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Grief In My Sorrow by Southernfrau and Kit

Sadly, Southernfrau is no longer with us. Her stories are archived here for her friends to remember her by. Enjoy her legacy to Lancer.

Word Count 27,580

Lancer, A New Century story
Author’s note on Lancer ANC

Jelly Hoskins mopped the sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve as he leaned over a heated stove stirring a pot of chili.  The strong aroma of the hot spices tickled at his nose, causing his whiskered face to twitch in response.  Setting the wooden spoon down, his calloused hands grabbed a pot holder.  Bending over, he used the cloth to open the oven door and retrieved the iron skillet of cornbread.   As he was straightening up, he heard the distinctive roar of Johnny’s Harley thundering into the yard.  He clucked to himself in exasperation over the speed at which his boy had to be traveling to make such a ruckus; and knew without looking out the door that the boy had probably popped a wheelie before turning sideways and skidding to a halt.  He was cutting the bread in to triangular pieces for serving when the front door crashed open and Johnny rushed in.  His black leather pants and jacket were coated in yellow trail dust.  In the crook of his left arm, Johnny cradled his customized Harley helmet with the mirror-like black finish and depictions of speeding silver bullets on the left and right sides.

“Where have you been, boy?” Jelly grumbled.  “You know danged well supper is served at six sharp.”   Covertly, because Johnny rebelled at any fussing or extra attention, the old man’s worried eyes took in the slender young man before him, sweeping him from head to toe to insure the dare devil had not returned with injuries.

Johnny pretended to not notice Jelly’s quick appraisal.  “Oh…Gramps, you worry too much.”  He nodded towards the kitchen clock.  “Besides it’s not quite six and you’re still taking the food up.”   He tossed a cheeky grin at the man that had reared him as he hung up his helmet on the rack beside the door; and then quickly headed for the staircase.

Jelly immediately called him back; his tone irritable.  “You git on back here, boy!   You ain’t got time to change out of them motorcycle leathers now.  And don’t you give me none of your sass lip!  I wouldn’t worry if you weren’t so hell bent on living life on the edge.  Now git yourself over here and wash your hands at the sink; and then set the table!”

Johnny shot his guardian a quizzical look as he crossed the kitchen to the sink and began to wash his hands. He knew the gruffer the old man sounded the more worried he was; just as he knew the old man’s attitude was due to fear born of love not anger. “What in the world has you in such a bad mood, Gramps?” Johnny asked, turning the water off and shaking his hands, flinging droplets of water about.

“Gol’ dang it, boy, watch what you’re doing, you’re leaving water spots all over my clean floor,” Jelly groused, bending over to quickly wipe up the wet places.  Standing back up he rubbed at his elbows, cursing the ache in them as his eyes took in the confused look on his ward’s face.  “I’m sorry, Johnny.  My elbows are a paining me something fierce and I cain’t shake the feeling something bad is fixin’ to happen.   I haven’t felt a sense of impending doom like this since I left the Marine Corps.”

“It’s all right, Gramps.  We all have our off days.”  Johnny soothed.  He sucked in his lower lip, frowning a bit as he thought of another reason for the Old Man’s doom and gloom mood.  Ranch business had kept Jelly home bound for over a week now, and he was probably suffering from cabin fever.  Johnny was all too aware that his guardian had been seeing a new woman in town; sneaking off during the day for late breakfasts and afternoon coffee, as if it was some big secret.  Johnny had found out by accident after cutting class, and he couldn’t bring it up even to tease the older man without giving himself away.  It was just as well.  He had made a point of finding out as much as he could about Angelina Ferris, and he didn’t like the woman.  And he sure in Hell wasn’t going to let her dig her fingers into his Gramps.  No, they were fine, just fine, without any one else buttin’ in.  Still, he felt a strange shudder course through his lean frame; and stood for a moment, the fingers of his left hand digging into the flesh just below his right shoulder as he pulled himself into a tight self-hug.

Feeling guilty about sharing his dark mood with his boy, the old man’s face softened.  “Well, go on now and get the table set and I’ll get the food,” Jelly instructed gently as he grabbed the iron skillet of cornbread and marched towards the oak farm table on the other side of the bar that separated the family room from the large kitchen.  Placing the hot pan on a trivet he spun around and headed back to the stove and the stew pot of chili.  Lugging the heavy pot back to the table, he side stepped Johnny; the boy’s arms filled with a precarious stack of bread plates and soup bowls, with two glasses, paper napkins and the silverware stacked on them.  After putting the chili on the table, Jelly traveled over to the refrigerator to retrieve the two salads he had made earlier and the pitcher of sweet tea, and by the time he made it back the dishes were in place and Johnny was sitting on his chair.

Johnny frowned as he spied the salads Jelly carried.  He wasn’t a big fan of rabbit food but Gramps always insisted on a balanced meal at least twice a day.  (Oat meal for breakfast ran a close second as Johnny’s least favorite food; right along with the salad greens.)  The older man had been a gung-ho Marine until the day he retired to take guardianship of a grieving toddler, and then he had turned into a father goose and mother hen all rolled into one crusty but loving surrogate grandfather.  He grinned as he thought about the fact that Jelly would have made some special dessert to entice him to eat his greens without a fuss.   “What’s for dessert?” he inquired as the gruff old gunnery sergeant placed the salads and tea on the table and took his seat.

“Nothing…until you clean up that mess you left on the coffee table over there,” Jelly declared, pointing a gnarled finger towards the various guns and the cleaning kit still littering the wood surface.

Johnny flashed his usual innocent smile.  “I left it out because I was going to finish cleaning and oiling the guns after supper.  And before you say it, yes, I know you’ve told me a thousand times to make sure I lock the guns up…but hell, Gramps, it’s not like there’s kids around here; and both of us are knowledgeable enough about guns not to hurt our self.”

The older man snorted at the remark about no kids being around.   Johnny hadn’t reached his majority yet, and as far as Jellifer B. Hoskins was concerned, the boy — who still had a problem finding a laundry basket, matching his socks up, or keeping his room straight — still had a way to go until he was full grown.   “You best watch that mouth!   You ain’t so big but what I cain’t take a bar of soap to it or break me an apple switch to tetch up your hind end.”

Johnny chuckled as he dropped his chin to his chest and peered at Jelly through the lacy fringe of his long eyelashes.  Jelly could be a stern and tough old bird on some matters and Johnny had his moments when he liked to rebel, but for the most part they got on so incredibly well, most people did not even realize they weren’t blood related.

A crash from upstairs had both men leaping from their chairs and turning towards the staircase.  Before either man took more than two steps chaos and violence exploded around them.  The sound of wood splintering and glass shattering preceded the appearance of eight men clothed in black and their faces darkened to camouflage their presence outside.  It looked like Jelly’s elbows were prognosticating with their usual accuracy.  The intruders stormed towards the table, glass crunching under their heavy combat boots, guns pointed menacingly at their hostages.

“Don’t move, stand still!” the majority of them shouted over the one voice instructing the assailants in Spanish, “Do not hurt the young one, he must be taken alive and well for General’s plan to work!  Kill the old man if you have to, the General doesn’t need a contact person.”

Figuring he had nothing to lose as the men were instructed not to hurt him, Johnny lunged for the large serrated knife laying on the cornbread in the iron skillet.  As his hands closed around the handle, muscular arms latched around his waist and slammed him down.  His hips smacked into the table edge with enough force to momentarily snatch his breath. In the frantic struggle to get free, Johnny’s wildly flailing arms cleared the dishes and food from the table, the sound of the food splattering on the tile floor and the dishes shattering rang in his ears.

The six foot four, two hundred fifty pound intruder jerked Johnny upward and tried to capture his arms, but the vertical stance proved to Johnny’s advantage.  With the knife gripped tightly in his hand, Johnny swung it upward and drove it backward in an arch like motion.  He cringed and shuddered as the sharp tip pierced the fleshy outer edge of his captor’s thigh.  The serrated blade trembled and jerked as it roughly tore through skin and muscle.  The intruder screamed in shock and agony and his initial reaction was to get rid of the cause of his pain, one arm dropping over Johnny’s shoulder; the other threading between his legs as the big man lifted Johnny from the floor and threw him over the back of the couch.

Sailing through the air beyond a struggling Jelly, Johnny watched in horror as one of the men picked up the iron skillet and bashed his guardian in the head.  Jelly crumpled as though deboned.  He landed in an unmoving heap on the floor.   Johnny’s flight ended when he impacted the coffee table.  His eyes widened as he realized he had landed on the guns he had left out earlier.  Grabbing the edge of the table, Johnny flipped it over, slinging himself and the weaponry on the floor.  This shielded him and gave him enough time for his seeking hands to find an antique Smith and Wesson six gun.  Scrabbling madly in the debris of weapon accoutrements that landed on the floor he was able to find a handful of bullets but only three were the right caliber.

Calling upon his years of training as a sharp shooter and his ability to completely block out all distractions by zoning in on his task, Johnny quickly loaded the gun.  He peered over the top of the table and noted that the intruders all wore body armor. As they rushed towards him, Johnny popped up and with an ice cold glare rapidly sighted and fired off his three shots with lightning fast precision.  The three bullets found their targets with deadly accuracy, right between the eyes of three men who didn’t even have time for shock to register on their faces before they were dead.

Before Johnny could duck down to search for more ammunition a whoosh sound preceded a sharp jab of pain and a stinging sensation in his neck, close to his jugular.  Reaching up, he felt something metal with a fringed end protruding from his neck, and immediately felt something warm rush through his veins.  With hands already going numb he pulled the dart from his skin, his balance began to falter as he felt like he was beginning to float up.  The gun and dart fell from his nerveless fingers, his vision blurred in and out of focus, and then began to gray and shrink to an increasingly small black tunnel.  The floor rose up to meet his collapsing body; and he struck his temple on the corner of the table as he fell, opening a gash.

Semi-conscious, he lay prone on the floor; everything seeming to happen in slow motion, even the sounds seemed muffled and slurred.  Between the approaching boots of the intruders, Johnny could see where one of the men he had shot had landed next to Jelly.  Both men’s heads were lying in a puddle of chili, blood and brains, and as the darkness of oblivion claimed him, Johnny wondered how much of the blood and gore was Gramps’; and how much was the warrior’s.  His question was answered when he heard the ring leader shout above the melee that the old man’s brains had been bashed in, and he was most assuredly dead.

Johnny’s last conscious thoughts, as grief ripped through him, was who his father would get to be his keeper now that Jelly was dead; and he was filled with a sudden intense hatred and a will to live.  He would make it on his own; he would survive whatever was coming, and when it was over, he would take his revenge.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

A loud thumping and throbbing sound shook the house and pulled Jelly Hoskins back to awareness.  Years in the military had ingrained recognition of what the noise meant in his memory; it came from a helicopter landing in close proximity, in this case the field next to the house.  Groaning, he looked towards the glass doors that lead out to the patio and pool.  The shattered remains littered the floor; and beyond the opening he saw five men in black, two of them holding the insensate form of the young man he loved and considered his grandson.

Forcing his arms out from under him, Jelly swiped the gore from his face and shook it from his hand, grimacing when he realized that brain matter from the dead man beside him had comingled with his blood and the chili. He began the arduous task of snake-crawling to the doors.  The battle hardened veteran never even flinched as he pushed his way through the splattered food and blood.  He didn’t even move the intruder that lay dead next to him, he simply, with single minded determination, crawled over the corpse.  He ignored the cut of glass and the jab of wood into his palms and knees as he continued his journey through the debris to the patio.  He saw the helicopter land and the men move forward.  Johnny’s limp form was lifted into the aircraft, and then the big green bird took off headed south.

A lone tear streaked down Jelly’s face as his right hand reached beseechingly towards the helicopter as it whisked away his reason for living.  As shock began robbing him of consciousness, Gunnery Sergeant Hoskins took sadistic glee in the thoughts of the hell on earth General Murdoch Lancer would rain down on the men responsible for kidnapping his youngest, and there was no doubt in his mind the General would find them and cause them a million times the grief they had just added to his years of sorrow.  That was, he would enjoy it if the possessive father didn’t rip him apart with his bare hands for losing his son.  The General might come across as a dispassionate and uncaring but it was all a ruse to keep his sons safe.            

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

The light from the computer screen illuminated the tired features of Captain Scott Lancer’s face, the pinched lines around his mouth and eyes testament to his mental exhaustion with his decoding task.  His chair squeak in protest as he sat up and then leaned back and scrubbed at his face, his long fingers edging up into his hairline, displacing the perfectly combed strands.  He yawned, sighing loudly, the sound echoing in his quiet office, deep in the bowels of the Pentagon.  Picking up his coffee cup he swiveled his chair around and grabbed the pot, pouring the last of the thick sludge he preferred to drink into his mug.

The strident beeping of a red flag alert emanating from his computer startled him back to full concentration.  Swinging back around, he sloshed the hot brew on his hand and cursed as he shook it off before maneuvering the mouse to open the incoming file.  He grinned when he saw the origins of the file, Sabinal, Texas.  One of the perks of being back in Naval Intelligence after two years active duty as a Seal was the ability to keep tabs on his family, that for security reasons were unable to reside together as a family.  One thing he had learned over the years: his little brother was quite the notorious character and had a zest for life that made the infrequent family visits fun and invigorating not to mention explosive.  It was probably a good thing he had not been raised by their father, with the kinds of stunts he pulled; General Murdoch Lancer would have been hard pressed not to have shot him.

“Let’s see what kind of mess you’re in or have caused this time, little brother,” Scott snickered as the file opened and he began to read.

The smile of anticipation quickly faded from the Captain’s face and it paled as shock constricted his heart while he read the report that had been filed two hours after the incident.

Sabinal Texas:  Olympic Gold Medalist, Sharpshooter Johnny Madrid, age 18, has been abducted from the ranch of his guardian/grandfather Jellifer Hoskins.  According to Mr. Hoskins, armed men dressed in black, burst in to the house, surrounding the two as they ate their evening meal.  A wild scuffle occurred during which Hoskins was rendered unconscious and three of the assailants shot and killed.  He came to when the noise of a helicopter landing next to the house roused him.  Mr. Madrid was loaded aboard the aircraft.  It is not known at this time whether or not Johnny Madrid was injured in the attack and abduction.  Mr. Hoskins suffered bruises and lacerations to his hands and legs, as well as a gash to his head from a blow from an iron skillet, which required stitches and left the victim with a concussion.

Scott sat numbly, his disbelieving eyes staring at the cruel words that so dispassionately related the brief facts of the abduction of his younger brother.  Tension seized his body, his jaw clenched to the point he felt the pressure in his whole head.  His muscles fought the tightness of his rigid body, and then the muscles contracted and released which caused him to tremble as cold fear crawled over his skin.  Pushing aside the useless emotions, he let his military training kick in, the Captain burst from his chair; marched to the post where his coat hung and retrieved the cell phone he kept that was used for family communications only.  With a steady hand that belied his terrified heart he hit the speed dial number three for his little brother’s phone, hoping against hope, praying to all known deities that this was all a malicious joke.  The phone rang, sparking his hope that his brother would answer.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Jelly Hoskins jerked violently when the loud refrains of Blaze of Glory, Johnny’s personal ringtone, sounded in the decimated room.  His house was now filled with men from the various local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that were dispassionately sifting through the ruins of his life;  and they turned as one to watch as he tracked the phone down by the music.  The phone lay on the floor in front of the couch, obviously having fallen there when Johnny was thrown over the back of it.  Jelly stumbled as he bent over to pick it up and ended up falling back on to the seat of the sofa in a heap of despair as he flipped the cell open to answer the call.

“Hello,” Jelly’s voice managed to croak out of nerveless lips.

“Jelly…oh God, Jelly, please tell me this is a joke,” Scott implored in breathless hopefulness from the other end of the connection.

Jelly’s hands were trembling.  “It ain’t, Scott, this ain’t no joke.  It’s a damn nightmare,” he admitted in desolate tones, his gut twisting brutally as bitterness threatened to spew from his agitated stomach.  

Detecting the over whelming weakness and shock coming from the older man, Scott knew he needed to take control of the situation.  “Snap to, Gunny,” he barked.   “Monitor, adjust and adapt!  You control the situation, it does not control you!”  Hearing a snort from the older man, he knew he had his attention.  “Have you contacted my father?” he inquired.

Jelly had regained a modicum of control.   “I tried his ‘damn’ phone, but there was no answer, it went straight to voice mail,” he informed Scott, knowing the younger man would realize ‘damn’ was code for secured and ‘straight to voice mail’ code for out of the country on a mission. “Could you speak up, I can hardly hear you with all these people traipsing around in here,” Jelly barked, secretly informing Scott he had an audience and wasn’t free to speak openly.

From the privacy of his office Scott was in a better position to determine the course of action they needed to follow. Calling upon his training and ability to organize a strategy Scott related a startup plan.  “I will get a message through to Murdoch.  I will be in Sabinal within the next five hours, and then we will travel to Lancer Ranch to await my father’s arrival.  By that time, we will know if this was a kidnapping for ransom or retribution.  Be sure to have all calls to the house forwarded to your cell phone and have it on you.”   Snapping his phone shut, Captain Lancer executed an abrupt about face and marched in double time cadence to the Operations and Communications Command center room of the Pentagon.

With the resources of the military command center at his finger tips, as well as the help of other officers who were present, Scott quickly located his father.  The General was heading a mission to locate one of South American’s most notorious criminals, a rogue Colombian General who had abruptly disappeared after weeks of reports that he was building a new fortress within the jungles of South America.  Scott relayed a message to his father, instructing him it was imperative that he rendezvous at the ranch as soon as possible.  He decided it would be best to wait until then to inform his father that his youngest had been abducted; in the hope that by the time Murdoch arrived they would have more details.  His stomach roiled discontentedly at the thought.  His father and little brother had a somewhat volatile relationship at times because of Johnny’s stubborn belief that his father couldn’t be bothered to raise his sons; because he was too busy trying to save the world. 

Ignoring the sick feeling of despair residing heavily in his belly, Scott shook off his sullen ruminations and set about preparations.  His first order of business was to contact his commanding officer and request an emergency leave of absence, and then he called his Grandfather and asked to use the corporate jet, preferring not to have to wait around for a military air command flight.  By the time he filled out his leave papers and went back to the officer housing and packed his bag, the Garrett Enterprises jet had landed at a private airfield, right outside DC.  Scott was able to board as soon as he arrived.  He checked his watch as he sat down, nodding in pleasure that he would be landing in Sabinal within the five hour time frame he had given Jelly.  Using the jet’s phone he called Jelly to alert him of his impending arrival, smiling as the older man told him he would be ready and waiting.  Scott was more than pleased; he was elated.  Jelly’s preparedness meant they could refuel and take off immediately for California.        

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

One o’clock am, central standard time, Scott was pulling open the door to the private airfield’s lobby area.  Despite the late hour, he was wide awake.  His mind had been too preoccupied with questions and worries about his younger brother’s abduction to attempt to rest during the flight.  His eyes scanned the room and the few people residing in it as he looked for Jelly.  Finally, he spotted him in a chair in the corner, practically hidden by the large potted tree that loomed over him.  The man was the picture of dejection.  He sat with his head bowed, his chin resting on his chest. His arms were lying on his knees, his hands clasped tightly together in the space between them.  All of a sudden he raised his head and Scott’s breath stalled in mid-inhalation over the abject misery painted on the tired, lined face.   A large bruise and stitches marred the right temple area of his head.  He cautiously approached Jelly, fearing the old man might just disintegrate before his eyes.  “Jelly, are you all right?” he asked, the words coming softly.

Standing up, Jelly faced the younger man, his whiskered chin trembling and his eyes brimming with hot moisture that refused to fall, held in place by Jelly’s steely determination.  “I’m fine.  I’m ready to go get my boy back.  I don’t reckon that will be as hard or dangerous as telling your daddy I failed to keep him safe.”

Thirty minutes later the men were in the air winging their way to California.  Scott waited until the plane leveled off and the whine and thrust of the engines settled into the smooth purr of the autopilot function before he began to question Jelly.  He hoped his training in interrogation for Naval Intelligence would help him ferret out some information that would prove useful to figuring out who had snatched Johnny. After hours of questioning and trying to dissect the incident the men had no answers other than some General had a plan that required Johnny to be alive.

They had no idea what the plan might be or who the General with the plan was.  One thing they both agreed on was if he needed Johnny alive, either he was going to be used as bait or perhaps they wanted him for his sharpshooting skills.  After his wins at the 2008 Beijing games and the public exhibitions afterwards, his skills were telecasted and published far and wide and he was touted as the greatest gunman alive since the days of the old west gunfighters.  It was highly unlikely, in their opinion, that Johnny had been kidnapped for ransom because Jelly had heard the attackers declare the General did not need a contact person.  Whoever it was that had taken him, was rich and powerful enough to have his own army of mercenaries; and whoever it was had not achieved the funds necessary for that through kidnapping for ransom.      

As the jet soared westward the dawn of a new day illuminated the sky but not the moods of the men in the plane, the blackness of depression covered them like a shroud trying to smother the light of hope until they shook off the morose specter and steeled their determination.  Scott observed the transformation taking place in Jelly.  He smiled tightly when he saw the whiskered jaw clamp shut and jut out with iron will.

The wiry Sergeant straightened his spine, lifted his head and his blue eyes connected with the Captain’s and in that moment, a solemn promise was made to each other.  “Scott, I’ve been feeling like my body is made of jello and I could just shake until I fell to little pieces, but that ain’t gonna do my boy no good.  Gramps ain’t what Johnny needs right now…he needs Gunnery Sergeant Hoskins.”     

Nodding his head in concurrence, Captain Lancer extended his arm and clasped the Sergeant’s to his, their forearms pressing together, a symbolic combining of their strength. “OO- RAH,” they shouted.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny slept in a drug induced slumber through the helicopter ride and the transfer to a small jet. While in flight, his face was cleaned up and the gash on his head stitched.  He showed no signs of waking when the jet landed at an airstrip built in a cleared area of a jungle.  He had no idea as he was slung over the shoulders of one of the mercenaries and toted to a jeep, that his presence was noted.

Ethan Schwartz’s green eyes were shaded by a pair of stylish Armani shades so he was able to surreptitiously observe the transfer of a black leather clad young man from a plane to a jeep.  Thrown across a soldier’s back, the seemingly unconscious man’s arms hung limply, swaying as the man marched across the tarmac.  Schwartz’s breath caught in his throat as he spied the name Madrid embroidered on the back of the jacket.  His thoughts raced back to earlier in the day when General Sandoval had bragged to him in a moment of conceited bravado that he had a plan for eliminating the main threat to his drug and gun running business, that he was going to hire someone to kill General Murdoch Lancer.  He had thought then that the situation with Sandoval was becoming critical, now he was sure of it.  The man had brass balls to think he could get away with abducting a world renown Olympic sharpshooter like Johnny Madrid and no one would notice.  And from the looks of the young man, he was not taken without putting up a good fight, which wasn’t surprising considering all the times the skilled shooter had made the tabloids with tales of his temper and escapades.

Turning to his body guards Mr. Long and Mr. Turner, standing in a flank position to his right and left, Schwartz realized by the rigid stance of their bodies and tight flat lines of their pressed lips that they too knew who the unconscious man was.

Schwartz dropped his head, his face hidden by the shadows of his body guards as he quickly cleaned his shades.  He didn’t raise his head until the glasses were back in place. “General Sandoval, I thank you for your hospitality and look forward to the completion of our fiscal negotiations for the purchase and delivery of your top quality armaments and accoutrements of weaponry.”

At the stumped looked on Sandoval’s face, Schwartz’s body guard, Mr. Turner clarified in a twangy Texas drawl, “The boss says he can’t wait to buy your guns and bullets.”   

“Ahhhh…I see your body guards are also translators,” chuckled the General.

Schwarz’ mouth lifted in a bemused smile.  “Indeed, it is sometimes necessary for them to multi-task in situations when we must deal with persons of less substantial proficiency of the cognitive skills associated with matriculated verbosity.”

Sandoval’s sweaty brow wrinkled in confusion and he looked to the body guard for an explanation.  Turner smirked as he once again simplified, “The job requires we sometimes have to do two things at once.”   He winked at the General.  “Not everybody hides behind ten dollar words like the boss so I have to spell it out like regular people, like us, would say it.”

The General was still chortling as the threesome boarded their private plane. As the door latched into place the other body guard, Long, made wise.  “Dumb ass bastard has no idea you told him he was lacking in the brains department.”

Schwarz actually laughed.  “I’d wager he hasn’t a clue and while I do find him lacking in intelligence, I am afraid he has the market cornered on dastardly plots.  I feel it behooves us to enlighten General Lancer of the fiendish conspiracy against him and Sandoval’s scheme to possibly employ the skills of young Mr. Madrid.”

The three men, actually members of ATF team Seven out of Denver, also known as the Magnificent Seven, sat down and buckled up.  Already, they were making plans.  As soon as they landed in the US, they would find out what they needed to do to get word to General Lancer about Sandoval’s plot.  Vin Tanner, aka Turner, watched from his window as the vehicle Madrid has been thrown into roared off the tarmac onto the same path through the jungle that they themselves had just driven over.   

The jeep bounced and careened over a barely passable jungle path, running over roots and vines as it forged a path to the new compound.  Johnny had regained consciousness when he had landed in the back of the vehicle, but he had played possum as he was handcuffed to the roll bar support structure. He observed his surroundings by opening his eyes to meager slits, his long eyelashes disguising his alert state.  It was cooler under the canopy of the verdant foliage as it blocked a majority of the sunlight that had beat down on the tarmac.  The few spots were the rays of light were able to break through caused deep shadows that crept about like evil specters when the wind shifted the greenery lending even more of a sinister air to his situation.

Despite the cooler temperature within the jungle, the tropical heat and high humidity was stifling, especially for Johnny as he was clad in his motorcycle leathers.  Though the leather was of the finest quality and normally breathable; it was absolutely too thick for this climate.   Johnny longed to at least remove his jacket but that wasn’t possible with his hands cuffed to the jeep, not to mention, he didn’t want to give away the fact he was awake.  Sweat beaded on his face at his hairline and trickled down his temple at an angled path until it disappeared into the hair covering his ears.  His head throbbed, partially because of the after effects of the drug that was in the dart as well as the blow to his temple when he struck the coffee table.  He felt like the inside of his head was a balloon that was being over inflated; the pressure building to the point he imagined he could feel his skull stretching and creaking, and at any second he was sure it would split wide open and explode.  He finally had to squeeze his eyelids tightly shut as the dappling of light and shadow pierced his dry eyeballs and sent jolts of pain to his brain as the jeep continued to bounce along.  He moaned as nausea soon added to his suffering; his upset stomach most likely due to the drugs. He had never been able to take any kind of narcotic without becoming violently ill.   

Between the heat and the jostling around in the bouncing vehicle, Johnny’s miseries escalated to the point he could no longer ignore them and play possum.  When he felt the burn of acid bitterness on the back of his tongue and he began to salivate compulsively he decided it was time to seek help.

Drawing his knees in towards his abdomen as his stomach contracted and cramped, Johnny called out as he struggled to maneuver around and sit up.  “Let me up…I’m gonna be sick!” he gagged.  The skin around his eyes was pinched in pain as he continued to keep them squeezed closed; and he barely managed to scoot up onto his buttocks.  His nausea grew as one of his captors leaned forward to unlock the cuffs and the foul stench of an unwashed body, cigarette smoke and old coffee assaulted his nostrils. The jeep hit a large root and jolted up and slammed back down, throwing Johnny against the soldier who had just released him.  It was at that moment his stomach completely rebelled and he threw up all over the man’s chest.

“You stupid American pig,” howled the mercenary as he backed handed Johnny, splitting his lip and knocking him over.

Johnny opened his eyes and looked up. The combatant’s face was twisted with anger and disgust; his lips drawn back in a snarl as he brought his hands up in a movement that showed he intended to choke his captive.  One second his face was a contorted mask of rage and in the next second, after a deafening BOOM, it disintegrated into a mass of raw bloody bits of flesh and bone, portions of it speckling Johnny.  The bullet that shattered his head pinged against the roll bar of the jeep, embedding in the metal.  The driver stomped on the brakes and the abrupt change in velocity toppled the dead man out of the back of the vehicle.  Johnny closed his eyes in an attempt to block out the gruesome sight he had just witnessed.

Johnny jerked his eyes open when he felt someone tenderly wiping his face.  He stared in to the dark eyes of a tall man dressed in BDUs with an insignia that identified him as a General.  The leader was addressing his men in Spanish.  “I am sure I made myself clear before, but just in case any of you dogs did not understand let this be a reminder to you…NO harm is to come to my sharp shooting friend here.  I will put a bullet in anyone that causes him injury!”  The General sneered down at the dead man and motioned for one of the soldiers from his jeep to dispose of the body.

Watching the heels of the dead man disappear as he was dragged into the denseness of the jungle, Johnny shuddered despite the heat of the day.  His attention was drawn back to the leader towering over him. Johnny recoiled briefly at what he saw…or didn’t see as he glared defiantly at the man.  The man was clothed as a warrior, but not one of valor.  The General’s face was devoid of compassion, the tanned skin was etched with determined lines of greed and his dark eyes burned with the passion to possess and control all those around him.  It was, Johnny knew, a sure bet the only person the man ever helped was his self.

Detecting the slight flinch in his captive, Sandoval grinned evilly as the reaction was quickly replaced by a look of utter rebellion.  The sharp shooter looked younger in person than he had looked when he had seen him in the televised Olympic Games.  His wicked sneer widened as he thought perhaps this would make it easier to intimidate the young man and tame his insolence to achieve his goals.  “I am General Carlos Sandoval.  You need not fear me, Johnny Madrid.  I intend you no harm.  I only wish to make use of your extraordinary skills.  We will talk more of this after we reach my compound and you have a chance to rest,” the General declared, emphasizing the word rest as he nodded at one of his men, and then turned smartly on his heel and marched back to the jeep he had been riding in.

Johnny jerked, startled by a vicious pinch to his neck as he watched the General stride away.  Turning he glared at the captor behind him, an empty hypodermic clutched in his raised hand, glinting in the sunlight.  He wanted to rant at the man for injecting him with some narcotic but to his concern and horror the drug was already robbing him of the ability to retain consciousness.  His mouth dropped open as he tried to speak but all of he managed to get out was a slurred tangle of syllables before he collapsed gracelessly to the side, sprawled across a duffle bag.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

The small plane bearing a returning Murdoch Lancer crested the mountain range around Lancer ranch.  As it flew over the broad expanse of pastureland, the red-backed cows shifted nervously at the low thrum of the engines; the animals bellowing anxiously as they broke into clusters and parted from the herd; running blindly until encountering the barbed wire fence.  The engines whined as the jet descended, and then the tires squealed as rubber met tarmac, the light plane bouncing a few times before the wheels kept contact with the asphalt and taxied down the runway.  The nose of the plane lifted and then dropped as it braked to a full stop.

Murdoch Lancer rose from his seat as far as his massive height would allow.  Crouching low he made his way to the hatch and hit the lever to release the door.  Before the door finished locking in place, he stepped out on the first step, straightening to his full height; his weight pushing the ramp completely down.  He immediately saw the jeep that had been left for his use parked near the small hangar.  Striding purposefully towards the vehicle, he saluted the soldiers that appeared in the mouth of hangar, before climbing in the jeep and roaring off.

By the time he passed under the Lancer arch, Murdoch was grinding his teeth in irritation; everything at the ranch appeared to be fine.  His eyes narrowed in ire as he thought that someone better have a damn good reason to have pulled him off of his mission to find Sandoval.  All the message stated was there was an emergency and to return with haste to the ranch.  This interruption of his objective would play havoc on his plans for a clandestine family vacation over Easter.  The family’s last get together over Christmas had been fraught with tension.  It seemed the older Johnny got the more he resented his absentee father.  His bitter feelings of rejection caused cross and hurtful words to be shouted by father and youngest son.  Johnny had informed his father he was tired of being summoned like some recruit whenever Murdoch decided he had the time to spare for his sons.  On one occasion — the memory still painful — his youngest son’s disdain and antipathy were made quite clear when the boy hotly announced that as soon as he turned twenty-one  he would decide if and when he saw any of the members of his family.  He also pointedly remarked his father would probably be relieved to no longer have to feel legally responsible for his son.  Johnny’s argument had been so vehement and nasty it had made Murdoch begin to question his true motives in having kept the family apart for so long…to the point he found himself wishing he could turn back time and daydream of having raised his sons together.

Parking the jeep and heading into the house, his mind preoccupied with self-recriminations about old choices, Murdoch skidded to a shocked stop when a familiar voice spoke out.

“Hello, sir,” Scott called out mechanically, not a hint of welcome in his voice.

Murdoch’s mouth clamped shut, his jaw clenching causing the muscles in his cheeks to undulate, as he quickly considered possible reasons for his son to be standing at his desk.  Detecting movement out of the corner of his eye, he shifted his rock hard glare and stiffened at the sight of his youngest son’s guardian.  The elderly man’s face was bruised and he sported stitches on his temple.  Swiftly scanning the room for Johnny’s presence, his accusing stare rounded back on Jelly.  “Where’s Johnny and what the hell is going on?” he demanded.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room with enough pressure the three men lungs seemed constricted and they unconsciously held their breaths.  Finally, Scott spoke up.  “We have a situation, sir.”

“Report,” barked the General as he shifted his attention to his old Gunnery Sergeant, noting the defeated stance that bowed the old soldier.

Straightening his frame into the rigid lines of a body at attention, Hoskins tried to lick his dry lips with a tongue lacking moisture and that felt gummy with remorse.  Calling upon his years of making concise and succinct reports under battle conditions, Jelly gathered his thoughts and laid it all on the line.  “Yesterday around eighteen hundred hours, during the evening meal, eight black clad mercenaries stormed the house.  A fight ensued; during the altercation it was revealed their objective was to abduct Johnny by orders of some unnamed General.  The assailants spoke Spanish.   Johnny was not to be hurt but it didn’t matter about me as they didn’t need a contact person.  I was knocked out but I came to in time to see them load Johnny into a troop transport helicopter and fly off to the south.  There have been no attempts at contact and we feel that is because he was taken for his sharpshooting skills and not for ransom.”  His head rose up and a gleam lit Jelly’s face as he added, “Johnny managed to get his hands on an antique six shooter, and then took out three of the men…nice clean OSOK shots, right between their eyes.”

Murdoch’s nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply, an exercise that should have calmed him, but instead it added oxygen to the fire of rage that burned in his chest.  His anger exploded from his mouth with a scorching fury.  “Damn it to hell!  Johnny has been missing going towards twenty-four hours and all you can tell me is some unknown General has him and you think it’s for his skill as a sharp shooter!”  Lancer advanced on the smaller man towering over him, his fists clenched by his sides as he fought the murderous intent trying to consume his sanity.

The air in the room crackled and snapped as the two older men postured, the threat of aggression escalating.  An outbreak of violence was thwarted when the General’s Aide de Camp appeared in the doorway and announced he had three visitors who were requesting to see him.

Taking his hostility out on the innocent soldier, Lancer roared, “I don’t have time for entertaining!  I have a dangerous emergency situation occurring here.  I don’t have the time to see or hear from anyone!”

A stern looking blond, clad entirely in black, descended the step down into the room and swooped in front of the Aide, taking command.  “We didn’t come to be entertained. We came to inform you of a plot by General Sandoval to have you murdered.”

The General snorted derisively, “That’s old news; Sandoval has been trying to get rid of me for years.”

A second man had joined the other; green-eyed and more immaculately dressed than the other.  “He just may succeed this time.  We know for a fact he has abducted the Olympic sharpshooter Johnny Madrid to carry out a plot to assassinate you.”

A third man joined the others.  This one young; with sky blue eyes and sun bronzed hair too long to be regulation.   “And the last place ya’ want to be is in the gun sight of a skilled shooter like Madrid.”

Dread seeped cold and thick in to Murdoch’s belly causing his stomach to ball up like a fist, cramping tightly with the oppressive emotion.  His greatest fear seemed to be coming true.  Once again his career choice had put his family in danger.  Shaking off the horror, he redirected his attention to getting more information.  “I think you better explain who you are and how you came about this information.”

Stepping closer to the General, the tall black clad man extended his hand, “I’m Agent Chris Larabee, leader of ATF Team Seven out of Denver.  This suave looking gentleman is my undercover agent, Ezra Standish.  The wild and wooly looking guy with the Texas drawl is my sharpshooter, Vin Tanner.”

Scott gasped and stepped forward, extending his hand to Larabee as well.  A proud grin temporarily lightened his tense face.  “You’re members of the best, most successful team in the entire ATF, the Magnificent Seven.  I’ve heard all about you, not only in the halls of Washington but when I was on active duty with the Seals.  They still talk about you, Captain Larabee and your explosives expert Lieutenant Wilmington.”  He smiled, his cheeks coloring in embarrassment.  “Excuse me,” he apologized.  “I’m Scott Lancer, an inactive Seal currently assigned to Naval Intelligence.”

Larabee’s mouth opened and he was about to returned the compliment Scott Lancer had just given.  “The linguist,” he began.  “I’ve heard…

Murdoch raised his right hand, bringing a quick halt to the accolades.  “I hardly think this is the time to reminisce.  I want to know how these men came about the information on Sandoval and Johnny,” he ground out.

Chris had noted the look of pure horror that had washed over the General’s face at their revelation and knew there was more going on here than met the eye.  He could also tell from the way Standish and Tanner shifted to flank him that they had picked up on the under current as well.  Assuming a relaxed posture, Larabee reported concisely, “Standish has been undercover as Ethan Schwartz, an arms buyer, with me and Tanner as his bodyguards.  We have been trying to lure Sandoval into a deal and get him to cross the border so we can arrest him.  We’ve all just returned from his jungle fortress.  While we were there part of his men left on a mission the purpose of which was to acquire the means to kill you.  As we were leaving they returned and they had the Olympic sharpshooter Johnny Madrid with them.”

The ATF agents stepped back in surprise, when Lancer lunged forward, grabbing Larabee by the shoulders and shaking him as he shouted, “You saw my son?”

Their confusion grew as the third man, who had been present when they entered, darted forward and placed himself in between Larabee and the General and nervously demanded, “How was my boy? Have they hurt him? Did he seem all right?” the questions rolled frantically from Jelly’s mouth.


The two older men rounded on each other snarling and snapping; talking over each other until no one could understand a word they were saying.  Everyone was stunned into silence when a shrill whistle split the air.  All eyes turned to Scott Lancer, standing with two fingers in his mouth whistling until he had their attention.   He spoke, the words purposely soft so that they had to strain to hear him.  “I think we need to clarify some things for the agents here,” he breathed.   “The two of you,” he nodded at his father and Jelly, “need to sit and calm down while I do that.”   He waited until everyone had found a seat, and then addressed their visitors.   “Very few people know this, but Johnny Madrid is actually Johnny Lancer, Murdoch Lancer’s son and my kid brother.  For reasons of security, Johnny has been raised in Texas, by retired Gunnery Sergeant Jellifer Hoskins, his guardian and adopted grandfather.   They are very close.  You men have just confirmed what we had speculated about Johnny’s abduction; that he was taken for his skills with a gun.”

The General slapped his hand forcefully on his desk top, the sound of flesh striking wood making a loud cracking noise.  “You were the one that exposed him to guns,” he accused Jelly. “This would not have happened if you hadn’t let him take up sharp shooting!” roared Murdoch as he rose from the chair behind his desk, his face pinched with a cross between fear and rage.

Jelly pursed his lips, grimacing in disgust over what he felt was an asinine statement.  “Well excuse the hell out of me for raising him in Texas where guns are as common as pig tracks and pick up trucks!  You didn’t have a problem with it when his ability achieved all those accolades, won competitions and earned him a spot on the Olympic team!”

In spite of the pain from an old wound that still plagued him, Murdoch pulled himself to his full six-foot five; his back ramrod straight.  “That’s just it! You let him put himself into the spotlight. It drew attention to my son!”

Jelly bit back the foul response he was tempted to hurl at the Scotsman, but didn’t mince words as he went toe-to-toe with the man. “Cut the crap and stop buck passin’ General.  Nobody knew he was your son because you denied him the use of your name in the wrong headed notion you were doin’ what was best for him; when what he needed was his father!”  He snorted contemptuously.  “The great and almighty General Murdoch Lancer has been nothin’ but a puppet master to that boy all his life, orchestratin’ and manipulatin’ him to fit your dictates.  He’s a remarkable young man that had to make a name for his self because he was denied the right to be Johnny Lancer.  Weren’t no spotlight shinin’ on him because he was Murdoch Lancer’s son!   He earned his glory by hard work, determination and perseverance as Johnny Madrid.  And truth be told, he pushed himself to excel tryin’ to earn your respect and attention, to show you he was worthy enough to be your son, instead of being treated like some idiot bastard child to be hid away from the public.  Johnny Madrid is independent, cocky, self-assured and confident to mask the fact that Johnny Lancer thinks he’s unwanted and undeservin’ of his family.”           

The two older men continued to posture and throw accusations back and forth as their argument escalated. The smaller and wiry Hoskins looked like a Bantam rooster sparring with a hawk as he went up against the much taller and heavier Lancer.

“You seem to forget you’re not his real grandfather,” bellowed Murdoch.  He intended for his words to hurt his old friend, to cause as raw a spot on the older man’s soul as raw as the one he himself had endured over the years of separation from his son.

Jelly’s agitated movements ceased as for the span of a few seconds he was stunned into silence, and then like gasoline, inert until a lit match is thrown on it, the older man ignited, exploding into motion.  To the amazement of the other men in the room, the elderly Hoskins leapt across the enormous desk.  With a flying tackle he bore his shoulder into the taller man’s chest and forced him down on to the floor.  With a steadiness and speed that belied his age, a yellow handle case knife appeared in his hand, the blade was small due to its age and the repeated grinding that kept it razor sharp.  His liver spotted, gnarled finger hand pressed the tip of the blade against Lancer’s jugular vein.  “I ain’t forgettin’ nothin’ but let’s get one thing straight right now!  I might not be that boy’s grandfather by blood but I sure the hell am by everything that counts.  I saw a scared little baby boy through the horror of losin’ his mama.  I nurtured him and comforted him through the nightmares.  I spent every wakin’ moment with him building his confidence and security.  I fed him, changed his diapers, potty trained, wiped his nose and butt, escorted him to his first day of school.  I worried, scolded and praised him through every stage of growin’ up…but the most important thing I did was be there for him because I love him and I will be damned before I’ll let you toss me aside because you think I failed.  I didn’t give up my life to raise Johnny…that boy is my life!” he declared as he rose up off of the prostrate man, his worry and grief shadowing his face and misting his eyes with excess moisture.

“I’m sorry, Jelly,” grunted a contrite Murdoch as he pushed up off the floor and staggered to his feet.  “I know you sacrificed a lot over the years and you certainly don’t deserve my anger or guilt.”

Swiping a shaky hand over his pale face Jelly whispered, “It wasn’t a sacrifice, Murdoch.  It was a privilege and a joy.  I know you love him and you thought you were doin’ what was best.  The problem is it has always felt like rejection to Johnny.  The world might know him as Johnny Madrid, best of the best, but he knows he’s Johnny Lancer, the unacknowledged son.  For his sake he needs to be able to be both at once…to not have to hold part of himself off as separate and secret.  It’s what makes it so hard when y’all try to get together.  Johnny Lancer craves your approval and Johnny Madrid wants to hurt you, like you’ve hurt Johnny Lancer. ”

Brushing his clothes off and adjusting them, the big General stiffened his spine and turned sorrowful eyes toward his trusted friend.  ‘When we get him back — and make no mistake about it we will — we’ll have to see what we can do about giving him a chance to be whole.”  Glancing at his older son, Murdoch added, “I think it’s time for the hacienda to become more than a resting place between missions, it’s time for it to become a home again.”

For a long moment, a heavy silence permeated the Great Room until it was broken by the quiet voice of reason.  “Gentlemen, might I impress upon you the idea that had he known Johnny Madrid was in fact Johnny Lancer, Sandoval most likely would have thought twice about abducting him.  Associations are a two edged sword, they can work for or against you as you have painfully learned in this instance,” drawled Standish perceptively.     

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” murmured Scott, and then in a stronger voice, “I agree it’s time for the Lancers…all the Lancers to stand together, not just privately but publicly.”

Murdoch nodded, his demeanor changing as the years of military discipline and training kicked in, and he separated his heart from his head.  “If you men will excuse me, I need to call to Washington to make a report and coordinate a rescue plan.”  He picked up the phone, giving a pointed look to the others in the room; a clear indication they should leave.

“Gentlemen, could I interest you in some coffee and pastries in the kitchen,” Scott offered as he ushered the guests from the room.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~


The sound of shattering glass disrupted the quiet conversation in the kitchen.  Scott led the charge back to the Great room and caused a chain reaction of bodily collisions when he skidded to a stop shocked by the sight that met his eyes.  Murdoch Lancer stood in front of the large picture window which now had a gaping uneven hole in the center of it.  The jagged shards of glass that rimmed the hole gave it an appearance of a beastly mouth.  Beyond the arched window, the telephone lay in a debris field of shattered glass; the dagger-like shards glittering in the sun like diamonds on a bed of green velvet.  Of greater concern than the damage to the house was the condition of the General: his clenched jaw, harsh panting breaths, rigid body stance and most especially the purplish contortion of his enraged face that gave testament to the fury that consumed him.

“What happened, sir?” questioned Scott.

Pointing to the phone he had tossed through the window the General shook with rage and roared, “The same damn thing that always happens!  The scum sucking, bottom feeding, pencil pushing, dickless wonders  in Washington want to analyze, study and talk to death the situation instead of striking while the iron is hot!  I tried to tell them we needed to mount an immediate rescue while we had the advantage of surprise because I had unexpected and inside intel.  Sandoval would never expect a retaliatory strike this soon but they want to sit back on their thumbs as usual.  I don’t give a flying fuck what Washington wants, I’ll take a leave of absence and go get him myself!”

“Not without me,” declared Scott and Jelly in unison.

Larabee, his face sporting a sharkish grin that betrayed his eager anticipation immediately jumped in.  “How would you like some assistance from a crack team of agents that includes two former Seals, an Army Ranger sniper trained for black ops, a Marine, an Army medic, a computer and surveillance expert and an undercover agent with his foot in Sandoval’s door?” he asked.  “We can help each other achieve our objectives.”

“Cowboy, how would we explain the whole team being gone?” inquired Tanner.

Sly bemusement lighting his green eyes, Ezra was quick to point out something his partner had completely missed.  “Is this not a training facility?  Correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Larabee, but didn’t AD Travis request that the team complete a course of field training this year?  I’m quite positive an exercise under the supervision of General Lancer would more than meet that requirement,” he grinned.

Larabee snorted derisively, “Standish, you are one sneaky son of a bitch and I’m damn glad you’re on our side.”  Turning to the General, Larabee added, “If you have another phone around here I’ll call and get this set up with Assistant Director Travis and arrange for the rest of my team to come.”

The General nodded.  “You do that Agent Larabee, while I request the equipment necessary to complete your field training assignment.  This won’t be the first time this facility has provided training for a federal agency.”  Hell, he mused, at one time or another Lancer had played host to the entire alphabet of government agencies; in one form or another.  His body relaxed but his face took on a look of intense concentration as his orderly mind began to run possible strategies.  He had heard of the unorthodox ATF Team Seven from Denver, the most effective team of all the alphabet agencies, and his confidence grew that with their help his youngest son would soon be liberated.

Within minutes, the General and team leader Larabee were manning the multi-line phones and had begun initial preparations for their joint mission.   By sheer force of their strong personalities, the two men bullied and bluffed their way through the usual bureaucratic bullshit; and within hours the rest of team seven had arrived.  Before the sun set, they were all gathered around the large dining room table; recon photos, reports and detailed satellite maps spread upon the polished surface as they planned the rescue down to the minutest detail.  

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

A dull pain throbbing behind his eyes pulled Johnny from his slumber.  The discomfort was insistent enough to cause him to press the heels of his palms against his eyes to relieve the feeling that his eyes were being forced from the sockets.  He realized it was probably the after effects of the drugs he had been injected with him making him feel this way.  His head felt as thick and cotton packed as it had the time he had gone out celebrating with the rest of the Olympic team and drank numerous shots of Tequila, to the point of passing out and having to be hauled back to his hotel room by the team’s coach, Val Crawford.  Jelly had been livid that his underage ward had been allowed to drink.

Just thinking of his surrogate grandfather pulled Johnny the rest of the way to awareness.  Tears burned his sleep crusty eyes as he recalled his last glimpse of Gramps.  He felt his throat closing up as sorrow choked him, causing an aching pressure on his chest that constricted his heart and lungs.  Before his mind could descend too deeply into the darkness over taking his thoughts his attention was drawn to the door when an audible click sounded, alerting him to a presence on the other side. 

Quickly knuckling the sleep from his eyes, Johnny stretched out on his back, and then raised his arms and crossed them behind his head.   He hoped he was the picture of nonchalant confidence in this dire situation, that as far as he was concerned he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Reveille sounded over an hour ago, Mr. Madrid.  It is past time for you to quit the bed,” instructed a heavily accented voice.

Pursing his lips and displaying all the insolence his face could muster, “I ain’t a soldier, yours or anybody else’s,” Johnny sneered, turning his head and glaring at the General.

“I’m very surprised such a skillful sharpshooter as your self doesn’t have military training.  You would most likely benefit well from the discipline,” stated Sandoval.

Swinging his feet to the floor and rising with cat like grace, Johnny stood toe to toe with the general, glaring arrogantly into his dark eyes.  “I don’t see how dragging my ass out the bed at o’dark thirty gives a man discipline and purpose.  I think it just makes a man tired.” To make his point, he faked an impressive yawn.

Sandoval frowned.  “It teaches a man not to waste his day, to work as a team and to follow orders. Officers need not explain the reasoning behind their methods as long as they get the job done.”

Johnny snorted, the sound filled with blatant disrespect.  “Most likely all you old fart officers make everybody get up early because y’all have to get up to piss any way…what with those age enlarged prostate problems and all.   Hell, it probably takes you constipated uptight assholes all morning to squeeze out a turd,” he sassed, and then braced himself for the expected retaliation when anger flared hotly in the officer’s eyes.

“Perhaps a ten mile run with a full pack would cure you of this impudence,” suggested Sandoval.

Rolling his eyes and snorting air loudly through his nose and mouth, Johnny laughed. “That’s another useless exercise you force foot soldiers to endure.  What’s the point of all that running?  It’s a waste of energy. I ain’t never seen anyone out run a bullet.”

Sandoval’s eyes narrowed, the upper lid of his right eye twitching as he fought to stay in control; his expression much like a snake attempting to mesmerize its prey.   “I’d advise you not to try my patience much further, Mr. Madrid.  Let us go and get some breakfast.  Perhaps a full belly will put you in a more agreeable mood.”

There was a subtle but noticeable change in Johnny’s posture as he stayed firmly planted in place.  “I’m not going anywhere with you until you tell me why you kidnapped me,” he hissed.

Sandoval dismissed the accusation with a limp wave of his hand.  “Kidnap is such a harsh word.  Let’s just say I brought you here to help me with a problem.  I need a formidable foe taken care of.  He is a very hard man to get close to because he is always surrounded by his warriors…that’s where you come in.  I need your skill in speed and distance with your sharpshooting.”  The corners of his mouth lifted in an empty grin that failed to reach his eyes.  “Come; I will explain more while we are eating.”

Reluctantly following the General, Johnny struggled to keep up with the ground eating stride of the officer.  Resentment for all things military welled in his chest when he realized this was the same rushed feeling he got when he tried to keep up with his father on the occasions he had spent with him and his brother.  A small smile curled the corners of his lips as he thought about Scott and the way Scott always adjusted the speed and length of his gait to match his.  Just thinking of his brother brought a small smile of contentment to his face.  They had ‘formed a bond with each other’ over their cell phones; and were remarkably close for two brothers who had been separated when they were very young and denied the chance to grow up together under what would be considered normal circumstance. 

Johnny fell further behind Sandoval as he glanced about his surroundings.  He was in some kind of military compound.  A high electric fence topped with rolled wire bristling with inch-long, razor sharp barbs marked a perimeter that appeared to cover an area around the size of 20 football fields, the jungle looming large, dark and foreboding beyond.  The buildings were kit style steel beam structures with tin walls and roofs.  One building was clearly a barracks; there was a garage, a small hangar with a helicopter, a mess hall and several smaller buildings. One of the buildings housed a gasoline powered generator that supplied the electricity for the camp.  The labored chug of the heavy equipment was muffled by the metal walls of the pre-fabricated structure, but not enough to cover the continuous and mind-numbing drone reminiscent of the annoying and somehow deadly buzz of angry bees.

The building they had just left was most likely the infirmary, Johnny realized.  Everywhere he looked, soldiers were scattered about completing various chores within the compound; and he could sense others, unseen, beyond the fence.  At regular intervals along the entire perimeter there were manned guard towers, as well as a foot patrol that warily trudged the interior fence line; a path worn into the once dense ground cover, the soil black and moldy beneath their feet.   

Johnny was so preoccupied with his surreptitious survey of the area and the struggle to keep up with the swiftly marching man, he collided with him when he stopped to pull open the door of the building they were about to enter.

“Yes, Senor Madrid, I have a very secure compound.  It is as hard to get out of as it is to get in,” Sandoval boasted, enjoying the sullen look that crossed his young captive’s face.

The general grabbed his arm to steady him and hauled him into the building.  A cold blast of air along with apprehension caused Johnny to shiver as he was pulled along through a sitting room into a small but clean kitchen.  A woman in a colorful cotton house dress stood at the stove cooking.  A heavy silence, marred only by the hum of a window unit air conditioner, reigned as the cook turned her head and openly studied Johnny.  He noted she appeared to be in her mid-forties.

His hand still clutching Johnny’s arm, Sandoval gestured towards the table.  “Sit down, Madrid.  Imelda will serve your breakfast shortly.  From now on you will be expected to keep to the same schedule as the rest of the camp.  You will be on time for meals or you will do without until the next one.”

Johnny shrugged free of the man’s grasp.  “Well excuse the fuckin’ hell out of me for being out cold in a drug induced sleep,” he snapped sarcastically.  Glaring up at the General, he secretly compared the old soldier to his father; deciding all officers must have this commanding and superior attitude.  His irritation increased at the indulgent smirk Sandoval bestowed upon him.

Solicitously, the General patted the youth’s right shoulder; his touch cold.  “I am quite aware you had a valid excuse today.  I am just informing you the remainder of your stay will go more smoothly if you follow my rules.”

Before Johnny could answer the thinly veiled ultimatum, a plate of fried potatoes, sliced tomatoes, scrambled eggs and what appeared to be some sort of sausage appeared in front of him.  His stomach growled in anticipation as the aroma rose and filled his nose.  The words to thank the cook stalled on his lips when he turned his gaze from the General to the woman and he realized that under her flowing cotton dress she was heavily pregnant.  Johnny’s eyes tracked from the protrusion of her rounded belly to her stern and weary face.  “Ahhhh…thank you,” he stuttered out.

“Imelda, bring the coffeepot to the table, and then you may go,” Sandoval ordered.

The tired woman shuffled laboriously from the room after setting the coffee on the table.  Watching her until she disappeared from sight, Johnny turned his attention back to the General as he poured the brew.  “Should she be working in her condition at her age?  Aren’t you concerned for your woman at all?”

Sandoval shook his head.  “Imelda is not my woman. She cooks and cleans for me.  As for her condition, it may not even be mine.  Imelda sells her favors to any man in the camp with the money to pay for them so that she can send the extra money to her family.  She won’t keep the baby.  She will sell it to some American couple desperate for a child, as she has done twice before.”  He chuckled at the look of shock and disgust that tinged the young face before him.  “Don’t be so disapproving.  You are far too young and inexperienced to be critical of others.”

Johnny’s eyes glittered with empathy.  “I hope for the baby’s sake it never finds out it wasn’t wanted…that it was sold like a possession.”  He knew only too well what it was to feel that way.

Sandoval jabbed a long finger at the younger man’s plate.  “Eat your breakfast,” he commanded.  “We will discuss why I have brought you here when you are finished.”

An uneasy quiet filled the room as Johnny consumed his food.  Despite his irritation and desire to be petulant and not comply with the General’s order, he was hungry.  He had been snatched from his home before he could eat his supper, and then what food he had in his stomach had been thrown up during the jeep ride.  He kept his head down as he ate to conceal the conniving smile that graced his face; taking his time as he chewed each mouthful thoroughly.  When he finished, he wiped his mouth, tossing the napkin down in the plate, and then sat back and crossed his arms over his chest, hugging his sides as he glared at Sandoval.

The General watched the young man before him, well aware the youth was trying to regain some control over his situation.   He smiled, the grin purposely hidden by the rim of the coffee cup he had just pressed to his lips; amused by the show of bravado when the young man finally finished eating and then crossed his arms in defiance and nonchalantly tipped back in his chair, balancing precariously on the back legs.    The general put down his cup.  “I see no need, Mister Madrid,” he dragged the words out, his tone condescending, “to …how is it you Americans say it…smack around the bush?  I brought you here for your sharpshooting skills.  I was very impressed with what I saw you do in the Olympic Games.   Once you have taken out my worst enemy for me, you will be free to go…unless of course you would like to join me.”

If Johnny was intimidated by the older man’s manner, it didn’t show.  He purposely teetered back and forth in the chair, his balance perfect.  “There’s a really big flaw in your grand plan.  I shoot targets not people.  So unless your ‘worst enemy’ is made of paper or clay, I’m not the man for this job.”   He smiled.

Sandoval was beginning to enjoy the game.  “Oh, but you do shoot people.  You killed three of my soldiers.  I debriefed my men and they each told an astounding story of how you managed to get hold of a very old handgun, load it and sight and shoot three men, armed with automatic weapons, right between the eyes.”

Sorrow clouded the younger man’s eyes; the anger making his body go rigid as he remembered the carnage.  “They killed Gramps and I was defending myself…that’s a hell of a lot different than just drawing a bead on someone and putting a bullet in them just because you have something against them.”

The older man shrugged.  The dead men were, to him, nothing but collateral damage; and of no consequence.  They were paid mercenaries who had chosen their fates.  “The will to survive is strong.  I do not blame you for defending yourself.  Loss of life is a given in any war; however, if my men had performed to the best of their abilities no one need have died in the raid.”

Fuck you, Johnny thought bitterly; the rancor clear when he spoke.  “Oh golly gee…that makes me feel so much better!   Gramps gone, and three men dead by my hand.  And now you want me to kill again!?.   

“Just who pissed you off so bad you’d go to all this trouble to get yourself a sharpshooter?  That you’d take me?”

Sandoval’s face darkened; his jaws tensing, his gaze fixed on something unseen beyond the compound; the jungle.  “General Murdoch Lancer,” he declared; his tone venomous.

Suddenly, Johnny came forward in his chair; a loud thunk coming as the front legs smacked solidly against the wood floor.  “What…who…why?” he stuttered, shock robbing his mouth of moisture making it hard to form his words with a tongue that felt like it had expanded and was sticking to his palette. Johnny placed his right hand over his heart, rubbing at the tight sensation in his chest caused by its frantic throbbing; fearing Sandoval would be able to see it beating.  He fought the urge to laugh hysterically.  This fool didn’t know the horror he had called upon himself.  He didn’t know what a possessive, single-minded SOB Murdoch Lancer was when it came to protecting his own: his country or his sons; or what it would mean to go up against the hard-headed patriot and self-righteous warrior who had at his disposal weapons of mass destruction, a man who would not hesitate to use them.

Johnny sobered immediately when he realized the mad man sitting across from him had no idea Murdoch Lancer was his father.

Sandoval studied the young man before him, his eyes narrowing in suspicion as he tried to decipher the reason for the obvious battle going on within the youth as he struggled to regain control of his emotions.  “Do you know of General Lancer?” the man asked, his voice deceptively soft.

Schooling his face in a desperate attempt to avoid giving away too much information, Johnny met the other man’s intense scrutiny head on.  He shrugged.  “Just what I’ve read in the headlines, heard on the news,” he answered.  It wasn’t much of a stretch.  Most of what he knew about his Old Man came from what other people had told him.  “People talk like he’s some kind of hero.  One of those holier-than-thou do-gooders more concerned with the world’s problems than his own.”  Bitterness colored Johnny’s tone and a scowl marred his handsome features as he spoke.

The answer seemed to satisfy Sandoval.  What did young ones like this know of war and warriors?  Certainly, this one had no respect for his elders.  “You seem to have a problem with…heroes?”

Johnny had tipped his chair back again and the rocking back and forth had resumed.  “I reckon I consider him just as much a dictator as you are.  Givin’ orders, makin’ a living out of tellin’ people what to do, what to think.  I wouldn’t say he’s my kind of hero.  To me a hero is the man who gets up and goes to a job every day, pays his bills, puts food on the table and a roof over the head of his family.   A man who raises his kids himself… tends to his own business first…” Johnny stopped abruptly when a sharp rap on the door interrupted him.

“Enter,” the General barked.

The door swung open and one of Sandoval’s mercenaries marched in.  His bearing was stiff and severe though the pursing of his lips and twitching of his dark eyes gave away his distress about something.  He came to a stop next to the table and handed the General a folder with several sheets of paper.  Johnny grimaced at the body odor wafting around the man.  He wanted to gag when he realized the soldier was wearing the same clothes he had the day before when he helped abduct him because he had chili stains splattered on his pants.  Turning his attention to Sandoval, Johnny watched as he read the file.  He knew the news in it must not have been good when the General huffed, his nostrils flared and his knuckles turned white as he tightened his grip on the folder.

All of a sudden a sadistic gleam lit Sandoval’s dark eyes and his mouth curled into a wicked grin.  Unaware that his guest was fluent in Spanish, he conferred with his man without regards to Johnny’s presence.  “So General Lancer has abruptly left the country.  Perhaps he has given up on finding my new compound…though I doubt that, since he is still angry about the massacre of the last village that helped him.  Lancer might be persistent but he is not ruthless enough to take me on.  He would never use innocent men, women and children to advance his goals.  He is too bound by his sense of fair play and justice, for his misplaced regard for life.  I have no such problem; I will annihilate anyone or anything that gets in my way.

“Lancer’s absence may work to our advantage,” he announced, continuing his rant.    “This gives me time to persuade our young sharpshooter to carry out the task he was brought here for.  Dismissed.”

His just eaten breakfast churned in his stomach as Johnny tried to act nonchalant about the callous and calculating words he had just been privy to.  Remorse filled his conscience for all the times he thought his father was an uncaring man.  The bitter truth soured his stomach further as he thought back to Christmas and the fiasco their family celebration had turned into because of his own unwillingness to try and get along with his father.  Scott had tried to tell him then that he would realize one day just how unfairly he was in judging their father; that the man’s problem wasn’t that he didn’t care, but that he cared too much.  That day had arrived and Johnny now found himself in his father’s boots…in the position of being the one to put a member of his family in danger.  Regret pulled shameful memories from his mind as he considered the times over the years his father had tried to reach out and connect with him on their infrequent vacations and how he had rebuffed him.  All the grief he heaped on his father only added to what he now understood was most likely the man’s sorrow…not indifference.

Sandoval observed his young captive as Johnny’s once stoic countenance betrayed a myriad of emotions, the younger man sucking in the corner of his lower lip and biting down so hard a thin trickle of blood appeared; blood that was immediately swept away by a quick, asp-like flick of the youth’s tongue.

A shiver of apprehension snaked up the General’s spine as he realized the young man was aware he was being observed, and the boyishly soft face was instantly transformed into a detached mask of icy indifference.  The shining blue eyes that had glowed with life suddenly seemed to promise death with a calm apathy.  It was an unsettling feeling to have that glare turned on him.  Trying to shake the ominous sensation the last few moments had generated, Sandoval decided to reassert his control.

“Mr. Madrid, it seems you will have a few days to decide to comply with my demands while we try to find General Lancer…I have no doubt he will eventually return looking for me.  In the meantime you are free to roam the compound.  It is useless for you to try to escape.  The fence is electric and there are alarms all over.  I also have men on patrol at all hours, so make no mistake about it; if you try to escape you will be shot.”

Oh make no mistake about it, Johnny mused.   General Murdoch Lancer will be back; and it will be a lot sooner than you think, you sick bastard.   And then — even if it means he has to go along for the ride — he’s going to send you straight to Hell.


Removing his jacket and hanging it on the back, Johnny dropped down into the rocker that sat on the narrow front porch of the little house.  He watched as the General strode purposefully away.  His thoughts turned to all the atrocities he had witnessed since arriving, how uncaring and callous these people were about life; even Imelda and her plans to sell a baby like you would vegetables grown in a garden.  These people didn’t care whose life they ruined as long as they made a profit.

Shame coursed through the younger man; deep remorse that he had ever thought his father was the least little bit like Sandoval.  He realized now that as long as there were people like the rogue General, there needed to be honorable warriors like his father to balance things out.  At last he understood why his father had to be hard and ruthless in the way he dealt with the enemy; and he wished more than anything that now — right now — he could tell his father that.  This eye opening experience filled him with a deep regret; his memories of how he had behaved at Christmas, the disgraceful and disrespectful way he had treated his father throughout the brief holiday, coming back to tear at his heart, his very soul.   The oppressive heat of the jungle and its discomfort were forgotten as his thoughts took him back to Christmas at Harlan Garrett’s hunting lodge in snowy Maine.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

The four wheel drive Land Rover hugged the icy road, driven with precision and ease by Jelly.  Johnny sat in the passenger seat, a petulant pout etched on his dissatisfied face.  His resentment kept him from enjoying the sparkling blanket of white that covered the surrounding woods like a scene painted for Currier and Ives.

“You’re so quiet over there I believe I could hear a mouse pissing on a cotton ball,” Jelly joked, trying to draw some sort of response other than this ill-tempered silence from his surrogate grandson.

A loud sigh was Johnny’s only response, which caused his frown to deepen.  He shifted in his seat and turned his head, so that Gramps had a nice view of the back of it, unaware that Jelly could see his face in the reflection of the window.

“Come on Johnny, don’t be like this.  You know you’ll enjoy spending time with Scott.  It was real nice of Harlan to offer to host us all for Christmas in the privacy of his hunting lodge.  We’ll be able to celebrate yours and Scott’s birthdays together for the first time in years.”

Turning to face his guardian, Johnny yawned largely, his jaw making a popping sound from his effort.  “Yeah.  I’m happy about seeing Scott.  I’m just not looking forward to being ordered around by the Old Man…” he quickly corrected himself when he saw Jelly’s stern frown, “…Murdoch, and my every action criticized like I’m some soldier in his command.” He took a deep breath, intending to stop, but was too wound up to keep quiet.  “Not to mention I damn sure don’t like it when he blames you for something I did.  What the hell.  He couldn’t be bothered to raise me, so he goddamn well shouldn’t be knocking the job you did!”

Jelly concentrated on the road, his thoughts elsewhere.  Johnny had recently gotten into the bad habit of swearing when he was having trouble holding his temper.  He decided on a brief lecture.  “Johnny, I’ve told you enough times I don’t want you usin’ those cuss words!”  The old man felt a twinge of guilt at his near hypocrisy.  He had developed a pretty colorful vocabulary during his years as a gunnery sergeant; but a Texan’s sense of gallantry had assured that he never swore in polite company, and certainly not in front of women or young children.  He’d been especially careful after he had been named Johnny’s guardian, and the toddler had developed a unique talent for repeating everything he heard.

Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest, the collar of his jacket hiding the smile.   He had the good sense not to laugh.  “Sorry, Gramps.”

Jelly nodded.  He decided to take advantage of the youngster’s contriteness.  “Now, about your daddy.  Ain’t you learned by now that’s just his way?  You can bet the farm if he was really dissatisfied with my methods he would have replaced me long ago.  Besides, I don’t listen to most of what he spouts off about; it’s just Murdoch blowing off steam.  Here we are,” he announced with a grunt as he maneuvered the Rover up the circular drive to the front of the lodge.

Before they could release their seatbelts, the front door of the house opened and Murdoch and Scott Lancer stepped out, looking relaxed with cheerful smiles on their faces as they strode straight to the SUV.  Johnny shivered as Scott pulled his door open and cold air rushed in around him.  He didn’t have time to protest as he was immediately captured in a headlock and pulled from the car.  Spying the large snowdrift he was being dragged towards the struggle was on; though both brothers were laughing so hard they were in danger of falling.

“BOYS!  Stop the rough housing and let’s get this car unloaded,” ordered their father.

Johnny was released so quickly he ended up on his backside.  If there had been a physical heat to the resentment he felt at already being barked at, the snow around him would have melted instantaneously in to a raging torrent river.  He glared at his father as Scott marched obediently towards the vehicle to help.  “I’m tired.  I’ll unload my stuff later,” Johnny stated in contrary protest.

“The sooner we get this car unloaded the sooner you can settle in and relax,” Murdoch insisted, the flat lines of his pressed lips advertising his displeasure at his dictates not being jumped to.

Jelly and Scott sighed as the battle of wills started before they could even get in the house.  Leaning into the back of the Rover they rolled their eyes at each other.

“Hard headed doesn’t even begin to describe those two…there’s marble, granite, and then the Lancer head,” mumbled Jelly.

“Hey…I have a Lancer head too!” Scott chortled.

Turning with the first load of suitcases in their hands, they shook their heads at the stand-off between father and son.  In an effort to smooth things over Jelly called out, “Johnny, this shouldn’t take but one trip with the four of us to carry it all, let’s do it now so we can get in out of this cold.”

“Okay, Gramps,” Johnny agreed, smirking at his father as he stood and brushed the snow from his pants and immediately went to follow Jelly’s suggestion, letting his father know who had the most influence over him.

Scott frowned at his brother for his deliberate attempt to hurt their father.  Johnny shrugged nonchalantly as though to say he asked for it, as he reached in the car and grabbed an armful of packages.

Murdoch took up the last few items.  “I don’t know why you put up with such insubordination from him, Jelly.  You never put up with that kind of behavior from recruits or soldiers in your platoon,” he groused.

“I never wiped their behinds or took them to sit on Santa’s lap either,” Jelly pointed out. “Johnny isn’t a recruit or soldier and Christmas will be a lot more pleasant if you wouldn’t treat him like one.”

Despite Jelly’s sarcastic though serious remark and suggestion, not a day of the holidays went by without father and son butting rock hard heads over some detail, minor or otherwise. The memories of the various battles once again set the young man’s stomach to churning as he recalled the angry words they had spat at each other and thought how insignificant they seemed now.  One argument had occurred when his father had bellowed about the disordered mess on Johnny’s side of the room that he was sharing with Scott.

“It looks like a damn cluster bomb exploded in this room,” snapped Murdoch, as he leveled a disapproving glare on his youngest son after entering the room and having to kick aside clothes, shoes and ski equipment.

“So, Scott’s grandfather said to make myself at home so I did.  A little clutter never killed anybody,” Johnny replied.

Grinding his teeth in irritation over the nonchalant attitude, Murdoch retorted, “Do you think it’s fair to your brother to have to wade through this mess coming and going?”

Staring at his father for the span of a heartbeat, running his tongue over his teeth and fighting the urge to stick it out, Johnny turned to Scott and inquired, “Do you want to switch sides of the room so my mess will be away from the door…I can monitor, adjust and adapt too.”  The little dig using one of his father’s favorite phrases hung heavy in the air.  

Studying the smirk on his brother’s face and the displeasure on his father’s, Scott had thrown his hands up and stated, “Oh no, you two are not putting me in the middle of this.”  The blond had marched from the room muttering under his breath.

Tension between them escalated when his father harped about his habit of interrupting his elders.   They had all been sitting around the lodge’s fireplace enjoying a late evening snack of coffee and cake when his father once again pounced on his manners.

“Johnny!  Harlan was speaking and your shouting across the room to Scott has completely drowned him out!  That’s the same as interrupting him; and it was very rude of you!”

Johnny’s frown was instantaneous; as was his snotty response.   “I guess I got that habit from you. You just did the same thing; hollerin’ across the room at me!”

Murdoch’s back immediately straightened.  “I was pointing out the error in your manners, young man!  Don’t smart off at me.”

The sarcastic retort he wanted to sling at his father died on his tongue when his eyes caught the subtle shaking of Jelly’s head and the pleading look on his face.  Sighing in defeat, Johnny conceded, “I’m sorry Mr. Garrett.  I’ll move closer to Scott so I won’t be so loud.”

It was bad enough his father accused him of being manner-less but it had really stung when the Old Man complained that his hair was too long and he didn’t weigh enough.  It really made him feel low to think his father had problems not only with his actions but also physical being.

“Johnny, would you please stop running your hand through your hair at the table.  You’re going to dislodge hair and get it in the food,” groused Murdoch.

“Well excuse me for wanting to see what I’m eating,” Johnny snipped.

Murdoch’s tone matched his son’s.  “Then I suggest you get a haircut; because from the looks of you, you haven’t been seeing very well at all.  You’re much too skinny for your height,” he said, his tone softening; a hint of genuine worry in his voice.

Jelly put down his fork.  “Now, Murdoch, I can tell you the boy eats like a horse.  He just burns it off easy because he never slows down.  Not to mention this isn’t the type food he’s used to.”

Murdoch was doing an admirable job of maintaining his temper.  He was not doing so well with his mouth, and his tone was the same as if he were calling a subordinate to task for failing to his duty.   “Then perhaps you should make sure he slows down long enough to take nourishment.  You know at eighteen most male bodies have not finished growing.  I’m hoping Johnny’s next growth spurt will see him attaining the Lancer tallness. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt him to expand his taste palate.”

Jelly’s cheeks flushed and he was finding it extremely difficult to hold his tongue and not remind his former C.O. he was retired and no longer under his command.   “Well, hell’s bells, Murdoch, what do you want me to do; breast feed him?”, he muttered under his breath.  His outlandish statement caused the others to chuckle and Johnny’s appetite to abandon him.   Beneath the table, Jelly patted the younger man’s knee, keeping his hand in place until Johnny’s leg stopped dancing.    He turned to face Murdoch, his tone more serious.   “I make sure he has a good breakfast every morning and a balanced meal at night,” he declared.  “The boy does just fine.”

On another occasion he had been trapped on the ski lift with Murdoch, seriously considering jumping as his father lectured about him applying himself to school and his studies.  Murdoch had been livid at finding out Johnny was going to have to repeat a full semester, in spite of a 4.0 grade average.  At issue had been the number of days he had missed because of suspensions after a series of wildly idiotic pranks; which had concluded with a so-called physics experiment in the girls second-floor washroom: namely to see how many Styrofoam cups you could flush down the john before the entire system backed up.  Then, to compound the problem, he had diverted the letters written to Jelly regarding his transgressions and his punishment; crowning the whole affair by forging Jelly’s name and a smarmy letter written to the school board to get himself reinstated.

What had finally done him in was the plumbing bill forwarded to Murdoch at his address in Washington.  He hadn’t known that the bill for his school credit card, or any expenses that exceeded a certain dollar amount went directly to his father.

The plumbing bill for snaking out the sewer pipe, pumping the septic tank and retrieving the forty-two Styrofoam cups had been more than twelve hundred dollars. 

Cold air bit at Johnny’s exposed face, turning it red and chapped looking, which thankfully camouflaged the burn of embarrassment that was also coloring his cheeks as his father carried on about his education and his past sins.  Watching the puffs of condensation that formed as Murdoch’s heated words poured from his mouth, Johnny couldn’t help but snicker as he thought it sure illustrated the phrase steaming mad.

Murdoch’s reaction to the laughter had been swift and stern.  They had just reached the summit and had dropped from their chairs when Murdoch reached out a firm hand and gave his son a sudden shake.  “I don’t know what you just found so funny you had to snicker out loud, young man.  I happen to think your education is a serious subject!”

Johnny’s retort was instantaneous and blatantly defiant.   “So do, I!  And In case you didn’t notice when Jelly sent you my last transcript I had an A in every class.  Most of those absences you’re carrying on about were excused due to commitments and appearances dealing with my spot on the Olympic Shooting team.  I even earned work study units for the time I was in Beijing for the games,” Johnny stated in exasperation.  With the short sightedness of youth (and a pang of conscience at some half-truths), he reasoned that since his grades hadn’t suffered, the days he missed cutting class shouldn’t even be a factor.

“Well, see that you keep these grades up.  Since you’re capable of it there’s no excuse not to excel each time,’ Murdoch huffed, missing the look of disappointment on his young son’s face over not receiving any praise for his achievement.  “But the fact remains, while the days you missed preparing for Beijing were excused, the times you missed after you returned when you skipped school and ended up on suspension; put you well over the limit for permissible absences!  If I hear you’re skipping again, or pulling another asinine prank, or giving Jelly anymore grief, I’ll hire a body guard to escort you to school and attend classes with you to make damned sure you stay until ending bell!”

In Johnny’s mind, at that instant, his father had just issued yet another challenge.  Avoiding the man’s harsh glare and orders to slow down, he jabbed his ski poles into the fresh powder and pushed off.  Purposely, he headed straight for the steepest slope; not giving a damn as he plunged down the mountain at break neck speed.

And so it had gone, through the entire Christmas vacation.  It seemed like his father had found the relative privacy of Harlan’s lodge the ideal opportunity to expound on his youngest son’s flaws, real or perceived, at every turn.  Their last night together, as they were leaving for a final dinner at Harlan’s favorite restaurant, Johnny  — since he wasn’t legally old enough to consume alcohol — had volunteered to be the designated driver. His father had jumped on the chance to bring up his speeding tickets.

Rushing ahead of the others as they traversed the snowy path from the lodge to the car, Johnny good-naturedly shouted, “I’ll be designated driver, that way y’all can have as much as you want to drink with supper.”

Murdoch had hauled his youngest son up short.  “Oh, no, I don’t think so young man.  I’m quite aware of the two speeding tickets you received this year.  I’m not about to let you, your lead foot and your propensity to think the posted speed limit is a challenge, drive under conditions you aren’t used to.”

Smacking the top of the Rover in frustration, Johnny said, “Big fat fucking deal…so I got two speeding tickets, at least I’ve never been in a wreck and I happen to know none of you can claim that.”

His father had begrudgingly conceded, but had ruined the victory by being the worst kind of backseat driver, never shutting up and continuously stomping the imaginary brake pedal under his feet.

By the time they reached their destination everyone’s nerves were on edge.  The older men had the luxury of being able to order a before dinner drink to settle theirs, while Johnny had to make do with a coke flavored with imitation rum extract.  It hadn’t helped that the smart-assed waitress, all caught up in flirting with Scott, had put a paper umbrella and a straw in the glass.

They placed their food order and an uneasy truce was enjoyed as they waited.  The conversation turned to the activities of the past two weeks.  The momentary illusion of family unity was shattered when Scott passed Johnny the digital camera to review the pictures taken on one of their ski trips.  As he reached for the camera, his sweater sleeve pulled, exposing his right wrist and the henna tattoo of crossed revolvers with bullets exploding from their barrels. Johnny jerked in surprise when his father’s large hand clamped around his forearm, pulling the limb towards his disapproving eyes.

“When the hell did you get a tattoo?  I didn’t authorize this!  Do you know how easy it is to get an infection from those needles?”  Turning his ire on Jelly, Murdoch hissed, “Did you allow this? I thought you kept a better eye on him than this…do I need to remind you he is still under twenty-one?”

Jelly sighed and looked Heavenward as he mouthed a silent prayer for an extra helping of patience.  And he wanted it now.   “For your information, General Lancer, yes, I know all about it.  It’s not a real tattoo; it’s a henna transfer, and it washes off over time.  And yes I know Johnny is still under twenty-one, but he doesn’t need watching every second, he has to build up to independence.  You have to turn them loose to test their wings before their legal emancipation,” Jelly retorted, his last words deliberately chosen to sting with their connotation of Johnny having been little better than a slave, a mere possession of his father.

Johnny’s meal had been pushed about his plate and arranged and rearranged into little piles in an attempt to make it look as though he had eaten.  He had finally given up on the pretense of eating and dropped his fork on the china with a noisy clatter.  He sat eerily quiet, his arms hugged about his torso and his head bowed, observing the others through the fringe of his eyelashes due to his partially closed eyes.    The three older men had carried on a stilted conversation that was as awkward feeling as Johnny’s stony silence.     

The next morning as the brothers packed for their departure, Scott had tried to convince Johnny that the reason their father went on and on about some seemingly minor things, was because it was his way of trying to feel like he had some influence over the raising of his son.  That his criticizing was actually his way of showing he cared and was more involved in his life than he was actually able to be.

Padding softly up behind his brother, Scott wrapped his arms around the slender young man and embraced him tightly.  Resting his chin on Johnny’s shoulder, Scott turned his mouth towards Johnny’s ear; his breath, as he spoke, disturbed the wispy strands of black silk, tickling the shell of the younger man’s ear, as well as his own lips.

“Johnny, it might not feel like it but our father does love you.  He felt powerless when you and Maria were kidnapped, and then when your mother was killed he felt guilty that her death was solely to hurt him and dissuade him from continuing to fight the drug cartels.  He let the world think his youngest son was dead so you would never be used against him again.  His mind had been battling his heart over his decision since the day he placed you in Jelly’s arms and walked away as you screamed for him.  I’ll confess I think he went a bit too far in his efforts but that’s only because he was and is still trying to convince himself he did what was best for you.  You have every right to hate the separation and the circumstances that caused the situation but until both of you realize despite time and distance and you do love each other…well then I don’t see you getting along at all.  You both need to forgive each other.”

Johnny’s body stiffened while wrapped in his brother’s arms, his mouth was pursed tightly and his chin trembled almost imperceptibly.  He sighed deeply, a soul weary expression of his inner turmoil and grief.  “I can admit I love him, hell I’ve spent my life trying to get his attention and respect but I’m not the one that left him, he left me…like you said so I couldn’t be used against him.  Don’t you see to me it feels like he was saving himself heartache, not me?  I’m the one that got left out in the cold.”

The brothers jerked apart as their father marched into the room and immediately churned up the emotions in Johnny that Scott had just managed to somewhat soothe.  They grimaced as Murdoch cast a critical eye about the room, noting that a good share of Johnny’s belongings were still scattered haphazardly about.  Scott’s luggage was packed and stacked neatly on the foot of his bed.

“Johnny, what in the world have you been doing all morning?  You’ve had just as long as Scott to get your stuff organized and packed,” Murdoch chastised as he grabbed a sweater and began to roll it military style to pack it.

“In all fairness, sir, I didn’t have as much to pack since I keep my ski equipment and winter clothes here,” Scott explained.

“Don’t worry, Boston, you don’t have to defend me.  He’s just anxious to get rid of me again.”  Johnny shrugged.  “Won’t be that long ‘til I turn twenty-one,” he declared, although — inwardly — he felt like it would be an eternity before it actually occurred.  “Once that happens…”  Another shrug and a burst of grim laughter; as if it didn’t matter one bit, “…he won’t have to bother arranging any more fuckin’ phony family reunions, or waste his precious time playin’ daddy.  I’ll pick the time and the place; when I feel like it.  Yep.  He can concentrate full time on what he really wants, what’s really important; the corps.  Hell, the day I turn twenty-one, he can legally put me as out of his mind, as he’s put me out of his sight all these years,” he finished, his face schooled to show his supposed indifference, though his blue eyes glittered with rejection.

“Now hold on a minute,” Murdoch declared, the shock at Johnny’s words paling his face.  He was too startled to even reproach his son for the foul language.  “I’ve never said any such thing.”

“You didn’t have to say it!  Like you’ve always pointed out, actions speak louder than words, old man,” snapped Johnny.  He turned on his heel and stormed from the room; too caught up in his own pain to acknowledge the agony that turned his father’s face a sickly shade of ash-grey.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Hot sweat trickling down his forehead to mingle with the tears that had spilled from his eyes pulled Johnny from his ruminations on Christmas.  He lifted his arm to swipe away the wetness; giving up as he realized his shirt was clinging to his body.  The steamy heat of the surrounding jungle did nothing to warm the cold shame that currently chilled his soul over his actions and hurtful words during the holidays.  Yet despite all the years of needless grief and sorrow they had caused each other, Johnny knew deep down in his heart that his father loved him and that the man would move heaven and hell to find him.  Admitting that allowed a ghost of a smile to play across his lips as the warmth of it spread through his being.  The truth of it continued to blossom in his soul and he took comfort in the surety that his father would do what he had always done…take care of his own, whether anyone else agreed with the way he chose to do it or not.  Briefly, Johnny had thought of trying to make a run for it, to escape into the surrounding jungle but now he decided he would sit right here and wait for his father.  A light chuckle bubbled past the smirk on his lips as he set the rocker in motion, like he didn’t have a care in the world.

As Johnny rocked, trying hard to fight the lethargic malaise caused by the residue of drugs still in his system, his family and ATF Team Seven were arriving at the private airfield on Lancer Ranch.  With quiet efficiency and extraordinary speed, they transferred their gear into the transport plane. After a quick and thorough check of the cargo, the men settled into place in the Spartan hold for the long ride.  The large plane rumbled as it taxied down the runway, the noise of the thrumming engines making normal speech impossible; and what little communication that took place was a series of hand gestures; ending with a thumbs up as the heavy plane lifted off, slowly gained altitude, and rose steadily until it cleared the mountains, and then banked sharply to the south.    

Although he was relieved to be in the air and on the way to the rescue of his youngest son, Murdoch Lancer couldn’t alleviate the coil of tension that had his body rigid from the ends of his hair to the tip of his toes.  In an attempt to allay his worries, he turned his attention to the study of the rescue team.  It felt good to have Jelly by his side again.  The veteran old war dog was calm personified as he reclined back against the wall of the plane.  For all intents and purposes it looked like Hoskins was sleeping, but the General knew the older man was merely centering himself and concentrating on reviewing every aspect of their plan.  By the time they landed he would have any possible problems identified and a solution to correct it.

Next he observed his oldest son.  He had no doubts about Scott’s ability to do whatever the situation called for; no matter how difficult the task.  An intense moment of pride temporarily assuaged the stress that made him feel as though he might implode.  Many of his fellow officers in the different branches of service had sung Scott’s praise after working with the young officer’s Seal team.  His elder son had always been highly motivated, had always excelled.  But this time it was personal.  Scott, he knew, would move heaven and hell to get his little brother back.  General Carlos Sandoval was about to find out that it was bad enough to have one Lancer pissed off at you…and lethal to have two!

Three, he corrected himself; a grim smile appearing on his stoic face as he considered that Sandoval was already dealing with the most ornery of the Lancers.  A slight chortle pushed past the tight press of his lips as he imagined the rogue General trying to deal with the recalcitrant youth.  Under the best of times, Johnny could be trying and when he felt like the world was being unfair to him, he could be downright unbearable and uncontrollable.

Murdoch’s thoughts turned from his sons to the ATF team that had joined with him on the mission.  He had heard of Larabee.  The man was a true legend, having led one of the most effective Seal teams ever.  Captain Chris Larabee was known as the go to man, if you needed a job done; done fast and done right.  Buck Wilmington was Chris’ second in command, as well as the team’s explosive expert.  He had a reputation for being a ladies man with a happy go lucky view of life, however it didn’t pay to under-estimate the romantic rake; he knew his job and knew it well.  The team’s profiler, Josiah Sanchez was a former Army helicopter pilot who returned from Vietnam to attend college on the GI Bill and soon made a name for his self in the criminal psychology field.  A smirk trembled across Murdoch’s lips as he studied Nathan Jackson, the former Army medic turned civilian paramedic.  It made good sense that Larabee would want a medical officer on his team of rough necks.  He doubted any of the members of the team made Jackson’s job very easy, and it was probably a hard row to hoe to get them to follow medical advice.

A flash to Nathan’s right captured his eye, and when he turned to look he realized it came from the deck of cards the undercover agent, Ezra Standish, was shuffling.  Standish he knew only by reputation.  Unlike the other members of the team, there were no official photographs or picture ID’s that could be culled from agency files or the internet; as the man’s identity was kept to a need to know status due to the fact many of the alphabet agencies employed his unsurpassed skills as a chameleon and a mole.  There were few organizations Standish hadn’t managed to penetrate; and he had always been able to walk away.  

Murdoch had no doubts that the five experienced men would be great assets in this mission but he worried about the last two agents, the youngest of the group, who were not that much older than Johnny.  Currently the two men in question were tumbling about the floor, wrestling off their excess energy like weanling wolf cubs.  The rest of the team watched in amusement as they grappled with each other. John Dunne or JD as he was known, the team’s computer and surveillance expert, looked younger than his twenty-one years but according to Larabee it would be a mistake on anyone’s part to misinterpret that youthfulness for inability.  In fact, Murdoch had been quite impressed by some of his input during the planning session for the mission.

His attention turned to the sharpshooter, Vin Tanner, a former black ops Airborne Ranger.  Even at his young age of twenty-three, he was known in the military community as the best shooter to ever come out of the Rangers, and he had only been eighteen when he acquired that reputation. While in the service he had been a member of the Olympic Shooting Team, and had won gold medals in several events. He had served four years before mustering out and going to work for the US Marshalls prior to joining Larabee’s team, where he was already considered to be the second in command.  Time and again during the planning of this mission, he had observed the older members defer to Tanner’s thoughts on strategy.

It was hard to see the two youngest — even though intel on the team proved them all highly effective — as being just as skilled as their colleagues; especially when said agents were still rolling about the floor, bouncing off the legs of their team mates as they tried to overpower each other.  Tanner was obviously well trained in some form of martial arts and was using that to try and gain the upper hand.  Dunne had the advantage of weight though.  Vin was around five-ten and extremely slim, whereas JD was shorter and around twenty pounds heavier and took delight in using his stockier frame to pin the other to the floor.

The plane bounced and pitched as they hit turbulence and the two agents were pitched into each other, cracking their heads together.  Jackson immediately dropped to his knees beside them and quickly checked them over and ordered an end to their shenanigans.  Larabee reached out and pulled Tanner back to him until he rested against his knees and leaned over and whispered something in his ear.  Wilmington pulled Dunne onto the bench next to him and shook his finger at him as he apparently chastised him.  The actions brought a smile to Murdoch’s face as it reminded him of how Scott acted with Johnny. He had observed over the last day that Chris seemed to be Vin’s self-appointed big brother and Wilmington served that role for Dunne.  He shook his head as it suddenly dawned on him why they made such a good team, they weren’t just team mates; they were a band of brothers, a unique little family in their own right.

It wasn’t long after being corralled that Vin and JD slipped into a catnap.  Tanner was leaning back against Larabee’s legs, his chin resting on his chest as it rose and fell lightly with his deep even breathing.  Dunne was stretched out on the bench, his head pillowed on Wilmington’s thigh.  Murdoch couldn’t help but think they were just like Johnny, who would go at break neck speed with seemingly boundless energy until you managed to get him still, and then he would drop off to sleep.  He realized Scott was probably thinking the same thing when he caught his eye and mouthed, “Just like Johnny.”

Quiet descended as the two youngest agents slept.  The change in the high pitch whine of the engines as the plane’s altitude decreased in preparation to land for a layover and fueling stop woke them up.  The stop would last for several hours with take-off occurring after dusk, as part of the plan was for them to approach the compound from behind and parachute in under cover of darkness, five miles out.  For the next several hours they ate, double checked their gear and refined the details of their mission.  Finally the hovering sun dipped in the sky, pushed out of sight by the gray edging on the cloak of the coming night.  The crew boarded the transport and as soon as they were airborne the crates with their gear were pushed into place in front of the hatch.

“Why are we going to push the supplies out first?”  JD prattled, his nervousness over the up-coming jump showing.  “Shouldn’t we go first so we can see where it lands?”

Without the least bit of impatience for his colleague, or the benefit of military training, Vin explained; his tone matter of fact; but a glimmer of humor showing in his eyes.  “It’s part of the plan, JD; the military stuff.  If we dump the gear first, and anyone detects the chutes and fires, we get a warning.”  He bit his lower lip in a failed attempt to hide the grin.  “Better they blow a hole in one of the crates, than one of us.  Not to mention it makes more sense to send it in first so we walk forward to the gear; instead of backtracking if we went in first.”

JD returned the man’s grin; appreciating Vin’s use of dark humor to help ease his nervousness.  “Oh, well, as long as it’s going to save time…”

The two agents settled on the benches by their team mates, with parachute packs nestled against their legs.  Twenty-five minutes later the pilot announced five minutes until the drop zone, five miles south of the enemy camp.  The men all stood and donned their parachutes and clipped to the static cable at the side door.  The plane trembled and creaked as the gears for the hatch opened, dropping the crates into the dark abyss of the night sky.  As soon as the last crate cleared the plane, its chute deployed by the static line and cable, Larabee jumped from the side opening followed by Vin, JD, Buck, Ezra, Nathan, Josiah, Scott, Jelly and finally Murdoch.

Due to the dark it was hard for the free-falling men to see each other as they plummeted earthbound.  They could, however, hear it when the chutes deployed with a pop, pouf, and then a snap as the volumes of silk filled with air.  The men floated silently to the ground, light thuds heard as each man landed on the soft bank of the river.  Their timing was so precise they all landed within yards of each other, which meant they wouldn’t have to waste time looking around for any team mates.  The time that had been spent during the layover showing Nathan, Ezra and JD how to safely set down paid off as each of them managed to bring themselves in like they had been making jumps for years.

Working silently, the men struggled from their harnesses, the less experienced members watching as those with jump histories began to stuff their chutes back in the packs.  Larabee and Tanner finished first and they moved to the crates, releasing them from the lines that had secured the chutes; cramming the unfurled silk back into their containers.

“Vin, you, JD and Ezra take care of the chutes,” Chris ordered.

“Alright, Cowboy,” Tanner replied as he pulled two lengths of rope from one of the crates.  Scanning the shadowy trees along the river bank, Vin chose one and marched towards it.  As he passed the pile of chutes he grabbed two and — without breaking stride — instructed, “Ezra, JD, y’all grab them packs and follow me.”

Stopping at the tree he had chosen, Vin coiled one rope and hung it around his neck and shoulder.  He handed the other piece to Standish and Dunne.  “Y’all thread this rope through the shoulder straps of them chute packs and then loop it while I climb the tree.”

Ezra and JD’s mouths dropped open in surprise when Vin turned to the tree, snaked the doubled bull rope around the trunk, and rapidly “rope-climbed” straight up like a monkey.  As he disappeared into the upper branches thick with foliage, they turned their attention back to their task and quickly strung the packs together.   Just as they finished, the end of the rope Tanner had used to climb the tree dropped out of the leaves, followed by Vin’s soft drawl:  “Y’all tie the end of the rope to the one holding the packs together.”  As soon as the deed was done, Tanner slowly pulled it all up into the tree, well out of sight and tied it off while JD and Ezra moved closer to the trunk of the tree, squinting and trying to spy Vin in the darkness camouflaged amongst the abundant verdant leaves.

The group chuckled when Tanner dropped noiselessly from the tree, swinging swiftly and silently on a vine to a position behind Standish and Dunne, who still had their faces turned upward trying to find him in the branches.  The sneaky sharpshooter tapped the two men on the shoulders, causing JD to jump in surprise; a stream of soft profanities filling the air.

“Don’t y’all know better than to stand looking up in trees what might have snakes in them, just waiting to fall on your heads?” Vin snickered.

Ezra stood with his right hand over his heart and began breathing deeply. “Mister Tanner,” he snapped, “you are decidedly not funny.  Are you perhaps endeavoring to cause a coronary consequence with a lethal conclusion upon my person?”

“Damn, Ezra, can’t you just say he almost stopped your heart; without all those twenty dollar words,” laughed Wilmington.

“Ignore him, Ez.   The last time Vin snuck up on Buck, he had to change his pants because it scared the shit out of him,” JD blabbed, his pale face regaining some color as the blush of embarrassment tinged his cheeks.

“Whoa,” Buck protested.  “Hold on now…I had an intestinal virus!  Vin had no business sneaking up on a man as sick as I was.”

“Sure you did,” Nathan and Josiah called out in unison, though the wicked grins on their faces belied their belief in their own statement.

Larabee raised his hand, effectively bringing a halt to the verbal horseplay; something he had tolerated because he knew the team needed the release.  “That’s enough boys!  Let’s get the supplies unpacked.   We have a lot to accomplish before daybreak.”

The crates were quickly and efficiently emptied.  As each item was unpacked it was placed in a designated area according to which team member would be carrying it; as well as the order in which it would be put to use.  Once every item had been accounted for and checked; the crates were broken down and the slats of wood hidden in a spot covered with vegetation.

Murdoch was heartened to see Team Seven moved in sync like a well oiled machine.  For a moment his worry over his youngest was forgotten as he watched his oldest son work in tandem with the others.  It was quite apparent to his experienced eyes that Scott was a highly trained warrior.  Turning his head he shared a smile with his oldest friend, Jelly, knowing Jelly was assessing Scott’s performance the same way he was.  When he turned back to look at the team he realized one of them was missing.  Startled, Murdoch scanned the leafy area where they had been hiding the remains of the crates, squinting as he endeavored to see despite the darkness.  A quick review of names told him Tanner was missing.   Concerned their presence may have been discovered, the General called Larabee’s attention to the situation.

“Everyone be on guard, we seem to be missing Tanner,” ordered General Lancer in a whisper.

Chris Larabee reacted immediately; his tone much the same as the General’s.  “Damn it to Hell, Vin!  I’m going to kick your scrawny Texas ass if you don’t quit playing your spook games and come out now,” he snarled.

“Ha…ya’ got to find my ass ‘fore you can kick it, Cowboy,” taunted Tanner, his voice floating eerily from the thick vegetation, seeming to surround them as they could not pin point the direction.

No one was able to hold back their gasp, whether it was a soft inhalation or loud air sucking one, when two seemingly disembodied blue eyes miraculously appeared in the shadow of the foliage, followed by a bright white set of teeth; a scene reminiscent of the old TV series, The Swamp Thing.  Tanner snickered as he stepped forward; revealing he had been hiding in plain sight by blending into the shady landscape.  Sniffing dramatically as he moved towards Wilmington, Vin crinkled his nose as though he smelled something definitely less than pleasant.

“What is that smell?” Tanner quipped, stopping right beside Buck.  “Is that ya’ animal magnetism or do ya’ have another intestinal virus?”

Nervous chuckles erupted from the other men as Vin’s actions relieved some of the stress that was building.  Wilmington grabbed the sharpshooter by the head and rapidly gave him a noogie that had him squirming in response.  “You’re just jealous you weren’t blessed with animal magnetism,” teased Buck.

Breaking free from the larger man’s grip, Vin scurried away, sassing back, “I don’t want any, if makes ya’ smell like that.”

“Y’all best get over here and get you something to eat.  We don’t know when we might get another chance once we get to Sandoval’s camp,” instructed Nathan, his propensity for looking out for his team mates’ health coming to the fore.  As an extra precaution, he tossed each team member a foil packet of his own private blend of necessary supplements.

The men swallowed the pills dry as they sorted through the selection of MREs, each choosing the flavor meal they preferred.  Jelly grumbled as he ripped open his meal of beef stew.  “I sure am glad I retired before these danged foil packs became the norm.  Give me some C-Rats and a p-38 any day.”

“Those were the days,” Josiah admitted, “But these packets are a lot more portable and light weight, not to mention easier to open.

“What are C-Rats and a p-38,” inquired JD, his thirst for knowledge rearing its head.

Digging in his pocket, Murdoch withdrew his key ring and searched through it until he came to a curious looking piece of metal.  He pulled on an indented looking area on it and a small triangular blade that hooked downward popped out.  “This is a p-38. It’s a disposable can opener that was packed with canned rations…or C-Rats so they could be opened in the field.  P-38 was the shortened name it was called because it took at least 38 punctures around the top of the can to open it.”

“No shit,” JD marveled, reaching out to touch the piece of metal.  “Looks old,” he observed.

“Eat up,” ordered Larabee, shaking his head at JD’s faux pas.   “We need to get our rucksacks packed with our gear and get under way.”

Moving to sit beside his father and Jelly, Scott commented, “I wonder what Johnny’s doing right now.”  The group grew silent as they ate their meal.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny moaned and his body twitched as he fought to wake up.  His mind was muddled and the back of his head, where his skull met his neck, throbbed, like it was being squeezed in a vise grip.  The pain disoriented him, he couldn’t figure out why he seemed to be laying on a flat horizontal surface when the last thing he remembered was sitting in a rocking chair on Sandoval’s porch.

Trying to lift his arms, Johnny fought the lead weight heaviness of them, struggling to make the limbs rise.  Finally they moved, though the muscles trembled and caused them to jerk about.  He forced his numb hands towards his face.  With fingers that felt thick and unresponsive to his commands, he pinched the bridge of his nose and scrubbed at his crusty eyes, trying to make them open.  When he succeeded in prying them open, he groaned; the blurry unfocused view causing his stomach to revolt.  Gagging, he weakly tried to roll on to his side; jerking violently when he felt a pair of large hands grasp him at the shoulders and hips and turn him.  His vision whirl pooling in and out of focus, he realized there was some kind of container being thrust towards his face; just in time as he lost the battle with his belly.  He retched to the point he broke out in a cold sweat from the cramping of his emptied stomach; the sting of bile burning his throat as he fought back the dry heaves.

“Are you sick, Madrid?” Sandoval asked.

“Hell yes I’m sick…sick and tired of you drugging me!” Johnny snapped, and then wiped his mouth on his sleeve, as memories of what happened flashed through his consciousness.

Sandoval wondered if the boy was telling him the truth; or if the young man had his own supply of drugs hidden somewhere on his person.   “I have not drugged you,” he stated, his tone adamant.  “I left you sitting on my porch.  When I came back to get you for dinner you were gone.  I came here looking for you and found you like this.”

Johnny didn’t believe the man. “Somebody drugged me.  I was sitting in the rocker and the next thing I knew a tall shadow appeared on the floor in front of the chair, and when I tried to turn to see who was there somebody grabbed the back of my head and pushed it down and shoved a needle in my neck.  It made me feel like my bones were melting.  I couldn’t move at all.  I was blinded by a white light, and then I felt like I was sliding into a black hole. Before I passed out completely somebody threw me over their shoulder.”

His vision finally cleared and he glared up at Sandoval, feeling vulnerable laid out on the bed with the tall General frowning down at him.  He realized the man had just frisked him, and tried to twist away when Sandoval reached out and brushed the hair away from his neck and inspected it.

The General scowled at the fresh needle mark he found on his young guest’s neck; and also noted the bruises where someone had gripped him harshly.  He had not ordered anyone to continue the sedation of the young sharpshooter.  He needed the young man’s mind clear of the drugs so he would be able carry out the mission he had planned for him.  “I will find out who did this; and when I do I will personally put a bullet in his head.  Something more is going on here than meets the eye.”

Sandoval’s threat came through loud and clear as he was standing right by a hidden bug when he issued it.  An evil grin slowly crawled across the face of the man listening in on the conversation through an earpiece hidden by his scraggly, greasy locks of hair.  Though his lips were drawn back in a teeth-baring smile that could only be described as crazed and feral, the man’s eyes remained dark without a hint of light or soul.  He felt no sympathy or loyalty to any man; they were just a means to an end.  Attentively, he listened to Sandoval’s next words, mentally cursing as he realized the warlord’s actions were going to seriously limit his access to the sharpshooter.

“Come with me, Madrid,” ordered the General as he pulled Johnny up on the bed.  “You will stay in my quarters.  It will be impossible for anyone to approach you there without my knowledge.”

Johnny struggled to coordinate his limbs; to move and balance himself as he reluctantly followed the General across the compound to his little house; wishing to God he had the strength to run.  The third time he collapsed to his knees, Sandoval tossed him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.  He was awake enough to be embarrassed about being carried, but too weak and addled by the drugs to put up a fuss.  He didn’t even have the energy to answer as he was lowered on to the couch in the General’s house, when the officer remarked he could sleep here as he didn’t think he would want to put Imelda out of her bed.  Nodding, he fell right back into a drug induced sleep.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

The rescuers finished their meal, and then moved on to the task of packing the gear in their rucksacks. Everyone donned a bullet proof vest and secured their handguns and knives before hefting their packed ruck onto their back and picking up their M4 assault rifles; except for Tanner who was carrying his personal M24, bolt action sniper rifle.  JD calibrated the mobile communications center and handed a headset to each man.

“Let me verify and review everyone’s code name.  Speak up and confirm so I can make sure you’re all coming through.  Larabee-Cowboy, Tanner- Geronimo, Wilmington-Scoundrel, Standish- Gambler, Jackson-Doc, Sanchez-Preacher, Scott- Dandy, Jelly-Father Goose, General- Rancher and I’m Chip.”  JD nodded as each man responded with a yea that came through loud and clear as their name was called.

“Let’s get this show on the road,” commanded the General.

The men broke into their pre-arranged groups and moved to the water with their rafts where they pulled the cords to inflate them.  Larabee, Tanner, Wilmington and Dunne put their raft in the lead position.  Sanchez, Jackson and Standish took the middle spot and the Lancers and Jelly climbed into the third and last raft.  They would paddle five miles down the river and then depart the water, hiding their rafts and hiking approximately half a mile to the west of the river to reach the secret compound.

The canopy of the jungle obscured the moonlight at times; leaving the men in an inky blackness that seemed to magnify every sound.  The lap of the water against the rafts, the splash and dip of the paddles as the men maneuvered the crafts and the rustle of the wind through the proliferation of leaves making them whisper, had everyone’s nerves on edge as they processed the origin of each noise.  The current of the river flowed with them and with the excellent physical condition of the men manning the rafts the trip was accomplished in an hour and forty-five minutes. At the five mile mark, the men turned towards the shore.  They beached their crafts and were pleased to see this portion of the river was more recessed; leaving a bank with a sloping and leafy over hang, and it was a simple chore to stow their rafts beneath it.  Chopping some vines with their knives, they covered the inflatables; then back-tracked briefly using moss laden driftwood to hide the drag marks.

“Move out,” ordered General Lancer. Despite his age of fifty-two, he was an extremely fit man and he began a ground eating stride, his long legs and determination propelling him swiftly along.  In single file line they marched through the jungle from tallest to shortest, the General, Buck, Nathan, Josiah, Scott, Larabee, Tanner, Standish, Dunne and Jelly in the rear.

As they approached the compound, they took great care to move stealthily instead of swiftly.  Halting in a thick area of growth, they studied the compound.  They knew from the intel when Standish, Larabee and Tanner had been in the camp that there were four perimeter guards on duty at night.  Each guard had a section of fence that he would patrol from one corner to the other over sporadic intervals.

The first order of business was to disable the electric fence.  The power was supplied directly from the generator building. In his haste to complete his new hideaway, Sandoval had made some serious flaws.  The wire to the fence exited the building via a metal pole that extended up from the roof; crossing the compound at an angle and attached to a wooden pole, just inside the high fence in the eastern corner.

“You’re up, Geronimo. You know what to do,” Larabee whispered.

“Like shooting fish in a barrel, Cowboy,” grinned Tanner as he retrieved his crossbow from Sanchez.  Loading a bolt, he sighted, inhaled, and then gently squeezed the release; letting his breath out as the bolt took flight.  The razor sharp metal tip sliced neatly through the wire as it embedded itself in the pole.  There was a brief spark, but Vin had timed his shot so that the guard was on the opposite end of the fence so it went unnoticed.  Nathan stepped forward and quickly cut an opening in the fence.     

“Initiate phase two, and signal when you accomplish your objective,” instructed the General.  At his words, Larabee, Sanchez, Tanner and Scott broke from the group, slipped through the opening and scattered to the four corners of the compound.

Scott reached his man first and the others were able to see as he approached the man from behind, grabbed him in a choke hold and then swiftly jabbed his neck with the hypodermic he carried.  The man went limp in his arms within ten seconds, and they all breathed a sigh of relief when they heard him declare over the headset, “Dandy, objective obtained.”  Hefting his prisoner in a fireman’s carry he brought him through the fence into the jungle where the unconscious man was gagged and tied to a tree.

The other guards fell like dominos.    

“Cowboy, objective obtained.”

“Geronimo, objective obtained.”

“Preacher, objective obtained.”

Larabee, Tanner and Sanchez appeared at the opening in the fence, their targets slung over their shoulders.  The prisoners were given the same treatment as their comrade; gagged and tied to a tree.

“Initiate phase three,” ordered General Lancer, determination coloring his demand as he felt relief that the plan was proceeding without a hitch.  At his command, Wilmington, with his pack of explosives, and Standish and Jackson with their canisters slipped through the fence.

Wilmington’s objective was to plant remote controlled explosive devices that could be detonated to destroy the camp after they liberated Johnny.   Standish and Jackson had canisters of a potent sleeping gas to release in the barracks.  While Buck scurried from building to building setting up his explosives, Standish disabled the ventilation fan that pulled the hot air from the barracks.  At the same time, Jackson dropped the canister of gas into the intake vent, jerking the slender wire that triggered the pressurized spray; the intoxicating fumes spreading swiftly through the room and rapidly rising to nose level.  After a ten minute wait, they donned their gas masks and entered the building.  Moving silently from bed to bed and attaching each man’s wrist to the metal bar of their bunk with plastic ties, they secured the room within minutes.  They grinned and gave the thumbs up to each other as the last two of the twenty-four men were firmly anchored to their cots.  Their elation over the smoothly proceeding plan increased when they realized there were only four empty bunks…the beds of the four guards that had already been dispatched.  Moving back outside they removed their gas masks and replaced their headsets just in time to hear Buck call in and to add their own confirmation.

“Scoundrel, objective obtained.”

“Doc, objective obtained.”

“Gambler, objective obtained.”

Dawn was breaking as the three men made their way to the building used as the infirmary, where they felt pretty sure Johnny was being held.  They waited with guns at the ready, just in case, for the rest of the rescue party to make their way through the fence.  No one saw the shadowy figure slip out of the building he had just booby-trapped.  When the coast was clear he snuck through the opening cut in the fence by the rescuers and escaped into the jungle.  His grand scheme had failed this time but at least he would live to try again.

Murdoch Lancer marched across the compound as the gray of dawn grew paler with the sun’s illumination.  His long legs ate the distance with the hungry need to rescue his youngest.  Jelly was right on his heels, double timing his own steps to keep pace with the long-limbed Scotsman.  Scott and the rest of Team Seven were fanned out behind them, their assault rifles sweeping the compound from side to side as they advanced.

Murdoch and Jelly stormed into the infirmary, almost shoving each other as they fought to fit through the door.  Jelly’s wiry body managed to slip in first, his enraged disappointment evident as he cried out, “He ain’t here,” upon seeing the empty bed.

“He has to be here somewhere,” Murdoch growled as he slammed open the door to the small bathroom, his anxious eyes scanning the small space for a clue.

Hearing the distressed calls from the infirmary, Larabee sent Scott and Standish into the small building to see what was going on.  The ever fastidious Standish crinkled his nose, at the sour smell permeating the little room.

“What is that horrendous and odiferous stench,” Ezra complained.

Tracking the reeking scent, Scott found the source.  The waste basket contained the emesis of someone who had been sick to their stomach.  “Here’s the origin of the odor, someone vomited and it wasn’t emptied.”

“Oh, God,” Jelly moaned as he sank down weakly onto the mattress, “You don’t reckon …”   He couldn’t even finish the sentence, the thoughts of it too devastating to contemplate.

Outside as the light of day grew brighter, the eagle eyes of the sharpshooter, Vin Tanner, spied the leather jacket Johnny had been wearing when they last saw him, hanging on the back of a rocking chair on the porch of a small house.  “Ain’t that Madrid’s jacket on that chair over there?” he inquired, pointing it out to the rest.

“General, Sir, there’s something out here, you need to see,” called Chris.

The four men exited the infirmary and noticed all the other men had their attention trained on something across the compound.  Scott’s younger eyes spied it first and he gasped, “That’s Johnny’s jacket.”

“Damn straight it is!”  Jelly announced.  “It’s the one I gave him on his last birthday,” Jelly exclaimed as he pushed past the men and broke into a run.

Inside the house, Imelda had awakened to the uncomfortable sensation of her full bladder being kicked into submission by the unborn child.  Getting up to use the bathroom, she decided there was no point in going back to bed.  The child was too active now, and it wasn’t that long until Reveille.  Resigned, she decided to start breakfast.  Walking down the short hall to the main room, she moved towards the front window to open the curtains.  She was startled by the sleeping presence of the young man she had cooked breakfast for the day before.  She debated whether or not she should open the drapes, fearing the light might disturb him, which, she knew, would displease Sandoval.  Then, hearing a voice outside; she peeked out the window and fear robbed her of breath for a minute when she realized there were armed intruders in the compound; and they were making their way towards the house.

Waddling as fast as her pregnant body could go, Imelda crashed noisily into the General’s bedroom and sounded the alarm, interrupting the officer as he dressed.  “General…there are armed men headed this way.”

Too conceited to even consider anyone could find, not to mention, invade his fortress, Sandoval scowled at his cook.  “Go start breakfast, that is the only thing you need to be worried about right now!” he barked.   He picked up his gun and headed down the hall.

Knowing better than to disobey an order from the General, the cook shuffled to the kitchen to begin preparations for the morning meal.

So sure his compound was secure, Sandoval snatched the door open without a thought, not even bothering to look out.  To his great shock he collided with his number one nemesis, General Murdoch Lancer.  His first arrogant thought was he had been talked into kidnapping Madrid for no reason; that he could now take care of his foe on his own.  Before he could raise his gun, the American General grabbed his wrist and twisted it; painfully divesting him of his weapon.

“Where the hell is my son, you murdering bastard!” Murdoch bellowed, slamming his opponent against the side of the house and delivering several star producing punches to his face.

Stunned at the turn of events, Sandoval stammered, spitting blood from his mouth.  “I don’t have your son.  I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

There was a sudden movement to Sandoval’s right; something he couldn’t distinguish as his eye began to swell shut.  Jelly threw the leather jacket to the floor at the man’s feet; charging Sandoval and pummeling him with a series of gut punches.  “Yes, you do have him!  That’s his jacket, you son-of-a-bitch; it has his name on the back!”  Jelly’s next punch was just as solid as the first and was followed by a smashing blow to Sandoval’s face with the haft of his field knife.  Turning the weapon around; he pressed the sharp tip into the soft skin under the man’s chin and threatened him, “You best tell us where Johnny is right now and if he’s hurt, I’ll ram this knife through your head like a stick pin in a cushion.”

The thumps on the wall when Sandoval was slammed against began to draw Johnny from his drug induced slumber.  Fighting the mind numbing effects of the chemicals, it took the youth a minute to process what he heard and the voices that spoke the words.  Tumbling off the couch into a tangled heap on the floor, his arms shook as he forced himself upright, his legs trembling as he staggered to the door and stumbled out to face the risen sun.

At first he couldn’t believe his eyes; almost sure he had to be dreaming.  Johnny shook his head and scrubbed at his tearing eyes but the vision stayed the same, it was the weathered, whiskered face he thought he would never see scowling again.   He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so he did both, “GRAMPS!”

Jelly’s assault on Sandoval ceased as he turned at the sound of Johnny’s voice.   The old man backed away from Sandoval and he lunged forward; grabbing the young man and embracing him in such a tight bear hug they stumbled and fell off the porch.  Murdoch followed them; shoving Sandoval into the capable hands of Sanchez.

“DAD!”  Johnny shouted when he realized the man standing over him was his father.  Struggling to his feet, coated in dirt, sweat and his own filth, he sailed into his father’s arms.   “I knew you’d come…I knew it.”  The simple words, spoken with such child-like faith, melted completely the fear and tension that had almost turned Murdoch’s heart into stone; his face suddenly alive with love.

“Madrid is your son?” Sandoval felt compelled to ask even thought the intensity of their reunion had his eyes confirming what his mind didn’t want to believe.   I wonder if that bastard knew this when he advised me to take Madrid.

Scott approached his brother; tapping the younger man’s shoulder.  “What about me, little brother?  Aren’t you happy at all to see me?” he teased.

“SCOTT!  You came…you all came for me!”  Johnny slammed into his brother in something that ranked between a hug and a wrestling hold.  They were soon joined by their father and Jelly.  The three older members of the family surrounded their youngest, huddling him in the safety of their arms.

The joyous reunion brought smiles of contentment to the faces of Team Seven; and they backed off to give the family some small semblance of privacy.  Their objective had been successful, going off without a hitch.  Rare were the times when a mission of this magnitude could be pulled off without death or bloodshed, but they had managed to do it.  They were woefully unaware that someone else, who could care less about the body count, was going to have the final say.

Oblivious to the outcome of the battle outside, Imelda continued her preparations for breakfast just as General Sandoval had instructed.  After gathering up the ingredients for eggs, potatoes, sausage and toast, she grabbed the coffee pot and washed it out.  Filling it with water she moved to place it on the burner, frowning when her swollen belly connected with the oven door that had been left cracked open.  Muttering to herself that she would be glad when she dropped this last baby and was paid for it, she grabbed a match and struck it.  Had it not been for the noisy window air conditioner she might have heard the hiss of the escaping gas from the oven and all four burners.  Her mind barely had time to register the loud whoosh of the violent fireball that snapped her head back and broke her neck before she even heard the boom.   She was dead before she hit the floor.  The windows on the small house sucked in, and then blew out and the structure was engulfed in flames.

The blast knocked down all the men who had been out in front of the house.  “Buck, you weren’t supposed to blow up the house!” Larabee snarled.

Buck reached up to finger his singed eyebrows.  “That wasn’t one of mine.  I have mine set to explode and burn the buildings from the center out.  That was a gas explosion. I feel sorry for whoever ignited it because there’s no way they survived.”

Sandoval chuckled, his eyes narrowing with sadistic glee in his freshly bruised face as he taunted, “You think you have won but you will never make out of the jungle alive!”  He gestured with an outstretched arm.  “Not all of my men were here!  ¡Usted bastardas estúpidos!  (You stupid bastards!)   There are others, out there, tending my drug fields.  They will have heard the explosion and will return here, and you will all die!”

Buck laughed outright at the man’s lie.  “Good,” he dead-panned.  “They can release the men we tied to their bunks in the barracks.”  His tone hardened.  “We’re going to make it just fine; and you, you ignorant bastard, are coming with us to stand trial.”  He turned to his companion.  “Josiah, do you think you could still fly a transport copter?” he asked.

“It’s like riding a bike, you never forget how,” Josiah stated, grinning widely.

“I’ll co-pilot, Scott volunteered, smiling when he saw the look of surprise on his father’s face.  “I’m qualified on helicopters too.”

“All right!”  Larabee hoorahed.  “Let’s ride,” he ordered.

The group moved towards the hangar, dragging Sandoval along, kicking and cursing his fate.  Nathan finally cold-cocked the irate man, bound his hands with a plastic tie and slung him over his shoulder.  The helicopter was pulled outside to the landing pad and Scott and Josiah climbed in.  They pulled off their headsets and donned the headphones in the cockpit, noting the fuel tank was full; and began their preflight check as the other climbed in.  Flipping switches, the two men soon had the motor going and the rotor in motion.

Buck tapped Sanchez on the shoulder and requested that he hover above the compound.  Taking the remote detonating device from his pocket he began pressing buttons.  One by one the buildings he had targeted exploded, falling in on themselves, flames shooting out of the center of them.  “Too bad Sandoval wasn’t conscious to see that,” he laughed as the copter lifted above the tree level.   

Black tendrils of smoke reached skyward from the burning compound as though they wanted to pull the stolen helicopter from the sky; but the down draft of the rapidly turning blades grabbed them in a vortex, whipping them into insubstantial wisps of dark vapor.  Murdoch, Jelly, Johnny and the rest of the magnificent men of ATF Team Seven peered out the open doors of the aircraft as it circled the compound; pleased to watch Sandoval’s gun and drug empire explode and burn thanks to the charges set by Buck.  The battle won, it never occurred to anyone the beaten and insensate General Sandoval could still be a threat.  The defeated warlord and drug runner lay unconscious in a heap at the back of the chopper; oblivious to the destruction and chaos going on in the clearing below.

Josiah raised his right hand and made a circular motion with his fist; smiling when Larabee gave him a single nod.  “One more pass,” he said to Scott.  He grinned across at the blond.  “Larabee likes to let Buck have one more good look at a job well done; so he remembers how to do it the next time.  He’s kinds a spoiled that way, and we just go along for the ride.”

Scott joined the man’s laughter.  His seal team had had their little rituals too.  “I’m game,” he said.

The copter banked left to begin the next circuit.

Sandoval inched forward on his belly like a serpent, his dark beady eyes twitching with nervous alertness.  The noisy thump of the rotating blades pretty much insured he would not be detected by sound but he had no way of knowing when one of the men might turn around.  Cold sweat beaded on his bruised face as he moved in minuscule increments towards his goal, the large field knife he had spied under the bench seat.  Reaching his objective, he heaved a sigh of relief as his hands grasped the deadly weapon. Holding the knife, he braced his hands on the floor and worked himself up onto his knees, and then pushed back and sideways until he ended up sitting on his behind with his back pressed to the bench, directly behind Johnny.  Holding the handle of the knife between his knees, he sawed feverishly at the plastic tie binding his wrists.

The helicopter banked to make its final turn, the shift causing the men to pull away from the doors to get ready to settle in for the ride.  As Johnny scooted back, Sandoval took his chance, swiftly pulling the young man to his chest and pressing the razor sharp blade to his vulnerable throat.

Insanity and anger fueled the man’s actions and words.  “I have your precious brat now General Lancer and shall we say the sins of the father will be visited upon the son.  You took what I held most dear and now I will return the favor,” Sandoval threatened as he maneuvered his body and Johnny’s towards the open hatch of the helicopter.

Time seemed to stand still, and the wicked words hung heavily in the air; robbing the occupants in the air craft of the ability to breathe.  Everyone froze in place, paralyzed with fear for Johnny’s life…everyone but one person.  Almost faster than the human eye could detect, with a flash of silver, Murdoch Lancer’s Glock was in his hand, the trigger squeezed, the bullet released on a true path of retribution. A loud boom echoed in the cabin and a raw puckered hole appeared between Sandoval’s eyes as a thick crimson snake of blood crawled toward the bridge of his nose. The bullet exploded out of his cranium and the beauty of the vivid blue sky behind the evil General’s head was marred by a spray of bright red blood, chunks of broken skull bone and globs of gray matter that swirled and danced in the current caused by the blade draft.

Johnny reached for his father as the knife fell from the limp hand and bounced off his chest.  Murdoch grabbed his son’s wrist and jerked him forward and at the same time his long leg kicked out with a powerful blow to Sandoval’s chin, knocking him head first from the aircraft. Had the man not already been dead he would have heard Murdoch growl, “Lancer takes care of its own.”

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Dozens of reporters greeted the stateside arrival of the plane carrying ATF Team Seven as well as the Lancers.  Word had spread quickly of the joint efforts of the Denver Team and General Lancer to shut down the illegal activities of Carlos Sandoval.  They departed the plane and were immediately caught up in the maelstrom of flashing camera lights and shouted questions.  The tired men blinked against the bright assault as they tried to push their way past the media representatives.  Six members of the ATF team, General Lancer, Scott and Jelly attempted to shield Johnny and the team’s undercover agent, Ezra, from the onslaught by keeping them within the protective circle they formed around them as they marched resolutely towards the airport lobby.

“General Lancer…GENERAL LANCER! Are the AP reports from South America true?  Did you finally take down Carlos Sandoval?  What prompted such a daring daylight raid on your part?” one pushy reporter shouted, shoving a microphone in Murdoch’s face.

“I’m sure you all realize I am not at liberty to discuss anything until all parties concerned have been debriefed.  Now get out of my way,” the General demanded, having finally reached the end of his patience and rope.

Extending his arm Murdoch tried to swipe a clear path through the horde of shoving media representatives.  The few in the front, seeing the anger building on the tall man’s face began to back up, however the rest of the crowd continued to push forward and the result was a clash of bodies that broke the protective circle that had been formed around Johnny and Ezra.  Josiah’s quick thinking saved the confidential identity of their undercover agent as he swiftly used his jacket to shield Ezra’s face.  Johnny was not so lucky.

“It’s Johnny Madrid,” crowed one of the reporters.  “Was the nature of your mission to rescue Madrid?  Was Sandoval involved in the abduction?”

Overzealous journalists surged forward eager to snap pictures and shout questions to the Olympic sharpshooter.  In the melee, Johnny was knocked to the ground and a video cameraman fell on top of him; as numerous others tripped over them.  Murdoch waded into the downed heap of tangled persons and began snatching people up by whatever he could get hold of, his temper rising as it seemed every time he tossed someone aside, a new body took its place in the churning mass.

He had his fill.  The general stepped into yet another fray.  “GET THE HELL OFF OF MY SON!” he roared.

Dead silence reigned as all eyes turned to the enraged General, who by this time had managed to liberate Johnny from the crowd and pulled him into the safety of his arms to hold him tightly against his chest.  Johnny’s heart soared at the very public and loudly shouted announcement by his father.  It looked like Scott was right after all.  Johnny, at last, understood the lengths his father would go to in his efforts to protect what he loved…he saw it and felt it these past days, and then forgiveness filled the deep chasm that once threatened to consume him.  The sensation that he now had a solid foundation under his feet overwhelmed him and satiated his hunger for acceptance.

“You have a prodigal son if you want one…Dad,” Johnny Lancer softly declared. His warm breath seeped through his father’s uniform, chipping away at the icy coating of fear and remorse that had frozen Murdoch’s heart far too long.

“I’d like that very much…son,” Murdoch confessed, placing a long finger under Johnny’s chin and lifting his face upward.  The love he saw shining in the blue eyes, coupled with the boundless relief and joy he felt over the forgiveness he detected in their shimmering depths, allowed him to finally forgive himself. The bonds he had tried so desperately to deny for years snapped back into place adhering father to son.

Turning to face the assembled journalists, who had no doubt just witnessed their tender reunion, Murdoch spoke into the stunned silence.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I will answer one of your questions.  No, I did not go to South America to rescue Johnny Madrid; I went to bring my son home…Johnny Madrid Lancer.”

To The Long Trip Home


July 2009

Additional Disclaimer: I do not own the characters of The Magnificent Seven; they are the trademark property of MGM Television Entertainment.   I have returned them unscathed.
Thanks to MOG for creating the Magnificent Seven ATF Universe.
I do own all original characters in this story but they can’t be stolen and used because I killed them all…bwahahahahaha, some folks just need killing.   


The Lancer, A New Century Series
Authors’ note about the series here

Grief In My Sorrow
The Long Trip Home
Adventures in Brother-Keeping
Trouble in the Air

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