Barren Victory

 

By Theresa

 

DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fiction based on the TV western, Lancer. It is not meant to infringe on any copyrights, nor am I making any money off the blood, sweat and tears I put into this story.

 

Warning: This story is rated R for violent content. There is one scene (a brutal murder) that may be disturbing to some readers. If you are easily upset, please don’t read this story.

 

The rickety buckboard lurched forward with a jolt, its wheels kicking up minute dust storms in the front courtyard. Johnny Lancer shot a withering glance at the departing backs of the two occupants, Dan and Sarah Cassidy.

 

//Good riddance!// he thought, remembering the upheaval the couple had wrought upon the Lancer household.

 

“Well, all’s well that ends well,” Murdoch declared, slapping his younger boy good-naturedly on the back. “Time to get some chores done around this ranch.” At Scott’s sudden turn, he continued, “Not you, son! You need rest. Two nights without sleep won’t help you recover from that wound.”

 

“I’m okay, Murdoch,” Scott protested. “Might not be able to break any horses for a day or so, but I think I can still pull my weight around here. My shoulder doesn’t even hurt anymore.” At his family’s combined looks of disbelief, he smiled his best ‘little boy’ smile “Okay … okay, so it does hurt. But I really don’t’ feel that …”

 

Johnny strode forward, lightly gripped his brother’s uninjured shoulder and propelled him toward the door. “Don’t fight it, big brother! Come on, let’s get your blond head tucked in nice and cozy.”

 

Reluctantly, Scott allowed himself to be led from the courtyard and into the house.

 

+++++++

 

“You think I handled it badly. Is that what you’re saying?”

 

Johnny cast an impatient glance ceilingward, wondering how their casual, lighthearted banter on the way into the house had so quickly disintegrated into a serious argument. Pacing at the foot of Scott’s bed, Johnny strode back and forth, his hands clenching and unclenching in frustration. “Yeah … no … hell, I don’t know! All I do know is that you put a lot of people’s lives on the line and for what? To save the life of somebody who ain’t worth a hill of beans. I’m sorry, Scott, but I just don’t get it.”

 

The older Lancer, flat on his back in the double bed, struggled to an upright position, wincing as the clotted shoulder wound protested his abrupt movement with a fierce twinge. He could feel his face flushing, tiny beads of perspiration popping out on his forehead. “What … is there to ‘get’, Johnny? I couldn’t be like Dan Cassidy, couldn’t do the things he did. That kind of hatred destroys more than lives; it destroys souls.”

 

Johnny sought his brother’s eyes, peered deeply into their smoky gray depths. “ … I … understand that part … been there once or twice myself. But to put the family in danger … Teresa … Murdoch … and the hands that work for us. I just thought it was a very selfish thing to do, Scott.”

 

Stricken by his brother’s accusation, Scott let his head fall back into the softness of his pillow. “ … maybe it was …” came out a whisper. “… I didn’t … couldn’t … think straight ... just … went from the gut …” Exhausted, he closed his eyes and sighed wistfully.

 

Awash in a sea of regret and shame, Johnny glanced at his brother. The stress and tension of the past two days were openly displayed on his handsome face. Charcoal smudges stood out beneath his deepset blue eyes, and a perpetual frown wrinkled his brow. Immediately contrite, Johnny went to him, easing his lean buttocks onto the mattress. He laid a hand over his brother’s arm, squeezing the warm wrist reassuringly. “I’m an inconsiderate ass,” he said quietly.

 

Scott reacted with a swallow, but he didn’t open his eyes. There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence between them. Then, “You won’t get any arguments from me, brother,” was accompanied by a faint smile.

 

The lopsided grin on Johnny’s face mirrored his older sibling’s. He patted Scott’s hand, then stood to leave. “Get some rest, Boston,” he said.

 

+++++++

 

//I swear, these steps get steeper every day!// The thought skimmed lightly along the conscious edge of his brain as Murdoch Lancer trudged wearily up the stairs to the second floor of his ranch house. When he reached the top of the landing, he could hear the grandfather clock in the grand room below pealing loudly. He counted each booming chime.

 

Ten ..... eleven ..... twelve .....

 

//Midnight! Where does the time go?// Shaking his head, Murdoch started for his bedroom, intent on at least four hours repose, but something inside detoured him. As though propelled along by unseen hands, he suddenly found himself heading in the direction of his older son’s room. Several ranch crises had kept him away from the house most of the day and on into the evening hours. When he’d finally called it quits, he’d washed up, then sat alone at the massive table eating cold roast beef and potatoes. His inquiries about Scott’s condition brought conflicting reports from Teresa. Although she had served Scott lunch and dinner in his room, he hadn’t eaten enough of either meal to satisfy her. However, when she added that he didn’t seem to be in any pain or discomfort, she seemed reasonably reassured that he was on the mend.

 

At ten o’clock, just before Johnny retired for the night, the younger man revealed that he, too, had visited Scott a couple of times during the afternoon and evening. Murdoch smiled fondly as he remembered Johnny’s exact words: "I tell you, Murdoch, Scott’s as grouchy as a polecat in a room full of perfumed whores. But I think he’s gonna live."

 

Together, the combined conclusions of Teresa and Johnny had calmed the niggling worry in the back of his mind just long enough to allow him to finish the monthly payroll. Now, however, the urge to see Scott ... in person ... before going to sleep ... became almost irresistible. Reaching out, Murdoch turned the knob carefully and cracked the door to Scott’s room.

 

The inside was dark, an impenetrable inkiness that made him pause in the doorway until his eyes adjusted. He waited until he could distinguish familiar shapes in the blackness, then entered quietly. His initial observation, that it was much too warm and humid in the room, made him ease the door shut and stride across the shadowed room. Pushing aside the heavy velvet draperies, he flung open the oversized windows. Moonlight and fresh night air, pungent with pine and cedar, flooded inside, collectively cooling the room and bathing its contents in gossamer beams of silver and platinum.

 

Satisfied, Murdoch moved to the bed. Gazing down at the sleeping form of his son, he savored the familiar keenness of his handsome features. From the top of his blond head to the souls of his long, slender feet, Scott Lancer was the living, breathing embodiment, albeit a masculine one, of his mother. When he’d first laid eyes on Scott those many months ago, weary and dusty from the long trip from Boston, Murdoch had been taken aback at the sight of his first wife, reincarnated.

 

"You’ve got your mother’s eyes," he’d said. He didn’t add that the boy had also inherited her hair, her square cheekbones, and her full, expressive mouth.

 

"Catharine ..." The name sprang unbidden to his lips and left them in an involuntary whisper. A memory, more than a quarter-of-a-century old, played suddenly in the recesses of his mind.

 

+++++++

 

"So, what does Harlan have to say?" he asked unenthusiastically. It had been a long tiring day on the range; he was cold and exhausted, wanting nothing more than a warm bed and a blissful night of uninterrupted sleep.

 

Across the room, his wife of almost two years sat in an overstuffed chair. She was clothed in a white linen gown, its shapeless form taut against her swollen belly. Her hair, long and ashen-colored, was unbound, falling almost to what was left of her waist. She was intent on reading the letter from her father in Boston, the one they’d received just this afternoon.

 

"Father writes that everyone is excited about our news, and that our child will most definitely have the lean, sharp nose of the Garretts. He says it’s a sure sign of nobility from our European ancestry."

 

"So that’s where all that ‘Boston blue blood’ settles ... in the nose ..." Murdoch teased. He plopped unceremoniously onto the plump mattress, pulled the homemade quilt up and over his long legs.

 

"Be serious!" Catharine said, trying to keep a stern face, but after a moment, she gave up the pretense of anger and laughed. Finally, she continued, "Father also asks if we’ll do him one favor."

 

Propped up on three pillows, Murdoch gazed at her, suspicion rife on his face. "What ‘kind’ of favor?" he asked warily.

 

"Well, he asks us to consider naming the baby Garrett, if it’s a boy." She looked up from the pages, already worn from reading and rereading, and smiled sweetly. "I think it’s a grand idea. And it would please Father so much. It might bring an end to the rift between you two."

 

Murdoch scowled. "I hate it. And your father knows I’ll hate it."

 

"I know," she said. Her smile flickered, and she seemed suddenly on the threshold of tears.

 

Murdoch felt his resolve wavering. "What do ‘you’ want, Catharine?" he asked quietly.

 

She thought for a moment, then said, "I want what my husband wants."

 

He sighed. This was a game they had first played on their wedding night. Catharine had won then, and she had won each and every time since. "And just what do ‘I’ want?" he acquiesced.

 

"Garrett Lancer," she said, rising and moving across the room. Seating herself on the side of the bed, she repeated the name, accentuating each syllable. "Gar-rett Lan-cer."

 

A snort. A cough. "Your father knew I’d hate that name."

 

"I know," she said.

 

"Is it what you want, what you ‘really’ want?"

 

“Two-thirds of it," she teased.

 

Murdoch smiled indulgently. "I’m probably going to hate myself for asking, but what’s the last one-third?"

 

"It’s not the ‘last’," she said, lying down beside him. She rolled onto her side, bringing her face close to his. "It’s the first! Scott! Scott Garrett Lancer! Do you like it?"

 

"Scott ... Lancer ..." He let the name roll across his lips, listening to how it sounded. Turning his head to the side, he gazed into his wife’s pewter-gray eyes. They were twinkling with unshed glee. "Harlan will hate it," he said.

 

"I know," she grinned conspiratorially.

 

Filled with a sudden aching tenderness, Murdoch reached out, caressed the softness of her cheek with his large hand, then let it rest on the huge expanse of her abdomen. The child within her bowed and stretched beneath his touch. "I love you," he confessed.

 

She moved closer, snuggling into his embrace. "I know that too," she whispered.

 

+++++++

 

Murdoch shook himself mentally, pulling free from the clutches of the bittersweet memory. She had only lived another month, and the child she’d bore him ... Scott Garrett Lancer ... had been spirited away. It had taken him more than twenty-five years to retrieve his son. Now, standing in the dappled shadows of the harvest moon, he watched Scott’s bandaged chest rise and fall rhythmically, listened to the sound of his son’s slight nasal breathing. He focused on the younger man’s nose; it was sharp and narrow.

 

//Not much room for ‘Boston blue blood’ in there,// he thought, smiling in remembrance. On impulse, he reached out a hand, let it settle lightly on Scott’s brow. There was no fever, and his son didn’t stir at the touch. Emboldened by the lack of response, Murdoch moved his hand upward, allowing it to linger on the silky softness of his older son’s hair. Absently, he began to stroke the boy’s head.

 

"Your mother would’ve been so proud of you," he whispered.

 

"Murdoch?" Johnny’s quiet voice intruded from the hallway.

 

The older Lancer jumped guiltily, moving immediately away from the bedside. "Shhhhhh," he said as he hurriedly pulled the door ajar.

 

"How’s Scott?"

 

Murdoch took one last look; Scott hadn’t moved. "Sleeping peacefully," he whispered. "But he won’t be for long with you out there making all that racket. It’s late. Time for all of us to be in bed." With that, he closed the door behind him.

 

+++++++

 

The sound of the door clicking shut brought a shudder to his lean frame. Easing his sore body onto his side, Scott Garrett Lancer buried his head in his pillow and silently wept.

 

++++++

 

Mornings had never been his forte’, and this one was definitely no exception. At the crack of dawn, Scott Lancer had been rudely awakened by the furious flap-flapping of billowing draperies. Across the room, a strong autumn wind blew the heavy velvet almost perpendicular to the floor. His immediate response – jerking upright in bed – had been an enormous mistake, for the tangible world around him suddenly and inexplicably winked out.

 

Much later, when he opened his eyes again, he found himself lying prone in the middle of his bed. His head and shoulder ached with enthusiastic fervor, while the four walls of his bedroom Virginia-reeled around him in a dizzying circle. Swallowing a rapid surge of bile in the back of his throat, Scott closed his eyes to the revolving carousel of walls. It was several moments before the spinning stopped, even more before he could focus on an object without his stomach threatening to disgorge what few contents it held. When he could at last trust his senses not to bring on another bout of nausea, he blinked his eyes, looked again at the ballooning window treatment across the room.

 

The curtains danced furiously in the breeze, then abruptly settled back into place as the blustery weather subsided. Scott swallowed again, tentatively propped himself up on one elbow. When there was no repeat of his earlier queasiness, he eased into a sitting position, slid his long legs over the side of the bed, and stood shakily.

 

The room temperature had dropped considerably, and a stray current of air wafted through, prickling the exposed flesh of his semi-nude body. His first task, closing the drafty window, took only a second, then he was at the bureau, shivering uncontrollably and rummaging through the drawers for a long-sleeved shirt. He selected a thick flannel plaid, eased carefully into it. As even the simplest tasks had become difficult, he left it unbuttoned. His left arm was stiff from disuse, and any slight movement on its part stimulated the raw-edged nerves of the bullet wound in his shoulder. The thing already ached with a vengeance; aggravating it with further motion wasn’t something he was wont to do for very long.

 

Somewhat more comfortable, he moved to the washstand, poured water from the adjacent pitcher into the white china basin and plunged his face into the cool wetness. The water was invigorating, and he kept his face submerged until the need for oxygen became acute. When he stood upright again, pulling in a necessary deep breath, he caught sight of his reflection in the oval mirror on the wall.

 

The man who stared back at him looked haggard and wan. Strands of dark-blond hair hung, limp and dripping, on his forehead and cheeks. His blue eyes were lackluster, and a hint of day-old beard shadowed the lower half of his face. He looked ill.

 

//Well, it’s no wonder!// he thought as he toweled his face and hair. Forty-eight hours ago he had been kidnapped by Jed Lewis and Rick Hardy, two living ghosts from his military past. At gunpoint, they had forced him from Lancer, spiriting him away toward what he knew would be swift retribution for a betrayal they both believed he had committed.

 

At first numb with disbelief, Scott had followed their instructions, meekly mounting the horse they’d provided and galloping off with them. His obvious lack of resistance had lulled them into a false sense of security, and when he felt they had relaxed their guard enough, he’d taken advantage of the first opportunity to escape. Unfortunately, he had paid for his freedom with a bullet in the back ... a bullet that had bored through bone, muscle and sinew, exploding out the front of his body only inches above his heart. He closed his eyes, remembering the ‘doctor’s’ words as he endured the treatment.

 

"A couple of inches lower, and you wouldn’t be here right now, Scott." The man emphasized his name with a jerk of the needle, wringing an involuntary cry from his lips. “Easy now! Easy! I know it hurts like hell, but it’s gotta be sewed up. A hole this big in a man can kill him faster’n you can say ‘spit’. If infection gets inside, it won’t be a very pretty sight."

 

Scott felt the thick needle pierce his skin again. He stiffened in agony, sucked in a jagged breath. He could feel the thin catgut threading through, tearing and burning the tender flesh. "They’ll be coming for me ... you’ll need to hide my ..." he warned.

 

"Ain’t worried about nobody right now but you. There! It’s almost finished. Just gotta tighten the knot and cut it..." There was a horrendous tug, then a bone-jarring snap, and he knew nothing more until he awoke to loud, familiar voices coming from the doctor’s outer room.

 

Fortunately, his memories of the rest of the afternoon were only blurred, disjointed images. He recalled narrowly escaping capture via a window, stumbling across the street toward the hotel. Somewhere in the back of his mind were bits and pieces of a half-remembered conversation with Sarah Cassidy. His next cognizant memory was of collapsing into a rocking chair and, somewhere in the surrounding fog a beautiful woman hovered over him, soothing him with her soft voice and even softer hands.

 

//Hands!//

 

The vivid recollection of Sarah Cassidy’s touch brought with it another, more recent, mental picture. Large, work-calloused hands had caressed his brow, stroked his hair. Last night, he had awakened to an unexpected tenderness from his father.

 

//’Your mother would have been so proud of you.’//

 

He recalled the words and his father’s voice, so uncharacteristically warm and affectionate. And he remembered lying motionless, pretending to still be asleep, all the while savoring every word, every intimacy. When it was over, and Murdoch had departed, a devastating grief had so overwhelmed him that he’d broken and blubbered like a baby. His cheeks flamed in remembrance of his emotional display. It had come on so unexpectedly, a torrent of tears that he had held at bay for a quarter of a century, but it had felt good to wash away all the pain, all the doubt.

 

Murdoch didn’t know the gift he’d bestowed on his son during the early hours of this morning, but the unkempt man in the mirror did. His reflection looked out at Scott, grinning crookedly at the secret they now shared. He smiled back at his counterpart, reached for his shaving cup and slowly began stirring the lather.

 

+++++++

 

Scott descended the stairs slowly, making each step deliberate and methodical. Even so, the impact of his boots on the marble floor jarred the two-day-old shoulder wound. Most mornings found him bounding into the great room, intent on a hearty breakfast before beginning the day’s labor, but today, as he reached the first floor of the large hacienda, he felt flushed and light-headed. The smell of breakfast wasn’t inviting, and his stomach lurched in protest.

 

“Morning, brother!” Johnny looked up from his plate and flashed his famous grin. Seated alone at the lavishly laden table, he eyed his older sibling critically.

 

Ignoring the obvious scrutiny, Scott moved to the table, eased himself into his usual seat directly opposite his brother. “Morning,” he returned politely, nodding toward the empty chairs. “Where’s the rest of the family?”

 

Shoveling a large dollop of scrambled eggs and salsa onto his spoon, Johnny popped it into his mouth and chewed enthusiastically. “They left early this morning. End of the month payday’s here so Murdoch had some banking business. Teresa went with him, said something about needing supplies. They’ll be back by noon. What are you doing out of bed?”

 

“Sick people belong in bed. I’m not sick anymore,” Scott said matter-of-factly. He kept his eyes on the food, selecting a warm biscuit and slathering some homemade butter on it. He deliberately avoided Johnny’s searching gaze.

 

His brother sniffed, wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “That’s a matter of opinion. You still don’t look so good. Are you sure you’re up to being ‘up’.”

 

“I said I’m fine! Can we just leave it at that!” The words came out clipped and sharp-edged, and Scott immediately regretted the tone if not the message.

 

Johnny hunched over his plate, pretending a sudden intense interest in a piece of overcooked, curly bacon. “Yep,” he said almost inaudibly. “We can most certainly leave it at that.”

 

Sighing tiredly, Scott returned the untouched biscuit to his plate and slumped in his chair. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just ….”

 

“Senor Lancer! Senor Lancer!” Miguel Villoso suddenly burst through the front door, interrupting his apology. The hired hand moved toward Johnny, excitedly chattering in Spanish.

 

Scott listened as Johnny responded in kind. While his younger brother was fluent in Spanish, he had managed to accumulate only a modicum of understanding since moving to California less than a year ago. His college days at Harvard had bestowed a comprehensive knowledge of Latin and French, but that was the extent of his foreign language background. At the time, there had seemed no reason to learn another, especially Spanish.

 

Scott poured himself a mug of black coffee, sipped it noisily while listening to the ranch hand. He found that he could, surprisingly, translate about every fourth or fifth word. Villoso was discussing something he and another wrangler had discovered a few miles outside of the ranch. Scott took another gulp of coffee, enjoying the pleasing cadence of his brother’s quiet voice as he conversed in his native language.

 

“Cassidy?” Johnny’s voice was no longer quiet nor pleasing. He almost spat the name.

 

Villoso nodded vigorously. “Si, Senor.”

 

Scott stiffened in the chair. “What about Cassidy?” he said, setting down the coffee cup.

 

Johnny ignored the question, bolting upright so abruptly that his chair almost toppled over behind him. Barking orders to the vaquero, he retrieved his gunbelt and hurriedly donned it.

 

“Johnny!” Scott stood carefully, but his voice was no-nonsense. “I asked you ‘what about Cassidy’?”

 

His brother finished buckling the belt around his slender hips, reached down and tied the holster to the inside of his right thigh. “Villoso says he and another hand found a smashed buckboard just north of the High Bluff area, about three miles from here. Looks like it went over a cliff. They think it may be the one Dan Cassidy was driving.”

 

Scott was already moving toward the coat rack.

 

“You’re staying here, Scott!” There was no mistaking the ring of authority in Johnny’s words.

 

The blond man reached out, seized his own gunbelt. His right arm caught the buckle, made to whip it behind his back and around his hips. “And who’s going to make me?” he said, maneuvering his stiff left arm carefully. The buckle curled toward the opposite side, but his hand couldn’t latch onto it. The heavy belt wrenched from his singular grasp and clattered noisily to the ground, dislodging the weapon. Chagrined, Scott stood silently cradling his aching left arm.

 

“No one’s gonna have to,” Johnny said pointedly. He grabbed his overcoat, hunched into it. Taking in his brother’s stricken look, his voice softened, and he laid a hand on the man’s shoulder, squeezing sympathetically. “Get some rest, Scott. I’ll let you know what we find.” With that, both he and Villoso exited through the front door.

 

Left abruptly alone in the huge grand room, Scott listened to the rhythmic tick-tock of the antique grandfather clock in the foyer. Absently, he noted the cheerful snapping and crackling of the blazing fire in the hearth. Its warmth drew him across the room, and he fell heavily onto the settee, sinking back into the comfort of its cushions. Staring into the hypnotic flames, he allowed his exhausted mind to wander free. An unfocused image flitted across the threshold of his memory, slowly clarifying into the starkly handsome face of a young man in a Union blue uniform. The dark-haired youth was smiling, and the coal-black recesses of his eyes showed a boundless enthusiasm. Slowly, as though in a dream, the likeness dissolved into another picture. The boy was now a man, no longer clothed in the proud blue attire of his country’s Army. The smile was gone, and his face showed the pinched lines of years of vengeance-driven hatred.

 

//Cassidy!// The name unleashed a torrent of mixed emotions inside him. His former commander and one-time close friend had come to Morro Coyo with the sole intent of killing the man he believed had committed an ultimate betrayal. And he had almost succeeded. Now there was a strong possibility that Dan Cassidy was dead. But was it an accident? Or had Jed Lewis and Rick Hardy crept back onto Lancer land and waited for their chance at retribution. If the Cassidy’s were dead by accident, Scott knew he would feel sad at the loss and waste of so many years but, if the latter scenario were true, then his brother and their ranch hands could be riding into danger, a danger he had brought to Lancer. Having already been in the clutches of Cassidy’s two henchmen, he knew both were seriously unbalanced. They were also hell-bent on revenge. It wouldn’t matter to them how many bodies they had to bury, so long as the last one was his.

 

Suddenly squaring his shoulders and ignoring the resulting agony in his upper arm, Scott stood, moved stiffly across the floor. Reaching down, he resolutely snagged the discarded holster, caught the buckle in his right hand, then used the back of the settee to hold it in place while he affixed it to his hips. Satisfied with the end result of his efforts, he gathered up the pistol, dropped it easily into the holster. The weight felt good on his leg, and he raised a trembling hand to his sweat-beaded face, swiped it clean. He retrieved a coat, shrugged into it easily. Finally, donning his favorite wide-brimmed felt hat, he followed his brother out the door.

 

+++++++

 

“Dios mio!” The unbidden prayer slid between Johnny Lancer’s rigidly clenched teeth as he steered Barranca around the first dead body. His palomino seemed almost cognizant of the devastation that lay before him, delicately sidestepping the spread-eagled legs of the naked woman. Pulling the horse to a halt and dismounting, Johnny watched as Villoso approached the corpse from the opposite side.

 

Shaking his head and reverently crossing himself the wrangler stared down at the vacant blue eyes. “Whoever did this, Senor Lancer … does the work of the devil.”

 

Nodding absently, Johnny said nothing. Ignoring the gore and the cloying smell of decay, he hunched over the remains of Sarah Cassidy. The expression on her blood-covered face, one of terror and incredulity, told him that death had come neither quickly nor easily to the once-beautiful woman. Bruises and scratches were livid on her upper torso and legs. One arm, wrenched violently from its socket, lay bent and discolored at an awkward angle above her head. That she had been abused sexually was readily apparent; brightly-colored remnants of her dress decorated the ground as far as the eye could see. All that remained of her tasteful traveling ensemble was the torn waistband of her pantaloons. She had suffered greatly, and when she was no longer useful to her attackers, they had laid her throat open, from ear to ear, with the sawlike edge of a serrated knife.

 

Sickened, Johnny stood abruptly, ramrodding his back against the sudden strain. He strode quickly to Barranca, retrieved his bedroll. Returning to the mutilated body, he wordlessly tossed the blanket over it. A sudden welling of strong emotions – hatred, anger, worry – was immediately capped before it could spill over and cloud his judgement or his reactions. Backsliding easily into old habit, he forced himself to feel nothing for Sarah Cassidy. It was a self-defense mechanism left over from his former life as Johnny Madrid. Those years as a gun-for-hire had taught him that it was much easier to take care of business if you didn’t make it personal.

 

Turning his back on the dead woman, he walked the fifty feet to where Dan Cassidy slumped. The man’s hands, red and swollen from taut bindings, still encircled the thick, knotty trunk of a young pine. Unlike his wife, he had suffered no outward physical abuse, but his blankly staring eyes reflected the horror he had been forced to view. Anguish and pain were still etched in his frozen expression. A dried scab of brown blood on his forehead showed where a single, well-placed bullet had ended his life.

 

“Jesus!”

 

The softly spoken word reflected the same queasy revulsion Johnny felt. He turned at the unexpected sound of his brother’s voice, looked up as the last hint of color drained from Scott’s face.

 

“You shouldn’t be here, Boston.”

 

There was no reply as the blond man gingerly eased himself from the saddle. His eyes were glued on the body of Dan Cassidy. Then, “You knew I wouldn’t … couldn’t stay behind.” Stationing himself beside his brother, Scott peered down at the lifeless shell that had been his old enemy/friend. Almost as an afterthought, he whispered, “Sarah?”

 

His brother nodded, indicating the covered form behind them, and Scott started toward it. Reaching down, he grasped the corner of the woolen coverlet.

 

Johnny cried out, “Scott! Don’t!” But the warning came too late.

 

Sarah Cassidy’s ravaged neck and face were suddenly revealed, and Scott recoiled, stumbling backward as though physically struck. Gagging on a surge of scalding bile, he turned away from the awful sight, falling heavily to his knees. Swallowing convulsively, he forced his stomach to relax, his breathing to slow. An arm snaked around his quaking shoulders, squeezed comfortingly.

 

“Sorry. I tried to warn you.”

 

Siphoning a deep breath from the crisp autumn air, Scott held it for several cleansing seconds. “I’ll kill those sons of bitches.” He made to stand, reluctantly accepting the proffered arm of his brother.

 

“’We’ll’ kill those sons of bitches!” his brother corrected.

 

“It’s not your fight, Johnny!”

 

Johnny’s eyebrows shot up in mock surprise. “Oh, really?” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You made it my fight two days ago when you brought Dan Cassidy to Lancer and put the whole damned ranch in jeopardy.” He pointed at the slumped remains. “If he’d had his way, Scott, that would be you over there!”

 

The blond man stole a quick glance at the grisly corpse. When he tore his gaze away, his jaw twitched nervously. “I know,” was a low whisper, “But now it’s different.”

 

“How?” Johnny spat the monosyllable.

 

“It’s over … for them now. But not for me.”

 

Pushing back a handful of coal-black hair, Johnny slammed his hat onto his head. Nostrils flared, eyes flashing electric-blue, he suddenly bellowed, “Villoso!” Before the wrangler could answer, he locked eyes with his older sibling. In a quiet voice, he said, “You can’t have it both ways, Scott!” With that, he turned away. “Villoso!!” he repeated.

 

“Senor?”

 

“Ride back to the ranch and bring a buckboard out here. Get these bodies to the undertaker in Morro Coyo.” He stomped to the palomino’s side, bolted heavily into the saddle.

 

“Your father should be back from town by now, Senor Lancer. What do you want me to tell him?”

 

Johnny watched as Scott walked stiffly to his mount, struggled into the saddle. In Spanish he replied, “Tell him what we found here, and let him know I’m trailing Jed Lewis and Rick Hardy. He’ll probably want to get word to the sheriff in Green Rivers so he can organize a posse. Oh, and tell him that Scott is with me, and Murdoch might want to find us as quickly as possible so he can persuade the idiot to go home and get into bed where he belongs.”

 

Scott clicked to his horse, maneuvered the animal to stand beside Johnny. “Villoso?” he said, softly addressing the ranch hand. “Please tell my father that he’ll just be wasting his time and his breath.” Frowning at Johnny, Scott offered formally, “Shall we go?”

 

Wordlessly, the younger Lancer jerked Barranca’s reins to the right and kneed him into a sudden full gallop.

 

With his reflexes slowed by injury and continued pain, Scott was taken by surprise at the abrupt action. However, he recovered quickly and guided his horse into a sharp turn. Whistling to the animal, he urged him forward. Within seconds he was nose-to-tail with the palomino.

 

+++++++

 

The whole world had gone perpetually gray. As the long, dreary morning dragged uneventfully into an equally lengthy, dull afternoon, the cloud-dotted sky seemed more and more on the verge of opening up and spilling its contents. Awash in the gloomy atmosphere, Rick Hardy stopped watching the threatening sky. A pointy rock jabbed uncomfortably at his abdomen, and he shifted his body until he felt the discomfort ease. He had been lying in this same position, face and belly-down, on a chilly rock ledge for most of the day. His palms formed a V wherein he rested his weary head, yet all the while, his eyes scanned the surrounding terrain for the telltale signs of pursuit. "Startin' to look like rain, Jed," he announced, warily eyeing his partner of several years.

 

A short distance away, Jed Lewis hunkered down near a small outcropping of trees. He appeared distracted, habitually turning a large serrated knife over and over again in his hands. Its carefully polished edge gleamed, even in the dim light, and Jed seemed almost unwilling or unable to pull his attention away from it, even for a moment. Finally he glanced toward Hardy. "Not good, Billy," he said. "I want the lieutenant to find us. It'll be harder if the trail we left gets washed away."

 

"Jed!" Exasperated, Hardy pushed himself to a standing position. Wiping away minute rock shards, pebbles and dirt clinging to the palms of his hands, he moved carefully, yet deliberately, toward Lewis. "Hey, that’s enough of that! It’s Rick! Your old friend. Can’t you remember? Billy's been dead nigh onto five years now. You've gotta stop calling me by his ..." He pulled up suddenly as Lewis unexpectedly stood and advanced menacingly toward him.

 

"I ain't gonna listen to that anymore, y'hear me, Billy! It wasn't funny this morning, and it ain't funny now!" He held the knife out, shook it violently at Hardy for emphasis.

 

Hardy immediately raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, Jed! Okay! Settle down. I won't say it again. I promise I won't."

 

Almost immediately, the threatening approach ceased. For a moment, Lewis appeared confused and apprehensive but, by the time he arrived at his partner's position, he seemed to have recovered his composure. Reaching out his weaponless hand, he patted Hardy supportively on the shoulder. "That's much better, little brother," he said in a gentle, reassuring voice. "Now get back up there on the ridge and keep watch. If I know the lieutenant, he'll be along soon. I've almost got the campsite ready for him so you just sing out when he gets into your sights."

 

Inwardly, Hardy cringed at the touch. In the past three days, something had happened to Jed Lewis. The happy-go-lucky young man he had grown up with had completely disappeared. Inhabiting the tall, blond body now was a brutish stranger whose moods fluctuated wildly between overly solicitous and deadly homicidal.

 

That something inside Lewis had snapped loose was very obvious to Hardy. To his partner, the past was only a jumbled mass of tattered, disjointed occurrences, and Jed seemed only partially aware of events happening in the present. But the future was something of which he seemed deadly certain -- Jed knew he had a score to settle with Scott Lancer. But without explanation, he had reincarnated the central figure.

 

An involuntary shudder rippled through his body as Hardy recalled awakening this morning to Jed's voice. Lewis had called out to him ... or rather to Billy, his deceased brother ... to wake up. At first, he'd shrugged off the lapse, reasoning a momentary slip of the tongue. However, as the morning progressed and as his friend continued to refer to him as Billy even after several protestations to stop, Hardy resorted to ignoring him. He had helped himself to a quickly prepared breakfast of salt biscuits and hard tack. All the while, Jed chattered on about what the two of them would do after he took care of what he called 'war business'.

 

"... and then we'll head back home, Bill," Jed finished.

 

Rising up to his full height of five feet, four inches, Hardy pointed a finger at his partner. "That's enough, Jed! I don't know what's going on in that crazy head of yours, but you need to get things straight again. I'm NOT your brother. Billy died in the war, trying to break out of a Confederate prison."

 

Almost in slow motion, Lewis turned toward Hardy; but the look on his face was unreadable.

 

“I don't know what's happened to you, Jed," the shorter man went on. "In the past three days, you've done things... things I don't ever want to remember for the rest of my life. If I'd only known what you had planned for Dan and Sarah ... I'd never have left you alone with them." As Hardy talked, he watched his friend unsheathe the weapon he'd used to slit Sarah Cassidy's beautiful, milk-white throat.

 

Absently, Lewis stared at it, twirling the blade in his hands. After the murders, Hardy had watched him clean it for hours, alternately immersing it in cold water and then rubbing and polishing it until the steel blade gleamed.

 

"They both deserved to die for what they did," Lewis said hoarsely. His voice was low, knife-edged with danger.

 

"No, they didn't. Lieutenant Cassidy didn't know he'd betrayed the escape plan ... he was sick back then, Jed ... you remember how delirious he was when they carted him off to the infirmary. Sarah said the Army contacted her after his release to let her know it was him that done it. I guess they figured it would be easier if she told him. But I reckon she couldn’t go through with it."

 

"'Sarah said' ..." Lewis repeated Hardy’s words in a mocking tone. "It was all a LIE, Billy! Can't you see that? The bitch made it all up to keep us from getting our revenge on Lieutenant Lancer. You know Sarah and Lancer were alone together in her room, just the two of them, all cozy … the whole afternoon. And you know how she is. Always brushing up against a man, tempting him. I know how a woman’s mind works. Together, the two of them came up with that ridiculous story. Well, Dan may have fallen for it, but I didn't."

 

As Jed spoke, he absently made stabbing motions in the air. Each one seemed more animated, more deadly, and Hardy began to feel a twinge of fear compress his spine. This man wasn’t the friend he knew so well; this man was someone else altogether, a stranger inhabiting the shell that was Jed Lewis’ body. He tried once more to jerk the taller man back to reality. “Jed! Look at me.”

 

Reluctantly, bloodshot eyes turned, fixed their unblinking gaze on him.

 

“I’m Rick. Don’t you remember what happened at the camp? You want to kill Lieutenant Lancer because Billy was shot in the escape attempt. If I’m Billy, then there’s no need to kill Lancer.” He stared into his friend’s tortured eyes, felt the long fingers of fear reach out, squeeze his gut painfully. The man who looked back at him had lost his soul.

 

It was Jed who broke the visual link, blinking and casting his gaze downward. Again, he fixated on the knife. “You need to climb up to that ridge, Billy,” he said quietly. “I noticed ‘fore you got up this morning; you can see almost the whole valley from there. I know the lieutenant’s found the bodies by now. I want to be ready when he arrives, and I need you to let me know. There’s only one way into this ravine. That way.” He pointed with the weapon.

 

Hardy had hesitated, but only for a moment. Inwardly, he felt confused and saddened by his friend’s condition, but he also felt afraid. This Jed Lewis could kill at a moment’s notice, without thought or regret. For the time being, he decided to placate the man. Perhaps some space between them would clear Lewis’ mind; he knew it would give him more time to think about what had happened and how to deal with it. “All right, Jed,” he said, and headed up the side of the bank.

 

That had been this morning. Now, standing beside a man he instinctively knew had gone mad, Hardy fought back an almost insurmountable urge to flee from the site, run to his horse, mount and ride away as fast and as far as he could go. Jed’s seemingly protective arm around his shoulders felt suddenly constrictive, and he shrugged from the unwanted contact. “Okay, Jed,” he acquiesced for the second time today. “I’ll go keep watch for Lieutenant Lancer. You get some rest.” As he spoke, he eased his body from the man’s grasp, backing away carefully. It took five steps until he felt the landscape begin to incline. It was only then that he turned his back, raced up to the top of the ridge, and resumed his prone position of watch.

 

+++++++

 

Johnny Lancer halted his golden palomino at the base of a brush-strewn hill. Standing in the stirrups, he stretched his long legs, eased the growing ache in the small of his back. Peering at the sky, he drew in a chilled draught of air. “Damn, it’s gotten cold all of a sudden!” he said, more to himself than to his recalcitrant brother. “And looks like rain’s comin’ too.” When the silence continued, he sank back into the hard saddle. “Scott, I think it’s time we turned back.”

 

“If you’re quitting on my account, don’t bother. I’m fine.”

 

Although he couldn’t see his brother, the younger Lancer could feel the frosty stare accompanying the sarcastic retort. Glancing over his shoulder, he shook his head for emphasis. “Ain’t on your account,” he replied in kind. “It’s on account of these tracks.” He nodded toward the ground.

 

Scott scanned the surrounding terrain, then shot Johnny a look of undiluted scorn. “What about them? They’re plain as the nose on your face.”

 

Johnny sucked his leather hat strap into his mouth, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then puffed his cheeks and spit. The sopping wet cord, cold and sticky, fell against his exposed neck. “Exactly!” he said sharply.

 

Several moments of thick silence passed. Then, “A trap?” This time, Scott’s tone seemed tentative. There was a hint of uncertainty in his voice.

 

“Looks like it. If it ain’t, then I’d call this real sloppy work for ex-cavalrymen.” He glanced pointedly at Scott, but the gibe didn’t elicit the desired response. Sighing, he finished with “Let’s get back to the ranch.” He steered Barranca sideways into a one-eighty turn, gently nudged him with his boot. The horse started forward in a slow walk.

 

Scott watched his brother ride by, but made no effort to join him. “Johnny … we can’t just let them get away. If we leave now …”

 

Johnny reined in his mount, twisted his upper torso so he could see behind him. A cursory glance at Scott spoke volumes. Dark circles eclipsed his sibling’s slate-gray eyes, making him appear quite ill, and his sideways hunch over the saddle horn made it obvious that Scott’s shoulder wound was causing him plenty of distress. When he continued, Johnny’s words were slow, his tone deliberately softer. “We need more guns, Boston.” He eyed his brother critically. “And you need some rest. Come on.” Waiting for Scott to respond, Johnny caught the glint of something shiny in his peripheral vision. Glancing up at a rocky precipice, he focused on a singular form, crouched and aiming a slender barrel of steel. He managed a terse, “Scott!”, just as the hillside gunman fired. Something hot and hard slammed into the side of his head, snapping it back and unseating him from Barranca’s broad back. The last thing he saw was the ground, coming up fast. Then there was only oblivion.

 

+++++++

 

He awoke to the bewildering sight of dark gray clouds peeking through an array of tangled limbs and branches. Dead and dying leaves, clinging tenaciously to their lofty perches, quivered in the late afternoon breeze. Blinking away excess moisture from his eyes, Johnny took a moment to orient. When he could focus both his eyes and his attention, he discovered he was hanging from the thin limb of what appeared to be an ancient oak tree. He could see his own tightly bound wrists, pulled taut and high above his head. A rope held his numb wrists together, then slithered up and over the limb, finally encircling the thick trunk that was only inches from his face. His feet barely touched the ground. How long he had hung in the same uncomfortable position, he couldn’t be certain, but his first awareness, scant moments ago, had brought with it extreme discomfort. Pain, in varying degrees, radiated from every corner of his body but centered mostly on one side of his head and in his wrenched arm sockets.

 

“Johnny?”

 

Someone was calling to him. The name flitted through his clouded perception like a wayward firefly. With enormous effort, he lifted his too-heavy head, allowing it to loll forward onto his naked chest. The singular act nearly took the top of his skull off. Groaning in protest, he watched as beckoning fingers of darkness gestured, enticing him back to the brink. He deftly sidestepped their clutches; something deep inside told him that one more surrender to them might be his last. The voice spoke his name once more. This time the tone was desperate and pleading, but the continued ache in his arms and a persistent drumming in his head prevented him from focusing completely. A chilled breeze swirled suddenly around him, whisper-tickling his bare torso and sending violent bouts of shivers through him.

 

"Johnny, come on boy! Answer me."

 

This time the disembodied voice was familiar. "Scott?"

 

"I'm here, brother."

 

"Where?" He turned his head tentatively toward the sound, felt an immediate resultant surge of rising bile in the back of his throat. Gagging on the vile liquid, he swallowed, forcing it to retreat.

 

"Here ... to your right. They've got me tied to a tree. I can't move. Are you all right?"

 

Johnny closed his eyes to the spinning universe. “Oh, I’ve seen better days,” he groaned. Letting his chin drop forward, he tilted his head sideways once more, straining to see beneath his raised arm. Finally, when his neck muscles couldn’t stretch another inch, he caught sight of Scott. Less than twenty feet away, his brother sat, legs folded and pulled close to his body indian-style. His hands were caught behind him, encircling a small sapling’s trunk. Scott had obviously struggled with his captors; the handsome face was battered, his lower lip swollen and oozing blood. “Looks like they did a number on you,” he croaked.

 

“I’m all right,” his brother said quietly.

 

Shivering as another cold gust danced around him, Johnny carefully took in his own situation. Like his older brother, he was also tied to a tree but in an upright position. They had divested him of his coat and shirt, leaving his upper body naked and exposed to the inclement weather. He looked again at Scott. At least they’d let him keep his garments. Sighing, he tried the wrist bindings; they remained taut and fast. He sighed again. Things did not bode well for the Lancer brothers' immediate future. "So, where are they now?”

 

"I don't know … probably gone back to hide our horses and cover their tracks.” Scott paused for a moment, as if he were considering continuing. Then, “And there’s something more, Johnny. Lewis has gone mad. He keeps calling Hardy by his dead brother’s name.”

 

Lips quivering, Johnny sucked in a deep breath to keep his voice steady. “Murdoch better find us soon.” He shivered. “Jeez, it’s cold!”

 

"I'm sorry, Johnny … never should've brought Cassidy to the ranch. You didn’t need to be involved ..."

 

"You didn't get me involved, Scott. They sucked me in when they kidnapped you. Don't go beating yourself up over this. We'll get out of it ... somehow."

 

"Oh, I doubt that, Mr. Lancer. I doubt it very much."

 

From the line of trees flanking the western side of the copse, Lewis appeared. He stationed himself deliberately in front of Scott, blocking both brothers' views of each other. "Are you comfortable there, Lieutenant? If you can’t see, I can move you to another tree.” When Scott only glared at him, the man continued. “As you may have noticed, I allowed you to keep your shirt and coat on. Can't have you catching pneumonia. I wouldn't want anything to get in the way of the upcoming 'entertainment'."

 

At Lewis’ last word, Scott’s body went rigid, but his voice was calm and steady. "Jed, let him go. I'll do anything you want, say anything you want me to say ..."

 

Lewis ignored him and walked to the edge of the clearing.

 

To his left, Scott saw Hardy, seemingly rooted to the spot. "Rick, stop him! You know this isn’t right. My brother's done nothing wrong!"

 

But Hardy dropped his eyes to the ground and remained steadfastly silent.

 

"You recall the prison camp commander’s game, don't you, Lieutenant?" Lewis continued, still moving away from Scott. "Remember how he would gather all of us to watch. He always liked to have an audience when he entertained." As he spoke, Lewis reached the edge of the brush. Leaning down behind a large oak, he retrieved a round snakelike object. "Do you recall how he'd always come up with the number of lashes by counting the men in the audience?’ He turned, then continued back to his bound captives, slowly uncoiling the horsewhip he now held in his hands. “Well, I don't think I'll use the commander’s method this time. It wouldn't be entertaining enough for me or Billy." Suddenly, he snapped the whip experimentally, smiling maliciously at the sharp cracking sound.

 

Now fully aware of where Lewis was heading, Johnny struggled vainly against his bindings.

 

Lewis reacted immediately, rushing forward and grabbing a hank of the younger Lancer's dark brown hair. He pulled Johnny’s head viciously back, bent close to where his lips almost caressed his victim’s ear. “You just relax now, Brother Lancer. There ain’t nothin’ you nor the lieutenant over there can do about the situation, so just be still and accept it.” He shoved Johnny’s head forward, impacting it with the tree trunk.

 

Pain mushroomed from his battered forehead to the base of his skull, and the younger Lancer went limp.

 

“Jed, you twisted son of a bitch. Leave my brother alone or I’ll ….”

 

Lewis stole a glance at the struggling Scott and shook his head in mock sadness. "You'd better stop struggling too. Looks like you've gone and opened up that shoulder wound. You want Billy to bandage it for you?"

 

Scott ignored the sadistic offer and the warm sticky trickle of blood sliding maddeningly down the front of his chest. "Jed, all you want from me is a confession. Okay! I confess! I told about the escape. It was me. I did it, and I’m glad I did it …”

 

At this, Lewis went motionless; only his face remained animated. Emotions flitted past in rapid succession – shock, disbelief, sadness – then anger and a hatred so deep that it seemed almost palpable.

 

Scott watched as the man drew his pistol and turned deliberately toward him.

 

Lewis closed in on the helpless man, bending low so his leering face was in his victim’s line of vision. The loaded gun barrel dug cruelly into the hollow of Scott’s cheek.

 

“Finally.” Lewis’ voice was a whisper, the tone almost prayerful. “After all these years, you finally own up to it.”

 

Scott recoiled from the pressure of the gun barrel against his cheek.

 

“I did it all right. You’ve got me, and I’m ready to pay. But, first, you have to let my brother go.”

 

“Your … brother …” Lewis suddenly seemed confused. He pulled back and looked at the still silent Hardy. Using the gun, he pointed at his partner.

 

The sight of a loaded gun being leveled on him made Rick Hardy step backwards, but he still seemed unable or unwilling to interfere.

 

“Do you have any idea how much I loved my kid brother, Lieutenant?” Lewis continued. Tears sprang suddenly to his eyes. “Any idea at all?”

 

Scott glanced across the clearing at his barely conscious sibling. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I believe I know how you felt.”

 

“Billy?” Lewis called out to Hardy. “Billy, did you hear him say it? He confessed. He admitted that he’s the one who caused your … your …” Stumbling verbally, the tall man stopped. He swallowed hard, then shook himself. “No ….” The word was a dismal moan of unbridled grief, and the threatened tears began to stream, unhindered, down his haggard face.

 

“It’s all right, Jed!” Rick Hardy suddenly reanimated. He strode forward as fast as his short legs would carry him, stopping as he reached his tortured friend’s side. He snaked an arm around the shaking shoulders. “You got what you came here for … he confessed. Now, let’s turn ‘em loose and go on home. We ain’t been home since the war, Jed. I think it’s time …”

 

“Yes …” Lewis said, easing his stooped body into an erect stance. He shrugged out of Hardy’s embrace and brought his trembling hand upward. “It is time … for Lieutenant Lancer to pay for what he did.” He aimed the weapon, then thumbed the hammer back until it clicked loudly into place.

 

“You cowardly bastard …”

 

Both Lewis and Hardy turned at the unexpected voice of Johnny Lancer. “…don’t take much courage … to shoot an unarmed man. Do that, and you ain’t no better’n … the worst backshootin’ scum I ever rode with …”

 

For a moment, Lewis hesitated. He looked from one Lancer brother to the other, then seemed suddenly to come to a conclusion. He purposefully uncocked the weapon, then holstered his gun.

 

“Jed? What’re you gonna do?” Hardy asked.

 

Lewis sniffed and loudly cleared his throat. He moved to the discarded horsewhip, swiped it up. “I’m going to give the lieutenant some ‘entertainment’, Billy, just like we planned. Better take a seat with a good view ‘cause this is going to be the best damned show you’ve ever seen.”

+++++++

 

He had seen men whipped before, even watched one die in the process. It had taken the man several hours of agonizing torment before he succumbed. But that had been years ago … in Nogales … in the middle of the hottest summer he could remember. And the man had been old and sickly …

 

Johnny Lancer pondered his situation. Although he had never been any good at arithmetic, it came to him in a mathematical equation. The length of time he could keep Lewis occupied was equal to the amount of time Murdoch would have to locate their position. Add to that the fact that he was young and strong, and the resulting sum was … well … it was enough time for Murdoch to find them if he was already looking. Of course, there was an additional carryover -- as long as Lewis concentrated on him, he was leaving Scott alone. Johnny smiled inwardly and outwardly readied himself for what was to come.

 

+++++++

 

The sound the cruel whip made was a threatening hisssssss, and Scott watched as his brother’s naked torso tensed in anticipation. The muscles in his own back tightened sympathetically, and he closed his eyes to the nightmare enfolding before him.

 

//Stop … please …

 

// CRACK!//

 

The obscene sound wrung a hoarse moan from Johnny Lancer and tore loose the cork capping Scott’s voice. A string of pent-up expletives clawed painfully up his throat and erupted past his lips. "Stop it, you son-of-a-bitching bastard. You ."

 

Again, a warning whistling sound rent the cold autumn air, and Scott went silent. The whip hovered pretentiously in midair, then snaked forward at a frightening speed.

 

//God! Johnny … forgive me …

 

// CRACK!//

 

For the first time since the abuse began, Johnny cried out in anguish. The tortured sound gouged a hole in Scott Lancer’s soul and, for the tenth time in as many minutes, he tested the strength of the bonds holding him immobile. In spite of his tugging, they remained stubbornly unyielding. Defeated, he sagged against the sapling’s trunk, feeling impotent and useless. Bitter waves of hopelessness swelled, crested and engulfed him. "’m sorry, brother … so sorry …" he whispered.

 

Seemingly spurred on by Johnny’s vocal protest, Lewis suddenly doubled his efforts, sending another stroke, and then another immediately following. He continued raining blows on the hapless man until his victim’s cries stilled, and the abused body hung limp and silent.

 

Straining mightily against the dual agony in his wrists and wounded shoulder, Scott somehow found the strength to unfold his numb legs. He lurched to his knees. The movement sent a swarm of black pinprickles spiraling through the air, devouring the tangible world. Darkness descended on him like a velvet curtain, settling over his head and shoulders, holding him momentarily trapped between reality and oblivion. With enormous effort, he shrugged it off, bringing everything back into sudden, crisp focus. Suspended by his bound arms, he hung from the tree trunk at a shoulder-wrenching 45-degree angle. Stitches tugged at raw skin, then separated, and a sudden surge of warm liquid flowed down the left side of his chest. He ignored the pain. The drama enfolding before him held his attention captive, and he hurled more foul obscenities at his brother’s tormentor. "Leave him alone, you bastard! You cowardly …"

 

Scott watched as Lewis, pointedly ignoring the verbal insults, strode casually forward to examine his unconscious sibling.

 

"Looks like your brother doesn’t have the stamina for our kind of entertainment, Lieutenant." He threw Scott a look of mock sorrow. "I’m kinda disappointed … thought your family would be made of much sterner stuff." He motioned to Hardy. "Billy? Your canteen full?"

 

Rick Hardy hefted the small container attached to his belt, then nodded. Warily, he started toward his partner. "Yep, still full. Gonna give him a drink and let him go now?" His voice sounded hopeful, and Scott’s own hopes surged.

 

"Nah." Lewis grabbed the flask, unscrewed the cap and took a quick swig. He swished the liquid around in his mouth and gulped it loudly. Wiping his lips with the back of his hand, he offered the canteen to Scott.

 

Even with a mouth so dry he could barely swallow, Scott managed to spit a defiant spray into the air. When Lewis only smiled at the futile gesture, Scott turned desperate eyes toward his last vestige of freedom. "Rick! He’s gone mad … you know he has. Stop him! For the love of God, please …." He knew he was begging, but he didn’t care. His words were cut short by Lewis’ stinging backhand. The hand lifted to strike again, and Scott cringed, turning his face protectively away. But another hand reached out, encircling the forearm of his attacker.

 

"He’s had enough, Jed," he heard Hardy say soothingly.

 

Cautiously, Scott lifted his head, watching as Rick, gently but firmly, lowered his partner’s arm.

 

"Don’tcha think it’s time we let ‘em go? We both know Lancer didn’t betray us … and his brother … well, he wasn’t even there with us. Jed, come on, this isn’t like you."

 

Lewis bowed his head; he seemed to be listening to his friend, pondering the words being spoken. His head began to nod, first up and then down, almost in slow motion.

 

"You remember how you always hated the camp commander because he was so cruel?" Hardy went on. His voice was calm, hypnotic in its simple persuasiveness. "You don’t wanna be like him, Jed. Let’s go home. It’s been so long since we were home."

 

Recovering slowly from the blow, Scott anxiously watched the exchange. As Hardy continued to speak, Scott saw him reach into his pocket and pull from it a small utility knife. Without so much as a pause in his one-sided conversation with Lewis, he clandestinely flicked it toward the prisoner. Scott heard the muffled impact as it landed somewhere near the sapling’s trunk. Confused, yet grateful, he leaned back, allowing his body to slide down into its original seated position on the cold ground. His tingling fingers reached out behind him, searching blindly for the small metal instrument. When they closed around the hilt, he almost passed out. Flipping it over, he began to saw through the ropes binding him.

 

"What say we get on our horses, ride to the nearest saloon and find us a cold drink and a warm woman?" Hardy let a smile break the grimness of his features, and he slapped Lewis on the back good-naturedly.

 

His eyes riveted on the two men standing before him, Scott continued his furious effort, pushing and pulling the sharp instrument across his left wrist. It was only a moment later when he felt something loosen, then give completely. His left hand fell free, but a tangled loop of knots still held his right behind the tree.

 

A soft moan drifted from across the clearing, momentarily tearing his attention from Hardy and Lewis. His brother was stirring, coming back to consciousness. Scott closed his eyes, sent a furtive prayer of deliverance upwards, then recoiled at the sudden, unexpected sound of a gunshot. Something thumped heavily next to him, and he opened his eyes. Rick Hardy’s sightless brown eyes stared hauntingly back at him. A third ‘eye’, just below the dead man’s right temple, wept silent crimson tears.

 

Scott forced himself to look away, focus only on the madman standing over the murdered body of his lifelong friend. Without so much as a backward glance, Lewis abruptly about-faced in perfect military-style, lifted his still smoking revolver, and marched toward Johnny.

 

"Jed!"

 

Frantic, Scott screamed the name, but Lewis never broke his stride. He watched Jed lift the revolver, thumb back the hammer. Scott could hear the loud click as the gun was made ready to fire. There was no more time for subtlety or caution. Using his now-free left hand, Scott plunged the knife into the snarled mess holding his right arm captive and tugged mightily. Rope and skin parted beneath the sharp blade, and he was free. He lurched to his knees but fell forward almost immediately. Waves of vertigo threatened to overcome him, and he fought to keep them at bay, steadying himself on trembling arms. Lifting his whirling head, he watched a fuzzy Lewis reach out, grab his equally out-of-focus brother’s head.

 

"Lewis! Don’t do it!"

 

The irony of the situation struck him; he had his freedom, yet his own body’s frailties would keep him paralyzed, unable to act in time to save his brother.

 

Johnny cried out suddenly, in pain or fear, and Scott felt humiliating tears of helplessness start.

 

//Please … please …please ...//

 

Shaking his head, he cleared away the visual fog, then his eyes locked and held on steel salvation. Less than three feet away, Rick Hardy's forgotten revolver nestled snugly in the dead man's holster. Hope surging, Scott crawled forward. He reached out, felt his reviving fingers encircle the grip, then jerked the weapon from its casing.

 

Across the clearing, Lewis raised the pistol, pointed it at the back of his brother’s head.

 

Scott lifted Hardy’s revolver, pulled the hammer back and aimed. He had a hunch, but he also had only a split-second to play it. "Sergeant Lewis!" The shout was in his best command voice. As he’d half-hoped, Jed instinctively jerked to attention.

 

"Yes, sir," the man replied.

 

"Drop your weapon, Sergeant," Scott said, fearing his own gun would fall to the ground before he could get Lewis to disarm.

 

The man seemed momentarily confused. A frown settled on his haggard features, and Scott could see his mind working furiously.

 

Finally, Lewis licked his lips and said, "Sir? This man is a spy and an informer. He must be executed."

 

Scott’s thoughts raced, and he countered with, "That’s for a court-martial to decide. Put the gun down and release him, soldier."

 

Still perplexed, Lewis moved to holster his gun, then stopped. "I ... sir, I don’t think ..." he began.

 

Scott didn’t know how much longer he could keep up the charade. His hand quivered, making the pistol shake so hard he didn’t know if he could hit Lewis even at this close range. Wearily, he said, "Put the gun down, Jed. Please." He knew he’d made a mistake the moment the last word left his lips.

 

The military bearing and stance of respect fell away immediately, and the Jed Lewis who’d held him captive for most of the day returned. The man’s arm jerked upward, the gun pointed once more at his brother’s wavy hair. Scott could see the trigger finger begin to tighten. The quaking gun in his hand jerked once noisily, then fell from his lifeless grip.

 

Across the clearing, Jed Lewis froze in stunned surprise. He took a step toward Scott, reaching out a hand as though for help. He seemed bewildered, lost. Another stumbling step forward and he fell to his knees. Again, the hand raised, palm upward, beseeching someone … anyone … to help him. Finally, he pitched forward and lay still.

 

+++++++

 

“Well … brother, what … we … now?” filtered disconnectedly past Johnny Lancer’s ears. The disjointed words and a raging inferno in his back scattered his concentration to the four winds.

 

“Guess Murdoch … out looking … us …. At least … hope he is.”

 

A hand settled on his throbbing forehead, smoothed back a frown. The gentle touch was comforting but elicited a shiver and a groan of anguish.

 

“Easy, boy … gonna be all right. Just lie back and rest.”

 

Forced air and words fell from his quivering lips. “Scott …”

 

“You awake?”

 

He managed a mumbled “Mmm hmm,” and cracked his eyelids. Moonlit darkness filtered in, and his brother’s colorless face loomed out of focus directly above him.

 

“Thirsty?”

 

//God … yes …// He nodded, felt the cold mouth of a canteen rest against his bottom lip. Automatically, his mouth opened, and an icy stream of water dribbled down his parched throat. Abruptly, the flow stopped.

 

“Enough?” his brother asked.

 

“Yeah,” he replied gratefully. “Thanks.” Fully aware now, Johnny lifted his head from where it rested on his brother’s thigh, glanced anxiously around. Somewhere to his right a fire crackled noisily. Its flame flickered, casting eerie shadows along the line of surrounding brush and trees. He found the sight somewhat unsettling. Lying back, he carefully resettled his aching head onto his brother’s thigh. “What happened, Scott?” he asked quietly. “I don’t remember much except …”

 

“They’re both dead, Johnny,” Scott said in a hollow voice. “Lewis was out of his head, lost in the past somewhere. After you passed out, Rick tried to convince him it was over, they could go home. I guess Jed was beyond reasoning.” His older brother sighed regretfully. “He shot Rick …killed him.”

 

At this revelation, Johnny’s blue eyes opened wider. “His own partner?”

 

“Guess he couldn’t face going back to nothing. He’d lost everything in the war, Johnny, his land, his home … his younger brother.” At this, Scott locked eyes with Johnny, pausing for a long poignant moment. “Back in the prison camp … I could only sympathize with his loss. Now …”

 

Even in the darkness, Johnny could see the corners of Scott’s mouth pull upward into a melancholy smile. He allowed himself a small nod of understanding.

 

Then, “I killed Jed.” Scott’s voice was tinged with sorrow and regret.

 

“You had to.”

 

A ragged breath. “I know, but …”

 

“No ‘buts’, Scott. He was out for your blood …” Johnny shifted position, grunted as the movement rekindled the fire in his back.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Not really. I feel like hell.”

 

Scott squinted in the moonlight. “Kinda look like it too.”

 

“You don’t look much better,” Johnny said, noting his brother’s open exhaustion. Scott’s pallor was more than a reflection of moonlight. He refocused. “So,” he said, struggling to rise to a sitting position. “Do you think Murdoch’s looking for us yet?”

 

Scott’s hand moved to still his brother’s efforts. Luckily, it didn’t take much strength to push him back. “Probably,” he said. “It’s been quite a while since Villoso went back to the ranch. I’ll bet he’s worried sick by now.”

 

“Murdoch?” Johnny’s voice rose an octave in mock surprise. “He’s probably happy to be rid of us.”

 

“He doesn’t think that, Johnny.” Scott’s voice was flat, and the haunted look returned to his eyes.

 

“I know he doesn’t,” he said, immediately contrite. “It’s just … sometimes it’s hard to believe he could really …”

 

“Care about us? He does … he just doesn’t know how to show it. I know how that can be, living with Grandfather all those years.”

 

“You know, when I first came here, I coulda sworn that ol’ man didn’t give a damn about either one of us. I thought all he cared about was the ranch.”

 

“I thought the same thing.”

 

“But now, it’s different … you know … he’s mellowed a bit …”

 

“I think we’ve all mellowed, Johnny,” a familiar voice said from just beyond the campfire.

 

“Murdoch!” Johnny and Scott gasped in unison.

 

+++++++

 

A day had come and gone since the Lancer brothers’ rescue. It had taken several hours to recover the wounded men, even more to locate their horses and retrieve the bodies of Jed Lewis and Rick Hardy. Both sons had serious injuries, but none were life-threatening. Scott even managed to make an appearance at dinner the next evening. Although pale and still weak from his ordeal, he ate ravenously and conversed with Teresa about an upcoming social and with Jelly about the unexpected birth of twin calves the day before. However, when the discussion steered to events of the past few days and Johnny’s condition, he grew silent and seemed uncomfortable. Moments later, he excused himself, pleading exhaustion, and carefully maneuvered up the stairs.

 

Teresa rose from her seat, gathering her own and Scott’s plates. “He’s feeling so guilty about what happened,” she said quietly as she left the room.

 

“Wadn’t his fault. Don’t know why he thinks he always hasta take the blame for everything that goes wrong around this place. What makes a fella that way?” Jelly asked, frowning and shaking his head.

 

Murdoch took a sip of red wine. “Conscience, Jelly,” he replied quietly.

 

The older man’s eyes twinkled. “Yeah,” he said, nodding agreement. “And I wonder where he got that from.”

 

“I couldn’t imagine,” Murdoch said. He stood suddenly. “Well, it’s been a long day, Jelly. Guess I’ll let the paperwork wait tonight. I’m heading up to bed. Good night.”

 

Jelly grinned perceptively. “Tell the boys to hurry up and get well. There’s some fences need mending over on the south side and the winter grass needs planting up on North Ridge and I know they’re gonna love it when they hear what else I’ve got planned for ……”

 

“I’ll pass along your best wishes for a speedy recovery, Jelly.” Murdoch tossed the words over his shoulder as he started up the stairs.

 

“Boss …” The teasing banter was gone, replaced by a somber monosyllable. Murdoch stopped in his tracks.

 

“It was close, wasn’t it. We almost lost both of them.”

 

He waited a long moment before replying. Finally, “Yes, Jelly, it was close. Too close. Good night.”

 

With that he continued up the stairs and headed for his older son’s room. He found it empty. The bed was unmade, the covers askew, as though the occupant had suddenly and inexplicably abandoned it. But Murdoch knew instinctively where to find his older son. He headed down the hall toward Johnny’s room.

 

Johnny’s door was slightly ajar. Easing inside, Murdoch took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. Finally, he could discern both his sons. A nightgown-clad Scott, his head resting heavily on the palm of his hand, was seated in a chair next to his sleeping brother.

 

Feeling somewhat like an intruder, Murdoch hesitated, but something deep inside spurred him forward. He moved to stand behind his older boy.

 

Scott acknowledged his presence with a silent glance over his shoulder, then returned to his original position.

 

“I once read, ‘Of all the words of tongue and pen, the saddest are, It might have been …’” Murdoch began.

 

“Whittier,” Scott interrupted offhandedly. “I met him several times while at school. He was on the Board of Overseers at Harvard. Strong abolitionist, but just an ‘okay’ poet.”

 

Murdoch harrumphed at the unexpected discourse, then went on. “Well, getting back to my point, it’s not exactly a truth. It might have been you instead of Cassidy.”

 

“But it wasn’t me. It was Dan and Sarah … and almost Johnny.”

 

“He’s going to be all right, Scott.”

 

Scott swiveled around, wincing as the unexpected movement caused his shoulder wound to awaken. “You’re missing the point, Murdoch. They tied him up and tortured him … because I wouldn’t listen … because of my misdirected---“

 

“Compassion?” Murdoch placed his hand lightly on Scott’s injured shoulder, kneading it gently. “You weren’t wrong in this instance, Scott. If you’re looking to blame someone for Johnny’s condition, then blame me. I had them in custody, and I let them go free. That’s something I’ll have to live with the rest of my life. Dan and Sarah Cassidy might’ve been saved had I ended it that night.”

 

“You couldn’t have known what they would do…” Scott stopped as a grim, yet knowing, smile tugged the corners of his father’s lips. Faded blue eyes met his own azure, and he sighed defeatedly. “It might have been better if I hadn’t brought them here in the first place.”

 

“And it might’ve been a good night’s sleep except the two of you just won’t shut the hell up,” came from the man lying on the bed.

 

“Johnny!” Both men said in unison.

 

A grunt, a gasp, and Johnny fought to a half-upright position. “I think I’ve had about enough of listening to the two of you beat yourselves up about this.”

 

“Johnny … son …” Murdoch reached out, but his helping hand was batted away.

 

“Lemme alone. I just need some water.” Johnny accepted a quickly poured glass from his father, swallowed several mouthfuls and eased back into his sideways reclining position. Eyes sparking, he looked first at his exhausted brother, then at his equally tired father. He shook his head, a frown of disgust on his face. “Two peas in a pod,” he said softly.

 

Mistaking the words and the tone, Scott opened his mouth to speak, but Johnny’s quiet voice stopped him. “It wasn’t your fault, Scott … or yours, Murdoch. There wasn’t a damned thing either one of you could do that would’ve made the outcome any different …” He paused, groaning in discomfort. As both men leaned toward him, he said in a hoarse whisper, “I’m okay. Just can’t get comfortable right now. It’ll pass!” A deep breath, a sigh of resignation, and he continued. “If you’d done anything different, Murdoch, Scott would be dead right now.” He looked at his father, then turned his knowing gaze toward his brother. “And if you’d done anything different, Dan Cassidy and his wife would’ve died four days ago instead of three. You gave him shelter, forgiveness and twenty-four hours to come to grips with the truth. And you also gave him time to forgive himself.”

 

Spent, Johnny leaned his head back into the pillow, then continued in a voice so low Scott and Murdoch had to reach with their ears to hear. “It’s not your fault, Boston. Believe me! You can ask all the ‘what might’ve beens’ you want to, but the answer’s always gonna be the same. It might’ve been you dead out there … and that’s a real sad ‘might’ve been’ I couldn’t live with.”

 

The blue eyes slid shut. “Now, will the both of you kindly get outta here and let a man sleep.”

 

Murdoch reached out, pulled the patchwork quilt up and over his younger son’s slender hips and waist. On impulse, he smoothed the wrinkles from the pillow cradling Johnny’s head, then allowed himself the small indulgence of fingering several strands of ebony hair from his son’s forehead.

 

In time, both his sons would recover from their physical injuries. The emotional wounds would take a while longer. In the meantime, Murdoch counted himself lucky. He had something that might never have been – Scott and Johnny in his life – for now and for always.

 

*****End*****

 

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