing tissues. If he keeps it up Johnny will be left with a hole in his ankle the size of a silver dollar.”
Scott’s anger grew. Was this just another way for the Colonel to control them? Damn the man. Damn the man to hell. He was using Johnny as a weapon to control him.
Scott saw Johnny suddenly shudder and cry out in pain at Mrs. Marlow’s touch, the sound ripping at his stomach like a dagger. He jerked violently at the chains but they only bit deeper into his skin.
“Calm yourself.” Mrs. Marlow warned, “Johnny doesn’t need top see you like this.”
The old woman watched as Johnny’s heavy eyelids opened, his eyes glassy and confused. “It’s alright, Johnny,” she soothed, smoothing the hair back off his forehead. “Don’t fight it, child. Look at me.” She waited while his mind deciphered her words and he slowly looked up at her. “That’s it. Do you know where you are?”
“Good. Do you want something for the pain?”
He shook his head, fear creeping into his eyes. She leaned over close to his ear and whispered. “I know your secret.” she said softly, “I saw it in your eyes. I saw the scars. One of them made you a prisoner to the pain. But we can control it. You and I. You need the laudanum to rest. If the doctor comes back and you are restless like this he’ll give you more morphine.”
Johnny’s breathing increased.
“But we won’t let that happen. Trust me. I’ll give you just enough to control the pain. Do you trust me?”
The answer came with a slow nod, unshed tears welling up in his eyes. He couldn’t fight it. Not now. Later, when he was stronger.
Two hours later dinner arrived on schedule, along with the Colonel and Dr. Sutter. To Sutter’s surprise Johnny was propped up in bed, watching him intently. He seemed reasonably comfortable considering the awkward position he was forced to lay with the heavy splint on his left leg and the tight bandaging around his left arm and ribs.
“Well,” he said pompously, glancing back at Mrs. Marlow sitting beside Scott, “it appears that my doctoring methods aren’t all that bad after all. How do you feel son?”
Johnny nodded. His complexion was still overly pale and the dark circles beneath his eyes attested to the pain he had been in, but they looked clear enough. “Well, let’s get this examination over with. My dinner is getting cold.”
He opened his bag and Johnny couldn’t help but cringe back. Scott leaned forward against the chains, clamping his jaw tight against the expletives whirling around in his mind. But he held himself in check. Getting dragged from the room wouldn’t accomplish anything.
“I’ll give you something for the pain before I begin.” Sutter said as he opened the black case with the syringe in it.
“I don’t need that.” Johnny snapped.
“He’s been doing fine on the laudanum.” Mrs. Marlow jumped up.
“Suit yourself, but this is going to hurt.” The doctor began cutting away the bandages, satisfied with the healing wound on his shoulder and moving down to his right leg. Again he nodded, noting that the swelling had gone down considerably on the ankle and the entrance and exit wounds looked clean and free of infection. “Now,” he said, moving to Johnny’s left leg, “let’s see what we’ve got here.”
He unwrapped the bindings on the splint then removed the dressing around his ankle, keeping an eye on Johnny’s face. He should have been cursing in pain, instead the only hint of the tremendous pain his ministrations caused was the clenching of his teeth and the tearing of his eyes. The boy was strong. He had learned self-control. The worst kind of patient. “This is coming along nicely,” he nodded, “just a little infection left. But we can fix that with a little more carbolic…”
Johnny’s eyes widened in true fear.
“Doctor, please,” Mrs. Marlow was standing over his shoulder. “The wound is as clean as you could expect this soon, and the boy has been through so much.”
Dr. Sutter looked from Johnny to the Colonel. The Colonel nodded. “Alright.” he agreed, “I’ll forego the carbolic for tonight. But if it worsens in the morning…”
“Thank you. And now…” Mrs. Marlow ever so gently kneeled down beside the doctor, “if you like I can rebandage the patient. I know such mundane tasks are done by the nurses in the hospitals you are used to.”
“That, Mrs. Marlow,” Sutter smiled, “would be greatly appreciated. My dinner is getting cold. Now, young man,” he patted the bed next to Johnny’s leg, watching and expecting the hiss of pain, “I’ll take my leave. I will see you again in the morning.”
Mrs. Marlow’s shoulders sagged in relief as she began to carefully rebandage Johnny’s injuries. They had won this battle, but had they won the war?
“I’ll let you finish here, Mrs. Marlow,” the Colonel said as he followed the doctor out the door. “But I’ll be back shortly. It’s time for Lieutenant Lancer and Mr. Madrid to learn their assignments for tomorrow.”
As the door closed Johnny sagged back against the pillows.
An uncomfortable silence fell over the room, each of them wondering what the “assignment” was going to be. Scott watched as Mrs. Marlow carefully re-bandaged Johnny’s left ankle and reset the heavy splints into place. He saw Johnny’s jaw line tighten and his color fade even more. For a moment he thought his younger brother was going to pass out, but Mrs. Marlow was finished and began working on the less painful wounds. By the time she was finished thirty minutes had passed and Johnny was breathing heavy, trying to control the pain. Mrs. Marlow mixed laudanum in a glass of water and Johnny accepted it without duress. What had she said to him that made him so amenable to her ministrations?
“What do you think he has in mind?” Johnny asked, his voice husky from the pain.
“It’s big, whatever it is. He’s got a garrison down there.”
“I’m worried about what he has in mind for Johnny,” Mrs. Marlow said as she finished fixing the light sheet over her patient, “he’s in no condition to be moved.”
“Don’t worry about be, I’ll be fine.” Johnny grinned, but the lame attempt only proved how unready he truly was.
Silence once again filled the room. Johnny’s eyes grew heavy as he watched the door. He would never tell Scott or Mrs. Marlow how scared he really was. Stuck here in this bed, he had never felt so helpless. He cursed the heavy splints on his left leg, so heavy that he couldn’t even shift his leg. If he needed to react quickly he wouldn’t stand a chance.
The door opened and he forced back the hazy feeling of the laudanum.
The Colonel returned with two men. They positioned themselves at the door, their rifles nestled across their chests, waiting for one wrong move. “Does either of you Gentlemen remember what day this is?” The Colonel asked.
Scott glanced toward the window. He had counted every sunrise and sunset since he awoke in this room. “Thursday,” he answered.
The Colonel nodded, “I see you have been paying attention. Traits of a good officer. And the date?”
Scott thought about it. “The twenty-sixth, I believe.”
“Correct. Do you know what significance the twenty-sixth holds?”
Scott shrugged, “Not off hand.” He glanced over at his brother but Johnny stared straight ahead, his eyes shifting from the Colonel to the two guards.
“Today is the annual meeting of the CCGA, The California Cattle Growers Association in Green River. I believe your father is President of the association.”
“And what if he is?” Scott demanded, trying to hide his fear. Was this all about some kind of perverse revenge on Murdoch Lancer? Hurt the father through the sons?
“It just adds a touch of irony to the situation.” The Colonel stepped between the two beds. Mrs. Marlow moved around to the other side of Johnny’s bed, her hand resting protectively on his shoulder. “You know of course what goes on at that meeting. Plans are made for the upcoming cattle drive. I understand it has been a rough year for most of the ranches. A mild winter and a hot summer. Grazing areas cut down to a third of normal. That meant a lot of money spent on extra feed and salt. I warrant that many of the ranchers are counting on this drive to keep their heads above water. Even a spread as large as Lancer is hurting.”
“Get to the point, Colonel.” Johnny said coldly. Johnny Lancer had disappeared. In his stead was Johnny Madrid. Hard, emotionless and very dangerous. It was a side of his brother Scott never felt comfortable with, never knew exactly what to expect. But, it was exactly who they needed right now.
“Good faith money.” The Colonel said simply. “You know what that is don’t you Mr. Madrid?”
Johnny nodded. “Money to bank the cattle drive.”
“I’m impressed. For a gunslinger you have become quite the rancher.”
“Ex-gunslinger,” Scott snapped.
The Colonel laughed, “There’s no such thing as an ex-gunslinger. It’s something that stays in your blood for a lifetime. Right Madrid?”
“Is that why you hobbled me?”
“Partly. There are other reasons, which will become abundantly clear tomorrow.”
“What does Good Faith Money have to do with us?” Scott asked hurriedly. He saw the slightest shift in Johnny’s expression. Despite his inability to move he saw his body stiffen, his hand automatically reaching for a gun that didn’t exist.
“It takes a lot of money to drive a herd of cattle to market. Drover’s wages, food, supplies, feed for the horses, crossing fees and railhead money. The Good Faith Money guarantees that the money will be there to pay for all the expenses. That could be as high as five thousand for the smaller ranches and up to thirty thousand for a spread as big as Lancer.”
“What does that have to do with us?” Scott asked. He glanced over at Johnny, his reflexes spring loaded. The gunslinger was ready to explode.
“I believe there is approximately ninety thousand dollars in the Green River Bank at the moment. That includes the association’s money, bank investors, savings and payroll for the mill and the mine. A tidy sum, don’t you think?”
“I still don’t see what that has to do with us,” Scott said.
“It’s very simple, Lieutenant Lancer. You are going to rob the bank tomorrow.”
Silence descended over the room as each of the prisoners digested the information.
“You’re joking, right?” Scott finally said, trying to keep the disbelief from his voice. “Well, I won’t do it.”
The Colonel walked closer to Johnny’s bed, a barely suppressed smile playing at his lips. “You don’t have a choice, Lieutenant,” he reached down and slammed his fist into Johnny’s right ankle, a swatch of blood immediately spreading over the bandaging. “Unless you want your brother to pay for your disobedience.”
Mrs. Marlow jumped to her feet and the two guards raised their weapons. “Sit down, Mrs. Marlow,” The Colonel instructed. “Or I will have you put in restraints too.” Mrs. Marlow sat back down, her hand grabbing Johnny’s. She could see the pain in his face, but he stared unflinching at the Colonel.
“You will leave here at ten A.M. sharp. Two units will accompany you. Three men will ride into town with you. Who better to get the bank manager to open the safe than Scott Lancer, son of Murdoch Lancer? When you have the money you will meet up with the two units and you will be escorted back here. No heroics, no tricks or your brother will be punished. Do I make myself clear?”
Scott nodded, still reeling in disbelief.
“And my assignment?” Johnny asked, his jaw clenched in pain.
“You’ll have to wait until the morning for that Mr. Madrid. Get a good nights sleep, Lieutenant, you’ll need it. And, by the way,” he smiled pointedly at Johnny, “It’s supposed to be a scorcher tomorrow, in the hundreds. Sleep well, you’ll both need it.” The door closed leaving all three prisoners stunned.
Mrs. Marlow jumped to her feet grabbing fresh bandages and water. “He didn’t have to do this,” she muttered as she unwrapped the now bloody bandage.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Scott pulled at the chains, knowing it was futile, but needing to do something. “Seventy thousand dollars isn’t that much money, not for as many men as he has. And what does he need with a garrison if he’s only going to rob a bank?”
“He doesn’t want the money, he wants the ranches.” Johnny chocked back a moan as Mrs. Marlow worked on his re-injured ankle. “With that money gone most of the ranchers won’t be able to afford to take their herds to market. The Colonel was right, it’s been a dry year. Some of the ranchers spent twice what they normally do just to buy extra feed. Without the money from the sale of the cattle, they’ll go under. They’ll have no choice but to sell.”
“And the Colonel will be right there happy to oblige them.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. Even Lancer will be hard pressed to pay for the drive if the money is gone. We might be able to hang on, but the smaller ranches won’t. The Colonel will own half of California in six months.”
“What are we going to do?”
Johnny turned to look at Scott, the look in his eyes scaring his older brother. “You can’t do it, Scott.” he said. “You’ve got to find a way of escaping tomorrow. Somehow get to Lancer, warn Murdoch and make sure Teresa is as far away from here as you can get her.”
“Listen to me. I can’t move, and you can’t carry me out of here.”
“I can’t just leave you.”
“You have no choice. Scott, could you live with yourself if you knew that you helped destroy all those lives? I can’t.”
“He’ll kill you.”
A strange smile played across Johnny’s face, “More’n one’s tried it, and I’m still here.”
Scott shook his head, it was too much to ask. “Johnny…”
“Promise me, Scott.”
Scott’s mouth was too dry to even speak. What Johnny was asking…he couldn’t.
“Promise me, Scott. Promise me!”
Scott nodded slowly, turning away from him. He couldn’t look Johnny in the eye. “But,” he vowed, “I’ll be back for you.”
Dinner at the Lancer estancia was a quite somber ritual performed only because it was necessary. Gone was the happy chatter, friendly rivalry between the two brothers and Maria’s huge servings. They ate because they had too. Jelly joined them each night, he too unusually quiet. There had been no word on Johnny or Scott for a week. Hopes were starting to dwindle. What was a full happy house was now just a shadow of its former self.
Murdoch cleared his throat and smiled toward his ward. She was feeling the loss more profoundly than anyone. She looked upon them as her brothers, and her best friends.
“Teresa, honey, I have to go into Green River on business tomorrow, why don’t you come alone? It will be good to get out of the house for the day.”
Teresa looked up, her face lighting up for a moment before she looked at the empty chairs at the table. “What if Johnny and Scott…”
“If’n those two brothers of yours show up, I’ll have Cipriano fetch you so fast that your pretty little bonnet will still be in Green River while your hugging them hello here.” Jelly promised.
“There was some material I saw last time that would be perfect for a shirt for Johnny. You know how he likes his fancy shirts. Scott is so easy to buy for, anything off the rack. But Johnny…”
“Johnny an’ his shirts,” Jelly chuckled, “I swear that boy would make a peacock blush.”
Silence fell over the table again. Murdoch knew that in Johnny and Scott’s closets hung freshly ironed shirts waiting for their return. It was the way for Maria to cope with her loss. “I’m sure Johnny would love a new shirt. Perhaps we can find something for Scott as well.”
Teresa nodded and excused herself from the table. “I think I’ll turn in early.” She said. “I’m sure you’ll want to get an early start in the morning.”
As she slipped out of the room Murdoch found Jelly staring at him, his expression mirroring Murdoch’s own. “Do you think we’ll ever see them boys again, boss?”
Murdoch sighed heavily, “I hope so Jelly. I hope to God so.”
The night dragged on. Johnny alternately awoke and then slept as Mrs. Marlow and Scott sat silently in the dim light of one lantern. Scott knew Johnny was right, that neither of them could live with the knowledge that they had destroyed so many lives. But was he ready to sacrifice Johnny’s? They had known each other for such a short time, and yet, it seemed like a lifetime. Their bond was stronger than just mere time. It was a bond of need. They needed each other’s strength. Johnny with his joy of life and quick wit and Scott, more pragmatic, and grounded. They could exist without each other, but they wouldn’t be living.
Scott studied Johnny as he slept. His right ankle was propped up on a mound of pillows, blood still seeping through the bandaging from the Colonel’s demonstration of power. His left leg was trapped inside the heavy splints. Even as he slept, Scott could see the pain the younger man endured. When Johnny tried to shift he moaned out in pain. Scott cursed the Colonel, cursed him to hell. What kind of monster would do this? When this was over, he would exact his own form of punishment. Scott shivered, he had not felt the red hot emotion of complete rage since Libby Prison. The Colonel would pay…dearly.
Morning came. Mrs. Marlow tended to Johnny’s injuries silently. She didn’t know what to say. Scott and Johnny didn’t need words. They knew they might never see each other again, and words were woefully inadequate.
The door opened and the Colonel walked in followed by six men, two of them carrying a stretcher.
“What’s going on?” Scott demanded.
“You leave in an hour Lieutenant.” He snapped his fingers and two men unlocked Scott’s chains, roughly dragging him toward the open door. They stopped long enough for Scott to watch the four other men roughly lift Johnny from the bed and lay him on the stretcher. The movement drew a gasp of pain Johnny couldn’t mask.
Johnny held onto the side to the stretcher with his one good hand as the four guards maneuvered him down the steep flight of stairs and out the front door, each step painfully jarring his legs.
Scott was shoved out the front door and his knees nearly buckled when he saw what sat in the middle of the yard…waiting.
“No! You can’t.” he shouted, trying to wrench his arms free of his captors. “It’s inhuman.”
The colonel smiled, walking toward a black metal box. Four foot by four foot, it had three small holes drilled into the top for air.
“I’m sure you’ve seen what a hot box can do to a man.” The Colonel taunted.
Johnny lifted his head just enough to see the box and dropped it back on the stretcher, a moan of dismay escaping his lips.
“On a day like today, it could get well above a hundred and forty degrees in there. The heat sucks the life out of a man. Draws every precious once of water from his body. Have you heard the cries of a man who’s been in the box for several hours? First he nearly drowns in his own sweat. Then the box starts baking his insides. He becomes delirious. His tongue swells so he can hardly breathe. The metal is so hot it burns his skin…”
“Please, don’t.” Scott said numbly. “I’ll do anything you want.”
“I know you will. The box is just insurance. I estimate it will take you two hours, give or take a few minutes to reach Green River, two hours back. Another hour to complete your mission in town. That’s six, six and a half hours. Just about the limit for a man to survive the box on a day like this.”
“I swear I’ll kill you with my bare hands.” Scott breathed.
“I’m sure you would, given the chance. Now, put your brother in the box.”
Scott looked from the box to Johnny lying on the stretcher. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t put Johnny in there.
“You do it or my men will, and they will not be gentle.” The Colonel warned.
His wrists were unchained and he walked the short distance across the yard, willing his legs to hold him up. He couldn’t do this. Not to Johnny, not to any human being. He had seen the horrors of the box in Libby Prison. Had seen the aftermath. Men driven insane by the heat and lack of air. He kneeled down next to Johnny and the look on his brother’s face nearly ripped his heart open. Because he didn’t see fear, only sympathy, sympathy for his brother.
“You’re wasting time.” The Colonel called. “You have three minutes, then my men take over.”
“Johnny…” Scott could barely get the words out.
Johnny clamped his arm around Scott’s, “There’s nothing you can do.” he said softly.
Scott damned the tears that were welling up in his eyes.
Johnny jerked Scott’s arm, pulling him down close to his face, “You promised, remember?” he hissed. “You promised.”
Scott nodded. “I’m sorry, Johnny…”
“For what? We had it good the last couple of years.”
“One minute, Lieutenant.” The Colonel called.
“Get to Murdoch and Teresa.” Johnny closed his eyes and nodded, “Let’s get this over with.”
Gently as he could, Scott slid his arms under Johnny’s shoulders and knees, the heavy splint scrapping his arm, and carried him across the yard. The door to the hot box was opened, squeaking on rusty metal hinges. Scott’s body trembled. He thought he would fall dead on the spot from the anguish in his heart. Johnny’s blue eyes met his and there was only compassion and understanding there. No fear. Just acceptance, sympathy. God, no! Scott cried inwardly as he set Johnny inside the box, the heat already suffocating so early in the day. The backs of his hands were burned by the hot metal floor. He tried to make Johnny as comfortable as possible, but the box allowed only enough room for him to sit up with his splinted leg touching the other wall.
Johnny grabbed his arm. “Promise me Scott.” he hissed, “Promise me.”
Scott nodded before he was dragged out and the metal door clanged shut.
Scott was shoved toward two dozen mounted men. Charlemagne was saddled and waiting for him. Never once did he take his eyes off the horror of the black box. He mind was numb with the realization of what he had just done. The image of Johnny’s eyes, the sound of the door slamming shut…they would live a lifetime with him. His hands were tied to the pommel and his feet were bound to his stirrups. He didn’t fight. He just stared at the box.
“You have six hours, Lieutenant.” The Colonel walked over to the box and touched the black surface, quickly pulling his hand away as if is fingers were burned. “If you return here in time your brother will be removed from the box…alive. His life rests in your hands.”
Scott remained silent.
“These men will accompany you to the outskirts of town. Three men will accompany you into town and the bank. You will be armed, no bullets of course, and persuade the bank owner to open the safe. If you do your job well there will be no bloodshed. You will then rejoin the men waiting at the edge of town and they will disburse in every direction, leading the posse, if there is one, everywhere but here. When you have returned and I have the money in hand, Mr. Madrid will be let out.”
Scott sat stoically, not moving a muscle.
The Colonel nodded, “Move out.”
Scott fell into line in the center of the group and let Charlemagne have free reign, as they headed for town.
Johnny felt the rumble of horse hooves beneath the hot metal floor as Scott and the men moved out. He felt inconsolably sorry for Scott. What he was being forced to do. No man should have to make the decision he had to make. He didn’t know what he would do if the rolls were reversed. He didn’t have the courage Scott had. In a way he was the lucky one. His torture would end in a few hours…Scott’s would last a lifetime.
He looked at his small black prison, the roof merely inches from his head, his left leg, strapped in the splint, touching the wall in front of him. The only light came from three small holes drilled in the roof, the hot sunlight streaming in; three single shafts of light in the blackness. It was almost too hot to breathe already and the door had clanged shut just minutes ago. He felt the walls shrink in on him and he fought to keep the fear at bay. For fear would kill him just as surely as the heat and dehydration. If he was, as he always thought, headed to hell, then he had one foot in the door.
He closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe slowly. He would face his inevitable death like he faced life, straight on. A man only died once, and he would do it with dignity. If he could. And truth be told, he had never expected to die an old man in his bed, surrounded by friends and loved ones anyway. He always thought a bullet was waiting for him, his name written on it the moment he killed his first man… A young kid looking for a reputation, an old enemy lurking in the shadows waiting to back shoot him… But he never envisioned dying like this. He looked at himself in the feeble light and a humorless smile touched his lips, Johnny Madrid dieing in a swelter box with nothing but a splint on his leg and a pair of under shorts. Not the kind of ending for a legend like the great gun-for-hire, Johnny Madrid.
He took a shuddering breath, “Mi Dios…it’s getting hard to breathe.”
An hour had passed and the makeshift military unit traveled at a fast trot, keeping the horses at a steady pace, reserving their strength for the return trip. Scott’s mind was in turmoil. He knew Johnny was right. The loss of the money would destroy neighbors and friends. Ranches would be lost, lives would be ruined. And Teresa was in true danger if the Colonel decided to take her. But he couldn’t turn his back on Johnny. Not without a fight. He couldn’t leave him in that hell to die. He would bide his time. Make his decision when his hands were untied and he could assess the bank and the town. He owed it to Johnny.
Suddenly he remembered Timothy. Private Timothy Caldwell…eighteen if a day, enduring the hell that was Libby Prison. The look on his face as he was dragged from the cell to the center of the courtyard where the black box stood. The day was warm, not scorching hot like today. The boy was shoved in the box and the door slammed shut. Hour after hour they heard him crying in fear and pain, rambling incoherently…then all was silent. Three hours…that’s all it took…
Three hours. When they dragged the boy out his eyes were wide open, but he was dead. Heat and fear had killed the boy. In three hours. Johnny would be in the box for six…if he returned… if he didn’t keep his promise…
Murdoch pulled the buckboard to a stop in front of the mercantile. “Take your time, Teresa,” he said as he helped his young ward jump down from the wagon. “I’ll be over at the bank if you need me. It shouldn’t take me more than an hour. Then we can have lunch before we head back home.”
“Don’t worry about me, I’ll find plenty to keep me busy. But remember, the longer I stay in town, the more I spend.”
“Then, my dear, I had better finish my business quickly.” He watched her disappear into the general store. Despite her light spirits he could see the underlying sadness in her eyes. The boys’ disappearance had cost them all dearly.
He walked slowly toward the bank, his heart not in it. This was normally the most exciting time of year. The approaching cattle drive, the planning, the preparations. But this year everything seemed hollow. There was no joy left in their lives.
Rivers of sweat ran down Johnny’s body, puddling beneath him for an instant before drying up like water in a hot skillet, blistering his back and the backs of his legs. The heat was stifling. It stung his eyes and burned his skin. Each breath he took seared his throat and lungs. His ankles throbbed with renewed pain as they swelled in the heat. He didn’t know how long he had been in the black box, he couldn’t seem to concentrate for longer than a few minutes at a time. He tried to watch as the three rays of light shifted across his legs as the hours passed. But his mind kept wondering…
Suddenly he started to shiver. He couldn’t get his body to stop shaking. His teeth chattered until he thought they would crack apart. He was cold, so very cold. Why was he so cold? The sweat poured off him, purging his body of every ounce of water.
His head pounded and his ears rang…he heard muffled cries and realized they were his. Damn, they couldn’t know that they were getting to him, that he was loosing the fight. He tried to lift his hand to his face, to wipe away the stinging sweat but he didn’t have the strength.
And as suddenly as it started, it stopped. There was no more sweat left in his body. His skin began to dry…
His stomach rebelled. Heat, pain, fear…they all combined in a fiery agony of hot bile that stung his throat and burned his mouth. He leaned to his side, his stomach convulsing in dry heaves that wracked his body until they finally subsided, leaving him whimpering in pain and exhaustion. The box was winning.
Scott judged they were two miles outside of Green River. They slowed to a walk and stopped, gathering around a sprawling oak tree. Three men broke away form the group and pulled Scott with them.
“You know your orders Lieutenant. We untie you. You make one wrong move and we put a bullet in your back. Then that brother of yours dies in that hot box. It must be mighty uncomfortable in there by now. Hot as hell, hardly no air. I bet he’s babbling like a fool. They all do, you know. Just before their tongue swells in their mouth and they can’t talk no more…only moan…”
Scott turned away. He had already seen every horrible detail in his mind, over and over again. Had tried to fight back the images of Johnny in that box… “Let’s go…” he snapped, “we’re wasting time.”
Every minute they wasted was a minute from Johnny’s life. Every minute brought him closer to the moment when he had to make his decision. Johnny or the ranchers…
“Thank you Mrs. Caruthers. Your money is as safe as the proverbial bug in a rug.” Jonas Dawson, manager of the Green River Bank beamed.
“Well, I should hope so, Mr. Dawson. My life’s savings is in this bank now. Mr. Caruthers, the dearly departed, had no truck with banks, said one minute your money was there, and the next minute it was gone. Believed his mattress and that old shotgun of his was safer then any bank any day. But Mr. Caruthers is gone, God rest his soul, and I’m a trusting you with everything I got.”
“And rest assured, Mrs. Caruthers, you are doing the sensible thing. Why I…Scott…Scott Lancer…!”
Dawson looked up at the sound of the door opening and saw Scott step in, accompanied by three strangers. His was taken aback by the disheveled appearance of the oldest Lancer boy. His clothes were dirty and sweat stained, his face unshaven.
“Scott… Your father and half the county’s been looking for you and Johnny. Are you alright…is Johnny…”?
Scott looked around apprehensively, moving toward the door leading to the back office. “Can I have a word with you in private, Jonas?”
Mrs. Caruthers harrumphed, insulted that she couldn’t hear what the oldest Lancer boy had to say. He certainly looked terrible, not like the Scott Lancer she knew. Something was amiss.
“Yes, of course.” Jonas moved around the corner gently escorting Mrs. Caruthers toward the door. “Thank you for banking with us Mrs. Caruthers. We’ll see you again in a month.”
Scott watched the old lady walk out, a pang of guilt stabbing him in the gut. She was only one of a lot of innocent people who would be hurt today if he carried this out. And if he didn’t…
“Now, Scott,” Jonas turned back to Scott, not before eyeing his companions suspiciously. Not exactly the kind of crowd Scott Lancer usually hung around with. And there was something else. It was the way the boy looked at him. It went beyond the disheveled clothes and unshaved face. “What can I do for you? It`s funny, your father was just in here a few minutes ago. He didn’t mention you were back.”
“My father’s in town?” Scott felt the three guards tense behind him. He could get word to Murdoch. Tell him what was happening. He and Val could form a posse. This could be all over before the end of the day.
“Yes. He left not ten minutes ago. Tidying up some of the loose ends for the cattle drive. I believe he’s over at the mercantile with Teresa.”
Teresa. Scott’s heart skipped a beat.
“He must be thrilled to have you boys home. He was worried sick, you know. Scott…is everything all right boy?”
Scott nodded motioning for him to open the door to the back office. He was in the bank alone with them and he couldn’t shake the mounting fear. Something was terribly wrong. As he stepped into the back office two of Scott’s friends followed, leaving the third one outside to keep watch.
As the door closed Scott drew his gun, “Open the safe.”
“Look what I found, Murdoch,” Teresa’s face was flush with excitement as she met him on the front porch of the mercantile.
“They are just perfect. Johnny will love them.” She opened a small bag showing Murdoch a hand full of abalone colored shells. “These will work perfectly as buttons for Johnny’s new shirt. I can’t wait for him to see it.” She saw the hesitation in her guardian’s eyes and looked up at him defiantly, “They are coming back to us. No matter where they are, or what happened to them, they will come back. They have to.”
Murdoch drew her into his arms, “I’m sure they will.” He patted her hair, so soft against his huge rough hands, “In fact, I know they will. We just have to keep hoping.”
Mrs. Caruthers was beside them now, smiling up at Murdoch, threading her arm through his, “You must be so happy to have your boys back.” She beamed.
“What…?” Murdoch scowled down at her, “What are you talking about?”
“Why Scott, of course.” she looked up at Murdoch oddly, “I just talked to him not more than three minutes ago over at the bank. I tell you, Murdoch, you’re gonna have to fatten up those boys of yours. He’s skinner than a scarecrow.”
Jonas laughed nervously, “Scott, I don’t understand…”
Scott slowly and deliberately pulled the hammer back on his pistol, “Just give me all the money and you won’t get hurt.”
“Scott, please. This is not like you.”
“I can’t.” Jonas stuttered, “I…I don’t know the combination to the safe.”
“Yes you do. Now open it.”
“Come on Boss,” one of the guards sided up to Scott, “put a bullet in his knee cap. That’ll make him remember the combination right fast.”
Jonas swallowed hard, spinning the tumblers on the safe with shaking hands. As Scott leaned in next to him to help him pull open the heavy safe he whispered, “Tell Murdoch, Johnny is being held at the Widow Marlow’s place. And get Teresa away from Morro Coyo.”
Jonas nodded faintly as he began stuffing bank bags with money and notes. All the money he had, all the money everyone had.
“Don’t move out of this office for five minutes.” Scott ordered and backed out of the room. “Let’s get out of here.” he yelled, but the front door opened and Scott spun just in time to see Doug Bates take a bullet in the arm.
The startled man staggered back out the door yelling, “The banks being robbed!”
“Mrs. Caruthers, you must be mistaken. Both Scott and Johnny haven`t been seen since…” Murdoch’s words were cut short by the sounds of gunfire coming from across the street.
Murdoch instinctively grabbed Teresa, pushing her against the wall, protecting her body with his. He looked back to see Doug Bates stagger backwards from the bank and land in the dirt.
In a melee of gunfire he saw four men emerge from the bank, three of them firing wildly. The fourth man stopped, his gun drawn but not firing, searching the streets…The man froze…his eyes locked on Murdoch.
“…Scott…” Murdoch breathed.
Scott saw Murdoch and the utter look of disbelief on his face. Then his eyes met Teresa’s, peeking from behind Murdoch scared and confused. He wanted to scream that this was not his doing…that he was only trying to say Johnny’s life. Murdoch would know soon. Jonas would tell him. This would all be over…A shot pinged off a pot hanging on the Mercantile wall behind Teresa and Scott bolted for the horses. Murdoch would understand, someday. He felt bullets sing past his head.
Val ran down the center of the street, shouting orders, gathering a posse before Scott was settled in his saddle.
A cry of pain came from a guard next to him and the horse spooked, bucking the injured man out of the saddle. Scott looked back to see another guard stop only long enough to put a bullet through the injured man’s head. A dead man told no tales.
They galloped past the men waiting beneath the oak tree and Scott looked behind to see them scatter in ten different directions. Val and his posse would never find them.
Johnny cried out in pain. He fought it for so long. He didn’t want them to know…he didn’t want them to hear. But he didn’t have the strength to fight anymore. Every muscle in his body was cramping…lack of water and salt…severe dehydration…he’d seen it in the desert. Soon he would be raving like a lunatic. His tongue was already so swollen that he could no longer breath through his mouth.
Had Scott reached Lancer yet? It would take time, too much time to gather a rescue party. But Scott and Murdoch would make the Colonel wish he were never born. Maybe even put him in here for a few hours. The thought brought a smile to Johnny’s face. Revenge…sounded so sweet.
He clenched his teeth against the pain, trying not to moan.
Johnny froze. Where did that voice come from? He held his breath…listened. Nothing but the sound of his own heart racing.
Who said that?” he whispered. “Scott…?” No, Scott wasn’t coming back. Scott had made a promise.
“Johnny…!” The voice hissed. It was a voice he remembered from the past. So long ago … “Ya got ta keep fight’n there Johnny boy. Ya gotta keep fight’n…remember how I taught ya to fight?”
“…Tucker…?” The name came out as gibberish… his tongue too swollen to speak. Tucker. He hadn’t thought of him in years. He suddenly felt a pang of guilt so strong that it brought physical pain. The old man had saved his life. Kept him warm and dry when no one else would look at the mestizo. He felt like crying, like the night Tucker found him huddled beneath the rotted water trough, alone and scared, shivering from a fever. Pneumonia. He should have died that night. But Tucker wouldn’t let him.
“Who else would come a call’n when yer at yer worst boy? Ole Tucker a course.”
“…I thought…” He tried to lift his head up, to see the old man., but the effort was too great.
“I was dead? Don`t matter none… I come back to help ya…git ya through this `till that brother of yours gets back. “
“No! Scott’s not coming back. He can’t.”
“He ain’t leaving ya here ta die like this, boy. He loves ya.”
“He has to!” Panic set in. Teresa! He had to stop Scott from coming back. The Colonel would find her…”Teresa…!” She would take his place. She would be here in this hell…No! He had to get out. Scott didn’t understand. A man like the Colonel. He would keep his word. Adrenalin, born of fear and rage coursed through his body bringing new strength where there wasn’t any. He had to escape. The three holes in the top of the box…That was his only way out. He stretched his arm…damming the bandages that held his left arm trapped to his side, but he still couldn’t reach it, the splint was in the way… He clawed at the wrappings, tearing the bindings away. He had to get his leg free. He had to warn Teresa. “Teresa…Querido…”
“Easy Madrid…easy boy…ya gotta stay calm…” Tucker’s voice whispered in his ear, “I’ll only stay here if’n ya stay calm…”
“…Tucker…?” Johnny let his hand drop lifelessly to his side, ignoring the hot metal floor blistering the back of his hand. “…don’t go…don’t go… Stay with me.”
“That’s the boy, relax. Everything’s going to be fine. Your Teresa’s safe. She’s with Murdoch. She’s safe, boy. Ya always had a heart too big for your own good. That’s the boy.” Tucker’s voice was soothing. “I told ya …someday something was gonna work right for ya…You were just too good ta be just Johnny Madrid. Heard tell ya got yerself a fine family now. A big ranch. A father, a brother, a sister…pretty as the day is long too, ain’t she?”
Johnny nodded, “…hermano y hermana…”
“Told ya. Tucker never lied to ya, did he Johnny boy?”
“It’s too hot…can’t breathe…”
“I know boy…but remember that little pond outside Nogales? Blue like the sky and cold like the snow come spring run off… remember boy?”
“Think of that pond.”
“…I can’t…too hot…too hot to breathe…I’m scared Tucker…”
“I know ya are boy…but that’s why ole Tucker is here…”
“I did so many things wrong. Mi Dios… Hurt so many people. El Diablo me esta esperando.”
“The devil ain’t waiting for ya boy. Don’t ever forget the good you’ve done…”
“…Yes ya can…Now you listen ta me boy…I’m a gonna help ya ta breath here… In an out…slow an easy like…”
Johnny listened. He breathed slowly, the hot air burning his nose, his throat, his lungs. But Tucker was there, somewhere, everywhere. He relaxed against the fiery hot walls of the box and the suffocating blackness closed in around him, pushing the pain away. He heard Tucker calling, but he was too tired now. And he wasn’t afraid any more. He felt himself falling… No more light, no more sound…no more…nothing…
The Colonel stood by the box listening. The cries had turned to incoherent mumblings. The Lieutenant had better hurry…Then silence…
The ride back to the Marlow ranch seemed to take forever. The weight of one of the four money bags slung over his saddle, stuffed with all the hopes and dreams of so many people weighed heavy on Scott’s heart. But there was nothing else he could have done. The image of Johnny, his face so pale, his body so frail from pain and fever nearly brought him to tears. But hatred tempered the tears. He would have time later for all the emotions. For now he had to get Johnny out of that box and the Colonel into his hands so he could strangle the life out of him.
The Colonel had robbed more than the bank, had stolen more than just money. He had robbed Scott of a piece of himself, a piece of his humanity. He was one step closer to understanding Johnny and his fears and his hates. To have this much rage…to have this much rage at the tender age of eleven. Dear God…how had Johnny survived? How had he lived through the quagmire that was his life and come out whole and good in the end? What made Johnny Madrid survive?
He kicked Charlemagne into a frenzied gallop. He had to get to Johnny in time.
“It was Scott! Oh my God, Murdoch…I don’t understand.” Teresa sat in Val’s office, half the town standing outside the door, voices raised in anger and confusion.
Murdoch nodded. “I don’t either.”
“Why…? And where’s Johnny?” She suddenly turned in her chair, her face going whiter, “If that wasn’t Scott’s blood on his shirt it must have been Johnny’s. Murdoch, what’s happening?”
“I don’t know. But I intend to find out. Now, I want you to stay here. Promise me. Don’t leave this office. There are a lot of angry people out there. Most of them had their life savings in that bank. People don’t think straight when they’ve lost so much.”
“They wouldn’t hurt me.”
“I’m not taking that chance. Lock this door when I leave and don’t let anyone in except me or Val. Understand?”
“That’s my girl. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He kissed her lightly on the head and squeezed out the door behind Val, the noise of the crowd rising as he pushed his way through the throng of people.
“Listen to me!” Val yelled, “Calm down, everyone. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“It was Lancer. Scott Lancer. “
“We know who it was but we don’t know the why.”
“He’s gone bad, just like his gunslinger brother, Johnny Madrid. It was only a matter of time.”
Val grabbed Murdoch’s arm, pulling him through the crowd. “Won’t do no good trying to talk now. We find answers then we talk to`em…”
Scott jumped off his horse before the animal had a chance to come to a full stop. He whipped the moneybag off the saddle and tossed it at the feet of the Colonel.
“There’s your damn money!” he yelled. “Now, get my brother out of there!”
Scott dropped to his knees in front of the black box. Not a sound came from inside. He could feel the heat rising from the black metal even before he grabbed the door handle. The handle burned the palm of his hand as he yanked the door open. A blast of hot air, reeking of stale sweat and vomit nearly knocked him back.
He froze, not able to move. “Johnny…” he gasped.
The sight that assaulted him, left him weak and trembling… He forced down the bile in his throat as he stared into hell itself.
Johnny sat motionless, his skin tinged red from the heat, the splint on his leg torn open. With shaky hands Scott reached in and touched his brother’s neck, praying to find a pulse, but he knew he was too late. There would be no life left in that body…
Scott held his breath, feeling for the carotid artery, hoping against hope that he would feel the pulse of life in his brother. It had taken him more than six hours. The sun was beating down on the hot metal, sending waves of shimmering heat into the air. He was too late. He had done this. He had put Johnny into this hell…he should have fought. He should have done something…anything…how could he survive knowing what he had…
His fingers found a pulse…soft, almost non-existent, but it was there. Johnny was still alive.
Galvanized into action, he crawled into the tight confines of the box and gently slid his hands beneath Johnny’s legs and back. The hot metal of the box blistering the backs his hands, but he barely felt it. He gently laid the lifeless form of his brother on the ground and shaded his face the best he could with his body. Johnny needed water and shade.
“Water!” he yelled. “I need water.”
Mrs. Marlow was kneeling beside him. He didn’t even see her until her hands were on his shoulder, tender, caring. “We’ll take care of him together,” she whispered. Then she was in charge.
She stood up, barking orders. The Colonel stood to the side, arms folded over his chest, watching. He would let the old woman do what she needed to do to save the boy. He was no good to him dead. A dead pawn was useless. As it was, he might lose him anyway. The Lieutenant had taken longer than he expected and the day was the hottest he could remember in years. He marveled at the conspiracy of life. It never did what you expected it to.
“We have to get his body temperature down.” She pointed to two men standing among the circle of men watching. “Get the stretcher, carry him over to the barn.”
Scott grabbed her arm. “The barn?”
“The horse trough. There is plenty of water and it’s been warmed by the sun. He’ll go into shock if the water’s too cold.”
Scott kept pace with the stretcher, not letting his grip slip from Johnny’s lifeless hand. They set the stretcher next to the trough and waited for their next orders.
“We’re going to do this slowly, boys,” she explained. “To his knees first. I need more men here. Someone, get me a sheet or a blanket.”
Someone passed a dusty blanket into her hands. “Lay him on it.” she ordered. “We’re going to use it to lower him into the water.”
Scott tried to help but found himself pushed aside by anxious hands, inspired to help by the old woman and her determination that the boy survive. He watched as six men carefully lifted Johnny onto the blanket then shuffled around the trough, suspending him over the water.
“Easy now,” she said, “lower only his legs. His body needs time to adjust to the temperature change.”
“That water’s filthy.” Scott balked. “His legs…infection.”
“We can deal with that after we get his temperature down.”
Scott felt lost and helpless. He wanted to be doing something, he needed to help Johnny, to make amends for placing him in that box. But Johnny remained lifeless.
“We need fresh drinking water and clean cloths. Scott,” Mrs. Marlow threaded her arm through his, “soon he will need you. When he starts coming around. He’s going to be scared, disoriented. You’ll have to keep him calm. We have to keep him in the water until his body temperature is almost normal. It’s going to take time. You’ve had a long ride. Now go, get something to eat, rest for a few minutes if you can. You’re going to be exhausted before this is over.”
“I’m all right. I don’t want to leave him. I…”
“I don’t give a damn what you want. You’ll do as I say. You go in the house, get food and rest. When I need you, I’ll call you.” Her heart broke at the look on Scott’s face. He needed to help so much, but she knew what she was doing. She knew all too well the devastating effects of heat sickness and dehydration. The boy had no idea what an ordeal lay a head of him. Johnny was going to need every ounce of Scott’s strength when he awoke.
“I know what I’m doing, Scott,” she said in a softer voice. “He doesn’t know you’re here now. When he wakes up he won’t want you out of his sight. Now, please do as I say.”
Scott nodded, his head hung in misery and fatigue. No one could stop the hurt that ate at him. He was the one who had carried Johnny into the box. And he had, if only for a moment, considered not coming back. If Johnny survived he knew he would forgive him, even God might forgive him, but he would never forgive himself.
Val slowed to a stop making sure the posse stayed behind him so they wouldn’t disturb the tracks. He swung out of the saddle and kneeled down to study the hoof prints; a couple dozen horses breaking off into a dozen different directions. “Whoever they are, they know what they’re doing. It would take a month of Sunday’s to track all these with the manpower we got.”
“You’re not giving up, are ya Sheriff?” He looked back at the posse, their horses restless, feeling the tension in the air.
“A course I’m not giving up. But we ain’t about at find them today, or maybe even tomorrow. Whoever they are, they’re smart.”
“Of course they’re smart. Scott Lancer is leading `em. He was a cavalry officer. He knows how to handle men. I bet…”
“Whatever Scott’s involvement in this, it was not voluntary,” Murdoch shouted. “Now, all you men know Scott. This is not something he’d do.”
“You denying it was Scott that robbed the bank?”
“No. I’m not denying that. I just think there is more to it than we can understand now.”
“All’s I understand is that my life savings is gone, and your son stole it. And when I get my hands on him I’ll lynch him to the nearest tree!”
“That’s enough!” Val climbed back in the saddle, “I’ll hear no talk about lynching. Now, you men split up. If…if you find `em, you bring them back to town. They’ll get a fair trail…”
“Then they’ll hang!”
Murdoch watched the riders spread out, anger and vengeance on their minds. He almost hoped they would not find Scott. Not yet. And what about Johnny? Was Johnny alive too? “Let’s get back to town, maybe Jonas can give us some answers if he’s awake by now.”
Val nodded. He didn’t know Scott all that well, but he knew Johnny. There was something wrong here, something very wrong….
Mrs. Marlow watched Scott disappear into the house. There was little fear that Scott would try an escape. He would stay by his brother’s side until he knew he would survive. And that was her job now. To bring the boy back from the brink of death. She didn’t know if she could. He was so dangerously dehydrated. His face was ruddy from the heat, his eyes sunken beneath dark circles, his lips parted slightly from his swollen tongue.
She had to get him cooled down, inside and out. The outside was easy, simply bathing him in the cool water would eventually bring down his skin temperature. But she had to get water inside him. He had to drink water or he would die. She knew she couldn’t give an unconscious man water, he could either choke on it or it would collect in his lungs giving him pneumonia. But if she gave him the smallest amount of cool water, perhaps it would reduce the swelling of his tongue. She poured a little cold clear water on a rag and wiped across his parched lips, opening his mouth and pushing it between his teeth. Ever so carefully she poured just a small amount on the cloth and soaked the material letting it seep into Johnny’s mouth. She would do that every few minutes until he could swallow.
The men had immersed him to the waist now. She felt the water, the heat of his body had warmed the water by at least a degree. An hour passed and she was ready to lower his chest beneath the water. Ever so slowly she instructed the men to lower the blanket deeper into the water, watching the water cover his bare stomach then his chest, ever mindful of a reaction to the change in temperature.
It came suddenly and violently. His body began to spasm. Mrs. Marlow shouted at the men to hold on tight to the blanket. His body bucked and jerked, splashing water until everyone one was soaking wet. She forced his head to the side afraid he would choke on his tongue. It seemed forever, but only a few minutes passed when his body stilled. His nostrils flared as he tried to get more air into his lungs. His body was reacting to the rehydration, craving the moisture the box has sucked out of him.
“It’s time to get his brother.” She said to no one in particular. But before she knew it Scott was standing beside her, his face ashen at the sight of his brother.
“It’s normal.” she assured him. “Soon he should be coming too. But remember, he probably won’t be lucid.”
Mrs. Marlow turned to Scott, forcing him to look at her instead of his brother, “Scott, he was in that box for a long time. The heat, the lack of oxygen…”
“What are you trying to say?” Scott was fully aware of what Mrs. Marlow was trying to say. It had been the foremost thought on his mind after he found that Johnny was still breathing. His brother may never come back to him. Not the Johnny Lancer he knew anyway. He had seen it happen too often in war. When the mind went through too much, whether it was physical or mental, it simply shut down, hid in a place where it could not be hurt again.
“I’m saying…he could have suffered brain damage from the heat or the seizure. We won’t know until he regains consciousnesses.”
Scott nodded, looking down at his brother. The tattered bandages from the splint floated eerily around his leg, testament to the desperation Johnny must have felt. What went through his mind? What ghosts visited him in the stifling blackness? Scott reeled at the possibilities. Maybe in the end, Johnny wouldn’t return to them, because he couldn’t. He pushed the thought aside. Johnny would be all right. He had to be. “He’ll be alright. You’ll see. Johnny is the strongest man I’ve ever meet. Believe me…Johnny will be back.”
Mrs. Marlow squeezed his arm gently, “I’m sure he will be. Now, lets get him cooled down so we can get him up into bed. I bet a nice soft mattress is gonna feel mighty nice to him.”
Scott kneeled beside the trough and began gently sloshing the water around, cooling the heat from his body. Mrs. Marlow continued to dribble small amounts of water onto the rag between his teeth.
An hour passed and the water was up to his chin. Men took turns holding the heavy blanket keeping Johnny from slipping beneath the water.
“We need cold water,” Mrs. Marlow called. “Start draining this water out and replace it with cold. He’s still too hot.”
Cold water was brought from the lauder. Bucket after bucket was poured into the trough until Johnny began to shiver.
And suddenly Johnny’s eyes snapped open, wild with fear and confusion. His sudden movement surprised the men holding the blanket and one of them let the corner slip from his hand. Johnny slid beneath the surface before Scott could grab him.
Johnny’s good arm thrashed the water, felt and grabbed hold of Scott’s shirt nearly pulling his brother in on top of him.
“It’s ok, Johnny,” Scott yelled, wondering if his brother understood a word he said. He only hoped that his voice would cut through the panic. “It’s ok. You’re safe now, Johnny. You’re safe.”
Someone grabbed Johnny’s arm and forced it beneath the water. Mrs. Marlow kneeled on the other side of the trough now, wiping his face with a rag, smoothing back his hair until he settled down. She nodded to the men holding the blanket and they lifted the soaking blanket and Johnny, gently laying him on the ground.
“I need clean dry sheets. Strip him of everything, we have to keep him dry and warm now.”
Scott worked to remove Johnny’s underwear warding off his brother’s languid attempts to push him away. He knew how furious Johnny would be when he realized he’d been robbed of all his clothes and his dignity. But now saving his life seemed more important.
Johnny was pulled to a sitting position and Mrs. Marlow worked to unwrap the bandages around his ribs and left arm. What was left of the bandages around the splint were removed and the splints held in place by a couple strips of material. He was wrapped in the sheets, stopping his pitiful attempts to push his brother away and as his strength waned and he fell back into a fitful sleep.
Carefully the stretcher was carried upstairs, once again without Scott’s assistance. He stood back, watched the men placed his brother on the bed, watched in amazement at their gentleness, at their true desire to help the young man, and he realized as he studied their faces that they had been here all day. They were not part of the group that had rode to town with him. They had watched and listened as Johnny endured the tortures of the box. And despite their allegiance to the Colonel, they were overcome by guilt.
Mrs. Marlow continued barking orders like a drill sergeant. Sheets were folded and laid beneath Johnny to absorb the water as cool wet towels were placed over his chest, under his arms, over his forehead and beneath his knees. His head was raised and she put a cup to his lips dribbling small amounts of water into his mouth. She smiled as he swallowed it eagerly.
This went on hour after hour. Scott wondered where the old woman’s strength was coming from. Men lounged around the room in varying degrees of exhaustion, and still she worked.
Scott stayed at her side, keeping the towels cool, giving Johnny small sips of water. Extra care was taken to avoid breaking open the blisters that covered his back and the bottom of his legs. His right hand was wrapped in cool cloths. And yet the fever continued to climb.
“I don’t understand.” Scott said helplessly. “I thought the water trough …”
“It did its job. It cooled his body for a time so he has a chance to fight. The fever will continue for some time. You have to be patient. The worst is yet to come.”
Mrs. Marlow’s prophesy came to be when Johnny’s body temperature continued to rise. The men in the room refused to leave, working in shifts to keep the towels cool.
“Tucker…!” Johnny sat up, reaching for someone, something just out of his reach. In his delirium he fought back hands that tried to keep him calm. “Tucker…don’t leave…”
“Johnny…it’s ok, you’re safe.” Scott sat beside him, wiping his face and chest. “You’re safe.”
Johnny reached up and grabbed Scott with surprising strength. “…You’ve got to go…” he whispered, his eyes fever bright. … “no vaya…you’ll be killed…por favor … Le mataran…”
“I don’t know. Johnny’s never mentioned him.”
“….I can hear them outside…go now, before it gets light. Vaya!”
“Johnny, its Scott. Come on little brother…it’s Boston.”
Johnny’s eyes met Scott’s and the pain in them nearly killed him. “…Scott…save Tucker…he don’t deserve to die.”
“Ok, Johnny, we’ll help Tucker.”
“I’m bad hurt, can’t help him now. Down by the wash…he’s waiting. Tell him…I’m sorry…I tried to get back…I tried…”
“It’s all right Johnny, we’ll find him. Down by the wash. You just relax, let us help you.”
“….Promise…?” Johnny’s eyes closed and his body relaxed, satisfied that Tucker would be safe. Scott held his hand, saddened that he knew so little about his brother.
Mrs. Marlow pulled Scott away from the bed, “He’ll sleep now, for awhile. You get some rest yourself.”
“We already had this conversation once, Scott. Now, you do as I say. When he wakes up I’ll let you know.”
Scott reluctantly laid down on the opposite bed. Exhaustion pulled him down into sleep almost immediately.
Val collapsed into his chair behind his desk. At times it felt like his only refuge when things got tough. When he had to follow the letter of the law, no matter who it hurt. But never had he needed that refuge more than now.
Word got out quickly that the band had been robbed. Quiet, law-abiding citizens most of the time were now angry and scared. Their life savings gone in a blink of an eye.
“Just how bad is it, for the ranchers, I mean.” Val sat opposite Murdoch. The pain and worry over the past week, not knowing if his sons were alive or dead, was now compounded a hundred times by the sight of Scott racing out of the bank, gun drawn, money sack clenched in his hand.
“Some of the larger ranches may be able to scrounge up enough money to still fund a drive, but the smaller ranches…if they can holdout through the winter, get their cattle to market next spring…its possible they could hold on if the market stays high enough. But…more than one will go under…If I had the money I’d fund everyone of them…but we’re scratching like everyone else after this winter.”
“No one holds you responsible for what just happened, except maybe you.”
“How can I not feel a little responsible, Val? That was Scott running out of that bank. For whatever reason Scott was involved, that still makes me…”
Chance Dobbins pushed through the throng of people waiting outside the Sheriff’s Office. “Doc sent me over,” he said breathless. “Jonas just died. There was nothing Doc could do.”
“Did Jonas say anything before…?” Val stood up slowly to look out the window.
“Never woke up ta say anything”
“Alright, thanks Chance. Tell the doc I’ll be over to help with the arrangements in a little bit.” He slowly turned to Murdoch, “That makes it murder,” he said with quiet finality.
Scott heard a familiar voice and snapped his eyes open.
Before he realized what he was doing he was on his feet grabbing Dr. Sutter and pulling away from Johnny’s bed. “You keep your filthy hands off my brother!” he yelled, knocking the startled doctor into the bureau behind him.
“Restrain him!” The Colonel ordered, standing in the doorway.
Scott fought wildly to escape the hands that just a short time ago were so gently nursing his brother. His hands were tied behind his back with a length of rope and he was shoved back down onto the bed.
“You will control yourself, Lieutenant,” The Colonel nodded for two of his men to help the Doctor to recover. “If you can’t, you will be put back in chains. Understood?”
Scott nodded. He looked over at Mrs. Marlow, her face pinched in a worried look. She didn’t trust the doctor. Johnny’s fever was down, his ankles were rewrapped. She was just about to wrap his arm and ribs when Sutter walked in. Without regard for all the work she had just done, he cut away the bandages and examined the ankle wounds. “This looks to be infected again,” he said as he probed at Johnny’s left ankle, making the boy moan in pain. When she saw him pull the ascorbic acid from his medical bag she nearly flew across the room, grabbing his hand.
“He can’t take that kind of pain anymore!” she yelled, “Not after what he’s been through already. Let me take care of him. I will let the wound drain, keep it clean and apply a poultice. In a few days…”
“Unhand me madam. I am the doctor here, not you. If you continue to interfere I will have you restrained like his brother.”
“The infection isn’t deep.” she insisted. “It’s from that filthy box and the dirty trough water. It will go away in a few days. Using the Carbolic is cruel and unnecessary.”
“Cruel, perhaps,” the doctor admitted as he began to pour the liquid into the festering wound, “but necessary.” He didn’t flinch at the sound of Johnny’s anguished cry. “On the battlefield a doctor simply saves a life. There is no time or room for sentiment. You treat the wound the fastest way possible. What happens to the patient later is of no concern.”
Mrs. Marlow collapsed back on the bed next to Scott. “This, Dr. Sutter,” she said softly, “is not the battlefield. Johnny is not one of your soldiers.”
“That is where you are wrong Mrs. Marlow,” The Colonel said. “This is a battlefield. And we are at war. Remember that. We have won one battle today. But the war still goes on. That boy is as critical to my plan as the Lieutenant here,” he pointed to Scott who stiffened as he heard the words. “I have instructed Dr. Sutter to save Johnny Madrid’s life, that is all. What happens to him afterward is of no concern to me.”
He turned to Scott, “You have a few days rest until your next assignment. Rest while you can. And, if either of you try to hinder the doctor’s efforts to treat Mr. Madrid I will separate all of you.” With that he was gone, the door closed on a hushed room. The only sound was a contented snort of approval from the doctor as he continued to care for this patient.
The ride back to Lancer from Morro Coyo was long and silent. Teresa still held her sack of material in her arms, feeling the buttons through the cloth of her satchel. She still couldn’t believe what she had seen. But there was no mistaking, it was Scott she saw coming out of the bank. Their eye contact had lasted a mere second but she would remember it for a lifetime.
What could have made, or forced, Scott to do such a thing? If it had been Johnny…no, it would have been just as unbelievable for Johnny.
She glanced over at Murdoch, his face chiseled in a mask of worry and anger. He had faced the townspeople, all friends, he had thought, until they attacked him with insults and accusations. They blamed him for bringing the boys to their town, strangers who turned out to be rotten to the core. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the hot-headed Johnny Madrid showed his true colors. They were more surprised that it was Scott who went bad first, but not stunned.
How could things have gone so bad in such a short time? It was only two weeks ago that she had scolded Johnny unmercifully for sneaking into the kitchen and eating the last of the cookies, even though she had set them out for him on purpose. It was their own special game. She knew everyone in the house knew it. And when she made his chocolate cake, she was always sure to hide a piece where he could find it. “Dulces de mi queried.” he would grin. How she yearned to see that grin again.
“I want you to stay in the estancia, Teresa….Teresa…did you hear me?”
Teresa jumped when she realized Murdoch was talking to her. “I’m sorry. My mind was a million miles away.” She confessed. “What did you say?”
“I said, I want you to stay in the estancia until things settle down a bit.”
“You don’t think anyone would harm us do you? They are all our friends. We go to church with most of them.”
“I know, my dear, but people act funny when their livelihood is threatened. Most everyone in town and throughout this valley were effect by the robbery today. And since it appears that Scott was involved…”
“Murdoch, I can’t believe Scott could have done such a thing, not without good reason.”
“What reason would be good enough to rob a bank and kill Jonas?”
Murdoch slowed the team to a stop. “What would Johnny have to do with this?”
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. When you were with the posse and I waited in Val’s office. Both Johnny and Scott disappeared at the same time. We found blood, lots of blood on Scott’s shirt and where they were ambushed. Right?”
“Then, I think it was Johnny who was hurt. Scott seemed perfectly healthy. And, I think they are holding Johnny captive making Scott do what they want. It is the only explanation, Murdoch.”
“And a very good one.” He wrapped his huge arm around her pulling her close to him, “Ah, Teresa, my dear, when did you grow into such a wise and beautiful woman? It seems only yesterday that you were in pigtails and jeans.” He put a knowing hand on the top of her satchel, “We’ll get him back, sweetheart, both of them.”
Teresa stayed in the warm comforting embrace of her guardian for a long time. Both of them sharing a little of each other’s fears. It made it easier somehow. Not so lonely.
Mrs. Marlow waited for the doctor to finish his examination and close his bag before she slipped off the bed and stood beside him.
“If you like I can redo the bandages.” she offered.
“Yes. You seem capable enough to do that. I have left some salves and powders for you. You may want to increase the strength of the laudanum when he wakes up. He’s going to be quite uncomfortable. If the laudanum isn’t enough let me know and I will give him the morphine.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary.” she answered, collecting what she needed to redress her patient’s wounds. “Johnny is stronger than you think.”
Sutter chuckled. “He may want you to think that, but next time he says he’s fine look in his eyes. I bet you’ll find that he is far from fine. I wasn’t always a military butcher, as most like to call us. I had a thriving practice once. Even had a kind bedside manner. I treated plenty of boys like your boy here, when I still had compassion and loved what I did. Don’t let him fool you. He’ll try, you know. I know his kind. He’d rather suffer in agony than lose the edge he thinks he needs to survive. But that edge won’t help him here, not with the Colonel in charge.”
He waved her off, “Just do as I say. Start the laudanum before he regains full consciousness.”
“Do you know what the Colonel has in mind for us?” Scott asked before the doctor reached the door.
“Some of it.”
“Would you mind giving us a hint? I mean, I hate being in the dark here.”
“I’m not a Lieutenant anymore. Call me Scott or Lancer.”
“I’m an old man Lancer. I don’t have the strength or the courage to go up against the Colonel. I can only tell you what he says he will do, he’ll do.”
Scott watched the doctor slowly walk out of the room. The old man was right about one thing. The Colonel would do exactly what he promised. Of that he was sure. He looked back at Mrs. Morgan as she lifted Johnny’s head, coaxing him to drink the laudanum laced water.
Even she knew the doctor was right. Their only hope now was Jonas getting Murdoch his message.
Scott wasn’t sure when he had drifted off to sleep. He found himself sitting on the floor next to Johnny’s bed, his head resting on the mattress.
“Scott, he’s waking up.” Mrs. Marlow called softly, her own exhaustion evident in her voice. They had labored for hours as Johnny’s fever spiked, then fell to almost normal before rising again, draining him of what little strength he had left. At times Scott had to physically restrain him as he once again became delirious, thrashing in the bed, bedeviled by memories of his past and fears of his present. At one point he cried out for Murdoch as a child would for his father.
Scott scrambled to his feet, looking down at Johnny, his eyes moving beneath his lids, his mind seeming to be searching for answers as he rose through the muck of the laudanum and pain.
“Hey, little brother, it’s time to wake up.” he coaxed, brushing the sweat dampened hair from his forehead.
Johnny opened his eyes at last, glassy and unfocused. Scott waited as he slowly made sense of things. As he realized that he was no longer in the stifling black confines of the box, but in the bright airy bedroom of Mrs. Marlow’s lost sons. And as Johnny looked into the worried eyes of his brother, fear and confusion turned to resignation and a moan of inconsolable defeat. “…Why…?” Johnny whispered, his raspy voice nearly inaudible.
The question startled Scott.
“Why…? It was over,” He squeezed his eyes shut, damning the pain that nearly took his breath away. “Why’d you come back?”
“I made my peace with the devil. I said my good-bys. It was done. You should of kept going.”
“I couldn’t, Johnny. I couldn’t leave you in that box.”
Johnny’s eyes met Scott’s and they suddenly flamed with anger, “You promised.”
Anger welled up in Scott too. Anger at the Colonel for torturing his brother nearly to death, anger at Johnny for not understanding. “It wasn’t a promise I could keep.” he answered helplessly.
Johnny tried to shift his body, but pain lanced through him from head to toe. He grabbed at the sheet beneath his right hand and squeezed until his knuckles turned white.
“Here, take this.” Scott held a glass of laudanum laced water to his lips.
Johnny shook his head. “Not yet. It makes my mind work slow.”
“You need it. Now take it.”
Johnny didn’t have the strength to fight mentally or physically and opened his mouth just wide enough for Scott to drizzle the foul tasting liquid down his throat.
The simple task of raising his head sent the room spinning. He hated this feeling of weakness, of being unable to do anything for himself. Even more, he hated the fact that he had been yanked back, forced to go through all this pain again, just to relive it when the Colonel decided he wanted something else from them. For all his fancy college upbringing in Boston, and his time in the army, Scott still didn’t see the worst in people. But Johnny did. He had learned at an early age how cruel people could be.
“Don’t you understand?” Johnny’s voice shook and it angered him even more that everyone knew his weakness. “The Colonel won. He got exactly what he wanted. He knows he can control you. What happens next time he has an assignment for you? Do I go back in the box until you obey him?”
“I won’t let that happen.” The finality in Scott’s voice made Mrs. Marlow shiver. “I promise you, Johnny, as God is my witness, I won’t let them put you back in there.”
“God doesn’t always listen.” Johnny said, “Least ways, when it concerns Johnny Madrid.”
“We’re not talking about Johnny Madrid, we’re talking about Johnny Lancer.”
“One in the same.”
“No they’re not. They haven’t been since you came to Lancer. Now you listen to me, brother,” Scott’s own anger rose, fed by fear and futility. Johnny was right, he had played right into the Colonel’s hands. But there was nothing else he could do. “I did what I had to do. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of hell you went through in that box. The only thing I did know for sure was that I couldn’t leave you there without at least trying to save you. God help me Johnny, if there had not been another way I would have left you.”
Silence hung in the room. Johnny closed his eyes, the pain in his heart almost as bad as the pain that twisted at his body. He knew the torture Scott was going through, but he was wrong. He made the wrong decision. “You should have left me. Too many people will be hurt. One person isn`t worth it.”
That was it then. Scott stood up slowly, realization dawning on him. It wasn’t the box that Johnny feared most. Or the pain or the immobility. It was the people who would suffer, because of him. For the first time in his life he found people who cared for him, who gave a damn who he was. He knew them by name, he stopped on the street and shook their hands, flirted with their daughters, teased their sons, drank a beer with them in the saloon. He felt their acceptance. Now they could lose everything…because he didn’t die in that damn box.
“Ah, Johnny…you think so little of yourself. Do you think any one of those people would stand by and allow you to die in that box if they could stop it? Even if it meant losing all that they had? You have played the sacrificial lamb all your life. It’s time you understood that people would be willing to sacrifice for you.”
Johnny turned away, “You give me too much credit, Boston. I just couldn’t stand to go back in that box. When I thought I was taking my last breath, I was glad because it was finally over. Then I woke up, and…”
“And you would have died for nothing. I’ve been trying to tell you…I spoke to Jonas, the bank manager. He knows everything. Murdoch and Val will be here any time now. They’re probably out there right now, figuring how to get past the guards. Its almost over.”
“You really believe that? How long has it been? How long!”
“Two days… They didn’t teach you much in that fancy schoolin Boston did they?” Johnny snorted, turning back to look up at Scott. “You think it would take them two days to get us out of here? Admit it, you made a mistake. You should have left me.”
Scott’s anger boiled over the top. He reached down and grabbed Johnny by the shoulder, disregarding the gasp of pain it caused. “You look me in the eye and you tell me you could have left me in that box if you were in my place.”
“In a heartbeat.”
“Look at me, damn you. On your mother’s grave, could you have left me?”
Johnny stared at Scott, the anger slowly disappearing from his face, replaced by unshed tears welling up in his eyes.
“I didn’t think so.” Scott whispered. A hush came over the room. He didn’t feel vindicated, only relieved that Johnny in some measure understood. “Now, you get some rest.” He carefully drew the sheet over Johnny’s shoulders, knowing the man was exhausted. “We’ll talk more later.”
“Te amo demised para ese hermano.” Johnny whispered as his eyes slid closed, the laudanum and fatigue pulling him under again.
“What did he say?” Mrs. Marlow whispered.
Scot couldn’t repeat the words, they were meant only for him…the words resounded in his mind: I love you too much for that, brother…”
Johnny slept for only a few minutes when he awoke with a start, the pain in his ankle so strong that he couldn’t hide the gasp of pain that escaped his lips.
Mrs. Marlow was beside him a moment later, a glass of water laced with laudanum in her hand. “Here Johnny, I want you to try to drink the entire glass.”
Johnny shook his head, “I don’t want that.”
“We had an agreement, remember?”
“Too much. You said only a little.”
“Or as much as you needed. Listen to me Johnny, sleep is the only thing that is going to help you now. If you don’t take it I will call Dr. Sutter and have him give you the morphine.”
“I will, Johnny. If you give me no other choice.”
Boxed into a corner, Johnny nodded and slowly drank the entire glass.
Teresa worked quietly on the patio outside the Great Room. As she sewed the last button on Johnny’s new shirt she smiled faintly to herself. Johnny was going to love this shirt. She would wrap it in special paper and watch him tear it open. He was so like a little a boy when it came to presents. He acted as if…she clutched the shirt to her breast…he acted as if he had never had opened presents before.
Oh why did this have to happen now? Just when everything was so perfect? When he had finally found a family who truly loved him. Johnny and Scott had grown as close as two brothers could be. Even Johnny and Murdoch were finding peace with each other. And she so missed having him around. Both of them.
With trembling hands she picked up Johnny’s old shirt sitting in a basket beside her. She had just finished mending it. How he loved that shirt. She rubbed it against her cheek, remembering the scents that were Johnny’s. Leather, hay, horse, sweat…all a part of who Johnny was. She would not even contemplate the idea that she would never see him again.
When had she started to feel that flutter in her stomach when he was around? When had his simple touch made her blush?
When they had first arrived she immediately felt a sisterly love for both of them. So different, so wanting in their own way. Scott, so out of his element in the wild west, from his plaid pants to his erudite Boston attitude. And Johnny, so full of mistrust and fear. They both needed each other, and by a quirk of faith or divine intervention, they found each other.
She had stood back and watched. Like the novels she loved to read, she saw their lives intertwine and grow. She watched mistrust turn to trust. Friendship turn to love. Brothers turn into friends. The sad part in her little novel was that Murdoch was still standing on the outside looking in. He never found a way to truly bond with his sons. He was trying, and making headway. Two steps forward, one step back. But he still had a long way to go. Especially with Johnny.
Little did she realize that she was being caught up in that same novel. When had her heart begun to beat a little faster when Johnny leaned over her shoulder to sniff at the chocolate cake she was baking, or he twirled her around the great room as Jelly played his harmonica? When had that flutter in her stomach turned to a ache in her heart? Made even more painful because he did not yet hold those same feelings. Friendship had not turned to love…yet. Oh Johnny, you have to come back to me. You both have to come back to all of us.
“I will not settle down!” came a voice from inside and Teresa cringed at the sound of others voices raised in anger and fear. It was the first meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association since the bank was robbed. Every man there was affected. From the big cattle ranches like Lancer to the small five hundred acre spreads like Zeke Campbell, they all suffered a tremendous loss. But some more than others. Some, like Lancer, could withstand the blow, sell other holdings and pay for the cattle drive. For Zeke Campbell… the cattle drive was everything. With the mild winter and the hot spring, his only hope of holding on for another year was the sale of his cattle.
Teresa felt sorry for Murdoch. She saw the guilt in his eyes; that one of his sons was responsible for all of this. For whatever reason drove Scott to rob that bank, it did not mitigate the ultimate outcome. Two men were dead, one of the robbers and Jonas. Murdoch carried a heavy load on his shoulders.
“It was one of your boys who robbed the bank,” Seth Kendal ranted. “how do we know that he didn’t just double back and give you all the money you lost?”
“Now Seth, you can’t possibly believe that.’ Murdoch protested. “None of you could possibly believe that. I lost just as much as anyone. Possibly more, considering the amount of money I had in that bank.”
“Your own son stole it. What says he doesn’t come back and give you what is yours and then disappears again?”
“Because,” Murdoch replied, his voice cold as ice, “I would not take it. I have been a member of this association longer than I have been a father to those two boys. You must know where my loyalties lay.”
“Maybe, but I’ve seen you with Scott. He can’t do no wrong in your eyes. Johnny on the other hand, well, ta my way a thinkin, you never really trusted him. Maybe if you ain’t trustin him then we shouldn’t either.”
“Listen here, Zeke, I love both my boys and trust both of them. Whatever is happening is beyond their control.”
“Then how come it was Scott who robbed the bank? And no one saw no gun pointed at him.”
“No, but did anyone see him fire? Even one shot?”
“It all happened so fast, I don’t think anyone saw who fired at what. I just know what I seen Scott Lancer… robbing the bank, carrying out sacks of money, my money. And now I face losing everything.”
“Seth, that is why I asked you all here.” Murdoch stood up and walked over to the map of Lancer on the wall. “I am one of the lucky ones here, I think I can survive. And there are a couple others of us who can do the same. I propose that we combine all the cattle into one cattle drive. After everything is said and done, and when the smaller ranchers have made a profit on their cattle they can pay us back. No one needs to lose everything here.”
Murmurs went around the room.
“That’s a lot you’re asking, Murdoch. Even the larger ranchers are feeling this. I don’t know that I can…”
“We have faced drought, pestilence, even high riders before. We stood together and defeated them all. We can do it again if we stick together.”
“We beat the high riders because of your sons. Neither of them are here this time. I don’t know…”
“Please, don’t give an answer until you’ve had time to think on it. I know what I’m asking isn’t easy, and it has a risk of wiping out every man in this room. But it is the only way. We can only survive if we stick together.”
Murdoch sat back down, feeling every eye on him. “It’s the only way. It’s the only decent way. Take some time to think about it. We will meet here again in one week’s time. I’m not asking any of you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself.”
Teresa watched as the ranchers paraded past her, their faces glum. So many people were hurt by this. So many. But none more than Murdoch Lancer.
Four long days passed and once again the routine began. Breakfast, lunch and dinner arrived the same time each day. Scott was manacled and blindfolded three times a day and led downstairs to attend to his needs.
Johnny was improving. The first two days had been a nightmare, but on the third day he seemed to rally. The blisters on his back and legs were healing, and he was able to hold down the water and thin broth Mrs. Marlow forced him to drink. But he was still terribly weak, and his skin had a dull sluggish look, signs that he was still dehydrated. It would take time for his body to replenish all the water it lost.
His right ankle was becoming less of a problem each day, but his left leg was still too painful for him to go very long without a dose of laudanum. This worried Scott as much as the infection. Johnny abhorred the medicine and yet he was taking it willingly now.
“Help me up,” Johnny said as he struggled to pull the heavy splint up the mattress.
“Are you sure? Maybe we should wait until Mrs. Marlow gets back. She didn’t say…”
“Come on Scott, I can’t stand to be on my back another second. I’m doing fine now. Look…” he moved his left arm around, “hardly even a twinge.”
Scott nodded, knowing that Johnny had just taken the laudanum fifteen minutes ago. But he knew if he didn’t help, Johnny would find a way of his own, and probably do more damage.
“All right. But when Mrs. Marlow gets back and she says you need to lie back down, it’s back down. Deal?”
Johnny smiled. “Deal, Boston.”
Mrs. Marlow returned a few minutes later, arching an eyebrow at Johnny who sat up against the bed’s headboard, backed by three overstuffed pillows and one cradling his left leg. “Feeling better, are we?” she asked.
Johnny nodded, flashing her a -you can’t say no to me-smile, “Good enough to get out of this bed. My back side is…”
“Let’s just see how well you do sitting there first before we try anything else.”
“Just push that chair there over to the window so I can see outside.”
“We’ll see how you do…maybe later this afternoon.”
Johnny settled back against the pillows satisfied. He’d be out of this bed before the day was over.
The morning went by agonizingly slow for him. Mrs. Marlow insisted he eat lunch where he was, and finish every bit. That was a hard task, but it was worth forcing down the last spoonful of the tasteless gruel to be out of bed.
Guards came in and escorted Scott downstairs for his thrice daily visit to the outhouse. It was well past three in the afternoon and Johnny had dozed several times as he waited impatiently. It was amazing how priorities changed. He never would have thought that simply sitting in a chair would be such a luxury. It was the most important thing on his mind today.
He flinched and snapped his eyes open when he felt the covers being pulled off his legs. He looked down at the nightshirt that barely reached his knees, still furious at Scott for allowing them to remove his underwear. What little dignity he had left after the necessities of being bedridden and helpless the first few days, was further stripped away by the knowledge that Mrs. Marlow had taken care of many of his needs.
“Are you ready to sit in that chair, Johnny?” Mrs. Marlow smiled.
Johnny glanced over at the window where a chair had been scooted over with a blanket and several pillows ready for him. A second chair had been placed in front of the first with more pillows for his injured legs.
“Good. Now, Scott, if you will carefully carry…”
“I don’t need to be carried…” Johnny protested.
“Then how, little brother, do you expect to get over there?” The smile faded from Johnny’s face. “I hate this.” He muttered.
“I know.” Mrs. Marlow gently patted his shoulder. “But if you want that ankle of yours to heal properly, you’ll have to stay off it.
So, if you want to sit in that chair you’re going to have to let your brother carry you. Or you can just stay here in this bed.”
There was no question of what he really wanted. What he really needed. He nodded to Scott and felt the strong arms of his brother lift him gently from the mattress. He wasn’t expecting the stab of pain that shot through his ankle or the throb in his ribs, but he tried to mask the groan of pain. If they thought this was too much for him they wouldn’t let him take the chair.
Scott saw Johnny’s face whiten and his lips clamp tight against the pain. He wondered if this was a good idea, but he knew his brother needed to feel the freedom from the confines of the bed. He carefully lowered him into the chair and allowed Mrs. Marlow to position his ankles on the other chair and cover him with a blanket. The exertion was nearly too much, but he could see in Johnny’s eyes that it was worth it to him.
“You rest for a few minutes,” Mrs. Marlow said softly as Johnny’s eyes slid closed. The sights awaiting him outside the window would have to wait for just a little while. She looked down at him, so quiet, so like a child. Her own children would be close to his age if they had lived. She reached down and brushed the tousled bangs out of his eyes and forced back a tear that threatened to roll down her cheek.
“How could I have been so wrong?” she whispered.
“We all make unwise assumptions.” Scott said, sitting down on the edge of the bed, staring at the sleeping form of his brother. “I was wrong when I first met him. I learned what he was, not who he was, before I even gave him a chance.”
“I blamed him for everything. I blamed every Mexican for my boy’s death. For my husband’s. I turned your father away simply because he brought Johnny into his home. I was so full of hate I hated myself. I lost part of myself. Then I see this child…in so much pain, in so much need…”
“He gets to you, doesn’t he?” Scott smiled knowingly.
“Yes he does.”
A light breeze tugged at his hair and Johnny was galloping across the valley, Barranca smooth as silk beneath him, man and beast as one. Trust and love. The Palomino was an extension of himself. He felt the strength of every muscle, the surefootedness of every step. There was no freedom sweeter than this. The sun was high in the sky, baking his face, making him sweat. But it was a good sweat. A cleansing sweat. He was free and he was happy.
He snapped his eyes open. Barranca was gone. The breeze tugging at his hair was from the open window next to him. The sweat on his face from the lingering fever. He could have cried at that very moment. Pain, fatigue and despair coddled him, making it hard to breath.
He looked out the window at the beauty that lay before him. Miles and miles of open prairie beyond the corrals and the fencing, and the mountains in the distance. This was a beautiful land. Not too far from here was Lancer, his land. His home. He longed to be out there, riding Barranca, free…
“Hey…” He turned his head surprised to see Scott staring at him from the bed. “Feeling better?”
“You look better. Fresh air will do it every time.”
Johnny noticed the three graves beneath the window, the flowers wilted and brown. “Someone should put fresh flowers on those graves,” he whispered.
Mrs. Marlow was standing behind him, and now her hands were resting lightly on his shoulders. “It’s not the flowers that count, Johnny, it’s the feelings.”
Scott smiled when he saw the blush redden Johnny’s cheeks, embarrassed by the compliment.
“What time is it?” Johnny looked out toward the mountains in the distance. “Around six or so?”
“Just about little brother. You’ve been in that chair for a couple of hours. It’s about time that you got back in bed.”
“That’s not fair,” Johnny protested, “you let me sleep the whole time. Just awhile longer.”
“Just awhile.” Mrs. Marlow brought another blanket over to ward off the chill from the open window. She knew how much Johnny was enjoying the feel of the light breeze on his face. “But I don’t want you doing too much on the first day.”
Scott leaned over Johnny looking at the ranch below and the prairie beyond. “Funny,” he mused, “we’re only a few miles away from Lancer but it looks so different here.”
“That’s because your father plowed the land and tamed the grass. Our place would look much like yours if my husband had had a chance to work the land. I’ve just maintained it, but never loved it. Not like my husband or your father…or you boys.”
“It could still be done.” Scott said. “We could help.”
Mrs. Marlow sighed deeply, “If only I had taken the time to meet you boys earlier. How different would my life be?”
“I guess when this is all over, we’ll find out.” Scott settled back onto the bed. He would give Johnny another twenty minutes in the chair and then put him back in bed. He could see the energy, what there was of it, drain from his brother as he sat there.
“What do you think the Colonel has planned for us next?” Johnny asked out of the blue.
“Don’t know. Don’t want to know. But I’m sure he’s not done with us.”
Johnny looked up at Scott, demanding that he look him straight in the eyes. “I won’t go back in that box.”
Johnny shifted in the chair, something catching his eye. “Riders coming.”
It took a full minute for Scott to see what Johnny had seen. A cloud of dust in the distance, getting closer.
“At least six horses.” Johnny said, leaning closer to the window despite the protest in his ankle.
“It’s Val.” Scott grinned. “I told you he’d be here. We’re about to go home Johnny boy.”
They heard the sound of boots racing down the hall toward the room a moment before the door was thrown open and six guards swarmed in. Scott was thrown against the headboard of the bed, his hands manacled to the slats behind him. A piece of cloth was shoved into his mouth and a gag secured the cloth in place. He watched in horror as they turned to Johnny. They pulled his arms behind him, ignoring the hiss of pain from the rough treatment of his injured shoulder and tied his hands behind the chair. A cloth and gag were similarly used to keep him from calling for help and Mrs. Marlow was marched out of the room.
Only Johnny could see out the window and his heart skipped a beat when he recognized the huge horse as it trotted into the courtyard below. Murdoch.
Mrs. Marlow was shoved out the door with the stern warning if she said anything wrong the boys upstairs would pay for her stupidity.
Murdoch and Val stopped midway across the courtyard. Mrs. Marlow seldom welcomed uninvited guests. Murdoch watched her step out of the house and walk across the yard toward them.
“Annabel, how are you?” Murdoch made no attempt to climb down from his horse, he knew he was not welcome here. Ever since Johnny had come home to live she had shunned everyone connected with the Lancer name. “Sorry to bother you.”
“No bother, Murdoch. I’d invite you to stay, but I’ve got a lot of work today.”
Val looked around, “Where are all your hands?”
“The ones that didn’t run off because of the bank robbery are out trying to round up the cows we have. Got to try to do something to get through this.”
“Then you know about Scott?” Murdoch asked.
“Terrible news. Both your boys missing, then Scott robbing that bank. You must be beside yourself with worry. And what about poor Johnny? Have you heard anything from him? I swear, that boy can get himself in the worst trouble. I just wish he’d come see me more often. I heard he had a sweet tooth for chocolate cake. Nothing against Teresa’s cooking, but you never tasted chocolate cake until you’ve tasted mine. I’m sure Johnny would have loved it.”
“I’m sure he would.” Murdoch stared at her, perplexed. She hated Johnny, and everything he stood for.
“Then as soon as he comes home you send him over my way.”
“I’ll be sure too.”
Val pulled a wanted poster out of his saddlebag and leaned down to hand it to Mrs. Marlow. “If you see Scott Lancer you be sure to tell us, ya hear.”
“Of course Sheriff, but I still can’t see that fine boy robbing no bank. I don’t believe they taught bank robbery in them fine schools he went to in Boston.”
“I’m sure they didn’t.” Val nodded. “We best be going, Mrs. Marlow. Now if you know anything about Scott Lancer’s whereabouts it’s a sizable reward for his capture.”
Mrs. Marlow looked down at the poster: Wanted Dead or Alive for Robbery and Murder. Scott Lancer…”
“Murder…?” she asked, her voice quivering
“Noah the bank manager was killed in the robbery. Poor man didn’t have a chance. Doc couldn’t do a thing for him, shot too close to his heart.”
She looked up at Murdoch praying that he saw her pleading look. But he simply tipped his hat and headed back up the road off Marlow property.
She looked down at the wanted poster. Her hand shook as she read; One thousand dollar reward for the capture and conviction of Scott Lancer….She looked after the trail of dust and wondered if Murdoch had paid attention to anything she had said.
She slowly turned back to the house. Their only hope may have just ridden away.
Scott struggled against the manacles that clasped his wrists behind his back. The foul tasting rag in his mouth nearly made him gag. Loose strings on the edge of the cloth tickled the back of his mouth and threatened to work their way down his throat with every breath he inhaled through his nose.
He watched Johnny try to shift his weight in the chair to get closer to the window. But the heavy wooden splint on his left leg made it almost impossible for him to move in his weakened condition. He could only buck and squirm around the seat, trying to loosen the ropes tying his hands behind the chair. Scott tried to get his attention, tried to stop him from injuring himself more, but he was a man possessed. Nothing mattered but getting the attention of the six men gathered one story below them.
Scott remembered looking up at the window from the courtyard below. It was a high window. Johnny’s shoulder was even with the sill. No one would see him sitting there unless he was a few inches closer or at least a foot higher. Neither of those two things seemed likely.
And there was another complication; possibly more dire than the position they were in. Murdoch and the men below were outnumbered two to one. One wrong move and forty guns would open fire on them. Suddenly he realized that he had to stop Johnny.
Desperately he tried to get his brother’s attention. He hammered his shoulders against the headboard, shouted muffled warnings, but Johnny was unreachable, thrashing in the chair with new vigor, oblivious to the pain in his legs and ribs. Then suddenly he stopped, sitting ramrod straight, holding his breath. Silence filled the room. Scott watched, waited, then heard the sound of retreating horses. It was over. Their last chance for rescue was gone.
A muffled sob escaped Johnny’s throat as he sagged against the chair back, his strength drained. His head fell forward in exhaustion and despair.
Scott closed his eyes. What had he done? What price was Johnny going to have to pay for his weakness? He saw it in Johnny’s face, the specter of the box looming over them every waking hour. Had Murdoch noticed the box? Asked himself why it was there? What would he do if he knew Johnny had nearly died in it? Scott shook his head, and there was still another promise to be kept. Funny, he wasn’t very good at keeping promises lately, especially to Johnny.
His eyes fell upon Johnny and his heart sank. Johnny’s head simply rested on his chest, his face covered with sweat and flushed by the persistent fever. Emotionally and physically spent. What more could that boy endure? He had been tormented, body and soul. Another, weaker, lesser man could not have withstood what his brother had endured. The very thing that pitted him against Murdoch and everyone else, his stubbornness and insistence that he do everything for himself, was exactly what had kept him going. But how long could that fierceness last? He already saw signs of cracks in the armor. Asking for more laudanum when Mrs. Marlow failed to offer it, a look, a snap of the tongue when the emotion didn’t dictate it. No, Johnny was being worn down, the strength of the armor he so steadfastly hid beneath was crumbling. How often had he seen him stand toe to toe with Murdoch, his father towering over him, fifty pounds his superior, but Johnny would not give an inch, returning verbal blow for verbal blow. Until at last they would both turn away again, leaving yet another scar on their relationship.
While the world saw Johnny Madrid Lancer as indestructible, Scott saw the frightened boy who was forced to erect that armor at too young an age, and hide behind it, protecting himself against any more emotional hurt.
Scott sighed deeply. Life was never easy, but for some it seemed next to impossible.
The sound of boots making their way along the hallway outside told Scott that they were about to have visitors. The door swung open and Mrs. Marlow was pushed inside.
Four men fanned out, unlocking Scott’s shackles and untying Johnny.
“The Colonel said to tell you that he would be here later this afternoon to brief you on your next assignment,” one of the men announced.
Mrs. Marlow rushed to Johnny’s side, lifting his face up gently with two fingers beneath his chin so she could see his eyes. She saw an emptiness there that frightened her.
“Let’s get him back in bed.” she called. Her indomitable presence spearing the men into action. They had all watched her battle to keep Madrid, touching a small part of their hearts in her determination. They had a job to do, they were all loyal to the Colonel, but she reached them at a gut level. Perhaps there was a little bit of all their mothers in her. If not for a different path taken, they could be lying there.
With infinite care they lifted Johnny from the chair and gently laid him on the bed. Scott watched in silence as Mrs. Marlow arranged the pillows beneath Johnny’s splinted leg and drew the sheet up over his chest. Johnny still made no acknowledgment that anyone was there. He seemed lost in his own world.
As the last guard past him he silently shoved a piece of paper into Scott’s hand.
Scott stared in disbelief. It was a wanted poster. His wanted poster. He read slowly, not sure if he could believe what he saw. Wanted for Robbery and Murder: One Thousand Dollar Reward for the capture and conviction of Scott Lancer.”
“The bank manager died.” Mrs. Marlow said gently. “He never had a chance to tell Murdoch or the sheriff.”
The room was suddenly empty except for the three of them and Scott sat heavily on his bed. All hope was lost. He glanced at Johnny wondering if he had heard. He hoped not. The boy could not handle another disappointment like that. Damn the Colonel. Damn the Colonel to hell….He slipped the wanted poster beneath his pillow. What next? What was his next assignment? Another bank? Another innocent person killed? Noah’s death weighed heavy on his conscious. How many more would be killed before this nightmare was over? He remembered the look of disbelief and shock on Murdoch and Teresa’s faces. What were they thinking? And what of Johnny? He reached over and gently wiped the sweat-dampened hair off his forehead. He had been through so much. How much more could he take? He almost wished…no he would not complete that thought, not while there was still a glimmer of hope that they would get through this.
He sighed heavily and he felt the gentle touch of Mrs. Marlow’s hand on his shoulder as she sat down beside him. “We must keep hoping.” She drew his head toward her breast and he collapsed against her, tears running unabated down his cheeks. It was more than he could handle, and there was no end in sight.
“Shsss…” she ran her hands through his hair, her voice soft and comforting. “I have something to tell you. I have a plan.”
Scott slowly raised his head, hoping against hope that she truly had a workable plan.
“I didn’t want to mention this until I was sure it would work. After…after my family was killed I had a secret room built below the kitchen. It’s little more than a closet, but we could hide there, all of us.”
“Beneath the china cabinet.”
A smile spread across Scott’s face, the first glimmer of hope.
There was a spark of excitement in Mrs. Marlow’s eyes. “Listen to me.”
Scott rubbed the wetness from his face on his sleeve. Crying was not something he did often, but he had to admit it was a much needed catharsis. “I was able to get the key while everyone was in hiding when Murdoch came.”
“I don’t understand, why didn’t you mention this before?”
“I didn’t want to offer false hope. It’s been nearly fourteen years since I even thought of the room. I wasn’t sure if I could get the door open or if it was still inhabitable.”
“You are a Godsend, Mrs. Marlow.”
“Don’t you think it’s about time you called me, Annabel…Anna for short.”
Scott leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, “Then Anna it is.”
But his smile faded as the thought that they might have a chance was tempered by the knowledge that there was another assignment awaiting him…and the box.
An hour passed, leaving Scott time to contemplate a host of conflicting emotions. The guilt he felt for not carrying out a promise he should never have made. The knowledge that it could have, should have been him that the Colonel targeted. How different the situation would be if it were him lying in that bed and Johnny making all the decisions. What would his brother have done in his place? The question gnawed at him.
He watched Johnny doze, then startle awake when Mrs. Marlow redressed his left ankle. He had not said a word since he was carried back from the window. Scott worried that he had at last lost his will to survive.
The door opened and the Colonel ushered Dr. Sutter in.
Scott leaned forward, trying to see Johnny’s face, read his expression. But there was nothing to read, the façade of Johnny Madrid had reappeared.
The Colonel carried a small basket by a leather strap, its contents hidden beneath a black cloth. Scott watched him, taken aback by an odd look on his face. Was it excitement or anticipation that flushed his cheeks? Scott felt the hairs rise up on the back of his neck.
The doctor took an involuntary step back from the bed, a flash of fear in his eyes.
The Colonel strode forward to the edge of Johnny’s bed. “The doctor tells me that in your condition you wouldn’t last an hour in the box today.”
“And that bothers you?” Johnny asked, the coldness in his voice sending a shiver down Scott’s back. He had seen the true persona of Johnny Madrid only a few times since he discovered that the ex-gunfighter was his brother. And each time it struck him like a physical blow. Johnny Lancer, the fun loving free spirit who could find beauty in the most ordinary things and events, changed to a hardened emotionless shell. He could watch the transformation, a personality within a personality, two souls inhabiting the same body.
But Scott knew that one could not live without the other. Lancer survived in spite of Madrid. Madrid could not survive without Lancer. Everything about him changed subtly. From his hardened expression to the way his muscles moved. Even laying in bed, his posture changed, his right hand slid down to lay against his hip. Scott drew his eyes away from his brother and noticed the look on the Colonel’s face. He felt it too. A menacing presence that permeated the room.
“No. But your premature death will not help me. Despite the fact that it would bring me great satisfaction.”
Johnny shrugged, “I know a few other people who would agree.”
“I’m sure there are. Johnny Madrid made his fair share of enemies. I encountered a few as I was making inquiries into both of your lives. It’s too bad you could not have joined us. I could use a man like you.”
“I pick who I work for Colonel.” Johnny lifted his eyes to stare into the Colonel’s, “even a hired killer won’t ride with carrion.”
The Colonel’s arm raised, ready to strike out at the insolent young whelp. But he carefully lowered his hand, taking a deep breath to calm his desire to kill the boy that very instant. “You are either very dumb or very brave Mr. Madrid.”
“At the moment, I’d vote for dumb.” Scott scowled at his brother. What was he trying to prove?
The Colonel nodded, “I learned a long time ago never to underestimate my opponent, Lieutenant. A lesson you will learn if you live long enough out here.”
Scott stiffened. Was that a veiled threat? No, just a fact, he had heard the same words from Johnny. Would they be here in this position if he had read the man better? He pushed back the thought and watched the two antagonists face each other.
“It’s time you were given your orders for your next assignment, Lieutenant,” he said as he carefully laid the basket on the bed next to Johnny’s splinted leg. “Be prepared toride in thirty minutes. We will be gone approximately five hours.”
“Care to tell me where and what we’ll be doing in those five hours?”
“That is need to know Lieutenant. You needn’t know at this time. But what you do need too know is what is going to happen to your brother if you decide to disobey my orders and try to escape.”
Scott saw Johnny’s almost imperceptible reaction. What did the Colonel have in mind if not the box?
The colonel nodded and Scott’s hands were retied behind his back. Another guard lashed Johnny’s good arm to the bedpost. Johnny cast a worried eyed back toward Scott.
“Do you have any hobbies Mr. Madrid?” The Colonel picked up the basket, slowly turning it, coveting it as if it were precious to him. When Johnny didn’t answer he continued. “I find a man is much more content when he has something to occupy his mind through the long nights. I would highly recommend it.”
“Let me guess,” Johnny sneered, “you collect rats.”
The Colonel chuckled, “You may wish I did.” He carefully slipped the black cloth off the open weave basket. What sat in the center made Johnny’s skin crawl. Three small dark brown scorpions.
Scott took an involuntary step backward. Mrs. Marlow jumped backwards nearly toppling over the chair behind her.
“Fascinating little creatures, Scorpions. I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share Mr. Madrid.” He turned toward Scott. “They have a nasty reputation. Unfounded for the most part. Their stings are very painful but not deadly. For most species.” He shook the basket and the scorpions stirred, snapping their pincers at each other.
“There are a few species that are highly poisonous…meet Centruroides exilicauda: the Bark Scorpion. You can find them in Arizona and parts of California and Mexico. It took me awhile to find a nest near Baja.”
“You’re out of your mind.” Scott whispered.
“No, Lieutenant, I am a man who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. At any cost. You and your brother are simply pawns. This valley and everything in it will eventually be mine. You have a military mind, you know the beneficent of divide and conquer. First the bank. The loss of all that money was both financially and psychologically devastating. Next comes intimidation. The weak ones will fall first. The strong ones, like your father will try to hold on as long as they can. But in the end I still win.”
“Don’t underestimate Murdoch Lancer., Scott warned.
“On the contrary. I see the Lancer patriarch as my greatest ally. In the end it will be him who ultimately wins the battle for me.”
Johnny stared in fascination at the small brown creatures, the Colonel’s voice droning in the background of his mind. He had seen his share in the desert, shook them out of his shoes when he was a boy, when he had shoes, shook them out of his blankets when they crawled beneath them for shelter from the unrelenting sun. He wasn’t afraid of them, in fact he held a healthy respect for them, along with the rest of the creatures that inhabited the desert. He learned at an early age to respect everything that roamed the desert, except man.
The Colonel nodded at the doctor and he blanched, taking another step backwards. “Please,” he said, “there is another way. The boy is as weak as a kitten, he can’t get out of bed.”
“Get on with it doctor.”
“I could give him a large dose of morphine. It would knock him out for hours.”
The Colonel turned on the doctor, his patience waning, “It is not Mr. Madrid I am worried about.” He turned to look at Scott, “Simply succumbing to an overdose of morphine is too tidy. But the thought of his brother writhing in agony from the sting of not one but three scorpions…that doctor, will get the Lieutenant’s attention.”
Scott saw the quick cold look Johnny shot his way. As much as he wanted to acquiesce, he couldn’t. It was Johnny’s life and he had the right to call the shots. Call the tune as Murdoch would say.
“Get on with it Doctor, we are running out of time.”
With shaking hands the doctor drew a pair of scissors from his bag and cut away the bandages around Johnny’s chest. He then gently secured a rope around his left wrist and bound it tightly against his side.
With infinite care the Colonel held the basket over Johnny’s bare chest and shook it until the three scorpions tumbled out. Absolute, total fear gripped Johnny like a vice. It was illogical, primal fear, an inborn instinct.
He watched them slowly move across his chest. They were only two inches long, half the size of the scorpions he had seen in the Tex -Mex boarder or hidden beneath boulders and rocks on Lancer. But he’d heard of them. Knew if ever you were stung you would wish for death. They had eight legs that tickled the hair on his chest as they crawled around with two crab-like pincers that clicked in the air. Their long bellies slid across his skin, ending in a bulbous tail and stinger filled with deadly venom. He watched them circle, their pincers touching each other until they settled in a pack just above the rope that secured his left arm to his chest. He tried to keep his breathing shallow, but he saw them rise and fall with the rhythm of his breaths.
Scott’s anger raged. Two strong sets of arms grabbed his elbows from behind, keeping him from launching himself onto the colonel. He watched Johnny, his eyes glued to the creatures as they crawled over his belly, their bulbous tails flicking at the air, waiting to attack. “Why…” he began, his mouth so dry he could barley get the words out, “…do you think I’ll obey you if I know my brother is a dead man already?”
The colonel smiled, pulling a long slender stick from his belt, “Because you can still save him.” He carefully separated two of the scorpions and herded the last one back into the basket, then with a smile filled with pleasure he concentrated on the remaining two.
Johnny shook his head, “No…” He knew what was about to happen. The colonel began to tease the creatures. Picking and prodding at them with the stick. They snapped at the twig with their pincers, tried to back away, but the Colonel was relentless. He continued to prod.
Scott watched in fascinated horror.
The scorpions became more agitated. They curled and uncurled their bulbous tails. Johnny thought of the deadly poison contained in their sharp stingers. The colonel picked and prodded again and again.
Johnny tried to prepare himself for the sting. He knew it was going to be bad. But he wasn’t prepared for the staggering pain that exploded in his chest. It felt like someone had hit him with a sledgehammer. He tried to scream but his breath was ripped from his lungs.
His mind reeled. He was aware of nothing but agonizing pain. And then the second one struck. A crescendo of pain, the likes he had never experienced before. He squeezed his eyes shut, praying for unconsciousness to overtake his tormented body, but the adrenalin of fear surged through his very being, keeping him mercilessly awake.
On the outskirts of his mind he heard the Colonel laughing.
Scott felt ill. He fought back the tears of rage.
“One sting from a Bark Scorpion will kill a child in hours and make a grown man wish he were dead. Two stings…he will survive but not without visiting the gates of hell.” The Colonel lifted the basket, studying the three creatures, “The last strike will send a man insane with pain. No medical miracle will save him. Death is imminent. Slow, painful, certain.”
Scott’s legs nearly buckled. If not for the strong arms of his captors he would have collapsed. The magnitude of the pain and fear he saw on Johnny’s face took his breath away.
“You can still save your brother, Lieutenant.” The Colonel carefully herded the two scorpions across Johnny’s belly and gently tapped them into the basket. “I have ordered Sergeant Cord to release the remaining scorpion if we have not returned in five hours. That should be sufficient time to carry out the assignment. So, once again it is up to you, Lieutenant Lancer. I’ll let you have five minutes with your brother then we leave.”
Scott swayed in place when the strong arms released him. He staggered toward the bed, his mind reeling from the sight of the two small puncture marks on Johnny’s chest, already turning red and swelling. He bent his knees against the bed, balancing himself over his brother, watching him fight to control the pain. Even now the ex-gunman would not let go, would not lose control.
“Johnny…?” Scott’s voice shook, his eyes welling up with tears.
“Don’t…” Johnny gasped, his eyes squeezed closed against the pain, “come back.”
Scott looked over his shoulder at the guard standing at the door, at the doctor standing beside the bed, his face drained of color. Leaning as close as he could to Johnny’s ear without losing his balance he whispered, “There’s a way. Hang in there. Promise me.”
Johnny’s eyes opened and Scott’s heart nearly stopped beating. So much pain in those blue eyes. Pain warring against strength and hope. And the pain was winning. Not just from the scorpion stings, but from it all. Too much for one man to carry.
“Promise me!” Scott hissed.
Mrs. Marlow’s arm was on his shoulder. “We’ll take care of him.”
The door opened and two guards were dragging him away. “Johnny!” he yelled, “You fight. You hear me? You fight!” The door swung closed as he saw Mrs. Marlow and the doctor lean over him, his body writhing in pain. Damn the Colonel. Damn him to hell.
Scott was escorted down to his waiting horse, his hands tied to the pommel. Three units of fifteen men each headed off in different directions. Scott’s group was led by the Colonel. There were no words said.
Scott couldn’t get the image of Johnny writhing in pain, the scorpions pushed and prodded into a frenzy by the Colonel and then the stifled gasps of pain. The Colonel would pay. He would pay dearly for this. He glanced over at the man who was the source of his hatred, hatred deeper and uglier than he had ever known possible. The Colonel was a dead man. He just didn’t know how yet.
After an hours ride Scott realized, if they stayed on the same heading they would arrive at Zeke Campbell’s spread within the hour. What had the Colonel said…divide and conquer? He hoped his idea of intimidation was just that; intimidation. He couldn’t stand the blood of another person on his hands. And what of Murdoch? Was one of the three units headed to Lancer?
He had to somehow make his way home, warn Murdoch and all the ranchers. But not now, not yet. He had to get back to Johnny. The hidden room beneath the kitchen…he could hide his brother there. He would find a way to steal a horse, and if that didn’t work he’d make it on foot.
Zeke Campbell heard the pounding of horses before he saw the fifteen riders round the thicket of trees just beyond the clearing. He tensed at the sight of Scott Lancer, out in front, the leader. He shook his head, how was he going to tell Murdoch that his boy had really gone bad?
He found it hard to take his eyes off Scott. He had never seen him unshaven, his clothes unkempt. If he did not know the boy so well he might have second- guessed what he thought he saw. But there was no mistaking. Scott was the only one in the county who sat a horse quiet like he did. It had something to do with his Boston upbringing.
“If you’re smart Mr. Campbell you will leave this ranch now, while you still can,” the man to Scott’s right called as he pulled up along side the Lancer boy. “There has been no blood shed so far. But if you don’t pack up and leave by the end of the week we’ll be back to burn you out. Is that understood?”
Zeke shook his head, “You in with the likes of these fella’s Scott? What’s Murdoch gonna say?” He wasn’t quite sure why he did it, or if it was intentional, but he took a step toward the riders and a shot rang out. The bullet hit him high in the shoulder and he sank to his knees, cradling his arm as blood stained his shirt. Scott sat impassive, not seeming to care. Zeke felt his wife drop to her knees beside him, her cries of fear and anguish the only sound in the courtyard.
“That’s just a warning, Mr. Campbell. The next time we come we’ll burn the place down, with all of you in it.” That again from the rider next to Scott.
Zeke nodded. The Lancer boy had really gone bad. How was Murdoch going to handle it? He watched the riders turn around and disappear beyond the clearing. He felt his wife’s hands trying to lift him to help him into the house, but fear and pain claimed him and he collapsed.
Scott felt physically ill. There was no need to shoot Zeke. He only hoped a shoulder wound was the only causality that the other two ranches experienced. He worried what would happen at Lancer. Murdoch would never give in so easily. Foolish, but that was what got Murdoch Lancer the largest ranch in the county. Never backing down, afraid of nothing.
He rode in silence back to the Marlow ranch. He had to get Johnny down to that hidden room then make his way somehow back to lancer. Time was running out for the ranchers and for Johnny.
A new kind of fear lurked in the recesses of Johnny’s mind. Fear of what was to happen next. The excruciating pain from the scorpion’s stingers had lasted for what seemed like hours. Now it had subsided. And in its place was something even more terrifying. A numb feeling that started at his chest and like the feel of thick molasses spread down his arms and legs. He could no longer feel his extremities. He closed his eyes. Sleep was a refuge he sought more and more.
Mrs. Marlow worked to keep his fever down and until just a few minutes ago he had enjoyed the feel of the cool compresses on his skin. Now the areas that were not numb were overly sensitive and even the weight of the cloth on his skin caused him more pain. He wasn’t sure if he could take anymore. The Colonel had systematically worked to wear him down and it was working. And the added burden of knowing what Scott was going through…
Mrs. Marlow fought to keep the fear from her face. She knew how to treat gunshot wounds, broken bones, even pneumonia and influenza. But not this. She labored to keep the fever down, hold him when the chills raked his body and nausea left him retching bile.
Then he was suddenly quiet.
“Can’t feel anything,” he mumbled, his voice slurred. “Can’t feel…”
“It’s alright,” she soothed, brushing the hair off his forehead.
“Scared,” he whispered.
“I know…I know. Scott will be back soon. Everything’s going to be all right. I promise. Relax now. Try to sleep.”
“No…won’t wake up.”
“Yes you will.”
“Can’t feel…,” Johnny’s eyes slid closed, his breathing becoming raspy.
“It’ll pass,” The doctor said from the other side of the room. “It’s part of the venom. It works on the nervous system. Keep him hydrated. Raise him up so his lungs don’t fill with fluid. He’s fought to live so far, don’t let him give up now.”
Mrs. Marlow looked over at the doctor. “Is that concern I hear in your voice?” she asked.
“No ma’am…just an old man’s regrets. If his brother makes it back in time he should be fine. What concerns me more is that ankle. It is not healing. He needs more help than I can give him.”
Mrs. Marlow stood up slowly, her hands shaking. “Can you get that help?”
He shook his head sadly. “No.”
“And if we can find it ourselves?” she asked pensively.
Sutter shrugged his shoulders. “I seem to be having some difficulties with my sight lately. Must be old age creeping up.”
No more words were spoken. The doctor stepped out of the room. Mrs. Marlow looked back down at Johnny and brushed her hand across his cheek. “You seem to have a way with everyone, don’t you, Johnny Madrid Lancer?”
It had been another long day. Chores were done. Supper prepared and eaten. Dishes washed and put away. Small talk around the table forced, only adding to the emptiness of the house.
Teresa slowly walked upstairs to her room. Nothing had been the same since Johnny and had Scott disappeared. Life went on, but it was not a good life. It was an existence. She knew Murdoch was doing his best to shelter her from the harsh realities that were invading the sanctity of their home. He was, after all, her father now. Sworn to protect and love her as his own. And that he had done. Surprisingly well. But what he failed to understand was that she was almost a grown woman now. More mature then some women she had met twice her age. She understood pain and death, had survived loss. She could cope with the harshness of the land, and still see its beauty.
She was as much a part of Lancer as every blade of grass and every tree. She had been born here. It was her life. Then Day Pardee had changed everything. A lost father, Murdoch injured, and the knowledge that she might lose it all.
Then enter two brothers, as different from each other as night and day. Strangers, all of them, thrust into a battle to save a land, a birthplace.
They fought side by side against two enemies, Pardee and time.
She smiled faintly as she remembered how they circled each other, testing, giving and taking. Slowly at first, then after Johnny recovered from Pardee’s bullet they had began the long slow process of learning about each other. Accepting each other’s faults, as well as their strengths. They were brothers. Friendship not forged by blood alone, but by mutual respect and now devotion.
In her heart she knew whatever Scott was doing, he was doing it to protect his brother. Johnny was hurt, she could feel it in the deepest part of her soul.
She wanted to tell Murdoch, to ease the pain on his face, but he didn’t believe in woman’s premonitions, or intuition. A fact was a fact. Scott had robbed a bank in plain sight, in front of him. Everything was always black and white for Murdoch Lancer. This time there were a dozen colors to this canvas and in the end, she knew Scott would be vindicated and Johnny would be found. Alive…
She brushed at a tear that slipped down her cheek. “Johnny…” she whispered, “Please come back to us.
Scott rode in silence. He had allowed his mount to slip backwards towards the middle of the unit. He had nothing to say to the Colonel, and truth be told, if he opened his mouth he wasn’t sure if he could control it.
He had never felt hate so encompassing, so overwhelming. It roared in his ears like a raging river. The only thing that kept him from pummeling the man to death were the ropes that bound his hands to the saddle. If he had had the chance, the Colonel would be dead.
But he had to push those feeling aside for now. They would be back at the ranch in little over an hour. He had to come up with a plan to get Johnny down those stairs, unseen, and into that hidden room. A seemingly impossible feat. And once Johnny was safely hidden, right under the Colonel’s nose, he would have to find a way out. Murdoch still needed to be warned.
The sound of pounding hoof beats brought Murdoch out of his chair to the picture window overlooking the courtyard. He recognized Val, his horse lathered and ready to collapse.
“GOOD GOD, MAN,” he shouted as he ran out the French doors. “What is the rush?”
“Are you all right out here?” Val shouted, dismounting and handing the reins to Pedro.
“Yes, of course. What is this all about Val?”
“Let me wet my whistle first, and I’ll tell ya.”
Murdoch led the way into the great room, pouring Val a glass of bourbon. “Now, what is going on?” His face suddenly paled. “Scott?”
“No…not exactly. Well, yes. Scott.”
“Could you be more cryptic?”
“Three ranches were hit today. Zeke Campbell, Clay Kendal and Garth Winters.”
Murdoch poured himself a drink. “Anyone hurt?”
“Zeke took a bullet in the shoulder. Everyone else got away with a simple warning. Leave before the week is out or see their ranches burned to the ground.”
Murdoch shook his head, he couldn’t say he was surprised. It was not the first time a power hungry high rider tried to bully his way into the valley. Pardee had tried and failed.
“I hope they aren’t thinking of giving up. We’ve all worked too hard to get what we have to be run off so easily. If we stay together, fight…”
“There’s more, Murdoch. I think you better take a swig of that whiskey first.”
Murdoch stared at him. “Val…”
“I’m not quite sure how to tell ya…”
“Spit it out, Val, just spit it out.”
“Murdoch…one of the high riders who visited Zeke was…Murdoch, Zeke told me that Scott led the gang.”
The glass slipped from Murdoch’s hand. “No…”
“Martha, Zeke’s wife confirmed it. So did a couple of his hands. It was Scott all right.”
“I don’t understand. Val…what’s happening?”
“I don’t know Murdoch. Nothing of this makes sense.”
“No! It’s not true.” Both men spun to see Teresa standing in the doorway. “Scott wouldn’t do this. Not without a reason. Murdoch, he’s being forced to do these things, I know he is.”
“Teresa…” Val smiled toward her, his heart breaking when he saw the tears stream down her face. “I don’t know what to say. I can only go by what I see.”
“Don’t you know Scott by now? And Johnny? I can’t believe for a second that Scott has gone bad. It’s not possible.”
Murdoch looked down at the broken glass at his foot. He felt as if his life was as shattered as that glass. He wanted to hold out hope, believe Teresa, but the facts were mounting. Scott, for some reason had gone bad. Maybe it was the death of his brother that had pushed him over the edge. The boys were as close as twins. They knew each other better than they knew themselves. When one was hurt the other felt the pain. How often had he seen Scott react to a flippant remark thrown at Johnny…half breed, mestizo, bean eater…the words hurt him as much as they hurt Johnny…maybe more. Johnny had built a wall against the hate, the prejudice that had hounded him all his life. Scott didn’t have that tough hide yet. Even Mrs. Marlow…”
“Murdoch, please!” Teresa was at his side now, interrupting his thoughts, her hands shaking as she flung herself into his arms. “You have to believe in them. Both of them.”
Murdoch gently stroked her hair, his massive hands so out of place, trying to comfort the young woman who was as much his daughter now, as if she had been born of his blood. “We aren’t giving up hope, darling. We never will.” He held her tight, feeling her tiny body tremble with each sob. How could he tell her that he never thought they would ever be the family they used to be? Johnny was dead. Of that he was sure. And Scott…Scott was rebelling. Paying back the world for what he thought were the injustices.
“Val,” Murdoch spoke softly over Teresa’s head, “I’ll ride over to Zeke’s tomorrow, give him my condolences…he’s got to fight, he and everyone in this valley has got to keep fighting.”
“That’s not such a good idea Murdoch.”
Murdoch stiffened at the tone of Val’s voice. “You got something to say…say it.”
“Scuttlebutt…gossip…call it what you want. A lot of the ranchers are thinking its pretty peculiar that you got hurt the least in the robbery. Now, you’re the only ranch not hit…Seeing how it’s Scott who seems to be leading this gang.”
`That’s ridiculous. Anyone who knows me…”
“It’s how they feel Murdoch. Can’t fault `em. They calls `em as they sees `em.”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow at Val, “And exactly how do you see them, Val?”
Val set the empty glass back down on the desk. “I see a friend in pain. Whatever happens, happens, I ain’t gonna judge, not yet.” He headed for the door, “You will let me know if Scott does turn up here, won’t ya?”
“If Scott is guilty of these crimes I won’t harbor him.”
“Good enough by me.” The door closed silently behind him.
Murdoch gently wrapped a strong arm around Teresa’s waist, steadying her as they headed toward the stairs, the way he had when she was a child and Paul was late getting home. “You keep believing the best,” he whispered, “Lord knows, we need some good thoughts here.”
Annabel Marlow gently closed the bedroom door, taking one last look at Johnny as he slept peacefully for the first time in hours. First the excruciating pain from the scorpions’ stings, then the frightening paralyses. She had held his hand, talked to him constantly. With everything that had happened to him she knew that the numbness in his arms and legs was the most terrifying. She could see it in his eyes. She feared for a time that he would simply close in upon himself. He knew how to fight pain. He had said once, when she fought to get him to take the laudanum, that pain was a companion he rode with more than once. Pain meant he was alive, could still fight. This paralysis stripped him of all his defenses.
Then the pain returned. Slowly at first, breaking through the numbness. Then with a sudden crescendo of agony, from the scorpion stings to his infected ankle, he screamed out. Words spoken in Spanish, words she could not understand. But they needed no translation, the meaning was clear. He was in trouble. She called for Dr. Sutter and he administered the morphine the boy hated so fiercely, but needed so badly.
She wiped at the tears that blurred her eyesight. Why did this have to happen for her to meet Johnny Lancer? Why had she turned the deaths of her husband and children into a life sentence for herself? Did she feel guilty that she had survived and they didn’t? Was that why she felt compelled to put fresh flowers on their graves every day for fourteen years? Shut out everyone around her. Erect a wall of hate, keeping Johnny out just because he was half Mexican? She could not have been more wrong. Johnny was everything good and noble. It wasn’t the color of his skin or his heritage. It was him. He had survived when he should have failed. She had failed when she should have survived.
She closed the door with a light click and headed down the stairs with her arms piled high with bed linens. She had had to change the sheets every few hours Johnny was sweating so badly. Laundry had to be done, whether the Colonel was there or not.
As she walked through the kitchen she looked surreptitiously at the china cabinet. It was heavy. Filled with china and heavy oven pans in the bottom cupboards. She had to lighten the weight. But what could she do that would not look suspicious?
A thought came to mind. With renewed energy she dragged out every old pot she had beneath the cupboard and filled them with water placing them on the stove. Banking the fire she waited for the four large cast iron pots to begin boiling. When she was satisfied that no one was looking she carefully lugged the heavy pots to the kitchen table and filled each one half way full with china- dinner dishes, cups and saucers, thinning out the weight, hoping none of the Colonel’s men would notice the missing china. She then covered the dishes with a sheet, making sure the material was fully soaked and hiding the china. If anyone asked, she was boiling the sheets. Infection was an injured man’s worst enemy.
With a satisfied smirk, she headed upstairs. She had lightened the cabinet by at least fifty pounds. When the cabinet was first built it was never intended to be used for anything other than hiding the room below. Only a few dishes were set there to keep it from looking out of place. But fourteen years made her careless.
She patted the key she had hid in the waist band of her apron. If all went well, tonight Johnny and Scott would be safely hidden, and out of danger.
As they approached the Marlow ranch Scott saw the other two units join them. Their curt nod to the Colonel was all he needed to know that they were successful. He wondered if any of them paid a visit to Lancer. Not likely, at this point.
The Colonel’s plan was beginning to escalate. Scott was a good tactician. He knew what the Colonel was striving for. Divide and conquer. Pit the little ranchers against the big ones. The Lancer ranch was one of the biggest ranches between Sacramento and San Jose. It had some of the best grazing land California had to offer. It was also one of the most profitable. But no one ever noticed that it took back breaking work, sun up to sun down, fifty two weeks a year. Work that Murdoch, Scott and Johnny shared equally with the ranch hands.
What it must have done to widen the gap between the ranchers. Murdoch Lancer’s own son, a bank robber. Robbing them all of their cattle money. Ostensibly robbing them of their livelihood. Murdoch Lancer could survive. Maybe Joe Escobar in San Jose could survive too. But no one else. And they all knew it. And now he had hammered the last nail in his own coffin. The raid on the Campbell ranch. Would even Murdoch believe him now?
He also knew the man was unstable. Putting Johnny in the hot box was good strategy. As vile and loathsome as it was, it was designed to keep Scott in line and it had done its job. But the scorpions…that was pure madness. He had seen the look in the Colonel’s eyes, the pure delight in the torture. The power of fear and pain he held in his grasp. Insane yes, but incredibly dangerous. He knew a man’s breaking point, and he played with it. Visited a man’s worst nightmares and whittled away at his resolve.
And Johnny was faltering. Scott saw it in his eyes. Surprised it had not happened sooner. The Colonel’s campaign of terror had been faultless. Funny, how insanity was sometimes the purest form of brilliance.
From the first bullet that toppled Johnny from his horse and the shots that hobbled him, to the hot box, everything was designed to wear away his resolve. Then Dr. Sutter, a caricature of a doctor warped by the horrors of war, whose ministrations caused only more pain, whittling away another layer of resolve.
All designed to erode Johnny’s will to live and manipulate Scott into doing everything he wanted. Absurd in its simplicity. Frightening in its effectiveness.
Lost in thought, Scott didn’t realize that they had reached their destination until he felt someone cutting away the ropes binding his wrists to the saddle horn.
“Get some rest, Lieutenant,” the Colonel advised before trotting off toward the barn. “We leave at first light tomorrow morning.” Scott watched after him. Who were they going to hit tomorrow?
He saw Anna waiting for him on the front porch. She was their rock. They never would have made it this far without her.
“How is he?” he asked as she fell into step next to him, two guards following behind.
“I had to have Dr. Sutter give him morphine for the pain. Scott,” she placed a hand on his arm, “he doesn’t have much left in him.”
Scott nodded. They would try for the hidden room tonight. He couldn’t take a chance on what the Colonel had in mind for Johnny tomorrow.
As they reached the top of the stairs and rounded the hallway, Scott saw Johnny’s bedroom door standing ajar and heard a commotion coming from within.
Instinct propelled him down the hall, ignoring the warning yells from behind him.
He burst into the room, the door slamming open against the wall.
The sight before him brought him to a shuddering halt. Johnny lay sprawled on the floor next to the bed, struggling weakly with the bed sheets coiled around his chest, struggling against an enemy only he could see in his fevered mind. To his right Sergeant Cord sat on the chair beneath the window watching him dispassionately.
“What happened?” he demanded, kneeling next to Johnny and capturing his hand.
“I guess he was having a nightmare or something. Just rolled outta bed.” Cord shrugged at the venomous look Scott threw his way. “Hey, I was told to watch him, not play nursemaid.”
Mrs. Marlow was at his side checking the splint, dismayed at the new tinge of blood on the bandage wrapped around his ankle.
“Johnny!” Scott leaned down close to Johnny, grabbing his face between his two hands and forcing him to look into his eyes. “Johnny! Look at me. Snap out of it. Johnny! Wake up!”
“Gotta get out of here!” Johnny gasped, lost in whatever nightmare had revisited him. “Tucker’s waiting. He can’t hold on much longer. I promised him I’d come back for him. Scott?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” Scott gently slid his arms beneath his brother, lifting him back onto the mattress. Mrs. Marlow grabbed her medical supplies. “You.” She nodded at Cord, “get the doctor.”
“You don’t tell me what to do.”
“I suggest you do what the lady asks.” Scott hissed, “I don’t think the Colonel wants my brother dead, not yet at least.”
Cord uncurled himself from the chair and slowly walked out of the room, passing the two guards standing just outside in the hall. He felt their eyes on him. Mocking him. He had let an old woman get the best of him. For now, maybe, he thought, but her time would come.
“Scott.” Johnny grabbed Scott’s arm, his weak grip frightening Scott. “He’s hid out near the wash at Triple Bend. Gotta get back to him. You and him. You’re all I got. Promise me, you’ll help him.”
“Alright, Johnny. As soon as we get you settled down I’ll go help him. But you’ve got to relax.”
“No!” Johnny struggled to sit up. “They’re gonna kill him. Cause of me. I told him not ta come after me. I told him, Scott. He wouldn’t listen. Just like you. You wouldn’t listen. You shouldn’t of come back.”
Scott forced his hand back down on the mattress with ease. He felt helpless. Johnny’s rantings were of a man he never knew, part of his past. Part of a life he refused to talk about. A life he felt compelled to hide from his new family, but inexorably connected. “I’ll find Tucker, I promise.”
“Johnny….” Dr. Sutter was suddenly standing behind Scott. “Do you know who I am, Johnny?”
Johnny nodded, his body stiffening in fear.
“I just got back from Triple Bend. Tucker is alright. I treated him myself. He wants to see you as soon as he’s fit to travel. Now, you got to listen to your brother and relax so I can tend to you. You want to be clear headed when you see Tucker again. Right?”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Scott…?”
“I’m right here brother.”
“I…think I’m tired.” He muttered.
“Then you just rest for a little while.”
“…kay…You’re gonna like Tucker…” Johnny’s eyes slid closed, his breathing slowly returning to normal.
Scott stood up slowly, turning to face the doctor but Mrs. Marlow eased herself between them. “He was fine when I left him. Sleeping comfortably with the morphine.”
“It’s not unusual,” Sutter said as he began unwrapping the splints to examine Johnny’s ankle. “Given the amount of pain and stress he’s been under. This,” he shook his head, “does not look good.”
Scott bent closer to see that Johnny’s ankle was red and swollen.
“There is a pocket of infection in there somewhere. It will require surgery.”
“No.” Scott grabbed Sutter’s arm. “No surgery. Not you and not here.”
“It’s not elective surgery, Mr. Lancer. It’s necessary if you want to save his life.”
Scott looked down at Johnny, his face so pale. He didn’t trust the doctor. He’d seen too many of his kind in the war. But he also saw the need. Everything they had done to stem the infection so far had failed. The resources his body needed to fight off the infection were siphoned off to other injuries and the devastating attack of the scorpions.
Time. He needed time. If they could get Johnny hidden in the room tonight. If he could get away, bring back help. Sam Jenkins could do the surgery.
“No,” he decided. “I want to wait. If he hasn’t improved by tomorrow…”
“It’s your decision, Mr. Lancer,” Sutter sighed, “I just hope you don’t regret it.” He turned to Mrs. Marlow. “Redress the wound and continue to give him the powders to fight the infection. Just remember,” he cautioned, “the infection will only grow worse with time.”
The doctor left the room, leaving Scott drained. He sat on the opposite bed. “We’ve got to get Johnny out of here tonight,” Scott whispered. “The Colonel said he had another assignment for me in the morning. I don’t know what he has in mind for Johnny.” He ran his hands through his hair, this had to end soon or neither one of them was going to make it. “We need a distraction. Something to keep the Colonel and his men busy while we get Johnny down the stairs.”
A strange smile crept across Anna’s face.
Scott sat forward. “What do you have going on in that devious mind of yours?”
“You just get Johnny ready to move as soon as I get back. Pack as many medical supplies you can.” She leaned over Johnny, gently touching his forehead with the back of her hand. “You’re going to be fine real soon,” she promised. “You just keep fighting a little while longer.”
Scott watched her move toward the door.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She smiled and disappeared as she closed the door.
Scott busied himself with stuffing as many of the medicinal powders and rolled up bandages he could into a pillow case. He didn’t know if they would have water down there, but it would be a necessity. Johnny needed it to stave off dehydration and to mix the powders. He would mention it to Anna before they headed downstairs.
He looked back at Johnny, it was time he woke his sleeping brother. He hated to interrupt his seemingly peaceful sleep, but he needed him aware of what was about to take place. A surprised cry of pain or alarm could give away their position. Whatever Anna had in mind to distract the Colonel and his men would not last long. Speed was essential.
He wrung out a cool rag above the basin on the night stand next to Johnny’s bed and wiped at the sweat that glistened on his face and chest. Two raised black bruises peeked out from beneath the bandages that secured his ribs. The terrible reminder of the scorpion’s stings. Damn the Colonel. He would pay for this. He would pay …
“Johnny…wake up, Johnny.” he called urgently.
“Johnny, come on, you’ve got to listen to me.”
“I’m listening,” he whispered, but his head lolled back on the pillow.
“Johnny…wake up.” He slapped him smartly on the cheek and watched his eyes flicker, then open. “Come on, I need you alert here. Look at me.”
Scott watched as Johnny’s senses returned. “Are you with me?”
“Good, now listen to me. Mrs. Marlow has gone to create some kind of diversion and while the Colonel and his men are busy we’ve going to get you downstairs to a room hidden beneath the china cabinet. Do you understand?”
Johnny nodded. “How?”
“You let me worry about that.”
“It won’t work Boston.” Scott’s heart jumped at the familiar name, only Johnny called him that, from the first day they met. At first he hated it, felt it was an insult. Now it was an homage to the love between the brothers.
“You let me wor…”
Johnny clamped his hand around Scott’s wrist, “Its time you listened to me. I can’t make it out of this bed.”
“I’ll just slow you down. You and Mrs. Marlow get down to that hiding place until you get a chance to sneak out of here. There’s nothing much more the Colonel can do to me that he hasn’t already.”
“Forget it brother. We’re not leaving you behind. The Colonel has another assignment tomorrow. There’s no telling what he’ll do to you. I can’t let that happen.”
“You ain’t got a choice. Don’t you see? They’ll be no big loss in the world if I don’t make it. But you, Boston…you make a difference. You…”
“That’s a bunch of crap and you know it.” Scott spit the words out, his temper rising. “I’ve listened to you put yourself down for too long. You may not think the world won’t miss Johnny Madrid Lancer, but I know it will. You are going to learn your self worth before I let you die brother.”
“Scott…you don’t understand. I’m hurting. I hurt more than I ever have in my life. What if I can’t never walk again? I couldn’t live like that.”
“Johnny, we’re going to get you out of this. Sam will fix you right up. He always does, right? What did he say last time he came out to the ranch, you are his best patient. He could close his practice and work on you full time and retire a rich man.”
“Sam can’t fix what can’t be fixed.” Johnny closed his eyes and turned his head away. “Please Scott. I can’t take no more.”
“Maybe I was wrong,” Scott said wearily, “I thought you were the strongest man I had ever met. Nothing got to you. When Johnny Lancer couldn’t handle the problem, Johnny Madrid could. But maybe you only fight the battles you know you can win. You’re a quitter, Johnny. Never thought I’d say quitter and Johnny Lancer in the same breath…” Scott watched, waited for a response. “You’re a quitter. You finally met a man you couldn’t beat and you run away. The Colonel won.”
Scott grabbed a handful of Johnny’s hair and forced his head back toward him. “You’re letting that bastard Colonel win.”
Tears of pain and frustration built up in Johnny’s eyes and he whispered, “I ain’t no quitter. I just can’t go on.”
“Yes you can. You can because you are Johnny Madrid Lancer. Now, let’s get you ready.”
“You’re a fool, Scott. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”
“Not if I have anything to say about…”
The commotion outside caught both their attentions. Scott grinned, “It looks like the party’s about to begin.”
Scott pulled the sheet off Johnny, stuffing it in the pillowcase. He didn’t want to trip on it going down the stairs.
Anna burst into the room, her hair in disarray and black soot smudging her cheeks. “Somehow the hay bales caught fire in the barn. A shame, a lot of the Colonel’s supplies were stored there.” She grinned.
“What a shame,” Scott agreed.
Mrs. Marlow grabbed the pillowcase and perked out the door down the hall. “It’s clear,” she called back.
Carefully Scott slid his arms under Johnny, trying to ignore the grunt of pain from his brother. The splint was heavy and awkward, digging into his arm. He followed Anna out the door, the sounds of men shouting and the smell of smoke rising up the stairs. With forty men it wouldn’t take long to put out the fire. But Anna was smart. Hay smoldered for a long time. Men would have to be posted on the fire for days to come to make sure it didn’t reignite.
Scott stood at the top of the stairs just realizing how steep and narrow they were. He shifted Johnny’s weight in his arms and took the first step, a new dread screaming in his mind. He couldn’t see the steps. One wrong move and they would both tumble down to the bottom.
Johnny had never felt so helpless and exposed. He wore nothing but a nightshirt. Scott had more urgent worries than his brother’s dignity, but Johnny saw the shirt riding up onto his hips. Mrs. Marlow was two steps below them.
He felt Scott’s first tentative step and knew they were in trouble.
“Let me down!” he ordered.
“Shut up Johnny.” Scott hissed.
“No. Let me down. I can hold my weight on my left foot. We can’t make it this way.”
Scott knew he was right. It would take forever feeling his way down the stairs. And they didn’t have a minute to spare. Carefully he lowered Johnny to the ground, feeling him test the strength of his right ankle. A gasp of pain tore from his brother’s lips but he held his own weight.
Johnny wrapped his good arm around Scott’s shoulder and Mrs. Marlow was stood two steps below them cradling the heavy splint in her hands.
“Easy,” she cautioned.
They took one step at a time. Johnny gritted his teeth, each time his foot touched the carpeted stair a bolt of agony surged through his body. His chest burned from the scorpion’s stings. How long would he have to live with the pain from those ugly creatures?
They were half way down the stairs…six more to go. Anna saw Johnny’s concentration lapse for just a moment and his foot faltered. She held his splinted foot tightly, letting Scott get a hold of him. They stopped, wasting precious seconds, but Johnny needed the rest. His face was dripping with sweat. Scott nodded again and they took another step, then another.
Her face froze when she saw blood seeping through the bandages on Johnny’s right foot. If they left a trail of blood down the stairs they would lead the Colonel right to them. She grabbed her apron and signaled Scott to stop. Quickly she tied the apron around the seeping bandage and they continued down the stairs.
They were two steps from the bottom. Anna felt for the key in the waistband of her apron. A few more minutes and they would be safe. She looked at Johnny and her heart nearly stopped. The pain etched on his face mirrored the agony of each step. He was at the end of his endurance. She signaled Scott to stop and she gently lowered Johnny’s splinted leg to the ground. Fishing the key from her waistband she moved toward the china cabinet. With strength born of desperation, she grabbed the cabinet and pushed it away from the wall. Her hand shook as she inserted the key in the lock of the trap door and prayed.
The front door flung open. Sergeant Cord stood in the doorway, his clothes stained with sweat and covered in black soot. Stunned, he went for his gun but Johnny yanked his arm free of Scott’s shoulder and Scott hurled himself over the last two steps, grabbing Cord by the waist and driving him to the floor. He didn’t stand a chance under the onslaught of punches Scott rained down on him. With a cold detachment he hadn’t felt since the war, he grabbed Cord’s head and snapped his neck.
He felt no surge of victory, only an aloofness. This was war. Kill or be killed. He kicked the door shut and grabbed Cord by the shirt collar dragging him toward the hidden room. The thought of hiding with a corpse repulsed him, but he couldn’t let the Colonel find him. He helped Anna raise the trap door and shoved the lifeless body into the blackness of the room, hearing the thud when it hit the dirt floor.
They returned to Johnny. He laid where Scott had left him, sprawled across the steps, unable to move under his own power. A silly smirk crossed his face. “Never underestimate a greenhorn from Boston…” he panted.
“Right you are little brother.” Scott slipped his arms beneath Johnny and carried him over to the trap door. “Your new accommodations,” he proclaimed, as he quickly lowered him into the black hole and into Anna’s waiting arms.
Taking one last look around, he spotted the pillowcase laying half way up the stairs and deliberated for a moment whether to get it or not. He didn’t have a choice, it had the medical supplies Johnny needed. Taking a deep breath he scrambled up the stairs and grabbed the makeshift medical bag,
The sound of approaching footsteps sounded on the porch outside. Scott threw the pillowcase into the black chasm of the room beneath him and followed it in, grabbing the trap door and pulling it closed behind him.
Anna was standing beside him, lighting a candle. She pointed to the rope that was threaded through the center of the trap door and he pulled on it, hearing the china cabinet moving back into place. With his heart beating in his throat he listened to footsteps walking up the stairs. He counted to ten, waiting for the explosion of anger when they found the room empty.
Scott sat with his back propped up against the wall, Johnny’s head cushioned in his lap.
One candle dimly lit the six by six foot room, a small oasis of flickering light in the blackness, hiding the bare wood walls and dirt floor. That was all they could afford to burn. Smoke from the candle would rise through the trap door and into the kitchen. It was a risk, even one candle, but Anna had to have light to tend to Johnny.
Sergeant Cord’s body was stuffed in the corner, his face pointed toward the wall. A dead body would pose problems of its own for them if they had to stay down here for any length of time. Even a day and it would make itself noticeable. But Scott needed time and surprise on his side. To have left the body at the base of the steps would have alerted the Colonel’s men immediately, costing them three, maybe four minutes time. Precious time when seconds counted.
When they first dropped into the room they had huddled together in the darkness, trying to suck back the sounds of their labored breathing, listening to the footsteps slowly make their way up the staircase above, then voices raised in anger and the sound of the same footsteps rushing back down.
Dozens of men had been in the house since then, covering every inch. Doors were opened and slammed shut. Heavy boots pounded the floorboards beneath the carpets looking for trap doors. Furniture was knocked over and moved around.
Anna listened to the destruction of her treasured possessions being destroyed but she steadfastly held back the tears. Many of them could never be replaced but they dimmed in importance to the two men who sat in the darkness with her. She would gladly forfeit everything she owned to save their lives.
As minutes turned into hours the frenzied footsteps died down. The house was empty. The Colonel would search outside for a time. But he would be back. That’s what Scott would have done. Check the obvious first. Then go the extra step and search for the less obvious.
Johnny’s head shifted in Scott’s lap and a low moan of pain startled them both in the darkness.
As gently as she could Anna unwrapped her apron from around Johnny’s ankle and did the same with the blood soaked bandages. In the feeble light from the lone candle she could see where both holes from bullet had opened up. She gently lifted his foot to rewrap it and Johnny tried to jerk his foot back, a yelp of pain escaping his lips. Scott jammed his hand over his mouth, leaning down close to his ear and shushing him.
They waited. Listening. Had someone upstairs heard Johnny’s cry?
Footsteps walked back and forth. They heard the sound of the kitchen chairs up-righted and shoved into place. More footsteps and the creak of the chairs as men collapsed in them.
Johnny moaned again, his right hand weakly slapping at Scott’s hand over his mouth.
“Quiet!” Scott hissed.
Somehow the urgency of Scott’s plea reached Johnny and his hand slipped back down to his side.
They waited agonizing minutes.
Anna suddenly remembered the pots filled with china. If they tried to lift the pots the Colonel would know instantly where they were. Now… after all this…they were as much a prisoner down here as they were upstairs. She looked at Scott, his head lowered to whisper into Johnny’s ear, his hand gently combing through his brother’s dark hair. There were few people she had met in this life who had what those two brothers had: unconditional love.
Scott looked up at the floorboards, someone else had walked in, heavyset by the sound of his boots. “Get this place cleaned up for the Colonel!” he ordered.
More noise. Anna held her breath. The sound of feet shuffling beneath the weight of the pots, and then silence. Had they found the dishes? Were they now looking at the half empty china cabinet…wondering?
Then the sound of hoof beats. Someone was visiting. Scott strained to hear the voices but couldn’t make out the words.
“It’s Happy Cutter,” Anna whispered, “he must have seen the smoke.”
Scott nodded. Happy Cutter owned the livery in Morro Coyo. He often made trips to the neighboring ranchers looking for good horses to add to his stable.
Anna’s heart sank as she heard the horse trot away. Had Happy been suspicious at all? Would he mention anything to anyone in town? There was little hope that he would. He stayed to himself, didn’t socialize. Most likely, the only reason he stopped by was because he recognized the smell of hay burning. That would pique his interest.
She looked back down at Johnny, his face barely visible in the faint light. What she did see left her concerned. The boy needed help. The infection was taking hold and they were sorely able to fend it off down here in this makeshift room.
Scott felt the heat of fever on Johnny’s forehead and made a decision. He would have to somehow sneak out tonight, after dark. Johnny needed a doctor. Not the man posing as a doctor upstairs. The memory of Johnny trying to move his ankle away from the doctor’s carbolic haunted him both day and night. If he could get past the guards, he could make his way into the fields. With luck, he could be on Lancer land by mid morning. It was a risk, but he had no other choice. He would not have his brother die in a dirt hole under a house. Not when home was only a few miles away. “I’ll get you out of here, little brother,’” he whispered. “I promise.”
Johnny awoke in complete blackness. He blinked his eyes, trying to pierce through the darkness, nothing… he listened for a sound, any sound, and suddenly with a realization so fierce that it took his breath away he realized he was back in the box. Fear enveloped him like a living breathing being. It crushed his chest, smothered him in hopelessness so profound he wanted to die. He could not do this again. He could not endure the heat, the loneliness. He had fought too many battles, against too many enemies. Why couldn’t Scott understand?
He had to warn Scott. The Colonel was out there waiting. He had heard him, how long ago? He couldn’t remember time. It was too hot to think. Damn the pain in his legs and his chest. He had to find Scott. He tried to sit up, to climb his way out of the box but hands were pushing him back down. He fought against them, fear rising to panic, he couldn’t let Scott die. Pain and fear gave him strength when he had none left. He fought against the hands that would keep him from his brother. More hands. Someone was covering his mouth him keeping him from calling out to Scott. He fought back, struggling his life, for Scott’s.
“Johnny, it’s me!” A voice close to his ear. He knew that voice. “Johnny, you have to be quiet.”
“Come on, Johnny. Listen to me. You have to be quiet.” It was Scott, a whispered hiss. “You’re safe.”
No he wasn’t. He was back in the box and this was a cruel trick of his mind. It happened before. He believed the lies. And when he opened his eyes he was still alone…the heat baking his skin, searing his throat, blistering his skin. He couldn’t fall for the box’s lies. He would fight, not for himself but for Scott. He had to warn his brother. He tried to kick out at the walls and the pain exploded in his legs. Someone was holding him down, pushing him deeper into the blackness. He had to warn Scott…
“Johnny!” The voice was desperate and it was Scott’s! He could barely hear for the pounding of his blood in his head. But it was Scott. He felt Scott’s hands lifting him, his head gently cradled in his brother’s lap.
“Scott…?” he whispered.
“Yea, it’s me little brother,” came the hushed sigh of relief. “You have to stay quiet. Do you understand me?”
“No. You’re not in the box. We’re in the hidden room beneath the kitchen. Johnny, do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
He felt Johnny nod.
“We have to be quiet.”
“…You all right? Can’t see anything.”
“We can’t chance using a candle at night. During the day, maybe…”
“It’s so hot.”
“I know. It’s the fever. Johnny, listen to me. Are you listening?”
“Yes.” Johnny hissed back. He was listening.
“I’m going to try to get out tonight. When everyone is asleep…”
“We can’t stay here, Johnny. I’ll be careful. I’ll only move during the night. Johnny, it might take me a couple of days to get back here. You can hang on that long, right?”
It was so hot it was hard to breathe. He felt Scott’s hands brushing back his hair, it felt good. He needed to rest, just for a second. He was so tired. Rest for just a second….
Scott sagged back against the wall. “We can’t wait.” He said into the blackness. “Johnny’s not getting any better.”
“How will you get past the guards?” Anna’s disembodied voice whispered back. He wished he could see her face, see what she was thinking. This woman had done so much for them. Had torn down so many barriers.
“They’ve searched the house. They won’t expect anyone from here. I’ll go on foot. There’ll be a crescent moon tonight, not much light. Once I get past the courtyard I can keep to the tall grass. If I head north I’ll be on Lancer land by morning. I won’t have to worry about the Colonel.”
“Scott…” he felt Anna’s hand search for his and grab on tight, “you have a bounty on your head now. Trust no one.”
“You don’t worry about me, you just take good care of Johnny.”
It was an unnecessary request. They both knew it. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ve got too much time invested in this young man. Besides, I owe him a great deal.”
He felt Anna’s hand slip from his and gently caress Johnny’s cheek. “He opened my eyes. For too long I was more blind than we are down here. You both opened my eyes.”
He smiled in the darkness. A sardonic smile. It was not the first time he heard those words. Johnny had a way of getting to people.
Scott sat back and waited and listened. It was late at night. There was stillness to the air, a concert of sounds that only came out after dark, when the creatures of the day disappeared and the creatures of the night came to life. Even down here, in their prison, he could hear them. The crickets, owls, the baleful call of a wolf or a lone coyote.
He leaned over and tapped Anna’s leg. “It’s time.” He whispered. Carefully in the blackness, he eased Johnny’s head up, trying not to awaken him, waiting until Anna had moved into position before gently lowering his head onto her lap.
He didn’t say another word. There were no words to say. If he failed he would be dead. And in turn Anna and Johnny would fall beneath the insanity of the Colonel.
Everything rested on his shoulders. Shoulders strong enough to survive Libby Prison. But were they strong enough to save his brother?
He reached up and felt around the darkness until his hand found the latch. He released it and it sounded like a gunshot reverberating through the stillness. He froze, holding his breath. He waited, five minutes, maybe more. Nothing stirred.
With his heart beating in his throat he pushed the trap door open, the counter weight attached to the china cabinet sliding it aside far enough for him to squeeze through. He squatted next to the cabinet, waiting. His eyes adjusted quickly to the feeble light, so much brighter than the blackness of the hidden room.
He took his time, searching the room with his eyes and his ears. There was someone asleep in the next room, he could hear the even deep snoring. Someone was sleeping lighter here, in the kitchen, he could hear the soft even breathing. As he listened he heard more sounds. There were at least seven, maybe eight men here in this kitchen. Fighting the fire today had exhausted every one of them. He searched for the guard, found him at last, just outside the kitchen door, leaning against the doorjamb, rifle tilting toward the ground in the crook of his elbow. Either he was asleep or daydreaming. Scott carefully moved across the kitchen, testing each footstep for loose noisy boards before committing his weight.
Two steps from the door and the guard shifted. He wasn’t asleep, just not attentive. Either one could get him killed.
Scott took a deep breath and reached around the door catching the guard around the neck. For the second time that day he snapped a man’s neck. He caught him before he hit the ground and eased him onto the carpeted floor.
He cradled the rifle in his arm, at last a weapon.
Crouching down low he studied the courtyard. There would be more guards. But they would not be looking at the house. The house was clean, or at least they thought. An attack, by an enemy or the prisoners would come from beyond the corral, out of the blackness of night.
He took his time, thought of where he would position his men if he were in charge. The corral, a second floor window, beside the gutted barn, atop the stable, at the four corners of the house. That was at least eight.
Taking his time Scott decided how he would proceed. He would be most noticeable in the courtyard. He looked back in the house at the dead man. Older and heavier than himself, but in the dark, with the right clothes and hat. He quickly stripped the man of his jacket and hat and took a deep breath.
Slowly he walked out of the house and across the courtyard. Painfully slow. Instinct told him to run. But he stayed at a steady slow pace, his rifle slung easily in the crook of his elbow. The guard on the corral raised his rifle over his head in recognition. Scott did the same, slow, easy, casual. His heart was in his throat, sweat streamed down his back. He was a few feet away from the where the courtyard turned into open land. Beyond that, blackness so deep the patches of deeper black was the only sign that trees dotted the landscape.
Three feet, then two.
“Hey Yokes!” Scott halted. He turned to look at the guard standing beside the gutted barn and waved his rifle above his head motioning toward the darkness and privacy.
A crude joke and a wave of his rifle told Scott that the guard paid him no mind and he turned to take those last two steps into the blackness.
Scott felt the searing pain in his right arm before he heard the report of the rifle from the second floor window. His fingers spasmed and the rifle slipped from his grip. Cursing he dove into the tall grass crawling toward the left, hugging the line of grass and courtyard, hoping the guards would think he would crawl away deeper the fields. A hail of bullets peppered the fields behind him.
Adrenaline and shock kept the pain at bay, but he knew that wouldn’t last long. He crawled another three feet and found a dead stump large enough to hide behind. Feeling for the wound, his fingers found a deep furrow in his right bicep.
“Damn it” he hissed, “Damn it.” The bullet had just creased him, but it needed stitches, and he’d bleed like a stuck pig if he didn’t get it wrapped properly right away.
Working quickly before the pain asserted itself, he shucked the borrowed jacket and tore the right sleeve of his shirt off binding it tightly around the bleeding wound. He couldn’t afford to lose too much blood. He had to get to Lancer. Johnny needed help desperately. Tying the sleeves of the jacket together he slipped it over his head and used the jacket for a sling. He needed the support, and more importantly, he couldn’t leave the jacket behind.
He searched the heavens triangulating the stars. It looked to be just after midnight. He still had four hours of solid darkness left. He would travel west, away from Lancer for a time. That would be where they would concentrate their search. If he was lucky he could turn north – northwest just before daylight.
With the sound of gunfire behind him, Scott began crawling through the tall grass, hopefully toward home and a doctor for Johnny.
Johnny startled awake, the sound of gunfire spurring him into action. Instinctively, he reached for his gun and tried to jump to his feet. But his body betrayed him and he cried out as his legs exploded in pain and he collapsed back onto the cold dirt ground.
Anna was next to him, her small hand covering his mouth, her lips next to his ear telling him to stay quiet.
He tried to, but he was lost in a world of pain and confusion. His only lifeline, her voice. Then he remembered. Scott was making a break for it.
“No…” he whispered “…No…!”
The silence was deafening. Anna could not answer. Johnny felt hot tears well up in his eyes and spill over, rolling down his face to puddle around his ears. Scott.
He never should have come back. Why?
The gunshots were sporadic now. Was Scott dead? He felt Anna’s hand clasp around his, her grip strong but gentle. She thought so.
So this was the way the great Johnny Madrid would end his reign. Not in a gunfight, finally facing a kid who was just a hair trigger faster then him, or a bullet in the back from a coward out for revenge or money. No…Johnny Madrid was going to die meekly in a hidden room beneath a house only miles away from home. He smiled ironically in the darkness. Somehow he knew that that would not be the final story. Tales would be told of fiery gun battles with Johnny Madrid dying in a hail of bullets. Not this shell of a man, hobbled by injury and illness. Not the great Johnny Madrid.
Scott kept low to the ground, moving as fast as he could, but still taking the time to make sure each footfall was solid. Gopher and snake holes abounded in the fields, one wrong step and he could sprain or even break an ankle.
His arm throbbed with every step. He could feel the trickle of blood, slower now, but steady. He would have to rest sooner than he expected. Damn, he was so close. He thought he had made it.
And Johnny, what about Johnny? Did his brother think he was dead? Oh Johnny, please hang on. Fight like I know you can. But was there any fight left in him? Johnny was on the very threshold, a simple shove, emotionally or physically, could send him over the edge. He wanted to be with him now, he wanted to comfort him, tell him that they would make it. They always did. After all; they were the Lancer brothers; Born of tough stock.
He looked up at the stars, a million twinkling diamonds suspended in black velvet. How often had he looked at these same stars? Most nights they gave him comfort. Lights that would never fade or burn out, a constant in a world that changed all too often. And even as they moved around the heavens, they were always there, in their appointed place, waiting for him. Even when they were hidden by clouds, he knew they were there. But tonight they just reinforced his loneliness. The vastness of the heavens looking down on the tiny speck that was him, trying to outrun a madman and time.
He’d been on the run for three hours now, and still heading west.
Once it was light he would continue west until noontime then veer northwest. Hopefully the Colonel would think that he would travel the most direct route home.
Another hour. He would travel another hour until sunrise, then rest for a while. Rest and travel, rest and travel. That was the only way he could make it home. Home where legitimate doctors, not military butchers, could tend to Johnny. Home where Murdoch Lancer waited for him, with the knowledge that he was innocent…Home…
The sun was still below the horizon, casting a pink haze over the land. Even at this hour the air promised another hot day
The Colonel had his troops assembled. They stood at attention awaiting the verbal lashing they knew they were about to receive.
“When I picked you men, I thought I was picking the best. I thought I could count on each and every one of you to carry out my orders.” He slowly paced up and down the line, his face forward, never looking at the men who were a humiliation to him. “And what did I get? I got a bunch of has -beens who can’t even find a half dead man, an old woman and a wounded ex-lieutenant. Sergeant Burnett is dead, his neck snapped. That would be the work of Lancer. Madrid would be too weak and the old woman wouldn’t have the strength. How did he get past you? Where was he hiding? The same place Madrid and the old woman are now. They’re here, right under our noses. Norris, take twenty men, pay a call on the Perkins ranch, explain to them what will happen if they don’t sell immediately. The rest of you men find Madrid.”
“We’ve looked everywhere, Colonel.”
The Colonel slowly turned, searching for the voice. “Private Loften, front and center!”
Loften took one step forward and stood at attention. Waiting.
“You obviously didn’t look everywhere.” The Colonel stood toe to toe with Lofton, his eyes burning with anger, “If you had you would have found them. Am I correct Private Loften?”
“And the rest of you? Have you looked everywhere?”
“No, Sir!” The troop responded in unison.
“If anyone here doesn’t think they can do the job, then leave now. You can draw your pay and get out. I don’t want anyone who isn’t willing to give me one hundred percent.”
Silence. Everyone knew what would happen after they drew their pay: a bullet in the back.
“I take it, everyone stays. Good. Now find Madrid. Crenshaw, take as many men as you need and tear that house apart. Don’t leave an inch unturned. Lancer took down Burnett in the house, means he might have still been hiding in there. The rest of you fan out.”
“What about Lancer? You gonna let him get away?”
“He was hit. Let the sun do the work for us. He has no water, no food. We’ll start looking late afternoon. By then he’ll be begging for us to pick him up. Now, find Madrid. I want to throw Lancer a welcome back party, with Madrid as guest of honor.”
Anna lit a candle, knowing it was a risk, but Johnny had begun to fuss, rolling his head back and forth in her lap. She could feel that the fever was still rising, and she had no water to sponge him down, or to mix with the powders to reduce the fever. She had planned to ready the room with water and food, but the Colonel’s plans had made it impossible to wait.
Even in the meager flickering light of the single candle she could see that Johnny’s face had lost all color. He would not last another day here like this. She almost hoped the Colonel’s men would find them. At least Dr. Sutter could tend to him.
“Mrs. Marlow…?” Johnny’s voice was a weak rasp, his throat parched from fever and lack of water.
“I’m here Johnny.” she whispered. “I’m right here. I won’t leave you.”
“He went for help last night.”
Johnny stiffened as the memories of the gunshots came back. “Do you think he made it?”
“Of course he did. Nothing will keep that man from bringing back help. I’ve never seen two brothers fight for each other harder. Now, you try to rest and he’ll be back before you know it.”
The sounds of crashing furniture and hammers banging on walls grew ever nearer. Heavy boots kicking down doors and pounding on floorboards mingled with the sound of glass shattering moved from the second floor to the first floor. For two hours now, the Colonel’s men had been tearing the house apart. Each room searched brought them one step closer to the kitchen.
“They know we’re here somewhere. It won’t be long. I’m sorry we got you into this.”
“Hush, child.” She blew the candle out and began combing her fingers through his hair. “You know something? I’m not sorry. Oh, I would never want to see you hurt like this, but meeting you and Scott. You are the best thing that happened to an old woman in a long time. Before you came…I can’t tell you how much I hated you and your people. My hate was eating me alive. How can you ever forgive me?”
There was a long silence in the darkness and Anna thought Johnny might have drifted off to sleep again. “You gave me something too,” Johnny finally said, his voice soft in the blackness. “When I was growing up I met a lot of people who hated me. Mexicans and gringos alike. I belonged to neither of them. I was a mestizo, half-breed. The skin of a Mexican and the eyes of a gringo. My mother tried to protect me at first, then she too was embarrassed. When she died I went searching for someone who would want me. But no one did. I tried to change their minds at first, show them that I was no different than their own boys, brown skinned or blue-eyed. I thought they would never change. That those who hated me for how I was born would hate me for a lifetime. Then I met you. You were as full of hate as they were. I saw it in your eyes, heard it in your voice.”
“Johnny…” Anna’s voice trembled. “…I…”
“No, listen. I didn’t think anyone could change. But you did. That means other people could change. That I could change. Hate is a hard thing to turn around. It gets inside your belly and can stay there a lifetime. But you proved… If…if I don’t make it out of here…”
“If I don’t make it out of here,” Johnny persisted, “at least I will know someone cared enough to change their mind. Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, Jelly…they all took me in, made me feel part of a family. They didn’t have to, they just did. I found a place to belong, a family. Then you…you had all the reason in the world not to. But you did.”
The sounds of the men moving into the kitchen above signaled an end to their conversation. And probably an end to their hiding place.
Chairs were thrown around, the table was overturned. Hammers struck the walls and the floor. The china cabinet was pulled away from the wall and overturned, shattering the china on the floor.
Anna held Johnny tighter. But there was something different about how he held his body. Still terribly ill, there was a strength there, as if he had pulled something from deep within himself for the final battle.
Hammers were pounding the floor, getting closer to the trap door. Someone yelled, “What the hell is this?” and they heard the splash of water as the pots were dumped over. Water sloshed across the floor and found the slats of the trap door.
Water poured from the ceiling and the suddenness of it made Anna yelp in surprise. She slapped her hands across her mouth…did they hear her? Her heart beat so loudly in her chest she was sure Johnny could hear it, his head still nestled in her lap.
She stared into the blackness and waited. Water still dripped through the slats. More slowly now, until it was only a drop. Every few seconds, another drop. Everything was deathly quiet upstairs. Had they given up? Were they assured that the kitchen was clean?
Anna took a breath to speak and Johnny’s hand came up to tap her on the chin. No talking was the warning.
She began to shiver, both from her damp clothes and fear. Johnny searched for her hand and squeezed it, his strength all but gone.
The sound of footsteps returned to the kitchen. They listened. And waited. The footsteps stopped right above them. Johnny held his breath as the trap door slowly opened above them, blinding them from the harsh sunlight that filtered down from the kitchen.
“Very clever,” he heard the Colonel say, mockingly. “Very clever indeed.”
Scott found a downed tree, its trunk split in half up the center and the insides eaten away by time and bugs. He crawled inside, pulling the tall grass in front of the opening feeling safe for the first time since he had fled the ranch. The wound had stopped bleeding. He no longer felt the trickle of blood down his arm. That was good news and bad. He couldn’t afford to lose any more blood, but blood did help keep the infection down in a wound. It probably didn’t matter, the infection had already set in. He could feel it in the constant pulsing pain in his arm.
Using the stolen hat as a pillow he stretched out in the protection of the log and let himself succumb to the sleep he so desperately needed. But not before the image of Johnny, laying in the hidden room, so close to death, taunted him again. He had to get help. But he knew, a tool was only as good as the care you gave it. His body was his only tool now. He had to care for it, as carefully as he cared for his horse or his guns. He had neither now. Just his body and his brain.
Scott awoke sometime later. He didn’t know how long he had slept. He guessed too long by the stiffness in his body and the ache in his arm. He laid there for a time, listening to the sounds around him. The natural sounds, the sounds of nature. Flies, bees, the rush of the breeze blowing through the tall grass. Everything seemed normal. No sounds of a human presence, other than his.
Carefully he poked his head from the safety of the tree trunk and looked around. The sun was well past center, he had slept the morning away. He wondered how Johnny was. As horrible as it was, he would rather be back in that room with him, giving him the comfort he so desperately needed.
Johnny always steadfastly insisted that he could take care of himself. Hated to be fussed over. He had taken care of himself far too long to need the help of anyone. And yet when he was hurt or sick, he so easily accepted the light touch to his cheek or the gentle fingers combed through his hair. He had been deprived of the most important thing in a child’s life. The simple nurturing of a loving parent.
Pushing back the thoughts that would only hinder him now, Scott struggled to his feet. His legs ached from running crouched through the fields all night and weak from the blood loss. He was hungry and thirsty. He could go without food for a long time, as uncomfortable as it would be, but he needed water to stay alive. He looked around him, trying to get his bearings. He had traveled west through the darkness. He would keep going west for a few more miles then turn northwest to catch the corner of Lancer property. There was a line shack maybe three hours beyond that. Water and provisions would be waiting for him there. He had checked the shack just last month to make sure there were ample supplies for the cowhand who lost his way or got caught in bad weather. If he kept moving he could make the shack by sunset. Another six hours and, if he was lucky, he would meet up with Lancer ranch hands moving the herd to the next pasture. That still meant another full day before he could get any help to Johnny.
It was too long. Johnny didn’t have that kind of time. But what other alternative did he have? If he stayed he could have watched, no correct that, he could have felt Johnny die in his arms in the blackness of the hidden room. Or he could have surrendered to the Colonel. But what kind of punishment would the madman sentence them to? No, he had made the only decision he could.
He looked up into the sky, squinting against the sun, following the flight of an eagle soaring above. If only he had wings. The thought was so spontaneous and ludicrous that he started laughing.
“No! Don’t hurt him, please.” Anna tried to shove the men away as they dropped into the room. Lanterns were handed down, and the room took on a surreal look. Johnny lay motionless on the dirt floor, his eyes open, but too weak to fend for himself.
The Sergeant’s body was found and wrapped in a blanket to be hauled out later.
Anna shoved and kicked and prodded, did everything she could to keep the men from circling Johnny, but she was helpless among them. Her hands were tied behind her back and she was lifted into the waiting arms of the men above.
The Colonel watched with interest. Madrid was a fighter. No doubt about that. The boy was one hell of a fighter, and for that he would get one more chance. When Lieutenant Lancer was returned he would be held until Madrid was healthy enough to face punishment together. It only seemed fitting. They lived as brothers, they should die as brothers. It also gave him one last chance to use Lancer. This time against his own father.
One foot in front of the other. That is the mantra that droned in Scott’s mind. He had traveled west as far as he thought necessary and now he was heading northwest. The sun baked his skin, absorbing every ounce of moisture in his body. He knew he couldn’t go much further without water. What had Johnny taught him about being lost out here in open land? The thing that made San Joaquin Valley so suitable for cattle was the abundance of water holes. Lancer had a couple dozen or more, plus two fast running creeks. He would stay away from the creeks, the Colonel would look for him there first. Which meant he had to find the smaller watering holes. What had Johnny said? Think man, think. Johnny survived a hundred times in situations just like this. Insects, that’s what Johnny had said. Insects stayed near water. Bees, they always stay within four miles of water. What else…? Ants, if he saw ants on a tree that meant trapped water somewhere. And what else, think man, think…Flies, they keep within one hundred yards of water.
“No…” Scott’s knees nearly buckled. He had been so close. If only he had been thinking. Back at the log, there was every sign of water back there. He had heard them, bees, flies, the burrowed out log. Water so close. Johnny would not have made that mistake.
But he would not make the same mistake again. He trudged on, keeping an eye out for anything that hinted at water. And the colonel’s men. He couldn’t become complacent and forget about them. They would have been looking for him for hours by now. The more frustrated they became the rougher the punishment.
His arm felt leaden, each step brought new pain from his shoulder to his fingertips. He would have to rest again soon.
A half mile away he could see a stand of huge oak trees through the shimmering heat. That would be a perfect place to rest. Shade from the sun. But the sound of a horse’s nicker drove him flat on his belly, his arm protesting in fiery pain. He waited and listened. One horse meant one man. He crawled on his stomach, the sun blinding him. He would have to get closer yet to tell who it was. It couldn’t have been one of the Colonel’s men. They wouldn’t split up like this.
Dare he ask for help? He was a wanted man. Dead or alive. It was too easy to put a bullet between his eyes and bring him in slumped over a saddle. He couldn’t take the chance. What he needed was that horse. But what was he willing to do to get it? Was he willing to kill an innocent man? He was fighting for his life, this was war. But it was his war. Could he justify killing a man just because he happened to have what Scott needed so desperately now?
He crawled closer. He spotted a man sitting on the ground, his back braced against the tree, his hat pulled low over his eyes. His saddle on the ground beside him. A canteen still looped around the saddle horn. From his slow rhythmic breathing Scott decided he was asleep.
Slowly he moved in closer, watching the sleeping man’s every breath. Scott had his hand on the canteen strap when the horse whinnied.
Instantly the man was awake, going for his gun. Scott held onto the canteen and ran into the deep grass, lying as still as he could. Bullets sailed over his head. He counted six shots. He heard the stranger saddle his horse, berating the animal for not warning him sooner. The horse slowly walked through the grass, his owner following an ever widening circle around the tree.
Scott wanted to run. Every instinct told him to run as hard and as fast as he could, but common sense told him to hold his position. The grass was tall enough, he could scoot around all day if he needed to, avoiding the rider. And sooner or later the sun would be too hot for both hunter and hunted to continue the game.
But the game played on and on. An hour passed and finally the man rode away, tired of the game. Scott fell flat to the ground, gasping, taking his first drink of water since last night. He forced himself to take only a few sips. Small sips, quenching his thirst, giving him new energy.
He shook the canteen. It was three quarters full. Now he had a fighting chance. Another three hours and he would be at the line shack on Lancer land.
Dr. Sutter looked down through the trap door and felt as if he were witnessing a scene from hell itself. Dark shadows danced across the walls from the circle of lanterns held by a half dozen guards surrounding the lone figure sprawled in the center of the room. His stomach lurched at the sight of Johnny Madrid laying lifeless on the sodden dirt floor, his arms spread limply at his sides just the way they fell when Mrs. Marlow was dragged from his side. His filthy nightshirt was soaking wet, pulled up above his knees, exposing the wooden splints on one leg and the bloodied bandages on the other.
The smell rising from the hole was putrid. Sweat, stale air and the beginnings of the Sergeant’s body decomposing. Memories of a dozen battlefield hospitals surged through his mind. So many young men dead and dying. Their ghosts haunted him every day of his life. He closed his eyes and made a solemn oath that Johnny Madrid would not become one of those ghosts.
Mrs. Marlow was standing at his right side, shivering, not just from her wet dress, but fear for the boy.
The Colonel stood on his left side, a look of triumph on his face. He had won this battle…but not the war. Not yet. And if Sutter had anything to say about it, never would.
Sutter tried to remember at what point he lost his humanity. At what point the patient on his table became an object to heal or bury. When their cries of pain and fear no longer registered in his mind.
He had died in the war, just as surely as if someone had shot him point blank through the heart. He no longer lived, he simply existed. Carrying out the orders of a mad man. But not now, something had changed. He didn’t know what. But something had changed.
Was it the fierce fight Scott Lancer fought to save his brother? The love between brothers that could not be broken? Or Annabelle Marlow? Like a bear protecting her cub. She hovered and safeguarded him. He was sure she would not think twice about sacrificing her life to save the boy’s. And then it was the boy himself. What possessed Johnny Madrid to fight so long and so hard? What forced those few who fought so tenaciously to hang onto the last vestiges of life? The knowledge that he contributed to the boy’s pain made him want to puke.
“Take Mrs. Marlow to her room so she can change into a dry dress. I will need her assistance during the operation.” Sutter ordered.
The Colonel turned toward him, arching an eyebrow. “Battlefield heroics, or guilt? Which one is it Dr. Sutter?”
“You ordered me to keep him alive and infirmed. I’m just carrying out my orders.”
“Surely you don’t think you can do anything for him now? Look at him. He died two hours ago. Death just hasn’t got around to collecting him yet.”
Sutter slowly straightened to his full height, his shoulders flung back, his chin jetted forward. “I was given an order, I intend to fulfill it.”
“And if I counter command that order?”
“You won’t Colonel. You won’t because if Madrid does make it and you get your Lieutenant back, you still hold all the cards. The boy dies, Lancer won’t do squat for you.”
“Alright. I’ll let you play doctor for a little while longer. The Lieutenant should be back in custody shortly.”
“Everyone is to give the doctor full cooperation.” The Colonel ordered, as he stepped back into the corner. He would not deny himself the pleasure of watching them haul Madrid out of the hole. He had to give them credit. They almost made it.
Scott continued to cover ground as rapidly as possible. The water had helped initially, giving him a boost of energy. But that was short lived. It did little now to ease the pain in his arm or his cramping leg muscles. He had pushed beyond their limit. He had to rest before he collapsed. Just for a few minutes.
He stretched out in the tall grass, pulling the sweat soaked hat over his face and breathed in the hot air. It was well over one hundred degrees today. Not a breeze to stir the air. As best he could figure it was late afternoon, maybe four or five. This time of year the sun wouldn’t set until almost nine. He still had several hours of daylight left. The gods take a little and give a little…he thought ironically, a little more sun to light his way, a little more sun to bake the life out of him.
Another hour and he would reach the line shake. He could rest there for a while. Tend to his arm, put some food into his stomach. That would still give him a couple more hours of daylight to get all that much closer to home. By early morning Johnny could be safely back at Lancer. The thought at first thrilled him, then crushed his chest like a physical blow. How long could Johnny stay hidden in that room? How long before the Colonel found him? How long could he hold onto the fragile grip he had on life?
“Johnny…” he moaned. “I’m trying, brother. Just hold on. Just a little while longer. Please, hold on.”
Pushing the morbid thoughts from his mind he crawled to his knees then pushed himself up, slowly turning in a circle. Nothing but open grassland. He studied the knoll two, maybe three miles to the northeast. Just over that knoll was the line shack.
Supporting his injured arm with his right hand he staggered on, counting off each step as one step closer to Johnny’s rescue.
The sun was beginning to set. Blue sky gave way to a pink cast as night nudged ever closer. It had taken him much too long. Each step was an agonizing study in misery. He had pushed past what the human body could endure, and yet he was still on his feet. Because the cost of faltering now was too great. He would not lose Johnny to a madman. He had only just found him three years ago. A life’s dream suddenly answered. A brother. A man who knew him as well as he knew himself. A man he could trust and love with his entire soul. A friend.
Their beginnings had been shaky. How could he have known that the brash, dust covered cowboy who hitched a ride on his stagecoach that fateful day would turn out to be his half brother. A man he would grow to like and respect and love.
He longed to see those laugh lines crinkle around azure blue eyes at some obtuse joke only he knew. Or feel the smarting sting of one of his comebacks. He may not have been educated in formal schooling, but he was very close to being the smartest man he had ever met.
A sound caught his attention. Cows mewing over the rise. He was there. He had made it. Now, it was only a matter of time before this would all be over. He pushed his trembling legs up the knoll, his feet slipping out from under him just as he made the crest.
In that moment he saw a man on horseback. A familiar face. It was Tray. A stupid grin spread across his face, who else would it be than one of Johnny’s drinking buddies? It was almost over. A feeling of euphoria spread over him. He felt like laughing out loud. He had made it. Home and help were only a dozen yards away.
He scrambled to his feet, his cry for help a mere rasp, his voice robbed by fatigue and a throat so dry he could barely swallow.
Then something caught his eye and he dropped back down . Another rider. He waited and listened.
“Boss says for you to come back in.” Jelly’s voice! That was Jelly’s voice. Scott couldn’t suppress the wide grin that split his cracked lips. “Jelly…” he nearly cried.
“What’s up?” That was Tray.
“Val came by. Those High Riders hit another ranch. The Perkins place. The boss is afraid it’s gonna be us next. He wants every man he can get to protect the estancia.”
“Was Scott with `em this time?”
Scott caught his breath, his grin evaporating.
“No. Not this time. But the boss don’t want to take no chances. Scott knows every inch of this place. If’n he’s got a mind to take the place over, Murdoch wants to be ready.”
Take the place over? Scott’s mind reeled. What in hell were they talking about?
“Still can’t believe Scott’s in on all this. What makes a good man turn like that, Jelly?”
“Murdoch thinks he just couldn’t take the pain of Johnny’s death. Those two were closer than any two brothers I ever saw in my life. Scott was probably so full of pain…”
Scott didn’t move. He couldn’t. What he was hearing couldn’t be true. Murdoch couldn’t think…
“Just about broke his heart when he had to agree to bring the boy in to Val if he showed hisself.”
“You think he will? I mean, turn him in.”
“Murdoch’s a proud man, an honest man. He’ll hate hisself all his life, but he’ll do it. Sure as spring turns ta summer.”
“If he gets the chance. I’ve been hearing the boys talking. Now, you know I like Scott as much as the next guy, but he crossed the line when he stole the bank’s money. Not a fella here that wasn’t affected by that. And there wasn’t a man here who didn’t like Johnny. Hell, he’s the one who kept a lot of us here when times got rough or the old man came down a little too hard on someone. With Johnny gone, I don’t know how many man men are gonna stay. Especially the vaqueros. He got something special with them.”
“Your point, Tray?” Scott could hear the uncertainty in Jelly’s voice.
“The point is, if any one of us got to Scott first we’d haul him into Green River for the bounty. And not every man would go through the trouble of bringing him in alive.”
“An you Tray? Would Scott make it to Green River alive?”
There was a long hesitation, “Yep. For Johnny’s sake. I know how much he loved his brother. Not to say I wouldn’t take the reward, but I’d get him there alive. Let the law hang him.”
Stunned, Scott stared up into the sky, the pink tinge giving way to a purple haze. He could barely breathe in and out. He felt numb. All the fight, all the will to go on bled out of him as if someone had stabbed him in the gut. The refuge he sought, Murdoch and home were gone. Destroyed by a madman. He couldn’t think straight. His own father thought he was a murderer, a bank robber, a high rider who drove ranchers from their land. And he thought Johnny was dead.
But it didn’t matter. They could throw him in jail if it meant getting Johnny free from the Colonel. Surely Murdoch would understand when he explained everything.
Jelly would protect him back to the ranch, even if Tray wanted the reward. He squeezed his eyes and summoned strength from where there was none and tried to climb to his feet.
But suddenly everything was quite again. No more nickering of horses, no more jingling of tack. And then the unmistakable sound of horse’s hooves disappearing in the distance.
They were gone. He had let them slip away. His one hope, his brother’s chance for survival. He let it slip away.
He closed his eyes against the pounding of anger and betrayal in his head. What had he done?
Johnny swallowed back the sob of pain that threatened to escape his lips as he was lifted onto a stretcher. He was aware of little more than the need to not let those around him know how much he hurt. He had survived as Johnny Madrid by never showing fear, never revealing the pain. Fear and pain made you vulnerable, gave the opponent the upper hand. Stripped you of your pride. And pride was all he had left now. Scott was gone. But he had one more person left to fight for, Mrs. Marlow. She had stood by him steadfastly. He would fight for her. Damn if the Colonel would take one more person away from him.
He felt ropes tied around his chest, criss-crossed beneath his arms, pulled tightly around his thighs until he couldn’t move an inch against the stretcher. Then he was lifted vertically and his world sank into a black oblivion.
Dr. Sutter watched carefully as his patient was hauled up through the trap door. He was relieved to see the boy’s head dropped forward on his chest, unconsciousness was the best thing at the moment. Movement of any kind would cause extreme pain. He made the four men hauling the litter stop while he took Johnny’s vital signs then motioned them on.
He had already given a dozen orders on how he wanted the kitchen set up to act as his surgery. The table was to be washed down with soap, water and alcohol. Clean sheets and blankets were to be found. Water was to be boiled. When Anna was finished changing she would sit with the boy while he went to his infirmary and collected the instruments and medications he would need.
He looked down at his hands and wondered if they still held the touch he would need for the delicate operation. He had been a good doctor at one time, better than good, a fine doctor. Until the war. Until butchering poor souls was the only way to keep them alive.
He followed the stretcher into the kitchen and ordered the men to carefully set Johnny on the floor next to the table. He and Anna would scrub him down before lifting him onto the surgical table. Further infection was an enemy he did not want to have to deal with.
An hour passed and everything was in place. Lanterns were collected from throughout the house to add to the fading sunlight filtering into the kitchen. Anna and Sutter had stripped the dirty nightshirt off Johnny and washed him down head to toe with strong soap and alcohol. Even unconscious the sting of the alcohol running into his leg wounds brought a moan of pain from the injured man.
Anna felt Johnny’s forehead and blanched at the heat. His fever had steadily risen since he was pulled from the hidden room.
“Anna, I know you have done your fair share of doctoring over the years, but this is going to be different.” Sutter looked down at Johnny, his face a map of the pain he had already endured. “But if we are going to help this boy we are going to have to work together as a team. Whatever I need, you get. Don’t ask questions. Believe it or not, I am a competent doctor.”
Anna nodded. She brushed the dark hair, heavy with sweat from Johnny’s forehead. His pallor was as white as the bed sheet. “He’s been through so much.”
“I know. But we can’t think of that now. The only thing I want you to think about are my orders.”
They both looked up when the door opened and the Colonel walked in.
“This is my surgery, Sir.” Dr. Sutter proclaimed. “If you would be so kind as to leave until the operation is over.”
“I’m curious to see if you still have what it takes doctor.” He slammed the door behind him. “I will stay.”
Sutter’s first instinct was to stand the Colonel down, to fight for his right as a doctor in his own operating theater. A feeling he had not experienced in far too long. But time was against him now. He had to pick his fights carefully. It could mean the matter of life or death. Reluctantly he motioned to a chair next to the door. “Then you can make yourself useful. Make sure no one else comes in.”
The Colonel nodded and pushed the chair against the door and sat down waiting expectantly. “Any time you’re ready doctor.”
Sutter leaned down close to Johnny’s face, shaking his shoulder. “Johnny…wake up, Johnny. Just for a minute. I have to talk to you.”
Johnny tried to turn his head away. The pain in his legs was too much. He wanted to hide in the black oblivion. Just for a little while longer, until he regathered his strength to fight the pain.
“Johnny…it’s Dr. Sutter. Do you know who I am?”
A strange smile touched Johnny’s lips and he whispered, “…The butcher.”
“Yes. For far too long. But I am a very good doctor. I have to operate on your ankle. Do you understand, Johnny? I have to fix the bone.”
“No…!” Johnny’s eyes snapped open. “No. Sam’ll do it. Just take me home.”
“There’s not enough time. You have to trust me.”
The irony of the statement didn’t get past Johnny and he laughed, setting off a spasm of coughing, and he drifted back to where the pain was just a memory. He would stay here for a while where it was safe, until he regained his strength. No butcher was going to touch his leg. Sam would fix him up. He always did before. With Teresa by his side, and now Mrs. Marlow to help. He’d wait. There was no hurry anyway.
“Johnny.” Mrs. Marlow’s lips were touching his check. “Do you trust me, Johnny?”
Yes, of course he trusted her. Why would she ask such a question? She was the only good thing to happen in this nightmare.
“You…all right?” he asked, too tired now to open his eyes.
“I’m fine Johnny.” He felt her soft hand brushing his cheek.
“Scott isn’t back yet. Do you trust me Johnny?”
Johnny felt her hand slip around his, threading her fingers between his, soft and warm. Her breath was sweet against his cheek. He trusted her. She had held him together. He suddenly remembered his promise to himself to fight for her. She was the only thing left worth fighting for.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“And I trust the doctor, Johnny.”
Johnny nodded. He trusted Anna more than he feared Sutter.
“Alright then, Johnny,” Sutter motioned for Anna to prepare the anesthesia. “I’m going to give you some ether, don’t be alarmed at the smell, you will simply fall asleep. When you wake up after surgery I will have medications to help with the pain. Johnny, I promise you that I will do everything I can to make right what has been done wrong to you.”
Johnny’s hand clamped around the doctor’s wrist with amazing strength, “Take care of her.” he whispered. “No matter what, take care of her.”
Sutter gently pushed his hand back down on the table. “I promise I will take care of you both.” He nodded and Anna held a square of cloth saturated with ether next to his nose and mouth. “Breathe normally,” he coaxed. “That’s it.” He watched Johnny’s body slacken, relaxing deeper into the table.
The Colonel chuckled from his seat, “Very touching Doctor. Was that for his benefit or yours?”
Scott was astounded to find that he had drifted off to sleep, still laying on the far side of the knoll. He tried to remember if what he thought he heard was real or just a terrible nightmare.
But it was all too real. A nightmare come true. He looked up at the canopy of stars above him and realized he had slept for several hours.
He struggled to sit up, his injured arm dead weight. He knew he had developed a fever, his body trembled with the chills.
What was he going to do now? He still had to get help for Johnny. And home was the best place.
But he had to reach the ranch without being seen. Tray was right. If there was a reward out for him, dead or alive, he was an easy target. Not to mention the Colonel’s men. They would not have given up yet. They had too much to lose if he reached help.
Pushing himself to his knees, he crawled up the knoll and slid down the other side, every movement bringing new torment to his arm.
Hunched over, he scrambled toward the line shack.
Inside he decided not to light a lantern, instead he lit a match and found what he needed, beef jerky in the pantry and the medical kit stowed beneath the cot. He had checked it himself last month, never thinking that it was his own life he would be saving with it.
Pulling a chair over to the window he used the moonlight to cut away the bloody shirt from his arm and poured the antiseptic over the enflamed wound, biting back the cry of agony as the liquid burned raw flesh. He carefully bandaged it and slipped his arm into a new sling he fashioned out of a grain sack. Mixing two packets of powder into a tin cup of water, he drank the medicine that would help bring down the fever and fight the infection.
It would take him the better part of a day to make it to the ranch under the best of circumstances. Injured and on the run he knew he was looking more likely at two. But first he needed to rest, just a couple of hours. Let the medicines begin their work.
He put everything back in its place and found several blankets to cover himself. The cot felt like layers of cotton beneath his aching body. Just a couple of hours, then he could continue on in the early hours of the morning when it was at its darkest.
His last thought was of Johnny before sleep carried him away.
Anna thought she had died and gone to hell. She had treated her share of injuries, everything that could happen on a working ranch, from broken bones to lacerations to fevers. But she had never been exposed to the horrors of seeing a leg cut open from just below the knee to the top of the instep. Dr. Sutter worked quickly, but meticulously, cutting away infected tissue, manipulating bones with his fingers.
Blood covered her hands and apron, spilled over onto her shoes. The smell sickened her stomach. Again and again she squeezed the round bulb attached to the metal tube and suctioned off more blood around the exposed bone. The ether threatened to make her light headed. But the doctor seemed oblivious to all of it. His fingers worked deftly.
“Look at this,” he said, his fingers tracing the leg bone above the ankle, “all these white lines, they are all substantial fractures. A dozen of them. The bullet initially weakened the bone then the fall out of bed was enough to splinter it like this. The bone will explode with the smallest amount of pressure on it.”
“What are you going to do?” She looked toward Johnny’s flaccid face, the ether keeping him a world away from them.
“I read somewhere where an arm bone was wired together, like a cracked fence post. After the bone healed the wire was removed. The patient made a full recovery, with full use of his arm.”
“Wire a human bone?”
“Anna. I don’t know Johnny Madrid from Adam, but I do know that he is one hell of a fighter. And I also know that he would do anything to return to the life he knew. There’s an outside chance, just a chance, that I can give that to him. But…” He looked at her, held her eyes in his, “the decision is not mine alone. It means a long painful recuperation period, that’s if he gets out of here alive.
She remembered the night, how long ago was it now, when she had sat next to his bed while Scott slept and they talked. All night. Johnny’s eyes glowed with excitement as he relived his long rides across open country with his horse Barranca. Or simply walked the land that was his, Lancer land.
“There’ll be times during his recovery when he will curse us, when he would just as soon send us to damnation as look at us for what we are about to do.”
“I don’t know. Isn’t there another way?”
“If we were in a hospital or a clinic I would put him in traction, with weights and counter pulleys, allowing the bone time to knit together. It’s not something that can be done here. Anna, wiring is the only way to give this boy a chance. And you have to know, it still may not be enough. He has a high fever, he’s been through so many traumas in the past week…”
“I’ll take the decision out of your hands.” The Colonel stepped forward looking over the doctor’s shoulder at Johnny’s leg.
“Do it, doctor. That’s an order. It’s almost worth keeping Madrid alive to see if your little experiment works. Whatever you need will be at your disposal.”
“Why?” Anna asked.
“Because, I can’t wait to see the look on young Lieutenant Lancer’s face when you tell him what you have done to his brother. Now, if time is of the essence then you had better proceed at once. What will you require doctor?”
“Wire. Thin flexible wire that will not rust. Silver wire is recommended, but we have none here. I will need a new splint. When I’m done with the operation I will draw a diagram of exactly what I want.”
Sutter reached down and clasped Johnny’s hand, feeling how cold it was. “And we must do this quickly. There is a chance he could go into shock from blood loss.”
“I may have the wire you need,” the Colonel said standing up and opening the door. “Hendricks,” he called to someone outside, “get Mace front and center with that belt he’s always parading around with.”
“Anna, thread a needle with surgical thread, the wire will be too thick to fit through the eye of the needle, we’ll have to attach it to the thread and pull it through that way. And keep an eye on the ether. Don’t let him come to now.”
With shaking hands Anna threaded the needle, trying to keep her eyes off Sutter’s manipulations of bone and tendons.
Sergeant Mace arrived with his belt. A length of silver wire ran down the center attached at three inch intervals with silver dollars in which small holes were bored into the coins to attach to the belt with more silver wire.
“Will this do?” the Colonel asked.
Sutter nodded. “It will have to. Strip the wire and put it in the boiling water.”
Mace’s face paled. “My belt. You can’t…”
The Colonel turned on him, his voice brooking no challenge. “Dismissed Sergeant.”
In minutes the wire was sterilized and set to cool on the operating table.
“Are you ready, Anna?”
Anna nodded, not at all sure if she was ready for this. She watched in fascination as Dr. Sutter weaved the needle and silver wire, wrapping the weakened bone from ankle to mid -calf. He cut off the unused wire and quickly examined the area.
“If we can keep his leg immobilized and free of infection this may work. I’ll insert a drainage tube before suturing the opening, then we will hope for the best. In six weeks we’ll reopen the incision and remove the wire. A few more weeks of rest after that should tell us if we were successful.”
“So much damage.”
“I know, but the human body is remarkable in its ability to heal itself. In time, the only thing to remind Johnny of this ordeal will be a scar. Now, let’s get this sutured so I can give the Colonel the diagram for the splints. If his leg is not held in place properly this will all have been for nothing.”
Feeling more tired than she could remember in a very long time, Anna followed the rest of the doctor’s directions and half an hour later they were done. She hoped they had done the right thing. The operation had been so drastic. Johnny would still have to face another surgery to remove the wire. Her worst fear was this was just an attempt on the doctor’s part to appease his own guilt. And if that was the case then she too would have to take some of the blame.
She looked down at Johnny, so still, trusting her with his very soul.
“We’ll get you through this, Johnny,” she promised, “we’ll get you through this and back home, somehow.”
Anna felt mentally and physically exhausted. What she had just witnessed would stay with her a lifetime. She looked toward the window and welcomed the fading sunlight. An end to the day, an end to the gruesome ordeal she had just been a part to. As the lamp light replaced the last rays of the setting sun she reached a trembling hand out to brush away a strand of dark hair from Johnny’s forehead. He lay motionless on the recovery table, freshly washed and a clean nightshirt pulled over his thin body. Remnants of the surgery still remained. A pile of blood-stained towels and her own apron, heavy with blood, soaked in a basin of crimson water. She touched the splint Sutter had improvised and shuttered.
She remembered watching with morbid curiosity as the doctor placed a cloth over three narrow planks of wood, hinged together with wire, poured sand down the middle then covered it with another cloth. Gently he centered Johnny’s leg on the splint and more sand was poured between the cloths until his leg was firmly packed on both sides before he pulled the splint together using wire and nails as studs to lace it together like a knee-high shoe from mid thigh to heel. Another, smaller piece of wood was wired to the bottom of the splint which lifted Johnny’s foot to a walking position and pulled in place with more wires.
“After the incision has begun to heal and there is no more infection present we can use a normal cast, but this allows me to check and clean the wound.” Dr. Sutter explained, trying to ease Anna’s concerns. “It’s vital that we keep the sutures free of infection. The wire will be a problem all its own.”
“Do you think it will work?” Anna touched the splint with trembling hands.
“He’s young and a fighter. I would say he has more chances than most. Now, let’s get him ready to be moved back to his room. I want him settled in before the anesthesia wears off.”
“I’ll send a couple of my men up to straighten the room,” the Colonel announced. “I want to be kept informed on his recovery.”
“Why the solicitudes Colonel?” Sutter asked. “It hardly fits you.”
“Believe me doctor, I’m not concerned about the boy, only how I can use his condition to control his brother. By the way, he should be returning to us shortly. My men have spotted him. A worthy adversary, the Lieutenant. It would have been interesting if he were under my command during the war.”
“You won’t win, you know,” Sutter said, “No matter what you do to those boys you won’t win.”
“We’ll see doctor.” The Colonel opened the door, motioning to his guard. “I want four men to help move Madrid to his room. Both the doctor and the woman will be confined with him.” He looked back at Sutter and smiled, “If you will excuse me doctor, I have to prepare a welcome back party for our errant Lieutenant.”
Sutter looked back down at Johnny Lancer and shook his head. All this pain, all this suffering. The Colonel would pay. Somehow he would pay.
Scott awoke surprised to see sunlight filtering through the small window overlooking the cot. He had planned to only sleep a couple hours at the most, but his body needed the rest and he had to admit he felt better for it.
Gone was the heat and chills of the fever and his arm, though still terribly painful, was not all consuming like it was last night.
He struggled to stand up, waiting for his legs to stop shaking before crossing the small room and gathering together a passable breakfast.
He still had another four hour walk before he reached the ranch and even when he got there he couldn’t just blithely walk in. He had to approach cautiously. Tray was right. There were men who would not think twice before gunning him down for the reward. He had to have time to talk to Murdoch, explain to him exactly what was happening. His father would listen, once he was there. And a rescue party could be sent to Mrs. Marlow’s house. Johnny could be safe by the end of this day.
Hindered by his injured arm, it took him time and effort to open the cans of beans and peaches he found in the cupboard. He added beef jerky to the plate and ate until his stomach was at last full.
Filling his canteen from a barrel of water near the stove, he grabbed his borrowed hat and stepped out into the morning sun.
Scott looked across the rolling hills of dry grass and wildflowers. He was home, on Lancer land, but he was still not safe. There were miles of open land between him and the hacienda. He longed to be sitting in the great room, Murdoch sitting at his desk sipping a glass of his best bourbon while Johnny sat opposite him on the floor in front of the fireplace waiting for him to move in one of their marathon games of chess. Who would have thought that it would be Johnny who bested him at a game he thought he owned.
He should have known, Johnny kept surprising him from the moment they first met. On one hand he could be as gentle as any man, seeing nature in all its beauty. He could gentle a wild horse with a few words and an easy hand. Then a moment later he could turn into the most frightening man he had ever encountered. When Johnny Madrid rose from the shadows he erased all the gentleness, replacing it with the cold calculated gunslinger he once was.
But now he was Johnny Lancer, in the hands of a mad man. Scott knew that each moment he delayed was a moment he robbed from his brother’s life. Determined to end the nightmare, he headed toward home.
Johnny’s first conscious sensation was pain. Riveting pain so intense it took his breath away. It’s nexus was his left leg, but it traveled up his body, seared his chest, throbbed at his shoulder and pounded in his head. He heard someone moan in the distance and something sharp pricked his left arm. The pain lifted off him like a heavy weight and he followed it into a deep soothing blackness.
Dr. Sutter stood up straight, empty syringe in his hand, stretching his back muscles, “I can keep him under for the next twenty-four hours then we will have to space the morphine injections so he can start drinking fluids before he becomes more dehydrated.”
“His fever is still too high” Anna continued to sponge Johnny’s face and chest.
“I know. It will probably remain high until we can get him to keep the fluids down. Then we can give him salicylic acid for the fever and corn flower tincture for the infection. Until then we have to keep him as comfortable as possible.”
Anna turned her head away from the grotesque splint that held Johnny’s leg immobile. She wondered for a fleeting moment if the cure was worth the pain.
“It’s worth it, you know.” Sutter stood behind her and squeezed her shoulders. “It won’t be easy, but I don’t think anyone is willing to accept the alternative. “
“What will he think?”
“He will be scared at first. A natural reaction. And he will hate us both for a time. But in the end….” He turned her around to look into her eyes, “It was the right thing to do. If we didn’t try then we would be robbing this young man of at least a chance of a full recovery. We owe it to him to do everything within our power.”
“I know.” She patted his hand on her shoulder, “I’m just tired. It seems that this has been going on for so long I can’t remember when life was normal.”
“You need to get some rest. Johnny is going to need a lot of care when he wakes up. Sleep while you have the opportunity. We can take shifts. I’ll wake you in four hours.”
“Promise.” He chuckled, “I’m too old to play the hero at this stage of my life.”
“I don’t know. You’re doing a pretty good job of it whether you know it or not.” Anna’s voice suddenly turned sober. “Do you think the Colonel found Scott?”
“Part of me hopes he has, because that means the boy is still alive. But part of me hopes not, because Scott is our last and only hope of getting out of here.”
“Maybe he was able to find help somehow.”
“Let’s hope so. Now you lie down and get some rest. I’ll watch Johnny.”
Anna reluctantly laid down and was asleep the minute her head hit the soft pillow.
Scott heard the sound of men’s voices over the rise. He remembered that part of the fence needed mending. Should he show himself? Ask for help and a fast horse to the house? He didn’t recognize the voices. Johnny would have. He seemed to pick up on everything.
Being out here alone, not able to trust anyone, not knowing friend from foe, afraid that over each rise a bullet was waiting for him, made Scott realize the kind of life Johnny had led for so many years. When he should have been surrounded by the love of a family, going to school, dating the prettiest girl in town, he was fighting for his life. Facing the prospect of death every morning, amazed to still be alive at the end of every day. Scott couldn’t begin to comprehend what must have gone through Johnny’s mind when he was just fourteen and already killed his first man. The wonder of it all was that Johnny had turned out to be one of the kindest men he had ever met. It was as if Johnny accepted the worst that life had to offer and stored it in a hidden place within himself. Scott had seen it emerge a few times and when it did Johnny Lancer was the one who was stored away, hidden from those who faced Johnny Madrid.
Was it the Madrid side that kept Johnny alive when most other men would have given up? He wasn’t sure if he could have withstood the tortures the Colonel doled out. He had faced his own hell hole in Libby Prison, knew the depths of despair that could haunt a man. Maybe time diminished pain, diluted hurtful memories until most of what happened seemed like a terrible nightmare. Maybe your own pain is never as harrowing as watching the pain of others, especially a loved on. For whatever reason, Scott knew he could not let Johnny endure anymore. He would fight to the death to get Johnny out of the Colonel’s grasp, and if he couldn’t, he would do what Johnny would want him to do…
There was a hoot of surprise, from the other side of the knoll, followed by a string of obscenities then the howling of laughter as someone fell into the clutches of a practical joke.
Scott smiled sadly, how could life go on so normally when his life was torn apart.
Pushing himself into a crouching position, he started running in the opposite direction of the men. It was too risky. He had to get to Murdoch.
By the placement of the sun Scott knew he had taken longer than he expected. It had taken him well over five hours to reach the stand of trees a quarter mile from the house. From here he could see the estancia‘s courtyard and patio. Everything was quiet. It was the hottest part of the day and most of the vaqueros were taking their afternoon siesta. This was the perfect time for him to sneak into the house and confront Murdoch alone.
His heart was in his throat as he thought of how close he was to it all being over.
He took one last look around and climbed to his feet. One mad dash to the house would be best.
He took one step and froze.
“I’ll give you credit Lieutenant, you almost made it.”
Scott fell to his knees as if he were punched in the gut. Not now. Not when he was this close. He turned slowly to see one of the Colonel’s men sitting fifty feet from him, gun aimed at his head.
“The only mistake you made was staying in the line shack last night. You left Sergeant Burnett’s bloody coat behind. Careless.”
Scott shrugged. “So now what?”
“We go back. The Colonel doesn’t like it when his prisoners escape. He takes it personal. And when the Colonel is unhappy with himself, he’s as ornery as a rattle snake.”
“And if I won’t go back?”
“I’ll kill you where you sit.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn. I’m a dead man whether it’s here or there. I think I’d rather die on my own property.”
“Do you see that third tree over there yonder?”
Scott followed the pointed finger and saw a tall silver oak tree.
“One of our unit’s best marksmen is in that three. If he doesn’t get word from me in another five minutes he is going to shoot the next person who walks out of that house. Who’s it going to be, Lieutenant, who’s going to get that a slug right between the eyes? Murdoch Lancer? Maybe that pretty little sister of yours, Teresa. Or that old man Jelly…Right between the eyes. I’ve seen him do it from a lesser distance. He don’t miss.”
Scott looked from the tree to the house. It could be done with a steady shooter. He could do it.
“Well, Lieutenant, what’s it gonna be? Time’s running out.”
Scott’s shoulders sagged and he dropped his chin to his chest, thrusting his hands out in front to be tied.
“I don’t think so. Hands behind your back Lancer. It really is a shame. But your brother will be happy to see ya. I’m sure the Colonel’s found him by now.”
Scott allowed himself to be pulled to his feet and pushed toward a waiting horse behind a stand of bushes. He’d almost made it.
Damn…he almost made it.
“Hold still! Let me clean this first.”
“After I’ve seen Johnny.” Scott tried to strong arm the old doctor aside but found he was weaker than he thought.
“You listen to the doctor, young man.” Anna was standing behind him now, holding his shoulders down so he couldn’t stand up.
“You have a very sick brother next door. He is going to need every ounce of your energy, and then some. If you are flat on your back with an infected arm you won’t be able to help Johnny, what’s more you will be taking the doctor’s valuable time caring for you when it should be devoted to him. Now, use some of those brains God gave you and let the doctor fix your arm.”
Scott acquiesced, partly because they made sense, and partly because he was too tired to fight anymore. The ride back from Lancer had been long and demoralizing. He had come so close to making it. One mistake, one stupid slip-up and he was back where he started.
“There now,” Dr. Sutter finished cleaning the deep gouge the bullet had left and applied an ointment before bandaging it tight. “The wound is too old to suture, so you will have a nasty scar there. But the bullet didn’t do too much damage. The arm will be sore for a couple of weeks. I want you to keep it in a sling until I say otherwise.”
“Alright, if you’ll tell me about my brother. You two have been skirting around the issue since I walked in here. I want to know what you’re so afraid to tell me.” With a sudden realization, Scott’s face went white. “He’s not…”
“No! No, he’s under heavy sedation, but he’s holding his own.” Dr. Sutter pulled up a chair and straddled it backwards, folding his arms over the top. “You know how bad Johnny was when you left.”
Scott nodded, fear edging up in his stomach.
“He got worse. The fall out of bed produced a dozen or more hairline fractures in the bone right above his ankle where the bullet was lodged, and the infection spread. He was barely alive when we hauled him out of that room. I opened up his leg, cleaned what I could of the infection and found the fractures. Under normal circumstances, in a hospital setting, I would have put him in traction for the next six to eight weeks. But we aren’t in a hospital, we’re not even in a poorly stocked clinic. I did what I could to secure the bone. At the moment it is so weak that the smallest of movements could shatter it.”
Scott grabbed Sutter by the jacket and jerked him closer, “I told you not to touch him.”
“Scott, no.” Anna worked to pry his hand loose. “There was no other choice. Johnny would not have made it another hour.”
“I did what I had to do to save your brother’s life, and his leg.”
“What did you do?” Scott found it hard to form the words.
“There is a new procedure I read about in a medical journal, yes, I do read medical journals. There has been some success in wiring the bone together, somewhat like grafting a tree. The bone is held tightly in place until it has time to knit back together.”
“You wired Johnny’s leg?” Scott clutched at the chair back Sutter sat on, forcing back the desire to pummel the butcher to death.
“The bone itself. In six to eight weeks when the bone has knitted and settled then we go back in and remove the wire.”
Scott stood up, his mind racing. “What right did you have to experiment on my brother?”
“Scott, please.” Anna was at his side again, leading him back to his chair, “I told Dr. Sutter to go ahead. Scott, there was no other way. I trusted him. I still do.”
“Does he know?”
“Not yet. He hasn’t regained consciousness yet. I’m keeping him under with morphine for as long as I can. He must remain as still as possible for the next forty eight hours.”
“Don’t tell him.” Scott sat back down. “Don’t tell him until he needs to know. I know Johnny. I know the kinds of things that will scare him to death. This will.”
“A patient has the right to know what…”
“He will. When the time is right. When we get out of here. When he’s home with family. When he’s not worrying about me as much as he’s worrying about himself. Please, I know what I’m saying.”
Anna put an arm around his shoulder, “You are taking on a lot of responsibility. Johnny may not like being kept in the dark.”
“I’d rather have him mad at me than give up here and now. Can I see him?”
“Yes. But one more thing.” Sutter squeezed Scott’s good arm gently, “Don’t be alarmed when you see him. I had a special splint fashioned to secure his leg, it looks ungainly and uncomfortable, and it will be when he is conscious, but it is necessary. He is also still very sick. The fever has not come down like I was hoping and he is very weak. The attack by the scorpions drained him of all his strength.”
“He might not make it?” He waited for the doctor, but got his answer from Anna. She turned away, not able to face him.
“We’ll do everything we can, Scott. He has fought this far, I don’t see him giving up now.”
A slow steady clap from the doorway startled them, all.
“Very inspiring Doctor.” The Colonel stood at the door, his shoulder leaning against the jamb, “Your bedside manner is improving. Did you bother to tell the Lieutenant that part of the reason the bone was so weak was the constant use of carbolic acid? Oh, he will tell you that he was simply following orders, my orders. But what doctor with any kind a of a backbone would deliberately inflict more pain on his patient? Dr. Sutter is an abomination to the medical world. That is why I picked him. Scum of the earth.”
Scott snorted, “I find it rather amusing that you of all people feel you have the right to pass judgment.”
The Colonel smiled, “I see that your ordeal has not tempered that tongue of yours. Tell me Lieutenant, what kind of officer were you? Did you follow commands without question? Did you carry out your orders to the best of your ability?”
“When I knew the officer I was taking orders from was sane. Yes.”
The Colonel took one step into the room. “Which means?”
“Which means you are insane if you think you can take over this valley by force. You’re not the first one to try. You could ask Day Pardee, but he’s dead.”
“I know about Pardee. The man was short sighted. You can’t take over land like this with just force. You attack from all sides. You get the smaller ranchers to turn on the bigger spreads. You find the strongest man and you bleed him from the inside. Think about it Lieutenant, Murdoch Lancer thinks one son is dead and the other’s turned bad. Fighting a range war isn’t as easy when you’re spirit is broken.”
“Then you don’t know Murdoch Lancer.” Scott said quietly. “Nothing means more to him than his land. Nothing. He’ll fight you to the death. And he’ll win.”
“But rest assured you and Madrid are not my only means of tightening the noose around Murdoch Lancer’s neck. Do you know a man by the name of Herman Whitfield?”
“Can’t say that I do.”
“Your father does. Herman Whitfield owns a small spread twenty miles outside the railhead. Seems that the only passable trail passes right through the edge of his property. For a small fee of fifty dollars a year from the railhead, he’s let the herds cross his land. A generous man. But I’m not. Two weeks ago I persuaded Whitfield to sell his spread. The new fee will be five dollars a head.”
“You can’t do that.” Mrs. Marlow gasped.
“What’s to stop me? It’s legal. I can charge anything I want. It’s my property.”
Scott grabbed onto the back of the chair and held on, forcing the instinct to jump the man and beat him into the ground. But that would not help now. It would not help Johnny if he let himself get browbeaten into making a dumb mistake. He would bide his time. Just a little longer. Just until he could move Johnny again.
“By the way Lieutenant, be ready to ride tomorrow morning. We are going pay a visit to your father.” The Colonel slipped away from the door and they heard his steady footsteps disappear down the stairs.
“Are you alright Scott?” Anna slipped her arm around his good arm.
“He won’t win.” Scott pledged. “He won’t win. Now, can I see Johnny?”
“Of course.” Sutter nodded toward the next room. “He’s next door.”
Teresa went through the motions of helping Maria prepare lunch. It hardly seemed worth it anymore. Before Johnny and Scott arrived the three meals of the day were just excuses to sit and relax for a short time before carrying on with the chores. Sometimes Murdoch made it back for lunch, but more often than not, he would eat out on the range, working hard to keep the ranch going. He would never admit he needed help, and would never ask for any. Then Day Pardee showed up and everything changed. In time, for the better. After Johnny healed, and the brothers came to trust, then love each other, mealtime took on a special feel. Breakfast was always the same. Murdoch would merge from his room first, slow to waken and all bear. Scott would emerge next, still complaining about the unholy hour. In Boston he still had two more hours of pillow time before he had to rise. But Johnny always beat them to the punch. He would explode into the kitchen from the stables, after already putting in an hour’s work, yelling “Halo House,” then grab her by the waist and swing her around once before nuzzling against Maria’s neck and whispering something in Spanish that always got him a gentle slap in the face and an extra portion on his plate.
When she was lucky they all gathered for lunch. But dinner was always special. She could see the glint in Murdoch’s eye as he listened to his sons talk about their day. The meal didn’t always end on a good note, Johnny and Murdoch were still locking horns, but the love was still there, and she missed it so much. She wanted her life back again just the way it was. She wanted Johnny back again so she could feel that special thrill she felt when he was near.
She couldn’t bring herself to think that Johnny was dead. She just knew, someplace deep inside her soul, that she would know when he was gone. He was alive, she told herself. Ready to barge in through the front door, grabbing her up in his strong arms and twirling her around the room.
“Teresa..? Teresa, chica. We have a guest for lunch.” Maria stood before her, her face mirroring Teresa’s sadness. “Here is an extra place setting for Senor Crawford.”
Teresa accepted the dishes. She had stopped waiting with bated breath everything Val stopped by. He never had any good news. Only more unbelievable stories about Scott.
“Perkins is packing up and ready to leave,” Val said as she entered the dining area. “Nothing I say will stop him now. He’s scared. So are a lot of other people.”
“I know, Val.” Murdoch said bitterly. “But they have to hang on. Just a little while longer. Whoever is behind these raids is going to make a mistake sooner or later. We have to be ready when he does. That means we all have to stick together.”
“I know. But right now most of the other ranchers are not looking too kindly on you, Murdoch. They think you’ve been given special treatment because of Scott.”
“That’s not true!” Teresa set the dishes down on the table harder than she meant too. “Scott would never do the things he’s being accused of. And Johnny…well Johnny’s not dead and…”
“Honey, please,” Murdoch pulled a chair out for her to sit. “let’s not go into that now. I would give anything if I thought Johnny was coming back to us. But I just don’t see that happening.”
Val reached over the table and uncharacteristically squeezed her hand. “If anyone could make it Johnny could. But I’m sorry Teresa, it just ain‘t gonna happen. He’s been gone too long.”
“I won’t believe it. I never will, not until I see…” she trailed off, sitting back against her chair, watching Maria serve the food. She wasn’t hungry. How could she eat when she didn’t truly know if Johnny was alive or dead?
“I’ll tell ya, Murdoch, things aren’t looking good for you in town. It doesn’t help that you and the old widow Marlow are the only two ranches in the area that haven’t been hit.”
“Why not Mrs. Marlow?” Teresa asked, trying to dry her face and return to the conversation.
“Don’t know exactly. Maybe ‘cause she don’t have much of a ranch left. Not much cattle to worry about.”
“Land is sound though. Its just as good as Lancer.” Murdoch said. “Maybe they just don’t want to deal with the lady.”
“Well, she’s just about the hardest woman I’ve ever seen to understand. For years she’s been talking about how much she hated Mexicans. How she would never allow Johnny to step foot on her property, and if he did she’d shoot him dead on the spot. Last time she couldn’t say enough nice things about him.”
“What?” Teresa sat up straighter.
“I think she just felt bad for me that we hadn‘t found Johnny.” Murdoch mused.
“What did she say?” Teresa edged forward, “Exactly what did she say?”
“I don’t remember. Something about being sorry the boys were missing and how hard it must be on me to not know what happened to them. She said they were nice boys and if we found Johnny to send him over there for a piece of his favorite chocolate cake.”
“She said that?” Teresa stood up, pacing back and forth. “What else did she say?”
“Nothing important. What are you getting at?”
“Annabel Marlow would never invite Johnny over for a piece of cake. She hates him. She told me that if he ever stepped foot on her property she would shoot him down like the mongrel dog he is.”
“The woman was insane with grief after her husband and children were killed.”
“I know, but why would she change so suddenly? I used to go over once a month for quilting lessons. We were very close. Then Johnny came. Nothing was going to change her mind. And, believe me, she never says anything that she doesn‘t mean. She would never lie just to make you feel better Murdoch.”
“It still doesn’t mean…”
“No.” Teresa sat back down. “I think she was trying to give you some kind of sign”
“Now just hold on a minute here, Murdoch,” Val said, “let Teresa have her say.”
“What if the reason her ranch was not struck is because the high riders are there? And what if Scott and Johnny are being held there?”
“Honey. Johnny is…”
“No. You can’t be sure of that. Please, listen to me. What if she was trying to tell you that something was very wrong there?”
“It would be the perfect base of operations.” Val nodded. “It’s worth a look. I’ll take a ride out…”
“No. You can’t go.” Teresa jumped to her feet again, more animated than she had been since her brothers’ disappearance.
“What do you mean?”
“It would seem suspicious if you went again. Besides, she could tell me things that she couldn’t you. Please. I can take Cipriano with me. If she says nothing about him being there then we know something is very wrong.”
“I can’t let you go over there, Teresa. Especially if what you say is true. It’s too dangerous.”
“Please, Murdoch. You have to let me try. I have to be a part of this. I have to do something to help. I promise I will be very careful.”
“She’s got a good plan there, Murdoch.” Val grinned toward Teresa. “No wonder Johnny says you’re a spitfire.”
Teresa’s face turned red…”He’s said that about me?”
Val nodded. “He thinks the world of you Teresa. Everyone does.”
She turned her back on the men, not wanting them to see the tears well up in her eyes. Johnny thought of her. Not the way she thought of him, not yet. But that could change. With time and a little effort on her part…that could change.
“I’ll tell Cipriano what we have in mind. I don’t like it, but I’m willing to give it a try.”
With her back still to them she nodded. “Thank you Murdoch, I’ll get changed and be ready in twenty minutes.” She calmly walked out of the room until she was sure no one could see her then bolted up the stairs. She knew Johnny and Scott were there. She knew it as certain as anything she had ever known in her life.
Scott followed Dr. Sutter and Anna into the bedroom afraid of what he would find. Johnny had been so ill when he left him in that dark hell hole beneath the kitchen. He would never be able to forgive himself for what had been done to his brother. He knew it was not his fault. Both he and Johnny were just pawns in a game played by an insane man. But in his heart, where he could not reason with logic, he felt overwhelmingly guilty. He would have nightmares for all eternity of placing Johnny in that hot box…
“Scott,” Anna was at his side, guiding him to the bed. “Talk to him. He may not respond, but he’ll hear you.”
Scott stood speechless, his body trembling. He had seen death before. Far too often. As he looked down on his brother lying motionless, surrounding by a mound of pillows, he could not help but think that death had already arrived. His face was whiter then the sheet that covered his chest or the cloth laid across his brow to cool the fever that burned so fiercely in his body.
The new splint that encased his leg looked like something straight from a nightmare.
But it was the stillness that bothered him most. Johnny never relaxed, even in sleep he was active with his eyes moving beneath his lids or his fingers twitching. But he was so still, now, the only thing that hinted of a living being was the slight heave of his chest as he breathed.
He reached out with trembling hands to lift Johnny’s slack fingers. “What can I do?” he asked.
After checking Johnny’s breathing and pupil reaction Sutter stood up staring pensively at his patient. “It’s important he stay as still as possible, but he also needs water and he medications mixed with the water to bring down his fever and fight the infection. I’m going to delay the next injection of morphine now that you’re here. If you can keep him calm we may be able to get him to swallow a little water, at least enough to get the meds down.”
“The wire, will it cause infection too?”
“The body will always try to reject foreign matter. The wire was a crude substitute for the silver wire recommended, but it was the best we could do. I’m hoping the infection will settle down over the next few days.”
“We may not have that much time. The Colonel has plans.”
“I’m sure he does. For now, just look after your brother.”
Scott nodded, wringing a fresh cloth with cool water and wiping down Johnny’s flushed face. The Colonel would pay dearly for this.
Teresa held on to her basket of quilting materials as Cipriano pulled the buggy to a stop in front of Mrs. Marlow’s house. The smell of burning hay still lingered in the air, and the courtyard had a look of disarray to it. The ground looked chopped up, as if a lot of horses had passed through recently.
She glanced at Cipriano, dressed in his customary Mexican attire and knew if Mrs. Marlow didn’t object to him then something was terribly wrong.
The front door opened and Mrs. Marlow stepped out, followed by a tall man Teresa didn’t recognize.
“Teresa, my dear, what brings you here?” she asked, shading the sun from her yes with her hand.
“Did you forget what day it was?” Teresa asked cheerfully. She held up her quilting basket getting ready to step down from the buggy. “My monthly quilting lesson.”
“Oh, my dear,” Mrs. Marlow was all apologies, “it has been such a hectic week that I forgot all about it. And you drove such a long way. I am so sorry dear.”
“That’s alright, Mrs. Marlow. I know with everything going on…but I just needed to be away from the house for a little while. Murdoch has been as grouchy as a bear, Jelly hasn’t said two words. If not for Cipriano,” she leaned into Cipriano’s shoulder and patted his hand, “I think I would have lost my mind.”
“I know dear, things have been so difficult. Any word about your brothers?”
“Nothing new I’m afraid. Scott…well you know what they are saying about Scott. And Johnny…I worry about him so.”
“That boy,” Mrs. Marlow walked up to the buggy, her friend shadowing her every step, “the last time I saw him he was skin and bones. You’re going to have to put some weight on that boy. Forty pounds, maybe more. You send him over here, I’ll fatten him up. Some good down-home southern cooking, and a nice rich chocolate cake.”
“Annabel, aren’t you going to introduce me to this lovely young lady?” The man standing next to Mrs. Marlow smiled and a chill went down Teresa’s back. This was a dangerous man. Everything about him was just a little off center. He didn’t know Mrs. Marlow, there was no hint of friendship there, despite Anna’s forced smile.
“Oh I’m sorry. This is Teresa O’Brien” and she smiled at Cipriano, “lo siento, Señor, I don’t recall your name.”
Cipriano’s cheek tensed, but he recovered quickly, “Cipriano, Señora.”
“Yes. Now I remember. Teresa, my dear, I am so sorry I forgot about our quilting date. Perhaps next month? I understand Mrs. Crawford wanted to join us also.”
“That would be wonderful.” Teresa returned her basket to the buggy floor and reached her hand out to shake the Colonel’s. “It was a pleasure meeting you Sir.”
“My pleasure Miss O’Brien. Have a safe journey home.”
“Thank you, I will. Cipriano?”
Cipriano nodded and Teresa stared forward, not wanting Mrs. Marlow’s guest to see the grin on her face. Johnny was alive. She knew it for a fact now. She would soon have her family back with her again.
Scott watched with bated breath as Teresa and Cipriano talked with Anna and the Colonel. They must have known that something was amiss. To send Cipriano here to the Widow Marlow’s ranch under most circumstance would have been a death sentence for the Mexican Segundo.
There was no need to tie or gag him. The Colonel had made it clear if he made one sound Teresa would be dead. But it wasn’t needed.
The Colonel’s plan was beginning to unwind. He just hoped it would happen soon enough to save Johnny.
Scott watched the buggy disappear in the distance. The fact that Cipriano was with Teresa told him that Murdoch suspected something here. But was it enough? Was it soon enough?
He leaned his shoulder against the window casing, feeling the heat of the day outside warm the window and the walls. It seemed like an eternity ago that life was normal. When pain and fear didn’t consume their every waking moment, when it didn’t burrow into their dreams. When life was full of small pleasures and even smaller problems. When the most perfect thing was riding the range next to his brother. Free to laugh, free to enjoy just the moment for what it was.
He looked over at Johnny and a cold shudder ran down his spine. What did the future hold for him? Scott walked the short distance to the second bed and felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness. He touched the crudely made splint knowing the wood and wire that encased Johnny’s leg hid the obscene surgery the doctor had performed. He didn’t have the faith in the butcher that Anna had. He could only remember the smell of the carbolic and the cries of pain from his brother as the so-called doctor performed his duties.
A lot of people had a lot to answer for, none more than the doctor who leaned over Johnny, carefully checking his vital signs.
“What happens after this?” Scott asked coldly.
“We keep him as still as possible until the splint can be replaced with a regular cast.”
“I’m not talking about splints and casts, I’m talking about Johnny. When all your doctoring is done…”
“Will he be crippled?” Sutter stood up from his examination, pulling the light sheet back over Johnny’s chest and gently brushing back the hair that seemed to fall back purposely, inviting those who cared to lay a soothing hand on his forehead. “That I can’t tell you. I’ve done everything I can. A lot of it will be up to Johnny. His will to fight will be crucial. I’m not going to lie to you Mr. Lancer; your brother has a long and hard recovery ahead of him. Getting past the fever and regaining the strength he lost from his other injuries will only be the beginning.”
“He’s a fighter, doctor. I’ve never known him to quit.”
“He’s never been faced with what he will be facing now. He’ll need you and everyone around him to be strong, to fight for him when he has lost the will to fight himself.”
The words struck Scott like a physical blow. What had the Colonel done? How many lives would he destroy in his pursuit of power?
Teresa was on her way back to Lancer, soon Murdoch and Val would know they were here. But he held no idealistic hopes of a speedy or successful rescue. There were still forty armed men. A brutal leader who was dangerously unstable. And Johnny himself, would he survive the rescue or the trip home?
Sutter said they would be moving out first thing in the morning, headed for Lancer. The final confrontation. Whatever happened, Murdoch had to know about Johnny.
A low moan drew his attention back down to Johnny whose eyelids were fluttering in an attempt to open sleep heavy eyes.
“Hey there little brother. It’s about time you opened those eyes of yours.”
The doctor had explained that they had only a short window of opportunity to get Johnny to drink the medicated water that would help reduce the fever and fight the infection, before the pain returned and Sutter had to inject him with the morphine again. The danger of him moving around was too great. Johnny had to remain as still as possible.
“…Scott…?” Johnny still searched, looking for Scott’s voice with unfocused eyes.
“Yes, it’s me. Can you drink some of this water for me?” He gently raised his brother’s head with his good arm while the doctor dribbled the water down Johnny’s throat.
“That’s it.” Scott held him, waiting for Johnny to regain his strength before trying to swallow more.
“I thought…you…were dead…”
“Me? I told you I would be back. Some more water?”
Johnny took a couple more sips before his body jerked at a sudden spasm of pain in his leg.
Sutter quickly grabbed the syringe and injected the morphine.
“You take it easy, Johnny.” Scott lowered his head, “You’re going to go back to sleep for awhile. When you wake up I’ll be here waiting for you.”
“Promise?” Johnny asked, as his eyelids slid closed.
“Promise.” Scott stood up, his hand trembling.
“I’ve given him enough morphine to keep him out for about four hours, then we’ll repeat the procedure. With luck we can get the fever down and reduce the infection.”
“With luck we’ll be out of here soon!” Anna was in the room with the door closed before Scott and the doctor noticed her. “That Teresa is a smart girl.” she enthused. “She understood everything. Murdoch will know there are forty men here, and that you and Johnny are both here, alive”
“You’re sure she understood?” Scott asked, unwilling to get his hopes up again just to have them destroyed.
“I’m sure. And Cipriano, he is a smart one. I saw his eyes. He saw the horse tracks, and I think he saw at least one of the guards. He winked at me.”
Scott smiled. With nothing but affection he said, “You gotta be careful of those Mexicans, there’s a Don Juan in every one of them.”
Anna looked down at Johnny and her face softened. “If that boy is any indication, then I believe you are right Scott. How is he?”
“He was conscious for a couple of minutes and we were able to get fluids down him.” Sutter said, pinching the bridge of his nose, “If we can continue the routine every four hours then he has a chance. Anna, if you would prepare the powders and the morphine syringe for next time I will get some rest. I’m afraid I’m not as young as I used to be, or think I still am. Scott…” He turned to Scott. “I know this is a lot to take in all at once. But please, have a little faith in me. I was once a very good doctor until I lost my humanity. Your brother re-instilled it in me. Let me prove to him that he was right.”
Scott nodded. “For now.”
“That’s all I can ask for.” Sutter shuffled his tired body over to the second bed and collapsed on the soft mattress. “Humanity…” he mumbled. “I’d forgotten what that word meant.”
The night seemed endless. Every four hours Johnny came to, just enough to utter the same surprised words, drink the water spiked with the medicinal powders and fall back under the influence of the morphine as the first pangs of severe pain shot through his leg.
Anna and Scott took turns cooling down Johnny’s fevered face and chest. Scott’s own arm ached, and with a gentle but firm hand Sutter pulled him aside to clean and rewrap his wound. Scott was finding it harder and harder to dislike the man. His concern for Johnny was genuine. His regrets for everything he had done etched on his face. Perhaps the old man was right, Scott realized, Johnny had somehow rekindled his faith, brought back the doctor he used to be, the one who had, so many years ago, taken the Hippocratic Oath. A small smile played across Scott’s lips, Johnny Madrid Lancer had struck again.
The first rays of sun had barely touched the sky when Teresa and Maria pushed the carts laden with eggs, bacon, potatoes and coffee to the front courtyard where sixty men waited.
Val had managed to round up another thirty men to match Murdoch’s ranch hands.
Murdoch used his fork to bang against his tin coffee cup until there was silence in the courtyard. “First of all, I want to thank you men who have joined us. I know it was not an easy decision. But I want you to know that, if my son Scott has done the things he is accused of, I will be the first one to hand him over to Val. Second of all, there is a possibility that Johnny Lancer is still alive.”
There was a murmur of voices.
“I say a possibility. If so, that means there are perhaps three hostages at the Marlow ranch. Johnny, Scott and Mrs. Marlow.”
Val stepped forward. “I don’t want any of the hostages hurt. Understand? Cipriano here,” he motioned for Cipriano to stand next to him, “was at the Marlow ranch yesterday. Tell them what you saw Cip.”
“Sí Señor Val. Many horse tracks in the courtyard, four guards, hidden, but not so well.”
A general laugh welled up among the men.
“One on the roof of the hacienda, one behind the fire gutted barn, one behind the water trough near the barn and one behind a hot box in the center of the courtyard.”
A chill went down Murdoch’s spine. He had seen the black box. Idly wondered what use Anna Marlow would have for it. Never did it cross his mind that one of his own sons could have been tortured in it. Dear God. If it was true, which one? And the answer slammed into him like a hundred pound weight. Teresa was right. Scott would never have robbed that bank, killed the manager. Nothing could have forced him to do the things he was being accused of, unless he had no choice. Unless a brother he loved more dearly then life itself was dying a slow hideous death inside that box.
Murdoch suddenly felt Jelly at his side, his arm wrapped around his waist. “You all right boss?”
Murdoch shook his head. “It can’t be.” he whispered. “It can’t be true. Not my boy. Not Johnny.”
“Boss?” Jelly’s voice was filled with concern. “What you talkin’ about? Murdoch?”
“Jelly, I may have made a terrible mistake. One I will never be able to forgive myself for. I believe Teresa is right. I think both Scott and Johnny are at the Marlow ranch. Dear God, I hope we are not too late.”
Scott tried to coax Johnny to take just a few more sips of the water, but he was hardly able to swallow even the first two. In the past few hours his fever had risen and they could barely rouse him even when he was due another shot of morphine.
“Come on, Johnny. You’ve got to fight this.” He leaned down close to Johnny’s face, whispering in his ear as he wiped his face with a cool cloth, “Pretty soon you’ll be in your own room, in your own bed. You know that view you have of the corral outside your window…well as soon as you’re able you’re going to see Barranca again. If I know that horse he’s been giving Jelly fits. Never did understand the mind of a Palomino. But I guess you do. Kindred spirits in a way. Both of you happiest when you’re wild and free.”
He was startled when the door swung open and the Colonel stood in full dress uniform.
“It’s time, Lieutenant Lancer, for our final visit. Your father, no doubt, will just be awaking for another day. A day like any other day. But that is not to be. Today he is about to lose everything he holds precious. You, Lieutenant, have only one person to be concerned about, your brother. If our raid is successful, I will allow you both to go.
Of course, you will have no home to go back to, but I’m sure you will find adequate lodgings until you have regrouped and can carry on with your life without the Lancer Ranch.” He looked past Scott at Johnny, laying deathly still. “Your brother does not seem to be doing all that well this morning. Did he take a turn for the worse? That’s too bad. But it does give you more incentive to get the job done so you can look after him.”
Anna slid behind Scott to take his place beside Johnny and continued to try to cool down the boy’s fevered body.
“When do we leave?” Scott asked simply.
“You have fifteen minutes to say your goodbyes to your brother and Mrs. Marlow. I will expect you front and center at the top of the hour.”
Scott mounted Charlemagne and waited while his good hand was tied to the pommel and his feet were tied to the stirrups. He would give the Colonel no trouble on their way to Lancer. His one hope for Johnny was to reach Murdoch and warn him somehow before the Colonel could strike.
His reins were handed to the Colonel and they set out, leaving the Marlow ranch behind in a cloud of dust.
Murdoch looked up at a fast approaching rider. Carlos’ horse reared up as he yanked him to a stop, dismounting before the animal was back on all fours. “Señor, many men headed this way. Señor Scott is in the lead with two other men.”
“Gracías, Carlos. It looks like we won’t have to go to them. They are coming to us. Everyone, take cover. Not a move on your part until I give the signal. And…I will personally kill the first man who takes a shot at Scott. If he is guilty Val will take him in.”
“What about the bounty?” someone yelled.
“I’ll see that every man here gets his fair share if my son is guilty. Now, take your places.”
Scott felt a knot of uncertainty tighten in his stomach as they passed beneath the Lancer arch. Everything hinged on what happened in the next few minutes. Murdoch, the ranch, Johnny and Anna. What would the outcome be? The Colonel’s plan had been just short of brilliant. He had orchestrated every move, controlled every situation, nearly to perfection. Except for the indomitable spirit of an old lady and a feisty young woman, his plan would have succeeded.
He saw Murdoch standing outside the French doors, Jelly standing at his side. But something was very wrong. The courtyard was deserted except for the two of them. Where were the vaqueros getting ready for the day ahead? The women whose chores began at the crack of dawn, the small children who ran along at their feet? Where were the field hands, the blacksmith?
He pushed back the smile that twitched at his lips. Teresa had done it. She had understood and warned Murdoch.
The Colonel signaled for a halt in the center of the courtyard. Thirty six men came to a stop, in two perfectly straight lines, the sounds of creaking saddle leather and jingling tact was the only sound as they tried to keep their horses still.
Murdoch spoke first, his voice calm, his eyes holding Scott, “…Scott…”
“Father…” Scott returned. He had never called him father. From their very first meeting it had always been Murdoch or Sir.
“Your arm?” Murdoch nodded to the black sling cradling Scott’s injured arm.
“Nothing serious. A hunting accident.”
Looking toward the Colonel, sitting tall in the saddle, his uniform spit and polished, Murdoch asked calmly, “I don’t suppose this is just a friendly visit.”
“It could be.” The Colonel said, “That’s up to you.” He turned to Scott with a cold smile. “Aren’t you going to introduce me Lieutenant?”
“Lieutenant.” Murdoch arched an eyebrow. “You reenlist?”
The Colonel nudged his horse a few paces closer to the house. “It appears that your son has not retained the good manners he learned while in active service. You may address me as Colonel, Mr. Lancer.”
“I would suggest that you and your men get off my land, Colonel.”
“You are either a very brave or very foolish man, Mr. Lancer. I do believe I have the upper hand.”
“Just like all the other ranches in the valley?”
“Very soon, Mr. Lancer, this will all be mine. You are the last stronghold. With you gone, the ranchers who have tried to hang on will fall like dominos. “
“And you Scott?” Murdoch asked. His eyes settled for just a split second on the rope that tied Scott’s good arm to the pommel and his feet to the stirrups.
“You could say that I’m just along for the ride,” Scott answered.
“Then it looks like it’s your show, Colonel.”
The Colonel allowed himself a small smile of triumph,. “You disappoint me, Mr. Lancer, I expected a little more fight from you.”
“A smart man knows when he’s met his match, Colonel. Are you a smart man?”
The Colonel tensed. He felt the balance of power was shifting. He watched Murdoch slowly raise his hand and then drop it.
Sixty guns suddenly pointed at the Colonel and his men. They appeared from behind every wall, every solid object big enough to hide a man.
Val kicked open the French doors, his gun trained on the Colonel. “Everyone, drop your weapons.”
Jelly pulled his knife from the back of his belt, moving slowly toward Scott, watching the Colonel’s men drop rifles on the ground.
“The hand guns next.” Val ordered. “Slowly with your left hands.”
Scott heard the thud of the guns hit the ground. Jelly was at his side, cutting through the ropes around his feet and stirrups.
“Very clever, Mr. Lancer.” The Colonel shifted in his saddle. “What tipped you?”
Murdoch ignored him. “Scott, you alright?”
Scott nodded as the final rope was cut around the pommel.
“Johnny…? Is Johnny…?” Murdoch couldn’t get the words out.
The Colonel began to laugh. “You really want what’s left of him?” All the rage and fear of the last few days reached a boiling point in Scott when he heard those words. “You son of a …” his words trailed off as he launched himself at the Colonel, hitting him squarely in the shoulders and driving them both to the ground. He straddled the Colonel, smashing his fists into the leering face. He never felt the pain from his injured arm as he pummeled the man beneath him, his mind flashing back on all the horror the man had inflicted on his brother.
Hands grabbed him, tried to pull him away but he would not be denied. He continued punching until the Colonel’s face was just a mass of pulpy skin and blood.
“Scott…!” Murdoch was at his side, his huge arms wrapping around his chest, dragging him off the Colonel. “Scott…what about Johnny? Scott!”
Scott heard Murdoch through the roar in his head, his only thought to punish the man.
“What about Johnny?” Murdoch spun him around. “Is he alive?”
Scott nodded, his breaths coming in loud gasps. “When I left…he was.” Scott‘s legs gave way and he would have fallen if Murdoch had not gathered him up in his strong arms. “We’ve got to get back to him. He’s bad, Murdoch. He’s…”
Val was standing behind Murdoch. “You go. Find Johnny. Just leave me enough men to handle this dirt.”
Murdoch looked at Scott. “Can you ride, Son?”
Scott nodded, collecting himself. “We need to take the Colonel with us. He still has men watching the Marlow house.”
Murdoch nodded. “Jelly, clean his face the best you can then get him mounted. Make sure you tie him tight.”
“Sure thing boss. It’ll be a pleasure.”
“Now,” Murdoch led Scott toward the shade of the patio, “tell me about Johnny.”
“He took a bullet in each ankle and his shoulder. His right leg is bad. The doctor’s done all he could…”
“I can tell you everything on the way. Have someone get Doc Jenkins out here. I want him to look after Johnny.”
“Scott…?” Teresa’s quivering voice called from the kitchen door. “Bring him back to us…Please.”
Scott nodded, tears welling in his eyes. “I will…I promise I will.”
Murdoch’s horse sidestepped skittishly, brushing against Scout’s mount, confused by the mixed signals from his rider.
Murdoch sat arrow straight in his saddle, every inch of his being ready to explode. Scott rode to his right, his voice bitter with hate and self loathing as he told Murdoch the horrors inflicted upon his younger brother by the man who rode to his left.
The Colonel rode silently, his face bruised and swollen, his right eye nearly closed. And yet he rode with an arrogance that further fueled Murdoch’s anger.
Scott’s voice caught as he tried to retell the moment he was forced to put Johnny in the hotbox. Hot tears welled in Murdoch’s eyes as he heard the anger and the guilt in Scott’s account of the darkest day in his life. As the story unfolded, Murdoch got a clear picture of exactly what happened, of Scott’s efforts to keep his brother alive at all costs. Murdoch could barely control himself as the horrors went on and on. The bullet wounds, the carbolic acid, the scorpions, the hidden room…how in God’s name did he survive?
“When I left him…” Scott’s voice fell to a whisper barely audible over the sounds of the horses and jangling tack of thirty riders, “he was barely hanging on. I don’t know if he has the strength.”
Murdoch reached a gentle hand out to squeeze Scott’s arm. “He does. He’ll hang on for you, Son…he’ll hang on for his brother.”
“Like father like son.” The Colonel mocked. “You’re both alike. You’re both weak. Why do you think I picked Johnny Madrid to maim? I knew if I downed you, Lieutenant, that Madrid would fight me every foot of the way. But you…you did everything I asked. You didn’t have the guts to walk away from your brother, even to save everyone in this valley, even to save your father.”
Murdoch’s hand shot out, grabbing the Colonel’s jacket and nearly pulling him out of the saddle. Only the ropes tying his wrists to the pommel kept him from landing on the ground.
“You listen to me, you vile piece of…” Murdoch’s knuckles turned white as he twisted the Colonel’s jacket in his fist. “The only reason you are still alive is because I want the pleasure of watching you swing from a hangman’s noose, watching you gasping for air, begging for pity. But until that time you will wish you had never heard the name Lancer. And I promise you, as God is my witness, that the last words on your lips as you die will be Johnny Lancer.”
The Colonel shifted back into the saddle, shrugging his shoulders to straighten his jacket. He rode in silence feeling the hatred filling the air. Fear was not something he experienced often, but fear rode with him now.
They continued on toward the Marlow Ranch, Scott’s apprehension growing the closer they got. How would he find Johnny? Still clinging to life, or…
He could just see the top of the skeleton of the barn in the distance. He stopped and raised his hand for the riders behind him to do the same.
“Listen up.” He turned to look at the thirty men spread out haphazardly along the trail. “You’re supposed to be ex-military, so look like it. I want two straight lines. Keep your rifles at your side, but ready.” He nodded to Murdoch and waited for his father to take his place in line behind him. “Alright.” he turned to the Colonel. “One wrong move and you get a bullet in the knee. It won’t kill you, but you’ll wish you were dead.”
“Like your brother?” The Colonel leered, waiting for Scott to lose control. Control was what he needed to regain. He knew it wouldn’t take much more for the young lieutenant to explode. He’d been driven to the very brink, just the slightest nudge.
“One more word and I’ll save the hangman the trouble.” Murdoch’s voice cut through the silence. “Scott, you ready to move out?”
Scott nodded and two rows of horses moved out, just minutes away from Annabel Marlow’s house.
They slowly trotted into the courtyard, the guards standing down after recognizing the Colonel. Slowly men began to emerge from their hiding places. Scott counted nine, including the guards. One man was missing. He didn’t have time to wait. Any moment now someone would realize that the men behind him were strangers.
Scott drew his gun and pointed it at the Colonel’s head. “Tell your men to drop their weapons.”
The sight of thirty rifles pointed at nine men spoke volumes. Guns were dropped in the dirt and hands were held high.
“Search them and tie them up.” Scott ordered, “Be careful, there’s still one man unaccounted for.”
Scott climbed down and stood next to the Colonel. “Untie him,” he barked.
Murdoch quickly cut away the ropes that tied his wrists and ankles, watching Scott’s every move from the corner of his eye. “Where do you want to tie him up?” Murdoch asked.
“In there.” Scott pointed to the hotbox sitting in the blazing sun.
The Colonel followed Scott’s gaze and paled. “No.” He cringed. “You can’t.”
“Why?” Scott demanded. “If it was good enough for my brother then it’s good enough for my prisoner.”
“You can’t do this. You are working under the auspices of the law. You have to…”
“If you don’t shut up, I’ll put a bullet in your ankle and let you feel what Johnny felt. All those hours baking under the hot sun. Too sick to even raise his head, and you make me put him in there.” Scott’s voice shook with malice. Never had he felt the overwhelming need to punish someone. He wanted the Colonel to suffer, like Johnny suffered. He grabbed the Colonel by the back of the collar, yanked him to the ground and dragged him toward the box.
“No…no please, don’t do this,” The Colonel begged. “You can’t. It`s inhuman.”
“And it wasn’t inhuman when you left Johnny in there all day?”
Murdoch stood by the door and opened it, feeling the sweltering heat escaping, but knowing it was nothing compared to what Johnny endured in the noon day sun. How many hours…?
Somehow, despite having only one good arm, Scott shoved the Colonel inside and Murdoch slammed the door shut.
He looked up at Murdoch, his face drained of color. He wasn’t proud, but it was due Johnny. Two hours and Val would be out to take him into official custody. Two hours, far less than his brother had suffered.
Murdoch offered Scott a hand up, still feeling the adrenalin pumping through his muscles. “Where’s Johnny?”
“Upstairs.” Scott shut out the sound of the Colonel’s pleas for help and ran toward the house, dreading what he might find.
Anna heard the commotion below and watched out the window as Scott and Murdoch pushed the Colonel into the hotbox. She felt a chill run down her back. Not for the Colonel, he deserved the box, and more. It was for Scott. Would the emotional damage the Colonel beset upon Scott and Johnny ever heal? Would either of them be the men they used to be? She looked back over her shoulder at Johnny. He had not moved in hours. He seemed to have lapsed into a deep sleep that even Dr. Sutter could not bring him out of.
She heard the thunder of footsteps ascend the stairs and the door slammed open.
Scott stood in the doorway, his eyes filled with fear. He looked at her, then at Johnny. Murdoch stood behind his son, a full head taller. His face paled and Anna heard an audible gasp from Murdoch’s lips.
“He’s still alive,” she said, her voice shaking. “He’s still alive.”
Scott rushed for the bed, sinking to his knees, taking Johnny’s limp hand in his. “I’m back little brother,” he whispered, his voice raw with emotion. “Johnny…?”
Murdoch moved across the room slowly, the fear in his face palpable. What he saw was so much worse then he expected. He took in every inch of his son, trying to make sense of what he saw. He clenched his hands into fists until his knuckles turned white. His mind could not accept what lay before him. From the gruesome wood and wire splint that entrapped Johnny’s leg to the blood tinged wrapping around his right ankle. Bile rose in his throat at the sight of the livid black and blue bruises from the scorpion’s stings peeking out from beneath the bandages that supported his cracked ribs and covered the shoulder wound. But what frightened him most was Johnny’s stillness. His face was ghastly white, dark circles formed beneath his sunken eyes, his cheek bones drawn too taut. But nothing was as bad as the stillness. His chest barely moved up and down with each small breath he took.
Scott looked up at the doctor, he eyes beseeching, hoping for the words he knew were impossible.
“We haven’t been able to get enough water or medication down him to stop the infection or lower his fever. He seemed to rally for a bit, then he faltered.”
Murdoch barely heard the words, he didn’t have to. He could see for himself how bad his youngest son was. He walked across the room, unaware of his movements. He didn’t see or feel anything else. He didn’t notice that Scott moved aside so he could kneel next to the bed, his huge rugged hand gently brushing Johnny’s unruly hair away from his closed eyes. He cried inwardly at the hideous heat that burned his son’s now fragile body. His fingers touched his dry chapped lips that so often held that sometimes devious, sometimes gregarious smile. Where was the son he remembered? The Johnny Lancer who rode side by side with his brother as they trotted away from the estancia to mend fences. How many days ago..? A lifetime ago.
He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder and laid his rugged palm over Scott’s hand. “This,” Scott said softly, as if he didn’t have the right to interfere in the moment, “is Dr. Sutter. He performed the surgery on Johnny’s leg, and has kept him alive.”
Murdoch looked up to see an old portly man hovering over the bed. His look was one of compassion and fear.
“Will he make it?’ Murdoch asked bluntly.
“I don’t know.” Sutter answered just as bluntly. “He’s already beaten the odds more times than I can count. I have done all I can for him. He needs more than I can give him here.”
Murdoch stood up slowly, his height towering over the doctor’s. “Thank you for what you have done.”
“You many not want to thank me after you hear the whole story.”
“Scott told me enough. I know what you did in the beginning, and I will never forgive you for that, and I suspect you will never forgive yourself, but it is what you have done since. Johnny would not be alive without your help.”
“It remains to be seen if I’ve done enough. Scott told me that you have a doctor that you trust. How soon can we have him here?”
“He’s waiting for us at Lancer.”
“We can’t move this boy,” Sutter railed. “He’s too sick.”
“Dr. Sutter, I know my son. And I know how important it is for him to be home. Believe me, he won’t make it here. He won’t fight. But at home…”
Sutter looked toward Scott. “My father is right,” Scott said. “He’s been through so much. He needs to be at Lancer.
And if…and if he doesn’t make it we want him to be at home with us.”
“Very well…” The doctor conceded, against his better judgment, “but we will move him my way. First, the wagon must be prepared. This is what you will need to do…”
Murdoch listened carefully to the doctor’s instructions, knowing that the trip back was dangerous for his son, but knowing in his heart that it was what Johnny would want.
An hour later Anna’s buckboard was transformed into a moving hospital. The floor was padded with a thick layer of straw then covered with blankets and comforters. Pillows were stacked on one side waiting to be put in place beneath Johnny’s injured right leg and under his wounded shoulder. Two more would be propped under his head. A low slung sling made from a sheet was strung across the back end of the buckboard to keep Johnny’s splinted leg suspended above the floor of the wagon.
Inside Dr. Sutter and Anna worked quickly to prepare Johnny for the trip. Men were brought up to help carry the stretcher down the stairs.
Murdoch choked back a tear as he watched them carefully lift Johnny off the bed onto the stretcher, his body seemingly boneless, the heavy splint cradled in Scott’s good arm until the stretcher was lifted off the ground. He moved closer to hold Johnny’s hand but was forced to let go as they began the difficult task of moving him down the steep stairs.
He was not a religious man, but at that moment he said a silent prayer. Johnny did not deserve this. Neither of his sons did. He promised he would never again take them for granted. He had been given one miracle, their return after twenty years. He begged that God would bestow another miracle and let Johnny live.
Dr. Sutter oversaw every last detail as Johnny was carefully lifted into the wagon. The pillows were put in place beneath Johnny’s right leg and shoulders. Another one beneath his back and two beneath his head. His leg was gently cradled by the sling and a light sheet was tented over his head and chest to protect him from the hot sun. Fresh water and morphine were placed in the buckboard where they would be within easy reach of both the doctor and Anna if they were needed.
Sutter and Anna sat on either side of Johnny while Scott sat toward the tailgate. Murdoch sat on the seat next to the driver, lifting the sheet to look down at his son. Would he make the trip? The anguish in his heart made him physically ill. He had to turn away. He couldn’t stand to look at Johnny that way.
The wagon began its slow trek toward Lancer. The sounds of the Colonel still crying for help from inside the hotbox trailed off as they left the Marlow ranch behind.
For the next six days Johnny hung tenaciously to life. His fever would lower in the morning, only to spike again in the late afternoon.
Scott was allowed only minimal time to sit with his brother at first. Despite his protests, both doctors knew he was exhausted and still recovering from his own wound. So he grudgingly stayed in bed or lay on the couch in the great room downstairs, sitting with Johnny for short spells.
Murdoch found it harder each day to sit with his son. He would cool his face and chest with cold compresses, hold his limp hand in his, but each day his hope that Johnny would make it dwindled. He had lost so much weight; his face so pale and drawn. There was nothing left of the vibrant boy he was reunited with such a short time ago.
He rankled at the memories of the fights they had, sadly, almost all of them his fault. If only he could take back those words spoken in anger, regretting them the minute they spewed out of his mouth, but too damn proud to take them back.
“I’m sorry, Son,” he whispered, his voice catching in his throat, “I’m sorry for all the times we parted in anger. I’m sorry that I didn’t take the time to tell you how proud I was of you. How much you and your brother changed my life. And I regret most of all those terrible words I said to you both when we first met.” Like a dagger in his side he remembered the words, crystal clear as if it were just yesterday. ((I love this ground more than anything God ever created. )) “I was so wrong Johnny. I love you and Scott more than anything else God ever created. And I need you both. We all need you.”
A slight clearing of the throat brought him back to reality and he looked up to see Sam standing on the other side of the bed.
“It’s time for his medication,” Sam said gently, “You can wait outside if you wish.”
“No.” Murdoch tightened his hold on Johnny’s hand. “I’ll stay with him.”
Sam nodded, knowing how much the procedure bothered Murdoch. It was not easy for a loved one to watch. He uncapped the tube that snaked up through Johnny’s nose and down into his stomach injecting water mixed with medications and some broth for nourishment.
“The truth, Sam. Is he going to make it?”
Sam felt Johnny’s forehead, timed his pulse, lifted his eyelid to check for pupil reaction, and then stood up slowly. “I’ve always told you the truth, Murdoch. I don’t believe in sugar coating my diagnosis. It’s not fair to the patient and it’s not fair to the patient’s loved ones.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let’s step out in the hall.”
Murdoch’s legs felt as if they would not support him as he followed Sam out the door. Anna passed by them in the doorway to take Murdoch’s place next to Johnny. There was not a moment when someone wasn’t watching him.
Murdoch leaned back against the wall, afraid his legs would betray him if Sam’s words were as dire as he expected.
“Murdoch, I’ll be blunt. There is no reason on God’s green earth why that boy should still be alive. With what he has been through…the only answer is Johnny’s will to live.”
“Then there is still a chance.”
“There is always a chance, especially when it comes to Johnny. But Murdoch you have to understand, that even if he gets through this crisis he still has a long road to recovery.”
As Sam spoke Murdoch felt a presence next to him and turned to see Scott standing next to him.
“Dr. Sutter said there would be another surgery required in six to eight weeks to remove the wire,” Scott said. “Sam, I need to know something. Would you have used the wire if you were in Sutter’s place?”
Sam thought about his answer for a long time. It was a question he had asked himself more than once. “No. But only because I would not have had the courage. There is no doubt in my mind that Johnny would have been left lame if the wire was not used. And let me caution you, there is no guarantee that he won’t be left with some kind of impediment. The wire gives him a chance for a full recovery.”
Scott smiled. “You know Johnny, give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.”
“How well I know…that boy…”
“Sam, Murdoch, get in here now!” Anna’s cry stunned all three men. Murdoch grabbed Scott’s arm. Was this it? Was this the dreaded moment he had been so afraid of?
They rushed into the room. But the smile on Anna’s face was all they needed to know that this was not the dreaded news they feared.
Blue eyes looked out from beneath half closed lids.
Scott didn’t remember running across the room, only that he was leaning over Johnny, holding his hand. “Johnny…?”
Unfocused eyes searched the room.
“Johnny…welcome back brother.” Scott couldn’t keep the tears from flowing.
Murdoch’s huge rough hand gently caressed the boy’s cheek. “You’re home, Son.”
Sam turned to Anna. “Get Teresa and Dr. Sutter. They should be here too.”
Anna grinned. “My thoughts exactly.”
Blue eyes continued to roam the room, lost. Scott gently turned Johnny’s head toward him, leaning down closer. “You’re in your own room and your own bed. Can’t get much better than that…huh?”
A shadow of a smile played across Johnny’s face. “…Boston…?” His voice just a whisper, nearly too faint to hear.
“Yes. And Murdoch…”
“And Teresa!” Teresa, her face already wet with tears squeezed between Murdoch and Scott. “Johnny, don’t you ever scare me like this again.”
“…won’t…” Johnny whispered again.
“Good. Because I’m going to bake you the biggest chocolate cake you ever did see.”
Johnny smiled as his eyelids slid shut.
Sam cleared his throat. “If you would allow us doctors to have a look at our patient.” He smiled.
Scott held Teresa tight as Murdoch gently pulled them both back from the bed.
For the first time in six days there was hope. Genuine hope.
Thirty minutes later everyone except Anna, who stayed with Johnny, were gathered in the Great Room. The tension of the past six days seemed to have lifted. Teresa made coffee and they sipped the hot brew in silence, a myriad of questions and emotions stalled for a moments rest.
“Well…?” Murdoch broke the silence.
Sam set his coffee cup down slowly. “His fever has come down a little and his pulse is stronger. But he is still a very sick young man, and he will be for some time.”
“But he will get better,” Teresa asked, her voice trembling.
“He’s come this far. I don’t see him giving up now.” Sam sat forward on the couch, “I want you all to understand that this is just the beginning of the fight. Johnny has a long ways to go. And it won’t be easy, for anyone. He will be confined to bed for the next six to eight weeks. After that there will be rehabilitation to go through to get back the strength he lost.”
Scott smiled uncomfortably. “Surely after he is feeling better we can move him downstairs and out on the patio during the day.”
Dr. Sutter shook his head emphatically. “He must not leave his bed for the entire six to eight weeks. It is imperative that his leg not be disturbed.”
“He will need constant care. That is why I would like to send for a nurse to tend to him.”
“I can nurse him!” Teresa was on her feet. “I’ve always taken care of him.”
“I know, honey, and you have been the best nurse any doctor could ask for. But he needs special care. And a strong hand to keep him in line. I won’t lie to you, any of you, you have a rough road ahead. When Johnny feels stronger he is going to rebel. He will use every trick in the book to get out of that bed. You know and I know how manipulative he can be when he really wants something. I have already made some inquiries. She can be here in three days after you have made your decision.”
“Johnny’s not going to want a stranger taking care of him.” Scott protested.
“It’s not a matter of what he wants, Scott. Believe me, you won’t be able to handle him.”
Murdoch stood up slowly. “If you think it is for the best Sam, then send for her. We trust you as both a friend and a doctor.”
“Thank you, Murdoch. I’ll send the telegram today. Now, if you don’t mind I think Dr. Sutter and I had better look in on our patient again. And it would be best if one of you three was always in the room with him so when he does come to again he won’t panic.”
“Of course. I’ll take the first shift. Scott, you and Teresa can decide who will be next. Jelly will be back from town by this evening and he can also take a shift.”
With a deep sigh, Murdoch followed the two doctors up the stairs. His elation at seeing Johnny open his eyes was now tempered by the enormity of what lay ahead. Would they be strong enough to handle it? Would Johnny? He feared for his son. Life had never been easy for Johnny Madrid, and now life would again be rough for Johnny Lancer.
As he topped the stairs and headed into Johnny’s room he squared his shoulders, filled with a new conviction: Johnny Madrid had been on his own all those years. Johnny Lancer had a family, and by God, no matter how tough it was, his family would see him through this crisis.
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