Man of the Year by Marilyn

Word count: 89,400

Chapter One

Carson City was a growing town; in fact it was now one of the biggest towns around. Its epic growth was due in part to its willingness to accept any help offered. So when his town was elected to host one of the biggest shindigs around the area …the Cattlemen’s Annual Picnic and Convention, the mayor of the town was overwhelmed with joy. Cattlemen from all over would be coming to exchange ideas and enjoy themselves. The town officials were thrilled because hosting the event would not only garner free publicity for them, but all the extra people flooding into town would be spending money for goods and services.

One of the functions of the Cattleman’s Association is to honor a member for his or her achievements in the cattle business. And what they had done to assure their place in the Cattleman’s Association. The candidate is a person who is respected and well liked. Murdoch Lancer is one such man.

Word of the past year had spread throughout the area. Everyone had heard the news of how Murdoch Lancer had rid the San Joaquin valley of the terror of Pardee. Every citizen, young and old, knew the name Lancer and how the rancher had fought tooth and nail to keep his land. He had defeated Pardee with the help of his sons and the loyal men of Lancer. By doing so he assured the safety of the others in the valley, at least from Pardee. Now the gruff rancher was going to be honored for his action and though it had come to as a surprise to him, it had not to his family. They were proud that their father was to be recognized and honored for his contributions and sacrifices.

There wasn’t a person living at or working for Lancer ranch that didn’t encourage the tall rancher to go and accept the award. Murdoch had no choice but to agree. He really wasn’t in the mood to leave just yet though. Johnny was still away on some buying trip and he really wanted to take him along this time. Scott had gone on a few trips with his father, so now it was Johnny’s turn. He was looking forward to spending some time away from the ranch with his youngest.

Murdoch could have kicked himself for the bad timing, for sending Johnny off when the Cattleman’s Convention was coming up. Then he received a telegram from Johnny. Passing through a little town, Johnny heard some locals talking about his father being named Man of the Year. The proud young man rushed straight to Western Union to send a congratulatory telegram. That had brought a smile to Murdoch face and then a thought.

Murdoch quickly sent a message back hoping Johnny would still be in town. He asked Johnny to join him in Carson City, instead of coming home. With luck Johnny got the message and sent one back saying he would be honored to join his father. It also said that he was only a few days away from Carson City and would probably make it there before Murdoch.

While waiting for the noon stage to pull into town, Murdoch was going over some last minute details with Scott, when Val approached them, smiling.

“So, Mr. Lancer, Man of the Year, huh?’ Val asked with a big grin. “Quite an honor, wouldn’t ya say?”

“Thanks Val, and yes it is.” Murdoch answered, “I just wished it wasn’t so far away,” he said glumly.

“Well, Carson City is growing town and they have never hosted such a big shindig like this.” Val said scratching at his unshaven face. “ I guess they need a big town to hold all you cattlemen. Val said with a slight chuckle. “Beside you’ll enjoy yourself, being there with all your friends.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him.” Scott spoke up.

“Are ya going, Scott?” Val wondered.

“No, Johnny is going this time.” Scott answered with a big grin, as he recalled the expression on his father’s face when he read the telegram from his little brother. Johnny’s words meant so much to him, and he knew Murdoch was anxious to see him.

“Yeah, where is my buddy?” Val asked looking around for his dark haired amigo.

“Johnny is going to meet me there. He’s on his way back from some business I sent him on.” Murdoch answered.

“Well tell him I said hi and for him to stay out of trouble. “ Val said with a chuckle knowing that sometimes his amigo could find trouble without even trying. Val suddenly stepped up to the boardwalk as the stage came careening to a stop in a cloud of dirt. The reckless driver, barely missing Val. “Dang blasted, Pete, cutting it a bit close there, aren’t ya?” Val shouted at the bearded stage driver.

“Well, if ya wouldn’t stood in my way, I wouldn’t come too damn close to ya, Val.” Pete shouted back, and then said. “Fifteen minutes folks.”

With the good byes done, Murdoch climb aboard and was on his way. He sat back and closed his eyes as the sun’s heating rays shined through the stage window. He pulled down the curtain to shade his eyes. This time of year was a hot, and he did hated to travel in this oppressive heat. But he was the Man of the Year and had to go. The one good thing about it though was it was affording him the opportunity to spend quality time with his youngest son.

********

In the small town of Redwood, just a half-day’s ride from Carson City, a dark haired young man, dusty and tired, wandered into the saloon. He paused long enough to scan the room, in his normal fashion, a habit he had been unable to break. Satisfied that it was a comfortable scene, feeling at ease, Johnny tiredly waked up to the bar. Rubbing his sore sapphire eyes, in soft voice he ordered a cold beer. “Beer…a tall one, I must have swallowed a ton of dirt.”

“Haven’t seen ya around these parts.” The barkeep commented as he handed Johnny the glass of foaming beer, “Are ya just passing through?”

Johnny blew the foam cap off and took a drink to wash down the dust he had inhaled on the trail and said, “Yep, just passing through. Might grab some shut eye first, I’ve been riding all day.” He added as he stretched his back out. His tight muscles rippled through his tan jacket as the stretched his arms above his dark head. Johnny took his bandana out and wiped the sweat off his copper hued face.

“Where are ya headed to, if you don’t mind me asking?” The barkeep asked politely.

“Nope don’t mind, Carson City. Going to meet a man there.” Johnny answered gulping down his beer, “Fill me up again,” he said handing the empty glass to the man.

The mere mention of Carson City caught the attention of a tall stocky man sitting with his back to the bar. He turned around to see who was talking. His eyes narrowed when he saw the owner of the soft voice. The young man standing by the bar seemed familiar to him. ‘ Where have I seem him before?’ the man thought to himself. As he tried to remember where he had seen Johnny, he looked closely at the young man’s attire.

Noticing the concho pants, the faded pink Mexican style shirt, and the way he wore his gun, the tall man quickly turned back to face the table, his eyes wide with recognition. ‘What is he doing here?” he asked himself, fear filling his soul, ’And what does he want in my town?’ Needing answers, he sat as still as his shaking body would allow him, and listened to the conversation going on at the bar.

“Meeting someone, huh?” the barkeep asked. “Anybody I know?”

“He’s not from around here, but he’s coming to that big shindig in Carson City” Johnny said and took another swig of beer. “The name is Lancer, Murdoch Lancer.”

“Lancer, ya say. Yeah I heard of him, heard he took out Pardee, and they made him Man of the Year. Must say got to admire a man who could outwit the likes of Pardee.” The barkeep said smiling.

“Yeah, I guess you can say that.” Johnny agreed grinning. “Lancer is not one to be reckoned with, just ask his enemies.” Johnny added jokingly.

The tall man listening in didn’t think it was funny at all. He got up quickly, not bothering to look back to notice the smile on Johnny’s face as he spoke about his father. Casually walking out of the saloon, he quickly mounted his horse. In a flurry of pounding hooves and flying sand he high tailed it straight for Carson City, to warn the Mayor that Madrid was on his way, and was after Lancer.

.

Chapter Two

The local café of Carson City was busier than usual, as more and more cattlemen from all over had converged on the town for the big event. The ranchers could be found devouring a good hot meal after they had settled into their rooms. The normally hard working men passed the time engaging in some serious talk and enjoying each other’s company. Amongst the crowd in the busy café were the Mayor and Sheriff. They were sitting at a table with a few of their friends, discussing the details of the events to come.

The town officials were anxious to meet Murdoch, shake his hand and offer their thanks to him for ridding the area of Pardee’s reign of terror. When the ambitious mayor heard it was Murdoch Lancer, that had been named Man of the year, it doubled his pleasure. He was going to use Murdoch’s popularity as one of the biggest ranchers around to benefit his town further. He wanted to somehow persuade Lancer to do more business here, perhaps get him to bring his cattle to market here. And if word got out that Lancer was indeed doing business here, others might follow…he could only hope.

Unlike its sister city in Nevada, Carson City had been named after its founder over twenty years ago, who also happened to be the late cousin of the mayor. While the city continued to grow, it truly thrived on the cattle business and always endeavored to bring more of it to their town. Big or small herds were always welcomed, the more the better. But lately it had not been as busy as the mayor would like. Murdoch Lancer had one of the biggest herds around, which would profit his town immensely.

Discussing things further and sipping on hot coffee, their conversation was rudely interrupted by a tall man, as he came bursting in. The man appeared frantic, all sweaty and dirty from riding hard. He was panting and stumbling over tables as he entered the café.

“Mayor! Sheriff! We have trouble!” the winded man said as he approached their table. He took his bandana out and nervously wiped his brow. His hands were shaking was so bad he had a hard time holding the bandana.

“Hold on, Greg, get control of yourself. What do you mean we have trouble?” The sheriff asked alerted by the man’s troubled face and trembling voice.

 “What kind of trouble?” Asked the mayor, he didn’t like the sound of this.

Catching his breath, Greg leaned over the table to whisper his news to avoid alarming the others guest. He looked the Mayor right in the eyes and in a hushed voice, hissed. “Big trouble, and his name is Johnny Madrid!” he said rather bluntly, “He’s on his way here as we speak. That’s what kind of trouble.” He finished saying with terror written on his face.

The mayor eyes widened in shock and horror, the sheriff just sat there with his mouth open. The two men were speechless. Neither one could believe their ears, this was the last thing they needed. Along with being a growing town they had certain ethics, one of them being they didn’t tolerate trash like Madrid. There weren’t any Mexicans living in this town. Mexican cantinas or any other business that these people would have, were forbidden here.

This was a decent town, with clean streets and homes; they didn’t need the filth their kind would bring. They didn’t think it was narrow and bigoted of them to want a town of reasonable quality. When some did happen to wander into town to visit or showed intentions of staying, they were ushered out of town so fast it made their heads spin. Having a half-breed gun-hawk coming here would ruin things. His kind was the worst of them all.

Closing his mouth and coming to his senses the sheriff spoke in a quaking voice. “Are…are you sure it’s him?” He asked taking his bandana out and wiping his own brow in a mirror action of the other man’s earlier move.

“Yes, I’m sure. I’ve seen him once down by the border!” Greg answered vehemently.

“Well, what the hell is he coming here for?” the mayor demanded to know.

“I heard him say that he’s looking for Lancer.” The tall man said still leaning over the table, “I reckon that someone wants Lancer dead, and hired Madrid to do their dirty work.” he added.

“No, no, this is not good. We need Lancer! The convention!” the mayor rambled on saying, “If word gets out that we let our guest of honor be murdered by the likes of Madrid.” he paused shuddering. “It would ruin us, we could never be considered a safe town to live in, let alone to visit.” The fat mayor selfishly said, as the sweat ran down his face.

“Well, then what are we going to do?”

“Stop him, that’s what!” the mayor growled out.

“Stop him how?” the sheriff asked in a troubled voice, “I’m no match for his gun!”

“We better think of something and fast, he’ll be here and soon.” Greg suggested harshly. “How do you stop a killer like Madrid?” he asked them both.

“Who in the world would want a man like Lancer dead? That’s what I would like to know.” The mayor wondered.

They all looked at each other, puzzled. They decided to seek the advice of a few of the other ranchers that were sitting close by them. Pleading with them to join in and figure a way to stop Madrid. The ranchers did not know that Lancer’s son was also Madrid, so they happily agreed. They had to protect Lancer from this killer, no matter what it took.

*****

After a few hours of much needed sleep, a hot bath and a good meal, Johnny arrived in Carson City that night. He headed straight for the saloon. He had noticed that for a town getting ready for something as big as the Convention, that it sure wasn’t too busy. A lot of the stores were already closed, and not very many residents were out and about. Not thinking much about it he continued heading for his destination

“The party must not have started yet, huh fella?” he said patting Barranca’s golden neck. “Makes no difference, I need a drink.” he added and steered his amigo towards the saloon.

Pulling to a stop, he dismounted and walked into the bar, tired sapphire eyes scanning the room. It was not very busy for this time of night, it should be filled with ranchers drinking and playing poker. Instead it only had a few sitting around staring at their drinks, as if they were waiting for someone. That too had him puzzled, but he paid no mind to it, as he headed for the bar. He was still tired and very thirsty; he needed a cold brew to ease his dry throat.

With trembling hands, the husky bartender handed the mug of beer to Johnny. This seemed odd to the dark haired young man, making him feel unnerved. His instincts kicked in and he became alert and concerned.

“Something wrong, Mister?” he asked softly.

“No, no, nothing is wrong. You just enjoy the beer.” The barkeep replied trying to keep his wits about him, and walked away. Leaving Johnny standing there looking into the mirror hanging over the bar. Johnny smiled slyly when he had notice the Sheriff was standing behind him, with a few men by his side. Each man held a rifle, and they were staring right at him.

“What can I do for ya, Sheriff?” Johnny asked calmly with his back to the group of men. Blue eyes narrowed as he looked at the man’s expression in the mirror.

“We want you to leave our town, Madrid, and right now!” the Sheriff said sternly.

“Well now, what did I do to deserve this treatment? I just got here, Sheriff.” Johnny asked softly still staring at the mirror, sipping at his beer. “I’m just here….” He didn’t get a chance to finish what he was saying when the mayor jumped in.

“We know why you’re here, Madrid, and you are not going through with it.” The fat man informed the gun-hawk as he stepped from behind the group of men. The rotund man reminded Johnny of a cowardly mouse hiding from a cat, only coming out when the coast was clear.

“Really now, why don’t ya tell me what am I doing here then!” Johnny said coldly. He was not too happy with this, nope not one little bit. “Well tell me!” Johnny asked again, this time his voice showed his increasing anger and impatience.

“We don’t have to tell you nothing, either you leave now or we’ll shoot you where you stand.” The sheriff ordered and raised his rifle, aiming it right at Johnny’s heart, as he turned around to face them.

.

Chapter Three

“Now see here men!” shouted the mayor in a panic, putting his hands up motioning to them to hold their fire. “I don’t want any bloodshed, not here, and not now.” He demanded. ”We have to handle this the right way. We don’t need a big scene here, drawing unwanted attention to our problem.” He expressed to the Sheriff.

Johnny just stood there, with eyes narrowed; he was studying the Sheriff‘s face. He noticed the nervous twitching of his lips, the sweat beads forming on his brow. Signs that pointed to the fact that this man was itching to pull the trigger. At the slightest wrong move, he wouldn‘t hesitate to shoot. Johnny’s anger flamed and threatened to consume him as he watched the man, until he came to the conclusion that they were protecting someone.

‘Dios, they think I’m here to kill someone! Who?’ he asked himself, still keeping his sights on the Sheriff. “Listen to me I don’t know….” Johnny tried to explain, but again the Sheriff rudely interrupted him. He was getting sick and tired of being cut off by the pretentious man. All he wanted to do was explain why he was here. “Listen to me, I want to…” he tried again to finish what he wanted to say.

“I don’t give a damn what you want, Madrid,” the impatient sheriff growled, “Now take off your gun belt nice and slow.” he ordered the gun-hawk with his rifle still pointing at Johnny chest. This time the other‘s joined in and pointed their guns at Johnny. “We don’t need no half Mex killer doing his hired gun dirty work here. ” the man added with nothing but hatred in his voice.

Johnny’s face grew hard, his own facial muscles twitching in agitation, as he glared at the man his eyes went cold with anger. Then shaking his head in disbelief at the prejudice trash he was hearing, especially coming from a lawman of all people. ’I guess it takes all kinds, he whispered in Spanish, though loud enough for the sheriff to hear.

“None of that Mex talk here, Madrid, you speak in English.” The sheriff said harshly, “Now get that gun belt off and no sudden moves, ya hear? Or I’ll drop ya where you stand,” he went on to say, finger still on the trigger.

Johnny nodded, his anger still flaring up. Then he thought of his father. The last thing he wanted was to cause a scene to ruin Murdoch’s day as Man of the Year. He was truly happy for his old man, and he didn’t want to do anything that would interfere with the honor he was about to receive. Blowing out a breath to help him compose himself, Johnny slowly unbuckled his gun belt, and laid his gun on the bar. Raising his hands so the men could see he was not armed.

“Now are you gonna let me explained why I’m here?” Johnny asked calmly. “Without being interrupted.” he added.

“Nope!” was all the self-important sheriff said, and then nodded.

The hairs on the back of Johnny’s neck stood straight up, as he felt a presence behind him. Turning slightly, he heard a noise, which turned out to be the butt of a gun smacking him right in the back of the head. The ringing in his ears was so loud they rung in syncopated time with own heart beating out a pounding rhythm in his chest. He felt himself falling, tipping a table over on his way to crashing onto the floor with a loud thud. All he could see were shadows forming around him. Slowly fading away, then there was complete darkness.

“Now what do we do with him?” asked the bartender, standing over the unconscious gun-hawk, still holding Johnny’s colt in his hand.

“We get rid of him, that’s what.” the mayor replied, wiping his brow.

“But where? We can’t keep him in town, not when it’s going to get busy real soon.” the sheriff commented. “Someone is bound to find him, and then all hell will break loose.” he added lowering his rifle.

“He’s right, Harvey,” Greg agreed, “We have to take him out of town somewhere.”

Mayor Harvey, looked down at the unconscious gun-hawk, and thought for a few minutes, then spoke up. “Okay, we’ll take him as far away as possible…with no horse and gun.” He instructed them, “That way he’ll have to walk back to town, and if he makes it back.” he paused to sit down and calm his shakiness then continued, “Murdoch Lancer will be long gone, and my town…our town will be safe from Madrid.

“What about his horse?” asked Greg, “Someone is bound to ask where the owner is.”

“We’ll stable it somewhere, hide it, and if Madrid don’t make it back, we sell it.” The mayor suggested, “It’s a beautiful horse, bound to get a nice profit off of it.” He said slyly grinning.

All agreed, and proceeded with their dirty and cruel plan to dispose of Johnny. Roughly grabbing the young man’s limp body off the floor they rushed out with him. They threw him in back of a wagon, his hands and feet bound, just incase he should wake before they got to their destination. Quietly they snuck out of town, and headed due south. There was a lot of territory out there that would take a person a long time to travel especially on foot. If they survived the unrelenting heat this time a year. The land was hard and dry, with scarce water holes.

After a few hours of hard riding, bouncing Johnny around in the back, like a sack of potatoes, whenever they hit rock or rough ground. They decided they had gone far enough to drop off their passenger. The cowardly mayor had stay behind, leaving his dirty work to the sheriff, Greg, and a few others. Pulling Johnny’s insensate body out of the wagon, they threw him to the ground like a sack of feed, and then threw a canteen of water down by him.

“Ya have to have some water with ya, Madrid, but that’s all.” the sheriff said as he kneeled down to cut his restraints. “Good luck, but if ya don’t make it, well it’s one less half- Mex killer to worry about.” he added with an evil grin, chuckling slightly at his dirty deed. He was pleased with himself, that he was able to get one up on the likes of Madrid.

They all jump backed in the wagon and headed back for town. Leaving Johnny lying there on the sandy dessert floor, with only the clothes on his back and a canteen. No one looked back they just kept on going. To them they had done a good deed; they had rid their town of a killer. Thinking they had just saved the life of Murdoch Lancer, thinking he would be grateful to them for such a deed.

*****

Morning came and with it the start of a new day, as more and more cattlemen came rolling into town. Settling into their rooms, then wandering about the town, getting ready to attend the convention, and afterwards the picnic. The Mayor waited anxiously for the stage carrying the guest of honor to arrive. He had no intention of mentioning anything about the night before, most assuredly not anything about Madrid, at least not yet.

He was bound and determined to make this a weekend Lancer would not forget or the other cattlemen as well. They had high hopes that more conventions would be held here in the future, if this one went off without a hitch. With the sound of pounding hooves beating on the hard dry ground, he looked up to see the stage coming in. He put on his biggest smile and stood proud, straightened his coat and checked his appearance; he waited for it to stop.

“Whoa!” hollered Pete, as he brought the team to a halt. “Carson City, folks.” he told his passengers. Jumping down off the driver’s seat he started to untie the baggage as the door opened and the passengers piled out one at a time. The mayor waited nervously for the tall rancher to appear. Then a big smile grew on his fat face as Murdoch slowly stepped off the stage. He knew it was him, from the description he was given by the Cattleman’s Association. Wiping his sweaty hands on the seat of his pants, Mayor Harvey offered his hand to the tall man.

“Murdoch Lancer, I presume?” asked the mayor, nervously.

“Yes, and you are? Murdoch asked back, taking the man’s hand, shaking it hardily.

“Mayor Harvey, Mr. Lancer, and its a honor to meet you sir.” He said rather loudly, turning the heads of others passing by. “Come, Come, let’s get you settled in, we have a nice room picked out for you.” He said escorting Murdoch into the hotel.

“I hope it has two beds. I’m expecting my son to join me here.” Murdoch stated, hoping to see Johnny here already, greeting him instead of the mayor.

“Your son?” The mayor asked quietly, “Yes, yes it does as a matter of fact. As soon as he gets here we’ll show him to the room.”

As they all fussed about, getting his luggage, and escorting him about, Murdoch had a chance to sneak a peek at the hotel guest book, he then frowned. Johnny’s name wasn’t in it, and he wondered where he could be. ‘He probably got delayed, he’ll be here.’ He told himself, as he tiredly followed the mayor up to his room.

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Chapter Four

Johnny’s eyes fluttered open, confusion dulled the sapphire orbs, he painfully squinted at the brightness of the sun, and then blinked a few times to clear his blurred vision. Only to have to close them again, hissing at the hot piercing pain coming from the back of his head. “What hit me?” Johnny muttered softly as he gingerly touched the lump on the back of his head. It wasn’t bleeding, but it was the size of a robin’s egg and probably just as blue. Then realizing what had happened, “Dios, should have seen that coming” he sighed in disgust at himself, for letting it happen. ‘I was only trying to oblige the man.’ he told himself.

A wave of dizziness washed over him as Johnny struggled to get up from the once cold ground, now being warmed by the hot morning sun. He forced himself to sit there while waiting for the world to stop spinning around him. His mouth was dry and gritty, he started coughing, spitting out the sand dust he had inhaled while helplessly lying there. His was throat sore and parched; looking around he noticed the canteen lying down by his feet. Grabbing it Johnny hastily opened it, drinking like there was no tomorrow, then stopping himself as he realized he needed to save what water he had.

“Where in the hell am I?” he asked himself, then unsteadily stood up, trying to get his balance as he felt his legs wanting to buckle under him. Squinting his eyes at the rising sun he figured that it had to almost noon. He scanned the area; looking as far ahead as he could, then let out a sigh of dismay, he was standing in the middle a nowhere. The land was hard and dry, with very little trees to shade him from the heat; that was rising by the minute. There were no landmarks, only a few cactus, and tumbleweeds blowing about with the dry wind.

“Well can’t stay here,” Johnny said to himself, frowning.

Hanging the canteen over his shoulder, Johnny noticed something was missing, he then felt for his gun, finding it was gone, “Why those sons a of bitches! Couldn’t even leave me my gun” he cussed out loud, then looked to see if they had the nerve to even leave him a horse. Johnny felt his blood pressure rise, either from the heat, or the thought of those bastards leaving him like this. No gun, no horse, only his two feet to get him back to town.

Peering out into the vast horizon, Johnny set out, slowly taking his time, there was no need to hurry. He vowed to himself, when he got back to town . . . if he got back, there will a be some very sorry town members. They would rue the day they did this. Madrid or Lancer, either one was going to make sure they paid.

******

Back in town, things were moving along nicely, as more ranchers were settling in before the meeting tomorrow. Preparations were under way for the big picnic. The local ranchers wives from around the area had cheerfully contributed their time cooking for the picnic. Hog roasts were to be held in the picnic grounds outside of town. Tables where being set up, waiting for them to be filled with all the delightful goodies and other dishes of other sorts.

Up in his room Murdoch was taking a much needed breather from all the attention he was getting. He’s hadn’t had a moment of peace until know, being ushered about here and there. It seemed the hand shaking was never going to end, every time he would turn around there was always someone wanting to shake it. It felt like it was going to fall off if he shook another hand.

Tonight he was to dine in the big dining hall connected to the hotel. He was invited to join the Mayor, his wife and the president of the Cattlemen’s Association, Jordan Hines, at their table. He couldn’t really refuse, as he was the man of the year. It was his obligation to join them, whether he liked it or not.

Right now his thoughts were with his son. ‘Why hasn’t he shown up by now?‘ The tall rancher kept asking himself. ‘Johnny should have been here by now; it was not like him to be so late. If he wasn’t going to make it in time, he would have sent word by now.’ He continued to ponder, still trying to make some sense out of this. Something was wrong; he could feel it in his gut. ’But what?’

Every time he asked if someone had come to town asking for him, before he arrived or after. He would only get “Nope, no one” for an answer. Then they would clam up, and act all nervous around him for some reason, he couldn’t figure it out. It was like they were hiding something, but what? If only he knew what it was. Murdoch felt like leaving and going to look for his son, but he had to stay. He didn’t want to be rude to his host.

As he finished dressing for dinner, he glanced over to the extra empty bed, wishing his dark haired son were sitting there complaining about being around crowds. He knew that Johnny agreed to come here to join him only to please his old man. He knew his son hated to be around stuffy officials and talk business with a bunch of loud cattlemen. Johnny was his child of nature; he would rather be home riding the range or chasing wild horses.

But as much as Johnny hated to talk or listen to the business side of ranching, Murdoch could see his son growing into a fine young rancher. Johnny took great pride in his work, and home. He even came up with a few good creative ideas, which surprised and pleased his older brother. Murdoch smile at those thoughts as he grabbed his hat, then proceeded to go downstairs for dinner.

“Ah, Mr. Lancer, we are all waiting for you, come with me, please.” Said the anxious Mayor as he greeted Murdoch at the bottom of the stairs.

“I’m right behind you, Mayor.” He told him, and then he stopped at the desk to ask again. “Did anybody check in, looking for me yet?”

“No, Sir, not yet” the desk clerk replied quietly.

Murdoch nodded glumly and headed for the dinning room.

At the table, they all sat around talking about tomorrow’s meeting, they wanted to discuss ideas of new ways to better the cattle business and such. Murdoch figured he had better try to take his mind off his missing son for the time being. So joining in the conversation he shared his views, enjoying the fine meal as he did. But as much as he tried not too, he would glance over at the doors, hoping and wishing to see his son wander through them.

“Something wrong, Mr. Lancer?” Asked the mayor, breaking the rancher’s thoughts.

“Huh? Oh nothing, Mayor. At least I hope not.” he replied glancing at the man, noticing the twitching of his brow, Murdoch frowned.

.

Chapter Five

Every step he took was pure unmerciful torture, it was becoming harder and harder for him to walk. Struggling to keep his balance, Johnny staggered along the scorching, barren dry ground. His feet felt like they were on fire, it was like he was stepping on hot coals, burning right through the soles of his boots. His legs felt like they were made of lead, heavy and throbbing, he had to force them to move, while every muscle in his lean tan body screamed at him.

’Stop!’ His body pleaded with him, but he couldn’t, he had to keep going, pushing forward to God knows where. Hell, he didn’t even know if he was headed in the right direction anymore.

The bandana that he had tied around his forehead was soaked with sweat that was escaping to trickle down his brow, burning his eyes and blurring his vision. Taking the bandana off, not to wring it out, but to wipe his face, using his own perspiration to cool his burning face. His shirt was clinging to his chest and back, sopping wet with the fluid he was losing, the tight fit of the wet fabric emphasized his taunt lean muscle as he walked. The heat was so intense he feared that his whole body would dry up before he got out of this situation.

Following the setting sun, Johnny rubbed his tired sore eyes, trying to focus on the surroundings. It was getting late and he had to find someplace for the night. The night’s cooling air would be a welcome relief from the days broiling heat, but Johnny knew that without the proper shelter in the desert, the nights could very well get too cold, enough so to kill a man. Since he only had the clothes on his back, Johnny knew he had better find something and fast.

Walking a few more steps he stumbled, finally giving into his body’s demands, Johnny fell to his knees and sat there. He felt too weak and thirsty to go on, every breath he took burned his throat and robbed his mouth of moisture. His throat was raw from breathing in all the sand dust he kicked up as he staggered along. He was so thirsty he thought about trying to squeeze the moisture from his bandana into his mouth but his survival skills wouldn’t let him, he knew the salty sweat would make it worse.

‘Dios.’ he said silently, and then felt his anger building up inside, giving him the willpower to go on. He had some unfinished business to take care of back in town, and he damn well intended to take care of it. ‘Those son of bitches have not seen the last of me’ he cussed to himself. Forcing himself off the molten hot ground, he got up wobbling, falling back down a couple times, then finally finding his legs and continued on.

After another hour or so of painfully pushing himself, Johnny stopped when he spotted a small grove of trees to the right. He smiled slightly, but cringed at the pain of his dry cracked lips. Taking a short breather to gather his thoughts, and what anger he had left, he slowly walked over to the trees. He was hoping it was not a mirage, that it wouldn’t fade away the closer he got to it. Letting out a puffing sigh of relief when the trees didn’t disappear on him, he found the closest one, and fell to his knees, giving silent thanks.

Shaking the canteen to see if he could get one last swallow, he managed to get enough to just wet his mouth. Johnny then settled in as night fell, watching the sunset. Relishing the night’s cold air as it cooled down his heated body. Breathing heavily and feeling every inch of his body scream in protest as he tried to move. He was finding it hard to keep his eyes open anymore. He dug a long shallow trench in the sand, and then covered himself up to his neck in the still warm earth. He had to wiggle and struggle to get his right arm partially covered but he finally managed, this would help keep the night’s chill from over coming him. Snuggling down like a baby, his last thoughts were of his father, and those back at town, as he drifted off into a deep slumber.

*********

Murdoch settled into his soft bed at the hotel, after a very long and tiring day of greeting fellow cattlemen. A majority of his time had been spent listening to the ranting of the Mayor, as he talked about his plans for *his* town. Plans that Murdoch had no interest in at this time. Murdoch knew what the man was getting at, by all the subtle hints he was throwing at him To be truthful, he had entertained thoughts about bringing his herd to market here, but always took the route closer to Lancer.

Then there was the food; he had never eaten so much in one day. He always had his three meals back home, but this was ridiculous. Every time he was invited to a local home, or just to have coffee at the cafe, he was always presented with some kind of meal or snack. And being the gentleman he was, when it came to socializing, he couldn’t refuse. He felt like he had gained at least five to ten pounds to his already large form.

But as tired as he was, Murdoch found it hard to fall asleep; his thoughts were on his son. Tomorrow was the big meeting, and Johnny wasn’t here yet. He was starting to worry even more, getting frustrated too. He was getting very tired of being stonewalled whenever he asked if someone had been looking for him. This just added to his worry “What is going on here?” he quietly asked himself, “Where is my son?”

Admitting defeat, he wasn’t going to get any sleep; he threw off the covers, and then got dressed. He had decided that maybe a night walk would help clear his thoughts. So grabbing his hat, jacket and gun belt, he headed downstairs. Murdoch’s heavy footsteps alerted the dozing night clerk, causing the timid man to shoot up from his easy chair.

“Going some where, Mr. Lancer?” he asked sleepily.

“Can’t sleep, thought a walk would help.” Murdoch replied quietly.

“Well then, you have a good walk sir.” the clerk said politely, then went to sit back down.

“I will.” Murdoch said and smiled at the little man, as he was just about to doze off again. Putting his hat on, he left the hotel and proceeded to cross the street dimly lit by torches.

On the other side of the street, he could hear that the saloon was in full force tonight, alive with music and laughter. He could hear the saloon girls giggling at the bad jokes coming from the men, while they sat on their laps. Glasses were clinking and cheers yelled out as toasts were made to the future. As tempting as it was to join in on the merriment, Murdoch was in no mood, so he kept on walking lost in his thoughts.

For some reason he was drawn to the south side of town, finding himself standing before a run downed liberty stable. Bewildered as to why he felt he had to come this way, he sat down on a nearby hay bale. With the noise of the busy saloon in the distance he found the quiet here very relaxing. He just sat there enjoying the peacefulness he was feeling. Then he heard a familiar sound coming from within the stable.

Opening the door, letting the moonlight shine into the dark interior, he peered in to see where the noise had come from. Then he noticed the shadow of a horse against the far back wall. Curious, Murdoch carefully made his way towards that direction, as he got closer he could see the horse’s tall figure in the stall, continuing on towards the back, his heart began to beat faster. Then his eyes widened, both with delight and dread.

“Barranca?”

.

Chapter Six

The golden stallion’s ears perked up at the sound of the familiar voice. Barranca turned his head to see where the voice had come from. His head shot up, as he shook it mightily pale mane flying about from the motion as he whinnied and snorted out of sheer delight. He started to stomp his foot, like he was trying to dance. The closer Murdoch got to him, the more his heart raced. He anxiously moved about the small stall, startling his visitor. Seeing that the man was a little hesitant to come any closer. Barranca nodded, to let Murdoch know it was okay to approach him.

 “Barranca,” Murdoch said softly, as he reached out to touch him, “Hello, boy.” The stallion welcomed the gentle touch of his owner’s father, giving him a nudge, which brought a smile to the man’s face. The smile quickly faded, as he looked around for his son. “Johnny?” he called out in a hopeful voice, listening intently for an answering reply. But all he heard was a whinny from Barranca and the fluttering wings of barn swallows startled in to flight by his voice. “Where is he, boy?” Murdoch asked, gently stroking his golden neck. “Where’s my son?” Then his face grew perplexed, wondering what the hell was going on here.

He turned his attention back to Barranca, carefully checking him over for any clues as to where Johnny might be, or had been. He could see that the horse was well groomed, with plenty of food and water close by. ‘But why is he back in this small corner stall?’ he asked himself. Barranca also looked very rested, as if he hadn’t been ridden in a day or so, which seemed odd to the tall rancher. “Why are you here and by yourself?” Murdoch was curious as to why Johnny would stable his horse way out here, instead of using the livery in town.

He feared that Johnny didn’t leave his amigo here; that most likely someone else did. Murdoch felt his blood pressure rising when a thought suddenly came to him: a thought that both angered and scared him. ‘Was Johnny here? Or did they find his horse wondering about? What are they hiding?’ Rubbing his tired eyes, trying to keep his thoughts straight, he was trying not to let panic set in, but it was already too late, as fear gripped him. He needed answers, and he needed them now. Patting Barranca gently, as he drew his conclusions, he then gave him a little hay to munch on.

“I’ll be back for you later, boy. I have some people to see, and they had better have some answers for me!” The horse’s ears twitched at the tone of Murdoch’s voice. Barranca knew there was something wrong; he nodded, nickering in agreement.

The café that was normally closed at this time of night had remained open to accommodate the cattlemen. Many of the ranchers preferred to spend a quiet night in here, instead of at the saloon with the noise and bawdy behavior. Tonight it was also the meeting place for a few of the city officials, such as the Mayor and the Sheriff. Along with the president of the Cattlemen’s Association, they were going over the details for tomorrow’s meeting. It was a peaceful and comfortable scene, until Murdoch Lancer arrived.

The café’s doors flew open with a great crashing force, slamming against the walls nearly shattering all the small glass windows set in them. The abrupt and disruptive sound in the relatively quiet room startled the occupants and they jumped nervously in their seats, turning their attention towards the entrance. In stormed the tall form of Murdoch Lancer, his formidable face had murderous intentions written all over it. On his way to find the Mayor and the Sheriff, he got to thinking more about what could have happened to his son, the more he thought about it the madder he got. He had a bad feeling, but he wanted them to tell him about Johnny’s disappearance.

He stomped to a stop for a few seconds, glaring about menacingly until he found his quarry. He moved forward, descending like a dark storm cloud on the table where the Mayor was sitting. The fat Mayor looked up as he heard the thundering footsteps, his eyes widened at the sight of this big man bearing down on him, ready to attack. He also didn’t like the look on the irate man’s face. A shot of fear pierced his cold, selfish heart. He literally jumped a few inches off his seat at the sound of Murdoch’s voice.

“MAYOR!” the tall rancher boomed, so loud you could hear him over the noise of the saloon across the street. Murdoch stormed over to the table, and glared at the shaking man. “I would like some answers from you, and your sheriff here.” He demanded rather callously.

“Why…Why Mr. Lancer, I thought you had turned in for the night.” The nervous man said, wondering what he had found out.

“I did, but I couldn’t sleep, so I went for walk.” Murdoch replied. “And I found something, and I think you know all about it.” He added frankly. Murdoch stared straight into the Mayor’s eyes, as beads of sweat started to form on his wrinkled brow.

“What’s that?” The sheriff spoke up.

“I would like to know about that palomino, I found in the old stable,” he demanded, still glaring at the two men, trying to control his temper. The two anxious men looked at each other briefly, and that told Murdoch he was on to something. He continued, “Who does it belong too? And where is he or she?” Both men were tongue-tied. Seeing that they were having a hard time coming up with a straight answer for him, he helped them by adding, “Was the owner of that horse looking for me?” he asked boldly.

That last question took them both by surprise, but then again they also felt relieved by it too. They were going to tell Lancer about Madrid looking for him after the Convention was over. Hoping and thinking, albeit erroneously, that he would be grateful and beholding to them for putting a stop to Madrid’s plan to kill him. But since Lancer found his horse the ruse was over. However they were somewhat puzzled, ‘How did he know Madrid was looking for him?’ Neither one realized that Murdoch was referring to his son.

They both looked at each other and nodded. “Well, yes there was someone looking for you, Lancer,” the Sheriff spoke up. “But don’t worry he won’t be bothering you now,” he added rather proudly. Murdoch was quiet, as he listened to their explanations, like the calm before the storm. His anger was building with every word they spoke.

“Yes, Yes, when we heard that Madrid was coming here to kill you,” the mayor said, “We took care of the problem before you got here. We had to protect you from the likes of him.” The mayor finished with a smile, pleased with himself.

“We don’t want trash like Madrid here in our town. No Mexs or half-breeds of any sort are allowed to live here, let alone come to kill someone important, like you Mr. Lancer.” The Sheriff informed him calmly, as Jordan, the President of the Cattlemen’s Association looked on. Jordan sat there in total shock, for he knew that Madrid was Lancer’s son. If he had only known what the Mayor was going to do to Johnny, he would have put a stop to it, but he was too late. He had just recently arrived a few hours ago.

“Gentlemen, there is something you both should know,” the man said, then looked at Murdoch’s face, and thought twice about what he was going to say. He decided it would be better to let Lancer deal with it. After all whatever Murdoch was going to do, he figured they had it coming.

“What is that?” The mayor asked.

“Oh, nothing.” he replied, and sat back to watch the coming fireworks.

“As I was saying, that no-good piece of trash will not bother you, not as long as I’m sheriff here. He’ll never…” He was preventing from finishing what he was going to say, when the earth shook.

“YOU SON OF BITCH!” Boomed a highly agitated Murdoch. Then a huge fist went sailing across the table.

“MR. LANCER!” shouted the mortified Mayor, as he looked down at the sheriff, lying on the floor, wiping his bloody mouth. He looked back up at Murdoch, who was rubbing his hand. “What…what did you do that for?” he asked, pointing to the downed man.

“Because, you…you worthless, arrogant, bigoted, prejudiced, intolerant, narrow-minded, sorry excuse for a human being,” he paused to gain control of himself, taking a deep breath, he growled through his teeth, “Because Johnny Madrid happens to be my son!”

.

Chapter Seven

The two stunned men glared at the tall rancher, in utter disbelief, mortification with a heaping dose of fear froze their bodies and robbed them of the ability to speak. Confusion whirled dizzily in their prejudiced minds; they had thought they heard him say that Madrid was his son. But how could this be? Madrid was a half-breed, a cold-blooded killer, whereas Lancer was a respected and powerful man. No man in his right mind would ever admit or even think of accepting Madrid into his home, even if he was his son. Lancer must be daft, out of his mind, they both thought.

“Surely, you jest, Mr. Lancer?” The dumbfounded Mayor inquired. “How could that murderer be your son?” he asked all huffy and self-righteous, his voice dripping with total disgust.

Murdoch shook his head in incredulous astonishment at the ignorant man; his murderous glare pierced him like an arrow. His anger grew as the seconds ticked by; rage filled him to overflowing. The Mayor shivered at the expression on the irate rancher’s face, he nervously scooted his chair back away from the table, trying to remove himself from harm’s way. He was fairly sure he would be Murdoch’s next victim; he was preparing himself for the knuckle sandwich that the Sheriff had received or worse.

“I JEST NOT!” Murdoch told them boldly, as he leaned ominously over the table, “You don’t know the whole story, but I assure you that he is my son!” He said with such proud conviction, that it took them by surprise. ‘This man admits that his son is a killer?’ the Mayor thought. Then as if he was reading the fat man’s minuscule mind, Murdoch added. “And he is not a killer, you don’t know him, so don’t judge him.”

“But he’s a half…” The Sheriff thought better of his words and quickly shut his trap, when the tall man stood up. Murdoch balled his hand into a fist, which alluded to his intention to lay another wallop on the Sheriff’s already swollen face. Murdoch was like a volcano, the hot molten fury of his anger threatening to erupt at any second. The Sheriff would have sworn under oath, he could see steam coming out Lancer’s ears. He slowly got up off the floor, and sat back down in his chair, nursing his fat lip.

Murdoch tried to rein in his temper, but truth be told he felt like stampeding through these fools like a bull in a china shop, shattering anything and anyone that got in his way. The Mayor looked over at Jordan and squeaked timidly, “Did you know that Madrid was his son?”

Jordan just nodded.

“Then why in the hell didn’t you tell us?”

“Because I wasn’t here when you…disposed of Johnny, you wrong headed, mislead pompous ass. ” Jordan snorted, “If I had known what you had in mind to do, I would have stopped it. But no, you had to let your prejudice; your preconceived erroneous notions get in the way of asking why he was here. Am I’m right?” Jordan demanded an answer, and then went on to say, “If I had known what kind of people you were, I would have never considered your town to hold MY convention.”

Both men bowed their head in guilty admission, without saying a word, not even an apology, and that’s all it took for the volcano erupt. Thunderous fury rumbled; the air crackled from the rapid explosion of escalating tension. Murdoch pounded the table with both fists, so hard that it shook the coffee cups until they rattled and danced right off the table, shattering as they hit the floor. If he had struck with much more force, he would have broken the table in two. Then not caring if he was a city official or not, Murdoch, in a mad frenzy, tipped the table over with one hand and grabbed the terrified Mayor by his collar with the other. He pulled him up to his face.

“WHERE IS MY SON?” He growled loudly in the man’s face.

“Put…me…down, I’m the Mayor here and…” he stuttered trying to break away from Murdoch’s death grip hold on his collar.

“I don’t give damn who you are, I want to know what you did with my son, and now!” He shook the portly man for emphasis, and then dropped him back into his seat with a disgusted leer.

“I suggest you tell the man what he wants to know, or you’ll have the two of us to answer to.” Jordan said. He had met Johnny only a few times, whenever he had visited Lancer or on business, he’d quickly taken a liking to the young man. Even though Jordan had his doubts about him, Johnny’s determination to make a go of his new life, pleased the gruff old cattleman.

“Well?” Lancer demanded.

“We…we dropped him off few miles south of town.” the Sheriff finally replied, slurring out the words in a painful mumble, as his lip was now twice its normal size.

“With no horse, I gather, since his horse is stabled at the end of town, right?” Murdoch growled, his face turning beet red, as his anger and blood pressure rose even more. He felt himself trembling, his pulse racing. ‘This time of year, on foot, all alone.’ kept running through his mind. He felt dizzy, but controlled it, by taking deep breaths, and leaning against a chair. He continued staring at the sweating little man, waiting for an answer.

“And no gun.” The mayor added.

Murdoch Lancer had heard enough of this bullshit, and boomed, “THEN I THINK YOU HAD BETTER GET SOME MEN TOGETHER AND GO FIND MY SON!” he demanded so loudly, he had the two men shaking in their boots. While Jordan looked on, trying to hold back a laugh, as he knew this was no laughing matter. The other occupants, close by them, made a quick dash for the doors, to get out of the way of the enraged father.

The Sheriff left the café in a hurry; he too had to get away from the fuming rancher. Against his better judgment, he gathered a few men and formed a search party. Murdoch forced the mousy mayor to come along; there was no way in hell he was going to stay behind.

Jordan also joined the group, he intended to keep the peace and possibly prevent his old friend from actually harming these misguided idiots. Years of friendship had taught him Murdoch was a force to be reckoned with. Jordan was a father himself and he recognized the fierce protective paternal instinct, rearing its head in Murdoch now, after all that was his youngest son out there…alone.

The stubborn Mayor wanted to wait until daylight, but with the aggressive, intimidating urging of an obstinate Lancer he agreed to begin the search right away. So the Sheriff, Greg, and the ones who helped dropped Johnny off, lead the way out of town, in the hopes they would find him…alive.

******

Johnny felt like he was floating on air, there was no awareness of pain, he only felt comfort and peace. He relished the deep sleep he was in, it was a place where all that was real was put on hold, and this dream world was his sanctuary, one he didn’t want to wake from. He knew if he did all this peace and tranquility would be gone, and the harsh reality would come back in full force. He was out here alone, hungry, thirsty, and slowly dying. If he didn’t get to town soon, he would surely spend his last days in this barren wasteland.

He dreamt of home, Lancer, how he missed it, everything about it. The green valley, surrounded by the beauty of the rolling hills, the surrounding woodlands filled with life of every sort. For once in his life he had somewhere to call home, he had family and friends. All the things he was deprived of as a child. He would die to protect it, but now he didn’t know if he would ever see them again. And it was the fault of those bastards back in town; he just had to make it back, to make them pay. He kept saying to himself, willing himself to live, giving himself the incentive to stay alive.

Deep in his dream state, Johnny didn’t hear the soft footsteps coming towards him. The next thing he felt was the warm blanket of sand being pushed away, and then being lifted up gently from the soft but gritty trench. He was too weak to fight off the strong hands that held him; he gave in, slipping into a deeper sleep.

.

Chapter Eight

A degree of awareness slowly encompassed Johnny. ‘That’s odd,’ he thought, ‘The ground seems warmer, softer, even more comfortable, then when I first laid down.’ Johnny wondered why that was. He could feel himself slowly waking from his dream world, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, weak and seeking. He knew he couldn’t stay in this suspended state forever, even though he tried. Something was telling him . . .urging him to wake up.

‘Something is different, I’m not where I was or should be,’ he thought as he pushed further away from the blackness of unconsciousness, becoming more aware of things around him. ‘I can’t hear the sounds of the desert. There’s no whisper of the wind blowing above me. I don’t feel the sting of the sand whipping my face. It’s way too quiet. Am I’m dead?’ he asked himself, confused. His eyes lids were too heavy to open, so he just lay there trying to make sense of what going on. Listening, waiting.

Suddenly he flinched at the touch of soft cool hands, tender upon his forehead. The palm danced lightly over his flushed face, gently caressing it, and then stopped. ‘No don’t stop’ he pled silently, relishing the reassuring touch. The next thing he felt was the satiating coolness of a damp cloth being placed on his burning forehead. It felt so good; he was hot, but yet cold at the same time. He dreaded it, but slowly and painfully, he started to feel his body waking up. He longed to stay in his dream world, where he didn’t have to acknowledge his hurts. Every abused muscle in him screamed, and even worse, his feet still felt like they were on fire. Finding he didn’t have the strength to move away from the pain, as he wanted too, he let out a soft moan.

“He’s starting to wake,” Said a soft voice.

“Ah, I see Mia, go see to the broth, he will need it when he wakes.” her husband instructed.

“Si, my husband.”

‘Voices, I hear voices. I’m not alone.’ Johnny realized. He huffed out a breathy soft sigh that escaped through his dry cracked lips, like the flutter of wings. His heart began beating faster, throbbing in his chest with increasing anxiety. He anxiously tossed his head back and forth, eyes rapidly twitching beneath his eyelids. ‘Kind voices . . .Mexican . . . but out here? In the desert? I need to see . . . who is it . . . what’s happening . . . where am I?’ The questions whirled in his mind, jumbling his thoughts and clouding his senses.

“That’s good, Nino. You wake up now, you have been asleep too long.” the man said. He took the cloth off Johnny’s forehead, dipped it in a basin of cold water, and then wrung it out, and replaced it on Johnny’s brow. Johnny’s eyes fluttered open half way, refusing to focus at first.

At the sound of the man’s kindly voice, urging him to wake up, Johnny slowly opened his eyes all the way. The old man shot straight up in his chair as they were finally revealed to him. The eyes that struggled to focus were as blue as a summer sky. “You…you are half-gringo?” he asked stunned. With Johnny’s dark skin, black hair, and all the characteristics of a Spaniard, the sight of Johnny’s sapphire eyes took the man by surprise.

“Si.” Johnny replied; it was barely a whisper.

“No…no, do not talk, you need to stay quiet.” He hushed the young man, “You must drink, you are dehydrated.” He raised Johnny’s head and placed a cup of refreshing water before him. “Drink slow, it is not good to drink too fast” the old man warned. Johnny drank what he could, his throat burned with every swallow he took, and his lips bled at the touch of the cup. His stomach was so empty that the taste of his own blood mingled with the water made him want to heave. He had to fight the sensation, least he lose the precious liquid his body so badly needed.

Gently laying Johnny’s head back down, he touched Johnny’s forehead, and shook his head, frowning. “You have a fever, the gringo doctors, they call it heat stroke. We have to keep you cool.” the man added, and placed another wet rag on his brow. “You also have a nasty lump, I think that is way you sleep too long.”

“W…who?”

“I’m called Juanito,” he answered smiling, knowing what Johnny meant. Johnny tried to smile back, but hissed at the pain of his lips stretching. So he chuckled lightly instead.

“What is funny, Senor?”

“Me…too.” Johnny whispered, “Johnny…Lan…cer.” He was able to push his name pass the sore lips.

“Ah, well, it is nice to meet you Senor Lancer.” Juan said with a chuckle. “Now let’s get some salve on those lips.” Looking into Johnny’s eyes, he could see the questions in them, so he answered them without Johnny having to ask. “You had been asleep for one whole day. We…”

“We?”

“Si, my wife Mia and I, we found you laying under the tree close by our home.” He explained, while gently rubbing the soothing salve on Johnny’s lips. “So we brought you here, to care for you, thinking you were…” he paused, “But it does not matter, you were in need of help.” he said lowering his eyes.

With a shaky hand, Johnny sympathetically pulled the man’s hand away, “You are not disgusted I’m half gringo?” he asked softy.

“No, Senor, I am not disgusted. I see in your eyes you are not like those bastardos in that town,” anger hardened and colored his voice. “You must eat. Mia, bring the broth for Senor Lancer!” Juan called to his wife.

Mia hurried over with the cup of hot broth. She sat it down and helped Juan raise Johnny up for him to drink. She too, was surprised to see blue eyes staring at her. Mia smiled as she sat down beside Johnny, then looked at her husband, with the same questions on her mind that Juan had on his. However, they thought it would be better to wait to ask.

Together, they made sure he drank all the broth. The warm liquid gave him a measure of strength. He was relieved that he was able to keep it down, his belly felt fuller then it had in days. They made Johnny as comfortable as possible, while they both sat vigil by his side. The two took turns keeping him cool with cold wet compresses to bring down the fever that kept ravaging his body, spiking up and down, from one extreme to the other. That had them worried.

“Sleepily, Johnny asked again, “How long have I’ve been here?”

“We found you last night, Senor, like I said you have been asleep since,” Juan replied. “Your feet are badly blistered, you cannot use them yet. You are lucky we found you, or you would have perished, Senor.”

“Si, and Gracias, mi amigo.” Johnny said, as he drifted off to sleep. He was still too weak and sore to think or talk any more. But he had so many other questions to ask these nice people. Like, why are they out here in this dry and God forsaken land, and not living in town? Something was not right…but for right now that dream world was calling him back; back to that state of nothingness, where he was blissfully unaware of pain.

.

Back in town-

“Mr. Lancer, will you calm down, and listen?”

“NO!” Boomed a highly enraged and fuming Murdoch. “We spent the whole day looking for my son, and we found NOTHING! You hear me NOTHING! And you are telling me to calm down?” He towered over the Sheriff, his face a mottled purple as he shouted. “My son is out there, God only knows where and in what kind of shape. I don’t even want to think about it, but I have to, I am haunted by it, every second that he is missing. And Sheriff, I don’t give a damn if it takes days, weeks, months or YEARS! I will…WE will find him.” He slammed his fist down on the sheriff’s desk. The force of the blow rattled the glass chimney on the lamp and caused it to crack, from bottom to top.

“But sir, we looked everywhere possible, for all we know he could be dead….” that last word trailed off when he received a threatening and hostile look from Murdoch. The rancher had a look in his eyes that declared he was out for blood, the blood of the Sheriff and those who did this to his son.

“He had better not be, Sheriff, for if he is.” Murdoch paused adding to the Sheriff’s sense of impending doom, “I will make sure you and this town have seen your last thriving days. Do I make myself clear?”

.

Chapter Nine

“Are you ready? We ride in five minutes!” Murdoch Lancer bellowed out the orders, he was in no mood to be hassled with, not with his son’s life on the line. The two men looked at him, both were utterly disgusted with the tall rancher at that moment, and they now wondered why he was ever made Man of the Year. The man was like an enraged bear, growling, biting off their heads and looking as if he could and would swipe at them with his giant hands, if they even dared to look at him the wrong way. There was no pleasing the man, or reasoning with him for that fact, he was calling the tune, and no one else.

When they reminded Murdoch about the meeting scheduled for today, and the festive picnic, where he was to be the guest of honor, Murdoch Lancer snarled loudly at the two bigoted morons. “I don’t give a damn about your blasted meeting or picnic. How DARE you even think about it when my son Johnny is out there fighting for his life! So that means if I’m going to miss it, then YOU are too. This was all your doing MAYOR!” he hollered at the fat little weasel.

Jordan had instructed a fellow cattleman to make sure that the convention went on as planned, and to inform the members that the guest of honor would be not attending, nor would he. He instructed him to extend their apologies and that they would give an explanation later. This did not sit well the Mayor, no not one bit. He had been looking forward to mingling and possibly drumming up more business for the town. Especially now that it was clear Lancer was out of the question, the enraged father would probably never set foot in his town again, much less bring them business.

Murdoch was pushing hard on the little man, making him ride all day, and he stated his intention to make them ride through the night if need be. They came back to town only to rest and get fresh horses, and then going right back out there, in a different direction. Mayor Harvey wasn’t used to this kind of treatment, or strenuous activity, he always had it so soft, sitting behind a big desk, always traveled by stage or train. He felt like the smoldering heat was starting to melt away some of his fat. Plus his precious ass was getting saddle sores, but Murdoch didn’t care one bit about that, the man was going to ride today, every day until his son was found.

They have covered the north side of town, the east side, now today they were headed west. When asked why not south yet, Murdoch had to explain to them that a man could very easily get turned around in the dessert. And Johnny had several factors against him, the heat, which could sap his energy and dehydrate him, coupled with the head injury from the blow to subdue him. “ These things could cause him to be confused and misdirected, that’s why.” He growled through his teeth at them, wanting nothing more then to beat the unmitigated crap out of them. ‘In due time,’ he thought.

“MOUNT UP!” The tall rancher ordered, as he waited impatiently for the two town officials’. “TODAY gentleman!” he demanded.

“Yes sir!” The Sheriff said all huffy, giving Lancer a mock salute. While the Mayor climbed up his horse, then sitting down gentle, hissing at the pain in his butt, the layers of fat had not been enough to cushion and protect it.

“Let’s go.” Was all he said and led the search team out of town with hopes he would find his son today . . . alive. His heart was telling him that Johnny was still alive; he had to keep believing that, because it was the only thing that kept him going. To lose Johnny now, after just getting him back, he felt surely it would be the death of him. The pain of losing his child . . . his baby the first time around had torn at his soul, and eaten away at his happiness for years. Murdoch didn’t how he could live with that again, or even if he could live with it. But dead or alive, he had to find him, to take him back home to Lancer.

********

“Morning, Senor, how do you feel?” Juan asked as he entered to small room. He carefully sat down on the bed, brushing away a few strands of damp black hair out of Johnny’s eyes. Then he felt Johnny’s forehead, “Yi, it has been almost two days, and you still have a fever, this is not good.” He said shaking his head, frowning, as he wrung out a cold, wet rag, placing it on Johnny’s brow.

Johnny didn’t answer him right away, he just stared at the gentle man’s face, looking into those sad brown eyes of his, seeing nothing but pain there. Recognizing the suffering, the unrelenting hurt he had seen so many times before, during his days as Madrid, he closed his eyes against those visions from the past. When he finally spoke, it was with a scratchy voice. “My head…hurts like hell,” he said touching the back of his head, hissing in pain, as his fingers gingerly touch the tender spot.

“Si, you have a nasty lump there, but it is your feet that worries me,” Juan informed him. “Your blisters, they are not healing as they should, Senor. I think they are the cause of your fever,” he added grimly. His wizened old hands touched Johnny’s head again, the coolness of the old man’s hand felt good on his heated face. “It is still too high.”

“They…burn . . . it feels like they’re frying,” he whispered. Johnny closed his eyes even tighter, grabbing hold of the blanket, squeezing it until his knuckles turned white, when a wave of hot blazing pain shot up his legs. Juan quickly started to wipe down Johnny’s face as large beads of sweat formed, threatening to run over his eyes, still squeezed shut against the pain. Juan whispered soothingly in Spanish, his gentle voice reaching the young man’s ears, comforting him, as the torture slowly eased up.

“Those boots of yours were not made for walking in the dessert,” Juan commented.

“Si, but… I had no… choice.” Johnny replied, with his eyes still firmly closed, trying to catch his breath. Between the headache and the burning of his feet he didn’t know which one felt worst, “I have… to get back to… town.” He added with conviction.

The old man nodded, “ I know why you must go back, I know your pain. I have lived with it all my years. ” Juan said quietly, lowering his eyes to hide his own personal agony. This did not get by Johnny, and he gently squeezed the old man’s arm out of shared commiseration. Something terrible must have had happened to make them live out here, in this God forsaken land.

“What did they do…to you?” Johnny asked, swallowing hard, his throat still quite raw.

Juan didn’t look up when he spoke. “It is not what they did to me, it’s what they do to…our kind,” he said with tears in his voice. When he looked up at Johnny, he saw only understanding in eyes much too old for such a young man. “We are not welcome to live there.” He spoke in angered resignation, “Oh they do let us come to buy their goods, but it is old goods, sometimes spoiled, but they make us pay full price. We have no choice or we do not eat”

“So you are forced to live out here, like this?”

“Si, we left Mexico in hopes of a better life, so we come here, but it was a mistake,” Juan said sadly. “They threw us out of town so fast, that I had no chance to find work, so we ran out of money, we had nowhere to go, so we had no choice but to stay here.”

“Just the two of you?” Johnny asked weakly, his voice tiring now, “What do you do for money?”

“Just the two of us now, back then we had our daughter and son, but…” he paused reflecting on the grim events that had taken placed. “My son, he died shortly after, he went to town seeking work, and they accused him of stealing an apple. An apple Senor, and the Sheriff . . . he beat my Jose to death, he said that’s what they do to thieves…my Jose was no thief!” he said angrily.

“And your daughter?”

Juan was quiet for a few minutes, trying to gather his thoughts. Remembering the past was hard and painful on the old man, but he did answered Johnny’s question. “They raped her, Senor, they…dishonored my Sophia, and that Sheriff he did nothing!” Juan pounded his fist on the table in impotent frustration. “She was with child, both the baby and my Sophia died, it was a hard and long birth, and she was too weak. ” He cried putting his hands up to his face. The release of tears was cathartic for him, though the air was still thick with grief and anger.

“So after, they must have felt guilty, as they let us start doing odd jobs,” Juan continued lifting his head, wiping his tears. “We are suitable enough to clean their stables, but we are not allowed in their homes. So my Mia has to work along side me in those filthy stalls, that isn’t a fit place for a woman.” Juan added, “I see that you, too, were not welcome there?” He had to ask, taking a closer look at Johnny’s features.

Johnny didn’t answer right away; he was trying to control his own feelings that were raging inside of him. What he had just heard reminded him of his chaotic childhood and it infuriated him even more. The raping, the beatings of those who had suffered at the hands of gringo’s, who wandered and plundered through his village. They took what they wanted, killing whom they wanted, either because they were too drunk or out of plain meanness and misplaced hatred for the Mexican people.

“It’s not only … because of my heritage,” Johnny said in a labor voice, as the words were getting harder to get out. “It’s…because of…who I was.” he added, rubbing his throat.

“Come, drink some water it will help.” Juan said, lifting Johnny’s head, helping him drink. The old man looked at Johnny’s blue eyes again, with a started gasp, he realized the *who*, Johnny was talking about. With a big grin, the man asked, “It is because you are Madrid?”

.

Chapter Ten

The kind-hearted old man couldn’t keep the smile from his face, as he tenderly brushed the dark bangs away from Johnny’s brow. All the while a pair of fatigued blue eyes remained focused on him, reading the concern and delight in the old man’s face. His host’s grin was contagious and Johnny couldn’t help but return it. Juan’s expression was that of a father caring for his injured son. To some Mexicans, Johnny was just that, a son of the people. They saw him as a hero, a man unafraid to stand up for them, willing to protect the poor, prepared to fight for what was right. At first Madrid had been more interested in earning a reputation, until Johnny started to care more for others, freely giving of himself, even when those that sought his help did not have the money to pay.

Juan’s hand felt gentle and cool on his fevered brow, yet Johnny could still feel the warm affection emanating from within the old man. It was the same sense of compassion filling Johnny’s own heart. He felt peace and acceptance, something that he rarely experienced before he went home. Sighing lightly, Johnny felt relieved that Juan didn’t care that he was Madrid. He recognized many people out there that would love to get their hands around his neck, or perhaps even put a rope around it. Revenge and prejudice are powerful motivators.

Johnny felt the urge to ask. “It doesn’t bother you that…?”

Juan hushed him, cutting him off by saying, “That you are Madrid? No, it does not,” he said still grinning. “It is an honor to have you here in my home.”

“Madrid?” Mia questioned in awe, as she entered the room, carrying some clean bandages, along with some hot broth.

“Si, my wife, that is who Juanito is.” He replied proudly.

Mia came closer to the bed, sitting the broth down on the little homemade table by it, and timidly smiled at Johnny. “My husband has told me stories about you, Senor,” She said softly, “You are a hero to our people.”

Johnny sighed heavily, his smile fading, “Don’t believe all that you hear.” He grimly added, “I ain’t no saint. I did a lot of bad things that I’m not proud of.” A feeling of shame washed over him and he turned his face away in an attempt to hide it as he regained control of his emotions.

“We are not concerned about those things, we care about the good deeds you did for our people.” Mia assured him. Johnny turned his head to face her, and couldn’t help but smile at the remark. Crossing herself she continued, “My old papa, he says that the good people do will outweigh the bad they have done, when their hearts are true.”

“I wish it was that easy, but it doesn’t always work out that way.” Johnny said softly, “But I’m trying to put that part of my life behind me, and move forward with my father’s help.”

The couple looked at him, the confusion plain on their faces.

“I go by Lancer now, that is my true name.” he replied, upon seeing the puzzled looks on their faces.

“AH, I see, you are the son of Senor Lancer!” Juan exclaimed. “I heard that he was to be honored in town.” The old man really was bewildered, “But why this? Why did they do this to you? If you are the son of Lancer…?”

Johnny wanted to laugh even though it wasn’t funny; his expression turned hard, anger over took him, filling his very soul. “Because they thought I was sent here to kill my own father,” he said coldly. “They didn’t even give me chance to explain who I really was. They attacked me, and left me out there…. like I was…. was a piece of trash.” The intensity of the raw emotions shaded Johnny’s voice with anger and hurt. He closed his eyes, cringing as the pain in his head and feet, added to his misery.

Mia and her husband shook their heads in sympathy. They understood all too well what prejudice could do to mind, body and soul. Bigotry and intolerance can tear a soul apart, shredding it into a million pieces, leaving it to bleed like a deep razor cut. Looking down at the young man before her, Mia noticed that Johnny was looking a bit more peaked, she felt his head with the back of her hand, frowning at how hot he felt.

“The fever is still rising, this is not good”

“I know, I have done all I can for him,” Juan said regretfully. “He needs a doctor.”

Johnny opened his eyes, when he heard the word *doctor*. “Do… you …have a wagon?” he asked in a labored and breathless voice, as he was getting weaker by the minute. The rising fever was draining his strength.

“Si, I do.”

“Will… you please… take me back to… town?” Johnny inquired.

“Are you sure?” Mia hesitantly asked, “After what they did to you?” She took hold of Johnny’s warm hand and studied the young man, as he tried to gather up some strength to talk.

“My…father is there now, he….he will protect me,” he said to assure the concerned woman. “Juan is right, I…I do need a doctor,” Johnny hated to admit it. He had to get back to town, back to his father. He needed to get well enough to make sure those bastards paid for ruining his time with his father due to their prejudice. Johnny owed those self-righteous dogs some pay back, and he fully intended to make sure they received it.

“If you are sure, mi amigo. Then I will take you tomorrow, for now you must drink, and rest.” After making sure it was what Johnny sincerely wanted Juan prepared to depart to tend to his chores. “I will get the wagon ready. Mia make sure he drinks that broth, we have a long ride tomorrow, he will need his strength.” Before leaving the room, Juan helped his wife raise Johnny up so he could drink the hot fluid. He admired Johnny’s determination, but he worried tomorrow would be too much for him.

Johnny wanted to go today, but was too weak to even argue the point. He smiled at the gentle woman as she held the steaming cup to his lips. Wisps of aromatic steam rose to fill his nostrils, “Smells good,” he softly complimented. Taking small sips of the broth, he had to force it down. At first it burned his sore throat, then it got a little easier to swallow. Despite the fever he was hungry, so he drank it all up.

He sat there, eyes closed, relishing the fullness of his stomach, and comfort of the soft bed. Things he had thought he would never feel or enjoy again while he was lost in the desert. His head jerked a little, he moaned softly when he felt the tender fingers of Mia applying the homemade salve to his healing chapped lips. He opened his eyes when she finished and tiredly whispered his thanks. She merely smiled, as she wiped her fingers on her apron.

“You rest now, we have a long journey tomorrow, then the doctor and your papa will take care of you.” Mia rose and pulled the covers up to his chest. As Johnny lay there drifting off to sleep, she stared at him. Overcome with maternal feelings, Mia couldn’t help but let a tear escape, as for one brief moment she saw her own son, laying there. She realized her son was gone, but Johnny was here, and she would do anything to help him get home. As she was leaving she heard a faint whisper.

“Gracias.”

.

Chapter Eleven

The door to the sheriff’s office crashed open, slamming against the wall, as though pushed violently by the force and velocity of a tornado blowing through the town, unleashing its powerful damaging winds, whipping and whirling destruction. When in reality it was being forcefully pushed open by a pair of big strong, angry hands. A large hat sailed clear across the room, thrown out of pure heated frustration. It landed on the floor next to the jail cells. Murdoch Lancer stormed into the room, madder then an enraged bull, seeing red, stomping his foot as if he was getting ready to charge. It had been another long day of looking, and still no signs of Johnny. To make matters worst, he had to listen to that fat bastard of a mayor, complaining about his sore ass.

Mayor Harvey waddled into the room like a penguin out of its element, rubbing his rotund rump, whining like a baby, and hissing at the rawness of his saddle sores. He was followed into the room by the sheriff who was mumbling to himself. Both men were tired, hot, and dirty from the long day in the saddle. They were relieved to be back indoors and out the broiling heat of the sun that had beaten down on them, sucking their body fluids right out them, soaking their clothes in sweat, making dirt cling to the material and them. They didn’t know how much more they could take from Lancer. Murdoch was relentless; he would not give up, he was bound and determined to keep on looking. It had been close to three days now, three days of unbearable hell, as Murdoch pushed them almost to their limits and beyond.

“Surely, Mr. Lancer, if he were still alive, we would of have found him by now.” The hot thirsty sheriff expressed, gulping down some cool water to ease his dry throat. “I mean…”

“I know damn well what you mean!’ Murdoch snapped ruthlessly at the man, “And I’m telling you right now, WE will find my son…dead or alive.” The angry and worried father stated strongly, the hope in his voice wavering. Time taunted the anxious father, as that hope was slowly disappearing with every second that ticked by. Every time he set out looking for Johnny, he said a silent prayer, hoping it would be answered, yet at the same time dreading the answer he might get, if he were not found alive.

“Where is there left to look?” the mayor asked, still nursing his behind.

“WE go south, so I suggest you get a good night’s sleep gentle…” Murdoch snorted lightly to himself, as he almost made the mistake of calling these morons gentlemen, which they definitely were not. He could hardly wait to rid himself of this town, the prejudices of these people made his stomach sour every time he looked at them. “We ride at sun up.”

The Sheriff took his last sip of water, and then banged the cup down hard on the desk while glaring at Lancer. “Now see here, I’m the law here and I say when we leave!” he proclaimed bravely, having had enough of the tall rancher’s orders. “I’m sick and tired of you ordering us around like we’re your slaves! Why don’t you just give up, admit he’s gone, besides he’s nothing but an thorn in your side, a half-breed…”

All the air seemed to leave the room in a rush; the next thing the Sheriff felt was a pair of huge hands grabbing him by the collar. He was shaken like a rag doll, his head whipped back and slammed into the wall and then the rest of his body was forcibly pressed up against the wall, practically knocking the wind out of the man. The mortified lawman found himself staring at a pair of pale blue eyes, filled with nothing but homicidal furry, and unadulterated contempt for the man. “HE’S MY SON! HE IS NO THORN IN MY SIDE, GOT THAT?” Murdoch growled loudly through his teeth. He let go of the shocked man, but not without giving him another hard shove against the wall. “I don’t give a damn who you are, it’s because of YOU TWO, that my son is out there, and don’t forget that, because I won’t!” Murdoch’s body trembled in barely suppressed rage as he shook his fist, fighting the urge to bash out a few teeth.

“Well as the mayor of this town, I’m going to have to bow out, and stay here tomorrow,” The fat man announced, “I have duties here to tend to, I can’t let my responsibilities go any longer, I must stay here ….” The Mayor rattled on, trying to come up with all kinds of excuses just to get out of riding any more than he had too.

Murdoch shook his head in disgust, and walked up to the puffy weasel, “Mayor if you know what’s good for you; you had better be ready to ride tomorrow. I’ll get you a pillow to sit on for your sore ass!” Murdoch exclaimed rudely, and then stormed out of the office. The two men winced at the violent departure, and wondered if this could get any worst.

 *********

Johnny lay, peering out the small bedroom window, watching the setting sun over the desert. Relishing the coolness of the night’s air on his heated face as it gently blew through the small window. He wondered how his father was doing, he was sure Murdoch was wondering why he hadn’t met up with him yet. Johnny knew that his father was a smart, determined man, and probably had figured something was wrong by now. Then he thought of those sons of bitches and wondered if they even had the guts to mention to Murdoch that Madrid was looking for him. That would surely give his father a clue as to what happened to him.

Then he smiled at the thought of his father’s reaction when he did find out. ‘Boy I bet old Murdoch will tear up that town, bit by bit, if he hasn’t already.’ Johnny thought to himself, letting out a little chuckle. Knowing the temper of his old man, remembering all the head butting they endured when he first came home, he knew Murdoch would be a force to be reckoned with. Murdoch could be like a bull in a china shop when his volatile temper took over. Johnny sighed heavily when Juan entered the room, carrying a bowl of hot water and clean rags.

“What is it you are thinking about, mi amigo?” Juan asked softly.

“Oh… about things,” Johnny replied glumly, “I was also was wondering, how far is it to town from here?”

“I’d say it’s a good half a day’s ride. Why do you ask?”

“Can you find your way in the dark, by moon light?”

“Si, I suppose.” Juan answered, somewhat confused. “I have traveled many times at night, but it is sometimes too dangerous.”

“I know, but I was thinking maybe it would be better if you took me to town tonight,” Johnny said. “I was thinking of the heat, it would be much cooler to travel, easier on the horses too, if we made the trip with the sun down.”

“Si, but you are not well to travel in the night, your fever is still high,” Juan reminded Johnny, as he felt his brow. “The cold would only make it worst, si?”

“Not if you cover me up good enough,” Johnny pleaded tiredly; he was still too weak from his ordeal to argue the point. He hoped that the old man would see it his way. “Please, mi amigo.”

“Yi, si, if you are that determined, I will get the wagon ready pronto.” Juan agreed, but still had his doubts.

“Gracias,” was all Johnny said, as he closed his eyes, thankful, and very anxious to get back to town. He wanted to let his father know he was alive, as well as those bastards. He knew they would be very surprised; it would most likely shock the hell out of them, the fact that they failed to rid the world of Madrid.

After gathering up all the blankets, water, and food, both Mia and Juan carried Johnny out to the wagon, gently laying him on an old mattress, and then made sure he was well covered. Mia sat in the back with Johnny, hovering over him like a mother hen. She covered up herself, as well, against the cool desert air. She made sure everything was ready for travel, and with quick snap of the reins they were off.

The wagon swayed and pitched side to side, occasionally dipping roughly over the uneven ground. Wrapped in his cocoon of warm blankets, the soothing motion rocked Johnny like a baby, and lulled him to sleep. His last thoughts, as he drifted off, were of seeking retribution against the prejudiced officials in town.

.

Chapter Twelve

The dark of night was gently rolled away as the new dawn brushed streaks of a rosy pink hue across the great blue sky. The nocturnal quite of Carson City’s peaceful streets was replaced by the activity of a town waking and beginning a new day. The local merchants were preparing to open up their stores; hustling and bustling about they happily greeted their first customers who stood waiting patiently for the doors to open. The streets were alive with sounds and activity, too. The metal ting of harness and tack on freight wagons hauling goods to town, the snorting and huffing of horses, and the plod of their hooves upon the dirt road, all added to the noise. The mouth-watering smell of fresh baked bread from the café lingered in the air, enticing the appetites of passers by with its alluring yeast aroma. These were the happenings of a normal day. The last of the cattlemen headed on home, after a weekend of mixing business with pleasure. The ranchers were going back to their normal routines… all but one.

Through the open window of his hotel room, Murdoch could hear children laughing, as they hurried on to school. His heart contracted painfully in his chest as he longed to hear the infectious laughter of his youngest son; that so often rang through the hacienda now that the boy had come home. He thought the night would never end, as he tossed and turned through out the night with horrific images running through his head. The nightmarish thoughts taunted him, eating away at that hope that was slowly dwindling to nothing. There were a few times he had been snatched from his sleep bathed in a cold sweat, heart racing, as he sat straight up in bed screaming Johnny’s name. Seeing the empty bed next to him only heightened the frantic and panicked feeling, where was his son? When the harsh reality would kick in, once again, he would lay back down only to stare at the ceiling, waiting for the restful sleep that wouldn’t come.

When the light of day finally peeked through the crack in his curtains and fell in a streak across his face, he pushed his weary body up and began to dress. He sat on the edge of his bed, his hands shaking as he struggled at the simple task of putting his boots on. Then Murdoch, his head bowed under the weight of worry, prayed that today they would find his son…dead or alive, either way it would be over. He was tired and worn down from the lack of sleep, and the long days of riding in this unbearable heat had also taken its toll on his body. He was getting stiffer and found it harder to stay in the saddle. But his stubbornness and sheer determination would carry him through; no matter what it took he was going to keep on searching.

Murdoch slowly stood up and walked over to the window, peering out, looking towards the corral. He smiled at the sight of Barranca out running about inside the fence. At his strongly made request, they had moved the golden stallion to the good stable. Murdoch made sure Barranca would have plenty of room to move about, along with fresh hay and water. Seeing his son’s horse full of life, prancing around displaying the same vim and vigor his son was known for, gave him new hope that he would find Johnny…today. He could envision the young man racing his trusted steed along the green pastures of Lancer, chasing down a wild horse. Or horse and rider hurdling fences as they moved as one, as he had so many times since he came home. Murdoch smiled softly at that thought; he grabbed his hat, and then headed on down to the café.

After a quick cup of coffee and a light breakfast, the tall rancher paid his bill, and then proceeded to go and meet up with the search party. He marched towards the Sheriff and Mayor, both looking grumpy as all hell, with them was Jordan. Instead of going on home he had decided to stay behind to help with the search. He figured that his old friend could use the moral support, as time was not on their side now. It had been too many days since Johnny went missing, and he worried about how Murdoch would take it, if they did indeed find Johnny dead. Jordan shuttered at that thought. All eyes were on Murdoch as he was approaching them, until something caught the Sheriff attention.

“What the hell are they doing back in my town?” He said rather abruptly, as he pointed to the wagon slowly rolling into town. “I thought I told him there was no more work for them. Damn Mexs are too stupid to understand English,” he said, his voice tainted in a self-righteous and cruel tone.

Murdoch made his way over to the where the group stood, as the wagon was coming closer to the group. He wondered what had the Sheriff so upset. “What’s the matter with you? What do you see?” he asked looking around, as he could see nothing out of the ordinary. “Are you ready to get going?” he asked coldly.

“Not yet?”

“And why not? Listen, Sheriff we are wasting valuable time here….” he was cut off when the sheriff rudely hushed him. Murdoch eyed the man with unmitigated disgust; he yearned to beat the pompous stuffing out of the man. “What the hell is going on?” he demanded too know.

“It’s those filthy Mexs, they are back in my town.”

Murdoch shot him a dirty look at the bigoted remark, as he noticed the wagon with Juan and Mia getting closer to them.

“Now what do they want?” the irate sheriff asked.

“Why don’t you ask them? Instead of standing there braying about it, like the jackass you are.” Murdoch snidely replied, but the huffy Sheriff just shrugged it off.

Juan looked carefully at the group of men standing there gawking, as he got closer he noticed the tall man next to the bastardo of a Sheriff. He grinned at the description Johnny had given him of his father. He said to look for a tall gringo man, white hair, big as a bear with a growl like one, too. Murdoch stood out in the crowd and he could hear the snarl in his voice, so Juan knew he had the right man. Pulling the wagon to a stop in front of the group of men, he was greeted rudely by the Sheriff, who was as ignorant as he was arrogant.

“What the hell do you what, Juan?” he asked coldly.

“My business is not with you, Senor Sheriff,” Juan replied just as coldly, and turned his attention to the tall rancher, who had approached the wagon. ”Are you Senor Lancer?” he asked hopefully.

“Yes, I am.”

“Ah, Senor, I have someone here who wants to see you.” He said happily pointing to the bed of the wagon.

Murdoch’s curiosity was building, his emotions running wild as he came near. He walked around the wagon peering over the side of it. The sight that greeted him made it feel like someone had lifted a thousand pound rock of his chest, his heart felt lighter than it had in days. Murdoch’s face brightened, his eyes widened with joy, and relief washed over him in a pleasurable rush. Within a heart wrenching spilt second all that was dashed, the elation wiped away as he took in the condition of his son. “JOHNNY! Oh My God.”

Murdoch commanded his shocked and numb body to climb into the wagon to take a better look. The wagon shook from his clumsy movements, as his huge form lumbered into the conveyance. He reached out a nervous hand, touching his son’s forehead. “He’s burning up!”

“Si, I found him, half dead not far from my home, we did all we could, but the blisters on his feet are infected.” Juan informed Murdoch. “I think they are the reason for his fever, he needs a doctor.” Juan looked over at the mortified faces of the Sheriff and Mayor. “He knew you would be here, so he asked us to bring him to town to his papa,” Juan added frowning at the two men.

Murdoch’s face softened, as he gently brushed Johnny’s dark bangs away from his eyes. He did not often get the chance to touch his son so lovingly like this, unless the boy was injured or sick. He wished it didn’t have to be like that. The cool touch of his father’s hand, on his fevered brow, told Johnny it was time to wake up. Sapphire blue eyes slowly fluttered open, through fever blurred vision he scanned his surroundings. A weak grin grew on his pale young face, as his father’s large form came into focus.

“Hi,” Johnny barely whispered.

“Hi, my son, it’s about time you got here.” Murdoch said tenderly, with a light-hearted chuckle. All the while his heart was breaking, fighting back the sting of tears of relief, which threatened to fall. Without looking up, Murdoch knew the Sheriff and Mayor were watching him carefully, to see what he would do. He dropped a tender kiss on Johnny’s forehead. They stood there staring at his display of affection for his child. Their faces showed their confusion and disgust over how an important man, such as Murdoch, could so openly display his feelings for a half-breed.

“Better… late… than never.” Johnny barely got out. Suddenly he stiffened and held his breath, as hot burning streaks of pain from his feet, shot up his entire body. Closing his eyes tightly, he grabbed his father arm, squeezing it with all his might waiting for the pain to pass. Johnny was white as a ghost, his once handsome tan face was beading up with sweat, and his breath was ragged. Murdoch felt it as Johnny’s hold on his arm loosened, his son’s eyes closed, as his body gave way to the darkness that called to him.

“JOHNNY?” Just don’t stand there, get a DOCTOR NOW!” Murdoch bellowed loudly out of sheer panic, as he looked down at the still form of his youngest son. “Hang on son, Papa is here.”

.

Chapter Thirteen

“GET YOUR GOD DAMN FILTHY HANDS OFF OF MY SON!” Murdoch demanded very loudly, his bellowing voice echoing clear across the street, which had gone silent in curiosity, and on into the next county. With his big foot planted firmly on the Sheriff’s chest, the irate father forcibly pushed the stunned lawman away from Johnny, when he offered to help carry the sick young man into the doctor’s office. Murdoch had no intentions of letting the man who had condemned his son to death touch him…ever again.

“You lay one finger on him…and I’ll kill you!” Murdoch threatened, fire raging in his eyes.

The lawman’s head snapped back and he scrambled to retain his balance, he quickly stepped back, shaking in his boots, not just because his life had been threatened, but mostly for that fact that Madrid…Lancer was still alive.

Juan and Jordan swiftly moved to Murdoch’s side, offering their help. Juan climbed into the wagon, while the other man stood at Johnny’s feet, together they gently lifted Johnny out of the wagon. But before they had a chance to carry him away, a strong pair of determined hands took him from them. Murdoch took his son into his huge arms, paying no mind to his sore back; he cradled his boy against his chest. One laborious step at a time he carried Johnny into the doctor’s office, the ache in his heart more excruciating than the pain in his back.

“Over this way.” The old doctor instructed him, as he followed the man into the small examining room. “Lay him down here, please.”

Murdoch carefully laid Johnny’s limp body down on the exam table, his sad tearful eyes took in the abused state of his youngest, and he frowned in fear and concern. When the doctor peeled the thick blankets off of Johnny they both gasped in pure unadulterated horror. Murdoch’s heart jumped up into his throat, he was too stunned to find the appropriate words to describe his alarmed dismay. In the past few days, Johnny had lost at least ten pounds off his already slender body due to the lack of water; he was still badly dehydrated. The lack of solid food had also taken its toll on his weight. He looked skeletal and frail, the sharp jut of bones visible even through his clothes.

On the trip to town, his fever had spiked up, and Juan and Mia did all they could to keep it down. Mia continuously cooled him by putting damp, cold cloths on his brow. At the same time, she tried to keep him as warm as possible, as he shivered under the blankets. Mia went so far as to lie down next to him, hoping her small feeble body would help keep him warm. But Johnny kept on getting worse by the minute, and it had scared them to death, that he might not make it to town alive.

“It is his feet,” Juan spoke up as he entered the room. “He has blisters that will not heal,” he informed the worried Doctor, who didn’t like how high the fever was.

“Let’s take a look, and see what the damage is,” the doc replied, as he very slowly unwrapped the bandages off of Johnny’s swollen feet. When the last strip of torn sheet that was used for bandages, was peeled away, they all cringed at the repulsive sight. Murdoch had to turn his head away, covering his mouth for a few seconds to keep from losing his breakfast. The bottoms of Johnny’s feet were twice their normal size, the blisters were huge; some had burst open, exposing the raw oozing skin under them. What made matters worse, was the infection was threatening to spread up his legs.

“My God!” gasped Murdoch, fear seizing his barely beating heart, “Can you help him?”

“I will do what I can, Mr. Lancer,” the old doctor replied. “I’ll have to drain the infection from his feet and legs. Then give him the proper medicine and wait,” he said frowning. He caught sight of Juan and Mia, who had joined her husband, and glared contemptuously at them. Murdoch’s keen eyes witnessed the slight, and he didn’t appreciate it. He pulled the doc over to the side.

“You know who my son is…was, right?” Murdoch asked frankly, glaring menacingly at the small man.

“Yes.”

“And it’s not going to affect how you treat him, am I’m right?” He had to ask, as he did not trust anyone in this town anymore, not even the Doctor.

“I said I would do all I can!” the man said sharply, and glowered at the tall rancher. “No matter what you or I think, I’m still a doctor. So if you don’t mind, I have a patient to tend to.” He briskly walked away to get some medical supplies ready.

“You do that, Doctor,” Murdoch said, turning around when he heard a faint moan, then a weak soft voice calling him.

“Murr..doch….Pa…” Johnny called out, his voice barely a whisper. He held a shaky hand out, reaching for his father. In a flash, Murdoch was at his son side, taking Johnny’s warm hand into his.

“Shhh, John, be still.” He said calming his son down. “I’m right here,” he said tenderly, brushing Johnny’s dark bangs away from his eyes. He frowned at the heat generating from his body. He glanced over at the busy doctor, and shot him a look of anxious concern.

“Hu….rts” he muttered, closing his eyes, and then forcing them open at the sound of his father’s caring voice.

“I know, son, the doctor here is going to take good care of you,” Murdoch said softly, giving his son’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Then we can go home. I’m…I’m sorry I made you come here,” he added guiltily. He had no idea that these bastards would or could do something this reprehensible; the remorse ate at his soul.

Johnny smiled weakly, “It’s…not your… fault,” he assured his father. He let his fever blurry eyes roam the room, trying to focus on the surroundings. Then his eyes narrowed, as he recognized the fuzzy image of the Sheriff standing next to the fat Mayor. Both men were staring at him. Panic and anger filled his weakened body, as he tried to get out of bed, cringing at the pain searing the nerves in his legs. He became highly agitated; his breathing was labored in his chest, beads of sweat formed on his distressed face, as he moved about the bed.

“Johnny, Johnny, be still!” Murdoch said trying to calm him down by holding him down by his shoulders. ”What is it?”

Johnny pointed towards the two men, and then fell back against the pillow, his breath wheezing out tightly, causing him to pant for air.

“Get…get them…. away…. from ….me,” he pleaded trying to calm his breathing. “I….I” He tried to talk, but his voice sounded like that of a frightened boy. The fever and pain were taking their toll on his young body. The lack of air confused his mind, he didn’t know if he was coming or going.

“It’s okay, they are not going to hurt you anymore, I promise,” his father assured him. Murdoch leaned over and put his cool head against his son’s hot forehead. “They will pay,” he whispered in Johnny’s ear. Raising his head up, he turned and shouted, “You heard my son, get out!” Murdoch ordered.

When he turned back to Johnny, he looked into his son’s sapphire eyes, and his heart lifted, it felt lighter than it had in over twenty years. Time seemed to reverse, and the years rolled back as he saw something he thought he would never see again. Staring back at him, with the unconditional trust of a child for a parent, was his two-year old baby boy, his eyes begging for something, and knowing his Papa would do it. Murdoch smiled.

“Don’t…leave…me.”

“Never!”

.

Chapter Fourteen.

Murdoch’s tall form nervously paced back and forth, his heavy footsteps pounding the floor with a dull thud that matched the heaviness of his anxiously beating heart. His footfalls disturbed the dust in the threadbare rug, chasing the ultra fine particles of dirt in to momentary visibility in a ray of light, before they fell to obscurity once more. He now wished he had stayed in the examination room with his son, no matter hard it would be to see the doc clean out his wounds. He had promised Johnny he would not leave him, but once the morphine had taken effect, the doctor convinced him he really didn’t want to view what he was about to do. Johnny had been fast asleep, still holding his father’s strong hand. Murdoch heeded the doctor’s advice and had reluctantly let go of his youngest son’s hand and left the room, but not without giving fair warning to the doctor that he was to be allowed back in the room before Johnny woke up, as he had promised.

“Please sit down Senor, it does no good to walk and worry, the doctor will do all he can for your nino,” the gentle woman said sweetly. “He is a strong man, and he will be ok.” Mia added trying assured the apprehensive father. She held her own tears at bay as she tried to comfort the big man. She knew all too well what it felt like to wait to find out if your child would live or die.

Murdoch stopped pacing and stood at the window, head pressed to the glass, as he peered out. He wished this nightmare hadn’t happen and that they were back home. How could the desire to have some father/son time with Johnny spiral so out of control?

“Yes, he is, Mrs.…Mia is it?” he asked softy, watching the street, as the locals went about their daily routine.

“Si” Mia answered, and felted compelled to ask, even though she knew the answer. “Juan told us of his life, it was not a easy one, Si? His mama, being a …” her voice trailed off as she decided she didn’t want to bring up the reason Johnny was in such a grave condition.

Murdoch turned to face the woman, and found himself looking at a pair of big, soft brown eyes, and he was reminded of Maria. Flashbacks filled his head, with visions of how beautiful, and kind his wife was at one time, before she had ripped his heart and soul out by stealing his son away from him. Shaking those sordid memories out of his head, he smiled sadly.

“Yes, my son had a hard life, and does not deserve to be lying in there like that.” Murdoch said grimly, his voice hard with anger and disbelief.

“I know how you feel, Senor, this town does not like people like us,” she said, battling to hold back the tears that threatened to fall again. “They are the reason my Jose and Sophia are gone,” she added staring down at the floor, her hands clinging tightly to her dress, out of anguish and pain for her loss.

Just as Murdoch was going to ask about her children and what had happened to them, the door to the exam room opened, and the doctor came out wiping his hands. He looked up at the anxious rancher and let out a heavy sigh.

“Well, doctor, how is my son?” he asked in trepidation.

“Your son, has gone through a great ordeal, and he’s lucky to be still alive.” The doctor replied as he nervously wiped his brow. “I have drained the infection out of his feet. Thankfully the infection doesn’t seem to have traveled through his legs as I first thought. I have cleaned his sores, scrubbed them out, which is why I wanted you to leave the room. I excised some of the severely infected areas. I cleansed them with carbolic, and applied a salve. It is imperative that we keep the wounds clean and dry. We’ll also need to allow the injuries to air some each day. Of the utmost importance is to get him re-hydrated and encourage him to drink as often as possible as that will help to flush the infection from him. He’s going to run fever, it’s the body’s way of battling the infection, and it will be our job to keep the fever from raging out of control. That can kill him as surely as the infection. If his temperature goes to high and stays that way he can suffer convulsions, brain damage or ultimately death.”

Murdoch felt as though his world had stopped spinning and then after the brief pause it began to spin in the opposite direction. He felt physically sick, and swallowed back the bitter taste of fear and bile that rose to corrupt his tongue. His hands felt at odds with each other, one hand needed to be with his son providing comfort and protection, and the other longed to pummel, and then disembowel the men that had caused this harm to his youngest.

The big rancher stood before the doctor, the personification of silent agony. He had so many questions, but he couldn’t order his thoughts to ask them as he was distracted by the wild and frenzied beating of his heart, so violent in its rushed pumping of his blood it sounded like thunder in his ears. Finally he shook off the turbulent disorientation and spoke.

“Will he be all right, what are his chances?”

“It’s a waiting game now. I’ve done all I can do.”

 “You’ve done all you can do?” Murdoch shouted at the doctor, rather loudly as he towered over the shorter man. “You better hope it’s enough, or I’ll have your hide….”

The old doctor stepped away from the fuming father, holding his hands up in a defensive manner. “Now I assure you, that I would never do anything that would harm a patient, no matter who they are!” The doctor said, fighting an indignant dose of anger that Lancer would accuse him of mistreatment. Granted he didn’t take to gunfighters, but he was a doctor, no matter what.

“When can I see him?” Murdoch asked a little calmer, ”I promised Johnny I would be there when he wakes up, and I mean to do that.”

“He is resting comfortably, he’ll sleep for at least another hour or so. Why don’t you get some rest? You look like you are about to fall over.”

“Thanks for the concern, but I’ll rest when I see my son is awake, so I’m not going any where just yet.”

Murdoch strode back over to the window, to wait and watch. He noticed Juan tending to his team, gently rubbing them down and he talking to them, as Johnny would do with Barranca. For no apparent reason, the Sheriff approached and started waving his hands, and shouting at the old man, loud enough you could hear him clear into the doctor’s office. He grabbed Juan’s arm and yanked it viciously, hard enough to make the man scream in pain.

“Senor, you are hurting my arm.” Juan yelled, as he struggled against the Sheriff’s grip.

“I don’t care, chili bean, you did your part, you brought that killer back to town, now take that whore you call a wife, and get out of my town!” The sheriff demanded, still holding on tightly, and then he started to shake Juan.

The crash of the door to the doctor’s office as it was flung violently open, drew the attention of the people milling about the town. An infuriated Murdoch Lancer charged, like a raging bull across the street. “TAKE YOUR GOD DAMN HANDS OFF OF HIM!” Murdoch bellowed.

The Sheriff paid no mind to the fuming man, and continued to the jerk Juan around. With a smug smile, he threw the old man to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Just as he was about to kick the prone man, he felt a huge hand grab him by the collar and yank him back.

“I said leave him alone!” Murdoch shouted in the Sheriff’s face.

“It is okay, Senor Lancer,” Juan said, as he rose up off the ground, “We must leave anyway, for we do not have a place to stay. Mia, come we must go!” he called to his wife.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Murdoch blurted out, as he turned loose of the Sheriff.

“But Senor, we don’t have…”

“Yes you do, I want you two, to stay in my room.” Murdoch said cheerfully, and smiled at the old man. Both Mia and Juan looked at each other in shock, and then back at Lancer.

“Are you sure, Senor? This town…” Mia’s voice trailed off, concerned by the fact the Sheriff was looking on, disturbed by Murdoch decision.

“Yes, I’m sure, now go get your things ready.”

They both nodded and happily went to fetch their belongings from home out of the wagon. They stopped when they heard the Sheriff’s angry voice.

“Mr. Lancer! We don’t want the likes of them staying in our hotel, let alone eating our food,” huffed the ignorantly irate Sheriff. “It is not done that way, not in my town!”

Murdoch saw red, “They will stay in my room, as my guests, and they will have all the comforts at their disposal. Do you understand?” The tall rancher demanded sternly, staring the man right in the face.

“But why?”

“BECAUSE THEY SAVED MY SON’S LIFE, YOU IDIOTIC BASTARD!” Murdoch boomed loud enough that whole town could hear. “And if I hear that you have caused them any kind trouble or harm…” he stopped letting his facial expression say the rest.

“Yes sir!” the Sheriff said, standing at attention giving the rancher a mock salute, while Juan and Mia looked on in amusement. Then both looked at the rancher, their unspoken questions written on their faces.

“It is what Johnny would want me to do.” Murdoch answered softly, and smiled.

.

Chapter Fifteen

Murdoch sat pensively at the head of the bed, where his youngest lay. He tenderly played with his son’s long, thick, black hair. Rubbing the unruly, yet silky strands between his nervous fingers, observing as the ultra fine hairs glittered with a bluish hue as the light played upon its texture. The big man was tired and worried, but could not bring himself to close his eyes, even though they were teary from trying to stay focused, and most likely from stress as well.

Murdoch resembled a gentle giant as he sat guard over his prone child. He kept a close eye on Johnny’s chest, as it slowly rose and fell, assuring him know that his son was still alive. The anxious father realized he had matched the rhythm of his breathing to that of his son, inhaling and exhaling at the same time, as though aiding his son to breathe. He silently thanked God for every life sustaining breath. Murdoch shifted uncomfortably on the chair as his back and leg sassed him, the muscles stiffening due to the inaction of sitting for so long, but he continued to wait patiently for Johnny to wake up, to give some sign of awareness. What he wanted . . . needed more than anything was to hear his soft voice uttering his name, that would be a sure sign that he hadn’t lost his nino, again.

The door squeaked open, as Mia slipped quietly into the room. She had rushed back to help after she and Juan had settled into Murdoch’s room. Her eyes were drawn to the calloused hands as they attempted to connect and give comfort. Murdoch turned sideways on the chair, and his concerned eyes locked with hers, “The last time I had the chance to play with his hair like this . . . he was barely two years old, sitting on my lap playing with his toy, a wooden horse I had carved for him.” Memories of his active, continually in motion toddler washed over him, the scenes painting a smile on his lips, “Johnny actually sat there letting me fiddle with it for the longest time. Then he looked up at me with those big blue eyes, saying ‘feel good papa.’ The next day he was gone.” The pain of that loss still had the ability to constrict his heart, leaning over he rested his head on his son’s heated brow, and a single tear ran down his cheek.

Mia stood quietly, letting him talk out his hurt and sadness, as she watched the big man; she was amazed by the transformation that took place. Here was a man who had been pushed to violence earlier, he had been ready to rip the heart out of that bastard of a sheriff as he attack her husband, Juan. And now, he reacted with gentle care and devotion, much like a mother bear hovering over her wounded cub. She could see where Johnny got his strength, compassion and courage to go on, to survive. It warmed her heart immensely.

“What happened to him, Senor?” Mia asked softly, she was curious as to that last statement, “He did not grow up with you?” Even though Johnny had told her and Juan about his life in Mexico to a certain degree, she wondered why he was there in the first place.

“No, he did not.” Murdoch replied lifting his head, quickly wiping his eyes, trying not to show how vulnerable he felt. She could sense the bitterness in his voice as he spoke. “His mother stole him from me, it’s a long story, but it took nearly twenty years to get him back, and I’ll be damned if I’ll lose him again…this time…” He didn’t get a chance to finish his statement as their attention was drawn to the figure in the bed.

Their hearts skipped a few beats in trepidation, as they heard a very faint moan coming from the young man lying there, they watched with emotions running wild, as Johnny eyes started to slowly flutter open. Fever blurred eyes twitched back and forth trying to focus on his surroundings. His breathing hitched, and he panted, as he realized he didn’t know where he was. He had to fight the urge to get up and run, even though he knew he didn’t have the strength to get away. Johnny came close to panicking until he became aware of the huge gentle hand rubbing his forehead, and heard the familiar voice that told him he was safe, and the scared feeling disappeared, just as fast as it had come.

“Hi my son, nice to see you decided to join us.” Murdoch’s relieved smile lit his face, then his heart lifted even more when Johnny focused his eyes on him and he weakly smiled back at his father. “How do you feel?”

“Sore.”

“And you will be for awhile, the doctor said you have a severe case of sunstroke, and he had to drain the infection from your feet.” He patiently explained, as he knew Johnny hated to be left out of what was going on, especially if it involved him. So he felt no need to tell Johnny anything but the truth. “You still have a high fever, but it should go down as the infection starts to clear up, it will take some time, but at least you will heal. ”

“Thir…sty,” Johnny barely whispered.

“Here let me help, Senor.” Mia said as Murdoch held Johnny’s head up, and she put the cup to his lips. “Slowly, just to wet your lips, Senor, too much water too soon will make you sick,” she softly explained, smiling at the young man, as a mother would to her son.

“Gracias,” Johnny whispered weakly. He looked up at his father, as Murdoch carefully lowered his head back down on the pillow. “You…didn’t leave…me,” he said in a childish voice, as fever brought out the needy little boy buried deep within him, the child Murdoch missed so intensely.

“No, John, I said I would be right here when you woke up and I meant it.” Murdoch replied softly, as he wiped his son’s sweaty brow. “ No matter how old you get, I’ll always be here for you from now on, well as long as the Lord will allow me.”

“I . . .know…that now . . .” Johnny smiled contentedly, closing his eyes, and sighing heavily, and then hissing a little at the pain in feet. “Hurt”

“They will for a while, as you heal, Mr. Mad…Lancer,” The doc spoke up as he came back into the room, stopping himself from saying the wrong name, when Murdoch shot him a glare of warning. “All we can do is keep them clean and dry as you heal, and the heat stroke you suffered didn’t make matters any better. You are one sick young man. ” He explained to his young patient.

“I know.…how lo..ng.. will I…?” Johnny tried to ask, but was still too weak to keep his eyes open.

“I can’t say for sure…but I know right now you need to sleep. I think we had better let him do so,” the old doc stated firmly. He made sure he made eye contact with the big rancher, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure he’s comfortable,” he promised, knowing what was on Murdoch mind.

“You had better, DOCTOR!” Murdoch threatened sternly. He looked down at his son, “I have a couple of things to tend to, John, but I’ll be back.” He tenderly wiped a stray lock of dark hair away from his son’s eyes. Johnny smiled as his fever lethargic body gave into the weakness, and drifted off to sleep.

“I’ll stay with him, Senor” Mia offered sweetly, and moved closer to the bed.

“Thank you, Mia, I’m sure the doctor won’t mind. Right, Doctor?” Murdoch strongly suggested, upon noticing his frown when Mia offered to stay.

“Yes, I suppose it will be all right,” he reluctantly agreed. He knew very well that he had no say so, even if he did disagree. Murdoch was calling the tune, and there was no changing his mind.

“Good,” Murdoch exclaimed, and turned to take one last look at his son before leaving. “What time does the stage usually get in?” He ask stopping by the exit door.

“I’d say by noon, at the latest,” the old man answered. He was curious, as to why he inquired about the stage, but didn’t dare ask for an explanation.

“Thanks, now get back in there and take care of my son, and Doc,” he paused briefly, “If I find out that you are not doing all you can for Johnny…well do I need to say more?” His harsh tone and the implied threat hung heavily in the air.

The old doc frowned, “I told you, I’m a DOCTOR, I will do all I can!”

“See that you do!” Murdoch retorted, slamming the door as he left the office, and walked across the street to the stage depot.

A pair of hazel eyes peered out the window of the Sheriff’s office, watching the tall rancher, as he marched down to the stage depot and took a seat on the bench. A second pair of eyes, brown this time, joined them, as both the Mayor and Sheriff nervously watched and wondered about Lancer.

“Who in the hell is he waiting for?”

“I don’t know, but I bet it will mean trouble…for us.”

.

Chapter Sixteen

Murdoch furtively glanced over at the sheriff’s office one last time; he noted with smug satisfaction that the same pair of nervous brown eyes still observed him. He chuckled with evil glee as he watched the ring of steam on the window, repeatedly appear then fade as the spy huffed out panicked breaths. Murdoch pulled out his pocket watch to check the time, it was almost noon, and he turned his attention to the sound of the coming stage. “Good,” he said aloud, “Now we can get down to business.”

Before they had even found Johnny, or in this case Johnny finding him, Murdoch had covertly sent a few telegrams out. He swore the telegraph officer to secrecy on what he sent out and on any answers he received back, reminding him it was against Western Union policy to divulge private messages. He also informed him, well…more like threatened him with the fact he was a personal friend of the company owner. Murdoch stood up from the hard bench, rubbed his stiff leg and stretched his back, as he waited patiently for the stage to stop. He couldn’t resist another meaningful glare towards the sheriff’s office, because he knew the answer to those calls for help would soon be stepping off the stage.

“Whoa, boys!” the stage driver shouted to the team, as they pulled up a just few feet away from Murdoch, stage creaking, dirt swirling and horses snorting to a halt. “Carson City folks,” the man announced to his passengers. The shotgun rider lithely jumped down, and opened the door for them. Murdoch graciously helped a stocky well-dressed woman down. She was a little on the dirty side from the dust flying about, she was greeted her by daughter, Murdoch assumed. Next a short bearded man stepped down, and he quickly made his way to the hotel. At the sheriff’s office anxious eyes darted and twitched over each person that departed the stage before settling back on the tall rancher to see who he was waiting to greet from the stage.

The last two passengers off the stage were a well-dressed dark haired man, followed by a young, tall, blond man. Murdoch smiled widely and let out a relieved sigh.

“Scott, Jarrod, you made it.” Murdoch called out cheerfully, as he greeted his oldest son, and then his friend and lawyer, Jarrod Barkley. Jarrod was the eldest son of his good friend Victoria Barkley, and he was also one of the best lawyers in the state. Murdoch was sure he could help with bringing charges against these bastards.

Scott’s expression was rigid with concern, he was not feeling the least bit of cheer. The whole trip he had fidgeted and worried about his little brother. After reading his father’s telegram he had seethed in righteous indignation over the ignorant bastards who had felt it was their duty to take the law into their own hands. Scott was itching to confront the prejudice, narrow minded, sorry excuses for human beings. His fists were clenched as tightly as his jaw, as he thought about how he would love to put his fist in their filthy mouths.

Jarrod, with the wisdom of age and experience was only too happy to come and help in any way he could, legally. Jarrod was not at all pleased with this whole situation, but he knew he had to stay calm and act as a buffer for the younger man he had accompanied to town. He understood now why Murdoch had suggested Scott ride to Stockton and come with Jarrod.

“Did you find Johnny?” was Scott’s first question. He hadn’t heard anything else since he left Lancer, only that his father was still searching for Johnny.

“Yes we did, Scott, and it’s not good.” Murdoch’s voice showed the strain of the ordeal, the stress was definitely taking a toll on the older man. “The doc did all he could, and now all we can do is wait.”

“I want to see him, now!” Scott demanded angrily.

“Scott, he’s resting comfortably now at the doctor’s office. He needs to rest, we’ll go over there in a bit.” Murdoch replied, as he took hold of his son’s arm, keeping him from going off half cocked, and rushing over to the doctor’s. “Let’s get you settled in first, then we can talk.”

“Your father is right, Scott, let your brother rest. I, for one, would like to get checked in, and then hear all the details, as to why your brother was singled out for this mistreatment,” Jarrod agree with Murdoch.

Scott reluctantly nodded, he too, wanted . . . needed to know the sordid details. Murdoch escorted the two men to the hotel, while the Sheriff and Mayor looked on, wondering who these two men were, and just how much trouble they might direct their way. They had a bad and suspicious feeling they would find out all too soon.

********

“THEY DID WHAT?” Scott thundered, very nearly rattling the windowpanes with his roar, when his father explained what had happen to his brother. “What in the world gave them the right to do that? A Sheriff and a public official of all people!!” Scott paced back and forth in mad agitation. He breathed deeply as he tried to contain his anger, his nostrils flared, and he growled menacingly.

“They didn’t have the right, they did it because they are misguided, self-righteous, big headed bigots! They let their prejudices get in the way of common sense, that’s why,” Murdoch angrily answered. “And your brother had to pay the price.”

“How bad is Johnny, Murdoch?” Jarrod ask calmly, even though he too was feeling a rage trying to build inside him. Johnny was a little younger than his brother Heath. Jarrod remembered how he had felt the time Nick and Heath had been falsely imprisoned and mistreated. Heath had very nearly died after being locked in an iron box, all day in the hot sun. All this helped him understand exactly how the Lancers felt. This Sheriff and Mayor had perpetrated an injustice on Johnny just as the crooked warden had on his brothers. It was all very illegal, and Jarrod would take pleasure in making them pay…legally and to the fullest extent of the law.

“Not good, he has a severe case of heat stoke, he’s dehydrated, and his feet are badly blistered. Infection set in, and he’s running a high fever still,” the worried father explained. “The Doctor did all he could, as I said before, now it’s up to Johnny to heal himself, barring any complications. Johnny is young and before this was healthy, those things are in his favor.”

“What do you want me to do?” Jarrod asked, even though he knew the answer.

“Nail them to the wall! That what I want you to do, and I have a feeling, besides the things they did to Johnny, there is a whole lot more that they are hiding.” Murdoch expressed strongly. “Can you do that?”

“I’ll try my best. It’s not always easy going after city officials, it’s not like they are common criminals. They are elected to their position by people who think like them.” Jarrod grimly reminded him.

“No, they’re worse than common criminals, Jarrod. They threw my brother out into the desert, like he was a piece of trash, or a stray animal, and left him to die!” Scott shouted, as he threw his hat down on the bed out of frustration. He steadied himself against the bed, taking deep calming breaths, and then looked at his father with begging eyes. “I want to see Johnny. I want him to know I’m here for him.” He picked up his hat, placing it back on his head, and marched to the door.

“Ok, I told him I wouldn’t be long anyway. I left him with Mia, the woman who cared for him, when they found him.” Murdoch replied as he headed for the door.

“I would like to thank her, and her husband for helping Johnny. Thank God they did, or…” Scott stopped what he was going to say, just the thoughts of his little brother out there alone, and what could have happened, if they had not found him, ate at his heart.

The three men left Jarrod’s room, and as they were leaving the hotel, the culprits greeted them. Scott saw red, and like a mad bull, he rushed the sheriff, grabbing him by the collar. He leaned into his face, snorting his hot steaming breath on the stunned man, “If my brother dies, because of your prejudices, I’ll personally see you hang! Both of you!” Scott snarled through his teeth, as he glared at the fat little man. Then he shoved off the shaking lawman, while Murdoch and Jarrod looked on, not bothering to stop the irate young man.

“Ah, Mayor, Sheriff, this is my oldest son, Scott, and my lawyer, Jarrod Barkley. I’m sure you have heard of him.” Murdoch said in rather nonchalant yet smug manner. “Now if you will excuse us, were going to see Johnny.” The tall rancher pushed roughly by the little man.

Scott stared coldly at them, his eyes throwing sharp lethal daggers. He and Jarrod followed Murdoch, disappearing into the doctor’s office. The Sheriff and Mayor stood gapped mouth and stunned, their fear displayed on their pale faces.

“He brought a lawyer here, and Jarrod Barkley of all people.” The Mayor whined, “Oh this is not good, not good at all.” They both looked at each terrified, knowing what could happen to them if they didn’t come up with something and fast.

*********

Inside the exam room, Scott was stopped short in his tracks once he laid eyes on his little brother. His heart sank, thumping dully with the weight of fear and pain pressed upon it. “God no,” he whispered and shot a discouraging look at his father before continuing over to the bed where Johnny lay. He was thinner than normal, and despite the sunburn on his face, Scott could see from the limp, still hands, he was pale as a ghost almost. Scott looked over at Mia, and smiled sadly at her, then sat in the chair next to the bed. He took one of the frail, warm hands into his own cool one. He had never seen his little brother look so vulnerable or lifeless.

With tears in his voice, Scott whispered, “Hey, little brother, it’s me Scott. I’m here now, so you get better and leave everything to us.” He softly brushed a lone strand of dark hair out of his brother eyes. “They will pay,” he pledged, repeating his father’s vow.

.

Chapter Seventeen

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Scott unconsciously mirrored his father’s earlier actions by playing with his brother’s thick, sweat matted hair. He carded it between his own long slender fingers, letting his digits comb the disheveled tangle into separate silky strands, all the while softly talking to him.

Scott urged Johnny to wake up, assuring him that his big brother was here for him, that everything would be ok, now. His jaw clenched, and his eyes narrowed as he considered ways to make those who did this pay for their crimes. Rage rushed through his veins, and fed the flames of anger that constricted his heart, as he made that vow to himself that, even if it was the last thing he ever did, he would make them pay.

Scott was sickened at the sight of his younger sibling, he was so pale, so frail. Johnny tended to be on the thin side as it was, he didn’t need this sudden traumatic weight loss. He was just a shadow of himself, you could almost count his ribs. The thin layer of blankets did little to hide how vulnerable and fragile his little brother appeared. Scott was use to seeing his brother so full of life, he had always admired Johnny’s zest for things, always going at everything full speed. Now to see him like this was ripping him apart. He had to fight the wild yearning to gather him in his arms and shelter him until his strength returned.

“Hey, little brother, it’s time to wake up.” Scott kept on quietly encouraging, while the others looked on. “Johnny, wake up.” his voice cracking, as he pleaded.

A light moan riveted all attention on the insensate young man in the bed. Scott anxiously looked down to see fevered blue eyes slowly fluttering open. The formerly lax face twitched and grimaced, as signs of life animated his brother’s ghostly visage. Johnny puckered his dry lips, and gazed about in dazed confusion. Scott’s anxiety level was lightened to see alertness returning, his heart was beating rapidly, as Johnny’s watery eyes focused on him. When his little brother smiled weakly up at him, he felt as though he was seeing the return of the sun after days of storms and rain.

“Hey…Bos..ton.”

“Hey, yourself, I was wondering when you were going to join the living.” Scott’s face lit up with a wide relieved grin, as he held Johnny’s frail warm hand in his, giving it a gentle, loving squeeze. “Boy, I can’t let you go anywhere without you getting into trouble, now can I?” he added trying to keep his emotions in check, as felt the sting and warmth of tears that threatened to surface .

“A curse….I….guess.”

“No, brother, it’s not a curse, it’s something worst and it’s out of your control.” Scott informed him with undisguised annoyance. Johnny’s smile faded, as he realized the ache and evidence of the truth of his big brother’s statement, were displayed by his abused body. He knew what Scott meant, people diseased with prejudice didn’t suffer, their victims did.

Sensing that Scott wasn’t alone, Johnny’s eyes traveled curiously past his brother’s shoulders, and noticed a tall man standing behind him. He focused harder on the figure, wiping the moisture from his tired eyes, then a sly grin graced his wan face, letting out a faint chuckle, when he recognized who it was.

“Hey….Jarrod….I see Murdoch called…in the…big guns, huh?” he greeted Jarrod weakly.

“Yes, he did , Johnny, and we are going to do whatever it takes to see that justice is done. These men are in a position of authority and what they did to you, was an abuse of that power,” Jarrod replied, as he stepped closer to the bed, and got a closer look at the young man he fondly remembered. The cheeky whirlwind who irked the hell out of his brother Nick.

“If I don’t get to them first.” Johnny threatened. As weak as he was, the anger reinforced his voice with a tone of steel determination. This wasn’t just about him, he wanted revenge, retribution, justice or whatever the hell they wanted to call it, for any and every body who had suffered due to the bigots who ran this town.

“You let us deal with that, John,” Jarrod replied firmly. “Your task is getting well enough to testify, and from the condition you are in, we have a very good case,” he added as his wise eyes inspected the signs of what amounted to torture on Johnny‘s body. It pained him to see what prejudice people could do to their victims, all because they feared those different from them.

“Yeah? I haven’t had a chance to look in a mirror lately, I…” Johnny smirked weakly as the last words trailed off.

“Please, Senors, he must rest now, it is too soon to have so many visitors, “ Mia politely interrupted. She walked over to the bed, took a damp rag, and wrung it out, and then she tenderly wiped Johnny’s brow. This pleased Murdoch and he smiled kindly at the woman who was mothering his son, she reminded him of Maria his housekeeper and her attachment to Johnny.

“The woman is right,” The doctor verbally agreed, as he walked back in the room, all huffy, snobby, not liking how many visitors were in the room. “I must ask you all to leave, so my patient can rest. Now, out with you!” he abruptly ordered, then was stopped short by the hard glare he received from Scott.

Scott didn’t like this doctor’s manner one bit. He was as far removed from Sam Jenkins in attitude, as he could be . Sam could be imperative and brash, but it was tempered by his fatherly demeanor. What he wouldn’t give to see Doc Jenkins, rushing through the door, shaking his head with a bemused smile on his lips.

“We’ll go, but only if Mia wouldn’t mind sitting with Johnny a little while longer,” Murdoch insisted. “Would you please, Mia?” he ask politely.

“Si, Senor, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she replied with a sweet smile.

“Now see here, this is my office, and I say who stay or leaves!” The old man snorted.

“Doc…I would…like …her…to stay,” Johnny whispered, in a labored voice.

“Well, if it will keep you quiet, then she can stay, but only for a little while.” The Doc conceded to Johnny’s request.

“Gra…cias,” Johnny murmured, sighing lightly, as he drifted off to sleep.

Confusion and concern warred on Mia’s face, as she stood protectively by Johnny’s side. She didn’t like the change in the doctor’s attitude towards Johnny’s familia. One minute he fine with them being here, and then the next, he’s cold and rude. It was very unsettling to witness, and it caused a knot of apprehension to form in the pit of her stomach.

Seeing that Johnny was in good hands, Murdoch motioned for Scott and Jarrod to follow him. The big man stopped short, when he noticed the Sheriff and Mayor peering through the outer window of the office, trying to see what was going on. Their noses were pressed to the glass, flattening their fleshy proboscises, so they resembled pig snouts. Their curiosity was getting the best of them, and they had to know what was said, and what Johnny might have had told them. Murdoch knew this was eating at their consciences, if they had one, this not knowing definitely had them on edge. The big rancher found their worried discomfort, highly amusing, and he slyly grinned, as he continued out the office.

Just as Scott closed the door behind him, and was about to say something to his father, he was rudely interrupted by the Mayor. Both town officials eagerly greeted the departing trio. They were as pathetic as rats snooping through the trash, for anything to sink their teeth into. Afraid they would miss out on something important, especially if it had to do with them.

“How is your son doing today?” The arrogant fat man had the balls to ask. He erroneously thought, if he showed concern for Johnny’s wellbeing, it would help his case.

The impertinence, and bald face gall of the man had Scott steaming under the collar. He could feel his face heating up with rage, “How dare he show any kind of concern for my brother,” he said under his breath. Scott wanted to pound the daylights out of the self-righteous, brazen bastard. But knew he had better control his anger, so taking a deep breath, he excused himself.

“If you would excuse me, I need a drink,” he said rather rudely, and headed towards the saloon. He mumbled just loud enough for the small group to hear, “Not that I really care if they excuse me, in fact, for all I care, they can saddled up a lightning bolt, and ride it straight to hell.”

“Good idea, son, we’ll join you shortly.” Murdoch called out to Scott, and then turned to face the sweating men. “As to your question, Mayor, Johnny is still in critical condition, but he’s wake, and holding his own, thanks for your underwhelming concern!” The tall rancher’s voice rang with anger and his eyes held a blood thirsty lust that caused the two men two squirm under the scrutiny.

“Well…well that’s good to…hear,“ Mayor Harvey, replied stuttering like a blubbering idiot. The Sheriff stood mutely by, his mouth hanging open, giving him a slack jawed and dazed expression.

“Well, if you’ll excuse us, we have business to talk over.” Murdoch smirked at the men in a condescending manner, and then placed his hand on his gun, like he was ready to use it. Murdoch slyly grinned, and then marched off to the saloon to join Scott, followed by Jarrod, who stopped briefly, looking back towards the Mayor and Sheriff.

“If I were you, I would think twice about leaving town just yet, if that’s what you have on your minds, Mayor, Sheriff,” Jarrod suggested bluntly. He pierced them with a knowing look, and then tipping his hat, called out. “Good day gentlemen.” He hurried off to catch up with the Lancers.

“Now, what the hell are we going to do?” The Sheriff finally spoke up, throwing his hat down.

“I don’t know!” squealed the nervous Mayor.

.

Chapter Eighteen

“DAMN, DAMN, DAMN!” the Sheriff loudly snarled, as he stormed into his office. He resembled an enraged bull, which had a red flag dangled in front of his unbelieving eyes. Panic began setting in as he paced the floor, his movements became wild and jerky, he huffed and puffed, clenching and unclenching his fists, before snatching off his hat, and angrily tossing it down on his desk. “What the hell are we going to do?” he asked the stunned Mayor who stood facing the hastily closed door, head pressed against the rough wood.

“I’m thinking,” he moaned out, causing his jaw to tremble.

The Sheriff sneered in disgust at the portly profile; he thought the Mayor’s jowls jiggled like congealed pork fat, making him seem more of a pig than usual. “Well you better think . . . hard and fast!” the nervous lawman growled, “You seen it, Lancer brought his lawyer here, and you damn well know what that means.”

“We are in big trouble,” the sweating fat man sniveled, turning around; he took out his fancy hanky, and wiped his wrinkled brow.

“Damn right, we are.” the Sheriff retorted, rubbing furiously at his troubled eyes. “You should have let me do what I wanted to in the first place,” he exclaimed. The irate man stalked over as he spoke, pointing an angry finger at the Mayor’s face, and then poked him in his pot belly, his finger disappearing into man’s rolls of fleshy blubber.

“What good would that have done? Lancer still would have found out his son was missing.” Mayor Harvey snapped, pushing the Sheriff’s hand away, “He ain’t no fool!”

“Yeah, but if you had just let me kill Madrid the minute he stepped foot in town, then we wouldn’t have to worry about him now!” The incensed sheriff reminded the rotund man, “No, we had to do it your way, and Madrid is still ALIVE, and you know he’ll be gunning for us, once he is able too.”

“How do you know that for sure?”

“HE’S A KILLER! I don’t care what his old man says, once a killer, always as killer, and Madrid is one of the best!” The Sheriff screamed out his conviction.

“Keep your damn voice down, you idiot, we’ll think of something to get us out of this.” The Mayor hushed him frantically, and then peered out the window, making sure there wasn’t any one about, over hearing their conversation.

“Like what? Lancer knows we are the ones who did this to HIS son.” the Sheriff replied curtly. He shook his head, as he thought to himself, ‘How can any man call that murderer his son.’ He was still very appalled and skeptical at the notion that Johnny had someone like Murdoch, who not only proclaimed to be his father but also cared so much about him. It was enough to make a decent man’s skin crawl, he thought with an exaggerated shudder. To him Johnny was the devil’s child, sent to unleash his murderous ways on the earth, and being a half-breed just made Johnny worse than evil in the Sheriff’s prejudice narrowed minded eyes.

“But we were only doing our duty as public officials; we had every right to do what we did. Like you said, Madrid is a killer, gun for hire.” The mayor exclaimed in a nasal whine, as his feeble mind searched for the words to make their dastardly deed seem noble and right.

The Sheriff just shook his head, laughing, “Just keep telling yourself that Mayor, but our goose is cooked, if Lancer don’t get us, Madrid will.” Exhaling forcibly through his nose, his shoulders slumping with the weight of guilt beginning to bear down on him, the Sheriff reluctantly admitted, “That half-breed is a Lancer too, remember that, and he really wasn’t doing nothing wrong when he came to town, and as much as I hate to admit it, he has rights too.”

Both men paled, as they stared at each after that last remark from the lawman, they both knew there was no easy way of getting out of this. They had to do something and fast, or pay the price no matter how high.

**********

Back in Jarrod’s room, the three men were going over the case Murdoch wanted to bring against the town and its high and mighty, yet clearly prejudice officials. There was no way in hell they would allow these bigoted bastards to get away with what they had done to Johnny, and to people like Juan and Mia. From what the couple had told Murdoch, the Sheriff had killed, due to his prejudice convictions, once before. The heat of his anger burned in Murdoch’s veins, rushing the sick feeling to every pore in his body until he felt consumed by its call for justice to be served. First and foremost, the best way to do that would be ridding the town of these intolerant assholes, maybe Carson City just might be a nicer place to visit then…Maybe.

“So what do you think, Jarrod? What’s the best case scenario here?” Murdoch asked hopefully.

“Well, the first thing we need to do is find witnesses to testify in Johnny’s behalf, then we go from there.” Jarrod said bluntly.

“We have the perfect witness, Johnny.” Scott snorted, “What else do you need?”

“Yes, Johnny’s testimony will help. But to build a solid case we need eye witnesses, someone who saw the crime in progress.” Jarrod explained to Scott, who was staring out the window, eyes glued to the Sheriff’s office. A feral and visceral grin slowly morphed Scott’s handsome face into a primeval mask, as visions of torture and merciless beatings to get the lawman to confess his crimes entertained his thought.

“Easier said than done, Jarrod, from what I have seen of this town, I’d be willing to bet you that they just stood by and let the Mayor and Sheriff do it, and didn’t even bat an eye.” Scott harshly commented. “What kind of witness will come forth and admit he or she let a crime happen, and then didn’t do a damn thing to help?” Scott snapped at them. As his fury over the situation saturated him, he stomped rigidly from the window, and slung himself down heavily into the chair, rocking it back on two legs. His mind tormented still by his initial sight of his brother lying there half dead, because of these so called good minded people.

“Scott, there is bound to be someone out there that will help us, who is ready and willing to see that justice is done,” Murdoch assured his eldest. “There has to be, right, Jarrod?”

“All we can do is try. We need to let any potential witnesses know that we will endeavor to remove all threats of retribution upon them.” Jarrod replied trying to sound positive.

“Try?” Scott blurted out, as he shot out of the chair, “Did you see my brother, and what they did to him? I’ll tell you right now, I’m not leaving this town until those bastards get what’s coming to them!”

“I agree with my son, Jarrod. What they did to Johnny will not go unpunished, and if it takes a life time, they will pay.” Murdoch stated strongly.

“I couldn’t agree with you more, gentlemen, and I will do everything in my power to see that justice is done, the right way!” Jarrod reiterated, as he pointedly stared Scott down, “Do I make myself clear, young man?”

Scott nodded, and slyly smiled at the lawyer, who took that as a yes.

“Well, no use staying up here, why don’t we go downstairs to dinner.” Murdoch suggested.

“Good idea, I’m starved.” Jarrod readily agreed. “I think better on a full stomach,” he added trying to lighten up the mood.

“You two go ahead, I’ll join you later. I want to go check in on Johnny first.” Scott said quietly, the lines of worry etching his pale face once again, now that his angry outburst was over.

Both men nodded as Scott hastily departed the room. His now somber mood concerned Murdoch, which didn’t get past Jarrod, and he felt compelled to comment.

“Funny isn’t it? How they were separated all those years, never knew about each other, and when they finally meet, it’s as if they were never apart.” Jarrod put a gentle hand upon his friend’s shoulder, “The bond between your sons will pull them through this, no matter what it takes.”

Murdoch sadly smiled, and then led the way out of the room, “I hope so, Jarrod, I hope so.”

.

Chapter Nineteen

Quietly entering the doctor’s office, Scott was met with the pleasant sound of a woman’s voice softly humming. He paused briefly to enjoy the soothing purr of the melodious notes. Clandestinely moving closer, he peered cautiously into the exam room, the sight that greeted him had his eyes glittering with excessive moisture, his mouth trembled as he fought the grin that seemed so out of place during such a dire time. The heart-warming, tranquil sight was so uplifting, Scott finally gave in to the urge to smile, and released his bottom lip from the captivity of his teeth.

Mia was sitting on the bed, applying a cold compress to Johnny’s fevered brow. She tenderly ran her feminine fingers through his damp thick bangs, all the while humming a Mexican lullaby. She was smiling sweetly down at him, in a fashion reminiscent of the portraits Scott had seen of the Madonna and child. Scott could see that she had been crying, he assumed over the deaths of her own children at the hands of that bastard of a Sheriff. Caring for his brother was probably bringing out bittersweet, yet poignant, memories of her children, and of her loss. Now she was lavishing all her motherly love on Johnny, and most likely with more feeling than his mother ever did. Scott had no doubt what Mia thought of Maria, when she paused in her ministrations to condemn the woman with a tightly muttered, “Estupido, estupido, mujer!”

Scott cleared his throat to announce his presence, as he didn’t want to startle Mia. When she turned her attention to him, he whispered softly, “How is he doing?”

“His fever is still high, Senor.” Mia answered, as her eyes returned to the young man in her care. “But he’s resting nicely,” she added gently and caressed Johnny’s pale cheek.

“Why don’t you take a break, and go eat something. I’ll watch my brother for a while.” Scott kindly, but sternly suggested, knowing that Mia had not left Johnny’s side for a while now. And truth be told, he was anxious to spend some time with his little brother.

“Are you sure, Senor?” she asked in concern, “I can have Juan bring me something.”

“I’m sure; now go join your husband for dinner, please. You have done enough for one day.” Scott urged the woman to rest, and to enjoy the room his father had given over to them.

“Very well,” Mia reluctantly agreed, and then her compassionate eyes performed a final exam of Johnny, satisfied he was resting well, she bent over and kissed his forehead. “I will not be too long, Juanito,” she promised solemnly. Turning her attention to Scott she added, “He needs a lot of love and care.”

“And he will get it, rest assured of that. I’m here for him, as is my father, now please go. I don’t want you sacrificing your health for Johnny’s, and neither would he.” Scott smiled appreciatively at the kind woman.

Mia humbly nodded, and gathered up her shawl, wrapping it around her shoulders. She quietly shuffled to the door. Before exiting, she turned back to take a lingering look at the injured young man she had grown so fond of, while she had cared for him. Once Mia had left the office, Scott immediately took over where she had left off. He took off his jacket, and neatly placed it over the back of the chair. He shook his head over his compulsive behavior due to his rigid and proper up-bringing.

Johnny was just the opposite. He did not grow up with a lot of possessions to be particular about, or the guidance of a trusted adult to help him acquire the habits. The only thing he took great care of was his gun, because his gun meant survival. Scott frowned at that thought, as he sat down next to his little brother. He took off the now warm compress, dunked it in the basin of cold water and retrieved the other square of cloth floating in the water. He wrung it out lightly, and then placed it on his brow. He watched as a bead of water escaped the soft flannel and slowly rolled down Johnny’s fevered temple. Scott couldn’t resist the temptation to card his fingers through the sweat dampened hair, as he pushed the wet strands back; he was struck by the youth that shined from the lax face before him. In rare moments like these, it was easy to see the vulnerable child in the deadly young man, and it was that child, Scott longed to shelter and protect.

“Come on, brother, you can fight this.” He whispered hopefully in Johnny’s ear. “Don’t check out on me now, not when I have just found you,” Scott pleaded, his voice cracking under the pressure of withheld tears. “I need you.”

Scott sat there trying to think of things to say, while keeping Johnny as cool as possible, he had to keep that fever down. The medicine the doctor was giving Johnny was taking its sweet time to do its job. In fact Scott was beginning to wonder if the doc knew what he was doing, as Johnny’s fever kept spiking up, sometimes dangerously high. This had him worried even more, terrifying him at times. He knew from experience, like after the time Johnny was shot by Pardee, that his brother was prone to convulsions, or febrile fits as Doc Jenkins had explained. Scott just didn’t know how much more his brother’s body could take of this up and down temperature.

“You know what little brother? I always thought my life back in Boston was terrific. I had everything I ever wanted, girls, money, the high life. I thought I had it all.” Scott shifted to a comfortable position, as he started to tell his thoughts to Johnny. “Until I came here, and I found my true life, with the family I could only imagine and dream about. Most specifically, I found you little brother, the brother I never knew I had, but always longed for, and my life will never be the same. You brought new purpose to my life. You see, I had been floundering in a boring limbo since leaving the Army. My days and nights were marked by indifference, until you came along, and I had someone I cared for more than myself.”

Scott smiled sweetly down at his sleeping sibling, “You my dear, brother, are a mystery. Here you are a supposed hardened killer, a gun for hire, but when I see you with children, and animals you’re a whole different person. You are a loving caring man, who would lay his life down for his family and friends. If only the bastards, who did this to you, could see the real you, maybe they would have thought twice, but I doubt it. So, Johnny you had better get well soon, so we can go home and forget this nightmare ever happened.”

Pausing in his heartfelt speech to look up and check the time, Scott was thrilled when he turned his attention back to Johnny. His eyes widened in relieved delight to find a pair of fevered, watery blue orbs staring intently at him. Johnny weakly smiled at his big brother, his eyes were still glazed and glassy, but he was able to focus on Scott’s surprised face.

“Hi,” Johnny hoarsely whispered.

“Hi, yourself, how do you feel?” Scott asked, as his trembling hand reached out to feel Johnny’s forehead.

“Like I …went…to hell….and back.”

“Here, try and drink some water.” Scott helped his brother lift his head with one hand, and then put the cup to his lips with the other, allowing Johnny to take small sips. “Good, slow now,”

Scott gently laid Johnny’s head back down against the sweat dampened pillow. He grimaced in sympathy, as he watched the awakening pain register on Johnny’s face. Johnny suddenly hissed and sucked in his breath, as he felt the hot sheering pain shoot up his legs, as the torture intensified, he started to thrash back and forth. Grabbing a hold of Scott’s arm and clamping down on it with all his might, he tried to ride out the intensity of the suffering. Johnny’s jaw clenched, his face became a portrait of the pure agony and torment, which was invading his body.

“Easy, Johnny, take deep breaths.” Scott calmly tired to coach his brother through the hell he was feeling.

“Hurts….burns….I…”

“I know, I know but it will pass.”

Then after long heartbreaking seconds of watching his brother suffer though the hard cruel pain, Johnny finally loosened his grip on Scott’s arm, and started to calm down. Johnny looked up Scott, with tears streaming down his cheeks, blending in with the large sweat beads that had popped out to cover his entire face, neck, and chest, during his moments of anguish. It was easy for his big brother to interpret the question *why?* in his sad sunken eyes.

As Scott wiped the tears away, his anger flared hotter than a raging fire, over Johnny’s mistreatment. Once again, he vowed that those prejudice sons of bitches would not get away without suffering somehow. It was a vow he intended to keep no matter what it took.

Johnny kept his eyes trained on Scott, as he washed his face, savoring the gentle touch of his brother‘s cool hands on his heated skin. The two Lancer boys had always joked around; throwing jabs and punches to each other’s arms, or other body parts, as gestures of affection and appreciation. They had even progressed to the familiarity of embracing each other by wrapping their arms around each other as they walked off together. They also shared brotherly hugs of glad greetings when they had been reunited after brief separations.

However, to lay there helpless as new born kitten, letting your older sibling tenderly care for you, was a somewhat new experience for Johnny, as Murdoch and Maria had done most of the nursing after Pardee’s bullet. Johnny was learning to accept, and cherish this feeling of belonging. He might never admit it out loud, but right now having Scott here was the best medicine he could have.

“There, all cleaned up, now I think you better get some more rest, before Mia comes back and bites my head off,” Scott joked. “That woman is very protective of you right now.”

“I know,” Johnny replied in a whisper, as he felt himself dozing off again, thanks to the laudanum Scott had slipped into his water. Scott thought Johnny was fast asleep; he got up and started to search for the doctor, somewhat aggravated the man had not been in to check on Johnny’s progress, when he heard a faint whisper.

“Scott….I…need…you too.”

Scott’s heart soared, and he felt awash in pleasure, that his brother had heard his statements of love and concern.

.

Chapter Twenty

The hotel room door flew open, as though the winds of a tornado had pushed upon its solid surface. The speed and force of the movement nearly ripped the door from its hinges. The only thing that stopped it from slamming through the wall was the small table sitting next to the door. The abrupt meeting of the door and table rent the air with a loud crash, and the chilling creak of splitting wood. That was followed by the thud of the pitcher of water that rested on it, tipping over, and spilling its clear liquid onto the floor, with a musical splashing sound.

The pitcher was still tottering on its unstable perch, as three disheartened men entered the room. The youngest one was madder than an enraged bull, set on charging through the town, destroying anything in his path. Scott huffed and snorted, his agitated gait made him appear to be pawing the ground, as he stiffly march across the room, fists clenching and unclenching by his sides. The muscles of his jaw were undulating, as he gritted his teeth. The two older men following the fuming young man, felt the same way, but age and experience helped them to contain their ire…barely. It had been a very long trying day, as they wandered about town, stopping in almost every business, and home, asking questions, looking for witnesses, but it was like trying to get water out of a rock, they were stonewalled all the way. It was frustrating the hell out of them, especially one irate blond.

“I HAVE NEVER SEEN SO MANY DAMN IGNORANT FOOLS IN MY LIFE!” Scott bellowed angrily. He snatched his hat from his head and threw it on the bed, as he stormed around Jarrod’s room. They had made his room their command center.

“I told you it wasn’t going to be easy finding witnesses,” Jarrod explained. “Especially if they had to testify against a town official, such as the Sheriff and the Mayor, as well as whoever else was involved,” Jarrod coolly stated, hoping his calm demeanor would help settle the furious young Lancer.

“Are you trying to tell me that these . . . these so called good people of Carson City, are going to stand by and let those bastards get away with what they did to Johnny?” Scott growled in aggravation, and pointed an accusing finger at the window, to the town beyond. He shook his head in disbelief, and then started to pace back and forth, in an attempt to calm his jangled nerves. His emotions were getting the best of him, and his anger was building to another crescendo. The upsurge of his fury fueled by the day they had wasted trying to reason with these morons, people who were afraid of their own shadows.

“Scott, settle down, and stop that pacing, you’re giving me a headache.” Murdoch declared, as he rubbed his temples, “We’ll find somebody brave enough to testify for your brother!”

“We do have someone to testify, Johnny. What more do you need?” Scott questioned.

“Yes, Johnny’s testimony will help, but you know very well that we need something more to back up his story,” Jarrod reminded the Harvard educated young man. “This is going to take time, we have to be play it just right, we don‘t want to scare off any possible witnesses.”

Scott snorted and shook his head in disgust at the whole unbelievable situation. “You know what’s happening, don’t you?” Scott hissed sharply, as he glared at his father, and then at Jarrod. “Someone is getting to them, telling them to shut up or else. I’d bet my life on it.” Scott vowed, with a disgruntled huff, and then sat down in the chair next to the window, peering down at the street. “And I have very good idea who is doing it!” he added, as his analytical eyes observed the Mayor and Sheriff walking together, as they slithered across the street. Scott’s eyes narrowed, as he thought they were nothing more than snakes with legs. Scott felt like taking his gun, and shooting off their reptilian heads, they were easy targets from where he was sitting.

“Yes, I’m afraid Scott is right, Jarrod. It sure looks that way,” Murdoch grimly agreed. “Or either they are just like the ones who did this to Johnny, which I find it hard to believe that a whole town can be so prejudiced towards outsiders.”

“Stranger things have happened. You just might be right about the town.” Jarrod reluctantly stated. “What about Juan and his wife, will they be willing to testify? As I understand it, they were victims too”

“I haven’t asked; they just might.” Murdoch answered, picking up the pitcher, pouring himself a glass of what was left of the water, that didn’t spill out. “Mia did mention that her son and daughter were killed by the Sheriff, but she didn’t go into detail. She’s watching Johnny, right now. Let’s wait to ask them, I don’t want to upset her. She has been making sure that he’s well cared for when we’re not there. To tell the absolute truth of the matter, she’s the only one I trust to stay with him.” Murdoch might have worried the statement sounded selfish on his part, but he knew Mia didn’t mind helping at all.

“Speaking of Johnny, I’m going to see him before dinner.” Scott calmly informed them, having finally settled down. “Coming?”

“Yes, I’ve been away too long. I’m sure Mia could use a break by now,” Murdoch replied putting the glass down, and then stretching his sore back. The small cot he was sleeping on at the doctor’s office was taking its toll on his huge body. However, he had made a promise to himself, and to Johnny, that he was not going to leave his youngest alone at night, and he damn well intended on keeping that promise. “Coming, Jarrod?”

“Right behind you, Murdoch, besides I was hoping that Johnny would be up to answering a few questions.” Jarrod replied, as his eyebrows arched upward in a surprised manner, at the looks of concern the Lancer men leveled on him.

“Jarrod, Johnny is still very weak; he might not be able to answer your questions.” The tall rancher informed his friend and lawyer.

“I know, but if he can at least give me a brief summary of what happen that night, it would help me build up his case better.” Jarrod said, as he held up a restraining hand to ward off any protests. “I promise. I will be as quick as I can.”

“Well let’s see how he feels, first,” Scott softly cautioned, as he led the way out of the room.

As the three men made their way down the hotel’s steep staircase, the atmosphere suddenly got thick and heavy, all activities stopped. It was as silent, as a funeral home. All the attention was focused on the three, as if they were as ominous, and strange a sight, as Death waltzing in to escort the deceased to eternity. The taciturn crowd glared at the intruders; the men they considered a threat to their town, as they descended the steps. Their fear and worry shrouded the room, because they knew what these men wanted. They wanted to rid the town of the two men that could, and did keep trash like Madrid, and the Mexicans, like the ones who now occupied one of the hotel’s rooms, out of their town. Cold hard stares, tinged with fright, followed the men, as they quickly exited the hotel.

Suddenly Murdoch had a bad feeling, chills shot through his tired body. He was washed over by the disheartening thought that maybe his hunch about the whole town being just like those bastards; was true. He shivered, as the stone cold truth consumed him, chilling him more than the night’s air. When the ones, that were out and about in the streets stopped in their tracks, also staring, and then turning their heads away from the trio, with looks of disgust, anger, or even shame, he was positive he was correct.

Murdoch shook his head sadly, ‘No, this can’t be, there has to be someone that will come forth, there just has to be.’ He kept chanting to himself.

***********

In the doctor’s office, a very sick young man, writhed weakly, as the fever that was invading his battered body, was draining the life right out of him. Johnny’s abused body was battling the pain and infection that consumed it, eating away at it, like a beast tearing his flesh from his bones. Large beads of sweat glistened on his pale features. The morphine and laudanum in his system caused him to thrash about in a nightmarish dream state. He muttered words in Spanish, only Mia could understand. She sat white faced with horror at what he was saying. Her heart felt burdened with sadness, as he spoke the words of torture and anguish, he had endured. At times she paused in her ministrations to cross herself with a trembling hand. However she remained there by his side, applying cold compresses to his forehead, talking softly, lovingly into Johnny’s ear, in attempt to ease his discomfort.

“Shush, Juanito, it is alright. I’m right here; no one is going to hurt you again.” Mia whispered, as she wiped the moisture that was running down his heated face. She brushed the matted dark bangs from his eyes. “Your Papa will see to that.”

“Pa…pa?”

“Si, your Papa will see that those who did this will be punished.”

Mia let out the breath she was holding, sighing in relief, when Johnny finally started to relaxed, his tense facial muscles lost their rigid look when her words registered in his troubled and fevered mind. Johnny’s eyes were still closed, but he weakly smiled, and then finally drifted back into a peaceful sleep. Mia gazed lovingly at the young man, as he slept, tenderly rubbing his pale cheek with the back of her hand. Mia saw a lot of her own Jose in Johnny, that resemblance caused a smile to tremble across her lips, as a tear escaped, slipping sorrowfully down her weary face.

“I too, will do what I can to help bring those bastardos to justice.” Mia vowed, “For you and my children.”

.

Chapter Twenty-One

Murdoch was the first through the door of the doctor’s office. Scott and Jarrod followed him towards the room where Johnny lay. The tall rancher’s sizable form blocked the doorway when he stopped short of entering. The scene in the room could only be describe as the stuff that pleasant dreams are made of, and it put a warm smile on the weary face of Murdoch Lancer, softening the worried expression that had been etched into his face the past few days.

Holding up his huge hand, Murdoch effectively halted the intense conversation Jarrod and Scott were engaged in, as well as their forward movement. Turning sideways, he motioned for the two men to look at the heartwarming sight in the room.

There was an air of serenity in the room. Mia’s sweet voice provided a calm, peaceful aura, as she hummed a Spanish lullaby to Johnny. Her small dark hands, empowered with a mother’s loving touch, were methodically, and with tenderness stroking his sweat soaked head. The loving image had a magical quality; it lightened the heart and fed the soul with the warmth of human kindness. It was obvious what a loving and giving person Mia was from her actions, and Murdoch knew his youngest was cut from the same cloth. The injustice that either of these two compassionate people had been targeted and suffered maltreatment and cruelty just because of their ethnic heritage was repulsive, as well as reprehensible.

“How is he?” Murdoch asked softly, afraid he would disturb the serene mood that filled the room.

“He is resting, as well as could be expected, Senor,” Mia answered, in hushed voiced. Her gaze still concentrated on Johnny’s pale young face. “He had a rough, restless spell, but he is still now,” she reported.

“Just how rough?” Scott anxiously asked, stepping around his father’s huge form. He quickly went to his brother’s side, placing a hand on Johnny’s heated brow. “He’s still too hot!” he growled in frustration. He frowned menacingly, as he wondered where the doctor was at. Scott found it most aggravating that Johnny was getting no more attention than he was, especially considering this was also the doctor’s residence. How he longed to be home, so his brother would be under the trusted and capable healing hands of Sam Jenkins.

“Si, his fever, it goes up and down, and his nightmares, Senor?” Mia paused to look at the concern on Scott’s face, which matched the agony in her heart for Johnny. “The things he says, it is too horrible, sad. What did his mama do to him?” She cried out angrily, her voice stressed and strained with tears of compassion.

Murdoch was just about to answer her when his youngest weakly moaned, the pitiful sound making him seem so fragile, and vulnerable. The concerned father moved with a speed and agility that denied his age, as the moan ended with a tremulous, fever induced question.

“Pa?” Johnny’s voice quivered, as his long matted eyelids slowly fluttered open. Johnny’s watery blue eyes struggled to focus; he glanced from one area to another, anxiously searching for his family. He was sure theirs were the familiar voices that broke through the ringing in his ears. He held out a shaking hand, searching the air, as he waited for someone to take hold of it, letting him know they are there for him.

“I’m right here, son,” Murdoch soothed, taking his son’s febrile warm hand into his huge one, gently sitting himself down on the bed. He was trying to keep his emotions in check, but seeing his son like this made him ache with deep intensity, all the way to his bones, which then sent shards of pain piercing through his heart. He frowned in concern as his upset eyes noted the fever seemed to have reduced Johnny’s thin body even more. “How do you feel?” the terrified father asked.

“Don’t ….know…everything is fuzzy.” Johnny faintly replied; his breathing was hard and shallow, as he panted, to draw in sufficient amounts of air. “Feel…sick,” he gasped, as a wave of nausea started to overtake him. Scott helped position his brother, as he struggled to lean over the bed.

Johnny’s face paled, and then flushed red; he swallowed convulsively, as he fought the lurching, heaving, and acrobatic attempts of his stomach, as it felt like it was trying to leave his abdominal cavity. His eyes widened in distress, as he lost the battle, and all the precious liquid he had consumed came gushing back, just as Mia pushed the basin in place. Scott patted his back, as he stiffened in pain from the violent regurgitation. When the bout of sickness was over, Johnny slumped limply forward. Scott caught him by the shoulders, and carefully helped him lean back against the pillow. Mia made sure the deathly ill young man was as comfortable as possible, and then they both took turns wiping the large sweat beads that formed on his ghostly white face.

“It’s the morphine, Mr. Lancer. I had to give it to your son, for the pain.” The doctor bluntly stated, as he entered the room. He frowned and huffed, he still did not like all these visitors in his exam room, so he coldly glared at the group, as he walked by.

“Is there any change with his feet?” Scott questioned in a displeased tone. He was very perturbed with the attitude of this so called doctor. He had no confidence in the man’s ability, not to mention he didn’t trust him any further than he could pick him up and toss him. “Surely there should have been more improvement by now? And his fever is still too high?” Scott curtly added.

“There has been some improvement, but you have to remember his feet were badly infected, it’s going to take time to heal.” The old man said in his defense, not appreciating Scott’s tone of voice towards him. “And the fever is just part of the healing process, as I said, it will take some time.”

“But not this long, there has to be a reason why it’s still lingering as high as it is, if he’s truly healing?” Murdoch stated his doubts, waiting pensively for an answer.

The doctor hemmed and hawed, stalling for time when Jarrod intervened. “Do you think I can ask him a few questions?” Jarrod asked, and then quickly held up his hand seeing that the doc was about to protest. “I’ll be as brief as I can.”

“Well, it’s up to my patient,” the doctor sneered.

“John?” Jarrod quietly asked, and waited for an answer, as Johnny had his eyes closed.

“Yeah, I’ll try,” Johnny whispered, as his head was still throbbing from vomiting.

“Okay, but keep it brief. I’ll be in my office if you need me.” The doc snapped, and then stormed out of the room, grumbling under his breath.

Jarrod nodded, and then stepped closer to the bed, “I’ll be a brief as I can, Johnny.”

“Ok…ay.”

“First,” Jarrod started, “I have to ask this, please don’t get upset, but did you do anything to provoke them into doing this to you?” Jarrod observed the others for their reaction to his question.

“No,” Johnny replied quickly. “I was….minding…my own…business,” he added with his eyes still shut, licking his dry lips. Mia tenderly moistened them with a cool, wet rag.

“Gracias,” Johnny weakly thanked her.

“Good,” Jarrod said with a satisfied expression. “Well, it’s obvious they knew you were once Madrid,” Jarrod surmised. “Did they even ask you why you were in town?” was his next question.

“No, they …gave me…no chance to…” Johnny’s voice trailed off, as he started to tire, his weakened body wanting so much to go back to sleep.

“Senor, please, he must rest,” Mia pleaded, pacing a restraining hand on Jarrod’s arm.

“Just one more question, I promise,” Jarrod assured the worried woman with a warm smile. Mia reluctantly nodded, but stayed by Johnny’s side.

Jarrod had a very strong suspicion, as to what had happened, and he was fairly certain that Murdoch was not aware of it. He proceeded to go over the facts, known to them so far. “Well as I see it, one, they knew you were Madrid. Two, they didn’t give you the courtesy, or chance to explain why you were here.” Jarrod paused to let the statements sink in, “Johnny, were they waiting for you, with more than two men, and were they armed?”

Johnny slowly opened his eyes, “Yes…to all of it.” His fevered eyes showed the mental hurt and anger, which ravaged his tortured soul, as surely as the physical pain wracked his body.

“An ambush,” Jarrod proclaimed, shaking his head in utter disbelief.

Murdoch and Scott’s faces hardened, as shock, horror and deep seeded anger warred across their features at the audacity of it all. It was clear now that those bastards were actually waiting for Johnny to arrive, it was all planned.

“Senors, please,” Mia begged earnestly.

“I’m finished, you get some rest, John,” Jarrod said, putting a reassuring hand on Johnny’s hot arm. “You told me exactly what I needed to know.”

“Yes, you rest now, son. We’ll take care of things.” Murdoch softly said. He gently held his boy’s warm hand as Johnny drifted off to sleep. Gazing down at his youngest, as he slumbered, his heart raged with despair and fury, that his child had been the victim of such injustice and prejudice.

As they entered the outer room, Mia rushed over to stop them from leaving. “Senor Lancer, I am very worried. I do not trust this doctor,” Mia urgently whispered, trying to keep the doctor from overhearing what she was saying. “As Senor Scott has suggested, Juantio should be improving much faster, Si?

“Yes,” Scott concurred with a frown. Scott had felt from the minute he met the doctor, that he was hiding something. Dread rushed through his veins and he felt his blood pressure rising, now that someone else seemed to be confirming his suspicions.

“I fear that the doctor is not doing as he should. I fear he might be…..” her voice trailed off not wanting to speak the unthinkable. She glanced back at Johnny, her worried eyes speaking her fear as plainly as a voice.

“You think he might be poisoning him?” Jarrod inquired.

“Si, perhaps, there are many possible reasons for why Juanito fails to get well.”

.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Mia’s softly voiced concerns stunned the three men. Scott and Murdoch had already entertained suspicions, amongst themselves, about the quality of treatment Johnny was receiving. However, to hear it from someone else only confirmed that they had every right to worry. The tension the statement caused seemed to have robbed the room of air, and the men of the ability to speak. Time felt like it was standing still, a dead weight that pressed down upon the occupants of the room, freezing them in place. Mia cautiously observed their reaction. In her heart she knew Juanito’s father and brother were good and fair men, yet in the back of her mind she was leery of stating her concerns and doubts, fearful there was a small chance they would not appreciate advice from a stranger, and a Mexican, at that. Up until now she had kept it to herself, but she just could not hold it in any longer, it was deeply distressing. She was not willing to sacrifice Johnny’s well being for her own hesitancy, her mother’s instincts screamed at her to call out for help, especially as she watched Johnny slowly fade away from them.

The whispered word ‘poison’ rang as loudly as a fire bell in shocked ears. The men were aghast at the thought, but they did not try to dissuade Mia from her conviction. One only had to look at the helpless, fever withered form of the youngest Lancer to realize her fears were not unfounded. The idea was not hard to swallow, this doctor had shown signs that he didn’t have those special qualities that identified him as a caring, understanding man. A man bound by his oath. A doctor, people could faithfully trust to care for their sick, or hurt loved ones. There had to be a reason for the lacking compassion. How or why, could a man of medicine go against all that he stood for, or could even considered poisoning, much less causing more harm to one of his patients. Once again prejudice reared its ugly head.

“Are you sure?” Scott asked, in a dazed tone of voice, after reordering his jumbled thoughts. “Not that I don’t believe you. Have you seen signs?”

“I can’t prove it, Senor, but I’m sure that he is not doing as he is supposed to do. I have not caught him doing anything, perhaps that is the problem, he is not doing all he should or could.” Mia surmised. “I do not know his medicine, but Juanito, he is not doing as good as he should.” she added sadly, “I do not trust this doctor.”

“What do you mean this doctor?” Murdoch asked curiously, his eyes narrowed with wariness, as he wondered what the hell was going on here.

Mia nervously put her hand up to hush Murdoch, who was getting a little unnerved, and speaking rather loudly. “This Doctor…” Mia paused briefly, “He is not the same doctor that was here before,” she clarified for Murdoch. “He’s a new one, the other doctor, he is gone,” she added, in a hushed tone.

“Where did he go?” Jarrod inquired, not liking the sound of this at all.

“He left, Senor, after my children died…” Mia paused to reflect on the painful past. “He was a kind man, and did all he could to save my children, but it was not to be.” Tears filled her sad brown eyes, “He did not like the Sheriff, or his ways, it saddened him. I could see it in his eyes.”

“So he left to take his practice somewhere else, somewhere where he could do some good.” Scott grimly speculated.

“Si, I think so, he was not happy here anymore.” Mia suggested.

“Or, perhaps he was forced to leave!” Jarrod angrily mumbled to himself. When the others turned astonished eyes to gaze upon him, he realized he had spoken loud enough for them to hear. Now that the idea was out there, Jarrod finished saying what he was thinking, “Because he did care to help others, such as your children, and it bothered them, so they replaced him with someone they could control, one whose moral values were low and corruptible.”

“That is why I stay with Juanito, to do what I can, but I do not know his medicine. I’m scared for him, Senor Lancer.” Mia sadly admitted, as she wrung her hands in desperation. “I must go to your nino now.” She turned to leave, and then glanced back at Murdoch, her eyes pleading for reassurance.

“Please do that, and it will be only for a short while, I promise,” Murdoch informed her. “And thank you Mia, for telling us your concerns,” he added with a smile for the worried woman.

Mia rushed back to continue her protective vigil over an extremely ill Johnny. Her heart felt lighter, unburdened by the act of sharing her concerns. Mia was so intent on her chore of wiping, and cooling Johnny’s fevered brow, she did not realize the three men watched her tender care. Nor was she aware of the glares of disgust, and distrust they leveled at the doctor sitting at his desk, head down in his books. The hands of the two older Lancers twitched as though they itched from the desire of wanting nothing more than to wring the doctor’s rotten neck.

“Now, what?” Scott asked sharply. In an unconscious gesture reminiscent of his younger brother, Scott dropped his hand down to caress the butt of his gun, flexing his fingers, and then drummed them in inaudible beat against his thigh. The ease with which he carried out the actions belied his tense muscles and nervous energy. He abruptly stopped when he realized what he was doing. He clenched his fist into a shaking ball, and then snarled, “We have to get Johnny away from here, and now!” Scott’s face turned beet red, as his blood pressure started to rise with his anger.

“Keep your voice down,” Murdoch sternly admonished, as his big hand landed on Scott’s shoulder, and gave it a firm squeeze. “I don’t need to cause a scene, not just yet. I want you to go over to the hotel, and book another room for me and Johnny, if this so called doctor still wants to care for him, it will be under my watchful eye… until.” Murdoch huffed to a stop, his lips pursed into a tight white line, as he breathed deeply to rein in his emotions. His anger surged upward, along with his fears that they may have waited too late for these new safety measures. His tongue burned with the need to rant and rave over the injustice that had befallen his child, all because he had wanted to spend time with him, and share what was to be an honor. Instead they were all living a nightmare.

“Until when?” implored Scott, as he anxiously observed his father’s struggle to maintain control.

“Until I can get Sam here to take over the care of your brother,” Murdoch replied, without hesitation. “That is if he can make it. I don’t like taking him away from others who might need him too,” Murdoch reluctantly added.

“Well, Johnny needs him the most right now, we have no choice!” Scott pointed out, not caring if it sounded selfish; his main concern was for his brother’s health. “Besides, knowing how Sam feels about Johnny, he’ll come,” Scott declared with conviction.

“I’m going to send off a wire, you go, and get us a room,” Murdoch instructed his agitated son. “Pray that he can make it in time. Are you coming Jarrod?

“Right behind you, Murdoch,” the stunned lawyer replied, as he followed the Lancers out the door.

As the trio headed off to attend to their urgent business, of which the top priority being to assure Johnny’s safety, a pair of hazel eyes watched cautiously from his office window. He was waiting for the right time to take his leave. He watched Scott go into the hotel, and Murdoch and Jarrod over towards the telegraph office, but didn’t wait to see if they went in or not, he had vital business to take care of as well. As soon as the coast was clear, the old weasel grabbed his hat; he tiptoed through the waiting room trying to avoid Mia, and then like snake with legs, slithered out the front door.

In the Mayor’s office, the Mayor and the Sheriff were talking over their other plan, just in case the one in progress didn’t work, when the door of the inner office crashed open, bouncing against the wall. The violent action knocked an expensive painting off the wall, startling the Mayor right out of his customized big chair. The Mayor glared in disgust at the rowdy intrusion, and the Sheriff had his gun drawn, and pointed at the intruder.

“Now see here, how dare you come bursting into my office, destroying my property with your negligence. That was my favorite painting you knocked down,” he shouted at the doctor.

“I don’t give damn about your fancy painting. We have trouble!” he huffed breathlessly, his eyes darting about wildly, as though expecting that trouble to jump out and bite him. “And put that away!” he growled at the sheriff, pointing a shaky finger at the weapon still leveled at his chest.

“What kind of trouble?” The Sheriff asked, getting nervous, as their whole scheme seemed to be unraveling.

“They are on to us… to me, that’s what,” he snarled at them, wiping his sweating brow. “That Mexican bitch, she figured out something was up, and told Madrid’s father!” he blurted out.

“How do you know this? What did she tell them?” The mayor picked up his glass of water intending to take a sip to wet his dry mouth, and calm his nerves, but his anxious hands shook so badly it dribbled down his chin.

“I overheard them, that’s how, and she told them that she thinks I’m not doing my job, and that I’m not to be trusted,” he informed them, his voice rising in agitation. “I couldn’t make out too much more, but I did hear the word poison, and that’s all I needed to hear.”

“Oh, good Lord, now what?” the Mayor whined, as he plopped back down in his chair, and then covered his pale face with his beefy hands, as if he could hide from his misdeeds.

“You tell me! I agreed to help you get rid of Madrid, quietly, but now this, they will be watching me like hawk. I promise you that.” The doctor declared in a voice filled with doom.

“Then we have no choice, you have to kill Madrid tonight. You can claim he had a setback, and he just died.” The Sheriff ordered. “And if that Mexican whore gets in your way, kill her too, it’ll be one less Mex to pollute the world,” he coldly instructed with an evil grin.

The old doc nodded in compliance, as he said. “This had better work. You may get Madrid out of the way, but there will still be his family to deal with,” he sharply reminded them.

“We know.”

.

Chapter Twenty-Three

In the two hours since the Lancers had departed, Mia battled Johnny’s fever and her fears. The loneliness of her vigil increased her anxiety. Time seemed to drag on with a lethargic tension, making her feel as though she was precariously balanced upon a razor’s edge. Her senses were on alert, every movement and sound felt augmented and excessive. The tick of the clock seemed drawn out and loud, as though instead of advancing time, it held it back in some form of limbo. The steady beat was grating to Mia’s ears instead of soothing. When it would chime on the half- hour and hour, her heightened senses felt assaulted by the thunderous gonging. She felt exposed and vulnerable here; in what she was sure, was the office of one of the enemies. Without even turning her head to see, Mia could tell the doctor was staring at her, like a cat watches a mouse hole. That was exactly what she felt like too, a defenseless mouse, afraid to move or venture too far away for fear of being captured, and then gutted and dismembered by sharp jagged claws and skin piercing fangs. Her feelings of dread threatened to overwhelm her, but she refused to give in to them, knowing Johnny’s safety was at stake.

The doctor had purposely left his door open, from the angle his oak desk was positioned, he could monitor the activity in the sickroom. He was waiting impatiently for the right time, the perfect opportunity to give Johnny the final dose of the medicinal mixture he had been using to slowly kill the youngest Lancer. The substance would gradually shut down Johnny’s system, and upon his last check-up, it was showing signs of it beginning to work. Johnny’s vital organs were being affected one by one. Given time, the injections would have impaired the ability of the filtering organs to do their job. Eventually this would have over taxed his system; his own body would poison its self, until finally the heart would stop beating. It was a beautifully diabolical plan, the doctor would have the pleasure of seeing the gunhawk suffer, all the while making out like he was trying to help him, and charging the family for his services as well. That was the true high point for him, but now he was forced to speed up the process as ordered by the Sheriff.

The doctor scowled as he sat watching and listening to Mia nervously hum to Johnny, showering him with her motherly affections. The gun-fighter made his skin crawl with irritation, like ants invading his body. This whole situation left a vulgar taste in his mouth, which soured his stomach, to the point he had to swallow back the bitter bile, which made him feel like he could heave up the meal he had just eaten. To him the loving scene was almost too revolting to watch. He shook his head in vile confusion because he just couldn’t understand how anyone could care, let alone have any kind of love for this killer, or anybody like him. He never wanted to be put in the position of giving medical assistance to a killer. He saw no good reason to heal a murderer, so they would live to ply their Godless trade another day. He was thankful that up until now, he had not had to confront such an ordeal.

When the self-righteous, biased bastard they called a lawman asked for the medical man to come up with a plan to slowly poison Johnny to death, the equally sanctimonious doctor, without even blinking an eye, happily agreed to do the un-holy deed. And if the Mexican woman should get in his way, well, it wouldn’t be any skin off his nose, if she should, suddenly somehow, happen to disappear.

He had no use for her kind, not after he had lost his only child to murdering bandits, who had raided a friend’s farm, where his son was visiting, heartlessly killing everyone there. The aftermath had torn his world asunder. Not only had he lost his twelve year old child, but his distraught wife had committed suicide, rather than face the pain of loss. That was the beginnings of his hate for Mexicans, and their murdering bandito kin. The years had fermented his hate into a festering infection that clouded his judgment, leaving him a lonely, bitter and hateful man, and a dark menace to all that were not fair of skin.

The discontented frown, he had on his face, grew even deeper when he heard the outer door open, and in walked Mia’s husband, Juan. He had come to see his wife, and bring her dinner. ‘This was not good, or was it?’

“Hola, my wife, and how are you doing?” Juan cheerfully greeted Mia. His happy disposition quickly faded, when he saw how tense she was, and that she greeted him back with a sad worried smile. “How is Juanito?” Juan placed his hand on Johnny’s brow, grimacing over the heat that radiated off the young man.

“I’m ok, my husband, but Juanito is not.” she bleakly replied, in a shaking voice. “He is not healing as we hoped, I fear….” she halted her words, and her face grew dourly angry, when she noticed the doctor leaving his office and coming their way.

“I see you have company.” The doctor commented, as he entered the room, forcing himself to be polite, even though he loathed the sight of them, especially Juan.

“Si, but he will not be staying long. He just brought me my dinner,” she informed him curtly, which didn’t go unnoticed by her husband. Turning to Juan, she firmly stated, “I will not leave, I promised Senor Lancer, I would stay with his hijo, until he gets back.”

The conniving doctor seethed inwardly at her declaration, he had to come up with a way to get her to leave, or his plan would be ruined. He put on his best caring and concerned face, and solicitously suggested, “Why don’t you both go and eat, I’ll watch Mad…Lancer for you. I had my supper, so I don’t mind one bit, after all I am the doctor here.” He ended his speech with a fake smile plastered on his lying face, which only succeeded in making him appear constipated.

“No, Senor,” Mia vehemently protested, as she vigorously shook her head. “I promised, Senor Lancer. I will eat here. I do not mind,” she vowed, as she glanced at her husband’s worried face, begging him with her eyes to understand what she meant, and what she wanted him to do.

“No use in arguing with my wife, Senor, she is a stubborn one,” Juan said, with a sly grin. “I must go now. I have to see to my horses.” He leaned down, and gave his wife a tender kiss on the cheek. “I’ll be back,” he whispered in Spanish, and low enough the other man couldn’t hear him. Then he left, making a straight beeline for the hotel.

‘Damn stubborn bitch, well, I guess I’ll have to dispose of her too.’ the irate and deceitful doctor said to himself. He proceeded over to the medicine cabinet. His hands shook, rattling the bottles on the shelf, as he reached for the vial containing the dose that would end the gun-fighters life. The back of his neck felt like something was crawling up and down it, as shivers ran up and down his spineless back. He knew that Mia was watching every move he made, as she sat there. He breathed deeply to steady his nerves, as his anxious fingers tried to coordinate their movement, so he could fill the syringe. Slowly, he turned around, and started to walk towards Johnny’s still form.

“What is that, Senor Doctor?” Mia blurted out fearfully. Her voice rose in agitation, and her limbs felt jerky, as she quickly sat her tray down, and stood up in a defensive manner. Her alarmed eyes riveted on the syringe filled with the clear fluid.

“Oh, just something to help with the pain, I noticed he was having some discomfort,” the doctor lied. “He can’t get the proper rest he needs to heal, while he’s in pain. Now, can he?”

Mia frowned apprehensively. “I did not notice him having any pain. He is resting well, Senor,” she pointed out uneasily, as she was consumed by a feeling of dread.

“Now, now, I’m the doctor, and I know what’s best for my patient,” he sternly replied. He roughly pushed Mia away from Johnny’s side.

Mia scooted protectively between Johnny and the doc. She had already decided she would shield Johnny from this mad man even if she had to use her own body. Her heart was racing with fear and desperation, as she silently cried out for help.

“PLEASE! He does not need that, doctor,” she distraughtly pleaded, as he moved her aside again. She grabbed the man’s arm, as he was reaching out to take a hold of Johnny’s, to inject the deadly substance into his defenseless body. “I beg of you!”

The horrid man grinned devilishly, as he was about to insert the needle into the vulnerable patient.

“He does not need what?” asked a deep, concerned, yet threatening voice, coming from the doorway. A displeased and distrusting Scott entered the room, questions written all over his frowning face, about the uncomfortable scene and conversation he had witnessed.

“Well?” Scott demanded.

.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“Well?” Scott snapped out sternly, as he repeated the question. His annoyed expression displayed his internal impatience with the continued silence. Scott’s tall, lean form reclined with a deceptive calm against the door frame, but the glare directed at the occupants of the room contradicted his controlled composure. Scott didn’t like what he was witnessing one bit; he had a gut wrenching feeling that something was terribly wrong here. There was a tension in the air that had the hairs on the back of his neck standing straight up. His senses were tingling, leaving him with a sensation of something crawling over his skin. He was alarmed by some very disturbing vibrations coming from Mia’s trembling body, as she stood protectively by Johnny’s side, resembling a frightened deer, caught unawares at the end of the barrel of a hunter’s rifle.

Pushing himself upright from his leaning position in the doorway, Scott slowly entered the room. He noticed Mia’s small tense form go from being as stiff as wash board, to a much more relaxed slumped position, the closer he came towards her and his brother. He sensed that his presence was a tremendous and welcomed relief for the troubled woman. Scott’s alert eyes didn’t miss Mia quickly crossing herself, as her terrified expression trembled and transformed into a smile of gratitude. She mouthed a silent thank you, that her husband was able to get Scott here; and seemingly in the nick of time.

Scott’s demanding voice burst the bubble of tension encapsulating the room. The scheming doctor was caught completely off guard, and quickly swung around, forgetting he was still holding the syringe full of poison in his hand. The doctor’s guilty eyes dilated in fear as they connected with Scott’s narrowed and distrusting, cold blue-gray eyes. The harsh deadly look on Scott’s face had the medical man unable to keep eye contact. He uncomfortably shifted under the shrewd gaze of the tall blond, slightly shaking in his boots, but at the same time he was cursing under his breath, that his plan had been interrupted, for now.

“You mind telling me what you were going to do with that?” Scott insisted vehemently, pointing an accusing finger to the syringe.

“What? Oh this,” The doc stammered nervously, as he looked down at his hand, and jerked, as though struck by some unseen force, when he realized he was still holding the syringe. “It’s just morphine for your brother’s comfort, as I was telling this woman, he can’t rest properly if he’s in pain,” he hastily explained.

“Johnny looks peaceful now,’ Scott frostily stated. “I don’t see any need to give him any more of your medicine.” He walked slowly to where his brother was resting, and put a gentle reassuring hand on Mia’s shoulder.

“Well, yes but….”

“But… what?” Scott barked out unsympathetically, as he took secret delight in the man’s uneasiness. Nor did he give the man a chance to answer back, when he curtly informed the doc, “My father and I have decided to move my brother to the hotel.”

“Why?”

“Well, we both feel that Johnny would be more comfortable in a regular bed, and a more hospitable environment than this stuffy room,” Scott retorted, as he fought the wild urge to give the haughty bastard a knuckle sandwich. “I’m sure you have other patients to see on a regular basis, and this way Johnny will not take up too much of your time. You seem to be a little overworked.” Scott sarcastically remarked.

“What do you mean a little overworked!” the old doc huffed indignantly.

“According to Mia, you are having a hard time giving my brother the proper attention he needs,” Scott bluntly stated. “So we’re just helping you out, that’s all.”

“No, that’s quite all right. I don’t mind, besides, I don’t think it a good idea to move him, right now,” the old doc anxiously pleaded. He saw his opportunity to take care of his ‘little problem’ vanishing in the wake of this troublesome Lancer.

“No, Doctor, my father is determined to move Johnny, and that’s what we are going to do,” Scott strongly argued. “We have a room ready for him, so if you don’t mind?” Scott then rudely pushed by the apprehensive doctor, and motioned for Juan, who was standing in the doorway watching the scene unfold, to come and help him, “Juan.”

“Si, Senor,” the kind old man said, as he entered the room walking by the fuming doctor, who glared at him with malicious contempt. “What can I help you with?”

“Please grab that stretcher, and help me lift Johnny onto it.” Scott gently requested, while wrapping the blankets around his brother’s frail body, making sure he would be nice and warm, once they got outside.

The old doctor twitched in agitation and fear. He could feel his face flaring a crimson color, as his blood pressure rose to a boiling point, his free hand tugged nervously at his collar, as though trying to vent the heat of his escalating anger, while he watched Scott and Juan carefully place Johnny onto the stretcher. They each took one end of it, and carried Johnny by the prejudice, ignorant man. Mia rushed to open the front door, her face beaming her approval of Johnny’s removal from a dangerous situation. Once outside, Mia stepped forward, placing her small hands over Johnny’s eyes, shielding them from the late afternoon sun. She couldn’t help but smirk, as she heard the hasty footsteps of the doctor coming from behind them, no doubt to plead his case and superior knowledge of what was needed.

“Really, now! I must insist that you take this sick young man back in my office at once!” the highly distressed doctor strongly protested, while onlookers frowned at the disconcerting sight. “Mr. Lancer, you are causing a scene, now please, return my patient,” he pleaded, stepping in front of the men to impede their progress.

“No, doctor, you are making a spectacle of your own self, now please get out of our way!” Scott shouted loud enough for all to hear.

The doctor was now outnumbered, as Scott’s loud reply garnered the attention of Murdoch and Jarrod. They had been departing the telegraph office, and were now headed in their direction, so he conceded, and moved out of the way.

“Well! I guess that my educated opinion, as I do have a medical degree, doesn’t mean much to you, so go ahead. Let’s hope you’re not causing any more harm to your precious brother!” he sneered disdainfully.

Scott smirked, shaking his head in disgust, at the nerve of the man. “We’re only moving Johnny across the street, I sincerely doubt that it will hurt him,” Scott rudely replied. He smiled smugly at the doctor, as his father approached the group.

“Is there a problem here?” Murdoch demanded, as he glowered with disapproval at the commotion. He stopped at the side of the stretcher, glancing down at his son’s still form. His teeth ground together, as he firmly pressed his lips into a deep frown at how pale and fragile Johnny appeared. The bright light of the afternoon sun exposed, in greater detail the sunken features on his young face. Johnny looked so vulnerable, a muted shadow of his gregarious self, and the worried father in Murdoch had to battle the impulse to lift his youngest into the safety of his arms, cradle him against his heart, and somehow pass his strength on to him.

“No, Sir, no problem at all, just moving Johnny over to the hotel, as you instructed,” Scott informed his father.

“Good! Coming doctor?” Murdoch snidely inquired. “I’m sure you’ll want to check my son over once he’s settled.”

“No, no, I’ll be over later, to see how he’s doing,” the sullen faced man replied. “You go ahead, and get your son out of the cooling air.”

“Okay, later then,” Murdoch stated, as he took over Juan’s spot, and he and Scott proceeded to carry Johnny over to the hotel. “Are you coming, Jarrod?” Murdoch asked, upon seeing that the lawyer was hesitant to follow.

“In a second, you go on,” Jarrod answered, and then called out to the departing doctor, and quickly caught up with the man. “Doctor, are you sure that it’s only the infection lingering on, that’s prolonging Johnny healing progress?” The concerned lawyer observed the doctor’s reaction to the question, seeing his unease, he followed up with, “As you stated before, there are no side effects from the tonics, or morphine?”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure.” The nervous man quickly answered. He feared his body would betray his guilt, as he was starting to sweat under the collar, and it felt like it was tightening around his neck, like a noose. “A human body is a complicated thing, you can never tell what it will do, or what can occur to cause a person to get sick, it just happens,” he hastily added. He was pleased with the answer; he was able to think of in a hurry, to get the inquisitive lawyer off his back.

“Fine, let’s hope you are right, doctor,” Jarrod said politely. The attorney tipped his hat, and walked away, saying under his breath, ‘We shall see.’ He disappeared into the hotel, leaving the old man standing there wondering what else could go wrong.

.

Chapter Twenty-Five

“OH, FOR HEAVEN SAKES!” The disgruntled comment, thoughtlessly blurted out loud, by an uncaring woman appalled by the scene unfolding before her disapproving eyes, vibrated in the air. She quickly took out the dainty hanky from her sleeve and covered her mouth with it, as though Johnny had some contagious plague, when in reality it was to hide her disgust, as she gazed at the sight. Her shrill voice shattered the peace and tranquility that had filled the hotel’s luxuriously decorated lobby, where a few fellow occupants were quietly roaming about, engaged in idle small talk. Her shriek of dismay set off a chain reaction, as every head in the room, turned to see what had the woman so disturbed.

Judgmental eyes quickly narrowed at the unwelcome sight, hard frowns flattened tightly pursed lips into straight lines on snobbish faces, as they viewed with distaste the Lancer men carrying Johnny in on the stretcher. The procession made its way right through the elegant lobby, and towards the grand staircase that led upwards. Noses were turned up, as though seeking fresh air, heads shook in utter disgust. The clientele, who could afford this upper class hotel, couldn’t believe these white men would have the gall to bring that killer here, to occupy one of the rooms, and so close to them, sick or not, it was unheard of. Their displeasure was murmured with censorious tones, they displayed no shame for their cold hearted attitudes. Some of the people turned their backs, and refused to acknowledge the Lancers’ presence.

The Lancers and Jarrod completely ignored the on-lookers with their cold and malicious glares of contempt for them. Murdoch kept his head up, and his eyes on his goal, which was to get his son upstairs. The only other thing, on his mind, was he had come to the decision that the town’s doctor would not be alone with his youngest again. One careful step at a time, with Murdoch at the head of the stretcher, and Scott at the foot, they carried their precious cargo up the steep steps. Jarrod, Mia, and Juan were following close behind.

Jarrod rushed by them to open the door to the room. It had been no easy task for Scott to obtain the space. He had to haggle with the hotel clerk, to get a big enough room to add another bed. The rude, pig-headed little clerk claimed he didn’t have another room to accommodate the three men. However, Scott knew better, and had used a few choice stern words. He finally resorted to strong arm tactics by threatening to kick down every single door, occupied or not, until he had found the right one, himself. The timid clerk caved in under the pressure of Scott’s righteous fury, and conceded, after Scott started for the stairs with every intention of carrying out his threat. The bed was brought in, and Scott thanked the cowed cretin with an overly solicitous smack on the back, congratulating him for seeing reason.

Johnny was carefully transferred to the clean, soft feather bed. The others smiled as they watch Murdoch fuss over his sleeping son. The big man leaned over the bed and positioned the limp limbs comfortably. The concerned father tucked in his child’s frail, fever hot body with plenty of covers to keep the early night chill out, that was gently wafting in through the slightly opened windows. Murdoch had insisted that Mia take the rest of the night off. At first she had flatly refused to leave Johnny’s side, but after some strong but gentle persuasion from both Murdoch, and her husband, Juan, the tired surrogate mother, reluctantly gave in to their demands for her to get some rest. Mia leaned over Johnny’s still form, and tenderly kissed his heated brow, smiling lovingly down at him, relieved that he was at last in safe hands. Juan gently took his wife’s arm, and led her out of the room.

“If you need me, you know where to find me, Senor,” she said, before softly closing the door behind her. Murdoch had smiled and nodded, acknowledging he had heard.

“Well?” Scott inquired, as he too made sure his brother was warm, and comfortable. His slender fingers lovingly smoothed the covers, and then pulled them snuggly up to Johnny’s chin. His cool palm lighted gently on Johnny’s fevered forehead, after tenderly brushing back the thick, silky bangs. Scott grimaced at the elevated temperature, and turned to his father, “Did you hear back from Sam? Johnny needs him and now.”

“Yes, that’s what took so long, waiting for an answer back from Sam.” Murdoch was happy to report to his anxious son, “Sam said he’ll be here as soon as he can, they had a small crisis there, but it’s almost cleared up, and then he’ll be on the next stage.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Scott said, as he puffed his cheeks up, and then huffed lightly, as he let out the restrained breath. “Once Sam gets here, he’ll get Johnny back on his feet in no time, you’ll see,” he replied with strong conviction. Sam knew just how to deal with his recalcitrant little brother, not to mention the old doctor had seen the stubbornly defiant young man through many illnesses and injuries. Doc Jenkins treated the Lancer brothers like they were his nephews.

“Yes, I’m sure he will,” Murdoch agreed, as he sat down in the chair next to the bed. He took his son’s frail, warm hand into his large one, gently rubbing his thumb over Johnny’s knuckles. The skin was dry and cracked from Johnny’s ordeal in the desert, and the fever, yet his eyes saw the tiny, perfect hand he had inspected so carefully on the day of his son’s birth. Murdoch shook off the moment of wool gathering, as he turned to inform his oldest, “Until then, we have to stay with Johnny at all times, to make sure that son-of-bitch does not lay another finger on him. Now that we have him out of that office, I feel sure that doctor was trying to harm Johnny.”

“That’s a very good idea, Murdoch,” Jarrod agreed. “We can’t take any chances, I think we were lucky this time, but you never know what they will try to pull.”

“What do you think he was giving Johnny, Jarrod?” Scott asked, from his position at the window. The blond was looking through the glass, watching the man in question. The doctor was standing outside his office, and when he realized he was being observed, he quickly entered it, slamming the door behind him.

“Well,” Jarrod paused to gather his thoughts, and choose his words carefully, “I’m not too sure, Scott, it could be a number of things.” Jarrod scratched nervously at the back of his neck, before replying, “Judging by the symptoms, and as I said already, I’m not positive because I am not doctor, but it sounds like some form of arsenic.”

“ARSENIC!” Murdoch thundered angrily, and then lowered his voice when Johnny shifted and mumbled. “Why that son-of-a bitch!” he growled through clenched teeth.

“God no, Jarrod, don’t even think that!” Scott’s face blanched at the thought, as his worried eyes turned to study his brother’s vulnerable form.

“Now, gentlemen, don’t going jumping to any conclusions just yet.” Jarrod said, putting his hands up, as though trying to push down the rising anger in the room. “I said it could be, just keep a cool head, until Sam gets here.”

“Well what the hell can we do in the meantime, to help Johnny if he has been…poisoned?” Scott demanded to know.

“I’ve already given it due consideration,” Jarrod quickly informed them, “I have doctor friend in San Francisco, who is well versed on poisons and drugs. I have sent him a telegram.”

“And?”

“I told him about the situation here, and of Johnny’s symptoms, as well as his injuries. I’m waiting to hear back from him. I’m sure he can tell us how to proceed.” The lawyer was hoping to put the anxious father and brother’s minds at ease, as ever since he had mentioned the word arsenic, the two men had paled, and twitched with agitation.

“Thank you, Jarrod,” Murdoch replied, gulping as he tried to swallow the fear threatening to choke him.

“No need to thank me, just keep an eye on your son. I’m going to see if he has sent a reply.” Jarrod grabbed his hat to leave. At the door, he turned back, his heart felt heavy and burdened at the anguished sight of the older Lancer hovering over the youngest, willing him to hang on, and to come back to them.

“God… let me bring them some good news.” The lawyer prayed silently.

.

Chapter Twenty-Six

“Well, where is he?” hissed the displeased lawman, after he slipped in unnoticed, and saw the empty bed that Johnny had occupied earlier.

The doctor jerked around in surprise. He scowled at the sly Sheriff, thinking the man was like a venomous snake, slithering about quietly, looking for unsuspecting victims to sink his fangs into. The law officer might be passing this off as a friendly visit while on his routine rounds, but the doctor was under no such illusions. He knew it was actually to check his progress of ridding the town of the gunfighter. He wondered, not for the first time, when the Sheriff would turn on him…probably when he felt he was no longer of use to him.

“Did you get the job done?” he whispered

“NO!” shouted the irate doctor.

“Keep you damn voice down, the walls have ears ya know!” The disgruntled sheriff warned, as he cast his beady eyes about to make sure there was no one about. “You never know who might be around, especially Mia or Juan.”

“Oh, don’t worry, that Mexican bitch isn’t around, neither is Madrid!” The doctor snorted. He eyed the lawman with a cautious air, cringing when he saw the Sheriff’s confused look morph into a look of rage.

“What the hell do you mean? Where’s Madrid?”

“His meddling father and brother moved Madrid over to the hotel. They said he would be a lot more comfortable there.” The agitated medical man pursed his lips, and narrowed his eyes, as he rounded on the Sheriff, pacing to him and poking an angry finger at the his stout gut. “I told you they didn’t trust me anymore, personally I doubt they ever did!”

“Well what are we going to do? How will you make sure Madrid is shut up permanently?” the Sheriff whined in distress.

The frantic doc just shook his head, “We do nothing, that’s what! There’s no way in hell that I can finish the job, with him at the hotel.”

“You’ll have to!” growled out the sheriff, huffing and snorting through his nostrils, as he struggled to rein in his expanding fear. “We can’t let Madrid live, he’ll gun us down the minute he’s up to it!”

“Don’t you think I know that? But I’ll never get close enough to finish the job, not with his family hovering over him. His father is a formidable man, and if he catches me, Madrid will be the least of my worries…or yours either!” snapped the disturbed medical man. The doc felt like he was going to hyperventilate, as he started to nervously pace back and forth in front of the sweating lawman. “Let’s just hope that what I gave him already will do the trick, and that he’ll slowly fade away.”

“You had better hope it does, or we are dead men.”

The doctor shook his head with a resigned and knowing smirk, “We’re dead men no matter what happens to Madrid anyway, Barkley will see to that.”

“Not if those who want to live keep their traps shut!” The Sheriff blustered; desperate to convince himself they still had a chance.

“OH? So you’re reduced to threatening the whole town to keep quiet, are you now?”

“I’ll do anything to stay out of prison, or the hangman’s noose!” he huffed, baring his teeth, and braying; looking like the prejudice jackass he acted like. “If only that fat ass Mayor Harvey had let me finish off that half-breed bastard in the first place. We could have claimed he was gunned down before hitting town, and then this would have never happened. Murdoch Lancer would have never known any different, and we wouldn’t be in this trouble, just for trying to keep our town a respectable place.

“Well, you are a weak man for giving in, and now we just have to play our cards carefully to get out of this mess….somehow. We can always lay all the guilt on someone else’s head, and I think you know who I am referring to.”

***********

Jarrod walked out of the telegraph office looking somewhat encouraged. In his hand, he held tightly, the response to his call for help to his friend in San Francisco. His wary eyes quickly scanned around the busy town, hoping he wouldn’t encounter the Mayor and his co-horts. He proceeded to cross the street, and entered the general store, endeavoring not to draw attention to himself. He was relieved the store stocked a wide select of dried herbs, and other home remedy ingredients. Once he had purchased the required items, which were on the list his friend had wired him, he casually exited the store only to be greeted by the snooping Mayor.

“Well, Mr. Barkley, I see you had done some shopping in our fine town?”

“Why yes, Mayor, even we lawyers have needs.” Jarrod sarcastically replied, “Now if you will please excuse me?” the attorney pushed passed the portly man, tipping his hat in a mocking manner, “Good day,” and then quickly proceeded to the hotel.

“Well, good day to you, too, Mr. Barkley!” the snubbed man disgustedly shouted at the departing lawyer, none too pleased to be on the receiving end of the snobbery he usually meted out. His body stiffened in defiant outrage, as he marched purposefully towards his destination, the Sheriff’s office.

******

In the Lancer’s room, a worried father continued his vigil over his deathly ill son, tenderly wiping his heated brow with a cool rag, trying to keep the fever down, that seemed to spike with no warning. Murdoch paused, as he studied Johnny. His heart thumped with such distress, he imagined he could feel each beat on the back of his tongue, as he was sure the organ was the lump in his throat slowly choking him. Johnny was a ghost of himself, so frail and sunken looking, he seemed transparent. The bronze glow of his skin was gone, the twinkle in the mischievous eyes shuttered behind pale eyelids. His body so withered from weight loss, the bed appeared to swallow him in its massiveness. Murdoch kept talking softly to Johnny’s, hoping he could hear his pleading words of love, and his encouragement to hang on, as his eldest son sadly observed.

“Jarrod’s coming,” Scott informed his father from his position at the window. He had spotted their friend crossing the street. “I sure hope he has some good news for us.”

“I sure hope so too, son, Johnny seems to be holding his own for right now,” Murdoch replied, “But I don’t like the way his fever has shot up, again.”

“Well, as long as we keep that bastard away from Johnny, he can’t do any more harm to him,” Scott agitatedly snorted. “I wish Sam were here right now.” He turned quickly at the sound of a heavy knock on the door, followed by two rapid knocks.

“He’s on his way, Scott.” Murdoch assured his troubled son, as he got up to answer the door, after acknowledging the secret knock they had agreed on. “Jarrod, what did you find out?”

“What do you have there?” Scott asked curiously, pointing to the bag in Jarrod’s arms. He didn’t even give the lawyer a chance to answer his father, as he was anxious to know if there was help for Johnny in the sack.

“Well, let me put this down, and I will tell you,” Jarrod said, setting the bag down on the dresser. “I heard back from Mitch, my friend in San Francisco, and going by what I told him, he thinks it’s NOT arsenic. He didn’t go into great detail, with the scientific names since he had to telegraph the information. He said that it is something like it; and that the doctor is adding it to his medication; and it’s acting like a poison.”

“And… what can we do…is there anything we can do?”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s slowly shutting Johnny’s system down, to the point his heart will stop, according to Mitch‘s understanding, if he gets any more.” Jarrod grimly added, as he looked at Murdoch’s bleak expression.

“Did he tell you what we can do to stop or slow it down?” Scott blurted out, distress and anger dressing his face in a livid red color, his features rigid and jaw clenched.

“That’s what I have in the bag, the ingredients to a homemade remedy. He swears it will help slow it down, and stop it from doing any more harm, until Johnny’s body can flush it naturally from his system, if it is what he thinks,” Jarrod stated, with hope in his voice, trying to sound positive for his friends. “I’m going to need Mia to help me. We need to get it just right for it to work properly. After we get it mixed, we need to give him some every two hours, and have him drink all the water we can get into him. The more liquid we can get into his system the better, each time he empties his bladder more of the foreign matter will be expelled.”

“I’ll go get her.” Scott said excitedly, as he felt hope swell in his heart. The blond left the room in such a rush his hair fluttered about his flushed face. Scott’s reaction of joy over the small kernel of hope caused his father and Jarrod to share a brief smile that could not hide the worry still present in their eyes, as they turned and looked at Johnny lying there so still.

“God, I hope this works.”

.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Murdoch Lancer finally gave into his body’s demands, and was reluctantly nodding off to sleep, after losing the long battle to stay awake. He fought the urge to crawl under the covers until his physical need for rest over rode his desire to be awake and aware of all that was going on. He was exhausted, and though his body felt heavy and lethargic, and about as movable as a wet sack of sand, his mind seemed to be in perpetual motion. His ruminations of the long trying evening, as they endeavored to get the remedy and fluids into Johnny, were foremost in his thoughts.

Scott and Jarrod, who had slept earlier while Murdoch and Mia tended Johnny, were now up, taking their turn giving Johnny the remedy antidote, while Murdoch supervised from his seat by the bed. Leaving the chair, and then stretching out on the bed, turning so he faced Johnny, Murdoch studied his youngest, as he recalled the scene earlier. Within a matter of minutes of leaving to find Mia, Scott was back with her. She and Jarrod had taken the ingredients the lawyer had purchased and commandeered the hotel kitchen to prepare the medical brew.

An hour and a half later, Mia and Jarrod were back with a steaming kettle, and a fresh pitcher of water. The first attempts to get the healing tea into Johnny had failed miserably. Johnny was so weak and uncoordinated; he couldn’t swallow the liquid fast enough no matter how slowly they tried to pour it. The precious medicine ended up running out the sides of his mouth, flowed down and around his neck to wet Murdoch’s shirt, who was sitting behind him, supporting him against his chest.

Frustration was running high, as they all realized the remedy wouldn’t have a chance to work, if they could not get it in him. The problem was the rim of the cup, and the fact they couldn’t get it far into Johnny’s mouth for him to swallow, and control the flow too. Scott’s analytical and logical mind had found the solution. They had ordered up a tray with coffee and sandwiches to fuel their bodies for the battle to come, and the answer to their problem was sitting there with the coffeepot.

The metal creamer server was shaped like miniature pitcher, with the extended lip and all. Scott had emptied the milk from it, putting it into a cup, washed the server and then filled it with the remedy. It had worked like a charm. The pour spout had extended into Johnny’s mouth, holding his tongue in position so they were able to adjust the flow at a rate he could handle. Every two hours they had forced him to drink a cup of the medicine, and in between the doses on the half-hour they would administer a couple of ounces of water.

The hard part had been the waiting and watching in between feeding him the medicine and water. They had observed him closely for any signs that the remedy was indeed working. They had been encouraged a few times when Johnny had roused enough to protest his treatment, begging them with his eyes to leave him alone. Other than that, Johnny hadn’t made a sound, nor moved a muscle all night. His limp arm had stretched out over the bed, his hot frail hand gently nestled in the palm of his father’s large cool hand. His long fingers loosely entwined between Murdoch’s, both resting comfortably on the concerned father’s lap, until at Scott and Jarrod’s urging he had laid down on the bed they had used earlier.

The last thing the concerned father was aware of, before finally falling into a restless slumber, was Scott sitting behind Johnny, rubbing his throat to get him to swallow, as Jarrod held the creamer pitcher to his mouth with another dose of medicinal tea. He awoke sometime later, though it wasn’t yet dawn, to the sounds of Jarrod and Scott chuckling.

“What’s so funny?” Murdoch inquired, somewhat disconcerted to find the two men standing over Johnny, laughing. He swung his long legs over the side of the bed, ignoring his stiff back, and quickly shuffled to Johnny’s bedside

“Look, Murdoch. Johnny is starting to sweat!” Scott gleefully announced. At his father’s befuddled expression, he explained. “It’s great, sir, it means we finally have enough fluids in him he can sweat, hopefully soon he’ll be emptying his bladder. And when he does that some of the poison leaves his body.”

Not only was Johnny sweating, he was now able to assist in holding his own head up, so that it only took one person to help him drink. Mia insisted the three fatigued men rest the few hours left before dawn and let her take the next shift by herself.

 ********

Morning graced the room, as quietly as a feather floating on a breeze, until a gentle rapping noise on the door roused the three men out of their restless slumber. Scott sat up rubbing his tired eyes, trying to brush the cobwebs out of his clouded mind. He stood up and headed for the door, forgetting about the secret knock, just as he was about to answer the door, his father grabbed his arm, and held him back.

“Wait Scott, let’s see who it is first,” Murdoch cautioned in a whispered voice, and then he approached the door guardedly. “Who is it?”

“It’s Sam Jenkins, Murdoch.” The welcomed voice answered without hesitation.

Murdoch flung the door open, and smiled widely at the sight of his old friend. “Sam, you made it!” Murdoch ecstatically greeted him, and ushered the old doc into the room. “I’m so glad to see you.”

“What did you do, Sam, grow wings and fly?” Scott sleepily joked with a big grin of relief himself. Relief born of the fact that Sam was finally here, and Johnny was now in a real doctor’s hands.

Sam shook his head. “No, Scott, I did not fly. I took the first stage available, and got here as fast as I could,” the tired man answered, wiping his dusty face off with his bandana, “How’s Johnny?”

The grins of relief slowly faded, as reality crept in once more when Sam asked that question.

“We don’t know yet, Sam,” Murdoch grimly replied. “We just don’t know”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? What has happened here?” Sam asked rather curtly. “Your telegram said come quickly, Johnny needs you? He needs me how, and for what?”

“A lot, Sam, a lot has happened, since I sent that, and now we believe that so called doctor was poisoning Johnny in some way!” Murdoch angrily informed him.

“That’s ridiculous! What kind of doctor would poison his own patient?” Sam huffed, leaning over Johnny, and feeling how hot he was.

“A mean, spiteful man filled with hate instead of compassion, Senor Doctor.” Mia replied from her seat by the bedside. “The other doctor that was here, he is gone, and this one, he hates people like us. I can tell it in his cold eyes.”

“Sam this is Mia, she has been helping us with Johnny,” Murdoch introduced the gentle woman, with an appreciative smile. Sam nodded in gratitude, and then turned his attention back to Johnny.

“What have you been doing since you found this out?”

“My friend in San Francisco, who is very knowledgeable about poisons, sent me a recipe for an antidote. He swears it will counteract whatever he was giving him,” Jarrod answered for Murdoch.

“When did you start giving it to him?”

“Last night, he drinks the antidote every two hours, and water in between doses, and then earlier this morning he started sweating.” Scott informed Sam, while wiping his brother’s damp bangs from his face. “He’s still burning up, and hasn’t moved much, and still hasn’t urinated.”

“Well, you have to give it time, Scott. Johnny’s body has been put through a lot,” Sam assured the worried young man. “It’s going to have to work its way through his system, we just have to be patient.”

“Look at him, Sam! He’s a ghost of himself, how can he come back from that?” Scott growled in frustration.

Sam examined Johnny’s frail, sunken features and his heart clenched at seeing the strong young with such exuberance for life, now lying there like a defenseless infant. He was having a hard time believing that another man of medicine could do this. Sam felt his ire rising, he would see the man’s medical license revoked, if he got his way.

“Scott, are you losing faith?” Sam asked, as he tenderly checked Johnny over.

“NO! Sam, of course not! But I have never seen him like this, he’s looks worse than when he was shot by Pardee,” Scott ranted. “How can he come back? I’m afraid, Sam.”

“Well, don’t be, Scott, your brother is tougher than you think. I’m here now, and together we’ll get Johnny back on his feet.” Sam said, with conviction.

“On whose authority?” An angry voice said from the open doorway.

.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Sam’s head snapped around in alarm, as the incensed voice echoed in the room. He noted the rigid stance of the older Lancer’s, as they positioned their bodies to form a protective shield between Johnny and the irate man in the doorway. The atmosphere in the room morphed from anxious concern to battle ready fury. There was no doubt in Doc Jenkins’ mind this malevolent visitor was the enemy, judging by the expressions on Scott and Murdoch’s faces, as they faced down the man with barely concealed violent yearning for retribution.

Jenkins frowned at the righteous indignation the intruder displayed. He slowly stood up, and took a few steps toward the man, then studied the hardened, compassionless features. Sam cringed, internally, the condescending attitude wafting from this man told him this was a person with a twisted heart and damaged soul. The kind of person hurt by life so he felt it gave him the right to inflict his own brand of hurt, now he understood why the Lancers were so disturbed. Sam could think of only one reason why he would still be practicing medicine, when the love for the profession had gone out of him, and that was to control his pain by causing pain for others.

“And who are you?” Sam demanded audaciously, knowing very well he was addressing a fellow doctor, by the medical bag he had clutched in his hand.

“I’m Madrid’s doctor, that’s who I am!” The impudent man snarled.

“His name is Lancer! And you’re no longer his doctor!” Scott blurted out, as he stepped in between Sam and the scowling man. “Sam is going to take over Johnny’s care, as he knows my brother’s medical history better than anybody.”

“And I’ll ask again, on whose authority?” The doctor said, coldly.

“MINE, I AM HIS FATHER!” Murdoch answered loud and clear. “It was my right…my choice to bring in our family physician to take over my son’s care, as you seemed to find it hard to do your job competently.” Murdoch rudely remarked.

“Now see here!” The old man sputtered in protest.

“I assure you that Mr. Lancer is correct, morally and legally, he has every right to choose whomever he pleases to care for his son.” Jarrod happily interjected. “Murdoch did not sign over his parental rights to make medical decisions for his son to you. There aren’t any legal papers signed binding you as Johnny’s exclusive doctor.” He sarcastically added, with a brash smirk.

“This is ridiculous. What was wrong with what I was doing?”

“Wrong, Doctor? Everything was wrong!” Murdoch growled. “According to Mia, you were not doing all that you should for my son, and you were quite possibly rendering some care that was meant to be harmful. Johnny’s worsening condition seems to support that allegation! Therefore, Sam will take over, and you are free to go about your business,” Murdoch declared, as he crowded the doctor in a threatening manner, forcing him to back up.

“There isn’t any call for this hostile behavior,” he snorted, lifting his head in a snobbish manner, and wiping nervously at the beads of sweat popping out on his fear paling face. “I can take a hint, even one as obtuse as yours. I’ll shall depart, and go see to my more ‘appreciative’ patients. Good day!” He quickly turned to leave when Sam stopped him.

“Doctor?”

“The name is Roy, Doctor Roy. What is it?” he grumbled coldly.

“Well, I was wondering if I could use some of your medical supplies, as I was limited on what I was able to bring with me. There are a few items I might need.” Sam inquired wily.

Roy rubbed his chin, and sighed heavily, “Well, I guess it will be all right, out of courtesy to a fellow man of medicine. Come on over to my office in about an hour, and I’ll have some items ready for you.”

“I was thinking about right now!” Sam anxiously stated. “I’d rather pick out the things I know I’m going to need myself, that way I won’t have to bother you any further,” he slyly added.

“Oh all right, come on then.” Doc Roy grumbled, shooting a scorching glare at Mia, as he was leaving. He blamed the meddling woman, and her big mouth, for his troubles, it was her suspicions that put this stumbling block in his plan.

“I’ll be right down.” Sam replied. Once the other physician was out of hearing distance, he explained to his friends, “I’m going to try and see if I can find the poison, or whatever he was using on Johnny,” Sam relayed his intentions in a hushed breath.

“Sam, No!” Scott insisted, his alarm, and concern for Jenkins, causing him to grasp his shoulder, as though to stop him.

“Sam, don’t take any chances, he can be dangerous,” Murdoch strongly cautioned his friend.

“I know, Murdoch. If I can find out for sure what he was using, it will be easier to treat Johnny.” I know you are giving him that remedy, but we are still running in the dark here, as a doctor, I need to know. There could be a better, faster, more effective treatment. It would be foolish not to try to find out.”

“Maybe I should go with you, Sam,” Jarrod suggested, “To back you up, legally, if he should refuse to cooperate, or tries anything illegal.”

“No, Jarrod, but thanks anyway. I think I’ll be alright as long as we don’t make him suspicious of me,” Sam retorted, as he grabbed his hat.

“Sam, are you sure you don’t one of us to go with you?” Murdoch pleaded, afraid for his friend to be alone with the fiend.

“You don’t know what he’ll do, Sam,” Scott voiced his concerns.

“I’m sure, it’s the only way I can find out what he has been doing to Johnny,” the compassionate doctor assured his worried friends. “Just stay here with Johnny, and keep giving him plenty of water. You should keep checking his bladder, if it gets hard right about here,” he showed them where to feel, “then it’s full, try to get him to urinate. Tickle him, do whatever it takes to make him go, and if it’s discolored, tea colored to bright yellow, that’s normal don’t be alarmed, it’s the poison being flushed out.”

“Okay Sam, but please watch your back!”

“I will, I have to go, can’t keep the GOOD doctor waiting.” He jokingly said with a nervous grin.

The three men watched as Sam left the room. Hope and fear consumed their hearts and minds. They were relieved to have Sam’s more knowledgeable skills, and they realized Sam was the only one who can find out for sure what that bastard had given Johnny. Yet at the same time they were frightened for the kind old doctor. He was more than just a friend to them, and they prayed that this was not a mistake, letting him go alone into the lion’s den.

“I think I’ll take a walk, and perhaps stop near the doctor’s office…. if I happen to hear something…unusual coming from inside.” Jarrod slyly stated, with a wink.

Murdoch and Scott smiled and nodded, Jarrod grinned back, his blue eyes twinkling with mischief, as he left the room at an easy slow pace, to give Sam and Roy time to reach the office. The older Lancers were left alone with their youngest member.

Mia knew it was time for her to leave the room when they started to check Johnny over.

She quietly walked over to the door and sadly looked back at the two men, as they continued working with Johnny. Mia knew that even though the remedy was now in his system, and Sam was here to help, Johnny still had a long ways to go, he still wasn’t out of the woods yet. She had seen too much illness and despair to think any different, and she hoped this case would have a happier outcome, than the ones she had witnessed previously.

**********

After they checked Johnny, Murdoch and Scott sat his limber and wilted form up. They turned him over towards the edge of the bed, and were able to rouse him enough to try and empty his bladder.

“That’s good, Johnny, you’re doing fine,” Murdoch coached his semi-conscious son, as he held him upright, and Johnny started to slowly urinate into a chamber pot.

Scott cringed at the dark tea colored emission, yet he was pleased at the amount his brother was able to produce. The discoloration and quantity meant he was beginning to expel some of the poison. When he realized the track his thoughts were on, Scott snickered.

“What’s so funny, son?”

“Well, sir, if you had told me a couple of months ago, I’d be thrilled to witness something like this I would have thought you were crazy.”

“Just wait until you have kids of your own, you’ll find yourself doing things you never dreamed you would. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this position with Johnny. When he was eleven months old he managed to swallow a small gold chain bracelet of Maria’s. We had to monitor his diapers for awhile, and three days later I was the ‘lucky finder’ of the jewelry.” Murdoch face twisted from amusement to remembered disgust as he recalled the incident.

Once Johnny was finished, they lifted his legs back onto the bed, turned him and laid his frail body back down. Johnny slipped back into a deep sleep, his face still white as a ghost, and his breathing labored from the mere chore of completing the simple body function. Murdoch got up, and walked over to the window, and stared up to the sky, and then looked back at his oldest, as he finished tucking in his brother, with such loving care.

Scott wrung out a wet rag, and carefully placed it on Johnny’s fevered brow, and then inspected his brother’s ghostly features. He frowned as he watched Johnny’s chest slowly rise and fall, willing his brother’s heart to keep beating. The blond Lancer was terrified that even with the antidote starting to work, that it would stop just like that, and within a blink of an eye, Johnny would be lost to them….forever.

“Come on, brother, fight. Fight this and come back to us, I know you can.” Scott softly pleaded in Johnny’s ear, “You didn’t survive being Madrid for nothing. You were meant to come home, for us all to become a family.” Scott fought the burn of tears in his throat, as he kept on talking to his little brother, hoping he could hear him. “Sam is right, you are a fighter, stronger than you think, so don’t let this get the best of you. You hear me?” he implored, as he lowered his head, placing it against Johnny’s.

Murdoch stood there; a lone tear slowly ran down his somber face, as he gazed down at his sons, one still as death, and the other begging him to stay alive. He closed his eyes to the heartbreaking scene, as he silently prayed for them. He felt a gentle hand on his trembling arm. Murdoch opened his eyes, and flinched. He could have sworn he was looking into Maria’s eyes again, and that she was smiling sadly at him. But then he blinked, and realized it was Mia’s sweet, loving face he was looking at, as she had come back into the room.

“Por favor, senor, do not give up hope. Juanito is, as your son says, a fighter, and is happy with his life now. He will come back to you. The good doctor will help him.” She softly reassured the distraught father.

Murdoch didn’t say a word, he just put his strong arm around the small woman, and brought her close to his side. They commiserated together in the unity of parenthood, each saying a silent prayer, for Johnny to get well, and for Sam to find the poison, not to mention the evidence to put these prejudice pigs behind bars.

.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Doctor Roy slowly opened the door to his office. Sam was all of a sudden hesitant to walk into the enemy’s lair, he couldn’t recall a time when he felt so alone and defenseless. He wondered if this was such a good idea after all. Sam felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingle, as they stood straight up. The mood in the room was one of doom and gloom. It felt more like a place you came to die, instead of heal. Sam realized he had been wool gathering, when he heard a door squeaking, and the slow pace of retreating footfalls, and saw the other physician was across the room from him.

“This way, Doctor,” Roy called coldly, as he escorted Sam to the exam room.

Sam frowned when he found the atmosphere in the exam room to be still, stuffy, and for lack of a better word frightening. There was no inkling of humanity or kindness and compassion in the air. The impression one should get in a caring physician’s workspace, a sensation of help and hope were glaringly missing. This felt more like a morgue to him, cold, heartless and lifeless. He could see now why the Lancer’s were anxious to get Johnny out of here. The hotel was a better place, away from the unfeeling, brooding presence of this place. Just thinking of Johnny in this room made Sam’s skin crawl.

Doc Jenkins used his trained medical eyes to scan the semi-dark room, to locate Roy’s medicinal supplies, but it was too dim to see clearly. Sam casually walked over to the window to open the shade, to let more light in. A sly smile graced his face when he peered out the clouded window. Outside, standing by a wagon, acting like he was reading a newspaper, was Jarrod. The lawyer glanced up at the window, his blue eyes twinkled, as they met Sam’s, he nodded, and then he gave him a quick wink. A wave of relief washed over Sam, as he was now grateful that Jarrod didn’t pay any attention to his instructions for him to stay behind.

“Well, get on with it, I’m a busy man,” groused the cold voice of the other physician. “Find what you need, and fast!” Doc Roy rudely ordered.

“Yes, I’ll try to be as quick as possible.” Sam stuttered out, after being startled by the man cold, sharp voice. Pointing to a cabinet, fill with small and large bottles, he added, “I’ll start over there, if you don’t mind?”

“Fine!”

The kindhearted doctor calmly walked over to the small cabinet. Sam was still bothered by the uneasy sensation in his old bones, but he shook the feeling off, he had a mission to complete. He began to gather what he needed, clandestinely searching for the poison as well. He gathered up items, such as tonics, powders, laudanum, and a few other medicines, Johnny might need. He was taking his sweet time about it too, pretending to give due consideration to each container. He fingered each bottle, slowly turning them around to read the labels, but so far nothing looked suspicious to him, all looked on the up and up.

‘Damn!’ Sam cussed to himself, in disappointment over not locating the substance so far. He continued on to the next cabinet filled with bandages and medical tools. He picked a few things out, and placed them in his bag. He moved things around, as he chose the supplies he might need, and he continued to hunt the poison.

In the lower part of the cabinet, was an open section, with a few books neatly stacked upright in it. They appeared to be medical logs and reference books, used for research, possibly about poisons, Sam speculated to himself. He was tempted to take one that caught his eye, and shove it into his bag. However, he felt the old snake’s eyes on him, watching his every move, like he was waiting to attack. So Sam fought the urge to take the book, and went back to gather up a few more items from the medicines.

“Are you done yet?” Roy impatiently asked, glaring at Sam.

“Almost, I don’t see certain items that I need. Perhaps you have them someplace else?” Sam inquired slyly, trying to buy more time to search.

“What do you need?”

Sam was about to tell him, when a distraught man came barreling into the office. He caught both Roy and Sam off guard. Sam twirled around, and his hand accidentally knocked over one of the books. A small bottle was exposed, that had been hidden behind it. Sam eyes widened when he recognized the label, quick as a flash he snatched it, and tossed it in his bag. He hastily placed the book back upright, while Roy had his head turned away.

“Doc, Doc, you have to come quick, it’s my Sara, she gonna have the baby, and she’s hurting, Doc!” The little man rambled on, grabbing the doctor by the arms, and shaking him.

“Calm down, George, take a deep breath, and I’ll get my bag.” Doc Roy grabbed his bag, and turned to Sam, “I have to go, it’s their first baby, so if you don’t mind?”

“Say no more, I can get by with what I have so far, just go, and take care of that mother-to-be,” Sam graciously said. He walked out of the room, with Roy and George right behind him.

Once outside, Sam nervously glanced around for Jarrod, who was not where he was the last time he had looked. Then from the corner of his eye, Sam spotted the lawyer, in the alley way, peering out cautiously. A relieved grin bloomed on Sam’s face, as he patted the bag, he held clenched to his chest, as a signal to Jarrod, that he found what he was seeking. Jarrod nodded, and faded out of view, back into the shadows of the alley, waiting for the coast to be cleared.

“Well, I thank you for your hospitality, and I bid you good day, Doctor.” Sam nonchalantly spoke with an indifferent smile. He tipped his hat casually, and then crossed the street. Doctor Roy shot a look of distrust at Sam.

“We got to hurry, doc, my Sara needs you!” George reminded the distracted man, while frantically tugging on his sleeve.

“Alright, George, let’s go, and don’t worry Sara will be just fine,” he snapped in a perturbed manner. He hopped up into his buggy, his eyes still watching Sam, as he entered the hotel, and then with flick of the reins, drove off.

Waiting patiently, and watching as the buggy with its sour faced driver, and the man on his horse, rode off, Jarrod stepped out of the shadows. The lawyer peered up and down the street, checking for signs of the Sheriff, or Mayor lurking about. When he saw it was clear he proceeded to the hotel. The legal portion of his mind was wondering what Sam had found, and how he can use it in court to put an end to this bigoted madness, for once and for all.

********

Murdoch held Johnny’s weak form upright in his arms, as Scott maneuvered his legs over the bed. He had the chamber pot in place, and they proceeded to help Johnny empty his bladder again. This time the urine was a darker tea color, even the odor was stronger. This pleased them, because it meant that more of the poison was being flushed out of his system. Johnny was also becoming more aware of his bodily functions, and was able to urinate a little on his own without being coaxed.

“That good son, keep it up, you’re doing fine.” Murdoch said happily.

“He’s starting to sweat more too, Sir,” Scott stated cheerfully. “His nightshirt is starting to smell like he has been wetting himself. It must be some of the poison coming out with the sweat too.” Scott said with a slight chuckle.

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Murdoch said with a wide grin on his face, remembering Johnny as a baby, and the wet nightshirts he had to change during the night. “I think it’s time to give your brother a bath.”

“Right, I’ll run downstairs, and get some hot water sent up here,” Scott decided. “And also get some clean sheets, too.”

After they settled Johnny back in the bed, Scott made a beeline for the door, and as he opened it, he was greeted by Sam. The doctor was just getting ready to knock on the door with the secret signal, and Jarrod was behind him.

“Sam, what did you find?” Murdoch asked anxiously.

.

Chapter Thirty

Sam was pulled unceremoniously into the room by the anxious Lancers. Jarrod was right on his heels, nudging him gently in the back to go faster; he quickly closed the door behind them. Murdoch and Scott escorted the physician, with his medical bag clutched tightly to his chest, across the room to a chair. The two men stood sentry over the doctor, as though fearful some tragedy would befall him before he could reveal his findings. Their hearts were beating rapidly in anticipation and hope that their friend had found out something beneficial. Sam refused to sit down; he popped right back up from the seat, and slowly walked over to the bed. He frowned, as he looked down at Johnny.

“How is he,” Sam asked softly.

“About the same, we were preparing to give him a bath.” Murdoch replied distractedly, for his mind was now on what was in the bag. “Sam, did you find anything?” the worried father inquired hopefully.

Sam was preoccupied for a few moments, lost in his thoughts, as he stared down at Johnny’s frail and abused body. He felt sick at heart that a supposed man of medicine could have willingly and maliciously allowed Johnny to deteriorate into such a cruel and critical condition. He also felt disgusted, with an unhealthy dose of rage mixed in, that a man could take the same oath he had, and disregard it so flagrantly when it suited his bigoted purposes. Sam Jenkins never thought he would feel such a deep fury that it would drive him to want to do more harm than good, but he felt it now and justifiably so…and the heat of that anger ate at his being, frightening him with its intensity.

“Sam?

“Yes, Murdoch, I did,” the old Doc replied breathlessly, and then inhaled deeply. He opened his bag up, and then pulled out the bottle of poison, and showed it to the men. “I need to check out Johnny’s heart first, to be sure if I’m right,” Sam added. He sat down next to the sleeping young man, and gently placed his stethoscope to Johnny’s chest. “Has he been hallucinating some?” Jenkins questioned, his face scowling in concentration.

“We thought it was just the nightmares he has always suffered, but you know, now that you mention it, he seemed more disturbed and unsettled during some of them,” Scott speculated. “Why, Sam?”

Doc Jenkins let out a heavy sigh, “Because it’s one of the symptoms of Belladonna, as is a rapid heart rate,” he curtly informed them, as his rage against the other doctor threatened to consume him.

“Belladonna?” Jarrod questioned, with a look of surprise and confusion dominating his facial expression.

“Yes, it’s a highly toxic and quite often deadly poison. It’s made from the leaves and berries of the plant know as the deadly Nightshade, and it’s what the *good* doctor has been giving Johnny.” Sam angrily stated.

“WHY THAT SON OF A BITCH!” Murdoch exploded. “Wait until I get my hands on him!” he agitatedly growled through clenched teeth, while balling up his huge fist. His face turned red, and his body went rigid, as he was overwhelmed by the desire to hit something.

“Now, Murdoch, let the law take care of him, and those who put him up to it!” Jarrod firmly stated. He was trying to keep the tall man calm, even though he too was feeling a bit angry towards the bastard. “I’m sure with what Sam has found, and his medical knowledge, we can bring them to justice. Our main concern right now is getting your son well.”

Murdoch puffed his cheeks, and relaxed his fist, and then pointed an accusing finger towards the window, and the town beyond it. “You’re right, Jarrod, but WE also need to make sure that they’ll get what’s coming to them.” Murdoch snarled, and then looked over at his deathly ill son, “Or there will be hell to pay!”

“What do we do next, Sam?” Scott grimly requested to know, as he went to sit down next to his brother. He tenderly wiped Johnny’s sweat matted bangs away from his hallow eyes. “Is the antidote we have been giving him going to be enough?”

“It’s helping, Scott, as well as giving him plenty of fluids to flush his system and keep him hydrated. His body gets rid of the poison when he empties his bladder, but we have to get him to vomit too,” Sam advised. “I can give him an extract that will make him sick to his stomach…” he paused.

“And what?”

“Well, Johnny is not going to like this, but morphine and laudanum are also used to counteract the effects of Belladonna. I’ll have to give him the morphine when he’s sleeping and the laudanum when he’s awake. That way we can get him to throw up a little more, and then when he’s able drink on his own, black coffee or green tea, a lot of it.”

“For how long, Sam?” Murdoch asked with trepidation.

“As long, as it takes to flush the poison out of him.” The gentle old man stood up, and walked over to Murdoch, putting his experienced medical hand on his shoulder. “All this will help Johnny, I assure you of that, Murdoch,” Sam gave a reassuring squeeze to the concerned father’s arm. “You got him out of there in the nick of time, any more doses of it surely would have killed him.”

“Will Johnny experience any side effects from the drug?” Jarrod inquired.

“Nothing that will stay with him, some confusion when he’s awake, dry throat from the dehydration, blurred vision, but that should all clear up as the poison is being flushed from his system,” Sam explained to the curious lawyer.

“So it all comes down to waiting…” Scott replied, and then his words trailed off, as he imagined all the things he would love to do to get even with culprits who brought this pain and suffering to his little brother.

“And we need to start planning our case; we have to see justice done.” Jarrod added.

“How, Jarrod? I know we have to prove that Johnny was being poison by the doctor; but what about that prejudice bastard and his cohort, the mayor of this wonderful town? They need to be arrested and charged for their crimes against Johnny,” Scott snapped. “We have to find someone one who will testify on Johnny’s behalf, as to their bigoted attack of him.”

“What about the Doctor that was here before?” Sam suggested, “Does anybody knows where he went?”

“No, he just left town, and this *other* doctor came in his place, according to Mia,” Murdoch stated.

“Well does she at least know his name?”

“You know, Sam, I never did ask her if she knew his name or not.” Murdoch hastily confessed. A sly grin grew on his worried face, “Sam, I think you’ve got something there. We can wire every town in this district, asking if they know of this doctor. That’s if Mia does know his name, and maybe we’ll get lucky and find him.”

“And then what, Murdoch? Do you really think he’ll come back here?” Scott voiced his doubts.

“Scott, those bastards out there almost killed your brother, more than once. First they beat him, and then left him out in that God forsaken desert. And when that didn’t work, they poisoned him to shut him up, and all in the name of PREJUDICE!” Murdoch growled in his rising fury. He stalked over to the window, staring down at the sheriff office, “You’re DAMN right he’s coming back here, even if I have to go to the ends of the earth, and drag him back myself!” the anguished father vowed and declared.

“Well let’s hope Mia does know the doctor’s name, so we can proceed on with this.” Jarrod retorted. “Which one of us would like to go and ask the lady?” he inquired, his blues eyes twinkling, as he raised his eyebrows.

“I will, as Johnny’s father, I think she’ll be more open with me,” Murdoch decided, regaining his composure. “The poor woman has been through enough, both she and her husband had to suffer at the hands of those self-righteous pigs too.”

Sam shook his head, even though he didn’t know all the gory details of what really went on here, his kind old heart felt all the hurt, disappointment, hate, and remorse they were talking about. He looked down at Johnny, who appeared to be a mere shadow of himself. It broke his heart to think that people would let something like the color of a person’s skin dictate the treatment they deserved, making people who were supposed to be human… professed Christians act like animals. They became like a wild pack of wolves, feasting on the pleasure of hunting others down, and leaving them at the mercy of the jackals and buzzards. It was just beyond him.

“While you’re gone, Murdoch, Scott and I will clean up Johnny, and change his bedding,” Sam graciously offered to help out with the precious chore, breaking away from his morbid thoughts.

“Thanks, Sam, I’ll try not to be long. Are you coming, Jarrod?” Murdoch asked, as he looked at his friend, who obviously had things going on in his lawyer’s half of his mind, judging by the distracted look on his face. “Jarrod? If we do get the name of the doctor, I need you to start sending out the telegrams.”

“Huh? Oh, yes, right behind you, Murdoch. Sorry, I was thinking about something,” Jarrod apologized for not hearing his friend. “Shall we?” Jarrod gestured towards the door, and then followed after Murdoch.

Jarrod grabbed his hat from the table by the entry, and Murdoch opened the door. The quiet in the room was shattered by a high pitched blood curdling scream, coming from the room across the hall; the one Murdoch had insisted Mia and Juan use. Both men’s eyes widened with alarm. They stared at each for the span of a second, and without a word they both took off running down the hall.

“NO! STOP! PLEASE STOP, YOU ARE KILLING HIM!” The shrieked plea for mercy echoed into the hallway.

.

Chapter Thirty One

Mia’s terrified screams penetrated the door, the high pitched wail echoed down the hallway as she frantically pled for mercy. “PLEASE STOP, YOU ARE KILLING HIM!” she keened desperately, wringing her hands in agitated helplessness while the beating continued. The assailant was too strong and big for her to stop him, for she had already tried, and was brutally push away.

“SHUT UP, YOU MEX BITCH!” the angry voice raged, “UNTIL HE TELLS ME WHERE THEY ARE, I’LL KEEP ON BEATING IT OUT OF HIM!”

“He cannot tell you if you continue beat him, now please leave us alone.” She tried to reason with the enraged man in a quiet and calm voice, “Please stop!” It was useless the words fell on deaf ears.

“I SAID SHUT UP!” he hollered, as he repeatedly backhanded the defenseless man at his feet.

His hand swung upward, and then started a downward path to deliver another devastating blow when a loud boom, followed by the door flying open to bang against and then bounce off the wall from a wood cracking kick by Murdoch’s huge foot. Murdoch and Jarrod came storming into the room, with guns clutched in their hands ready to use them if needed. Murdoch’s eye’s flared with fury, at the traumatic scene before him. Murdoch grabbed the irate Sheriff’s arm with one huge hand, and then with a grip of steel, he yanked the man back from his victim, easily tossing him to the ground. He stood over him, eyeing him like raging bull, nostrils flaring, ready to stomp the life out of him.

Jarrod and Mia raced to Juan’s side. Juan lay sprawled on the floor bloodied and half conscious from the extremely brutal beating he had just received. Mia tenderly wiped at her husband’s battered face, until he gained some awareness. Jarrod carefully helped him off the floor and over to the bed, gently laying his trembling body down, and then covered him up. The shocked lawyer turned and glared at the stunned lawman, where he lay at Murdoch’s feet.

“WHAT THE HELL WAS GOING ON IN HERE?” Murdoch boomed, pointing his gun at the now subdued Sheriff, as he stared up at the tall man, with contempt in his eyes.

“I was just trying to gets answers out of the M….him, that’s all,” the Sheriff snarled, as he rubbed his throbbing arm.

“By beating him to death?” Jarrod asked incredulously. “You’re a man of the law; you can’t beat an answer out of anybody, and you know it. You’re here to up hold the peace, not to provoke unrest and violence.”

“What answers did you want? What did he do?” Murdoch demanded to know, his gun trained on the chest of the black hearted Sheriff. His arm trembled with the desire to pull the trigger.

“He said my Juan had stolen something from the kitchen, and came up here and started to attack him, without giving him a chance to defend himself.” Tears streamed down Mia’s cheeks as she asserted, “He did not take anything, Senor Lancer.”

“What did you think he took?” Jarrod asked the Sheriff, as he struggled to get up off the floor, but Murdoch’s big foot kept him down.

“The clerk and cook said they’re missing a few sacks of flour, some coffee, and a few other items,” the Sheriff snidely informed them.

“So you assumed he took them, just because he’s a Mexican, is that RIGHT?” Murdoch growled at the man, who was still trying to get up.

“WILL YOU LET ME UP, AND I’LL TELL YOU!” he shouted, wincing in pain from the tall man’s heel digging into his chest.

Murdoch reluctantly lifted his foot and stepped back. The Sheriff slowly stood up, rubbing at the dull ache in his chest, forgetting about the pain in his arm from the rancher’s strong grip. The lawman backed away, eyeing Murdoch as he holstered his gun, and then rested his hand on the butt of it, while coldly glaring at the lawman.

“Well, go ahead tell us,” Murdoch invited sarcastically.

“They said he was seen walking around down there, it looked like he was snooping, seeing what he could take, and then stash it somewhere, to take with them when they leave,” he said in one nervous long-winded breath.

“That….is…..not…true,” Juan weakly refuted the allegations, “I’m …not…a thief.”

“All Mex are thieves…they!” the sheriff angrily blurted out, he was stopped before he could spew more poison, when Murdoch quickly got in his face.

“I don’t ever want to hear you say that again, GOT IT?” Murdoch loudly snarled in the man smug face, as he gripped his shirt collar to prevent his escape.

“How dare you talk to me, like that! I’m the law here, and don’t you forget it!”

“THEN ACT LIKE IT!” Murdoch snapped back, releasing the man’s collar after giving him a vicious shake. He resisted the urge to skin his knuckles on the prejudice pig’s jawbone.

“I was, but he wasn’t cooperating, so I had to get rough,” the Sheriff falsely claimed. “I went to look in his wagon, and found nothing, so I came up here to see if he hid the items in here somewhere.”

“I…did…not…take…those things…” Juan explained. “I…was…downstairs, asking for some ….water and clean glasses to….drink…from,” he weakly replied, before passing out. Mia glared accusingly at the Sheriff, who just turned his head away from her tearful eyes.

“That is true, Senor Lancer. The meals they serve us are very little, and they do not give us clean bedding, or water. We sometimes have to look for ourselves,” she finished for her husband.

Murdoch and Jarrod looked around the room, and noticed dirty glasses on the dresser, the water pitcher was empty. There was no clean bedding or towels anywhere to be seen. It was as if this room had been purposely ignored, and they had a very good idea why. Now these sudden unfounded accusations against Mia and Juan, it’s another case of prejudice rearing its ugly head.

“Get out of here!” Murdoch ordered the Sheriff, pointing his figure to the door, “Now Sheriff!”

“But what about the things he took?” the irate man huffed.

“He didn’t take anything! I will get to the bottom if this,” Murdoch vowed. “Now leave, please,” he finished in an exasperated breath.

“Alright, but if I find out he did, I’ll throw him in jail,” the Sheriff declared and then he stormed out of the room.

“Jarrod, will you please go ask Sam to come take a look at Juan. And if you would, please stay with Scott and Johnny, I don’t trust the Sheriff,” he politely asked his friend. “He just might try anything, after this stunt.”

“Sure, Murdoch. What are you going to do?” Jarrod asked, raising his eyebrows as if he didn’t already know.

“I going to pay a friendly visit to the hotel manager and the cook,” he replied with disgust. Then he remembered why they had been coming to see Mia in the first place. “Oh Mia, do you by chance know the name of the doctor that was here before this one took over?”

“Si, Senor, it was Doctor Robert Stone. He was a kind doctor, about this doctor’s age and size.” She remembered him, because he had treated her and her children like a doctor should, with kindness and compassion.

“Thank you, Mia. That is a big help,” Jarrod replied with a sweet smile for the woman. “As soon as you’re done with your business, Murdoch, I’ll start sending of the telegrams,” he informed his friend, before leaving to get Sam.

Murdoch nodded, and turned to leave. “Don’t worry, Mia, I’ll get you some clean supplies up here, and Sam will take good care of Juan,” he assured her a smile. The smile was replaced with a clenched jaw as he made his way downstairs to have a talk with the hotel management.

**************

Leaning back in his big chair, with his feet propped up on the desk, fast asleep and snoring way, the Mayor was rudely awakened by the sound of his office door crashing open. The loud commotion scared the wits out of him. His eyes flew open in shock and sleep befuddled confusion, as the Sheriff stormed in, ranting and raving like a lunatic.

“What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you know how to knock?” The fat man huffed at the pacing Sheriff.

“Sorry if I disturbed your beauty rest, Mayor, but we have problems!”

“Now… what? Or should I say who?”

“LANCER! That’s who, him and his Mexican friends, as well as that Doctor, lawyer, and his son, the whole lot of them! I want them out of my town, and now!” The Sheriff demanded, slamming his fist on the desk.

“Your town? I’m the mayor here and don’t you forget it!” He snorted, “You know damn well we can’t show our hand, we have to play it safe. Let that half-breed son of his get well enough, and then maybe they will leave town on their own. Since the good doctor failed with our plan to rid us of the killer.” He finished his rant, and then poured himself a stiff drink.

“You’re fooling yourself, Mayor. They will not leave until they see us behind bars, or hung. So I say we put our heads together and figure a way out of this, and quickly,” the Sheriff coldly suggested.

.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Murdoch Lancer was fuming over the audacity of the pig-headed, narrow-minded foolish cretins he had just encountered downstairs. He stood clenching and unclenching his fists trying to control the wild urge return to the kitchen and wring every single one of their prejudice necks. He still couldn’t believe they had the nerve to lie right to his face about Juan, no matter what he said to them. That is until he decided to play detective and take a look for himself around the place. Despite their arrogant grandstanding, the tall rancher had pushed passed them and started to look around in the pantry, only to find it fully stocked. He even went as far as to check their invoices and found everything was accounted for.

When he turned to confront them, with a perturbed look of smug satisfaction, they realized they had been caught in their web of deceit. They twitched and jerked like flies tangled in the sticky strands of a trap, and Murdoch was the predator that had them at his mercy. The cook and clerk started to choke on their own bile, and began to refute their allegations. Now they conceded perhaps they were mistaken about seeing Juan in the area of the pantry. The blubbering idiots begged for forgiveness over their misconceptions, claiming it was an innocent error. However, Murdoch refused to buy into anymore of their self-serving lies and mistruths. The damage was done and he made sure that Mia and Juan would get the proper treatment, the same as the other occupants of the hotel…or else.

Murdoch shook off the dark thoughts of the confrontation and turned his attention back to his youngest. He was sat down by Johnny’s bed, gently playing with his dark bangs letting the wet thick strands slide through his long fingers. Just the touch of his son’s hair, gave the worried father some comfort. He tried to control the agitation he felt over the possibility that they might never find anybody to come forth on Johnny’s behalf, someone brave enough to stand up to the sheriff and his cohorts. Shifting stiffly due to the throbbing in his back from the long periods of inactivity, he frowned over his concerns about Jarrod getting a respond from the telegrams inquiring about the doctor that was here before. But something tells him that will not be the case.

Murdoch carefully placed Johnny’s frail hand in his, and tenderly rubbed the protruding knuckles with his thumbs. He smiled as he recalled doing this same thing when Johnny was a baby, only then the hand had been tiny and plump, with adorable dimples where the now prominent knuckles emphasized the weight loss. He grimaced as he realized Johnny’s skin felt warmer than before, even though it was a sure sign that the poison is just about out of his system. Sam had said that Johnny had vomited a few times, and that his vitals were getting stronger, but best of all he was showing signs of more alertness. Sam predicted that Johnny would make a full recovery, barring complications. Lost in his troubled thoughts, Murdoch jerked in surprise by the weak squeeze to his hand, looking over to his son, his heart lifted, when he saw a pair of watery blue eyes staring at him.

“Johnny, it’s good to see you awake, son,” Murdoch said smiling wide, his voice breaking up in relief. “Sam said you were coming around more.”

“Hey…Murdoch,” Johnny feebly greeted his father.

“Hey yourself, how do you feel?”

“Like I went to…hell…and back,” he replied with a slight grin. “Where’s Scott?” he asked, as he remembered that his brother was here also.

“Scott, wake up, your brother is awake!” Murdoch happily called to his eldest, who was fast asleep on the other bed.

Scott sprung out of bed half dazed, but joyous over his father’s words. He groggily dashed over to the other bed, and sat down next to his waiting brother, who held up his other hand for Scott to take hold of. With his brother on one side and his father on the other, the young gunfighter never felt so safe and secure. It was a feeling he now cherished and craved; unlike after Pardee’s bullet, then he had resented the family affection and attention.

“Hey little brother, it’s about time you join the living, you gave us a good scare,” Scott cheerfully teased.

“Sorry, to scare ya,” Johnny whispered, cringing over the stiffness in his body, which he felt from laying on his back for so long. “Didn’t mean ta…”

“I know you had no control over this,” Scott despondently stated, arousing his brother’s curiosity. The blond could have kicked himself for having voiced it out loud when he saw Johnny frown and look discouraged. That’s the last thing he wanted was to upset his brother.

“What?”

“Nothing, Johnny, it was nothing.” Scott tried to stop the questioning from going any further.

“What…happened to me, Scott?” he blearily asked. The confusion was to be expected; Sam had warned them it was a side effect from the poison the more awake he was. Johnny glanced at his father, and then at Scott. He didn’t like the look of dismay on their faces. “Well, are ya going to tell me?”

“Johnny, now’s not the time, when you’re up to it, we’ll tell you, but for right now you need to rest and get your strength up,” Murdoch assured his frowning son. He could see his efforts were not doing any good.

“No…Murdoch, I want to know now. I have the right to know, please.” Johnny demanded, shutting his eyes wearily, as he waited for the answer.

Murdoch and Scott grimly looked at each other, and both nodded in agreement. They knew that there was no way they could get out of telling Johnny what was going on. They also realized he would not rest until he knew the truth.

“Johnny,” Murdoch began, after blowing out a deep breath, “It’s seems that you were poisoned by the doctor,” he bluntly stated.

Johnny slowly opened his eyes, “Poisoned…but why?”

“To keep you quiet, son. They considered you a threat to them, and…”

“They?” Johnny abruptly cut his father off, and then paused for a few seconds. “You mean…?’ Johnny softly asked, as bits and pieces were becoming clearer to him.

“Yes, son, they as in the Sheriff and that bastard of a Mayor,” Murdoch answered curtly. “They wanted to kill you, to keep you from testifying against them in court about their prejudice, uncalled behavior, and their treatment of you.” Murdoch regretfully went on, “They had the doctor use a deadly poison on you, after their first attempt to kill you failed.”

“I see… kill the killer,” Johnny mumbled with remorse in his voice, as he clearly remembered that day. Then he weakly chuckled, “They thought…I came here to kill my own father. Funny, huh?” His face grew dark and stormy as the painful recollections washed over him.

“No, John, there was nothing funny about it, and we’re going to see that justice is served,” Murdoch strongly proclaimed, giving Johnny’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

“How?”

“Let us worry about that, little brother. You just get well so we can all go home,” Scott spoke up in a determined big brother tone of voice, encouraging his younger sibling. “Johnny?” Scott called softly, and then sadly smiled, when he saw that Johnny had dozed off on them, and was sleeping peacefully. Father and son’s hands worked together to make sure Johnny was warm and comfortable. They tucked him in, and relished the peaceful feeling of acceptance his tolerance of their coddling gave them.

“How’s my star patient?” Sam asked, as he entered the room startling the twosome.

“Sam, don’t do that, please, use the secret knock, give a man some warning?” Scott snapped catching his breath.

“Sorry, Scott, Murdoch, I forgot, what with all this excitement going on lately,” Sam sincerely apologized. “How’s Johnny?”

“He woke up, Sam, and this time it was for a little longer,” Murdoch brightly informed the good doctor. “And well…you know Johnny, we had to tell him what all was going on, well not all of it,” he rushed to explain, referring to Mia and Juan. “How’s Juan?”

“You mean he would not rest until you told him?” Sam snorted. “Juan will be just fine, he has some bad bruises, and a slight concussion from the beating on the head. Mia is making sure he stays in bed for a few days,” Sam answered hushed like, so as to not wake Johnny, knowing the keen hearing of the young man. “Any word from Jarrod yet?

Sam’s questioned was proceeded by the secret knock. Murdoch quickly opened the door for Jarrod, who dejectedly walked into the room, looking like death had paid him a visit, or was about to. The lawyer angrily threw his hat down on the chair, walked over to the window, and let out a heavy sigh.

“Jarrod, what’s wrong, what did you find out?” Murdoch asked apprehensively. “Did you locate the doctor?”

“Yes, I did,” Jarrod whispered, glaring down at the sheriff’s office.

“Well?’ Scott anxiously inquired.

“He’s dead!”

.

Chapter Thirty-Three

The silence that immediately proceeded Jarrod’s startling revelation, that the former town doctor was dead, seemed to suck all the air from the room. The tension the statement caused froze the occupants in place. Murdoch was the first to shake off the shock and react, in a not surprisingly volatile fashion.

“What the hell do you mean he’s dead?” The outraged father growled through his teeth, his face mottled purple with the rage he tried to suppress. Murdoch attempted to keep his voice down as much as possible, yet there was still loud recrimination in his barely restrained voice with his next utterance. “Jarrod, tell me there is some kind of mistake here!”

The quiet lawyer shook his head in dismay, and blew out a heavy sigh of remorse. He hated to be the bearer of bad news. “There’s no mistake, Murdoch, it’s as I told you.” Jarrod confirmed. The attorney reluctantly turned around to face his fuming friend. “It did not take long to get an answer back from the second telegram I sent,” he hesitated before reiterating, “With the information he was dead. The sheriff there said the doctor met with an unfortunate accident.”

“Unfortunate accident, huh?” The snide sneer that crawled across Murdoch’s mouth, along with his sarcastic tone left no doubts as to his suspicions. “How long ago?” he demanded to know, as he stood there glaring at Jarrod, his body rigid with the fury he ached to turn loose on the perpetrators of his youngest son’s injuries and miseries.

Jarrod fell quiet again, he was loath to answer Murdoch’s question. He was quite sure what he had to tell them would not set well with them, yet he realized they had a right to know. Taking a deep breath and steeling himself for their reaction, he forged ahead, “Shortly after we started to ask questions about Johnny’s incident and looking for anybody who would testify on his behalf.” The bluntness of the words weighed heavy in the room. “I guess they considered the doctor a threat. They most likely assumed he would come forth if he was asked to,” Jarrod speculated.

The contempt and disgust displayed on Scott’s face, manifested in a choked snort of disdain. “Oh boy, they sure covered their tracks, didn’t they?” he snarled. “Well that’s just great!” In his need to release the anger that ate ravenously at his nerves, Scott slammed his fist down on the dresser. The force behind the blow caused the items on the dresser to jump, some turning over, the ensuing racket echoed in the small room, and had the men flinching, and alarming Sam.

“Scott, your brother!” Sam warned, when Johnny began to stir, disturbed by the noise. “Gentleman, can we please discuss this someplace else?” he quietly hissed. Doctor Jenkins was more worried at this point about Johnny’s recovery, than with criminal matters.

“Sam, I’m not going to leave my son alone,” Murdoch informed the good doctor. “Who knows what they might try next. I have no intentions of giving them even the smallest window of opportunity to harm Johnny again. Besides, this concerns all of us, and Johnny is bound to find out about it sooner or later.”

“I rather have him find out later, Murdoch. He’s been through enough.”

“That’s alright…Sam…I’m awake,” Johnny weakly intervened. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing that concerns you right now, young man.” Sam assured Johnny, who wearily tried to focus on the doctor’s concerned face. “You just lay still and rest.”

“Sam!” Murdoch snorted.

The good doctor raised his hands up in defeat, and walked away from the bed, knowing darn well Murdoch was going to tell his son the bad news. His disgruntled mumbles about obstinate people were wasted on the hard heads in the room. Sam made sure that Murdoch knew to be less generous with the information, by the hard glare he shot at the rancher.

“What’s happened?” Johnny asked again. Even in his weaken condition; his gunfighter senses were telling him something was not right. “Murdoch?”

His father slowly sat down by his side, laying his hand on his son’s arm, and then giving it a gentle squeeze. Murdoch grimaced at the frail smallness of the limb, dismayed at how easily his fingers encircled the arm. “Johnny, a lot has been going on since you’ve been sick, and it’s not good, son.”

“I know I was poisoned by those bastardos,” he said closing eyes, trying not to think of them, but then had to wonder. “What…what else have they done?”

Murdoch began, “Well, it seems we are having a hard time finding witnesses that saw what happened to you that day.”

“Figures!” Johnny snidely huffed.

“Yes, it seems like this whole town is populated by people too cowardly to stand up for what’s right, or are just as prejudice as the sheriff and his cohorts,” Murdoch exclaimed. “However, we did think of one person who might have been able to help, but…”

“But what?” Johnny looked at his father with eyes glittering with curiosity, as well as dread.

“Mia remembered that there was a doctor here before this one, and he didn’t agree with the sheriff attitude towards…well anybody that’s not of his own race.” Murdoch attempted a delicate approach, but stopped when he saw the look of hurt on his son’s face. He silently cursed the fates that his son had been a victim of prejudice many times. “Johnny?” He softly asked when Johnny turned his head away.

“I’m fine, go on.” Johnny whispered.

Murdoch tenderly wiped a wayward tuft of Johnny bangs away from his eyes, and was pleased that he didn’t flinched at his father’s touch. Murdoch Lancer might be a man prone to bellowing his orders and displeasure at his youngest, but his hands of steel had never held anything but tenderness for his son.

“I guess he couldn’t take it any more so he left, or was forced out of town. Anyway we were able to locate him, however…,” Murdoch’s voice tapered off, hating to disclose the information.

“They had him killed… Right?” Johnny bitterly assumed. Murdoch nodded. “Isn’t that the way it goes…I mean eliminate the threat!” Johnny asked, knowing how true it was from his gun fighting days.

“You called that right, brother!” Scott irritably agreed.

“So… now what?” Johnny inquired tiredly. “Give up?”

“No, John, we’re not going to give up!” Jarrod vowed. “We’ll think of something. A terrible injustice has been perpetrated, and the men responsible must be held accountable for their actions. ”

Johnny weakly smiled, “You‘re…fighting a….losing battle, Jarrod…I ought to know.” Johnny words faded off as he fought to stay awake, but he was quickly losing the battle.

“Gentleman, please, he needs rest!” Sam admonished, as he hovered over Johnny like a surrogate father.

“Okay Sam, no more. As a matter of fact, I’m going downstairs and have some fresh coffee brought up for us, and then I’m going to check on Mia and Juan.” Murdoch informed the men as he moved towards the door.

“Murdoch, wait!” Scott halted his father, calling out from his lookout point at the window. “Guess who is back in town,” he said motioning for the others to come take a look.

“Well well, it seems that ‘good Doc Roy’ is back from where ever he had to go. Didn’t you say he was delivering a baby Sam?” Jarrod asked.

“Why yes, but that was a couple of days, I’m sure she had the baby by now.”

“Yes that’s my guess too. Then he must have decided to take the long way around back to town. I wonder what he’s been up to?” the lawyer’s legal mind pondered the possibilities and scenarios.

“And it looks like he’s been back for a while too.” Scott speculated. “And already has been having a powwow with his fellow rats,” he sarcastically added, as he noted the Sheriff and Mayor leaving his office, with the doc right on their tails, as they headed towards the café down the street.

“We have to be on our toes men. No one leaves this room alone, and I want two of us with Johnny at all times.” Murdoch ordered. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

.

Chapter Thirty-Four

The Lancers watched from their window as the self-righteous doctor rushed to catch up with his partners in crime. Murdoch and Scott had come to think of the men as an unholy trinity, for they were the men in authority who not only tolerated but perpetuated the environment of prejudice that suffused the town.

The trio of men casually entered the small café and found a quiet dark corner. Desperate times called for desperate measure, and these men were determined to come up with a plan which would rid not only them, but the town of their problems. They kept their voices as low as possible, even though the place was bustling with the noise of idle talk, and the clatter and clink of cutlery on plates. The edgy men took turns scanning the room for any signs of the Lancer group. They didn’t want to be surprised by their sudden appearance. They knew very well that the stubborn Scot was on to them and they were taking a big chance meeting like this in a public place. However, the trio hoped their gathering would seem as innocent as a simple lunch date. After all, they were as respectable as the next person; they had met for lunch many times before, so it was not an unusual occurrence.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” the nervous Mayor asked, taking out his fancy embroidered hanky, and then wiping his worried, wrinkled brow. “So far nothing we have tried has worked.”

“It will work!” the doctor adamantly assured. “They know what they have to do,” he surreptitiously cast his guilty eyes about before hissing at the Mayor, “and when it’s time we move in.”

“I don’t know about this, Roy, Lancer and his gang never leave that room, not alone at least. And they have damn big ears too,” the Sheriff angrily huffed. “I told you what happened with that Mex, while you were gone, and how Lancer butted in. I would have gotten away with it too, if only that whore he calls a wife had kept her big mouth shut.” He growled through his teeth, his eyes narrowed evilly as he recalled the failed plan, and then he smiled devilishly, “But it sure felt good to skin my knuckles on his ugly, filthy face.”

“And look where it got you, nowhere!” the Mayor snapped a little too loudly, and then quivered when he received a hard look from the displeased doctor.

“Keep your damn voice down, you moron!” Roy warned the over wrought Mayor.

“Now see here! You don’t ever talk to me like that again… I’m the mayor here, and….”

“You’re nothing if this doesn’t work. So keep your damn mouth shut, and listen,” Roy abruptly cut the blubbering man off, with the hostile retort. “I have everything covered, even if they don’t leave the blasted room.”

The Sheriff shook his weary head. “Are you sure of that?” he asked doubtfully. “I mean they were of no help to me.”

“Oh… they’ll do their job this time, or else,” he assured them with menacing intent. “One way or another Lancer and his half-breed, along with his friends are going to leave OUR town. No matter what it takes, even if it means dead or alive!” the doctor sneered diabolically, his eyes darkening with malevolence.

“Well, I much prefer alive. There has been too much violence for my taste,” the Mayor whimpered with a timorous air.

“What are you a man or a mouse?” Doctor Roy snarled sharply.

“I’m a man!” he asserted quickly, as he straighten himself up from his slumped position, preening like a peacock.

“Then act like one, and stand up for your town,” Roy coldly ordered. “You keep saying you’re the Mayor. Well then help us get rid it of that trash!”

The mayor quietly backed off. The men sat sipping their coffee as they tried to act normal, yet also be inconspicuous. Looking at them one would never surmise by their outward calmness that they were waiting for the word that their latest ploy had worked.

**************

Johnny was sleeping as peacefully as a new born babe, tucked in by the caring hands of their family doctor and friend, Sam, right after he had finished with his exam of Johnny’s blistered feet. Jenkins was very pleased to report to the others that they were healing just fine. There were no signs of infection, and he would be able to walk on them in no time. And as for the poison, he estimated that Johnny’s body was ninety-nine percent clean of it, and could see no signs of damaging side effects thus far. However, he was still quite weak, so Sam gave strict orders to his coddling father and brother, to not overdo it with the small talk, as Johnny needed to get all the rest possible.

With that, everyone took turns quietly keeping a vigil by the window, acting as a lookout. They watched the town’s activities, and for any suspicious actions by the three men in question. They did as Murdoch instructed, they ventured from the room in twos. The only reasons they left were to take a break from the small stuffy room by going downstairs to get a breath of fresh air, or to answer the call of nature.

Evening was upon them, and everybody had agreed to have their dinner brought up to the room, instead of taking turns going downstairs, especially now that the doctor was back in town. Murdoch wasn’t taking any chances, much to the aggravation of the hotel staff; he stood at the top of the stairs, and haughtily called down in his baritone voice for the clerk to send the cook up to the room.

The staff was more than pleased, in fact they were eager to bring up the ordered meals, and even did the same for Mia and Juan. Murdoch assumed it was his severe tongue lashing and dressing down, with a liberal dose of threats thrown in that had changed their attitudes. “I guess my bark is as intimidating as my bite,” he proudly thought to himself. He was pleased these people finally seemed to be accepting that he was not going to back down about equality of treatment, or stand idly by and watch their transgressions.

“To Murdoch Lancer, when he talks… they listen,” Jarrod brazenly proposed a toast to his friend. “And heaven help the ones who don’t listen,” he softly chuckled as he raised up his coffee cup. Murdoch smiled sheepishly at his antics.

“Here, here.” Scott quietly agreed, keeping his voice low. “I must say, sir, you sure have a way about you, the service has improved,” Scott commended his father with his praise.

“Not to mention the food,” Sam commented. “A very satisfying turn of events, I’ll have to admit. There has been much improvement, since I first arrived,” he added taking another sip of his coffee, and then let out a protracted yawn. “Excuse me. It’s been a long day,” Sam said, rubbing his tired eyes.

“Yes it has, Sam. I just wonder how many more long days we’re going to have, before this is all over,” Murdoch muttered around his own yawn, feeling a little tired himself. He shifted slightly in his chair, and noted for some reason his back wasn‘t as stiff as it was a little while ago. “I have ranch to run, and would like to get home,” he sluggishly added.

Sam nodded sleepily. He would like nothing more than to be out of this town of brazen bigots and their meek followers. He knew of a few back in Green River, but they were never as misguided or heartless as the likes of these. And knowing now what kind of sheriff this one was, Sam had a new found respect and fondness for Val. Even as unclean, and bad mannered as the man is, Val was a whole lot better than this sheriff. He honestly wished Val was here now, to teach this so called lawman a thing or two.

Sam had to smile at his thoughts about home and Val. However, that smile slowly faded when he felt himself drifting numbly off. He sighed through another long yawn, which seemed to cause a chain reaction. Soon one by one, they were all covering their mouths as they yawned with such intensity that their eyes watered, and they were left feeling a little lightheaded. Within seconds, they were all struggling to keep their eyes open, their heads started to droop, lulling lazily on their chests. Their limbs were feeling like jelly, as though they had no control over them. Fingers soon loosened around the cups they were holding, spilling the dark hot brew on the chairs and floor, as cups slid out of their weaken grips.

“Mur…do…ch…wh…at…is…go…ing…on?” Scott asked groggily, his words slurring together. The blond tried to get up, but fell back hard against the chair he was sitting in. He had no control over his arms and legs; they refused to move with any coordination. “I…feel….” His words tapered off as he passed out.

“I…don’t….know….son,” Murdoch struggled to get his words out, with blurry vision, he turn to see that Sam and Jarrod had both fallen asleep where they sat. The tall rancher managed to push himself out of the chair, but didn’t get very far. He turned his attention to the bed where his son lay. “Joh…nn…y,” he whispered in alarm, and took one step towards the bed. Murdoch legs buckled under him, sending his huge form crashing to the floor. His last coherent thoughts were laced with an all consuming fear for his son, as he fell into a dismal black abyss.

Outside the room, two paid conspirators had their ears pressed to the door, listening to the activity in the room. They smiled with satisfaction when they heard Murdoch’s body hit the floor, the thunderous noise was a sure clue the big man was down for the count. Being as cautious as possible, they slowly opened the door to find all the occupants fast asleep, including Johnny, who had been given a light dose of laudanum by Sam to help him rest a little more comfortably. He didn’t even hear his father fall.

“Perfect!” the hotel clerk grinned. “Go get them, tell them the coast is clear.” The cook nodded and took off to fetch the others. The clerk slowly walked down to Mia and Juan’s room, to find them in the same condition as the others. “Sweet dreams, for it may be your last,” he snarled wickedly.

.

Chapter Thirty-five

The hotel clerk furtively peered into the hall from Mia and Juan’s room to make sure the coast was clear. After determining the hall was empty, the still gloating clerk strutted like a proud peacock back towards the Lancers’ room. He felt no remorse for having drugged the Mexican couple. In fact, he couldn’t wait to see their filthy presence removed from his respectable hotel. The hotel had lost a good many of its’ cliental, after Murdoch threatened legal and bodily harm if the couple were not allowed to stay. After all who would want to stay in a place that harbors degenerate Mexicans, or any others that didn’t measure up to the standards of what he considered human.

The clerk waited by the door of the Lancers’ room in anxious trepidation. He had to be careful; they still had a few other hotel guests, and he wasn’t sure whether or not some of them sympathized with the Lancers. His co-conspirators had not arrived yet, so he turned his attention back to the occupants of the room. The clerk sneered wickedly at the bodies sprawled in slumped repose in the chairs, and at the big man lying on the floor by the bed. Just the sight of the man, who had given him so much grief, lying there still as death, pleased him. So much so, he felt compelled to act out his aggressions by mocking the actions of a gunman. The mousey clerk stood tall, drew his hand as if it was a gun, then pointed it at Murdoch’s heart and pulled the imaginary trigger.

“Bang… you’re dead!” he coldly whispered. “You’re not so high and mighty now. Are you, Mr. Lancer?” The clerk snickered hatefully at the prostrate man, even though he knew they couldn’t hear him. His gleeful thoughts were interrupted by the abrupt appearance of the doctor and the others as they ghosted into the room in a soft footed manner, in their attempt to not draw attention to themselves. The clerk happily stepped out of their way.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” the doctored hissed, as he slithered into the room like a venomous snake. “Look at the four sleeping watch dogs. Now is that anyway to keep a watch over their patient?” he snidely asked. He casually walked over to Murdoch, and gave his shoulder a hard shove with the heel of his boot. Satisfied the rancher was out cold, Roy gave the order, “Okay boys you know what to do,” he called to some men in the hall.

A burly man rudely pushed his way past the Sheriff and the Mayor, as they stood by the grinning doctor, and proceeded to carry out the orders he had received earlier. Two more rough looking men, the doctors paid flunkies, headed down the hall to Mia and Juan’s room. They crept as silently as their heavy bodies would allow, trying not to draw undue attention.

“I say kill them all now, and been done with it.” The eager Sheriff suggested.

“No, no, no,” Roy quickly responded, “We can’t have that in our town,” he righteously said. “We have to keep it clean.”

“But you just said downstairs, dead or alive!” the Mayor nervously reminded him.

“Yes, but not in town, it would cause an uproar and tarnish our image,” he curtly told the confused sweating man. “It will have to be OUT of town.”

“Well, now that you put it that way,” the Mayor reconsidered. Clearing his parched throat, “Can we get this over with? I need a drink,” he mumbled, as he loosened up his tight collar, that was beginning to feel like a noose around his neck.

“Patience… Mayor, they can’t harm you now,” the Doctor snorted haughtily.

A very faint moan caught the doctor’s attention over by the bed. “Hey be careful with him, don’t damage the merchandise,” Roy cautioned the big goon as he was roughly wrapping Johnny up with a blanket.

Johnny let out another weak moan, a sign that the laudanum was slowly wearing off. If he were completely lucid he would have realized it wasn’t pain he was feeling, it was more like discomfort, or confinement. He would have recognized that deep inside, his gunfighter senses were telling him something was not right. The paid goon was using excessive force causing Johnny to become alarmed. He struggled his way to consciousness, fighting against the strong hands that held him.

Johnny gasped for air, and called out for the one person that always made him feel safe. “Mur…doch,” he whispered desperately through dry cracked lips, as the blanket tightened around him.

“Madrid is waking up, Roy, do something!” the Mayor squealed in a voice raised several octaves by fear.

“Will you calm down? I have everything under control,” the physician angrily snapped, and then pulled out a small bottle of chloroform. He dabbed a few drops on a clean rag, and quickly placed it over Johnny’s mouth and nose.

Johnny’s body jerked and twitched. His eyes flew open and searched frantically for the source of his misery. As his consciousness faded to black he saw the hard cold face of the doctor, a feral grin distorted the man’s face, and then Johnny’s eyelids slowly fluttered shut, and his tense body relaxed again.

“See, he’s sleeping like baby,” the doctor chortled evilly.

“A baby mestizo, you mean,” the Sheriff sniffed in disgust. “Why any man would want to mate with a Mexican whore is beyond me,” he condescendingly added, appalled at the thought.

“Well, I guess it takes all kinds,” the Mayor added, his nose turned up like a priggish snob. Feeling braver, now that Johnny was subdued, and of no danger to them, he expounded, “I guess Lancer is not all that respectable, now is he?”

“Enough small talk, let’s get going.” Roy rudely demanded. “Take him, and be careful!” he growled at the big man as he lifted Johnny off the bed.

Johnny’s illness emaciated body was barely a burden at all for the immense man. In his big strong arms, Johnny resembled a slumbering child being carried off to bed.

“We have the Mexicans, Roy,” confirmed one of the men, who had been sent to retrieve the couple. The hired thugs stood outside the open door with Mia and Juan wrapped up in blankets. The kindly couple was thrown over their shoulders like sacks of potatoes.

“Good! The wagon is ready. You know where to take them.” Roy sinisterly instructed.

“What about them?”

“Well, Sheriff, do your duty and disarmed them. That way they can’t hurt anybody, namely us, when they come to,” the cold hearted bastard ordered.

“They’ll find guns, and still come gunning for us!” the Mayor blurted out apprehensively. “Then what?”

“I have that covered too. Don’t worry, now let’s go.”

The three men followed the others downstairs with their unconscious victims. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Roy stopped to pay off the desk clerk and cook, who were waiting anxiously for their reward. He took out a hand full of money and generously paid each conspirator what they had coming for their part in the kidnapping.

“Good job, I knew you two wouldn’t disappoint me,” he said in a callous voice.

“Lancer will be furious with us, once he wakes up,” The clerk nervously informed the doctor. His temporary show of bravery was wearing off, now that he realized they were leaving the others alive. He had thought they were going to take care of all of them.

“You are the least of Lancer’s worries when he wakes up,” Roy devilishly grinned. “He has to worry about getting his son back alive.” The physician left the two standing there counting their money, as they listened to the sound of the loaded down wagon heading out of town.

 **********

It was mid-morning when Murdoch and the others started to wake up from their drug induced deep sleep. Scott was the first to stir. He rubbed his bleary eyes and groaned in agony, his head felt as though someone had hit him with a sledge hammer. He struggled to stand up as his legs felt numb. He stretched out his sore back from sitting in the hard chair all night. Scott took an unsteady step forward on wobbly legs. He heard a loud moaning sound, and looked down to see his father slowly rising, with great effort, from the floor.

“Let me… help… you sir,” Scott groggily offered, as he tried to help his father up off the floor.” What in the hell happened to us?” he asked in confusion, as his eyes darted about the room.

“I’ll…give you one guess,” Murdoch groaned, after he pushed himself up from the cold floor, and fought to keep his balance. Scott put a steady hand on his father’s arm to help him steady himself. “I’m okay, son.”

Jarrod and Sam slowly started to come around, disturbed by the sounds of the Lancers’ voices. They stiffly stretched as they sat, and then they stood up. They tried to shake the heavy feeling from their limbs. They stomped their feet and walked around, grimacing at the pins and needles sensation in their legs caused by the uncomfortable positions they slept in. They rubbed their hands briskly over their faces trying to clear their clouded thoughts, feeling a bit bewildered and displaced.

“I guess we under estimated the good people of this decent town,” Jarrod sarcastically commented. “We didn’t expect this level of deviousness.”

Once he was able to focus on his surroundings, Sam’s eyes widened in horror. “MURDOCH LOOK!” he blurted loudly in an alarmed voice.

All three men spun around to see what had Sam acting so frantically. They were stunned by the sight of the rumpled and empty bed. The implications of what that meant hit them like a physical blow. They gasped as they tried to breathe through the thick atmosphere of doom that sucked the air from the room. Murdoch stumbled closer to the bed, and fell to his knees beside it. He dropped his head despondently on the mattress, breathing in the scent of his youngest, “Johnny,” he whispered brokenly.

As quickly as the strength faded from the worried father, it came roaring back. With the nimbleness he had not possessed since his younger days, Murdoch rose to his feet, pushing himself up to his full height, shoulders thrown back and squared with purpose. The rage that burned in his eyes spread to his facial features, his jaw was clenched with steely resolve, his massive hands contorted into granite fists. His voice, when it came roared with the intensity that shook the walls and rattled the windows. “WHY THOSE SONS OF BITCHES! THEY DRUGGED US AND TOOK JOHNNY FROM RIGHT UNDER OUR NOSES!” He boomed so loud you could hear him across the county.

“Those bastards, what do they think they’re doing? Surely they’re not so stupid that they didn’t realize we would automatically suspect them?” Scott angrily demanded. “What are they trying to prove, that stupidity comes naturally to them?”

“They’re going to use Johnny as weapon against us, that’s what, Scott,” Murdoch growled, after gaining some control of his emotions. The outraged father trembled in fury as he continued to stare at the empty bed where his son once laid.

“How?” Sam questioned. He was concerned about Johnny’s health. He was still too ill to be out of bed.

“I don’t know, Sam, but I’m going to get to the bottom of this and NOW!” the piss off father said, as he grabbed his hat and looked for his gunbelt. “Where’s my gun?”

At Murdoch’s question, it dawned on them all. And they hastily looked for their weapons as well.

“Why those….they took our guns!” Scott snarled. “Just like the cowards they are!”

“Apparently so, now what do we do?” Jarrod asked, outraged with the criminal acts of these so called public officials.

“You can’t go and confront them without being armed, Murdoch, that’s suicide,” Sam strongly warned his friend.

“Then we’ll get some! Those bastards will not get away with this, even if I have to kill them with my bare hands!” Murdoch loudly proclaimed. He stormed from the room, his boots heels beating out an angry rhythm that promised retribution.

.

Chapter Thirty-Six

The floor of the hotel hallway groaned and creaked under the striking boot heels of Murdoch Lancer. He marched straight down the middle of the hall, his body language and fuming countenance leaving no doubts as to his intentions. Frightened hotel patrons peered out doors, slightly cracked open, as the irate father stormed past on his path to retribution. In the wake of the storm he was about to let loose on this town were the winds of changes. He was determined that the days of prejudice men inflicting hatred and harm on victims whose only crime were their ethnic differences would stop, but his main mission right now was to find his abducted youngest.

As his feet left the muffling carpet of the hall, for the bare wooden treads of the stairs, Murdoch’s thundering footsteps boomed like rifle shots throughout the quiet lobby, as he came roaring down the staircase. The unsuppressed violent noises of his impending arrival in the lobby alerted the hotel clerk. The mousy little man looked up, and then his eyes dilated to the point they appeared a soul-less black, the color drained from his terror stricken face. His limbs lost their ability to move, and he froze where he stood. He knew that the rancher would be furious about last night, but what he was seeing had him scared to death. Swallowing back the bitter fear that rose from his churning stomach to taint his tongue, the clerk put both his hands on the counter and braced himself for the confrontation that was to come. He now wished that they would have done away with them all instead of just drugging them.

Murdoch’s initial intention had not been to confront the clerk, not yet, he was more concerned with finding weapons, and going after the men he knew had Johnny. However, when he glanced over and saw the frightened expression on the man’s face, he quickly put two and two together. He changed paths and bore down resolutely on the guilty acting clerk.

The infuriated father stomped angrily over to the desk. “WHERE’S MY SON?” he boomed, as he placed his hands on the clerks, clamping down hard on them, so he couldn’t reach for any weapon he might have under the counter.

“I….I don’t know….what …you mean,” the clerk stuttered, as he tried to free his hands from the iron grip that held them. He winched in pain when Murdoch increased the pressure of his hold on them, he felt surely the bones of his fingers would be crushed.

“YOU KNOW DAMN WELL WHAT I MEAN. WHERE IS HE?”

Scott rushed breathlessly on the scene. Sam and Jarrod were right behind him, trying to keep up with the long-legged blond. He had been to check Mia and Juan’s room. The unsettled look of his face foretold the bad news.

“Murdoch! They took Mia and her husband as well. It looks like they were drugged too, as I found no signs of a struggle,” Scott reported, in a voice winded from exertion and fear.

Murdoch glanced over at the three of them, and both Sam and Jarrod nodded, confirming Scott’s findings.

The clerk squealed in terror when two large hands grabbed a hold of his stiff collar, and he felt himself being lifted up in the air and over the counter top. Sheer panic overwhelmed him as found himself staring right into Murdoch’s eyes. He imagined he could see his own demise in the shimmering depths of rage burning within them. If the fire in those eyes were a physical reality, he knew he would be scorched by the flames. The hatred he saw there made him fear he would be torn limb from limb.

“FOR THE LAST TIME, WHERE IS MY SON AND THE MEXICAN COUPLE?” the enraged rancher demanded loudly in the man’s face. “DO I HAVE TO BEAT IT OUT OF YOU? BECAUSE I WILL!” When the stunned clerk neglected to answer in a timely manner, Murdoch gave him a couple of hard shakes, which rattled the clerk’s teeth and snapped his head back and forth. Murdoch lifted him higher up, and made it seem as if was going to throw him across the room.

“NO!” shouted the terrified clerk.

The desperate cry of alarm alerted the cook. He appeared in the lobby, and when he saw what was going on, he immediately made a panicked dash for the door. However, he didn’t get very far. Scott’s long legs enabled him to reach the fleeing co-conspirator before he had the chance to exit the building.

“Hold it, you’re not going anywhere!” Scott shouted, as he grabbed hold of the man’s shirt, and dragged him over to the others. “Judging from their reactions, it seems that these two were both in on it. And I bet they also know where they have taken Johnny and the others,” Scott said, grinding his teeth in aggravation. “Don’t you?” he snarled at the cook.

“NO…NO…we don’t…know anything,” the cook, Jack, nervously claimed.

Murdoch quickly let go of his grip on the clerk, dropping him to the floor like discarded trash. The meek man’s body impacted the floor with a hard thud, followed by a slight groan of pain. Murdoch turned his full attention to the sweating cook, who fretfully wiped his face with his soiled apron, inadvertently spreading the fresh blood of the chicken he had just killed for tonight’s dinner.

Murdoch studied the chef with eyes narrowed in suspicion, his lips pursed into flat lines of distrust, as he advanced menacingly towards Jack, Scott stood behind the man keeping him from running. He grabbed Jack by his shirt and shook him viciously. “I think you do know where they are, and unless you tell us…” Murdoch’s words stopped abruptly, as he let the implied implications of what might occur, further build the tension and dread.

“Or…wh…at?” Jack stammered in fright. He shivered apprehensively, as he felt both the Lancers’ hot breath on his neck

“Or that blood on your face from the animal you slaughtered will be joined by some of your own.” Murdoch threatened, his furious eyes locking on the panicking cook’s brown ones. The man knew there was no way to escape the wrath of the irate father, so he swallowed hard, and was about to speak.

“Don’t say anything, Jack!” the clerk shouted, from his prone position on the floor. He tried to get up, but found it hard to do with Jarrod’s foot pressing on his scrawny chest.

“SHUT UP!” Scott hollered, and then impatiently snarled in the cook’s ear. “Unless you tell my father where my brother and our friends are, I’m not going to stop him from beating your worthless face in,” Scott angrily promised, “And I assure you this, you’ll never want to look in a mirror again, once he’s done with you!” Scott added, to paint a clear picture for him.

Wedged in like a bug trapped between a rock and a hard place, Jack listened to Scott’s threatening words, and then looked at Murdoch’s hard face.

“They…took them…out town…but I don’t know …where,” he haltingly confessed. “Honest…we just drugged them, and they did they rest,” he admitted, and then gave the clerk a look saying there was no use keeping it from them any longer.

Murdoch released his hold on the man, and then shoved him back against Scott, who in turned threw him to the ground. He didn’t need to ask who ‘they’ were, for he already knew, and now all he needed was weapons.

The Lancers and Jarrod headed for the door, while Sam stayed behind, and just as they were about to exit, they were shocked to encounter a familiar, friendly face.

“VAL!” Murdoch exclaimed loudly, as relief flooded his eyes at the welcome site of the gruff old sheriff from back home. “Boy… I’m glad to see you!”

.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Val Crawford was no one’s fool. Many people had made the mistake of under-estimating the intelligence of the unkempt man, only to find out later that looks can be deceiving. Crawford knew the minute Murdoch greeted him with such urgent relief that something was not right here. Val’s gunfighter/ lawman instincts began to tingle something fierce as his eyes connected with Murdoch’s, he could detect hints of anger, desperation and fear in the glowering face. There was trouble brewing here, and the fire and rage he saw in the rancher’s eyes, only confirmed what he suspected. If he had to make an assumption, he was certain judging by his demeanor, Murdoch Lancer was entertaining thoughts of homicide, and knowing the man as he does, it must be justifiable.

Val glanced around Murdoch’s large form, and saw the same burning vengeance in Scott and Jarrod’s eyes as well. In the next span of seconds he was wondering why the lawyer was here in the first place. Val scowled, as he studied the three men, trying to deduce what had happened here. His concern increased when he noticed Sam standing there looking like he had just lost a patient.

“Y’all mind telling me what in blue blazes is going on here?” Val gruffly demanded. “And where is Johnny?” He added after noticing that his buddy was the only one not present.

“It’s a long story Val. I’ll tell you on the way but right now we need guns!” Murdoch declared as he tried to move Val out of the way so he could leave. But the stubborn sheriff wouldn’t budge.

“Now hold on a damn blasted minute! Why do you need guns? And where are yours?” Val insisted on being informed. “Look, I came here to find out why Sam hadn’t come back. And because Teresa and Jelly have practically nagged me to death to find out what’s going on.” he growled loudly. “I can see now that they were right in thinking something had happened, and judging by your reactions it must be bad. Now are ya going to tell me what’s going on here?”

Murdoch’s shoulder’s drooped, and he ran a shaky hand over his pale face. “Yes, Val, it’s bad, and …its Johnny who’s hurt.” He hated to just blurt the news out, knowing how much the lawman cared for Johnny.

“Johnny…hurt? How bad?” Val asked, failing to keep the hint of dread out of his voice. “Is…he…?”

“No Val, but he will be if we don’t find him and soon,” Scott interjected angrily.

“What do you mean find him?” Val questioned sharply. He was getting very annoyed and at the end of his patience, he wanted answers. “Well… tell me!”

Murdoch huffed out a deep breath, and started to explain the sordid details, as briefly as he could, to the anxious sheriff. Val’s face turned a deeper shade of raging red as more details were revealed. There was no doubt in the other men’s minds that an explosion of epic proportions was imminent, and they prepared their ears for the loud blast.

“THEY DID WHAT? WHY THOSE LOW DOWN SON OF A BITCHES!” Val’s enraged voice rattled the panes of glass in the door. “Let me get this straight, you say they drugged you and kidnapped Johnny?” Murdoch nodded in affirmation. Val roughly rubbed at his unshaven face. In an effort to compose himself, he began to furiously pace back and forth across the lobby, flexing his gun hand, and then nervously tapping the butt of his gun. He was trying desperately to calm himself down. He didn’t want to do anything irrational that could put Johnny in more danger just because he let his anger consume him. Once he felt more in control, he turned and asked, “Do you have any idea where they took Johnny?”

“No, but as soon as we find some weapons I’m sure as hell going to find out!” Murdoch snarled.

“Well what are we waiting for?” Val inquired. He cast distrusting eyes on Jarrod, “Are ya gonna to try to stop us, Barkley?”

“No, Sheriff, I’m just as outraged as you are,” Jarrod replied, and then added, “But remember you don’t have any jurisdiction here, so I’d be careful, if I were you. You could very well lose your badge, if you over step your bounds.”

Val snorted. “Yeah well, it’s a good thing you are here then,” Val snatched off his badge and crammed it in his shirt pocket, “Because right now, I’m just a plain Joe, and what I’m about to do to those bastards will be nothing but justifiable homicide.” Val smiled widely, his white teeth gleaming with feral intent from the dark stubble on his face, “I read that in one of those law books.”

Jarrod shook his head and smiled, “I’ll remember that, Sheriff.”

“You do that. Now let’s go. My buddy needs us.”

They all, except Sam, followed the steaming father out the door, and down the street to the gunsmith’s shop only to find it closed up, a strange occurrence for this time of day. Murdoch banged on the door with his huge fist, so hard that the windows of the shop rattled, as well as the door within the frame. He kept on pounding until he got an answer but it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

“GO AWAY, I’M CLOSED! COME BACK, ANOTHER DAY!” the shop owner shrieked fearfully from behind the counter.

“We’ll see about that!” Murdoch growled. He drew back his big foot, and then he easily kicked the door in with such force it smashed into the wall, and the doorknob broke and fell to the floor. He stormed in only to be met by the shop keeper, nervously holding a gun on him.

“You stay right…there…or I’ll shoot,” he stammered fretfully. “The…Sheriff said …you…you would be here…and …I was told… not to sell…you any…guns.” The gunsmith’s eyes widened in distress, the paleness of his frightened face made his eyes appear immense and wild.

In a flash, Val drew his gun, “You’ll drop that right now, mister! If ya know what’s good fer ya,” Val angrily ordered the shaking man. The gunsmith swallowed convulsively, though his mouth was drier than cotton, when he refused. “I SAID DROP IT! OR THIS TOWN WILL HAVE ONE LESS GUNSMITH TO WORRY ABOUT!” Val loudly threatened, as he menacingly moved in closer to the counter with his gun pointed right at the man’s heart. “WELL”

The gunsmith’s face was drained of its last bit of color, leaving him as white as a ghost. The sweat ran down his puffed out cheeks, as if someone had just poured a pitcher of water over him. His eyes rapidly darted from man to man standing there ready to pounce on him, with the least provocation. The distinctive metallic sound of the hammer clicking on Val’s gun, made it clear these men were serious trouble. He reluctantly put his gun down, and stepped back away from the counter.

“I still…can’t sell you any guns by orders of the Sheriff.”

“Then we’ll take them!” Murdoch snapped in aggravation. He stepped towards the collection of weapons on display, and with his heavy boot he kicked and broke the glass case.

“Now see here, that’s stealing. I can have you all arrested!”

“I’d like to see you try!” Val snidely retorted, refusing to holster his gun, until the Lancers had weapons. He knew he was their only means of protection. Val watched as Murdoch and Scott loaded a few guns, and then handed one to Jarrod.

“There seem to be a lot of criminal activity going on in this town lately,” Jarrod replied, adding his view on the matter. “I hardly think one more would hurt, seeing as it is an attempt to rectify the wrong that has been done.” He smiled slyly, “Right, Sheriff Crawford?”

“Sheriff Crawford?” The shop owner frowned as he looked about in confusion.

“He means me!” Val coldly answered. “But right now I’m just Johnny Lancer’s friend. And I will be very unhappy if we don’t find him…alive. So where is he?” he hissed.

“I…I…don’t know.”

“Well I know someone who does!” Murdoch declared. He turned towards the gunsmith, and snarled in his petrified face, “Where’s your so called sheriff?”

The stout little man gulped, “He’s in his office…waiting for you.”

“Figures!” Scott sarcastically retorted. “Well what are we waiting for?” He asked, slapping his newly, illegally acquired colt against the palm of his hand.

“Nothing, let’s go!’ Murdoch hastily answered. They took off for the sheriff’s office to confront the bastard and his scheming accomplices, and put an end to this for once and for all.

The angry beat of the group’s loud footsteps alerted the sheriff, doctor and the mayor of their impending arrival as they approached the office. However the prejudice, self-righteous trio was none too worried, as they thought they held all the cards, with Johnny as their ace. They sat there and waited with smug devilish smirks on their faces.

The door flew open with a thunderous crash, in stormed Johnny’s rescuers, their warrior like expressions effectively wiping the smirks from the trio’s faces. Their eyes widened with disbelief as they stared at the guns, most likely loaded, certainly ready to be used, and pointed right at them.

“WHERE’S MY SON?” Murdoch boomed.

The cold-hearted doctor spoke first, after he regained his composure. “Kill us and you will never know,” he bragged with self-assurance. “Those weapons mean nothing, they are of no help, if you don’t do as you are told.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Scott demanded to know, as he stepped up next to his father.

“It means, Lancer, if you and your friends don’t get out of our town, and stay out,” he paused to let them consider his words, “Your murdering half-breed son, and that Mexican trash, will not live to see morning.”

“You’re saying leave town and forget all this happened?” Jarrod asked incredulously.

“Precisely!”

.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

The arrogant doctor’s merciless words, along with the self-righteous smirk plastered on his face, were enough to push any man over the edge. The physician possessed not one ounce of humility, his ego was bloated by his conceit and superior attitude over his perceived control of the situation. Murdoch Lancer, a strong willed man, was finding it hard to control the desire to pull the trigger, and end the condescending man’s miserable life with one shot to the heart… that is if he truly had one. The only thing that stopped him was the fact this man held the answer to the whereabouts of his son, killing him would condemn Johnny to the same fate. For Johnny’s sake, he had to stay calm, for now.

“Well, Lancer what is you answer?” The doctor demanded, “Are you going to leave town quietly, or do you kiss your son and those Mexicans goodbye. It’s your choice.”

“What makes you so sure I’ll leave town, and let you self-righteous bastards get away with what you have done to my son and Mia and her family?” Murdoch growled.

“Like I said it’s your choice.” Roy smugly replied. “Either you stay and they die, or you leave and they live. It’s simple as that!”

Even though his attention was directed at Murdoch, Roy couldn’t help but glance suspiciously over at Val. The doctor felt threatened by the lawman’s presence, the way Val was staring at him had his skin crawling. Something about the physician struck Val as funny, the longer he watched him the more alarmed he felt. Something about the man was familiar but for the life of him, Val couldn’t rightly put his finger on it at that moment.

“And what guarantee do we have that you will release them once we leave town?” Jarrod inquired curtly, his distrust in the man apparent for all to see.

“Why our word, of course,” the doc coldly replied.

“You can’t seriously expect us to take the word of a low life, murdering scum bag such as you, Ray?” Val announced the stunning revelation after studying the doctor’s features a little closer, because it dawned on him where he had seen him before. “So this is where you disappeared to after you got out of prison, HUH?” Val slyly asked. Totally catching the man off guard with the knowledge he knew who he really was.

“PRISON!” Murdoch bellowed. “You mean…?”

“Yep, prison,” Val eagerly confirmed, and then looked back at the antsy doctor who had lowered his head, and had started to nervously play with the rim of his hat. “Oh come on, Ray, don’t ya remember me? I know it’s been a while.”

Roy’s head jerked up, “I don’t know what you’re talking about! And my name is Roy!”

“Yeah, after you changed it,” Val retorted. “And now I see you’re back to your old ways too, right?”

Murdoch’s head whipped back and forth between Val and Doctor Roy, his confusion deepening the scowl on his face. “Val, will you tell us what this is all about? And what does this have to do with Johnny?”

“Everything, Murdoch, it involves Johnny and every Mexican this man comes in contact with. And I‘ll tell ya why, because’ ya have the right to know about this pig,” A vengeful smirk darkened Val’s face, “Our GOOD doctor here used to practice medicine down south, and he was a respectable doctor at that…until,” Val paused when he saw the man was about to interrupt, he held up a hand to stop him but it was a wasted action.

“Until thieving, murdering Mexican bandits stormed in on my family, and then robbed, raped and murdered them in cold blood!” the doctor screamed as an uncontrollable rage consumed him. He soon regretted his momentary lost of control, and wished he would kept his big mouth shut, he took out his bandana and wiped his brow. His sudden outburst had rattled his nerves. The doctor tried to rein in his anger; before he let his emotions give away all his secrets. He had no doubts that Val Crawford would eventually put it all together.

“It still didn’t give you the right to do what you did!” Val shouted back.

“What else should we know about the good doctor, Val?” Jarrod asked curiously, who was becoming very intrigued with this turn of events. This new information he was hearing was very interesting, and possibly could be used in court.

“Shut up, Crawford!” Roy angrily snapped.

“AH! You do remember me, don’t ya?” Val said, pointing an accusing finger at the agitated man. Val glared at the man as he continued his tale, “Well he decided to take his revenge out on innocent town folk down by the border. He pretended to be a caring and respectable doctor, who only wanted to help those who needed a doctor’s care and couldn’t afford to pay. When in fact, he was killing them off one by one by giving them medicine that made them sicker, and then they would die.”

“Like what he was doing to my brother!” Scott growled angrily.

“Yeah, Scott, like Johnny, until he got caught, and then I had to help find the bastard when he managed to escape like the sneaky weasel he is. Ain’t that right, Ray?”

“The name is ROY,” he hissed through his teeth, spraying spit as he added, “And I said shut UP!”

Val ignored him and kept up with his goading tactics, “Anyway, even though he had committed murder they felt sorry for his loss, and they went easy on him. He was sent to prison for a few years. They put him in a special ward, and figured with the right kind of help he could straighten his mind out. But I guess it didn’t make a difference, now did it Ray?

“SHUT UP!”

Val grinned as the doctor became more agitated, and continued to provoke him. “Well, then I heard later they let him out early on good behavior, and because he claimed to be reformed, and then he disappeared…until now.” Val snidely added, attempting to incite the man further, “Right…Ray?

The sheriff and mayor looked on in horror as their co-hort’s calm exterior shattered; revealing the mad man within. No shred of dignity could be seen in the lunatic before them. He twitched and jerked so it looked like he was trying to turn himself outside.

Val’s words echoed in his ear destroying his tenuous hold on reality. The physician’s whole body trembled with fury. His heart raced painfully, his blood pressure rose to a boiling point, and then everything broke loose. The doctor completely lost his composure, and he started to rant and rave like a lunatic.

“THE NAME IS ROY!ROY!ROY!” he shouted repeatedly. “AND THOSE FILTHY, VILE EXCUSES FOR HUMANS DESERVED TO DIE! JUST LIKE THAT MURDERING MADRID!” The doctor’s eyes gleamed with blood lust, he looked at Val and the Lancers, “But you…. you had to come and ruin everything, didn’t you? MAN OF THE YEAR, MY ASS!” he screeched at Murdoch. “Sleeping with a Mexican whore, and then siring a killer like Madrid. Its men like you that should be locked up!”

“SHUT UP YOU INSANE BASTARD!” Murdoch boomed.

“NO! I kill them and you breed them. Where’s the justice in that, HUH?” He continued to wildly rant, “You even had the guts to marry her. Or did you? And…and how many more little breeds do you have running around out there?” he said hysterically, waving his arms.

Murdoch had had enough of this man’s bullshit, insane or not, no one attacks his wife and son like this and lives. He was about to charge the irrational man and stuff those cruel harsh words down his throat, even if he had to break the man’s own arm off and shove them down with the bloody end. Scott and Jarrod stepped in front of him, stopping him from going any further.

“Murdoch wait, don’t provoke him any further. Can’t you see he’s slowly hanging himself?” Jarrod advised.

“Listen to Jarrod, sir,” Scott recommended. “We have to calm him down, and get him to tell us where Johnny is.”

The doctor let out a maniacal laugh, “I heard that, Lancer! And just what makes you think I’m going to tell you now, HUH? If they don’t hear from me by tomorrow morning he’s DEAD! YOU HEAR ME? HE’S DEAD!”

“Give it up, Ray! They know all about you, so just tell us where Johnny is.” Val strongly advised the out of control man, “It’s useless now to go on with this.”

“NO! NO! NO! They still have to leave town, or he dies! Period!” The madness consumed him, and he began shaking his head and panting like mad dog. “No more courts, no more cells,” he muttered under his breath.

The sheriff and mayor cautiously approached him. “Roy, control yourself will you….think of the town, think of us,” the mayor desperately pleaded.

“I don’t care about you any more, fat man, so get out of my face.” Roy menacingly spat at the quivering mayor, advancing on him until he had backed him up to his chair, causing him to stumble and land on the floor. The doctor drew back his foot and kicked the chair across the room. When the others moved forward to help he panicked, and then grabbed the sheriff’s gun and waved it wildly at everyone in the room.

“Give me that back!” the stunned sheriff ordered. “I should have never brought you to this town, you insane bastard. You’re going to destroy us all!”

The sheriff charged the doctor and a skirmish ensued for the possession of the weapon. They struggled one in fear, one in anger. After a few tense moments of fighting the gun discharged and the sheriff’s face went white as a ghost, as he slowly fell to the ground. He drew his last breath, and then went limp as a rag doll. The doctor looked down at the body, and the blood that gushed out of the man’s chest. The shock caused him to weave back and forth, and he had to catch himself to keep from falling face first to the floor. He became aware of the other men in the room, and the fact their horrified eyes had witnessed it all.

“You… all of you stay away from me!” he warned as he turned to face them. Before anyone could move, he frantically declared, “No, no, I’m not going back to that hell hole. No, you’re not going to make me. No more crazy people. I’m not crazy.” Lucidity completely abandoned him, and in his tortured mind he saw no way out. He looked down at the gun that was still smoking in his hand, and raised it to his head.

“NO! Don’t do it!” Murdoch desperately shouted. “It was an accident. Don’t do it.”

The doctor forlornly shook his head, and put his finger on the trigger. He looked up at the ceiling. “I’m coming, Sara,” he whispered and then closed his eyes.

“NO!” they all screamed and rushed the man, but it was too late. They froze as the shot rang out. The echo of it was still vibrating in the room as the doctor dropped gracelessly to the floor, dead before his body settled. They were all shocked into immobility, the horror of the nightmare that just happened momentarily stealing their voices.

“If they don’t hear from me by morning, he’s dead,” Scott whispered mournfully, “That’s what he said. Dear God what do we do now?”

Murdoch stumbled over to the window, and then looked up at the setting sun. Pressing his head up against the cool glass, he prayed, “God I beg of you, please help me find my son.”

.

Chapter Thirty-nine

Scott felt as though he was floating aimlessly in a black void. His mind struggled to accept the reality of what just occurred. He tried to swallow the knot fear that clogged his throat, and prevented his terror for his brother from finding a voice, but his mouth was so dry it was impossible. Dread washed over him and the coldness of it robbed him of what hope he had left of finding his brother.

His mind felt disconnected from his body, as Scott numbly walked over to the window and stood beside his motionless father. Side by side father and son stood, cloaked in bleakness as they stared up at the setting sun, and silently begged for God’s intercession. They knew it would take a miracle now to find Johnny. The light of day was fading away, and the darkness of night would soon become the enemy, as they didn’t have the slightest idea of where to look. The only person, who did know, lay dead by his own hands. Taking with him the location of the hiding place to his grave, along with their hopes of ever seeing Johnny alive again, if they didn’t get to him before morning, along with the fates of Mia’s and Juan‘s.

“Sir, what are we going to do?” Scott somberly inquired, as he placed a gentle hand on Murdoch’s arm. He frowned with concern when he felt his father’s trembling body. “Sir, are you okay?”

“No, Scott, I’m not. Somewhere out there is your brother, and I’m scared to death we may not find him in time,” the big man whispered despondently, as he kept on staring up at the darkening sky. “God only knows where he is, and what they are doing to him as we speak.” He closed his eyes and grimaced in pain, as he felt his heart constrict and tighten into a barely beating lump, which threatened to break in two from the pressure. He felt like a failure, as a father, this was the second time that his youngest son had been stolen from him.

From behind them a doleful groan was heard as the thunderstruck sheriff of Green River stood over the bodies, shaking his head in utter disbelief over what just had happened. This was worse than a horrible nightmare, and he couldn’t help but blame himself for the deaths. He had no idea that the doctor would do such an unpredictable thing, to just totally lose it when he pushed on with his interrogation to expose the man for what he was. He thought he was helping his friends by somehow forcing the bastard to realize that it was all over, and it was time to come clean… however, it had back fired on him, in a macabre and twisted way.

“It’s my all fault, I’m…I’m so sorry,” Val muttered regretfully. “Can you ever forgive me?”

Val’s sad plea for forgiveness pulled Murdoch’s attention away from his somber vigil by the window, and he turned to face his youngest son’s friend. He knew Johnny would have a fit, if he let Val continue to take all the blame for what had happen.

“Val, it was not your fault. The man was out of his mind. It was just a matter of time before he lost his mind completely.” Murdoch assured the sullen faced sheriff. “You were only trying to help us find Johnny, so please don’t blame yourself.”

“Murdoch is right, Val. No one knows for sure just what a man is capable of when pushed too far, until it actually happens,” Jarrod declared, as he agreed with Murdoch. “In his case suicide was his was out, the thought of going back to that institution terrified him.”

“Yeah, but if I had just kept my big mouth shut, this would have never happened…and now Johnny…” Val stopped to compose himself, as his perceived guilt rose up to choke him. “Now… what? Where do we look?”

“We’ll find him, Val, we’re not giving up!” Scott vowed, as determination once again strengthened his resolve. “For Johnny’s sake you have to believe that, we all have to believe that. No matter what it takes,” he strongly proclaimed. Where there was a will there was a way, and there was no way he was going to sit down and give up on his little brother.

Val nodded, and bowed his head, saying his own prayer.

A loud moan rose up from behind the desk where the stunned Mayor sat insensate on the floor. The fat man started to stir after regaining consciousness, and was trying to get up. He struggled to push himself off the floor, but his hand slipped from under him when he carelessly put it down in a puddle of blood. The movement of the steadying arm caused him to land sideways. He ended up laying face to face next to the fallen sheriff, staring right into the man’s dead eyes. He shot up as fast as his stout body would let him. He cowered back, quivering like a scared mouse. He took out his fancy hanky and desperately tried to wipe the blood off his hand.

Murdoch was the first one to approach him. With the sudden strength of ten men, the outraged father grabbed the man by the arms, and then lifted him off the floor and dropped him back into the chair. He leaned over the Mayor’s shaking form, huffing and puffing like a mad bull ready to ram his horns into to man’s heartless chest.

“You’re not going anywhere until you tell me where my son is, you son of a bitch!” Murdoch growled loudly in the weasel’s face. “NOW WHERE IS HE?”

“I…I…don’t know.” the Mayor shuddered in fear of having his head ripped off. “He…he …never told us.”

“What do you mean he never told you? You were both in cahoots with the mad man!” Val angrily shouted.

“He…kept it…from us just…in case…one of you…tried to get it…out of us. I guess…he never really …trusted us to know the …location,” the Mayor nervously wiped his sweating brow with the bloody hanky, inadvertently spreading the red sticky fluid on his face. They were all startled when the door opened, and a man’s scream filled the room.

The gunsmith stood in the doorway, his eyes widened in horror at the scene in the office. He had heard the gunshots and decided he should come and investigate. The sight of the lifeless bodies of the town’s doctor and lawman, plus the Mayor’s bloody face had wild thoughts racing through his mind. He was especially shaken to see Murdoch leaning over the Mayor, with a look of murder on his angry face.

“What have you done?” He frantically asked, and then looked at the trembling Mayor. “Mayor?”

“It’s not what you think,” Jarrod quickly answered, and diverted the man’s attention away from the scene, and then boldly guided him back towards the door. “I assure you the details will be released later, but right now is not a good time.”

“But…”

“But… nothing! I’m the acting sheriff here now, whether the Mayor likes it or not. Now get back to your shop and stay there!” Val sternly belted out the orders, and then he took his badge from his pocket and put it back on. “And keep everybody away from here! Or I‘ll throw the lot of ya in jail for obstructing justice,” he added, as he noticed a crowd forming outside when Jarrod opened the door to let the man out. He pulled down the shades to keep the curious crowd from peeking in.

“Now, what?” Scott peevishly snapped. “It obvious we’re not going to get anything out of him!” He angrily gestured to the useless Mayor. He looked at his father and friends for answers.

Like he done on so many occasions, Jarrod studied the room as he would any crime scene, looking for clues or evidence that would either clear a client or incriminate them. As he looked carefully around, his trained lawyer eyes spotted what he was looking for.

“Gentlemen, I just might have the answer,” Jarrod announced. “Look!” he pointed to a map on the wall, and calmly walked over to it. “Unless I am mistaken, those look like markers pinpointing certain areas around here.”

“Let’s hope you are right, Jarrod. Time is running out.” Murdoch stated worriedly.

Scott darted over to the wall, and intently studied the map using his military skills he had learned about scoping out land marks. The map was very detailed, showing a few shaded areas that might indicate a cave or an old mine. Remembering back when they first arrived on the stage, Scott had noticed a few mountains that surrounded the town. However, as Jarrod had pointed out, there was more than one marker on the map…there were three to be exact.

“Well, Scott? What do you think?” His father anxiously awaited his son’s answer.

“Well, as I see it,” Scott said, rubbing the back of his neck as he thought, “I’m guessing the scheming doctor was going to play a game of cat and mouse with us.”

“What do you mean cat and mouse?”

“It means that he must have all three of them spread out. Johnny is in one place, Mia and Juan in the other two. Or it could be a ploy to make us believe they are, so we’ll go searching in the wrong directions, while he gets his revenge again, like he did down south,” Scott bluntly pointed out. “However, I could be wrong too.”

“Well the only way to find out is if we split up, and find those spots,” Val suggested as he gave his lawman’s view on the matter. “I say, we take no chances, after all we have that couple to think about too. As Ray said if they don‘t hear from him by morning, Johnny will be dead, and who’s to say he don‘t mean them too.”

“Well, what in the hell are we waiting for?” Murdoch growled out. “Time is wasting as we stand here jawing. Let’s get moving!”

“What about them?” Scott asked, pointing to the three conspirators.

“Get the undertaker here for them, and have Sam look after the Mayor,” Murdoch quickly replied. “I’ll go see about the horses, and hurry! We have to get to your brother and the others. We don’t have much light left.”

“Right, I’m on it.” Scott agreed, and headed off to the undertakers before getting Sam.

Without looking back, because he really didn’t give a damn about them, Murdoch and Jarrod, along with Val, left. The Mayor sat frozen to the chair. He stared down in horror at the lifeless bodies, and was grateful he had been spared, for now. He didn’t know what to fear the most, the wrath of Lancer, or Madrid?

.

Chapter Forty

Murdoch, Jarrod and Val stormed into the livery, anger and apprehension warring for dominance on their faces. The owner was somewhat startled by their appearance, but soon realized they meant him no harm, all they wanted was to rent mounts.

The livery owner quietly stood by an empty stall and watched as Murdoch and Val and Jarrod rushed to saddle the horses with a desperate air of urgency about them, remorse ate at his conscience. He studied the big man’s face, strained with worry and fear, and his heart went out to Murdoch for the over powering pain he must be feeling right now. He had seen many horrible things occur in this town, and now felt nothing but shame that he had stayed here all the years that he had. He had turned a blind eye to the prejudice and strong arm tactics, convincing himself that it was none of his business. And truth be told, he was just plain terrified of the doc and sheriff.

“Mr. Lancer is it true what they are saying…that the Doc and Sheriff are dead?” he asked as he fiddled with a length of rope, pulling the rough hemp strands nervously through his calloused palms.

“Yes,” Murdoch cautiously admitted. “But it was not by our doing, the doctor, well he and the sheriff fought, and things just got out of control between them,” he haltingly explained, as the images still deeply disturbed him.

“Say no more. I know what you mean,” the liveryman stated in a relieved tone of voice. “I always knew that one day everything they did wrong would catch up with them.”

“If you knew what they were doing, then why didn’t you help put a stop to it?” Val snapped, anger glittering in his eyes as he pinned the man in place with a hard look. “Or, why didn’t you just leave?”

“Look at me, and look at this place, it’s all I have!” the man exclaimed as he waved his hand around the small stable. “I tried once to speak out, and was threatened by the sheriff that if I didn’t keep my mouth shut, he would make sure I would regret it later. Like Daniels did, when they burnt down his shop and force him to leave town, just because he spoke up.”

“You mean there’s hope for this town yet?” Val snorted sarcastically. “And some of these GOOD townspeople just might have a conscience, after all?”

“Maybe… but there still are a few that think as the doctor and sheriff did, and that coward of a mayor,” he shamefully admitted. “You had to be careful what you said around here, otherwise it would get back to them, and the mayor would do nothing to stop it.”

“We’ll deal with him and this town when we get back,” Murdoch growled. “Right now my first priority is finding my son, and time is not on our side.”

The liveryman bravely stepped forward. “Can I help with anything? Do you know where to look?”

“Yes, we found a map in the sheriff’s office that pinpointed three locations, but we don’t know this area very well,” Jarrod spoke up, and moved to show him the map he had taken off the wall. “Do you know what and where these landmarks are?” he pointed to the areas of the map marked in red.

“Why yes, I do, that one is the old shady mine. And this one is a cave near the base of the mountain to the south of town, and this is the old miller’s cabin.” He readily informed them, and then added some details, “If you head due south out of town and look for the fork in the road, they’ll take you to the mine and cabin. As for the cave there is no road leading there, but there is a path wide enough to follow, look for it by the edge of the road. I hope this helps you.”

“Yes, it does.” Murdoch replied in appreciation. “Thank you for the horses and the information. And let’s hope we’re not too late.” Murdoch extended his hand, clasping the other man’s in his firm grip, grateful that at least one member of this horrid town finally had the guts to help.

“What’s going on? Why are you all standing around?” Scott breathlessly complained as he rushed in and found everyone just standing there. “It’s getting darker by the minute and we still haven’t found Johnny.”

“Well with the help of this man here,” Jarrod informed Scott, “We now know what to look for, and how to get there in less time, we hope.”

Scott looked at the livery owner a little suspiciously. “Why should we believe him, after all no one in this town lifted a finger to help before? So why now?”

“Because he had his reasons to stay quiet, Scott, but those reason are gone now. And he came forth and offered his help in locating your brother,” Murdoch explained. “And right now we have no choice but to believe him. So mount up and let’s get going!”

Scott glared skeptically at the timid man, and shook his head, he still wasn’t sure of this, but did as he was told and mounted up. Once ready, they all raced out of the stable and headed south out of town, in a billowing cloud of dust, and the sun that was slowly setting behind them.

Upon reaching the fork in the road, they split up. Val took the one leading to the right and Jarrod took the road leading to the left. While Scott and his father, traveled a little further on and found the path that was supposed to take them to the cave. Each man cautiously trekked on, with high hopes and silently saying a prayer that this is not a wild goose chase. And by the grace of God they would get to Johnny and the others before the morning sun rises.

*************

Johnny lay huddled in the corner of a dark and damp cave. His only warmth was the thin blanket that had once been bound around his weaken form when he was taken from hotel. The chloroform had worn off a few hours after they roughly tossed him to the ground like a sack of feed. Now fully awake, he stayed as still as possible, straining his tired blue eyes against the dimness of the cave, as the only light came from the slowly setting sun, and the few rays able to reach into the entrance. The only noise he heard in the last hour was the rustling of his captors outside.

Johnny had no idea that Mia and Juan were also taken and placed somewhere else. All he knew was that he was alone in this cold place, and that he had to get out and back to his family. But… how? He was still too weak. His feet were not fully healed, even if he could muster up the strength to get up. He doubted he could even walk. Johnny lay there thinking, and speculating on how many were outside standing guard. He wished desperately for a gun. His feet may not be in the best of shape but his hands were definitely in working order, he flexed his fingers in agitation.

He did know one thing for sure though, that his father and brother would be looking for him, and he had to somehow let them know where he was. Soon nightfall would rob them of the light they needed to search for him, and he had a feeling that the men outside had instructions not to light any fires, as that would be a beacon for any searchers. The young gun hawk knew what he had to do.

Reluctantly, Johnny threw the blanket off, shivering hard when the cool air of the cave hit his emaciated body. Painfully rolling over, and then using all the strength he had in his arms, he started to drag himself along the rough ground. Stopping to catch his breath a couple of times, and to make sure he wasn’t heard by the men outside before continuing on. He reached the entrance, and slid up against the wall and listened.

“Hey Joe, why don’t ya go and check on Madrid?” The bigger of the two men said, as they both sat with their backs to the cave, unaware they were being watched by narrow cold eyes, and that they could be heard as well.

“Nah, just leave him. He ain’t worth the trouble to get up for,” Joe grumbled. “And ya heard the doc, if he ain’t here by morning, then we kill Madrid. So what’s the difference if he is doing okay, or not.”

“Yeah, but he’s awfully quiet in there, that chloroform must had worn off by now. At least we can offer him some water.”

“Are ya going soft on me, Harry?” Joe snickered. “I swear as big as you are, you sure do have a small brain. I told you it doesn’t matter. Madrid can rot in hell for all I care.”

“Aw come on, Joe, just go and see what’s he doing and give him some water. It ain’t going to kill ya.”

Joe frowned at his big friend, and angrily got up from the log they were sitting on, as soon as he did that, Johnny scooted back into the cave still hugging the wall. He waited, holding his breath, for Joe to enter. Johnny had only one shot at this. He clutched the sharp piece of wood, he had found, in his hand, when Joe walked by, he stuck his leg out and tripped him. His captor tried to spin around and ended up flat on his back. With a surge of energy born of a desire to obtain his freedom and find his family, Johnny flung himself on his foe, and impaled his enemy’s heart with the wooden stake. Weak and breathless from the brief battle, he lay there for a few moments conserving his meager strength, and then took the man’s gun and crawled back to the entrance.

After a few minutes passed, Harry was starting to wonder what was taking his friend so long to get back. He pushed his huge form off the log, and slowly walked up to the cave.

“Hey, Joe! What’s taking ya so long?” he shouted into the cave. Instead of Joe answering back, he saw a flash in the darkness, and then he heard the report of a gun, and instantly felt the burning, stinging pain of a bullet penetrating his chest. Harry grabbed his chest, looked down at the blood on his hands, and then gasped his last breath of air. He was dead when he hit the ground, a look of shock etched permanently on his face.

Johnny stepped from the darkness of the cave and studied the man he had just shot. He was as big as his father, and he briefly wondered if this man was anyone’s father, and for that he felt a moment of remorse. However the reality was; it was either him or Harry. The exertion of crawling and pulling himself along, and then taking these two down, had zapped the young Lancer of his strength, and his eyes slowly started to close. Johnny fought to keep his eyes open, to stay focused, and somehow get a signal fire started, but to no avail. His weakened body was shutting down, and with the gun still in his hand, he drifted off, and lay there by the opening in the mountain.

*********

Not too far from the base of the mountain, the shot could be heard through the trees. The loud popping sound and echoing report reached the ears of the elder Lancers.

“Did you hear that?” Scott asked apprehensively.

“Yes, and it sounded like a gunshot!” Murdoch quickly answered, and then fear flooded his mind, “OH, MY GOD, NO, JOHNNY!”

“How can you be sure it’s him?”

“Well I’m not waiting around to find out!”

Murdoch kicked his horse into action, and raced through the maze of trees, with Scott right on his tail. The sun was totally down, and the path was becoming harder to see, as they scrambled their way up the hillside. Fear and sheer determination to get to that cave kept them going. They didn’t know what they would find; they just knew they had to get there and fast.

.

Chapter Forty-One

Murdoch felt mired down by the thick sense of doom that crept insidiously into his mind, robbing him in slow torturous increments of any hope he had left of finding Johnny alive. His imagination tormented him with malignant thoughts and horrifying visions of Johnny’s lifeless body lying in a dark cold cave…alone. A low branch snapped him from his destructive thoughts when it delivered a resounding slap to his face, as he and Scott blindly trudged their way through the darkness of these unfamiliar woods.

Murdoch chuckled as he wondered if the blow from the tree limb was God’s way of telling him not to give up yet, nor to jump to conclusions. He silently chastised himself for practically giving up and instead turned his inner voice to prayer. Praying to God that the gunshot they heard was not meant for his son and that by some miracle, Johnny had found the strength to fight off his captors. And that it was he who had pulled the trigger. ‘Oh, God please let that be true.’ Murdoch desperately pleaded, as he fought to keep other images out of his head.

They traveled further along the hilly path; their gradual progress taking them closer to their objective, yet still it seemed they were too far away from Johnny, at least until they could actually see him. Scott could have sworn they were going around in circles as they were getting nowhere fast. And the further in they went the thicker trees on each side of the path got, causing them to duck and weave whenever a low branch would suddenly appear. The density of the foliage slowed them down, stealing precious minutes from their race to the rescue.

Desperate to hurry things along, Scott called out to his father and suggested that they split up, to widen the search area, but Murdoch wasn’t hearing any of it. He strongly stated to his impatient son, that they needed to stay together to watch each other’s backs for any dangers of man or nature that they might encounter. At this point, Murdoch’s greatest fear was the fact that he had lost, then found, and then lost again one son. He certainly didn’t need the other one wandering off into the dark and have to worry about him too. Scott obeyed his father’s wishes and stayed close to him, hoping that Murdoch knew where he was going. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, they had made it out of the woods and reached a clearing, and found themselves facing another big problem.

“Now what?” Scott snorted in aggravation.

There looming before them was a huge mountain. It had a rocky base with a bit of an incline to it, not too terribly steep, but it was pitch black, due to the moon hiding behind a dark cloud making it impossible to see the location of the cave. Adversity seemed to be the ruling force and it was mocking the Lancers’ efforts. How in the hell do you find a hole in a mountain when everything is blended in by the darkness? There were no signs of horses, a camp fire, or sounds of life, just the taunting silence of the night, and it was disturbing the hell out of Murdoch.

“If only that damn moon would come out, then we’d have something go by.” Murdoch growled as he looked up at the dark sky. He huffed out an aggravated breath, wishing he could blow the clouds away. Just then a brisk wind began to swirl, and the clouds parted as though pushed aside by God’s own breath. An ethereal beam of moonlight streamed from between the billowy vapors hanging high in the sky, just long enough to cause a glint off something shiny to the right, on the mountain. As quick as the beacon appeared it was gone again, as the clouds shifted and once again obscured the moon.

“Scott did you see that?” Murdoch asked anxiously, daring to hope he was not imagining things.

“I sure did!”

Father and son hopped off their mounts and quickly headed in the direction the shimmer of light came from. They started to slowly climb the rocky base, and the closer they got, the clearer the view of the cave became. It was back in a little further with a good size ledge in front of it, which is why they had a hard time seeing it. The little bit of flat land made a good look out spot just in case someone happened along, they could be very easily disarmed or shot down.

Scott was the first to reach the ledge in front of the cave and after catching his breath; he lent a helping hand to his father, as he struggled the last few steps up the rocky incline. Murdoch bent over and leaned into his son, as he panted and wheezed from the exertion. With another stroke of luck, or perhaps fate deciding to be kind, the moon decided to make another brief appearance shedding a little more light on the situation. Out of the corner of his eye Murdoch saw what had caught the moon’s rays earlier. It was a gun, and it was still clutched in Johnny’s hand.

“Scott, your brother!” Murdoch’s voice trembled and his face paled at the sight of Johnny laying there still as death. “Over there… don’t worry about me… go to him,” Murdoch breathlessly instructed, as he pointed to the cave entrance.

Scott jerked his head around and narrowed his eyes, as he strained his sight against the darkness, and focused his attention on the cave. Right away he noticed Harry’s huge lifeless form lying there, and just beyond him was his brother. Scott let go of his father and dashed towards Johnny, leaping over Harry’s body, he fell to his knees and crawled the rest of the way. He gently turned his little brother over and quickly checked for a pulse, at first he couldn’t find it and he started to panic. Scott sighed in relief; releasing the deep breath he was holding in, when he felt a faint one. Next he carefully checked Johnny over for any bullets wounds and was doubly relieved to find none. However, he had to frown at how cold Johnny felt. Johnny was wearing only the clothes he had been kidnapped in. He didn’t even have on boots or socks. The temperature of the night air was dropping, so Scott scooped him into his arms and cradled Johnny against his chest, using his own body heat to warm him.

“Johnny?” Scott softly called, as he tenderly brushed his brother’s dark bangs away from his eyes. “Hey, little brother, wake up. It’s me, Scott.”

“Is… he?” Murdoch whispered as his voice wavered. He carefully made his way to his sons’ side, and gently cupped Johnny’s frigid cheek with a trembling hand.

“Yes, he’s alive, but he’s as cold as ice. We need to get a fire started and fast. We have to get him warmed up.” Scott quickly replied.

Murdoch bowed his head in thanks that his youngest was still alive. “Here give him to me, and you get the fire going.”

Murdoch dropped down next to Scott and tenderly eased Johnny from his embrace. He cradled his son in his huge arms, resting his chin on Johnny’s dark head. He sub-consciously started to rock him back and forth like he did when he was a baby. “I got you now son and you’re going be just fine. I’m not going to let anymore harm come to you,” he vowed. As he sat there, his son safely encircled in his arms, the clouds parted and the moon’s radiance illuminated the boyish features of his younger son. Murdoch lightly brushed a quick kiss on his forehead, his relief at finding him too great to resist the temptation.

Scott hustled about and quickly got a fire going, and with the flames burning so brightly, he could see clearly around him. He sadly looked on as his father continued to rock and hold Johnny so tightly in his arms, as if he was afraid to let go of him. For the first time Scott felt he could truly understand how much it must have hurt Murdoch to have a child taken from him at an early age and not know where he was for years, the heartbreak his father had to endure. And as he watched the fatherly affection Murdoch was tenderly giving Johnny, he felt no envy, no resentment towards his brother, for if there was any one who deserved and needed it, Johnny did.

Scott realized that Murdoch knew where he was along, but that his grandfather prevented him from going home, by means of blackmail, so his father had no choice but to leave him in Boston. However, Johnny’s situation was a different story, and a heartbreaking one at that. If he had known he had a younger brother out there, he surely would have looked for him. He smiled as he thought back on the first day they met, a day he now treasured. It had been awkward. They both had to learn how to be brothers, boy was that a learning process being the brother of Johnny Madrid.

“How’s he doing?” Scott calmly asked.

“He’s warming up, and his pulse is getting stronger.” Murdoch replied, relief strengthening his voice. “See if there’s a blanket or something, in the cave, we can cover him up with.”

“All right.” Scott headed into the dark cave, and almost tripped over the body of Joe. Scott jumped back in surprise, and his eyes widened in shock when he noticed the piece of wood sticking out of the man’s chest. He had to marvel at the will power of his little brother, and his drive to stay alive. Scott grabbed the blanket and quickly exited the cave.

Murdoch looked up as Scott approached him, and was confused by the sly smirk Scott had plastered on his face. “What’s so funny?”

“Johnny! I don’t know how he did it, but there’s another dead man in there, his chest impaled with a piece of wood.” Scott admiration glowed in his tone, “It must have taken all he had to overpower him, and then find the strength to pull the trigger on that one over there.”

“Yeah, your brother is a wonder, isn’t he? It must be the combination of Mexican and Scottish blood in him. He’s too mule-headed to give up,” Murdoch proudly proclaimed. “And I thank God for that!” He struggled out of his jacket and then rolled it up and used it for a pillow for Johnny, as he gently laid him down. Scott covered him up with the blanket.

“I wonder how Val and Jarrod are doing with finding Mia and Juan?” Scott queried.

“I don’t know, but I hope they find them before dawn, as Val said that bastard might have given orders to have them killed too,” Murdoch shuddered to think. “They might not have been as lucky as Johnny, and found the chance to fight back.”

“So, what do we do now, sir?”

“We stay here, and keep your brother warm and safe! We don’t know how many men the doctor has lurking out there. And besides we need a wagon to carry Johnny back to town. We wait until morning; perhaps we can find the one they used to get here. They might have hidden somewhere.”

Murdoch continued to watch over Johnny like mother hen. Scott took first watch, and kept a keen eye and ear out for any unwelcome sounds, or visitors that might wander by. Scott and Murdoch prayed for the safety of Mia and Juan, whose lives and safety were still uncertain.

.

Chapter Forty-Two

Val Crawford’s keen lawman senses were telling him time was running out. The Sheriff squinted against the lack of light, and relied on those senses to help guide him through the darkness of this unfamiliar territory. He had no idea where this road would take him. He just kept following it until finally it ended at what turned out to be the old miller’s cabin. It was hidden behind some trees not too far off from the road. If not for the fresh tracks in the dirt and the dim light he had spotted coming from a small window, he would have by passed it. He decided not to take any chances on whether this was a trap or not, so he rode his horse to the side and tethered it to a tree, and then being as quiet as possible he cautiously snuck closer to the cabin. Val hid behind a large boulder a distance away, and scanned the area for anyone that might be lurking about.

As Val crouched behind the boulder the hairs on the back of his neck tingled and rose. He was seized by a strange feeling like something was not right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Val’s eyes darted about as he looked for the cause of his concern. He had felt this same disquieting sensation when he was riding along, as though he was being followed. It had unsettled him enough that he searched the vast darkness behind him, but he couldn’t make out if there was anybody there or not. He fought back his apprehension, he was here and the coast seemed clear. He was just getting ready to creep up to the side of the cabin, when a hand reached out and clamped tightly over his mouth, and another hand gripped his gun hand with steely resolve.

“Shhhh, Val, it’s me Jarrod!” the crafty lawyer whispered in the Sheriff’s ear. He slowly turned the stunned lawman around to face him. Jarrod cringed at the dirty look he got from Val’s frowning eyes. He reluctantly took his hand away from Crawford’s mouth, knowing he was about to get an ear full of sass.

“Jarrod, I ought to….what in the blue blazes, are you doing here?” Val snarled in a low hissing tone of voice. “I thought you took the other road?”

“I did! But I didn’t get very far when I ran into an old prospector. I asked him what was up that way and he said an old mine. He had been camped at it for the last few days. I found it odd, so I asked him if there were others with him.” Jarrod paused to wet his lips, and then continued, “He said no, just him and his mule. So I thanked him and turned around and came up this way hoping to catch up with you.”

“So that was you following me, huh? I could have shot ya!” Val declared agitatedly. “Well next time let know when you’re gonna sneak up on me. I almost had a heart attack.”

“And give our positions away, Sheriff? Besides you’re too ornery to have a coronary,” Jarrod sarcastically joshed.

“A what? Val hissed, wishing the lawyer would speak the same English he did.

“A heart attack,” Jarrod explained.

“Oh. Well, just don’t do it again,” Val added with a sheepish blush. He ran his fingers through his hair and sighed, “Well ya know it’s either Johnny in there, or Mia and her husband, or perhaps all three of them. And I don’t know how many guards are in there with them because they have the dang blasted shades drawn and I can‘t see in”

“Do you have any ideas on how to handle this?” Jarrod was curious to know. “The sun will be up in a couple of hours, so our window of opportunity is shrinking fast.”

“I know, I know. Let me think a little, will ya?” Val whispered harshly. He scrubbed at his neck in agitation, and after a few seconds offered his suggestion. “First, we have to make sure this is not a trap. Do you see any horses, or a wagon around?”

“No, I don’t,” Jarrod replied, after he strained his blue eyes against the darkness seeking the items.

“Me neither. So we have to play this carefully. I’ll take one side of the cabin and you take the other, so until we know for sure, take no chances, ya hear!” Val adamantly instructed. “I’ll go first.”

Jarrod nodded in agreement. Val took a deep breath and darted out from behind the boulder. Keeping low to the ground, he moved in a duck and weave pattern, as he made his way to the right side of the cabin. He waited for a few minutes to make sure he wasn’t seen, or heard. Val signaled the coast was clear for Jarrod to do the same. Jarrod dashed out, copying Val’s movements and safely it made it to the other side. He leaned against the wall as he tried to catch his breath, and his sharp eyes found a hole big enough to peer through. Jarrod’s eyes widened as he spotted Mia and Juan hovered together in a corner on the other side of the room.

Juan’s face was badly beaten, and he had blood running down from the side of his head. His hands and feet were bound and his mouth gagged. Mia hands were also tied, but her legs were free. She had no marks on her except for the dry tear stains on her dirt smudged cheeks. Her head was cradled next to her husband’s. Jarrod fought the urge to break the door down and beat the living daylights out of their captors, but knew he couldn’t do it alone. He had to let Val know.

Jarrod eased his way around the corner of the cabin, craned his neck and peered out to see if Val was paying any attention towards the front of the cabin and luckily he was. He motioned for Val to come to him. Val nodded and pointed that he was going around the back way and quickly disappeared from view. Within a minute, Val reappeared and Jarrod filled him in on what he had seen. Like Jarrod, the sheriff was furious about the abuse of Juan.

“Johnny? What about Johnny. Did you see him too?” Val questioned.

Jarrod shook his head sadly, “No only Mia and Juan.”

“That means he must be at that cave.” Val rubbed his tired eyes and gave Jarrod grim look, “Let’s just hope Murdoch gets to him first. Well let me take a look inside and see how many men are guarding them.”

Val pressed his eye up against the hole and saw Mia and Juan cowering in the corner, looking as frightened as mice. Suddenly a huge shadow loomed over them, cast by a big man, who seemed to come out of nowhere. He stood there and snarled down at Juan. He looked at Mia, and even with just the view of his profile Val could see him licking his lips and the lust gleaming on his face. He was just about to reach for her, when another man came charging at him and stopped him. Val quickly put his ear to the hole and tried to make out their muffled words.

“Jack you idiot! Leave her alone!” the smaller man angrily shouted. “You can have your fun with her once Madrid is dead.”

“Why wait? You know his old man will not leave town without him, so he’s good as dead now,” the burly man huffed. “And ya know how much the doc hates Mexicans. I don’t think he’ll mind if I have a little fun with this one.” He touched Mia’s leg with his foot, and then lifted her dress up a little to try to get a peek. Mia squirmed and snuggled closer to Juan, as he gave the bastard a hard cold look.

“Yeah well, I, for one, don’t want to piss off that crazy doc, he’s liable to do anything to us. We only have a couple hours to wait till morning. So we wait!” he ordered. “Now go back and sit down!”

“All right!” Jack growled, as he glared at Mia. “Don’t ya worry old Jack will take good care of ya come morning.” He stomped off and dropped himself heavily down on a chair causing it to creak in protest to his weight.

Val felt his blood start to boil when he heard those words. His stomach cramped and he felt sick seeing the pure horror in Mia’s eyes, and the anguish in Juan’s, as he struggled to get free. They had to get them out of there and fast.

“I saw a back door as I came around. Here’s what we’re going to do,” he hastily informed Jarrod. “There are only two of them…and”

“Are you sure?” Jarrod interrupted with his concerns. “We have to be positive. We can’t make any mistakes.”

“Don’t ya think I know that?” Val growled. “I’m sure. Now listen, will ya. I’ll go in the front and you take the back. We’ll rush them, there’s no other choice.”

“We can lure them out,” Jarrod suggested.

“Have ya seen that big fella in there?” Val snarled. “It would take the both of us to take him out, and that would cause a ruckus alerting that other bastard, who just might get trigger happy.”

“All right, we’ll do it your way,” Jarrod conceded. “We better hurry though we don’t have much time left.”

With their plan worked out, they quickly and cautiously got into position. Using their best judgment as to when to move in, they silently counted to three and kicked the doors in. Jarrod and Val came barreling in with guns cocked and ready to use. The two guards shot out of their chairs startled and confused. They stumbled as they clumsily reached for their guns, but before they could get them out of the holsters they were looking down the barrels of both Val’s and Jarrod guns.

“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!” Val demanded. “Now nice and easy like, take your guns out and toss them over here!”

Both men slowly reached for their weapons. However, the smaller of the two had no intentions of giving up that easy and drew on Jarrod. Unfortunately for him, Jarrod was just a little faster than he was. With a flash of his hand, he disarmed the weasel by shooting the gun right out of his hand. The man screamed in agony, as he fell to the ground holding his bleeding, throbbing hand close to his chest.

“If you don’t want the same treatment as your friend, I reckon you had better drop that gun…NOW!” Val loudly ordered when he saw Jack was stalling. He quickly dropped the weapon and kicked it over to Val. “Good boy! Now sit your fat ass back in the chair, so I can tie you up!”

Jarrod located some long rope and he and Val quickly tied the two up back to back. They then went to Mia and Juan’s aid. They untied their bound limbs and gently helped them off the floor. Immediately, Mia threw herself into Jarrod’s arms and began to weep uncontrollably, uttering words of thanks in Spanish. Jarrod gently held the trembling woman and tried to calm her down, while Val dipped his bandana in some clean water and tended to Juan’s bloodied head, and then checked him over for any more injuries.

“Can you walk?” Val softly asked the shaky man.

Juan nodded, “Si Senor, I can walk.”

“Gracias, oh gracias, Senor Barkley, for finding us. I feared they were going to kill us.” Mia pulled away from him and wiped her tears of gratitude. Then it dawned on her, “Juanito, did you find Juantio? You must find him and soon, or they will kill him!” she frantically begged.

“Shhh, now. His father and brother are looking for him as we speak. And they will find him, don’t worry,” Jarrod assured the worried woman. “But right now let’s get out of here.” He and Val started to guide the couple out the door.

“Hey! What about us?” Jack hollered. “You can’t just leave us here!”

“Don’t worry the doc will be here soon,” Val snidely hollered. Jack’s eyes widened in fear, the last thing he wanted was for that crazy doctor to see them like this.

“Val, the doctor is dead!” Jarrod reminded the Sheriff in a whisper.

Val smiled evilly, “Yeah, but they don’t know that.” 

.

Chapter Forty-Three

The bright rays of the rising sun had never been as welcomed as they were this particular morning. The much needed warmth and light was a relief after a long and exhausting night of searching, and then watching and waiting. There was nothing Murdoch or Scott could do but wait for sunrise, praying for daylight. The family had huddled together through the night taking comfort in just being together. The two older Lancers quietly discussed the situation they found themselves in. They had decided the risk of getting Johnny safely back to town and to Sam without causing him extra harm was just too high to try at night, so Scott would go for help in the morning. As soon as it was light enough to see clearly, Scott departed. He went back into the woods first to see if he could locate a wagon the abductors might have used, and then hidden.

While waiting for Scott to get back, Murdoch relentlessly carried on with his vigil. He hovered over Johnny, refusing to let him out of his sight. During the night when Scott had offered to take over so his father could get some rest, the worried father declined his older son’s aid. Saying he had to keep watch for any unwelcome visitors, and Johnny needed to be kept warm. He would not rest until his son was back in town and in a warm bed, or better yet back home at Lancer.

Murdoch stiffly scooted up a little closer to the ledge and looked out and down into the woods. He was hoping to see Scott with some kind of transportation or news of one. He was startled when a shaky hand reached up and touched his arm. Murdoch looked back and his fright quickly morphed to joy when he saw his son smiling up him.

“Hey,” Johnny weakly greeted his father, and then licked his dry lips. “Do you have some water with ya?”

“Hey, yourself,” Murdoch softly answered back. “Yes I do have some right here.” He reached for the canteen and carefully lifted Johnny’s head up and held it steady as his son took a drink of water. “Slowly now, not too fast. How do you feel?”

“Better now that you’re here,” Johnny admitted, as he eased his head back down. “What kept ya?”

“Well, we had a few delays along the way, but we’re here now. Scott is out trying to find a way to get you back to town,” Murdoch explained as he again looked around for Scott, wishing he were back. He looked back towards the cave, and inclined his heads towards where the two bodies lay. “It looks like you managed to take care of yourself while you waited for us to get here.” He commented with a cocked-sided grin.

“Yeah, well you know me. Old reliable Johnny,” he sarcastically hissed. “Besides it was either me or them. I had no choice,” Johnny whispered, as lay there enjoying the warmth of the sun on his pale face. “Mmmmm, the sun sure feels good.”

“I know, son, I know it does,” Murdoch agreed, and looked up at the glowing ball in the sky. “And as soon as this whole nightmare is over with, you’ll be able to enjoy a lot more sunny days, back home at Lancer.”

“Well the sooner the better,” Johnny sighed around a yawn. He figured that he had laid around long enough, and so he struggled to raise himself up off the ground.

Johnny, stay down, you’re still not well enough to move around.” Murdoch strongly protested his son’s actions.

“No, Murdoch. I’ve been down too long, I need to sit up,” he argued. “Come on, just for little while,” he pleaded, using his best puppy dog eyed expression when he noted the look on his father’s face.

“All right, but just for a while, and I mean it, young man!” he reluctantly conceded. Murdoch positioned himself behind Johnny and slid his huge hands under his son’s arms and carefully helped him sit up. He reclined Johnny against his chest so he would have something soft to lean against. “How’s that?”

“Just fine, thanks. It sure is good to see things upright again,” he jokingly commented, and then he spotted Scott making his way up the steep rocky slope. “There’s Scott, and he doesn’t look any too happy.”

“No he doesn’t, does he?” Murdoch frowned.

After reaching the top of the ledge, Scott bent over resting his hands on his knees and waiting until he got his second wind to relay the bad news. When he able to breathe again and straightened up, he was overcome with relief to see his little brother awake and alert.

“Johnny!” Scott smiled. “Happy to see you are still with us, little brother.”

“Not as happy as I am, Scott.” Johnny smiled back at his brother, and then asked the question he knew was on father’s mind too. “So what did you find?”

Scott shook his head, the smile melted off his lips and he sighed heavily. “Not a thing, no horses, except for ours. No wagon of any kind. Nothing!” he snarled in disgust. “I found the tracks leading in up to a certain point, and then out again. My guess is that big lug in there carried you up here on his back, Johnny, and then the others took off with the wagon. Therefore we have no way of getting you down from here with just the two of us.”

“Well that’s just great!” Murdoch growled. “I guess you’ll have ride back into town and get a wagon and some help, Scott,” he instructed. “I’ll stay with your brother.”

“I see no other way,” Scott agreed.

“Now wait a minute! I can make it down there.” Johnny objected to their plan. “Then I can ride with one of you.”

“No way, brother! There is no way you can walk down the rocky slope, not with your feet the way they are. Take a good look at yourself, you can barely sit up, let alone ride a horse.” Scott vehemently disapproved of his brother’s ridiculous idea.

“I can crawl down. It’s better than waiting around here!” Johnny squirmed in agitation.

“No, John! You’re staying put until we figure this out. Understand?” Murdoch instructed, as he laid a staying hand on his son’s shoulder.

“I guess I’m out number, huh?” Johnny huffed. “Okay, Scott. But hurry back, will ya? I’m getting kind of hungry, and I sure can go for a nice cold beer right about now.” Johnny stuck his lip out and tried to pout, but the effect was ruined when he chuckled.

“Well, I see your sense of humor didn’t suffer much, or your appetite.” Scott grinned at his brother, thrilled to see traces of his rascally attitude returning.

“Just go, get out of here.” Johnny tossed a small rock at his cocky brother’s feet, and then groaned at the exertion.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Scott was just about to start back down, when they heard a voice faintly calling to them from the woods. “Did you hear that?” he quickly asked.

“Yes!” Murdoch confirmed, straining to hear it again. The voice called out again, this time it was closer and clearer. “Well I’ll be.”

“It’s Val!” Johnny happily identified the voice. “What’s he doing here?”

Realizing that Johnny knew nothing about Val coming to town his father gladly informed him. “He arrived in town right after they took you from the hotel, and he’s been helping us ever since.”

“Good old Val.” Johnny smiled at his friend’s uncanny timing.

“VAL! OVER HERE!” Scott hollered down. “WE’RE UP HERE!” He clarified and began waving his arms when he saw Val emerge from the woods.

“SCOTT! BOY, AM I GLAD TO SEE YOU!” Val yelled up to the smiling blond. He began the steep climb up to the rocky slope. “What about… Murdoch and… Johnny… are they okay?” he asked huffing and puffing, as he continued to climb.

“They’re both okay, Val. Everything turned out just fine, except we need a way to get Johnny down from here,” Scott informed the Sheriff, as he finally made it up and onto the ledge.

Val was not the young man he used to be, the exertion of the climb left him in a breathless condition, almost hyperventilating. He staggered over to a nearby log and sat down. He took his bandana out and wiped the sweat off his face, as he slowly regulated his breathing.

“Ah come on Val, it’s not that bad of a climb,” Johnny taunted his amigo.

Val’s head shot up, and his eyes lit up both with delight and relief when he took in the sight of his friend sitting there grinning at him. “Well, I ain’t as young as I used to be. Not like a smart mouth young pup like you. That’s for sure.” He got up and walked over to Johnny and kneeled down by him. “How ya feeling, buddy?”

“I’m fine, Val. But I sure would like to get back to town.”

“Johnny can’t walk yet, Val, and it’s too dangerous to try and carry him down, not over that rocky base,” Murdoch replied, his agitation raising the octave of his voice.

“Well, I can fix that!” Val said, scratching his head. “We can lower him down on a stretcher.”

“That would work if we had one, or the means to make one, but we have nothing to use.” Scott stressed.

“Ah, but we do! It so happens I have a wagon down yonder with blankets and rope, so we can make one,” he cheerfully noted.

“Where did you get the wagon?” Murdoch inquired.

“We, meaning that fancy talking lawyer Barkley, and I found it, after we located that nice Mexican couple and saved them. They waited by the edge of the woods while I came looking for ya.” Val replied.

“Well, let’s get going. Val. Times a wasting.” Scott urged anxiously.

“Alright, but I’m not going to do any more climbing today. Let Barkley have a turn at it, and see if he has a cor…corin…” Val stumbled over the unfamiliar word.

“Coronary?” Scott inquired with a teasing smirk.

“Yeah, whatever, let’s go.” Val grumbled, as his face turned red with chagrin, and then he quickly started to climb down.

.

Chapter Forty-Four

Jarrod, Mia and Juan waited for Val to return with tense anticipation. The almost intolerable delay gnawed at their nerves like a beast with razor sharp fangs. The sense of dread and panic warred with the hope they desperately clung to, that Johnny had been found, and his life spared. The only sounds heard in the clearing, where they waited, were the heavy sighs of Juan, the mumbled prayers of Mia, and the scrape and stomp of Jarrod’s boots as his feet kept pace with the anxious march of time. Jarrod would stop occasionally to check his time piece, snort in dismay, and then resume his agitated striding.

“Senor Barkley, please rest. You are not helping Juanito, his father or brother by making yourself sick by worrying so much,” Mia informed the worried Lawyer.

“I know you’re right, Mia. But there is so much at stake here and…” Jarrod’s words were abruptly cut off when the echoing sound of a twig snapping diverted his attention.

“Senor Barkley, look!” Juan shouted with delight. “It’s the Sheriff and Senor Scott is with him!”

“VAL, SCOTT!” Jarrod hollered and waved to the two as they came closer. “What about Johnny and Murdoch. Are they okay?”

Mia scooted towards the edge of the wagon and quickly jumped down, and then ran to Scott. “Si, Senor Scott, is Juanito okay, is he alive?” Hope glittered in Mia’s eyes as they intently studied Scott’s face for any clues.

“Everything is okay, Mia. Johnny is alive. And he is very anxious to get back to town.” Scott gladly informed the woman, as he gave her a reassuring smile.

Mia’s tense shoulders relaxed in relief. She crossed herself, “Gracias, Holy Madre,” she softly whispered. She turned and smiled at her husband who was doing the same thing.

“But we do have a bit of a problem,” Val informed them, as he began to gather up the blankets and rope.

“What kind of problem?” Jarrod asked.

“Well, it seems the doctor wasn’t taking any chances,” Scott irritably hissed. “The cave where they have been holding Johnny is up above a rocky slope, and he’s in no condition to walk down it, even with our help.”

“What we going to do, Senor Scott?” Juan inquired as his curious eyes watched Val fumble with the blanket and rope.

“We’ll have to lower him down,” Val answered for Scott, as he looked around for something to use as a backboard. He spied the tailgate of the wagon and a satisfied smile split his scruffy face. “We’ll use the tailgate of the wagon as a backboard to lay Johnny on.” No one said a word, as they stood there staring at him. “Well, don’t just stand there with your jaws wide open, help me with it,” Val snarled.

“I must say, Sheriff, you do come up with brilliant ideas.” Jarrod praised, as he and Scott helped Val removed the tailgate, with the aid of tools found in the box under the seat. “I’m not sure I would have arrived at a solution so quickly.”

“Oh is that right?” Val shot. “Well, I have another good idea fer ya!” Val’s eyebrows scrunched and he smiled widely, “Guess who is gonna help carry it up the hill?” He pointed his finger at the lawyer’s chest. “Now use that Harvard brain of yours and let’s get this ready for Johnny!”

Jarrod shook his head and joined Scott and Val as they went to work on making a stretcher to lower Johnny down off the ledge. They began by wrapping a couple of blankets around the board leaving a portion of each end bare, and then tightly tied them on with strips torn from another blanket. They saved one to cover Johnny up with for extra comfort. They attached the ropes to the tailgate at the hinges and the holes of the closing latch. They worked perfectly to thread the ropes through for lowering it down. Once completed, the group then hurried back through the woods and to the cave.

Sheriff Crawford was true to his word, he made sure Jarrod got his chance to climb the rocky incline along with Scott, while he stayed at the base supervising. He wanted to be there for his buddy once he was down and safe. However, he had to hand it to the lawyer, he was climbing that slope pretty easy for the most part. Val grinned in amusement as the sounds of Jarrod’s huffing and puffing reached his ears.

When Scott and Jarrod reached the top they laid the homemade stretcher down, and then rested for a few minutes while catching their second wind. Murdoch still had Johnny nestled against him, and when they were ready to take Johnny he was a little hesitant to let go of him. Scott gave his father a reassuring nod, telling him that everything was going to be okay. Murdoch loosened his hold and anxiously watched when they carefully picked up his youngest and eased him down on the stretcher, as they began to prepare Johnny for his descent down the hill.

“Be easy with him, boys,” the worried father stressed. “And make sure the ropes are secure so he won’t slip off and go barreling down the hill,” Murdoch sternly instructed. “God help us if that should happen,” he whispered.

“Yeah, Scott. I would hate to wind up looking like Swiss cheese,” Johnny joked, as he looked up at his busy brother. “That don’t photograph to well,” he remarked.

“Like lying in a ditch with ants crawling on your eyeballs?” Scott softly added, and then placed a brotherly hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Don’t worry little brother. I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“I’ll hold ya to that!” Johnny winked and gave his brother a confident grin.

“ARE YOU READY UP THERE?” Val eagerly shouted.

“YEAH, VAL!” Jarrod quickly answered. Then he and Scott doubled checked the ropes again. “Well, John, are you ready?” he asked looking down at his young friend.

“As ready as I’ll ever be, Jarrod.”

“Okay, brother here we go!” Scott said, and then hollered down to Val, “GET READY, VAL. HERE HE COMES!

“OKAY!” Val acknowledged.

Murdoch and Jarrod manned the ropes as Scott slowly started to ease Johnny over the ledge. Gravity took over and Johnny’s bodyweight tugged at the ropes, so they tightened their grip. Slowly, taking one cautious step at a time, they dug their heels into the dirt for anchorage as they lowered him. Scott guided the stretcher as much as he could over the rocky drop off, by pulling the ropes away from the sharper edges. He caught his breath, praying there would be no mishaps.

“Easy now, slowly, I don’t want those ropes to sheer off, and send Johnny flying down…to his death.” Scott strongly cautioned, with fear lacing his words.

The confinement of the ropes had Johnny feeling helpless, vulnerable with his arms and legs bound to the stretcher. A sensation he always hated, and he had to fight the almost controllable urge to break free. He sucked his breath in and grimaced. He felt like the ropes were constricting around him, cutting off some of the feeling to his limbs while he dangled there, being jerked and bounced around. His head began to throb from the pounding of wood on rock. Even with the blankets under him, it still didn’t muffle out all the noise of sharp rocks crunching into the board, and echoing painfully in his ears.

“HE’S ALMOST DOWN, KEEP IT GOING!” Val happily informed them as Mia and Juan anxiously watched from the side lines. “THAT’S IT, EASY JUST A LITTLE BIT MORE!”

“Easy, he’s almost down.” Scott relayed to Jarrod and Murdoch, who were doing their best to keep it steady. Both men’s arms and legs were starting to give out, and Murdoch’s back was screaming in agony from the pulling of the ropes. He clenched his teeth and ignored the white hot flashes of pain because he was bound and determined not to give up until his son was safely down.

“Just a little more,” Scott encouraged.

“I’VE GOT HIM!” Val yelled.

Murdoch and Jarrod dropped to their knees and bent over in relief. “Is…he…okay?” Murdoch breathlessly asked.

“IS JOHNNY OKAY, VAL?” Scott called down, wanting to know the same thing.

Val and Juan quickly and carefully laid the stretcher down and untied Johnny, and then started to rub his arms and legs to get the circulation back into them. Johnny hissed at the tingling pain of his limbs waking up. He took in deep breaths until he was able to finally to control the pain and breathe normally again. He slowly opened his blue eyes and smiled up at Val’s scruffy unshaven face.

“How are ya, buddy?” Val smiled back down at his amigo.

“Well, besides having this blasted headache and my body feeling like I was just run over by a train, I’m just fine, Val,” Johnny sarcastically informed his grinning amigo. “That’s one ride I never want to take again!”

“HE’S JUST FINE! HE’S STILL AN ORNERY CUSS.” Val shouted up to the waiting men.

“Speak for yourself, Val,” Johnny softly snorted, “Now can we get back to town. Besides hurting like hell, I’m starved.”

“Anything you say, buddy,” Crawford happily replied.

The three men slowly made their way down the rocky slope to Johnny’s side. With Johnny still lying on the stretcher they carried him to the back of the wagon, and eased him onto a soft pile of hay. Mia and Juan sat next to Johnny. They hovered over him like the parents of a sick child. Johnny frowned and his heart grew angry when he noticed the deep cuts and bruises on Juan’s face. He reached up and gently placed his hand on the old man’s cheek.

“It is okay, Juanito, I am fine,” Juan sweetly assured his friend, as he took Johnny’s hand in his.

“No it’s not okay, mi amigo. They will pay for what they did to both of you, as well as me. I swear it.” Johnny vowed.

With those words, the wagon jerked into motion and they were finally on their way back to town, where they would begin the steps to assure something like this would never happen again.

.

Chapter Forty-Five

“They’re coming, they’re coming,” yelled the stable owner when he spotted the wagon on the outskirts of town. He had promised Sam he would keep an eye out for the Lancers return no matter what the outcome, good or bad. His face lit up with relief when Murdoch took off his hat and waved to him. The smile on the rancher’s face had erased the worry lines that had been etched there for days and told him that all was well. He dashed down the street to let Sam know.

The livery man’s jubilant cry alerted the town. All seemed to go quiet, the only sound heard was the rhythmic jingle of the wagon as the town’s people stopped what they were doing, and watched as the Lancer group slowly made their way down the middle of the street. As they got closer a few tried to peek into the wagon, but their view was blocked by the men on horseback who rode sentry next to the wagon.

The return of the Lancers was not a welcomed sight by some of the citizens, their condescending noses were still turned up in disgust; they had hoped they had seen the last of the trouble makers. To the credit of some they had learned an important lesson when the prejudicial acts went too far; they felt nothing but shame and regret and had to turn away to hide their faces. They knew they would have to live with the fact that they were cowards and ran with their tails between their legs, instead of standing up to that murdering doctor and sheriff.

Watching from behind bars was the frightened Mayor, as his cell window faced the street. He cringed when he saw the look on Murdoch’s rugged face. The smile that he bestowed on the livery owner had faded, and if looks could kill the expression Murdoch glared at the Mayor and the people still gawking at them, could wipe out the whole town. The jailed Mayor sunk down and scooted up against the cell wall. He sat there shaking, terrified about what was going to happen to him. He no longer had his cohorts to help him control the town. Not to mention the town was no longer of the same mind set, some of the people had dared to begin to think for themselves. And the ones who had had enough were the ones that had made sure he stayed incarcerated while the search for Johnny was on.

Sam came rushing out of the hotel, his breath huffing in anxious pants as his weary grey eyes eagerly watched for a sigh from Murdoch to confirm what he was told was true. Murdoch nodded to his old friend and that was all he needed. When the wagon stopped in front of him, Sam hurried around it and he felt like years had been lifted off his heavy heart. The sight of Johnny’s pale face with those lively blue eyes staring up at him was like a balm for his worried soul.

“It’s a miracle, a blessed miracle, all of you alive,” Sam beamed in joyous relief. “Well don’t just stand there get Johnny back on up to his room. I have some doctoring to do,” he sternly ordered. “Mia, you take Juan on up, I’ll check on him in a bit,” he kindly instructed the woman as she helped her husband out of the wagon.

“Howdy, Sam,” Johnny greeted his old friend after Val and Scott carefully lifted him out of the wagon. “I don’t need any doctoring right now, what I need is food, and a stiff drink,” he claimed as they carried him pass the Sam. “Then I should be just fine!” he called back when they entered the hotel.

“We’ll see about that young man. I’m the doctor here, and I’ll say when you can eat and drink,” Sam declared as he followed them into the building shaking his head. “But I can tell you one thing right now, and that is your cocky attitude hasn’t been affected,” he laughed heartily at the welcomed sass of the youngest Lancer.

Murdoch and Jarrod chuckled at the little bit of merriment, it was a refreshing change compared the last few weeks. However, they knew more strife was on the way because justice would be served one way or another. They realized when they got done here; there will be a lot of people who will not be smiling or happy. Before they could enter the hotel the liveryman anxiously approached them.

“Mr. Lancer, you don’t know how glad I am that your son and that couple are okay,” he exclaimed. “And I wanted you to know that a few others, who felt as I did, have locked up the Mayor, and kept watch over him. That way he couldn’t make a run for it.”

“You actually threw a town official in jail?” Jarrod asked raising his eyebrows. “And with no law to back you up!”

“No, Mr. Barkley, we threw a criminal in jail,” he corrected the stunned lawyer. “Like I said before, there are a few people in this town that hated what was going on, but were powerless to do anything, but not anymore. And I do believe you call that citizen’s arrest, right?”

Jarrod smiled and nodded, “Yes indeed.”

“I thank you for doing that. And don’t worry justice will be served!” Murdoch loudly proclaimed for all to hear. “I’ll be visiting with the Mayor after I see to my son and friends.”

“You go on in, Murdoch. I want to have chat with the Mayor myself. I won’t be long,” Jarrod assured.

“Okay Jarrod, I trust you know what to say to him,” Murdoch winked.

Jarrod smiled and nodded again, then went over to the jail, while Murdoch hurried on upstairs to his son. Once in the jail, Jarrod noticed that the bloodied mess had been cleaned up, and the Doctor and Sheriff’s bodies dealt with. He strolled over to the cell area, and slowly opened the door. The eerie creaking noise of the rusty hinges startled the Mayor. He jumped off his cot and tried to climb the wall like a caged animal. When he couldn’t escape that way, he backed himself into a corner, breathing heavily and panicking. He was scared to death when the hinges squeaked that Murdoch, or even worst Madrid had come gunning for him.

“Oh don’t worry Mayor, it’s only me,” Jarrod calmly informed the scared man when he poked his head in.

“What…what do you…want Barkley?” he nervously stuttered.

“Nothing really, just wanted to make sure you’re nice and comfortable in there, because you had better get used to it. Since you’ll be spending a long time behind bars,” he said with confidence.

“I don’t belong in here. I’m the mayor, and…” he started with his normal rant, but was cut off by the annoyed lawyer.

“Your word doesn’t carry any weight, anymore!” Jarrod snapped. “You’re exactly where you belong. It’s too bad your cohorts are dead, they paid the ultimate price for their deeds…you’ll be paying an ongoing one. I foresee a short trial with such an open and shut case,” he curtly informed the man.

“What…what do you…mean?” he asked dreading the answer. “You’re…you’re not going to hang me…are you?” he gulped hard and put his hands on his neck, as though to guard it from the noose.

Jarrod purposely stood there in silence and let the man sweat and think about what a noose would feel like around his fat neck, before he answered. “No Mayor, as much I know my friends would love to see you hang. I think you’ll be dealt with in a civil way. But then again I could be wrong,” he finished and walked back towards the door. “You get some rest now, Mayor, as I’m sure you’ll have some more visitors later,” he snidely taunted, and then slowly closed the door, leaving the trembling man to dwell on his words.

Back at the hotel, Sam was going over Johnny with a fine tooth comb, making sure he didn‘t miss anything that might cause a health problem later on. The exam was lasting much too long to the dismay of his patient, who was fidgeting and getting hungrier by the second. Johnny’s youthful antics of rolling his eyes and puffing and pouting, were making it hard for Sam to hide the mirth he was feeling inside, while trying to be serious on the outside. And he was doing quite well until Johnny’s stomach started to rumble something fierce, and the old doc busted out laughing. The sound was like music to his ears, it was good that the boy’s stomach was demanding to be fed.

“Young man that is by far the best sound I heard in a long time,” Sam said happily.

“I told ya I was hungry,” Johnny proclaimed with a hint of a disgruntled whine. “Now can I eat, before I fade away?”

Sam thought for a moment, “Well, John, despite what you have been through, I’d say you’re coming along just fine. Yes you can eat! But… it will have to be a light diet at first, no spicy foods just yet. You have to give your stomach a chance to adjust properly. It’s been a while since you’ve eaten anything solid, understand?”

“Yeah, I understand, as long as I get something in my stomach,” Johnny conceded, and then grimaced when his stomach thundered again.

“Good! Scott would please go down and tell the cook to prepare your brother a breakfast plate,” Sam politely asked Scott, who stood there grinning down at his brother. “I think he’ll be able to handle eggs, toast and bacon, and a glass of milk.”

“Sure Sam, it will be my pleasure. I would hate to see my little brother fading away.” Scott smirked, and then headed downstairs.

“I’ll go with him to make sure they do as they are told!” Val vowed.

“So everything checks out, Sam,” Murdoch asked anxiously.

“Well besides being a little dehydrated and underweight, he’s doing fine, Murdoch,” Sam was pleased to say. “I don’t detect any more traces of the poison, and his feet are just about healed. I’d say with a few more days of bed rest, and getting some decent food in him, he’ll be ready for travel.”

Murdoch placed his huge hand on Sam’s shoulder, “Sam that is the best news I heard in a long time. And if things go right in the next few days, we’ll be on our way home.”

“Home! That does have nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” Johnny passionately whispered.

“It sure does son. It sure does.”

“Well, I’m going to check on Mia and Juan,” Sam said as he gathered his things. “I can’t believe they had the gall to beat on an old man like that.”

“Age has nothing to do with it, Sam,” Johnny angrily snorted.

Sam sadly sighed at that remark, and then looked up at Murdoch who was rubbing his sore back. “And speaking about age, I suggest you get some rest yourself, Murdoch Lancer. You’re no spring chicken, you know!” he huffed at the tall rancher.

“I’ll get plenty of rest tonight, Sam. But right now, I have few things to do when Scott and Val get back,” Murdoch retorted. “The threat may be over, but I’m not going to leave Johnny unattended yet.”

“All right, but I am warning you now, you are taking it easy tonight,” Sam ordered. “Well I’m off to see to the others.” He then grabbed his bag and left the room, mumbling to himself, “I swear these Lancers will be the death of me, yet.”

“So what are you going to do, Murdoch?” Johnny softly asked.

“Make sure that justice is done, Johnny, in any way I can,” his father proclaimed.

“Well, just give me a gun, and I’ll show them what justice is the Madrid way!” Johnny snarled as his heart ached and his anger grew again, just thinking about those bastards and the town.

Murdoch didn’t say a word. Deep down inside, he wished he could unleash Madrid on this town. He was that mortified and angry with the people who had done this to his son, and to his family. The hell they had put them through. Murdoch walked over to the windows and peered down at the jail and smiled when Jarrod exited and gave him the thumbs up sign.

“Soon, Johnny, soon, we’ll have this town cleaned up.”

.

Chapter Forty-Six

Thirty minutes after departing to procure the meal Sam had ordered for Johnny, Scott and Val returned. An overly cautious Scott had stood guard over the kitchen help as they made the meal fresh. Val watched in amusement as Scott inspected every ingredient used, to ward against any unknown substances being slipped into the food. Scott was unfazed by Val’s bemused countenance because he remembered all too well the drugged coffee. When Scott even went so far as making the cook taste test the food after he had prepared it, a sober look of concern wiped the delight from Val’s face. He now understood just how much this situation had affected the Lancers, it was apparent they didn’t trust anyone in this town other than Mia and Juan.

Entering the room, Scott placed the tray on his brother’s lap, and with an exaggerated sweep of his hand and bow whipped the silver cover from the plate to reveal the steam still rising from the food. Johnny paused and inhaled the delightful aroma of the eggs and bacon before grabbing his fork and digging into them. He had to consciously pace himself even though he felt starved. He knew he better not eat too fast, the last thing he needed was to upset his stomach and bring back the nausea. He wouldn’t be too happy to start heaving his guts out again, nor would Sam be pleased if he did. Johnny took his time, and savored every bite of his first solid meal in weeks. Murdoch smiled widely as he watched Johnny eat, and his heart felt lighter than it had since the beginning of this nightmarish event. Now that he had his son back he was looking forward to seeing justice served and then returning home, it couldn’t happen too soon for him.

“Scott, I want you to stay with your brother. I have few things to take care of.” Murdoch instructed eldest. “I shouldn’t be too long.”

“All right, sir. But when you get back, would you please get some rest?” Scott requested out of concern for his father.

“Yeah, Murdoch! You heard Sam. You have to take it easy. This hadn’t been easy on you either,” Johnny agreed with his brother. “The last thing we need is you getting sick on us, ya know.”

Murdoch smiled and shook his head. “Humph, I still can’t get used to the idea of having sons worrying about me.”

“And as I told you before, you better get used to it,” Johnny intoned, with a hint of laughter coloring his voice. “Well?”

“Okay, boys, you win, when I get back I’ll get some rest,” Murdoch conceded. “Scott, you make sure your brother does as Sam tells him,” he instructed, knowing how Johnny liked to put a fuss up when it come to taking medical advice. “Val, you’re with me.”

“Where are we going, Murdoch?” Val asked curiously.

“I’m going to pay a little visit to the good Mayor. And then send off a couple of telegrams,” Murdoch revealed.

“Well in that case I’ll be happy to join you,” Val snorted devilishly. He grabbed his hat and followed the tall rancher out of the room. Val was anxious to have a few choice words with that bastard of a Mayor.

The two men casually strolled out the building as the snooty clerk and a few assorted employees watched with undisguised disgust at their presence. It didn’t seem to bother Murdoch, as he knows they’ll soon regret their own actions, past and present. Before crossing the street Jarrod met up with them to inform Murdoch about the inquiries he had made for him.

“Are they sure he’ll be here tomorrow morning?” Murdoch questioned.

“The postal clerk was positive, and so was lady at the land assay office. They said he makes his rounds every two months. And tomorrow is his scheduled time for court,” Jarrod was pleased to inform his friends.

“You didn’t have to twist a few arms did you?” Val smirked.

“Well, I did tell them it was in their best interest to come forth with the truth.” Jarrod winked.

“Good enough for me! Well, Val, shall we go tell the Mayor the good news?” Murdoch gleefully asked.

“By all means, lead the way.”

“I had my say already, so you two enjoy your visit.” Jarrod smiled.

“Oh we will, Jarrod, we will,” Murdoch exclaimed, as he and Val ambled over to the jail.

**********

Johnny’s belly hadn’t been the only one rumbling, so was the Mayor’s, as he paced back and forth in his cell, while waiting for someone to bring him his dinner. He hoped that the anticipated meal was better than the last one. His taste buds were not accustomed to the kind of food they have been serving him, and it was leaving his stomach feeling rather ill. Instead of beef and potatoes with all the trimmings, and a good vintage of wine, he had been served plates full of beans and mush. And the coffee had tasted like someone had reused the grounds over and over again. But he was hungry enough now to eat anything. His agitated actions were interrupted by the cell door slowly creaking open again.

“Well, it’s about…” he began to complain, but stopped cold when he saw who was coming through the door. “You…you…stay away from….me …Lancer.”

“Sorry Mayor, but I can’t do that,” Murdoch replied harshly. “Not after what you and your associates put my son and family through. I just wanted to let you know that I have received word that the circuit Judge will be arriving tomorrow morning,” Murdoch informed the man as he walked up to the cell, “And I plan on telling him all about you and this God forsaken town.”

“He’ll never believe you!” the Mayor pig-headedly snorted. “Who would believe the word of a man who fathered a cold-blooded killer like Madrid?” he cruelly added, stepping closer to the cell door and an irate Val.

“HIS NAME IS LANCER! YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Val hollered, as he reached through the bars and grabbed the stunned man by the collar. He jerked and slammed the Mayor’s pudgy face against the cold steel. “You’re the killer here, not Johnny!” Val snarled, his face contorted with rage.

“Val, it’s okay,” Murdoch calmly intervened, even though his own temper was being tested here, but he managed to keep it under control. “You see it’s that kind of attitude that’s going to get him hung!” Murdoch stated the hard facts to the trembling Mayor. “Besides with all that has had happened here, now he’s the only one left to pay for the crimes.”

“But…but…Barkley said…I was not going to hang,” he nervously blabbered.

“Well, that’s up to the Judge, and if he says you hang, then you hang. Simple as that, right Sheriff Crawford?”

“Right, Mr. Lancer,” Val respectfully replied. “And if you don’t swing by the neck, you better get used to wearing stripes instead of those fancy duds,” Val bluntly stated with devilish glee in his eyes.

“Think about it, Mayor, those are the choices you left for yourself, when you messed with the wrong people. Lancer takes care of our own, remember that!” Murdoch proudly proclaimed as he headed for the door. “Oh, by the way, there’s another choice you could have had,” Murdoch paused menacingly.

“What other choice could I have besides being hung or sent to prison?” the Mayor whined.

“Facing my son’s gun!” Murdoch boldly threatened. “You’re lucky Johnny is not up to it right now. But believe me when I tell you, he’s sure thinking about it,” Murdoch smirked wickedly. “However, my son is a far better man than you are. He’s going to let the law take care of you. Besides, as Johnny would say, you’re not worth the lead in the bullet it would take to put you out of your misery.” Murdoch finally had his say, so then he and Val left the room. Leaving the Mayor standing there shaking in his fancy boots, finding he had lost his appetite.

“That will keep him up all night,” Val snorted in satisfaction. “But I tell ya, I was sure tempted to waste a bullet on him.”

“No, Val, we have to keep it within the law, if I want my plans for this town to work,” Murdoch said. “So for right now, I have a few telegrams to send off to set the plans in motion.”

“All right, I’ll stay here, and keep an eye on that fat rat in there,” he said scratching his head. “I guess for right now, I’m the only law in this blasted town,” Val grumbled.

“Well if all goes well, that will change soon, Val,” Murdoch proclaimed as he headed out the door and down the street to the telegraph office.

Comfortable with the fact that Johnny was safe back at the hotel with Scott, Murdoch decided to wait for a reply to the one of his messages he had sent out. One was to Green River, letting Teresa and the others know that they would soon be on their way home. The other was to an old friend. As he sat outside the office, Murdoch glanced around at the sorry excuse for a town. It was sorely in need of a good butt kicking, and he knew without a doubt his friend can do just that, if he agrees to come.

“How did your visit go with the good Mayor?” Jarrod inquired, as he sat down next to his friend.

“Good. He knows his time is about up. Either he will hang, or be sent to prison,” Murdoch declared. “It’s amazing, how a nice, clean decent looking town such as this one can be filled with so much hate and prejudice, Jarrod. I mean I have encountered people like the Mayor and that doctor before, but never all packed away in one town!” Murdoch exclaimed.

“Believe me, as a lawyer, I had seen my share of these unjust and prejudicial acts, and sadly it’s something I fear will never stop,” Jarrod replied grimly. “It’s been going on for generations, it’s a hard cycle to break, and so many have suffered because of it.”

“We may not be able to stop it completely, Jarrod. But we sure can help make it easier for others to live amongst these narrowed minded bastards, when they know there will be legal consequences for their hateful actions,” Murdoch vehemently stated. “I have a friend, who will not take any bullshit from anyone, not even me,” Murdoch laughed. “If a Mexican family or any other minority wanted to come and live in this town, he would make sure they got the red carpet treatment, so to speak! And if others objected, he would show them the way out of town.”

“Now that’s my kind of lawman,” Jarrod commented brightly. “He’s a lawman, right?”

“The best there is! I hope the judge agrees with my idea of bringing him here, until they can get a permanent sheriff,” Murdoch eagerly replied. “I’m waiting here to see if he’ll agree to come, before I talk to the Judge.”

“May I ask his name?”

Murdoch looked around, and whispered in Jarrod’s ear. “Please keep that to yourself until he gets here. No need to stir an up hornet’s nest. I’ll let him do that himself.”

Jarrod smiled with delight, “My lips are sealed. I sure do love your way of thinking, Mr. Lancer!”

The clerk came out of the telegraph office with the reply Murdoch was waiting for, and nervously handed it to him. “Is…is he really coming?” the clerk nervously asked.

“Murdoch read the message, smiled and look back up the shaking man. “Yes, and if you say one word about this, you’ll be the first one he deals with. Understand?”

“Yes…yes…sir,” he stuttered, and then ran back into the office, pulled down the shades and locked the door.”

“When’s he coming?” Jarrod quietly asked.

“In three days.”

.

Chapter Forty-Seven

The satisfaction he felt over the way things were finally coming together for him and his family put a peaceful and calm countenance on Murdoch’s face, the lines of anxiety had been erased. Murdoch was able to relax after weeks of worrying and wondering when this nightmare would ever end. He found himself able to breathe a little easier knowing that tomorrow the circuit Judge would arrive and begin to sort this mess out. After all this town, its officials and citizens, had put the Lancers through, Murdoch was left with no pity or sympathy for whatever price might be required of them for justice to be served. In short, he didn’t really give a damn whether the Mayor hung, or went to prison for the rest of his life. His only regret was that crazy doctor had taken the coward’s way out and deprived him of the utmost pleasure of seeing that mad man and the Sheriff punished, for the unforgivable torture he had caused his son.

Murdoch pocketed the telegram from his old friend, and then he and Jarrod headed back to the hotel, for a much needed hot meal and a good night’s rest. Upon entering the room, they found Johnny and Scott engaged in a mean game of checkers, and when asked who was winning, they both pointed to each other, grinning. The pleasurable sight of the brothers enjoying each other’s company was long overdue, and it lightened their father’s heart and weary mind.

“I trust all went well?” Scott muttered, as he continued to stare at the checker board, contemplating his next move.

“Yes, it went very well,” Murdoch eagerly replied, as he stretched his tired back, and let out a long and sustained yawn. “The circuit judge will be here tomorrow and he will take care of the Mayor once and for all!”

“I told ya, I would be very happy to *take care* of him,” Johnny reminded his father, as menacing look ghosted across his face when he took his eyes away from the game, and glanced up at his father.

“No, Johnny. We’ll let the law take care of him,” Murdoch stated emphatically to his now brooding son. “But if it makes you feel better,” Murdoch smiled, “I did put the fear of Madrid in him, for you. And I doubt he’ll get any sleep tonight!” A look of glee lit his face as he chuckled in remembrance.

Johnny smiled widely at his father’s mirth over the Mayor’s predicament. “You did, huh? Well, I guess that’ll have to do for now,” Johnny snickered, and then made his next move, jumping and claiming one of his brother’s checkers, much to Scott’s chagrin, before turning his attention back to his father. “Well?” he asked.

“Well what?” Murdoch asked in confusion.

“What about your promise? About getting some rest?” Johnny clarified for his old man, and nodded to Scott. “There’s a bed right over there for ya, so how about it?”

“You boys sure are persistent!” Murdoch laughed, and then glanced over at Jarrod who was agreeing with the boys by nodding his head vigorously. “You too, Jarrod?”

“Your sons are right, Murdoch. You do look a bit ragged, and we do have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow,” the lawyer stated the facts to his friend.

“Well, it’s a bit early to turn in, and I’m getting hungry. So if you men don’t mind I think I would rather have a good meal and hot bath before I call it an night!” Murdoch informed them with a cocky *I’ll call the tune* grin.

“Well, it’s about time I heard some sensible words come out of your mouth, Murdoch!” Sam grumbled, as he entered the room. “I’ll stay with John, while you three go downstairs and get some dinner.” He put his hand up to stop the protests, “Don’t worry, we’ll be just fine. I doubt these people will try anything anymore.”

“Are you sure, Sam?” Murdoch questioned, revealing his concern for their safety, mixed with his reluctance to leave Johnny without at least one family member in attendance.

“Yes, now go!” the old doctor ordered. “And for your information, Mia and Juan are next door, and both are doing just fine. Despite the beating Juan endured, he’ll be as good as new in few days.” That last bit of news helped the doctor’s case, and eased the others’ minds as well.

“Okay, Sam. But if you need us, we’ll be right downstairs, so don’t hesitate to holler!” Murdoch instructed his stubborn friend.

“I will, now go!”

The three men nodded and left the trusted doctor and the youngest Lancer alone in the room. Their lightly bantering voices muffling as they headed down the staircase.

“Okay, Johnny, my boy, let’s check you over, and then I’m going to beat you at checkers,” Sam happily bragged.

“You’re on, Sam, but it’s me who’s gonna win!” Johnny replied, extremely confident that he could beat a checkers master like Sam.

“Well, we’ll see about that! Now open your shirt and let’s take a look at you,” Sam said as he affectionately ruffled Johnny’s dark head.

 ******

After dinner Jarrod and Sam agreed to share the room right next to the Lancers, that was vacant, leaving the Lancer men to occupy the one, they had already set up for Johnny. And even though the threat was gone, they were still playing it safe until the Judge arrived. They didn’t want to chance anyone being kidnapped in a bid to save the Mayor from his coming fate. And for the first time in weeks everybody was able to get a decent night’s sleep, without worry. When morning came they awoke feeling revived and ready to face the day.

Murdoch and Jarrod patiently waited down by the stage depot for the eight o’clock stage to pull in. Just as Murdoch looked down at his watch, they heard the thundering sound of hooves beating the hard ground indicating the stage was going to be right on time. They both anxiously watched as the passengers slowly disembarked, one at a time. Jarrod eyes grew wide with delight and relief to see a familiar face.

“Judge Morris, what a pleasant surprise,” Jarrod happily declared. “I had no idea you had come out this far?” Jarrod exclaimed as he graciously shook the man’s hand.

“A judge’s duties takes him where ever he’s needed, Jarrod Barkley.” The slender distinguished looking man proclaimed with a smile for the lawyer. “And what brings you here? And where’s the Mayor, he’s usually the first one to greet me?” He glanced about as though expecting the Mayor to appear at any minute.

“Well Judge, that’s why I’m here.” Jarrod turned to Murdoch, “But first before I forget my manners, this is my good friend Murdoch Lancer. And secondly, we have an urgent matter that we need to talk to you about in private,” Jarrod bluntly stated in a secretive and serious voice.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Judge Morris.” Murdoch eagerly extended his hand to the curious man, “And Jarrod is right we do need to talk.”

“Well, by all means, come with me to the courthouse and tell me what’s on your minds.” Judge Morris ordered. He studied their faces, and was gripped by the notion that what they were about to tell him was not good news.

Murdoch helped the Judge with his bags, and then the three men quickly crossed the street and headed into the courthouse, which stood no more than a hundred yards away from the jail. The proximity gave the Mayor a ringside view. The defeated man watched from the cell window, with a mortified look on his face, dreading what they were going to tell the Judge.

In the Judge’s chambers, the seasoned officer of the court listened carefully as Murdoch and Jarrod explained the sordid details of the unjustifiable and cruel acts perpetrated upon Johnny and other minorities. The Judge was in total shock, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing was true. In all the times he had visited this town on his rounds, he never had such things brought to his attention, apparently because the town officials not only condoned such atrocious acts, but participated in them, and then covered it up.

“You’re saying that all this time, the reason I have never seen any minorities here was because of the prejudicial behavior of the Sheriff and Mayor, who I swore in myself?” he stated in one breath, and then shook his head in total dismay. “How could I been so wrong?”

“They had everybody fooled, Judge. The ones who only visited the town saw a clean decent town, not realizing what really went on here. There are a few good citizens who live here, but they feared what would happen to them if they spoke out,” Murdoch angrily stated.

“However, they have gone too far this time. The sheriff and doctor may be dead, but the Mayor is still very much alive, and he has to be dealt with properly. The other narrowed minded people need to be shown what the consequences of their continued prejudice could cost them,” Jarrod stressed.

“And he shall be, and they will be shown!” the outraged Judge vowed. “But first I would like to see your son, Mr. Lancer, if that’s all right with you? And the Mexican couple, I would like to see for myself what was done to them. I also wish to express my apologies for the behavior and horrid actions of duly appointed officials.”

“By all means, Judge. They’re over at the hotel,” Murdoch replied.

“Judge, do you think this will go to a jury trial, or can this be settled quickly?” Jarrod inquired. “So many have suffered for too long, and I feel this sad and disgusting situation needs to be righted immediately.”

“I agree, Jarrod, and with what you had told me, I see no reason to bring it to trial. After I visit the victims, I will let you know for sure.”

I was hoping you would say that, Judge,” Murdoch replied with a grin. Then they both escorted the Judge to the hotel.

Judge Morris was appalled at the condition of Johnny, even though he was on his way to a full recovery, he was still quite thin, and his eyes were still slightly dark rimmed and sunken. Sam removed the covers to reveal the dried up scar tissue of the blisters that once infested Johnny feet. Sam also presented the bottle of poison that was used on Johnny as well, and provided him with medical information that was crucial to the case.

When he was done with Johnny, he visited Mia and Juan. He examined the cuts and bruises on Juan’s aged face, and then looked into his gentle eyes. He wondered why in the world anybody would want to hurt such a kindly spirit. Then he was told by Mia, as she wept bitterly, about her son and daughter who had died at the hands of these bastards. He had never seen such pain and anguish as he saw in Mia, as he experienced a fraction of her heartbreak through her sad story.

“Well Judge?” Murdoch softly asked.

The Judge was unable to speak for a few minutes as he tried to gather his thoughts before answering. “Tell your Sheriff Crawford to have the Mayor ready and brought to my chambers at one o’clock today,” he sternly ordered, and then placed his hat back on his gray head, and sorrowfully made his way to the door.

“I’ll do that, Judge.” Jarrod complied.

“Judge, I’ll walk you back to the courthouse. There is something I want to ask you, that I think you will agree with whole heartedly.” Murdoch said as he opened the door for the disheartened man.

“If you have any ideas as to how to help this town, Mr. Lancer, I’m all ears,” Morris answered as they left the room.

“Oh, I do, Judge, I do.”

.

Chapter Forty-Eight

At the Judge’s request, Jarrod returned to the jail and informed Val of the order to have the Mayor in the Judge’s chambers at one o’clock. The two men stood conferring with each other, every once in a while turning to skewer the nervous prisoner with knowing looks. They purposefully kept their voices low causing the agitated Mayor to press his rotund body against the bars, squeezing puffy mounds of flesh through the openings between the iron bars, in an attempt to glean some information about his fate.

Val was eager to comply with the Judge’s mandate. He impatiently waited for the appointed hour. At twelve-forty, he gleefully informed the prisoner he had twenty minutes to make himself presentable. Val stood by the cell door with his arms cross, and a big satisfying grin plastered on his unshaven face. He watched in amusement as the Mayor nervously prepared himself to appear before the Judge. Crawford couldn’t believe all the primping he was doing just to find out these were his final days as Mayor of this God forsaken town. The fat man made sure he was clean shaven, and that his clothes were tidy, and his hair neatly combed. He repeatedly wiped cold beads of sweat from his forehead as he preened. He hoped to delay the inevitable, by going about his preparation in a slow and concise manner.

“You have three minutes to finish up with your primping Mayor,” Val snarled. “The Judge wants ya in his chambers by one and it’s just about that time now.”

“I’m hurrying!” the Mayor snapped, in a voice tinged with fear. “Judge Morris is a friend of mine, and I want to look presentable. After all I’m a duly appointed official of this town, and have to look my best.” He snobbishly snorted as his biased eyes took in Val’s disheveled form, “Judging by the way you’re dressed, I can see you lack the decency and the brains to dress appropriately for the job you were appointed to!”

Val fought back the strong urge to belt the man right in his smart mouth. He settled for grabbing him by the collar, and then giving him a hard shaking. “Listen, you fat bastard, where you’re going those fancy duds won’t mean squat!” Val spat in his face. “Your three minutes are over. Hold out your hands!” The man did as he was told, and then Val slapped handcuffs on him, delighting in the frightened trembling he could detect in the obese bigot’s body.

“This is outrageous! I demand you take these off of me this instant!” the Mayor blabbered as his face blushed crimson red in mortification over his dilemma.

“Sorry, Mayor, I’m just doing my job!” Val taunted angrily. “Now get going!”

Sheriff Crawford forcibly pulled the Mayor out of the jail cell, and then had to give him a few shoves to get him going when he hesitated to move towards the door. Once outside they became the center of attention as people stopped and watched their once respectable Mayor being escorted by the lawman. The citizens, who had supported the Mayor’s prejudicial ways, frowned and glared at Val as he continued to walk the Mayor over to the courthouse. The gruff Sheriff made sure they knew he didn’t give a rat’s ass what they thought by snarling right back at them.

Once they had reached the courthouse, Val quickly opened the outer door and escorted the prisoner in. They were greeted by Jarrod, who led the two men to the Judge’s chambers located towards the back of the courtroom. Gulping convulsively, the Mayor entered the room to find Judge Morris sitting behind his desk. The disapproving look on the Judge’s face left the Mayor with no doubts that he was doomed.

The Mayor glanced over at Murdoch, who stood there looking very confident, like he didn’t have a care in the world. And he felt nothing but hatred for the rancher. *Man of the year indeed, he had come here and ruined everything he and his late friends had built up in this town. And for what? For a man named Madrid! He still couldn’t believe that there were people who actually cared for the half-breed gunfighter, like Lancer.*

“Mathew Carson, please step forward,” the Judge calmly ordered.

“It’s Mayor Carson,” he snapped, having the nerve to correct the judge. He refused to budge from his spot.

“Mathew Carson, I will not ask you again. Now please step forward.” the Judge demanded, this time his voice was cold, hard and edged with displeasure.

The defeated man slowly approached the desk and stood upon shaky legs before the Judge. “I…I don’t know what they have told you, but…but it’s all a lie,” he rambled almost incoherently.

“No, Mathew, you’re the liar here,” the Judge harshly retorted. “You lied to me, when I swore you into office. You were duly appointed with the responsibility, the privilege of running this town with justice and a fair hand. And you did neither!”

“I ran a clean and respectable town, and you know it!” he proclaimed vehemently in his own defense. “I kept the filth out of my town. I disposed of the trash that wandered in, before they brought more of their kind and dirtied up my streets,” he coldly explained with no remorse in his voice. Knowing he had nothing to lose any more by the way his so called friend was taking the word of these intruders.

“Yes, it has come to my attention how you accomplished that. I now have a clear understanding of your methods, and irrefutable evidence to your illegal acts as well. You had no right to prevent law abiding people from enjoying the basic liberties as set forth by our Constitution. Their presence in your town, as you mistakenly call it, broke no laws. And you as a duly sworn official of this town severely broke the trust of the law abiding citizens who had to live in this atmosphere of fear. You misused your power and position by conspiring with the Sheriff and that ex-convict of a doctor. You deprived people of the basics of life, and ultimately committed murder, all in the name of prejudice.” The Judge came to his feet shaking his fist as the anger in his voice rose with the volume of it.

The Mayor stood there quivering, in his twisted mind he was convinced he had every right to do what he did. “Madrid isn’t dead,” he exclaimed as he glared at Murdoch.

Murdoch was about to step forward and plant his fist into the man’s smug face, when the Judge held up his hand and stopped him. “No, John Lancer is not dead! Thanks to the love and devotion of his family. But he did come very close to dying. However, I have also gathered undeniable evidence about the deaths of the son and daughter of that good Mexican family.”

“You can’t prove that!”

“Mayor Carson, I have been a busy man this morning. I have interviewed people who up until now feared for their lives if they came forward. Your reign of terror is over. I don’t need any more proof, and I had had enough of your back talk!” Judge Morris thundered. “Therefore as circuit Judge of this territory I have decided that you are no longer fit to reside as Mayor of this town. And I now hereby strip you of that title. And as to my decision as to what to do with you for your part in the attempted murder of one John Lancer, and for the murders of God knows how many others.” he paused to let his words sink in, “Before these witnesses, I sentence you to twenty years at the state penitentiary. With no parole,” he had sternly ruled.

The ex-Mayor’s mouth dropped open and his eyes widened in horror at the thought of spending the rest of his life in that hellhole. “Twenty years? I won’t…last that…long!” he cried bitterly.

“It’s better than hanging, which is what a jury would have decided. I think you’re getting off easy.” Val whispered menacingly in his ear. “And look on the bright side, maybe you’ll lose a little weight there. I hear the food there taste like cow dung. A lot different then all that fancy stuff you have been used to eating.” Val felt compelled to inform him with a devilish smirk on his face.

Murdoch and Jarrod were feeling relieved that this part of the battle was over, and they couldn’t help but let out a loud chuckle at Val’s last statement. Even the Judge smiled at that, as he knows this will be pure torture for the man to give up the simple things of life he took for granted, and deprived others of. The ex-Mayor would now be forced to learn to live among the undesirables, as he called minorities. Men who populated prison for crimes they had committed such as murder, robbery, and rape.

“Sheriff Crawford, please escort the prisoner back to the jail, to await the arrival of the prison wagon that will take him to the penitentiary,” the Judge ordered.

“With pleasure, your Honor!” Val happily replied. “Come, let’s go,” Val demanded as he pushed the stunned prisoner towards the door.

Beaten down and stripped of the title he had abused for so many years, the ex-mayor of Carson City fought back the tears of regret. The tears were not for the things he did, but for all the things he’ll miss and will have to leave behind when he’s hauled away to prison. With his head hanging low he was paraded back to the jail, for all to see that justice had been served. It was a sobering sight, and those that viewed it knew if they didn’t change their ways they might be the next ones to get a taste of the strong arm of the law.

“Thank you, Judge. For all you have done,” Murdoch said with appreciation and held out his huge hand to the man as he stood up. “You don’t know how relieved I am that this is finally over with. Now maybe my sons and I can go home with peace of mind.”

“No, thank you and Jarrod for bringing this to my attention, Mr. Lancer,” Judge Morris said, as he gratefully shook Murdoch’s hand and then Jarrod’s. “Otherwise, his unjust ways would have continued, and God knows what other corrupt lawmen he would have brought here to help him.”

“I guess they thought holding the Cattlemen’s Convention here, and having Murdoch for the Man of the Year, would enhance their town, and bring in more business. When in fact, it was the catalyst that put an end to their prejudicial ways,” Jarrod rightly surmised.

“Yes, but at what cost? I almost lost my son over this, when it was supposed to be a father and son time between us. And if I had known this would have happened I would never have let Johnny come here!”Murdoch added, as he shuddered at the memory of the sad and horrific image of Johnny when they first found him.

“Like you said, Mr. Lancer, they had us all fooled. And I was very happy to help see that justice was done for your son and the ones who suffered at their hands,” Judge Morris said as they all headed for the door. “When did you say your friend will be here?”

“The day after tomorrow,” Murdoch confirmed.

“Good. I’m here for a week, and I’m looking forward to meeting him. And I must say you thinking of bringing him here is a stroke of genius, Mr. Lancer,” the Judge said with a grin.

“Well, as I said, Judge, if anybody can clean up this town it’s him!” Murdoch strongly proclaimed. “Well I’m going to tell my sons the good news, and sit back and relax until he gets here, and then we’re heading home.”

“I second that!” Jarrod nodded. “Mother is probably worrying her head off over me. I’m kind of anxious to get home and see what my younger brothers Nick and Heath have been up to. Spending this time with Scott and Johnny reminded me of them,” he said with a fond grin. “Now here’s a thought, Nick would be a perfect deputy to help get this town in shape. Heaven knows Mother and Heath could use a break from his mouth for a week or so!” Jarrod chuckled at the thought of unleashing his brother’s temper on this town. “On second thought maybe it’s not such a good idea, he and your friend just might clash. Murdoch!”

“I do believe you right, Jarrod,” Murdoch had to agree with a smirk.

They all left the courthouse with smiles on their satisfied faces. Jarrod hurried to wire Stockton to let his family know he would be home in a few days. The Judge went along with the lawyer to wire the prison warden and informed him of the new prisoner that needed to be transported there. Murdoch went back to the hotel to tell Johnny, Scott and the others about how it had went with the mayor. When he opened the door he found Sam, Mia and Juan also in the room, all anxiously waiting to hear the news, good or bad.

“Well, how did it go?” Scott was the first to ask.

“It’s over! The Judge gave that bast…” Murdoch stopped and remembered his manners because Mia was in the room, “He gave the man twenty years in the state penitentiary, with no parole.” He was happy to inform them all.

Everybody in the room exhaled and their shoulders slumped in total relief. Heavy hearts felt light again. No one spoke it out loud but they all said a silent thank you that it was finally done with. And then they looked over at Johnny who had leaned back against the pile of pillows, and closed his eyes, his pale face sporting a sad smile. ‘He’ll never make it.’ Johnny thought to himself.

“Are you okay, son?”

“Yeah, I’m just glad it’s over,” Johnny softly answered, as he opened his eyes and looked up at his father. “When can we go home?”

“Soon, John, just as soon as the Marshall gets here and takes over, then we can all go home and forget this nightmare ever happened,” Murdoch said as he walked over to the window.

“If we can,” Johnny whispered.

“What’s this Marshall’s name, Murdoch? You never really told us,” Scott replied.

“I guess I can tell you now.” He paused and smiled, “He’s the orneriest, mule headed, meanest lawman I ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I can honestly call him a friend.”

“Well who?”

“J.D. Cahill, US Marshall!”

.

Chapter Forty-Nine

“Cahill!” shouted Johnny, as his blue eyes widened to enormous proportions. The amusement Johnny felt over his father’s revelation brought back the long missing mischievous animation to his still thin face. There was no doubt from his reaction he enjoyed the news. “Wow, Murdoch! You got the biggest, baddest gun wearing a badge! He’ll kick butts and then take names!” Johnny giggled, clapped his hands, and then rubbed them together in undisguised glee. “Oh boy have you lowered the boom on this town.”

Scott stared in confusion at his father and brother. He wondered what was so funny that everybody in the room was snickering. Being from Boston, he wasn’t as familiar with the stories and legends of the wild west. He had heard some stories since coming home, but never anything of this Cahill.

“I gather this Marshal is a legend around here?” Scott asked, arching his eyebrows so high they disappeared under the fall of ash blond hair on his forehead.

“Yeah, you can say that, Scott. J.D. Cahill is one mean hombre. He won’t take no bull from anybody, and he’s as big as Murdoch, in fact I believe he might be as tall as a pine tree.” Johnny practically shivered in excitement as he explained to his brother. “I once saw him take out three men, and then run down two more on foot, who thought they could rob the bank while he was busy,” Johnny smirked, “and it was a sight to behold. I knew I better not stick around, so I hightailed it out of there, before he found out who I was. He doesn’t cotton much to gunfighters.”

“You mean there was a man who actually scared Johnny Madrid?” Scott teased his little brother. The next thing Scott felt was a well aimed pillow thumping him in his face.

“Man? He’s more of a monster when you get him riled up!” Johnny snorted. “Hell, I’m pretty sure even the devil is afraid to face him.”

“Don’t worry, Johnny. I’ll make sure he doesn’t find out who you were, when he gets here.” Murdoch assured his son while smiling in delight at his high spirits.

“Where in the blazes did you meet him, Murdoch?” Sam inquired.

“It was a long time ago, Sam. It was just a couple of years after I came to this country, and believe it or not I saved his life.” Murdoch remembered with a fond smile. “When he was first appointed sheriff of a small town, he went after a band of rustlers and was pinned down a few miles outside of town, after he caught a bullet in his shoulder. I happened along and offered up my gun, and together we took care of them. Otherwise he would have been over-taken and killed. We quickly became friends and he said if I ever needed him, just holler. So I’m just calling in his marker.”

“Well, I can hardly wait to meet the man my father and brother think so much of.”

“Oh, believe me, Scott, once you do you’ll never forget him.” Johnny’s smile faded into a yawn, and then snuggled down for a short nap.

Murdoch looked back out the window, and down at the unsuspecting townsfolk milling about, clueless as to what was coming their way. If only they had the sense to see that their silence in the past events had aided, abetted and encouraged the cruel and prejudicial ways of their town leaders, and for that they were wrong, and just as guilty. These were the very reason why a strong forceful lawman was needed to deal with them. Murdoch had no doubt Cahill would make them see the errors of their ways.

*********

Time passed slowly but peaceably as they all waited somewhat patiently for the stage carrying the Marshal and the prison wagon to arrive. During this time, Johnny was able to digest heavier foods such as meat, potatoes and sweets, but only small portions. Sam was very pleased and encouraged at the progress he was making. Proper nourishment provided the vitamins and minerals he had been lacking, and that was helping to built up his resistance and strength for the trip back home. The dark circles under Johnny’s eyes were slowly fading. Sitting in the chair by the window in a stream of sunlight everyday was bringing back his bronze skin tone, replacing that ghostly pale mask that he sported for so long.

When Murdoch began discussing the arrangements for their trek back home, Sam strongly advised that they have Johnny travel by wagon instead of stagecoach, even though it would take longer to get back that way. Sam was concerned that Johnny was still not quite up to the shaking and bouncing of the fast moving stage on the rough roads. There was no reason to hurry and hamper his recovery. Agreeing with the seasoned physician, despite his son’s objections, Murdoch had a wagon on standby with plenty of hay, blankets and supplies.

“I don’t know why I even try to plead my case with you two mule-headed old men,” Johnny grumbled, “When all you do his gang up on me!”

“It’s because we know what’s best for you, John,” Murdoch retorted. “You may be getting better, but it’s a long ride home. Sam’s right, the stage route is rough and sometimes dangerous. And I’m not going to put you through that again. Understand?” Murdoch declared sternly, while staring at his brooding son.

“Yeah, I understand,” Johnny sighed heavily. “Besides, I didn’t think about Barranca. I sure as hell can’t leave him here if I went by stage, now can I?” He smiled at the thought of his beloved horse. “I bet he’s mad as hell at me for neglecting him!”

“Don’t worry about Barranca, son. After I found where they had hidden him, I made sure that they took real good care of him for you. And the last time I checked, he looked healthy and content.” Murdoch hoped his words eased his son’s mind. He placed a gentle hand on his son’s slim shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze.

“Thanks Murdoch.” Johnny smiled up at his old man. “I sure miss him.”

“Well it won’t be too much longer before you can see him again. The stage should be arriving in the next half hour.” Murdoch eagerly added, “Then we can finish up here and go home. I’m going to go downstairs and wait for it.”

“I’ll go with you. I can’t wait to meet this living legend,” Scott anxiously called out.

“Fine, I’ll just wait up here with Sam, and try to beat him at checkers again. I swear he cheats,” Johnny mock snarled. “How else can he beat me three games in a row?”

“I don’t cheat young man. I have been playing the game longer than you have been alive, that’s all!” Sam shot back. “And if you don’t behave yourself, I just might postpone your leaving until that back talking tongue of yours heals from the lashing I just might give it,” Sam threatened in a joking manner.

“You tell him, Sam!’ Murdoch applauded.

“Hey, whose side are you on, anyway?” Johnny pouted, lips drooping sadly, puppy dog eyes beseeching.

“Yours! But I pity you if you don’t listen to Sam, while we’re gone,” Murdoch’s laughter rumbled, as he and Scott left the room, leaving Sam standing over Johnny with a sly grin plastered on his aged face.

********

Jarrod met up with the Lancer men at the stage depot, and then a few minutes later Val also joined them. As they stood there, huddled together and talking quietly amongst themselves, a few spectators stopped and stared. They were curious as to whom they were waiting for. Murdoch glanced over at their confused faces and smiled. It seemed that the telegraph clerk had kept his mouth shut as he was told, much to the relief of Murdoch.

“Here it comes!” Scott loudly announced over the thundering sound of hooves. The stage was coming in too fast. “Is it my imagination, or is that stage leaning to one side? How big is your friend?” Scott inquired with a grin.

“Scott, he’s not that big. At least I don’t think he is. It has been a few years since I’ve seen him,” Murdoch lightheartedly answered. “But I do wonder why it’s coming in so fast?” he added with concern, as the careening stage started to slow down.

“WHOA! WHOA! Slow down you mangy beasts!” the stage driver hollered as they finally came to a screeching halt, leaving a thick cloud of dust behind them.

“What in the blue blazes is going on? Why were ya in an all fired hurry to get here?” Val angrily bellowed, as he slapped the dust away from his clothes.

“I’ll tell ya why!” answered a deep husky voice. The coach door was kicked opened by the foot of a huge heavy set man. He struggled to stoop low enough to get his tall body get out of the stage. His face was pursed in a hard cold scowl that could send shivers down the devil’s spine. “It’s because these lily-livered, yellow bellied drivers are cowards! Just one little hint of Indians and they hightail it with their tails between their legs, taking me on a wild ride for the last hour or so,” he loudly grumbled.

“We were only thinking of your safety, Marshal,” One of the drivers protested in their defense.

“Yeah, well, the next time you feel the urge to protect your passengers; do it when I’m not on board. You damn near broke my back with all that shaking and bouncing. I ain’t no spring chicken, ya know!” The man stretched to his full height, his back snapping and popping as he grimaced. “And ya are lucky I was the only passenger, otherwise I might have had to throw you in jail for murder. I doubt anybody else could have lived through that ride!”

“Sorry, Marshal,” the driver quietly apologized, and then muttered something under his breath. “You big mouth son of…”

“WHAT WAS THAT?” Cahill shouted, as he made to reach for the man.

“Nothing, Marshal! Honestly it was nothing,” the driver squeaked in terror, and then quickly jumped off the other side of the driver’s seat.

“J.D. you haven’t changed one bit!” Murdoch greeted his old friend, laughing.

“And I don’t intend too, neither.” Cahill quickly replied, and then turned to face Murdoch. “Murdoch you old dog, how ya doing?” He grabbed Murdoch hand in a vise like grip and shook it. Then he looked Murdoch over. “I see you filled out some, you ain’t that scrawny greenhorn who saved my neck back then.”

“I’m just fine, now that you’re here, J.D,” Murdoch happily answered. “And I see you have filled out yourself.” Murdoch gave his friend a playful slap to his stout midsection. “This is my eldest son, Scott, and good friends Sheriff Val Crawford and Jarrod Barkley. And we have a lot to tell you.”

“Howdy gents,” Marshal Cahill cheerfully greeted them once he got his bearings, and then tipped his hat to them, as he grabbed his valise with the other hand.

“You said something about Indians, Marshal?” Scott asked as he stared up at the mountain of a man, thinking to himself, Johnny was right, he is force to be reckoned with.

“Yeah, a ways back we saw evidence of a band of Indian renegades causing a ruckus among settlers,” he calmly explained. “We come across a wagon covered with arrows and a couple of dead bodies. And instead of stopping to investigate and bury them, these mangy cowards kept on going. Then they thought they heard drums, and they barreled out of there bouncing me around like I was a sack of flour.” He glared at the remaining driver, who was too scared to move.

“Well, I’m sure glad we’re going home in the other direction,” Jarrod commented.

“Well, tell me about your troubles, Murdoch?” J.D. asked, as he looked around the town he was supposed to straighten out. “It looks like a nice clean town, so what’s the trouble here?”

“It may be nice and clean on the outside, J.D. but on the inside there are a lot of misguided people that need your special touch. They need to be taught what’s right and what’s wrong, and you my friend are the only one that can do just that!” Murdoch eagerly answered.

“Ornery cusses are they?”

“The worst kind, Marshal,” Scott answered for his father. “They and their so called town officials almost killed my little brother and a few others as well. All because their skin and culture are different from theirs, they felt that made them inferior.

The tough old lawman frowned when he saw the pain in Scott’s eyes. “I want to hear it all!” he demanded

“Come on J.D., we’ll tell you about it once we get you settled,” Murdoch said as he put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. They started to walk towards the jail, followed by the others.

As the two towers of human flesh walked off, the quickly forming crowd’s eyes widened in awe and fear, for they knew who he was. There was nobody else like Cahill, at least not around these parts and they now know why he is here. Murdoch Lancer sent for him.

Payback’s a bitch, and they know if they don’t wise up, they’ll be paying up big time.

.

Chapter Fifty

Cahill entered the sheriff’s office, and quickly glanced about his temporary base of operations. He swaggered to the former sheriff’s regular sized chair and grimaced at the thoughts of squeezing his large frame into it comfortably. He sunk wearily to the seat, holding his breath as the wooden chair creaked and groaned under his weight. Once he was settled and reasonably sure the chair wouldn’t collapse on him, he then indicated he was ready to listen to the particulars of the case that he had been summoned to town for.

Murdoch and Jarrod explained the sordid details of the elected officials and town’s physician who had white washed their town by using prejudicial and illegal acts to scare off minorities. They explained how the few who didn’t agree with their tactics were too frightened to try to go against the majority who did.

Cahill listened attentively, his ire growing hotter with each revelation. He had seen and heard plenty in his day, but what he was hearing now, he just couldn‘t believe. When Murdoch described the horror and pain Johnny had endured, Cahill clenched his fists and shook with rage. Every painful word that came out of their mouths cut deeply into his sense of justice. The details clawed and gnawed at his insides, twisting and turning his stomach until he felt sick with disgust. His expression grew thunderously dark, his scowl deepened, his nostrils flared, until finally his temper exploded.

“THEY DID WHAT?” he boomed so loudly the windows seemed to rattle and the iron bars shook. Cahill pressed his hands in between his sides and the chair arms in an effort to contain the desire to strike something or someone.

Once the Marshal’s temper had cooled down, Val informed him the prison wagon was coming for the ex-Mayor, but he didn’t actually know when. Cahill relieved Val of his temporary duty to the town, and took over guarding the ex-mayor. The one thing J.D. really hated was a corrupt politician, an appointed official who twisted and abused the law he had dedicated his life to upholding. He looked forward to the great pleasure of throwing the mayor’s fat ass in the prison wagon once it arrived.

Once everyone was clear on all the points of the case, and what would be occurring next, Murdoch and company left the Marshal to ponder, and went back to the hotel. An hour had passed, and feeling calmer Cahill was eager to get out there and scope out the town and the people. He needed to get an idea of what he had to deal with. He visited the local businesses just to say howdy and introduce himself. It was obvious to the lawman that they already knew who he was. He had received nothing but nervous hellos and cold stares. He took the reactions to mean his presence here was not a welcomed one, and instead of being bothered about it, it pleased the old hard headed Marshal. He knew that he had them right where he wanted them.

Cahill decided to mosey on over to the hotel café to grab a bite to eat, and then to pay a visit to the Lancers and their friends, before they headed out tomorrow. But mostly he was curious to see Johnny. There was one thing he didn’t tell Murdoch, and that was he already knew about Johnny. He had heard how Madrid had disappeared from Mexico and was now living his life as Johnny Lancer. And to the seasoned old lawman that had seen many young gunfighters die when they stepped over the legal line, he was very pleased that this particular gun-hawk was given the opportunity for a better life and took it.

Murdoch and the others were discussing the trip home when a loud knock interrupted the conversation. “Come in J.D,” Murdoch called out, knowing it had to be him from the sturdy insistent sound of the pounding on the door. And he was right.

“Now how did ya know it was me?” J.D. asked with a sly grin, when he entered the room.

“Oh, I figured you’d be up here sooner or later. Besides, I saw you crossing the street. You just couldn‘t resist the aroma of good food cooking, huh, J.D.? ” Murdoch chuckled. The laugh felt so good to the rancher who had had no reason to be cheerful in the last few weeks. “Sam, Johnny, Mia, Juan, I’d like you to meet my old friend J.D. Cahill.”

“Howdy folks.” Cahill tipped his hat to them, and then looked over towards Johnny, who was staring up at him in astonishment. “Howdy, young fella,” he cheerfully greeted, and then moved closer to the bed and extended his hand to the stunned young Lancer. “Your pa told me about your troubles, and how these nice folks here helped you.”

Johnny was hesitant to speak at first, but his father’s nod of assurance told him it was okay. “Howdy Marshal, nice to meet ya,” he nervously replied as he shook the big man’s hand. Johnny was pleasantly surprised at the compassion he saw in the Marshal’s eyes. It seemed so genuine. “I heard all about you. You’re a legend around these parts,” Johnny shyly informed the Marshal with awe.

“Yeah, well, don’t believe all ya hear. Sometimes folks can twist the truth, and make ya into something you’re not.” J.D. grinned and gave Johnny a sly wink. At the same time he was carefully looking the boy over, taking note of his weakened condition. Being a father himself, he could see why Murdoch would want justice for the terror his son endured. ‘No man’s child should have to go through what this boy did,’ he angrily thought to himself.

Johnny knew what he meant by that remark and sheepishly smiled back. “Yeah, they do tend to twist the truth. Don’t they?” he softly asked, breaking the Marshal’s trance he was in. He had been deep in thought about his boys who were a lot younger than Johnny. “Marshal?” Johnny inquired when he realized the man’s mind had wandered.

J.D. shook his head and cleared his throat, “Well…I…um…just wanted to check in and see how the patients were doing,” he replied as he glanced over at Juan’s battered face. “And to tell ya that while I was eating, I got word that the prison wagon will be here tomorrow morning.”

“Good! The sooner- the better!” Murdoch exclaimed. “I’ll take great pleasure in seeing his face when they push him into it.”

“I bet he’ll be squealing like a stuck pig!” Johnny retorted without a hint of laughter in his voice.

“Well, it’s getting late, and you folks have a long trip ahead of ya. So I’ll bid y’ all goodnight,” Cahill said as he walked towards the door. “And Murdoch…” he turned to say, “Take care of this one, will ya? Not many fathers get a second chance…” he paused, “Nor do young gunfighters, right Madrid?” he slyly smiled. “I want to hear more of Johnny Lancer and less of Madrid. Ya hear me?” Then he slowly closed the door behind him.

Johnny shot an accusing glare at his father and pointed to the door. “I didn’t say a word!” Murdoch held up his hands in his defense. “Honestly!”

*******

The night passed uneventfully, and as the new day rose on the horizon so did the spirits of the Lancers and their friends for they were getting ready to go home, and bid goodbye to this horrid town. They couldn’t wait to leave the bad memories behind. It will be easier to deal with the events when they are back safely on home ground. Only time can heal wounds, but at least they can heal in peace together, as a family, back home at Lancer.

After a hardy breakfast, Murdoch had Val go over to the livery stable and check one last time to see if the wagon was ready for travel, and have it brought to the hotel. The gruff old sheriff was out the door before Murdoch could say another word. He was just as anxious to get back home as the others.

Sam wanted to ride along with the Lancers, but Murdoch adamantly refused. He wanted Sam to go back home by stage. It was going to be a long trip and Sam was needed back at Green River. Not to mention, Murdoch was concerned about his old friend’s comfort, the stage would be easier on Sam’s old bones. He assured Doc Jenkins that Johnny would be just fine and would follow his instructions to the letter.

“Are you sure, Murdoch?” Sam asked again, as they both stood by the morning stage waiting to head out towards home.

“Yes, Sam, Johnny will be just fine. You’ve been away too long from your other patients, so the faster you can get back, the better,” Murdoch softly replied, and placed a gentle hand on Sam’s shoulder.

“Well, okay. You have my list of instructions, right?” Murdoch nodded. “You take it easy with that boy. Stop to rest as much as you can, and make him drink a lot of water, he’s still a little dehydrated!” Sam huffed, concern coloring his gruff words. He hated Johnny leaving his care so soon. “And you had better send for me the second you get home. I’ll need to check him over again. It’s not going to be an easy journey for him but it’s safer than a stage ride!”

“The second we get home, I’ll send for you. I promise,” Murdoch vowed with a grin. He knew how much Sam cared for his son, as if he was his own. “Now let me help you up.” He then placed a helping hand on Sam’s arm.

“I can make it up just fine!” Sam growled. “I’m not that feeble yet!” The old doctor shook off Murdoch’s hand and climbed up into the stage, and then made himself comfortable as Murdoch closed the door. “Remember the second you get home?” he hollered out the window as the stage took off.

Murdoch stood there waving at his old friend, until Mia and Juan approached him.

“We’ll be leaving for home too, Senor Lancer,” Juan quietly informed him. “And we thank you for all you have done for my Mia and me. Now our children can rest in peace, now that their killers are punished.”

Murdoch smiled widely. “No, thank you for all you did for my son…” he paused and placed his huge hand on the smaller man’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Johnny told me how you have to live out there in the desert, and I will not allow that. I want you to come home with us and work for Lancer. You’ll have all you need and a good home,” he anxiously told them of the decision he had made a while ago. “What do you say?”

Juan looked at his wife, and saw her eyes were welling up with tears. “I…I…don’t know what to say. This is so sudden.”

“Say yes. And then your new life will begin, away from all the heartache you had to endure here. I know your children are buried here, but I think they will be happy for you, and would want you to go on with your lives,” Murdoch compassionately explained.

Juan took Mia into his embrace and looked into her big brown eyes, “Si?” he asked, and was relieved when she nodded. “Si, Senor Lancer, we will go with you. We do not need to go home and gather our things, for we do not have much. As you say we will start fresh.” Juan smiled and gave his wife a big hug, as she wept with joy.

“Good! You both can ride in the wagon with Johnny and make sure he’s comfortable and behaves himself,” Murdoch snickered, pleased to have the extra help to keep Johnny in line.

“It will be our pleasure, Senor Lancer,” Mia anxiously replied as she wiped her tearful face. “We will go and help Senor Scott with Juanito now.” The couple quickly went back into the hotel as giddy as school children going off to play.

“I think you just made two good people very happy, Murdoch,” Jarrod said as he exited the hotel.

“Well, it’s the least I can do for them. They did save my son’s life. And they deserve a better life than what they were living,” Murdoch earnestly replied. “So when are you heading for home?”

“I’m leaving on the noon stage. I wired mother early this morning and told her to expect me.”

“Well, Jarrod, my friend. I don’t know how to thank you for all you have done for us.” Murdoch grinned and shook the lawyer’s hand. “Name your price!”

“No, Murdoch, this one is on the house. We were able to settle it without a trial. And it was my pleasure to help dispose this town of its corrupt and prejudicial leadership. Plus Johnny staying alive and going home is payment enough for me,” Jarrod was very pleased to say.

“I can see why Victoria is very proud of you. With lawyers like you we might stand a chance in this cruel and sometimes uncivilized world,” Murdoch exclaimed.

“Don’t tell Nick that. He thinks I’m wasting my time defending people. His way is the rough house way, shoot first and ask questions later,” Jarrod chuckled.

“Well, at least that’s something Nick and I can agree on, well sort of,” Johnny called out in agreement as he was being carried out of the hotel by Val and Scott. Mia and Juan followed close behind, smirking. “Will ya tell them I can walk? I ain’t no baby!” Johnny groused.

“Oh hush up and let us help ya!” Val snapped irritably. “Doc said your feet are still too tender to walk on, so do as you’re told!”

“Yes, Papa Val!” Johnny hissed tauntingly as he glared at his scruffy friend.

Mia and Juan climbed into the wagon first and helped Johnny position himself towards the front. They maneuvered some of the hay and blankets so he could sit up for a while, and still be comfortable. Mia resumed her mother hen demeanor and began fussing over Johnny, checking his bandages and making sure he was okay. Johnny didn’t bother to stop her. He knew it was what she wanted to do, and it made her feel needed. And truthfully he rather enjoyed her mothering. He saw a little of his own mama in her, back when she was a mother to him.

“Murdoch, look!” Scott called to his father, and then pointed to the prison wagon that was pulling into town, accompanied by three more men on horses. They were all dressed in black uniforms. The scene had Murdoch thinking back to that time he and his friend had tried opening that prison farm.

They all quietly stood there and watched as it slowly pulled up to the jail, giving them a bird’s eye view. Two of the guards dismounted, and then quickly went inside the jail, carrying a sack. Murdoch turned to see how Johnny was doing, wondering how he was going to take this. He knew it was not going to be easy, seeing the fat bastard who played a large part in his nightmare. He walked over to the side to the wagon and placed his hand in his son’s.

“Do you want to leave now?” Murdoch softly asked his boy, “Before they bring him out?”

“Nope,” Johnny coldly replied. “I want to see that gringo cerdo, and hear him squeal as they throw him inside, and then lock the door.” Johnny’s eyes narrowed to slits, fixed on the jail door.

“I guess you have every right to see that. I just don’t want you to suffer any more when you see him again, that’s all,” Murdoch explained giving his son’s hand an affectionate squeeze.

“I’ll be just fine…” he snarled, and then fell silent when at the sound of the office door opening.

Murdoch held on tightly to Johnny’s hand, and his heart quivered when he felt his son’s body tremble with anger. He looked down and saw that Madrid’s mask had replaced Johnny Lancer’s relaxed, easy going expression. Murdoch knew that all he could do was stand by his son and wait it out. For he too wanted to see that sorry excuse for a human being hauled away so they all could get some closure and go home.

Their eyes widened in amusement as Cahill escorted Carson to the prison wagon. He had to physically drag him by his handcuffs as he was digging his heels into the ground, refusing to move. But he was no match for the strapping Marshal who with one last yank had him out the door and into the street in a flash. He was outfitted in black and white prison stripes that made his portly form seem even rounder in the vicinity of his enormous belly.

“See, I told ya, he would look nice in them prison duds, nice and plump!” Val laughed.

The ex-mayor did just as Johnny had predicted. He started to whine, and then whimpered like a baby, when they opened the wagon door, knowing it would be the end of him. He tried desperately to break free and make a run for it. A feeble attempt that proved pointless. Cahill’s long legs caught him in three steps. The Marshal kicked out and swept his feet out from under him. Carson hit the dirt with a heavy thud, eating a mouthful of dirt and pissing in his pants. Cahill roughly pulled him up, and laughed when he tried to hide the wet spot with his shackled hands. The mortified ex-mayor glanced over and snarled at the group watching him as he was pushed forward. “THIS IS ALL YOUR FALUT, MADRID. AND I HOPE YOU ROT IN HELL!” he shouted as he disappeared into the wagon and the door was slammed behind him.

Johnny watched as the wagon took off, and a smiled bloomed on his face. ‘Maybe I will, but not before you do,’ he thought to himself. He looked up at his father. “Now we can go home.”

.

Chapter Fifty-One

Murdoch was thrilled to hear his son ask to go home. It truly felt like home with his sons there, however he knew there was a very important detail to be taken care of before they could bid farewell to this God forsaken town. A detail Murdoch was certain would make his son very happy. He had Mia and Juan keep Johnny occupied while he went to take care of it personally. And within a matter of a few minutes, he returned with Johnny’s most valued and beloved amigo…Barranca. The palomino trotted regally behind the big rancher, the sun glinting off of his silvery mane. The light in Johnny’s delighted eyes shone just as brightly as the sun’s rays when he saw him. Johnny’s smile grew so wide, his dimples were practically touching his ears. His heart was beating so fast he began to tremble, and his hand shook with anticipation as he reached up to touch his horse’s golden neck. He didn’t even bother to wipe the lone tear of joy that trickled down his cheek.

The youngest Lancer wasn’t the only one happy to see his amigo. Barranca’s head shot up the second he caught the familiar scent, and then he recognized the dark mop of hair of Johnny’s. The horse started to prance up and down, loudly whinnying. His youthful antics had everyone laughing as he anxiously pulled and tugged at the reins. Murdoch had a hard time hanging on to them as the horse practically dragged him along when he quickly trotted over to the wagon. Once by Johnny’s side, loving blue eyes and loyal brown ones gazed contentedly upon each other. Barranca calmed down and leaned in towards Johnny. He laid his head on the young man’s shoulder, giving it a gentle nudged, snorting softly in his ear. It was a reunion that was long overdue.

“Hey, mi amigo, I missed ya too. You just don‘t know how much,” Johnny softly answered what he felt was Barranca’s silent question. “Don’t worry, we’ll be riding fast and free again, once we get home. Won’t we, boy?” Barranca nodded his agreement as though he understood perfectly, and then gave Johnny’s head another affectionate nudge. “Yeah, that’s the good fella.”

“There’s something about you and that horse that simply amazes me, little brother.” Scott said in awe, as he watched the compassion and deep connection between the two.

“Well, we understand each other. Don’t we boy?” Johnny said as he continued to pat and rub Barranca’s golden neck. “He’s not just an animal; he does have a spirit, a soul just like us. They can see and understand more than humans give them credit for. All you have to do is just listen closely and watch their body language to understand them.” Johnny smiled and added, “And one day they just might save your neck when there’s nobody around to help.”

“I’ll have to remember that, brother.” Scott grinned in admiration of his brother’s uncanny way with animals. “The unsung hero, huh?”

“Well, if it hadn’t been for Barranca sensing that I was outside the stable that night, then I would have never caught on to what was happening here.” Murdoch shuddered at the memory, “So yes you can say he was the unsung hero here.”

“Well, are ya all done chattering so we can get going home?” Val snorted with a crooked grin. “Too much of the sentimental stuff is hard on my heart,” he grumbled, and then turned his head to quickly wipe his eyes.

“Val, you’re right! Let’s get the hell out of this town, and go home,” Murdoch loudly agreed. He climbed aboard the driver’s seat of the wagon, while Scott tied Barranca to the back. “Are we ready?” Everybody nodded.

“Have a safe trip home,” Jarrod implored his friends. “I’ll be getting home before you do. So if I hear anything I think you should know about I’ll send word.”

“Please do, Jarrod. And give your mother my regards,” Murdoch replied, and then gave the reins a quick snap and they were off. “See ya, J.D. and thanks!” He called out to his friend as he approached Jarrod.

“Will do! And you take care!” the lawyer called to the departing group.

“ADIOS!” Cahill hollered. “Well it’s always nice to see a happy ending. Ain’t it, Barkley?”

“Yes, this time it was. Though not all endings are happy, I’m sorry to say,” Jarrod sighed. “Well I should be getting my things together; the noon stage will be here shortly. And I must say it was a pleasure meeting the legendry Marshal Cahill,” he graciously expressed, and then extended his hand to the big man. “I wish you all the luck with this town.”

“Thanks! But I don’t see no problems popping up,” J.D. snorted, and then shook Jarrod’s hand vigorously, “It was nice meeting ya too. Ya have a safe trip as well. Well, I must be getting back to my duties.” He tipped his hat, and moseyed off towards the jail.

“See you, Marshal,” Jarrod bid him farewell, and then took one last look at the Lancers’ wagon as they slowly disappeared from his view. “God speed my friends,” he whispered, and then turned and went back in the hotel to prepare for his own departure.

 ******

Nearly a day had gone by, and the prison wagon carrying the ex-mayor was making considerably good time. They figured they would reach the penitentiary the day after tomorrow, barring any unforeseen problems, with that in mind they slowed down the horses to an easy trot. They decided to find a good place to camp and call it an early night, much to the relief of the passenger inside the cab. Carson had been bounced around so much, he swore he could hear his brains rattle inside his head, and was pretty sure they would fall out any time now. Not to mention his normally pampered rump was taking a beating as well. It was sore and raw from sitting in his urine soaked pants and from the rubbing and jarring on the hard wood seats.

The heat in the cab was also unbearable. With only the small window on the door, there wasn’t much air circulating to vent out the vile odors and fumes that emanated off of his over sized body as he sweated. The steady diet of gas inducing beans he had been forced to eat while jailed was not helping matters. The pressure in his belly and intestines grew to a painful crescendo. When he could stand the ache no more he lifted his left leg and rump and released some of the pent up gas.

The relief was temporary and soon he was again feeling the agonizing effects of the trapped flatulence. The excruciating heaviness in his abdomen caused him to try and forcefully disperse the gas. Bending at the waist, and completely lifting his buttocks from the hard bench, he grunted and pushed expelling a long and protracted explosion from his bowels. He cried in dismay and humiliation when it ended with him soiling his pants. Now he was in a true mess, and the smell was causing his stomach to rebel. Finally the stench overwhelmed him, and he lost the battle to settle his nausea. His last meal roared from his mouth in a growling geyser and splattered violently on to the floor.

Finally the wagon stopped, and the door opened. “Come on out you……WHEW! WHAT IN THE HELL IS THAT SMELL?” the guard hollered, as he covered his mouth and nose with his bandana to keep from gagging. He quickly moved away from the door.

Carson slowly lumbered out of the wagon, walking with his legs spread apart, tugging at his pants. Now that he had lost all his dignity the man ceased all pretenses of social correctness, and angrily replied, “If you must know. I shit my pants! And I just threw up before we stopped, and I expect you clean it before we leave,” he huffed.

“No sir, you made the mess, you clean it. And you’re staying downwind from us tonight,” the guard informed the ghastly smelling man.

“Ah, Mike!” the smaller of the four men hastily interrupted, “I think we better keep moving.”

“Why?”

“That’s why!” he said, as he pointed to smoke coming from beyond the trees. “And unless I miss my guess those are Indian smoke signals which means they are close by.”

“Yeah, you may be right. We better keep moving then,” Mike agreed. “Okay, you, back inside. We have to make tracks and fast!” Then he and another guard forcibly pushed the ex-mayor back into the cab, and slammed the door shut. In their haste they neglected to lock the door.

The wagon and the men took off at an accelerated yet cautious speed, not wanting to clue the Indians in on the fact that they knew of their where a bouts. They kept a keen eye out for any signs of an impending attack, while Carson squatted down on the floor, mumbling desperately, “Let us be safe. Let me be safe.” He whimpered in fear when he heard the guards shout.

“HERE THEY COME!”

The wagon and men then took off at a fast gallop, panic fuelling their movement. Inside the ex-mayor bounced from side to side like a ball against a wall. He crashed against the door and it flew open, he managed to scoot back but he still got a terrifying view of screaming Indians coming up fast on them. Then with the next hard bump they hit, he managed to land in the mess he left on the floor. It was slippery enough that he slid right out the door. He landed on the hard dusty ground and rolled to a stop. He quickly jumped up, and turned in horror to see the wagon disappearing into the horizon without him.

“NO! COME BACK! DON’T LEAVE ME HERE!”

**********

Johnny had fared the trip home so far with no complications. They had stopped a few times during the day as Sam had suggested, even though it added several days on to the journey. They even took a two day break to camp in a valley with a river teeming with fish. This allowed everybody a well needed break from the heat and rough travel. Murdoch made sure Johnny took the tonics that Sam had left for him, and that he drank plenty of water. The young Lancer slept most of the time, but when he was awake he took in all the wondrous sights. He relished the beauty of the green hills that stretched out for miles with vast fields of yellow and red below. Things he thought he would never see again. And much to Murdoch’s surprise Johnny was behaving, as long as Mia was by his side pampering him.

A week had passed and finally they were back on familiar terrain. That meant they knew of better roads to take, ones that were well used for smoother passage. And before they knew it they were up on that high ridge, looking down at Lancer…home.

“My God, I thought I would never see this beautiful sight ever again,” Murdoch breathlessly exclaimed, as he inhaled the sweet smell of Lancer valley. “We’re home!”

The group fell silent as they drank in the beauty and serenity of the landscape for there were no words to describe how they felt at this moment. The last few weeks they had lived in hell, for which they thought there was no escape. And now here they were back in their little piece of heaven.

Mia and Juan could not believe their eyes. How can one man have so much? And now this beautiful place so full of life was to be their new home. A far better cry from the inhospitable desert and heat they had to suffer though just to survive. Their hearts and spirits lifted so lightly that they thought they were floating on clouds, and this was just a dream. They turned to each other and embraced in a joyous hug.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go home!” Johnny demanded anxiously.

“You heard the boy, what are we waiting for?” Scott cheerfully agreed, as he looked down at his brother’s eager face.

Murdoch beamed and waved his hand forward. The last few miles seemed like it was taking forever, far longer than all the others times they had traveled down this road. Finally the Hacienda came into view. They could hear the whoops and cheers of the men as they climb the fences and walls, waving the long awaited group in. Some were shooting off their guns in jubilation. The Lancer were being welcomed home like conquering heroes, and truth be told that is what they felt like after surviving and banishing the prejudiced demons of Carson City.

“JELLY, THEY’RE HOME. THEY’RE HOME!” Teresa yelled as she raced out of the house.

Jelly came running, huffing out of breath, “Well, it’s …about time!” he grumbled. “Where’s Johnny? I don’t see him.” He strained his aged eyes to locate his boy.

“He’s probably in the wagon,” Teresa speculated as she began to wave to them as they got closer. “Murdoch, Scott!” she happily hailed them.

“TERESA, JELLY!” Murdoch shouted as the wagon pulled up to the house. “Come help us with Johnny,” he instructed after he halted the team. Murdoch jumped from the wagon with a renewed energy and gave his ward a big hug. “How is everything here?”

“Just fine, boss, no troubles…no troubles at all,” Jelly quickly answered and went towards the wagon to help with Johnny. His heart constricted painfully when he saw the pale young man before him. “What in tarnation did they do to you boy?” he said with a hard frown, “Never mind, just let’s get ya inside and next to the fire. It’s getting too chilly fer ya out here. Don’t want ya to get sicker than ya already are,” the old handy man fussed. He had to pause to swallow the lump in his throat and quickly wiped his eyes. “Dern dust in the air,” he groused.

“I’m fine Jelly. And I missed ya too,” Johnny smiled up at his old friend.

“Miss ya? Who said anything about missing ya? Well, it was dern nice and quiet around while ya all were gone,” Jelly snapped, puffing out his chest and huffing as he led the way to the front door.

Scott and Val carefully picked Johnny up and followed Jelly into the house, as Murdoch personally escorted Mia and Juan inside. Once inside, their eyes widened in awe at the grandeur of the great room, and all its beauty. It looked like something out of a book, they had once seen. They wandered over to the couch where Johnny sat, and stood behind him. While Jelly fretted over Johnny, taking off his boots and making sure he comfortable. Mia had to laugh at the old man’s loving gestures.

“Jelly, when you’re done with your fussing,” Murdoch chuckled, “Have Cipriano and a few of the hands get that house, by the north range, cleaned up and ready for Mia and Juan. You know the one I mean,” he stated. “Until then, they’ll be our house guests.”

“Yeah, sure boss. I’ll get right on it,” Jelly said as he stood up. “Now you stay right there, and keep warm. Ya hear me?” He sternly ordered his young friend before he took off out the door.

“I will, Jelly. Wild horses couldn’t drag me from this spot,” Johnny tiredly replied, and leaned back against the softness of the cushions and closed his eyes.

“Well, since you’re all home safe and sound, I reckon I better get back to town and see what’s going on there,” Val informed them, as he placed his hat back on his head. “I’ll let Sam know you’re back and in one piece. That old codger will never rest until he knows,” Val snorted. He walked over and patted Johnny’s shoulder. “See Ya buddy.” He started to head out the door.

“Val wait!” Teresa called out abruptly, stopping him in his tracks. “Murdoch, a letter came for you this morning and I thought Val might want to hear it too. It’s from Mr. Barkley,” she said, and handed Murdoch the letter. He quickly opened it and glanced through it.

Johnny perked up when he heard it was from Jarrod and turned around, “What does it say, Murdoch?”

Murdoch shook his head and then read the letter out loud.

Dear Murdoch and Sons,
I do hope this letter finds you all well and safely home. I promised I would relay any news to you. I received a telegram from Marshal Cahill the day after I arrived home with some most disturbing news. The prison wagon transporting ex-Mayor Carson was attacked by a renegade band of Indians near the end of its first day of travel. It is with deep regrets that I inform you of the deaths of all the guards. At first it was thought that Mr. Carson had escaped, as his body was not in or near the wagon or the deceased guards.
    However, upon backtracking his nude body was found. The ex-mayor had been tortured. He was staked to the ground, held in place by strips of wet leather wrapped around his ankles and wrists. As the leather dried it shrunk and cut off the circulation to his extremities. Patches of skin had been peeled from various points on his body and he was scalped. His skin was marred by animal and insect bites and blistered and burned by the sun. I won’t go into all the details but there is overwhelming evidence that he suffered greatly before succumbing to dehydration. One can’t help but wonder as he lay there dying if he perchance gave any thoughts to the fact he was attacked due to the color of his skin.
    Please give my regards to Johnny and Scott. I hope this letter will give all of you a sense of closure and peace of mind, take care of yourselves, my friends.

Sincerely,
Jarrod Barkley

Nobody in the room said a word. They were all shocked at the news of the death of the man that had caused so much pain and suffering. They didn’t know whether to laugh or cry for the man. All they really knew was that it was finally over. That he had met with a fitting punishment.

Johnny sighed heavily, “Well, doesn’t that beat all. Staked out and roasted like the pig he was. I guess it really is true what they say, you reap what you sow!” Then he closed his eyes and smiled because life was good.

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~end~

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