The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Arrenall

 

 

FEverafter

Chapter 1

The gentle sway of Jess’ horse as he plod along the dirt track lulled him into a late-afternoon doze.  His eyes drifted shut, only to pop back open again as a bird screeched overhead, or his horse kicked a rock.  He headed west into the setting sun, and the effort to keep the sun out of his eyes had forced him to draw his hat low and squint.  He heaved a great sigh, yawned and continued on, determined to cover another few miles before he stopped for the night.  Finally he dozed lightly.

Jess had ridden since sun up with only a short break at a stream for water and some jerky.  His volatile anger had dissipated and been replaced by an oppressive sense of loss and loneliness. 

He had left the Sherman place this morning after a sleepless night.  He and Slim had argued.  They had argued before, hell, Jess had even left before, but this time was different.

He knew he needn’t have let it get that far.  If he had only apologized and dropped it, things would’ve blown over, but no, he had to get on his indignant high horse.  It went south from there, and Slim had stomped off to bed, and slammed the door.  Andy and Jonesy had scurried for cover long before, leaving Jess standing in the living room at a loss for what to do.  He decided to sleep in the bunkhouse.  Over the long, sleepless night, he had decided that he‘d best go.

He turned it over in his mind, over and over.  He couldn’t not think about it.  The more he thought about Slim’s accusation, the more it got under his skin.  Slim was angry.  It was about his brother, Andy, and where Andy was concerned, Slim was ornerier than a mother grizzly.  The thing was, Jess didn’t do what he was accused of.  Andy told him, Jess told him, even Jonesy had stuck up for him.  The fact that Andy was protecting whoever did teach him didn’t help matters.

Jess had taken Andy into town with him when he went for supplies; that in itself was a rare occurrence.  Slim almost never let Andy go to town, and he’d never let him go with Jess before.

Andy, being a boy and being won’t to a little mischief, had decided it would be fun to use his five-finger discount at the general store.  He had helped himself to some small, but not inexpensive items, just testing to see if he could get away with it.  He told himself, and Slim of course, that he had every intention of putting them back.  It was a game and nothing more.

He didn’t get away with it.  Jess had been in the bank when Mister Barton caught him and hauled Andy by his ear over to the sheriff’s office, but he sure heard about it from Mort later.  Andy was mortified and clammed up, terror written on his face.  Slim assumed the worst, not yet trusting Jess with his brother, he assumed that Jess put him up to it and it escalated from there.

Jess at first didn’t deny anything, hoping that Andy would step forward and set the record straight.  That may have made things worse.  Jess said nothing in his own defense until it had built to Dickinsonian proportions with Andy as The Artful Dodger and Jess as Fagin.

It had taken a little while, but Andy worked up his courage and told his brother it was his idea and Jess had nothing to do with it.  By that time, Slim was livid and didn’t listen.  Or didn’t want to listen, more likely, Jess thought.  Andy’s confession was too little, too late.

Oh Slim punished Andy all right.  The boy would be doing extra chores for a couple of months to come, he’d be working for Mister Barton after school every day until school was out, and all summer, and he’d be sitting on the front row at church every Sunday for both the morning and evening services, but Slim reserved his special venom for Jess.  He blamed Jess for not watching the boy, accused him of teaching him bad “tricks” as he called them.  Jess got angry, spit venom back, it got personal, and finally, Slim just stalked off.

Jess was sorry.  He was real sorry.  He wanted to tell Slim, but couldn’t.  He’d let himself get up on that high horse and was so high up he couldn’t see bottom.  Slim was somewhere else, indulging in his desire to blame someone, anyone, and Jess was handy.

It’s not like Jess hadn’t given ample reasons for Slim to blow up at him, he thought.  Sure, he’d shirked work for a half-day of fishing with Andy.  Or he’d gone swimming at the swimming hole with Andy when they both should have been tending the stock.  Or taught Andy how to deal off the bottom of the deck, for his own good of course.  So he’d recognize it when it was being done to him.

Yeah, things had been a bit rocky from the start.  Jess wasn’t used to toeing someone else’s line.  He wasn’t used to a schedule and he certainly wasn’t used to the responsibility of setting a good example for a boy.  Slim had been unfair, but so had he.

Jess startled awake when something ran across the trail in front of him, causing Traveler to stop and nervously back up.  He pushed his hat back on his head and wiped a hand across his face.  It was just a deer bounding off through the brush.  Jess looked at the sun.  It was almost below the horizon and the shadows were getting deep.  He started looking in earnest for a place to camp for the night.  He finally pulled up in a small clearing about a hundred feet off the trail.  It had some large boulders and some scrubby trees, enough to block the wind.

As he methodically made camp for the night, gathering firewood, rolling out his bedroll, he began to mentally make some plans.  When he’d left this morning, he had no plan whatsoever.  He started heading west only because it was one direction he hadn’t been, beyond the borders of Wyoming.    He had vague thoughts of heading to California.  Hadn’t been there.  Always wanted to.  A new place with a fresh change of scenery might be just the thing.

He’d been a drifter for five years before he came to Laramie.  He’d stayed longer there than he had anywhere since he left Texas, but it was bound to not last.  He reasoned he’d never make a go of ranching, being stuck in one place day after day.  At first, Slim had him convinced he could change, he could put down roots, but now he realized roots wasn’t for him.  He needed to go and this was as good a time as any; cut away clean.  No looking back.  No sir, no ropes holding him to Laramie, or to anywhere.

A pang of loss skittered through his chest.  He’d grown attached to Andy.  He liked Jonesy, and he liked Slim too.  Liked them all enough to think for a while that he could settle down and be a part of that mis-matched family.   Jess set his jaw and ground his teeth together unconsciously.  It never worked.  Just like all the other times in his life, he had to move on either on his own, or someone else made the decision for him.  He was used to it.  This one just lasted a little longer, is all.

He set the battered coffeepot on the fire and settled back on his bedroll to wait for it.  The beans were already heating, sending up plumes of sweet smelling steam and the occasional blurp of a bubble.  He had brought some of Jonesy’s molasses beans.  Just enough for a day or two, then he’d be on his own to find food.

He reached in his inside vest pocket and pulled out his wallet.  Thumbing through the bills, he figured he had enough to get him by for a few weeks if he was careful.  Maybe he could find a good poker game and run it up a little.

Slim had tried to get him to put some money in the bank, but Jess never did it.  Couldn’t bring himself to settle that much.  Besides, he never knew a bank that couldn’t be robbed.  Now he was glad he’d followed his instincts.  He was glad he didn’t have to ride into town to get his money out before he left.  Being able to pick up and go was valuable.  A real valuable skill, one he was determined to never lose.

After eating his beans and drinking the strong black coffee, he lay in his bedroll and looked up at the stars.  He sighed in contentment, but his brow was wrinkled, unable to totally relax into his new freedom.  His thoughts would inevitably stray back to the little house by the hill where the stage coaches stopped, bringing the travelers that passed through, bringing the news, the gossip, and sometimes, the danger.

They’d get along just fine without him.  Hell, they did fine before he got there, they’d do fine now.  Probably wouldn’t even miss him.  After all, he was just no more than another in a long line of hired hands, hired on for a spell, only to move on.

He would miss Andy, though.  He was too mad at Slim to miss him right now, but that boy had got under his skin.  Almost like having a little brother again.  Andy’d be upset, but he’d get over it.  He had a real brother, he didn’t need no drifter that brought trouble at every turn.  As the night grew chillier, Jess wrapped himself up in his blanket and finally drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter 2

“Dammit, Johnny! No!  You are not going and that’s final!”  Scott enunciated clearly, and loudly.

“Scott, I’m going, so shut up and come on if you’re going with me,” Johnny retorted in his quiet drawl, not raising his voice to the level of his brother’s.  He grabbed his hat off the back of the sofa and ambled slowly toward the front door, tossing the hat over his head to hang down his back on its leather strap.  Without looking back to see if his brother was following, he reached for the heavy front door and opened it, leaving it open behind him as he left.

Murdoch watched his two sons sparring, loath to interfere, amused all the same.  He grinned and shook his head, but quickly stopped when Scott shot him with a glare that could bend metal.  “I’m sorry, son.  It just slipped out,” he said contritely.

Scott glared a moment longer, then his face relaxed into a half grin.  He dipped his head, shaking it back and forth.  “I should’ve known better than to say anything to anybody.  I shoulda just gotten a hammer and taken care of it myself. “ His hand absently moved to cup the left side of his swollen jaw.

Grabbing his own hat off the rack by the door, Scott settled it on his head and exited the same door through which Johnny had disappeared, and quietly pulled it closed behind him.

Outside, Johnny was already mounted and waiting patiently. He held the reins of Scott’s horse and offered them silently as Scott approached.  Sometimes Johnny’s cool, patient persona grated on him. This was one of those times.

Maybe it was a holdover from his days as a gunfighter who had to project an air of intimidating calm.  Johnny could still pull out that persona when he wanted to. Scott spared another glare for his younger brother as he reached for the reins.  “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you,” he mumbled, his jaw painful and swollen.

“Enjoying?”  Johnny rubbed his chin, maintaining the irritating calm.  “Now why would you think I would enjoy your pain, brother?”  His calm face turned to a hurt face instantly.  “I can’t believe you’d think that of your own brother.”

Ignoring Johnny’s over-done hurt feelings, he retorted with, “I don’t need a babysitter.”

Johnny turned Barranca and nudged him to slowly walk out of the courtyard to the road.  “Well apparently you do. If you’d done this a week ago when you should have, we wouldn’t have to be doing this now, and you’re face wouldn’t look like a squirrel storin’ up nuts for the winter.”  Johnny grinned, his back to Scott.

Without turning he could hear Scott’s snort of disgust and his horse turning to follow Barranca.

It was early.  The sun hadn’t reached its zenith as yet so it wasn’t as hot as it was going to get.  Johnny set a moderate loping pace and Scott’s horse matched it beside him.  Johnny would steal a glance in Scott’s direction every few minutes, amused to see Scott staring straight ahead, his jaw set.  Finally, needing a little diversion, he decided to try to lighten things up a bit.

“C’mon, Scott, it’s not that bad.”  He reached over and snagged Scott’s jacket to get his attention.  “We’ll get to Everafter in a few hours, get that ol’ nasty tooth outta there and then relax with some beers and have some fun.  It’ll be over b’fore you know it.”

Scott glowered at him.  “I don’t see why we have to go all the way to Everafter.  There’s a dentist in Morro Coyo,” he said petulantly.

“You know why.  I ain’t lettin’ you or anyone else I…anybody I know go to that quack in Morro Coyo.  If he ain’t drunk, he’s wantin’ to be and that makes him shaky and mean.  Believe me, brother, you don’t want that man’s hands inside your mouth.  Val told me about this guy in Everafter and we’re goin’ so shut up about it.”

Scott’s hand cupped his jaw again.  Johnny slightly quickened his pace.  The amusement value was beginning to seep out of the situation.  It was gonna be a long day.

 

Chapter 3

Slim slept in that morning.  Actually, sleeping was the last thing he had been doing, but he stayed in bed and stared at the ceiling.  He was wrong.  He knew it now.  Why couldn’t he see it last night?  Jess wasn’t to blame; he was just a convenient punching bag.  Slim was disappointed in Andy.  Very disappointed, and Andy found out just how disappointed right up front, but he’d let that spill over onto Jess and he knew now that was wrong.  He’d have to go find him and make amends.

He couldn’t understand what it was about himself that made him want to jump on Jess immediately about everything.   Sure, Jess could be exasperating, irresponsible even, but he was a good hand, and had proven to be a good friend.  Andy hero-worshipped him and even crusty ol’ Jonesy took a liking to him once he got to know him a little.  Maybe it was the part about Andy.  Maybe he resented having his own brother look at Jess and see a fun, adventurous kid who was more like himself than his own brother was.  Maybe that’s what was eating at him.  Could he be that shallow?

Slim had been resistant to Andy going with Jess to Laramie to begin with, not yet willing to loosen the protective hold he had around his brother since their parents died.  In his fourteen years, Andy had never been to town except in the company of his father, Slim or Jonesy.

Slim liked Jess, but had not yet grown to trust him with his little brother.  Ranch work and horses, yes; brothers, no.

He hadn’t decided yet if Jess was deserving.  Wasn’t quite sure if Jess was one that he wanted his little brother looking up to.  He had to admit that over the last two months Jess had proven to be a valuable asset.  He was smart, he was fast and he had been loyal.

Sure, he’d goofed off some, but he was young and he wasn’t used to keeping to a time clock.  He also had a tendency to ride off and not come back for days.  Whenever someone needed help, Jess took off.  Slim had always made sure that Jess knew the door was open to come back and he grudgingly admired that Jess’ heart always seemed to be in the right place.  Slim grinned wryly.  The pros outweighed the cons so far.  Until Jess proved otherwise.

He swung is long legs over the bunk and reached for his boots.  He’d go find Jess right now, apologize and get to work.  They had a full day ahead of them.  He’d have a talk with Andy too.  He’d been hard on him.  He wasn’t going to back down on the punishment, but he wanted Andy to know he forgave him.

He glanced out the window as he grabbed his vest to see where the sun was.  It was further up in the sky than usual when he was getting up.  He musta laid there for quite a spell.  He moved quickly to the door, anxious to get moving.  His mood was remarkably changed from last night.

As he exited the bedroom, two faces turned from the dining room table and looked at him; two sad faces.  Slim stopped in mid-stride, his vest halfway over one shoulder.  “What’s wrong with you two?”

Neither Jonesy nor Andy said a word.  Jonesy stood and took his coffee cup back to the kitchen sink and dropped it in loudly.  Andy’s face was a mask of despair, tears welling up in his brown eyes, threatening to spill over.  Andy rose quickly from his chair, pushing it roughly back.  “He’s gone!  And it’s all your fault!”  He quickly ran into his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

Slim strode over to Andy’s door, raising his hand to go in, but stopped himself.  He turned back to Jonesy.  “What?”  His head was shaking back and forth, not understanding.

“Jess took off sometime last night or this morning.  Horse, saddle…gun.”  He gestured to the loose stones on the fireplace where Jess had stored his “gunfighter’s gun”.

Slim slowly walked over and lifted the loosened stone running a hand through the empty space.  He solemnly laid the stone back in place and dropped his head, his jaw muscles working furiously.  He slowly turned and went to the table, sinking down into the nearest chair.  “Well, I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later.”

Jonesy stood his ground as he wiped his hands on the rag in his hand.  “I reckon you’re right, Slim.  Too bad though.”  He lifted his hat and scratched his head.  “That boy sure got mighty attached.”

“Well, maybe he shouldn’t have.  Maybe it was a mistake to let him spend so much time with Jess.  How do we know what ideas he put into Andy’s head?”  Slim was grasping, angry, more at himself than anyone else.

“Aw, Slim, now you know better’n that.  Jess was a hothead, but he was decent, and he woulda done anything for that boy. “  He pulled off his apron and came around the table to sit facing Slim.  “Mebbe he taught him a few tricks, but he meant no harm.”  Jonesy leaned back in the chair and examined Slim.  “I think you know that don’t’cha, Slim?”

Slim picked at a loose thread on the tablecloth.  “Yeah, I guess I do, Jonesy.”  He slammed his open palm down on the table, making the cups bounce,  “But dammit!  Why’d he up an’ leave like that?  Why couldn’t he stay around an’ work things out?”

“Mebbe he just got tired of provin’ himself.”  Jonesy looked hard at Slim.  Then, giving a quick nod, he got up and busied himself at the stove dishing up Slim’s breakfast.

 

Chapter 4

Johnny and Scott Lancer passed the hand-lettered sign outside of town about noon.  “Here, Everafter”, some local poet had written.  The sun was high and hot as they loped into town, and Scott removed his hat and wiped an arm over his forehead before returning his hat to his head.  He casually guided his horse to the hitching rail in front of the saloon and stopped.

Johnny, a few paces to his right continued straight down the road, pulling up when he saw his brother had turned off.  He smiled as he turned in the saddle.  “Oh no you don’t, brother.  C’mon, we got a date with a dentist.”

“Not yet, Johnny.  I’m hot and I need a drink.”

“It ain’t gonna get any easier, Scott.  C’mon, let’s get it over with.  Drinkin’ later.”  He cocked his head toward the far end of the street. “C’mon.”

Scott sighed heavily and reluctantly turned his horse to follow Johnny.

The dentist’s office was two blocks down.  A small house, painted red like a barn, with a big wooden tooth sign hanging out front.  Johnny liked the look of it.  Clean.  Neat.  Kinda like a doctor’s office should be.  Usually dentists were also the local barber, but this one seemed to specialize only in dentistry.  No other services were advertised on the sign.

Johnny pulled Barranca up to the neat white painted hitching post and swung down.  Scott had stopped about ten paces back, not yet having brought himself to pull in.  “C’mon, Scott.  Let’s do this thing so we can go get some beers.”

Scott’s horse was stopped in its tracks in the middle of the street, Scott holding his sore jaw.  “What’s this we business, little brother?  I don’t see you needin’ to go have your teeth yanked out by the roots.”

Johnny walked the few paces out to where Scott had stopped and put his hand on the horse’s neck.  “He may not have to yank anything out.  You don’t know.  Besides, it’s only one tooth, now quit being a baby and come on.”

Scott made no move toward the hitching post.  Johnny smiled up at his brother, tugging on his arm.  Gently he said, “C’mon.”

Scott looked down at the smiling face looking up at him.  He couldn’t help a resigned grin.  Johnny had a way of charming people that no one he had ever met was immune to, including himself.  Without a word, he nudged his horse toward the post.  Johnny walked along with him, his hand resting on Scott’s leg the whole way.

Johnny led the way inside, removing his hat as they stepped into the cool, shady interior, a small bell tinkled overhead as the door opened, and then again as it closed.

Inside was a small furnished waiting room with several wooden chairs and a small, upholstered couch.  There was a table by the window with fresh cut flowers in a clear vase.  The room had a definite feminine touch to it, Johnny noted.  ‘You don’t suppose…,’ it occurred to him, just as the inner office door opened and a young woman came out wiping her hands on a towel.

The woman was Scott’s age or younger with thick red hair swept up in a loose bun with tendrils escaping down the side of her face and neck.  Aside from the startling red hair, her eyes were the brightest green Johnny had ever seen.  He flashed on Val.  That bastard never mentioned this when he recommended the dentist in Everafter, he thought

Johnny had stopped suddenly as the woman reached out to shake his hand.  He felt a bump as his brother apparently had not stopped and run right into him.  Johnny was unaccustomed to shaking hands with a woman, and brushed his hand off on his pants before taking her small, smooth hand in his.

“I’m Kate Finney.  Can I help you?”  She clasped Johnny’s hand warmly, her twinkling green eyes meeting his blue ones.

“Uh, yes ma’am.  I’m Johnny Lancer, and this…”  he turned and grabbed Scott’s arm, pulling him around, “is my brother…”  As an afterthought, he added, “Scott.”

Scott shot him a glare, wondering if Johnny was having a hard time remembering his name.

Kate’s brow furrowed as she saw Scott’s jaw.  “Oh my!  You look like you’re in some pain.”  She took Scott’s arm from Johnny and began pulling him through the door.  “Come with me, we need to see to that right away,” she said brusquely as she efficiently pulled him through the door.

Scott resisted her pull momentarily.  “Are you the dentist?”

“Yes, I certainly am, now come on, let me take a look at that.”  She tugged at him again.  Johnny frowned at his brother and nudged him forward with his shoulder.

Scott relented and allowed himself to be pulled forward by the lady dentist and pushed from behind by his entirely too eager brother.

 

Chapter 5

Johnny relaxed at a corner table, a half empty beer mug in front of him and his feet propped up on the chair next to him.  From here he could see anyone who entered, a habit that he acquired as a matter of survival in his old profession, and one that he held onto as a matter of course.

The grin on his face was for the pretty lady dentist, even if she had thrown him out of her office.  Once she had established Scott in her examination chair and was looking around in his mouth, Johnny couldn’t stop himself from trying to see too.  Several times, they bumped heads until finally Kate had politely but firmly escorted him out, telling him that she would send her assistant for him when she was through.

Johnny had looked pleadingly at Scott, but he had been no help.  Scott flapped his arm at him, “pushing” him out while grunting.  He got his message across adequately and Johnny reluctantly left his brother to the care of Kate Finney and her assistant, Otis Butts.

Otis was an old black man of indeterminate age, spry but bent, his hands gnarled with arthritis.  He could have been anywhere between fifty and a hundred.  Kate didn’t take time to offer more than a curt introduction before beginning her work and subsequently evicting Johnny.

It had been over an hour and Johnny was nursing his second beer.  He decided that if Otis didn’t come by the time this one was finished, he was going back over there himself.

He rocked back in his chair, scanning the room, sizing up the locals, and the few strangers.  He could always tell the townies from the drifters.  It was an attitude, a bearing, an indefinable something that separated folks who lived in a town…in a home, from those who drifted from town to town, home to home.

Two such drifters were sitting at the next table, both of them on the side against the wall, both of them leaning their chairs against the wall.  They had an air of arrogance, like they thought themselves the toughest guys in the room.  They were the kind that Johnny had learned, in his vast experience, were not only looking for trouble, but were not above starting some if none was readily available.  For the last hour they had been quiet though, talking between themselves, occasionally getting up to refill their pitcher of beer.  It was as if they were waiting for someone.

Johnny wasn’t watching them closely as his mind was mostly on Scott and what they must be doing to him.  Occasionally his hand would steal up to rub his jaw.  He did keep an eye on them though, habitually keeping his senses tuned.

Johnny pulled his hat down over his eyes and lowered his chin until it rested on his chest.  With his eyes closed, he noticed that he heard the sounds around him more clearly.  He heard the conversation two tables away, then he zeroed in on the two men at the table next to him.  They seemed to be talking about a new job.

“…said it’s over near Morro Coyo-way.  Big spread.  Man he sure wants that fella bad.”  Johnny bristled at the mention of Morro Coyo.  He didn’t move a muscle, but all senses were on alert.  He heard the man pour more beer from the pitcher, sloshing it and then putting the pitcher down noisily.

“Brubaker’s s’posed to be hirin’ for it.  Gonna be big whatever it is.”  Johnny heard booted feet heavily hit the floor.  “Where the hell is that guy?”

“Simmer down, Collins.  We was early anyhow.”  The booted feet pulled a chair over and landed heavily in its seat.  “What you s’pose Brubaker’s got agin’ this Lancer fella anyhow?”

“I dunno, but I can tell you one thing.  It’s either money or a woman.  It’s always one ‘er ta other.”

A couple of rumbling chuckles was the last Johnny heard for several minutes.  After a few more minutes, a new pair of boots approached and stopped right next to Johnny’s chair.  Johnny opened his eyes and saw a ragged pair of gray boots standing before him and at the same time, felt a tug on his shoulder.

Johnny rose up and pushed his hat back, knowing in an instant it was Kate’s assistant and not wanting him to blurt his name out loud.  “Yeah, you all done with my brother now?”  Johnny quickly rose and put an arm around the old man’s shoulder, turning him toward the door.

“Well, uh, yessir, Miss Kate told me ta come fetch ya.”

“Well, good.  I hope he wasn’t too much trouble.”  Johnny grinned and laughed as he hurried the old man out the swinging doors, glancing at the two men as he passed.  They didn’t pay him any attention, their glazed eyes staring dumbly at the pitcher of beer in front of them.

Outside the saloon, Johnny and Otis quickly sidestepped as they were met with two men coming in from the street.  The larger of the two men had long, shoulder length white hair.  He wasn’t old, no more than thirty-five, but his hair was as white as the fuzz that covered old Otis’ head.

The shorter of the two men was dark; dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin; a small well-trimmed beard and mustache, a hard compact body.  He reminded Johnny of a bull dog with large, muscular shoulders and a narrow waist.

Johnny turned to watch the two men disappear into the saloon.  He could see them pause inside the door, and then turn in the direction of the two men whom Johnny had watched.

His blue eyes narrowed, crinkling at the corners, studying and sizing up.  The four men were meeting for something that involved Lancer.  The look of them told him it wasn’t something good.

Otis stood patiently by his side, watching the young man, wondering if he should say something or not.  Miss Kate had sent him to fetch the brother back to the office.  What was he going to do if the brother didn’t want to come?

After a moment, all four of the men had come back to the door and left the saloon in a silent group.  Johnny quickly turned, and pulling Otis with him, he started walking slowly across the street; alert to see which way the men went.

The four moved east along the boardwalk, heading toward the hotel a few doors down.  Still walking slowly and keeping one eye on them, Johnny watched as the four of them disappeared through the ornate doors of the Happily Everafter Hotel.

“…she’s waitin’ on us.”

Johnny turned back to the forgotten Otis.  “What?”

“I say Miss Kate be waitin’ on us.”

As if returning from a short trip, Johnny forced his attention back to the business at hand.  “Right.  Uh, sorry.  C’mon, let’s go see what Miss Kate done to my brother.”

Otis skipped along to keep up with Johnny’s quickening pace.  “Oh she done real good.  It was a nasty one, it was, but she done good.”

“And how ‘bout Scott?  How’d he do?”

“Oh, he done real good, too.  Miss Kate knows how to make it so it don’t hurt so much.”

Otis led the way into the cool interior of the dentist’s office.  The tinkling of the bell announced their arrival.  Johnny paused just a moment to let his eyes adjust from the bright sunlight outside, to the dim room.  Otis took his arm and led him straight through the empty waiting room into the back office.  Otis wasn’t one to like to dawdle when he had a job.

Scott was still lying in the examining chair, his eyes were closed, his face relaxed, a small smile on his lips.  Kate Finney was sitting at a small desk and writing something in a leather-bound book.

Johnny stepped over to his brother and laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Scott?”

At his word, Scott’s eyes opened and Kate Finney turned around in her seat.

“Hey, Johnny! How ya doin’?” Scott said, a little too enthusiastically.

Johnny took his hat off and pulled a stool over to sit by his brother.  “Well, I’m just fine, Scott.  You doin’ okay?”

Scott batted his hand, “Aw, sure.  I’m just fine.  Nothin’ but a little infected tooth.”  It was obvious that his focus was fluid as he gazed at his brother’s face.  After a second, Scott’s eyes began to slowly drift shut again.

Johnny reached up and stroked the top of Scott’s head.  “Scott?” he said quietly.

“He’s just fine, Mister Lancer.  I gave him an opiate for the pain.  It’s wearing off now.  He’ll be able to leave with you in a few minutes.”

Johnny’s eyes locked with hers, the question on his face obvious, even if he didn’t speak it aloud.

Kate smiled.  “It was an impacted wisdom tooth.  I had to extract the tooth, I’m afraid, and then I cleaned out the pocket of infection.  It’s packed with a medicated packing material now.  I need to see it again tomorrow.  Do you think you can bring him back?”

Johnny swallowed.  He was an experienced gunfighter, had seen every sort of bullet wound, knife wound and any other wound one man could inflict on another, but the notion of an abscessed tooth was foreign to him.

“Wisdom tooth?” was all he managed to say.

Kate smiled indulgently.  “Yes, it’s a molar in the very back of your mouth.”  She demonstrated by pointing to a tooth in the back of her own mouth.  “A lot of people have them up inside, and when they finally break through, they can cause problems.  Many people have to have them removed as children or young adults.  Some people never have any trouble with them at all.”

Johnny reached up and unconsciously rubbed his jaw.

“So, can you bring him back here tomorrow for me to pull out that packing?”

Johnny stood, wringing his hat.  He could handle bullet wounds, but her description of the infected tooth and the packing served to make him queasy.  “Uh, yes ma’am.  I’ll have him back here tomorrow.”  He turned to Scott and shook his shoulder.  “C’mon, Scott, time to go.”

Scott grunted and leaned forward, trying to lever himself out of the reclining chair.  Johnny put a hand behind his back and helped push him up.

“Uh, when should we come tomorrow, ma’am?”

“Around this time will be fine,” Kate said as she moved smoothly to the door to hold it open.

Scott swayed on his feet and Johnny put an arm around his waist to steady him.  “Yes, ma’am, I’ll have him here.”

“Uh, Mister Lancer?”

Johnny and Scott stopped mid-way through the door.  Johnny turned back.  “Yes, ma’am?”

“I don’t think that I’m much older than you or your brother.  Do you think you could just call me Kate?  ‘Ma’am’ makes me feel old.”  Her smile was dazzling.

Johnny favored her with his best as well.  “Yes, m…uh, Kate.  I’ll stop calling you ma’am if you’ll stop calling me ‘Mister Lancer’.  Mister Lancer is my father, and he ain’t here.”  His eyes dipped as he tried to regain his composure.

“It’s a deal, Johnny.”  Her green eyes twinkled.  “Oh and,” she pulled a small brown bottle from a pocket hidden in her skirts, “give him five drops of this in some tea tonight.  It’ll help with the pain.  And no alcohol!”

Johnny had a hard time pulling his eyes away.  Finally he muttered,  “Yes, ma’…Kate.  We’ll see you tomorrow.”  He maneuvered his brother out through the waiting room.  Otis darted ahead and opened the outside door for them.  As they reached the sidewalk, Johnny put his hat back on and Scott’s hands flew to his eyes.

“Ow!”

“I know it’s bright.  C’mon, let’s get you on your horse.  Think you can get up?”

Scott nodded, his fingers still pressing into his eyes.  They reached the side of Scott’s horse and Johnny reached up and retrieved Scott’s hat from the saddle horn and placed it on his brother’s head.  Then he gave Scott a leg up and watched for a minute as Scott settled in the saddle.  He seemed steady enough.

Scott looked down at him.  “You gonna just stand there all day?”

Johnny laughed as he hustled around to Barranca and swung up into the saddle without touching the stirrup.  “Nope, I’m comin’! “  He turned Barranca and nudged him slowly out into the street, turning back to be sure Scott was following.

“We’re gonna have to get a room, the lady dentist wants to see you again tomorrow.”

“What?  Why?”

“She said she packed something in…there,” he pointed vaguely to Scott’s face, “…and she needs to take it out and look at it.”

“Well, that’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”

Johnny looked quickly at his brother to gauge whether that had been sarcasm or not.  Judging by the silly grin on Scott’s face, it was anything but.

 

Chapter 6

Slim had tiptoed on eggshells for three days before the dam finally broke at the Sherman Relay Station.  Jonesy had been aloof, but at least he would speak to Slim.  Andy had been silent; completely and utterly silent for three days.  He would speak to Jonesy, but would go quiet when Slim walked in the room.

Andy had taken his punishment with equanimity.  Slim was proud that he was owning up to his mistake and was taking his punishment like a man.  Every day he got up early to do the chores then went to school.  After school, he worked until closing at Mister Barton’s store, then came home, ate dinner and did his homework and went to bed.  The next day started the cycle all over again.  During that time, he made no time in his day for his brother.

Slim could not bring himself to be angry at the boy.  He was more angry at himself than at Andy.  If it weren’t for his overblown temper and his stubborn mule-headedness, Jess would still be here, Andy would still be speaking to him, and the relay station would be running a whole lot smoother than it was.  He admitted, to himself if to no one else, that he missed Jess.

After the initial anger had evaporated, he was left with a void that a true friend had once filled.  He had such great hopes for the ranch, and for Jess’ place in it.  Now each day was just one more day filled with relay teams, broken fences, chores upon chores, and no end in sight.  He worked so hard to keep his head above water, that there was no time to consider expansion; the things he and Jess had discussed late at night on the front porch in the dark.

Andy was a good worker, and would one day be his full partner, but he wasn’t ready for a man’s work yet.  Besides, Slim insisted that school came first, before play, before ranch chores, before anything.  Slim swore to his mother before she died, and several times since, that he would provide Andy with two things above all else- a safe and stable home, and an education.  From that starting place, he and his mother agreed, Andy could go anywhere and do anything he wanted.

As Slim ate his dinner, Jonesy sat on the other side of the table sipping coffee.  He and Andy had eaten earlier and Andy had already gone to his room to start his homework.  Every time Slim looked up, he met the old man’s eyes.  It was beginning to disconcert him.

“What is it, Jonesy?”  he said as he loudly put his coffee cup back in the saucer.

“Oh, nothin’, boy.  Just wonderin’.”

Slim’s eyes squinted.  The old man was up to something.  “Wonderin’ what?”

“Wonderin’ how long you’re gonna let that mule head of yours stop you from helping your brother out.”

Slim let out a long sigh.  He needn’t ask.  He knew what Jonesy was saying.  Andy was hurting and the only friends he had left were Jonesy and him, and he had let him down.  The boy needed his brother back.  Hell, Slim needed his brother back, too.

Slim threw down his napkin and pushed back from the table.  “I’m goin’,” he said simply and headed off toward Andy’s door.  Jonesy sat back, put his thumbs under his suspenders and smiled.

Slim knocked but didn’t wait for an answer.  He opened the door and stepped inside, closing the door quietly behind him.  Andy lay on his stomach with his stocking feet up in the air behind him, reading a book.  He looked up as Slim entered, then pushed himself up and swung his legs around to the opposite side of the narrow bed, turning his back on Slim.

Slim sat on the side closest to him, his back to Andy.  “Andy, I, um…,” He took the book Andy had abandoned and thumbed through it.  “I know you blame me for Jess leavin’ and I just want you to know, I’d give anything if he was still here.  It was all my fault and I’m…sorry.”

There was silence for a few minutes.  Slim could hear Andy sniffling, probably trying hard not to cry.

Slim set the book down and stood up, walking around to the other side of the bed.  He sat next to the boy and put a long arm around his shoulder.  “Andy, I just don’t think I could stand it if you’re gonna hate me for the rest of my life.”

Andy turned to his brother, tears running freely down his face.  “You didn’t even try to go after him!”

“Andy, I did try.  What direction would you have me go in?  North?  Maybe he headed up to the Yellowstone again?  Or maybe south to go back to Texas where he came from?  How ‘bout east?  or west?  I just don’t know where to start, Andy.”  Slim dropped his head, the helplessness overwhelming him.

Andy reached up and put a hand on Slim’s shoulder.  “I’m sorry, Slim, I guess I never thought of it that way.”

“I asked around town, Andy.  I asked all the drivers.  No one’s seen him.  He hasn’t been in town in over a month now.  No one knows…” Slim’s voice caught; he swallowed hard.  “If I knew what to do, I’d do it, Andy, I promise I would.”  The tears were flowing freely now.

Andy reached up and put both arms around his brother.  They sat holding each other tight.  Andy buried his face in his brother’s chest.  “It’s all my fault, Slim. It’s all my fault…not yours…”

Slim rubbed the boy’s back, holding him close and making soothing circles on his back.  “It’s not, Andy.  I promise you, it’s not…”

Outside the door, Jonesy heard the sobbing and the murmuring.  Finally, things would settle.  It would be back the way it was before Jess came.  Oh, it would take some time, but those boys would be all right.  He turned and went to the kitchen to clean up the supper dishes.

An hour later, Slim came quietly out of Andy’s room.  Jonesy sat by the fire smoking his pipe, and Slim sat next to him.  “He’s asleep.”

“You alright, Slim?”

Slim sighed, the exhaustion showing.  “Yeah, Jonesy.  We’ll be alright.”

 

Chapter 7

Jess reckoned he’d been on the trail for close to three weeks.  Loneliness was not something that had usually dogged him.  He’d been on his own since he was sixteen and had learned to be content in his own company.  The first couple of weeks had been hard.  Every small town he’d ride into would remind him of Laramie.  Every kid he saw, every old man would remind him of the family he’d left behind there.

He’d never before understood what people meant when they said their heart ached, but he now had first-hand experience.  It was an ache that wouldn’t go away, a void that wouldn’t be filled.  It was always present, but as the days wore on, he adjusted, he became used to it like one does with a dull toothache.

He’d decided that when he got to California and found a job, he’d write to Andy and let him know where he was.  He owed him that much.  Once he was settled and had a more or less permanent address, he hoped Andy would write back to him.  Until then, he decided he wouldn’t stop until he reached the Pacific Ocean.

He’d never seen the Pacific.  He’d seen the Atlantic once when he was in the Army.  He saw the Gulf in Galveston when he visited his sister, Francie.  The Pacific had always been a far off dream, one that he’d forgotten about.  Now the Pacific became his goal.

He figured he was somewhere in northern Nevada.  The last town he’d been in, he was told that Nevada was less than thirty miles.  That had been early this morning.  The next town of any size that he expected to see was Perdition, somewhere on his current trail about a hundred miles ahead.  This leg of the trip was bound to be hard.  He’d stocked up on dried meat, canned fruit, beans and was carrying as much water as his horse could manage.  Parts of the day he’d lay low in some sheltered rocks or a grove of trees and travel in the evenings, at night and the early morning hours.  He passed a few mining communities, so it wasn’t totally desolate, but if he’d seen rougher country, he couldn’t remember it.

He figured after Perdition, he’d start heading southwest toward central California. If he’d used his head when he left Wyoming, he would have headed south to begin with and then turned west, but thinking back, he couldn’t remember using his head for anything but a hat holder during that period.  He grinned to himself, reaching up with a gloved hand, he rubbed the three-day stubble on his face.

He’d taken to only shaving once a week or so.  He didn’t need to look good for anyone but Traveler and he was pretty sure Traveler didn’t care.  He figured he’d save water and time.  Change, be it a beard, or a new locale, was good for a man ever’ once in awhile and he was makin’ some powerful big changes lately.  If it weren’t so danged hot, he’d think about growing his hair long too.  He couldn’t bring himself to do that though.  Although it was longer now than he usually wore it, it was still off his collar.

After some thought on the man-sometimes-needs-a-change subject, he thought better of the beard and hair part and planned to indulge in a shave, a bath and a haircut when he reached Perdition.  He still had a little money left, not much, but enough he figured.

When he reached Perdition, his first plan, after the bath, shave and haircut, was to find out how far it was to California and where was the best place to look for work.  If he had to stop in Perdition to earn a little money first, he would, but he wanted to push on if he could.

 

Chapter 8

Johnny guided his and Scott’s horses down the street to the Happily Everafter Hotel.  Scott sat unmoving in his saddle, his hand absently rubbing his jaw.  “Isn’t this a little bit above our normal standard, brother?”

Johnny swung down and looped Barranca’s lead over his head and began tying off on the wrought iron hitching post.  “Yeah, well I figured we might as well make a little vacation of it. You know, have a little fun while we’re here.”

“Fun?”  Scott shook his head as if to clear it.  “Your usual brand of fun involves a cantina with hot food, hot women and tequila shooters.”

Johnny walked nonchalantly back to Scott’s horse.  He looked up at his brother and spoke in a low voice.  “I got my reasons for wanting to stay here.  I’ll explain inside.  C’mon.”

Scott wiped a hand across his eyes and then slipped down from his horse.   “Stupid name for a hotel,” he grumbled.

Johnny took the reins from him and tied him off next to Barranca.  Scott was still a little light-headed and wondered if he had heard Johnny right.  He’d give him the benefit of the doubt, and wait until they got in their room.

Inside the unusually named hotel was a study in small town opulence.  It wasn’t as grand as some of the hotels in San Francisco, but for a small railroad town, it was impressive.  The railroad was what had put Everafter on the map.  Prior to that, it was just another dusty trail town.  Now the railhead brought cattlemen, buyers, fruit growers and all manner of businessmen to the town.

The lobby was done in deep purple and gold.  The heavy draperies were velvet, a royal shade of purple with gold braiding that brushed the highly polished floor.  The settees were all upholstered in rich purple and reds and the fittings were all brass polished to a high gloss.  The front desk was high and deeply carved.  It was dark red, like redwood or cherry.  Scott ran an appreciative hand over the polished woodwork as Johnny spoke to the desk clerk.

“We’d like a room for the night, please.  Two beds.”

The clerk, far from being the haughty type typical of these kinds of hotels, was a large, friendly woman in her fifties with unnaturally blonde hair.   “Sure, handsome.  You in town on business?”

Johnny stole a glance over at his brother.  “Nooo.  We’re in town for the dentist,” he said with a grin.  Whenever  possible, honesty was the best policy. That did not, however, extend to his name.  He signed the register as Johnny and Scott Madrid.

The woman reached a large, bejeweled hand out and slapped Johnny’s shoulder.  “Ah!  You mean Kate! What a doll.  Don’t get the respect she deserves around here, count of her old man, but she’s a peach alright.  Which one of you got a bum tooth?”  Her large, heavily made up eyes darted from Johnny to Scott and back again.

Johnny smiled and gestured to his brother.  “It’s my brother here.  He has a wisdom tooth.”

The woman laughed out loud, an explosive laugh that caught Johnny by surprise.  “Why we all got them, handsome!  They don’t all act up though now do they?  Lessee, sweetie.”  She reached out and grabbed Scott’s face and turned it toward her.  “Ah, I see you’re a bit swollen.“  She dropped her hand.  “Well, no nevermind, I’ll have Obediah fix you up some nice tea and soup for supper.  Have it sent up to your room, too.”

Scott raised a hand to interrupt, “No, ma’am, no need…”

“Now, don’t you fret, sweetie.  I take care of my guests like they was my own babies.  And you two…” she eyed them appreciatively.  “Well, you two are gonna be treated like kings around here.  Now I don’t want any argument from either of you.”  She reached out a large hand and slapped the bell on the counter several times.  An elderly liveried porter appeared as if by magic.  “Now my name is Pearl and I’m the boss around here.  You need anything, anything a'tall, you see me, ya hear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” both Johnny and Scott said in unison.

“Your bags, sirs?” the old fellow asked tiredly.

Johnny and Scott exchanged surprised looks.  They hadn’t thought of baggage.  They both handed over their saddlebags.  The porter held them aloft as though they were rare leather valises from Paris.

“Uh, ma’am,” Johnny started, but stopped when Pearl shot him a warning glance.  “Uh, Pearl, could you have someone take our horses to the livery?  It’s the two right outside the front door.”

“You got it, honey.  Consider it done.”

Johnny smiled and turned to join Scott as they sheepishly followed the porter up the wide staircase to the second floor.  Johnny glanced back and met Pearl’s eyes, appreciatively watching them move up the stairs.   Johnny grinned, but was uncomfortably aware of his backside.

The room was simple.  Not too large, nicely furnished, but simple; an unexpected contrast to the opulence downstairs.  Johnny was pleasantly surprised.  The porter left the saddlebags on the luggage rack by the window, pulled back and fastened the curtains and then left quietly, bowing as he backed out the door.

Scott took the bed to the left of the door, flopping on it and putting both hands up behind his head.  “This was a great idea, Johnny.  Just what the doctor ordered.  What’say we get cleaned up and go down to the bar?  Have a few beers, play some cards?”

Johnny sat on the bed opposite and pulled his jacket off.  “Oh no, brother, no drinkin’ for you.  That dentist gave you some kind of drug, and believe me, I know from experience that stuff don’t mix with drinkin’.  You’ll be up pukin’ your guts out all night.”

“Wait a minute!”  Scott sat up, propped on his elbows.  “You said we could have some beers after I went and got this tooth taken care of!  You promised!”

“Well, that was before your friend the redhead doped you up.  How was it, by the way?”

Scott flopped back down.  “I don’t really remember a lot.  She gave me something to drink, told me it would keep it from hurting too much.  Well, it did hurt, a lot, but you know, with whatever she gave me, I just didn’t care too much.”  He smiled, remembering the experience like one remembers their first beer buzz.

Johnny reached in his pocket and pulled out the little brown bottle and set it on the bedside table.  “Well, she gave me some more for you tonight.  I have a feeling that tooth is gonna rear up again before this is all over with.”

Scott sighed, a resigned sigh.  This wasn’t turning out like he had expected and with Mister Nursemaid over there, it wasn’t bound to get any better.

 

Chapter 9

Perdition was not a whole lot more than a wide place in the road.  It had a livery, a saloon and a few of the other establishments typical of any small town, but nothing more to recommend it.  Its one claim to fame was that it was the last chance for civilization before you crossed into California.  To hear the locals tell it, after that, you were destined for corruption and avarice, never to return to decent folk.

Jess chuckled to himself as he listened to the preacher outside the saloon talking up Perdition and talking down the evils that lay to the west.  He decided the bath could wait.  He was dry.  He’d filled up on water, but was thirsty for something else.  He tipped his dusty black hat as he made a wide circle around the preacher and his female accomplice.  He pushed the swinging doors to the saloon, and found himself in a dim and dusty room.  It was as if the proprietor had given up all pretense of trying to clean up the dust that perpetually blew in off the street.

Glancing around as his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Jess noticed two men playing cards in the corner, and a bartender wiping down the dusty bar.  Jess strode over to the bartender, took his hat off and set it on the bar, and said, “Whiskey,” as he tossed down two bits.

The tender pulled out a clean glass from beneath the bar and poured a dark amber liquid.  Jess nodded and took a cautious sip.  It was strong, the real thing.  He swigged back the whole shot and set the glass back on the bar.

“Name’s Al,” the bartender said as he poured another one and gave Jess his change.  “This one’s on the house.  You stayin’ in Perdition long?”

Jess lifted the glass, toasted the bartender and took a sip.   This one he would savor. “Don’t know yet.  Need some information first.”

“Such as?”

“How far is it to the next town over the California line?”

Al rubbed his double chin, “Oh, ‘bout a hunnert mile as the crow flies.”

“Know where the best place to start lookin’ for work is?”

“What kinda work you lookin’ for?”

Jess brushed the dust off his pants, “Oh, ‘bout anything- drovin’, ranchin’…”

“Well, if you’re determined to go to California, you’ll find some big spreads around Stockton and the San Joaquin.  That’s big cattle country around there.”  He emphasized the word big with a vague wave of both hands.

Jess absorbed the information.  Another hundred miles.  He figured he’d better rest up here a day or two.  Traveler had come a long way and was holding up well, but he deserved a break.

Al interrupted his thoughts.  “If you’re lookin’ for work in California, ya might want to talk to those two fellas over there.  They’re headed that way too.”

Jess took another sip as he turned around to look at the two men at the corner table.  They were both blond with long, stringy hair.  The resemblance led Jess to believe they must be brothers.  He turned back to the bartender.   “Much obliged.”

Taking his glass, he walked over to the table.  Both of the men looked up at him, one of them stared.  Jess was used to being stared at.  Back in the panhandle, his reputation had often-times preceded him and people tended to watch him closely when he rode into a new town, but no one should know him out here.

“Mind if I sit in?”

After a moment the one who wasn’t staring open-mouthed pushed a chair out with his foot.  “Help yourself.”  The quiet one closed his mouth, but still did not speak.  Finally, the other one did.

“Names Bo Tripp.  This here’s my cousin, Ed.”

“Does Ed talk?”

Bo laughed, a hearty, throaty laugh.  “Yeah, yeah.   He’s just don’t talk much is all.  We both recognized you right off the bat.  He just don’t hide it well is all.”

“Recognized me?  Do I know you?”

“Naw, I don’t reckon you do.  We saw you in a fight down in…” he paused and looked over to Ed.  “Where was it, Ed?  Abilene?  Laredo?”  Ed shrugged.  “Well, anyway, fastest we ever did see.”

Jess shifted uncomfortably.

“Now, didn’t mean to make you squirrelly.  We admire your talents is all.”  Bo began shuffling cards.  “What’s your game, Mister Harper?”

“Stud is fine, and you can call me Jess.  Mister Harper was my daddy.”

Bo dealt out the cards and then sat back, examining his hand.

Jess silently laid some cards down and signaled for some more.  “I hear you fellas are headed for California.”

“Yup, that’s right.  Got us a job waiting for us.”  Suddenly his eyes went wide and he looked over at his cousin who was looking wide-eyed back at him.  “Say!  You outta come with us.  It’s right up your alley.  This fella’s hirin’ guns.  Gonna be some big to-do with a coupla rich land owners.”

“A range war?”

“I dunno, sounds like it.  We just got a wire to come if we want work.  Some fella named Brubaker’s doing the hirin’.”

Jess shook his head.  “No, I’m not lookin’ for that kind of work.  Want to get something a bit more…steady.”  Jess had already thought about going back to his former profession.  He’d do it if he had to.  No real reason not to, but he just wanted to get something that he could build a nest-egg on before moving on.  He figured Laramie had rubbed off on him some after all.

Bo’s head bobbed up and down.  “Sure, sure.  Well, wish you’d come anyway.  We’d like the company.  Ed here ain’t much for conversation.”  He gave his cousin a friendly punch on the arm.

“I’m gonna rest up here for a coupla days, then move on.”

Bo leaned in, bringing his voice down a notch.  “I were you, I’d get out o’ here pronto.  This ain’t a friendly place to strangers.  Me an' Ed was leavin’ first thing in the mornin’.”

Surprised, Jess glanced over at Al the bartender.

“Oh, Al, he’s alright.  It’s the others.  This here town is a hotbed of bible thumpers.  They’ll follow you up an’ down the street preachin’ at ya.  I heard they once tarred and feathered a school teacher and run her an’ her little boy out of town for her teachin’ Huck Finn,” Bo laughed and snorted.

“Huck Finn?”

Bo nodded.  “You read it?  Pure sedition they say.”  He winked and set back in his seat.

Jess’ skin began to crawl; not able to put a finger on his unease, but he didn’t like the Tripps.  Something was wrong.  Jess forced a tired smile.  They finished their hand when Jess folded and lost a dollar.  He yawned and stood up.  “I’m goin’ to get me a bath and a shave.  You know where the bathhouse is?”

“Right out the door and around the corner.”

“Thanks.”  Jess settled his hat on his head, picked up his gloves and left, not wanting to turn his back, and not knowing why, but having no choice.

Fifteen minutes later, Jess was neck deep in a hot bath with a board across the tub holding the shaving stuff for when he got around to it.  He sighed deeply, wondering if he’d get around to it anytime soon.  He was so comfortable, he didn’t want to move.  Maybe he would go ahead and leave tomorrow.  There didn’t seem to be anything around this town to keep him here.  He’d go give Traveler a goin’ over later and see if he was up to it.

He must have dozed of.  It was the coolness of the water that woke him up.  His fingertips were white and wrinkled and the water had chilled him.  “Mac!”  Jess shouted for the bathhouse attendant.

A small wiry man with equally wiry gray hair hustled in nervously.  “Yes, Mister Harper?  You wanted something?”

“Yeah, I…” Jess eyed him curiously.  “Hey, I don’t remember telling you my name.”

Mac flitted over to the tub and dipped his hand in.  “Oh my, you’re all cold.  I’ll be right back with more hot water.”  With that, he turned and hurried out.

“Hey!  Wait!”  Jess shook his head.  Those two cousins must’ve…

Almost immediately Mac was back with two buckets of fresh water.  Jess eyed him warily as Mac bent and pulled a plug at the bottom of the tub to let some of the cold water out into the drainage ditch that ran under the wall and out to the alley.  “What’d those two tell you about me?”

“Oh, well…nothin’ much.”  Mac seemed breathless and excited.  “Just that you’re Jess Harper from Texas and you’re…” he hesitated, glancing up at Jess.

“I’m what?”  Jess was getting irritated.

“Well, that you’re uh…a gunfighter.”  He said it with reverence, awe and not a little fear.

Jess settled back in the water as Mac poured the hot water in.  “Well, don’t believe everything you hear, Mac.  I’m just a drifter, driftin’ through town.  I’ll be gone in the mornin’.”  Jess hadn’t made up his mind until that very moment, but he was sure it was the right decision.

In his experience, when people found out about his reputation as a gunfighter, they either ran from him, fawned over him, or challenged him.  He was in the mood for none of it.  The past few months had changed him.  He admitted it and something made him unwilling to sink back into that life; at least unless nothing else presented itself.

Mac finished with the bath water.  Jess had sunk back and closed his eyes again which Mac wisely took as a signal that he wanted to be left alone.  Jess’ thoughts drifted back to Andy.  He wondered how Andy was comin’ with that extra job at Mister Barton’s store.  And wondered if Slim had hired another hand yet.  He couldn’t make a go of that place without help.  Andy wasn’t ready to be a full-fledged partner yet.  It’d be a few years before he would put in a full load of work, if then.

Jess had often thought that Andy was bound for better things.  He wondered if ranch life was really for him.  He had a yearning to see the world and be out in it.  Any place outside of Laramie would be fine with him.  Jess smiled at the memory of their first meeting.  Andy was ready to up and take off with him that first day, so fed up was he with the little world he was growing up in.  He’d settled down after Jess agreed to stay, but the wandering eye was always there.

The boy read books that took him to the places he couldn’t go himself.  Jess hoped that one day he’d break away and see those places.  He never said nothin’ to Slim of course.  Slim had dreams of him and his brother working side by side, building the ranch into something they could both be proud of and pass on to their children.  Slim was blind to the boy’s ambitions.

Well, there was time.  Jess hoped that one or the other of them would realize their dreams.  It was pretty clear that both of them couldn’t.  Jess shook his head as if to shake out all thoughts of Slim and Andy.  They were part of his past now.  Slim didn’t want to have anything to do with him.  He had to move on and not look back.

After shaving and rinsing off, Jess got dressed again and headed over to the only hotel in town.  The preacher and his woman who had apparently been laying in wait for him followed him.  They didn’t say anything.  They sang.  “Shall we gather at the riverrrrrr, the beaut-ti-ful the beaut-ti-full riverrrrrrrr.”  Jess didn’t know how much more of this he could take.  As much as he was looking forward to a real bed instead of a bedroll, he wasn’t sure if it was worth it.

Once “Shall We Gather at the River” was finished, they started in on “One Wide River”.  ‘We’re on a water theme here’, Jess thought.  He grabbed a wooden post and swung up the big step to the boardwalk in front of the hotel and strode inside, closing the door pointedly in the face of his pursuers.

The rotund bespeckled man behind the counter was waiting for him.  Jess ignored the look of disdain and tossed a dollar on the counter.  “Like a room for the night.”

“Sorry, Mister…um, sorry sir, we’re all full up.”

“I see.”  Jess’ eyes squinted to slits, appraising the man with his best intimidating ‘gunfighter’s’ stare.  “Are you quite sure about that?”  His voice, naturally low and gravelly, was more so now.  He could turn it on and off.  It was a gift, he chuckled to himself.

“Uh, uh,” stuttered the man.  “Yes, sir, I’m quite sure,” his beady eyes darting around as if to check for backup.

Jess was too tired to argue, and the last thing he wanted to do was get throwed in jail tonight.  A year ago it would have taken a lot less to provoke a full blown display of the Harper temper.  Today, he accepted the wishes of the town with resignation.  He decided to be polite; a notion that only a year ago, he would rather have eaten bugs than be, to a twerp like this.

He reached up and tipped his hat.  “Well, sir, I sure do thank you for your hospitality.”  He grabbed his dollar and backed out, not turning his back on the counter until he had reached the door.

Stepping once again out onto the boardwalk, his carolers were gone.  Thank goodness.  One more hymn and he might have had to start throwing lead around.  Jess removed his hat and ran a hand through his still-damp hair.  He looked up and down the street and made his decision.

Stepping briskly into the street, he headed for the livery stable.  If this town didn’t want the likes of him, he wasn’t going to force himself on them.  Not much of a town anyway.  Not worth the effort he told himself.  He’d have just enough time to get a few miles out of town and find a nice cozy campsite before it got dark.  Then tomorrow, it was off to California.

 

Chapter 10

Scott was watching Johnny get cleaned up at the washstand from his perch on his bed.  He was stretched out with both hands behind his neck.  His jaw throbbed but he wasn’t about to mention that to Nurse Nightingale over there.  Instead, he cleared his throat.  “Uh, Johnny, what was it you were sayin’ about wanting to stay here tonight for a reason?”

Johnny re-buttoned his blue and white print shirt and turned towards his brother.  “While I was waitin’ in the saloon for you, I overheard two hombres talking about a job they were here for.  Something about Morro Coyo and Lancer.”

Scott sat up suddenly, bringing his hands around to rest on his bent knees.  “Lancer?  What were they talking about Lancer for?”

Johnny stepped toward his brother and tapped him sharply on the shoulder with his comb.  “Well I dunno, brother, but I sure as heck am gonna find out tonight.”

Scott swung his legs around and started reaching for his boots.  “I’m coming with you!”

Johnny sat on his own bunk and started pulling his boots over thick white socks.  “Oh no you don’t, Scott.  Johnny Madrid is taking care of this one.  I can find out more on my own; I can mingle with this bunch.  You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”  He had pulled on one boot and was working on the second one.  “’Sides, you can’t drink and you’ll look mighty funny hanging around a hotel bar and not drinkin’ anything.”

Scott scowled.  The look he shot his brother could have made a lesser man pee in his pants.  As it was, Johnny knew his brother too well, and at this point was secure in his position as the one in possession of the upper hand.

Johnny released the boot and stamped his foot loudly on the floor to settle his foot in all the way.  Then he stood and reached for his tan jacket.

“How do you know they’re in the hotel bar?”

Johnny searched around for his hat, spotting it on the floor by the washstand where he’d flipped it earlier.  “I don’t.  It’s a hunch.”  He bent to pick up the hat and dusted it off. “I saw the two and another two meet up and come in this hotel.  I’m guessing they’re meeting with the main man and I want to be around.  Maybe make myself available. “

“And just what am I supposed to do while you’re doing all this skullduggery?”

Johnny shot him a questioning glance, deciding it prudent to not ask for a definition just now.  “You’ll stay here and eat Obediah’s soup and take that dope and rest.”

As if on cue, a loud knock sounded at the door.  Johnny lunged for it.  “Speak of the devil.”  He glanced over at his fuming brother.  “Oh, by the way, if anyone asks, you’re Scott Madrid,” he added quickly.

Scott’s eyes widened.  “WHA…?”

Johnny swung the door open quickly and revealed the stunningly draped Pearl who dripped with jewels both real and costume.  Apparently she was one who considered beauty a result of quantity.   She floated in the door without being admitted holding a large tray aloft.

“My man, Percy was on his break so I decided to bring this up to you myself before it got cold.”  She set the large tray down on the bed in front of Scott.  While in his immediate proximity, she reached out those two massive hands and squeezed is face between them.  “You poor dear.  You look like you’re in so much pain!”  The fact that her palm was resting directly over the source of his pain was lost on her.  “Well, never you mind.  Obediah’s special chicken soup will fix you right up and then you can sleep in our luxurious bed and no one will disturb you.  You have Pearl’s word on that.”  She gave his head a little shake and let him go.

Johnny was quietly edging his way out the door when Pearl rounded on him.  “And you young man!  Are you leaving your poor brother in this unfortunate condition all by himself?”

Johnny glanced over at his ‘poor unfortunate brother’ and was met with a disturbingly amused smirk that immediately turned to a hang-dog expression when Pearl turned back to him momentarily.  “Uh, no ma’am.  I was just goin’ to take care of some business and then I was gonna come back and tuck ol’ Scott in.”

Pearl’s eyes narrowed and then an amused smile split her face.  “You are so full of it, handsome.”  She turned and winked at Scott.  “And I’m just a hovering old woman,” she said with an exaggerated sigh.  Shooing Johnny out the door, she said, “You go on out.  I’ll see that your brother is settled and that he takes his medicine.  You git on, now.  Scoot!”

Johnny looked over at Scott who shot him a withering-mixed-with-terrified gaze.  “Yes, ma’am.  I’ll be back shortly.”  Johnny turned quickly and headed off down the hall at a good clip before he could be stopped.  Settling his hat on his head, he smiled broadly as he tripped nimbly down the stairs to the garish lower level of Pearl’s establishment.  He’d have hell to pay from Scott later, but it was all worth it to see the look on his face.

His smile died on his face when he spotted the object of his search seated at a corner table in the bustling hotel bar.  The tall white-haired man was unmistakable, even across a crowded room.  Johnny scanned the rest of the table and spotted the shorter bulldog man and the two that had occupied the neighboring table over at the saloon.  Joining them was a man he’d seen in Green River.  They had not been introduced, but Johnny knew him to be Clay Elizondo.

Elizondo was an imposing figure, as tall as Murdoch, about the same age, broad shouldered and solid.  He had the look of a past-his-prime prizefighter who had been unable to keep away the middle-aged paunch, but retained his powerful build.

Johnny moved casually over to the end of the bar nearest the table and ordered a beer.  When it was set before him, he picked it up, drew it to his lips and turned around as if to casually scan the room.  There was a high stakes poker game going on near the windows that overlooked the street.  A number of people had gathered around to watch.

From his vantage point, he could see his quarry well, but he could not hear over the din of the party atmosphere in the room.  He fleetingly wondered if the prizefighter would recognize him as Johnny Lancer, then quickly dismissed the thought.  He had seen the man once in Green River and asked a shop owner who he was.  The man had not seen him, and Johnny had not been back to that town since that event.  He was fairly certain that he was anonymous here in Everafter; anonymous, at least as far as Johnny Lancer was concerned.  So far, he had not been to a town where Johnny Madrid was completely unknown.

He was brought out of his inner thoughts when the four men at the corner table abruptly stood up and left the room, trooping up the stairs to the second floor of the hotel.

Johnny unobtrusively put his beer down and followed, bounding lightly up the stairs as the men rounded the corner at the top.  He stopped at the top of the stairs and peered around the corner, spotting the men just as they rounded the corner at the far end of the hall.

Johnny hurried quietly down the hall but then he had to slow his pace and tip his hat when a well-dressed man and woman stepped out of their room.  They moved off toward the stairs and Johnny hurried to the end and peered around the corner, pausing to look cautiously down the second hallway, the same hallway where his and Scott’s room was located.  He glimpsed a foot disappear just as a door about halfway down closed.  It was two doors away and on the same side as his own room.

Johnny stepped down the hall to his room door and entered quietly in case Scott was asleep.  The room was darkened as the sun had gone down, but an oil lamp illuminated the half of the room where Scott lay stretched out on top of his bed, a book lying open on his chest. He snored softly.  The remains of Obediah’s soup bowl, and teacup sat on a tray next to the bed.  Scott had either eaten it all, or poured it out the window.

Johnny moved quietly over to the window and peered out into the darkness, not at the ground below, but at the balcony.  Yes, there was a very narrow, decorative balcony about three feet below the window ledge and maybe a foot deep.  It had latticework attached to the outer edge that stood up to about knee level.  It didn’t look too substantial, but Johnny hoped it would support his weight.  They were on the side of the hotel that ran along a side street, so he hoped no one would spot him from below.  He quietly lifted the heavy wood-framed window and winced as it let out a squeal of wood on wood.

“What the hell are you doing?”  The voice behind him made him jump and drop the window.  Lacking any support, the heavy window slid down slowly but stopped short of the sill, coming to rest about three inches above.

“Dammit, Scott!  You scared me!” he said in a loud whisper.  He let go the window and turned to face his older brother.

“I scared you?  You come sneaking in here in the dark, and start messing with the window…”

Johnny shushed him and moved quickly over to the bed, glancing back at the still partially open window.

“Shhh, they might hear you.”

Scott’s eyes widened as he tossed the book on the bed and sat up.  “Who?” he whispered, now interested.

“The four men from the bar.  They’re in a room two doors down.”

Scott swung his long legs off the bed and sat on the edge.  “You gonna go out the window?” he said, quickly getting into the spirit of things.

Johnny reached over and turned the lamp wick down until it was almost, but not quite out.  He then moved back over to the window.  “I’m gonna try to hear what they’re saying through their window.  You stay here and be quiet!”

Scott silently got up and accompanied his brother over to the window, and helped him lift it, holding it for him as Johnny slipped through.  Johnny tested the balcony, holding to the windowsill as he bounced gingerly.  Since he didn’t crash to the ground below, he figured it was sound enough.

He glanced up at his brother, gave him a reassuring wink, and began to move off toward the window to his left.  His destination was easy to see because the room in question poured light out onto the balcony.  They must have had every lamp in the room turned full up.  As he moved closer, he heard voices.  They weren’t speaking loudly, but he could make out a few words from several feet away.  Moving up to the window’s edge, he leaned over just enough to peek around.

The four men he recognized from the bar were all there, in addition to one other man.  This one he knew.  It was a face that he’d hoped he’d never see again.

Virgil McCoy was a gunfighter that Johnny had run into in Nogales.  Virgil was a few years older than Johnny, tall and wiry.  He had a mustache that drooped below his chin.  He fancied it his trademark and he could always be seen stroking it, or twirling it.  He was sharp, he was good, and he hated being called Virgil.

Johnny knew he might very well have met his match when they had met three years ago.  They had become uneasy allies in a local war, so Johnny’s curiosity about whether he could take McCoy had never been tested.  He had seen McCoy work though.  He lacked scruples and he was cold, like a shark.  After they finished the job that they had been hired for, Johnny observed as McCoy took another job locally.  What he saw sickened him.  He left Nogales shortly after that and had never seen McCoy again, but had heard snippets of stories for several years.  McCoy had a reputation for taking any job if the money was right.  When he took a job, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

A cold knot took up residence in the pit of Johnny’s stomach.  A strong sense of foreboding enveloped him like a fog.  He leaned back against the brick wall of the hotel and swallowed hard.  Listening to the rumbling voices inside, he heard what he was most afraid he would hear.

The man, Brubaker was hiring guns for Elizondo.  McCoy was apparently his chief gun. McCoy had that same arrogant air about him that Johnny remembered.  A smugness that made you want to slap him silly just for being in the room.

They were planning to leave soon for Elizondo’s camp outside town.  They were going to make a move against Lancer.  That was all he could gather from the snippets that he could hear.  He heard his father’s name mentioned.  He heard a reference to an orphanage and a land grant.

Johnny knew there was a very large church-run orphanage on the eastern-most border of Lancer, around sixty or seventy miles from the house.  Murdoch supported them financially and possibly with land, he wasn’t sure.  Johnny mentally kicked himself for not taking more of an interest in the business end of the ranch.  He knew there were remote land holdings, but had not made it his business to learn more.

He had apparently arrived near the end of the meeting because the men started to move around the room, retrieving hats and making ready to leave.  Brubaker was expecting more arrivals the following day.

Johnny waited until all of the others had left, leaving only Brubaker and Elizondo in the room.  They smoked cigars and drank from an assortment of bottles on the table.

Elizondo’s back was to Johnny, so his words weren’t clear, but Elizondo had continued to talk about Lancer.  It seemed that he spoke of Lancer as if it were a thing, not a man.  It was an institution to be taken and dismantled.  Murdoch’s name was rarely mentioned, and his sons, never.  Perhaps Elizondo did not know Murdoch personally and therefore knew nothing about his family.  That could work to their advantage.

The orphanage was mentioned by name several times.  Our Lady of Hope Children’s Home and Refuge.  A high falutin’ name for an orphanage, Johnny thought.  It seemed to be the land and buildings that Elizondo was after.  The orphans were just in the way it seemed.

Apparently the orphanage was housed in an ancient Spanish estate with many outbuildings including a mission.  The buildings may have been valuable to a historian, but he doubted that Elizondo was very interested in history.  No, there was something else.

Johnny’s legs were stiff.  He was cold and his back hurt pressed stiffly against the cold brick.  McCoy got up to leave, and Johnny took that as a signal to move.  Nothing else would be learned tonight.  Looking back towards his own window, he could see Scott’s head poked out and looking at him through the darkness.  Johnny quietly, and with infinite care, moved back towards Scott, inching along the wooden balcony trying to avoid loose boards, or anything that would make a noise.  As he neared their room, Scott reached out a hand and Johnny grasped it as Scott helped him inside.

Thankful to be in the relative warmth of the room, Johnny collapsed on his bed, his mind racing a mile a minute.  Scott sat next to him.

“Well?”  Scott asked anxiously.

Johnny rose up on his elbows.  “Well, I think we’re in trouble.”

They sat in silence for a minute.

Finally Scott looked down at his brother.  “You will explain that, won’t you?”

“Did you take your medicine?” Johnny asked absently.

Scott sighed.  He knew Johnny wasn’t meaning to be cruel, he was just preoccupied.  “Johnny, what happened over there?”

“Did you?”

“No, I wanted to wait until you got back.  Now tell me!”  The shouting made him wince and his hand flew to his jaw.

Johnny got up from the bed and walked over to get the little brown bottle that Kate had given them.  He poured a half glass of water from the carafe on the table and put five drops of the medicine in it and swirled it around.  Handing it to his brother, he said, “As soon as you drink this.”

Scott glared at him, but took the medicine and swallowed it down in one gulp.  “There, satisfied?” he said as he involuntarily shuddered.

Johnny shrugged off his jacket and sat to remove his boots.  “Yup.”

Scott stood up menacingly over his brother.  “If you don’t start talkin’…”

Johnny smiled, though he didn’t feel too happy just then.  “Okay, okay.  Sit down.”

Scott sat on his own bed and listened raptly as Johnny relayed everything he’d seen and heard both downstairs and in the room down the hall.

 

Chapter 11

Jess had ridden straight for several days, stopping only for short breaks, and to sleep when he had to.  He couldn’t put his finger on his anxiety, but he was pushing himself to get to California and the end of his journey.

He hadn’t been in a town in days.  He’d seen signs, but he skirted them.  He stopped at a small farm and bought some feed for Traveler from the owner and they had given him some biscuits in the deal.  They didn’t have much and he thanked them graciously for their generosity.  They had allowed him to spend the night in their barn, and he had ridden out again early the next morning before the chickens were up.

Jess could feel a melancholy laying over him.  He wasn’t normally given to it, but it took him anyway and he was too tired to fight it.  His hope lay in California where he could start all over again.  He’d heard that was why people went to California- for the many opportunities and to start over.  He wanted that.  He wanted to forget.

For all he knew, he could be in California already.  The landscape was new.  There were gentle rolling hills of yellow grass and patches of green trees.  Not the towering pines of the south, or the scrubby bushes of Wyoming, but big, thick dark green trees of substance and weight.  From a distance they looked low and squat, as wide as they were tall.

Without realizing it, he had headed right into a storm.  He had been dozing in the saddle.  It was late afternoon and he had let Traveler go.  The horse had stopped at some point and was grazing happily in the thick grass of a small valley.  Jess looked up and saw menacing black clouds overhead and he felt the first drops of rain hit the brim of his hat.

Looking around for shelter, he saw a small copse of the trees he had admired from a distance, and he nudged Traveler toward them.  He knew a tree wasn’t the best place to be in a lightning storm, but neither was out on the open grasslands.  He chose shelter from the wind and some of the wet over the remote possibility of lightening finding his hiding place.

As he sat huddled under a makeshift shelter made from his bedroll, he tried to remember why he had decided to come to sunny California.  The rain pelted down in waves so thick it was hard to see.  He was soaked to the skin; the bedroll provided no protection after about two minutes of the relentless deluge.  The ground on which he sat was soaked and soft with thick mud.

He had lost sight of Traveler who had been tied on a long lead to a nearby tree.  He berated himself for allowing himself to get in this fix.  Jess was trail savvy, had been drifting for five years before he stopped in Laramie.  He knew to look ahead at weather and find proper shelter.  He’d allowed himself to get too tired.  He’d gotten careless and a very uncomfortable night was the price he would pay.

Despite the uncomfortable wet and the penetrating cold, he lay down on his side, pulled his bedroll over him and fell into a deep sleep.  He did not wake the entire night.

The next morning, a cold soft nudge woke him.  He squinted up into the face of his horse, almost nose to nose with him.  Glancing around he saw that the sun was hidden behind more dark clouds, and the rain continued to fall, not as harshly as the night before, but still a gully washer.  He gently shoved Traveler’s nose out of the way and pushed himself to a sitting position.

A hitch caught in his ribs; a sharp pain that made him gasp and pulled him up short.  A moment later, a hard cough racked his body and the pain in his rib stabbed like a knife.  When the coughing fit was over, he was left limp with exhaustion and out of breath.  He lay back down on the cold ground, unable to get up, and unwilling to try.

He was cold; a dangerous cold that seeped into the bones and with no way to get warm.  He closed his eyes and tried to think what to do.  It wasn’t long before the world faded away to blackness.   His last thought was that Slim was gonna kill him for gettin’ in this mess.

 

Chapter 12

Johnny and Scott had stayed up discussing and planning until Scott became too sleepy to keep his eyes open.  Johnny noticed his pupils were big and his eyes unfocused as he struggled to concentrate on the conversation.  Johnny recalled the last time he had been given a similar drug.  He’d slept for two days.

Johnny lay on his bed, hands behind his head as he stared into the darkness.  He heard Scott’s soft breathing and an occasional snore and rustle of sheets as he would change position.

Johnny couldn’t close his eyes.  The implications of what he had overheard were stirring around in his head.  Lancer was in danger.  Murdoch’s life was in danger too if Virgil McCoy was involved.  Johnny was well aware of the standard gun-for-hire tactics.  Go for the head man as soon as possible and hope that the rest of the organization would disintegrate.  It was an old battle tactic.  Johnny ruefully thought that it was old because it worked.

He resented having to trot out Johnny Madrid again.  Johnny Madrid was himself, but a part of himself that he thought he had put behind him.  He was not ashamed of Madrid, he never attempted to make his past a secret, but after coming to Lancer, he wanted to start over.

He had never done anything technically illegal as Madrid, but he had done things of which he was not proud.  It just seemed that circumstances demanded Madrid put in an appearance now and then.  Johnny wasn’t above it, but he was weary of the need for his old friend.

The sun was still just below the horizon when Scott’s throbbing jaw woke him.  He rolled over, holding his hand to his jaw, tenderly probing in a perverse attempt to locate and subdue the source of the ache.  The medicine had helped him sleep, but had obviously reached the limits of its effectiveness sometime during the night.

He sat up and looked over to his brother, visible in the gray dawn across the room.  Johnny was sprawled on his stomach across the bed, one arm hugging the pillow on which his head rested, while the other hung over the side of the bed and dangled above the floor.  He had not bothered to remove any clothes except for his boots and his hat was hanging by its strap from the post at the head of the bed.

The room was cold and Scott decided it was too early to get up.  He stood up stiffly and darted across the room on bare feet, pulled the quilt out from under Johnny’s feet and laid it over his sleeping brother, folding the top away from his face.  Then he took Johnny’s dangling hand and pushed it up under the quilt, noting how cold his fingers were.

Then he moved over to the steam radiator near the window and turned the knob, releasing the steam that would heat the iron contraption, and presumably the room as well, with its radiant heat.  He had seen these in Boston, but had not encountered one this far west before.  He thought fleetingly of the perversity of California weather at this time of year.  In a few hours, this room would be stifling.  Quickly he darted back to his own bed and dove under the covers, pulling them up to his chin.

Scott tried to concentrate on anything other than his throbbing mouth.  The memory of Kate, her green eyes, her soft rounded curves; anticipation of seeing her again today occupied him for a few minutes, but that quickly led to what Johnny had learned last night.  He knew Johnny would put himself right in the middle of it.  Johnny and trouble were old acquaintances and Scott knew that Johnny could no more just up and go home, than he could fly.

He glanced over at his younger brother just as he began to stir.  Johnny moaned and turned onto his side, hugging his pillow as he sighed deeply.  His eyes had lazily opened momentarily, but he was not yet awake, nor was there any awareness in them.  He settled again and Scott resumed his disinterested examination of the ceiling.

After a few minutes, Scott rolled over, pulled his quilt up and tried to go back to sleep.

 

Chapter 13

The girl was not pretty, nor was she striking as she fancied was in some ways better than pretty.  Her one redeeming feature, to her way of thinking, was her hair.  She had very little in her life to be happy about, and virtually nothing of which to take pride in, but she did take a secret pleasure in knowing her hair was better than most.  She knew the other girls envied her, and she noticed the boys would touch it “accidentally” if they could without being seen to do so.

Not that she would appear to be vain.  It wasn’t that at all she told herself.  It was her identity.  It was what separated her from the thirty-seven other girls and the twenty-one boys in the orphanage.  Without her flaming red, thick hair to distinguish her, she felt she would lose herself in a sea of similar sized and similarly clad waifs, dependant on the auspices of the church and the charity of the community.

She was only twelve.  If she weren’t adopted, it would be another six years before she could leave to make her own way in the world, a prospect that both excited and frightened her.

Today her hair was drawn back into a single thick braid that reached down her back to where she could almost sit on it.  It was as thick as a doubled rope and she swung it around behind her shoulders as she began to climb the rocky outcropping that had been her destination when she snuck away from the home.  She liked to come here when she could get away without being seen.  It allowed her to look over the countryside, to be outdoors in the sunshine, and to be alone.

To her mind, being alone was the most valuable of commodities, something for which she would, and had traded on the open market.  A book and an hour to read in peace was worth doing the dinner dish cleanup shift that belonged to her loud and overly rambunctious roommate.

She hadn’t traded anything today.  She had simply left when the opportunity presented itself.  They had all been cooped up indoors for two days because of the rain.  When the rain ended this morning, everyone went out into the sunshine.  She just went out a little further than most, she grinned.

Reaching her own personal perch at the top of the hill, she scanned the familiar countryside.  She had never shared this place with anyone, not even told anyone.  She knew if the nuns found out, they’d make her stop coming here.  She had occasionally seen travelers making their way slowly across the grasslands.  She’d seen families in covered wagons and buckboards.  There were no roads in this area, but there was a trail from the east that cut across and headed toward Everafter.

Today, she saw a lone horse, grazing in the open near a small stand of trees.  It was saddled, and she could see no rider nearby.  That was very odd, and warranted investigation.  She decided to be cautious, like Penelope in her favorite book series.  Penelope would watch and wait before making a move, and so shall Isabelle Blue Mellon.

Isabelle pushed her round glasses back up her freckled nose, and settled in to watch.  She crossed her legs Indian-style, set her elbows on the knees of her denim overalls, and rested her chin in her hands.  She decided she’d give it a half hour.  If no rider appeared in that time, she’d go down and see the horse up close. The prospect of finding a horse, and keeping it, secretly of course, was just the kind of adventure that Isabelle always dreamed about.

Barely a half hour later, Isabelle found herself skipping lightly down the hill with the skill and grace of a gazelle.  Her natural athleticism and fearlessness made her haphazard in her descent, but nevertheless, she reached the bottom unscathed and continued running across the grasslands without missing a step.

As she neared the horse, it raised its head and gazed at her curiously without stopping its chewing.   She slowed her steps and approached it cautiously, not out of fear for herself, but fear that the horse would turn tail and run, depriving her of her adventure.

The horse seemed as calm and nerveless as one who had twelve-year-old girls running up to it on a daily basis.  She reached out and took its bridle and smoothed a small hand down its nose and along its neck.  She couldn’t reach its ears, but had she been able to, she would have scratched behind them like she did for Tex, the old dog who lived at the orphanage, belonging to all of them, and belonging to no one.

As she slowly walked around the large horse, she scanned the area for any sign of its owner, half hoping that she would not find him.  As she neared the horse’s tail, he turned and put his nose over her shoulder.  She laughed and reached up and stroked his nose.

“Oh you are a sweetheart, aren’t you!”  She hugged his nose and continued her vigorous petting, almost able to hug his neck, but not quite.

Suddenly the horse’s head shot up and his ears pricked forward.  He turned and looked toward the stand of trees about twenty yards away.  Without a backward glance, he started walking slowly, but resolutely toward the trees.  Isabelle took hold of his trailing reins and walked beside him.

As they neared the deep shade under the trees, Isabelle cleared her throat and nervously called, “Is anyone in there?”

She prayed silently for no answer, and she considered her prayer answered when she got none.  The two continued into the trees, the horse having to duck his head under low branches, heavy with the recent rains.  Isabelle walked pressed against his side.  

Beneath the canopy of trees was cold, and wet, and dark after coming in from the bright sunlight.  Isabelle let her eyes adjust and looked around.  The horse had his own ideas about where he was going, and he moved further into the stand, taking them both around a particularly large and old specimen.  Once around that, there was a small clearing where sunlight dappled the ground.

She saw him the minute she rounded the large oak.  He was lying on the ground under a smaller, but no less impressive tree about ten feet away.  He was lying on his side with his back against the exposed gnarled roots.  He had moaned, and that’s what brought the horse.  He moaned again, and the horse moved closer, Isabelle with him.

She cautiously moved away from the warmth of the horse beside her, and approached the man as quietly as she could.  He looked to be sleeping.  Who would be sleeping out here, and all wet, too?  He was wet; she could see that.  He was soaked, and as she drew closer she could see that he was shivering violently.  He lay on ground that had become mud with the storms last night.  He must be soaked to the skin and frozen to the bone.

Her innate concern, natural kindness and rampant curiosity overrode her fear and she hurried to the man’s side, stooping down and putting a hand on his shoulder.  He was cold to the touch and she could see that his lips had a bluish tint.  She rolled him over onto his back.  “Mister?”  She touched his face with a small, shaking hand.  “Mister?  Can you hear me?”

He was handsome; she could see that.  She smiled to herself at the notion that it would be the first thing she would notice.  He had dark, wavy hair and very dark, and very long eyelashes, which were at that very moment, struggling to open.

l bet they’re blue she thought an instant before the stranger proved her right and she smiled.  “Hey,” she said simply.  Sister August always said she was a bold one.  Never one to be shy and never one to keep her nose out of everyone else’s business.

He tried to speak, but no noise came out, and a moment later, he began coughing violently.  He rose up with the force of his coughs, and when the spasms had subsided, he lay heavily back down.

“My name is Isabelle Blue Mellon.  What’s yours?”

The stranger looked at her intently as if he were struggling to focus on her face.  He licked his lips, which were dry, but made no attempt to speak.

“Would you like some water?” Isabelle said.  Not waiting for an answer she stood up quickly and stepped over to where the horse was waiting patiently.  She had to jump to reach the saddle horn where the canteen was looped by its leather strap.  After three tries, she managed to get the canteen down and brought it back over to the man.  She lifted his head and put it on her leg, and then removed the cap and held the canteen to his lips.

The stranger raised a hand and tipped the canteen until the water flowed into his mouth and down his chin.  He gulped several large swallows, and then lowered the canteen and gasped for air.

As his breathing slowed, Isabelle could see that he was studying her, perhaps trying to focus.  He squinted and blinked several times and reached his hand up to rub his eyes.  Finally, he spoke.  “Name’s Jess.”  It was barely a whisper and he sounded to Isabelle like he had gravel in his throat.

“Jess,” she repeated softly and thoughtfully.  She liked it.  He would have a strong and plain name.  If it had been Horace, she would have had to change it right away.  She smiled at him.  “That’s a good name, Jess.  I like it.  Why’re you out here by yourself?”

Jess rose up on one elbow.  “I could ask you the same question.”

She looked around.  She wasn’t expecting that.  “Um, I’m just exploring.  I live just over there.”  She pointed to a vague area “out there” and hoped he would drop it.  She decided it best to change the subject.  “You’re sick, aren’t you?  How long you been here?”

Jess nodded his head and swallowed hard.  “I came yesterday just as that storm hit.  I guess I been here. . . “  Just saying that much made him short of breath.  He coughed a few more times and then lay back down on the ground and breathed hard.  “I don’t feel so good.”

“You an outlaw?”

Jess laughed, which brought on more coughing.  “No.  Are you?” he rasped.

Isabelle laughed too.  He was unexpected, he was funny, and he was the prettiest thing in pants she’d ever seen.  “No, although Sister Paul sometimes says I should be locked up.”

He kept his eyes closed, but smiled.  “Sister Paul?”

“One of the nuns at the home where I live.”

“You an orphan?”

Isabelle pulled her braid around front and began fiddling with it which was her habit when she was flustered or worried.  Isabelle knew she was many things: a romantic silly girl for one, vain about her hair for another, but she was also practical and sensible.  She quickly decided that the practical and sensible thing to do was to tell this man the truth and get him some help.  That’s what Penelope Poindexter would do.

“Yes.  The home is just over that next rise.”

He opened his eyes and was watching her.  She felt like he was looking through her.  He’d know the truth anyway, she figured.  He reached out and took her braid from her hand and held it in his own.

“Pretty hair.  My ma’s was that color.”  He coughed hard.  “But her’s wasn’t that long.  ‘Least I don’t think so.  She always wore it up.”  He dropped the braid and his face went slack, his hand dropping into Isabelle’s lap.

“Jess?  You okay?”  She picked up his hand, held it tightly in hers and stroked it.

He nodded but didn’t speak.  He was still with her.  That was all the information he could muster just then.

She sighed and sat back on her heels, continuing to hold his hand.  After a minute she spoke again.  “Well, I reckon I need to get you out of here.  Reckon you can get on your horse?”

Jess didn’t nod or answer.  She leaned close to his face.  Hearing his breathing, she sighed with relief and closed her eyes.  She lowered her ear to his chest like she’d seen Sister Michael do, and listened to the air move in and out of his lungs.  There were a lot of noises in there that she didn’t reckon should be there.

 

Chapter 14

They sat in the hotel restaurant eating breakfast.  Johnny was hurrying, shoveling eggs and bacon into his mouth like he was late for an appointment.  Between bites he blurted out,  “You shouldn’t’ve let me sleep so late.”  He shot his brother an accusing stare.

Scott tossed down his napkin and leaned back in his chair.  “Me?  Let you?  I did everything but pour cold water on you to get you up.  You threatened me with violence!”

Johnny stopped eating momentarily.  “I did not!”

“Did too!”  Scott replied petulantly.  “I distinctly heard the word murder somewhere in the babbling.”

“Babbling?  Now you’re just making that up!”

“Little brother, you were letting me know in no uncertain terms that you wanted to be left alone, and I was not in any mood to argue.”  Scott rubbed his jaw painfully and looked morosely at his soft scrambled eggs and oatmeal.

Pearl had intercepted the two of them as they came into the lobby and inquired solicitously about Scott’s tooth.  He insisted that it was much improved, no doubt a result of Obediah’s fine soup and tea, but Pearl was skeptical.  She saw, and felt the swelling that was still there.  As she touched his cheek, Scott couldn’t help but wince, giving Pearl all the proof she needed.

While her attention was turned to Scott, Johnny had the opportunity to look over Pearl’s latest couture and coiffure.  She was regaled in flowing green satin brocade with gold and red piping along the neck and sleeves.  Large gold earrings dripped from her ears and almost brushed her shoulders.  She had an ornate gold and satin rope belt around her ample waist that had a tail hanging almost to the floor with a large tassel inches from it.

If it were possible, she seemed to have on even more jewelry today than she had yesterday.  Johnny couldn’t help but think she looked like a large Christmas tree.  He was smothering a smile when she suddenly turned and focused her elaborately made-up eyes on him.  She was saying something which he missed entirely, trying as he was not to lose control.

She hustled the two of them into the dining room, saw them ensconced in the plum seating area by the picture window, and then bustled off to the kitchen to oversee the special soft breakfast that would be prepared for Scott.

When the doting waiter came to take Johnny’s order, he only wanted coffee and toast.  Five minutes later a veritable epicurean feast was laid in front of him.  One large plate, and several smaller ones were heavily laden with eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, flapjacks, hash browns and what Scott had to explain to him were grits.  There were bowls of fruits and jellies and butters of every description.  Johnny glanced furtively around the room to see if any of the other patrons had noticed.

They had. 

“Well, you did get your toast and coffee,” Scott commented wryly.  Johnny shot him daggers.

Determined to ignore the stares, Johnny dug in.  He was not really very hungry, but wanted to prevent Pearl from coming over and asking why he wasn’t eating.  Something about her made him loath to disappoint her.  He did slow down though.  He decided he’d better or he’d get too full too fast and leave too much food.  After the waiter had left after filling his coffee cup yet another time, he lowered his head and spoke to Scott.  “Can you go to see the lady dentist by yourself?”

Scott looked mildly offended.  “I am an adult, little brother.”  Then he looked suspiciously at his brother.  “What are you gonna do?”

Johnny bit off a piece of well-done bacon.  “I’m gonna see if I can get hired by this Bumgarner fella,” he said through a grin as he chewed.

“Brubaker,” Scott corrected.

“Whatever.”

“Don’t you think we should get back to Lancer and talk to Murdoch about this?”

“Sure I do,” Johnny nodded agreeably.  “That’s what you’re gonna do,” he said continuing to nod and chew.  Seeing his brother’s scowl, he continued.  “Look, Scott, Virgil McCoy is in town.  He knows me.  Well, he knows Johnny Madrid, and as far as he knows, Johnny Madrid does not have a brother.”

Taking a breath and a sip of coffee, he continued, “It’s the perfect set up.  No one here knows Johnny Lancer and this way I can get on the inside and find out what’s going on.”

Scott interrupted.  “Ah, ah, ah, little brother.  You are mistaken about that.”

Johnny looked at him, puzzled.

Scott continued.  “You introduced us to Kate yesterday as Johnny and Scott Lancer,” he pointed out.

Johnny looked thoughtful.  “Mmmm hmmm.”  He thought for a minute.  “You’re right, I did.  Well, there’s no reason for her to be involved in this.  We won’t even see her again after today.  Unless Virgil gets a toothache and they happen to start talking about their mutual acquaintances…”

Scott held up a restraining hand.  “Alright, alright, I see your point.”

Johnny settled back in his chair, taking a deep breath.

Scott continued to look skeptical.  “I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”  He took a deep breath.  “Look we’re sitting here in public together.  It’s not a secret that we checked in together.  What’s he gonna think if he knows that?”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders.  “I’ll just tell him you’re my cousin and we met here on family business.”  He leaned forward and affected a menacing scowl.  “I can make him believe it.”  He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Scott couldn’t help the grin that provoked.  “I’m not sure you’re approaching this with the seriousness the situation requires.”

“Sure I am.  I’m just not gonna let it spoil a perfectly good breakfast.”

“You’re feeling mighty chipper this morning.  I think sleeping late agrees with you.”

Johnny smiled sheepishly.

“You love this stuff, don’t you,” Scott said, a statement, not a question.

Johnny grabbed his hat from the chair next to him, stood up and settled it on his head.  “Sign for the check, will ya?  I’m gonna go see a man about a job.”

Scott smiled resignedly.  “Alright, but you meet me back here at noon.”

Johnny gave him a non-committal nod and started to move off.

“I mean it, Johhny!  If you’re not back here at noon, I’m comin’ looking for you.”

Pearl came toward Johnny and blocked his egress through the tables.  “You off, handsome?  Did you have enough to eat?”

Johnny removed his hat and held it in both hands.  “Yes, ma’am and it was delicious.  I’ve got some business to take care of.  I’ll leave Scott here in your capable hands.”  Without giving her a chance to answer, he quickly leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on her fleshy cheek, replaced his hat on his dark head and hurried out.

Pearl’s face flushed deeply.  Flustered, she watched him move smoothly among the sea of tables and chairs and leave the hotel through the front door.   She shook her head; her earrings tinkled pleasantly, a wide smile made her face glow.  She turned to Scott and sat in the chair that Johnny had vacated.  “He’s a four-square charmer, ain’t he?”

Scott examined her closely.  She was blushing like a school- girl under her makeup.  “Yes, ma’am.  More than what’s good for him.”  Scott smiled affectionately.

Pearl batted her large hand, her bracelets rattled noisily.  “Aw, sweetie, you don’t need to ma’am me.  I’m just an old hillbilly from Kentucky.  I know I look a sight, but I don’t put on airs about being no lady.”

Scott sipped his coffee appreciatively.  The warmth felt good on his sore gums.  “Kentucky?  What brought you here?”

“My first husband, Henry.  He was a banker.  Oh, he didn’t own one, ‘er nothin’.  Well, not until later.  He was a good man.  One o’ the most romantic souls you’d ever want to meet.  Why, he’s the one that gave this town its name.”

“Everafter?  Really?”

Pearl nodded.  “Yup.  As in happily everafter…”

“But, shouldn’t that be two words?”

“Well, sweetie, my Henry weren’t no scholar.  He was a genius with money and numbers, but could barely spell his own name.  The folks around here didn’t know, or just didn’t care.”

“I see,” Scott nodded, smiling.  He’d often wondered.

Pearl’s expression saddened.  “He died way too young.”

“I’m sorry, “ Scott said honestly.  There were a few moments of silence as they both paid silent respect to Henry.  Scott spoke next, breaking the awkward silence.  “You said first husband?”

Pearl’s face immediately brightened, the momentary bereavement finished.  “I sure did, sweetie.  Henry was only the first.  After that came Claude.  He was a railroad man.  He was a skunk in business and he died young, too.  Killed by an employee he fired and rooked out of his pension.”  It was apparent that there would be no bereavement pause for poor Claude.

“Then there was my dear Angus; a Scotsman and a gentleman.”  She swept a brocaded arm to indicate the room.  “He left me all this.”

Scott followed the sweep of her arm with his eyes.  “I’m impressed.”

“Angus was an impressive man; big and boisterous.  Had a full head of red hair and a full beard that covered everything but his twinkling blue eyes and his turned up nose.”  Pearl’s eyes teared up and she pulled a handkerchief out of her sleeve and dabbed her eyes.  Scott was concerned that her false eyelashes would begin to peel off.

Scott looked at her with sympathy.  “I didn’t mean to upset you by asking. . .”

Pearl put a hand over Scott’s where it rested on the table and patted it.  “Don’t you worry a thing about that, sweetie.  I love talking about my honeys.  They’re all still right here.”  She placed a meaty fist over where Scott supposed her heart beat beneath her ample bosom.

Curiosity had a hold on Scott and he had to find out more.  “So Angus was your last?”

“Last?”  Pearl asked, surprised.  “My heavens, no, sweetie!”  She laughed heartily.  After my dear Angus died of that horrible consumption, I found my Johnny.”  She thought for a moment and then nodded once.  “Yup, he was the last.  Well, until the next one. . .”  She winked.

“Johnny?”  Scott was startled, his eyes flickering to the door through which his brother had departed minutes before.  He turned back to Pearl with a new understanding.  This could explain a lot.

Pearl’s eyes took on a far away look; the look of one lost in the past and awash in pleasant memories.  Scott knew by the beatific look on Pearl’s features, that Johnny was the love of her life; the one that held that big heart of hers in his hands.  Wherever he was.  Scott was almost afraid to ask, but couldn’t resist.

“What happened to Johnny?”

Pearl sniffed and dabbed her eyes again.  “He had to leave, sweetie.  He was too good for this world.”  She shook her head and tears rolled down her cheeks.

After a moment, Pearl got a hold on her emotions and continued.  “My Johnny was part Basque.  That’s Spanish, sweetie and he was a blue-eyed rogue with a smile that could make a woman melt to the ground.”

After a moment of reflection, Pearl apparently had a revelation.  “Why, I do believe that your brother reminds me just a little bit of my Johnny,” she said unnecessarily.

A small, ironic smile flitted across Scott’s lips.  He quickly quashed it so Pearl wouldn’t see.

“Really?  In what way?” he asked innocently.

Pearl blushed again.  This woman wore her emotions on her face, not obscured one whit by her makeup.  “The same dark hair and blue eyes, the same easy smile and easier charm.  Yes, I do believe I may be right about that,” she said matter-of-factly.

Wishing to change the subject and with a heartfelt desire to make Pearl feel better, Scott asked,  “Do you have children?”

Pearl sadly shook her head, “No, sweetie, I was never blessed that way.”

Scott’s heart sank.  He’d asked the wrong question.

Sensing his distress, Pearl reassured him.  “Now don’t you go feeling sorry for me, sweetie.  I’ve loved and been loved by three good men and one medium-good one,” she smiled wryly.  “I’ve had more blessings and fortune in this life than any one woman has the right to expect.”  Her mood returned to her usual joviality.  “Hell, son, I’m richer’n God, I have a town full of good friends, I have a business that I love, my employees are my family and my guests are my children.”

She rose from her chair and swept her voluminous skirt behind her. “No, dearie, don’t you worry a thing about me.  Now you come see me if you need anything, you hear?”  She reached down and laid a warm affectionate hand on Scott’s cheek.  “Thank you, sweetie.”

Scott looked up at her puzzled.  “For?”

“For indulging a silly old woman.”  With that, she swept away and mingled with the other diners in the room as Scott smiled affectionately after her and returned to his coffee.

 

Chapter 15

Jess’ first awareness came with a vague feeling of drowning.  He felt a weight in his chest and he couldn’t take a deep breath.  He was hot, uncomfortable, and all of that combined to bring on a sense of panic.  He struggled to open his eyes, but even though he thought they were open, he could see only blackness.  After blinking a few times, the blackness turned to gray and he could make out the faint outlines of rough-cut bricks.  The air smelled moist and heavy.

He could tell he was lying on a bed, his head turned toward the brick wall he had seen.  He slowly turned his head and as he did so, the room lightened to a pale yellow glow.  There was an oil lamp on a small table to his right and an open door through which light from a hallway spilled.

The room was not large and it was sparsely furnished with a wooden armoire, a dresser and the little table in addition to the bed on which he lay and a chair sitting beside it.  All four walls were large, roughly hewn brickwork and the door was large, heavy, thick wood with iron bands spanning its width and an opening covered with thin iron bars near the top.  The place looked like a cell, or could have once been a cell.

The effort of turning his head and scanning the room tired him, he was aware of struggling to breathe and he instinctively tried to rise up.

As he struggled to get his elbows under him, a figure draped in black robes floated into the room.  Looking up, it took him a moment to recognize the habit of a nun.  She was dressed from head to toe in black, with white around her face, and a gold chain around her waist with a large cross hanging from it.

“Well, I see you waited until I stepped out for just a minute to join us again!” she said with mock exasperation.  “Here, let me help you.”  She quickly moved to Jess’ side and helped him rise while she pushed the pillows under his shoulders to prop him up.  “There, that’s better,” she said finally.

Jess breathed hard, a rattle in his chest obvious even to his own ears.  The movement had caused a sharp pain in his back and his vision faded momentarily.  He sagged back and worked at trying to get his breathing under control.

“I’m Sister Michael, and you’re Jess, I understand.”  As she spoke, she reached to a porcelain basin on the table and wrung out a wet rag.  She gently wiped the cool cloth over Jess’ forehead, face, neck and chest.  “You were very fortunate that our Isabelle found you.  Of course she was somewhere that she ought not have been, but nevertheless, God sometimes works through mysterious ways, including naughty little girls.”  She stopped talking and met Jess’ eyes.  He hadn’t spoken yet.  Smiling, she continued.  “Don’t worry about Isabelle.  She didn’t get in trouble.  We’re just so glad that she was not hurt and that she found you, who so desperately needed our help…”

Jess raised a hand against the onslaught of words.  “How…”

“How long have you been here?”

Jess nodded almost imperceptibly.

“You’ve been here almost five days.  You’ve been very sick.  Doctor Levy says that you have pneumonia.  Now, enough of this, you must eat something now that you’re awake.  I’ll go get some broth from the kitchen and be right back.  Now don’t you go anywhere.”  She gave him a big smile and floated out toward the hallway.

She was young, very pretty, what he could see of her, and obviously an enthusiastic nurse.  His breathing had slowed, but he still found it hard to breathe.  He wasn’t used to having to work at it.  Sitting up had helped, but he was also exhausted and his back and shoulders hurt.

He lay back heavily against the pillows and waited with his eyes closed, absorbing the silence that engulfed him when the chattering nun left.  After a few minutes, Sister Michael came back into the room with a bowl of broth and two pillows under her arm.  She set the bowl on the table and put a pillow under each of Jess’ upper arms to support them.  He felt a lessening of the pressure in his chest and nodded his thanks.

He was full of questions, but with no energy to ask them.  He also realized for the first time that he was naked.  The covers were pulled up to his waist.  He was normally rather shy around women when it came to nakedness, but at the moment, he was too tired to care.

Sister Michael hitched her skirts and sat on the edge of the bed where Jess lay.  He weakly grabbed at the blanket to keep it from slipping.  She held the bowl over his chest and spoon-fed him the salty broth.  He sipped it and let it run down his raw scratchy throat.  After a few minutes, he raised his hand for her to stop.  He was short of breath again and needed to rest.  His eyes slipped closed and then promptly popped open again when a new presence entered the room.

“Is he awake?”  Isabelle came boldly into the room without knocking and stood behind Sister Michael.  “He is awake!  Jess, I’m so glad!  How are you feeling, I’ve been so worried.”

Sister Michael turned to her and put a finger to her lips.  “Isabelle!  Don’t overwhelm him with questions!  He’s still very sick.  And what are you doing up?  It’s the middle of the night!”

Jess watched the exchange between the two and smiled weakly.  He was glad to see his friend Isabelle again.  He had vague memories of her finding him.  She had a long red braid.

He raised his hand to her and gestured her to come closer and whispered, “C’mere.”

Isabelle glanced at Sister Michael and then moved over closer to Jess without waiting for permission.  He reached out and took her hand, and then let it go and took her braid.  He swallowed hard before speaking.  The effort to speak was apparent and Isabelle’s heart broke for him.  “Thank you,” he rasped.

Isabelle smiled and tears pooled in her blue eyes.  She bent down and kissed him on the cheek.  “I’ll come back and see you in the morning.  I’ll read to you and tell you all about it.”  He knew what she meant by it.  What happened to him the last five days.  He couldn’t remember a thing, but had no energy to ask about it.

He released her braid and she turned to leave, knowing that she wouldn’t be allowed to stay with him.  She decided to concede first, and perhaps garner some privileges later.  She stopped when she reached the door.  “I’m glad you’re better,” she said quietly.  He nodded, she smiled and then left.

Sister Michael smiled as she watched Isabelle go, and then turned back to her patient.  She sat again on the edge of the bed and laid a hand on his arm.  “She’s been so worried about you.  She would have been in here around the clock if we’d let her.  Oh, and you can rest assured that your horse is being looked after, probably better than he ever has before.  Isabelle has taken command of the care of him, marshaling all the children into action.  I think your horse will soon be spoiled rotten.”  She giggled, a musical sound that was very pleasing to the ears.  Jess smiled even as his eyes slowly closed.

“I’m keeping you awake when you should be sleeping.  You just go right to sleep and I’ll be here if you need anything.  Anything at all, don’t you even think about not asking.”

She rose from the bed and settled into the chair next to it, picked up her bible and her rosary and began to read by the lamplight.  Jess was already asleep, oblivious to her quiet prayers.

 

Chapter 16

Mose drove the four-up like he had just robbed a bank and there was a posse on his tail.  His passengers grabbed hold of their seats, their hats, and anything else they could reach, and bounced around like marbles in a can.

Andy spotted the stage first, coming over the rise at the top of the hill.  The road led down to the house and at the rate Mose was going, they’d either be here in two minutes, or fly off the road before then.

“Slim!  Mose is comin’!”  Andy jumped down from the corral fence and ran to the front of the house where Mose would eventually pull up.  He turned and saw his brother come out of the barn.  “He’s flying like a bat outta…”

“Andy!”

“…a cave.”  Andy turned around and grinned at his older brother.

Slim joined him in front of the house and put an arm around Andy’s shoulder.  They had made peace with each other.  They both still had sore spots, but the pain was lessening as the weeks wore on.  Slim had not hired a new hand yet.   Money was tight and Andy was pitching in more than he had before.  Slim allowed it as long as Andy kept up his grades.

The work was hard, the hours were long, but Slim figured by next summer, he’d be able to afford another hand.

Mose pulled the four-up to a stop directly in front of the house.  “Mose, what the heck are you doin’?” Slim asked as the first passenger shakily exited the coach.

Mose jumped down and assisted the older man down from the coach, and the others followed, all in varying degrees of dishevelment.  None of them spoke.

Mose addressed each as they came out of the coach.  “Sorry, ma’am—crazy horses—You okay, sir?”  Jonesy had come out and was escorting the passengers inside for some coffee and sympathy.  Once they were out of earshot, Mose grabbed Slim’s arm and pulled him aside.

“Slim.  I got a letter for you.”

Slim ground his teeth.  “Mose, did you just do that to deliver a letter?  Why you…”

“It’s about Jess.”

Slim stopped in mid-epithet.  Hearing the word ‘Jess’, Andy came over and stood beside his brother.

“What is it, Mose?”

“It’s a letter, Andy.”  Mose’s wirey eyebrows shot up in excited anticipation.  He rummaged around in his pockets as he tried to locate the envelope.  “Sheriff Corey received it this morning.  It was just addressed…ah!  Here it is!”

He pulled a crumpled, yellowed letter from his inside vest pocket, smoothed it on his thigh, and then handed it over to Slim, moving closer so he could read over Slim’s shoulder.

Slim opened the envelope.  It was addressed anonymously to the sheriff of Laramie, Wyoming.  It was from somewhere in California.  Slim couldn’t make out the name of the town.

Mose was close enough to read the printing himself.  “Mort wanted to come give it to you himself, but he had to ride over the county seat to take a prisoner.  He shore was excited though.”

Slim read silently, a smile spread quickly over his handsome face.  “It’s Jess.”

Andy crowded Slim, trying to see over his arm.  “It’s from Jess?”

“No, it’s from a…a Mother Agnes, Abbess, Our Lady of Hope.  She says Jess is there.  He’s very ill,” he said, reading directly from the letter, “and we found a letter in his pocket addressed to him in Laramie, Wyoming.  We were hoping that the poor man had some family there who would want to know where he is.  He is not able to tell us anything about himself, and we are praying that some family will come forward.  He is in God’s hands and we pray that God’s will be done.  If God takes him, we pray that he will not be only among strangers when he is called, but that those who care for him will be at his side.  Please, do you know this man from your community?  Please advise soonest.  Sincerely, Mother Agnes, Our Lady of Hope Children’s Home and Refuge, Everafter, California.  October 4, 1871

“Slim!  That’s last week!”

“I know, Andy.”  Slim folded the letter and put it back in the envelope.  “Mose, Andy, can you change the team by yourselves?  I’ve got to get ready.”

“You goin’ ta California?” Mose asked.

“You bet I am.  Andy run in the house and tell Jonesy to fix me some grub for the trail.  I’ll have to find out where Everafter is and then get a train as close as I can, then…”

“What’re ya waitin’ for?  Git movin’ boy!  Slim, you need to get to Cheyenne to the depot.  There’s room in the stage.”

“I can catch the train at the crossin’”

“Yeah, but they’ll be goin’ to Sacramento.  What if that’s the wrong end of California?”

“I’ll just have to take the chance, Mose.  If it’ the wrong train, they’ll be able to put me right when we get to Salt Lake.

“Slim, I want to go with you,” Andy said, tears welling up in his eyes.

Slim put a hand on Andy’s shoulder and looked him straight in the eye.  “I know you do, Andy, and I want you to go, but someone has to stay here and take care of the relay station.  Jonesy can’t do it without you.  Ben might be able to help some, but he has a job and he can’t be here every day.  You understand?”

Andy tearfully nodded.  “You just bring him home, Slim.”

 

Chapter 17

The next time Jess awoke, it was to singing.  He lay still a moment before he opened his eyes, just listening.  It was heavenly.  Interspersed with the singing was a din of metallic rattles and bangs.  Kitchen sounds.  Someone was in the kitchen singing.

When he opened his eyes, he found himself inside what appeared to be a tent.  A blanket had been suspended above him on a light wooden frame and it completely surrounded his upper body down to his waist.  To his side was a large iron teakettle, which was gushing a hot steam that smelled pungently aromatic.  He was covered in sweat.

He reached up and wiped the moisture from his eyes and then reached out to part the blanket.  A gush of cool air entered the opening.  It felt good.  Seeing no one in his room, he let the fabric drop back, too weak to keep his arm up and holding it.  He thought about calling out, but his throat still hurt too badly to make the effort.  He lay back and waited.  Someone was sure to come to check on him sometime.

It wasn’t long before someone entered his room humming.  The blanket was drawn back and a gnarled hand reached in for the teakettle.  Jess could see it was an older nun, not the one he had seen last time.  She must have noticed he was awake because she pulled the blanket back all the way.

“Well, look who’s awake.  So good to see you, young man.  How are you?”

Jess nodded rather than answer.

“You’ve had us all quite worried.  Oh my yes, you have no idea.”  She quickly and efficiently pulled the overhead blanket down and removed the teakettle to the floor.  “I think that’s enough of that for now.”  She saw him following her with his eyes.  “Oh, that?  It’s eucalyptus leaves boiling in camphor and water.  Inhaling that steam helps you breathe.  We’ve been doing it four times a day for several days for you.  You’re looking much better, I must say.”

She casually reached over and drew his blanket further up his chest.  “Now, you must eat something.  I’ll be right back,” and with that, turned on her heel and strode purposefully out of the room, her short, stout frame straight as an arrow beneath her flowing robes.

As soon as she had bustled out and turned to the right, presumably toward the kitchen, Isabelle scooted in from the other direction.  “Jess!”  She skipped in the room and perched on the bed right next to him.  “How are you?  You look so much better!  You were so sick and I was so scared, but you look better now.  Are you feeling better?  I mean really?”  She took a breath.

Using the quick break in the verbal stream, he interjected, “Whoa, pardner.  My ears can’t listen as fast as you’re talkin’.”  He smiled.  His voice was still horribly raspy and it hurt to speak above a whisper, but he was happy to see his little friend again and wanted to tell her so.  “I’m glad to see you, but should you be in here?”

Isabelle looked quickly to the door.  “Well, I wasn’t told specifically to stay out.  Not today anyway,” she said with a sheepish grin.

“What time is it?”

“I think it’s about ten in the morning.”

“What day is it?”

“It’s Sunday!”

He nodded and closed his eyes.  Since he wasn’t real sure what day it was last time he even cared what day it was, it really didn’t matter at this point.  When he opened his eyes again, Isabelle was looking at him intently.

“What?” he asked.

She dropped her eyes and blushed, to her mind, the most horrid inconvenience of being a pale skinned redhead.  “I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry about?”

“You must think I’m awful silly.  I don’t even know you, and you don’t know me, but…”

“You feel like we’re friends.”

There was more to it than that in Isabelle’s head, but that was good enough for now.  “Yeah.”  She nodded.  In truth, she was feeling rather possessive and resented when she was sent out of the room.  She knew the nuns thought she shouldn’t see a grown man in his…state, but she found him, darn it!

In truth, she had sneaked in here several times late at night over the last few days and sat with him.  She would sit on the bed and hold his hand and watch him sleep.  She felt like she knew him, although, in truth, she knew she didn’t.  She just couldn’t help but believe he was a good man, and besides, she loved looking at him.

The older nun bustled in carrying a tray covered with a red checked napkin.  “Isabelle!  Aren’t you supposed to be in Sunday school class?”

“No, Mother, we just finished.  I came to see how my friend is doing.”  She hoped desperately that the Reverend Mother wouldn’t send her away.  She stood up and reached for the tray.  “Here, I can do that, Mother.”  Without waiting, she took the tray and sat down with it on the side of the bed and laid the tray on Jess’ lap.  “We haven’t had a chance to visit,” she said, not turning around as she busied herself with the tray.

Mother Agnes smiled indulgently and clasped her hands together.  “Alright Miss Isabelle, you may stay and help our patient eat, but you must also allow him to rest.”

The relief in Isabelle was visible, she exhaled the pent up breath she had been holding and briefly closed her eyes.  Jess could see her tight shoulders relax.  Isabelle put down the fork she had picked up, stood and hugged the Reverend Mother tightly.  “Oh thank you, Mother.”

“Not at all, my dear.  Now don’t keep him up too long.”  She shifted her gaze to Jess,  “Young man.”  Her crisp English accent and snappy delivery made her sound officious, but Jess suspected there was a soft heart under that severe black habit.

“Ma’am?”  He straightened involuntarily.

“You be sure and eat everything on that tray.  You need your strength.”  She turned and started toward the door.  Without turning around, she said briskly, “We shall talk later,” and she was gone.

Jess stared after the tiny, formidable woman.  “Is she the boss-lady?”

“She’s the director of the orphanage and the Reverend Mother of her Order.  Mother Agnes.”  Isabelle picked up the fork and started to scoop up some scrambled eggs.

Jess reached out and gently took the fork from her.  “I can do that.”

She looked disappointed, but handed the fork over without comment.

“How’s my horse doing?” he asked, as he put a forkful of eggs in his mouth.

“Oh he’s just wonderful.  I hope that you don’t mind that I ride him some.  I thought he needed some exercise.”  In truth, she had done more than just ride him.  She had put three or four of the smaller children on his back and led him around the grounds.  He seemed to love the attention and the children always squealed with delight.  There were a few horses at the orphanage, but they were workhorses, for pulling wagons, not meant for riding.

He shook his head and continued eating.  He was hungrier than he thought and the food was very good.  “No, I don’t mind,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

“He has been eating very well and I doctored a few little scrapes that he had, and I’ve brushed him every day,” her eyes sparkled as she recited the list of chores she had performed.  “What’s his name?”

“Traveler.”

“Hmmm, Traveler, what a nice name.”  She sat and watched him eat for a few moments.  His hands shook, and she could tell he was very weak.  He held the fork awkwardly, but he managed it nevertheless.  His breathing was a bit fast and he was still horribly pale.

“How’d I get here?”  Jess was the first to break the silence.

“Oh, that.  I couldn’t get you up on your horse that day, so I found a stump and climbed up on him myself, then I rode as fast as I could back here and told Mother.  She and Sister August and Sister Paul came out with a wagon and we put you in it and brought you here.   They wouldn’t let me help once we got you here, but Sister August took the wagon into town and brought the doctor back.  He was here for a long time, and then he left.”

Jess looked at her sadly.  “I don’t remember.”

“I know.  You were so sick, Jess.  Sister Michael was afraid that you would die.  She didn’t say it, but I know she thought it.  She’s a nurse, you know.  She was with Sheridan in the war.  I remember her telling me stories about the war.  So many men died and it was mostly from infection.  Pneumonia was rampant as well, so she has seen it many times.”

Jess nodded as he continued to eat slowly.  He was tiring fast.  “Weren’t you afraid you’d get in trouble?”

Isabelle looked down at her hands as they fidgeted with her braid.  “Yeah.  I thought about it for about a half a second.  They’d know I was out there and where my secret place was, but I couldn’t just leave you there, and I knew I couldn’t take care of you myself.”

Jess put down the fork and reached out a hand to her.  She took it and covered it with her other small hand.  “Thank you.  You’re very brave and very smart and I’m a lucky man that it was you I ran into.”

Tears began to well up in her blue eyes.  One escaped down her freckled cheek and Jess reached over and swiped at it with his thumb.  After a moment he released her and continued eating a few more bites, but then stopped suddenly, his hands dropped to his lap.  His energy faded quickly.  He breathed heavily and closed his eyes as he lay back into the pile of pillows on which he was propped.

He hated this feeling.  He’d never been this sick and the feeling of helplessness was unfamiliar and unpleasant.  He was grateful to the nuns for their help, but he didn’t even want to think about the intimate details of what they had done for him.  He tried to tell himself they weren’t women, they were nuns, kinda like nurses.  It was okay for them to…

He felt Isabelle lift the tray from his lap and heard her move across the room and set it on the dresser.  She came back and sat back on the bed.  He was too tired to open his eyes.

“Would you like me to read to you?” she asked hopefully.

His eyes opened a slit and looked at her from under long dark lashes.  He nodded slightly.  He wasn’t really up to listening to her, but he couldn’t bear to hurt her feelings.

She went to the dresser, opened a drawer and pulled out a book that she had obviously put in there earlier.  She came back and resumed her perch on the edge of the bed.

“I read this to you the other night, but I don’t think you heard.  It’s called Oliver Twist.  It’s about an orphan.”  She looked down at him.  He still watched her with half opened eyes.

He reached out weakly and held her braid in his hand where it rested across her leg.  “Us orphans gotta stick together,” he said, barely a whisper.

She looked questioningly at him, but didn’t ask.  She’d ask him later when he was feeling better.

Jess still didn’t hear about the orphan Oliver Twist.  He was asleep before the orphan Isabelle finished the first page.

 

Chapter 18

Johnny had no trouble finding Virgil McCoy.  He knew the man’s habits.  When he was preparing for a job, he absorbed the local color.  What better place for color than the local saloon.  Even this early in the day, Johnny knew that Virgil would be in or near the saloon.

Johnny entered the establishment as though he always frequented saloons at ten o’clock in the morning.  He nodded to the barkeep who sat at a table doing the books, and asked for a cup of coffee.  The barkeep grunted and went behind the bar to pour.

Johnny saw Virgil at the corner table and made his way over to him, sitting without being invited.  McCoy’s eyes had followed him across the room and he acknowledged Johnny with a quick finger to the brim of his hat.

McCoy sat alone with a cup of coffee on the table in front of him.  “Have a seat, Madrid,” he said to the already-seated Johnny.

“Don’t mind if I do, Virgil,” Johnny said as he removed his hat.

McCoy smiled, his teeth white and straight.  Johnny remembered another thing Virgil was vain about was his teeth.  He was always brushing them and tooth picking them.  He leaned in close to the table, the smile never left his face.  “You call me Virgil agin’ an’ I’ll kill ya.”

Johnny smiled a wide-open smile and laughed.  “Woo-ee, you ain’t changed a bit, V---.”  He looked up quickly and corrected himself.  “McCoy.”

They both laughed and McCoy extended his hand across the table.  Johnny shook it and they both continued to laugh.  The scene was a repeat of the first time they had met.

The barkeep came over and set a steaming mug of coffee in front of Johnny.  He picked it up and sipped it, giving McCoy the chance at the first move.

“I saw you in the hotel last night.  Wondered how long it’d take you to come see me.  Need work?”

Johnny’s mind raced.  If McCoy had seen him, he’d probably seen Scott too, may even have overheard them.  He decided quickly to come as close to the truth as he could.

“Well, I wasn’t here to take work, but if it’s offered…”

“What are you here for?”

“Came to meet my brother.  Had a little family business to take care of.”

“You don’t have no brother!”  McCoy swiped the air and slammed his hand down on the table, laughing.  His incredulity relieved Johnny.  At least he didn’t have an inkling about Scott and the family.

“Well, V--,McCoy, I didn’t when I saw you last.  Do now though.”

“Well, ain’t that just a thing.”  McCoy shook his head and sipped his coffee.

They sat in silence for a few moments and sipped their coffee.

“I could use some work,” Johnny said flatly.

“You’re a long way from home.”

“Yeah, and it took all I had to get here.  Now I want to go back south.  I need a stake.”

“Don’t like it up here in the northern climes, my friend?”

“Let’s just say I got things to take care of down in Nogales.   I heard you’re hirin’ for something going on here.  What is it?”

“Ain’t me hirin’.  It’s a man named Elizondo.”

“Elizondo.  Don’t b’lieve I know him.”

“You wouldn’t.  He’s from back east.  He’s been around here and all over for years.  Big time businessman.  Got in his head to be a cattle baron.  He thinks big.”  McCoy set down his coffee cup and wiped his mustache smooth with his fingers.

“What’s the job?”

“Ain’t for me to say, Johnny my boy.  I’ll take you to meet him.  The rest is up to you.”

“Fair enough.”  Johnny grabbed his hat and followed Virgil, tossing a dime on the table.

 

Chapter 19

Scott was still sitting in the hotel dining room when he saw Johnny come into the hotel and follow another man up the stairs.  He hoped Johnny knew what he was doing.

He knew his little brother could take care of himself, probably better than anyone he’d ever known.  Johnny never talked about his life as Johnny Madrid a whole lot, but the few things he’d been told gave Scott a new respect for his brother.  Not that he condoned the life of a gunfighter, but he respected his brother’s expertise at a profession where so many others barely survived the orientation.

Scott had grown to know his brother over the past year and knew him as an honorable and expansive soul, full of humor and caring; not at all the cold killer that usually marked the type.  Johnny suffered when he killed a man.  It may not show on the outside, but Scott knew.  Scott knew his brother very well.  He may not know the story, the legend.  He may not know Johnny Madrid, but he knew his brother.  The rapport they had, the trust, was unconditional.

Scott wanted to hear what was going on in that meeting.  He thought fleetingly of the balcony and the window, but dismissed it.  It was broad daylight.  He would surely be spotted from the street if he went out on the balcony.

He resigned himself to waiting for Johnny.  He decided to go over and see Kate early.  He didn’t have a firm appointment and hoped she could take him early.

Scott settled his hat on his head as he exited the hotel into the midmorning sunlight.  The early morning chill was burning off and it promised to be another warm, early fall day.

Scott crossed from the hotel to the main street and quick-stepped up to the boardwalk to avoid a large freight wagon that barreled down the street.  He was watching the wagon, and didn’t see the woman until he barreled into her, almost knocking them both over.

“Oh!  Excuse me, Miss…”  Scott’s eyes narrowed.  She was dressed in black, a nun to be sure, but something else about her was familiar.

She was busy straightening her habit and settling her wimple.  She glanced up at the man who had almost sent her sprawling, and recognition caused her to smile.

”Scott!  Scott Lancer!”  She reached out and took both of his arms in hers her hands.  “It’s so wonderful to see you!”  She hugged him fiercely.

Scott’s powers of recognition had not kicked in quite so quickly, impeded as they were by the unfamiliar habit.  It seemed like an awkward moment, but really, it took him only a split second longer to recognize Angie than it had for Angie to recognize him.

“Angie!”  He set her back on her feet and looked her over from top to bottom.  Then he grabbed her again and pulled her into another hug, holding her long and tight.  “Angie, what a surprise.  Where did you come from?”

He set her down again and couldn’t help the open mouthed shock with which he regarded her.

She looked behind her and pointed vaguely in the direction of the livery where she had just left her rig.  “Well…”

Scott laughed.  “Now, don’t give me any of your smart-a…smart remarks.  I know you and I know what you’re going to say so skip the teasing and tell me.  What are you doing here?”  He spun himself around beside her and threw his arm around her shoulders, walking her slowly down the boardwalk.

She looked up at him affectionately.  “Well, if you’ll buy me a beer, I’ll tell you all about it.”

He looked at her attire, then into her mischievous eyes and laughed uproariously.  “How about coffee, it’s a little early in the day to start the heavy drinking.”

“Oh, okaaaayyy,” she said with exaggerated surliness.

Scott led her a few doors down to a small café that catered mostly to the locals.  It was between breakfast and lunch, so it was devoid of customers.  They moved to a table in the back and sat facing each other.  The waitress came over to take their order.

“Mornin’, Sister Michael.  The usual?”

Angie looked up at her friend.  “Yes, Sarah, thank you.”

“And you, sir?”

Scott had the stunned look of someone who’d just been sucker-punched.  “Uhhhh, I’ll have black coffee.”

After the waitress left, Scott turned back to Angie.  “Sister Michael?”

She nodded and smiled.  “That’s who I am now, Scott.”  Her face glowed.

Scott had known Angie since they grew up on the same block back in Boston.  She had been the tomboy, the only girl in his circle of friends.  They had accepted her as one of them because she could do everything they could do, and usually do it better.   She had an unhappy family life, and the group of boys felt protective, although had she known it, she would have kicked them in the shins.  Scott winced at the memory.  Shin kicking had been her favorite form of both punishment and affection when they were twelve.

When they had grown older, and Angie had grown into a beauty, she and Scott had dated for a while, but soon found that they were better as friends.

Scott was at a loss for words.  “When?…How?…”

Angie reached over and put her hand on his.  “It’s alright, Scott.  I’ll tell you all about it.”

“The last time I saw you…”

“…was at Tom’s funeral.  I remember,” she finished for him.  “I told you then I was moving out west.  I had to get out of Boston, Scott.  I had to get out of the east.  Everywhere I went reminded me of the war.”

Angie had married one of Scott’s best friends just before the two of them had joined the army.  After Tom was sent off to join Sherman, Angie had joined the medical corps as a nurse and had been assigned to Sheridan.  Scott had been Sheridan’s aide.

It was a big regiment and she had been there at the field hospital for three months before Scott even knew she was there.  Scott had been captured and spent a year at Libby, but had found Angie in Boston again after he was released.

The word of Tom’s death had come as a shock to both of them, all the more because it had happened after the surrender.   Scott remembered the dull pain in Angie’s eyes the last time he’d seen her.  It was as if her life had ended when Tom’s had.

Scott was still recovering from wounds and was preoccupied for several months.  He had heard through friends that Angie had indeed left Boston for the west.  He had never heard from her again.

Angie was still talking while Scott was lost in his memories.  “…and I met Father Boyce.  Oh Scott, you wouldn’t believe the change that came over me then; those boys, the home, the church.  They became my life.  I found myself there.”   Scott had missed some and he shook his head to clear it.

“How’d you come to Everafter?” he asked.

“After Father Boyce died, the orphanage was closed and the boys sent to other places.  I came with some of them here to Our Lady.  I’ve been here ever since.”

Sister Michael noted Scott’s stunned, but almost sad expression.  She gripped his arm.  “I’m truly happy, Scott.  This is what I was meant to do.”

Scott smiled, truly happy for her.

The waitress brought their drinks.  Scott was surprised to see that Angie’s “usual” was buttermilk with cornbread crumbled up in it.  She took a spoon and dipped into the lumpy goo.  Scott had to smile.  Johnny loved buttermilk too and would often crumble cornbread in it and have it for “desert”, a habit Scott never picked up.  He couldn’t even bring himself to try it.

“Now, tell me about you.  What are you doing out here?  I never pictured you outside of Boston.”

Scott dipped his head and smiled.  “Well, things do change, don’t they?”  He paused and she waited patiently.  Finally he began again.  “Angie, I finally met my father.”  The look of surprise on her face was evident, but she said nothing.  “He sent for me, and to make a very long story short, I like it here and I stayed.”

Angie’s smile was the one he remembered.  So open and accepting.  He held her hand as he continued.  “The best part of all is that I found out that I have a brother.”

At this Angie’s mouth opened in delighted surprise.  “Scott, that’s wonderful!  That must have been quite a shock, thinking all your life that you were an only child, and…”  She didn’t continue.  She knew the whole story, it didn’t need to be repeated.

“It was, to be honest,” he interrupted.  “Oh, Angie, you have to meet him.  You’ll love him.”

Angie patted his hand.  “I can see you do,” she offered.  “I want to very much.  Is he in town?”

Scott blushed faintly.  Was his affection for his brother so obvious?  “Yes, he’s doing some business right now.  We’ll find him later.”

There was a long silence.  There was so much to say, so much to know, they didn’t know where to start.  Finally, Angie broke the silence.

“Where do you live?  Not here in town, I would’ve seen you before.”

Scott shook his head.  “No, no, we have a ranch.  It’s over near Morro Coyo.”

“My, that’s quite a ride. What brings you to Everafter?”

Scott’s hand automatically went to his jaw.  “The dentist.”

Angie laughed.  “Kate!  My my, her reputation is growing by leaps and bounds!  Pretty soon she’ll be as famous as Doc Holliday!”

“Not for the same reasons, I hope.”  They both chuckled.

“You’re in excellent hands with Kate.  She’s the best.  Learned everything she knows in Boston.”

“Really?  I never woulda guessed.”

“Oh, she didn’t grow up there.  Just went to school there.  Her daddy was rich and spoiled her unmercifully. Whatever Katie wanted, Katie got.  He wasn’t well liked.”  She paused and took a spoonful of her buttermilk.  “Actually, he was pretty well hated.  After he died, it took Katie awhile to establish herself out from under his shadow, but she’s done it wonderfully well.”

“Speaking of Doctor Kate, I have to go see her.  I was on my way when I ran into you.”

“I have to be going too.  I came into town to see Doctor Levy.  We have a sick man out at the home.  He needs some medicine.”

“I want to talk to you about the orphanage later.  When can I see you?”

Sister Michael looked at him curiously, but did not press.  “Come out to the orphanage for dinner tonight.  It’s not fancy, but it’s good home-cooked food and the sisters always enjoy guests.  And be sure to bring your brother along, I’m dying to meet him.”

“I’ll do that.”  He rose from the table and reached to help her up as well.  “Is it permissible to kiss an old friend, even if she is a nun?”

“I’d have to kick you if you didn’t,” she replied winking.

Scott bent down and gave her a long kiss on the cheek, then grabbed her around the waist and hugged her fiercely picking her up several inches off the ground.   “I can’t tell you how great it is to see you again.”

He set her back down and she took a moment to catch her breath.  “I can see that.  I’m delighted, too.”  She headed to the door as Scott stopped to toss some money on the table.  “Dinner’s at seven.  Come early so I can show you around before it gets dark.  The orphanage is due east out of town.  You can’t miss it.”  She was out the door and marching down the boardwalk before Scott made it to the door.  He smiled as he watched her.  Her step was light with a hint of the old Angie in it under the black billowing fabric.

Scott turned in the opposite direction and headed to Kate’s establishment.

When Angie had mentioned the orphanage, he thought of Johnny and what he had found out.  Elizondo was after the orphanage; if not the buildings, at least the land.  It must be quite valuable.  He was anxious to find out what was happening with Johnny.  He looked up at the sun.  It was nearing noon, maybe another hour.

He arrived two minutes later at Kate’s.  The tinkling of the bell over the door announced his arrival.  Just as yesterday, there were no other patients in the waiting room.  He wondered if she had very many customers.  He sat on the settee and waited to see if anyone came for him from the back.  It was less than ten seconds later that Otis Butts hobbled out to greet him and Scott rose.

“Miz Kate is workin’ on a plate for someone.  She’ll be out for you d’rectly, Mister Lancer, suh.”

Scott nodded his head at the courtly gentleman and resumed his seat.   To his surprise, Otis sat down as well, taking the chair opposite the settee.  He sat ramrod straight, his back not touching the back of the chair, his gnarled hands cupped each knee.  He looked straight ahead and didn’t say a word.

Scott watched him, amused.  “How long have you worked for Doctor Finney, Mister Butts?”

Otis directed his gaze at Scott.  “I been workin’ for her family for long about forty years, suh.”   He smiled, showing gleaming white, even teeth.  “Her daddy hired me to help him out, then when Miz Katie was born, he hired my wife too.  Yessuh, I know’d Miz Kate all her life.  My wife was her nanny, God rest her soul.”

Scott returned his smile.  Scott was about to continue the interesting conversation, when Kate burst through the door and stood before him, hands on hips.  “Well, Mister Lancer, how was that tooth last night?  Did you do as I said and take the medicine?”

Scott smiled.  “Yes, ma’am, my brother wouldn’t have it any other way.”

”And?”

He reached up to cup his jaw.  “And it feels much better today.”

“Good!  Come with me.”  She grabbed his hand and pulled him up and then through the door to the back room.  Otis rose slowly and followed, pulling the door quietly behind them.

She looked lovely today, Scott thought.  She had obviously been working hard.  Her hair was already escaping from the pins that held it up and her bib apron was spotted with white powders and unidentifiable spots and stains.

“Where is that handsome brother of yours, Mister Lancer?”

His face fell momentarily.  He admired Johnny’s way with women.  He wasn’t un-accustomed to the lady’s admiring glances himself, but he was hoping that this one would show him a preference instead of his charming brother.  “He had some business to take care of.”

Her smile back at him was enough to make him forget his momentary lapse into self-pity and resentment.

As she worked efficiently inside his mouth, Scott had the opportunity to examine her closely.  Her skin was pale with faint freckles all over the parts that he could see.  She wore no make up, but needed none.  Her green eyes were large and her pale red eyelashes were thick if not long.

Her apron was tied snugly around her waist.  She was not thin, nor was she plump.  She was what Scott would have called voluptuous except that he would not have said it out loud.  Her sleeves were rolled up and she wore no jewelry.  He was pleased to see no rings on her hands.

Since conversation was impossible with her hands inside his mouth, he relaxed and let her do her work.  She had pulled the packing from his gum and was now working in the void with some substance that he wasn’t sure of. He didn’t ask, just trusted her to do her job.  It hurt a little bit, but nothing compared to what it had done yesterday.  She offered him some of the opiate, but also said that what she needed to do would only be uncomfortable for a few minutes.  He declined.

His thoughts had been so preoccupied with the woman standing over him, that he had not noticed when she finished and stepped back.  She looked at him with satisfaction.  “A good job if I do say so myself.  That shouldn’t bother you much anymore after the socket heals.  If it does, you come back and see me.”

“It’s all done?”

“Yup, you’ll be good as new in a few days.  I’d eat soft foods for a couple of days, but it’ll be right as rain by the end of the week.”

”Well, for that I’m truly grateful.”

”As well you should be.”  She said, her humor belying the impudence.

“Kate, uh…” Scott stumbled.

“Would you like to ask me out?”  She smiled.

“Well, you sure don’t stand on ceremony, do you?”

“Why should I?  No one ever got what they want by waiting for it to come to them.”

“Dinner tomorrow?”  Scott realized he was planning further ahead than he had a right.  Johnny expected him to ride back to Lancer today, but that was Johnny’s plan, not his.

“That will be very nice.  Pick me up at six?”

“I’ll do just that.”

“I’ll be ready.”

Scott picked up his hat and started for the door.  Reaching it, he turned back to her.  “Your bill?”

“Will be ready by tomorrow.  I can’t stop to do it now.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” he said with a rueful smile and then disappeared through the door.

Kate watched him go for a bit longer than was her habit.  Otis stood beside her and she glanced over to see him looking at her.  “Now don’t you start with me, Otis Butts.”

“No’m, I wudn’t gonna say nuthin’.”  They stood in silence for a moment.  “’Ceptin’ that I approve.  Them Lancers is good people.  Either one o’ them would be a fine catch.”

She smiled affectionately at her friend.  “Well, I would hardly say that I’m in the market for a ‘catch’”.

“No’m, but iffen you was, you could do a sight worse.”

“I have to agree, Mister Butts.”

 

Chapter 20

Scott waited in their room for Johnny.  It was almost one and no sign of him yet.  He had decided to give him a little extra time, but was about to shrug on his jacket, when the doorknob rattled and Johnny came in.

He apparently wasn’t expecting to see Scott there because he jumped and drew reflexively.

“You’re just a tad jumpy, aren’t you?”

Johnny sighed.  “Sorry.”  He put his gun back in its holster and began taking the whole rig off.

“You’re late.  What’s happening?”

Johnny sat on his bed, put his hat on the bedpost and ran his hand through his dark hair.   “Well, that Elizondo fella is bat-shit crazy, that’s all I can say.”

“You’d better say more.  Tell me, Johnny.”

Johnny stretched out on the bed.  “He’s got it in his head that the land out around the orphanage is his and Murdoch is some interloper that’s trying to steal it.  He’s got his men convinced that Murdoch is a land grabber and the land is part of his Spanish royal heritage or some such crap.  They’re just mindless drones.  They’ll go where the money is.  Bumburger, though…,” he paused and stared at the ceiling.

“Brubaker.”

Johnny nodded, “Yeah, him,” but offered no more.

After a moment, Scott sighed, “What about Brubaker?” Scott asked impatiently.

“He’s smart.  He knows Elizondo’s crazy.  He knows the whole thing is a scam, but he’s going along with it whole hog.  I think he’s got a plan of his own.”  He sighed and closed his eyes.  “He’s very dangerous, Scott.”

“Did they want to hire Johnny Madrid?”

“Oh yeah, couldn’t get me on the payroll fast enough.”  He reached in his pants pocket and pulled out a wad of bills and tossed it on the table.  “Even gave me an advance.”  He rolled his head and looked at his brother, “That’s loyalty money.  By the way, all the hired guns have to meet with Bonebreaker tomorrow at eleven.  I hope he’s going to lay out his plan then.”

Scott ignored the fact that Johnny got the name wrong again and regarded the wad of money.  “I’m not going back to Lancer today.”

“I know, I didn’t think you would.”

“Johnny, I don’t think that Murdoch knows anything about this.  I think that Elizondo is working on the premise that Murdoch is an absent landlord.  He never comes here, probably does all that business through his lawyer.”

Johnny turned on his side to face his brother, his head propped on one hand.  “Has Murdoch ever mentioned this land or the orphanage to you?”

“He mentioned it once in relation to the taxes.  He pays the taxes on it and that amount shows up on the Lancer books.  Also the rent that the church pays shows up.  It’s only a dollar a year.”  Johnny looked surprised but said nothing.  Scott continued, “There are several out-parcels that he…uh, we have.  Some of them are leased out, like this one, some of them are sitting empty, probably have squatters, some of them he’s never even seen.”

Johnny let out a whoosh.  “Whew.  I didn’t know we were so…wealthy.”

Scott laughed.  “You have no idea, brother.  Sometimes we’re cash poor, certain times of the year, but we’re always land-rich.”

“I really should pay attention more,” Johnny said as he lay back down and stretched.

“You really should.”  Scott smiled and stretched out on the other bed.

After several minutes of silence, Johnny spoke again.  “Scott.”

“Hm?”

“Why would Murdoch want land that he doesn’t use and only gets a dollar a year in rent?”

Scott thought for a minute.  “Well, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s Murdoch’s way of giving back.  He’s been very fortunate and I think there’s something in him that makes him want to share.  I’ve seen it in other ways, too.  So have you.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“Also, from what I gather, that land has some historical value.  He probably wants to preserve it and not let anyone else encroach on it.  The Church is historically a good custodian.”

Johnny looked over at his brother.  “You’re a very smart man, brother.”

“Why thank you, brother.”  Scott smiled, not opening his eyes.  “By the way, we have a dinner engagement this evening.”

“Not Pearl!  I don’t think I can hold that much food again.”

“No, not Pearl.  I ran into a very old friend in town today and surprisingly enough, she lives out at the orphanage.”

Johnny rose up and looked at his brother.  “She’s an orphan?”

Scott chuckled.  “No, she’s a nun.”

Johnny thought about it for a minute.  “Good, I’d like to get a look at the place, but we’ll have to be careful.  I can’t have Blubarker or any of his men see me riding out there.”

“Brubaker, and don’t forget, little brother, we have a very valuable ally who will do anything for us.”

The brothers, in unison, said, “Pearl.”

 

Chapter 21

Jess spent days slowly recovering his strength.  He had eventually been able to sit up for longer periods.  His breathing was easier, although he still found it something he had to work at more than normal.  He would still occasionally have the drowning sensation, but those attacks were less frequent and milder than before.

Either the Reverend Mother, or Sister Michael, or both sat with him through the worst of his fevers.  The sleepless nights were long and painful.  They soothed his fevered, aching body with cool cloths, with camphor–water, and with alcohol and they soothed his troubled spirit with quiet prayers.

In quasi-sleep filled with delirium, Jess spoke of his home.  Not the home of his family, but the home of his heart.  Mother Agnes saw a lost soul, one who had left behind what he held most dear.  One who needed to find that place again, or he would never again be whole.

In the early morning hours, after Jess was more lucid, yet too uncomfortable and exhausted to sleep, the Reverend Mother shooed Sister Michael from the room, insisting that she get some much-needed rest.  Sister Michael glanced at her troubled patient, and respectfully withdrew, leaving him in the Mother’s capable hands.

Encouraged by the woman he had come to know and trust, Jess told Mother Agnes about his decimated family in Texas, about the war, and about his life on the drift.  He told her about his former profession, watching her carefully for any sign of rejection.  Finding none, he finally told her about the home and the friends he had found in Laramie.

This was what she had waited for.  The fever-bright, and pain filled eyes told her all she needed to know about Jess’ life in Laramie.  He had been ready to put down roots.  He had been ready to turn his life completely around, to dedicate it to something good and to make a life that meant something more than where his next job would take him and whom he might have to kill when he got there.

He was a man of few words, but what lay beneath the words told Mother Agnes everything she needed to know about Jess Harper and what kind of man he was.

She liked him.  She needed him if he would be willing to help her, but his destiny did not lay in California.  He had left it behind, interrupted, in Wyoming.  If she had anything to say about it, when all was said and done, Jess Harper would return where he belonged.

 

Chapter 22

Isabelle had been with Jess whenever she was allowed, and he found that he didn’t mind her presence.  She was good company and instinctively knew when he needed to be alone.  Several times he’d awakened in the night to find her sleeping in the chair by his bed.  He was sure the nuns didn’t know she did that, and she was always gone by morning.  Nothing was ever said between them.

The Reverend Mother had sat with him and read to him.  He sensed that she wanted to tell him something, but she always hesitated and changed the subject.  Finally, one day he asked her flat out.  It was like a dam had burst.  She let all of her fears spill out.  She was a proud woman, and was not one to admit fear, but he could see it in her face.  She was devout and was convinced that God had sent Jess to them to help them.

She told him that a man named Elizondo had tried unsuccessfully through the courts to take their land from them.  The church did not own the land or the orphanage.  A man named Lancer who leased it to them for one dollar a year owned it.  He was a good man and helped them with expenses and encouraged his well-to-do friends to do the same.  With those resources, and their own resourcefulness, the orphanage had survived for going on seventeen years.

The Mother had a long distance business relationship with Mister Lancer.  He had not visited in many years, and all of their correspondence was handled in letters.  She had never told any of the order about their arrangement.  Only the Bishop knew and he left all of the business to her.

Mother Agnes had not known until recently that Elizondo had supposedly found a loophole in Murdoch Lancer’s ownership of the land.  It had to do with the main building that housed the orphanage.  It was an old, a very old Spanish estate and one of the outbuildings had been an ancient mission.  The deed to the land had left open the possibility that the Spanish government still owned the buildings, if not the land itself.  It was a right of domain that had to do with the historical significance of the building, and the Spanish royal family.  She did not pretend to understand it.

All she understood, was that Elizondo was trying all legal means, and some probably illegal ones to take the land and the buildings that stood on it.  He had somehow convinced an unscrupulous Spanish official to sign over the buildings to Elizondo’s “preservation society”, the defender of Spanish heritage in the San Joaquin valley.  He would see that the buildings were preserved and used to further the Spanish presence and culture in the valley.  The Spanish official had envisioned California as a Spanish colony.  Little did he know that his partner, Elizondo, had plans of his own.

The Reverend Mother wasn’t naïve enough to think for one minute that Elizondo had any such lofty intentions.  He wanted the land so he could move in and start his long sought-after cattle empire.  His ambitions far exceeded that of Lancer and any other large ranch in the north of California.  She knew he would not stop until he owned the bulk of the land in the state.

She had learned two very disturbing facts in the past week.  The obscure Spanish official who had been partnered with Elizondo had died in an unfortunate accident.  The second thing was that Elizondo had started amassing an army.  He was hiring guns.  It seemed that subtlety was now a thing of the past.

Mother Agnes would not, could not ask Jess to help.  She didn’t need to.  He was staying he told her.  Whatever happened, he would be here and would do whatever he could to protect her nuns and the children.  The only other men on the place were two very old gentlemen, Aloyisius and Atticus.  They were brothers who had lived in the area all their lives and who tended the stock, the gardens and did repairs.  They were both in their seventies and would be of little help if trouble presented itself.

Mother Agnes smiled through tears of gratitude.  There was a price, he told her.  Her smile faded, but she quickly recovered.  Whatever it was, she would somehow find it.

“What is it, my son?”

“A place to sleep and a place at your table.”  Jess smiled broadly at her.

“A price I will gladly pay. Thank you, Mister Harper.”

She had already included Jess in her nightly prayers, and would now add his future children and his grandchildren as well.

The last two days Jess had been allowed to sit at the table with the nuns in the dining room off the kitchen.  The children ate in the larger hall supervised by a few of the nuns who took turns, but the majority of the nuns ate in a private dining room.  He had been apprehensive at first, but after awhile realized that they liked him to be there and were interested in conversation with their patient.

He would have expected that nuns ate in silence, or prayed while they ate, or something.  He didn’t know if this group was typical, but they were far from quiet, or staid, or even pious at mealtime.  The dinner conversation was frequently rowdy, even uproarious.  Politics was a frequent topic, as was the war.  Several of the nuns had come west after the war.

Even the Reverend Mother contributed her quick wit and devilish sense of humor to the mix.  Jess found himself looking forward to meals with them.

On days when he over-did and was relegated back to bed, he missed their dinner table conversation, but one or more of them always made it a point to sit with him while he ate his meal from a tray on his lap.

On Saturday afternoon, Jess had gone outside to visit with Traveler.  A number of the children had followed him and kept up a running, chattering dialogue.  He had enjoyed the excursion, and it was good to see Traveler who looked a few pounds heavier and seemed very content, but, the “outing” as Mother Agnes called it, had cost him dearly.  It had set him back several days.

He cursed his weakness as he was helped to bed by Sister Michael.  She had gone to town and procured an elixir from the doctor to give him.  He suspected it was vitamins and a generous amount of alcohol, but either that, or his exertions had served to knock him out for hours.   A deep dreamless sleep overtook him as soon as his head hit the pillow.

 

Chapter 23

Slim was shown into the Reverend Mother’s study by a tall nun who stood ramrod straight, her hands clasped piously before her and her mouth set in a severe straight line.  She had been polite, but formal and had refused to answer any of his questions, instead insisting that he speak with the Reverend Mother.

He had been shown to a small anteroom where he waited and drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair for what seemed like an eternity.  Was Jess here?  Was he still alive?  No one seemed in a hurry to assuage his fears.

He was contemplating an invasion when the inner door to the Reverend Mother’s study opened and out filed a man and woman.  The woman dabbed tears from her eyes as the man had an arm firmly around her waist.  The Reverend Mother, a short stout woman but with twinkling blue eyes watched them fondly until they had left, and then turned to Slim.

“You must be Mister Sherman!  Please, come in.”  She turned and led the way into her study.  “I’m so sorry I had to keep you waiting.  They were here about an adoption and I had to…well, you understand.”

Slim nodded and glanced worriedly to the door through which the couple had just vanished.

“Oh, don’t you worry about her, Mister Sherman.  Those were tears of happiness, not heartbreak, I assure you.”

Relieved, Slim took the chair that the Mother indicated and sat down.  She moved behind the very large desk and sat as well.

“Sister Naomi tells me that you are here looking for your friend.”

“Yes ma’am. Jess Harper.  I got your letter in Laramie.  He’s here isn’t he?”

She nodded.  “Yes, Mister Sherman, he certainly is.”

The relief on Slim’s face and in the set of his shoulders was palpable.  “How is he?  Your letter said he was very ill.”

“Oh yes, he certainly was; gravely ill, but he is making a recovery although he’s still very weak.  How do you know Mister Harper?”

“He’s my…uh…he worked for me.”  He hesitated and then added, “We’re friends.”

“Of course, you must be Slim from the Relay station.  I hadn’t put the name Slim together with Sherman before.  Jess told me about the place he worked.  He spoke very fondly of the place.”  She leaned forward, her eyes sparkling, “The people too.”

“He did?”

“Yes, Mister Sherman.  He was very fond of Laramie and working at your ranch.  He told me about Andy and Mister Jonesy and yourself.  Just between you and me, I think his heart was broken when he left.”

Slim looked down at his hands.  “It was my fault.”

“No, I don’t think so,” she said matter-of-factly.  The abruptness of the statement softened by her crinkled, smiling blue eyes.

Slim’s eyes met hers over the desktop.

“I think that what happened was the result of two very proud, very stubborn men who are very fond of one another but unable to bend.”  She continued confidently.  “I think that what happened needed to happen.  God had three things in mind when he allowed it.  He wanted Jess to find out just how much he needed a family and a place to put down roots.  He wanted you to find out just how good a friend you had and how much your life would be different without him. “

Slim sat for a minute, then said, “You said there were three things.”

“Yes.  Well, the third thing is a bit selfish on my part, but I do believe that Jess was sent to us.  We need him and Jess needed us.  Now that he is recovering, I’ve asked him to stay on for awhile to help out with a problem that we are having.  He has agreed.  I hope that does not distress you unduly.”

Slim smiled.  “No, ma’am.  I’m just glad he’s all right.  I wanted to come and ask him to come home, but I have no intention of begging him or forcing him.  If he’s needed here…well, I know Jess well enough to know that he ain’t goin’ nowhere until the job is done.”

“I can assure you Mister Sherman, Jess needs you as well, and he wants to come home.”

“He told you that?”

“No, he didn’t have to.  It’s as obvious as the nose on your face that he belongs in Laramie.  It’s where his heart is.  Whether he knows it or not, it’s where his destiny is as well.”

Slim smiled.  “You’re a very astute woman, ma’am.”

“Yes I am, Mister Sherman,” her smile was warm,  “and don’t you ever forget it.”

“Can I see him?”

Mother rose and bustled around the desk and through the door before Slim had stood and retrieved his hat from the floor.

“Follow me!”

Slim’s long stride easily caught up with the petite woman as she led him through the big building, around children, through galleries and corridors and down a wide set of ancient stone steps.

The lower level was dark and cooler than the floor above. The stone walls looked heavy and thick.  There were lamps placed on tables and in nooks along the way, but no amount of lamplight could dispel the innate subterranean feel of the place.

“This was the only space we had for him away from the children.  Mind you when we found him, we didn’t know what was wrong and we were afraid he may be contagious.”

“I understand.”

They emerged from the corridor into an expansive kitchen with a large open rotisserie pit in the center and several brick ovens along one wall.  It was a kitchen fit for a castle.

Passing through, the Reverend Mother spoke to several nuns and other workers, introducing Slim to a few, but quickly continuing through and out the other side.  She stopped by a large door just off the kitchen that was slightly ajar.  She peaked around the corner and saw that Jess was sleeping, his back to the door.

“He’s asleep I’m afraid, Mister Sherman.  Sister Michael told me earlier that he had over-exerted himself this morning.”

“That’s okay, I’ll sit with him and wait until he wakes up.  Thank you very much, ma’am.”

“You’re quite welcome, Mister Sherman and I will expect both you and Jess at our dinner table this evening.”  She turned and bustled off down the hall.  “We eat at seven!” she threw back over her shoulder as she disappeared into the cavernous kitchen.

When Jess woke in the late afternoon, his head pounded and his vision was blurry.  It took a minute to get a fix on his surroundings, but he was immediately aware of someone in the room.  He turned over and saw a figure sitting in the chair beside the bed.  He blinked several times to get his eyes to cooperate.

“Slim!”  He pulled himself up on his elbows.

“Howdy, pard.  Thought you were gonna sleep all day.”

Jess lowered himself back down, too weak to stay propped on his elbows.

“How’d you find me?”

“It wasn’t easy.  You disappear pretty good,” Slim said with a smile so genuine it made Jess’ breath catch.

Jess lay back and stared at the ceiling, emotions in a turmoil, stomach in a knot.  The painful memories were suddenly back like an old wound that opened and began bleeding again.

Leaving Laramie had left an aching black void that nothing so far had come close to filling.  His new surroundings; Isabelle and the nuns had distracted him.  He had even had days when he only thought of Slim and Andy and Jonesy a few times before someone or something pulled his attention away, but the ache had never left.  For the first time in his life, he had felt like home was drawing him back.

One night when he was very sick and feverish, he had dreamed of the little ranch house at the base of the hill.  It had been deserted.  Jess had walked through the empty rooms that, in his dream looked like the occupants had just stepped away.  The oppressive loneliness shook him.  He remembered waking up with a jolt and with tears running down his face.  He had not slept again that night until the sun was over the horizon.

Jess finally spoke.  “Is Andy okay?”

“He misses you,” Slim stated flatly.  “We all do, Jess.  We want you…”

“I’m sorry, Slim,” Jess interrupted.  “I’m really sorry about what happened.  I was stubborn and I never should have let it get…”

“Me too, pard.  It was all my fault.  I was going to tell you that morning, but you’d already gone.”

“I shoulda stayed and talked it out.”  He sighed and closed his eyes.  “I didn’t think you’d want me to.”

Slim dropped his eyes and sighed.  “I know.  I was pretty rotten to you.  I don’t blame you for wantin’ to go.”  He looked up and smiled.  “Andy was pretty rough on me.  Wouldn’t speak to me for days.  Believe me, pard, I paid for that.”

Jess smiled and looked over at his friend.  “Good!”

After an instant of shock, the laugh finally burst through.  When he spoke again, Slim thought it best to change the subject.  “I talked to the Reverend Mother.  She said you’re getting’ better.”

Jess shook his head.  “Slim, I can’t leave.  I’m staying.  These people need my help and I owe them.”

“I thought you might say that,” Slim said, without a hint of reproach.

“Did the Reverend Mother tell you the trouble they’re in here?”

“No, not specifically.  I’m sure one of you will tell me eventually,” he said ruefully.

Jess had taken on underdog causes before, but none where he felt so exposed and outnumbered.  Himself, two old men, twelve nuns and fifty-eight children against a potential army of hired guns. He couldn’t think of a single person he’d rather have at his side than Slim Sherman.

He began telling Slim about Elizondo, and the men who sought to displace a group of nuns and children.

As if reading his thoughts, Slim said, “Don’t worry, pard.  We’re not gonna let anything happen to these kids.”

 

Chapter 24

Scott and Johnny had been able to get out of town without being seen.  At least that’s what Scott had hoped.  Pearl had helped them with some borrowed horses and back entrances, and she had not even asked any questions.  She was proving to be a very valuable ally indeed.

Scott had told Johnny about Pearl’s husband number four.  Scott never would have suspected that his brother was capable of blushing, much less that if he could, it would be seen on his tanned face, but he had been wrong.

Johnny kept looking behind him as they rode slowly the seven miles out to the orphanage.  Scott was looking around every tree and bush as well.  They had decided to leave early, and take a circuitous route just in case Brubaker’s or McCoy’s suspicions were aroused.  Johnny was the new guy and as such, had not proved himself yet.

Brubaker and Elizondo had been impressed when McCoy brought Johnny to meet them.  They had heard of the legendary Johnny Madrid, of course.  Neither had ever met him, though.  The first few minutes were awkward.  Elizondo had said, “I heard you were dead, senor.”

Johnny had replied with a flippant, “I get that a lot,” but Elizondo did not seem convinced at first.  McCoy reassured him that they were acquaintances and he vouched for Johnny’s veracity.  Johnny had noticed McCoy’s pointed avoidance of the word “friends”.  They were acquaintances.  Both worked in the same field of endeavor, and both were very good at their jobs.

Johnny had garnered the more high profile reputation and he was sure that McCoy was not unmoved.

Brubaker had remained silent throughout most of the interview.  Johnny had Elizondo pegged as the money-man, the ruthless manipulator and puppet master.  Brubaker was the muscle.  Whatever needed doing, he would do it using whatever means at his disposal, and from what Johnny could tell, he had plenty at his disposal.  He had appraised Johnny silently and thoroughly.  Johnny had felt like a prized bull on the block.

What Johnny had failed to mention to his brother was that as he was getting their horses ready to leave for the orphanage, McCoy had cornered him in the livery stable.  He had started his evening drinking early and seemed to be having some drunken second thoughts about recommending Johnny to Brubaker.

McCoy’s ego allowed little room for a second rooster in the barnyard.  Johnny was the closest thing to a threat to him of all the men hired so far.  McCoy seemed to have just realized his own folly at inviting a rival to join the pack.  He apparently decided to assert his dominance early and often.

Johnny had not been surprised by him, and in McCoy’s condition could easily have ended the ploy with a well-placed knee, but decided that discretion was the better part of valor.  Letting McCoy have his head for the moment may prove useful later on.  McCoy can consider himself the alpha-male all he wanted as long Johnny was able to stick around for the grand finale.

A little name-calling, a little shoving and Johnny was allowed to go on his way, firmly established as the second-banana-and-don’t-you-forget-it.

Scott had to speak to him twice before Johnny shook off his daydreaming and responded.  “Huh?”

“I said, penny for your thoughts.”

Johnny took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, then wiped the sweat on his brow with his sleeve.  “I was just thinkin’ about Brubaker,” he lied.  “He’s one tough hombre and I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”

“Then we will endeavor to prevent a circumstance where you would ever be called upon to throw him,” Scott said gravely, with smirk.  Johnny had gotten the man’s name right.

Johnny glanced over at him, eyes narrowed.  “Smart ass.”

 

Chapter 25

The Lancers arrived at the orphanage a little after six-thirty.  Johnny continued to look over his shoulder, but did not see that anyone had followed them.

Our Lady was magnificent.  The first sight was breathtaking, and Johnny and Scott pulled their horses up at the top of the rise overlooking the compound.  Johnny’s immediate thought was of home.  Lancer.  Our Lady was of the same noble birth, but that birth had been much earlier.

The main building was a whitewashed mansion, larger than Lancer and much older; a gracious relic of California’s past. The age of the place was obvious in the way it settled in its surroundings, in the way the stucco was smooth, the sharp edges soft and worn.  It had not been whitewashed in a number of years, and the patina of age shone through.  But rather than a look of shabbiness, it held a great dignity like an old lady whose finery had faded, but whose proud bearing stood her in good stead.

Scott was reminded of some of the dignified old ships in Boston Harbor.  In the early twilight, and from a distance, she was a white dove roosting on a vast landscape of gently rolling hills. 

The outbuildings were modest and worn.  Some may have been as old as the house, some had been added over the years.  One of the buildings was obviously an old mission, now being used as a chapel. 

There was no gate, no barriers, only an archway similar to the one at Lancer only older and larger.  When one reached the top of the hill just to the west, the compound was laid out, open and vulnerable.  Johnny had noted that on their arrival, and it gave him a sense of apprehension.  He didn’t know what he had expected.  High fences and gates, perhaps?  He had to remind himself, it was a church-run orphanage, not a prison.

Sister Michael was in the yard, playing ball with some boys.  She kicked the ball in a long graceful arc as she saw the riders approaching, sending the boys scrambling for it.  She walked out to meet them, and was pulled into her third bear-hug of the day as soon as Scott dismounted.

“Angie, uh, I mean Sister Michael,” he bowed slightly in her direction, “this is my brother, Johnny.”

Johnny had already dismounted and stood with his hat in his hand as he smiled broadly at his brother’s exaggerated introduction.  Johnny stepped up and extended a hand, which Angie took warmly.  His blue eyes took in the habit, but came to rest firmly on her warm and open face.  “It’s a pleasure, ma’am.”

“Oh, please don’t ma’am me!”  She pulled Johnny into a warm hug.  After she released him, she looped her arm through his.  “Scott, they don’t know me as Angie around here.  I don’t mind if you call me that, but you’re liable to get some strange looks.”

“Should we call you Sister Michael?”

“You can, but most of the sisters call me Michael, and a few of the children call me Mike. “  She leaned toward Johnny confidentially and smiled.  “Not around the Reverend Mother, of course.”

Several of the boys that she had been playing with had gathered around the strangers.  Michael turned and gathered them in with her extended arms.  “These are some of our boys who live here:  Tommy, Paolo, Tim, Grady, Anthony and Felix.  Boys, these gentlemen are Scott and Johnny Lancer.  Scott’s an old friend of mine and Johnny is his brother.”

A few of the boys shook hands with Scott and Johnny; others shyly nodded.  “Now, I think it’s about time you all went and washed up for supper.  Go tell the others in the back.” 

The boys turned and ran off, shouting and laughing as if they had just been released from chores.  Sister Michael watched them fondly.  “They’re good boys.  Every one of them.”

After a moment she turned and took Scott’s arm, looping her’s through his.  “Come now, let me show you around.”  Johnny followed behind, hands clasped behind his back as he watched the two and trailed behind them.  He was sure that if Sister Michael hadn’t been a nun, she and Scott would have been a perfect match.  He wondered how set she was on this sister nun stuff.

Michael took them on a tour of the grounds around the main house and several of the outbuildings.  She showed them the gardens and the blacksmith shop and the barns.   The ancient chapel was impressive. The mission had to be at least a hundred and fifty years old. 

As they passed through the chapel, Johnny impulsively took the wad of bills that Elizondo had paid him with and dropped them in a bowl on the alter.  Neither Scott nor Michael had seen and he grinned as he glanced up into the serene face of the Holy Mother and crossed himself.

They finally reached the main house.  The interior had been converted to dormitories for the children, living quarters for the nuns, and of course offices, but with none of the original structure altered or compromised.  

The kitchen was vast and took up most of the lower level, below the ground floor.  By the time they reached the dining hall where the sisters took their meals, six or seven of them were already seated and chattering.  Johnny was reminded of a flock of black and white birds. 

Michael introduced them to all present; Sister Anne, Sister Bernadette, Sister August, Sister Naomi… Scott couldn’t remember all the names.  They seemed remarkably nonchalant at having two strange men at their table.

They sat at the end of the table nearest the back wall and Michael sat between them.  The cheerful talking continued unabated.  There were several questions about Scott and Michael and how they met.  Michael leaned over and informed Johnny that they were waiting for the Reverend Mother before dinner would be served.

After several minutes, the small, stout Reverend Mother made her appearance.  Both Scott and Johnny sprang up.  She hurriedly waved them down as she settled her considerable bulk in the chair at the head of the table.  “I believe that Mister Harper and his friend will be joining us in a few moments.”

Scott turned to Michael with a quizzical look. 

“The man that I told you was ill.  He’s doing much better now.  And his friend has come all the way from Wyoming to see to him.  We do hope that they’ll stay with us for awhile.”

As if on cue, Jess and Slim entered the long narrow room, greeted the Reverend Mother and made their way to two seats that had been reserved for them.

Johnny watched the dark haired one.  Something about him was familiar.  His recent illness was obvious in the pallor of his face and his bent posture.  The Reverend Mother had called him Harper.  He was still ruminating when the Reverend Mother introduced them.  “Scott and Johnny Lancer, this is Mister Jess Harper, and Mister Slim Sherman.”

The men rose and shook hands across the table and then seated themselves.  Johnny and Jess held their handshake just a bit longer than necessary, each thoroughly eyeing the other.  The familiarity was apparently mutual.

Several of the nuns inquired as to Jess’ health.  He shyly but politely answered them and picked at his food.  Seeing his discomfort, The Reverend Mother changed the subject. 

As a few nuns scurried in with trays of food, the Reverend Mother turned to Scott and Johnny and said, “I was quite delighted when Sister Michael told us that Lancers would be joining us.  I assume that you are Murdoch’s two sons?” she asked, one eyebrow rising and her blue eyes flickering to Sister Michael.

Michael was surprised, not realizing that the Reverend Mother would know the Lancers.

Scott answered as he leaned back to avoid being brained by a soup tureen, “Yes, ma’am.“

The Mother explained to the group that Murdoch Lancer was one of their benefactors and had been for many years.  She did not go into any further detail, only added,  “Well, we are quite honored and I do hope that you will convey my warmest wishes to your father.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Scott picked up an enormous soup spoon and examined it.  He put it down a moment later when the Reverend Mother announced that grace would be said by Sister August.

During the rather lengthy prayer, Johnny and Jess eyed one another.  Jess had already remembered where he had seen Johnny before and who he was.  He was not Johnny Lancer.   At least he hadn’t been when Jess saw him plying his trade in Sedona. 

From the look on Johnny’s face, he could see that Johnny remembered him as well.  At the time, they were both in the same business.  They had never drawn on each other and he remembered thinking at the time that he hoped they would never have to.  Jess was good, and he knew it.  He’d never faced anyone better, or he wouldn’t have lived to tell about it.  But he had never seen anyone faster, or smoother than Johnny Madrid.
 

 

Chapter 26

To Johnny’s great surprise, brandy was served after dinner.  Most of the nuns drifted away from the table, but Sister Michael, the Reverend Mother and the men all stayed.  Although they had both spoken when spoken to, neither Johnny nor Jess had been talkative through dinner, and neither had spoken directly to the other during the meal, both wondering about the other’s motives.

Two gunfighters each with well-known reputations coming together at the same place at the same time stretched the limits of credulity for both of them.

Slim was discussing watersheds with Mother Agnes, all the while casting worried glances in Jess’ direction.  His friend was pale, his hands were shaky and only he was sitting close enough to see the sheen of perspiration that covered him.

As Slim was about to make their excuses, he was pre-empted by Mother Agnes.  “Mister Harper, I’m afraid I must insist that you retire to your room.  You have over-exerted yourself today,” her wise eyes shown with concern.

Jess’ attention was pulled away from studying his brandy snifter as the amber liquid sparkled in the candlelight.  Embarrassed, he nodded.  “Yes, ma’am.  I’m afraid you’re right.  I’ll be sayin’ my goodnights.”  He took a last sip of brandy and set the snifter down by his desert plate.  Slim noticed that Jess used both hands to push himself up from the table.  His instinct was to jump up and help Jess, but allowed him the dignity of leaving under his own steam.

Scott and Johnny had both noticed the difficulty Jess had, but politely gave the man his privacy by neither remarking nor appearing to stare.

Jess touched the Reverend Mother on the shoulder affectionately as he passed her, and her hand rose to cover his for a brief moment, a gesture not missed by either Scott or Johnny.

Johnny was sure that Scott had no idea who he had just had dinner with and wondered if anyone else did.  A phrase that Murdoch liked to use flitted through his mind.  “In for a penny, in for a pound.”  No time like the present to get business out in the open.  He and Scott were either in this all the way, or no way.

Johnny cleared his throat, “Um, Reverend Mother.”

“Yes, Mister Lancer?”

“Ma’am,” Johnny glanced at his brother.  “Ma’am, I think that you should know that while I am Johnny Lancer, Murdoch Lancer’s son, I’m also known by the name of Johnny Madrid.” 

Scott murmured, “Johnny…” and grabbed his brandy snifter.

Johnny’s eyes flickered over to Slim whose reaction was less than subtle.  Slim’s eyes flashed and his jaw muscles were working overtime.  Johnny raised his hand, “Now, don’t get excited Sherman.  I take it you’ve heard of me?”

“I have, sir, and I would wager that Jess has too.”

“Oh yeah, he certainly recognized me, as I did him.”

“Why didn’t you say something before?”

“Well, until just a minute ago, I wasn’t sure if the Reverend Mother knew who he was.”

“And you are now?” Mother Agnes asked.

“Well, ma’am, I figure if you didn’t, you certainly know what kind of man he is and you wouldn’t be trusting him as you obviously do. You’ve asked him to stay and help you, haven’t you?” 

Johnny noticed the expression on Sister Michael’s face.  Shock was the only word for it.  “Pardon my bluntness ma’am, but you are not a stupid woman and I’ll wager you don’t give your trust easily.”  Johnny looked at Scott who nodded at him to continue.  “Ma’am, have you ever heard of Johnny Madrid?”

“No, Mister Lancer, I’m afraid I haven’t.”

Johnny smiled.  “No need to be sorry, ma’am, I’m glad that you haven’t.  Johnny Madrid is…”

“WAS,” Scott interrupted.

“…was a gunfighter of some repute down around the border with Mexico.”  He took a sip of brandy.  “That would be me, ma’am.”

“Why are you telling me this, Mister Lancer?” the Reverend Mother inquired calmly.

“Well, ma’am, you have another gunfighter living under your roof, and even though I don’t think either of us came here for the same reason, we are both here now, and I think we’re both on your side.”  Johnny shifted in his seat and took another sip of his brandy.  “I haven’t spoken to Jess, but I did hear from Sister Michael how he came to be here…”

“I can vouch for Jess,” Slim said adamantly.  “He wants only to help and he’s not a gunfighter anymore.  Hasn’t been for a long time.  He owes these folks his life.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Johnny replied.  “I’m telling you this now because you’ll probably hear in the next few days that Johnny Madrid has been hired by Elizondo.”

Slim sat straighter, looking like he was going to lurch to his feet.  “You’re working for…”

“Yes,” Johnny waved Slim down with his hand, “I got myself hired as Johnny Madrid so I can find out what they’re up to.  I don’t know everything yet, Reverend Mother, but I do know that they’re out to get this place and they’ve hired themselves an army to do it.  Not only that, they want the whole of Lancer.”

“Lancer?” Slim asked.

Scott leaned across the table to snag the brandy and pour himself another.  “Yes, Mister Sherman.  Lancer is our father’s…our ranch, here in the San Joaquin Valley.  I’d venture to say it’s one of the largest, if not the largest cattle ranch in the state and Elizondo wants to own the state, starting with Lancer.  This orphanage is part of Lancer.”

“Mister Lancer, is your father aware of this?” the Reverend Mother asked.

Scott glanced at Johnny, the two of them silently agreeing that Scott should speak for them.  “No ma’am, not entirely.  You may be aware that Elizondo tried the courts first, some legal maneuvering that failed, but Murdoch is not aware just yet that Elizondo has taken this to the next level.”

“Ma’am,” Johnny interjected, “I’ve met Elizondo.  He’s… well, he’s not right in the head, ma’am.  I don’t think we’re dealing with a stable personality here and he’s hired the worst of the worst to work for him.”

“Present company excepted,” Scott interjected.

“Why thank you, brother, “ Johnny flashed his most engaging smile and clinked brandy snifters with his brother.  Slim couldn’t help but grin.  “Besides all that, ma’am, Elizondo seems to have almost unlimited funds.  Getting word to Murdoch may prove difficult.  It’s hard to know who to trust.  I don’t think a telegram is a good idea.”

“I know someone we can trust,” Michael contributed.  She seemed to take all of the new information in stride.  All eyes at the table fell on her.  She smiled.

Scott smiled knowingly.  “Kate.”

Johnny’s mouth fell open.  “The dentist?”

“One in the same.”
 

 

Chapter 27

Johnny excused himself from the discussion and went in search of Jess.  Slim’s eyes followed him as he left the dining room, but did not attempt to follow.

A nun in the kitchen area pointed him to Jess’ room.  Johnny filched an apple off the counter and headed down the corridor.  The door was ajar and he could see the glow of a lamp.  He knocked, pushed the door open and stuck his head in.

“You awake?”

“Yeah, come on in,” Jess replied.  He looked up surprised to see who his visitor was.  He pushed up from the pillow and leaned back against the stone wall.   He was exhausted but had been unable to sleep.  He wanted to talk to Slim.  The presence of Madrid complicated things considerably.

“Bet you’re surprised to see me, huh?”

“A little.”

Johnny crossed the small room and pulled the small wooden chair beside the bed and made himself comfortable.  “Let’s not beat around the bush, Harper.  You know who I am, right?”

“The question in my mind is, does the Reverend Mother know who you are and why you’re here.”

“She knows I’m working for Elizondo.”

Jess stiffened and swung his legs to the floor.

“Now, wait a minute, Jess.  She knows about Johnny Madrid, and I told her I signed on with Elizondo to see what he was up to.  No need to worry, I’m just as concerned for the folks here as you are.”

Jess glared at Johnny, his jaw muscles working over-time.   He had a lot of thinkin’ to do.  Last time he saw Johnny Madrid, he was a deadly and expensive gun for hire. 

Johnny interrupted his thoughts.  “I was a gunfighter, just like you were, but I think you and I had one thing in common that set us apart.  We didn’t go to the highest bidder.   We hired on with the ones that we thought were in the right.”

“The lost causes,” Jess added, nodding.

“Yeah, well, I guess you could say that.”  Johnny grinned.  “Jess, you know my reputation and I know yours.  I’d guess that neither one of them is entirely accurate.  Things have a way of getting’ twisted.  Besides, “ he leaned back and propped his foot up on his knee, “neither one of us are in that business any more.”  He tossed the apple in his hand to Jess and Jess caught it easily.

“Slim tell you that?”

“Yeah.”

“What about you?  If you’re not...”

“I have a family now...my brother, my father.  We have a ranch...”

“Looks like we both found something better than what we were doing.”

“Yeah, but ain’t it a bitch how it keeps comin’ back on us?”

They both laughed.  After a few moments of companionable silence, Jess continued. 

“Johnny, when do you think Elizondo’s gonna make his move?”

“I dunno yet.  I heard Morro Coyo mentioned, but don’t know what his plans are for this place.”

“What’s Morro Coyo?”

“It’s a little town close to our home.”  Jess nodded and Johnny continued.   “I gotta get back and do some snooping around.  Also gotta find a way to get word to my old man.”

“Your old man?”

“Murdoch Lancer.  He’s the one that actually owns this place.  In fact, he owns the whole shootin’ match that Elizondo’s after.”

Jess studied this new information for a moment.  “Well, you sure did fall into the middle of it, didn’t you?”

“Well, you did too by choosing this valley to get sick in.”

“I’ll be more careful next time.”

Johnny stood to leave, picking his hat up and putting over his head to hang down his back.  He reached the door and then turned back. 

“Jess?”

“Yeah?”  Jess looked up.

“You ever wonder...you know...which one of us...”

“Nyah,” Jess replied quickly.

“Me neither,” Johnny said as he slipped through the door and closed it quietly behind him.

Chapter 28

The ride back to Everafter was punctuated by long periods of silence.  Johnny told Scott about his meeting with Harper, but after that, they said very little.

The full moon lit the road ahead, but they rode slowly, each keeping company with his own thoughts.

Scott glanced over at Johnny, not five feet away.  His hat was low over his eyes, a sure sign he was either thinkin’, or sleepin’. 

“You trust him?”

Johnny’s head jerked up and he snorted, involuntarily Scott surmised.  Just as he thought; sleepin’.

“Huh?”

“I said do you trust him?”

“Do I trust who, Scott?” Johnny retorted irritably.

“Harper,” Scott replied as if Johnny should have known what he was thinking.

“Y’know what, Scott?  I do.  I really do.”

“A man you just met?  That’s not like you, Johnny,” Scott teased.

“I didn’t just meet him, Scott.  I met him years ago in Sedona.”

“Yeah, but you were both in a different line of work then.  One which you have told me before, little brother, the brethren are not of a trusting nature.”

“True, true.”  Johnny’s head bobbed up and down.  He reached up and pushed his hat back on his head.  “But Jess was different.  I dunno, Scott, I remember him as one that if I’d a been lookin’ for a friend at the time, I woulda picked him.  Aw, he was a bit hotheaded.  Why, I remember once…”

Scott snorted, pulled up his horse, removed his hat and wiped the inside band with his gloved hand and mumbled “pot callin’ the kettle…”

“What?”

“Nothin’.  Just color me surprised, Brother John.  I thought Johnny Madrid never trusted and never liked no one, no how.”

Johnny whooped with laughter.  “One of these days, big brother, I’m gonna show you just exactly what Johnny Madrid really liked.”  He whooped once more and slapped the horse on the fanny with his hat.  The horse took off like a shot

Scott replaced his hat on his head and took off after his brother.

As they neared the outskirts of Everafter, they decided to leave the main road and circle to the south.  They’d enter the town down by the rail yards and make their way to the hotel through the back alleys.  If someone spotted them, it’d be hard to tell where they’d come from.

The moon may have been full, but its light didn’t penetrate between the big, non-descript buildings that cast dark, forbidding shadows.  Scott thought more than once he was glad Johnny was just an arm’s length away.  At least he thought he was.  He could barely see his hand in front of his face at times. 

Finally they emerged into the populated part of town.  The saloons and dance halls stayed open most of the night spilling their light and music out into the street.  Scott glanced over at Johnny and heaved a sigh of relief.

They dismounted at the front hitching post of the hotel.  Johnny reached out his hand.  “Gimme.  I’ll take the horses down to the livery.”

Scott slapped the reins into Johnny’s hand.  “I thought we’d just have the porter do it.

“Nyah, I need the walk.  You go on, I’ll be back before ya know it.”  He turned and led both of the borrowed horses down the short block to the livery stable.

Johnny took the horses to their stalls himself, eschewing the livery owner’s offer.   After seeing them settled, he sought out Barranca who had been left behind this trip.

He took pleasure in bedding down Barranca, brushing him out and seeing him settled for the night.  It was a ritual they had and Johnny tried to keep to it as much as he could for Barranca’s sake.

Barranca was one of the few things that was his and his alone.  He was wealthy in a lot of ways that he had never expected in his life to be, but being blessed with a fine horse was a pleasure he never took for granted.

When he’d finished, he tipped the livery owner an extra four bits to keep a special eye on their horses’ needs, and headed back toward the bright lights of the hotel.

His instincts were in full bloom.  He felt, rather than heard or saw the two men who approached him from behind.  He kept his hands clear of his gunbelt and swung lightly around to face them.  “Howdy fellas!  Nice night, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, real nice, Madrid.”  The taller one was Virgil.  The other, he didn’t know, but could guess his job, if not his name.

“You fellas come to see me to my room?”

“Where ya been, Madrid?”

“Been?  Why, I’m not sure why that’s any business…”

McCoy closed the distance between them fast and tightly clutched at Johnny’s collar.   Johnny could smell the liquor on his breath.  Virgil was meaner than usual when he was drunk.  

“I’m makin’ it my business, Madrid.  If I gotta maybe trust my life to the men around me, I wanna know all about ‘em.  Now where you been?”

“Now, Virgil…,” Johnny stepped back and grinned.

“I done told you not to call me that.”  McCoy pushed Johnny back to arm’s length and swung a meaty fist at his jaw.  Johnny ducked and wrenched free of McCoy’s grip and rolled away.  The other one jumped in and pulled Johnny to his feet.

“You fellas think Mister Elizondo’s gonna ‘preciate you beatin’ up on one of his expensive hired guns?”

“We ain’t…” McCoy swung again.  This time the second man held Johnny still and the blow connected solidly with his left cheek. “…beatin’ you up, Madrid.  We’re just…” The second blow connected with Johnny’s right ear and knocked him out of the other man’s grasp.  “…askin a few questions.” 

Johnny sagged to the ground, his right hand covering his bleeding ear.  “Oh, good cuz I was afraid you were gonna beat me up.”  The effort to say those few words was all he could manage.  He couldn’t even hear his own words for the roaring in his ear.

“We’re gonna be watchin’ you Madrid.  I don’t like people who work with me disappearin’ for half a day, ‘specially when it was me got him the job.”  From his vantage point on the ground, Johnny could see McCoy’s legs start to walk away.  The other fella was behind him and got a last lick in by way of a swift kick to the ribs.

Johnny toppled over and lay curled in a ball for a few minutes while the fireworks were going off in his head.  When the lights behind his eyes settle down a bit and the roaring in his ear dimmed to just earthquake level, he put both hands in the dirt and pushed himself up.

Standing as straight as his ribs would allow, he turned to get a bead on the hotel and then lurched off towards the lights.  The nausea hit like a blow to the gut.  He stopped and bent over, hands on knees and willed it to pass.  He was determined that if he was gonna toss his dinner, it would be here in the street and not in the hotel.  He fleetingly thought of the delicious after dinner brandy; terrible shame to waste it.  Probably wouldn’t taste as good comin’ up as it did goin’down.

When nothing presented itself after a minute, he rose and started off again toward the hotel. 

He reached the porch and pulled himself up the porch using both hands on the polished wooden railing.  A few people passed him, giving him a once-over, but no one stopped.  Inside he glanced around the crowded lobby.  He prayed fervently that he could make it to the stairs and up to his room without running into…

“Handsome!  Why there you are, I was…”  Pearl’s voice preceded her visage into Johnny’s line of sight.  “My dear!  What on earth?” 

Pearl took hold of Johnny’s arm and wrapped another large arm around his back.  “Why you poor thing.  You come right with me.”  She began leading him toward the stairs.  “Percy!  Percy, come here!”  Her bellow carried above the din of the customers and the clanking of dishes and silver in the dining room.  Surprisingly, not many turned to stare, accustomed as they must be to Pearl summoning her staff in such a way.

The ever-available Percy appeared as if by magic.  “Percy, please go to the bar and fetch Mister Madrid’s brother and bring him here quickly.”

Percy nodded wordlessly and disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.  Pearl continued to lead Johnny gently to the stairs and then stood by as he began climbing them painfully, one by one. 

Bent at the waist, his main view was of his feet and the lush, textured carpet in front of him, but at the moment, he was grateful to have something to concentrate on.  He knew that if he looked up, he’d get dizzy and nauseated again.

After five painfully gained stairs, he felt another arm slip around his waist.  “Johnny, what happened?”  Scott’s voice was strained and quiet.

“Not now,” was all Johnny managed, concentrating as he was on moving forward.

Johnny thought much later that the period between the fifth step and the bed in his room was a blank.  He must have walked the distance, perhaps even made it under his own power, but he could remember none of it. 

The next thing he remembered was lying on the bed and gripping the edges hoping to stop it from spinning.  Someone, either Scott or Pearl was wiping blood from his ear and neck with a damp cloth.  He dared not open his eyes to see who.

The answer came a moment later when a voice penetrated the roar inside his head.  “Pearl, would you mind sending for a doctor?”

Johnny’s hand shot out and grasped Scott’s arm.  “No, Scott.  No doctor.”

Scott stopped wiping the blood and bent low over his brother.  “Why not, Johnny?  I think you might have some broken ribs.”

“No…”  Johnny took a deep breath.  “Not broken, just bruised.”  He swallowed and opened his eyes, searching for Scott’s face.  “Trust, remember Scott?  We can’t trust…”

“But, Johnny!”

Johnny squeezed Scott’s arm tighter.  “I can’t have Elizondo thinkin’ I’m really hurt.  I’ve got to be able to…”

“Okay, okay, I see your point.”  Scott glanced behind him at Pearl.  He was sure she had heard at least some of it.

“Um, Pearl.”

“Yes, honey?”

Scott stood and beckoned her to sit in the chair he had just vacated.  She settled her bulk into the pitifully inadequate chair, her stricken face searching Scott’s for answers.  She reached over and took Johnny’s hand in hers and squeezed.

“Pearl, I need to explain something to you and I need your trust and your help.”

Pearl glanced over at Johnny, noting his pale face and closed eyes.  Her heart melted and she turned to Scott, her face set in stony resolution.  “Anything, Scott.” 

Scott pulled a second chair over and faced her, absently placing a hand on Johnny’s leg.  “Pearl, Johnny and I are the sons of Murdoch Lancer.  Have you heard of him?”

“Why sure, everyone’s heard of Murdoch Lancer.  Why my third husband…”

“Nevermind that now, Pearl, I just wanted you to know that we are Lancers, not Madrids.”  He glanced over at Johnny, not sure if he was listening or unconscious.

“I believe you.”

“Thank you.  We signed the hotel register as Madrid because Johnny overheard some men in town talking about a plan involving a man named Elizondo and Lancer.  He thought that if he used his former name, it might prove to be useful.”

“His former name?” she whispered.

“Yes.  You’ve heard of Johnny Madrid?”

“I know who Johnny Madrid is and I knew the minute I saw your brother and put him together with the name who he was.”

“And you weren’t worried?”

“Why should I be?  Johnny Madrid never caused me no trouble.”

Scott grinned.  “Very sensible of you.  Anyway, Johnny wanted to get hired on as a hired gun for Elizondo to see if he could find out what was going on.”

Pearl nodded her head continuously, soaking in every detail with relish.

Scott continued, “So, we found out that Elizondo is after the orphanage outside of town which belongs to our father.  He wants it lock stock and land.  After that, we think he’s going to make a try for the ranch itself.  Johnny thinks his ambitions may be even bigger than that.”

“Scott, I may be able to help you in ways you don’t even know,” she said conspiratorially.   “But before we do anything, we need to get your little brother here seen to, and I know just the woman we need.”

Scott’s eyebrows shot up.  “Woman?”

“Yup, you were right about not trustin’ no one.  The only doctor in this town is a closet drunk who I happen to know is in the hip pocket of Raoul Jorge.  You may not know who he is, but you can bet that if there’s some dirty dealin’ goin’ on anywhere within’ spittin’ distance of Everafter, he’s involved in it.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s the damn mayor, Scott.”

“Oh.”

“So, we need someone we can trust and who can take care of Johnny.”

“Kate,” they said in unison.

“She an’ I go way back, Scott.  We can trust her.”

Scott looked over at Johnny.  He was still as death.  “You still with us, Johnny?”

Johnny didn’t nod but answered, “Yeah, just hurts to move my head.  Everything’s spinnin’.”

“I’m worried about your ear.”

“I can’t hear nothin’ out of it, Scott.”

Scott reached over and put the towel he held back to Johnny’s right ear.  Blood was still seeping out of it.  “We’re gonna get Kate to come over and look at you.”

Johnny appeared to think this over for a minute and then said, “’kay.”

Scott nodded to Pearl who wordlessly stood up and turned to the door.  “Don’t you worry about a thing, handsome.  Ol’ Pearl is gonna take care of things.”

After she left, Scott sat on the edge of Johnny’s bed.   “Who did this, Johnny?”

“Virgil.”

“Virgil?  What for?  I thought you two worked for the same guy!”

“Yeah, well he’s havin’ second thoughts.”

“Johnny, don’t you try an’ tell me you couldn’t handle Virgil.  I know you better than that.”

Johnny chuckled and then winced at the movement it caused.  “Damn, Scott, I gotta start practicin’ up on my technique.”

“Why, Johnny?  What are you doing?”

Johnny opened his eyes briefly and found Scott’s blue eyes staring at him intently.  “It’s no great plan, Scott.  I just want Virgil to get cocky and over-confident.  I want him to think he’s got me under his thumb. “

“So you let him beat the crap out of you?  He may have ruptured your eardrum, Johnny!”

“Well, I didn’t know he was gonna have help with him,” Johnny grinned.  The grin faded as he saw that Scott wasn’t sharing the humor.  “Lighten up, Scott.  I’ve had worse.”  He closed his eyes again and reached up to hold the towel to his ear.

Scott swallowed hard and his chest tightened.  He’d had worse.  Knowin’ it and saying it out loud were two different things.  He’d only known his brother for a couple of years.  He knew his life before Lancer was impossibly harsh, dangerous and painful in more than physical ways.  He’d survived and had emerged a more than decent man.  The anger welled up and he stood, feeling the need to pace.

“Well I’m sorry if I fail to see the advantage in getting yourself pummeled by some…”

“Sit down, Scott.  Your yellin’ hurts.”

Scott stopped pacing immediately and sat quickly at the side of the bed.  “Sorry.”

“S’okay.”

 

 
Chapter 29

Slim excused himself as soon as Johnny and Scott said their goodbyes and went in search of Jess.  Jess was waiting up for him, even though it was apparent that he was exhausted.

“You still up?”

“Just waitin’ for you, Pard.  Johnny came in to see me.”

“Yeah, I figured. I saw somethin’ goin’ on at dinner, figured you’d tell me when you took a notion.”

Jess grinned and pointed to the rickety wooden chair beside the bed.  “It’s a long story. Take a load off.”

Slim dragged the chair around and sat backwards on it with his arms resting on the top rung of the back.  “You ran into him before didn’tcha?”

“Yup.  Few years back.  Only he wasn’t Johnny Lancer then.  His name was Johnny Madrid and he was the best I’ve ever seen, Slim.”

“Better’n you?”

“Well, let’s just say I never hope to find out.”

“We worked for the same guy down in Sedona for a short spell.  Johnny moved on pretty quick and I stayed on, so I didn’t see him after that.  We talked some, though.”  Jess turned on his side and propped himself on an elbow.  “Funny thing about him, Slim, he never seemed to like what he did for a livin’.”

“Did you?”

“Not really.  I did it ‘cuz I was good at it and I made some money.  Didn’t know much of anything else, but I never killed in cold blood and I never pushed for a fight.  I just kinda took care of business when it came up.  Johnny was the same way, but I could tell, it took somethin’ out of him.  He was lookin’ for somethin’ else.”

“Well, seems like he found it.  Got him a good brother, a rich family.  Seems like a pretty good life lookin’ from the outside in.”

“Yeah, guess you could say the same for me,” Jess grinned.  “All exceptin’ that rich family part.”

A moment later they both turned as something bumped against the door and then the door swung open.  “Pardon us Mister Harper, Mister Sherman.  The Reverend Mother asked us to bring this…” Sister Michael grunted as she dragged a narrow cot into the room, aided by an unidentified person on the other end.  “…bed in here for you.  She says we don’t have anymore spare rooms so you’ll have to sleep in here Mister Sherman.”

Slim jumped up and took the end of the bed out of her hands.  The other end came through the door with a bent old gentleman attached to it.

“This is Mister Atticus Boles.  Atticus this is Mister Harper and Mister Sherman.”

Slim reached a hand out to shake the old man’s hand, but Atticus just dipped his head and touched the brim of his hat as he backed his way out of the room.

Non-plussed, Slim took the bed by himself and moved it to the corner behind the door.  “Well, this’ll do me just fine, Sister.  I didn’t expect nothin’ but a bedroll on the floor.”

“Well, I certainly hope you rest well,” Sister Michael said, and then turned to Jess.  “And you, young man.  I want you to be sure and take a spoonful of that elixer before you go to sleep tonight.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll do that,” Jess said shyly.

Sister Michael shoved both her hands under the front of her robes and adopted a stern attitude.  “Well, see that you do.”  She winked and smiled.  She then turned on her heel and left the room.  As she closed the door, she whispered, “Goodnight, gentlemen.”

Both men smiled after her, keeping whatever comments they may have to themselves.  Slim had stretched out on his newly acquired bed.  “So, you were tellin’ me about when you met Johnny Madrid.”

Jess dropped back to the bed on his back and rested his head on his hands.  “Well, I done told you about all there was to it.  I remember him as bein’ a decent sort.  I was kinda wonderin’ what he might be doin’ here, but I knew better than to start somethin’ at the table in front of the Reverend Mother.”

“Well, you didn’t have to.  He brought it up as soon as you left.  Said he wasn’t sure about you either until he saw how much the Reverend Mother liked you, and obviously trusted you.”  Slim rolled his head to look over at Jess.  “You know his father owns this land.”

“Yeah, he told me all about that.”

“You believe him?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Slim turned back and put his hands behind his head in an imitation of Jess.  “Well, that’s good enough for me, pard.”

They both lay quiet for a few minutes, each alone with his own thoughts.  Finally Slim rose up on one elbow and looked over at Jess.

“Jess, I was wonderin’”

“What.”

“Well, if there’s trouble…I mean if Elizondo rides against this place and there’s shootin’…”

“Yeah, we gotta have a plan.  There’s women and children here.  He’s gotta know that, he’d have to be crazy…”

“I think we’ve already established that he is just that.”  Slim settled back again.  “Tomorrow, we need to look over this place, find a place for the children to go, a cellar or something.  We’ve got to start preparin’.”

“Yeah, but I don’t wanna scare ‘em, Slim.”

Another knock at the door interrupted.  “Come in,” Jess called.

Isabelle slipped quietly in and closed the door quickly behind her.  “Jess, I…”  She stopped short when she saw Slim.  He rose from the bed and stood, towering over her.  “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t know….”

“Isabelle, this here’s Slim.  Remember I told you about him?”

Slim stepped forward and held a hand out to her.  She timidly shook his hand, her tiny one becoming lost in his huge one.

“Nice to meet you, Isabelle.  Do I have you to thank for finding Jess here?” he said, smiling.

Isabelle swallowed hard.  ‘A body could get lost in those dimples,’ she thought.  She knew her Jess could never be beat for good looks, but this one was mighty close.  “Uh, yes sir.”  After the initial shock, she remembered herself.  How would Penelope Poindexter handle this?  “I found him alright.  He was a might poorly, but he’s getting’ better, aren’t ya Jess?”

He nodded silently, smiling too much to say anything.  Isabelle sidled over to Jess’ bed and sat on the edge possessively.  “You come to take him home?” she tried to keep the fear out of her voice.  She felt Jess’ hand hold her braid.  He’d made a habit of it whenever she was sitting close enough.

Slim smiled and sat back down on the edge of his cot.  “Well Isabelle, I don’t think you have to worry about that just yet.  It’ll be awhile before Jess is ready to leave here.”  His smile was meant to be reassuring, but he was afraid she would hate him no matter what he said.

Isabelle pulled her eyes away from Slim to glance back at Jess.  “Jess, I came to see if you wanted to finish Oliver Twist tonight.”

“Well, I appreciate it, Isabelle, but since Slim’s here, we got some catchin’ up to do. “  He pushed her braid around in front of her shoulder and let go.

Her eyes fell.  She felt the tightness grip her chest and she struggled mightily to not cry.  “Okay, I understand, Jess.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  She stood up and headed slowly to the door.  “Well, nice to meet you…Slim.”

Slim stood quickly.  “Real nice to meet you too, Isabelle.  I’m sure I’ll see you tomorrow, too.”

She reached for the door and Slim held it for her.  “Say, Isabelle.”

She turned back and looked up at him, willing the tears to hold off for just another minute.  “Yes, sir?”

“Uh, I just wanted to say thank you for, you know, for finding Jess. “

Her smile was genuine as she craned her neck up to see the startling blue eyes gazing down at her.

“And, well…uh…I don’t reckon I ever saw anyone with prettier hair than you.”

That did it.  She should hate him, but instead, she was in love all over again.  No one could replace Jess, but she could make room in her heart for two she was quite certain.

Her momentary lapse passed quickly when she remembered why Slim was there.  The shadow crossed over her face again.  “Well, um…thank you.  Goodnight,” she said as she turned and headed off down the hallway.

Slim closed the door and turned back inside.  “That went well,” he said, shaking his head as he went back to his cot.

“I think I said exactly the wrong thing,” Jess added.

“Naw, there was nothin’ else to say.  She’ll be okay.”  Slim lay back down on the cot and tucked his hands in his belt.  “Boy, she sure has got it bad for you.”

Jess picked up his pillow and threw it at Slim, aiming for his head, but hitting his chest.  “Aw shut up.  Whatta you know?”

Slim picked up the pillow and tossed it back.  “I know a case of puppy love when I see it.  I’ve got a brother that was that age not too long ago, remember?”

Jess grinned and said nothing.

“Speaking of which, I think I’d better ride into town tomorrow and send a telegram to Jonesy and Andy.  They’ll be worried.”

“I’ll write ‘em a letter too,” Jess added.

“That’ll be fine.”  Slim settled back down.
 

 

Chapter 30

Kate was whisked into the hotel room in the most circumspect way that Pearl could manage.  She explained how she’d sent for Kate on the pretext of her having a horrible toothache.  When Kate had arrived with her bag at Pearl’s room, Pearl grabbed her arm, pulled her in and told her of all the intrigue afoot.  She made Kate don a hooded cloak before taking her the back way to Johnny and Scott’s room.

Kate was puzzled, but had become accustomed to Pearl’s dramatic ways.  They’d been fast friends since Kate had come to town three years ago. 

She’d been taken aback at Scott’s expression when she entered the room.  He was clearly upset and nervous.

She glanced at the bed to her right and saw Scott’s brother lying with a bloody towel pressed against the side of his head.  She quickly moved to the bed and sat beside Johnny.  “Johhny, what happened?”

“Hi, Kate,” Johnny whispered.  He was going on the theory that the less sound, the less vibration in his head.

Scott moved up behind her.  “A coupla guys took a few swings and one got in a good kick in the ribs.”

“Lemme see, Johnny,” Kate said as she lifted his shirt.  He rolled a little to his right so she could see his back.  She pressed in a few places on the black, angry looking, boot-shaped bruise, but felt no broken ribs.  “I don’t think they’re broken.”

Johnny winced with each touch.  “No, just bent a little,” he coughed and rolled to his back.

“Looks like you got a nice shiner here too,” she said as she lightly touched his cheek.

“It’s his ear I’m worried about.  He says he can’t hear out of it,” Scott said, bending over Kate’s shoulder.

“Johnny, can you turn your head this way?”

Johnny gritted his teeth and rolled his head to face her still clutching the bloody towel.  She gently removed the towel and placed Johnny’s hand on his chest.

The ear was red with blood and the surrounding area was blue and black.  There was dried blood down below his collar and in his hair.

“How bad does it hurt, Johnny?”

“Only when I move, or breathe…or swallow.”

“Bad, huh?”

“Yeah,” he said in barely a whisper.

Her concern was written all over her face.  She was no doctor and she knew her limits.  Ears were not her area, but then she doubted any typical country doctor could do much for them either except drops for an infection or to clean out wax.

“I need to clean this up to get a look at it, Johnny.  First I want you to take something for pain.”  She turned to Scott.  “Scott, do you still have those drops I gave you yesterday?”

“Yeah,” he said as he darted over to the table beside his bed.

“Put five drops in a little water and bring it here, please.”

Johnny raised his hand, “No, please.  I don’t want it.  That stuff knocks me out.”

“I want it to knock you out, Johnny.  I can’t see your ear until I clean it up, and I can’t even touch it like it is now.”

“Please Johnny, it’s not very much, it’ll help,” Scott pleaded.

Johnny ventured to open his eyes and looked from Kate, to Scott, to Pearl and back to Scott.  The room spun still, and with it, the nausea reasserted itself.  He closed is eyes and swallowed, wincing at the movement.  “Okay, but Scott, I’ve got to see Blumburger at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning.  I’m holding you responsible to see that I get there.”

Scott threw a worried glance at Kate and then nodded.  “Brubaker,” he said lightly, “and don’t worry, brother, I’ll get you there.”  He slid in beside his brother and gently lifted his head so he could drink.

Twenty minutes later Johnny was bleary-eyed, but still awake.  Kate had turned him on his left side and she worked carefully to clean the encrusted blood from around the outside of his ear.  She didn’t have the right equipment to see inside, but maybe her reflector would help.  She used it to look into mouths when the light was poor.  It reflected and magnified the available light. 

Kate had Pearl fashioning swabs out of matchsticks by wrapping small strips of cotton tightly around the tips.  She’d need them to clean the ear canal.  Scott was holding the lantern above his brother’s head and trying his best to keep his shadow out of Kate’s light.

“How’s it look, Kate?”

“It’s too soon to tell, Scott.”  She glanced down at Johnny.  “How you holding up, Johnny?” 

He didn’t answer.  She didn’t know if he was asleep, or if he just couldn’t hear her.

“Pearl, I’m almost ready for those swabs.”

“And they’re all ready for you, sweetie.”

Kate smiled and continued.  Scott watched intently, more grateful every minute for Kate and for her help.  She had a light and gentle touch.

“So, Scott,” Kate said conversationally.  “Pearl tells me there’s some trouble with Elizondo.”

“You know about Elizondo?”

“He used to do business with my father.  In fact, I think that’s why he came here to begin with.  My father was an amateur historian.  He loved old California, visited all the missions.  When he discovered Our Lady, he had a fit.  He saw the value in it, even offered to buy it at one time.  Of course Murdoch Lancer refused.  Father left it at that as far as I know, but perhaps his friend Clay Elizondo didn’t.”

“I’d say he didn’t.  He’s been trying very hard to obtain it both legally and illegally.”

“I know,” she said, reaching over to Pearl for the swabs.  “I didn’t know you were Murdoch Lancer’s sons, but I guess I should have put two and two together.  Actually, last time I met Murdoch, he didn’t even have sons as far as I knew,” she looked pointedly up at Scott.

“Now that is a long story.  I’ll have to tell you sometime.”

“Anyway, until yesterday, I hadn’t heard that name in years.”  She paused, her hand suspended above Johnny’s head, “Johnny, try to hold still.”  She took a deep breath and started, “I don’t even know if he can hear me.”

As soon as she used the first swab in Johnny’s ear, he groaned and tried to turn his head away.  “I’m sorry, Johnny, I know it hurts,” she said, firmly gripping his jaw.

She managed to clear away some of the blood and then reached in her bag for her reflector and placed it on her head.  Scott brought the lamp lower over Johnny.  “I can’t really see anything. It looks very swollen though.”  She snapped the reflector off her head and shoved it back in her bag.  “Hopefully, the deafness is being caused by the swelling and it’ll just go down by itself.”

“You think he’ll be okay?” Scott asked, trying to mask the anxiety in his voice.

Kate turned to him.  “I don’t know, Scott,” she said regretfully.  “I just don’t know.”  She stood and wiped her hands on her apron.  “Come on and help me roll him over.  That ear needs to drain.  Hopefully, he’ll just sleep all night.”

They gently rolled Johnny to his back and he turned his head to the right on his own as if to shut out the others.  Kate put a clean towel under Johnny’s ear as Scott pulled the quilt over him and stepped back.

“Poor boy.  Sure would like to get my hands on the scum…” Pearl’s face was red, tears spilling down both cheeks, her anger shown as plainly as her joviality did in happier times.

Scott took hold of her elbow and steered her to the other side of the room.  “It’s okay, Pearl.  He’ll be okay.”

He seated her on the edge of his bed and then pulled the chair up in front of her.  Kate sat beside Pearl and put an arm around her shoulder as Pearl magically produced a handkerchief from one billowing sleeve and dabbed her eyes.

Scott glanced over at Johnny and lowered his voice, “Kate, you’ve already done so much, I hate to ask another favor…”

“Please ask, Scott,” Kate said, smiling.

“Well, we’ve got to get word to my father and I don’t want to send a telegram.  Do you think…”

“Otis can go,” Kate said matter-of-factly.

“That’s a wonderful idea, sweetie.  He would be the perfect choice,” Pearl contributed.

Scott thought for a minute, wondering about asking so much of the old gentleman.

“Scott,” Kate placed a reassuring hand on his arm.  “Otis travels to Crooked Creek for me once a month to pick up dental supplies.  There’s a specialty supply house there.  No one would think twice about seeing him leave town alone.  How long would it take him to make it to Lancer?”

“In a wagon?  Probably about six or seven hours.”

Kate nodded.  “I’ll ask him tonight and if he agrees, he’ll leave before daybreak. He likes to travel in the early morning.”

“I’ll write him a letter to carry to my father.”  Scott went to the small desk in the room and pulled out some hotel stationery.

 


Chapter 31

“Goddammit, McCoy!  I told you to watch him, not to beat him up!  What if he can’t work?”

“Aw hell, Bru, he ain’t hurt that bad.  ‘Sides, he wouldn’t tell me where he went.”

“Well why didn’t you know where he was in the first place?  I told you to watch him!”

McCoy pouted, sitting in the chair holding his aching head.  The hangover was gonna be a doozy.  He didn’t remember half of what he did today, much less losing track of Madrid.

“Shit, Bru, I dunno why I have to babysit him anyhow.  You hired him, I just brung him to ya.  If you don’t trust him, then don’t hire him.”

“I don’t trust my own mother, McCoy,” Brubaker spat.  “Yeah, you brung him to me all right.  Didn’t you think it just a might peculiar that you just happened to run into the likes of Johnny Madrid in a little town five hundred miles from his usual stompin’ grounds?”

McCoy cleared his throat and murmured a small, “No.”

The shouting was getting too loud and Brubaker knew it.  He wanted to hurt McCoy, but he needed him.  He needed Madrid too, but he felt like he was a loose cannon. 

The others hung out together in the saloon, took target practice outside of town, but Madrid.  Madrid was different; kept to himself and hadn’t been seen much since yesterday morning.  He was supposed to show at the meeting this morning at eleven.  If he didn’t, Brubaker decided he’d have McCoy quietly get rid of him.  This project was too important to risk to a loose cannon.

Elizondo trusted him to hire the best.  Brubaker knew that if his plan was to work, he needed men loyal to him.  Men that would do what he wanted them to do, even when Elizondo started his insane ranting about Spanish royal grants and nonsense.  Elizondo held the purse strings, but only until Brubaker got into position.

The orphanage compound was only the first step.  The first step that would lead up to the grand prize of control of all cattle operations in Northern California, and eventually, the entire state.  Brubaker didn’t give a rat’s ass about the orphanage, but it was all-important to Elizondo.  To get to the main goal, he had to indulge Elizondo in this first.

Right now, their first obstacle was that bitch head nun out at the orphanage.  The old woman was stubborn and once she was out of the way, the kids and all the nuns could be moved to Elizondo’s house in Salinas.  He was going to “donate” his estate because by that time, he would be moved into the Lancer ranch house and Brubaker would be the puppet master behind the puppet.

Brubaker turned back to McCoy and looked haughtily at the has-been drunk gunfighter.  “Get out of here, McCoy.  I don’t want to see you again until the meeting tomorrow.”

McCoy mumbled, “Yessir,” and slunk his way out.
 

 

Chapter 32

It was only eight thirty, and he’d slept most of the afternoon, but Jess felt like sleep was beckoning to him.  He struggled to keep his eyes open as he read what he’d written to Andy and Jonesy.  The page waved in front of his eyes and the printing ran like the ink was still wet.  He rubbed his eyes tiredly and glanced over at Slim. 

Slim had picked up Oliver Twist an hour ago and hadn’t said a word since.  Jess was worried.  Not for himself but for Slim.  He was worried that he wasn’t strong enough yet to be of any help in what they had to do.  His chest still felt tight and he got winded and weak even if he just walked out to the stables where they were keeping Traveler.

He was frustrated with his own body and impatient to be healthy again.  He looked at his hand that held the pencil he wrote with.  It shook of its own accord.  He couldn’t stop it even if he made a concentrated effort.  He balled it up in a fist and pounded it into the bed.

“What’s the matter?” Slim said absently.

“Nothin’.”

Slim raised an eyebrow and looked over at Jess.  His head was bent over the letter he was working on.

Fifteen minutes later Slim glanced over to the next bed again and Jess’ head was still bent over the letter but his hand wasn’t moving.  Slim smiled, set his book aside and got up.  He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled his boots off and in his sock feet, padded over to Jess’ bed.  He pulled the letter out of Jess’ hand and glanced at it.  He’d written about a page, but it wasn’t signed yet. He could finish it in the morning before Slim left for town.

Slim set the letter aside.  On the tiny bedside table he saw the bottle of medicine and remembered Sister Michael’s instructions.

“Hey, Jess,” he reached out and shook Jess’ shoulder. 

Jess’ head bobbed up, “Huh?”

“You forgot to take your medicine.”

Jess grunted and reached for it.  He clumsily pulled out the cork and took a large swallow of it, followed by a grimace.  “Yuk!!  That stuff’s worse than Jonesy’s spring tonic.”

Slim took the bottle, sniffed it, and re-corked it, “Nyah, nothing could possibly be worse than that.”  He laughed and put the bottle back.  “C’mon, under the covers.  It’s already cold in here.”  He pulled the covers out from under Jess’ legs and held them up. 

Jess sleepily rolled over and Slim dropped the covers over him.  “G’night, pard.”

Jess grunted but didn’t answer.

 

 
Chapter 33

Scott tossed and turned.  He felt like he would jump out of his skin.  Every time he settled down, he got the skin-crawling feeling again and had to move.  Finally he just got up and paced.  He realized for the first time in hours he hadn’t even thought about his sore jaw.

Johnny hadn’t moved or made a sound since Kate and Pearl had left.  He was splayed across the bed, one hand gripping the pillow by his head, the other hanging over the side.

Kate had assured him that Mister Butts would be on the road by four a.m.  She said that if he were unable to go, she would send word to him within an hour.  No word had come.

Scott lit a lamp and pulled out his pocket watch.  It was only two a.m.  Would this night ever end?

Johnny stirred and groaned as he kicked his feet out and pushed the covers down.  Scott raised the wick on the lamp just a little and sat beside Johnny’s bed.

“What time is it?” Johnny’s voice was thick with sleep.

“It’s about two,” Scott answered.

Johnny slowly rolled his head to face his brother, blinking his eyes sleepily.  “What’re you doin’ up?”

“I could ask the same of you.  How’s the ear?”

“Eh?”

Scott laughed.  To his surprise, Johnny threw back the covers and tried to sit up.  Automatically Scott reached out a hand to help him.  Grasping him under the arm, he steadied Johnny as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat with his head in his hands.

“You okay?”

“Just give me a minute.  Things are still kinda swimmin’ around.”  Scott kept his hand on Johnny’s arm just in case.

“Johnny, I don’t think you should go to that meeting tomorrow.  I think we should wait here until Murdoch arrives.  He’ll be bringing some of the men from the ranch, and the law from Green River.”

Johnny had to think a minute to absorb what he’d just heard.  He felt like his head was full of cotton and his right ear was too.  “What?  Murdoch?”

“Oh yeah, you missed that part.  I sent a letter to Murdoch.  Mister Butts is taking it to the ranch.  Should be there by about mid-morning.”

“Who’s Mister Butts?”

Scott spoke clearly as if to a small child, “Kate’s friend?  The man who helps her out?”

“Oh, yeah,” Johnny said simply.  The morning in Kate’s office seemed like such a long time ago. 

Johnny tried to get his mind back on track.  “I have to go tomorrow.  If I don’t show, Bumburger’ll send someone lookin’ for me.  ‘Sides, it’s the only way we’re gonna find out what the big plan is.”

Johnny slowly raised his head from his hands and looked at Scott.  The nausea was marginally better but the very air around him seemed to spin out of control.  “You look awful, you should get some sleep.”

Scott couldn’t help but grin.  Johnny hadn’t lost his smart mouth along with his hearing.

“You’re the one that looks like a horse sat on you.  You want to take some more of Kate’s medicine?”

The answer, unsurprisingly was, “No.” 

Johnny thought, but did not verbalize, how it’s almost impossible to say the word ‘no’ without actually shaking your head, as he found out to his regret.  He paled as the pain shot along the right side of his head.  “Remind me not to do that again.”

Scott got up and poured him a glass of water.  Handing it to Johnny, he reassured him that it was just water.

Johnny drank it down while moving his head as little as possible.

“Think you can go back to sleep now?”

Johnny sat for a minute and then started to rise.

Scott’s arm shot out to steady him, “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’ve got to see if I can walk around without my head rolling off on the floor.”  He took a few steps towards the window.

Scott kept a hand near, but not on his arm and dogged each of his steps.  Johnny made it to the window and leaned his head on the cool glass.  The street below was lit eerily by the glow of the gaslights that lined it in front of the hotel.  None of the other establishments on the block had gaslights; Pearl’s innovation, no doubt.

At this hour, the streets were as deserted as any small town.  Johnny spotted a lone figure, probably a deputy walking along the boardwalk opposite the hotel, rattling doorknobs.

He turned from the window back to the room and walked slowly toward the door.  His head swam, but he was able to navigate without the horrible nausea of earlier.  Each slight movement of his head, neck or jaw caused the shooting pain in his right ear, sometimes so bad it caused his right eye to twitch.

‘Oh great,’ he thought, ‘Virgil’s gonna think I’m winkin’ at him.’

As he reached the door, he turned and almost ran into Scott who was close on his heels.  “Damn, Scott, I ain’t gonna fall over.  Give me some breathin’ room, willya?”

Scott sighed and backed off a step, but stayed close.  “I’m just makin’ sure you don’t keel over and break some of Pearl’s furniture.”

Johnny grinned; even that hurt.  He finally sat on Scott’s bed and closed his eyes.  He’d made it across the room and back without throwing up or tipping over.  By tomorrow, he’d be able to get to the meeting and make a show of being Johnny Madrid, even if he did feel more like Johnny Madrid’s sicker brother.

Johnny yawned, which hurt alarmingly, and tiredly turned and pulled his feet up on Scott’s bed.  He turned on his left side and hugged the pillow, settling into sleep with a sigh.

“Johnny, that’s my…” Scott sighed, “bed.”  It was no use.  Johnny was already asleep and his good ear was burrowed deep in his pillow.   Scott couldn’t help but smile as he pulled the sheet and quilt up over his brother and made his way over to Johnny’s bed to try and salvage what was left of the night.

 

 

Chapter 34

Slim awoke early when he smelled food cooking nearby.  He quietly stretched and got out of the warm bed.  The room was cold, being built of thick stone the floor was especially cold.  He stood by the washstand and splashed some water on his face and glanced over at the next bed.

At home, Slim was always the first one up, after Jonesy that is.  Jess never got up until he was made to and it was usually Slim who had that job.   

Jess was still sleeping heavily.  He must have been restless during the night because his quilt was piled on the floor beside the bed.  Slim bent to retrieve it and slid it back over him.  Jess unconsciously responded to the added warmth by rolling over and snuggling deeper in the covers.

Slim decided to let him alone and go in search of the wonderful food smells.  He pulled his boots on, smoothed his hair as best he could with his fingers and opened the door.  The large kitchen was just a stone’s throw down the corridor and the dining room just a little beyond that.

The sisters working in the kitchen nodded greetings but did not stop their work.  Slim went through to the dining room where he met the Reverend Mother and several of the sisters already eating.  The sideboard was laden with dishes of hot food.

“Please do come in, Mister Sherman and help yourself; the food’s already been blessed,” the Reverend Mother beckoned.

Slim nodded and made a beeline for the sideboard.  “Thank you, ma’am.  Good mornin’ everyone.”

The sisters murmured their greetings and continued eating.  The Reverend mother smiled, “Please forgive our single-minded purpose Mister Sherman.  We have a lot to do and we start early around here.  The sisters and I have already been to vespers.  As soon as we finish here begins a long work day.”

Slim slung a long leg over one of the simple wooden chairs and settled at the table with his plate just as one of the nuns set a steaming cup of coffee in front of him.  He nodded thanks to her. 

“I can appreciate that ma’am.  Work on the ranch starts as soon as the sun is up and don’t stop till sometimes long after it’s gone.”

“Then you do understand,” the Reverend Mother agreed.  “We have the added responsibility of feeding, clothing and educating over fifty children.” 

The Reverend Mother’s blue eyes twinkled as she looked at her guest.  “My, it does sound like I’m bragging doesn’t it?”  She stabbed her scrambled eggs with a flourish, “Well, I’m sure the good Lord will forgive me.  I admit to the sin of pride in my staff and in the children we are raising.  There are none more devoted and none more deserving.”  She cast her eyes heavenward.

Slim couldn’t help but follow her eyes upward and then smile as he dug in to his heaping plate.

“I do hope you slept well, Mister Sherman,” one of the sisters asked.  Slim couldn’t remember her name.  Luckily just calling her sister would do.

“I sure did, sister.  Like a log.”

“And Mister Harper?”

“He’s still sleepin’, ma’am.  Thought I’d give him some more time.  Seems he’s still not feelin’ too spry.”

“He was very tired last night at dinner, wasn’t he?” the Reverend Mother contributed.  “I’m afraid he is not recovered as yet although I think he tries to pretend he is.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Slim drank some of the strong coffee and had to stop a minute to recover.  It was strong enough to stand up a spoon.  Jonesy could take lessons.  “Uh, ma’am,” he said when he’d recovered.  “I wonder if I could speak with you privately sometime this morning?”

“Certainly, Mister Sherman, I’ll be in my office after breakfast.”

“Thank you ma’am.” 

They ate the rest of the meal in relative silence.  The sisters drifted away one by one leaving Slim sitting alone and helping himself to thirds.  As he was relaxing with his final cup of coffee, Jess made an appearance.  His hair stood out in all directions and his shirttail hung out.

Slim greeted him cheerily, “’Mornin’ there, pard.  How ya feelin’?”

Jess didn’t answer, just made for the coffeepot and poured himself a cup as if he hadn’t heard the question.  He gripped it with both hands and sat carefully at the table as if he were afraid he’d shake something loose.  He took several long draughts of the hot coffee and then finally looked over at Slim.

Jess scanned the empty room with bleary eyes and then settled them sleepily back on Slim.  “We the first ones up?”

Slim almost spit out the coffee he had just drunk.  He made a major effort to swallow it first before he burst out laughing.

Jess’ dark eyebrows drew together in a scowl.  “What’s so damn funny?”

Slim continued to chuckle.  “You, and would you please watch your language?” he looked guiltily around.  “We’re in a nunnery in case you hadn’t noticed,” he whispered.  Despite the reproof, Slim had not lost his good humor and he couldn’t help but smile.

Jess drank more of the bitter coffee, needing it to clear the cobwebs.  Slim wasn’t improving his mood any, either.

Slim finally took pity on him.  “I think you must be the last one in the county up today, pard.  The sisters have already eaten and are working.  The children are already out at the schoolhouse if that was indeed them I heard awhile ago, although I suppose it could have been a herd of cattle upstairs which is what it really sounded like.”

Slim leaned back and hooked his arm over the back of the chair.  “Yup, I’d say you’d best hurry up and eat breakfast or you might just bump up against the lunch crowd.”

Jess scowled and looked over at the sideboard.  None of it looked appetizing and he was not amused.  “I think I’ll just stick with coffee.”

Slim heaved a sigh, “Suit yourself, pard.”  He stood and took his cup to the sideboard.  “As soon as you finish that letter, I’m off to town.  I’m gonna mail it for ya and scout around a little.”

Jess started and began to stand, pushing himself up with both hands, “I’ll be ready in two shakes.”

Slim held up a hand and swung a leg back over his chair and sat it in.  “Hold it there, pal. You ain’t goin’ if that’s what you’re thinkin’.”

Jess glared and sunk back into his chair.

“Why you ain’t even strong enough to sit a horse yet.”

“Well, I ain’t never gonna be if you don’t…”

“No arguments, Jess.  ‘Sides, if you won’t listen to me, I’d pay money to see you try and get past the Reverend Mother.”  Slim’s dimples deepened despite his efforts to keep from smirking.

Jess put his head in his hands and ran one through his thick hair.  “Alright, you win this time.”

“Now why don’t you get cleaned up and get that letter done?  I wanna get on the road so I can get back here quick.”

Jess groaned and rose again.  Slim noted the stiffness and the unsteadiness.  Jess’ usually smooth, confident and graceful movements had become a trudge; an obvious effort to put one foot in front of the other.  He watched Jess as he left the dining room and slowly headed back down the hall to his room in defeat.

Slim’s efforts to keep a straight face failed and he smiled.  His relief at finding Jess alive kept his heart light and relatively untroubled by the upcoming fight.

It was going to be a fight, of that he had no doubt; potentially a bad one.   He’d seen land-grabbers before, seen what they were capable of.  His father had been murdered by such men.  His grin faded as he rose and strode purposefully out to find the Reverend Mother in her office.
 

 

Chapter 35

Scott let Johnny sleep until almost ten and then gently nudged him awake with one hand while holding a steaming cup of coffee in the other.

Johnny hadn’t moved all night and he was stiff.  A groan escaped involuntarily as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.  He sat with his elbows on both knees and scrubbed his hands through his hair, yawning.  His head felt thick with cotton; a result of the drug, no doubt.

When he opened his eyes, there was a cup of coffee under his nose.  He reached for it without looking up.  “What time is it?”

“About ten.”  Scott sank down on the bed next to Johnny and examined him closely.   His hair stuck out in all directions and his eyes were puffy.  Other than that and some bruises, he looked like he might live. “How’s the ear?”

Johnny reached up to his right ear and snapped his fingers.  “Still not much.  Only hurts when I move though,” he grinned and took another swallow, wincing as the hot liquid slid down. 

After a few moments he set the coffee aside, wrapped one arm around his ribs and used the other to push himself up.  Scott watched sympathetically and winced when he saw the livid purple bruises around Johnny’s right ear.  The bruising extended who knows how far into his long hair and down the side of his neck as well.

Under the watchful eye of his brother, Johnny tried to go through his morning routine.  Shaving proved painful, but he hid it well, tilting the mirror so Scott couldn’t see his face. 

Finally, the scrutiny got to him.  “For God’s sake, Scott, can you go do something instead of sitting there watching me?  Go down and get breakfast or somethin’.  I’ll be down in a minute!”

Scott dropped his head and grinned.  He hadn’t realized how obvious he’d been.  “Alright.  Pearl’s already got the chef whipping up something special.”  He stood up and reached for his hat turning it over in his hands.  He paused at the door and turned back towards Johnny.  “You’ll come right down?”

Johnny turned carefully to face him.  Normally he would have favored his brother with his most smart-mouthed reply, but the look on Scott’s face stopped him.  Something was different.  His instincts where his brother was concerned were highly tuned.  He sensed his moods, as Scott did his.  In the instant Johnny saw Scott’s face, he put a name to it- fear. 

“I’ll be right there, brother.”

 

Chapter 36

“Mornin’ sweetie, how’s that little brother of yours?” Pearl asked sweetly as she slid into the chair opposite Scott.

Scott set down his coffee and wiped his mouth with a heavy brocade napkin.  “He seems better, slept pretty well.  He’ll be down in a minute.”  Scott couldn’t help a quick glance towards the staircase.

Pearl scooted her chair closer and lowered her voice.  “Kate was here earlier.  Said Mister Butts left around four thirty with your letter.  She just wanted you to know.”

Scott relaxed in his seat.  “Thanks, Pearl.  That should put Murdoch here by this afternoon or evening if he doesn’t have any trouble.”

“I’ll have a room all ready for him.”  Pearl rose and straightened her pink satin skirt, her hand resting lightly on Scott’s shoulder as she moved off to greet guests.

Scott picked at the breakfast that was served him and couldn’t help glancing at the stairs between bites.  Johnny should have been down by now.

Finally he could stand it no longer.  He threw down his napkin and headed for the staircase.  “Dammit, Johnny, if you’ve gone back to sleep,” he mumbled as he took the stairs two at a time.  As he rounded the corner, his heart leaped to his throat.  Their room door was wide open.  He jogged down the hall and swung into the room, one hand holding the door jam and the other holding a cocked .45 revolver.

The room was much as he’d left it, except his brother was not there.  His hat and gun belt were gone too.  Scott sat heavily on the edge of his bed as he un-cocked the revolver and shoved it angrily back into its holster.

Scott knew his brother well.  Johnny was rash and impetuous sometimes, but he was never ill-considered or stupid.  Johnny would not have left willingly without telling Scott.  Under these circumstances, where so much was at stake, Scott was sure of it.  He trusted Johnny, but that trust did not extend to the people that Johnny was working for.

He had no choice but to wait for Murdoch and keep his ears open around town.

 

 

Chapter 37

Johnny had been just buckling on his gunbelt as he swung the door open and came face to face with Virgil and two others.  One was the rib-kicker from last night.

“Howdy, boys, come to have some breakfast with me?”  Johnny smiled his most winning smile and plopped his hat loosely on his head.  He continued smiling through gritted teeth as he settled the hat down, just above his ears.  It felt like it had shrunk overnight and the pressure on the right side sent spikes of sharp pain through his ear and jaw.

“Forget breakfast, Madrid.  We got business to attend to,” McCoy said, smiling back.  His wasn’t nearly so pleasant.

Johnny feigned ignorance.  “I thought we were all gonna meet at eleven.  I got me a big appetite this mornin’,” he said lightly as he pushed past them and headed for the stairs.

One of the henchmen grabbed Johnny’s arm and spun him around.  The gun had cleared Johnny’s holster before he was completely turned, the steady hand had already cocked the weapon and was waiting for the command to go.  “Don’t mess with me before I had my coffee, slick.”

The three men froze for a moment, the two looking to their leader.  McCoy smiled, and then laughed loud and long.  “That’s our Johnny!  Just the man we need.”  He reached out a long arm and draped it over Johnny’s shoulder and pulled him away from the main staircase and down the hall in the opposite direction.  “Come on, son, we got some work to do.  We’ll get you some coffee, I promise.”

Johnny allowed himself to be led away as he slid his gun back in its holster.  It had been a token show of force, but he intended to go all along.

They had gone down the back stairs, through the service areas of the hotel and out the back way.  Johnny allowed McCoy to keep his arm on him until they got outside, and then he shrugged him off.  “I can walk, Virgil, I don’t need you to lead me.”

McCoy stopped and turned to Madrid.  Johnny’s eyes twinkled with merriment and returned the stare with one of his own.  Johnny was unafraid, but he knew his opponent was not.  Virgil was scared spitless of Madrid and Johnny had always known it.  The only time he’d ever pushed him was when there were others around.  Like now.

Today, McCoy was under orders and if Johnny didn’t exactly know it, he suspected that McCoy had been sent.

Finally McCoy burst out in a guffaw.  “Goddamn you, Madrid.  You’re about the only one I let get away with that, you sorry sonofabitch.”  He laughed again and started to fling his arm around him again, then thought better of it.

Johnny wondered idly if Virgil even remembered last night.  He resisted the urge to hold his ribs as they walked.
 

 

Chapter 38

Slim pulled the wagon up in front of the general store and set the brake with his foot.  Then he stepped over Sister Michael and jumped down to the boardwalk.  He turned and lifted her effortlessly down from the high seat.

With the sister safely on the boardwalk, he turned to Isabelle who stood in the back of the wagon, holding to the seat.  She had stood there, between Slim and Sister Michael the entire trip into Everafter.  Her excitement was palpable and riding into town like this with Slim and Mike made her feel, just for a little while, like she was with her family going on a shopping trip to town.

Slim swung her over the side of the wagon to the boardwalk.  She clung to him for just a moment longer than was necessary and smiled up at him.  She loved his height.  He was the tallest man she had seen in her life.  He was almost a head taller than her Jess, not that height was everything she told herself.

She’d only met him last night, and she hated him at first because he would soon take her beloved Jess away from her, but Isabelle was incapable of sustaining that hatred in light of those dimples and that smile.  Slim had won her over, much as Jess had, thoroughly and completely. 

Isabelle thought herself weak, but figured having two men in her life, was better than only one.  Besides, if she was ever to be invited to visit Jess, she’d better not make an enemy of his best friend.  She was sure that Penelope Poindexter would approve of her plan.

It had not been easy to convince Sister Mike to let her come into town.  It was a school day after all, but her sore tooth had sealed the deal.  Her tooth was really just a bit loose and would probably fall out by itself, but she loved to visit with Kate, and Kate always legitimized her excuses.

“Now, Isabelle, you are to stay at Kate’s until I come for you, you understand?  Don’t go wandering around town on your own,” Sister Mike said as she straightened the straps on Isabelle’s overalls and tucked the unruly wisps of hair behind her ears.

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll stay at Kate’s,” she said as she skipped off to Kate’s house, two doors down.  She turned back and waved to Slim and found to her surprise that he was already waving at her.

“She’s a great kid, sister.”

Sister Michael sighed and nodded, “She certainly is, and I hope you know you’re going to break her heart when you and Jess leave.”

Slim’s smile faded.  The last thing he wanted was to hurt Isabelle.  “I know, she’s pretty attached to Jess.”

“And to you too, in case you haven’t noticed.”

He looked down at her, mild surprise registering on his handsome face.  “But she only met me last night!  She’s spent weeks with Jess.”

“Well, Mister Sherman, it only takes a moment to capture a little girl’s heart, and unfortunately, to break it.”  Sister Michael sadly shook her head as she watched Isabelle disappear into the front door of Kate’s house.  Her gaze wandered up to Slim’s stricken face and she couldn’t help but laugh.  “Oh please don’t worry, Mister Sherman.  It also only takes a moment to find something else to capture her fancy.  You haven’t been around little girls very much, have you?”

Slim shook his head slowly, “No, ma’am, I sure haven’t.”  They turned as Slim escorted her to the store.  “Why hasn’t someone adopted her yet?”

“It’s sad but true, Mister Sherman that most people want boys who can do chores and farm work.  If they are looking for a child to love and raise, they usually want younger ones.  Isabelle is twelve and past the cuddly stage.  She’s willful and independent and too smart for her own good.”  Michael put a hand on Slim’s arm, “Not to worry, Slim, she has a home with us as long as she wants.  She’s well-loved.” 

Slim smiled sadly as he opened the door to the general store.  “I need to mail this letter and send a telegram,” he said as he patted the pocket where he had stowed Jess’ letter home. 

“The post office is in here,” Sister Michael waved vaguely to the back of the store, “and the telegraph office is across from the hotel, about two blocks north.  Give me the letter, I’ll take care of it for you.”

He handed the letter over, “Thanks.  I’ll meet you back here.”

After Slim had sent the telegram to Jonesy to let him know he’d found Jess, he strolled down the sidewalk with no particular destination in mind.  He had some time to kill while the sister ran her errands. 

The sun had risen on another beautiful day but was still low enough where the chill of the morning clung to everything at street level.  Slim thought he saw a familiar figure come from the hotel across the street.  Johnny Madrid’s brother had just come out and was standing on the porch.  Slim stepped down and headed over.

“Mornin’,” Slim said.  As he approached he noticed the expression on Scott’s face.  “What’s the matter?”

Scott looked up, startled.  “Oh hi, Slim.  Uh, Johnny’s missing.”

“Missing?”  Slims eyes darted around suddenly aware of the dangerous situation they were all in.  In one brief moment, it felt as if things were now moving forward, whereas yesterday it seemed that the danger was building, but not yet imminent.   Slim took Scott’s arm and led him off the porch.  “C’mon, let’s take a walk.”

Scott followed willingly.  He had only met Slim last night, but already he like him and what’s more, he trusted him. 

After they moved away from the passersby on the street, Slim spoke first.  “Tell me what happened.”

“Last night when we got back, two of Brubaker’s men caught Johnny by himself and did a little dance on him.”

“He okay?” Slim asked, genuinely concerned.

Scott smiled as he ran a hand through his blonde hair.  “Oh yeah, well, I guess you could say he’s okay.  A few bruises.  Slim, my brother isn’t one to let himself be surprised.”

“I can believe that.  Even in Laramie we’ve heard of Johnny Madrid.  His reputation makes him sound invincible.”

“Well, don’t you believe it, Slim. Sure, he’s good, maybe even the best, but he can be hurt.  He has been hurt.”  Scott’s face betrayed the true fear he had for his brother.

“I guess you would rather he was just Johnny Lancer, your brother, huh?”  Slim was sympathetic.  Knowing how Jess had put himself in danger, and had been drawn into situations just because of his past profession, gave him a unique understanding of Scott’s feelings.

Scott gave a rueful laugh.  “Well, what I want, and what Johnny wants are two different things.  Oh, I know he loves being a Lancer, but a part of him is still Johnny Madrid and he’s drawn to this stuff like flies to honey.  It’s like a game to him sometimes.”

“So, you said he’s missing?”

“Yeah, he was supposed to meet me in the dining room for breakfast.  Never came down.  When I went up, our room door was open and no Johnny.”

“You think they came for him?”

Scott nodded.  “Yeah, probably.  He wouldn’t go without telling me.  He took his gun too.”

“Well, that’s a good sign.”  They both nodded distractedly.

Finally Scott pulled himself out of his reverie.   “What are you doing in town?”

“Oh, I brought Sister Michael and Isabelle in to run some errands and I had to send a message home that we’re okay.”  Slim had stopped walking and rubbed his chin.  “I’m thinkin’ we’d better get back though.  I just got a feelin’…”

“That something’s gonna happen today?”

“Yeah.”

“Me too.”

The two turned as one and headed back to the hotel.

“Slim, what’s the plan for the children?  If they really do plan…”

“I talked to the Reverend Mother this morning.  We found a cellar below the chapel.  It’s dry and has benches and a few cots.  Jess is on work detail with some of the older boys to stock it with lamps, water, food.  They think they’re building a storm shelter.”

“Sounds like you’re a military man, too.”

“Union Army under General Sherman, no relation, retired,” Slim said with a smile.

Scott turned and shook his hand, “Aide de Camp to General Sheridan, also retired,” Scott replied with smile.  He slapped Slim on the back and they continued to the hotel.

“You know, Slim, that cellar idea is a good one,” Scott tapped his head as if to make the thought rise to the surface, “but I wonder if we can’t do better…”
 

 

Chapter 39

“From now until this thing is over, Madrid, everyone stays here in the camp.  Everyone!”

“That wasn’t part of the deal, Brubaker.”

“I’m makin’ it part of the deal now.  I need all of you here.  We’ll be moving soon and I don’t want no one getting’ in trouble.”  Brubaker raised his voice for all to hear.  “Ya hear that?  No one leaves camp from now until this thing is over.  Anyone who does, answers to me.”

Johnny considered his alternatives for a moment.  He saw very few.  He had little doubt what the consequences of quitting at this late date would be.

The camp was several miles outside of town on a small bluff overlooking the valley, closer to the orphanage than Johnny was comfortable with. 

Elizondo had spared no expense in setting up a camp to rival most military encampments.  He had hired more men.  Johnny counted seventeen and he heard more would be riding in later today.

Elizondo had planned well.  The law was nowhere to be seen.  Whether bought and paid for, or killed off, it didn’t matter.  It would take the US Army to stop this invasion and the nearest army base was over a hundred miles away.  Pardee’s land pirates were small potatoes compared to this part-Mexican overlord, and Pardee wasn’t nearly as well funded.

Johnny decided to relax, and try to keep a low profile.  He recognized some of the gunhawks, and knew a lot of them knew him.  Their code would not allow internal rivalries when they were all on the same job, but Johnny knew that some, especially the younger ones, would throw the code out the window for the chance to take on Johnny Madrid.

He thought of Scott back in Everafter.  He hoped he was keeping a low profile as well.  Murdoch should be riding in tonight and knowing Murdoch, his first move would be to the orphanage.  After he went to the sheriff of course.  That would prove useless, so by tonight, Murdoch and Scott should be out at Our Lady.

 


 
Chapter 40

“Slim!”  Sister Michael flew into the hotel lobby, her black skirts hiked up to her knees as she ran.  “Slim!  Scott!”  She spotted Slim talking to Scott and Pearl by the front desk.  She skidded to a stop and held onto Slim’s arm with both hands as she heaved, dragging air into her starved lungs.

“They’re…gone!” she gasped. 

Pearl moved around Slim and took Michael in a bear hug patting her lightly on the back.  “Now just calm down, sweetie.  Tell ol’ Pearl what’s wrong.” 

Michael heaved some more, pulling away from Pearl and bending at the waist, hands on her knees.  After several more deep breaths, she felt like she just may keep from passing out.  “Kate and Isabelle…I went to go…pick up Isabelle…and they were gone…”

Percy materialized behind her with a chair and Pearl pushed her down into it as a glass of water magically appeared in Michael’s hand.  She looked at it in tacit acceptance of the divine intervention and gulped it down.

Scott squatted on the floor before her and took the glass.  “Angie, tell us what happened.  Who’s Isabelle?”

Slim answered for her.  “She’s one of the children from the orphanage.  She came into town with me and Sister Michael and she went over to visit her friend Kate.”

Michael nodded wordlessly, wagging her finger first at Slim and then at Scott, nodding her head as if conveying her agreement through the air with her hand.  Suddenly she remembered the note.  Shuffling desperately though her skirts, she pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of a hidden pocket and shoved it at Scott.

Scott paled as he read the note.  Then he rose to his feet as if the anger were pushing him up.  “Damnation!  They took them!”

Pearl was fanning herself with a lacy hankie that she’d pulled from her voluminous sleeve.  “Who took them?”

“The same ones that took Johnny!  Dammit, I should’ve known they’d do something like this.”  He pushed the note at Slim.

Slim read it quickly.

Reverend Mother- your charge and the woman are safe for now.  You will pack up the children and whatever belongings you wish to take and be ready to vacate my property by tomorrow morning.  I will take possession at ten am by whatever means necessary to secure what is rightfully mine.  I have made arrangements for you in Salinas and shall see you safely there.  The two redheads will be returned to you there if you cooperate.  Please don’t force me to be unpleasant.  Your servant, Clayton Elizondo

Slim put a hand on Scott’s shoulder.  “You couldn’t have known, Scott.”

Scott scrubbed a hand through his blonde hair and paced quickly back and forth.  “We need to get out to the orphanage.” 

Pearl snapped her fingers at Percy, who seemed to know telepathically what she wanted.  He scurried away to do her bidding. 

“The wagons, and as many men as I can spare will be out front in a few minutes.”  She bent and put her arm around Sister Michael’s shoulders.  “You stay here with me, honey.  Scott and Slim are going to bring the children back here to the hotel.”

“No!”  Michael lunged to her feet.  “I have to go.  I have to get back to the children!”  She knew she was losing control and forced herself to calm down.  She looked at Pearl’s kind face and eyes full of un-shed tears and she deflated.  “I’m so sorry, Pearl, I just have to go.  You understand, don’t you?”

“I sure do sweetie.  I’d be goin’ myself if I didn’t have so much to do here to get ready.”  She pulled Michael into another embrace.

Scott had re-read the note several times, the anger rising with each read-through.

Pearl released Michael and turned to Scott.  “Sweetie, you be careful and you bring that handsome brother of yours back here, and both of you bring my Katie back.”

Scott’s eyes met hers and he smiled.  “Yes, ma’am.  I’m gonna make Elizondo sorry he messed with us, especially Kate,” he added absently, almost to himself.

Slim, Pearl and Michael had all turned to look at him, stunned by his declaration that seemed to omit Isabelle and Johnny.

Scott’s eyes darted from Slim, to Michael, to Pearl and back to Slim.  “We had a date!” he spat, his eyes flashing.  He crumpled the note in his fist, threw it on the floor and stalked out the front door.

Slim’s blue eyes twinkled and a smile threatened to break through.  He nodded to Pearl and pulled Michael to her feet.  “Guess we’d better go find Scott’s date,” he said with amusement and lead Michael out into the morning sunshine.

 

Chapter 41

It was mid afternoon by the time Scott and Slim, and their caravan reached the orphanage.   Pearl had supplied three large wagons and three men from her kitchen and janitorial staff.

As soon as they pulled into the compound, children gathered around the wagons, and several of the boys helped Sister Mike down.  Their excited voices hinted that something had happened while they’d been gone.  Everyone was trying to talk at once.  Michael noticed that all of the boys were filthy dirty and some had torn clothes.

“Hold it!  Hold it!  One at a time!  What’s happening?” she shouted.  Scott and Slim had come around the wagon to stand next to her.

Felix grabbed Sister Mike’s hand and pulled her toward the chapel.  “Come see, sister!  Come see!”

They all followed curiously.  As they approached the arched entrance to the ancient building, Jess emerged, slapping dust out of his jeans and shaking his head.  He bent over and coughed hard as he rubbed a dirty hand through his dark hair causing a cascade of loose dirt to fall.

Behind him serenely stood the Reverend Mother with her hands buried inside the sleeves of her habit.  The smile on her dirty face was beatific.

Sister Mike laid a hand on Jess’ back and slapped him, trying to help him cough up whatever he was trying to cough up.  He raised a hand and she stopped.  “It’s okay, I’m fine,” he said hoarsely.

He straightened up and she could see his watery eyes with red rims

“Jess, what in the world are you doing?  You’re going to make yourself sick again!”

He held up a hand to silence her while he coughed again.  Then he stood and looked her in the face, a grin spreading slowly from ear to ear.

She couldn’t help but smile back.  “What?”

Slim stepped forward.  “Jess, tell us what’s going on around here right now, or I’ll pound you!”

Jess quietly took Michael by the hand.  “Come with me,” as he turned and led her into the chapel.

Slim and Scott looked at one another perplexed and followed behind.

Jess led the group down the old stone steps to the cellar.  The temperature seemed to drop about ten degrees as they descended the age-smoothed stone.  Slim could see right off that the place had not been cleaned out much since he’d left this morning.

Jess led them unerringly through the basement to an open doorway in the far back wall.  There was a pile of rubble near the door that had been pushed out of the way.  “That was an old wooden armoire that we tried to move and it fell.  Look what we found behind it.”  He grinned at Mike as he grabbed a lantern and pulled her into the dark room.

Jess held the lantern high as the others crowded in behind him.  He could hear the collective intake of breath in the silence.  The room had been fashioned out of earth below the house.  No walls, no floor as such, just hard packed dirt and lots of it. 

Mike was the first to recover her speech.  “Wh-wh-what is this?  Where did this come from?”

She moved slowly among the neatly stacked and sorted relics.  The gold shown brightly in the lantern-light, and seemingly moved as the shadows washed over them.  The faces on the icons were yellowed with great age, but the colors of the paint were still vibrant enough to see the reds and blues of the ancient artist’s palette.  There was statuary, some as tall as Jess, others as small and fine as any porcelain figurine.

“This is…this is incredible!” Scott allowed as he walked among the relics, careful not to touch them.  He knew they wouldn’t disintegrate under his touch, but reverence prevented him from laying a hand to them.

Slim stood still, hands on hips as his head nodded up and down.  “Elizondo,” he said simply.

“Aye, Mister Sherman, this is what he’s after, and no doubt about it.  He doesn’t give a fig about the orphanage, it’s this priceless treasure that he wants for himself I’m afraid.”  The Reverend Mother had come in behind Slim.  Even though she’d seen the treasure and had spent several hours with it, studying it, it still awed her.  The Catholic church was rich in antiquities, but to find such a bounty in such an unlikely place was almost unfathomable.

Sister Mike had turned to the Mother with her jaw hanging open. “What’ll we do with it, Mother?”

“Well, for now, I say leave it where it is.  It’s safer here than if we try to move it.  My guess is that Mister Elizondo doesn’t know exactly where it is, or he would have come straight for it, perhaps in the dead of night.  He wanted the property so he could search at his leisure.”

“I’m sure you’re right, ma’am,” Scott said.  He put his hands on his hips as he walked around.  “Well, this certainly explains a lot, but we have other problems to worry about right now.”   He turned to the Reverend Mother.  “Elizondo has my brother at his camp, and he’s taken Kate Finney and Isabelle.”

The Reverend Mother gasped and put a wrinkled hand to her mouth.  “Oh dear!  Little Isabelle!”

Jess had frozen to his spot.  Slim could see his jaw muscles working, his blue eyes flashing in the dim lantern light.  Jess’ rage was barely contained and Slim knew the men who had taken Isabelle had made a serious error in judgment.  They would pay at the hands of one seriously pissed ex-gunfighter.

Sister Michael moved to the Mother’s side and put an arm around her shoulders.  Words did not come easily and they contented themselves to stand quietly.  Scott came over to stand beside them.

“Ma’am, I’d suggest we seal this up again as best we can and start getting ready to leave.  We have wagons outside and Pearl has agreed to put you and the children up at the hotel until this is over.”

The Reverend Mother looked at him as if this were too much to absorb all at once.  Sister Michael decided against giving Mother the note. 

No,” the Mother said.  She looked steely eyed at Scott.  “I’ll not be leaving; the children, yes, but I’ll be stayin’.  God has led us to this wonderful treasure and I’ll not abandon it.  We are the stewards of it now.”

Scott looked at Slim who was still looking around the treasure-filled room.  He glanced over to Scott and met his eye, knowing Scott wanted his help, but just as sure that no help he could render would be enough.  He shrugged, palms up.  “You want to argue with the lady?” he said lightly.

Scott scowled.

Slim clapped his dusty, gloved hands together and went into his take-charge, let’s-get-this-show-on-the-road attitude.  “Jess, I want you out of here now.  This dirt and dust isn’t good for your lungs.”  He paused as Jess shot him daggers.  Slim stepped over to him and pulled up to his full height, hands on hips, “and there will be no arguments.”  There weren’t any as Jess’ snapped his mouth shut.

He turned to Scott.  “Scott, you and me will shore up this opening and move some stuff in front of it to hide it.  Make it look like the junk has been here a thousand years.  I don’t want any of those men we brought back down here.  The fewer people who know about this, the better.”

“What about the kids?” Sister Michael asked.

“Let’s put them to work.  Keep ‘em busy.  We gotta pack ‘em up and haul ‘em out of here before dark.”
 

 

Chapter 42

It was a clear night.  The moon was still almost full and cast light and deep shadows.  Johnny was grateful for the shadows.  He looked at the stars and listened to the night sounds.  His right ear was still useless so turning his head to the left to listen had become habitual.  He squatted silently in the dark shadows behind Elizondo’s tent with his good ear cocked for any sound from within.

The voices had quieted and several men had left, but at least two remained.  Throughout the day, the word had come down that the compound would be taken tomorrow.  There were orders to not kill unless necessary. 

Elizondo told the men that the property was legally his and the orphanage was there illegally.  He had tried all legal means to regain his property, and was now forced to take it.  Whether the men believed him or not was irrelevant.  He had paid well for their guns and their loyalty.

Elizondo had purchased twelve wagons to transport the children and the nuns off the property and had already made arrangements for them to be moved to Salinas.  By the time they arrived there, the deed to Our Lady would be in his hands.  Murdoch Lancer would gladly hand it over to keep his precious Lancer from the threat of land pirates once more.

The bitter taste of Day Pardee and his backers was still fresh in the mouth of the old man.  Elizondo was certain that his much larger, and well-financed threat would convince Murdoch Lancer to acquiesce.  In the year and a half since the Pardee raid, the law had moved in to the area, but not enough to be a threat.  Small towns and local sheriffs were no match for an ambitious businessman such as himself.

Elizondo knew that Brubaker intended to continue on and take Lancer, and Elizondo had continued to allow him to believe that his ambitions lay in that direction.  The destruction of Lancer was the threat he used, but the truth was, Our Lady was much more valuable than even Lancer and no one but he knew it.

 

 

Chapter 43

The children were taken into town along with most of the nuns by early evening.  Some of the nuns, Sister Michael included, had refused to leave the Reverend Mother and she and her little army were in the chapel in evening vespers.

The treasures of the Church had been re-sealed in their underground vault and the cellar stairs had been blocked off with heavy furniture.

Scott and Slim had coordinated the dispersal of their manpower, and each building had men at the doors, some of the windows and at least one man on each roof.  They were stretched thin, but Scott still hoped for Murdoch to come with reinforcements.

The moon was rising and with it, the rolling hills around the orphanage shown golden around the silvery building they protected.

Slim and Jess were barricaded behind an overturned wagon in the forecourt of the main house.  They would be the first to see anyone coming from the front.  Others were positioned on all sides in case of an attempt at infiltration.  Scott wasn’t really expecting anything to happen before morning, but took into account the advantages of a nighttime assault.  He wouldn’t underestimate his opponent.

Scott walked over to where Jess and Slim waited together.  “How you two doing?”

Jess had been quiet, barely speaking and obviously unhappy with the current plan.  Slim glanced at Jess and answered for both of them.  “Well, I dunno about ol’ Jess here, but I’m a mite peckish.”

Scott smiled.  “I heard Sister August mention something about sandwiches after they finish vespers.”  Scott stepped over to stand beside Jess.  “Jess, I know you want to go, but we’ve got to believe that Johnny is taking care of Kate and Isabelle.”

“How do we even know fer sure Johnny’s even with them?”  Jess spat angrily.

Scott smiled.  “If I know my brother, he’s in the thick of it.”  He laid a reassuring hand on Jess’ shoulder.  “He’s the best chance they’ve got and I trust him with my life.  Us tryin’ to get into that camp would be useless and do nothing but get us all killed.”

Jess sighed, ”I reckon,” clearly unconvinced, but powerless to do anything about it.

Slim straightened and swung his rifle around, peering into the semi-gloom.  “Someone’s comin’.”

The others ducked down and brought their rifles to bear.  Scott strained to see, and even more to hear.  It sounded like one horse.  He rose up and stood, stepping around the wagon.

“Who goes there?”

“Scott?”  The voice was distant, but clearly recognizable.  It was Murdoch.

“Murdoch!  Come on in.”  He turned to the others and shouted.  “It’s Murdoch!  Don’t shoot!”

Scott could now see Murdoch’s big chestnut with the white blaze come trotting down the road and through the gateway.  Disappointingly, he appeared to be alone.  Scott walked out to meet him.

“Good evening, sir.  We’re glad you could make it.”

Murdoch swung down and led his horse as they walked toward the house.  “I hope we’re in time to help.”

“We?”

Murdoch turned and swung his arm over his head in a big wave and whistled an ear-piercing trill.  “I brought a few friends,” he said as he smiled and continued walking.  “So, where’s your brother?”
 

 

Chapter  44

Johnny rose stiffly from where he’d squatted behind Elizondo’s tent.  The men inside had been drinking and not talking a lot.  He was about to leave to go back to the main campfire before he was missed, when one of the voices asked a question.  The mention of women made his only good ear figuratively perk up.  He missed some of it, but he caught “do with the two women?”

Johnny heard one of them pacing, probably Elizondo.  “Kill them if we have to.  Trade them if we can.  It matters not to me.  Either way, the house will be mine tomorrow.

Johnny could feel his heart begin to pump harder.  So much so that he idly wondered if they would be able to hear it inside the tent.  What women?  He could hear his blood rushing through his bad ear.  He pushed his hand against it to squelch the pain.  He could hear his heart in the ear, if nothing else.

He scanned the area of the tents.  He’d identified some of them already.  Supply tents, a food tent where Elizondo’s personal cook worked.  He hadn’t seen any women, but it was a big camp.  He’d been forced to stay with the other hired men most of the day.  To wander off by himself would’ve drawn attention. 

He’d watched as Brubaker, Virgil and the rib-kicker had left earlier in the day, but had not seen them come back.  He decided he’d better do some scouting around, despite the danger.  He didn’t like the sound of Elizondo’s casual statement about killing women.

Sticking as close as he could to the shadows, he ducked under the edges of tents to peer into the darkness.  Most were deserted with only boxes and burlap bags piled up.  As he was coming from behind a small hut, he spotted the cook coming from the cook tent. 

The cook was not there for any of the hired men.  They were expected to cook their own beans and biscuits.  The cook apparently went everywhere with Elizondo and served him and his favored associates only.

Johnny ducked back behind the hut and watched as the old man took a tray covered with a cloth toward the woods.  A small stand of trees cast extremely deep shadows about thirty yards away.  He had thought the camp ended at the cook tent, but apparently there was something else further back. 

As the old man approached the trees, another man with a lantern met him and guided him into the dark copse.  Johnny followed at a safe distance.  In a few minutes, he watched as the cook was ushered in to a white tent, lit from inside and with two guards at the door.  One of the guards broke away and started to circle the tent.  Johnny figured anyone could get under the edge of a tent if they really tried.  This one appeared to be heavy canvas and was staked down well. They obviously didn’t want someone getting out.

He waited until the old man left and one of the guards accompanied him with the lantern.  The second guard stayed at the flap opening.  Johnny silently made his way to the back of the tent and lay down on his belly. He lifted the stiff canvas.  It wouldn’t rise but a few inches.  He had to lay his head on the ground and look under with one eye.

Kate!  They had Kate in there!  He saw only her back, but it was her red hair piled on top of her head with the wispy tendrils that he liked so much that told him.  There was also a smaller woman, a girl really, with a long braid, also red and with wiry, curly tendrils around her face.  The girl was sitting profile to him on a wooden box.  He could see her face was wet and she was slowly eating as if she had to, not wanted to.

“Kate!”  Johnny whispered as loudly as he dared.  Kate straightened and immediately turned toward the sound of his voice.

She squinted her eyes as if to see in the dark corner.  “Johnny, is that you?”  She was about to get up and come over.

“No!  Don’t come over here.  It’s me, Kate.  I’m gonna get you out of here.  You just sit tight and don’t do anything.  I’ll figure a way out of here.”

They all three jumped as they heard the guard outside shout to his companion.  After a moment of panic, they relaxed when the guards were only changing shifts.  Johnny got to his feet and slipped back into the dark woods, and then circled around to go back to the camp.

 

 
Chapter 45

“You get lost, Madrid?”

Virgil McCoy was waiting when he got back.  He’d circled around and come into camp from the opposite end from where the copse of trees was, but McCoy had been watching for him.

“It’s a nice night, just took a little stroll,” Johnny said as he squatted by the fire and poured himself a cup of coffee.

McCoy watched him for a minute and then ambled off. 

“Boy, he sure don’t like you much, mister.”  The voice came from the other side of the fire. 

He looked up to see who had spoken.  “No big surprise there.”  Johnny smiled, “We go way back.”

The speaker was a blonde, squatting beside the fire, picking his teeth with a skinning knife.  Johnny recognized him as one of the Tripps.  The other sat against a tree a few feet away.

He didn’t know one from the other, they looked so damn much alike, but he recognized them.  They were both skinny, blonde, blue-eyed and stupid.  They were also killers.  Not gunfighters; too cowardly to stand up straight in front of a man.  One would engage the mark in a straight-on gunfight, while the other would hide and ambush the victim just as he drew his gun. 

It was murder, pure and simple.  Johnny had only known them to do it for money, but there had been talk about some rapes and murders of women down in Texas.

Johnny couldn’t figure why the law hadn’t caught up with the Tripps; they weren’t all that smart.  Just dumb luck he supposed.  The fact that they were here ratcheted Johnny’s un-ease up a notch.  He had to get Kate and the girl out of here tonight.

“Yer Johnny Madrid, ain’t ya?” the blonde said, sucking air through his teeth in his excitement.

Johnny fixed him with a steely gaze that almost physically pushed the man back a few inches.  He didn’t answer, just put down his coffee and walked away.  The over-excited voice drifted behind him.

“Hey, well, see ya later, Mister Madrid!  Sure glad you’re with us!”

Johnny felt his skin crawl as he tried to keep from turning and blasting Tripp to hell.  He’d met pure evil a few times in his life; men who killed for the sport, or worse, tortured for the sport.  The Tripps weren’t in that league yet, but they were knockin’ on the door and beggin’ to be let in.

 

Chapter 46

“You think he’ll come back for us?” Isabelle asked after she swallowed hard to keep her voice from shaking too much.

Kate wrapped an arm around her.  “Of course he will.  You’ll see, we’ll be out of here in no time.”

The two were sitting on the floor of the tent with their backs propped against wooden crates.  “Who was he?”

“That was Johnny Lancer.  I met him and his brother yesterday.  Their daddy owns the orphanage.” 

To Isabelle Johnny Lancer might as well have been a knight.  ‘Lancer, what a noble name,’ she thought sleepily.  She should like to see him up close to judge if he lived up to his name.

After a few minutes, Kate could feel Isabelle relax against her and guessed that the girl had gone to sleep.  The interior of the tent was pitch black.  The only source of light was outside the flaps in the moonlight where the edges didn’t quite meet, and the lanterns that the two guards carried with them.  Since the dinner dishes had been picked up, no one else had come inside the tent.

She listened carefully, wanting to be prepared if Johnny did come back.  She knew a rescue attempt would be foolish with the guard so close, but she hoped that something was happening for their benefit. 

When Elizondo’s men had brought her and Isabelle to the camp, tied and gagged, Elizondo had looked appraisingly at her with his smug aristocratic nose in the air.  They had met before.  She’d been not much older than Isabelle, but she’d never forgotten the queasiness she felt in the man’s presence. 

It probably didn’t help her cause that she’d slapped his face as soon as her hands had been untied.  He had merely laughed at her, but her instinct told her that wouldn’t be the end of it.

The two lanterns at the front flap had separated and one moved around the perimeter of the tent.  She could follow its progress completely around and then back to its starting place. 

After the two lanterns came together again, a moment later, one of them moved off and faded into the night.  After a few more minutes the second lantern moved off quickly.

She heard a brief scuffle and a muffled thump, and then nothing.  She jostled Isabelle.  “Isabelle!  Wake up!”

Isabelle sat up and strained to look into the blackness, not realizing that she held her breath.  After a moment, she saw a faint light bouncing toward the flap.  It became clearer as it got closer and she could see it through the gap where the two halves didn’t quite meet.

“You ladies ready to go home?”  Johnny stuck his head in and grinned, holding the lantern up.

Kate was on her feet with Isabelle right behind her.  “Johnny, thank goodness.”

“My horse is around back.  C’mon.”  He held the flap back to let them pass. 

Kate stopped just outside the tent and looked into the darkness of the woods.  “Johnny, they took our shoes…,” she said as she held her skirts up to show him.

He lowered the lantern and looked at her bare feet, and then over at the girl’s.  Then a hand shot out, “Hi, I’m Isabelle Blue Mellon.  You must be Johnny Lancer.”

He raised the lantern as he examined the girls face.  “Pleased to meet you Miss Mellon,” he said as he shook her hand, momentarily nonplussed.

After a moment he swung the lantern to Kate.  “Here, hold this.”  She took it and Johnny swung her up in his arms.  “You stay right there Isabelle Blue Mellon.  I’ll be right back,” and with that, he and Kate disappeared around the corner of the tent and into the darkness.

Isabelle shuffled her bare feet to the corner and peeked around, trying to follow their progress, but they were swallowed up by the deep shadows.  “Don’t worry Mister Lancer, I’ll be right here.”

Less than a minute later, she saw the lantern bobbing back toward her.  She ducked back just inside the flap and waited.  Johnny came around the corner.  “Ready?”

She nodded and he handed her the lantern and scooped her up.  Isabelle held the lantern in front of them so Johnny could see where he stepped, but her eyes were memorizing his features from her up-close position. 

In his own way, he was as handsome as Jess, about the same age and had the same intense blue eyes.  The similarity pretty much ended there.  These eyes were a lighter blue and they sparkled with humor and crinkled at the corners.  She winced sympathetically when she noticed the deep bruising around his ear and down his neck.  She was idly wondering if she would judge all men in the future against her ideal of Jess, when they suddenly reached their destination and Johnny swung her up on his horse in front of Kate.
 

 

Chapter 47

The going was slow in the woods.  Johnny could barely make out where to step and had to lead his horse around fallen logs and through thick underbrush.  The moonlight could not penetrate the thick canopy of trees.  Without sight, and with his hearing half gone, Johnny’s concentration was heightened to headache level. 

They emerged from the copse of trees into the moonlight north of the camp.  He had to get them safely around the perimeter and then head for the orphanage.  Looking back over his shoulder, he could see the campfires and some movement, but so far, no one seemed to be gathering to come after them.  The fact that the guards had just changed was to their advantage, giving them a head start.

To their disadvantage was the fact that they had only one horse.  He had no choice but to ride all three of them on Barranca.  The girl couldn’t weigh more than eighty or ninety pounds.  Although Kate wasn’t slight, she was hardly man-sized either.  Johnny figured Barranca could handle the load for the short distance to the orphanage, but he decided it would be better without the heavy saddle. 

He stopped beside a large fallen log, and whispered to Kate as he reached up for Isabelle.  “We’re gonna stop here for minute.  I need to take off the saddle, then we’re all gonna ride.”  Isabelle slipped down into his arms and he swung her to the ground.  Kate followed and landed lightly on her feet.

“Johnny, shouldn’t we be heading back for town?” Kate asked.

“The orphanage is closer, and besides, my brother and father should be there by now.  I need to let them know what they’re facing.”  Johnny worked the cinch loose and dragged the saddle to the ground, leaving the blanket in place.

“I don’t think you’ll be goin’ anywheres, Madrid.”

Johnny turned, raising his hands slowly and instinctively stepping between the Tripps and the women.

“I knew I smelt a woman somewhere near,” Tripp said, as his silent cousin snorted with laughter and rubbed a hand down the long blade of his skinning knife.  Johnny could see the spit running down his chin.

“This ain’t none of your business, Tripp.  This here’s my woman,” Johnny bluffed.

Both Tripps burst out in loud guffaws at this.  Kate hugged Isabelle close and tried to shield her from the leering men.

Johnny knew gunfire would bring the whole camp to them, and he also knew that the Tripps didn’t want that anymore than he did, but for different reasons.  Both of them had knives and their intentions were clear.  Oh, they’d bring Madrid back to Elizondo, eventually, but they would take care of their personal needs first.  Johnny doubted they would draw.

Johnny never knew their first names, if they had any.  He mentally labeled them Tripp One and Tripp Two.  Tripp Two was quiet, but deadly.  Tripp One was loud and arrogant and confident.   Johnny smiled and casually, with his arms still raised, swung around to smile back at Kate and Isabelle.

Without a hint of warning, and with strength born of desperation and no other choices, Johnny lunged sideways into Tripp One, knocking him off his feet.  Tripp hit the ground hard and the knife flew out of his hand.  Johnny grabbed his gun and flung it away as far as he could.  He felt Tripp Two grab one of his legs and begin pulling him off his cousin.  Johnny thrust his other leg out and kicked him off connecting hard with the other man’s leg.

Johnny pounded Tripp One’s face as hard as he could in the few seconds he knew he had before Tripp Two was on him again.  Tripp One managed to push Johnny up and off and they rolled on the ground.  Johnny continued with the rolling and the pounding as much as he could to confuse Tripp Two, who he could see was waiting for his chance to jump in.

The battle took on an unreal feel for Johnny, almost as if he was fighting underwater.  Both men were on him.  He could tell he’d inflicted damage and Tripp One was not fighting as much, but Tripp Two was like a wildcat.  Johnny could feel a sharp pain and a burn in his side, he knew someone had landed a kick on his already bruised ribs, and possibly busted one or two.  He used his feet to push and kick until he was almost exhausted.  Somewhere along the way, he had lost control of this fight and he knew it wouldn’t be long.  The pain in his ear and neck was distracting as it shot bolts of lightning through him.

His hope was that he could hurt them enough before they killed him that they would leave Kate and Isabelle alone.  Then suddenly, as quickly as it had begun, it was over.  Johnny felt a weight fall on his back and pin him to the ground.  The body underneath him was not moving and he tried to roll off of it, but the weight on top of him prevented it.

“Wait a minute, Johnny.”  It was Kate.  Johnny looked over his shoulder and saw her climb off of Tripp Two, which relieved some of the weight on his back, and then the rest of it lifted when Kate, with Isabelle’s help, pulled Tripp’s body off him.  Johnny rolled to one side and lay gasping on the ground.  Kate was at his side and pressing her skirt into his side.  He lifted his head and looked.  Blood seeped around her fingers.  Lightheaded, he lay back down. 

“You’ll be okay.  You took a knife in the side.”

Her voice sounded muffled and far away.  “What about them?” Johnny whispered, still sucking air into his starved lungs.

“Don’t know yet.  I think you got one with his own knife and I hit the other one with a tree branch.”  Kate pressed harder, making him pale and wince.  “I’m sorry, I’ve got to stop this bleeding.”

Isabelle had moved to Johnny’s side and watched Kate as she tried to staunch the flow of blood.  “The other one’s dead too.  He fell on his knife.”

Kate’s eyes flew to the bodies and then to Isabelle.  At once distressed that she’d contributed to a man’s death, and dismayed that Isabelle had witnessed it. 

The girl was pale, but her strength shown through and she had done what needed doing.  Her instincts told her to check lest one of them get up and hurt them again.  She hadn’t thought of it herself.  She gave the girl a reassuring smile and returned to her task.

Johnny was sweating and had closed his eyes.  “Isabelle, I need your help.  I need you to rip a long strip around the bottom of my petticoat.  I’d do it, but I don’t want to let go of this.”

Isabelle moved over to Kate’s side and began tearing the white cloth.  She managed to tear a six-inch strip all the way around, about two and a half yards of fabric.  She rolled it up and showed it to Kate.

“That’s good.  Now tear off about a foot of it and hand it to me.”

Kate took the fabric and folded it into a four-inch square and pressed into the wound on Johnny’s side.  The light was poor and she couldn’t see how bad the wound was, but the bleeding was down to a trickle now.  Taking the strip of fabric, she began wrapping it tightly around Johnny’s middle.  He sat up with Isabelle’s help.  Kate tore the last few feet into two strips and tied them off around Johnny’s waist.

“Well, that’s the best I can do for now.  Do you think you can get up?”

Johnny nodded silently and held out his hand.  She grasped it and pulled, while Isabelle helped support him.  Gathering breath from he knew not where, Johnny whistled for Barranca and the horse trotted to him from out of the darkness.  He led the horse over to the fallen log, grasped a handful of mane and hauled himself painfully aboard.  His head swam and he had to stop and breathe deeply for a minute.

Finally, he opened his eyes and found Isabelle patiently waiting for him on the log.  He reached down and she clambered awkwardly up behind him.  Kate wouldn’t allow Johnny to use his arm to haul her up, and she managed to mount with sheer grit and a little help from Isabelle.

Johnny gathered the reins and looked around to get his bearings.  Then, with a few soft clicks, urged Barranca in the direction of Our Lady, and the battle yet to come.
 

 

Chapter 48

“Dammit, Johnny, where are you?” Scott said for the…he’d lost count how many times.  Staring anxiously into the darkness, he was beginning to wonder if he’d made a mistake not going after him.  He wouldn’t let Jess ride into Elizondo’s camp after Isabelle, placing all his trust in his brother to take care of both her and Kate.  He didn’t trust his brother any less now, but as the hours went on, he worried about the odds Johnny was probably up against.

Murdoch had brought fourteen men including Val, the sheriff of Green River and two deputies.  Val had no jurisdiction here, but he was a friend and wouldn’t have missed the fun for the world.  If there was trouble, and Johnny was involved, Val wouldn’t be far away.  He’d heard that the sheriff of Everafter had left town suddenly and mysteriously six days ago.  It had been odd, but didn’t affect him or Green River.  When Murdoch had asked him to go to Everafter with him, he couldn’t resist.

Scott leaned heavily on the barricade, his rifle at his side as he scanned the darkness looking for any movement.  It had been hours and nothing had happened since Murdoch had ridden in.  Murdoch was inside with the Reverend Mother.  The two old friends had much to talk about.

“Feels like we’re waitin’ for doomsday.  Wish we could ride out there instead of waitin’ here like lumps on logs for them to come get us,” Slim said, not attempting to temper the frustration in his voice.

Jess had been mostly silent.  His breathing was noisy at times, and he still coughed some, but Slim figured that was good to clear out his lungs.  He’d tried to get Jess to go inside and lay down, but Jess had refused.  Slim had to grin.  Jess must be better if he was standing up on his hind legs at him.  He’d watch him, but wouldn’t make him do anything he didn’t want to.  Isabelle was important to him, and it was tearing him up that he couldn’t help her.  Slim knew if it were Andy, he’d be in a state too.

“Someone’s comin’!” one of the men on the roof shouted.  Jess scrambled over the barricade and moved smoothly and quietly to a tree on his left, closer to the archway and yet still out of sight.  He pulled his rifle up to his shoulder, chambered a round, and waited.

What do you see, Jess?” Scott whispered loudly.

“Nothin’ yet,” he answered without looking around.

Jess was closest to the rider and was the first to hear the pattern of horse hooves on hard packed dirt.  It sounded like only one.  He lowered his rifle and moved cat-like to another tree farther out toward the archway.

When the horse was close enough to see in the moonlight, he recognized it as the one he most wanted to see.  The distinctive golden color of the palomino that Scott had described as his brother’s shown in the moonlight, giving it a silvery wash.  Jess could see a figure slumped on the horse’s back and at least one other behind him.

“Scott!  Slim!  Don’t shoot!  It’s Kate!”

Jess dropped his rifle and ran, hearing the others close behind him.  He reached the horse first and his face broke into his first smile in hours as Isabelle looked down at him.  He reached up with both hands and she slid into his arms.  Hugging her fiercely and spinning her around, he moved her away from the others as they helped Kate and Johnny down from the horse. 

Jess was speechless, and Isabelle, for the first time in her life was too tired, too scared, too exhilarated to speak.  She clung to Jess’ neck and wrapped her legs around his waist, content only to be held, and to just for a minute forget the horrors of the day.

 

 

Chapter 49

Johnny couldn’t remember the ride back to Our Lady.  He remembered hands reaching up and pulling him off of Barranca and then he remembered waking up on a couch in the office.  Sister Mike was cutting away the bandage that Kate had wrapped around him and Murdoch was leaning over him.

“How are you, son?”

Johnny reached up and ran his fingers through his hair, “Oh, I’ve been better, Murdoch.”  He tried to sit up, but was pushed back down by several hands. 

“Oh no you don’t, brother.  You just stay right where you are.”  Scott was leaning over the back of the couch.

“Where’s Kate and Isabelle?”

“They’re right over there.  They’re both fine thanks to you,” Scott pointed to where Kate and Isabelle sat together talking to Jess and the Reverend Mother.

Johnny relaxed back into the soft couch and closed his eyes.  He felt cool water and a soft cloth washing the area where the wound was, but was too tired to open his eyes and watch.

“It’s pretty deep.  It’ll need stitches, but it’s not bleeding too much anymore,” Sister Michael was saying.  “All we can do until we get him to a doctor is to clean it and keep it tightly wrapped.  She did exactly that, but Johnny would remember none of it.  He sank back into the darkness and let the others handle things for awhile.
 

 

Chapter 50

“Is he gonna be alright?” Jess asked as he kneeled by the couch where Scott sat with his brother.  Johnny was covered with a blanket and slept.

“He’ll be fine.  It’s not life-threatening.”  The exhaustion they all felt was most evident in Scott’s drawn features.

“Uh,” Jess started.  “Well, I just wanted to thank him for bringing Isabelle back.”

“You can tell him yourself later, Jess.”

“Yeah.”  Jess rose.  “I will.  I’m gonna go back outside.  It’ll be dawn soon.”

Scott nodded and watched him go.  He watched Johnny for a moment, and then rose to go join the others outside as well.

Kate appeared beside him, a rifle in her hand.  Scott stopped and put both hands on her shoulders.  “No, Kate, you need to stay inside with the others.”

“Scott, I’m just as good with a rifle as any of you, and I want to help. I can’t relax inside with all of you out here.”

Scott held her eyes, then nodded resignedly and took her hand.

Outside, the sky was just beginning to turn pink on the eastern horizon.  Scott settled behind the barricades next to his father with Kate and Slim on his other side.  The sense that they had done this all before was strong and he glanced at his father, who returned his look knowingly.

“How’s Johnny?”

“Still asleep.  Sister Michael’s with him.”

Murdoch nodded and returned his gaze to the rolling hills surrounding the compound that were just beginning to appear in the pre-dawn light. 

Waiting was the hardest part.  They had waited for days for Pardee to make his move.  When it finally happened, it was all over in a few minutes.  Elizondo was bigger, stronger and more organized.  Murdoch hoped he’d brought enough help.   He’d had to leave a large enough force behind to protect Lancer if the need arose.

The law was outclassed in this and had dropped out early in the game.  Murdoch had taken a few minutes in Green River to wire the commander of Fort Grisham, but expected no help to arrive for several days, if at all.  It was a long shot, but one he felt may payoff, but it was doubtful.  The army was too far away to be effective out here.  There’d been little need for them here until now.
 

 

Chapter 51

When they finally came, it wasn’t at all like Pardee.  Elizondo rode up to the arch with thirty or forty men keeping a distance behind him; a show of force to be used if needed.  Elizondo fancied himself a civilized man.

“Lancer!  I know you’re in there. Come out here so we can talk.”

Murdoch handed his rifle over to Scott and rose.  “Murdoch!  You can’t go out there unarmed.”

“It’s alright, Scott.  I know this man.  He’s mad, but he has a code of honor.  The killing will come later.”  Murdoch stepped from behind the barricade and walked toward Elizondo.

Elizondo dismounted and waited for Lancer to approach.  Time was on his side.  He had but to stall for a little while.

 

Chapter 52

It only took minutes for McCoy and Brubaker to make their way to the back of the compound and pick their way around the outbuildings while all eyes were on their boss out front.  They let themselves in through the kitchen of the main building and then ascended the stairs to the main floor. 

One of the nuns was in the main office.  Brubaker hung back as McCoy approached.  McCoy saw Madrid lying on the sofa.  He looked dead.  If he wasn’t, he’d like to fix that, but his mission came first.  Brubaker had promised him a crack at Madrid when this was over. 

The nun was startled, but did not make a sound.  When McCoy put his gun on Madrid and winked at her, she came quietly.  It took only a few minutes to find the others.  The old woman and the girl were together in the dormitory, the little girl was sleeping and the old woman was with her.

They’d expected screaming, or crying, but none of them behaved as they expected.  They told them quietly to stay together and do as they were told and no one would get hurt, and then they herded them to the front door.
 

 

Chapter 53

Scott watched his father’s back, trying to interpret his posture, his gestures, anything to know what was going on.  He and Elizondo had been talking quietly for several minutes.  Scott scanned the men behind Elizondo.  A scroungy, well-armed, seemingly well-disciplined group.  They hung back at a respectful distance.

Something was wrong.  Scott couldn’t quite put a finger on it.  He scanned the men again, then looked to Elizondo and his father.

Brubaker!  Brubaker wasn’t there!  Neither was McCoy!  Scott lunged to his feet.  “They’re inside,” he whispered and turned. 

Kate pulled at his arm.  “Scott, wait…”

Scott turned and took her hand.  “I have to.”  He looked at Slim and put her hand in his.  “Keep her here, Slim.”

Scott turned and ran towards the main building.  “Murdoch! Get out of there!” he shouted over his shoulder.  He heard several dozen rifles and handguns being cocked and then a massive explosion of gunfire.  He prayed his father had been able to get out of the way, but he couldn’t look back now.

Scott’s legs carried him, barely touching the ground as he hit the steps to the massive entrance and jammed his shoulder against the stucco wall.  Jess had followed him, appearing from out of nowhere on the opposite side of the door.

Scott put a finger to his lips and signaled that they would go in together, one high, one low.  Jess reached over and lifted the latch, pushing the massive carved door inward.  Scott went low and lunged through the door, landing on his stomach.  Jess stood to one side, crouched with his gun drawn on the Reverend Mother’s startled face.

He immediately raised the gun to point at the ceiling and released the hammer slowly.  He raised his hands and let the gun drop and hang from its trigger guard.

“How nice that you decided to join us.  Do come in gentlemen.”  Brubaker sneered, his voice formal and dripping sarcasm.

Scott slowly rose to his feet, leaving his gun on the floor, not being told, but knowing it was expected.  He glanced behind Brubaker and saw McCoy holding Isabelle up in front of him with one arm around her waist and the other holding a gun to her side.  Michael was beside them, her wide eyes holding Scott’s with a silent plea for help.

“Give me the girl and go get Madrid,” Brubaker told McCoy.  McCoy handed Isabelle over to Brubaker and turned back toward the offices. 

He approached the couch with his gun drawn just in case, but Madrid had looked pretty bad to him.  They’d found the Tripps just before daybreak and there had been more than their blood on the ground.  He stopped and stared, momentarily stunned.  The blanket that had covered Madrid was on the floor and the couch was empty.

“Looking for me?”

Johnny stepped out from behind the heavy drape of the window behind the Reverend Mother’s desk.

McCoy smiled and raised his hands.  “Well, Madrid, you surprise me.  I’m glad you’re not dead though.  Gives me the chance to take care of that pleasure myself.”

“Aw c’mon, Virgil, I thought we were pals.”  Johnny walked around the desk and pushed McCoy backwards.  “Don’t even think about drawing down on me, Virgil.  It would be no challenge at all for me, and even though I’d hate it, I’d have to stop you.”

McCoy kept his hands raised and turned around.  Johnny pushed him towards the door.  When they reached the door, he grabbed McCoy’s collar and yanked him to a stop.  “Brubaker, we’re comin’ out!  Let’s not let this get messy now.”

Johnny shoved McCoy forward and moved out to his side.  Johnny assessed the situation in an instant.  Brubaker was at the front door.  He was holding Isabelle, but was slowly letting her slide to the floor as his attention was now centered on Johnny.  The Reverend Mother was slowly inching her way unnoticed away from Brubaker to where Sister Michael was standing far to the right, thankfully out of the way.

Scott was lying on the floor watching his brother, and Jess was standing to Brubaker’s right, his hands raised, his gun on the floor. 

Johnny’s reflexes had not been tempered by bruises, stab wounds, headaches, broken eardrums or fatigue.  Scott had a hard time later remembering what had happened first.

He remembered reaching up and pulling Isabelle down on the floor with him and seeing the Reverend Mother and Mike hit the floor. 

Johnny had pushed his gun back in its holster in a challenge to Brubaker, only to draw it out an instant later when Brubaker decided Madrid was not going to keep him from his kingdom.  At the same instant, McCoy drew, but was blown backwards when Jess, with lightening quick reflexes, dove for the floor, grabbed his own gun and rolled, firing at McCoy and hitting him dead center of his forehead.

Scott had pulled Isabelle underneath him and covered her with his body.  When his brain finally registered the silence, he looked up into the smoke filled room.  The smell of gunpowder stung his nose.  He glanced to his left and saw Michael, just sitting up from her position where she had wisely thrown herself to the floor.  The Reverend Mother, sat with her tiny feet splayed out, and crossed herself.

Jess had already stood up and kicked Brubaker in the ribs to see if he got a response, then bent over and picked up his gun.  Johnny did the same with McCoy.

Johnny looked around.  Everyone that should be okay, was okay.  He smiled at Jess.  “Well, I guess that answers our question, eh?”

As if a demon rising from the earth, Brubaker twitched and opened his eyes, unseen by the others.  He reached inside his vest and pulled out a derringer.  Bringing it around in a wide arc from his position on the floor, he aimed it at the nearest body he could see, which was the Reverend Mother.

With an instinct born of years of practice, both Johnny and Jess’ gaze had flickered in his direction with the first movement.  As one they whirled and fired, the reports so close as to be indistinguishable.

Jess shoved his gun in its holster with satisfaction, “Yeah, I reckon it does.  Too bad you got so slow since you quit the business.”

“Me slow?  No, I think you have that wrong my friend.”  Johnny finally felt comfortable holstering his gun as well.  He couldn’t resist a couple of twirls first though.  “I distinctly remember your guy hummin’ a tune before you finally managed to hit him.”

“Well, I guess losin’ all that blood musta effected your eyesight, Mister Madrid, not to mention your reflexes.  Good thing I was here to cover your…”

“Thank God you were both here, gentlemen,” the Reverend Mother interjected, her blue eyes twinkling.

Jess’ face turned bright red as he remembered the Reverend Mother.  He reached down to her and pulled her to her feet.  “Uh, yes ma’am.  Thank you, ma’am.”  Jess turned and put an arm around Isabelle.  “You okay, honey?”

“Yup,” she said, looking up at him.  It would probably all hit her later, but all she could think of right now was that Jess and Johnny were okay and that they had saved everyone.  She couldn’t have imagined two braver or more graceful heroes.  She was already writing this adventure in her mind.

Scott stood up and went to Johnny.  “You okay?”

Johnny held a hand pressed to his side and Scott could see fresh blood.  “Sure.  I’ve been a lot worse.”

They both realized at the same time that all was quiet outside.

“Murdoch!” Scott broke for the door with Johnny right behind him.

The pink dawn had come and the fog gave a sense of unreality.  Scott ran in a crouch to the barricade, scanning the yard for Murdoch.  Behind him, men were lowering themselves off of the roof. 

Slim stood with Kate out in the open beyond the barricades looking down at the ground.  Scott stood again and ran to the place where he’d last seen Murdoch.  As he came up behind Slim, he stepped aside and Scott could see his father kneeling at the side of Elizondo who was dead.  Johnny came up beside him and put an arm around Scott’s shoulders.

“Well, old man, you look like you’re alright.  Are you alright?” Johnny asked.

Lancer stood and turned to his younger son.  “Yes, son, I’m fine.”  He turned to look back down at Elizondo.  “Strange.  In the end, after all this, he was shot by his own men.”

Scott looked out to where Elizondo’s men had been.  Several lay on the ground, but most were gone.

“What happened?” Scott asked.

“When you shouted, Elizondo panicked.  I guess he thought…well, I don’t know what he thought, but he turned to his men and shouted for them to charge.  Several of them did, but most of them hung back.  I moved fast when you shouted at me, but Elizondo just stood there and when everyone opened up, he just raised his arms and began shouting something.  He was finally cut down by a bullet that came from behind him.  Don’t know if it was an accident or not.  That’s when most of the others turned around and left.”  Murdoch turned to Johnny and Scott.  “What happened inside?”

“They were going to try and take the place using hostages.  We fixed that,” Johnny grinned at Jess who had just arrived with Isabelle in tow.  Kate rushed to put an arm around Isabelle.

“Well, no sense standing around here.  Let’s get this mess cleaned up and go home,” Murdoch declared.
 

 

Chapter 54

Going home to Lancer was his fervent desire, but not to be for Johnny for several days.  He wasn’t able to travel right away and had to submit to Pearl’s care at the hotel while Scott, Jess, Slim and Murdoch helped out at the orphanage. 

The children had been taken home, much to Pearl’s disappointment.  She had loved having them in the hotel and had turned the little-used ballroom into the boys’ dormitory.  After they had gone back, she lavished all of her motherly attention on Johnny.

The knife wound had been deep and had required several layers of sutures.  It was at the itching stage now and Pearl was constantly reminding him to leave it alone.  She devised distractions for him to take his mind off it, but when he wasn’t sleeping, he was miserable.  His hearing was gradually coming back, as if the cotton were being removed from his ear a little each day.  The jolting pains were less each day and Johnny vowed, that he’d happily give up his hearing again if the deep down itching in his side would abate.

Scott and Murdoch returned to the hotel every night and kept him apprised of the goings on at Our Lady.  The Bishop from Sacramento had come to take charge of the relics and the Cardinal was on his way.  This was the largest find of heretofore unknown Catholic artifacts ever and the Church was very excited. 

The Reverend Mother was efficiently cataloging each piece and lovingly packing it for shipment.  Despite their efforts, word had gotten out, and Murdoch had left several of his men to guard the treasure. 

Murdoch had signed papers with the Church that left their agreement intact and in perpetuity.  The agreement between the Catholic Church, and the Lancer family could never be broken by anyone other than either the Church or the Lancers.

Jess and Slim were planning their trip back to Wyoming by the end of the month.  Jess was well enough to travel and Murdoch had convinced them to come with them to Lancer for a few days and then leave by train from Sacramento.

Upon hearing this, Isabelle made herself scarce.  Saying goodbye to Jess would be the hardest thing she’d ever done and she was determined to not make a fool of herself.  They were leaving the next day for Everafter.  Sister Mike and Isabelle would accompany them that far.  Isabelle had insisted that she be allowed to say goodbye to Johnny. 

As she made her way to her secret perch on the rocky outcropping, she thought about tomorrow and how life would be different.  Jess had been with her for almost six weeks, and she couldn’t remember what it was like before.

She sat and watched the long, yellow grass of the valley sway in the breezes that brushed over the landscape.  She thought it looked like someone had painted it like some of the pictures in Pearl’s hotel.  It was perfect, and she hoped it would never change.  She intended to travel, to experience life in far away places someday, but this place she would forever see in her mind’s eye.   She looked with an eye towards impressing it on her memory.

She remembered how the last time she came here, she’d found Jess, and she had not been back since.  She hadn’t needed to with him to take care of.

As much as she loved the Reverend Mother and the sisters, she knew her path lay elsewhere.  Her hunger for life and education would take her far from here and she couldn’t wait to get started.  She had talked for long hours with Kate about just this thing and sometimes, she thought that Kate was the only one who understood her.   She was herself an unusual woman, not content to settle down as a wife and mother, but to pursue a profession that few other women would dare.

Isabelle had lovingly packed away her Penelope Poindexter books, to be kept safe for her own daughter someday, but from now on, she would write her own books.  She had begun the day she found Jess, and had written in it each day.

“Mind if I sit a spell?”

Isabelle turned, startled, to find Jess climbing over the rocky edge of her perch, she had been so deep in thought she hadn’t heard him.

“Sure, there’s plenty of room.”  She scooted over and made a place for him beside her and then put her chin on her arms and continued to look out over her valley.

“This is real nice up here.  Is this where you were when you found me?”

“Yup,” she nodded.  “Your horse was right down there,” she pointed to the copse of trees down below.

“That sure was one of the luckiest days I ever had.”

Isabelle looked over at him, studying his profile.  “Me too.”

Jess drew his legs up and turned around to face her.  “Isabelle, I really don’t want to say goodbye, but you understand how I have to go back home, don’t you?”

“I know,” she said in a small voice, her throat constricting painfully.

Jess gathered her up into his lap and held her.  “I want you to know you’ll always be special to me and I’ll never forget you.  If you’ll write to me, I promise I’ll write back.”

Isabelle couldn’t speak, but she nodded into his chest.  Jess couldn’t stop the tears that dripped down into her hair.  He picked up her braid and held it, and then wrapped both arms tightly around her, and they sat like that until after the sun had gone down.
 

 
Chapter 55

They left Our Lady in the morning, Mike and Isabelle in a wagon with Murdoch driving.  Scott, Jess and Slim rode along side as Murdoch’s horse trotted behind. 

The last of the relics had been packed and the Pinkertons were coming today and then Murdoch’s men could go home.  The Reverend Mother had been allowed to keep one piece for their chapel as a reminder that this place had been blessed.  It was a beautifully rendered icon of the blessed Virgin.  It would always be the symbol of Our Lady and quickly became affectionately known as The Lady of Our Lady.  They had bid a fond farewell to her and the children, and then started off for Everafter.

In town, the air seemed different, the mood lighter.   Perhaps the residents, who had been aware of Elizondo, were relieved.  Certainly the businessmen were happy that the unsavory element had left town. 

Murdoch pulled the wagon up in front of the Happily Everafter Hotel where Kate, Pearl and Johnny were waiting for them in the big white rockers that stood like soldiers along the broad porch.

Without waiting for anyone, Isabelle jumped down and rushed up to hug Kate.  Kate stooped down and whispered to her as she straightened the straps of Isabelle’s overalls and pushed stray locks of red hair from her face.  Isabelle nodded and then walked over to Johnny.

He smiled as he stooped down speak to her.  “I swear, you’ve grown at least an inch since I saw you last.”  He looked up to her face, wet with tears but smiling broadly.  Her glasses perched on her nose were sliding down.  He reached up with one finger and pushed them back up her nose and she giggled.

Without a word, Isabelle threw her arms around Johnny’s neck.  He hugged her tightly and stood up with her still in his arms.  “I’m gonna miss you, squirt.”

“I’ll miss you too, Johnny.”  She slid down out of his arms, but held onto his hand.  “But you don’t live that far away.  You can come visit!”

“And I will, I promise I will.  Besides, I have a feeling my brother’s gonna be here a lot.  I’ll have to come along to keep an eye on him.”

They turned to see that Scott and Kate were standing close and holding hands.  As if no one else were around, Scott held Kate close and kissed her deeply.  Her arms went around his neck and she returned the kiss enthusiastically.

Johnny smiled down at Isabelle, and she stood on tiptoes, tugged his shirt until he bent down, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

“I expect you to come see me too, handsome, and I’ll be cut to the quick if’fn you don’t stay with me when you’re here.”

Johnny stepped over to Pearl and gathered her in his arms and kissed her on the cheek.  “I wouldn’t dream of staying anywhere else.  ‘Sides, you’d probably sic Percy on me.”

She kissed him back and pulled him tighter to her.  “You’re damn straight mister, and don’t you forget it.”  She released him and Johnny took a deep breath, sucking in the air that had been temporarily cut off.

Scott had reluctantly left Kate and was saying his goodbyes to Pearl.  Johnny chuckled as she crushed his slender brother in an eye-popping hug.

Slim, stood on the street which brought him to almost eye level with Isabelle standing on the porch.  “Isabelle, I sure wish you could meet my little brother, Andy.  I think you two would hit it off.”

Isabelle smiled.  She hadn’t heard about a little brother.  Now there’s something to think about.  “Maybe someday you could visit?”

“Or maybe you could visit us.  You would always be welcome.”  He reached for her and drew her to him and gave her a lingering kiss on the cheek and then pressed his cheek to hers.  “Thank you for taking care of Jess.  We’ll never forget what you did,” he whispered to only her.

Isabelle nodded, speech becoming more and more difficult.  She knew she’d have to say goodbye to Jess next and was steeling herself.  They had said their goodbyes privately last night, but this was the last she would see him for a long time, maybe forever.  Her throat was tight and she blinked hard to stop the tears.

Jess hadn’t come down from his horse yet, seemingly content to sit up there and watch everyone.  He walked Traveler over to the porch and held out a hand to Isabelle.  She took it and he swung her up on the saddle in front of him and they took a ride together.  When they came back a few minutes later, Isabelle was laughing.

Kate had watched carefully and was relieved.  Isabelle’s heart would be broken for awhile.  Her first love was leaving, but she had such a promising future ahead of her.  She’d be all right.  She and Pearl would see to it.

Isabelle dropped down from Traveler and Kate held her hand out.  Isabelle slipped in beside her and held her hand tightly.

“I think you should go ahead and tell everyone now, Kate,” Sister Michael said, hooking an arm through Scott’s. 

Scott looked at her, surprised.  “Tell us what?” 

Everyone turned to Kate.  “Well, the Reverend Mother has agreed to allow Isabelle to come and live with me.  The church frowns on single-parent adoptions, but they are making an exception for us.”  She smiled down at her new daughter.  Isabelle returned the look and the happiness came off her in waves.

Murdoch was the first to congratulate them.  He stepped over and took Kate’s hand in his, covering it with his other hand.  “Well, that’s just wonderful news, Kate.  I couldn’t be happier for you.”

Johnny did the same and gave both of them a peck on the cheek. He noticed for the first time that Isabelle already looked like she could be Kate's daughter.  They shared their fiery red hair, freckles, and the sparkling eyes, although Kate's were green and Isabelle's blue.

Isabelle sought out Jess, still sitting on his horse as if afraid to come down.  He winked at her, and she winked back.

Scott gave Mike a huge hug, spinning her around off her feet, and then mounted, as did Johnny and Slim.  As they rode slowly out of town, they turned back to see the Everafter contingent waving from the porch, Pearl flapping her handkerchief when she wasn’t using it to dab her eyes. 

Scott had not been happy to come here a week ago, but was now leaving with reluctance, and not just a little excitement about the future.  A future that he hoped would include Kate and Isabelle.

Johnny took off his hat and slapped his brother on the arm with it.  “Race ya!”

“Oh no you don’t, young man!” Murdoch bellowed.  You’re not healed up enough for that nonsense yet.”  Johnny’s shoulders slumped, but he obeyed and settled his hat back on his head.

“Say, Jess,” Slim said, pulling his horse up beside Jess’.  “You think you’re gonna be happy on a little ol’ relay station after all this excitement and all these women makin’ over you?”

“Guess I’ll just have to make do, pard," Jess sighed.  "I feel obliged since you obviously can’t get along without me.”  His smirk turned into an evil grin as he pushed Traveler into a full gallop to avoid the hat that Slim had swung at his head.

Scott and Johnny, denied the chance to race, were arguing about something.  Murdoch heard Kate’s named mentioned.

Murdoch sighed and smiled as he shook his head.  The next few days would give him a glimpse of life had he produced four sons instead of just two.  Suddenly he longed for his sweet Teresa, his loyal Maria, his chair by the fire and his scotch.

 

~end~

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