Sins of a Child

by 

Marilyn

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Green River’s scruffy and unkempt sheriff, Val Crawford stepped out of his office frowning, mumbling to himself in his normal fashion. He paused to scratch at his stubble, and yawned loudly. He was taking his sweet ol’ time buckling up his gun belt, before he acknowledged the people in front of him. He looked over at the couple sitting haughtily in their fancy buggy, with their noses up in the air, and his frown almost went into a disgusted sneer. The last thing he wanted to do was escort these people to Lancer, not after he had been told by the army captain who they were. Captain Davis and his small troop of rough looking soldiers had been their guide and protection until now. Now they were here seeking his help in locating the ranch, and a certain young ex-gunfighter.

Roberto Vega was a Spanish man with aristocratic bearing. He was a citizen of some importance back in Mexico, and he damn well made sure people knew it, too. The minute he arrived in town, he commenced to rudely barking out orders to the locals, even Val. The gray haired, well-dressed stocky man had an attitude that didn’t sit well with the hard-nosed Sheriff. Vega thought he was royalty… that you didn’t talk to him unless you were spoken to first or acknowledged and given permission. There had already been a few heated words exchange between the two men, and Val felt like belting the self- righteous man in the kisser. However, he had to remember he was the law in this town and therefore had to control himself, no matter how hard Vega made it.

Senor Vega was traveling with his wife, Ana. She was a medium built woman with long dark hair. Her hair was nicely done up to accommodate the beautiful Mexican headdress that women of wealth wore. Val looked her over carefully, in the customary way any man would. He had to admit that she was a beautiful woman, but that beauty was spoiled by her own attitude, the same condescending one as her husband. Val snorted to himself as he thought, ‘perfect pair…they deserve each other.’

Val stood staring at the little group, taking his time, absolutely in no hurry to do their bidding. Crawford was pondering on some questions he had on his mind, like ‘why the military escort?’ How important were these people? It had him puzzled, as no one had told him anything other than they needed him to show them the way to Lancer, and Johnny. Val still wasn’t too happy with the idea of leading them to his buddy. And there was another thing that had him baffled, how did they know where to find him? They had asked for Madrid not Lancer, but knew he was at the ranch. They just didn’t know how to get there.

Val had sent word to Lancer to warn them that they were about to receive some unpleasant company. He had also cautioned Johnny to keep on his guard, or maybe to just stay away until they found out what they wanted with him.

"Well, Senor Sheriff, are you going to take us to Lancer?" Roberto asked insolently. "You are wasting our valuable time."

"Hold on to yer dang blasted horses," Val snorted, "We have plenty of time to get there. We’ll leave when I say it’s time to leave." He growled at the pompous man. Val was getting sick and tired of the man’s high and mighty manner. He gave Vega a sharp disdainful look and walked over to the smirking Captain. "What’s so funny?" he snapped at Davis.

"Oh, just that it’s your turn to put up with him." Davis replied happily, "I’ve had enough of that man, he’s like a tyrant, ordering my men around like they’re his slaves or something. He’s never happy with anything or anyone."

"Well, he’s not going to do that to me, I don’t give a damn who he is, or who he thinks he is," Val declared. However, he was still curious enough to ask, "Why the military escort? Why does he need your protection?" he whispered so they wouldn’t hear him.

"I don’t know. They came to the fort, asking for protection and a guide, so I was ordered to take a few men, and escort them here to Lancer," the captain replied, rubbing his thin chin. " But I do know that while on the way here, Vega did seem a little nervous about something. He and his wife always kept to themselves. It was like they were hiding from someone."

Val didn’t like the sound of that one bit, something about this made his skin crawl, and he was glad that he had send word ahead to Murdoch. He just hoped that Johnny wasn’t there. "Yeah, I noticed that too, he seemed jumpy, like something was biting at his ass, when he first came to town. Vega was looking behind every corner and alley way as you rode into town." Val said remembering, "Like he was looking fer someone."

"Sheriff!" The arrogant Vega shouted.

"Alright, alright, get mounted up!" Val shouted out, and then mumbled loud enough for the man to hear. "Let’s go, your highness!" A disgruntled Val led the couple out of town, followed by the Captain and his men.

As they were leaving, a pair of brown eyes watched carefully from the hayloft door of the near by stable, making mental notes as to which way they were headed. Once they were out of seeing distance, the brown eyes narrowed, and the door slowly closed.

*********

"Where’s Johnny?" Scott asked when he entered the great room from the kitchen. He stood there waiting for an answer from his father, who was nervously pacing back and forth, still holding the note from Val. He kept reading it over and over again. It had Murdoch curious, but mostly worried as to why these people were coming here.

"He left right after I showed him the note." Murdoch replied, stopping long enough to pour himself a stiff drink. "He said he was going for a ride."

"Can’t say that I blame him," Scott stated, he had read the note before Johnny did, and he too did not like the sound of this. "What in the hell do they want with him, anyway? Who is this Roberto Vega, and how did he know where to find Johnny?" Scott plopped down heavily in the big chair by the fireplace.

"I have no idea who he is, I’ve never heard of him. But I’ll tell you one thing, he’d had better prove to be on the up and up, before I let him even see or say one word to your brother." Murdoch said strongly. "They’re from Mexico, that alone has me worried." The dread in the concerned father’s voice was plainly heard.

"I know what you mean. Johnny doesn’t need any reminders from that part of his past," Scott said sadly. "He’s doing so well adjusting to his new life, and I hope this doesn’t interfere with it. Maybe you should have refused and told Val not to bring them here."

"No, Scott, they would have just found someone else to show them the way. We might as well get this over with, and see what they want." Murdoch replied with a heavy sigh. "Maybe it’s not as bad as we think."

"Lets hope so." Scott agreed, then thought of his little brother, and where he might have had ridden off too. " I bet Johnny is sitting in his special spot, where he likes to go to think, whenever he is troubled about something."

"Could be." Murdoch said in a sullen voice.

"How did he look, when he left?"

"Not good, Scott, the sparkle flickered and died in his eyes the minute he read this blasted note." The tall rancher snorted, "Like Death had walked over him, he looked at it with such hurt in his eyes, and then said he was going for a ride."

"Do you think he knows this Vega?"

" I was wondering that, too, maybe, and that has me even more troubled. Lets hope Johnny will survive this visit in one piece." Murdoch downed his drink, and then poured another one, while waiting for their unwelcome guests to arrive.

Meanwhile a golden palomino stood on top of the hill, grazing on the fresh green grass, while the horse’s owner lurked in the shadows of the trees. Sad and troubled blue eyes were watching and waiting, dreading the arrival of his past.

 

Chapter Two

 

Johnny sat anxiously on the lush green hill that over looked the road leading to the ranch. His brooding presence camouflaged by the shade of the trees that stood in a stately manner upon the incline of the land. Johnny nervously played with a twig, twirling it between his long agile fingers, while biting down on a blade of sweet grass. He was undecided as to whether he wanted to wait here a little longer or head home.

Johnny had fled to the comfort and safety of his favorite spot after finding out about the imminent arrival of unwanted visitors. He had saddled Barranca and rode off fast and hard. The feeling of the wind blowing against his tan face, helped soothe his raw emotions. He let the thrill of the ride work out the tension and anger that had built up inside of him. When the wild ride ended, Johnny found himself on the hillside. It wasn’t just his preferred thinking spot but also a good place to catch a glimpse of the man that was coming to see him. A man he wanted no part of . . . a man he had hated for all these years.

Johnny had never actually met the man, face to face, but yet he despised him. He had many opportunities to seek the man out, to meet and talk with him back then. But something had always made the young gun-hawk turn away, never wanting to bother with that part of Mexico. Even then, in those by-gone days, Johnny had realized, he wouldn’t know how he would react if they did meet. Every time he thought about Vega, his blood pressure would rise to a boiling point, making his whole body feel as though the heat of rage would consume him from the inside out. Johnny had forgotten all about the man, or at least tried to when he had come home to Lancer. Now the bastard was coming here to him. ‘Why?’ Johnny wondered, ‘Why now?’

Letting out a heavy sigh, he pressed his palms firmly against his eyes. Johnny’s mind was made up; it was time to head home. He strode with renewed purpose to his golden friend and mounted. He would find out soon enough why Vega was coming here to Lancer, there was no sense dwelling on it or hiding from it. Besides, he rather would confront the man in the safety and comfort of his own home, with his family by his side for support.

"Come on boy, let’s go home." He murmured gently, as he patted Barranca’s golden neck. As he spun the horse into the direction of the hacienda, he spied a small group in the distance heading towards the house. With a gentle kick to Barranca’s side, he took off at a gallop, he wanted to get home, and fast.

********

Murdoch stood stiffly by the French doors, trying to keep his wits about him. He watched his unwelcome visitors pass under the Lancer arch. Just minutes ago, Johnny had returned home, storming in like he was being chased by a swarm of agitated bees. He paused to announce, "They’re coming," and headed straight upstairs to his room. Climbing the stairs two steps at a time in his effort to put some distance between himself and them. The expression on his son’s face had Murdoch worried and it had him wondering what this man meant to Johnny.

"Is Johnny still upstairs?" Scott asked as he entered the room, walking over to the bar to pour himself a drink, "Want one?" He asked holding up the bottle, seeing that his father appeared wound up and antsy.

"Yes, he’s still upstairs, and no thanks, maybe later. I have feeling I’m going to need it more then." He answered, still looking out the window.

"Did Johnny say if he knew them?"

"No, but the way he looked when he came home, tells me he does." Murdoch said. "If he is that upset by them being here, maybe I should just cut the visit short, and send them on their way." Murdoch suggested moodily.

"That would be rude, Sir, to allow them to come all this way, and not give them a chance to rest up from the ride." Scott was trying to be reasonable and mannerly about the situation, even though he shared his father thoughts. He too, would rather see them leave right away.

"Yes, you’re right, son, any way we’ll find out soon enough," Murdoch agreed, then pointed to the yard. "Our guests have arrived"

The two Lancer men schooled their features to neutrality, and walked out to greet the travelers. Upstairs a confused and lone figure stood behind the curtains of his bedroom window, peering down at the group below. Looking pass Val, his father, and brother, Johnny’s eyes narrowed, their blue depths turning cold as ice when he got a quick glance at the man called Vega. His heart thudded fast and painfully against his chest at the sight of the man. His blood rushed swiftly through his body, giving him a light-headed feeling; Johnny knew he had to get control of himself. He called on his Madrid persona; letting the hardened gun fighter in him take control, he started to relax. Johnny stepped back away from the window, letting the curtains fall back in place. And waited.

Roberto Vega saw the tall rancher approaching, and quickly jumped from the buggy. He hurried over to greet Murdoch, rudely interrupting Val, as he just about to introduce the group to the Lancers.

"Ah, Señor Lancer, I presume?" Vega said extending his hand to Murdoch, ignoring Scott who stood next to his father.

Val shook his head in disgust, mumbled something hotly under his breath, and then introduced the man to Lancer. "Murdoch Lancer, this here is Senor Vega, and his lovely wife Ana." Val said in a mocking polite voice. "And this is Murdoch’s other son, Scott Lancer." Val added.

"Señor." Scott said politely.

"Señor Vega, welcome to Lancer, please do come in and tell us what brings you here."

Murdoch said, taking the man’s hand, shaking it lightly, "Jelly, will you show the Vegas into the great room," he ask the handy man who had joined the crowd. "I’ll be in shortly, I want to talk to Val for a few minutes."

"Sure, Boss. Right this way folks," Jelly instructed, showing them the way through the huge wooden doors of the house. As Jelly walked by the couple carrying a few of their bags, they lifted their heads in a smug disdainful manner at the man, before following him into the house.

"Val, what do you make of them?" Murdoch asked frankly.

"Trouble, but that’s only my thinking, I could be wrong." Val admitted, "Where’s Johnny?"

"He’s upstairs, he’ll come down when he’s ready. I’m not going to push him."

"Well, I hope this will turn out to be a good visit for y’all. I have to get back to town now, I don’t trust that deputy of mine to keep the peace for too long." The gruff old sheriff said with a smirk. "Good luck to ya." Val mounted up, and then headed back to town.

"Mr. Lancer," Captain Davis said, as he approached the tall rancher. "I’m Captain Davis."

"Captain, what can I do for you?" Murdoch asked shaking the man’s hand.

"I was wondering where we could set up our camp. We have to stay with the Vegas until they leave and go back to the fort." the officer answered.

"Yes, you can camp over there by the pond." he told the Captain, pointing to a spot just beyond the gate.

"Thank you, sir," The Captain tipped his hat and motioned for his men to follow him, as Murdoch continued on inside.

Once inside, Murdoch watched as his visitors were taken in by the grandeur of the great room. Their eyes widened with delight and amazement, obviously they had not thought to find these comforts in the wilds. Mrs. Vega walked about the room, and out of habit she rubbed her white glove along the furniture, as if she were checking for dust. All the while her nosed was pinched with snobbish contempt.

"You have a grand place here, Señor." Roberto commented.

"Thank you, now Señor Vega, would mind telling me the purpose of this visit," he asked rather bluntly.

"That’s what I would like to know?" said the dangerously soft voice coming from the doorway.

 

Chapter Three

 

All eyes were riveted on the lean figure of the scowling young man who stood before them. Externally, he emanated a facade that spoke of a laid back, cold and hardened gun-hawk, but internally he felt so vulnerable, exposed and susceptible. His blood rushed in an almost panicked pace through his veins, heating his body up like a raging fire burning out of control, consuming his very soul. His heart was painfully pounding, thudding with merciless abandon against his chest, as raw- emotions threatened to over take him. Johnny felt himself losing the Madrid persona, putting him in a weak position. He fought desperately to keep his walls of self-defense in place. Or he would never get through this. But it was useless, like trying to quench a thirst with a thimble of water. Just the mere presence of Vega, was breaking that mask down, shattering his control, peeling back his layers of protection. Johnny trembled at the sight of the man, and it was scaring the hell out of him, he was back to feeling like an unwanted child.

Just moments before, upstairs in his room, Johnny had paced the floor until he was dizzy from the action, stopping when he realized it was the only way to keep the room from spinning around him. He battled irrational and erratic thoughts of packing his saddlebags, and high tailing it away. He could escape out the back way, that’s what Johnny Lancer wanted to do, head for the line shack and stay there until they had left. However, his Madrid side, the stronger, unafraid of nothing side, told him to stay, stick it out, to make a stand. Johnny knew he could never out run his thoughts, no matter how hard he tried, therefore he decided to face this demon, Vega, an heretofore unseen horror from his youth. The thoughts of finally laying eyes on the man left him with a deep, cold ache in the pit of his stomach. He shuddered to think how actually seeing him would affect him.

Roberto stared with fascination at the young man. A crooked smile graced his face, as he took in Johnny’s perfect features. This was the first time he had actually laid eyes on Johnny. He was amazed, delighted by the strong cheekbones, the tan skin, the thick black hair, all the characteristics of a regal Spaniard. Vega saw nobility in Johnny, and thought with the proper training, he could be the perfect aristocrat. The thoughts soured on his stomach and the smile disappeared when he noted Johnny’s sapphire blue eyes, the mark of a mestizo. The noble thoughts vanished faster than frost under a bright morning sun. He pacified himself with the fact this was not the reason why he was here, anyway.

Johnny didn’t give a rat’s ass about Vega. He aloofly studied the features of the man as he slowly walked over to the group, he did see something in the stocky man that reminded him of someone. He had questions for Vega, queries that had preyed on his mind over the years. They ate away at his subconscious, questions he was sure that his father would be very interested in hearing, along with the answers. But Johnny had to admit to himself that he was afraid to hear what Vega had to say, to finally know for certain. A Mexican stand off ensued for a few minutes, as they glared at each other. Johnny took a deep breath, finally breaking the silence, he frigidly stared Vega right in the eyes.

"Did you know about me?" Johnny asked, as his heart raced like a herd of stampeding horses.

"I do not understand." Vega answered, acting all confused, bowing his head, as though to hide his shame.

"You heard me! Did you know about me, back then?" Johnny sharply demanded, rephrasing his words so the man would understand. "Look at me!" he commanded.

"Sí," Vega whispered, his head still down.

"You bastard!" Johnny growled through his teeth, and then quickly turned and walked away, turning his back on the group. His body trembled as wild emotions threatened to spin him out of control as he fought back the urge to belt the weasel right in the kisser.

Murdoch didn’t like where this was going; nor what he was witnessing, and had had enough of this bull. He demanded answers, loudly, "Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?" He was meet by a stony, rigid silence. He glanced at his son and recognized the distress in his body stance, he calmly inquired, "Johnny?"

Johnny waited for Vega to answer his father, but knew he wouldn’t, so he quickly turned around and walk back over and confronted Vega. "I guess I’ll have to tell him, huh?"

Johnny eyes were full of hurt and anger as he spoke, his voice slightly quivering. "You…you want to know who this is, I’ll tell ya, Murdoch." Johnny said taking his gaze away from the sullen face man, and then pausing to gather his thoughts. "This here is my Mama’s brother, my tio!" A look of disgust painted his face as he spat out the next words, "The tio who didn’t lift a God damn finger to help us when we needed it. The tio, who I now know, knew about me, and didn’t even try to find me after Mama died." Johnny stopped to compose himself, before he asked, " Isn’t that right?"

Roberto said nothing, as he was utterly shocked, for he had no idea that Johnny even knew about him. He had thought Maria had said nothing about him to her hijo, or to her friends, and was overwhelmed with the hostile greeting; he was getting from his sobrino.

Murdoch and Scott stood frozen in place, with their mouths open in stunned disbelief. Their minds traveling back to in time; dazed by horrific visions of Johnny alone, out there in that God-forsaken land, scared, hungry, preyed on by ruthless people, unsure who to trust. And this man, his tio, did nothing to help a ten-year old boy in a dire need of a home. Scott stood there red faced, as his own blood started to boil, while Murdoch was quiet, his anger simmering under the surface as his mind also considered his wife, and how her lies and betrayal also put his son in that position.

"Maria had a brother?" Murdoch said softly, as his thoughts escaped to be voiced aloud. "She said she had no family."

"Sí, she has a brother, one who didn’t give damn about her. One, I didn’t know about until it was too late!" Johnny answered his father. "Now, I would like to know why? Why now?"

"Juanito." Roberto said softly.

"Don’t call me that!" Johnny shouted, with such pain in his heart, it felt like it was about to burst open. "Why are you here? You didn’t care about me back then, was it because I’m a mestizo, HUH? Were you ashamed that your sister had such a freak for a son?" Johnny asked his voice cracking, his raw emotions breaking and shattering the Madrid mask.

"JOHNNY!" Murdoch hollered not liking his son’s description of himself. "Stop it!"

"NO MURDOCH!" Johnny hollered back, then turning his attention back to his mortified uncle. "I would like to know, what this monster thinks of me. I’ll tell ya what I do know, is that my mama wrote you, didn’t she? She asked for help, and you refused. Didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?" He was getting very annoyed at the man’s silence, and felt like beating the answers out of him.

"Sí, she wrote me, I offered to bring her home, where she belonged." Vega finally spoke up, his voice shaky as he looked over at his quiet wife. "I told her I would help if she would come home, but she said no, that she had a son, that she did not want to expose him…you, to our kind of life." Vega’s head was slightly bowed, trying to sound sincere. Deep down inside his dark soul, he knew Johnny did speak the truth, he was ashamed that he had a half-breed for a nephew, that his own sister had married a gringo.

"Your kind of life?" Johnny asked sharply, breaking the heavy silence that filled the room.

"Your Mama hated to be watched over all the time, she despised being the proper young woman she was suppose to be, she was too wild, we couldn’t control her." Vega said. "Maria ran off looking for adventure, love, not caring about the familia she left behind." He paused to reflect, "She wrote saying she needed money, and knew that I had taken over for our papa after he had died. I told her to come home and I will give her the money, but she refused, so I did not."

"Did you even try to find her?" Murdoch asked harshly, after finding his voice. "You knew where she was, seeing that you had a letter from her." He added, glaring at the sweating little rat.

"Sí, I knew where she was, but I figured it would not do any good if I did try to find her." Vega answered trying to take his eyes away from Murdoch’s hard cold ones, only to be met by Scott’s. Scott wanted nothing more than to throw Vega out on his sorry ass, after he had beaten the hell out of him.

"So you let a ten-year old boy, fend for himself after his Mama died, and didn’t care to even find HIM!" Murdoch growled loudly, like a papa bear ready to pounce on the jackal that hurt his cub. He wanted to rip his cold heart out, and throw it in the trash where it belonged.

"Sí."

Murdoch turned to see Johnny standing there shaking; his eyes showed the hurt and disappointment; the abandonment was coming back to him. His face portrayed the sense of having had the rug pulled out from under him. Johnny started to sway; he was feeling light-headed; so he sat down, putting his head between his legs, trying to control his emotions. Scott sat down next to Johnny, wrapping his arms around his brother, feeling his body tremble against his, and then shot a lethal glare at the Vegas.

"And who is this?" Roberto asked pointing to Scott, forgetting he had been introduced earlier to Scott, or just didn’t care to acknowledge the blond Lancer.

Johnny’s head shot up and he pierced his Uncle with the coldest glare ever. "This is my brother, Scott," Johnny said proudly. "The brother I never knew I had, thanks to your sister! She stole me away from my father, this land, and my birthright. Did you even know about that?" he asked harshly, and then let out a mocking half laugh. "Of course you did, I bet you even knew what I had to become to stay a live, and that I came home, or otherwise how would you know where to find me, HUH?"

"You have no right talking to your tio like that!" Ana spoke up, breaking her stoic silence.

"And you have no right coming here! Not now, not after all these years!" Johnny answered back, standing up too quickly from the couch, he swayed almost falling over, Scott had to swiftly catch him.

"I want them out of my house, Murdoch, please." Johnny implored from the comfort of his brother's arms.

"Now see here, we came all this way to see you."

"And you never did tell us why," Scott spoke up.

"Well?" Johnny demanded.

 

Chapter Four

 

Total silence reigned in the great room, it was as though the Angel of Death had descended with its black shroud billowing out; killing all sound except for wildly beating hearts. The unnatural quiet was reminiscent of a tomb. The aberrant stillness magnified the unease between the Lancers and Vegas. Vega, stood with his head bowed, he could feel the cold hard glares coming from the Lancer men, piercing his soul, sending a chill down his spineless torso. He imagined he could feel the air stir from their angry huffs of breath as they waited contemptuously for the answer to Johnny’s question. Vega knew he could not reveal the truth to them, not yet anyhow, he prayed he could come up with an answer they would believe.

" Well?" Johnny snorted, getting very annoyed with this oppressive silence.

"It is because I am your Tio, that I come to see you." Vega said blurting out the only answer he could think of at the moment. "I realize now, I was wrong. I should have looked for you, taken you in, but my foolish pride did not allow me to do so." Vega paused, nervously licking his lips as he studied Johnny for any kind of reaction. "I would like to get to know my nephew."

"Sí, that is why we are here." Ana anxiously agreed with her husband. Grateful for the answer he had come up with, fearing they would be found out too soon.

"Well it’s a little too late for that, don’t ya think?" Johnny replied rather curtly. "Besides I don’t believe ya, not one bit." Johnny added getting up from the couch, his limbs shaky from the intensity of his raw emotions. Scott frowned at the couple, as he also stood up grabbing a hold of his brother to stabilize and support him. Johnny held on to his brother’s arm for a few seconds, and then slowly walked over to Vega, stopping a few inches from the trembling man’s face. "Now tell me the real reason you are here," he asked in a deadly tone.

"Johnny!" Murdoch intervened, " They have had a long ride, let them rest up, then we can talk later." Murdoch was trying to be polite, but he too felt like throwing the couple out. Murdoch pinned the man with a lethal glare, "And we will talk later, Vega!" Murdoch added boldly.

"Sí, Sí, I would love to freshen up," Ana agreed, "I must have inhaled at least a ton of dust." She added trying to break the tension in the air that was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Johnny broke his hard glare from Vega, and stepped back from his so called Tio, to let the man pass.

"Jelly will you please show them to their room?" Murdoch asked the quiet handy man.

Jelly had been standing in the corner taking in all the drama, and wishing he were some place else right now. He didn’t like Vega, he got a bad feeling about him; it was beyond him how anyone could refuse to help a child due to his heritage.

"Sure boss, anything ya say." Jelly grumbled, as he grabbed their bags. "When is Teresa getting back? Ain’t this her job?"

"She’ll be back tomorrow night, now show them to their room, please." Murdoch ordered.

"Right this way folks!’ Jelly said abruptly. "Next thing he’ll have me to do is draw their baths," he mumbled to himself, as the couple followed him up the stairs, noses still in the air, as though they were too good to breathe the same air as him.

Murdoch turned his attention back to his son, who was fretfully pacing the floor. "Johnny settle down, you’re going to make yourself sick."

"How can you be so damn calm, Murdoch? HUH? " Johnny asked snapping harshly at his father. "You heard him. He didn’t do a DAMN thing to help me, or Mama. He…he left a ten-year old boy out there, alone, hungry… God was I hungry… and scared, and God knows what…" Johnny said the words trailing off, his voice breaking up. He realized that it was all in the past. But it still hurt too much to forget it, as much as he tried. The pain was still too fresh. Vega showing up like this just added more horror to the traumatizing memories his presence stirred up.

"Yes, I heard him!" Murdoch snorted back. "And believe me I didn’t like it one little bit, son, but we have to listen to the man, at least give him the benefit of the doubt." Murdoch firmly expressed.

"The benefit of the doubt?" Scott blurted out; shocked that Murdoch would suggest that. "He knew about Johnny but still he left your SON to fend for himself in that God forsaken part of the world, and you want to give him the benefit of the doubt?" Scott’s face glowed red with his rage, "I’m with Johnny; we should just show them on their way. I, personally, think they should hit the road and I really don’t care if they do it in their carriage or under it!"


Johnny turned to face his big brother, and gave him a sad smile, grateful that at least one family member agreed with him. He hugged his arms to his torso, and dropped his chin to his chest to peer at his father through his long lashes, he could tell his father was thinking hard.

"Let’s wait until tomorrow, okay? It had been a long day, and Maria has dinner almost done, let’s just try to get by tonight." Murdoch suggested to his sons.

"Well, I lost my appetite, so if you don’t mind, I’ll pass on dinner." Johnny said coldly. "I have some things to tend to in the barn, I’ll be in later." He grabbed his hat and stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.

"Johnny!"

"Let him go, Murdoch, this was a big blow to him, he needs to think." Scott stated wisely. "I can only imagine what he is going through right now."

"Yes, I know," Murdoch sadly whispered. "He’s not the only one in shock," he added shaking his head in disbelief. "Maria told me she no family left. Believe me Scott, if I had known about Vega, he would have been the first person I would have gone to for help in finding your brother." Murdoch said with remorse.

"I know you would have, Sir." Scott assured his father that he understood. "But if Johnny knew about his Uncle, why didn’t he seek him out?" He couldn’t help but question his little brother’s motives for not seeking Vega out.

"I don’t know, maybe his own pride got in the way, too."

"Or maybe he was afraid of how he would have been received…being who he was and the lies his mother told him." Scott speculated grimly as that thought came to him. Scott cringed when his father’s face morphed from remorseful to a look of total anguish and disgust, over the injustice of his former wife’s actions.

"Another mark his selfish mother put on him!" Murdoch growled, striking his huge fist against the wall, rattling a painting that hung there. "She made it so he was afraid to even attempt to contact other family members, let alone me." He ranted on, only stopping at the sound of a soft cough coming from the direction of the dining room, he turned quickly to find Maria standing there.

"Pardon, Señor, dinner is ready." She announced in a hushed voice.

"Thank you, Maria, I’ll let our guests know."

Maria nodded, her face sullen as she walked back to the kitchen. She had unintentionally listened in on some of the conversation, and did not like what she had heard. It had saddened her heart, and she was getting very worried about her Juanito. Johnny was like the son she never had, always greeting her with a smile that could brighten up the darkest room. Now this, she just hoped that that smile would not fade away forever.

"Lets try to get through dinner, shall we, and you are not going to leave me alone with that man!" Murdoch ordered Scott to stay, knowing very well he wanted to buck and leave too. "I need you here to help me keep my sanity, Scott." His eldest just nodded his consent.

"Good," Murdoch replied, as he turned on his heel and left to fetch his unwelcome visitors.

 

Johnny slowly walked over to the corral, lost in his thoughts. He fought the wild urge to run and hide, to be any place but here. He shook off the frenzied thoughts, as he knew he couldn’t run from bad memories, they would just trail along behind him nipping at his heels. He had to stay and face Vega again. He still needed answers, good or bad, he needed to hear them, to maybe put an end to this hell he was going through right now.

As he entered the barn, so deep in thought he was distracted to his surroundings, Johnny never noticed the two forms lurking in the shadows.

"There he goes, let’s grab him now!" said a high squeaky voice.

"No, he would be missed too soon. No, we wait until Vega says it is safe." A mellow toned voice answered, "You have to play it just right, with a man like Madrid."

 

Chapter Five,

 

Dinner at the Lancer ranch was far from normal that evening. The table had been set with the fine china and the silver gleamed in the candlelight, the festive look did not extend to the demeanor of the room. The atmosphere was far from celebratory, nerves were on edge, and the tension was immense, so palpable and heavy in the air, it was a wonder it didn’t shatter the crystal goblets. The uneasy quiet was broken only by the sound of cutlery on plates, and Maria’s soft footsteps as she entered the room. Everybody picked at the food pushing it around the plates. Maria had prepared many of Johnny’s favorites hoping to entice him to join his family, tio or not. As she served them, Maria’s face was rigid with aversion. Maria had put a silent curse on these people, for coming here and causing her nino such anguish. In Scott’s mind she resembled an angry mother hen. He snickered silently to himself as an image of Maria pecking the Vega’s eyes out, flitted through his mind.

Roberto and his wife sat with stiff propriety, as though they were holding court. Their decorum never wavered while showing off their grace and good manners. Their noses were still in the air, and occasionally a worried glance passed between them. Murdoch observed them with teeth clenching agitation. He had a lot of unanswered questions on his mind; he was dying to ask and demand the answers. He waged an internal war on whether he should speak now, or wait until after dinner.

Scott’s thoughts were preoccupied with worries about his little brother, who did make a quick appearance only to announce he was turning in early. Scott asked Maria to take a plate up to him. She came back announcing Johnny wasn’t hungry, that he would grab a bite later. Johnny was doing his best to avoid Vega, and it had Scott very concerned. He was also very annoyed and angry that these people were keeping Johnny away from his family. If he had his druthers, he would take matters in his own hands and throw them out on their stuck-up asses. The only thing that stopped him was he had promised to try and be polite to them for Murdoch’s sake, which was asking a lot.

After dinner, Anna turned in for the night, it had been a long journey, and she was still quite tired. After gulping down a few stiff drinks in the hopes it would help them relax enough to get to some sleep, both Murdoch and Scott bid good night, leaving Roberto lingering about. Vega had a lot on his mind, things that had him confused as to what to do. However one thing remained quite clear, he had no choice, no way out, he would have to finish what he started. Pouring himself another drink, he sat down by the fireplace watching the fire slowly burn its self out, leaving the charred remnants of wood blackened and ash covered, like his soul.

"Oh, you’re still up." Said a soft voice, startling the man. Roberto flinched, he had not heard Johnny come in.

"I thought you went to bed?" Johnny grumbled.

"No, not yet." Vega replied softly to his nephew, "And you?"

"Just came down for snack," Johnny answered coldly. "But it seems I lost my appetite again," he said bluntly, and spun around back towards the stairs.

"No, please stay, we need to talk." The man pleaded.

"About what?" Johnny asked sharply, with a frigid and disinterested glare at his Tio. "We have nothing to talk about!"

Vega bowed his head in a subservient manner, letting out a heavy sigh, "I know what you must think of me." He said in a self-effacing voice, trying to sound humble.

"Do YOU?" Ok, tell me then…tell me what I think of you?" Johnny demanded in a voice full of hurt and anger.

Roberto stood, head still bowed, trying to gather his thoughts, this was his nephew, his sister’s nino, the one he shunned. He looked up and stared into Johnny’s blue eyes, his gringo eyes . . . as they were glaring at him. They were icy cold, but they were also the windows to the young man’s soul and Vega balked at the pain in saw in them, pain he helped put there. But he couldn’t let this throw him, he couldn’t let it interfere with what he had to do, what he must do, for he felt he was powerless to stop it.

"I did look for you." Vega claimed, even though it was a lie. "But you were like a ghost, there, but not there. You would disappear once anybody got close."

Johnny let out a sharp half laugh. "Oh, don’t make me laugh, you knew where I was, even after mama died," he reminded the man. "All you had do was look, you knew those towns in Mexico, as well as they knew of you!"

"Sí, but Mexico is a big country, and you were one small boy. I did not know what you looked like then." Vega hoped the vague excuses would work.

"All you had to do was ask about a mestizo with big blue eyes, you would have found me." Johnny frostily informed Vega. "One that was beaten half the time, fighting for his life, starving and living in alley’s." Johnny’s voice broke under the strain of the bitter memories and he closed his eyes in a bid to regain control over his spiraling emotions.

"I did not know."

"You didn’t know, my ass. What did you think they did to half-breeds? HUH? Take us in, love us, treated us like one of their own?" Johnny growled, shaking his dark head in disbelief. "No, I had to learn to do what ever it took to stay alive, and that meant defending myself…with a gun. And I got good, real good. I had to bury that boy, and become a man, I had to become Madrid!"

"But your papa?"

"My father did look for me, but thanks to my mama, your sister, she made it impossible to find us." Johnny said angrily. "But Murdoch never gave up on me, and he did find me, and I came home…too stay." Seeing that he was wasting his words on the man, Johnny shook his head. "I’ve had enough of this bullshit. I’m going back upstairs, though I doubt I can sleep."

"Please have drink, it might help you sleep," Vega said stopping Johnny from departing the room.

"What do you care?"

"Please, just one drink, then I’ll leave you be." Roberto pleaded.

Johnny sighed heavily, "I guess one drink won’t hurt, it might even help my sudden headache . . . not to mention the pain in my ass," he said spitefully.

Roberto slyly grinned at his victory, when Johnny wasn’t looking. He craftily turned his back to the young man, as he poured the drinks. Glancing over his shoulder, Vega covertly opened a tiny compartment in his ring revealing and dumping a white powder into Johnny’s drink. He stirred it slightly before he turned back to face his nephew. Johnny took the drink and gulped it down, as his tio looked on with a satisfied smile.

"Your papa, he is a good man, huh?" the man asked trying to buy time, waiting for the powder to take effect. He didn’t have to wait long.

"Yes, Murdo..ch….is..a..go…od…ma…" Johnny tried to say, slurring and stuttering his words as he spoke. He started to feel light headed, as though his head would float away. The feeling was swiftly replaced by a heaviness that threatened to snap his neck as he tried to hold his head up. His focus wavered, things started to get blurry, he rubbed his eyes to try to clear his vision. The room started to spin around him, as the dizziness got worse; his empty stomach cramped like it was turning around inside of him. Johnny staggered as he tried to walk, his legs felt boneless, and he couldn’t tell if his feet were actually on the floor. He grabbed for the couch to support himself, but it was no use. "Yo..u bas..t..ar..d wh..at did…yo..u…." Johnny’s voice trailed off, as he crashed to the floor. He stared up at Vega’s form slowly disappearing as his eyesight grayed around the edges, and then tunneled to pinpricks as the light faded completely, and he was consumed by blackness.

Roberto stared at his unconscious nephew for a few moments before he grabbed Johnny by the arms, and dragged him to the kitchen, laying him down by the back door. Opening it, he waved his hand, and two men appeared from the shadows. The stocky men dressed like banditos quietly hurried into the room to claim their prize.

"So this is the famous Madrid?" the taller man said, as he got a closer look at Johnny.

"Don’t look so tough now, does he?" the shorter one commented, as he smirked.

"Shut up, and take him. You must be quiet," Vega demanded. "Tell your boss I did my part, and he better keep his promise."

"We will."

The two men roughly grabbed Johnny and took off, fading into the darkness. Vega watched, sadly he bowed his head, crossing himself. "Forgive me Juantio, but I had no choice."

 

Chapter Six

 

"Morning Maria, breakfast smells good." Murdoch greeted the busy woman, as he sat down at the dining room table, and marveled at the food she had prepared. The table was laid out with a multitude of delights, such as Mexican style scrambled eggs, ham and steak, which lay steaming on the platters, fresh biscuits with several jars of homemade jelly, and coffee, it all filled the room with mouth-watering aromas. She had purposely made the feast not for the guests, but her Jauntio. Maria knew that he had not eaten a thing since lunch the day before, and that he would be famished this morning. Of this she was certain, since she had noticed that Johnny didn’t raid her kitchen last night, like he normally would.

"Gracias, Senor, I hope you enjoy." Maria said smiling, bowing her head in respect. As she looked back up, the smile turned into an annoyed frown and an angry glint hardened her eyes, when she spied Vega coming into her view. "I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me, Senor." Maria quickly left the room, muttering in a disgruntled manner.

"Ah, what a delicious aroma, your cook has out done herself, Senor Lancer." Vega said as he approached the table, "What culinary delights, a feast fit for a king." His eyes rounded in pleasure, as he was anxious to sink his teeth into the food before him.

"Sit Señor, where is your wife?" Murdoch inquired curtly.

"She will be down shortly, you know women, they like to primp and fuss to make themselves more alluring." He replied with a nervous chuckle, but Murdoch was not amused.

Murdoch still had a lot of questions on his mind. He observed his guest with a somewhat distrustful eye and puzzled air. He couldn’t help but wonder why Vega was in a chipper mood this morning especially after the heated and rather uncomfortable evening, last night. Before he had time to formulate a reason for the mood, his distrust changed to worry for his son. Johnny was usually down by now gobbling his food, and gulping down his milk, to fuel himself for a busy day of chores. He sighed as he decided Johnny must have still been trying to avoid Vega. More than likely Johnny left before Maria arrived, otherwise why would she make all his favorites, thinking he was here? Unless, Johnny grabbed something from the kitchen, while she was preparing the meal, and then took off. His ruminations were interrupted as his eldest came into the room.

"Morning." Scott said softy joining the two quiet men at the table. "I see Maria was busy." He commented trying to be polite and sociable towards Vega.

"Morning son," Murdoch replied in kind, while Vega just smugly nodded, while sipping on his coffee.

"She must have thought she was going to feed a army." Scott joked without smiling. Scott couldn’t muster up a smile if he wanted to, not while the pompous man, sitting before him, was still in his home.

"The amount your little brother eats, it’s like feeding an army." Murdoch added to make small talk, though he had lost his appetite, the food didn’t seem nearly as enticing without Johnny’s presence. The knot of apprehension in his stomach also effectively curbed his hunger.

The mere mention of Johnny made Vega stiffen. Murdoch’s shrewd eye caught the uneasy body language. All to quickly he laid it off to last night’s heated confrontation, and let it slide.

The atmosphere at the table was brooding, the tension killing all desire to communicate. The three men sat in the sullen silence, sipping at, or staring into their cups, until Jelly came busting into the room in a huff.

"Morning Boss, Scott, I hate to intrude, but will ya tell Johnny to get out of bed, and hurry up!" The old handy man blurted out with heated discontent, "I’ve waited fer nearly two hours now, we have that dam that needs fixin’."

"What do you mean, Jelly?" Murdoch asked anxiously, "I thought he had already left."


"No, boss, his horse is still in the stable, and not nearly ready to go." Jelly replied confused.

In the split second it took him to process the information and to swallow his heart, Scott bolted from his seat and ran up the staircase taking three treads with each stride. He hollered for Johnny as he raced towards his room, "JOHHNY!"

Vega remained in his chair trying to appear normal. Stress made his body betray him, as he slightly trembled, and small sweat beads started forming on his brow. With a shaky hand he pulled out a fancy monogrammed handkerchief, wiping his face, hoping no one would see how nervous he was. A few seconds later Scott came barreling down the stairs, sheer panic written all over his face.

"Johnny never went to bed, it was still made." Scott said in one breath, worry raising his voice an octave. He leaned against the table as he struggled to catch his breath and calm his anxieties. "I know he was up, when I went to bed because I heard him moving around…I just let him be though, I thought he needed some time alone." Scott informed his father.

"Odd." Vega mumbled and then wished he had not, as he became the center of attention.

The three men looked at each other, and then back at the stocky autocratic man. They noted how his hands shook as he tried to drink his coffee, and act like all was normal. Neither of them had trusted this man from the beginning, and then it struck them like a bolt from the blue, as if they could read each other’s minds. They turned and advanced on the man.

Roberto Vega paled, as it felt like the chair he sat upon abruptly disappeared from under him, and he was suspended in mid-air. His teeth rattled as a pair of huge angry hands shook him like a rag doll. Murdoch’s hot steamy breath huffed from his nostrils much like an enraged bull snorts before charging his quarry. The heat of it wrapped his cold terrified face. Vega struggled against the grip, as infuriated gray-blue eyes bored into his petrified brown ones.

"WHERE IS MY SON?" The tall rancher bellowed.

"What…what do you mean?"

"You know damn well what I mean!" Murdoch growled, shaking Vega until his eyes spun from dizziness, and then dropped him back down into his seat. "Johnny would never leave without telling us, let alone leave his horse behind, even if he was trying to avoid you. Something had to have happened to him, and you know…. SO TELL ME!" Murdoch hollered picking the man up by his fancy ruffled collar again.

"Murdoch, now let’s think this through," Scott interjected. "If he doesn’t tell us, then we can beat it out of him," Scott added balling up his fist to emphasize his willingness to use violence against the man. Jelly copied Scott’s actions. Vega’s eyes widened with pure fear as Murdoch shook him some more.

"Well!" Scott shouted as he thumped his fist into his other hand, each dull thud of flesh on flesh caused Vega to flinch. Vega’s breath whistled noisily from his flaring nostrils, as he tried to suck in air and think his way out of the volatile situation he was in. His beady eyes cast about the room as though looking for help, but all he saw was Scott advancing on him, looking like he was going to pummel his face until it caved in.

"They..they ha…ve.him.." He stuttered, as he fought to control his bladder.

"Who are they?" Murdoch demanded to know, dropping the man, but still towered over him, as Vega tried to make his fear rubbery legs hold him up. Vega backed up until he felt the table and leaned onto it for support. Seeing that Vega was stalling, trying his patience, Murdoch motioned for Scott and Jelly to get ready to do some serious damage.

"OK! They took him last night, I…I drugged Juan to make it easier to take him," Vega admitted. "They are mostly likely half way back to Mexico by now," he said without a trace of remorse in his voice.

"MEXICO! WHY YOU SON OF A BITCH! WHO HAS HIM?" Murdoch blew up at the mere mention of Mexico. That was the last place they wanted Johnny to be.

"ANSWER MY FATHER, OR I’LL . . ." Scott let his voice trail off, as he turned his attention towards the gun cabinet with a determined glint in his eyes.

"His name is Sanchez…Ramón Sanchez…. he’s the twin brother of Carlos Sanchez, the man Juantio killed, when he was a child."

That statement made it feel as though all the air had been sucked from the room.

 

Chapter Seven

 

"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?" the irate rancher loudly demanded. His tall formed towered over the smaller man, and the angry motion of his fisted hand made it look as though he would hammer Vega into the floor. Murdoch’s patience was wearing thin, he wanted answers, and now. "Who was this Carlos?" he growled, as he crowded in on Roberto and stared right into his heartless eyes. All kinds of images raced through his head, pictures that were now starting to scare the hell out of him. ‘What the hell did she put my son through?’ Murdoch asked himself.

Vega shifted nervously, backing away from the seething father; his eyes darted around the room, as his fear of the man gnawed at his belly. He viewed Murdoch as an unmovable fuming force preventing his departure from the room; he was trapped. There would be no help from Scott or Jelly either, both men looked as though they could cheerfully pound the crap out of him. Murdoch’s hot steaming breath blew down on his face making him perspire heavily; he could feel the moisture dripping from the tip of his nose. Murdoch’s hard cold blue-gray eyes were burning right through him, exposing his weaknesses. Vega took out his fancy handkerchief again, his hands trembling uncontrollably, as he struggled to wipe the sweat from his wrinkled brow.

"He…he is the man Maria was living with…the one who killed her." Vega stuttered, and then suddenly it dawned on him, his head snapped up, the surprise plain on his face, as he questioned Murdoch, "You did not know?"

"NO! I did not know, but you’re going to tell me . . . everything, right!" Murdoch ordered, his expression showing nothing but pure shock and determination to get to the bottom of things. His mind whirled with chaotic confusion as he tried to absorb the news he had just been told. Johnny never really went into much detail about his childhood; he knew that his son didn’t want to remember that part of his life for many reasons. Every time he had tired to talk to Johnny about his past, he would shrug it off as not important, or change the subject, but his eyes always revealed his pain. So Murdoch would just let it ride, he figured he would talk if he needed too, now he wished he had pressed for details.

"Well, we’re waiting." Scott snarled, his impatience showing, as he moved menacingly closer.

Roberto slowly sat up from his slumped position, when Murdoch finally moved back to give the man room to move, and think. "He was a bandito, but I swear I did not know this until it was too late," Vega explained. "Maria had written me saying she had found a good man to care for her and Juan, and not to worry about her." He paused, licking his lips fretfully, as the Lancer men looked on, " And…and not to bother to send the money she had asked for…"

"So you lied to us, to Johnny, you said she would not come home unless you sent the money. Now you are saying this," Scott angrily interrupted. "Which one is the truth? And I suggest you proceed with caution, as we are in no mood to entertain anymore of your LIES!"

"Both, Señor. As I was saying, Maria changed her mind, she didn’t want me to find her," he anxiously ran frantic fingers through his hair. "I did not hear from her again, but later I was told that Carlos, had led a horrendous and bloody raid on the village, and Maria was one of his victims." He stopped to gather his thoughts, and winced at the awkward silence that weighed down the air in the room.

"You said Johnny killed this man Carlos, how?" Murdoch wanted to know as he was still trying to come to terms with the tragedies his son endured. He moved over to the couch and sank down, as the tension in his rigid body snapped and he began to tremble as much from fear for his son, as anger at Vega.

"As I was told, Juanito had shot Carlos with his own gun, after the man had killed his Mama. He must have witnessed it, killed Carlos and then ran away." Vega reflected.

"How do you know this?" Scott asked, his voice shaky, as his mind raced with visions of his little brother terrorized by the sight of his murdered mother. A horror that was too gruesome for him to ever truly image or understand.

"I was told after the raid, Carlos’ men went looking for him. They found him lying dead next to Maria’s bloodied body, and there were small bloody footprints leading out of the house…Juanito’s footprints. They knew it was him because…." he paused not knowing how to say what he had to say, there was no way to make it sound less heinous.

"Because what?" Murdoch demanded, his heart racing, afraid to hear the answer.

Vega looked at the tall rancher, hesitant at first to answer, but he knew there was no other way to say it, so he just blurted it out. "Because Juan was the only child left alive…it was a massacre, Senor. The whole village was burned and the people murdered where they stood. But some how Juan escaped it, he was the only survivor that day. They followed the tracks Juan left, but they could not find him. That is how they knew it was him, Maria’s niño." Vega finished

Both Jelly and Scott stood there in utter disbelief and unadulterated horror. The color drained from their faces, leaving them a ghostly white. Murdoch felt his own heart breaking, shattering into sharp shards of pain that pierced his soul and left it bleeding. His son was the sole survivor of an unmerciful act of pure evil, the apocalyptic destruction of his world. It’s no wonder he couldn’t find him, he was a totally alone, scared, running for his life. Murdoch closed his eyes, as he fought back the warm moisture that welled in them, and threatened to spill.

"When Carlos’ men told Ramon, he vowed to one day get revenge on Juantio. That is why I’m here, but I had no choice," Vega’s voice hitched as he fought his own emotions. "Ramon knew who his brother was living with, and the name of her child. And when he found out that I was Maria’s brother, he contacted me. He asked if I knew where Juan was, and I told him I did not. I…I told him that a mestizo was not welcome in my home, just so they would leave me alone. I have not heard from Sanchez since then, until now." Roberto panted as he battled the fear that assaulted his body.

"Go on." Scott whispered.

"He came to my hacienda, and took it over, told me to find Madrid, and bring him back to him…"

"Now wait a minute!" Murdoch finally spoke up, coming out of his trance. "How did he know that Johnny was Madrid, in fact . . . how did you know it?" He demanded as he came to his feet, swaying slightly on shaky legs.

"Maria, she told me of you, and your name. While he was looking for Juan, Ramon found an old padre who knew him after the raid, and remembered that he had changed it to Madrid, the Gunfighter." Vega paled, as he informed the men, " He holds my two boys hostage, Senor, until I bring him Madrid. I had no choice. Don’t you see that?"

"LANCER! His name is Lancer now, not Madrid," Murdoch clarified to the man. "And what do you mean you had no choice! You sold out your own nephew, what kind of man are you?" Murdoch’s rage grew and rumbled like a brewing storm, "You sent MY SON to his death!" he thundered.

"He is Madrid, Señor, a killer, who lost his soul when he killed Carlos. My boys are only sixteen and eighteen, they have never hurt a soul, they are good boys, but Juan he’s a…." He didn’t get a chance to finish his slanderous remarks; Scott grabbed him by the collar, his fingers clenching so tight it pinched the skin of his neck. He shook Vega until he whimpered in fear, and then threw him roughly to the floor.

"My brother is not the cold-hearted killer you all think he is. Johnny had to kill the man out of self-defense, or be killed himself." Scott shouted, and then added grimly, "My God he was only a boy! A boy who saw his mother killed, what the hell did you think he would do? Those men, like Sanchez, took my brother’s childhood away from him. They forced him to become a man, to defend himself anyway possible, and he got real good at it too." Scott added proudly, even though his heart ached at the path his little brother had to take.

"That is what he told me before I…."

"Before you drugged him, and had him taken away, you bastard!" Murdoch shouted, "I’m tired of this bullshit. Jelly tell the men to get ready, we ride in ten minutes." The old handy man was still in total shock at the events he just heard about, and didn’t move fast enough so Murdoch bellowed, "Jelly!"

"I’m…I’m on it boss," Jelly said, as he leveled a look of unmitigated disgust on Vega and then took off mumbling in agitation.

"And tell the Captain, I want to see him. I’m placing YOU, Senor Vega under house arrest until I get my son back."

 

Chapter Eight

 

"HOUSE ARREST? How dare you suggest such a thing!" Vega shouted angrily. "I must go to my children," he demanded. "They need me, I must go…I," his words trailed off as he started to walk towards the front door. Vega took two steps before he felt an iron grip on his arm, snatching him back until he collided with the table. He swallowed convulsively, as he turned to face his attacker. His eyes widened with pure unadulterated fear, a sense of dread crawled over his skin making him feel like he would come out of it. The tall rancher towered over him; Murdoch’s large calloused hand was locked on his arm in a tight vise like hold. The power in the clench pinched his tender skin painfully, causing him to cringe. He trembled, as he noted the bloodthirsty look in Murdoch’s eyes, the thirst for his blood.

"NO! How dare you, you self-righteous bastard! You have sent my son to his death, if I don’t get to him in time." Murdoch growled, as he shook the terrified little man, causing his head to bobble. He wanted to wring the preening, over-grown chicken’s neck, to violently and painfully separate his head from his body. Instead he bit back the feelings of revenge, for now, his concern for Johnny far out weighed the need for retribution. "How do I know if you even have any children, that you aren’t just using that as an excuse to get away with what you have done. NO, YOU ARE STAYING PUT!" Murdoch emphasized his point with another teeth rattling shake.

Captain Davis entered the room, "You wanted to see me, Mr. Lancer?" he asked, addressing Murdoch politely. The officer was very curious about the yelling he had heard and the physical confrontation, he had witnessed, as he walked through the front door. He detected the blush of embarrassment on Vega’s face and noted how the man’s trembling body betrayed his attempts of preserving his aristocratic demeanor. The man was frightened and it showed. "Is there a problem?"

"Yes, Captain, I’m placing Senor Vega, here, under house arrest." Murdoch informed the man. "He is NOT to leave the ranch, or this house, until I get back with my son." Murdoch sternly ordered, as he rammed his index finger repeatedly into Vega’s chest as he punctuated each point.


"Your son, Sir?"

"Yes, it seems that the Señor came here with criminal intentions . . . to have my son Johnny kidnapped." he explained while grabbing his hat and gun belt. "So I’m putting him under citizen’s arrest, until I get back. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes Sir, Mr. Lancer, and sir, I’m sorry, if I had known Vega’s intentions I…"

"It’s ok Captain, we were all fooled! Please make yourself comfortable while you keep a eye on this…this pathetic excuse for a man, who is going to be very sorry when I’m done with him," Murdoch exclaimed sharply as he donned his hat. He glared at the man, as he buckled on his gun belt, and made a show of checking the chambers with the gun pointed towards Vega. Murdoch tore out of the house like a tornado on a rampage; he slammed the door with such force it bounced back open with a bang, the vibrations of it ringing in everyone’s ears. Murdoch joined Scott, Frank, Cipriano, and a few others, as they raced off westward. Cipriano had detected signs that indicated that was the direction the kidnappers had gone. All the men had a determined set to their jaws, each praying silently they would reach the youngest Lancer in time.

"MY CHILDREN!" Vega screamed, as he ran to the window, his hot breath fogging the glass as he panted frantically, watching the posse ride off.

The Captain rolled his eyes, and shook his head, and then walked over to the man, and pulled him away from the window. "You heard Mr. Lancer, you are not going anywhere, Señor," the Captain said in a disgusted tone. "I suggest you go and sit down and behave yourself. I have a feeling we’ll be here for a while." The man was not pleased with this turn of events, he was an officer in the United States Army, not a tour guide or baby sitter of arrogant assholes, as he had been for the past weeks.

 

"Hey you, Madrid, wake up!" ordered the tall skinny man, giving Johnny a rough shove with his foot.

"Jose, maybe Vega gave him too much, eh? Maybe he is dead?" the smaller one said.

Jose knelt down next to Johnny’s still form. Johnny was curled into a fetal position, with his hands and feet bound tightly together. Jose’s dirty bony fingers touched his neck, feeling for a pulse. "He’s alive, just playing possum, eh Madrid, one of your tricks, huh?" he said shoving Johnny almost onto his back, but he still didn’t move. He rolled limply into the same position. His swollen and discolored hands were tucked under his chin.

"I said wake up!" Jose shouted, as he stood up, and put all his weight behind a vicious kick to Johnny’s right thigh. He smirked when Johnny flinched in pain, even though he was still unconscious, he moved slightly trying to avoid the pain.

The impact of the man’s pointed boot striking his leg, and the delayed sensation of a sharp pain shooting up his side began to pull him from the blackness of unawareness. His senses were rousing, his alertness returning, as the drug Vega slipped him wore off. Johnny let out a slight moan; he fought to open his eyes, rapidly blinking to clear his vision. His mouth was gummy and dry, with a vile taste to it. He tasted the bitter tang of bile and realized he must have vomited at some point.

"Wat..er" Johnny muttered.

"Water, eh." Jose snorted, "I’ll give you water, Madrid." He grabbed a bucket from under the tree, and then poured it over Johnny's head. The water was filthy and smelled stagnant; it cascaded over his face and practically drowned Johnny. His breath was ripped away as the fluid filled mouth and nose. At first he gagged, spitting the water out of his mouth, and then coughed violently. He shook his head to clear the moisture out of his eyes and ears; the action made him dizzy, and caused his head to throb in time with his heartbeat. He forced himself to take slow deep breaths, until the sensation passed, as he laid there, his head resting on a patch of mud.

"Wh…ere am …I"

"You on your way to hell!" the shorter man replied, with an evil chuckle. The small man had a short mustache that twitched when he talked, where as Jose’s was a handlebar one. Both men were of Mexicans descent, though it was hard to tell the hue of their skin, as they were so filthy. The rank smell of their dirty clothes, and un-washed bodies, caused Johnny’s empty stomach to lurch and spasm in protest the closer they got to him. Their scent was over powering, and it stung his nostrils as it wafted his way.

"Where’s that?" He asked, holding his breath, turning his head away from the vile smell of the men.

"You’re going back to Mexico, Madrid." Jose informed him, his eyes glittered with maniacal madness.

Johnny’s head shot up, confusion and pain dulled the blue eyes that tried to focus on his captors. "What the hell do you want from me?" he asked, as he tried to sit up, but his head was still woozy from the drug that Vega had slipped into his drink. This impaired his balance and he sprawled back over before he ever got upright. He winced as the hard landing sent spirals of pain radiating across his chest. His thoughts went back to Lancer and that bastard who called himself his tio. Rolling over onto his back, Johnny waiting for the dizziness to pass, and for an answer to his question.

"It is not us who wants you, Madrid, it’s our amigo, our boss," Jose answered. "He is most anxious to meet you. Isn’t that right, Diego?"

"Sí, and he has plans for you." Diego replied, grinning and exposing his yellow broken teeth, as he stooped and grabbed Johnny’s chin. He squeezed his face, his fingers biting cruelly into the soft flesh of Johnny’s cheeks. The pressure grew until he felt the tender skin in his mouth being cut by his own teeth. When Johnny fought against the restraining hand, Jose lashed out with his booted foot, right into the ribs that were still sore from being slung over the saddle on the ride away from Lancer. Then they both laughed, and walked away, leaving Johnny lying there, limbs still bound, gasping for breath, as his chest ached with each inhalation, blood stained his lips from the torn skin inside his mouth, and finger sized bruises decorated his face.

After a few minutes had passed, Johnny glanced over, to see both men were indulging themselves with some tequila and tortillas. He saw this as a chance to try and sit up again. Luckily both his hands were tied in front of him, instead in back, so he used them to push himself up, to lean against the tree. Another wave of dizziness hit him and he sat there while the world spun around him, colors whirled into bewildering blobs and sounds combined into a loud baffling buzz. Johnny silently cursed Vega, ‘What the hell did he give me?’ When the dazed sensations began to abate, he could hear the rushing of water from a near by creek, that might just help him lose these bastards, if he could get free. ‘Got to get out of here,’ he thought as he fought his shackles and injuries.

With a watchful eye, he slowly leaned forward over his knees, and franticly tried to untie the ropes, that had his feet bound, with numb and swollen fingers. He had worked for a few scant seconds when the ominous click of a gun being cocked, rang threateningly in his ear, he turned his head and found himself staring down the barrel of Jose’s colt.

"You’re not going nowhere, Madrid."

 

Chapter Nine

 

The tin cup sailed across the room, an arch of steaming hot coffee trailing from the opening, it hit the wall with a metallic thud, and the remaining bitter brew within splattered, and scattered like black raindrops. The cup bounced from the wall, seemed to defy gravity for a second, and then dropped to the floor with a hollow echo. The abused cup rocked to a stop, with a new dent added to its already bashed and dinged form.

"HE DID WHAT?" hollered Val, his temper exploding like a short fused firecracker. His eyes bulged out, his face turned a brilliant shade of red, as the emotions of anger and disgust warred across his features. "I might have known . . . that no good SON OF A BITCH!" Val loudly growled out the last few words, while pounding his fist on the desk. "I knew something was fishy with Senor Vega!" he snorted like a mad bull. "Where is he?" he asked, clenching and unclenching his hands, as he wished he could do around that neck of that slimy worm Vega.

"He is under house arrest, the Captain is seeing that he stays put until we get back." Murdoch stated with strong conviction about his decision. "I would like it if you would stop by the ranch occasionally to check up on our reluctant guest," he requested of the furious Sheriff. "Put the fear of the law in him, make sure he knows that he isn’t going to get away with this." Murdoch smiled, knowing Val would be glad to help.

"Oh I would be more than happy to oblige, and if he happens to get out of line…" the voice trailed off, and was replaced with the sound of flesh hitting flesh, as he balled one hand into a fist, and repeatedly struck the palm of the other. Val snorted with a devilish grin, that bared the mouth full of white teeth, much like an angry dog would reveal their fangs to an enemy.

"You just get my buddy boy back in on piece, you hear? I wish I could go with you," he said miserably, "But I can’t trust that deputy of mine to hold down the fort, but I’ll keep an eye on Señor Vega for you."

"Thanks, Val, I knew we could count on you." Scott said despondently. The blond was so distracted by his dismal and bleak thoughts, he didn’t even hear Val ask him where they were going next.

"South, I sent Cip, and the others on ahead, while Scott and I stopped here first to let you what’s going on, then we’ll catch up with them." Murdoch answered for his preoccupied son. "I don’t know how much of a head start they got, Vega didn’t really go into details. He claims he doesn’t know the particulars, " he replied while putting his hat back on. "With any luck, they just might come across those bastards who took my son, before we get there." Murdoch added with undisguised hope in his voice.

"Well, I sure hope so, God only knows what they’ll do to him, once…." Val words faded away." He shuttered, he knew all to well how sadistic and torturous the treatment could be, he had seen it back in his younger days, when he spent time down there in that hell hole.

"They get him back to Mexico?" Scott finished for the Sheriff, his voice full of anger, and anguish. "I pray that Johnny can hold up, until we find him, no matter what they do to him." Scott said sadly. The gruff Sheriff knew this was hard on Scott, and his heart was breaking for the young man, it was obvious he had come to love his new found brother.

Val walked over to the worried young man, putting his hands on his broad shoulders, shaking them slightly. "Hey, I know my buddy, and he knows that you will be looking for him, so he will hold on." Val attempted to reassure Scott, "I have never seen Johnny so happy, since he came home, why he even said having a big brother was the best thing that ever happened to him, when ya ain’t picking on him that is." He added with a crooked grin.

Scott couldn’t help but smile, "He said that?"

"Sure he did, and he doesn’t want to give that up either, so he’ll hang on, just go and find him." Val quickly turned to walk away, not wanting them to see that he was getting all teary-eyed.

"We’ll find him, Val, if it’s the last thing I ever do." Murdoch replied.

"If it’s the last thing WE ever do," Scott corrected his father.

"Well hell, then stop the jawing and get on out there, and find my buddy!" Val ordered.

After the two Lancer men rode away, in a flurry of dust and hooves, to catch up with the rest of the search party, Val returned to his desk, flopping down in the chair, leaning back. He let out a heavy hearted sigh, he looked up to the ceiling, as he sucked in a breath, and then with sad begging eyes, did something he hadn’t done in a long time, he prayed.

"Howdy, Lord, I bet you’re shock to hear from me, huh? I know I ain’t no church going man, but I was raised to be a God fearing man. I done a lot that I’m not proud of, but here I am needing a favor from ya," Val said softly, rubbing his stinging eyes. "I’m not asking fer myself, it’s my buddy, Johnny, he needs ya. He needs the strength to hold on, until his papa gets to him, kin ya help him? Please?" He finished praying, and sat there like he was waiting for a answer. Suddenly a warm feeling washed over him and Val took that as a yes, then he sadly smiled, nodding, "Thank ye, kindly."

***********

The sound of the distance water fall, and bubbling creek, that he had heard earlier, was drowned out by the loud painful ringing in his ears. The darkness crept in, stealing the light from his vision until the two ugly figures before him slowly faded away , and then there was nothing. Johnny lay, slumped over like a rag doll, limbs still bound, this time with a large goose egg knot on the back of his head, with a trace of sticky red blood seeping through his thick dark hair.

"You estupido! What did you do that for, eh?" Diego hollered at his friend.

"Because he was trying to escape." Jose snapped back and grinned devilishly. "Ramon, didn’t say we had to be nice to the mestizo bastardo," he retorted, as he was looking down at unconscious young man, and then holstered the gun, he had used on Johnny’s head. "Carlos was our amigo too, do not forget that."

"Sí, but he wants Madrid alive, so he can have the pleasure of killing him himself." Diego reminded the man. "But you’re right, he did kill our amigo, nino or no nino, he still killed him," he growled, then giving a swift kick to Johnny ribcage. They both laughed harshly, and then walked away. They sat back down by the fire, as they continued to gorge out on their meal.

Night was falling, and with a good day ahead of the search party, they knew would be coming after Madrid, they both decided to stay put and head out in to morning. Each would take a turn watching the bound gun-hawk, and taking pleasure in tormenting him just a little, for their own self-indulgence, until they had to turn Johnny over to Ramon. Then Madrid would die, at the hands of a very vengeful brother.

 

Chapter Ten

 

Cipriano sat alone by the campfire, slumped in abject misery, his face buried in his hands, as if to hide his shame. His disappointment in himself so great, that he couldn’t bring himself to even look his amigos in the eye. The few times he did raise his head, the bleak look of anguish and pain was emphasized by the flare of the flames, and then the retreating light would throw him back into the literal darkness his soul felt. "Estupido, estupido," he kept berating himself, kicking the dirt angrily with his foot, startling the others who just sat there in a daze. Johnny’s life was at stake here, and he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, he had led the posse on a false trail. A trail made by the little pot belly man with a crooked mustache, sitting over on the other side of camp, smirking and leering with evil content, taking great pleasure in the men’s sorrow.

"Cipriano, stop blaming yourself, you had no idea they would trick us like this." Murdoch said trying to ease his friend’s mind, and his own.

Murdoch glanced over at the filthy and dirt encrusted face of the man that was used as a decoy. His heart sank deeper into the abyss of despair that threatened to consume him, as he thought about the time they had lost following him. It was a very clever way to distract the search party. They thought they were catching up with the ones who took Johnny, when in reality it was just him and two pack horses, taking their sweet time. The grungy heathen sat there by the campfire laughing his head off at the group of men. He taunted them about their expressions when they finally caught up with him. He howled in pleasure about their disappointment, and the anger on their faces, when they realized they had been tricked. It was too late to go on to find the right trail tonight, so they quickly subdued the little rat, and took over his camp.

"Patron," Cipriano spoke up, his voice thick and heavy with remorse, "By now they will have reached Mexico, and we have yet to even find the right trail." His face paled, and he grimaced, as though the pain of his failure was like a razor cut on his soul.

"Ah, Sí, and before Ramon gets done with him, Madrid will be begging to be shot," the beady eyed bandit said, cackling maniacally through his yellow teeth. "Ramon don’t take kindly to those who murdered his familia."

Murdoch’s blood pressure had reached the boiling point, his patience now nonexistent. He wanted answers and he wanted them now! Springing up with agility and speed that were enhanced and fueled by anger and fear, the concerned father stormed over to the laughing man. He jerked the man up by his dirty collar, tearing and ripping the rotted material, as he tightened it around his neck, choking him, while he shook the man with enough force to rattle his teeth. "For the last time, WHERE DID THEY TAKE MY SON?" he growled loudly, gnashing his teeth in the man’s face like an enraged bear, "WHERE IS VEGA’S RANCHO?"

The dirty, foul smelling man’s eyes bulged as he fought to breathe, the big rancher loosened his grip, and he gulped air greedily, but still refused to answer Murdoch’s question. He could feel pure fear and desperation coming from the rancher, as Murdoch trembled while holding him aloft; and this pleased him immensely. To hurt and torture Madrid’s family, like Johnny had done to Ramon years ago when he killed Carlos, just made the little devil enjoy this even more. The burning pain in his heart and back told Murdoch he had to let go of the bastard, so he roughly dropped him back to the ground. The big rancher towered over him like the shadow of death; he wanted so much to shoot the man for costing them precious time.

"You’re not going to get anything from him, sir," Scott said, "So, I suggest we shoot him, and be done with it." Scott added with a smirk, as he drew his gun and forcibly planted it in the man’s chest until he winced at the pressure.

"Believe me, Scott. I would love to put a bullet in his cold heart, but we just might need him yet, for a sacrificial lamb," Murdoch harshly replied, loud enough for the brainless rat to hear. "Why don’t you try to get some sleep? We have long hard road ahead of us."

"I’ll try, but I doubt I will," Scott glumly replied, holstering his gun. "You’ll try to get some rest too, sir?" He softly asked his father. Murdoch just nodded.

"Hey hombre, you can sleep all you want, but it will not help you find Madrid…alive," the man yelled over to the Lancer men, taunting them with his cruel words. "Madrid will a have a nice long sleep, eh?"

"SHUT UP!" Cipriano roared as he leapt up from the log and charged across the camp. By the time he reached the Lancers, the steely reserve was shining in his eyes, he stood ramrod straight and proud, and declared, "We will find Juanito, and alive."

"Eh, you are a trader, a gringo lover, you let them fool you," the bandit kept taunting. "You know our people, banditos, huh? We do not show mercy. Madrid is a dead man, but first Ramón will have fun with him, and then put the mestizo out of his misery," he finished squealing with laughter, and holding on to his fat belly as it shook. His humor ended abruptly with a loud pop, a grunt and thud.

"I SAID SHUT UP!" Cipriano yelled, as he rubbed his fist with a satisfying grin of his own, while he looked down at the unconscious, worthless varmint, he had just cold cocked. Scott and Murdoch looked on amazed at the show of compassion Cip had displayed for his friends by silencing the loud mouth man for them.

"Thanks Cip, I couldn’t have done any better." Scott smirked brightly, "Now that it’s quiet, maybe I can get some sleep." He then bid night to his father, "Night, sir."

"Night, son." Murdoch said, and then looked at Cipriano, he could tell something was on his mind. "What is it Cipriano? What are you thinking about?"

"Patron, I must scout ahead, and see if I can find a trail or lead," he answered, anxious to do something other than just sitting around and waiting until light.

"Cip, it’s too dark, you can’t see well enough to spot tracks." Murdoch reasoned with his friend. "How will you know where to look?"

"I have the moon as my light, Señor, por favor I must, I can’t sleep anyway," the old trusted foreman pleaded. "That one there," he said, pointing to the knocked out bandit, I was thinking, Senor, these banditos, they are like wolves, they do not stray far from the pack. He did not lead us too far off, just enough to give his amigos time to take Juan out of our reach."

Murdoch let out a heavy sigh, "Ok, but be back by first light, no matter if you have found something or not, understand?"

"Sí, Patron, I will." Cipriano agreed, and took off to ready his horse for a night of tracking. He silently prayed to find signs as to where they had taken Johnny. There was a full moon that night, shining through the trees, and casting moon shadows over the camp. Its ethereal light providing a slim ray of hope to the tired and desperate man…..desperate to find Johnny….. Alive.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 


"Señor Vega, will you please sit down!" Captain Davis snapped harshly at the agitated man nervously pacing back at forth in front of the fireplace, like a caged animal. His heavy footfalls drummed a rhythm that was out of synchronization with the loud tick tock beat of the grandfather clock, filling what should have been a relaxing silence with an unrelenting, repetitive sound. He would stop long enough to check the time, and mumble to himself in Spanish, and then continue his endless marching. This irritated the hell of the Captain, his patience was wearing thin. He was trying desperately to concentrate on a book he thought he might enjoy, but he had been so distracted by the man’s ranting and pacing, it had caused him to read the same sentence over and over. "You’re giving me a damn headache, now please sit DOWN, or I‘ll hogtie you to that CHAIR!" Davis threatened, angrily tossing the book down on the coffee table. He wished he was back at the fort, rather than here babysitting this bastard.

"I can’t, I am much too worried to sit. Why don’t they realize, they will not find Juanito in time?" Vega’s blunt statement vibrated in the room like the toll of a death bell. His voice showed no signs of remorse, whatsoever. "Therefore, I must go back to my rancho, my sons they need me," he desperately proclaimed. The loud gong of sound as the clock struck the hour; caused him to jerk, as if struck by an invisible hand. He burrowed a trembling hand into his pocket and withdrew his fancy hanky. He used the fine piece of silk to mop his sweaty, wrinkled brow, and the back of his thick neck. Captain Davis smirked as he imagined his hands around his short neck, squeezing the fleshy column until the man turned blue and his eyes popped out.

Vega noticed the look of sadistic glee on the officer’s face, and it made him twitch with nervous apprehension. He felt compelled to loosen up his stiff collar, as his eyes shifted back and forth from the Captain and the front door. He taxed his brain trying to find a way to escape his scrutiny. "It is too hot in here, I need some air." He slyly stated, and hastily started for the door.

Captain Davis shot out of the chair he had been comfortably sitting in, he hurried after his prisoner, and then reaching out, he grabbed the weasel by his arm, roughly pulling him away from the door. He took great delight in twisting Vega’s arm up behind his back, and forcefully guiding him back into the room. Vega fought to break the tight grip of the man’s large hand around his wrist. He squealed in pain when his efforts were rewarded by an increased pressure on the appendage, which felt like it would crush his bones.

"I have my orders, so you’re staying put!" The Captain growled in Roberto’s ear. His hot breath and stern voice caused a tingle of fear to crawl up Vega’s spine. "I feel I must remind you, Senor, you are under house arrest until the Lancers get back. "NOW SIT DOWN!" Davis shouted, as he kicked Vega’s feet out from under him, and pushed him down violently into the chair.

"BUT MY SONS!" Roberto hollered. "It has been three days, Juan is dead by now! I have to go to my…"

Vega and Davis’ confrontation was interrupted by the sudden explosive noise of china plates crashing to the hard tile floor, thrown there by an angry Teresa. The shattering ring of the breaking glass echoed throughout the room. The two men whipped their heads around to find a very upset Teresa standing there, her big brown eyes swimming with tears, and running in streams down her pale face. She had entered the area with the dishes, intending to set the table, and instead had overheard the conversation between the two men. The shock of Vega’s bold claims that her brother was dead, had hit her like a ton of bricks.

 

Teresa had arrived home on the evening of the same day that Murdoch and Scott had taken off to search for Johnny. She found her home invaded by these arrogant people, and Captain Davis and his men camped outside. She had demanded an explanation, as to what was going on, and had stood there frozen in fear, and mortified by the revelation. She didn’t want to believe what she was hearing, that her brother had been kidnapped, and taken back to Mexico! She didn’t understand how this could be, but yet she was assured it was true.

In her upset state, Teresa had run to her room, slamming the door, and then throwing herself upon the bed, and cried. She had refused to leave the sanctuary of her room for several hours. As if it were not bad enough these people had brought danger down on Johnny’s head, Mrs. Vega had had the gall to try to school her in the proper way to set the table, and cook her husband’s food, as if Teresa was their servant. Teresa had borrowed a dose of stubborn Lancer, and had adamantly rejected any of the woman’s high handed advice, instead she and Maria plowed ahead, running the household with their normal routine.

Teresa glared coldly at the pompous peacock of a man, shaking off the momentary immobility, she stormed forward, her boots crunching and crushing the bits of dishes at her feet. Upon reaching Vega she drew back her hand and slapped his smug face, leaving a vivid red handprint. "HOW DARE YOU SAY THAT? JOHNNY IS NOT DEAD! Teresa screamed at the bastard. "You have a lot of nerve to call yourself Johnny’s Tio. You know nothing about being family, because real family doesn’t sell each other out. She punctuated each word with a vicious jab, to his heartless chest, with her finger. "You do not know him like we do, he is stronger than you think, he will survive," she said with strong, passionate conviction. "Murdoch will not stop until he finds Johnny. And when they get home, they will make you sorry you helped those thieving bandits."

"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN HERE?" Val shouted, as he rushed through the French doors to find out what the problem was, after hearing the loud shouting from outside. He frowned when he saw Teresa standing there shaking, wiping her tears with her apron hem. "Why is Teresa so upset?" he demanded to know, as if he didn’t already know the answer.

Without hesitation, Teresa ran into Val’s strong arms, holding on to him, as though for dear life. She broke away and looked up at his scruffy face and pleaded, "Tell him, Val, tell him that Johnny is not dead. Please!" She buried her head back into the comfort of his shoulder. "Tell him that he will be ok" she added her voice muffled by the rumpled shirt.

"Why sure he will be, honey." Val soothingly replied, giving Vega a threatening glare, as he held Teresa, rubbing her dark head trying to comfort the distraught girl. "My buddy is too mule-headed to let those bastards get the best of him, no sir-ree, Johnny is a survivor." Val added. He had to believe that, no matter what his heart was telling him, Johnny didn’t survive all those years as Madrid for nothing. Hopefully his amigo wouldn’t prove him wrong this time, either.

"Señor Sheriff, you do not know these banditos, they are heartless ruthless hombres’, Juanito does not stand a chance. I am quite sure he is dead by now." Vega heartlessly announced.

"STOP SAYING THAT!" Teresa shrieked, as she pushed off from Val. Sobbing inconsolably she bolted to her room, the men jumped at the hard slamming of her door, that rattled the pictures on the nearby wall.

"My sons need me; we must go back and. . . " Vega said again, repeating himself for the umpteenth time within the hour, making him sound like a drunken parrot.

Val cut his words off by grabbing his stiff collar, twisting the material until it tightened around Vega’s neck. "You ain’t going nowhere, you no account sorry son of a bitch!" Val snarled in Vega’s shocked face, snorting like a mad bull, ready to trample his prey. "You sent your own nephew back to that hell-hole, and you’re staying put to answer for it." The irate sheriff emphasized his ire by shaking the man brutally. Val snorted to himself as he wondered if the man’s pea sized brain would rattle loose and roll out of his ear.

"BUT!"

"No buts! And what makes you so sure that your rancho and sons will still be there when you get back?" Val asked snidely, pointing out the cold hard reality to the ignorant man. "If those banditos are as deadly as you claim they are, HUH!" Val let go of the man’s collar, his toothy grin showing his pleasure in the horror that was suddenly plastered on Vega’s face.

"Do not say that!" Ana shouted, as she entered the room, her face showing the same emotion, as her husband’s, over Val’s words. "My children will be ok, they promised," she insisted. She quickly went to her husband, taking his trembling hand into hers. "Roberto?" she pleaded with worried eyes, begging for reassurance.

"With all due respect, ma-am, your husband said that they would kill at a drop of a hat. Those men are outlaws, murderers, thieves …they rape and plunder. What about that makes you believe they are men of their word? I’m sorry to inform you, their actions don’t scream honesty to me." The Captain sadly commented.

"But they gave us their word, Ramon himself promised." She reiterated, denying the Captain’s words. "He said, he would not harm them, until they…he has Juanito…." her voice trailed off weakly, as she realized what she had just said. It dawned on her that there would be no reason for them to honor their word; the horror of that realization wounded her soul deep. Roberto’s hand tightened around her small one, as he came to the same conclusion. His face portrayed the defeated and foolish man, he had become. "No," he whispered despairingly, staring off into space, "What have I done?" Vega dropped to his knees, placing his hands over his face to hide his shame.

"Once he has Johnny, he will not give a rat’s ass about that promise." Val grimly confirmed. "Senor, you are a fool," Val declared, looking down at the cowering defeated man.

The room went deadly quiet. It was as though the world had stopped spinning, time ceased to exist. It was apparent to all; they were going to need a miracle, as the lives of not only Johnny but those two innocent young boys, now hung over Vega’s head, and in the hands of a heartless murderer.

***************

"There it is, Madrid," Jose announced with a devilish delight, as he pointed to the big body of water in front of them. "The Rio Grande, and Mexico, very soon now, Ramon will have his revenge." The grungy man slithered like a snake over to Johnny, and roughly grabbed him by the back the head, raising it up for him to see. They were taking no chances of Johnny escaping, so they had tied him to the horse, belly down like a corpse.

Johnny had to force his eyes open, taking short shallow breaths, as his ribs throbbed and burned from the pressure of the saddle rubbing and cutting into them. His torso had already been abused from the beating he had suffered at the hands of Jose and Diego, before being trussed up on his horse. His head felt like it was twice the size because of the blood rushing to it. He tried to focus on the sight, before him, he let out a heavy painful sigh. ‘God no,’ he silently cried. Just a quick ride across the river, and he would be back in the place he vowed to never return to, a place that forced him to become Madrid. Johnny knew he had to hang on, he knew this time his father would know where to look for him. He was certain that no matter what, Murdoch Lancer would not give up on him, not by a long shot.


"Take one last look at it, Madrid, for soon you will die, huh?" Jose said, laughing in Johnny face.

"We’ll….see," Johnny replied, with a confidence, not even the pain could override.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

 

Mexico’s harsh, desolate climate was much hotter and drier than California’s. The absence of green vegetation made the scenery appear less desirable, brown, and shriveled up from the lack of water. Whereas back home they had sufficient, and frequent rain showers, especially during the winter months, and that along with the runoff from the mountains, usually fed the valley with enough water to keep it green. The breezes that flowed from the upper altitudes down into the valley gave the air a refreshing quality with a sweet aroma.

The infrequent rains this portion of Mexico received did little to relieve the inhospitable conditions. What minuscule amounts that fell were quickly soaked up by the barren, cracked landscape. The earth greedily sucked the moisture down into its hard pack dirt, like water disappearing into a thirsty sponge. It’s was near impossible to scratch a living out of land not worth a plug nickel in most parts. The air was arid, and full of dust from dirt devils that had been whipped up by the hot dry winds, clogging man and beast’s nostrils with the suffocating sand. The warm fetid winds also spread unclean particles throughout the land, filling it with sickness, from diseased animals’ carcasses. Filth covered all surfaces and rock, alike.

Into this uninviting, and bleak conditions traveled the evil men with a kidnapped and abused Johnny Lancer. The bastards had Johnny tied up, and belly down on the horse. They all trudged wearily under the unmerciful Mexican sun, which was becoming more and more unbearable, as its intense rays beat down on his raw, tender back. Johnny’s skin felt like it was on fire, baking to a crisp right through his blood stained shirt, which was sticking to him like glue, tugging, ripping at his injured flesh. To make matters worse, the rocking motion of the horse, along with every dip in the path that it stepped in, forced the saddle to rub, and press further into Johnny’s bruised ribs.

Johnny hissed in agony, biting his bottom lip so hard that he drew blood. Gravity forced warm red droplets to flow towards his hairline, to be absorbed by the sweat drenched wealth of his black hair. His eyes stung from the salty moisture covering his face, and the sickening copper scent of his blood, added to the miseries of the pain that consumed his body. Waves of nausea caused his stomach to rebel along the way, emptying its self of what precious little liquid his captors had allowed him, until he brought up nothing but bile, leaving a foul taste lingering in his mouth. This was followed by dry heaves that contracted his stomach muscles into agonizing shards of pain, which squeezed the breath from his body in excruciating pants. He craved a cool drink of water.

Johnny’s head throbbed from the massive rush of blood to his brain, caused by his position of hanging across the saddle. He thought surely it would explode, as it was getting heavier, harder to lift up his face. The brilliance, of his blue eyes, was faded and dull from the dust swirls kicked up by the horse hooves, floating upwards into his eyes, adding the irritating grit of sand to the sting of sweat.

Dizziness, and more nausea battled for a prominent spot, the longer Johnny had to watch the ground pass by beneath him. He had passed out a few times, which was a blessing. He didn’t know how much longer he could take this torture. He felt like crying out, but knew it would only please his captors. He refused to give them the satisfaction of knowing that he was becoming vulnerable, and weak. He had to stay strong, no matter what, he had to stay alive. He had something he never had before when he was in danger, or his back was against the wall. He had family, someone who would move heaven and earth to find him. If he was certain of nothing else, he was sure his father and brother were on the way.

With a swift hard jerk, the horse abruptly stopped, and through the ringing in his ear, he could hear Jose and Diego talking, and laughing. Johnny struggled to raise his head to see where they were. His eyes widened in distress when he recognized where he was . . .Vega’s rancho. Johnny let out a faint moan, and closed his eyes. He dropped his head back down in disbelief, and anguish. ‘God, no,’ Johnny said to himself. This was a place he had once visited, but only from a distance, an outsider looking in, as he never had the heart, or courage to get any closer.

"Are you ready to die, Madrid?" Jose taunted, as he grabbed Johnny by the back of his head, entwining his dirty fingers through Johnny’s dark hair, lifting his face up so he could see him. "Ramon waits for you," Jose said, grinning devilishly, his foul smelling breath assaulted Johnny’s nostrils, and he had to fight back the urge to heave. "Come, Ramon does not like to be kept waiting."

The ugly and disgusting faces of the banditos contorted with sadistic glee from their over inflated sense of pride and pleasure, for accomplishing their task. The two men untied Johnny and roughly pulled him off the horse, letting him drop to the ground like dead animal. Each man grabbed an arm and violently dragged their victim over the hard coarse ground, all the way up to the house, and then threw Johnny onto the porch. The rest of the gang circled the prone man like a hungry wolf pack, waiting for the leader to take his share of the fresh meat, and maybe leaving just enough for them to devour.

"Hey, Ramon, we have Madrid," Diego shouted into the house.

The front door to Vega’s villa banged opened, and out stormed a tall, stocky man holding a glass of wine in one hand, and a turkey leg in the other. Food particles escaped his mouth, as he chewed with it open, what didn’t fall out he finally mangled into a large wet clump and swallowed. A big, wide evil grin formed on Ramon’s scarred and stubbled face, as he looked down at his feet, at the young man that lay there in a fetal position, unmoving. Ramon gulped down the last of his wine, drooling and snorting like a fat pig. His uncouth manner of eating and drinking sent drops of the red beverage dripping down to further stain his dirty white shirt. When he was done, he slung the delicate crystal, covered with his greasy fingerprints, to shatter against the stone wall of the house. He picked at his teeth with dirty finger nails, as he gloated and inspected the limp body at his feet.

"So this is the little bastard that killed my brother, eh?" Ramon snarled, as the fire of his hatred flamed to consume his heartless soul. "I waited for a long time to meet you, Senor Madrid," he growled through his teeth. "Wake up, Madrid?" Ramon demanded. He harshly rolled Johnny over. When that got no response, he landed a shift kick to Johnny’s right side with his sharp toed boot, impacting his side hard enough to draw blood, as it cut into his skin. "Eh see, even the great Madrid can bleed," Ramon cruelly teased. "He don’t look so fearsome now, does he, huh my amigos?" They all laughed hardily at Johnny’s vulnerable bloodied form.

"What do you want us to do with him, Ramon?" Jose asked gruffly.

"Throw the bastardo in that small shed over there, until I’m ready for him." Ramon commanded, pointing to a small adobe building that must had been used for storage. "I must finish my meal, while I contemplate my plans for Madrid." Ramon’s sinister laugh echoed eerily on the porch, as he turned to walk back into the house.

"Sí, Ramon." Jose said, and motioned for a couple of men to take Johnny. He was snatched by the arms, and dragged, with his head bouncing against the hard packed ground, to the shed. Jose grinned at the callous treatment, and followed his boss inside the house.

Ramon had quickly made his way back to the elaborate dining table, filled all kinds delights that Vega’s cooks were forced to prepare for him. The outlaw ensconced himself at the head of the table, like he was Lord and master, in the chair Vega once occupied. Jose stood watching his Boss indulge himself, hoping to be invited to join in on the feast, and his patience paid off, when Ramon waved his hand motioning for his employee to sit. Jose was more than happy to oblige, and sat down at the other end of the long table. He dug into the food, as he studied his leader’s face, which was contorted by his heavy thoughts.

"Were you followed?" Ramon questioned.

"No, Ramon, we did just as you said, we used a decoy to throw those gringos off our trail." Jose mumbled, with his mouth stuffed full of food. "Just in case they realized he was taken before we could get away."

"Good! But do not underestimate these gringos, Jose, they are smart ones, they will keep on looking for him," Ramon said, gulping down his drink. "That is why we must keep moving, now that I have what I came for."
"And leave all this?" Jose pointed out, looking around the nicely decorated room, filled with the fine luxuries most people dreamed about, let alone ever saw. "You have it all right here, Ramon."

"Sí, but they will find this place, and I still have plans for Madrid, that I do not want interrupted so we must leave tonight," he informed his amigo. "Now, tell the men to get ready, and take everything we can carry," he instructed, with a devilish smirk. "Courtesy of Senor Vega," he finished, rumbling with laughter.

"Ah, sí," Jose nodded in agreement, as he rose, and speared another piece of meat, stuffing it in his mouth, before he took off, shouting orders to the men to get ready to leave.

Everything was packed in a couple wagons they had *borrowed* from the villa. The banditos had stripped the house of all objects of value. They saved Ramon’s biggest treasure, Johnny, to be packed last. They hauled his unconscious form out of steaming shed. They dragged him over to the wagon, and threw him in it, like a sack of flour, laughing when his head struck an ornamental box, leaving a new gash. They tightly bound his limbs together, and then tied him to the wagon, as well. They mounted up waiting for Ramon’s orders.

"What about the rancho, Ramon? Do we leave it, as is?" Jose inquired.

Ramon looked it over, and then at the wagons filled with riches, he had no more use for the house, so he ordered, "Burn it!"

Standing over by the large adobe wall in front of the house, were four servants, and Vega’s sons. Even though their hands were bound, it did not stop the tremble of their bodies, as terror pumped through their being, with the rush of their rapid heartbeats. They were powerless and hopeless, yet their young faces begged for mercy. Diego stalked over to them, smirking, "And them?" he asked.

Ramon’s eyes lit up with malicious intent, as he looked at Johnny’s still form. He knew these boys were his cousins, his kin. He turned wickedly to the frighten boys, and then an unholy glee glowed in his eyes, for he knew how to hurt Madrid the most. Ramon marched over to his horse, mounted up, and turned to his men.

"Kill them, kill them all!"

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Sand, rock and cacti loomed ahead of them, distorted by the waves of heat that rose shimmering and undulating like restless spirits escaping the grave. It was an arid, uninviting land, the sameness of it deceiving the eye, as to how far away civilization lay. Murdoch felt like it might as well be the yawning vastness of the Grand Canyon that they were readying to cross. Somewhere across this great divide of desolate desert, his youngest son needed him, and he would be damned if he would fail him.

Cipriano sat stoically beside his Patron, his mount swishing his tail in the heat. The segundo’s dark eyes, squinted against the brilliance of the fierce glow of the sun, adding more creases to the trouble lines already etched in his bronzed face. Worry and guilt ate at the big Mexican; he continued to silently berate himself for the time they wasted following the wrong trail, even though they were on the right one now.

Scott and Cipriano had resorted to unfriendly persuasion and outright diabolical mayhem to make the filthy little man, that had been the decoy, decide he would give up all the information he had. They had manhandled, slapped, punched and threatened the bandit, but it was not until Scott scooped a tin cup into the dirt of a devil ant mound and poured the contents down the back of the hog-tied man’s shirt and pants that they got the results they wanted. The man had screeched and screamed. He rolled and tossed, scrubbing his back on the hard scrabble ground as he attempted to rid himself of the mad devil ants biting viciously into his tender skin.

By the time they untied him, and he had ripped his clothes from his body, slapping at the ants, as he sobbed in pain, he told them all he knew, right down to the name of his own grandparents. The bandito no longer snickered and taunted Madrid’s family either. He learned an important lesson; these men were a force to be reckoned with, too.

 

Once they had the information, they let the informant go. The last anyone saw of the crazed outlaw, he was limping away, scratching at the multitude of angry, red swollen insect bites on his nude body. The rescue posse had immediately broken camp, as they set off to try and catch up with Johnny’s captors, hope was renewed in their hearts and minds as they now had a definite destination. That hope had been brief, and had crashed to the ground like a ton of bricks, when their anguished eyes saw what lay ahead of them, or more distressingly what lay between them and Johnny.

 

Murdoch was bound and determined not to stop. He vowed loudly and vehemently, that nothing and no one would keep him from his mission to find Johnny. He didn’t care if he had to half kill himself, no matter what shape he was in, or what it took, he was not going to leave his youngest in this hell hole, not again, even if he died in the effort.

The tall rancher’s huge form trembled in the saddle causing his horse to tense up, at the dismayed vibrations coming from its owner, as dire thoughts and fears threatened to consume his mind and heart. Murdoch remembered the last time he was here, looking for one small blue-eyed boy, and his selfish mother. He had been stymied that time, finding only frustration and disappointment, after months of searching. He had gone back home empty- handed, and empty-hearted. It had taken the distraught father nearly twenty years to get his boy back. He was determined this time he would succeed, and quickly, he would not let time, or distance steal his son again.

"Well, are we ready?" Scott grimly asked his quiet father. "There’s no time like the present."

Murdoch just nodded at first, his thoughts still back in time. "Pray that we don’t have to go too far in, Scott." Murdoch finally replied, giving his oldest a drained and exhausted look of dismay. "The further in we go, the worst it gets, believe me I ought to know. I’ve experienced this journey already," he cautioned.

"Sí, pardon, I fear you are right, it will not be pleasant, or easy to find Jauntio," Cipriano sadly agreed with his employer. "Mexico is a hard, cruel place in some parts, and this bandito, Ramon, he is tricky. It will not be easy to find him."

"Well, what are we waiting for, time is wasting away?" Scott declared. "We only have a few hours of daylight left."

Murdoch nodded his ascent; put his huge hand up, signaled to his men, and then they were off. It felt like they were riding straight into the furnace of hell, but these were true and loyal men, and if took a trip to Hades to get the Patron’s son back, then to hell they would go. The contingent of rescuers plodded on across the inhospitable environment. The heat waves rose to engulf them, and they seemed to disappear into the horizon, as they headed into the enemy’s lair.

*********

Ramon decided to stop for the night, figuring they had put enough distance between the rancho and themselves. The stocky leader was getting hungry and needed to fill his belly, he had been spoiled by the abundance of food at the rancho. He had Johnny removed from the wagon and tied securely to a tree in plain view of the camp. I t was a rather redundant action as Johnny was in no condition to run, after the beating Ramon’s men had given him. Johnny was in and out consciousness, for most of the time, and his clothes were ripped , dirty, and stained with his own blood from the injuries inflected on him. Ramon thought it was time for Johnny to meet the man who was going to finally kill Madrid.

"Hey, hombre, Madrid, it’s time to wake up." Jose taunted, giving Johnny a hard shove to the chest with his foot. "There’s someone here who wants to meet you." He punctuated the statement with a swift kick to the ribs, trying to get a response out of the semi-conscious young man.

A weak moan escaped his dry, cracked lips, Johnny’s body jerked in reaction when the hot burning pain of the powerful jolt finally registered in his clouded mind. The agony of the strike consumed his battered torso, and made his chest feel like it was on fire. Johnny started to harshly cough, as his lungs constricted from panting shallowly against the pain. He felt like someone had beaten him with a sledge hammer.

"Good you are waking, eh? Look at the one who is going to end you miserable life," Ramon spat out hatefully. The uncouth outlaw sprayed spittle, along with the remnant stench of spicy bad breath onto Johnny, as he knelt down and pressed his smirking ugly mug right into Johnny’s face.

Johnny’s head jerked up in a bobbing motion at the sound of the familiar voice. It was a voice he once used to cower at, one that he had thought he had silenced for good, years ago when he was a child. When the buzzing in his ears; and the fuzziness that clouded his thinking started to slowly fade, Johnny thought he was hearing things. ‘No it can’t be?’ he desperately told himself, his curiosity building as his mind was seized with questions. Becoming more alert, as a disembodied voice kept urging him to wake up, and knowing it wouldn’t stop until he did, Johnny conceded, forcing his eyes to open. He raised his throbbing head, and then focused his blurred vision on the large form in front of him. When he spied what he thought was a resurrected demon of his past, he wished, he had kept them closed.

Johnny felt like his heart had been clawed, still beating, right out of his chest, and then brutally trampled on, until it was a quivering mass, which was then stuffed down his throat. He gasped for air. The pure mortal shock of being confronted by the man’s evil face, staring at him, sent cold shivers shooting straight through him. His blood chilled in his veins, causing his entire body to shake uncontrollably. Johnny’s pale face went white, as it drained of all color. All his old fears rushed back at him like a horde of screaming banshees, inundating with sorrow and anguish. It was as if hell had opened up and Carlos’ ghost had escaped, hunting him down, to torment and haunt him, all over again.

"Go away," Johnny feebly whispered, closing his eyes against the un-holy image before him.

"Do you see someone you know, eh?" Ramon teased, compelling Johnny to open his eyes with a hard slap to the cheek. "Someone you murdered, maybe?" Johnny turned his stunned eyes away from the irate man, shaking his head in denial. "Look at me, Madrid! Try to remember!" Ramon shouted, and roughly grabbed Johnny by the chin, forcing his head to turn to meet his glare. "I said look at me! Do you remember?"

"I do remember!" Johnny growled through his teeth. Ramon still had a hard grip on his chin, and he tried to break away from it once he gathered his senses. "I thought I had killed you!" he added, as the man let go of his face. "I sent you to hell!"

"No, Madrid, you did not kill me, it was my brother Carlos that you murdered!" Ramon angrily informed the young gun-hawk, his voice filled will malevolent intent.

‘The bastard had a twin brother?’ Johnny silently told himself, as he took in more of the man’s features. He was more evil looking than his brother, with a deeply pox marked face, and wild eyes. Johnny cringed in disgust, at the thought that Carlos even had a family. He always thought the man was the son of the devil, put on this earth just to torment him.

"I was only a boy." Johnny snarled at the man.

"I don’t care how old you were, you killed him!" Ramon growled in Johnny’s face. The foul stench of Ramon’s unwashed body assaulted his nostrils. Johnny gagged and fought back the urge to empty his stomach in the outlaw’s face. He didn’t need to lose anymore fluids; he was dehydrated as it was.

"He killed my Mama, and then was going to kill me. I had no choice but to defend myself," Johnny argued in his defense. "I was only a boy," Johnny repeated, his breathing labored by the pain in his chest and heart. However, Ramon wasn’t listening to Johnny’s words, he didn’t care, as his mind was too full of hate, revenge.

"Your Mama was a whore!" Ramon blurted out. "She deserved what she got. Carlos was only doing the town a favor by killing her," the man said, harshly, coldly, cruelly taunting Johnny.

Johnny hardened his heart out of self-preservation. His eyes darkened like cold blue ice, as he looked at the slithering snake. He felt his own anger raging inside, like a volcano ready to erupt. Johnny’s cheeks undulated, as his jaws clenched and tightened. His bloodied hands balled up, every sore muscle in his body went rigid, as he tried to break the ropes that held him prisoner to the tree, but he was still too weak to free himself. As he fought his physical ties, Johnny promised himself, his mind, nor soul, would ever be destroyed by the man.

"Your bastard of a brother, raped, burned, and killed the people in my village, destroying my life. He made me become Madrid!" Johnny proclaimed, with malice in his cold voice. "Carlos is why I’m Madrid, and…" Johnny paused to regain control of his emotions, glaring at Ramon. "He deserved to die…. and you’re next!"

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Tendrils of smoke floated upward, forming an ominous black cloud, which resembled a shroud in the sky. It could be seen across the vastness of the land, the air movement caused it to swirl and undulate, as though performing a macabre dance. The rescue party pushed onward, their nostrils were assaulted by a heavy burnt aroma. As they drew nearer, a hint of the copper scent of blood clinging to the dry wind; sang the warning of the death and destruction they would soon find.

The once beautiful ranch lay in ruins. The majestic hacienda was a burnt out shell of its former glory. Many of the walls had fallen in, and tumbled others down with them. The ones left standing were unstable. The remaining walls swayed in the breeze, moaning and groaning, as though filled with trapped souls, yearning to break free from their imprisonment. Only hours before the ruined walls had formed a fortress of a home that once rang with the joyous sounds of laughter, love, and life. The charred bits that had survived the intensity of the flames stood in mute testament of the horror that had been visited upon the lavish house, and its occupants. If blackened walls could have talked, they would have repeated the feeble pleas for mercy, which had been not only ignored, but laughed at by the attackers.

The gutted out house had been stripped of its valuables, and anything else that struck Ramon’s fancy, or that would fit in one of the wagons. The rest of the fine furnishings had fallen victim to the fire, from the beautiful solid oak dining room table, to the elaborately hand craved bedroom set in the master bedroom. Nothing had been spared the vandalism and destruction, not even a child’s toy. All that Vega had worked for, or inherited was gone, wiped off the face of the earth; nothing was left but shadows and memories.

 

Tired and hot from the grueling trek across the desolate desert, Murdoch and the search party sat on their mounts, shaking their heads in utter disbelief. Their hearts were deeply saddened, and weighed down with the burden of the gut-wrenching sight. A few of the men had to cover their mouths with their bandanas, as their stomach lurched, threatening to rebel at the grotesque smells and hideous display of devastation. An unlucky few lost the battle, and quickly dismounted, and spewed their last meal bitterly upon the ground. Cipriano silently cursed himself, as he felt he should bear the blame for not arriving sooner, because he had followed the wrong trail. He knew it was too late. Ramon was gone, leaving signs of his wrath and destruction behind as a warning to them, a warning not to be taken lightly.

"Murdoch look." Scott sadly pointed to the far wall.

Murdoch and the men dismounted, and then slowly walked over to the area Scott had indicated. Nothing could have prepared them for the anguishing scene their weary eyes encountered. They were stopped cold in their tracks, as though a stone wall of grief halted their movement. A few gasps of disbelief rent the silence; several men crossed themselves, and whispered holy blessings for the fallen. Eyes were closed out of self-preservation, to shield their minds and hearts from the horrific images before them. Murdoch and Scott’s limbs seemed to be paralyzed, like their barely beating hearts. Fear for a son and brother, made them cry out silently, God why?

Against one of the courtyard wall, one untouched by flames, but blood splattered and bullet riddled, were the lifeless bodies of Vega’s boys, along with his faithful servants. They looked like rag dolls, tossed against the unforgiving stone in a fit of temper. They all looked like they were abused and beaten. The women’s dresses were torn in different places, and their wrists and arms had dark bruises, as if they were held down against their will, and possibly raped. The men and boys’ faces were swollen, and their features distorted, deep rope burns marred their wrists and ankles. The fear and violence that consumed their lasts moments on earth was forever frozen on their faces. As if that were not bad enough, they had been left to rot, like old pieces of meat, for the passing animals to feast on.

Murdoch couldn’t help but think what a selfish fool Vega had been, to actually believe that his own children would be spared, once Ramon had Johnny. "Stupid, stupid man," he muttered to himself. Murdoch wondered if this was to be Vega’s punishment for betraying his own blood, his nephew like he did? As bad as this was, now he had to face the fact his own children would also suffer because it. This was something Murdoch would never had wished on any father, not even Vega, and he didn’t know how he would break it to him once they got back, nor how Vega would take it.

"What a waste." Scott practically moaned.

"Yes it is, the fool was too trusting, thinking his sons would be spared," Murdoch replied. "Well we can’t do anything for them now. Our main concern is finding your brother."

"We can at least bury them for the man!"

With that said, they all nodded their agreement, and then went about the unpleasant task of digging the graves. Scott had found a few shovels in the very same shed that had held his brother captive for a short time. When he had retrieved the shovels, he had been sickened when he noticed blood stains on the wood floor. He could never explain it, but he knew deep down in his soul that it came from his little brother. Scott knelt down, and with a shaking hand, touched the dried blood with his fingertips, and then closed eyes for a few moments. "Johnny," he whispered, "Hang on brother, we’re coming for you." He hoped with all his heart that somehow Johnny had heard his mental thoughts, as this was the closest he had been to his brother, since they had left to search for him. Scott decided not to tell Murdoch about what he had found, it would only add more anguish to his father’s troubled mind.

By the time they finished burying the bodies it was too late to start looking again. Scott suggested they make camp. It had been a traumatic day for all. They were dirty, hungry and bone tired. Murdoch was rigidly opposed to the idea; he wanted to keep on going. The wise counsel of Cipriano, informing his employer and friend, that it was not safe to travel so close to dark in this part of Mexico, and the painful reality of his stiff and sore back screaming at him, finally convinced the tall rancher to give in.

The heavy hearted father sat staring into the campfire, as the flames danced to the tune of their own crackle and pop. In his mind’s eye, he could see his youngest son standing there looking down at him, smiling just as bright as those flames, his blues eyes twinkling when the light hit them just right. He sighed bitterly, as the happy apparition vanished like a puff of smoke. He battled the desolate tears that threatened to fall, replacing one emotion for another, as his anger flared, matching the heat from the fire, and then he cursed his wife for all of this. It was her selfishness that led his son on the path he chose, in order to live. If it wasn’t for Maria, Johnny would never have met this Carlos, and all of this would have never happened. Murdoch’s whole body started to tremble, as his rage and blood pressure rose.

"Sir," Scott inquired softly, gently touching his father’s arm, breaking the trance he was in. "He’ll be okay. Johnny is a survivor," Scott added, trying to ease his worried father’s mind, as well as his own.

"I know, but every man has his limits, as to how much they can take," Murdoch reflected. "I….I don’t know how your brother can survive this."

Scott took a few steps back, and looked down at his father in utter shock, he couldn’t believe his ears. "I can’t believe you just said that!" Scott snapped. "Are you giving up on the hope of finding him alive? Johnny is stronger than you think."

"No, I’m not giving up on him, but he’s only human, and he’s at the mercy of those murdering bastards." Murdoch growled angrily, rousing the silent men. "You saw what they did to Vega’s sons; just imagine what he’ll do to your brother." Murdoch shuddered, just thinking of it, as the gruesome images assaulted his mind.

"Well, I know my brother, and he will hang on until we find him," Scott retorted. "You heard Val, Johnny has never been happier, and that alone gives him something to hang to. Johnny will stay alive!"

"I pray you’re right, Son. God knows, I pray you are right."

**************

Johnny was roughly grabbed out of the wagon; his limbs were still tightly bound, so instead of carrying him, Ramon’s men cruelly dragged his battered body along the rough ground of rock and twigs. The debris jabbed and cut into his tender flesh every agonizing inch of the journey. They threw him hard against a tree, causing Johnny’s head to bounce off the trunk, like a child’s rubber ball. They left him crumpled there, with fresh blood trickling down his brow, from a new cut. They laughed and gloated, as they made camp, confident in their victory, and of how they had the feared Johnny Madrid at their mercy.

Semi- conscious, Johnny could faintly hear what they were all cheering about, through the painful ringing in his ears. They would soon be at Ramon’s strong hold, and all hopes of being rescued would perish.

‘I have to hang on. I know my family is looking for me, I just know it,’ the ex-gun hawk chanted to himself. He had to believe that, otherwise he had nothing to live for, and Madrid surely would see his last days.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

‘Santa Madre, de Dios, oiga mi prayer,’ Johnny silently prayed. Mexico was just as hard and inhospitable a land physically, as it was figuratively, especially when one was trussed up like a turkey, and thrown down on the firm and inflexible ground.

Johnny’s hands were so tightly bound, that it felt like his wrists were being sawed in two by the ropes, as their hard, coarse edges cut into his raw, tender flesh. The only things saving his ankles, from the same torture, were the leather shafts of his boots. However, not even they could reduce the constricting pressure, he could feel his ankles and feet swelling.

Every time Johnny shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, his body would be consumed by the agony. He had to bite down on his bottom lip, to keep from crying out, muffling his moans of anguish. Tears moistened his long black eyelashes when he squeezed his eyes closed, in an attempt to block out the sharp burning pain that shot through his limbs. Any time he moved, it felt like someone touched a hot branding iron to his skin, sending wave after wave of throbbing torment through his abused and battered torso.

Johnny could smell the copper scent of his blood, and feel the warn sensation of it oozing out from the old and new abrasions. It seeped from his wrists, sliding over his palms, and then trickled down his fingers, collecting on his fingertips until the weight of it was snatched by gravity to plop soundlessly earthbound, where it mixed in with the dirt and twigs where he lay.

Every muscle in Johnny’s body felt like it was pulled from the bone, and brutally ripped from under his skin, one at a time, and then unmercifully stretched, twisted into small knots, untied, and then sloppily stuffed back into their places. Parts of him were numb, while other parts were agonizingly awake. He couldn’t decide if he was half dead, or half alive, he certainly didn’t know if one was worse than the other. What little strength, he had left, was slowly diminishing, and even if he could get loose, Johnny knew he wouldn’t get very far. Instead of walking out, he would have to crawl to freedom, and he doubted he could even do that.

Johnny felt like an animal, hunted down, and lured into a trap, where he awaited slaughter. He had no choice but to listen to the obnoxious snoring of Ramon’s drunken men. The outlaws reclined around the campfire, heads thrown back, snorting loudly through their nostrils, grunting like filthy hogs. A foul stench of booze, and spicy food, floated out of their opens mouths with every breath they exhaled, mingling with the odor of their unwashed, sweaty bodies. The heat from the fire exacerbated the stink. Some lay stretched out on their backs, bellies full and brains pickled with tequila. They grunted and shifted in their sleep, waking up just enough to scratch at their dirt encrusted bodies with filthy fingers, and then rolling back over, falling back to sleep.

Johnny desperately wished he had a bottle of tequila right about now, or even a little brown bottle of laudanum. He would gladly concede to taking it, if it would wipe out the unrelenting pain consuming his mind and body. His weakened system was telling him to sleep, to disregard the sounds of the cold hearted bastards that stole him away from his family and home, but his troubled thoughts wouldn’t let him rest.

Johnny reflected on his home and family, and that brought some measure of peace to him. He pictured himself on the open range, where he loved to run Barranca. He was riding fast and hard, relishing the feel of the wind blowing freely against his tanned face, running through his black hair like invisible fingers. He envisioned with delight and amusement, the green, lush scenery of the hills, and colorful fields of wild flowers quickly passing by in a blur, as he and his steed galloped on. He imagined the view from the top of the hill that overlooks Lancer, where he enjoyed sitting for hours on end, looking down at his land, *his legacy *. He was so thankful to God for the second chance at life, when all had seemed lost for an ex-gunfighter.

Now, Johnny awoke every day with a new purpose in life, and went about his daily routine of chasing strays, clearing ponds, branding, and breaking horses. He took pride in doing his ranch work, and doing it well, just as he had with gun fighting jobs. He smiled as he thought perhaps he had inherited his strong work ethic, and pride in a job well done from his father.

His thoughts turned to his family, their smiles, and the cheerful laughter. With his eyes still closed, Johnny imagined he could hear their voices calling to him, either to come to dinner, or to ask for help with the simple chore of lending Teresa a hand with bringing in the laundry. Then there was Jelly, who at times, would hover over him like a mother hen with one chick. Jelly would make sure he had a jacket if the weather was cool and breezy; and his oilskin poncho if it looked like rain. He scolded him for taking chances, and praised him when he needed cheering. Johnny’s heart fluttered thinking of Jelly, and how much he cared for the old coot.

A vision of his father standing by the corral cheering him on, as he broke horses, and then patting his back for his success, filled his mind. The melancholy image stung his eyes, and caused his breath to hitch, as he tried to breathe around the lump in his throat. There was a time he hated and despised his father for what he thought he had done to him and his mother. Since finding out about the lies his mother had told him, lies that ruined his life for a while, he had come to love and respect his father. And despite all of the head butting they got into at the beginning, when he had first come home, Johnny was now really enjoying getting to know the tall rancher, he proudly recognized as his father. Each day with his father was a learning experience; Johnny figured his old man had forgotten more about ranching than he would ever be able to learn. But mostly Johnny had come to treasure every moment they spent together, as father and son.

Reconnecting with his father had not been his only blessing though; he had also acquired a brother, Scott. He often dreamed of having a sibling, but never thought it could ever happen, but it had, much to his surprise, and good fortune. There was one thing that he had never told Murdoch about Maria, that she had been pregnant a couple of times, but had lost the babies due to the life style she had chosen to live. So there was a time when Johnny had a chance at being a big brother, but now he was the little brother, and he cherished that position. He felt like Scott was a gift of love from his father. Scott would always be there for him, no matter what. He would always have his back, and run interference for him, especially, like he had during his heated battles with Murdoch. Scott would step in when things got too hot, then afterwards lend an understanding ear, something that Johnny never had growing up. Now, Johnny wished he had Scott here, fixing this mess that his so called Uncle had caused. If he concentrated real hard he could hear his Bostonian brother saying, "Come on, little brother lets go home."

As a lone tear trickled disconsolately down his dirty, bruised cheek, Johnny didn’t even bother to wipe it away, for no one here cared any way. He was alone again, and it was ripping him up inside. Alone… back in the place that he never wanted to see ever again, a land he grew up way too fast in, and hated so much, because of what he had had to do to survive it. A land filled with the specters of his past, which had tormented him throughout the years, invading his dreams and morphing them into nightmares.

"Why can’t they just leave me alone?" he whispered to the night wind.

Watery blue eyes, scanned the rough terrain, seeing if he could recognize where he was, but it was too damn dark. The glow of the campfire was too meager to light the area, except for a few feet around it. Johnny gazed upward at the sky, the black velvet expanse was lit by the twinkle of a multitude of stars, but they were too far away to shine upon the ground. All he can see with any clarity was Ramon’s men lying about like a pack of sleeping jackals. Johnny knew that somehow he had to let his family know that he was still alive, to leave them a sign of some kind. He breathed a sigh of relief when an idea came to his weary mind.

Twisting his thin battered torso, despite the pain, and trying to be as quiet, as humanly possible, Johnny struggled to turn around. Every muscle from his head to his toes, screamed in agony, protesting the maneuver, and with one last effort he was finally laying, facing the tree behind him. He slowly reached down to his pants leg, hissing and cussing, almost silently under his breath, at the burning pain of his torn skin. The blood soaked rope cut deeper into his wrists, but he was able to get what he needed, and put his idea into action.

Feverishly finishing his task, Johnny rolled back over, positioning himself so that his back was up against the trunk of the tree. This concealed what he had just accomplished, his message to his family. He sighed heavily in relief, that he was able to do it, without being caught. The act of contortion had his body pulsing in pain, his fingers were now numb from the lack of circulation, his wrists bloodier, and his strength depleted. Johnny was finding it hard to keep his eyes open any longer. He fought the darkness that called to him, but eventually had to give in to his body’s demand to sleep. His long black eye lashes fluttered softly, like a feather in the breeze, before coming to rest on his cheeks, shuttering his eyes to the world.

Johnny laid his head down on the rocky ground. He had no pillow to cushion his sore head. He didn’t have a blanket, only the clothes on his back, torn and dirty, as they were. He shivered as the night air caressed his fevered body, intensifying his aches. He reluctantly drifted off to sleep; his last thought was a silent cry for help.

‘Find me.’

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

"How long ago, Cipriano?" a somber Murdoch questioned, the hope in his voice belying the defeat in his posture. The weight of his worry pressed down upon him until he felt as though the force of it would slam him into the ground like a fence post, right on past his mouth, and up to his eyes, until he smothered from a lack of air. The worried father struggled to hold onto faith, but the long and grueling days of searching for his son, chipped away at his resolve, and it was taking its toll on Murdoch’s tired body and mind. He didn’t know how much longer he could deal with this torment. Disappointment after disappointment had eaten away at him, like a carcass ravaged by a vulture, leaving just a shell of himself.

Cipriano’s skill and a fair amount of gut instinct had brought them this far. They had found just enough signs to tell them they were heading in the right direction. However, they all longed to find definite proof that Johnny was still alive, but all they had managed was to find the evidence that they were still trailing days behind, while Ramon got further away with his son.

It was ripping Murdoch up inside, he was becoming a bundle of raw nerves, every emotion possible preyed upon his mind, swinging him from dismal sentiment to the blackest of moods. The sensations took a hold of him, and played a game of tug-a-war with his sanity. One minute he fought the urge to cry his distress, the next, he felt like putting a bullet in anyone that even dared to look at him cross-eyed. Murdoch felt just as impotent and useless as he had twenty years earlier, when Maria had been the one to steal away his son. Reliving the horror of that time made him want to act out his frustration, pounding his huge fist down on something until he pulverized it, so that he could feel power… instead of this despair of ineptness. The nights were extremely hard, as the darkness of the night mocked his desire and ability to continue to look for signs.

Sleep didn’t come easy for the distraught father, his tormented thoughts fought, furiously, with his worn down body’s need to rest. It was a struggle he had wrestled with before but this time it was harder. Throughout the night he endured restless fits of slumber, softly mumbling, nervously twisting and turning about on the cold hard ground, as horrifying visions of Johnny invaded his dreams. Nightmarish images of his son being unmercifully tortured to death, as he called for and reached out to his father, begging Murdoch to come and get him, and bear him up in his strong arms, carrying him to safety… to take him home. And then in blink of an eye, those cries were suddenly silenced.

Murdoch had awakened in a cold, dripping wet sweat, panting hard, shaking uncontrollably. His heart had been beating so fast that it felt like it would pound its way right out of his chest. "Johnny, no!" he whispered, too terrified to close his eyes, as he just couldn’t bear to revisit those heartbreaking images again, they were just too real. However, even with them open, he could still see Johnny’s blues eyes begging for mercy at the hands of those murdering bastards, as they continued to tear him apart.

Murdoch had finally accepted he would never get back to sleep, and with the sudden strong urge to break camp, and continue on, Murdoch had aroused Scott and the men. They all left before dawn, fueled by a breakfast of cold biscuits and hot coffee, they rode fast and hard. Scott tried to reason with his stubborn father, but the determined man was calling the tune, and wasn’t going to listen to any suggestions or alternate plans. His determination had brought them to the remnants of a campsite.

"Well, Cipriano, how long has it been extinguished?"

"I’d say at least a day or two at the most, Patron," Cipriano replied to his employer, as he kneeled down examining the ashes in the fire pit with a stick. He quickly got up, and went to take a look at the tracks Ramon’s men’s horses had left in the dry, dusty ground.

"Can you tell which they went?" Scott asked, as he wandered about the camp.

Scott used his military trained eyes to scan the area for any signs that Johnny might have left for them. He had performed this same ritual at every campsite or spot they had encountered, but nothing. He knew his brother’s little tricks, and had to believe that if he could, Johnny would let them know somehow, that he was still alive.

"Sí, Senor Scott, the tracks are clear, they are still going south, towards the hills." Cip answered. The segundo dropped his head, and nervously turned his hat around in agitated hands, as he softly added, "I think Ramon’s strong hold is in those hills, and if that is so, I fear it will be hard to find Juanito."

"If they haven’t gotten there already…" Murdoch’s voice trailed off, as he felt overwhelmed by sickness. "Well, I suggest we get started, and find that strong hold, heaven only knows what they’ll do to him, once they get him there… or…" The big rancher blanched, not wanting to think about the images that still haunted him.

"Or what?"

"Or if they haven’t killed Johnny by now." Murdoch whispered out the painful words, his head bowed in anguish, a shiver of fear coursed through his body, making him tremble.

"Don’t even think that!" Scott growled at his father. "Johnny will survive, he’s a LANCER, and we are not quitters, RIGHT?"

Murdoch closed his weary eyes, "You’re right son, but…"

"But… nothing!" Scott snapped, baring his teeth in an angry scowl, as he glared at his father, and then walked off in a huff, looking around one last time.

As he looked beyond the camp where Ramon’s men had been lying around the fire, something drew Scott's attention to a tree. There seemed to be some curious long shallow trenches in the dry dirt, headed towards the tree, he quickly ran over to take a look at the marks.

"Murdoch, look!"

Murdoch’s head shot up, and he anxiously asked, "What…what is it?" He hurried over as fast as his sore legs would allow him. "What did you find?"

"It looks like someone was dragged from this spot, and tried to put up a fight!"

"Johnny." Murdoch whispered in a quivering voice. Then stiffly kneeled down and touched the marks with a trembling hand, running his long fingers along the rut in the dirt. This was the closest he has been to his son in days.

"SEÑORES, SEÑORES!" Cipriano called anxiously.

"What is it?" Scott implored, feeling a breath of hope at the tremulous expression on the trusted foreman’s face. "Cip?"

"Look, Señor!" Cipriano held up a piece of dingy white cloth, covered with some kind of stains.

Both men took a few shaky steps forward to take a closer look at the material that Cipriano was holding so tenderly in his rough hands. Despite its filthy appearance he treated it like a fragile piece of heirloom china, as if he dropped it, the piece of cloth would shatter. As they got closer, their low spirits started to lift up, like a bird taking off in flight, and then soaring high in the sky. The elder Lancers’ hearts leaped, when they saw the blotches were in fact writing on the cloth, a cry for help written in blood… Johnny’s blood.

Their faith was restored, their eyes glittered with hope, as they studied the soiled piece of material that had once been a part of Johnny’s leather pants lining. The once snow white cloth was grayish looking, covered in a variety of random stains, but the words on it were shining out like a lighthouse by a stormed tossed sea. The letters were written in blood, and had turned a mottled brown since drying, declared, ‘I’m alive, please find me’.

"He’s alive!" Scott blurted out, his voice raised in rejoiced relief, with a wide grin plastered on his face. "I knew it, and he’s telling us he’s waiting, for us to find him,"

"Señor," Cipriano said softly, and handed Murdoch a shiny object, he had found with the message.

Murdoch’s face softened even more, his vision started to blur, as moisture filled his weary eyes. He took the silver, blood stained concho in his large trembling hand, and lovingly fingered the fine details of it. Silence descended, as the big man concentrated on the small object in his hand, his chest heaved, as he struggled to squeeze words past the lump in his throat, that he was sure was his heart.

This was one of Johnny’s treasured buttons, that he had use to leave a message for them, stating clearly that he was not giving up. And right then and there the determined father, vowed to not give up either, no matter what it takes.

"I’m coming, son." He vowed, as he raised his eyes towards heaven, thankful for this welcomed sign of hope.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

Softly humming to himself the gray haired padre went about his daily routine of tending to the small, struggling vegetable garden at the back of the run down mission. He used the water sparingly, only using enough to keep the plants alive, and producing the crop that helped feed the people of the mission. Water was a valuable liquid in this scorched arid region. The rain fall had been less than normal this year, and the old well was close to drying up, between using the water for the garden, and other domestic reasons, he feared it would soon be depleted. He had been saying a special prayer to the Holy Mother every night for her to bring the much needed precipitation to this desolate land. But so far she had not heeded his call for help, and the children in his charge, as well as himself were starting to feel the effects of doing without the life giving liquid, not to mention the land that was bone dry and blowing away in clouds of dirt every time the wind blew.

Besides the water shortage, there were other events that weighed heavy on the old man’s mind and heart, such as the raids on the mission. Praise God, no one was killed in the raids, as the padre found it useless to fight back. Only food and other supplies had been taken, much needed items that the kind hearted villagers had donated for the children. Leaving them with practically nothing but what the little garden provided, and with no money to replace the items.

The padre finished his chore, and slowly stood up from his slumped position. The tired priest was about to turn and head back into the coolness of the mission, when he noticed a large cloud of dust being kicked up in the far distance. Then from the corner of his right eye he detected motion. He turned his head, and the padre could see one of his boys frantically waving his arms and hollering, as he was running toward him. A curious, yet worried frown, formed on his aged face, knowing very well that this would not be good news. He had seen this many times before, those dust clouds could only mean that many men on horses were headed this way.

"PADRE! PADRE!" yelled Felipe, a young scrawny looking boy of about fifteen

"Felipe, calm down my son, and tell me what did you see?" Padre Alejandro instructed. He grabbed the winded boy, when he finally stopped, and folded his comforting arms about him, as the child fell into them.

"Those….bad…men…are coming…back." The boy gasped, as he was trying to catch his breath, his face contorted in distress.

"Holy Madre de Dios, now what do they want?" He said, as he crossed himself with a shaking hand. "Go on inside, Felipe, and keep the other children from coming out." The padre had to nudge the hesitant boy to get him to move, "Go on now, hurry!"

"Sí, padre." Felipe dashed into the directory, shushing along the others who peered out, to see what was going on.

The priest looked on as the cloud got closer. His aged eyes squinted, straining at the glare of the sun. He could see that they had a couple of wagons with them. Dread filled his heart, fearing those wagons were going to be used to haul away whatever they could find here, which was not much. But then his eyes narrowed in disgust when he noticed that they were already filled with treasures. He wondered what village they had robbed and raped this time, and quickly said a prayer for the unfortunate victims, whoever they were. He stepped behind the adobe wall, as they brought their mounts and wagons to a halt just few feet away from where he was standing.

"Ah, padre, I see you are well. Good!" The leader cheerfully greeted the nervous man.

"Sí, Ramon. What do you want here?" Father Alejandro asked, still standing behind the wall. "We have nothing else for you to take, and I see you have already found riches," he added, pointing to the wagons.

"Sí, mucho treasures, padre, so we do not need any of your worthless junk." Ramon coldly replied, with a sneer on his face.

"Well, what do you want then?"

Ramon then motioned for a couple of his men to grab his most valued treasure out of the wagon, and bring him to the padre, who had nervously rounded the corner of the wall to get a closer look. The banditos roughly seized Johnny, dragged him from the wagon, and threw him with a bone jarring thud down at the old man’s feet. The gentle servant of God gasped loudly at the sight of Johnny. His outraged eyes glared admonishingly at Ramon.

"Who is this and what have you done to him?" the padre demanded, with a bravado he would not normally display in front of the thieving murderer.

"This is the feared Madrid, padre, he don’t look so feared now, eh?" Ramon said with an evil leer on his pitted and pock marked face. "He only got what he deserved!"

"By beating him half to death?" the padre angrily asked, as he kneeled down to wipe the blood and sweat matted bangs away from Johnny’s closed eyes. "Well, what do you want me to do?"

"I want you to clean him up. He’s starting to stink with all that blood on him. Tend to his wounds and such." Ramon ordered.

"Why? So you can beat him again, possibly kill him?"

"Precisely, padre, that is what I have planned for this killer, but I want him alert, so he will feel every second of the relentless torture I have planned for him," the filthy leader devilishly chuckled. "Now are you going to do as you are told, or do I have to use force? Maybe practice on you?"

Father Alejandro stared up at Ramon, and then looked back down at Johnny’s still form. "I’ll do what I can, bring him inside," he instructed, as he led the way into the directory. "Over this way, please."

As they carried Johnny pass the children, their eyes grew big with shock and sorrow, at the sight of his battered and bruised thin body. The young ones bowed their heads out of respect for they had heard tales of how Madrid was a friend to the common man. They slowly followed the men into the room; the padre had allowed them too. Felipe kept eyeing Ramon, shooting hard glares of contempt at the man, and this had the outlaw confused. Madrid was not a man of God, just another a killer, so why would they care if he lived or died? Ramon just shrugged off Felipe’s cold stares, and watched as they laid Johnny down on a small cot.

"Now out with you, I have work to do!" the padre anxiously ordered Ramon, and his men to leave the room.

"Very well, padre, you take good care of my prize, we will be camped right outside, so no tricks, eh." He left the priest to tend to Johnny.

Felipe quickly closed the door behind them as they left, while the children stood in the corner watching the sad scene before them. Felipe dashed back to the bed, kneeled down by the gunfighter and gently rubbed his head. He tenderly glided his small hand over Johnny’s warm face, and then leaning over, placed his cool head on Johnny’s forehead.

"What are we going to do, padre?"

"I do not know, my child. I have to think, but first I have to clean up Juanito’s injuries, he is in a bad way," he sadly admitted, as he got up to retrieve what medical supplies he had left.

"Why would they do this to him? What did he do, that was so bad they want to kill him?" Felipe questioned with tears in his voice, as he continued to gently rub Johnny’s bruised cheek.

"Again, I do not know, only Juanito can tell us. Until then all we can do is take care of him; and think of a way to help free him too," the old man slyly said as he carefully started to clean out Johnny’s wounds.

"Sí." Felipe eagerly agreed.

A faint moan escaped Johnny’s dry cracked lips, as the padre touched his swollen, bloody left wrist. Johnny tried to jerk the injured limb away from the priest, only to have it held firmly down by the man. In a feverish fit, he started to fuss and thrash about the bed, desperately calling out for someone named Murdoch, and Scott, to come and find him. His semi-conscious pleas for help tore at the padre’s weary heart. He couldn’t help but wonder who these people were. He could only assume if Juanito called for them in his hour of need, then they must mean something to him.

"Hush, my son, you are safe, for now." The concerned priest whispered in Johnny’s ear, to try to keep him still and quiet.

The softly spoken words registered in his pain wracked mind. Johnny’s long black eyelashes slowly fluttered open, his watery blue eyes tried to focus on the familiar face. A weak smile trembled on his parched lips when recognition came to him.

"Father…is that….you?" he whispered weakly.

"Sí, my son, it is I. I’m here to help you in any way I can." Father Alejandro softly assured his friend.

"Padre…I….need a ….gun."

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Father Alejandro placed a cool hand on Johnny’s warm forehead, and the other on his heaving chest to still his frantic movements. In a calming manner, which belied his fearful racing heart, the Padre spoke softly in Spanish. The words of comfort and reassurance were an attempt to calm the agitated young man in his charge. Even in his weakened condition, Johnny was trying his hardest to get out of bed. His attempts were futile and feeble, between the waves of dizziness, and his mind and body being consumed with pain and worry, Johnny easily gave into the Padre’s commands to lay still. He just didn’t have the strength to ward off the old man’s hands that firmly held him down.

"There now, rest, you are in condition to get out of bed."

Johnny looked up into the kind old eyes of the Padre. Johnny’s blue eyes were glazed with fever, and he blinked rapidly, as he tried to focus on the concerned expression on the man’s face. Despite his frail condition, he could sense the faith and encouragement in the Father’s manner, so he gave up his struggles, and weakly smiled at him, nodding in obedience. However, Johnny knew that even though he was in the sanctuary of a mission, he still wasn’t safe. He needed extra protection from those who waited outside for him. He needed a gun.

"Help me, Padre…I…" Johnny’s voice trailed off with a low moan, as a hot stab of pain dulled his consciousness, almost sending him spiraling into blackness once more.

"Hush now, my son. I’ll help you all I can, but first we must take care of these injuries." The Padre firmly ordered the young gun-hawk to stay still, so he could work on his wounds.

The last of the supplies he would need to treat the young man had arrived in the room, as he soothed and pacified Johnny. The Padre hated that he had to cause Johnny more pain, for he knew that his ministrations, no matter how gentle, would reawaken the physical anguish. Pulling a chair up to the bed, he crossed himself, and said a silent prayer, before lifting one of Johnny’s abused arms.

The young gun-hawk hissed, tightly closing his eyes, and then moaned in agony, when the Padre touched his raw, torn skin. He held Johnny’s right hand over a deep wooden bowl. He poured warm water over the open abrasions to flush out the dirt and other foreign objects that had embedded into his wrists. He stopped long enough to apply a gentle pressure to reopen the wounds.

The children gasped in concern and disgust, as green pus mixed with dirt and streaks of blood oozed out of the open cuts. The coppery scent of blood filled the room as old and new blood flowed from the injuries as well. When that stopped, and was replaced by a clear fluid emission, the Padre washed the area with warm soapy water, rinsed it.

Having completed the cleansing of both wrists, the Padre carefully inspecting them to see if it they were cleansed enough to carry on with the next step. Satisfied, that he couldn’t see any more grime, or infection in the wounds, Father Alejandro looked down in sympathy at Johnny, who was now staring up him. The expression on his sweat ridden face was that of a little boy lost, and begging for guidance. His want… his need to go home was etched in the lines of pain contorting his face. It saddened the old man’s heart to see such suffering on the young face. He gently wiped away the few tears that ran down Johnny’s flushed cheeks.

"Do you want me to stop, and then continue in a little while?" Johnny shook his head no at the suggestion. "Very well, this is going to hurt, my son." The Padre sadly informed him.

Johnny closed his eyes again, and waited for it to come. He bit down on his bottom lip to keep from screaming. He arched his back in agony, when Father Alejandro applied the last step to the cleaning process. The dabbing of cotton saturated with alcohol to disinfect the wounds.

Torture ripped through Johnny’s body like a sharp clawed beast on a rampage, when the whisky seeped into the open raw flesh. It brought back the memory of the misery he suffered the time he had to remove a bullet from his own leg. It was as if he could still feel the relentless cruelty again, of cutting into his flesh with his own knife, and then digging around, and having to pull the metal out. His limb burned hot like a log in a fire pit. His body shook with uncontrollable jerking and twitching, as he prayed for the torture to end. It all came back to him, as he fought the same agonizing pain now.

Finally it was over, and the Padre wrapped Johnny’s mutilated flesh in bandages made from clean old sheets. Father Alejandro smiled sadly, as he watched Johnny’s tense thin form slowly relax. He lovingly wiped the large beads of sweat off his friend’s heated brow with a cool rag. His thoughts traversed back in time to when he first met the ex-gunfighter, and how Johnny had helped him.

The Mission had been under attack by another group of bandits. Johnny had been passing through at the time, and had camped nearby, where no one could see him. He had figured the priest, who ran the mission, would not want a hired killer hanging around, so he had kept his distance. However, he heard a ruckus, and went to investigate. He caught a small band of men about to raid the mission. Seeing that the Padre had only a few small children there at the time, and desperately needed his help, Johnny offered it at no cost. He had quickly devised a plan, no one was hurt, and the Mission was saved.

"I need a gun…Padre. I have to get out of here." Johnny weakly pleaded.

"How, my son? I do not have a gun. You’re in no condition to walk, and even if you could, Ramon and his men are right outside, you would not get very far."

"We will think of a way, Juanito. Right, Padre?" Felipe anxiously asked, while touching Johnny’s cheek.

Johnny turned his head slowly, with great effort, and locked eyes with the little boy he once saved from a burning house a few years back. He had brought that orphan, Felipe, here, to the loving care of the Padre. Johnny smiled, and tried to raise his sore arm, to embrace his little amigo, but he was just too weak.

"Felipe…how are you?"

"I’m fine, Juanito, but you are not. Why do those men want you so bad?"

"It’s a long story, and…"

"And it’s time you rested! I will make you some broth, and bring it to you later, please rest now." The adamant Father firmly instructed his patient. "Come children, we must let Senor Madrid rest."

"It’s Lancer…now… Padre," Johnny corrected the man, his words trailing off slightly.

"Como?"

Johnny didn’t answer back. He had finally given in to his body’s demands, and drifted off into a fitful sleep. The old Padre shook his head, and figured Johnny would tell him later, what he had meant.

"I’ll stay with him, Padre, just for a little while, Sí?" Felipe asked, his sad eyes staring down at his semi-conscious friend.

"Sí, just for a little while, but do not disturb him with a thousand questions," the old Padre said with weary smile. He left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Felipe took a wet rag, and wrung it out, placing it on Johnny’s heated brow. "The Padre and I will take care of you, Juanito, you rest now." His big brown eyes were concentrating on the fever flushed face, as his small hands performed the task of wiping down his friend’s forehead.

"I know you will…but for how long?" Johnny softly asked.

"I do not know," Felipe frowned. His boyish curiosity got the best of him, and he had to ask, "Juanito, who is this Murdoch and Scott, you call out for?"

A weak smile glowed on Johnny’s face, "My father, and hermano, and I hope they are looking for me," he whispered in a wistful voice.

"You hope, why do you say that?"

"They do not know…Mexico well, and I fear they might give up….and go home," Johnny tiredly replied, letting out a heavy sigh of melancholy longing. "I left a message…I pray they find."

Felipe’s eyes welled up with tears. He had always believed Madrid to be strong and independent, a fighter, who would never give up. This Johnny…Lancer, he had said… was like a lost soul. He watched, as his friend finally drifted off to a deep sleep. Felipe settled down to continue his guard over him, to make sure he was comfortable.

"Felipe, come my son, let him rest now," Padre Alejandro quietly ordered from the slightly open door, after he peered in to check on the two.

"Sí, Padre, he is asleep now," the worried boy got up, glancing down at the sleeping young man for a brief moment, and then left the room. "Padre, we must help Juantio, and soon."

"We will, my son, but how?"

"He said his papa and hermano might be looking for him."

"Ah… sí. That is what he meant when he said his name is Lancer now." The old Padre remarked brightly. "They are his familia. He did mention to me, a while back, about a father in California somewhere."

"Sí, and he is losing hope that they will find him. It saddens me, Padre. We must help him."

Father Alejandro slowly walked over to the opened window, and looked up at the night sky. It looked like an expanse of midnight blue velvet. His eyes were focused on the twinkling stars set within it, and marveled at how they appeared to dance like angels, as they watched over this desolate land. He stood there for the longest time, lost in his thoughts and concerns, and hoping answers would come to him, as he prayed.

"Padre?

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

"Padre, what should we do?" Felipe whispered desperately into the man’s ear, keeping his voice down, as he didn’t want to provoke suspicion, or draw attention to them. The last thing they needed was to have Ramon, or his men overhear their conversation.

"I’m thinking my child. It is not an easy thing to make such a difficult decision," the old Padre softly replied. He stared up towards the sky, as though searching the heavens for the answer. Patiently waiting, hoping that God would give him an answer to this dangerous dilemma.

"Juanito needs our help, what is there to decide?" the worried boy beseeched. "We must find his papa, and bring him here," Felipe reasoned in a distressed tone.

"Sí, but how? We do not have a horse."

"I…I will take one of theirs, Padre," he decided in a faltering voice, and then lowered his head in shame, afraid to look the Padre in the eye, for suggesting such an un-holy thought.

"No, that is stealing, my son, I will not have that," Father Alejandro frowned at the boy. "Besides, they will see that one of their horses is missing, and will become suspicious, not to mention angry, and God only knows what they would do to us or Juantio, in retaliation."

"Then I will go on foot to find Juanito’s familia. I will bring them here. It is the only way, Padre, please!" The anxious boy pleaded again, his sad brown eyes focused on the Father’s sullen face. "He will not survive much longer, if those men take him, and we can’t stop them."

The weary old priest looked back up at the sky one last time, and then solemnly walked over to the small room, and sadly peered in at the young man lying there, bruised and battered. Johnny was in effect, as defenseless as a new born babe, in this condition. Father Alejandro closed his troubled eyes, and then thought back and remembered the promise he had made to Johnny, after he helped save the mission. A promised he fully intended to keep whenever the opportunity arose; and it seemed to have been presented to him now.

"Padre?"

"Sí, my child, you will leave when Ramon and his men are asleep, but you must be very quiet, and fast like a fox. Find Juan’s familia." Worry and fear ate at him, as he agreed the boy’s plan, and he hoped he wasn’t making a mistake by sending a boy to do a man’s job.

Felipe’s eyes brightened with excitement. "Sí, Padre, I will be quick, and bring back help," he assured happily. There was a bounce to his step, as he giddily started off to gather what little there was in a way of food and water for his journey. He had to make sure that he did not take too much, as there wouldn’t be enough for the other children, or the Padre and Johnny. Felipe stopped and turned in his tracks, as another concern consumed his thoughts, "Father, how will you keep the banditos from leaving?" Felipe voiced the troublesome question, which had suddenly crossed his mind.

Father Alejandro stared at the lad. The wrinkles on his bewildered aged face deepened, as he scrunched his face down, while he pondered on that question for a few moments. ‘How am I going to keep them here?’ he thought to himself. Then he told Felipe the only thing he could think of.

"I…I will say that they must stay a little longer, if they want Juanito, strong enough to survive travel. That he is gravely ill, and needs more rest than they realized." The Padre crossed himself, praying the ruse would not be found out, even though it wasn’t really a lie. The fact of the matter being, that Johnny truly wasn’t fit to travel. "But I do not know how long I can keep them here once you leave, so you must hurry. Now go, get ready."

With the Padre‘s urging, Felipe hurried to gather up what he needed to take on his precious mission of hope. All that was left to do was to wait for Ramon, and his men to drink themselves into an intoxicated sleep. While waiting, they could hear the drunken laughing, and snorting like pigs of the outlaws, as they cruelly called into the mission at Johnny, taunting him with their ugly threats of torture and death. Some of the words they used had the children in tears. The Padre quickly shushed them, and hurried them off into other rooms, to shield their innocent ears from the vulgar, heartless language. Finally after three long hours of waiting, the noisy jackals fell asleep with only one guard on duty, and he too was quickly nodding off.

"Now you go towards the direction Ramon came from, if Juanito’s Papa is looking for him, they will be in that area, I hope," the Padre instructed the anxious boy. "Try to stay to the trees, when you can. Now go out the back way, and God be with you my child," he blessed him, and then gave the anxious boy a kiss on the forehead.

"I will be careful, Padre, tell Juanito I’ll have his papa and hermano here soon,"

Felipe stealthily snuck out the back door of the mission, and then tipped-toed around the garden, stopping a few times, holding his breath, whenever he heard a twig snapping beneath his foot. He cringed at every little noise, fearing he would be heard by Ramon’s men. He carefully proceeded across the expanse of yard, and then like a cat he jumped over the small adobe wall, and hid behind it, as he slowly crept along. After a few tension filled minutes, he finally got to the edge of the wall. He peered around to make sure that they were all asleep; and then slyly smiled when he noticed the guard had dozed off, as well.

Seeing it was now or never, the small boy took off, running as fast as his thin legs would allow him, and not stopping until he had reached the safety of the few trees behind the mission.

Father Alejandro let out sigh of relief, as he watched from the window. He said a silent prayer of thanks that the boy was not been seen or heard, and then grimly turned his attention back to Johnny. Knowing how much Johnny cares about Felipe, the Padre had a strong feeling that he’s not going to take the news of the boy’s journey very well. With that in mind he entered the small room.

****************

"Sir, how will that spot over there do? It looks like a good place to camp for the night," Scott tiredly suggested, rubbing his sore, dusty eyes, and then stretched his slender body.

Murdoch squinted against the fading light, and grimly nodded his agreement. Without saying a word, he led the dirty, tired, and disheartened group of men to the small clump of trees. Scott dolefully watched as his father rode off, slightly slumped in the saddle, his whole body as worn down, as his spirits. Even though they had found the message Johnny had left, there hadn’t been another sign from him since then. It was like he had disappeared off the face of the earth, and Murdoch’s hopes were dashed again.

Once they had settled in for the night, after eating their meager meal of jerky, beans, hard tack, and coffee, Murdoch and Scott, along with Cipirano, remained awake. They sat, dismally staring into the campfire, its heat matching the burning pain in their hearts.

Murdoch studied the fire, thinking about his youngest son. The energy of the flames, the ambers popping and the flames jumping, reminded him of Johnny’s continual motion. The brightness of the glow of light was like Johnny’s smile. A smile that could light up the dimmest of rooms, and no matter how mad they got at him, just one look at that incorrigible grin, they soon would forget the reason for being mad, in the first place.

Slowly sipping his lukewarm coffee, Murdoch grimaced at the aftertaste of the jerky and tossed the dried meat into the fire, and then let out a heavy sigh. "Cipirano, how well do you know this area?" he inquired.

"Well enough, Señor, why do you ask?"

"Is there a town nearby, or village, between here and Ramon’s strong hold, that he just might head for?"

"Sí, there is, but he will not go there, as he does not need much supplies, he would only go there if he needed such things, but he has plenty from Señor Vega’s rancho," Cip sadly replied. "He will head for the strong hold."

"DAMN!" Murdoch angrily shouted, and then threw his cup down hard against the hard cold ground. The coffee splashed upward, spilling from the cup like the bitter discontent from his soul.

"Are there any other places that he might go to, before he reaches the strong hold?" Scott implored, grasping at straws for any kind of hope in locating Johnny.

"Only a mission; and I do not think he’ll go there either. It is poor, and has been there for a long time, Senor Scott," Cip remembered. "I do not know if there’s a priest still there, as it has been the victim of many raids, the Padre might have left it to the buzzards."

"If it is empty, he just might use it as place to stay over, resting up before going on to his strong hold," Scott speculated hopefully. "I say we should look into it, what do you think sir?"

Bleakly nodding his head, Murdoch let out a heavy sigh of dismay. "Yes, I agree, we’ll head that way tomorrow, and pray we have better luck than we’ve had thus far," he quietly replied, and then stood up on shaky legs, and walked over to a small tree, leaning against it, his back to the group.

Murdoch Lancer was a God fearing man, though not deeply religious. However, the big Scot had never prayed so much in his life, as he had been doing for the last few days, not since the first time his youngest son was taken from him. But here he was again, in this desolate God forsaken country, staring up at the stars, hiding his tears from the others, as he prayed one more time, though not to the Lord.

"Maria, if you ever did love our son, please watch over him until I find him. You took him away from me the first time, you owe me this, my broken heart was finally whole again…don’t let it break again, I beg of you, please keep our son safe."

 

Chapter Twenty

 

"Juanito, Jaunito, come play, it is okay, come play with me." The cheerful, yet haunting, voice echoed in Johnny’s fever addled mind, spinning him back in time to days gone by.

"No, I can’t … my mama," he weakly replied.

"Your mama does not care, please, come play," the childish spirit enticed.

"NO! You are wrong!" Johnny scolded his friend.

"Sí, my amigo; forgive me, por favor, come take my hand," the little voice implored, extending his small hand.

In his confused state of mind, Johnny heeded the offer. His weak arms trembled, as he laboriously lifted his bandaged hands, and then reached out for his friend. His childhood pal shimmered before him, his still youthful face glowing with a smile; his young eyes twinkling with mischief. And just as Johnny was about to touch him, the boy stepped back, and slowly started to fade, the light around him dimming, as he beseechingly cried out, "Juanito, help me, I cannot see you any more, help me!" The atmosphere around the spectral visitor darkened, and his once clean clothes now appeared to be stained with blood. His big brown eyes filled with tears, and he wailed out, begging for mercy, as he vanished in a swirl of growing blackness.

"MANUEL, NO!"

The terrified gun-hawk frantically thrashed about the small bed, as the horrifying nightmare continued to invade his dreams. His restless legs were tangled up in the blankets that covered his thin body, as he fought to get out of bed. Johnny’s breathing was weak and raspy from the physical exertion; he hacked and gasped in his effort to inhale enough air. Large sweat beads covered his pale face, and most of his body, soaking his favorite pink shirt straight through, that now clung to his heaving chest, revealing the enforced weight lost, from the lack of food, and water.

"Manuel, come back, don’t leave me, PLEASE!" Johnny cried, as he desperately flailed his arms about searching the area for someone who was never actually there.

The door to the small room was flung open, and Father Alejandro, eyes wide with distress at the heartbreaking sight he was witnessing, rushed to Johnny’s side. He gently took hold of Johnny’s seeking hands, and tried to pull them down, as Johnny fought the Padre’s efforts to comfort him.

"Be still, my son, you are safe. There is no one here to hurt you." The Padre assured the distraught young man. "Juantio, you must be still, you are not well," the Father cooed softly into Johnny’s ear until he started to calm down.

"Manuel….Manuel…" Johnny whispered dazedly, his eyes closed, his face softening to youthful innocence, as he relaxed,

The old priest was bewildered, as to what had his friend so overwhelmed with grief, which had him calling out for this Manuel. He wondered if it might possibly be another family member that could be looking him; or one that had died, who was very close to him at one time. All he knew was that whatever has upsetting Johnny must stop, and now, if he was going to get the proper rest, he desperately needed.

"That’s good, my son, you rest, I’m here to help," he calmly said, as he gently wiped the moisture off Johnny’s fevered brow. He frowned in concern over the heat that came from Johnny’s body.

"Padre…what…where?" Johnny inquired in bewilderment, slowly opening his glazed eyes, and then glanced up at the old man who was smiling down at him. "Oh…I’m…"

"Sí, Juantio, you are still here with us." Father Alejandro confirmed. "You were having a bad dream, a nightmare maybe, eh?"

"Sí…I’m sorry…I scared you, Padre." Johnny apologized weakly.

"No. It is you that I’m frighten for, this is not good. You need rest, and these nightmares, they bother you. This dream of Manuel…someone you are afraid of losing?"

"Lost, Padre….he is gone for…good." Johnny grimly clarified, closing his eyes again.

"I see, I’m sorry, my son," the old man sadly said, crossing him himself, saying a silent prayer for the soul of Manuel.

A peaceful calm reigned for a few minutes, as the two men were absorbed by their thoughts, until Johnny noticed that Felipe was nowhere in sight. He was puzzled by this, and then a bad feeling suddenly washed over him. Johnny raised his head, and scanned the room. He glanced over at the door, expecting his little amigo to burst in at any moment, and when he didn’t his concern grew.

"Where is Felipe?"

The Padre slowly stood up, and walked over to the window, peering out, trying to find the right words to tell Johnny about Felipe’s mission. He knew that Johnny wasn’t going to like what he was about to tell him, so he took a deep breath and turned to face the anxious young man.

"Padre, where is he?" Johnny asked again, his watery blue eyes glittering with fear, begging for an answer.

Letting out a heavy sigh, "On a mission of hope," the priest haltingly admitted.

"Mission of hope… for who?"

"You, my son."

"Me?" Johnny shot a disturbed glare at the man. "Where is Felipe, where did he go?"

"He went to look for your familia, Juan," he answered nervously. "It is the only way… to bring help back here, to free you from those murderers."

"Padre, you sent a boy… out there with those bastards! How could you?" Johnny snorted, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Sí, I had too, it was the only way. I’m only one man, and they are many," Father Alejandro grimly pleaded his case. "I must think of the children and you, we cannot fight them by ourselves. Your father, he will have many men with him… No?"
"Sí, he will, if they are still looking for me," Johnny whispered fearfully.

The priest raised his eyebrows, "You are no longer Madrid, Sí?"

"That’s right, Father. I’m Johnny Lancer now, I…I went back home." Johnny smiled wistfully, as his thoughts slipped back to the ranch, and his new life in the home he always longed for.

"To California?" confirmed the Padre, as Johnny nodded in affirmation. "Then he will be looking for you, and Felipe will find him, and bring him here. He is a very determined boy, and he will not stop until he finds your famila," the Padre vowed. "Now you rest, my son, and wait for help to come."

Johnny let out a heavy sigh, "Yeah…but for how long," he asked as his weary eyelids fluttered closed, before drifting off to sleep.

After covering Johnny, and making sure he was comfortable, the Padre walked back over to the window. He stared out again, and wondered the same things, as he listened to Ramon and his men snore and grunt, as they slept.

 

Chapter Twenty One

 

Felipe was bound and determined to get as far away from the mission, as possible, before Ramon and his men could notice that he was missing. The young boy frantically ran as fast as his thin legs would allow him, unconsciously holding his breath for fear of detection. He did not stop until he reached the safety of the sparsely wooded area behind the mission. The small boy did as he was told, and kept to the trees, using them as a shield. The light from the full moon was bright enough that a person could clearly see at a fair distance. Felipe knew he had to stay hidden in order to complete his mission, and fulfill his promise to the Padre and Johnny, otherwise all would be lost.

Looking back in the direction of the mission, Felipe smiled sadly. The lanterns that had shone brightly, through the small windows, grew dimmer the further out he went, their steady presence becoming a distant flicker, as he moved further away from the ones he now called his famila. However, he was satisfied and pleased with himself that he had accomplished the first harrowing part, slipping away unnoticed. After giving himself time to catch his breath, he turned his attention back to his journey. He was tired and hungry, but he had a mission to finish. Felipe ran bobbing and weaving through the maze of the healthier looking trees. In his haste he tripped over the rotted ones that lay dead, corroded and hollow from the lack of water in the dry and desolate area.

Finally the young hero just could not go any further, his weak limbs felt like jelly. He pushed onward one painful step after the other until his weary legs buckled, and he fell to his knees, panting and gasping to draw in enough air. Felipe scooted up against a tree, and then reached for the canteen. He took only small sips, to make sure he rationed the precious liquid, for he did not know how long he would be out here, or if there were any water holes nearby.

Felipe opened the bag he had quickly packed, and took out something to eat. It wasn’t much, only a few pieces of bread, raw vegetables, such as slightly shriveled dry carrots, which a rabbit wouldn’t even touch. But it was enough to curb the hunger that rumbled in his belly. After he finished his meager meal, Felipe pulled out a tattered blanket, and covered his shivering body, as the night’s cool air was starting to set in. He desperately wished for a small fire, just enough to warm his chilled bones, but he dared not, as it surly would bring Ramón to him.

Felipe huddled up close to the trunk of the tree, like an infant seeking security from his mother, only this mother was cold and hard, but still it gave him some protection from discovery. He listened to the haunting sounds of the light breeze whistling through the woods. He fought to keep his heavy eyelids from shutting, his dark head bobbing, and jerking up at the slightest movement or noise. Finally, his body’s physical needs triumphed over his worried mind, and the boy’s eyes closed. He slowly slumped over and drifted off to sleep, his last thoughts were of the Padre, Johnny, and finding his amigo’s family.

*****************

Scott laid staring up at the full moon, deep in thought. A sad smile graced his somber face, when a happy memory flitted across his mind, he chuckled softy, arousing his father from his own brooding thoughts.

"What are you thinking about, son?" Murdoch asked quietly, not wanting to wake the others.

"The moon and Johnny."

"What do you mean?" Murdoch inquired, as confusion scowled on his face.

"I was thinking of the time I was telling Johnny stories about the moon, and the magic it possesses. The tales came from a book I have, and he seem intrigued. He listened to me jabber on, and I was thinking I was telling him things only I knew about," he paused, taking a deep breath. "He was asking questions, and I told him what I knew, and…"

"And what?"

"Well, I turned around to see why he was so quiet, and he was staring at me with that irrepressible grin of his, and then he went into one of his contagious fits of giggles," Scott ginned widely, as the memory of the melodious sound echoed in his ear.

"Laughing about what?" Murdoch asked brightly.

"Apparently, my little brother already knew about the powers of the moon. He learned them from a few of his Indian’s friends, he acquired along the way." Scott snorted, "So he just let me ramble on, thinking it was amusing, letting me play the big brother."

"Then what did you do?"

"Why…what any good self-respecting big brother would do, I hit him with the book. Then I asked him to tell me what he knew about the moon, and he shared his wealth of information with me." Scott was quiet for a few seconds, contemplating the enigma known as his little brother, before adding, "I sat there and actually listened to him, and the way he was describing the things he had learned, it was like I was listening to totally different person, sir."

"How so?" Murdoch was getting intrigued by this foray into his sons’ relationship.

"You should have seen his face; it was so serene, yet sad. His eyes lit up as he spoke, his voice was so soft, yet clear and knowledgeable. I understood every word. I was seeing my brother in a whole new way the more I listened to him." Scott stopped to reflect.

"What did you see, son?" Murdoch needed to know, his heart aching to understand and know his youngest better.

"I saw and heard, John Lancer, the boy who used those protective, healing powers he spoke of, that he believed in, as he grew up in this land. Those beliefs helped him to survive the treachery and brutality he must have suffered." Scott relayed more of his thoughts, this time he wasn’t smiling, "Before he became Madrid, the man, while still a child," he sadly added.

"I know what you mean, son. This God forsaken land can be hard on any boy or girl, let alone ones with big blue eyes." Murdoch murmured to himself.

"Sir?"

"Scott, you couldn’t be closer to the truth." Murdoch hesitated, but then carried on. "When Maria first took Johnny from me, I came down here looking for him and her!" He stopped to compose himself, as the horror of that time assailed him. "I saw what those children lived like, the poor children, that is. They would come up to total stranger begging for food. They were dirty, too thin, and wearing rags. Their desperate eyes pleading for mercy, but all they got for their effort was a hard shove of a boot, or worst!" he snarled. "And I prayed with all my heart that your brother wasn’t one of them."

"I know, sir, it must have been heartbreaking for you."

"I was devastated. I spend months looking and found nothing, and I knew I had to go home. I had a ranch to take care. I was torn between leaving and going on," the remorseful father stopped, and put his shaking hands over his ashen face. "I choose to go home, and used the Pinkertons to find Johnny. I waited, hoped and prayed…every day until he finally came home," he whispered brokenly.

Scott nodded, as he understood his father’s pain.

"But not this time, Scott! I will not turn back!" Murdoch vowed vehemently, "I will not desert my son again."

"You didn’t desert him, sir, you did look for him! Pinkertons or not, it just took that long to find him, and he did come home… and stayed."

"Yes he did, and I’ll be damn if I will lose him again, or you for that fact," the determined father said, pointing an assuring finger at his eldest.

Scott smiled widely, his heart felt lighter, when he realized a new spark hope was lit in his father, just by talking about Johnny as he did. He had not been sure he should even bring up the subject of Johnny growing up here. He was pleased, now, that he did, for he was getting just as worried about Murdoch as Johnny, and it was weighing heavy on his mind and heart. With this new energy in the old man, he had no doubt they would accomplish their goal.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

The door quietly clicked closed behind Father Alejandro leaving Johnny to rest from the ordeal of having his bandages changed. The worried priest leaned his troubled head against the solid wood door, as though trying to pull some of its strength into his own body. A nervous knot grew in his stomach, as he admitted to himself that Johnny’s wounds were not healing as fast as he would like. However, he was grateful that his slight fever hadn’t risen any higher, but he feared it would be only a matter of time. These concerns were only a portion of his apprehension, another troubling issue for the old padre, as it was close to noon, was Felipe. He was praying with all his heart that the boy had made it through the night, and was safely on his way looking for the search party.

The upset padre kept his eyes closed as he listened to the uncivilized sounds of Ramon’s men as they started to stir, after a night boozing, yelling and whooping it up, over their apprehending the famous Madrid. He was thankful though, that they had slept until almost midday, giving Felipe more time to slip away and find help for Johnny. He had even kept the children indoors after breakfast to keep them from rousing the sleeping pigs.

Father Alejandro jerked in surprise when the outside door was flung open with a bang, and the loud clopping sound of boots stomped his way, causing him to cringe in anxiety. Turning around, he frowned at the disgusting sight of the fat ill-mannered man walking in, smelling like he had bathed in his tequila, instead of drinking it. The hard malicious look on Ramon's ugly, scared mug confirmed what the good padre had feared, he wanted Johnny and now.

"Ah, Padre, how are you this fine morning?" Ramon asked, grinning through his teeth, as he approached the nervous priest.

"I’m well Ramon, but I can’t say that for Señor Madrid." The padre curtly answered back, knowing very well what Ramon’s next question would be. "That is what you wanted to know, sí?"

"Sí, and how is he?" the bandit snorted.

"He is sick from fever, and his wounds are not healing as they should," he replied as he subconsciously took a defensive stand in front of the closed door. He tried to act normal as he did not want Ramon to notice that Felipe was missing.

"I do not believe you!" Ramon snapped suspiciously, as he advanced menacingly toward the Padre. "You are hiding something old man?"

"I’m a priest, I do not lie!" Father Alejandro retorted, proudly straightening his shoulders and standing tall. "I am not hiding anything, it is as I told you, Madrid is in no condition to travel, he would not last the trip to your strong hold."

"I still do not believe you, I will see for myself," Ramon snarled, and then roughly pushed the padre out of his way. He kicked the door open, and stormed angrily into the room, only to find Johnny lying still as death. He didn‘t notice how pale and limp Johnny appeared, nor did he care. "Eh, Madrid, wake up it is time to go!" he ordered, kicking the bed, and then Johnny. When Johnny didn’t respond, he repeated the action, but this time harder, jabbing Johnny’s side with his heel.

"STOP THAT! PLEASE!" Father Alejandro shouted as he hurried into the room. "You do not treat an injured man like that….you…you see it is as I said, he is sick. He is too weak to be moved."

Ramon glared coldly at the trembling old man, and then leaned over placing his dirty hand on Johnny’s brow, his face hardened with a malevolent sneer. The priest was certain that Ramon was possessed by the devil.

The outlaw pulled out his gun, and then pointed it right at Johnny’s heart. "If he is too sick, and cannot be moved, then I will put the murdering bastard out of his misery now," he evilly snarled, putting his finger on the trigger.

Father Alejandro eyes widened with terror, "RAMON, NO, PLEASE!" he desperately pleaded, "Not in a house of God!"

Just then a little girl appeared and screamed, "NO!" She frantically rushed to the other side of Johnny, and then wrapped her small arms around his neck, cradling his head against her small torso. "You are an evil man, you leave Senor Madrid alone, he is as the Padre says, he is sick," she cried, as the two stunned men looked on.

"Anna, go back to the others." The Padre gently ordered, but the determined girl refused to leave. "Ramon, please for the sake of the children." he begged, trying a different approach.

Ramon forced out a hard laugh, "You are a brave little chica, so for your sake I will spare Madrid this time." Then he turned to the sweating priest, "I will give you one more day, no more, comprende?" he growled, holstering his gun.

"Ramon, one day will not be enough….." he tried to reason again, but was stopped short by the murderous glare of Ramon’s cold dark eyes. "Sí, Ramon, I understand," he sadly agreed, crossing himself, silently praying for help.

"Good! Now I will join my comrades, and feast on my riches," he said heartlessly, and then left the room.

The saddened Padre said a silent thank you for this small miracle. He walked over and picked up Anna in his trembling arms. He carried her out of the room, her head buried in his neck, as she asked.

"Did I do good, Padre? Did I help Juanito? "

"Yes, my child, you did good. You helped Jaunito, this time, but I fear it will not help the next time," he grimly stated. "Let’s hope Felipe will find his papa, and soon."

As soon as the door was closed, a dark head slowly turned towards it, watery blue eyes opened into narrow slits. Johnny sadly smiled, as he weakly touched his neck where Anna’s little hands held him. He could still hear her scared rapid heartbeat in his ear. He rested his bandaged hands on his chest by his heart, and remembered how many times he had played possum. ‘One more day, no more’ is what he said, Johnny closed his eyes.

"Murdoch hurry," he whispered desperately.

**************************

A hot and thirsty Felipe couldn’t remember when he had been so scared, except for the time when he saw his home and parents burn up right before his eyes. He had been huddled in fright and sorrow when he felt strong arms picking him up. Johnny had noticed the huge fire, came to investigate and found the boy alone, and then he took the little orphan to the mission. Now it was Felipe’s turn to help his amigo, so he had to stay strong, to be brave, for Johnny’s sake, no matter what.

He had been walking for hours now, and most of his water was gone, his legs felt like lead, and his feet were burning up in his worn out shoes, but he kept on going, stopping only to rest a few minutes, here and there. In the short time he had been with Johnny, before reaching the mission, Johnny had taught him how to tell time by the sun. Looking up, he figured it must be late in the afternoon, about three or four. He wondered how much longer he would have to keeping looking.

Felipe tried to remember some of the survival techniques, Johnny had shown him, like getting water out of a cactus, and what kind of wild vegetation was safe to eat. He had not yet encountered these things, except one cactus that was too small to hold the valuable liquid. Finally he had to stop again, dropping to his knees; he shakily and with regret consumed his last drops of water to cool down his parched throat.

The little hero’s eyes were so dusty, he thought he was seeing things, mirages, such as shimmering heat devils coming to get him, and they were shape oddly, with long skinny legs and weird looking heads. But the closer they got, they became clearer, and then it dawned on him that they were indeed men on horses, and coming his way.

Felipe’s spirit lifted higher than a soaring bird. He began to wildly wave his arms, as he sat there too tired to get up, his voice to dry to call out. He hoped and prayed that they would see him. Then with the last of his energy, he pushed up off his knees to raise himself higher, only to fall back down, passing out. But it was enough.

"SENOR LANCER, LOOK!" Cipriano pointed out to the small body lying there.

Murdoch eyes widened. "IT’S A BOY!"

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Felipe lay insensate on the dry cracked earth, looking for all the world like a pile of dusty discarded rags. Cipriano was the first to reach the child’s side. Murdoch and Scott rushed over, their boots kicking up clouds of dirt that swirled away in the hot breeze. They reached Cipriano as he was carefully turning the boy over.

Murdoch sucked in a sharp breath as the grime smeared face was revealed. He felt his heart tighten, his head started to spin from the overwhelming emotions that assaulted his senses and memories, as he stared down at the boy’s features. For the first time in his life he felt like he could truly envision what his youngest son looked like as a boy, during all those years he was denied his right to be with him. Felipe’s features were a smaller, younger version of Johnny’s, almost identical to his son’s, from the high cheekbones, to the shape of his face, and the hair, black as a raven’s wing, even under the dusty coating.

Scott looked sadly on as his father slowly leaned over, and then picked up the small boy in his strong arms. He was seized by a sense of longing and loss, as he watched his father cradling the boy to his chest, as if he was his own son. Murdoch carried Felipe over to a small clump of trees, reluctantly laying him down on the ground, and then wiping his unruly dark bangs from his eyes. The big man frowned at how thin Felipe was, but he could imagine why it was so, because of the lack of vegetation and water in these parts, the food source was sparse. It was a wonder how anybody could survive out here, especially a child.

"I’d say he’s about twelve," Scott estimated, as he handed a canteen to his father.

"Yes, that’s my guess too," Murdoch quickly agreed. "And what is he doing out here? We didn’t pass by any farms." He took out his bandana, and doused it with water, and tenderly wiped over Felipe’s face cooling him down as much as possible.

"I think he must be from the mission, Señor," Cipriano replied, after giving it some thought. "But as you say, I do not know why he would be out here….unless."

Scott looked curiously at the segundo, "Unless, what?"

"Unless there is trouble there…and this niño was sent to look for help." The old foreman was hesitant to say it out loud, knowing that it could also mean that Ramon and his men were indeed there, and that the mission was not deserted, as he had thought.

It seemed they all came to the same conclusion, at the same precise moment. It was as if the sun broke through a mass of dark clouds, illuminating their faces with a bright ray of hope. And the warmth of that hope melted some of the worry from their faces.

"That means Johnny might be there!" Scott said eagerly. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!" His dash towards his horse was halted by Cip grabbing his arm.   

                                                          
"Señor Scott, Ramon and his men also might be there as well." Cipriano strongly warned the headstrong young man. "It is too dangerous to rush there if we do not know for sure."

"Cipriano is right, Scott. We’re not going anywhere until we know what’s going on," Murdoch ordered. "Only the boy can tell us for sure, until then we stay put. No heroics, understand?"

"Yes, sir, but for how long?" Scott agonized. He was not thrilled with the idea of waiting for Felipe to wake up. "Who knows what is going on there, and what they are doing to Johnny….if he is there," Scott grimly added. He crouched down to take a closer look at Felipe. His face softened when he realized what had his father so captivated. "He reminds you of Johnny, doesn’t he?"

"Yes, I guess he does," Murdoch quietly answered. "I can see now how it must have been for your brother at this age. Alone, hungry and learning to use a gun…" he whispered brokenly, and then stopped speaking when Felipe twitched.

Felipe fought his way to awareness, his ears slowly registering the sound of strange muffled voices. At first he was frightened until he realized they were telling him that he was not alone, and were cautiously urging him to wake up. As he battled the light-headedness, his senses returned, and then his troubled mind remembered his mission. "Juanito," he murmured, as he fretfully fussed and twisted about as if he was trying to escape.

Felipe’s anxieties only increased the rescuers, especially when they heard Johnny’s name spoken in Spanish. Their minds and heart racing in wild anticipation and fear, as they anxiously waited for the boy to fully come around.

"Juanito….must find help," he cried desperately, frantically flailing and waving his arms.

"Easy, son, you’re safe now." Murdoch firmly assured him as he held Felipe arms still. "We’re here to help you."

"Help?" Big brown eyes fluttered open, "Are….you….Senor Lancer?" he weakly asked. "Jaunito’s….papa?" His blurry vision began clearing, as he focused on the huge man looking down at him.

A wide smile grew on the tall rancher’s face. "Why, yes I am Juanito’s papa," he confirmed, choking out his words that seemed be stuck between his heart and his mouth. "And what is your name?"

"Felipe."

"Felipe?" Scott blurted, his astonishment raising his voice brightly. "Johnny told me of a boy he once saved, a few years back. He said he took him to the mission." Scott remembered.

"Sí, that was me. Johnny is my amigo," Felipe happily replied, looking up at the grinning blond. "Are you his hermano?"

"Sí, Felipe, I am," Scott confirmed, smiling down at the boy. The smile soon turned to a worrisome frown. "Where is Johnny? Is he alive?"

Murdoch put his strong hands around Felipe’s thin torso, and then carefully helped him to sit up. The boy had tried to sit up on his own, but failed as he was so weak and thirsty from his journey, even though it had only been a day. To a fragile malnourished boy in this climate it seemed like a month. Murdoch handed the canteen to the niño, who took only small sips. It was a pity and disgrace a child of his young age, already knew from experience to ration the water. He wanted so much do drink the whole thing to relish its soothing taste, but he didn’t want to chance being sick from over indulging.

Gratefully he handed the canteen back to Murdoch, and then looked up at him. "Juanito is at my home, at the mission, and he is alive…but hurt badly," he regretfully proclaimed. "Ramon came to the mission for the Padre to make your son well enough, just so they can kill him when they reached the strong hold," Felipe stuttered. "He is an evil man, and we did not know what to do, so I went looking for help, for you."

"Us?"

"Sí, Juanito told us that his papa and hermano would be looking for him, and he was right. Por favor, you must help them. Father Alejandro is an old man, and Juanito is not well. I fear what they will do to them," he begged, with tears filling his scared eyes.

"We will son, but first you must rest." Murdoch calmly assured the upset boy.

"No, Señor, we must go now! I am okay." Felipe was very adamant about it, he knew that time was not on their side. "Please! I do not know how much longer the Padre can keep Juanito there."

"Cipriano, how far are we from the mission?" Scott inquired anxiously.

"It’s about a half a day’s ride, Señor Scott."

Scott placed his hand on his preoccupied father’s shoulder to get his attention. "Sir, if we leave now we should make it there just after dark, that way they will not see us," he suggested urgently.

"Oh, sí! I hid in the trees not too far from the mission. They will not see us there, if we do not use a fire," Felipe informed the rescuers. His brown eyes bore into the weary father’s, as Felipe touched Murdoch’s hand, and then softly said, "Juanito needs you. He needs his papa."

Everybody held their breaths as they waited in anticipation for Murdoch to give the word to proceed on to the mission.

Murdoch stood up, stretched his back, and then took control. "Scott, Felipe rides with you," he quickly barked out, and then glared at the men, "Well don’t just stand there, we’re wasting time. Let’s move out!"

 

Chapter Twenty Four

 

A melancholy mood settled over Johnny, weighing him down as heavily as the lethargic malady that affected his abused body. Sighing bitterly, he turned moisture bright eyes towards the small window in the room that had become his sanctuary. The night was spared the total nocturnal blackness by the ethereal light of the full moon. The stars twinkled and seemed to dance across the expanse of darkness, bidding the seer to wish upon them. And somewhere…out there, he imagined his family was being guided by the same heavenly lights he saw, searching for him.

"Starlight grant me my wish tonight…please let my father and brother be okay…and please let them find me soon," whispered Johnny, as one lone tear of desperate hope escaped the well of moisture glittering in his eyes, and slid silently by the sad smile gracing his lips.

A sudden noise abruptly jerked Johnny from his tranquil thoughts, and the smile was quickly washed away and replaced with a hard frown. Johnny inhaled deeply, and winced as it made his cracked ribs protest the action. He quickly identified the sound as having come from Ramon and his band of outlaws. He was consumed by the realization that tomorrow would come all too soon, and the harsh reality of what the bandit had planned for him gripped his senses.

Johnny knew he didn’t have the strength to fight off Ramon and his men. He couldn’t even hold a gun to get off a decent shot, not with his wrists bandaged. And even if he could hold a gun, the fever that now was invading his body, left him weaker then he was when they first brought him to the mission. Johnny’s stomach ached with the knowledge that he was almost out of options, he had not felt this helpless and defenseless since back before he first picked up a gun to survive.

There was also the Padre and the children to think about. Johnny couldn’t risk them getting hurt or worse… killed, not after they did everything possible to help him. If push came to shove, he would gladly let Ramon take him, to avoid any bloodshed in front of the kids. Not that they haven’t already witness such things, but they certainly didn’t need to see it here, not in a place of worship. The young gun-hawk had seen too much death and destruction as a boy, and he refused to let it taint these children like it had him.

Ramon and his men were camped out right by the side of the mission. The stench of their unwashed bodies, along with their disgusting noises floated in the small window. The smells and sounds assaulted Johnny’s ears and nostrils, as he helplessly lay there. His stomach knotted up, and threatened to expel what little nourishment he had been able to keep down. Johnny tried to ignore the situation just beyond the window, and turned his thoughts and prayers back to brave little Felipe.

As much as he hated to admit it, he truly had his doubts that the boy would ever find his family in time. He knew there was a lot of hard, dangerous territory out there, for one small boy to traverse, especially considering he didn’t actually know where to look. Johnny feared more for his little amigo’s well being than anything, yet a part of him desperately hoped that by some miracle he had found Murdoch, and that they were on their way here now. He could only pray.

"Holy Madre, por favor, aqua mi prayer," he whispered, and then finally drifted off to sleep.

***********

Father Alejandro was on his knees before the altar, head bowed and soul deep in prayer. He prayed for the salvation of Johnny, Felipe, the other children, and selfishly himself. The terrified man of God had never been in such a predicament as this before. Usually when raiders would come, they would take what they wanted. He would not do anything to stop them, because his main concern was the children and their safety. However, this time was different, a man’s life was at stake, a young man he considered a friend, and his heart was heavily burdened with it, for he didn’t know what to do. He was only one man, and they were many, they wanted only wanted one thing, Johnny. How was he supposed to stop it?

Throughout his years, he had seen many gunfighters come his way, and he could tell that most of them did not want to be saved, as their hearts were like stone, and their icy eyes held the omen of death. The Padre shuddered just remembering it. Those evil men danced daily with the devil, killing for money pleasured them.

Father Alejandro had never thought that way about Johnny, the minute he laid eyes on the young gun-hawk, he seen that he had a good heart. A heart that was sometimes misdirected, but not so hardened, so there was hope for him, for a better life somewhere else. The more he got to know Johnny, and saw how he was so good to the children; the fonder he grew of the boy who had to become a man too quickly. And now his life was in his hands, and he was scared to death of the outcome, as tomorrow was only hours away.

"Holy Mother of God, hear my prayer, as I need your strength and wisdom," he prayed, "I cannot turn Juanito over to those murders. I’m only your servant, and an old man. How am I’m going to keep them from taking him to his death?" he fervently pleaded for an answer.

Father Alejandro slowly stood up after a few more minutes of praying, and despondently walked over to the window facing the woods where Felipe fled. His thoughts now centered on the boy and his plight. He raised his eyes to the bright flashing stars above, and then back to the woods.

"Felipe, my child, I pray you are safe and well," he whispered in a voice as soft as the flutter of angel’s wings. "I also pray that you have found Juanito’s famila, and you are bringing them here. If so make haste my son, or I fear all will be lost for our amigo," he finished, and turned to go check in on Johnny. He planned to stay with him all night. At least he can do that much to give him some comfort, if nothing else.

************

Hidden deep in the woods not far from the mission, rested the group of searchers. It had been a long hard ride with the assistance of an anxious little boy, who guided them to this area. They all sat there in the dark, wrapped in blankets to keep warm. Lighting a fire was not an option at this time, for it would surely let the band of murdering bastards know they were here. Not to mention, as dry as these trees and dead logs were, it would set off this place like a roman candle. They ate their cold meal of hard tack, and waited.

Murdoch, Scott and Cipriano, along with Felipe carefully made their way to the edge of the woods, and from there they could see the campfires of Ramon and his men, as well as the lights of the mission faintly flickering in the moon bright night. Murdoch’s tired body trembled with anticipation, his anxiety building up by the second. His anxious eyes watched the old adobe building, knowing that his son was within his reach, inside those stone walls. They had to think of a way to get Johnny out of there, without too much bloodshed.

"Felipe, how many men does Ramon have?" Murdoch asked keeping his baritone voice to a whisper, afraid if he spoke normally the echoing would disturb the quiet of the night and reveal their presence.

The boy thought for a few moments before speaking, "I think he has ten maybe twelve, Señor Lancer, mean ugly men," he shuddered and frowned.

"And you say they drink heavy at night, and sleep like babies," the big rancher asked.

"Sí, like baby pigs," Felipe nodded enthusiastically with a sly grin, "They did not hear me leave the mission when I left to find you."

"What are you getting at sir?" Scott questioned, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

"Well, Scott, if they didn’t hear Felipe leave, I’m hoping they will not hear him coming back either." Murdoch answered brightly.

"Como?" Felipe looked up at the tall man, baffled by his words.

"Felipe, can you get back into the mission without alarming the Padre?" The boy nodded. "Good! Tell the Padre that we are here, and will do whatever we can to help. Tell him to stay calm, and not to let on that he knows about us." Murdoch put a gentle hand on the boy’s thin shoulder, giving it a light reassuring squeeze. "Can you do that?"

"Oh sí, Señor Lancer, I will be as swift and quiet as a deer." The boy smiled widely, "Juanito will be pleased that his famila is here."

"Tell my brother that he’s going to owe us later for saving his hide," Scott jokingly added to the conversation, but deep down inside he wasn’t laughing at the seriousness of this whole situation.

"I will, Señor. I must go now." Felipe replied, and like a jack rabbit he jumped up, and dashed out into the night, bobbing and weaving behind little shrubs and large rocks as he made his way back to the mission.

"What do you have in mind, Patron?" Cipriano anxiously asked his employer.

"Well, Cip, once Felipe is safely inside," Murdoch paused, rubbing his chin as he thought, "We’re going to pay a visit to those sleeping pigs as the boy calls them, and see if they squeal as they are over powered and captured," Murdoch said with a devilish grin.

Scott looked up at his father, smirking evilly, "Oh, I like that plan, sir, very much."

"Cipriano, get the men ready to move." Murdoch ordered.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

The luminous beams of the full moon shone down upon the searchers, bathing them and the land in a purplish hue cast by her misty veil. The luminescent ball was a double blessing tonight. It gave off enough light for the rescuers to see, yet its radiant glow also provided patches of moon shadows that the men would be able to fade into to avoid detection. The bright orb made Murdoch think of a poem he used to recite to Johnny when he was a baby. A poem that had new meaning this night; he smiled as he recalled the words. ‘I see the moon, and the moon sees me. The moon sees the one that I want to see. Picked you out from all the rest, because he knew I loved you the best.’

The sounds of Cipriano and the men gathering behind him drew Murdoch from his ruminations. Murdoch Lancer was not known to be a patient man. However, he had purposely let a little time go by before giving the order to move in on Ramon. He wanted to give Felipe as much time as possible to get back to the mission. He had to play this just right, or his plan would surely fail. Failure was not an option because that would mean many lives could be lost tonight, including Johnny’s. That thought alone sent a shiver down his spine, which sent out cold fingers of fear to grip and pull at his nerves.

The terrified father knew he was making a big gamble, but he was so close to freeing his son from those murdering banditos. There was no other choice but to chance it, because leaving his youngest to their merciless revenge wasn’t going to happen. On the outside Murdoch’ demeanor was that of a tower of strength, calm, collected, and in charge. He was a man ready to battle for what he believed in. However, on the inside he was scared to death, he felt like a quivering mass of boneless flesh.

The determined father wearily looked at his eldest son and nodded. It was time.

Murdoch blew out a deep resolved breath, and with a wave of his hand he gave the signal to move out. As quietly as possible they lead their mounts out to the clearing, keeping a strong grip on the reins, and a steady hand on their guns. Guided by the light of the full moon, they kept a watchful eye out for any obstacles. They tried not to make any sudden movements that could spook a horse, prematurely letting their presence be known. Using standard military maneuvers they kept low and hid in the shadows when possible.

The closer they got to the mission, the more their hearts raced with anxiety. The adrenaline roared through their body, making them hypersensitive and aware of their surroundings. They didn’t know what to expect, and this specter of the unknown jumbled their emotions from anticipation to dread, and a multitude of feelings in between.

Though the rescuers were not murders like the outlaws they were about to encounter, they were determined to do whatever it took to liberate Johnny. Murdoch felt, and rightly so, that they had unjustly violated his home and rights when they took Johnny. The younger Lancer had become a big part of their lives, a son, brother and friend to all that had come to know and respect him. Therefore, if it should come right down to taking a man’s life, one thing was clear, they wouldn’t hesitate to get the job done.

Murdoch raised his huge hand halting everybody, and then without saying a word, he pointed to the far wall from where Ramon was camped, it was there where he wanted to leave the horses. They all nodded their understanding, and then proceeded to follow the big man. They reached the back of the mission, where they quickly tethered their mounts, and then crept closer to the small adobe wall.

"Okay men, you know what to do," Murdoch whispered, keeping his baritone voice as low as possible. "Whatever you do, do not alert the others. I want this kept as neat and precise as possible. There’s been enough bloodshed," he exclaimed, as he thought about Vega’s rancho, and the bloody sight of his staff and boys.

The men silently acknowledged the Patron’s instructions with nods of affirmation.

"Do you think Felipe got back in undetected?" Scott asked, concerned for the boy’s well being.

"I’m sure of it, Scott," Murdoch replied with a half grin. "He’s a bright and determined boy. I think he would do anything to help a friend."

"Like someone else we know, huh?"

"Yes," Murdoch smiled. "Well let’s move out, and keep low until I give the order."

Murdoch and the men stealthy crept along the wall, they moved as silently as the shadows on the ground, their unsuspecting prey lay just around the corner in an insensate drunken stupor. The outlaws had no idea they were about to be captured and evicted from the mission, as well as relieved of their hostage, if all went as planned.

***************

Father Alejandro devotedly sat by Johnny’s side. He was consumed by feelings of failure and hopelessness for the first time in his life. He had had many tests of his faith in the past, but this time he felt so desperate, as he feared faith alone would not be enough. Time was running out, and as he looked down at Johnny’s pale young face, he felt an overwhelming despair, that there was nothing left to do but wait. Wait for the morning to come, and for Ramon to take Johnny, or for the miracle he had prayed for ever since the first day.

The old padre affectionately brushed the wet dark strands of hair from Johnny’s heated brow, and sadly compared his soft features to those of a sleeping child. To him that’s what Johnny was, a lost child who had finally found his way home, only to be brutally ripped from it. It broke his heart, knowing that Johnny may never see his home and family again. Even though he was a man of God, the Padre couldn’t help questioning why the Lord would desert Johnny when he needed him the most.

"Juanito, my son, I’m at a loss," he whispered in Spanish, "for I do not know what to do for you, other than give you words of comfort and peace. I fear I will not be of much use come morning," he confessed, bowing his head in anguish.

A slight creaking sound from the old wooden door, as it was slowly being opened jerked the padre from his thoughts. His head shot up, and he let out a heavy sigh. He assumed one of the children had awakened and had come in search of him. He watched in silence as the door was pushed open a little wider, before he could call out, he was greeted by a face that caused his heart to leap for joy, and a breathless gasp to issue from his mouth. Felipe’s dark head peered into the room, he was back safely from his dangerous quest.

The old man jumped up jubilantly, inadvertently jarring the bed a little, as he rushed to Felipe’s side. "Felipe, my child, you are back!" He cheerfully greeted the boy, taking the child into his loving arms, practically squeezing the air out of him. Then it dawned on him. He eased the child from his tight embrace, and softly asked, "Why are you back so quickly? How is this possible?"

Felipe wiggled out the man’s arms completely, and smiled widely up at him, "Sit down Padre, and I will tell you." He guided the curious priest over to a chair. In a low voice he explained. "I found Juanito’s familia," he proudly informed him. "They are here, outside. His papa said not to let Ramon know they are here," he warned.

The Padre felt like a massive weight had been lifted off his aged body with this wonderful and most welcome news. The relief washed over him along with a momentary flash of guilt for doubting God. With a shaky hand he took a hold of his crucifix, "Holy Madre, bless it be. Gracias." He praised the Holy Mother as he looked up towards the heavens. He rubbed the crucifix against his face, caressing it like it was the hand of God.

"But we have to very careful and quiet Padre, for I do not know what Senor Lancer has in mind," Felipe cautioned. "Whatever he does, I think it will be tonight while Ramon sleeps."

"Sí, my child, I understand. We will wait here with Juantio, and pray that Senor Lancer will succeed," Father Alejandro quietly assured the boy. His words, and the mention of the name Lancer, reached the slumbering recesses of Johnny’s mind, and he stirred to wakefulness.

"Mur…doch’s here?’ he asked in a daze voice, as he fought his way to alertness. "Where? When?"

"Shhh, my son, please be still. We must be quiet. We cannot let Ramon hear us." The Padre quickly hushed Johnny, who was becoming fretful. "Sí your famila is here, and you will soon see them, but for now we must be as quiet as possible."

Felipe hurried over to his anxious amigo, and took his warm hand into his cool one. He looked Johnny right in the eyes. "It is me, Felipe."

"Felipe?" Johnny weakly said, and reached up and touched the boy’s smiling face. "You are safe?"

"Sí, mi amigo, I am fine." Felipe replied, leaning over to give Johnny a tender kiss on the forehead. He frowned at how warm he felt. "You must be still, you are not well."

"Did… I hear… right, Murdoch is here?"

"Sí, and he said to wait here until he comes for you," Felipe calmly informed Johnny.

Johnny eyes widened, and he began to shake his head in alarm. "No! Ramon has too many men…I…" The young gunfighter desperately tried to get out of bed, but it was totally useless. He cringed from the pain in his wrist as he laid back down, defeated by his efforts to move.

"Juanito, you cannot help your father. You must rest. He will come to you." Father Alejandro pleaded for the young man to settle down and stay quiet.

"Yes, I can help," Johnny hissed determinedly. He had no intentions of just laying here while his family was in danger, sore wrist or not. "I need a gun," he pleaded with watery, fever glazed eyes.

The priest shook his head, "I do not have one my son." Father Alejandro frowned when he noticed the sly grin on Felipe’s face. "Felipe?"

The boy’s grin grew wider as he pulled out from behind his back the prize he had acquired from one of the wagons outside the mission, before he reentered it. He placed the shiny loaded colt on Johnny’s chest.

Johnny smiled at the return of his weapon. It weighed heavily upon his chest, but it made his heart feel light to know he had the means to help his family within his reach.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Now that the odds were a little more in their favor, Johnny was able to relax some. With the Padre’s help, he slowly eased his throbbing head back down on the pillow. He huffed out a lethargic breath and closed his tired eyes, as he quietly laid there gathering his thoughts. His colt felt heavy on his sore, abused chest. The gun was nestled so that it moved with ease, gently rising and falling to the rhythm of Johnny’s labored breathing. His trusty weapon made him feel less vulnerable, yet he seriously doubted he had the strength to lift it, much less pull the trigger. This dark turn in his thoughts creased his face with lines of worry. What good would he be to his family and the others if he couldn’t even use it? Realizing the futility of the situation, Johnny softly sighed in dismay.

Felipe gently touched Johnny’s warm cheek with the back of his cool hand, and whispered, "Did I not do good, Juanito?" he sadly asked. The despondent expression that marred his friend’s pale face worried him, and he was afraid he had done a bad thing.

Johnny opened his weary eyes and smiled encouragingly at the frowning boy, "Sí, you did good, mi amigo. I’m very proud of you. That was a very brave thing you did," Johnny weakly praised Felipe.

The boy beamed at Johnny’s approval and commendation. "It was easy, they sleep like fat pigs. They did not hear me," he proudly proclaimed in a hushed voice.

"That is good, my son," Father Alejandro said. "But now you will stay away from those men, sí? The Padre’s stern look and tone cautioned the boy to do as he is told.

"You listen to the Padre. No more heroics… you stay put." Johnny was very adamant about this and pressed on to make his point, "I mean it, you have done enough. And I’m very grateful, but you need to stay away from those men. Understand?"

"Sí, Padre, Sí Juanito, I understand. I will stay here with you," the boy happily agreed, nodding his head vigorously.

"Good!"

As concern for his family, the Padre and children once more consumed his thoughts, Johnny became determined he had to help in some way. He figured there was no time like the present to test his ability to be of assistance.

Johnny shifted himself up to a slight angle on the bed, groaning from the stiffness of his muscles, when he lifted his right arm and reached for his gun. He had to bite down hard on his bottom lip to keep from crying out due to the throbbing ache. He hissed in agonizing pain as he tried to grip the handle. His wrist felt like a burning, hot poker had impaled it, the searing heat intensifying with every move he made. With one last effort he managed to grab it, holding on to it for just a few seconds before he felt his fingers tingle and his hand go numb. Despair over his infirmity sapped the rest of his strength, the gun thudded down on his abused chest. He grunted at the torture his failure visited on him. His body shook from the anguish the exertion caused him, and his ashen face glistened in a cold sweat.

"Juanito, my son, you must rest," the Padre urged the frail young man. "You are too weak and cannot fight. Por favor, you must rest." He took a clean rag and wiped the salty moisture away to keep it from burning Johnny’s eyes.

Johnny obstinately shook his head. "No, Padre, I have to keep trying. We’re sitting ducks in here if…" he paused. He just didn’t want to think or admit the worst case scenario, if it came to that. "If Murdoch does fail, and Ramon comes after us… I…we have to be ready. There’s no choice it’s either us or them."

Bound and determined to do this, Johnny mulishly gave it another try. He stayed laying flat on his back, and this time he tenaciously raised both arms up and was able to grip the handle with both hands, and again they tingled and threatened to go numb. He stubbornly held on, his face expressed the sheer agony of the effort, as he tried to lift the gun off his chest and aim it at the door. Finally, he could take no more and went limp. His breath rasped noisily from his lungs, as he turned white as a ghost.

"I‘m…I’m going…to need both of you to…help," he gasped fitfully. "I can’t hold…the gun…steady." Johnny inhaled deeply, and waited for a few seconds to get his breathing under control. "When and if, it comes down to me having to use this…I need you to hold my arms, and help me aim the gun."

"Juanito, I…I cannot help you take a life," the Padre regretfully replied shaking his head. "I’m a man of God…I cannot!" The priest lowered his head, and held on tight to his crucifix. "Please do not ask me to do this," he whispered sorrowfully.

"Father, if you don’t, they will kill us!" Johnny desperately argued his point, "Listen to me, I can’t do this by myself. I need your help." He paused as he considered the words to get through to the Padre. "What about the children? What will happen to them, if we’re dead? I know what men like Ramon can do to a child, and it’s not good." Johnny’s gaze shifted to Felipe, remembering back to when he was the boy’s age. "Besides, I’ll be the one pulling the trigger, not you," he added using a different line of reasoning.

Johnny words struck a delicate nerve, as well as his old heart. The children were his main concern. He had vowed to care for them when they first came to the mission. He had to accept the fact that if he didn’t help Johnny, innocent lives could be ruined or lost. Father Alejandro raised his somber head and nodded his consent to the plan.

"Sí, my son, I will help, and may God forgive me," he said crossing himself.

"He will, Padre, he will." Johnny fervently whispered, and then closed his eyes once more, as they all waited in silence. ‘God please be with my family,’ Johnny silently prayed.

 

******************

 

Outside the mission, Murdoch and his men had reach the end of the wall undetected, and were getting ready to make their move on the sleeping bastards. Every second counted so he had everyone recheck their weapons, such as boot knifes and ammo, just in case there was a gun battle. They hoped they could get through this without any bloodshed.

Murdoch peered around the corner, and scanned the area where Ramon and his men were located. A satisfied smile split his mouth, revealing his white teeth in the darkness. It was just as he had thought; they were out cold from the heavy drinking and gorging themselves on the food they had taken from Vega’s rancho. The irate father knew he had spotted the scum bag that had kidnapped his son, the leader of this murdering mob. He instructed the others to leave Ramon alone. He wanted the pleasure of handling the bandit himself.

"Okay men, they are all stretched out around the campfire. Luck seems to be on our side, its dark enough we can hide in the shadows. Keep low and take them out one at a time, without any noise, if at all possible," Murdoch whispered. They all nodded in silent agreement. "And don’t forget, the big fat one is mine," he evilly added.

The men waited with eager readiness for Murdoch to give the signal. They knew a lot was at stake here, not only Johnny’s life, but those of the Padre and the children. Silently the men said a prayer for those inside the mission, and that they would stay calm and focused so they would be able to pull this off. The tall rancher looked over the camp once more, and then he motioned for the men to take off one at a time.

Hank was the first to go. He slowly made his way over to the man furthest away from the campfire. The unsuspecting man was sleeping soundly by the wagon. Keeping low to the ground, and hiding in the shadows, Hank managed to sneak behind the wheel. He raised the butt of his gun, and then smacked the man right in the back of the head. A muffled thud, and then a slight ‘humph’ were heard. The now unconscious bandit was dragged away and quickly hogtied. Hank returned to the wagon and waved his hand to the group, indicating that he had his man taken care of, and was ready to help the others.

"One down, eleven to go." Scott said under his breath.

Murdoch nodded with a nervous grin, and motioned for the rest of the men to move out. Scott was about to leave when his father grabbed his arm.

"Be careful, son," he said giving Scott’s arm a passionate squeeze.

"I will. You be careful too, Sir." He gave his father a reassuring smile. Murdoch held his breath, as he watched his oldest disappear into the dark, cloaking his movements within the moon shadows.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

The rescuers had all slipped silently into place. Their bodies were coiled with tension as they waited for the signal to move forward. They watched alertly, breaths held as they saw Hank ghost quickly from the darkness into the meager light just beyond the dying campfire. Hank rapidly and efficiently rendered his assigned man unconscious, and tied his hands. That was the cue for the others to proceed. Suddenly more men poured from the darkness around, creeping stealthily upon the unsuspecting bandits.

Scott watched anxiously from the shadows for his chance to move forward. Alarm snatched the air from his lungs when Cipriano abruptly froze in his tracks. The blond grimaced fearfully when one of the outlaws started to fidget and snorted in his sleep. Cipriano stood as still as a statue and waited until the restless movement stopped and the man seemed to settle back into deep sleep. Scott marveled at the quickness of the old foreman as he swiftly took out his gun, and with a dull thud he smacked the man’s head with the butt of it. The outlaw’s body went limp, like his bones had turned to water.

‘Two down.’ Scott silently counted.

Frank’s intended target was a little uncooperative, and almost foiled the mission. The bandit was startled from his drunken slumber by the sound of a twig snapping close to his ear. On instinct he shot to an upright position, and found himself staring right into Frank’s cold determined eyes. Within the next heartbeat, Frank’s hand flashed out, a glint of metal gleamed in the moonlight. The outlaw jerked in surprise, he slowly slumped back to the ground, into a growing puddle of his own blood. Frank slowly pulled his knife from the man’s chest. He wiped it off on the side of his pant leg, and then slid it back into his boot. He didn’t even take time to close the dead man’s eyes, his concentration solely on his next objective.

"Three down," Scott whispered the count of fallen. He watched as Frank disappeared behind one of the wagons. He knew the trusted ranch hand wasn’t irreverent about taking lives but was doing what he had to do. He also knew Frank was loyal to Johnny, and would do whatever was deemed necessary to free the youngest Lancer from Ramon’s clutches.

One by one Ramon’s men were silenced. They were adducted with precision, and as quietly and quickly as they had kidnapped Johnny. There were only a few left to go, Scott’s chance to avenge his brother was rapidly approaching. When the time came, he sucked in a deep breath, and then eased from the shadows, honing in on his man like the Grim Reaper. The stench of the murdering pig lying at his feet was strong and rank. Scott fought the revulsion of his stomach. He didn’t want to gag from the smell as it floated off the man’s unclean body, and then up to his nostrils. Scott pulled out his bandana and covered his face to keep the assaulting odor from provoking a noise he couldn’t afford to make.

Scott raised his gun and bashed it down heavily rendering the man inert, and seemingly lifeless. He had to fight the urge to laugh at the hollow thud the action caused, as he thought the man must have an empty head."That’s for my brother, you brainless bastard," Scott whispered to the insensate man. Scott glared at the man with a smirk of self satisfaction. It felt good to release some of the pent up anger that ate at him, and what better way than to take it out on the kidnappers who had stolen his brother from him.

Scott glanced over to his father and waved his hand to let him know that all was well on his end. Seeing his father acknowledge his signal, Scott disappeared out of his view again. Only to reappear in a matter of minutes in a beam of moonlight, the blond looked like an avenging angel as he took out another bandit with malice and glee.

Murdoch was preoccupied with watching his son and the men performing their jobs with ease so he didn’t notice. Scott and the men were busy abolishing any resistance from Ramon’s men so they were unaware as well. Ramon had awakened and like a rat deserts a sinking ship, he slunk off into the night leaving his men to their fate.

A paternal instinct, a sense of knowing when danger stalks your child attacked Murdoch, demanding to be recognized. The feeling of doom hit Murdoch with the force of a runaway train. He immediately shot up from his squatting position, stepped out from behind the adobe wall and frantically glanced around. His heart raced wildly, the beat of it so intense and fast it sounded and felt like rolling thunder. The painful contractions of its’ rapid speed left him breathless, so much so he had to gasp for air.

Murdoch stumbled from the darkness out into the moonlight, his tall form highly visible. The alarm on his pale face was the same weak shade as the moonbeams shining on him. His sudden appearance out in the open caught his men’s attention. They all looked at him and wondered what in the hell he was doing, exposing himself like that when all of Ramon’s men were not taken care of yet. Murdoch motioned to them to finish up, as he continued to scan the darkened area by the mission, then it dawned on him… Ramon was gone!

"Oh God, no… Johnny!" The terrified father whispered, "Please don’t let it be too late."

 

*****************

 

Felipe sat quietly by Johnny’s bed while Father Alejandro sat on the other side. The boy’s eyes were wide open and full of fright. The deadly silence outside had him jittery as stalked animal, ready to jump at the slightest hint of danger. He was more afraid in here than he was out in the wide open, knowing that they were trapped inside with nowhere to hide. Felipe scooted his chair in closer to the bed hoping it would help ease this feeling dread, and nervously whispered.

"Jaunito, it is too quiet outside. I am scared," he said leaning his small head against his amigo’s forehead.

Johnny’s heart squeezed painfully with regret. He felt remorseful that his little amigo had to go through this torture of whether he’ll live or die. The boy’s trembling body reminded him of the way he used to live, and the many nights he lay huddled in a corner, too scared to move and too small to fight back. He had to watch the beatings his mother endured from her boyfriends, until that faithful night he had to pick up a gun to defend himself. Now his family and friends were in danger because of the act of self-defense, and it weighed painfully heavy on his heart.

Johnny turned his weary head and looked into Felipe’s sad brown eyes. "I know it’s quiet, but that might be a good sign too," he weakly replied. Johnny shifted uncomfortably on the bed, groaning at his aches. "We must be ready, just in case. Come help me with my gun, and…"

His words were abruptly cut off by the frightening sound of door to the room being forcefully kicked open with a resounding boom. In stalked an irate Ramon with little Anna struggling in his arms and his gun pointed right at Johnny. The girl’s mouth was gagged with Ramon’s bandana to keep her from screaming out, and his filthy arm was clutched tightly around her tiny body. The bandit’s eyes burned insanely with hatred and rage.

Felipe tried desperately to get Johnny’s gun in position and help him hold his arms up. The Padre sat there horrified, chanting words of prayer and shakily crossing himself.

"Padre, help me!" Felipe cried urgently, but his frantic words could not spur the Padre’s frozen limbs. Ramon stomped forward and roughly grabbed the weapon out of Johnny’s numb hands, and then threw it across the room. He stepped back and glared down at them all.

"So Madrid, it looks like you have friends after all, and they have come to rescue you, EH?" Ramon angrily snarled like a mad dog and exposing his yellow teeth. "But they could not fool Ramon. They do not know I have escaped, as you can see. It was easy as sneaking up on this sleeping child," he menacingly boasted, and then looked down at Anna.

"Leave ….the …child alone…por favor," the Padre nervously pleaded. "She has done nothing to you."

"AH, but you see Padre, she is my way out of here," he evilly smirked. "And since Madrid is too sick to move, and is of no use to me now. I will get my revenge by putting his soul out of its misery, and then I will do the same to you." he loudly threatened, and then waved his gun at the Padre and Felipe.

"You leave them alone. It’s me you want!" Johnny tried to shout as loud as he could in an attempt to alert the others outside, but he was just too weak to muster up the strength to push the words out. "Just… take… me, and let them…. go," he added breathlessly.

"No, Madrid. You will just slow me down, so you die now, as well as your amigos here that helped you stay alive this long," the seething man hissed. "I leave no one alive. Not even a lying priest." And with those chilling words, he slowly aimed his gun at Johnny’s heart.

"POR FAVOR NOT IN A HOUSE OF GOD!" Father Alejandro shouted, hoping his cry would be loud enough to alert the men outside.

Johnny felt Felipe’s hand tighten on his arm, at first he thought it was out of fear. Then the boy squeezed his arm again, and then nudged it. Johnny looked up at the boy and noticed his eyes were darting towards the door. Johnny took that as a signal, and looked out of the corner of his watery eyes. He wanted to smile, but kept a straight face. He also noticed how low Ramon was holding the girl.

"Anna, use your legs now!" Johnny hastily instructed the girl, and in an instant she knew what he meant. With all the power she had she kicked her legs out, and then swiftly back as if she was on a swing, and then her heel heavily struck Ramon right between the legs.

Ramon squealed in agony. He dropped Anna, as he bent over to grab his tender privates. Anna ran to the Padre’ opened arms, she detoured to grab Johnny’s gun, and gave it to Felipe. Felipe bravely held it in both hands, and then aimed it at the moaning man. After catching his breath, Ramon slowly straightened up, and with a shaky hand he pointed his gun at Johnny again.

"You’re dead Madrid… and so are all of you," he snarled, putting his finger on the trigger.

"NO! You’re dead, you son of a bitch!" Murdoch growled from behind the man, his voice tainted with desperate rage. He jabbed his gun in Ramon’s back. "Drop it, or I will blow your murdering heart to pieces."

 

 

Chapter Twenty Eight

 

Murdoch’s intimidating form towered menacingly over Ramon, like an angry bear balanced on his hind legs, massive jaws spread wide in preparation to rip his head from his body. The outlaw twitched nervously in apprehension as to when the attack would come. He flinched when Murdoch brutally jabbed the gun harder in his back. The enraged father moved in on his captive, completely blocking the doorway and cutting off any chance of the bandit fleeing. Murdoch crowded Ramon; pressing in so close the outlaw could feel his hot breath burning on his vulnerable neck.

"You heard me. I said drop it!" Murdoch hissed. The unmistakable heat of his anger scorched the murderer’s ear. Johnny and the others breathlessly looked on. "Don’t force me to shoot you in front of a child and a priest, if I have to I will. If you don’t do as I say." Murdoch emphasized his seriousness with another vicious thrust into the man’s spine.

Ramon glanced at Johnny, who lay there anxiously watching his father. The bandit’s soul-less eyes shifted to glare at Felipe, who bravely stood sentry, holding Johnny’s gun in his shaking hands, and had it aimed at Ramon’s chest. The boy started to slowly inch his way over to the bed, while keeping his wide brown eyes and the gun trained on the outlaw. Felipe eased down and carefully placed the weapon in Johnny’s gun hand, and then helped him grip it by wrapping his small hands around it. Johnny then painfully placed his swollen finger on the trigger.

The cold- hearted bastard sneered, exposing his yellowed and rotted teeth, and then chuckled maliciously. "It seems that I am out-numbered, eh?"

"That’s…right, so you …do as he says …and drop it," Johnny commanded weakly. "My…father…is not one to…be reckoned with," he added licking his dry lips. He struggled to keep his eyes open.

"Your… papa!" Ramon grunted, and then his face grew dark and hate filled. "So he’s the one who came for you, eh?" Ramon turned his attention to the tall man behind him, and then cruelly asked, "Hey Señor, why you bother coming after Madrid? Why do you want to save his miserable life, after all he’s a killer just like one of us, no? Why, Señor?"

"Because he’s my son!" Murdoch loudly declared. "And he’s nothing like you, that I know for sure! Johnny has a heart, and a conscience, unlike you! You are an atrocious blight on mankind. I dare say you don’t even classify as a human, you are the vilest form of murdering predator to slither out from under a rock. You killed the Vega boys and left their bodies to rot." Murdoch grimaced as the last statement left his mouth. He had not intended to blurt that out, not yet, and regretted it as soon as he saw the pained and shocked expression on Johnny’s face. Even though he was there, Johnny had no knowledge of the death and destruction that had been wrought at the rancho. This bit of news only caused more anguish.

More determined now to get to his son, Murdoch angrily repeated, "Now are you going to drop your gun?"

"Ah, but he is a killer, Señor," Ramon taunted, stalling for time. "He killed my brother, and now I seek revenge for Carlos." He looked over at the quiet priest. "An eye for an eye; isn’t that right, Padre?"

Father Alejandro shook his head, "No, not like this. And that was when he was a child, not to mention he was defending himself. Juanito told me this, and I believe him." The Padre cradled Anna tighter in his arms. "Please for the sake of these children, do as Señor Lancer says," he pleaded.

"NO! You are as estupido as these hombres who come to rescue Madrid!" he raved like a mad man, and then aimed his weapon at Johnny. "Madrid will die if it’s the last thing I do!" Rage robbed the bandit of control; his body trembled as he tried to pull back the hammer. His hand, still greasy from the stolen feast he enjoyed earlier, slipped from the metal, and the gun began to drop. It was just the opening Murdoch needed.

"HIS NAME IS LANCER, YOU BASTARD!" Murdoch thundered. In a stunning display of speed he raised his gun and bashed it mightily against the outlaw’s head, trying to avoid gun play and bloodshed in the crowded room. However, that was not to be, the hollow thud of the gun butt striking Ramon’s head was drowned out by the booming report of a shot.

Ramon’s limp body crashed to the ground. A trickle of blood ran down his face from the blow to the head. A large crimson stain bloomed on his dirty shirt from the gaping hole in his chest, in the spot where his heart had once beaten. Murdoch frantically looked around for the source of the gunfire, scared that Ramon had been able to get off a shot before he fell. His eyes desperately darted to his son. He felt the air being squeezed right out of him when he had saw Johnny laying there with his eyes closed, and his gun resting on his chest. Little Felipe’s head was nestled against Johnny’s. He couldn’t tell if the boy was crying or not.

"Johnny?" he whispered mournfully, paralyzed with fear.

Felipe raised his head and smiled. "It is okay, Senor, Juanito only passed out. He couldn’t hold the gun up any longer even with my help. He was just too weak to pull the trigger," the boy assured the terrified father.

Murdoch looked back down at Ramón’s bloodied lifeless form. "But, if he didn’t fire then who did?

A rustling sound drew his attention to a small window. Murdoch smiled in relief at the sight of his eldest standing there with his rifle in one hand, and a smoking gun in the other. Scott had gotten there in the nick of time. After finishing up with his last man, he went looking for his father. He was suddenly alarmed by Murdoch’s booming voice coming from the other side of the window. The urgent tone of it told him he had better hurry. At that moment, Scott could care less if this was a mission or not, the minute he saw Ramon’s finger about ready to pull the trigger he took action. Scott didn’t come this far to have his little brother taken from him, when he was so close to getting him back.

Scott winked at his relieved father, and then disappeared from view as he ran around to the back entrance. He appeared in the room in a matter of seconds, to find Murdoch kneeling down by the bed, tenderly wiping Johnny’s warm face. Father Alejandro slipped quietly out to check on the children, as Scott quickly dashed over to the other side of the bed, and copied his father’s soothing action. They noted with sadness Johnny’s pale sunken features, and how much weight he had lost. Johnny was already thin enough but this was outrageous. Anger filled their hearts along with remorse for not getting to the youngest Lancer sooner. Scott looked down at his brother’s bandaged hands, and frowned hard at how dreadful they looked. They were discolored by the swollenness, and hot from the infection that lingered on.

Scott took one of Johnny’s hands and ever so gently held it in his. "Sir, look at Johnny’s hand," he sadly pointed out to his preoccupied father.

Murdoch was hesitant to take his tearful eyes off of his son, for fear if he even blinked, or took time to wipe them, Johnny would be lost to him again like in his dream. He had to force himself to look away, and when he did, he could only shake his head in utter disbelief.

"Good God, Scott, what did they put him through?"

"Hell, sir," Scott angrily replied, "And it’s a miracle he stayed alive this long," he added as he eased Johnny’s hand back down on the bed. He tenderly brushed a stray lock of hair away from his brother’s eyes. "No matter his condition, I’m just grateful we found him."

Murdoch nodded, "Yeah, I just wished we could have got to him sooner."

"Sí, Senor, it was a miracle that Juanito survived, and was brought here to us." Father Alejandro agreed, as he reentered the room after checking in on the children. He had stood there for a few minutes listening to the sad voices of the elder Lancers before he spoke. "And with the grace of the Holy Madre, Felipe was able to bring you here. For I don’t know how much longer I could have kept Juan with us."

"Yes, he is a brave boy at that, and we’re very grateful he cared enough to risk his life for my brother." Scott happily smiled at the boy, and ruffled his dark hair.

"Juanito saved my life too, Señor, when he brought me to the mission, so I was happy to help my amigo." Felipe smiled sincerely.

"And thank you too, Father, for helping Johnny as much as you could." Scott shamefully added, "I’m so very sorry I had to shoot, but I had no choice."

"Yes, Padre, I’m also sorry for my outburst," Murdoch apologized. He felt bad for his behavior in a house of God, but it just couldn’t be helped, not when his son’s life was at stake.

"No need to apologize, you are good men. Ramon forced you into the situation. God will understand," he replied crossing himself, and smiled kindly at them both.

"Will ya keep…it down…I’m trying …to sleep," Johnny grumbled weakly. "And will ya stop talking like I’m not here. I’m not dead… yet."

Murdoch’s face lit up like a candle, and then he anxiously leaned over touching his son’s warm cheek. "Now if we didn’t talk so much, you would have thought we had left you," he light heartedly joked, and then his face turned serious. "And I have no intentions of doing that, not after we just found you."

Johnny looked up at his father with fever glazed eyes. "I know… and …and I never lost hope you would find me, not like before." A lone tear caressed his pale cheek as it flowed down his face. "I…I couldn’t give up, not after…I just found you…too… both of you." He turned and smiled at Scott. "Hey…big brother."

"Hey, little brother, you sure do look a mess," Scott teased as his voice started to break up, and he quickly cleared his throat. "Every time we leave you alone, you manage to get yourself into trouble. Now what are we going to do with you?" he said in a mock scolding tone of voice.

"Take me home."

 

Chapter Twenty-nine

 

The ensuing days at the mission were extremely busy and emotional for all concerned. The first order of business was the removal of the men who had died in the battle to take control of the mission and rescue Johnny. Father Alejandro had insisted that Ramon and his slain men be buried. He stressed that even though they were men besieged by the devil, they were still God’s children, and as such should have a Christian burial. Murdoch assigned some of the men to dig the graves in the small cemetery. However, the Padre stood alone by the graves, his final words heard by himself and God only, as Murdoch and the others lacked the desire or the heart to stand by him. They had no more respect for these men in death, than they did in life, not after the unholy torture that was perpetrated upon Johnny. The Padre finished up by praying for their salvation and offered them to the Lord.

The most important order of business, which was an ongoing endeavor, was the task of getting Johnny well enough for the journey back home. The Padre had regretfully informed Murdoch that there was no doctor in the village closest to the mission. This had caused more stress for the worried father. Johnny needed medical attention and as soon as possible. His wrists were still quite infected from the deep rope burns, and his fever kept spiking up with a vengeance. Fortunately Jelly had the insight to pack some of his magic salve, which he claimed could cure anything. With no doctors around, Murdoch had no choice but to gently apply the foul smelling concoction to his son’s swollen wrists, and pray it would be enough.

While waiting for the healing salve to take effect, and Johnny to gain some strength, Murdoch had Cipriano and the hands escort what was left of Ramon’s bandits to town. They were content to let the local law take over and turn them over to the proper authorities. The trip to town also gave Cipriano a chance to buy what supplies they would need for their journey back home, and for the stay at the mission. Murdoch knew that the extra mouths to feed would be a tremendous burden on the Padre, plus he had to get the proper nourishment into his son.

Finally after a couple of long excruciating days of watching and waiting, Jelly’s mixture lived up to his boastful claim, the infection cleared up. Johnny was well enough to travel, but only by wagon, Murdoch would not concede over that. The youngest Lancer’s healthy bronze color was back in his face, and he was more alert, but he was still weak. His wrists were almost back to normal, the swollenness had gone down to the point where Johnny could actually bend his fingers, though still with some discomfort. So riding a horse was out of the question for Johnny, who was more than ready to go home, even if it did mean the indignity of riding in a wagon.

Murdoch instructed the men to unload the wagons filled with Vega’s personal items, which Ramon had taken from the rancho. The sturdiest wagon was prepared for Johnny, a mattress and blanket making it as comfortable as possible. When it was ready Murdoch gave the word it was time to leave. Cipriano and Scott helped Johnny walk to his bed on wheels, after he mulishly insisted he was able to make it on his own, instead of being carried in front of everybody like a child. Little Felipe was right beside his amigo, and as small as the boy was, he willingly offered up his slender shoulder to lean on, if Johnny needed it.

"Padre, I will be forever in your debt for all you had done for Johnny," Murdoch solemnly swore to the old Padre. "It took real courage to stand up to a man like Ramon."

"I had God and the Holy Madre with me, they gave me the strength to stand up to Ramon, Senor Lancer," he politely corrected. "And it was by their hands that Ramon brought Juanito here, so we could watch over him until you arrived," he added with a wide grin. The two men looked towards the wagon, and watched as Felipe climbed up and sat down next to Johnny.

"And it took the love of a young boy for his amigo, huh Padre?" Murdoch commented as he too watched the boy fuss over Johnny.

"Sí, Felipe would not rest until he had found you," he said, and couldn’t help but notice how Murdoch was sadly staring at the boy. "You see a little of Juanito in Felipe, no?"

Murdoch smiled. "Padre, you’re the second person who has asked me that. And yes, I do see a lot of my son in the boy. I wished I could have known him at that age."

"Ah, you have him now, and you still have the rest of your life to get to know your son." The wise old Padre put his hand on Murdoch’s arm. "You are a very special man, Señor Lancer."

"How so, Padre?"

"Not many men would want to bother with a child who…well had gone astray as Juan did, and lived by the gun. But not you, Señor, you never lost hope, and you found your child and brought him home." He smiled at Murdoch, "And I can see the difference in Juanito from the first time I met him and now. He’s more at peace with himself, he is happy, and it’s because of you, Senor."

"Thank you, Padre, for saying that." Murdoch graciously accepted the Padre’s praise. "You’re right, I never did give up hope, and I’ll do my best to make sure he never has to go back to that way of life again. I just wish his past would leave him alone," Murdoch finished with anguish in his voice.

"It will, Senor. One day Madrid will be just a name, and Johnny Lancer will live on," the Padre stated with passionate conviction. "Come, I must say goodbye, and bless your trip home."

Murdoch felt awed and humbled by the love and grace that emanated from the old man, and followed him over to the wagon, where all the children had gathered to say goodbye to their visitors. Felipe was still sitting next to Johnny, and was cheerfully talking to Scott and his friend when they approached.

Felipe’s bright-eyed expression quickly changed as he realized it was time to finally say goodbye. He really did not want Johnny to go, for he knew he might never see Johnny again, and it deeply sadden his young heart. Felipe’s head bowed in sorrow, and tears filled his eyes and fell with despair.

"Hey! Little amigo, what is wrong?" Johnny softly asked.

"I…I do not want you to go, Juantio. I…I will miss you," Felipe sadly admitted, as he swiped at the tears that ran down his dirty cheek. "I know you will not come back this way."

Johnny looked up at his father and brother, and tried to keep a serious expression. "Felipe, can I ask you something?"

"Sí."

"Why do you suppose the Padre takes care of all of you?"

The quiet boy shrugged his shoulders, "Because we do not have homes. He takes care of us until someone wants to…" Felipe’s head shot up, hope burning brightly on his face.

"Well?"

"You…mean?"

Johnny smiled widely. "Sí, I talked to Murdoch and Scott, and we know of a good family that will be happy to take in one scrawny boy," Johnny said with a light hearted chuckle, as he ruffled his dark hair.

"Well, Felipe do you want to come home with us?" Scott asked.

"OH SÍ!" the boy shouted with joy, without pausing to think about it. He eagerly turned to face the Padre, "Padre, is it okay that I go with them?"

"Yes, my son, it is okay. You have earned it. You need a good home in which to grow and prosper. You cannot do it here." Father Alejandro confirmed. "Go with them, and live my child."

Felipe’s conscience pinched at his happiness, as he looked around. "Now I will miss you, Padre."

Now it was Murdoch’s turn to deliver some good news. "You won’t miss him for long, Felipe." Then with great pleasure Murdoch informed the confused priest. "Padre, I know of a small mission outside of Morro Coyo, it is vacant, and in need of a priest with I’d say, oh about eight little ones to occupy it."

The Padre’s eyes lit up, joy practically robbed his ability to speak. "I…I don’t know what to think. How…how can I leave here, this is our home?"

"Padre, there is nothing here for ya," Johnny reasoned. "Listen to my father. You and the children will have a better life there, with proper food and clothes. The towns around there will be more than happy to help with those things. We‘ll see to that!"

"They’re right, Padre." Scott advised, "Look around you, and look at the other children. They also need a good home to grow and prosper. California has more to offer, think about it, please."

The old priest did look around at the dried up garden, the holes in the walls of the mission, and the harsh environment that lay out there in this desolate part of the country. He knew they were right. When they had talked to him about Felipe leaving for a better place, he had not even considered his and the rest of the children’s future here.

"Padre, I will not allow you to stay here!" Johnny declared. "And I will not leave here until you agree to come to California. Please not just for me, but for the sake of the children."

Father Alejandro looked into Johnny’s determined blue eyes, and conceded.

"Sí, we will come to California. If a young scoundrel such as Madrid can make a new life for himself, then so can we," the Padre happily agreed. "How soon do you want us to leave?"

"How about, right now? As you can see I have already had the men unload the other wagon," Murdoch pointed out. "Take only what is of value, and you and the children will ride in that one. There’s no time like the present, right Padre?"

"Sí, Senor, you are so right!"

"Good! Then let’s get moving. And when we get to the next big town with a telegraph office, I’ll send word on ahead to get the mission ready for its new occupants."

Felipe along with the children jumped with joy, as the others laughed at their antics. Cipriano had the men help gather up the Padre’s things. They loaded the kids up and within the next hour they were on the way home. They left behind the bad memories of the harsh existence they had survived in the desolate land. They took with them the memories of the good times God had graced them with, even in the face of such hardships. On to California, they traveled on a trail of hope for a better tomorrow, to a new life such as the Lord had given one ex-gunfighter.

 

Chapter Thirty-The Journey Ends.

 

The happy, yet weary caravan had been homeward bound for three days, and finally fate seemed to be smiling on them. The heat and dry air sapped the energy of the travelers, but it could not steal their euphoric demeanor, the Lancers because they were reunited and the Padre and children because a new life awaited them. Even though the pace was slow due to hauling the two wagons full of precious cargo through the desolate and rough territory, surprisingly they were making good time. They had stopped here and there along the way when it seemed it was getting a little too much for the children and Johnny. They rested under the sporadic trees that dotted the arid landscape, when trees could not be found they rigged the tarps on sticks to make their own shade. However, that situation was changing the closer they got to California. The vegetation was increasing, leafier and greener as the water source was more abundant.

Felipe and the children were simply amazed at the gradual change in the scenery, they were awestruck at how the once dried up tumbled weeds were now becoming an oasis of green. Beautiful varied hues of verdant leaves, vines, trees and grasses, and bushes, some had bright colorful flowers blooming on them. They were so used to seeing nothing but brown plants and dirt about that this lushness mesmerized their young eyes. Their thin little bodies tingled with goosebumps when the air changed. It was getting cooler the further north they went. The air became fresher. It filled their lungs and nostrils with an invigorating sweet sensation.

 

The Rio Grande lay a few miles head of them but before crossing over, Murdoch had a couple of his men seek out a town, one that had a telegraph office and doctor. With luck they found one a little further down river. They also informed him once they reached the town they could alter their course and be closer to home. That was music to the tired rancher, the sooner they arrived home the better. He had enough of this land, and the bad memories that came with it, so without hesitation Murdoch changed paths and headed for town, with the intentions of following the new route when they left.

Once there, Murdoch sent off the telegram to Green River, since Morro Coyo didn’t have a telegraph office as of yet. He asked Val to relay a message to the ranch to have Jelly and the men get the mission prepared for new occupants. Best of all, he asked him to let everyone know, that they had found Johnny and he was alive. He also sent instructions for Captain Davis, telling him not to let Senor Vega go, that he was still under house arrest until the Lancers returned, no matter how much he whined and begged to leave. As mad as he was with Vega, he could not be so callous as to wire the gory details of what happened to Vega’s rancho and his boys. He thought it more humane to tell him in person, even though Vega showed no such mercy towards Johnny.

While waiting for an answer back from Val, Murdoch had the doctor give Johnny a thorough examination. He knew the trip had been arduous for his son. The bumping and jerking of the wagon over the rough ground, the dry dusty air, but Johnny never once complained, he was just happy to be going home.

"Well doctor, how’s my son?" Murdoch inquired from his guard position at the head of the exam table. The concerned father had refused to leave the room. In fact, he had not let Johnny out of his sight for longer than a minute or two at the time, since rescuing him.

"He’s doing quite well considering what you said he’s been through," the doctor was happy to report. "His ribs are healing fine. I didn’t find any breaks in them, they’re just bruised. I’m not sure what this concoction you put on his wrists is, but it sure is healing those rope burns nicely." The doctor smiled down at the blue eyed young man before him. He winked at Johnny and then said something that surprised Murdoch. "You take good care of this one, Mr. Lancer."

Murdoch stared at the doctor. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, of all the gunfighters I have had to patch up over the years, most weren’t worth the trouble. I hate to say it, but as a doctor it was my duty, however I took no pleasure in it." The doctor studied the young face before him, "But not this one," he placed a gentle hand on Johnny’s arm, "I know of your plight Johnny Madrid. I heard tales of a young, blue eyed, half Mexican boy who had to become a man too soon. I heard of the horrors of how you had to survive, as well as all the things you had to do." Johnny frowned and he closed his eyes in shame. "Hey now, I also heard tales of how you helped others and took no money for it. That tells me you are nothing like those harden, soul-less men who killed for pleasure, notoriety and money, wandering through life caring for no one and nothing. You, however, are a lucky young man, your father searched for you then, as he has now."

Like a brilliant illuminating flash of lightning, Murdoch was struck by the memory of where he had seen this man before. "I remember you now! It was years ago when I first went searching for John, and passed through this town. You were the doctor then too!" Murdoch brightly exclaimed.

The physician smiled, "Yes I was, a little older now, but I still remember what you told me about how Johnny was taken from you. I did keep my eyes and ears open as you asked, but they never did wander this way, and I only heard stories as I said." He looked down back at Johnny, "And by looking at you Johnny, I can see that some of those tales had to be false."

"Some," Johnny whispered, "but I ain’t no angel, Doc."

"Well, who is? You just go home, and be happy. I think you earned it," The doctor said kindly.

"Thanks Doc," Johnny mumbled, as he squirmed uncomfortably with the well wishes and praise. He was grateful to have the attention diverted off of him by the arrival of his brother.

Scott walked in and announced that they had the wagons and supplies ready to go again. Then he handed Murdoch a telegram he had picked up for him on the way over to the doctor’s office. Murdoch read it and nodded.

"Good! Things will be ready for us by the time we get there," Murdoch informed them cheerfully. "Well come on, Scott, let’s get your brother to the wagon."

"I can walk," Johnny protested. He struggled to push himself up off the table. He grimaced and paled, and then fell backwards, panting from the exertion. "Maybe not," he groaned in aggravation, as he rubbed his smarting ribcage.

"You just let us help you, young man. You’ll have plenty of time to walk around when we get home," Murdoch sternly reproached his youngest. Johnny nodded, and reluctantly conceded to let his father and brother help him off the table and out to the wagon.

When everybody was settled and ready to go, Murdoch gave the word to head out, and slowly made their way out of town, due north. Their departure drew a crowd of on lookers, who stopped and watched them as they left town. One of spectators was very curious about the young man in the salmon colored shirt, and approached the doctor as he was waving adios to them.

"Wasn’t that Johnny Madrid?" the storekeeper asked, with just a trace of awe and fear coloring his voice.

"Yes it was," the doctor replied in a cheerful tone.

"Was?"

"Yes, he’s not that man anymore."

"Well where are they taking him?"

"Home… where he belongs, with his father."

 

********************************

 

Johnny asked, "Why does it always take longer coming back?" That same question had entered the minds of the travel weary bunch, for it seemed like the last two days lasted forever. Finally they were back in friendly territory, and it was like a breath of fresh air, they could finally breathe easy again. The first line of business was getting the Padre and the kids to the mission. The Padre’s new home lay only a couple miles outside of Morro Coyo towards Lancer, and that’s where they were headed. The sense of anticipation they all felt seemed to invigorate the tired horses, and they picked up the pace, their tack jingling a happy tune.

As the Mission came into their view, the children started to jump and down in jubilation. Their little faces beamed in elation at the sight of their new home, nestled in a valley of green. Father Alejandro had never seen the little ones so excited, and he had to admit he too was feeling overjoyed himself. When they pulled up, the kids jumped out and ran into the mission. Murdoch happily escorted the Padre inside. There were fresh blankets, pillows, clothing and food all neatly stacked and waiting for the new occupants. The old priest closed his eyes, though that did not stop the flow of his happy tears. He choked out a heartfelt thank you for this blessing that was bestowed upon them. And then thanked Murdoch for all he had done, in bringing them here to this new home and life.

 

Murdoch put his large hand on the Padre’s shoulder. "Padre, you and the children just live and be happy, that’s all the thanks I want."

 

"We will, Senor Lancer. And you come to visit us, si?"

"Si, Padre we will, as often as we can, but right now we better get home ourselves."

Felipe would be staying at the mission to help the Padre until his new parents could be notified of his arrival. With the all details sorted out, Murdoch bid the priest a fond farewell. They left the little group of refugees to get settled into their new surroundings and headed straight for Lancer. It wasn’t long before they had reached the ranch, and they could hear the tower bell welcoming them home. It was a sound that Johnny thought he would never hear again. It was music to his ears. He was home.

They were greeted by a very anxious Teresa and Jelly, who dashed out the house. Next from the house was the Captain, relieved that he was finally free of the responsibility of Vega. The army officer had feared another day with the arrogant, pig-headed man would surely find him going crazy. If it wasn’t for his duty as an officer, and the fact that there were females about, he would have love to beat the high and mighty attitude out of Vega, and then feed him to the wolves.

Vega stood by the door, wiping the sweat off his wrinkled brow and was dreading to hear the news about his family and home. He shivered when he noted the look Murdoch gave him, a look of pity… he knew it was not good. Vega stepped aside as they carried Johnny into the house. Murdoch stopped to hang his gun belt on the coat tree. The others headed straight for the stairs. Johnny never even looked at his so called Uncle as he passed him by. He just turned his head the other way. He knew what Murdoch was about to tell Vega would hit him like a ton of bricks. And there was nothing he could say or do to stop it. He could only feel sorrow, not for Vega, but for the loss of his cousins because of their father’s stupidity.

"Senor Lancer, what of my family?" Vega nervously asked, as he grabbed the rancher’s arm, stopping him from going upstairs. "Please I must know!"

"Sir, do you want me…?" Scott whispered, offering to tell Vega and let his father off the hook.

"No, Scott, I’ll tell him. Go on up with your brother, I’ll be up shortly," Murdoch grimly replied in a hush voice. Scott nodded and quickly headed upstairs. He knew this was not going to be easy for his father.

"Well, Senor? What of my home?" Vega demanded, as he was seized by nervous shakes. His wife joined him, and quickly took his hand in hers.

Murdoch took a deep breath, and then slowly turned to face Vega. "I think you had better sit down." Vega shook his head and remained standing, holding on tightly to his wife’s hand. Trying to be gentle and sparing with the sordid details, Murdoch regretfully informed the Vegas of what had occurred. When he got to the part about the deaths of his sons and the burning of their home, the only sound to be heard was his wife’s loud gasp. She fainted and fell hard to the floor. Captain Davis quickly went to the aid of the grief stricken woman, as her husband seemed incapable.

The color drained from Vega’s face, leaving him as pale and insubstantial looking as a ghost. His shoulders dropped under the weight of his shock and grief. His mouth dropped open, as if he would speak, but no words came. His eyes darted frantically about him, but he did not appear to realize there was anyone else in the room. Defeat sucked the life from his visage, and then he sluggishly started to walk towards the front door. He grabbed his coat and hat, and slowly opened the door, without anybody trying to stop him. They figured the man needed time alone to grieve. They never expected what happened next, because no one realized the distraught man had slipped Murdoch’s gun from the holster. They heard the report of a single gunshot, coming from the garden.

"ROBERTO, NO!" His wife screamed, as the Captain helped her up from the floor. She knew her husband well enough to understand he did not have the strength or resolve to bear this tragedy and so he had taken the coward’s way out, he had ended his life. "NO!" she cried, and buried her head in the Captain chest.

Scott was sitting next to his brother when the shot went off. He jumped from his chair and flew to the window that overlooked the garden. He cringed as he observed them carry Vega’s still form away. The left side of the man’s face was gone, a bloody mass of torn tissue was all that remained.

"Vega ended it, didn’t he?" Johnny whispered.

"Yes. How did you know he would do that?" Scott quietly asked.

"I just did, I’ve seen his type before," Johnny sighed heavily and closed his eyes. "He lost everything, and to a man like Vega, it’s too late to start over, so he ends it all even if others suffer for it."

"Some would say it’s justified."

"Yeah… some." Johnny opened his eyes and softly asked, "Scott, can I be alone for awhile?"

Scott smiled and nodded, and then left his brother to his thoughts. Johnny laid there and looked around his room, savoring every comforting detail of it, big and small. He hugged the soft quilt to his heaving chest, as he felt overcome with emotions. He knew without a shadow of a doubt, that if anything should ever happen to Lancer that his father would never give up, he would have the fortitude to start over. After all his father never gave up on him, not then and not now, even knowing who he was and had been, and he had never felt so blessed as he felt this very minute.

A soft peaceful smiled graced his face. "Gracias, Holy Madre, for returning me to my father’s house," he whispered, and then he closed his eyes and drifted off in the comfort of his warm bed.

 

The End

 

Marilyn.

 

Other Fanfiction Contents
Main Page