“For years I taught the children of Mesa City as John Tane, and helped my father as Johnny Thunder,” continued the elderly man. “No one, not even my father, knew of my dual identity. Then I met Jeanne Walker, a photographer who came to Mesa City. I also met Madame .44, a masked female bandit. (*) It turned out that Jeanne and Madame .44 were one and the same, and the bandit pose was a blind to let her get close to, and apprehend, the man who killed her father. With my help, she did. She and I were married, and were happy. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Six Gun Showdown with Madame .44,” All-Star Western #117 (February-March, 1961) and “Whatever Happened to Johnny Thunder?” DC Comics Presents #28 (December, 1980).]
“Our happiness was short-lived. A few years after we were married and had a couple of kids, my father corralled a vicious killer by the name of Lucius Bender. He had the nickname of Hell-Bender ’cause of his brutality and ’cause of the reputation he had as a Devil worshipper. Rumor was he’d consorted with the conjure-men of New Orleans; learned their dark ways. Nobody believed it, of course. My father arrested him for armed robbery and murder, and he was hanged. That should have been the last we heard of him. But it wasn’t, not by a long way.
“Not long after that, my father started to change. Subtle at first, but soon it was clear that he’d gone right out of his mind. Finally, he shot the mayor of Mesa City dead in the middle of church and announced that he was taking over the town. I didn’t understand what had happened to him, but it became my sad duty to bring my father in. I chased him to an old barn and cornered him there, and when we were alone I learned the truth from my father’s lips, though it wasn’t him speaking to me. It was Lucius Bender.
“Bender told me that he’d learned the art of transmigration from the conjure-men in New Orleans. That meant that his spirit could leave his body and take over another body, make it his own. And once he’d done that, the only way to force his spirit out of the body he’d taken over was that body’s death.
“I stood there with my guns drawn, pointed at the body of my father. But Bender laughed at me with my father’s mouth. I couldn’t shoot him down, and Bender knew it. He drew his own gun and aimed at me. A shot cracked out, but not from his gun nor mine. Jeanne had put on her old Madame .44 outfit and followed me, and she shot my father before Bender could pull the trigger. My father fell, but Jeanne let out the most evil laugh I’d ever heard. Bender had taken possession of her body.
“Jeanne was stronger than my father was; she was able to fight Bender’s possession for brief spells. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to do it forever. She knew Bender had her, body and soul, and she would never be my Jeanne again. In one final act of will, she was able to run into the Walakima Mine. I knew what she was doing, and I knew what I had to do. It tore my heart out to do it, but I set off a cave-in with dynamite. I sealed my wife up alive inside the mine, and the evil spirit of Hell-Bender with her.”
Green Lantern watched the old man’s body sag as he told the story. He could tell that every word was ripping the man’s heart out as he was forced to relive the terrible events of that night.
“That was in 1891,” Thunder said. “I couldn’t stay in Mesa City any longer after that; too many memories. I took the kids and headed east. Our daughter died two years later in a blizzard. Our boy, Chuck, lived to be a young man. Got his head blown off in what they call the Great War. Guess I snapped after that. My last link to my Jeanne was gone. I didn’t want to live, but I didn’t have it in me to end my own life. I withdrew into myself, became a walking dead man. Until I heard they were reopening Walakima Mine.” Johnny Thunder urgently asked, “Do you see now why you have to stop them, Lantern? Why it’s impossible to let that horror loose again?”
“Sir,” Lantern began, haltingly, “it’s been fifty years. There’s no way that still–”
Just then, the two men heard a loud noise, an explosion. Their heads snapped around in the direction of the sound.
“Dear God,” Thunder whispered, “they’ve done it! They’ve reopened the mine! They’ve set Bender free!”
Instantly, Green Lantern took to the air. He soared like a green rocket in the direction of the explosion. “Wait for me!” he heard the old man call behind him, but neither did he turn nor slow.
Seconds later, Green Lantern arrived at the mine. He saw the men gathered around the now-opened mouth of the old mine, gaping in awed fascination at something inside the mine.
“What is it?” Green Lantern demanded urgently of the men. “What’s in there?”
The men did not answer. Green Lantern rose above their heads and peered into the mine. He could not believe what he saw there — a young woman with long, blonde hair, dressed in a snow-white Western riding outfit. Her eyes were wide with madness, and her mouth gaped in an evil laugh. This had to be Jeanne Walker Tane, Madame .44, apparently as young as the night her husband sealed her into the mine.
The men stood staring at the laughing woman. Finally, one of them dared to take a step forward. The madwoman’s gaze flicked to the man, and then her hand shot out like a striking cobra. A bolt of blood-red light launched from her fingertips and struck the man. With an inhuman scream, he vanished in a puff of blood-colored smoke. Green Lantern started. Thunder hadn’t said anything about Bender being able to do that.
“I am free again!” the woman shrieked. “Free to walk the earth, to feel the wind and sun on my skin! Free after time immemorial! I do not know how long I was shut away from the world, but I am free again! I have not been idle during my imprisonment; I have studied, concentrated, practiced the rites the conjure-men of New Orleans taught me, until I mastered them greater than my teachers ever did! And now I am free to use my power! The world shall tremble before the power of Hell-Bender!”
A brilliant emerald light washed over the startled woman. She looked up and saw the costumed champion hovering above her.
“You have to go through me first, Bender,” Green Lantern said with determination.
Bender smiled with Jeanne Walker Tane’s lips. “A pleasure,” he/she said, and threw a bolt of eldritch energy at Green Lantern. The emerald gladiator whipped up a power-ring shield just in time. The bolt struck the shield with tremendous force; cracks formed on the shield’s surface.
Green Lantern was astonished. Nothing had ever struck his power-ring energy with that result. His ring was powered by magic; perhaps Hell-Bender’s magic affected it more than scientific weapons did. He would see if it worked both ways. With a thought, he imprisoned Bender in a six-sided cube of green energy. Bender laughed and sent a blast of magic energy exploding from his stolen body in all directions, bursting the sides of the cube wide open.
This is going to be a tough fight, Green Lantern thought to himself. For the first time since I got this ring, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to defeat my opponent! But it won’t be for lack of trying!
For long minutes, Green Lantern and Hell-Bender traded blows, hurling magical energy at each other with little effect. The engineer and his work crew had fled, leaving one man watching the scene. A tear trickled down cheeks lined with age as Johnny Thunder watched his young wife fight to the death, saw the insane look on her face. He burned with rage. Lucius Bender had stolen their happiness, destroyed their lives. He would make that devil pay.
“You are the mightiest sorcerer I have ever seen,” Bender shrieked as bolts of energy flew from Jeanne Tane’s fingertips. “Your power is as great as mine, perhaps greater! I shall not kill you after all; instead, I shall take your body, and it shall be my vessel of power!”
“Not today, you won’t,” the Lantern swore, turning his power-ring on the ground at Bender’s feet. The dirt and stones flew up and surrounded Bender, trapping his borrowed body up to the neck. “I don’t know why you couldn’t blast your way out of that mine with your power, but if something about it resists your power, it will again be your prison!”
“Ah, excellent, my emerald warrior, excellent!” Bender laughed. “You’ve figured out that my earth-based magic is ineffectual against the earth itself. I sense that your magic has a similar, if more specific, weakness. But in one respect you’re wrong: my host body no longer needs die to free me from it!” With that, the life drained out of Jeanne Walker Tane’s face, and her head slumped forward. A look of horror came over Green Lantern’s face, quickly replaced by one of madness.
“Ah, that is better!” an insane voice chuckled from Green Lantern’s throat. “With my own sorcerous power added to that in this wondrous ring, none can stop me!”
“Do not be too sure of that, villain,” an eerie voice sounded from above. Green Lantern’s face turned up to the sky. A handful of colorful figures were descending from the sky toward him.
“Ah, the Justice Society of America!” Bender laughed. “Come one, come all, and die!”
“Doc, what’s going on?” Johnny Thunder, the younger, asked his golden-helmeted comrade. “That’s Green Lantern down there, but he looks so — mad!”
“Our friend’s body is possessed by an evil spirit, Johnny,” Doctor Fate explained. “The spirit was freed from its prison by the reopening of the mine. The sudden surge of mystic energy was detected by my crystal ball, and thus I was alerted. That is why I gathered you and all the others except the Sandman and the Atom. But we are too late to prevent Green Lantern from falling victim to the spirit!”
“Yes, you are,” Bender agreed. “And, as I share all knowledge possessed by my host body, I know who you all are! Doctor Fate, the Spectre, the Hawkman, Hourman, and Johnny Thunder. Once did I know another Johnny Thunder. I failed to kill that one; I shall not make that mistake again!”
Without another word, the battle began. Doctor Fate and the Spectre launched mystic assaults against Green Lantern’s energy-shield. The air crackled with eldritch energy as the opposing magical forces clashed. Hourman and Hawkman tried a physical assault but were turned back easily by the power ring.
The elderly Johnny Thunder crept into a firing position. He aimed his gun carefully at the possessed Green Lantern.
“Say, you old-timer!” a young voice at the lawman’s elbow cried out. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The silver head whirled around to stare into a young blond face. “Be quiet, you silly kid! I’m trying to draw a bead on Bender!”
“Bender? Mister, that’s Green Lantern you’re aiming at! And who are you, anyway?”
“I just happen to be Johnny Thunder, youngster!”
“Why, you old liar! I’m Johnny Thunder! T-bolt, tell him who I am!”
“Master John is right, sir,” an eerie voice behind the elderly lawman said. The older Thunder whirled around to face a glowing pink man with lightning bolts coming out of his head.
“Tarnation!” Thunder exclaimed. “What the devil are you, anyway?”
“Say, you guys are wasting time jawin’!” the younger Thunder declared. “T-bolt, get in there and stop the Lantern!”
“I will try, if you wish, Master John,” Thunderbolt said, “but I’m afraid Green Lantern could defeat me with barely a thought.”
“Every little bit helps, T-bolt! Sic ‘im!”
“Yes, Master John.” The Thunderbolt vanished in a pink streak of lightning headed straight for the possessed Green Lantern.
Hell-Bender, in the body of Green Lantern, saw the pink lightning headed for him from the corner of his eye. He quickly created a green-energy lightning rod that captured the protesting Thunderbolt and held him fast.
Hourman and Hawkman lay on the ground, dazed by Lantern’s attack. Doctor Fate and Spectre pressed hard, combining their mystic energies. Lantern poured the mystic might of his ring and Hell-Bender’s own sorcerous power into his attack. The air was alive with light and color as the two mystic forces met and cancelled each other out. Lantern’s face was strained with concentration; sweat trickled down his brow. Bit by bit, his energy was driving back that of Fate and Spectre.
Then a single gunshot rang out. John Tane, the once and former Johnny Thunder, had fired. Time had not dulled his aim; his bullet sped true, straight to the Green Lantern’s temple. It bounced off his green force-field but attracted his attention; unbidden, the Lantern’s gaze flicked to the direction from whence the bullet had come. That was all that was needed for Fate and Spectre’s attack to overwhelm him. In a brilliant flash of multi-colored light, the Lantern went down.
Doctor Fate was quick to press the advantage. He used his sorcery to command the trees of the area; their branches flew to him and surrounded the Lantern’s body, molding themselves into a coffin-like box that imprisoned him from the neck down. Fate hovered before the helpless Lantern, arms crossed over his chest.
“You have been defeated, evil one,” Fate intoned in his ghostly voice. “I command you now to leave the body of Green Lantern forevermore!”
“Oh, I shall, golden one,” Lantern snarled, “but not in the way you’d like!” The rage on the Lantern’s face died away, and his head slumped backward in unconsciousness. Fate remained as he was, motionless. The Spectre was the only one who had ears to hear a ghostly scream.
“What happened?” asked Hawkman, whom the Spectre had revived.
“The evil spirit left Green Lantern’s body and tried to possess mine,” Doctor Fate explained. “But my body is already possessed by the spirit of Nabu, the Lord of Order. The evil ghost could not enter it and was forced away.”
“With no body to enter, the ghost has finally gone to the damnation it should have gone to fifty years ago,” the Spectre concluded.
The two Johnny Thunders ran to join the JSA as Fate dissolved the wooden box holding Green Lantern prisoner.
“Johnny, who’s this?” Hourman asked.
“That’s also Johnny Thunder,” Green Lantern said. “It’s a long story.”
“What, the old gunfighter?” Hourman asked, incredulously. “I thought he was dead!”
If Tane heard these words, he made no acknowledgement. He ran to the pillar of earth holding Jeanne Walker Tane, threw himself on it, and sobbed.
“Ohhh… what happened?” a young voice Tane had heard in his dreams for half a century said groggily.
“Jeanne!” Tane gasped. “Jeanne, is it possible? You — you’re alive!”
“Indeed,” Fate said, as Green Lantern freed Jeanne from the earth pillar. “Lucius Bender’s spirit kept her alive and unaging the entire time they were trapped in the mine. Now that he has left her, she will age normally, as though the preceding fifty years never happened.”
“Oh, Jeanne!” the old man sobbed with joy, clutching her hands. “Jeanne, I never dared dream I would see you again!”
“Johnny?” Jeanne asked, in confusion. “Johnny, what happened? You — you’re — old!”
John Tane wept openly. “I know, Jeanne. It’s been fifty years since Bender took you. We’ve lost all that time together. I’m an old man now, and I could die tomorrow. But we’ll have whatever time is left me, together!”
“I think not,” the Spectre intoned. “Lucius Bender stole the years of happiness you would otherwise have shared. Such transgressions must not be allowed, else justice itself is a hollow concept.” The ghostly guardian turned to Doctor Fate. “Doctor, it is not within my power to work this spell unaided. Will you assist me?”
“With great eagerness,” Fate said. Together, the two mystic champions worked their spells. The old man was surrounded by a nimbus of light, which grew so bright that none could see him. And then it faded.
“Johnny!” Jeanne cried happily. “You’re young again! As young as I remember you!”
“I am!” John Tane declared, looking down at his young, strong hands. “I feel the same as I did — the day I met you! Oh, Jeanne!”
The rejuvenated Tane threw his arms around his wife and swung her around. The JSAers watched in happiness.
“That was a damn nice thing you guys did,” Hawkman declared.
“The spell was a powerful one, requiring the greatest calculations and manipulations,” Spectre said hollowly. “I doubt very much that we could ever do it again.”
“Well, if it was a one-shot deal,” Green Lantern said, “nice to know you made it count.”
The Tanes, reunited at last, did not hear this exchange. They only had eyes and ears for each other.