A Love Of Family by Karen F

Word Count 11,045

“Teresa, don’t take all day in that dress shop, you hear?” Johnny Lancer’s blue eyes sparkled mischievously in his tanned face. “I need Scott to help me unload those boxes that Murdoch sent with us.”

Teresa O’Brien tilted her chin in the air. “Oh sure, Johnny, you know that you just want to drag Scott to some cantina you’ve heard of. I know you aren’t going to be unloading anything.” Her smile took the sting out of her words.

Scott Lancer watched the interaction between the two, an indulgent smile on his face. Teresa and Johnny could carry on together. They were such typical siblings sometimes, in spite of the fact that they weren’t even related. He pulled his yellow gloves from his hands in a smooth motion, tucking them into his gunbelt, even as he reached for Teresa’s arm. “Come on, Teresa, let’s go buy out that store.” he said, stepping smoothly into the role of peacemaker. “Johnny, I’ll see you in about half an hour. Don’t start….unloading without me.” Scott’s eyes reflected his amusement.

Johnny slapped him on the back, and tweaked a lock of Teresa’s long brown hair. “I’ll see you two in a few minutes.” He strolled across the street, gracefully dodging out of the way of a pair of horses hauling a loaded wagon, his hands hooked into the pockets of his black jeans.

Teresa and Scott headed in the direction of the dress store which was Teresa’s reason for being in Stockton with the Lancer boys. She wanted a new dress for a party being held at a neighboring ranch, and she didn’t like anything she had seen in Morro Coyo or Spanish Wells. She had talked Murdoch into allowing her to make the overnight trip with Johnny and Scott, and had managed to get the boys to agree. Scott had promised to give her his honest opinion of everything she tried on. She had luckily missed the rolling eyes that passed between the two brothers as Scott had made his promise. Now as they strolled down the board sidewalk, Teresa skipped happily. Scott smiled down at her enthusiasm, and tucked her arm a little closer under his own.

Suddenly Scott stopped and clapped his hand to his forehead. “Oh, Teresa, I forgot. Murdoch asked me to stop by the bank and get a bank draft for that bull he wants to buy. Do you mind if we stop and get that taken care of before we look at dresses?”

Teresa frowned slightly, but she nodded her agreement. “As long as it doesn’t take too long, Scott.” she replied. “I have to have a new dress for the Sullivan’s party. I haven’t had anything new in such a long time.”

Scott chuckled. “Your wish is my command, my lady. The bank should only take a minute.” He changed directions and the young couple walked into the wooden fronted building that proudly proclaimed itself the “Stockton Bank”. They stepped into a large square room that had several desks set off to one side, with two teller cages on the opposite wall. Scott barely had time to register the scene when he heard Teresa’s indrawn breath.

Four men, large cotton bandannas obscuring their faces, stood with guns drawn. The bank’s tellers and the bank manager were lying face down on the floor behind the tellers’ cages, so that only the tips of their boots were visible. Several of the bank’s customers were also being herded in that direction. Scott watched in horror as they were forced to lie down as well.

One of the men hastily stepped forward and jammed his gun into Scott’s back. Scott slowly raised his hands as he gazed at each of the gunmen in turn, searching for any distinguishing characteristics that would help him identify them later.

“You two, over here. Lie down on the floor with the rest of the customers.” the man ordered in a gruff voice.

Scott was moving to comply with the man’s orders when he saw the gunman reach out and shove Teresa forward. Teresa stumbled a little and reached out to grab for Scott ‘s arm. Scott steadied her and then turned to the man. “Keep your hands off of her,” he snarled stepping between Teresa and the masked gunman.

“Shut up, and get over there with the others.” the gunman replied threateningly. He reached out and pushed Scott toward the group.

Scott stumbled, and then righted himself. He turned and lashed out at the man with a balled fist, catching him on the tip of his jaw with a right hook. The gunman grunted at the impact and fell back, raising his own fist in response. Scott was staring at him wide-eyed. When his fist had impacted with the man’s face, the bandanna had been dislodged, leaving his face uncovered. Realizing what had happened the man grabbed for the bandanna and attempted to pull it upwards, leaving Scott the opening he needed. He dove forward knocking the gunman to the ground, his fists flying as the man struggled beneath him.

The bank patrons screamed in terror as a melee erupted. Scott was fighting several of the gunmen at once, while Teresa stood watching with wide, terrified eyes. Suddenly, a shot rang out. One of the gunman stood with his weapon raised toward the ceiling, he fired again to quiet the roiling mass of people on the floor. “Let’s grab what we can and get out of here.” he yelled.

The remaining gunmen leapt to their feet, and shoved as much currency as they could into several canvas bags. The bank manager rose from his position on the floor, and came around the teller’s cage at a run, grabbing at the arm of the nearest outlaw, the one who’s mask had been dislodged. “Stop,” he cried loudly.

The outlaw swung toward him, his gun raised. Before he turned to run out the door behind his gang he fired at the bank manager, a bullet tearing into the center of the man’s chest. The bank manager fell, blood streaming from a gaping wound. Scott dove for the gunman, tackling him and bringing him to the floor. The remaining men streamed from the bank, running for the horses they had hidden in an alley.

A rush of people poured into the bank drawn by the shots and the screams of the people inside. Stockton’s sheriff strode forward, roughly hauling the struggling outlaw to his feet. “Looks like you got one of them, mister.” he said calmly.

Scott glared at the outlaw with steely eyes. “This one just shot the bank manager.” He pointed to the man lying on the floor, a cluster of people crouched beside him.

The sheriff moved quickly to examine the body of the bank manager, a sober look crossing his face as he realized that the man was dead. “Anyone else see the shooting, mister…?” he asked quickly, wanting to make sure of his witnesses before the crowd scattered.

“Lancer. Scott Lancer, and this is Teresa O’Brien. Just Teresa and I saw him shoot that man.” Scott replied, exchanging a probing look with the sheriff. He moved quickly to Teresa’s side as she stood with her hands pressed to her mouth. “Are you okay, sweetheart?” he asked gently.

Teresa turned her wide eyes up towards the man she had come to think of as an older brother. Flinging herself into his arms, she said, “I’m fine, Scott, but is that man…?” Her voice trailed off uncertainly, and she looked at the man lying on the floor.

Scott gently turned so that her view of the body was obscured. “He’s dead, Teresa.” He turned to the sheriff. “I need to get Teresa back to our hotel, Sheriff, she’s had quite a shock.”

The sheriff shook his head slowly. “Mr. Lancer, you and Miss O’Brien are my only eyewitnesses to the murder of Tom Morgan. I’m going to need your written statements before you go back to your hotel.”

Scott glanced at Teresa’s white face. “What about all the other people in the bank, Sheriff, they must have seen something too.”

The Sheriff looked at the men and women clustered around the body on the floor. “From what I just heard, Scott, those people were on the floor behind the teller’s cage. They could hear, but they couldn’t see. Any good defense attorney would get that outlaw off in a minute based on that kind of testimony.”

Comprehension dawned in Scott’s eyes, he nodded slightly and turned to Teresa. “We do need to see the Sheriff before we go back to the hotel, Teresa. He needs us to testify against this guy when he comes to trial.”

Before Teresa could respond the prisoner spoke for the first time. “You ain’t gonna testify against nobody!” he snarled in a rough voice. “My brother, Rob, and his gang will have me out of jail before the sun sets. There ain’t gonna be a trial.” The man spat viciously, his eyes glaring at Scott and Teresa.

Scott glared back, stepping in front of Teresa to shield her from the man’s glare. “I guess we’ll see about that, mister. One way or the other, we’ll give our statements to the sheriff.”

The outlaw’s eyes were menacing. He took a step forward, only to be hauled roughly back by the Sheriff’s deputy. “We don’t take kindly to people who testify against a Clifton. My brother will see you in Hell, first.”

“I don’t think so.” a calm voice interjected. Johnny stood quietly his eyes boring into the captured outlaw. He had entered the bank in time to hear what was going on, and he didn’t like what he had heard. “I don’t think my brother is going to have any trouble testifying. I’ll see to that.” He stood calmly, his hand resting within easy reach of his low-slung gun belt. There was no mistaking the inner core of steel that made him Johnny Madrid.

“Okay, folks. The show’s over.” the sheriff called out loudly. He was trying desperately to regain control of a situation that he felt was spiraling out of his control. “Doc, can you take care of Mr. Morgan. Stu you take the prisoner over to the jail. If I’m not mistaken, he’s Billy Clifton. Mr. Lancer, Miss O’Brien, I need you to come with me.” The Sheriff’s calm assumption of authority quelled the tension in the air, and the room quieted rapidly as people scurried to do his bidding.

It was a quiet group that trailed the Sheriff over to the jail. Johnny was regarding Scott and Teresa with worried eyes. “Just what do you two think you’re doing the minute my back is turned?” he asked in an aggrieved voice. “Can’t I leave you alone for a minute? You were supposed to be buying a dress, not getting involved in a bank robbery.”

“It’s a long story, brother.” Scott sighed quietly. “I’ll tell you on the way home. Right now, we’ve got to get these statements to the sheriff, and get Teresa back to the hotel. She’s been through enough today.”

Teresa’s eyes flashed angrily. “I’m not some fragile flower who needs to be hustled home, Scott.” she said furiously. “I think I can handle anything you can.” She stomped her foot in fury, and then regarded the Lancer brothers in amazement as they burst out laughing.

“I’m sorry, Teresa.” Scott apologized. “I forgot how rough and tough you are.” He smiled to show her that he was joking, and after a moment’s hesitation she stopped glaring and sheepishly smiled back.

“I’m sorry, too.” Teresa apologized ruefully. “I guess I’m more upset by this then I thought. I didn’t mean to yell at you, Scott.”

“Yeah, Scott, you gotta watch out for this wild woman.” Johnny’s voice was full of laughter, as he tugged at Teresa’s hair. “She’ll get you every time.”

Teresa reached over and smacked Johnny’s hand lightly. “Oh shut up, Johnny Lancer.” she chided, smiling. “Why can’t you be as much of a gentleman as Scott?”

Johnny rolled his eyes, a smirk playing about his lips. “I’ve often wondered that myself, Teresa. But so far I just can’t think why.”

Their arrival at the Sheriff’s office cut short any further joking by the Lancers. The Sheriff had been eyeing them strangely, wondering about their lighthearted chatter, in the face of what had just happened. But as the two men entered the Sheriff’s office their demeanor changed, a seriousness returning with such rapidity that the Sheriff was startled.

“Just tell us what we need to do, Sheriff,” Scott said quietly. He sat down in the proffered chair, after making sure that Teresa was seated beside him. Johnny leaned against the wall watching the proceedings gravely.

Scott and Teresa quickly wrote statements of the day’s events, and signed their names where the Sheriff told them too. They exchanged glances, and then Scott addressed the older man. “Is that it, Sheriff? We just wait for the judge now?”

The Sheriff shrugged. “That’s all you can do for now, Mr. Lancer. But I’ll give you one piece of advise. It’s going to be at least a week before a judge will be here. Clifton’s gang isn’t going to like one of their own sitting in my jail. They’re going to try to bust him out of here, which they won’t be able to do.” The Sheriff held up a warning hand when he saw the Lancers ready to interrupt. “Since they can’t bust him out, they’re gonna want to get rid of the witnesses. That’s you two. We’re going to have to put you under protective custody, to make sure you get to the witness stand in one piece.

Johnny never moved from his casual stance against the wall, but the look he gave the Sheriff was enough to freeze the older man in his tracks. “I don’t think the Clifton gang better try anything, Sheriff. I’ll see that my brother and Teresa stay safe.”

Scott tossed Johnny a warm look. It was hard for Johnny to express his feelings for his family, but his protective streak ran a mile wide. “I’m sure we’ll be fine, Sheriff. Lancer takes care of it’s own. Let’s go Johnny, Teresa.” Scott started to usher his family out the door with a nod for the Sheriff.

The Sheriff held up his hand to stop them. “Folks, I’m afraid that I wasn’t making a request. I’m telling you that you will be our guest at the hotel until the trial. I can’t risk having you walk out of here, and face that gang on your own. I’ve been after Rob Clifton and his gang for a long time now. I’m not losing the chance to put Billy Clifton away. You will be under guard at the hotel for a week.” The Sheriff’s eyes were steely. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

Johnny and Scott exchanged long measure glances. Johnny finally shrugged minutely, and Scott nodded to the Sheriff. “All right Sheriff. Do what you think is best. But we’re going to need to wire our father. He’ll worry if we don’t make it home tomorrow night.”

The Sheriff nodded his head in agreement, and began to make arrangements for the Lancer’s stay in Stockton.

Johnny twitched back the curtains that shrouded the window for the tenth time that evening. Scott looked at him quizzically, and then turned his attention back to the book he was reading. Teresa sat knitting something soft and blue. When Johnny had brushed past him and headed back to the window again, Scott frowned in annoyance.

“What is wrong with you tonight, brother?” he demanded. “You’re as jumpy as a cat.”

Johnny looked at Scott in amazement. “You heard what that sheriff said, Scott. The Clifton gang isn’t going to sit still and let you and Teresa testify against one of their own. They’ll be out there gunning for you, I can guarantee it. I don’t like us being penned up in here. It makes me feel like a bear in a trap, just waiting for the kill.”

Scott shot a sharp glance at Teresa, but she merely looked interested in the conversation. No trace of fear marred her pretty face. “Don’t you think you’re blowing things out of proportion, Johnny?” he asked quietly. “It’s possible the Clifton gang won’t make any kind of move at all.”

“Or maybe they’ve left the territory.” Teresa interjected. “I think you’re worrying about nothing, Johnny.”

Johnny looked at the pair, his face marked by a frown. “I can’t believe it,” he finally exploded. “What is wrong with you two? We should be making preparations, and planning for an attack, and you sit here knitting and reading!” His finger stabbed at Teresa and Scott in turn, as a counterpoint for his heated words.

Scott merely smiled. “Don’t borrow trouble, brother.” he said gently. “I think we’re going to be just fine. The Sheriff has men posted in the hallway and at the front and back of the hotel. As soon as that judge gets in town, we’ll testify and that’ll be the end of this whole thing.”

Teresa nodded. “After all, we watched that man murder poor Mr. Morgan in cold blood. With eyewitnesses there isn’t much doubt as to the outcome of a trial, is there?”

Johnny stalked to the window again, his face troubled and angry. “That’s the whole point!” he exclaimed. “With you two out of the way, Billy Clifton would go free. If you testify he hangs! You think his brother doesn’t know that too?”

Scott laid aside his book and rose from his chair. He moved to Johnny’s side and placed a soothing hand on his brother’s tense shoulder. “We’re not trying to be difficult, Johnny. It’s just that we don’t think it’s going to be a problem. You don’t really think the Clifton gang will be gunning against the Sheriff and all of his deputies do you?”

Johnny’s eyes were fierce. “You bet I do, brother! I think Rob Clifton is watching this hotel right now, just waiting for his chance to get in here and take care of you and Teresa..” He shook off Scott’s hand and stomped toward the bedroom door. “I don’t think we should underestimate the Clifton gang, and I for one am going to walk carefully for a while.” He slammed the door shut as he headed for the only privacy the hotel suite had to offer.

Scott looked at Teresa’s worried face and swiftly crossed the room. “Don’t worry, Teresa. I think Johnny’s just jumping at shadows. We’ll be okay.” he reassured her.

Teresa smiled at him. “I’m not worried about that Scott. I think we hurt Johnny’s feelings though, and I’m worried about him. Maybe I should go talk to him.” She laid aside her knitting, preparing to rise.

Scott held her down gently. “Let’s let him cool down a bit, sweetheart. You know Johnny, his temper will cool in a few minutes and he’ll be back. He’ll be ready to listen to reason then.”

Teresa nodded, but her eyes remained shadowed with worry. Scott moved across the room and lifted the curtain in a gesture very similar to Johnny’s earlier. Catching himself, he realized what he was doing and chuckled. If he wasn’t careful Johnny would have him spooked. He deliberately went back to his chair and picked up his book. It no longer held his interest, but he sat pretending to read, all the while listening for the sound of Johnny’s footsteps, heralding his return to the family fold.

Scott flinched as the distant sound of gunshots could be heard in the night. He moved quickly to the window, where he was rapidly joined by Teresa, and then Johnny. The trio peered out into the darkness trying to discern where the shots had come from. They saw a few men running in the streets, but they were soon lost to sight, and quiet soon descended on the city streets. Scott and Johnny exchanged worried looks. The shots could have come from anywhere, and it was possible they had nothing to do with the Clifton gang at all. Johnny would have bet his life though, that Rob Clifton was at the bottom of the flurry of gunfire.

“What do you suppose that was all about?” Scott asked quietly. He let the curtain fall, as there was no longer anything to see.

“If I were a betting man, I’d say Rob Clifton just tried something down at the jail.” Johnny’s eyes were glittering with suppressed fury at his enforced incarceration in the hotel room. “I’d just like to mosey on down there and see for myself.”

“Maybe it had nothing to do with the Clifton’s at all.” Teresa said hopefully. “Not everything that happens in this town has to do with us you know.”

“I’m sure you’re right, Teresa.” Scott was quick to agree. “It was probably just a couple of drunks shooting it out.” He moved away from the window, drawing Teresa along with him. “I think we should all call it a night. It’s been a long day.”

Johnny reluctantly turned from the window, and followed Scott and Teresa towards the bedrooms. He mumbled something under his breath, but Scott thought he heard the word “Dreamers.”

After a night without incident, Scott was even more inclined to make light of Johnny’s fears. His laughter left him when he realized that they were just as much prisoners as Billy Clifton. They weren’t allowed to go any farther than the hotel dining room for breakfast. Johnny paced restlessly, reminding Scott of the caged animals he’d seen in a zoo in Boston. He wasn’t a man who took easily to confinement. Scott tried to read his book, but he found that it held little interest for him. His eyes followed Johnny’s restless movements, and he sighed.

“Johnny, could you please sit down, you’re making me dizzy.” Scott complained gently. “I know this is hard for you, but you’re making it worse with all that pacing.”

Johnny flashed him a steely look from his vivid blue eyes, but he moved to a sofa and sat down. “I’m sorry, Boston,” he said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I just hate sitting around here waiting for those guys to try and jump us.”

Teresa looked up from her knitting and said pensively, “You still sound like you think they’re going to try something, Johnny. Maybe they’ll realize that they can’t get to us, and give up and go away.”

Johnny’s eyes softened, and he moved quickly across the room to kneel by Teresa’s chair. “I sure hope you’re right, Teresa.” he said softly, and he threw a gentle arm around her shoulders. “I sure hope you’re right.”

A knock at the door made Johnny whirl to his feet, his gun clearing it’s holster with blinding speed. He moved to the door with cat like grace, and called, “Who is it?”

Scott had risen to his feet, and was moving to back Johnny up, when they heard the Sheriff’s voice respond. “It’s Sheriff Duncan. I need to talk to you. May I come in?”

Johnny unlocked the door, while holstering his pistol. He pulled the door partially open and allowed the sheriff to slide into the room. Scott shook the Sheriff’s hand and escorted him to a seat on the sofa.

“What can we do for you, Sheriff?” he asked genially, a quizzical smile on his face.

The Sheriff’s face was grim. “Rob Clifton and his gang made a raid on my jail last night, in an attempt to break Billy Clifton out. They lost a man, and Billy’s still sitting in his cell, but I assure you that’s not the end of it.” The Sheriff rose and paced the floor. “Clifton’s learned the hard way that he can’t break someone out of my jail. If I were a gambling man I’d bet his next move is going to be against you. It’s his only hope of his brother going free.”

ohnny’s eyes were as cold as ice, and he moved so that he was inches from the Sheriff. “So what are you going to do about it?” he asked belligerently. “I feel like we’re sitting ducks up here, trapped in this room.”

The Sheriff returned Johnny’s glare. “I’ve deputized more men, and I’ve got so many guards posted in this hotel the rest of the customers are complaining. That’s all I can do, Mr. Lancer.”

Johnny lips framed a sharp retort, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “We’re sure you’re doing the best you can, Sheriff.” Scott’s voice was smooth and cultured as he spoke placatingly. “What do you want us to do?”

Some of the tension lifted from the air as the Sheriff visibly relaxed. “I want you three to stay in this room and I don’t want you to open that door for anyone but me. I will personally bring your meals to you. Don’t trust anyone else.”

Scott nodded, “We’ll do that.” he replied. “When would you expect them to make an attempt on us?”

Sheriff Duncan shook his head, “That’s anyone’s guess, Scott. They’ve got less than a week before that judge gets here. An attack could come at any time.” He tipped his hat to Teresa, and moved for the door. “I expect you to keep the door locked, and not move from this room, and stay away from the window.” he said in parting, and left, leaving a heavy pall of silence in his wake.

Johnny’s eyes were hard as he started his interminable pacing again. Scott didn’t have the heart to chastise his volatile younger brother again. He knew how hard this was for Johnny, who was used to handling all comers by himself. Scott knew that Johnny’s love for his family was weighing heavily on him. It was a new emotion for the young ex-gunslinger, and Johnny was still having trouble dealing with his feelings. His natural instinct to walk by himself was at war with his new-found love and friendship with Scott, and his protective big-brother feelings for Teresa.

Scott slipped to the window and twitched aside the curtains, staring into the street in a futile effort to identify a threat. Seeing nothing he sighed and leaned his forehead against the cool pane of glass, closing his eyes briefly. He felt a hand on his shoulder and found himself face to face with Johnny’s vivid blue eyes. He saw nothing but a compassionate understanding as he gazed into Johnny’s face. The two brothers shared a brief moment of quiet, before they turned and rejoined Teresa.

Night had fallen, and still Johnny, Scott and Teresa remained cooped up in their hotel suite. Scott and Teresa were weathering their captivity much better than Johnny, who fidgeted interminably. His fingers drummed on tables, he paced, he played with small objects, picking them up and then setting them down again. Johnny felt completely helpless, and it was feeling that he hated. He had never before felt so completely bereft of options. He wanted to smash out at something, to rant and rave, and yet he didn’t because he knew how that would look to Scott and Teresa.

When confronted with trouble in the past, and Johnny was no stranger to trouble, he had met it head-on and then walked away. Never had he cowered in a hotel room, waiting for someone else to make the first move. Johnny considered his options and he couldn’t come up with any others. He was stuck in this room, his nerves stretched tight, waiting for the Clifton gang to show up and threaten the people who had captured his heart. Johnny knew that should that happen he wouldn’t hesitate to destroy Clifton and the men who traveled under his gun. He just wished that the gang would show up soon, because the waiting just might kill him first.

Scott had surreptitiously followed Johnny’s relentless movement around the small room all day and evening. He had tried talking to the younger man, but had gotten snapped at for his efforts. All suggestions of card games, or just talking had been steadily rebuffed. Scott knew that if something didn’t break soon, Johnny would snap and probably storm out of the hotel room, looking for the Clifton gang and certain trouble. He prayed that Johnny could hold himself together for a while longer, because if Johnny left the room, then Scott would follow him, and he knew that was a mistake.

Finally, unable to stand the tension any longer, Teresa made her excuses and went to her room to sleep, leaving the two men alone for the first time all day. They exchanged glances and smiled sheepishly at each other.

“Howdy, Boston,” Johnny said, using his first civil tone of the day.

“Hello, Johnny.” Scott’s reply was equally civil and his face carried a broad smile. “Did you enjoy your day here in the fair city of Stockton?”

“Brother, I’ve never had so much fun in my life,” replied Johnny in such heart felt tones that Scott couldn’t help but laugh, the tension flowing from the room with the sound.

The two men looked at each other companionably and Johnny settled into a chair for what seemed to be the first time that day. “What do we do now, Boston?” he asked seriously. “I can’t take much more of this waiting. I’ve got to get out of this room, or it’s going to kill me.”

Scott’s smile was sympathetic. “I know how hard this is for you, Johnny. It shouldn’t be too much longer. That judge can’t be too far away now, and once the trial’s over we’ll all go home.”

Johnny shook his head at Scott’s naivete. Sometimes his older brother could be so rational and down to earth, and other times, that Boston civility got in his way. Johnny couldn’t believe that Scott really thought that it would all end as a result of a trial and a speedy hanging. Johnny had seen too many renegade bands of outlaws to believe in fairy tales, but he didn’t know how to convey that to his brother. His worried eyes sought his brother’s and he said urgently. “Scott, you’ve got to consider the possibility that Clifton and his gang are out there watching us. They need to get rid of you and Teresa in order to get Billy out of that jail, and believe me, Brother, they’re gonna do whatever it takes.

Scott’s eyes reflected his worry. “Johnny, I know that what you’re saying is true, it’s just that I don’t see any other way for us to handle the situation. The sheriff wants us in this hotel room until the trial. He thinks that’s going to keep us safe. I have to believe that he knows what he’s doing.” Scott put his arm around Johnny’s broad shoulder. “Do you really think I would take a chance on your life, or Teresa’s if I thought there was another way?

Johnny dropped his eyes, his agitation still apparent. “Of course I don’t think you’re taking chances on our lives. I just know that we need to have a plan in case they attack this room.”

Scott nodded slowly, “Well then, I guess we’d better come up with one.” The brothers put their heads together and began to hash out several strategies.

A sudden shout sounded outside the door, and the hallway was filled with the sound of booted feet running frantically past the door. “Fire! Fire! Everyone out!” A voice could be heard calling loudly.

Scott stood, and moved to the door, about to throw it open, when a hand caught his arm. He looked questioningly at Johnny. “We’ve got to find out what’s going on!” he said urgently. “We may have to get Teresa and get out of here!”

“Scott, it’s the oldest trick in the book!” Johnny shot back. “Holler fire, and watch the pigeons fly right into your guns.” He put his weight against the door so that Scott couldn’t pull it open.

Comprehension dawned in Scott’s eyes and he shook his head. “You may be right, brother, but what if they’ve really set the hotel on fire? We could get killed sitting in here, just as easily as we could by running into their guns.”

As they stood in silent debate, another shout could be heard. Teresa’s bedroom door opened and she ran to Scott and Johnny, belting a robe around her slim waist as she moved. “What’s going on?” she cried. “Shouldn’t we get out of here if there’s a fire?”

Scott turned and ran to the window. He saw the hotel guests pouring into the streets of the town. In the melee he spotted several men with guns surveying the crowd. Scott knew that the Sheriff had deputized many men, but he couldn’t tell if the men with the guns were deputies or members of the Clifton gang.

“Scott!” Johnny’s voice was urgent. “I smell smoke. It looks like they’ve really started a fire. We’re going to have to have to leave the hotel.”

The trio huddled together by the door of the room, while Johnny surreptitiously eased it open. He peered into the gloom of the hallway, and seeing no one he motioned for Scott and Teresa to follow him. Scott kept his gun firmly in one hand, while holding tightly to Teresa’s arm with the other. Johnny’s gun was also at the ready as they moved quickly down the hotel corridor towards the back stairs.

They had reached the first floor when a shout rang out. “There they are!” A bullet whined past Johnny’s ear, and another buried itself in the floor at Scott’s feet.

Johnny fired rapidly, grunting in satisfaction when he watched his target go down. Scott also fired, and saw that he had only winged his man. He fired again, and saw the gunman fall. Johnny’s eyes were alert as he again motioned his little group forward, through the haze of smoke that was rapidly filling the air. Teresa was coughing violently as they staggered out into the night air. They quickly headed for the darkest shadows not wanting Clifton’s men to spot them.

As they hovered in the shadow of an alleyway, a hand suddenly clamped itself around Scott’s mouth and yanked him backwards off his feet. Unable to yell, and caught off guard, Scott felt himself fall back until he hit the solid wall of a man’s chest. The man promptly wedged his gun against Scott’s temple.

“Lancer.” The single word attracted Johnny’s attention immediately, and he paled when he saw Scott held firmly in an outlaw’s grip. “Drop your gun, or your brother’s a dead man.” the gunman said casually.

Johnny hesitated for a fraction of a second, and the man’s hand drew back the hammer of his gun. The distinct click was heard clearly in the night. Johnny’s gun fell toward the street without any more delay, a curse on his lips. “You didn’t have to burn down the hotel to get our attention.” he said softly, his mild words sounding menacing in the night.

“You were pretty well guarded, so I guess I did have to burn it down.” replied the man, just as calmly. “Now, I want all three of you to come with me. Need I remind you that one wrong move and your brother dies. I don’t want him testifying anyway so it’s no skin off my nose to kill him right here and now.”

The outlaw’s words were deadly serious. He had nothing to lose by killing Scott and both Lancers knew it. They moved down the alley and into lane that ran behind the hotel. Several men were clustered by a small knot of horses, and one of them signaled the others as they watched the group approach. “Hold your fire, boys. It’s the boss, and he’s got company.”

The men encircled the small group, making sure that they were well back in the darkest shadows of the of the lane. Clifton kept his gun firmly pressed to Scott’s head as he guided his captives into the circle of men. Johnny shifted his gaze from man to man sizing up the enemy, and calculating his chances if he made a move. He shook his head in disgust. He figured his chances at slim to none, it wasn’t a comforting thought.

Clifton spoke quietly, but the menace in his tone was frightening. “I’m going to give you one chance. I want you to pack up now, and leave Stockton. If you don’t I’ll shoot you here and now. I aim to get my brother out of jail, and I’ll do anything it takes.”

Johnny looked at Scott, who stood quietly within the circle of Clifton’s arm. Scott shook his head briefly, but said nothing. Teresa had seen the look, and she nodded her head fractionally as well. Without saying a word, it was clear the three were in agreement. They weren’t going to pack up and leave Stockton.

Johnny’s voice was deceptively mild. “What if we said we would leave town? What guarantee do we have that you’d stay away from us and just let us go?” His eyes glittered like chips of ice in the moonlight as he glared at the leader of the outlaw gang.

“You don’t have any guarantees. You just got my word on it.” Clifton’s laugh had a nasty tone to it, and Teresa shuddered a little at the sound.

“Your word.” Scott’s voice betrayed his skepticism. “You just burned down a hotel to get us out in the open, and we’re supposed to believe you’re going to let us walk away. We weren’t born yesterday, you know.”

“It sounds to me like I got three people here who aren’t too interested in living to see the sunrise.” Clifton said in mock surprise. “All right, boys, it looks like we’re going to have a little target practice.”

“Now, don’t get all hasty on me.” Johnny drawled, hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans. “We never said we weren’t thinking about your offer.” He looked around at the circle of men. “I’d suggest you boys back off, and let us finish our conversation, or things could get a little ugly.”

The sheer bravado of Johnny’s statement made Clifton throw back his head with a roar of laughter. “You got guts, Lancer. I’ll say that for you.” His smile faded as quickly as it had come. “You got one minute to make up your minds.”

Again Scott and Johnny exchanged quick glances. “All right, Mr. Clifton,” Johnny began, just as Scott threw his elbow back into the man’s ribs.

Clifton’s breath left his body with a whoosh, and he doubled over, dropping his gun away from Scott’s head. Johnny used the moment to barrel into the man standing behind him, knocking the outlaw into the man standing to his right. Teresa hastily stomped her foot down hard on the toes of the man standing closest to her. With two thirds of the gang momentarily out of commission Johnny, and Scott each grabbed one of Teresa’s elbows and pulled her down the street at a dead run. Shouts of rage and confusion were heard behind them, as Clifton and his men recovered from the surprise attack.

The first bullet ricocheted harmlessly off a building to Johnny’s right, but it gave them warning that Clifton was playing for keeps now. The second shot went past Scott’s head, so close he felt the small rustle of wind that marked it’s passing. Then a barrage of shots came so quickly that the Lancers lost count. Johnny spotted an opening between buildings and quickly ducked in, yanking Teresa along with him. Scott tried to follow as closely as he could, but he stumbled over a rough spot in the pavement, and he lagged two paces behind. He moved to duck into the narrow passage between the buildings when he felt a hard object strike him in the shoulder. Scott grunted with the impact, but kept on moving, a blinding pain beginning to build in the area where he’d been hit. The sound of booted feet, and shouting men were getting closer as the Lancers and Teresa dodged through the debris piled in the narrow alleyway. Suddenly, Johnny broke out of the surrounding darkness and careened full tilt into the main street of the town. A pair of the Sheriff’s deputies stared at him with startled faces, as he nearly knocked them off their feet.

“It’s them!” One of the men cried out, waving his arms frantically.

“They’re right behind us!” Johnny gasped, as he pulled Teresa behind the shelter of a growing wall of armed men. “Scott! Where’s Scott?” he continued, as he peered back the way they had come.

Sheriff Duncan ran towards the group, a rifle cocked and ready to fire cradled in his arms. “Get them to the jail!” he shouted as he ran, gesturing for his men to take up firing positions around the narrow opening to the alley.

Several of the deputies tried to hustle Johnny and Teresa towards the jail house, but Johnny resisted, yanking his arm free of the man who grabbed it. “My brother, where’s my brother!” he shouted angrily.

Tense seconds ticked by and still Scott hadn’t emerged from the alley. At Sheriff Duncan’s signal a group of deputies crept forward, and eased their way into the alley. They worked their way back through to the opposite end, where realization hit them. Scott Lancer was nowhere to be found. Johnny’s cry of fury echoed eerily back through the darkness as he felt a fiery rage course through him. Clifton and his men had Scott.

Teresa sat with her head in her hands, tears coursing down her cheeks. “He was right behind me, Johnny. I don’t know what happened.” she sobbed.

Johnny pulled her into a fierce embrace. “They’ve got him, but they’ll keep him alive, Teresa, don’t you worry. They need him to get to us.” Johnny’s eyes were deadly as he looked at the Sheriff over the top of Teresa’s head. “I expect you to take care of Teresa while I’m gone.” he said in a deceptively calm voice.

The Sheriff’s eyes showed his confusion. “While you’re gone? What are you talking about? You aren’t going anywhere!” The Sheriff was still angry over the fire and the loss of his key trial witness, and it showed by the lines of strain on his face.

Johnny gave Teresa another hug, and then rose with cat like grace. “Oh that’s where you’re wrong, Sheriff.” he said quietly. “I’m done playing this thing your way. That desperado has my brother, and I’m going to get him back.” Johnny was already moving towards the door as he spoke, but he pulled up short as two burly men blocked the doorway.

Again the Sheriff spoke, the hostility bristling through his words. “We are doing our best, Mr. Lancer! No one expected that monster to burn down an entire hotel full of people to get at you, but he did. You and Miss O’Brien are going to stay here at the jailhouse while my men do the searching. I want Scott back as much as you do, we need his testimony at that trial.”

Johnny snorted. “Oh that’s where you’re wrong, Sheriff. You don’t want Scott back as much as I do.” He gestured at the deputies guarding the door. “He’s my brother, and I think we told you already, Lancer takes care of its own. Now tell these men to move, or I’ll shoot them where they stand. But one way or another, I’m going after Scott.”

The two men faced each other, the tension rippling through the room. With a barely perceptible nod the Sheriff gave in. He motioned for the deputies to clear a path for Johnny. “Have it your way, Mr. Lancer.” he said angrily. “But I don’t want a lot of gunplay in my town. You watch your step.”

Johnny nodded, and flashed Teresa a brilliant smile. “I’ll be back when I’ve got Scott. Sheriff, don’t you let anything happen to that little lady, or you’ll answer to me.” With that he was gone, slipping into the night and disappearing into the shadows.

Teresa took a long shuddering breath and resolutely dried her eyes. If all she could do was wait, then she was going to do it with dignity.

Scott Lancer moaned as he felt the burning pain in his shoulder. He fought his way back from the blackness of unconsciousness. When he finally accomplished the monumental task of opening his eyes, he looked around blankly. He had no idea where he was, or how he had gotten there. He moved to sit up, but was stopped by the white hot shards of agony that consumed his shoulder at the brief movement. With a gasp he lay still, and fought the sickening waves of pain. When at last his head cleared he tentatively looked around. He was lying on the floor of a large room littered with a haphazard assortment of rickety chairs, a lopsided table, and several cots. A fire burned in the room’s fireplace, and a cluster of men were grouped around it, eagerly wolfing down the stew that bubbled in a pot next to the fire.

Scott tried wriggling the fingers of his strangely numb hands, and was concerned about the lack of feeling he had in them. It slowly dawned on his foggy mind that his hands were tied behind his back, and the lack of feeling in his hands was due to the ropes cutting off his circulation. The position of his arms was putting stress on his wounded shoulder. Scott could feel a steady trickle of blood from what was obviously a bullet wound in his back. He fought with a sudden surge of nausea that threatened to overwhelm his fragile hold on consciousness. Scott’s bleary eyes could just make out the form of Rob Clifton as he joked with one of his henchman, throwing his head back in a loud guffaw. He felt a sense of horror as he realized that he must have passed out in the alley as he attempted to follow Johnny and Teresa, allowing Clifton’s men to take him prisoner.

Scott groaned in frustration. He knew that he was now a weapon in Clifton’s war, and it galled him. It was obvious that Johnny and Teresa would be beside themselves with worry, and he didn’t have to use too much imagination to know how Johnny was going to react to his brother’s disappearance. Another wave of nausea washed over him, and this time Scott couldn’t stop the emptying of his stomach. He lay back weakly, feeling a strange lassitude creeping over him. Black spots danced at the edges of his vision, and another moan involuntarily left his lips.

Rob Clifton glanced back at his prisoner, a smile darting across his face when he saw that Scott was awake. He walked back to where Scott lay, and sat back on his heels to peer into the blond-haired man’s face. “It looks like you don’t feel too well, Lancer.” he said with glee. “Seems like you lost your lunch.”

“Go to hell, Clifton.” Scott ground out through gritted teeth. He tried to turn his head away from his tormentor, but didn’t have the strength to move. He compromised by shutting his eyes to block the man’s leering face from his vision.

Clifton reached out a hand and snagged Scott’s jaw, shaking the other man roughly. Scott gasped as pain lanced through his shoulder again, and he felt the blood running a little faster. “Leave me alone,” he whispered, but Clifton ignored his feeble efforts to free himself.

“Not a chance, Lancer.” he snarled. “I’m going to make you pay for all the trouble you’ve caused me and my brother. But first I’m going to use you to smoke out that pretty little filly. Once we’ve taken care of her, you’re a dead man.”

Clifton seemed to tire of his game, and he turned away abruptly, stalking back to the fire where he said something that caused his men to burst into loud laughter. Scott thought he caught a mention of “pretty,” and “brown-haired”, before the darkness reached out and claimed him again.

Johnny Lancer slipped through the dark streets of Stockton, his face set in a stony mask. He ducked into alleyways when he saw anyone approaching, and strained to hear the whispers of conversation as they passed. Hours passed in fruitless searching and Johnny felt himself growing more frantic as the darkness gave way to the pink streaks of dawn. Scott had disappeared into that darkness, and Johnny couldn’t find a single trace of him. Wearily he made his way back to the Sheriff’s office, slipping in the door as the sun rose majestically over the horizon.

The Sheriff sat slumped at his desk, his greying head buried in his hands. Johnny looked at him, a tremor of fear rippling through his body. Had the man heard something about Scott? Johnny was at the Sheriff’s side in two strides, his hand reaching to grip the man’s shoulder in a vise-like grip. “Sheriff Duncan! What is it? Have you had any news of my brother?” Johnny’s voice was urgent.

The Sheriff looked up at Johnny, his eyes red-rimmed and bleary with lack of sleep. “What? Oh, Lancer. No, I haven’t heard anything about your brother. My men have been searching all night without any success. I take it you had no luck either?”

Johnny shook his head silently. His heart sank at the thought of the long hours wasted in fruitless search. Where could the outlaws have taken Scott. Johnny had a feeling that they were still in town somewhere. Clifton wouldn’t want to be too far away from his brother. But where? Johnny’s thoughts scattered at the sudden sound of a window smashing behind him. He whirled quickly, his gun clearing his holster rapidly. At first he saw nothing but a broken window pane, but even as he and the Sheriff moved towards the glass, Johnny spotted the small wad on the floor. He stooped quickly and picked it up. He was holding a white parchment, wrapped around a small stone. Quickly removing the paper, he unfolded it carefully, smoothing out the wrinkles with a steady hand.

“If you want to see Scott Lancer alive, bring Billy and the girl to the old livery stable at the north end of town by noon today. If you don’t Lancer will die.”

There was no signature, but then, none was needed. Both men knew who the note was from. Johnny let out a shaky breath. He looked at the Sheriff, his eyes hard and unfriendly. “What are you planning to do now, Duncan?” he asked in a neutral tone of voice.

The Sheriff glared at the younger man. “I don’t give up my prisoners to anyone!” he shouted vehemently. “I won’t turn Billy Clifton loose.”

Johnny drew breath to make a sharp retort, when a quiet voice broke the sudden chilly silence in the room. “What’s going on? Where’s Scott?” Teresa walked quickly to the two men, and stooped to take the paper from Johnny’s hand. He tried to pull it back from her, but she tugged gently and he reluctantly relinquished it to her. She read the note quickly, and then glanced at the two sullen men before her. “Well, gentlemen, I guess I’ll be at the livery stable at noon today.” her voice was steady and confident.

Johnny couldn’t help but grin at the girl before him. “Oh, Teresa, don’t be too sure of that, girl.” he said softly. “I’ve lost Scott, but I’m not letting you anywhere near the Clifton gang.”

Teresa’s face tightened in anger. “We’ve got to do something, Johnny. Clifton will kill Scott if I don’t show up today.”

“Yeah, and he’ll kill you and Scott when you do go to that livery stable today.” Johnny retorted. “I’m not going to let that happen. I’ll figure something out, I promise.” He moved to Teresa’s side and reached out a steady hand to grasp her shaking fingers. “He’s my brother, Teresa. I’ll be damned if I let that desperado kill him.”

In response, Teresa turned and buried her head on Johnny’s shoulder, the tears she had been holding back finally spilling loose in a torrent. Johnny held her tightly and stroked her hair in a soothing gesture. Teresa finally expended her tears and took a shaky breath, wiping her eyes, and blowing her nose on the handkerchief that Johnny provided. “Sorry, Johnny.” she sighed. “I didn’t mean to fall apart like that. It’s just that this waiting is killing me.”

Johnny’s smile was soft and sympathetic. “I know. It’s killing me too. But you’re still not going to that livery stable today.”

The Sheriff looked at Johnny bleakly. “You got some kind of plan, Lancer?” he asked harshly. “If so, you’d better let me in on it.”

“Yeah, Sheriff, I do.” Johnny replied, his voice soft but rippling with suppressed anger. “I want you to send your men to that livery stable now. Have them surround the place, and stake out some hiding places. That way when Clifton and his men show up they’ll be caught in a trap.”

Sheriff Duncan nodded slowly. “I think that may be our only option. All right, Lancer, we’ll do it your way.” He moved quickly to issue orders to the deputies who clustered around him. Leaving several men behind to guard the jail containing Billy Clifton, and Teresa O’Brien, the group set off immediately for the old livery stable. Johnny and the Sheriff traveled side by side, neither speaking or looking at each other. They both knew that if this plan didn’t work, Scott Lancer was a dead man.

The deputies were in position, their rifles held at the ready as they sought to conceal themselves. Johnny and the Sheriff were standing just inside the doorway of a small general store located several doors down from the old livery stable. Johnny fidgeted anxiously as he waited for noon. Johnny’s natural style didn’t include waiting for other people to dictate his actions. Waiting for Clifton to call the shots galled the ex-gunslinger. But with Scott’s life hanging in the balance, Johnny was willing to wait all day if he had to.

At 11:45 there was a stir in the dusty air, and squinting into the sun, Johnny was able to make out a band of man making their way towards the old livery stable. His posture was deceptively casual as he leaned against the doorjamb of the grocery store. His gunfigher’s instincts were making his fingers twitch ever so slightly next to the well-oiled leather of his gunbelt. He gasped as he saw the group pull up their horses at the livery and yank a body from one of the saddles. Scott hung limply in the arms of two of the outlaws, a large rusty stain marking the back of his shirt, his complexion waxen in the sunlight. Johnny could tell that Scott was out on his feet, as the men dragged him forward and tied him to the corral fence.

Clifton strode forward, having given his men their orders. He placed himself next to Scott, his pistol in his hand, aiming at the stricken man’s head. Johnny’s eyes flared dangerously as he saw Scott struggle to fight off the ropes that bound him to the fence. His brother’s efforts were futile, and Johnny’s heart sank as he saw Scott slump against the ropes again, his brief bout of consciousness apparently over. Exchanging a whispered word with the Sheriff to check that the deputies were in position, Johnny moved forward, strolling casually down the street.

As Clifton saw Johnny’s approach a wolfish grin flashed across his face. He raised his gun and rammed it against Scott’s temple, causing Scott to moan lightly. Again Scott struggled to work his way back to consciousness, fighting back the darkness that clung to his mind. His mind felt as sluggish as hot taffy, and he couldn’t seem to find the energy to lift his head. He still felt that everpresent, slow trickle of blood down his back, and knew that he had lost far too much blood. Scott finally lifted his head and squinted into the sunlight at the approaching figure. It took a few moments for his weary mind to recognize his brother, and he sucked in his breath in dismay. What was Johnny doing walking right into the arms of the enemy? “Johnny, no!” Scott managed to gasp out. “Go back!”

Johnny halted a few feet from the pair at the corral fence. A smile crossed his features but his eyes were bleak. “Hello, Scott.” he drawled casually. He shifted his gaze to Clifton, and when he spoke his voice had an edge. “Cut him loose, Clifton, or I’ll kill you here and now.”

Clifton laughed raucously, throwing his head back in undisguised glee. “Lancer, you are funny.” he said. He sobered abruptly, again jamming his gun at Scott’s temple, causing another wince of pain. “Where’s my brother, and the girl?”

“They ain’t coming.” Johnny’s reply was deceptively simple. Scott looked up quickly as he heard the underlying fury in Johnny’s voice. “We’ve got you and your men surrounded so give it up, Clifton.”

Clifton howled in fury. “Whadya mean they ain’t coming?” he cried out. “I’ll kill your brother for that, and then I’ll take apart this town brick by brick until I get Billy outta that jail.” He pulled back the trigger on the gun, preparing to empty the chamber into Scott’s head.

Johnny’s gun cleared the holster at blinding speed. He cocked the gun, aimed and fired before Clifton even knew what hit him. The outlaw’s gun dropped from nerveless fingers, a startled look crossing the man’s face, even as he fell heavily to the ground. Johnny didn’t even look at the man, as he dove toward Scott’s exposed body. A hail of gunfire erupted all around the two Lancer men, as Clifton’s gang fired at the man who had dropped their leader, and the deputies returned that fire. It was all over in a matter of minutes. As the dust settled, Johnny looked frantically at Scott, who was hanging against the ropes that still bound him. Scott’s eyes had rolled back up into his head, and he was once again unconscious.

Johnny drew a knife and cut his brother down, laying him gently in the dirt, while quickly ripping the shirt away from the wound in Scott’s shoulder. A look of dismay crossed his face as he saw the extent of the infection around the site of the gun shot. “Get a doctor!” he cried out to no one in particular. He gently took Scott’s face in both his hands, patting his brother’s cheek. “Come on, Scott, wake up!” Johnny’s voice was anguished.

Scott’s eyes flickered open, and he stared in bleary-eyed fascination at Johnny’s vivid blue eyes. “Hey, brother.” he said weakly.

“Scott!” Johnny’s cry of jubilation could be heard for several blocks. “Hang in there, Scott, we’ve got a doctor on his way.”

Scott smiled at his brother, but couldn’t speak. The brothers were still in that position when the town’s doctor pushed his way through the crowd, and began to tend his patient. It was only then that Johnny relinquished his hold on Scott, and sat back to let the doctor do his job.

“Johnny! Scott!” Teresa ran up the street, calling out as she came. She stopped abruptly when she took in the scene. Scott lying huddled on the ground, his shirt soaked in blood, while Johnny sat beside him, the bodies of several of the Clifton gang members strewn about haphazardly. Her eyes wide with fear for Scott, she moved forward tentatively, sinking to her knees beside Johnny. He reached for her hand, and held it tightly.

“He’s going to be okay, Teresa. He’s got to be.” Johnny said automatically, praying that his words were the truth. “The doc’s going to fix him right up.”

“Oh, Johnny!” Teresa breathed. “Is it all over?” she asked hopefully. “Did you get the whole gang?

Sheriff Duncan moved to her side, looking down at the little group. “Yes ma’am, I think we did.” he said quietly. “With Johnny’s help. I don’t think the Cliftons are much of a threat anymore. Billy’s trial ought to go off without a hitch now.”

Just then the doctor signaled that he was ready to move Scott into a waiting wagon, and the watchers all sprang into action. Johnny grabbed Teresa’s hand and helped her to her feet. They slowly followed the wagon back to the doctor’s office, keeping their eyes on Scott the whole time.

Murdoch Lancer rode his horse to a standstill in front of Stockton’s only surviving hotel. He flung the reins around the hitching post and hastily headed inside. Spearing the desk clerk with a savage glare, he barked his question. On receiving the answer he headed for the stairs, his boots thumping noisily on the wooden treads. A brisk knock at one of the doors on the second floor brought a quick response from the interior of the room. Murdoch was suddenly looking into the smiling face of his ward, Teresa. He swept her into a savage hug, pulling her from her feet with it’s intensity.

“Teresa, honey. Are you okay?” he asked quickly, setting her down and surveying her with worried eyes.

Teresa laughed. “I’m fine, Murdoch, just fine. It’s Scott we’ve been worried about.” She pulled the older man into the room, leading him to one of the bedrooms in the suite.

As Teresa pulled open the door, Murdoch caught sight of his youngest son sitting beside the big bed that dominated the small room. Johnny’s face lit up in a welcoming grin, and he rose to greet his father. “Murdoch, you made good time. I didn’t expect you until sometime tomorrow.” he said happily.

Murdoch threw an affectionate arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny, it’s good to see you, son.” he said, his eyes straying to the bed even as he spoke. “How’s Scott?”

Johnny sobered abruptly, the smile leeching from his face. “He’s still pretty sick, Murdoch, but the doc thinks he’s gonna be okay.” He moved aside allowing Murdoch a clear view of his oldest son.

Scott lay pale against the pillows of the big bed, his eyes closed, the lashes fanning his high cheekbones. Murdoch slipped into the chair that Johnny had just vacated, reaching out to gently touch Scott’s arm. He twisted back towards Johnny and Teresa, his face a mask of concern. “How did this happen. Your wire didn’t say a whole lot about how Scott got hurt.”

Johnny and Teresa exchanged sympathetic glances. Johnny heaved a sigh, and pulling a second chair close to the bed, said, “It’s a long story, Murdoch.”

“Well, get started.” Murdoch’s words carried a definite air of command.

Johnny told Murdoch the story, Teresa chiming in with comments here and there. When they finally paused for a breath, Murdoch turned searching eyes toward his wounded son. Scott had come very close to dying in Stockton, and Murdoch would never forget that. He had only recently gotten his family back, he couldn’t even begin to contemplate going back to a life without his sons. He reached out with a gentle hand, touching Scott’s cheek very lightly. “Scott, son, wake up.” he called out.

Scott’s eyes flickered open, and he struggled to focus on the man in front of him. When he finally recognized his father, he smiled shakily. “Murdoch! It’s good to see you.” he said weakly, struggling to rise.

Murdoch’s firm hand pushed him back down in the bed. “You stay right where you are son,” he commanded. “I’ve just heard the story from Johnny and Teresa. What on earth were you thinking about. I would never have forgiven you if you’d gotten yourself killed.”

Scott’s smile widened. “No chance of that with Johnny around.” he said calmly. “He’s quite a guy to have as a back-up.”

Johnny grinned and ducked his head. “Aw, you’re just saying that cause you know I can out wrestle you now.” He stood up abruptly and paced over to the window. “The hanging’s tomorrow.” he said to no one in particular.

Scott’s eyes were confused. “How could the hanging be tomorrow?” he asked uncertainly. “I don’t remember the trial.”

Johnny grinned again. “That’s cause they had it without you. Teresa took care of all the eyewitness stuff, all by herself. Billy Clifton won’t be killing anyone else.”

Three pairs of eyes surveyed Teresa as she stood quietly beside the bed. She blushed prettily and smiled a little. “Well, it was the least I could do,” she asserted calmly.

Scott’s eyes dropped and a yawn escaped his lips. Murdoch hastily stood, and said, “Why don’t we let Scott get some rest. He looks like he needs it. We’ll be in the other room if you need us, son.” As he moved to shepherd Johnny and Teresa out of the room he was halted by Scott’s weak call from the bed. “What was that?” He asked quickly, looking to see what Scott needed.

“Oh, nothing much.” Scott said, a smile spreading across his lips. “I just wanted to know if Johnny had taken Teresa for that new dress, yet.”

Teresa’s eyes sparkled, while Johnny let out a loud groan. “Oh that’s right, Scott! She exclaimed happily. “I had forgotten all about my dress. Why I’m sure that Johnny would be happy to come with me to pick it out.” She whirled around Johnny excitedly, laughing at the expression on his face.

Murdoch laughed and shook his head. “You know.” he remarked to no one in particular. “This is quite a family.”


January 2001



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