The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Echoes In The Night

Thanks to Cat and Sandy for the beta
All mistakes are mine, especially after the beta, I was stricken with tinkeritus and changed some sentences.

This story was written before I read one already posted (sorry, don’t remember the author) regarding The Big Brother Book. This was purely by accident, and there were
no intentions of taking another’s idea.

“Johnny, I must say you are an inspiration!” Scott declared watching his younger brother wrestle the heavy spools of wire from the wagon bed.

Stopping to wipe away the annoying trickles of sweat before they found their way to sting his deep blue eyes, Johnny glanced at Scott sitting perfectly content on the wagon seat fanning himself with his hat.

“I’m a what?” Johnny panted, trying to control the heavy breaths as they puffed in and out of his lungs. His sweat soaked shirt clung to his muscular chest and arms, and his thick hair was now flat, and clinging to his head, dripping with perspiration.

“You are an inspiration! You are an incentive, a model, a motivator, you influence, stimulate, and incite!” Scott spouted out the words while Johnny looked on, trying to decide if he should be amused, worried, or offended.

“Well, Scott, I know it ain’t ‘cause you been workin’ too hard, but ya want me ta take ya inta see Sam? You don’t sound so good, Boston, kinda ramblin’ on. You feel like ya got a fever?” Johnny asked suspiciously, knowing Scott was feeling fine. He was joking in his ‘Boston’ way, using all the big words just to see if he could get a reaction from his younger, less educated brother.

“No, brother, I am feeling just fine!” He returned the hat to his blond head and quickly slid across the wagon seat as Johnny upended the canteen over himself, dousing his torso in an effort to cool off. The water splashed in all directions as Johnny shook his shaggy head, managing to wet Scott even with the distance he’d put between them.

“As a matter of fact, I am feeling so good that I just might take a little ride into town after supper and have myself a drink!” Scott watched as Johnny shuffled to the back of the wagon and started to load up the tools and call it a day. “You would be welcome to join me, that is if you aren’t too tired…”

Throwing the last of the implements in the wagon bed and crawling onto the seat, he sagged against the backrest as Scott hopped down and tied Remmie to the wagon then resumed his place next to Johnny. “Just to show you that I am willing to do my part, I will drive home!” Taking the reins Scott slapped them against the rumps of the team and the two brothers, one talkative and exuberant, the other wishing for quiet and head bowed, left for home.

Johnny tried to shut out the noise, the noise droning on and on but Scott persisted in chattering away, and when that didn’t generate even a roll of the eyes from Johnny, Scott burst into song, the song that irritated Madrid, the song about that Jeannie girl an’ her light brown hair. Ever since the night they had celebrated Scott’s birthday, if Scott wanted to get under Johnny’s skin, he would sing this, and it would be sure to get a reaction.

Johnny lifted his head and slowly turned to face his brother, who was not threatened at all by the ice-blue glare that boded bodily harm. Seeming only to encourage the out of tune braying, Johnny rolled out of the moving wagon, hitting the ground on his tired feet and grabbed the reins of Scott’s horse from the wagon rail as it passed.

Johnny swung fluidly onto the horse, took off at full gallop before his backside even touched the saddle. He left Scott to battle the team of horses as they danced and side-stepped, startled at the swiftness of the departing duo. Scott suddenly stopped laughing when he realized that he would be the one to unload the wagon and take care of the team after they reached Lancer.

Johnny had stripped Remmie of the saddle and bridle and was already in the bathhouse when Scott pulled up to the barn. Having scrubbed away the filth of the day, he was beginning to feel human again after a hot bath and washing his hair. It even made getting soap in his eyes worth the effort. He pulled on clean clothes and piled the dirty ones in a basket, timing his exit to be able to meet Scott at the door.
“Hey, Scott, ya better hurry! Ya know Murdoch doesn’t like it when you’re late for dinner…” He sidestepped as Scott snapped the towel at his behind.

<><><><> 

Dinner was, as usual, delicious. Maria had outdone herself tonight with the beef. It was tender and tasty, but then it always was. It just seemed better tonight for some reason, but Johnny had worked exceptionally hard today. And the apple pie that was for dessert was wonderful, although Johnny did prefer chocolate cake. Finishing the tall glass of milk, Johnny turned to Scott.

“Ya ready ta go?” Johnny asked with a renewed energy after the bath and a full belly.

Scott raised his brows in surprise. “I thought you’d be going straight to bed with the way you were carrying on coming back to the ranch!”

“Not with all that caterwauling’ you were doin’! I coulda been dead an’ it woulda woke me up!”

Murdoch took in the banter between the boys. Huh, Scott must have been singing again. He certainly did not get that from his Mother! And Murdoch smiled as he thought about his first wife and her sweet, angelic voice. Hiding a grin, he rose from the table and turning to his sons, he said: “Have fun, don’t be late.” His comfortable chair in the great room was calling him, and he would enjoy an after dinner drink with the company of a good book, so bidding his boys a good evening, Murdoch Lancer left the room.

They were out in the barn saddling their mounts. Johnny had his hands full with Barranca, the horse obviously upset at being left behind for the day. He nipped at Johnny and head-butted with more force than usual, but with a piercing whistle from his master, he stopped all shenanigans, and acted like the well behaved, albeit spoiled horse, that he was. Leading him out of the stall and into the yard with Scott right behind, the Lancer boys mounted and were quickly down the road and out under the Lancer arch turning south to Green River.
<><><><> 

Slowing their horses to a walk, the brothers rode in amiable silence until Scott began his out of tune singing, croaking out the words as Johnny hung his head. Wonder if Murdoch’ll understand if I shoot Scott’s miserable ass? Can’t let him drink too much tonight, he’ll be bellerin’ all the way back home. Hell, I should just have Val lock ‘im up for disturbin’ the peace.  Scott paused to take a breath as Johnny spoke his displeasure.

“I’m gonna hafta shoot ya, Boston, if ya don’t shut up. Ya sound like ya already had too much ta drink an’ ya ain’t even started yet! What the hell’s wrong with you?” Johnny asked with a slight smirk.

Scott returned a sly smile and watched his brother’s face as he spoke. “Well, brother, as long as you’re interested I will tell you. Since you have seen it necessary to ignore Cindy at the Angels Nest, she has started to bestow me with her affections! What do you think of that?”

 A wide grin appeared on Johnny’s lips. “Then I think ya need ta know that she has a real bad ticklish spot right between her…”

“Johnny! That’s not anything a gentleman talks about!” Scott reprimanded, shocked beyond anything he’d ever heard coming out of his brother’s mouth before.

“Toes, Scott, her toes! What’d the hell ya think I was gonna say? Ya jump ta a lot of conclusions for a person that’s gone through all that schooling!” Johnny started to laugh at Scott’s embarrassment as the red flared up his neck and into his face.

“Thanks, I’ll remember that,” he said in a subdued tone, making Johnny explode with laughter.

He’s so easy ta rile up! Johnny thought, and they continued their ride in silence.

Green River, by no means, was a thriving metropolis but it could hold its own on a Saturday night especially if trail hands were passing through. Tonight, though, was fairly quiet as Johnny and Scott made their way down the main street and tied up in front of the saloon. Wednesday nights were not known to be terribly exciting, and tonight was no exception.

Pausing at the door as was customary, Johnny scanned the street then the inside of the saloon; they entered and crossed the smoky room to Johnny’s table at the back wall. Henry had two beers sitting at their table, waiting for them as they got settled. Tipping his hat back on his head, Johnny drank half the beer before setting it down. Sighing deeply, he relaxed, but not for long.

Making her entrance down the stairs came Cindy Middleton; her sassy, bouncing step drew the stares of all the men in the place. All, except for one, and he was the one that she secretly wanted. But it wasn’t meant to be, Johnny Lancer’s heart was taken, devoted to another woman, a woman that wasn’t even around.

How could he be so committed to her when she isn’t even here! Cindy had asked herself that question over and over and had yet to find an acceptable answer. She had been deeply hurt when Johnny had ended their relationship for another woman who was one hundred miles away. And here was Cindy, within reach, ready and more than willing. Seeing them at the back wall, Cindy started toward the table.

“You’re buyin’ the first round, ain’t ya Scott?” Johnny asked as he reached again for his glass.

Scott looked up in surprise, eyes widening. “Oh, no!” Scott spouted.

“What’d ya mean ‘Oh, no…’ Why not? I bought last time, Boston,” Johnny defended.

“It’s against the rules, Johnny!” Scott argued.

Johnny slowly turned his head to face his brother with disbelief reflecting in his eyes. “Rules? What rules would that be?” Johnny asked, expecting some explanation with a bunch of the big fancy words that Scott liked to throw around.

But instead, Scott simply replied: “It’s in the book, chapter one, page one.”

“Book? What book?” Oh, this is gonna be good, Johnny thought. Scott’s got a book a rules…

“The Big Brother Book,” Scott said smugly, and took a sip of beer.

Johnny said nothing but leveled a stare at his older brother. Then after a moment of contemplating, he had to ask: “The Big Brother Book, huh? Where’d ya come up with that?” Johnny asked, skepticism and sarcasm dripping from his words.

Scott smiled triumphantly. “I am writing it now! And you, brother, have provided me with an unending and very extensive source of information!”

Johnny rolled his eyes. Mierda! Scott’s writin’ a book!

“Why, hello, boys! Hope I’m not interrupting anything!” And without waiting for an answer, Cindy plopped her sweet, round behind in Scott’s lap, secretly hoping to make Johnny jealous but when he didn’t react, she pouted and looped her arms around Scott’s neck, kissing his ear. She purred as his arms came around her, and wished they belonged to Johnny, but she’d have to be satisfied with Scott. After all, he was a decent man and very nice and good looking, but he wasn’t Johnny! She wiggled a bit on his lap, and her actions produced the desired effects, she could feel him harden under her. She pulled back and looked up into his eyes then leaned into him, letting her breasts push into his chest.

“How about we go upstairs, Handsome?” And she smiled seductively and licked her lips. The tip of her pink-red tongue was all the encouragement he needed, and he discreetly led her up the back stairs, murmuring over his shoulder for Johnny to not wait for him.

“Scott?” Cindy purred in her sultry whispers, “Let’s get a bottle, huh?”

Scott stopped at the bar and tossed out more coins, then grabbed the bottle Henry sat on the bartop in front of him. With a wink at Scott, Henry picked up the money, and the romancing couple continued their way up the stairs.

Johnny laughed into his beer mug that was now empty. Going to the bar and signaling for Henry to refill his glass, Johnny tossed a coin on the polished wooden surface and brought the full beer to his place on the back wall. He’d just settled into his chair when he saw Val Crawford making his way to Johnny’s table.

Val pulled out a chair and slumped down with an exhausted groan, called out for Henry to bring a beer and closed his tired eyes.

“What’s the matter, Val? Ain’t seen ya in a coupla days,” Johnny asked as his amigo slurped at his drink. Setting down the mug, Val looked at Johnny and shrugged.

“That’s ‘cause I ain’t been here. Been out chasin’ after some rowdies that’s been robbin’ stagecoaches. Been three incidents in the last week alone. Don’t leave no witnesses an’ all that’s found is a wrecked coach an’ dead bodies. So far, there been seven people killed. Three drivers, three shotguns an’ one passenger.” The frustration of his unsuccessful search was obvious as Val closed his eyes again in disgust. The man was bone tired. He desperately needed sleep.

Johnny sighed. “When ya goin’ out after ‘em again?” he asked then picked up his glass and took a large swallow.

Val finished his drink before answering. “Not for a day or two. All the neighboring towns have been notified ta keep a look out. An’ I need some sleep…”

Johnny thought before he spoke. “Well, ya need any help, come out ta the ranch. I know Murdoch’ll volunteer some of the boys ta go with us.”

“Thanks, amigo. Ya here alone tonight?” Val asked.

Johnny broke out in a laugh. “Nope,” was all he said.

Val was puzzled and looked around the smoky room. “Where’s Scott?”

Johnny rolled his eyes up the stairs, and Val let loose with a loud cackle.

“Ol’ Cindy givin’ ‘im a ride, huh? Poor girl, she’s still pinin’ away for you! Ya know that don’t cha?” Val laughed again. “Well, I need ta get some shut-eye. I’ll see ya, amigo.” And with that Val heaved himself out of the chair and left the saloon.

Johnny had a third beer, alone at the table then headed out the door and swung into his saddle. Turning Barranca’s head to the north, he trotted at a leisurely gait out of town.

<><><><> 

The sun was staining the sky pink over the mountains as Johnny rolled out of bed and pulled on his clothes. He wondered when Scott finally managed to get home. Cindy could be a handful, and if she was in a mood, Scott could possibly still be with her. He chuckled at the fact that it would be his college-educated brother that would be drawing Murdoch’s ire instead of him. That would be a change! Quietly opening his door, he took a quick peek in Scott’s room and seeing his brother still fast asleep under a pile of blankets, he closed the door and headed down to the kitchen.

Starting a fire in the stove, Johnny had a pot of coffee going in no time. The back door opened and Maria, Lancer cook, came into the kitchen, smiling as she saw Juanito. He rewarded her with his Johnny Madrid Lancer brilliant smile. She bustled around the room getting ready to start her day creating the mouthwatering delicacies that she knew would bring more smiles to her Juanito’s handsome face.

“You are up early, chico! Is everything alright?” the cook asked, suddenly worried.

“I’m fine, Maria!” Johnny smiled again, touched at the fact she was always concerned about him. Reaching for a cup, he poured the strong hot brew and held it up in a gesture offering Maria a cup.

“Si, por favor! Gracias, Juanito!”She took a sip and shuddered, mumbling about the coffee being too strong and spooned much sugar into her cup. Taking another sip with a “Muy bueno!” she continued with her duties.

Johnny retrieved a cup, and taking the back stairs, went to Scott’s room. Cautiously he opened the door and saw Scott still under the blankets. Johnny cat-walked over to his bed and waved the cup under Scott’s nose letting the fragrance and the steam bring Scott to a coherent state. Johnny heard a slight groan and felt a bit of a muscle flinch and the blue-gray eyes cracked slightly, revealing bloodshot and glazed orbs that very quickly slammed shut. Johnny laughed, knowing that his older and ‘wiser’ brother had a whopper of a hangover. He probably hadn’t gotten much sleep, either, if he knew Cindy.

“Scott? Hey, Boston, time ta get up.” Johnny called softly and was answered with another groan, this time louder. Reaching out, Johnny gently shook Scott’s shoulder only to have Scott push his hand out of the way and pull the blanket up over his head.

“Come on, Boston, we got work ta do, gotta get up now,” Johnny coaxed. He set the cup down and went to the window. He pulled the curtains aside and opened it, letting a chilly breeze into the stuffy room. As he slowly took the blanket away from his brother’s face said brother mumbled something unintelligible and Johnny probably didn’t want to know what had been muttered but asked anyway. “What’d ya say, Boston?” Johnny asked, but he had a feeling that he knew.

“I said she is an evil woman…!”

Johnny wanted to throw his head back and laugh but didn’t want to wake up Murdoch. He could barely keep it under control. Yup, Cindy was in one of her moods… Scott will hafta learn… Guess she was up ta her ol’ drinkin’ games. Johnny had fallen ‘victim’ but learned quickly to beat her at her own diversionary tactics. Cindy had never liked to spend the night alone and devised ways to ensure that she would have company. Alcohol, and lots of it, helped to provide her that companionship.

A bit more coaxing had Scott out of bed. Johnny left his room and waited for his brother at the kitchen table, having already dived into a plate heaping with eggs, bacon, and biscuits.

Scott stumbled into the kitchen as Maria set a full plate for him on the table, and the aroma of fried food was more than what he could handle. One look was enough to make Scott bolt for the back entrance and the chilly, fresh air.

Johnny couldn’t smother the laugh as Maria stood looking at the slammed door and shook her head.

Johnny took his time with breakfast knowing that Scott would still be trying to get his rolling belly under control. He entered the barn carrying a glass and spied his brother sitting on a bale of hay with head resting in his hands. Johnny offered the glass as Scott slowly raised his head, suspiciously eyeing the repulsive looking contents.

“It’ll help with the hangover, Scott,” Johnny explained.

Scott, eyed the glass as if he thought it would suddenly do him harm, then finally took it and downed the mixture thinking that if he was going to die today, he might as well get it over with. And within a minute or two, he was miraculously feeling better.

“Ya ready ta start workin’ now, Boston? Ya get hungry later, Maria sent somethin’ for ya.” Johnny held up a bag in his hand, then saddled Barranca and secured the bag around the saddle horn. He waited for Scott to saddle up, then the two left the barn with the north pasture their destination.

It was nothing short of a miracle as far as Scott was concerned. Maria was not only very skilled in the kitchen, but she was also an accomplished healer of sorts. Her knowledge of things medicinal went beyond normal everyday conditions, situations, and ailments. The dubious looking elixir that Johnny had given him to drink before they’d left the barn had completely cured his nausea, pounding head and he actually developed an appetite. Not really wanting to know what it was that he had taken, he was curious about the food Maria sent for them.
“What did Maria send in that bag, Johnny? I’m starting to get hungry,” Scott sheepishly asked as Johnny burst into laughter.

“Glad ta see that Cindy didn’t hurt ya too bad!” Still chuckling, Johnny took the bag and handed it to Scott.

Digging around, Scott found thick sliced bread with lightly seasoned, tender beef in between. Sitting in the shade, the brothers ate in silence, enjoying the quiet shared with each other. The north pasture was a favorite place for both of them, and they enjoyed the quiet in each other’s company.

It was peaceful and picturesque. Mountains on three sides protected and shielded, making it seem like a hidden, sacred spot. Pine trees dotted the pasture, and a clear, bubbling stream meandered through, flowing swiftly with all the rainfall that had been plaguing the area. The day was beautiful, but as it wore on, dark clouds began to form, and the temperatures dropped quickly, and Johnny knew that more rain was on the way; rain they really didn’t need.

The ground was near saturated, and rivers and lakes were swollen to capacity. Rockslides were becoming a regular nuisance and occupied valuable ranch time with the cleanup effort. But you can’t stop the rain; you had to deal with it, and with the snowfall in the higher elevations, the runoff, added with the rainfall, was creating disastrous conditions.

“Hey, while you were dilly dallyin’ with Cindy last night, Val came in said there’s been some stage hold-ups. Three drivers, three shotguns an’ one passenger’s been killed. Asked us ta keep our eyes peeled for anything strange lookin’,” Johnny related, filling his brother in on the latest news.

“I told him if he needs help lookin’ for these holdup men that I’d lend a hand. You interested, Scott?”

Scott nodded as he swallowed the mouthful of sandwich and washed it down with a swig from the canteen.

“I am always available to do my civic duty, brother!” Scott replied, sounding much more alive, and chipper than he had earlier.
Johnny chuckled. “Well, if that means ‘yes’ I’ll be sure ta tell him.”

They worked repairing fences and clearing the stream and all the while the sky continued to darken and the air became heavy with the threat of bad weather. Wanting to finish their work to eliminate a return trip they pressed on, working as efficiently and quickly as they could. The rolling thunder in the distance thirty minutes ago was now almost upon them. It was subtle at first but increased its rumbling until it was now reverberating off  the mountains, bouncing back and forth and gaining intensity, seeming to condemn the Earth and everything living on it.

Johnny looked up at the sky trying to gauge how much time they would have before the clouds split at their seams, dousing them in ice-cold torrents in an attempt to wash them away. They would not make it home dry, he knew. And before he looked away, he felt the first fat drops hit his face.

“Ya ready, Boston? We ain’t gonna get home in time,” Johnny asked just as a gigantic bolt of white-hot lightning streaked through the ever darkening sky. Accompanied by an ear-shattering clap of thunder, the Heavens opened up, pelting them in a frigid downpour.

“We won’t be able to do anything more!” Scott yelled above the din. The wind had kicked up, and the rain pounded the earth and everything on it with ferocity, violent, and piercing. “Let’s try and make it to the line shack and wait it out!”

Johnny nodded at his brother, the two donned their slickers, kicked their horses into a gallop, and headed to the shack. Hopefully, it didn’t have a leaky roof.

<><><><> 

“What’d ya mean ‘you’re surprised it ain’t leakin’? I told ya, I fixed it last fall!” Johnny replied in defense.

Scott harrumphed and rolled his eyes. “It’s my right to doubt it! It says in the Book! Chapter one, page one. ‘The older brother has the right to question anything the younger…” Scott recited.

“I’ll give ya somethin’ that you can put in your stinkin’ book!” Johnny laughed and shook his head. “How many chapters this book gonna have?” Johnny asked.

“Well, considering it’s about you I’m writing about, one hundred and fifty-seven. Or more.” Scott deadpanned.

Johnny’s face brightened, and he said: “How about I just shoot ya an’ save ya the trouble?” He laughed again. “As long as you’re the one with the book that knows everything, you can cook supper!”

“Oh, no! That’s against the rules! Says so in chapter one, page one!” Scott challenged.

Lounging back on the bunk after changing into dry clothes, Johnny laced his fingers together behind his head and began to nod off.

Scott produced a surprisingly good meal, with help from the provisions sent by Maria. The coffee was hot and strong, and the beans, cold fried chicken and bread all tasted wonderful. There was something about hard work and fresh air to make an appetite better and the food better yet.

The fire threw off heat, and soon the brothers were warm, comfortable, and getting very drowsy. The rain drumming on the roof, although still heavy, was relaxing. Only one thing more ta make this better… Johnny thought and retrieving his saddlebags, he ferreted out his ever-present bottle of tequila. Taking a large swallow, he offered it to Scott, who accepted it gratefully.
While Scott still preferred refined Scotch, he wouldn’t turn down his brother’s generous contribution.

He’d completely forgotten about the previous evening and the hangover he suffered just this very morning. Johnny smiled as Scott took a drink but said nothing. Scott rose from the chair, stoked the fire and soon both brothers were asleep, lulled by the rain and warmed by the fire that blazed with the comforting pops and crackles.

The rain continued through the night. Water puddled on the saturated ground and any chance the water had to run downhill began as trickles but gained in velocity until soon small rivers ran down every decline. They joined others and filled the already bloated creeks, streams, and rivers that created vast, swiftly moving and impassable waterways. The collapsing riverbanks broke away taking whole trees, rolling them like bits of twigs and washing them downstream. They slammed into bridge abutments adding thousands of pounds of resistance in the swiftly moving water and subsequently, after breaking the pilings, washed the bridges away.

Dawn broke, cold, gray, and rainy. Johnny stood on the porch, leaning a shoulder on the upright support, a mug of hot coffee in hand and watched as the downpour continued to wash everything clean. The green of the trees looked brighter after the all night scrubbing. The patch of ferns that grew alongside the shack was vivid in color as fat silver drops dripped off the leaf tips to saturate the moss covering the ground. The air was cold, and the damp was starting to seep through his clothes, successfully chilling him in minutes. He left the porch and sought the warmth of the line shack in front of the fireplace. Entering, he spied Scott just pulling on his boots and shrugged.

“Don’t think we’re gonna be doin’ much work taday. If this rain don’t stop, we’re gonna be swimmin’ back…”

Scott looked surprised. “Oh, no! You will be swimming back, not me! It says in the book! Chapter one…”

“Yeah, I know, chapter one, page one…” And Johnny continued to mutter under his breath about the damn book!

Scott couldn’t help but smile. This is a good one! This book thing is starting to make him crazy! Scott would act as if he were writing notes to include in the book periodically during the day, teasing his brother and keeping him on his toes. Wasn’t that what big brothers were for?

Johnny began to prepare a meager breakfast. Not having planned on being out overnight, the choices for the morning meal were beans and… beans.

“Wanna try an’ make it home or wait an’ see if the rain lets up?” Johnny gave Scott the option; after all, Scott did have ‘The Big Brother Book’… He should be the one to make this decision.

“I see no reason to be hasty and venture out in this. I think we should wait.” Scott replied in the most authoritative voice he could muster.

“That what it says in the book?” Johnny asked with raised brows. And they both laughed.

The rain began to lighten in mid-morning and taking a chance they saddled their mounts, who were not as inclined as their masters to be about in the soggy, cold surroundings but finally began to cooperate. Scott and Johnny scouted for damage that occurred in the night’s storm. The creek bed they had cleared yesterday was now a rushing waterway and twice the size. But the rain slowly decreased and around two in the afternoon ceased altogether. As the day progressed, the temperatures dropped and fog settled in, the air thick and heavy, looking to smother anything willing to take the chance to be out in it.

<><><><> 

The shots echoed from mountainside to mountainside bringing Johnny and Scott to a standstill. Johnny reached for the pistol on his hip without having to think to do it. One more shot rang out, and both brothers were on their horses riding in the direction where the blasts came from and having no idea what they would find.

The road was a short distance ahead, and they raced through the trees, the horses valiantly dodging boulders and jumping logs. As they crested a ridge, they saw riders below on the road, five of them, fleeing to the Northeast taking the stage horses with them. But as they tore their eyes away from the riders, they watched the horrific scene unfold below.

As if in slow motion, the old Concord stagecoach tipped over on its side as it slid down the steep embankment strewn with large rocks and boulders where, fifty feet below, churned a violent and savage flood-stage river. A scream pierced the heavy, saturated air, and Johnny and Scott watched as their hearts seemed to stop as they realized that there was someone left in the stage. Johnny was the first to the road and immediately off Barranca. Stripping off his slicker, he tied his rope around the saddle horn and started to lower himself down, the rocks rolling under

his feet and tumbling down to bounce onto the side of the wooden coach.

“Johnny!” Scott screamed as he pulled Remmie to a halt beside Barranca and watched his brother scramble down the crumbling, steep riverbank. Johnny did not stop, but he knew the rope was not going to be long enough to allow him to reach the coach. He held on as long as he could with the end of the rope in his hands. The coach was still many feet beyond but seemed to have stopped in its descent.

Scott watched in horror as he saw Johnny let go of the rope and slide down until he crashed into the stage. Grabbing hold of the undercarriage, Johnny cautiously pulled himself onto the side and peered into the window; he suddenly called for Scott.

“Scott! Go for help! NOW! This thing’s slippin’ an’ there’s a woman in here! She’s hurt!” And before Scott could move, Johnny heaved himself through the window and disappeared. The rain continued to wash away the riverbank and water sluiced under the coach taking with it any purchase the coach may have had.

“Johnny...! JOHNNY!”

Johnny started to come back out the window, but the shift in weight caused the stage to slide, forcing Johnny back inside to counterbalance and stabilize the precarious perch of the massive coach clinging to the disintegrating bluff.

Scott was frozen in place. He couldn’t leave Johnny!

“SCOTT! GO GET HELP… NOW!”

Scott jumped into action, hearing the edge in his brother’s voice. Was he doing the right thing? Even with both of their ropes, there was no way that Barranca and Remmie could haul the stage up over the ledge and if Johnny couldn’t get the woman out, Scott knew Johnny wouldn’t leave her to die there. He had no other choice! Scott had to leave them and go for help. NOW! Ice formed in his belly, and he thought he would be sick, but everything was pushed aside when he remembered the desperation in his brother’s call for help, the call that reverberated back and forth in his brain all the way to Lancer and back.
<><><><> 

As Johnny heaved himself through the window, her eyes widened with fear, and she wanted to scream, but as she drew in a breath, she gasped in pain, and her eyes screwed shut. Clutching her torso, she began to cry.

“Shhhh, Ma’am, it’s gonna be alright. I‘m here ta help ya get out,” he whispered, using his soft, soothing tones to calm and comfort her. And she responded just like any other wild or hurt creature did. Johnny tried to assess her condition, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out there were broken ribs. She had been tossed around the inside of the stage as it tumbled over the edge, but if he could keep her quiet, she had a chance. So Johnny began talking quietly and calmly, and she settled down a degree.

“My name’s Johnny; my family has a ranch pretty close by. I just sent my brother for help. Someone’ll be comin’ soon. Just hang on an’ we’ll getcha out, alright?”

Her breathing started to slow, and she opened her eyes. In the dim light, Johnny could see the dark brown orbs still held fear but seemed to be calming down steadily, the panic receding.

“Men held up the stage and… killed the driver! They were going to kill me but sent the stage over the embankment… Please! Don’t leave me!.”

“I’m not gonna leave ya. What’s your name, Ma’am?” Johnny asked quietly, wanting to keep her mind occupied talking, taking it away from the predicament that they were in.

“I’m Emily Thomas. My husband,” she held her ribs as pain ripped through her, and she groaned loudly and groped for his hand as she squeezed.

Johnny’s heart was breaking for her. He knew that pain, knew it would be enough to make her pass out.

“Shhhh, it’s gonna be alright, Ma’am,” he kept repeating.

“Emmy, call me… Emmy, please,” she gasped as she struggled against the piercing, white-hot stabs in her chest.

Johnny smiled as she focused her eyes on him. “Alright, Emmy. Tell me about your husband. Where is he now?” Johnny asked, keeping the conversation going as long as she could answer.

“He’s the new pastor in Spanish Wells. I was on my way to meet him when… the trouble…” Tears came in earnest; she couldn’t move, but neither could she sit still, and she felt as if she would become sick.

Johnny could see she was in deep distress, and as she gasped, the pain became worse. “Breathe through your nose, Emmy, easy. Slow an’ quiet, just breathe through your nose.” Johnny’s tones having the desired effect he wanted, and she quieted. Her eyes closed again, and Johnny was fearful she was going to lose consciousness, but after a minute she settled, doing as he’d instructed her and breathed through her nose… and the pain ebbed.

“Please, Johnny, don’t leave me!” she whispered, with desperation claiming her thoughts and clouding her mind. Johnny scooted closer as she grabbed his hand again in a vise-like grip.

“Emmy, I‘m here an’ I ain’t gonna leave ya. We’re gonna sit here an’ wait for Scott an’ he’s gonna get us outta here, alright? Emmy, I ain’t leavin’,” he assured her firmly in an attempt to still the fears creeping into her sanity. Rain started to fall again, lightly at first then began to pound the broad side of the stage with a deafening and battering force.

“Johnny, I can’t stand the pain! It’s getting worse!” she gasped again, squeezing his hand wanting to pull strength from his body.

“Shhh, Emmy, hang on! Hang on, Scott’ll be here soon,” Johnny soothed and kept up the calming tones he started to tell her about Spanish Wells and the people there and the surrounding area… and she listened. So Johnny talked, desperately trying to divert her thoughts somewhere else… away from the situation they found themselves in now. He told her about Lancer and his family. And he told her about Holly. Holly Vasquez, the love of Johnny’s life, and she was most of the reason that he was the man he was.

“I’d really like for ya ta meet her, Emmy. She’s…” But he didn’t get to finish. Rocks began pelting the stage as water from higher up washed down with force, and the stage shifted, jolted violently and started to slide. Emmy screamed as the violent jostling tossed her about, but it died in her throat, as she wrapped her arms around her chest again. Johnny felt the stage gain speed as it careened down the riverbank, and he knew that they were headed for the river.

He took her in his arms and turned them slightly; when the crash came he would take impact from their weight. Her body would land on him instead of the opposite seat. In the dim light, he saw her eyes widen and suddenly glaze as blood foamed from her mouth and down her face to stain the white of her blouse like a gruesome red blossom. The coach crashed into the water, slamming Johnny’s head sideways into the interior wall with a white-hot explosion and then, nothing.

<><><><> 

Scott rode as if the world was coming to an end and in a way, their world could very well be ending, their world as they knew it. He pushed Remmie to his limits as the rain soaked them and everything in sight. He risked a look behind and saw that the sky was darker back in the direction he’d ridden from; he knew that there was more trouble in store for the stage and the two trapped inside. He could only hope that help would arrive in time. Hang on, brother! There isn’t a chapter for this in the book! Hang on!

Urging Remmie along, praying to the Heavens for his brother’s life to be spared and that of the woman in the stage, the horse covered an unbelievable amount of distance in a relatively short amount of time. He began to count off the hours that it would take to get a team of horses to the site, horses capable of pulling the Concord stage up and over the cliff back onto the road, or at least enough to stabilize it until Johnny and the woman could be extracted and hauled safely out of danger. The timing was critical… And much too long. Scott didn’t think they would have that amount of time, especially with the rainfall. The amount of water would make everything unstable.

Remmie was blowing much too hard, Scott had to slow down if he wanted to get to Lancer at all. Brother, are you still with me?

<><><><> 

The crash into the river was like slamming into a mountain, but the shock of the ice cold water was like a thunderbolt, a physical blow, stinging and biting, excruciating and painful. Johnny was immediately jerked out of the merciful darkness and back into the cruel reality of consciousness. He still held Emmy in his arms, clutched her tightly to him and as the fog in his head began to clear, he knew he had to get her out of the stage; it was filling with water, and they would drown.

The coach teetered in the water, sometimes on its side then after crashing into boulders, it seemed to push itself upright, then tumble over. With one arm still around her fragile body, he fumbled in the near dark for the door handle. Something kept running in his eyes, and as he fought to clear it away, he saw blood on his sleeve that he’d used to wipe his face, and remembered that he’d hit his head. No time for himself and thinking only of getting Emmy to safety, he kicked at the door with the strength he had left. It didn’t budge. Four more bone-jarring kicks later the wood split open, and the door was free.

“Emmy, I need ya ta help me! Emmy… EMMY!”  Hafta save her! Can’t let her drown… hafta pull her outta here… Johnny thought wildly, and in a risky, last chance effort, Johnny hoisted himself through the door. As the stage teetered on it’s side, he reached back, deep into the coach, found her arm and pulled her through the door and onto the side of their wooden raft where they balanced precariously. She lay limp in his arms, and he fought the haze that was settling in his brain.

The stage was drifting away from the riverbank and crashing into the boulders strewn throughout the river. Johnny held her with all his strength, not letting her topple from their unstable perch, water was rushing wildly around them on all sides, black and foreboding. A resounding crack filled the air as the root end of a huge tree, washed down from above, and smashed into the stage, narrowly missing Johnny’s leg, and both Johnny and Emmy were thrown into the dark and deadly rushing water biting through their bodies with ice-cold shards.

The force of the crash pulled Emmy from his grasp, and he frantically tried to find her but he was pulled under the freezing water and tumbled about only to be tossed to the surface and slammed into the rocks littering the river, coughing and sputtering and pulled under, again, to collide with incredible force into an unforgiving rock and with his second white-hot explosion igniting stars of mind-numbing pain, Johnny’s world went black.

<><><><> 

Remmie had given all he had and then some. Scott left the horse standing in the road heaving and blowing, having stripped off the saddle and bridle, as he started to run toward the arch. How far was it? Just keep going, keep going! As he repeated these words, he thought of his brother and remembered the look in his eyes when Johnny realized that there was a woman inside the stage that needed help. And he still heard the level of urgency in Johnny’s voice when he called up to Scott to get help. With absolutely no thought for his own safety, Johnny was over the side and down the cliff in a heartbeat.

At that moment, Scott could have cried, his heart near to bursting with pride and admiration for his wild brother. Got to keep going, for Johnny! The muscles in his legs were burning, and his lungs were on fire, but he pushed himself on. He had to get home soon! The rain was running into his eyes, blurring his sight, and he was shivering out of control, but he kept going. He had to save his brother... It said so in the book, chapter one, page one…

Scott literally staggered into the yard too winded to call for help. His teeth were chattering, and he couldn’t catch his breath, gasping to fill his lungs with the precious oxygen. He stumbled to the heavy front door and threw it open, startling Murdoch and Teresa and collapsed on all fours in the foyer as the Lancer patriarch and his ward ran to help.
“Scott! What in the world has happened? Where’s Johnny?” Murdoch was near panic. Never had he witnessed anything such as he saw now. Scott gasped for breath, and he was unable to talk, his lips tinged blue from cold. Teresa went for water. Murdoch held Scott steady, patiently, or not, waiting for his oldest son to catch his breath and talk. Teresa returned with the water, and Scott gulped it down until, breathing easier, he was able to tell his father what had happened in short sentences.

“Teresa, stay here with him, I need to get Jelly!” And Murdoch raced out the door.

“Scott, how long ago did this happen?” Teresa asked, worried at the sight of Scott but worried, too, about Johnny.

“Late afternoon… Don’t remember, now…” Scott stammered trying to make sense out of the events that plagued the day. Teresa helped him over to a chair, and he sighed, closing his eyes as he sagged into it.

Suddenly, he snapped them open again as he jerked forward and sat up straight. “NO!” He yelled, and Teresa started. “Can’t sleep. Have to help Johnny!” And he struggled to his feet.

Teresa tried to calm him. “Scott, you can’t go anywhere! Not in the condition you’re in, besides its dark!” She tried to reason, but Scott was having none of it.

“Yes, Johnny’s out there in the dark, in the rain and cold! I’m not going to leave him!”

Murdoch and Cipriano came through the door. Seeing Scott on his feet and able to talk was a relief.

“Scott, where did this happen?” Murdoch questioned. The cobwebs in Scott’s brain were clearing, and his thoughts more rational, the strain was gone but not the panic.

“We were up by the north pasture and followed the sound of gunshots to the river just to the west.” His eyes were more clear, and the glaze that covered them when he’d stumbled into the house was now gone.

Murdoch turned to Cip. “What do you think? Four or five hours?” he asked his Segundo.

Cip paused and thought before he answered. “More like six or seven with all this rain and if we need to take the horses for heavy lifting, well, probably half again the time to get there, Senor,” Cipriano didn’t like giving the bad news, but it was an honest and accurate estimation.

Murdoch frowned. “Alright, we need to get everything together now! If we travel through the night, we can be there at first light. We will have to take that risk; now let’s go!” Murdoch turned to Teresa. “Darling, first thing in the morning I’ll need for you to ride into Green River. Tell Val what’s happened and bring Sam out here, just in case. And, Teresa… Say a prayer…”

Murdoch, himself, had been running bits and pieces of conversations with The Man Upstairs through his head as he thought about Johnny selflessly navigating his way down unstable terrain and into a stage that hung so precariously to the cliff side that his own weight was enough to cause it to rock. Please let him still be alive…

The men were ready to ride and a wagon loaded with ropes, chains, blankets, medical supplies, food, lanterns, and tools along with them. The rain had stopped, and the clouds broke, allowing the moonlight to guide them with sufficient light and a quicker pace.

Murdoch had wanted Scott to stay at the ranch but knew Scott felt a certain amount of guilt leaving Johnny and knowing there was an injured woman. He saddled a horse, mumbling something about chapter one, page one. Murdoch didn’t know what that had to do with finding Johnny but would be sure to ask when it was over. They left the ranch setting as fast of a pace as the conditions would allow. The air was cold and damp, and Murdoch fretted over what they would find when they got to the river, and he fought to control a shudder.

<><><><> 

Emmy! Have ta find Emmy! She asked me not ta leave her…where is she? I promised… In his unconscious mind, he saw her, again, as eyes glazed and blood foamed from her mouth, and all emotion faded from her gentle face. They fell into the cold water, so cold it felt like razors cutting into the skin, stinging and painful. Frigid water cold as ice found its way into his sinuses and lungs, stabbing at his chest and brain. Pain exploded in his head, scattering cerebral matter as if stuffed with a lighted stick of dynamite.  He felt like he’d been beaten. Heavy blows to his body had been so powerful he knew he had to have broken bones. He wondered if he would ever feel warm again. He was cold, so cold…

His body slammed into an unmoving object. Shards of pain erupted down his arm, and he moaned in agony. The force of the water dragged him across sharp, rough rocks and stones at the edge of the river, bitter cold water swirled around him and sucked every ounce of warmth from him. He lay face up, trying to remember what had happened, but his mind refused to work, and all he wanted to do was sleep. The pain was blocking out any sensible thought, the cold made him unable to move, and he shivered uncontrollably. He closed his eyes and hoped the misery would go away.
<><><><> 

Ten men made their way to the river; the moonlight, though sufficient for walking, prevented the haste that would be critical for a timely rescue. It had to be well after midnight. How long had it been since I’ve seen my brother? Scott agonized over the fact that he’d left his brother alone with an injured woman, in a stagecoach that was on its way to plummet into icy rapids. If anything were to happen to Johnny, Scott would never be able to forgive himself. I left him alone…

They could hear the rushing water a quarter mile away, the sound echoing through the trees and the cold night. Scott pushed ahead of the others, anxious for a glimpse to make sure the coach was where it had been the last time he was here. Jumping from the saddle before the horse had stopped; he raced to the edge of the cliff and stared at… nothing. His knees gave away, and he fell on all fours as if to get a better look, but there was still nothing. A bare, eroding cliff bank and no sign of the stage that had been lying, exposed and vulnerable the afternoon before.

The others made their way to the edge of the cliff; Scott stood and began scanning the river. There was no sign of the stage or Johnny and the woman.

“Someone ride back and get lanterns from the wagon!” Murdoch bellowed then went to Scott’s side to put an arm around his shoulders, shoulders that were shaking with cold and dread. And guilt.

“Come on, Scott, let’s go down river and see if we can find something,” Murdoch urged.

Scott slowly started to move. He’d been watching as if he expected the stage to miraculously rise out of the water and Johnny to appear and tell them he was fine.

“Scott, come on, son,” Murdoch urged again, then Scott was walking along with his father, straining to watch the surface of the water.

Within an hour Walt made it back with lanterns and spreading out they combed the river bank. They went in pairs, and soon, after following the river for about a half mile it slowed, the rapids became more subdued and stopped altogether.

 Murdoch couldn’t help but think this would be where they would find the bodies. The thought was bitter and ugly, and he wanted to turn back the time and change things, do things differently. He would, at that moment, have given anything he owned to, once again, gaze on his youngest son’s face, to look into those deep blue eyes, eyes that had chilled others to the bone and then had been so full of mischief, smiling so one could see into his soul, all the different facets that were Johnny, his son. His agonized thoughts were interrupted at a shout from Jelly.

“Boss! There’s a woman here!” Jelly called as Murdoch stumbled along the bank. Reaching Jelly’s side, he looked down, and the body of a young woman lay in the shallow water, skin almost translucent and white but peaceful, angelic. And Murdoch knew at that moment that he could not look at Johnny’s body when they found him. He could not bear to see the cold, stark face of death on his youngest son.

“Jelly, take care of her, please. We need to keep looking for Johnny.”

“I’ll take care of her, Boss, leave it ta ol’ Jelly.”

As Murdoch walked, he could hear Jelly talking to the woman as if she could hear him, soothing and comforting her. Jelly would take care of her.

They walked for another half mile, Scott near to collapsing with fatigue and nerves, the tone of Johnny’s frantic call for help still reverberating in his head. It was close to dawn. It seemed they’d been here for hours and the stress was wearing on them all. Murdoch was becoming numb; grief was setting in, but there was still determination, too. The determination to find…

“Patrón! Over here!” Cipriano frantically called into the cold early morning. Charging down the river to where the Segundo knelt in the stones and sand, bending over a… body.

“He is alive, Patrón! Juanito still breathes!”

Murdoch fell to his knees, almost afraid to look but forcing himself a glance. Johnny lay in shallow water as it gently lapped against his still body. He was bruised on every square inch of skin that Murdoch could see. He was covered with scrapes and scratches, and there was a large gash above his left eye; looking closer Johnny’s left shoulder lay at a peculiar angle.

Scott fell to his brother’s side and with shaking hands felt for a pulse in his neck. It was weak, but it was there. It’s in the book, brother; you have to live! Page one! Scott hung his head and would have cried had there been time. That would come later.

Carefully moving the injured arm against his son’s chest, Murdoch secured it as well as circumstances would allow. Examining what he could out in the dark with only the dim light from the lantern and taking precautions they then wrapped Johnny in blankets and as gently as possible, hauled him up the bank to load him in the back of the wagon. With Scott on one side and Murdoch on the other, covered with a blanket they lay as close as they could hoping to share their body heat.

“Cip, ride ahead and get Maria to heat some stones and get things ready,” Murdoch ordered, and Cip took off as fast as he could.

What the Hell? I can’t move, at all! Mierda, son-of-a-bitch, I hurt… bad, don’t think I wanna move. My head feels like it’s gonna explode. Damn, it’s cold! Johnny shivered as a vision flashed through his subconscious mind. A vision of a young woman, she looked like she was hurt and suddenly blood poured from her mouth.

“Emmy…” Johnny murmured, and then he was lost in blessed darkness.

<><><><> 

The ride home was endless, cold, and endless. Murdoch watched both of his sons. One unconscious and one teetering on the brink of self-incrimination, guilt-ridden and… lost.

As if willing strength into his brother, Scott watched Johnny’s face, did not take his eyes away from his brother. He kept a physical contact, not only providing body heat but an anchor to this world. Keeping Johnny’s hand locked in his grasp, Scott was holding him close, not letting Johnny slip into the next life. Murdoch had no doubt if Johnny started to slip away that Scott would be there to drag him right back.

Jelly rode leading a horse loaded with the girl’s body. She had been wrapped and secured on the horse with all the dignity they could provide her. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find out who she was. That would be up to Val. Judging from the pink that was just starting to stain the eastern sky, Teresa should be on her way into Green River, and Val and Sam would be at the ranch waiting on their slow return in the wagon.

Murdoch looked down at Johnny’s face, relaxed and serene. What he wouldn’t give right now for some of the rowdiness, the joking, and tomfoolery that was usually present when the two boys were together. He longed to see the sight of those intensely blue eyes with the ability to freeze one to the core or warm you with their expression, their humility, their love. Never again would he take it for granted or be annoyed with it, Please, God, let him be alright! he prayed.

The sky was getting lighter; it felt drier, too. Hopefully, the rain was done, and with any luck, it would start to warm up. Murdoch risked a look around and saw they were very near the ranch. Soon they would be able to know the extent of the injuries Johnny had suffered and be able to get him back on his feet.

He knew everything would be ready for them at the house. Maria and Teresa were very efficient and thorough. Murdoch was aware of passing under the Lancer arch; it was like a lifeline. We’re home, nothing bad can happen now; it’s too late for that! Johnny? Son, can you hear me? We’re home…

 

<><><><> 

“Scott, why don’t you get some rest? There’s nothing we can do right now. Sam will let us know something when he’s finished with Johnny, and until then there’s nothing we can do. Go to bed, son,” Murdoch urged.

Scott sat on the couch and stared morosely into the fire burning away the chill of the morning. The cup of coffee in his hand was forgotten, cold now as he recalled over and over as he watched his brother disappear through the window of the stage, then the frantic call for Scott to go for help. The edge in Johnny’s voice had chilled him.

“Scott? Did you hear me?” Murdoch asked softly.

Scott slowly raised his eyes to meet his father’s concerned gaze. “Yes, sir, I heard, but I want to be here when Sam comes down…” Scott answered quietly.

Murdoch could only shrug, then thought of a solution, a possible answer for some degree of relief for his oldest son. He stepped to a closet and removed a blanket, coming to stand at Scott’s side, and adjusted pillows at the end of the couch were Scott sat so still.
“Son, lie down. I will wake you; I promise.” Murdoch held the blanket open to cover him, and Scott kicked off his boots and swung his long legs on the cushions as Murdoch gently tucked it around him. Closing his eyes, Scott was asleep in seconds.

<><><><> 
This boy never ceases to amaze me! He has more lives than a cat! How many times now have I sat here and been absolutely bewildered that his injuries aren’t any worse than they actually are? Maybe I should write a book about him? No, no one in the medical profession would believe it anyway. I’m having a hard time believing it, and I’m treating him!

Sam stood and rubbed his aching back. Maria watched as Sam began to put away his instruments and clean up. She took the basin of dirty, bloody water and left the room shortly to return with a clean one. She filled it with warm water and began wiping Johnny’s face and neck, careful not to come too close to the wrapped shoulder. It wasn’t broken, Gracias, Dios! but had been dislocated and was now immobile against his chest. The gash on his head had been stitched, and liniment rubbed into the contusions; now to keep him warm and comfortable.

Several heated stones had been placed under the blankets close to Johnny’s feet. They would be rotated, and as they cooled, they would be replaced with warmed ones. But Maria also knew that when Johnny woke he would take complete responsibility that the poor young woman had died. Johnny would be a prisoner of his own making. He always shouldered more than his share of blame, even though there was no blame, he took it beyond any reason. But that was Johnny. He was a protector, and any failure was just not acceptable. But only to him. He would need help to get through this, she knew.

 

<><><><> 

Quietly Sam stepped out the door and made his way down to the great room where he knew Murdoch and Scott anxiously waited.

As Murdoch looked up to see Sam coming down the stairs, he lightly shook Scott’s shoulder, waking him as gently as possible.

Scott slowly opened his eyes, then realized Sam was present and bolted upright with wide questioning eyes.

Sam took a sip of coffee from the cup Murdoch shoved into his hand and sighed. “Well, once again, it’s not as bad as it looks. He isn’t out of the woods yet; I want to be sure there won’t be any long term issues regarding the concussion and the amount of time he was in the cold water could present its own problems. He needs to be kept warm and, of course, as soon as he’s able, broth or whatever you can get him to swallow,” Sam stopped to rethink, then added “Other than tequila.” And both Murdoch and Scott grinned

“Sam, what about his shoulder? Wasn’t it broken?” Murdoch questioned.

“No, not broken, but it was dislocated. But, as Johnny was in the cold for so long, it helped with the swelling. Had he not been in the water and the temperatures been so cold the swelling would have made it very difficult to put back into place. Where’s Val? Didn’t he stay?” Sam asked.

“No, he took the young woman into Green River. He has an idea who she was. But he’ll be back this morning, I’m sure. You look like you could use some breakfast, Sam. Come on. Scott, breakfast?” Murdoch asked.

Looking much relieved, Scott started for the stairs. “No, Sir. I’m going to sit with Johnny. I’ll send Maria down, though.” And climbing two at a time, Scott was down the hall and out of sight.

Murdoch and Sam sat at the table, each with hands wrapped around their coffee cups. Sam stole a glance at Murdoch knowing there would be relief in his eyes. And he was right. There had been worry for both his boys; it was always the same. If one was hurt or sick, the other was, too.

“I’ll want to examine the woman and determine the cause of death. I’m glad Val took her into Green River,” Sam stated as if to himself.

Murdoch nodded then thought of something that Jelly had noticed. Clearing his throat, Murdoch repeated the information.

“Jelly took care of her while we looked for Johnny. He said it looked as though there had been bleeding from her mouth, but other than bruises there wasn’t a mark on her that he saw.”

Maria entered the kitchen and began to put together a hearty breakfast for the men and broth for her niño.

<><><><> 

Scott dragged the chair close to Johnny’s side, watching for any movement that would indicate consciousness. He sat there for over an hour as Johnny slept, not moving, not aware.

But Johnny was aware of something. In his dreams, he remembered promising Emmy that he would not leave her but he couldn’t hold her to him, couldn’t keep her safe, and soon she was ripped from his arms and washed away… He didn’t save her. And in a way, he did leave her, just like he promised that he wouldn’t. Where was she now? 

He groaned in his sleep and Scott scooted to the edge of his chair, watching the eyes move back and forth under the closed lids. He knew Johnny was dreaming, probably having a nightmare. Scott reached for the cloth in the basin of water, wrung it out and wiped down his brother’s face while softly talking to him, hopefully, to block out the dreams.

“Johnny? Can you hear me, brother? You’re safe now; you’re home. We need to talk about this, Johnny. I think you’re going to need some help with this one. It says in the book, you know, chapter one, page one…” The words kept coming, and Scott sat there for most of the day, not leaving his brother’s side.

<><><><> 

“She was the new preacher’s wife. He was waitin’ for the stage ta come inta Spanish Wells. He claimed the body yesterday. Sam said that a rib went through her lung. Prob’bly busted it when the stage went over the cliff or when it went down the rest of the way inta the river. But the preacher wants to see Johnny when he’s up to it.” Val took a sip of coffee.

Murdoch digested what Val had just told him. He knew that Johnny would balk at talking with the pastor, knew that he would have considerable difficulty dealing with the woman’s death. How long they’d been together in the stage before she died, he didn’t know, but she had to have been terrified and knowing the person that Johnny was, Murdoch was sure that his son had done what he could to ease her fears. There was nothing more Johnny could have done. But he would still blame himself.

“Scott’s been up there almost the whole time. Sam said that Johnny should be waking up anytime. Do you want to go up and see him, Val?” Murdoch asked.

Val smiled. “Yeah, long as ‘m here…” Val left the great room on his way upstairs.

Knocking softly, he peeked around the semi-dark room.

Scott was in the chair close to the bed. A smile was blooming on his face. “I think he’s coming out of it, Val. Could you let Murdoch know?”
Val ducked out quickly and returned in less than a minute with Murdoch.

Johnny rolled his head to the right; he was aware there was someone there but kept his eyes shut. The pain was starting to ignite from the movement; he groaned and lifted his hand to his forehead.

Murdoch spoke softly. “Johnny? Do you want some water?” he waited patiently for an answer.

“… Emmy…” Johnny mumbled. He knew he wasn’t in the cold anymore, but where was Emmy? He told her he wouldn’t leave her… So, where was she? He tried to open his eyes but thought better of it. Her face formed in his mind, kind and peaceful as she smiled shyly, then her eyes took on a wild look, opening wide as horror and panic filled them and… blood poured out of her mouth. Johnny’s body flinched.
“Nooo!” he cried and went limp.

Murdoch, Scott, and Val all watched knowing that Johnny was in the throes of a nightmare, and they were helpless to do anything except be there for him. Rarely had they been able to break through the torments and could only wait it out. It didn’t last long, much to their relief and they could only imagine the horrific accounts boiling over in Johnny’s mind and to relive them over and over in nightmares was beyond normal comprehension. The struggle of repeating the horrifying images could be paralyzing, as if stuck for eternity in a spider’s web.

But Scott knew. Having lived through the nation’s greatest war and survived the tragedies and cruelties, he knew something about nightmares and sympathized at his brother's painful trauma. Johnny would be filled with guilt and heartache, a burden so incredibly heavy in his heart that it threatened to drag him helplessly under and smother him. And regardless of the fact that he held no blame in the events that caused the horrific death of an innocent young woman; a young woman that he didn’t even know and yet for whom he held himself accountable. And himself alone.

<><><><> 

The room was dark, and he allowed himself to crack his eyes open so that he could see without alerting anyone present that he was awake. It was night, and the fire that burned provided enough heat to keep the room comfortable. He could see that someone was sitting in the chair next to him and with an infinitesimal move he made out Scott’s lanky form, head bobbing on his chest. For a reason he couldn’t name Johnny was grateful that it was his brother there with him.

“… Scott?” Johnny whispered and with that one softly spoken word, Scott snapped out of the limbo, the half sleep that fogged his brain. Sitting forward on the chair, Johnny could see his brother, a large smile splitting his face.

“We thought you just might sleep forever, little brother! Here, you need to drink.” And slipping his hand gently under Johnny’s head, Scott lifted slightly to help with a swallow of water, holding the glass to his parched lips. The sweet, cool water trickled down his throat, and Johnny felt it surge through his body, revitalizing and energizing.

“Not too much, Johnny,” Scott warned and took the glass away.

“Thanks, Boston, how long I been here?” Johnny asked with a scratchy voice, remembering all of what happened and wanting it to be over. His heart was breaking for Emmy, and he wondered if he’d done things differently if she would have lived.

“Less than twenty-four hours. Sam said you should try and eat something. Can I get you some broth?” Eager to help, Scott pushed, urging his brother to take nourishment but knowing he wasn’t ready to eat yet.

Johnny closed his eyes. “Did ya find out who she was?” The regret, no, the grief in Johnny’s voice spoke volumes, and it was confirmed to Scott that, once again, his brother held himself accountable.

Scott bowed his head, then raised it again to watch Johnny’s face. “Yes, she was the wife of the new pastor in Spanish Wells,” Scott answered softly.

“Yeah, I know. She told me before…” and he couldn’t finish the statement. He couldn’t say the words ‘she died’.

“Johnny, how much do you remember?”

Johnny closed his eyes as if physically pained remembering the events. “…Everything. Up till we got thrown inta the water and washed downstream. Then it’s kinda hazy. Scott?... I couldn’t save her. I let her die…” and Johnny’s voice broke. He put his hand on his forehead in an effort to ease the throb that began to pound in his brain.

Scott was sitting on the bed beside him in a heartbeat. Resolve filled his heart when he spoke. “Brother, I want you to listen to me and listen well. There was nothing, I repeat, NOTHING that you could have done to save her. She was injured, Johnny, a rib had punctured her lung. You told me she was hurt before you even got into the stage. You didn’t cause that, nor did you cause her to drown. Sam said she’d already passed before she went into the water.” As Scott spoke, Johnny’s eyes opened wider, and the whole scene flashed in front of him again.

“She asked me ta not leave her. Kept repeatin’ it over an’ over, she didn’t want to be alone. Told her I was stayin’, ta not worry, I’d be there…,” Johnny agonized, his whispered voice trailing away.

Scott laid his hand on Johnny’s arm. “And you were there for her, Johnny, and that’s all that you could do for her. If Sam had been there, she still wouldn’t have lived. She was hurt that badly.” After a minute, Scott asked again about the broth wanting to redirect the conversation.

Johnny shrugged and sighed. “Guess ya ain’t gonna let it drop till I drink it, are ya?”

Scott smiled. “No, I am not.” Scott stood from the bed and glanced down at Johnny, knowing that whatever he’d told his brother didn’t make any difference. He would still shoulder the blame.

<><><><> 

It had been a week, now, since Emmy had passed. Life at Lancer was slowly getting back to normal, for most of them. Scott continued to watch his brother and worried, not only for his physical well-being but also the turmoil he’d seen in Johnny’s eyes. Johnny remained sullen, he kept to himself and was consumed with guilt. And Scott was at a loss for anything to do for his brother. So he stood ready to jump in should the need arise. He would be there for Johnny, and he would help him through the hell that trapped him.

The dislocated shoulder was still sore and prohibited any work. The headaches he suffered were excruciating, but he would push the pain aside. The forced inactivity only served to exacerbate the mental anguish that hung around his neck like a strangling noose. He wandered the house and the yard looking as if the weight of the world was crashing down on him, threatening to pound him into the dirt beneath his feet.

Johnny spent time in Teresa’s garden, though, once he sat on the bench, he was up pacing before the seat had a chance to warm. He needed to move but had nowhere to go. He needed to occupy his mind, a distraction from the recent events. But those recent events would not leave him and chased away any thought for calm or peace.

While not yet released from Sam’s care, Johnny wandered the house and finally, escaped the confines of the hacienda, made his way to the barn but stopped dead in his tracks when he spied Barranca’s empty stall. At a cough behind him, Johnny turned, and Jelly explained.

“He’s out back in the corral. Been raisin’ such a fuss lately, I had ta put ‘im out there so’s he’d leave the others alone. Been nippin’ an’ kickin’ an’ causin’ all sorts a mischief!”

Johnny gave a slight smile. “Thanks for takin’ care of him, Jelly,” Johnny said in his soft tone, then he turned and left the barn, going around back to the corral.

Jelly could only nod, wishing there was more he could do to help Johnny come to terms with what had happened, help him to believe that there wasn’t anything more that he could have done.

He rounded the corner and leaned his right arm over the railing, his left still confined to a sling. Barranca stood with his back to Johnny, but on catching his scent, the golden palomino whirled and charged the fence, skidding to a stop with only inches to spare before crashing into the rails. It was the first genuine smile to grace Johnny’s lips since before the stage went into the river. Barranca tried to head butt Johnny’s chest, but he stepped back before the contact.

And for a brief time, his pain and discomfort receded to manageable levels
“You tryin’ ta get me in trouble with the Ol’ Man? He’s gonna have my hide for bein’ out here anyway without you bustin’ somethin’ on me!” Johnny scratched the long golden ears and petted the velvet nose. Reaching into his pocket, he retrieved a carrot and fed it to the horse. After eating the treat, the horse spun away and raced in circles around the enclosure.

“Johnny? Murdoch wants ya up at the house.” Jelly spoke behind him.

<><><><> 

As Johnny came in the back door and walked through the kitchen, he could hear voices, one belonging to his father, the other he didn’t recognize. Walking slowly into the great room, he halted as Murdoch looked up.

“Johnny! I didn’t know you were out. Are you feeling alright?” Murdoch asked, concern in his eyes along with a good deal of worry.

Johnny detested the constant fussing over him; it always made him want to turn and leave. It made him feel caged and smothered. He nodded in answer to Murdoch’s question.

“Johnny, this is Pastor Thomas…” Murdoch instantly read the emotions in his son’s eyes and thought it was best if he left the two men alone.

Johnny wanted nothing more at this moment than to bolt. He felt ice forming in his belly and found it hard to look the man in the eyes, but he did. He felt empty and lost. Johnny stared at the outstretched hand and finally shook it.

“I think there’s something that I need to take care of out here,” Murdoch said quietly made his way to the kitchen.

Johnny almost called him back, not wanting to be alone with the husband of the woman he’d been with when she died. What would he tell him? What could he tell him?

“Mr. Lancer…” Thomas began.

“Johnny, call me Johnny, an’… I‘m sorry,” Johnny said, barely above a whisper.

“Thank you, Johnny. My name is David. Please, may we sit and talk?”

Hesitating a bit, Johnny sat on the couch next to Thomas, and the man began to speak.

“I would like to tell you a little about Emily. She was the gentlest woman I have ever met. She was full of kindness, benevolence, and humility…”

“Look, Mr. Thomas, I… I‘m sorry, I did everything that I could, don’t know what more I coulda done, but I couldn’t save her…” Johnny stammered, agonizing for the hundredth time, watching again as the heart-wrenching scene played out in his brain. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, again fighting down the urge to leave the room. His head began to pound, and his belly rolled.

“Johnny, I know that! I am not here to blame or criticize you, Johnny; I am here to thank you. You don’t know it, there’s no way you could know it, but Emmy’s greatest fear was to die alone. And she wasn’t alone, because of you. You were there, and she wasn’t alone. Thank you. I just wanted you to know that. She is at peace now, and she’ll never be alone. You have no idea what you did for her, Johnny, what you did for us. Thank you…”

And rising from the seat, Thomas leaned and put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder, and it was only then that he realized the extent of Johnny’s misery, and he sent up a prayer of support for this tormented young man.

“Bless you, Johnny,” Thomas whispered, then left the room.

<><><><> 

Risking the ire of Murdoch and Sam, Johnny saddled Barranca and almost made it out of the barn before he was seen.

“An’ just where do ya think you’re goin’?” Jelly had just come around the corner seconds before Johnny would have made his escape unnoticed.

“Just getting’ some air, Jelly,” Johnny defended with a heavy sigh.

“An’ how’s come that arm ain’t in the sling?” Jelly challenged.

“Sam said I was ta start usin’ it. I ain’t doin’ nothin’ that’s gonna do it any harm. Honest.”

“Next time you end up needin’ liniment rubbed inta your carcass I’m gonna make it twice as strong and maybe you’ll b’have when ya get all banged up!” And with a loud snort Jelly made his way from the barn, no doubt to get Murdoch after his wayward son.

Before anyone else could stop him, Johnny beat a hasty retreat and was out on the road giving Barranca his head, letting the horse take him wherever it wanted. They wandered for a while and Johnny couldn’t believe how good it felt to be out alone, no one hovering over him, asking if he had pain, did he want something to eat or if he wanted company. He knew they meant well and they cared for him but what he really needed, for a time anyway, was to be left alone; alone with his thoughts, regardless of how tortured and gut-wrenching they were. He had to work it out, himself.

He had given it a lot of thought, in fact, was able to think about nothing else and always came back to the same damning conclusion. He felt guilty for not saving her; he closed his eyes, seeing Emmy before him, eyes wide and filled with terror. 

Barranca kept walking, Johnny giving him free rein as his mind tumbled and swirled as the troubling events crashed around in his brain. And all he could do was let the misery and anguish run away with him. He could not control what he felt regarding this young woman. Where are you, Madrid? Johnny called on the only one he could turn to, the one person who might be able to help him climb out of this pit, this bottomless pit of self-induced torture.

Johnny had never been a religious person although on the occasion when his Mother did attend church, it would be Catholic with a stern priest that always cast wary and cold glances at the young mestizo with the brilliant blue eyes. He’d always heard the saying that the Lord works in mysterious ways and as a child, it was a bit confusing, his life had been very difficult, and he had not felt the presence of God with him at all. His experiences with the church and those who attended were usually unpleasant and left him with unsettling and sometimes scary memories. But lately, that had begun to change.

Johnny felt Barranca had stopped and stood motionless as he waited for Johnny to step down. When he made no move to dismount Barranca snorted and shook his head as if impatient. Opening his blurry eyes, Johnny took note of his surroundings. How unlike Johnny Madrid to lose track of where he was, and it sent a shudder through Johnny’s body as if sliced with a cold knife. But once aware that he was in the courtyard of the old mission, Johnny could only smile a bit at Barranca’s intuitive nature. Damn, the horse is smarter than I am…

Before he could turn Barranca and ride away, he heard his name called softly and followed the pleasant voice to see Father Montero standing in the door of the old adobe structure. He stepped out of the church and hobbled to this wayward son. The old worn, threadbare robe flapped around bare and sandaled feet.

“Juanito! I heard you were ill; how are you feeling, my son?” With kind and concerned eyes, the old priest searched Johnny’s face; he’d heard what had happened and knew, in time, that Johnny would come to talk. Johnny had visited the old priest when things were troubling him, he wouldn’t take confession claiming he didn’t have anything to hide, but the priest did know that at certain ‘crossroads’ in the young man’s life, he did need a sort of guidance, guidance that he usually found by himself with just a small nudge of divine collaboration. Johnny left Barranca standing with reins trailing as he shook the old weathered hand of the priest and followed the old man out of the blistering sun to sit in the shade of an orange tree.

The old padre let Johnny start the conversation, but before any words were exchanged, Father Montero saw the turmoil, the sadness that boiled deep within the deep blue eyes. And he knew what troubled the young man. Johnny sat, not knowing where to begin; he almost got up and left without saying anything. After a heavy sigh, Johnny looked into the kind brown eyes of Montero.

“I couldn’t save her…” he said in a whisper and looked down at the hat in his hands. He turned it by the brim, circling over and over as nervous fingers kept the action going, not letting it come to rest. The old priest smiled sadly, knowing that Johnny wouldn’t be able to let this go very easily.

“Do you think it was up to you to save her, Juanito?”

Johnny looked up as if shocked, eyes wide, fire sparking in them then suddenly it died, the hardness faded.

“There wasn’t anyone else ta do it. Scott went for help. It was just the two of us an’… it happened so quick. She was hurt when we got there but… There shoulda been somethin’ I coulda done different…” Johnny hung his head between his shoulders, hat still circling in his hands and staring at the sand beneath his feet.

“This was not your responsibility, Juanito. Maybe you were only to be there for her, not as a rescuer but be there, so she was not by herself in a cold, strange place.” The old padre stopped; maybe Juanitowould open up and let the troubles in him tumble out. The old priest was a very wise man.
 
“Her husband came ta see me a couple a days ago. It was prob’bly the hardest conversation I ever had in my life.”

The old priest watched Johnny as he said: “Sí, I heard that he came to see you. He is the pastor of the church in Spanish Wells, sí?”

Johnny nodded but said nothing.

“And what did he say, Juanito? The priest knew he had to keep pressing, keep Johnny talking, and maybe something would start to make sense to him.

“He told me what a good person Emmy was.”

Keep nudging; he needs to talk this out!  “Sí, and what else did he say?”

Johnny was silent for a minute before speaking again. “He said her greatest fear was ta die alone…”

And the old priest smiled. There it was! “Juanito, that is why you were there. So she wouldn’t be alone. You were not to save her. No one could have done that, her injuries were too great, but you, Juanito, you were there to ease her fears. Her greatest fear and you granted her the ability to step into the next world filled, not with fear, but peace from knowing she had not been alone. You could not ease her physical pain, but you did save her from her biggest fear. You cannot take this blame and carry it on your shoulders. It is not your burden to bear, but what you can believe with your heart is that she took great comfort you were with her.”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, a lotta good I did her…”

The old Priest smiled again, knowing this would not be easy to get through to this young man. “You will never know, my son; you will not allow yourself to know. Johnny, no one could stop the broken bones from piercing her lungs- no one. To be alone in a strange place without anyone in the cold and dark would have been terrifying, but she wasn’t alone. She had been granted a wish and you, Juanito, were given a great honor to have given her that wish, to ease that fear. This is a very sad thing, but it is not your burden to bear…”

Did he feel better? He didn’t know for sure, but after bidding the old priest goodbye and promising to be there to fix the roof when his shoulder was healed, Johnny mounted Barranca and headed to Lancer.

In truth, his mind was a bit lighter than it had been and thinking about the extent of the injuries Emily had suffered, Johnny knew there wasn’t anything he could have done, so why did he blame himself? It was his nature to protect, growing up the way he did, learning to fight for what was right, he’d developed a strong sense of filling the role of the protector. But, he was learning that he couldn’t save everyone. And he knew the old priest was right. This was not his burden to bear. He did what he knew he could; he tried to save her life, but in truth, her life had already begun to end. He was there for comfort… And that was all.

<><><><> 

It had been two weeks since Emmy died. Scott tried engaging his brother in conversation, which always ended with Johnny excusing himself saying he didn’t want to talk or he was tired, and maybe talk later. But on this night, he spied Johnny on the portico, without his jacket. Now was a chance, and he would not let it slip away.

Johnny heard the door open and close behind him. He didn’t want company, but neither did he want to be alone. And he knew that he should talk this out, but didn’t know what to say. He was drowning, locked in the hopeless tangle of guilt and self incrimination, and desperately needed a lifeline. Father Montero told him it wasn’t his burden to bear, why, then, did he still feel the guilt?

“Here’s a jacket, brother. No sense in catching a chill,” Scott said as he handed Johnny his coat.

Johnny didn’t meet Scott’s eyes. He couldn’t. “Thanks,” he said and took the wrap but did not put it on.

Scott sighed and leaned against the adobe wall. It was clear he would have to start the conversation that his brother wouldn’t. “Would it help to talk, Johnny?” he asked softly.

“Don’t know what ta say, Scott.”

The whispered words broke Scott’s heart. “I think I might know a little of what you’re going through, Johnny. The hopelessness, the guilt of having someone die in your arms and you’re helpless to do anything about it.”
Scott stopped talking and wondered how his statement would be received.

Johnny, at first, said nothing. Then he turned to his brother and met the blue-gray eyes. “Tell me about it, Boston,” Johnny said in his soft voice.

“In the war, a young private fighting next to me had been wounded. We were captured together and taken to Libby. I tried to stay with him and take care of him. Food and medicines were scarce, but he knew I was there with him. Of course, he began to get worse. The conditions were deplorable and gangrene set in. There wasn’t much I could do for him.” Scott stopped, his own demons raised their ugly heads until, with a firm grip and a cleansing breath, he continued.

“The night he died, I thought that maybe he would come out of it. The boy would lose his arm, there was no doubt of that, but he talked of his home and family so clearly, no rambling words or clouded vision. He took my hand and held it firm, he even smiled at me. And then he died, squeezing my hand. He was just… gone.” Scott blinked the moisture away then looked at his brother.

Johnny could feel his eyes welling but could not look away. “How did ya get over it?” he asked, searching for answers.

Scott sighed. “Time. That’s it, Johnny. And I can tell you one thing, though,” he waited as his brother’s eyes desperately sought relief from his hell. “If she could tell you herself, she wouldn’t blame you for what happened, and that,brother, you can believe!”

Johnny closed his eyes, and struggled for control. “Scott,” he whispered, “I know, thinkin’ on it now, that there wasn’t anything I coulda done for her, but that’s a hard thing ta accept when I remember her dyin’ in my arms. Everywhere I look, she’s there, it’s like she watchin’ me. I feel like I’m suffocating an’ there ain’t a damn thing I can do about it! I know all of you wanna help but I… I don’t know what ta do!”  He exhaled sharply, and all Scott could do was to hold him.

“I know, brother, I know. All I can say is that it will pass.  Just give it time, Johnny.”

<><><><> 

The outlaws had been successful in eluding the law and had held up four more stagecoaches after committing the robbery and murder of Emmy. Val was exhausted from chasing false leads, but there came, out of the blue,  a tip that would provide the information to end the spree and land the outlaws behind bars. And, surprisingly, it was Pastor Thomas who provided the clue.

Pastor David Thomas was settling in as the new minister to the Spanish Wells church. Although still grieving for his beloved wife, Emily, he knew that he needed to get on with life; pick up the pieces, and he threw himself into the new church, willing to counsel his parishioners and to build something that he knew Emmy would be proud of.

She was never far from his thoughts, and he’d spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the actions of the man that shared her last few hours. David had kept Johnny in his prayers, knowing that this young man that tried to ease her fears but now was in desperate need of his own. He’d seen it when he met with Johnny to express his thanks. Johnny was drowning in guilt. So, he kept his vigil, hoping the prayers said in private were heeded by The Heavenly Spirit and by an angel named Emmy.

Thomas headed down the boardwalk on his way to the general store in hopes that the order he’d placed when he’d first come to Spanish Wells had finally arrived. The town was busy this morning as the sun showed brightly, providing energy that had absent the last few days. Folks were catching up on errands that had been left undone during the rain that had plagued the area, and there were even a few new faces in town.

As David got to the counter, a man in front of him paid for his purchase and slipped the dollar in change into a money clip. David looked at the clip, and he froze, rooted to the spot. The clip was engraved with a ‘DT’. Emily had given it to him on their second wedding anniversary. The man looked up as David didn’t move out of his way and saw the disbelief on his face and shock in his eyes.

“’Scuse me, Parson…” and waited for David to move. With a jerk, David lifted his head to search the man's face.

”I’m sorry, please forgive me, but where did you get that money clip?” he anxiously waited for the answer he’d hoped for.

The man became suspicious, and his eyes narrowed. “Bought it yesterday from a fella over by Merced. Why?” he asked, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Not breaking eye contact David asked: “Does it say “From Emily” on the back?” his voice barely above a whisper. The man turned the clip over and shook his head.

“Yup,” and, again, suspicion clouded his features. “Why?”

“My wife gave that to me as a gift. It was stolen when bandits robbed the stagecoach she was in. She was bringing some of our things with her. And everything is gone, now. Can you please give me a description of the man you bought it from?” Pastor Thomas asked with a sense of urgency lacing his voice.
It was late in the evening when Pastor David Thomas rode into Green River. Val was about ready to turn in for the night, it was still early, but he’d had a long day, and as he opened the door to leave the office, David Thomas had his hand on the doorknob to open it.

“Whoa, there, Mr. Thomas! Ya alright?” Val asked as he noted the look in David’s eyes. The desperation was unmistakable, and Val knew this was not a social call; something had happened.

Thomas took a deep breath and related what occurred earlier in the day and gave Val the description as it had been given to him by the stranger at the general store in Spanish Wells.

Val wasted no time and charged out the door with Pastor Thomas on his heels. The two men made it to the telegraph office, and Val barged into the small quarters just as Billy was closing for the day. Billy was startled by the sudden motion of the door when it was flung open and banged against the wall.

“Billy, I need ya ta send a message ta Dan Thornton over in Merced,” Val said and wrote it out on a piece of paper and handed it to Billy who immediately started tapping out the missive. Walking to the window while the message was sent, Val saw Barranca tied at the hitch rail alongside Remmie in front of the saloon.

“Billy, I’ll be at the Angels Nest if an answer comes in!”

“Kay, Sheriff. I’ll bring it over!” Billy called to the closed door.

Val, with Pastor David Thomas on his heels, navigated around chairs through the smoke-filled room and found the Lancer brothers at their table in the back. There were a few dubious and skeptical glances thrown in Thomas’ direction, but he didn’t notice, so intent he was on the matter at hand.

The two men each grabbed a chair and sat with Johnny and Scott. Johnny quickly sat forward at first glimpse of Val’s face and seeing David knew there was a sure indication something had come up. Val was the first to speak.
“The Reverend here got us a lead ta the holdup men. Said he was at the general store in Spanish Wells an’ a fella there had a money clip that belonged ta him, a gift from Emily, even had his initials and her name engraved on it. The fella that had it said he bought it off a stranger over in Merced. I just sent a telegraph message ta Dan Thornton an’ I’m waitin’ for a reply.”

Johnny started to get to his feet when Val stopped him.

“Hang on there, amigo. We need ta be sure an’ if it is the ones we’re after Thorton’ll handle things till we get there.”

Johnny remained on his feet, staring down at Val’s tired face. “Yeah, an’ if it is the same ones we could be halfway there ta bring them back!” Johnny countered.

Scott reached up and gently took Johnny’s arm. “Easy, brother, we need to be sure. Sheriff Thornton knows what he’s doing. Come on, Johnny, sit, and relax. No sense running off until we know for sure.”

Johnny, still on his feet, scrubbed a hand over his face in an effort to calm the rage now stormed in his body, racing through him and close to exploding. He pushed his hat back on his head and took his seat with a loud, dissatisfied sigh.

The other three men saw the resolve in the dark and stormy eyes and knew that he was determined to ride and bring to justice the thieves and murderers at this very moment. Scott left the table, returning shortly with a shot of tequila.

Johnny thanked him and promptly downed it, letting its heat spread through him and counteracting the surge coursing through him like lightning. Madrid made an unexpected visit for which Johnny was grateful.

Val knew Madrid would come; Scott was chilled when he saw the change, still having difficulty accepting the violent persona that inhabited his brother’s body. David was stunned, frozen as he watched the frightening transformation. Before his eyes, this man changed into an entirely different person, and this new person was… terrifying. For years afterward, he would still question what he had seen, not believing his own eyes.

Johnny sat staring at the table top and radiated an aura of danger, not for those around him but to those who were the target of the search they were about to embark upon.

Billy stopped at the batwing doors to peer through the smoke and located Val at the back table. He hurried into the saloon and delivered the message directly into Sheriff Crawford’s hand. Val flipped him a coin, Billy thanked him and left. Opening the missive, Val read while Johnny stared a hole into Val’s face. Crawford looked up and met Madrid’s glacial eyes.

“Thornton said that five men were in town but started ta make trouble. He has one in jail an’ s’pects the others ain’t far away. He’s takin’ out a posse in the mornin’ ta round ‘em up.”

Again Johnny got to his feet, and Val shrugged.

“Whoa, there, Johnny. Just go home an’ get a good night’s rest an’ we’ll all ride over there tamorrow. I know that I need more sleep b’fore I go traipsin’ around ta get some prisoners. I ain’t gonna deputize ya till we’re ready ta go so it wouldn’t be illegal, anyways…” Val said, knowing that deputized or not wouldn’t make one bit of difference to Johnny, so he looked to Scott for backup.

Scott caught the plea for help. “He’s right, Johnny. We could all use some rest. We put in a hard day today… Johnny?”

And Johnny met his brother’s eyes, finding the logic and knew Scott was right. And he also saw Emmy’s face flash in his mind and heard her say… They’re right, Johnny, she told him, and he physically winced, shutting his eyes. Scott put his hand on his brother’s shoulder in alarm.

“Johnny? What’s wrong, Brother?” Concern laced his whisper as he knew his brother still suffered from pain sustained from the stage going down the cliff and crashing into the cold river.

Johnny shook his head as if clearing cobwebs, Madrid receded into the background, and Scott knew Johnny was alright.

Johnny gave Scott a slight grin. “I’m fine.” Then he left the table with Scott, Val, and David close behind.

Out at the hitch rail, Johnny vaulted onto Barranca’s back as Val came alongside.

Looking into Johnny’s face, he saw a myriad of emotions. “Ya gonna be able ta ride in the mornin’, amigo?” Val asked.

“Try an’ stop me…” was all Johnny said and turned Barranca toward Lancer.

<><><><> 

He didn’t think he would sleep; he lay in bed for a long time but finally drifted away, probably thanks to Emily’s intervention, and he awoke refreshed. However, when he looked at his watch, it was only 2:30 in the morning. Ok, Madrid, I need some help ta get through the night. It’s going too slow… If it was, in fact, Madrid’s help or not, Johnny didn’t know, but he managed a bit more sleep, until 4:30, and that was enough.

He rolled out of bed, mindless of the shoulder that still ached but other things occupied his mind like getting the bastards that murdered Emmy, today. Pulling on his clothes, Johnny went across the hall and knocked on Scott’s door. A muffled reply was answered, and Johnny opened the door to make sure his brother was awake enough and did not fall back to sleep.

The ride into Green River was fast, Scott could feel that Johnny was pushing, and anxious to bring to justice five men that had mercilessly killed innocent people; especially one and her name was Emmy. Where they didn’t put a gun to her head and pull the trigger, they did knowingly leave her in the coach and push it over the eroding embankment causing her death; an ugly and painful death that Johnny had witnessed as he held her in his arms and promised her he wouldn’t leave her to die alone. Scott knew that her face still appeared in Johnny’s mind, in his sleep, or rather in his nightmares, and it was an impossible situation for him to deal with. He blamed himself for not saving her.

The good Pastor had taken a room in Green River feeling assured that Sheriff Crawford and the Lancer boys would be bringing in the five wanted men. He wanted to be present when they returned to town; he wanted to see them. David couldn’t say why; he couldn’t make any sense of it, but he just wanted to see them walk into the jail and put behind bars. In all honesty, he was having a hard time praying for their souls. He knew he should; he was a pastor. That’s what pastors did. But they had taken Emmy’s beautiful life without a second thought, had actually intended for her to die in the awful crash. How could he pray for those so incredibly cruel, so completely uncaring that they had such disregard for human life?

But wasn’t that what pastors did? And right then, David understood Johnny Lancer’s demons. They were a mirror to his thoughts now.

Val was up, barely, but he was vertical with boots on and a hot cup of coffee in hand when Johnny barged through the door.

“Ready?” was all Johnny said before he was back outside and sitting on Barranca’s back.

Val came out of the office muttering and eyed Johnny. “Don’t cha think we should wire Dan Thornton ta find out if he got the guys last night before we waste all this…”

“I’m goin’, with or without ya. Deputized or not.” And Johnny turned his horse in the direction of Merced.

With a shake of his aching head, Val followed, risking a glance at Scott, who just shrugged.

The three men rode off as David watched from his hotel room window.

<><><><> 

The ride to Merced took longer than what Johnny had remembered. It was hot, and they dared not push the horses any harder. The more time that was spent en route and the more anxious Johnny became. Both Scott and Val were well aware of Johnny’s anxiety, the need to travel faster than what was safe, and the push to see justice done. But they needed to save their horses or not get there at all.

When the town finally came into view, Johnny began to change as if a shade had been pulled down over his face. The tense and edgy countenance had been replaced by cold, deadly control. It rolled off him, tangible and dangerous. They tied their horses at the hitch rail in front of the sheriff’s office and went inside.

Pete Foster sat at the desk, getting to his crippled old feet when the trio entered. “Well, Val Crawford, ya mangy ol’ cuss! Good ta see ya! How’ve been?” Ol’ Pete was watching the place while Dan was still out.

“Hey, Pete! Dan ain’t back yet?”  Val asked but knew the answer.

“Nope, got sidetracked when they witnessed a bank robbery in Atwater. B’sides, the varmints ya want are sittin’ over in the saloon at the end of the street. While Dan went north ta get ‘em, they doubled back here. Good thing ya got here when ya did!”

They turned around at the slamming of the door. Val and Scott raced out the door knowing that Johnny was already on his way to the saloon. Catching up to him, they were able to pull him off to the side before he’d made it very far.

“Whoa, there, amigo. I can’t let ya just walk in there an’ start a gunfight.”

“What’d ya talkin’ about? I ain’t gonna start a gunfight, Val. I‘m a deputized officer of the law… ain’t I?” Johnny asked, looking at Val so innocently, but Val knew better.

“Uh huh. Ya are. What’d ya have in mind ta do?”

“Nothing illegal. Just tell ‘em ta give up their guns an’ no one’ll get hurt.” Johnny sighed deeply. “Look, Val, I ain’t gonna get crazy on this, but lemme do it my way, you’ll be right there…” Johnny held Val’s eyes.

Well, I can step in if he gets outta control… Val knew Johnny had to do this. Maybe Johnny felt that if he arrested the gang that it somehow, in Johnny’s mind, it would redeem him for Emily’s death.

“Alright, Johnny, but I’m right here b’hind ya,” Val confirmed.

“Yes, we are!” Scott joined in determined to keep his brother out of trouble.

Johnny stepped off the boardwalk and headed for the Silver Slipper. As usual, he stopped at the door scanning the crowd and found their quarry from the description that ol’ Pete gave them, sitting at a table covered in empty glasses, bottles, cards, and money.

Johnny slowly entered the dark interior and sauntered up to the table, Val, and Scott following a few steps behind. He stared at the leader with his cold Madrid glare. The man looked up, not happy at being interrupted, and the painted woman on his lap quickly vacated her spot. But he sat frozen by the icy stare shooting out of the deep blue eyes that seemed to hold him physically to his chair.

“What’d you lookin’ at?” he asked harshly, having no idea who he was talking to or what he was in for.

“Oh, nuthin’ much,” Johnny answered softly. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly, but the smile never reached the ice-cold eyes. Johnny continued to stand there as the man glared at him, doing his best to intimidate the man before him. But it didn’t work.

The saloon quieted, everyone there focused on the men at the table.

“I want you men ta put your guns on the table, you’re under arrest for robbery an’ murder,” Johnny spoke softly, just loud enough to be heard by the outlaws at the table. Val and Scott stood ready, for anything.

The leader looked at Johnny with an evil glint in his eye. He tried to laugh at the statement, but it came out strangled and weak. “Yeah? Who’d we murder?”

“A young woman by the name of Emily Thomas.” Johnny struggled with the words.

“An’ just who are you?” the rowdy asked with disdain, looking Johnny over from head to toe then suddenly thinking this could go very wrong for him. The man standing before him had danger written all over him.

“I’m the one that held her while she died.” Johnny’s eyes turned colder.

The outlaw was stunned, No, she was alone in that stage… The shock was plain on his face, but he quickly wiped it away, hoping it hadn’t been seen.

But it was too late, the three lawmen read in his eyes what had not been put into words.  Both Val and Scott would later swear that they actually felt cold waves emanating from Madrid’s body and chilling the air around them as Johnny recounted his last moments with Emmy. It was then they realized exactly what it had cost him.

“I held her as the pain ripped through her, while the stage crashed over boulders, closer ta the river an’ I watched her eyes as a rib tore through inta her lung…” All the while he spoke, Johnny’s voice got softer until he was barely whispering. The tones were delivered into the ears of the outlaws as if guided by an unseen source. “An’ I felt the tremors in her body as she laid in my arms, an’ watched the light fade from her eyes…” The ugly memory seared his brain, boiling to the point where he soon wouldn’t care how this butcher died, he just wanted him to die. Hanging was too good for him, and Johnny really wanted this asshole to make a move for his gun, Johnny wanted to put a bullet in his head.

The cold stare was wearing on the outlaw; he saw his demise in those eyes, the eyes that had him riveted to the chair. He trembled slightly.

Johnny saw it and slipped a lethal smile into place.

The outlaw started to unravel. Could he talk his way out of this? He decided to call Johnny’s bluff, rather, what he thought was a bluff. “You weren’t there! She was alone in that stage!” the stunned outlaw blurted, amazed at his admission to the man standing before him; the man with a shiny star pinned onto his shirt and knew he’d just admitted to committing the crime. The others at the table cringed knowing their fate had just been sealed.

“So, ya knew she was alone, huh? Ya just admitted ya knew she was there; you left her there ta die… Left hands… put your guns on the table. NOW! Gimme a reason an’ I‘m gonna blow your fuckin’ head off, so I suggest that ya do what I tell ya.” Johnny stood, looking relaxed, thumbs hooked in his belt as the men assembled their firearms on the scarred tabletop.

The man stood up, options running through his head. This guy can’t take all of us; he ain’t even got us covered! And the outlaw made the biggest mistake of his entire life. No one saw the blur that was Johnny Madrid’s hand as it went for the gun hung low on his hip and shoot the gun out of the outlaw’s hand before he had even found the trigger.

Johnny was at the man’s throat in a split second. He wrapped his hands around the bull neck and squeezed, enough to make speech impossible and slammed the outlaw into the wall. He felt the air forced out of the lungs in a whoosh. Johnny cursed in a whisper as he pulled the scum away then slammed him, again, against the smoke-stained wood that lined the room.

The room had turned deadly silent when Johnny’s gun went off. The man at the out-of-tune piano stopped the tinny music, poker games were halted, and drinks froze halfway to open mouths.

Johnny could feel his temper begin to run, and he wanted nothing more than to let loose and beat the man senseless. But Scott was there and pulled at Johnny’s shoulders, then dragged him back, away from the man before it went too far.

Struggling for control, Johnny took a deep breath but did not release the man from his black glare. Before his eyes, the man seemed to shrink in size, and Madrid took satisfaction when he saw the shiver that crawled down the man’s spine.
Val sniggered, and Scott sighed, deeply relieved. The man clutched his stunned hand, tremors shaking the paralyzed fingers as pain spread up the man’s arm.

“Ya know, ya oughta be a tad more careful, tryin’ ta outdraw Johnny Madrid! Or are ya just stupid?”

The leader of the outlaws paled, realizing he was lucky to be alive at this moment, but then again, he was going to hang.

<>><><> 

Johnny reached into his pocket and felt to make sure the clip was still there. It had taken a while to find the man, but he did it with a little help. Was it a bit of divine help? he wondered…  Tomorrow he would return the money clip to David Thomas. It would be the least that he could do for the man. Johnny smiled; he knew that the pastor would find comfort having it back in his possession as it had been the only thing recovered from the items that Emily had brought with her.

The night was clear, and the stars were spectacular, shining in their silvery splendor. Johnny never tired of the gorgeous view. The door opened behind him, and he was aware that both Murdoch and Scott came to join him, came to admire the stars that seemed to give them all tranquility and solace. Scott handed Johnny a drink.

“Thanks, Boston,” Johnny said as he took the glass of tequila. It was the perfect night for a drink. The alcohol went down smooth and warmed his belly, spreading through him with a comfort almost as sweet as one of Holly’s kisses.

“You know, Johnny, it’s your turn to figure the ranch ledgers,” Scott said as he watched his younger brother with a look of superiority on his face.

“What? I just did them!” Johnny stared in disbelief as Scott continued.

“Yes, it says in the book, chapter one, page one, that the younger brother shall do all the books until further notice issued by the older brother, doesn’t it, Murdoch?” 

Murdoch joined in the levity, glad to be included, but a bit surprised, not knowing where this was going.

“Yes, yes, it certainly does!” Then slightly turned to Scott and whispered: “What book is that, Scott?”

Whispering back, Scott answered: “Just go along with it, Murdoch, it’s making him crazy!”

Johnny looked at the sky and could have sworn that he heard Emmy say, “It’s in the book, Johnny!”

 

 

~ end ~

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