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Obligations

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Obligations
By S
firstcorpsanv@webtv.net

Johnny Madrid Lancer stood at the side of his palomino, Barranca, brushing the golden coat. He had put in a long day on the south range, but he didn't want to leave his beautiful horse covered in burrs and dust, just so that he could go in and take a hot bath. Finally, Barranca's coat was shining as the young man stood there, hands on hips, proud of his accomplishment. Replacing the brush in its accustomed spot, Johnny headed towards the white hacienda. He was only a few feet from the open French doors when he heard two voices, raised in anger.

"Scott, I won't discuss this any longer. Your place is here."

"Murdoch, I have an obligation and I'm not going to sit by and let those men die!"

"Obligation? Your obligation is to Lancer and to me. When are you going to remember that? I'm sorry about those men, but they are cattle rustlers so what else can you expect?"

"We don't know that they are cattle rustlers. There hasn't even been a trial."

"I'm sure that they'll get one. Besides, what can you do? You're not a lawyer!"

"No, but I might be able to help in some way! They're good men."

The tall rancher stood there, barely controlling his temper. "I repeat, you are not going to go off for who knows how long on a futile gesture to save men you haven't even seen in over five years!"

"What does that matter? I hadn't seen you for twenty years, but you expected me to drop everything and come here to save your ranch!"

"And you were well paid for it! You are a part owner and that should be your first consideration. You know we have to get those cattle to the railhead or pay a forfeit to the Army! I gave them my word and Murdoch Lancer doesn't go back on a contract!"

"I owe those men my life. Isn't that more important than your cattle deal?"

"You forget who you are speaking to, Young Man. I am your father!"

"Then, why don't you act like it instead of some petty tyrant? You didn't care about me for twenty-five years so why should I listen to you now?"

"That's not true. You know I came after you. . . ."

"Oh right. that's the old refrain. You're the self-sacrificing, loving man who was deprived of his sons by an ogre and a scheming bitch. Well, that doesn't work with me anymore. I was willing to overlook those years when you didn't care if I was alive or dead because frankly, I was sure you resented my being alive while my mother died."

"That wasn't your fault!"

"Maybe it wasn't, but did you ever bother to tell me that? I would look at her face in Grandfather's painting, wishing it had been me that died, not her."

Murdoch gasped. "Did Garrett say that I hated you for Catherine's death?"

"No. He rarely ever discussed her. Once when I was nine, I asked him about her, but he got this sad look on his face so I just changed the subject."

"Scott, I cannot forgive him for stealing you away when I had to be somewhere else."

"I'm not asking you to forgive him, just don't ask me to forget that you were too busy to even write until you needed me to help save your ranch."

"It's your ranch too."

"Is it? There's only one boss at Lancer. I'm only an owner when you want to remind me of my obligations. Well, I have decided that my obligation, right now, is to Spur Foster and Frank Jacobs."

The patriarch tensed then shrugged. "If you've made your decision, then go, but just as you won't forget those years, I won't forget this." The tall man headed out the door, nearly knocking Johnny down. When the dark-haired man tried to stop him, he pushed the younger man
away and headed to the stable.

Hurrying into the house, Johnny found his brother in his room, packing. "Scott, what the hell is going? Are you going back to Boston or something?"

Cerulean eyes glanced up at the other man. "No, what makes you think that?"

"Well, I heard Murdoch yelling. Usually, the only time he gets that mad is because of Harlan Garrett!"

"I can't deny that, but this time it doesn't have anything to do with my grandfather."

"Then, what is it?"

"Two men, who were in my regiment, have been accused of cattle rustling. I got a telegram from them asking for my help."

"But you' re not a lawyer!"

Scott chuckled. "That's what Murdoch said, but, well, maybe I can do something. Those two men saved my life during the War. I just can't let them die without trying to help."

"Didn't you tell him that?"

The blond nodded. "He's worried about that contract with the Army. I know it's important, but not more than the lives of two men!"

"Scott, if you need to go, do it. The hands and I can get those cattle to the railhead. We won't let Murdoch down."

The blond's face whitened. "Do you. . .do you think I want to let him down? I just couldn't live with myself if I didn't help Jacobs and Foster. I am all they've got."

"Take care of yourself, Boston. I've only got one brother."

"Same goes for me. I hope you don't have any problems with the cattle delivery."

"With me going along, how could there be?" grinned the dark-haired son.

"There is that! Now, I'd better go. There's not much time and I have a long ride ahead of me."

With that, Scott Lancer walked out of Lancer to head south towards the small town where Spur Foster and Frank Jacobs were fighting for their lives.

*

Three weeks after Scott Lancer had left his home in the San Joaquin Valley, Murdoch Lancer rode in under the great gate of his beautiful home. He had successfully delivered the promised cattle to the Army railhead depot, received his money. and was now looking forward to a hot
bath to relieve the aches and pains that came with persuading ornery cows that they had to go one way when they obstinately preferred to go another. Still, the patriarch had to admit that the drive had gone fairly smoothly--except for one incident involving Johnny.

The younger Lancer had done his best, but no man can plan for everything, especially when dealing with 4-legged bovines. Fortunately, Johnny's wound was not too severe, but it was painful so Murdoch had persuaded him to ride back to Lancer in the chuck wagon instead of on Barranca. Naturally, this had not set too well with the spirited young man, but eventually he had agreed to his father's suggestion.

Tying up his horse, Murdoch entered the hacienda, hoping to find his older son had returned, but not surprisingly, he found only a delighted Teresa waiting for him. After questioning Johnny's whereabouts, the young woman quickly collected a cup of coffee and some freshly baked oatmeal cookies for her guardian. She could tell how tired he was from the slump of his shoulders. While munching on the cookies, the rancher imparted his news about Johnny being carried home in the chuck wagon. Teresa's mouth dropped open when she heard the circumstances. That Johnny Madrid would not insist upon riding his palomino was disturbing, but her guardian reassured her that the injury only needed time.

Within ten minutes the injured man was delivered to hearth and home by Cookie in the chuck wagon. Climbing gingerly down from the back, the gunfighter scorned the offer of help by one of the vaqueros who had also ridden in. Limping painfully, Johnny headed for the comfort of his
room. Months of sleeping in his soft bed at Lancer had undermined his ability to tolerate a simple bedroll as the sleeping accommodation of choice.

As soon as he gratefully sank into the inviting softness, two visitors made their way to his room to offer comfort, consolation, and cookies. Grateful that his jaws were not the affected part of his anatomy, Johnny proceeded to devour four oatmeal cookies washed down with coffee strong enough to stand on its own--just the way Johnny liked it.

After assuring Murdoch that she would keep the invalid company, Teresa was pleased to see the tall man head to the bath house. As soon as his father had left, Johnny whispered to the young woman, "Any word from Scott?"

The girl only shook her head. Johnny's face grimaced in displeasure. "Dammit, what right does he have to do this to us?"

"But Johnny, I thought you urged him to go?"

"Well, maybe I did, but he shoulda let us know somethin' by now. At least, he could send a telegram sayin' he's on his way."

"What if he's not coming back?"

"Did he. . . did he say that to you?"

"No, I. . .I didn't even get a chance to talk to him. It's just that I can't remember ever seeing Scott so angry. You're usually the hotheaded one."

Johnny started to protest then let it go, knowing that was one argument he couldn't win.

"Yeah, both of 'em were sure steamin'."

"I guess we should have expected it before now."

"Whaddya mean?"

"Johnny, you can't take three stubborn men and throw them into a situation like it is here at Lancer and not expect some fur to fly!"

"I thought we were doin' pretty good," Johnny pouted.

"On the surface, maybe, but there have been times when I felt like Lancer was sitting on top of a volcano--all the hurts, regrets, and doubts just waiting to be released like some eruption."

"Teresa, . . . ."

"Johnny, I haven't known you and Scott very long, but I know the circumstances that brought you here. It can't have been easy for either of you and I know it wasn't easy for Murdoch to ask. Only the idea that he could lose Lancer allowed him to swallow his pride."

"Are you sayin' that he didn't really want us here except against Pardee?"

"No, that's not what I'm saying. I think he wanted you here, but couldn't bring himself to ask because that would look like begging. By offering you a share in the ranch, he saved himself from doing that and found a way to bind you to Lancer so that hopefully one day, you'd learn to know him and be willing to stay."

"And now Scott has made the volcano mad?"

Teresa smiled wryly. "Well, not exactly. In this case, I think Murdoch has made the volcano mad!"

"What?"

"Johnny, you're closer to Scott than anyone, but would you say that you really understand him?"

"Well, sure, uh, most of the time, I mean he is like one of them clams at times, but sure I understand him."

Brown eyes narrowed questioningly while Johnny fidgeted sheepishly. "Well, dammit, Teresa, he's one of them tight-mouthed easterners. Sometimes those blue eyes of his look so innocent and yet I know he's thinkin' a mile a minute. How are you supposed to deal with a man who's so calm all the time? Even when I tease him, he just looks at me like he's got a moron for a brother. It just ain't natural."

That brought a chuckle to Teresa's lips. "Johnny, that's what I'm trying to say. This whole situation is unnatural. Three men who have had their own lives for twenty-five years and now are thrust together without laying the ghosts to rest. You'd all three have to qualify for sainthood for it to work without occasional bouts of anger and harsh words--and I KNOW that none of you are saints!"

"Hey, Teresa, that makes alotta sense--even if you are one of them sentimental girls."

"And WHAT does that mean, Mr. Madrid?"

"Oh, uh nothin'." Struggling to sit up, Johnny suddenly moaned, "Ouch, my. . .er. . .back hurts. You wouldn't happen to have a nice hot water bottle lyin' around, would ya, Teresa?"

The young woman snorted. "I'll see what I can do. Just rest your. . .er. . .back."

"Thanks, Teresa, you're one of them angels of mercy."

Teresa rolled her eyes. "Please, Johnny, I still have to go make dinner. I'll have Murdoch let you know when it's ready."

"Don't forget my hot water bottle!"

Teresa headed to the kitchen to find the hot water bottle, but instead found Murdoch Lancer eating some more oatmeal cookies. "Is he okay, honey?"

"He's fine, but he's worried about Scott and I must admit I am too."

The gray-haired rancher sat there for a long moment, unspeaking, then he conceded, "I'm afraid Scott may not be returning."

*

In the days that followed very little was said about the missing Lancer. There had still been no word so both Johnny and Teresa assumed that Scott did intend to return--if he was able. Teresa, particularly, was adamant that the blond would not leave Lancer without telling them so.

Then, one night while the trio was sitting at the table in the great room, Johnny heard, what he believed to be a rider, approaching. Since it was dinner time, it did not seem too likely that it would be a neighbor so the dark-haired man drew his gun, opened the door silently and slipped out into the dusk. Within two seconds came a frantic shout, "Murdoch, come out here!"

Dropping his napkin to the floor, the rancher immediately hurried out the door while warning Teresa to stay inside. As his eyes adjusted to the twilight, the tall man could see his younger son frantically trying to keep someone from falling off the horse. Moving closer, he could see blond hair covering a face that he almost didn't recognize. The normally handsome and well-defined features were now dark with bruises and dried blood from a broken nose. Reaching up to steady the slender figure, Murdoch helped Johnny release his older son from the rope which had been circled around his body. Only that rope had kept him in place for whatever time he had been in the saddle.

Carrying Scott gently into the house and then into his room, the two Lancers laid him on the bed before taking stock of the injuries inflicted on the lean body. Noticing Teresa's white face, Murdoch told her to find one of the vaqueros who could ride into town to get the doctor. She just nodded and hurried outside.

Reacting quickly, the two Lancer men stripped the torn clothing from the injured man. It was then that they saw the extensive bruises and lash marks on the slim man. Johnny glanced over at his father; without comment the two turned the blond onto his stomach. It was all the younger man could do not to retch at the sight of the crisscrossed wounds. Whoever had done this had intended to inflict punishment, just short of death.

Leaning closer to inspect the inflamed marks, Murdoch turned to his son, "What kind of man could do something like this?"

"I don't know, but he's a dead man!"

The patriarch stiffened at the remark. "John, this is no time to go off half-cocked. We've got to get him cleaned up so when the doctor arrives, Scott can be treated."

The dark man grudgingly nodded. His revenge could wait until he was sure that his brother would survive.

Standing at the door, Teresa looked at the two men who meant so much to her. "I. . .I brought some hot water, lint and towels. I knew you'd want to. . .help him right away."

"Thanks, Teresa. This is not going to be pleasant, maybe you'd rather. . . ." The patriarch stopped immediately when he saw the set jaw of his ward. She might not be a Lancer, but O'Briens could be stubborn too. "Let's get this done then. It's a good thing he's unconscious
because I don't think he could take the pain."

Working quickly but thoroughly, they cleansed and bandaged the various injuries until the three were satisfied that nothing more could be done for the moment. The blond was then covered by a warm blanket.

"I'll stay with him 'til the doctor arrives."

"All right, Johnny, I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything," replied the brown-haired girl.

Murdoch stood in the corner, saying nothing, just staring at the man lying on the bed until he remarked, "How far could he ride like that?"

"No way to tell. I guess he knew his horse would get him home."

"Home? Do you think he feels this is his home?"

The younger man hesitated. "He would like it to be--I think."

There was a long pause before Murdoch cleared his throat to ask, "Johnny did you hear any of what he and I argued about?"

"Some."

"Your brother accused me of some terrible things."

Johnny just nodded.

"The trouble is some of them are true. I. . .I could have written to him to see if he was. . .to check, but every time I thought about doing so, I'd see Harlan Garrett's smirking face in my mind and I'd tear up the letter. I let my hatred for Garrett keep me from my son."

"Murdoch. . . ."

"Hatred's an ugly thing, Son. It destroys your soul." The big man walked out of the room.

A cold chill ran down the gunfighter's back, but then he returned to his brother's side where he stayed even after the doctor arrived. After his exam, the doctor turned to the sapphire-eyed young man, "You'd better ask Murdoch to come in here."

The stony-faced rancher entered, trying to appear impassive. "I just wanted to prepare the two of you. I can't guarantee that he's gonna make it. He's sustained a severe beating and I'm afraid there may be some internal damage."

"What can you do?"

"I'm not sure there's anything I can do."

"Dammit, you've got to help him!"

"John!"

"Johnny, believe me I wish I could help him, but at least I don't think he's in pain. Just keep an eye on him. Nature has strange ways of healing the most violated of bodies so maybe if the damage isn't as severe as. . . ."

The rancher took Dr. Stephens by the arm. "Thanks for coming out so late. We'll take care of him."

The physician picked up his hat from the chair and started towards the door. "If. . .if you need me, let me know."

"We will."

Murdoch returned to Scott's bedroom where he found his dark-haired son sitting by his brother, holding his hand. The tall man wasn't even sure that Johnny was aware that he had returned when the young man spoke, "Why didn't I go with him?"

"It wasn't your decision to make, Johnny."

The gunfighter swung around to face his father, "I'm gonna lose Scott before I even had a chance to know him. If he dies, I'll never forgive you for keepin' us apart all those years!" With that, the agitated man stormed out of the room leaving his father to slump down in the chair by the bed.

The silence in the white hacienda, during the next few days, was almost audible. It was as if they were already in mourning as the three inhabitants took their turns sitting with the injured man. Teresa tried her best to console both men, but it was obvious that neither man wanted to be consoled. The impending loss of son and brother threatened to rent apart the bond that Johnny and his father had so painstakingly built in the past months.

At dawn on the fourth day, Teresa walked into Scott's bedroom, carrying a cup of coffee for Johnny. The younger son had volunteered to take the night shift as he maintained he couldn't rest anyway. Upon entering, she found him with his head resting on Scott's bed, his eyes
closed in sleep. Putting the cup on the nightstand, Teresa started to leave when she noticed a single tear trickling down the pale cheek of Scott Lancer.

"Johnny!"

Straightening up, the young man reacted to the alert, "What? What is it?"

"Look at Scott's face!"

Bleary-eyed with sleep, Johnny at first didn't notice the tear, but then he gently wiped it from the other man's face with a calloused thumb.

"Do you think he's waking up?"

"Don't know. Maybe he's hurtin'."

"Should we get the doctor?"

Johnny chewed at his lip. "Let's wait some. If he is wakin' up, we might see some more signs of it."

"I. . .I just don't like to think of him in pain."

Johnny swiftly glanced over to the young woman with anger in his eyes. "Do you think I do?"

"Of course not! It's just so hard to know what to do."

"Sorry, I guess I'm a might touchy."

"We all are. No need to apologize. I'm going to go make breakfast and start some broth. If he does wake up, he'll need something."

"That's a good idea, Teresa."

As she headed to the door, she remarked, "There a cup of coffee for you over by the bed. It's probably cold though. I'll bring some more."

"Don't worry. It'll do."

Johnny walked over to pick up the cup, even cold coffee would relieve his parched throat. As he leaned over, two hands reached out to grab him by the throat. To his astonishment, two blue eyes, filled with hatred, stared at him. Struggling to release himself from his brother's incredibly strong grasp without hurting him, Johnny couldn't even call out. Then, from behind he heard Teresa's scream which brought Murdoch at a run. Taking in the situation, he moved over to the side of the bed, trying to pry loose the steel fingers. The increasing gasps from his younger son made it obvious that something had to be done and right then-- so the patriarch slapped the blond--hard.

The stinging pain of the unexpected attack did the trick. Scott let go, falling back onto the bed as great sobs of despair broke forth from the shuddering body. Johnny fell back too, clutching at his throat. Murdoch immediately moved to his side. "Are you all right, Son?"

No words emerged from the tormented throat. Teresa quickly thrust the cup of coffee at him which he swallowed, gasping again as the pain reverberated the length of his throat.

Taking another swallow, Johnny croaked out, "S-scott?"

Both men turned to see Teresa trying to comfort the stricken man. Rubbing the thin back tentatively, she hoped to get through the overwhelming anguish so that Scott would know that he was safe, but nothing seemed to help until finally the exhausted body gave in and slipped back into sleep.

"Johnny, why don't you go put something cold on your throat? I'll stay here with Scott."

Before the brunet could protest, Murdoch took Teresa's hint and ushered his son into the kitchen where he doused a cloth with cold water, just collected from the well. The gunfighter did have to admit that the coolness felt wonderful. The two men sat together at the kitchen
table for sometime before Johnny once again tried to talk. "Why. . .why. . . ." but he didn't need to finish the thought.

"Why did he try to choke you? I wish I knew. He must have thought you were someone else."

"M-man. . .b-beat him?"

"Maybe. Hopefully, when he awakes he'll be able to tell us."

"G-go back."

"All right, Son, let's go see your brother if you feel up to it."

For the rest of the day Scott Lancer had three nearly full-time visitors. Teresa only left to make sure there was some food for them all. As the shadows began to fall over the mountains of Lancer, the battered body in the bed began to shift as if trying to find a more comfortable position. With each shift, a grimace of pain crossed the badly swollen face until the grimace seemed to be a constant fixture.

Holding their collective breaths, the trio was rewarded when cerulean eyes opened and took focus on the two men at the foot of the bed. The slight smile that appeared was quickly lost in the agony of the bruise from the slap. Tears began to collect in the cerulean eyes then were
ruthlessly blinked away as the dry lips opened to form one word, "So-rr-y." The shadowed eyes then closed once again.

That night Murdoch insisted that Johnny get some sleep as he would take the shift. Sitting by the bed of his older son, the patriarch could barely see the thin outline under the covers. After some time, he reached up to cover his ears with his hands, but it did no good. He could still hear the cracking sound of the slap as he had struck his son, followed by the inconsolable sobs. Murdoch was not used to hearing a man cry. He hadn't cried himself even at the loss of Catherine or Maria and Johnny. Men were not allowed the same outlet under emotional distress, but hearing those sobs had terrified him. How could Scott ever stay at Lancer after being driven to such despair?

In the morning, as soon as Teresa put in an appearance, Murdoch Lancer rode out to console himself--as he had always done--by riding across the beautiful land which held his heart and soul.

 

 

EPILOGUE

Teresa O'Brien sat quietly in the chair beside Scott Lancer's bed. Some mornings she would bring darning or piecework in with her, but this morning she had brought nothing to keep her occupied. Somehow, she needed to make sense of all that had happened the day before. At the
center of it was the tension that still existed as a result of the argument between Murdoch and Scott. Teresa might be young but she understood Murdoch Lancer quite well. In fact, he and her father, Paul O'Brien, had been much alike--stoic men who despised weakness in themselves and barely tolerated it in others. And yet, no one could be more thoughtful and caring than the tall rancher who had taken Teresa into his home.

The arrival of Johnny and Scott had tested the patriarch to the fullest. To the rancher's chagrin, these unknown young men did not feel an immediate allegiance to the man who had sired them. Each Lancer had had to earn respect for the man he was. And that was the problem in Teresa's opinion. The events of twenty years before had tainted the image that both sons carried of their father and though that harsh image had softened, it was still there lurking--always ready to lash out in hurtful words and actions by one of the Lancers.

Teresa loved Murdoch dearly, but she sometimes rued his 'take it or leave it' attitude. The rancher's disdain for apologizing or even discussing why he had made his choices had made such a blow up inevitable. The tall man needed to be in control, but the situation had moved beyond that to the point where the Lancer bond might have been irreparably damaged.

"Teresa?"

Lost in her thoughts, the young woman hadn't heard the door open. Johnny stuck his dark head in the door. "Any change?"

"No, he hasn't even moved."

Sighing, the young man walked in to sit on the floor beside the bed.

"Why don't you take this chair? I'm going to go make coffee and biscuits."

"Sounds good. Uh, Teresa, did Murdoch go back to his room?"

"No, I think he rode out awhile ago."

"Thought I heard a horse early. He. . . hittin' Scott bothered him."

"I know. But he had no choice.. . .How's your throat, Johnny?"

"It'll be okay. I wouldn't of thought he could be so strong in his condition."

"Johnny, you do realize he must have thought you were someone else? He would never hurt you."

"Didn't think so, but like you said how well do I really know him?"

A flash of annoyance crossed the lovely face. "Johnny Madrid, some things have to be felt in the heart. If you don't know how important you are to Scott, then you two have as much to talk about as he does with Murdoch. Now, I'm going to make the biscuits. I'll be back as soon as I can."

Teresa kept her word. Forty-five minutes later saw Johnny munching on two hot buttered biscuits, washed down with steaming black coffee. "There are plenty more in the kitchen if you want them, Johnny," reminded the Lancer ward.

"This is fine. Truthfully, my throat is still a might sore."

"Ah, I wondered. Usually by now you've inhaled a half dozen."

"You must be thinkin' of Scott. He's the one. . .the one with no manners." The brunet set the remains of his biscuit back on the plate. "Teresa, what if. . .what if he doesn't get better?"

"Johnny, we are NOT going to lose him. It may take some time, but don't worry, he'll be back to playing jokes on you before you know it."

"He does take a delight in teasin' me. 'Course, I always know he's doin' it, but Boston gets so much pleasure thinkin' he's put one over on me, that I just let him go ahead."

"Right. I'm. . .sure that's true. I'm going to go clean up the kitchen now. If you need me, just holler."

"Sure and thanks for everything."

As the brown-haired girl walked towards the kitchen, she could only hope that she had been telling the truth about Scott and the jokes. It would be so easy for him to slip away.

Seeing Murdoch sitting at the table devouring biscuits, Teresa walked over to sit down across from him. "Have a good ride?"

"It's always so beautiful in the early morning."

"Lancer is always beautiful."

The tall man smiled. "Sometimes I think you love this ranch even more than I do."

"Now, I know you're joking, but you and I have been very fortunate."

"You think so? We've both lost a lot."

"Of course, but just think about all we do have."

Murdoch sat silently watching his ward, then he ventured, "Teresa, do you think I should contact Harlan Garrett?"

"Do you think Scott's that. . .bad?"

"I. . .I don't know, but I think Garrett has the right to know, in case. . .in case. . . ."

"Murdoch. . . ."

"Maybe, I'll give it some more time. I have to admit I wouldn't like to tell any man something like that." Murdoch rubbed at his tired eyes with one large hand.

"Why don't you go in and get another hour's sleep. Johnny's in with Scott."

The rancher nodded. "Maybe I will. You know, Teresa, I worry about what Johnny will do if Scott dies."

Teresa watched as her guardian moved down the hallway towards the bedroom where his two sons were.

Entering, he found the comforting sight of Johnny Madrid holding his brother's hand. "How is he, Johnny?"

"No change. I guess I thought after he. . .after yesterday, he'd be wakin' soon."

"We just have to be patient. Maybe his mind isn't ready to accept what his body endured."

"'S'pose you could be right."

"I'm going to go lie down for awhile. Let me know if you need me."

"Sure."

An hour passed and then the silence in the room was punctuated by a series of small whimpers which became moans from the man on the bed. Shifting restlessly as he had done the day before, Scott Lancer tried to escape the rising level of pain in his back by turning over, but the
severe blows that he had endured made this impossible. Fortunately, someone nearby seemed to recognize the problem and maneuvered him onto his side with his back was propped against pillows. Even though he could still feel a trickle of blood and sweat irritating the wounds, the relief of being on his side was immediate. Struggling to open his eyes to thank the person who had helped, Scott peered up into the face of his brother. "Th-thanks."

"Should have thought of that before. You hurtin'?

"S-some."

"The doctor left some laudanum. You want any?"

"L-later." The blond raised his hand to the bruise which started at the edge of his mouth and made talking difficult. The hand then moved up to softly touch the swollen eyes and nose. "Thought t-they'd k-kill me."

"Scott, who did this to you?"

"D-dead."

"Who's dead?" Scott, what happened?"

But the blue eyes had closed once again.

Frustrated, Johnny returned to the chair where he remained until relieved by his father in the early afternoon.

Just looking at his son made the tall man wince. His whole face was covered in shades of black, yellow, plum, and blue. Especially disturbing was the one at the edge of his mouth, Shaking off the thought, Murdoch put on his glasses and started to read.

Stopping after awhile to rest his eyes in the subdued light, he was startled to see two blue eyes staring at him from the battered face. "Scott? Are you in pain?"

Dry lips parted to form painful words, "A-angry at m-me?"

The patriarch moved the chair closer. "I was, but things have changed."

"J-Johnny?"

"He's in his room. Do you want to me to go get him?"

As the blond started to nod, a fine sheet of sweat broke out on the bruised face. "Want to tell. . . ."

"Why don't you just rest? Johnny knows you didn't mean to hurt him."

The blue eyes opened wide in confusion. "Hurt J-johnny? Shifting against the pillow, the blond man tried to force himself up.

Startled by the sudden movement, Murdoch instinctively reached out to prevent the slender man from trying to sit up. "Scott, listen to me. You're in no shape to go anywhere. Lie back down and I'll go get Johnny."

Cerulean eyes closed wearily. "T-tell him. . .t-ell him. . . ."

After making sure that his older son would not try to get up again, Murdoch walked down to his younger son's room. Johnny quickly accompanied his father back to the room where he knelt down in front of his brother so that the other man could see him clearly.

"Here I am, Boston. Why'd you want to see me?"

"Hurt you?"

Johnny glanced over at Murdoch. "It's okay, you thought I was someone else I guess."

"Gr-range P-parker."

Murdoch Lancer started at the name. He had had business dealings with Grange Parker.

"Who's that?"

"K-killed S-pur and F-rank."

"Your friends are dead?"

Before Johnny could ask another question, the thin body under the blanket began to tremble. "Don't. . .can't . . . ."

Murdoch walked over to gently pat his son. "It's all right, Scott, you don't have to think about it now. There's plenty of time." But the blond did not hear the comforting words as he had escaped into sleep once again.

The shorter man stood up to face his father. "What do you know about this Grange Parker?"

"He lives down near Trench Gap. We've had a few business dealings, but I've never had any trouble with him."

"He's in for some now. As soon as I'm sure Scott's out of danger, I'm going to head down that way and find out what he had to do with this!"

"No, you are not! You could get yourself killed and that won't help Scott. We're going to wait until Scott is able to tell us exactly what happened. It's obvious that he's not thinking too clearly and we need to know the truth before you go gunning for a respected rancher!"

All the gunfighter's instincts told him to move now, but Johnny Lancer recognized that at least for the time being, it would be better to wait so he backed off in the face of his father's stand. "Okay but if Scott tells me this guy was behind the beating, I'm going to Trench Gap and you're not stopping me!"

"Could anything stop you, Johnny, short of an Act of God?" Murdoch Lancer walked out of the room.

The next three days passed slowly as Scott began to take in small amounts of nourishment. His speaking continued to be halting and he avoided talking about Trench Gap altogether. Frustrated by his brother's reticence, Johnny stalked around the house like a caged lion.

By the end of the third day, Johnny was ready to defy his father and head off to Trench Gap. He assured himself that he could handle the situation without using his gun if absolutely necessary. He just needed to know.

Fortunately, for familial relations, mutiny did not become necessary. When Johnny stopped in to say goodnight to Scott before heading to bed, the blond man admitted that he needed his brother's help. Puzzled by Scott's obvious reluctance to ask a favor, the brunet immediately assured him he would do whatever he could.

Scott's relief was apparent even as he gave his brother an out. "D-don't have to go with m-me, but not sure I. . .I can do it by myself."

"Go where, Boston?"

"T-Trench G-Gap. N-need to find b-bodies. B-bury them."

"Scott, why don't you tell me what happened?"

"D-dead. Isn't th-that enough?"

Johnny glanced up as Murdoch entered quietly. The rancher had assumed that Johnny had already gone to his room so he had come in to check on Scott before going to sleep. The younger man put a finger to his lips so Murdoch did not say a word to interrupt.

Scott didn't even look up at his father. He seemed to be miles away--in the small town of Trench Gap.

"Scott?"

Suddenly, the blond's body tensed with anger. "Johnny, why. . .why c-can't you leave it alone? Do you n-need to hear what a miserable f-failure your brother is? I'll t-tell you and once you kn-know all the s-sickening d-details, you'll see.

"Went to jail where F-Foster and J-Jacobs were. Sh-sheriff let me talk to 'em. Spur ad-admitted he took cow. Was hungry. No job." For an instant he clenched his eyes shut then continued, "Frank tried to look out for him. Spur loved h-horses but was kinda slow thinker. He was so sc-scared. I told 'em I'd pay for the cow."

Sweat covered the blond's face as he remember his confrontation with Grange Parker. "Offered to pay, but he just laughed. Said M-Murdoch L-Lancer's son should know that c-cattle rustlers hang. I. . .I begged. S-said he'd drop charges. Rode to t-town. Spur 'n Frank were sittin' on h-horses, ropes round necks. Tried to stop mob. Men grabbed me, felt whip sting, saw horses move 'n they just hung there." The last words raced off his tongue as if saying them fast made it hurt less.

There was only silence in the room as Scott began to shudder uncontrollably. "T-told you."

"Scott, as soon as you're strong enough I'd be proud to go with you to Trench Gap. We'll find your friends."

A grim-faced Murdoch Lancer marched out of the room without looking at either son.

Johnny could see the concern in his brother's eyes. "Hey, Boston, don't worry. He'll come around. Let me go talk to him."

As soon as the dark-haired man walked into the great room, Murdoch went on the attack. "John, how could you promise him that? He's in no shape to make such a trip!"

"We're not leaving tomorrow. He needs to do this and I'm not letting him go on his own!"

"And just what do you plan to do if Parker comes after the two of you?"

"I'll handle it!"

"And what happens to your brother if you get killed?"

"That's not gonna happen. Don't you have any trust in me? Do you think I'd risk Scott getting hurt some more?"

"You might not be able to prevent it."

"Mebbe not but what's it gonna do to him if we don't try?"

Murdoch had no answer for that. Hands on hips, the tall rancher stood there thinking. "All right, maybe you're right, but he has to get well first. Right now he couldn't make it out of the courtyard."

"I know. Don't worry, just trust me to keep him here. I have been known to be cunning in my time."

"Well, this time you had better be as cunning as a fox!"

"Okay, let me go tell him you've agreed."

"Fine. I'll be in my room."

Johnny Madrid returned to his brother's side. The blond had somehow turned over onto his stomach and had pushed his head straight into the pillow. "Scott! It's all right. Murdoch's agreed to our going."

Painfully, the slender man turned over to face the other Lancer. "Don't want you to get hurt."

"You don't have to worry about me. Between the two of us, Parker will be the scared one.

"Th-thanks."

"No problem. We'll go as soon as you're feeling better."

Scott reached out to squeeze his brother's hand. "He doesn't have a ch-chance."

"You said it, Brother. Now get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning."

Johnny walked into the kitchen where he found Teresa drinking some hot chocolate before going to bed. With a few words, he informed the young woman about the proposed trip. Though shocked, she did not dispute the need for the ride. After that, Johnny went to his own room.

An irate Teresa O'Brien walked to the door of her guardian's room and knocked. When the tall man answered, she stalked right in. "Murdoch Lancer, why did you agree to let those two go to that town?"

"How could I stop them? Johnny's right. Scott needs to do this. Johnny will watch over him."

"And who is going to stop Johnny from getting into trouble? He means well but that trigger finger of his doesn't always listen to reason."

"But if I tell them they can't go, they'll believe I don't trust them!"

"I'm not asking you to tell them not to go! You need to go with them! Can't you see that?"

"Then, they'll be sure I don't trust them!"

"Which is more important to you--what they think or that they both come back alive?"

"Teresa, you just don't understand. Men have to make their own choices."

"Don't give me that! I know you can do whatever you really want! The question is what do you want?"

Murdoch Lancer sank down on his bed. "I want both of my sons to survive."

"Then tell Scott that you're going with them."

Knowing that he might be making a huge mistake, Murdoch decided that he could never live with himself if he allowed his sons to go off and face Parker alone. "All right, Teresa, I'll tell him. Let's just hope they both understand."

The rancher walked slowly down the hallway to enter the blond's bedroom. "Scott, could I talk to you for a moment?"

"Johnny s-said okay."

"Yes, I did tell him that I agreed you should go, but I would also like to go with you."

To the older man's surprise, Scott didn't even blink at the news. "Fine."

"I thought. . .I thought you'd protest."

"No. Want you to pr-protect Johnny. No m-matter what h-happens, keep him s-safe. Not sure I can."

The sad admission curved Murdoch's lips into a small smile. "I promise. I'll make sure nothing happens to your brother."

A look of understanding passed between the two as Scott thanked his father.

 

 

THE END
This story will be completed in the sequel, "Retribution."