The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Holding On

Thanks to Cat for the beta

Not necessary but should be read after Echoes in the Night

Keep walkin’, jus’ keep goin’, don’t stop! The mantra repeated over and over in his head. If he stopped, he would die, and he couldn’t let that happen, not with so much at stake. So he pushed himself like never before, to his limits and beyond. He could not fail, it wasn’t an option. The cold froze him to the bone, and he shivered inside the sheepskin-lined coat, but he knew he couldn’t stop. And he would die trying to get the desperately needed help for those who could not help themselves. So he forced himself to move, one foot in front of the other, again and again, moving as quickly as he could despite the cold that scrambled his brain. Was it only a few days ago this all began? It seemed a lifetime ago…

<><><><> 

Hearing the scrape of the rowels against the tile floor, Murdoch Lancer knew his youngest son had gotten home from a long day rounding up strays and branding the circle L of Lancer on the hides.

Branding had always been a give and take time of year. ‘Give’ because it was dangerous dealing with cantankerous animals that were used to living on the range and now suddenly interrupted from a leisurely summer of grazing. Then herded into small enclosures only to be branded with a red hot iron tended to make them a bit testy. But there was ‘take’ as everyone knew it was going to be a prosperous year and that was a good thing.

Knowing Johnny would be going up to his room to get a change of clothing before coming back down and scooting out to the bathhouse before dinner, Murdoch called out before his son had the chance to escape out back to clean up.

“Johnny, can you come here, please?” Murdoch sat at his desk and turned to look out at the vast range, the beautiful pastures, valleys and mountains that was Lancer, one hundred thousand acres of some of the richest land in the San Joaquin Valley. He’d always loved this land, the land that had taken so much from him but now as his sons had returned was giving back, more than he ever expected.

Johnny stopped just inside the room and eyed his father with his dazzling smile, the smile that lit up the patriarch’s heart. With eyes twinkling and dancing with mirth, Johnny looked down at his clothes; they were filthy beyond words. “Dunno, Murdoch, ya might not want me ta come near ya smellin’ like I do!”

Murdoch turned, looking at the dirt and chunks of something he didn’t want to think on for very long that adorned his son’s shirt and pants. Breaking into a broad smile himself, Murdoch hoisted his large frame from his chair.
“Go on out to the bathhouse, Johnny, I’ll get you some clean clothes. Anything, in particular, you want me to bring out?” asked Murdoch as he went for the stairs and Johnny’s room.

“Don’t matter. Long as it ain’t got cow shit on it!” Johnny laughed, escaping out the back door.

Sinking down into the hot water eased the aches and pains from his day and soaked him into a half sleep.

Murdoch made sure to make plenty of noise, discovering from experience that the first thing Johnny did if startled was to grab for his Colt, the gun that was as much a part of him as his arms and legs. He knocked on the door before entering the steam filled bathhouse to find Johnny, slouched neck deep in hot sudsy water. His long, thick unruly hair hung in wet tendrils over his forehead and sides of his face as a large glob of thick soap suds dripped down one jaw into a foam peak floating on the surface of the water. Setting the clean clothes on the bench, Murdoch could see the fatigue on his son’s face.

“What’d ya wanna talk ta me ‘bout, Murdoch?” Johnny asked softly, sounding as if he would drop off to sleep any second.

Murdoch shrugged with a chuckle. “I think it can wait until after dinner, Johnny.” Then he left Johnny to enjoy his soak.

Murdoch could always tell if Johnny was in the house. If the door didn’t slam or he heard Johnny call out for anyone, usually Scott, there was some kind of commotion in the kitchen. Never had Murdoch seen one person in so much trouble; if he wasn’t snitching something from the platters of food about to be served, he was caught sneaking a freshly baked cookie or a finger full of frosting that was to be put on a cake. And often Murdoch heard a solid ‘thunk’ when a wooden spoon made contact in a disciplinary action followed by a very loud ‘oowwwww’.  Scampering footwork with the jingling of spurs to avoid another swat would usually follow.

Murdoch once again thought about how the house had changed, from the quiet almost tomb-like atmosphere to loud and rowdy behavior echoing off the walls, the kind issued from happy families, with about a dozen fourteen-year-olds since his boys had come home!

“Ooowwwww! Maria that hurt!” Johnny’s pained howl rang through the house, followed by Maria’s chastising threat.

“You go and sit! No sneaking food until everyone is seated, niño!” And, of course, this was followed by a string of Spanish babbling from the cook’s lips as she secretly enjoyed the game as much as Johnny did.

Johnny could be heard sidestepping another whack, and with the noisy jingle of spurs, Johnny came scooting into the dining area laughing and rubbing his behind, slowing to a reasonable pace upon seeing his father. Murdoch couldn’t help but enjoy the shenanigans, too, and watching that incredible smile from his youngest son never failed to cheer him.

Taking their seats around the table, they enjoyed the tasty food and each others’ company. Scott and Johnny continued to banter back and forth through the entire meal leaving Teresa in fits of hysterical laughter, wiping her eyes and dabbing at her nose. The once stoic Murdoch even joined in the verbal fray, quickly learning the art and keeping up with his sons. That struck a whole different level of humor when the ‘old man’ joined the sparring.

“Hey, Scott, know what I saw taday?” Johnny asked his once citified brother.
Looking up from his plate, the Easterner looked wide-eyed at his younger sibling. “No, Johnny, but I am sure you are going to tell me, even if I don’t want to know!”

Without skipping a beat, Johnny continued. “Well, I saw some snipe. Now they ain’t real easy ta catch, but I can let ya in on a few snipe secrets. Takes lots a skill an’ patience but if ya don’t wanna know, well, that’s alright, too. But it does take a lotta skill.” 

Scott eyed Johnny suspiciously. “Suppose you just tell me what’s involved,” Scott said with a smile.

Johnny looked mortified “Aww, Scott, ya really don’t get the whole feel of it unless you’re out there! But ya really gotta work hard ta get ‘em. An’ it’s worth the effort, makes ya feel real good that ya took the time ta learn.”

Murdoch was amazed at the ease that Johnny could fabricate these tales and make it sound real. Hell, Murdoch knew what was going on, and he almost believed Johnny.

Drinks after dinner were taken on the patio. This was another pleasantry since the boys returned. Evenings sitting together outside was something that they all looked forward to. The male bonding, father and sons; they all had missed out on many years that they should have had together, and they were making up for lost time. Looking back often brought nothing but pain, but they all realized that they had many years ahead of them, many years together.

“Hey, Murdoch, what’d ya wanna talk ta me about? Almost forgot ta ask.” Johnny turned to his father after taking a sip of his beloved tequila, feeling it spread through his body in a relaxing wave of comfort and warmth.

Setting his glass of Scotch on the adobe wall surrounding the patio, Murdoch began to talk. “Oh, yes. I have an errand for you; actually, it’s more than an errand… It’s a trip.” Murdoch watched Johnny’s face.

He was silent for a minute before he spoke. “I take it its more business than pleasure, huh?”
Murdoch could almost see the invisible shiver race down Johnny’s spine. The boy surely did hate the business end of ranching.

“Yes, Johnny, I’m afraid it is. But you may not find it too unsettling. I want you to take the train out of Green River over to Boulder, Colorado and check on some stock. An old acquaintance wants to get out of the business, and he has made us an excellent offer. But it needs to be done quickly.

“Then I want you to take the stage from Boulder over near Steamboat Springs to the garrison and sign a contract with the Army for cattle and horses. The negotiating is done, just sign the contract. You two have been producing excellent, sound stock and the word is spreading. They need all the horses you can get for them along with our cattle.

“Even with shipping the stock by rail, it’s worth it. Your train leaves in the morning. Will there be a problem?”

Now cornered, Johnny knew he would have to go. Scott was leaving for San Francisco the day after and weighing the two, Johnny figured he got the best of the deal. Shrugging his shoulders, he toyed with a pebble on the ground then met his father’s questioning gaze. “No, it’s alright. I can get it done. What time I gotta be in Green River?”

“Your train leaves at ten, I’ve already got the tickets and here is some money for traveling expenses.” Murdoch handed Johnny an envelope. But  Murdoch didn’t let go of the money as Johnny reached for it until he repeated: “Traveling expenses” to which Scott snickered earning him a dirty look from Johnny.

“No poker games or drinkin’, huh?” Glancing up with his dazzling smile, the smile that had never failed to get his way, his father’s firm expression did not relent.
 
“No.” Spoken with a finality which only served to spur Scott into full-blown laughter, Johnny simply shrugged.

<><><><> 

The train rocked as it traveled northeast through the mountains. The higher elevations had snow, and the scenery was spectacular, views that Johnny had never seen. He wouldn’t mind seeing more of it, closer, hands-on, and personal. He could see a trip here with Scott. It would be too far to go for hunting, but it would be worth it just to camp. He could almost envision riding his horse through these mountains and valleys and, truth be told, he missed Barranca. Before he left the ranch, he made Jelly promise to give him his treat every day, be it a carrot or apple and to watch his fingers. Yes, Johnny would very much like to explore this part of the country.

It was a long and exhausting trip through Nevada and Johnny was glad that  Murdoch insisted he take a heavy coat along. He needed it going through the mountains, but it was stored with his saddlebags under his seat. He sure did not need it now, but Murdoch explained that while taking the stage out of Boulder that they would be high in the mountains and would no doubt get cold.

The train lurched along, chugging its way through the blistering hot deserts and canyons, all parched and dry waiting for the snow in the upper elevations to fall. The countryside was dull, dry and barren much as Mexico and the border towns had been. Everything looked burned. But the warm weather was coming to an end soon, and Johnny was glad this trip was not any later in the year. He didn’t like the cold, and his body was still adjusting to the cooler temperatures of California. Would he really need the cold weather clothes that Murdoch insisted he bring?

The train was not full, and at least the passengers that were there were quiet. He’d taken trips before in overcrowded train cars or stuffed inside a stagecoach with some very obnoxious people. One instance came to mind as he remembered a wife that nagged her husband and after berating him for everything from the bad weather to the mix up with their traveling accommodations and even the way the cook made her dinner the night before, caused Johnny to react in a most direct but audacious manner.

Not able to control his irritation, Johnny leaned forward to touch her arm and asked if she wanted him to shoot the man for her as he certainly seemed a terrible husband. The woman, shocked, fell silent and Johnny winked at the man when he mouthed a ‘thank you’ over his wife’s head.
And there had been others. Of course, thankfully, he’d not had to be confined with them for too long of a time. But you never knew who you would be traveling with. Johnny found that if he could fall asleep and stay sleeping, the trip was a whole lot more acceptable. And although he missed Barranca and being in charge of his own traveling, he knew that this trip would take longer on horseback, so biting the proverbial bullet, he sat on the hard, unforgiving seat and willed himself to relax.

<><><><> 

The third day out, Johnny noticed the mountainsides were greener. The country wasn’t as barren, and as they continued, he was almost reminded of the beauty of eastern California. He would step out onto the train platform between the cars and watch as the mountains slid by but when the unmistakable chug came of climbing upward through mountain passes Johnny was forced to take a seat or possibly be tossed off the side. Scott wouldn’t let him forget that. How does Scott say that? ‘What goes ‘round comes ‘round’… Yeah, that was it! Just like I ain’t lettin’ him forget ‘bout his birthday when he got on his horse backward! The memory of Scott’s birthday and overindulging never failed to bring a huge smile to Johnny’s face. The mere mention of the night was enough to send a visible shiver down his brother’s back and make his belly flip flop recalling the time spent in the outhouse… Oh, what a night!

The conductor told Johnny they were in Utah, had been for the last several hours, and it would be another day and a half before they would reach Boulder, Colorado. The only time the train stopped was to take on water and wood for the engine or to pick up and let off passengers. It would not stop for the night. And even though they picked up passengers an equal amount got off keeping the cars sparsely occupied which was fine with Johnny.

He was about to go crazy. Never having been so confined, except during his days in the Mexican prison which could not even begin to compare, he spent considerable time in the dining car and fortunately they served alcohol.

The conductor kept his eye on the young man, having developed a fondness for him, and upon observing the amount he drank felt sure the young man would not be able to return to his seat unassisted as the train chugged up yet another steep incline. But not only did the young man not need any help, but he was also steady and still light on his feet and could only wonder at the young man’s past for he certainly could handle his liquor.

“Mr. Lancer, we’re only about two hours out of Boulder now. Just thought you’d like to know.” The kindly conductor spoke softly as he passed Johnny sitting at the window.

“Thanks, Billy. Thought I told ya ta call me Johnny…” he said with a smile.

Conductor Billy smiled back, his friendly face reflecting his love for the job and his appreciation of personable passengers. “Against company policy.”

“The train stoppin’ in Boulder for very long?” Johnny asked.

“Only for an hour. That’s the end of the line; we turn around and go back.” Billy said with his smile still covering his face.

“Will ya have time for me ta buy ya a drink when we get there?”

“Well, young fella, I would love to, but I’ll still be working getting ready for the folks going west. But I want to thank you for the invitation; not many folks are that considerate!”

“Well, I gotta tell ya that you made this trip a lot easier for me, thank you, Billy.” Johnny gave him his dazzling smile.

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer! That means a lot to me! You’d be surprised at the number of folks who think that a person in my position is invisible. Then, when someone like you comes along, I know it’s all worthwhile!”

The earlier fatigue that had invaded him had passed as the destination was now in sight. Although viewing the stunning scenery of Colorado, Johnny was more than ready to be off the train. The confinement had been overwhelming and claustrophobic.

Stopped now at the platform in Boulder, Johnny stood and retrieved his belongings from under his seat and made sure that he saw Billy one last time. Approaching the seasoned conductor, he clasped the older man’s hand with a hard shake. “Thanks, again, Billy,” Johnny said with appreciation and warmth.

Billy’s smile lit up the coach. “And thank you, Johnny!” He whispered Johnny’s name, and the two men departed, each feeling privileged to have met the other.

Johnny left the train and stepped out onto the platform heading for the livery.

<><><><> 

The livery was an old building but very neat and tidy as far as liveries went, Pete Connelly saw to that. The building sported a fresh coat of paint, and the inside smelled of new hay and straw. The horses were well kept, and there wasn’t a nag in the bunch, all of excellent breeding and conformation. Johnny was impressed as he looked them over.

“Lookin’ ta buy or rent one a them fine animals?” asked the gravelly voice at his side.  Johnny turned to face a bearded man, probably no older than sixty but looking like he’d been around since the dawn of time.

“Just need one for a day or two. They all available?” Smiling back, Johnny inquired while reading the old man; livery attendants were notorious for overselling their horses, but Johnny sensed the honesty in this man.

Pete shrugged and motioned to the five horses in their stalls on the right.
“Ya can pick from any a these. They’re good stock an’ gentle, ‘cept that buckskin on the end. He’s got a bit of an attitude. Thinks he’s the boss, likes ta run.” Old Pete laughed but was surprised when Johnny walked up to the animal and checked him over.

Johnny ran his hands over the well-muscled flanks and down the strong, sleek neck, coming around to look the horse in the eyes. “The buckskin it is,” Johnny said as Pete looked at him in surprise.

“Ah, you sure, boy? This here horse can get pretty stubborn…”

Pete expected Johnny to change his mind, but he only smiled.

“What’s his name?” he asked.

Pete shook his head and looked down at his boots before returning the eye contact. “Buck.”

Johnny snorted. “Makes sense. Saddle ‘im up; he’ll do fine.”

Pete stood there for a few seconds, then reached for a saddle blanket.

Johnny watched as Buck made a move to kick Pete, but the old man sidestepped. Then as soon as Pete got the saddle in place, Buck turned to give him a nip. Dodging the teeth successfully, Pete led Buck out of the stall as Johnny paid him.

“Where’s the Lucas Ranch?” Johnny asked, and Pete gave him directions.

“Much obliged,” Johnny said as he swung into the saddle and put a stop to Buck’s shenanigans with a bit of a tug on the reins and a sharp whistle. Buck settled his antics and Johnny left the livery, old Pete standing there watching and shaking his head.

<><><><> 

The ride out of town had been uneventful, and Buck behaved himself under Johnny’s skillful hand. Once out on the road, Johnny let him run, enjoying the freedom as much as the horse under him. The air was fresh and cool, the sky was crystal clear, and the sun bright as it bathed the mountains and valleys in comforting warmth.

Mountains surrounded him, stunning in their purples and grays accented with the deep green of the pines. An occasional stream cascaded down the mountainside. The rush of the water created a stark contrast with the surrounding pines making Johnny halt Buck, much to the horse’s dismay, and enjoy the purity of it all. Many times at Lancer Johnny had stopped Barranca on a hilltop or valley to soak up what was around him and appreciate the peace and tranquility of being at that particular spot at that particular time. He enjoyed the sun on his back, so comforting with the chill in the air. He could sit here for hours and just ‘be’. 

Knowing that Seth Lucas was expecting him, Johnny gently spurred Buck forward, and the two continued down the road at a relaxed gait, although Buck pranced, anxious to resume his run. Johnny breathed deeply, the air clearing his muddled thoughts after the days on the train. The mind-numbing, boring hour after hour, confinement in a railroad car looking out the window was enough to make him crazy. He had seen glorious sights, but it was nothing compared to riding through it, riding in it and Johnny was enjoying every minute, noting everything he saw and appreciating the serenity.

<><><><> 

The day was slipping by, quickly now that Johnny was on his own and not relying on someone else to get him to his destination. Twelve miles out of town, he spotted the fork that would lead him to Seth Lucas’ ranch. Reining Buck off the main trail, Johnny took the fork for another mile, and as he rounded the bend in the road a valley opened up before him, making him stop and again, soak it all in.

Sitting much like Lancer but smaller in scale, the log house sat in the middle of a large clearing. It sported several chimneys with a wide porch wrapping around. Smoke wisped out the openings like spirits to be tossed about by the gentle breeze, then to dissipate into the air but leaving a scent that beckoned the weary traveler and promised a cozy ‘touch of home’ and maybe even a full belly.

Johnny approached the house finding the ranch full of activity. Off to the side were barns and corrals filled with horses, and up on the hillsides cattle grazed in knee-deep grass. These were the cattle he was interested in buying or at least some of them. From what he saw, they appeared to be in excellent health and of sound stock.

“Can I help you, young fella?” A cowboy of elder years, Johnny thought him to be of Cipriano’s age, asked as he rode up the dusty path. A slight smile turned his mouth up at the corners. The leathered and lined face spoke of a lifetime working out of doors. The elements had a way of telling tales about a person, and these tales didn’t lie. The man was undoubtedly a very hard worker; his large hands calloused with crooked fingers had stories of their own.

“Yeah, I‘m lookin’ for Seth Lucas. Name’s Johnny Lancer.” Returning the smile, Johnny saw emotions flit through the man’s eyes, then he shook himself free of them and extended his hand to Johnny, his smile filtering back to his features.

“Harley Bennett, I’m Mr. Lucas’ foreman. He’s been waitin’ for ya ta get here.” Johnny took the man’s offered hand and shook. “He’s in the house, come on in.” Harley rode up to the front porch, and Johnny noted a ramp coming down over the steps. Both men tied their mounts, and Johnny followed as Bennett went to the door, knocked a few times then entered.

The house was warm and cozy; it was a house that boasted to Johnny of family and love. A feeling of belonging enveloped him as he moved through the room.

Bennett called out, and soon a man in a wheelchair came around the corner. He, too, was an older man, probably several years older than Murdoch, white hair and mustache, neatly shaved and dressed. The blanket across his legs kept any draft from the confined body, but where the body may have been compromised, the light in the eyes of the man was sharp and clear.

“Mr. Lucas, this here’s Johnny Lancer,” Harley informed his boss.

The man looked up at Johnny as warmth flooded his features, and a broad smile made the eyes squint. “You’re Murdoch’s boy?” It was a statement as much as a question as he grabbed Johnny’s hand with a shake that about took his arm off belying any assumption of frailty on the man's part.

Johnny couldn’t help but laugh as the man seemed to change right in front of his eyes.

“Well, how is that old Scotsman? He still drinking his dinner and causing saloon fights?” His brows rose in anticipation of stories of Murdoch to tell, and knowing that Johnny would be sure to ask, he laughed.

“No, ah, guess he’s learnin’ ta handle things a little more calm like, but I‘m gonna ask about that!” Johnny made a mental note to make certain inquiries.

Lucas laughed as a few rowdy nights they had lived through flitted through his memory. Clearing his throat, he got down to business. “Well, you didn’t come here ta listen to an old man talk about his misspent youth. How would you like ta see the cattle? I’ll have Harley take ya out so ya can look them over.” Lucas looked up at Bennett and nodded.

“Thanks, Mr. Lucas. That’s why I‘m here!” Johnny turned and followed Harley out of the house.

“When you’re finished, come on back to the house for dinner!”

<><><><> 

Retrieving their horses from the hitch rail they mounted and headed out. Johnny followed as Harley led him out of the yard out into a pasture behind the barns. Harley didn’t talk much until they were on a hill looking down at a vast expanse of deep and lush grass dotted with cattle. It was a beautiful spot; it looked like the whole ranch was magnificent. Dense stands of pine, thick green grass, plenty of water and mountains that looked like a picture made Johnny wonder and had to ask. He shook his head and turned to Harley. “Ain’t none of my business but why’s he sellin’ out?” He watched as Harley took his time to answer, it seemed to Johnny that the man was battling some internal demons.

Looking off into the mountains, Harley started to talk. “About two years ago there was a family… tragedy. Mr. Lucas’ daughter-in-law was killed in an accident; the buggy overturned an’ he ended up like he is now. Crushed his legs an’ he’s been in that chair ever since. His son and two grandkids are back East with Carolyn’s family, and as soon as Seth gets the place sold, he’s goin’ to join ‘em.

“Guess it’s just too painful for Joe an’ the kids ta be here where she died. Joe thinks it’d be good for Seth ta be with ‘em. Seth ain’t admittin’ it, but he really don’t wanna leave here. He’s run this place for so long an’ was very good at it, made it work. Now, all it’s doin’ is makin’ him crazy knowin’ he’s leavin’. He ain’t showin’ it much, but it’s eatin’ ‘im up inside. I think he’s just in a hurry ta get the whole thing over with cuz he ain’t askin’ near what the place is worth. An’ since we’re expectin’ early snowfall that means next spring ‘til he could get outta here. Guess he just wants ta get it done.”

Johnny felt the anguish of this man, a loyal foreman who had helped to build this ranch to what it was and now knowing that it was coming to an end. Johnny also knew that to create a place like this, there had been a lot of sweat and blood invested. It was personal.

He sighed deeply, troubled that the deal offered to Lancer was costing these men what they’d spent their whole lives to build. Lancer would benefit greatly, and Lucas and Bennett would lose, almost everything. Guilt was beginning to take hold and root. This morning, Johnny felt good about the deal that Murdoch had struck, but he would bet a lot of money that Murdoch didn’t know the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ because Mr. Lucas was a proud man and would never tell him about it.

<><><><> 

“My son, Joe, was born here and grew up on this ranch but guess he’s ready for a change, now. He doesn’t want his two kids to grow up out here; he thinks that they’ll be better off in the east with their other grandparents, and he may be right. It’s kind of isolated out here for little ones.”

Johnny listened, thinking that Lucas was telling him this in an effort to talk himself into it, to make himself believe it.

“And as Joe is an equal partner, he has a right to want out of it, I guess.”

Johnny wanted to know more, but only meeting this man today he didn’t feel he could ask questions on this personal level. Life was tough; he knew first hand, and a lot of people wanted their business kept just that, their business. So he made small talk, but there was a niggling in the back of his brain. What was trying to make itself known?

Dinner had been delicious, and the apple pie for dessert rivaled Maria’s back at Lancer. Shoving away from the table, Johnny thanked his host and made to leave. It was a long way back to town.

“Nonsense! Stay the night, and you can get on your way in the morning. It’s too late now, anyway. It will be dark long before you can get back there. We have plenty of room. I insist!” Lucas was a persuasive man, and Johnny found himself accepting the welcomed invitation.

He had not reserved a room at the hotel, wanting to get out of town as soon as he could, not realizing how far out the ranch was.

They spent the evening talking everything ‘ranch’. Johnny told him about Lancer and pressed him for stories regarding Murdoch as a younger man. Merida! Scott’s gonna love ta hear about all this! Johnny made a mental note to remember these tales, and the next time Murdoch reprimanded him for something, Johnny would have ‘ammunition’ to fire back.

He turned in that night, and as tired as he was, sleep would not come. The vision of Lucas’ and Harley’s faces kept floating through his head and the sadness that was there burned into his brain and smoldered. Both Lucas and Harley loved this land, this way of life; even now that Mr. Lucas was confined to a wheelchair. This was his land, and it was plain that his heart would forever and always be here. And Johnny then thought of Lancer, taking advantage of the situation, and Johnny’s guilt grew even more. Sleep was not going to be easy tonight… if it came at all.

And it didn’t, but an idea did. From the moment Johnny met Harley and then Mr. Lucas, he felt comfortable. These were good men, working men, and they deserved more from this life. Joe Lucas decided to give this up, and he had talked his father out of staying, but if Joe wanted to take his family and leave, well, that was up to him. The only thing Seth needed to stay was a little backing and a plan. Johnny had an idea that would work. Would Scott and Murdoch, along with Johnny, be up for helping out an old friend?

<><><><> 

He could smell the coffee up in his room. His belly rumbled, and Johnny rolled out of the warm, soft bed, pulled on his clothes and splashed water on his face. When he entered the dining room, Harley and Mr. Lucas were at the table having breakfast.

“Sorry, guess I was more tired’n I thought!” he said with his dazzling smile.
Mr. Lucas was better at hiding his feelings than Harley, the man looked like he’d lost his best friend. Johnny only hoped that this plan would pan out.

“Mr. Lucas, I ain’t one for beatin’ around the bush, so I‘m gonna come out an’ just ask ya a question.” Meeting the old man’s eyes straight on, Johnny continued. “Do you wanna stay here? Or do ya wanna sell out?”

Seth sat, holding his breath. “Well, it ain’t a matter of wanting…”

Johnny smiled and interrupted. “That ain’t what I asked. Do ya wanna sell out?”

Lucas sighed deeply. “No, I really don’t.” The sadness in the gray eyes came close to breaking Johnny’s heart, but there just might be a way out.

“What do you need ta stay?” Johnny asked, coming directly to the point.

Seth’s mind whirled with questions. What is the boy getting’ at? he wondered. But what was there to lose? He answered the question honestly meeting the penetrating blue gaze from his guest.

“Young Joe handled the negotiating and business travel since this…” Seth nodded to his paralyzed legs. “I can’t keep up with the contacts not bein’ able to move around. And,” Lucas cleared his throat and broke the visual with Johnny, embarrassed to admit the lack of money. “I paid Joe for his half of the ranch. Starting to come up short paying the bills and meeting the payroll.”

Johnny thought for a minute then a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Alright, Mr. Lucas, if you can hold on for a little longer, I’d like ta help you. I gotta take the stage ta Steamboat Springs an’ sign a contract with the Army, then will hafta get home an’ have a talk with some folks, some folks that just might be able ta help. What I need from you is ta hold on, an’ don’t make any decisions just yet. Just hold on, alright?”

<><><><> 

Having bought the cows, Johnny left them at the Lucas ranch with instructions that they would be hearing from him when he got back home, and they could arrange for the shipment.

Seth Lucas promised to not make any definite decisions until he heard from Johnny, he began to wonder where all this was going. All Johnny had said was that he might know someone who may be able to help. Help how? Seth wondered. Well, at least he would be staying here longer than he thought. But it was bittersweet. He knew he would have to leave sooner or later. Was this only delaying the inevitable?

Seth Lucas loved this ranch. His Esther had been a young bride here, had borne him a son and had worked alongside him for nearly thirty years before succumbing to fever and losing her battle almost six years ago. She had been buried on the hill out back under the oak tree that she loved so much. Yes, it would be hard to leave here, and his eyes grew misty.

Harley shook hands with Johnny, the developing respect grew rapidly in both men. In Harley’s mind, this was a young fella with a good head on his shoulders, a man who had been honest and kind. This young man had lived through many hard times, had learned from mistakes, and come out of it a better man for those hard times. Harley read it on Johnny’s face and liked what he saw. Johnny Lancer was definitely a good man.

For Johnny, it was, first and foremost, the character, the heart, and soul of Harley. Johnny saw that, not only was he a good and honest man, but Harley sincerely loved the land. He’d been born here and was part of the mountains, the hills, streams, trees, and grass. And he was heartbroken. There was a sadness that emanated from him, a sadness that Johnny wanted to heal. Johnny wanted to help to give back that which was fading away, to mend the tear and stop the bleeding of his soul. Johnny would have to choose his words carefully when he talked with those for help.

The ride back to town was exhilarating, and Buck wanted to run again. But Johnny held back a bit, wanting to absorb more of this country, and feel its magic for it had a healing quality, soothing to the soul and Johnny was touched by the allure and captivated by its stunning beauty. Yes, he could understand why Seth Lucas did not want to leave. He would find a way to help Mr. Lucas, one way or another.

<><><><> 

Boulder was just ahead; it saddened Johnny to know he would be leaving. He would have liked to spend more time at the Lucas ranch and learn more about the man, not to mention more stories regarding his father at a young age. What he did hear was enough to make him know there was much more to know about his father.

Now he steeled his mind having to rely a bit on Madrid and found himself waiting for the stage to take him to the garrison near Steamboat Springs. Johnny had been a bit reluctant to return Buck to the livery, too. He had proved to be a good horse, a tad spirited but a good horse.

Old Pete had been surprised as Johnny rode back into town in one piece. Apparently, the boy knew how to handle the feisty animal, and before he left the livery, Johnny patted the strong neck and mumbled a few words to the horse. Pete watched, fascinated at the rapport between horse and rider and could have sworn that Buck had answered him back.

“That’s a good animal,” was all the young fella said as he paid Pete, thanked him and went on his way.

The stage rumbled into town; dust billowed about the wheels as it skidded to a stop. Two businessmen climbed out of the coach, one holding back to assist a young woman down then turned, and he walked down the boardwalk.

“We’ll be pullin’ out in twenty minutes, folks, twenty minutes!” the driver announced. Johnny headed to the telegraph office. This would give him time to send the messages to Murdoch and Scott. After all, he would need their support.

Twenty minutes later, right on time, the stage pulled out of Boulder heading west toward Steamboat Springs. Tomorrow in the early afternoon they would make their destination. Once more, Johnny found himself confined, and this time, the confines were more severe than the train. But the company seemed to be pleasant enough.

Mr. William Carmody, the businessman that had helped this young lady down when the stage arrived, continued the journey to Steamboat Springs as did the young lady, Mrs. Hallie Richardson. Hallie was on her way to meet her husband, a lieutenant at the garrison. Both were amiable traveling companions; conversations were light and friendly without too much chatter that allowed Johnny to sleep and recover from the night before at the Lucas Ranch.

With thoughts of how to help still swirling in his head, Johnny wondered why it had hit him so hard. But as he thought about the situation, what first entered his mind was the haunted look in Harley’s eyes when he talked about leaving and the feeling that he got when he spoke with Mr. Lucas. The man really did not want to leave the place that he’d built, the ranch he’d sacrificed for, the place where his beloved wife was buried. Pulling his hat down over his face, he crossed his arms over his chest and tried to drift off.

He awoke to feel a shiver crawl down his back. The temperatures had dropped, and Johnny knew that they could be in for some bad weather. He peeked out the window as the stage sped through the mountain pass and craned his neck to peer through the trees at the sky as it threatened with dark ominous and heavy clouds. Johnny, now glad that Murdoch had insisted that he take the heavy coat, slipped into it savoring the warmth that immediately grew around him. He looked at Hallie, she asked they call her by her name; he wondered if she was comfortable.

“Ma’am, are you warm enough? There’s blankets under the seat.” Johnny asked with a smile.

Hallie was taken with his smile, and she almost beamed with his concern. “That would be nice, thank you, and it’s Hallie!” she corrected with a beautiful smile of her own.

Johnny lifted the seat to find the compartment filled with heavy blankets, and as Hallie leaned forward to take it from Johnny, her long coat fell away revealing a very large belly, obviously well along in her pregnancy. She blushed a bit, and with a slight smile, she covered herself, wrapped in the warmth and ‘safety’ of the woolen mantel. “I wanted to make sure to be at the garrison when the baby is born, to be with James.”

“Why, yes, Hallie, that would make sense! And congratulations! I am sorry! I had no idea…” Mr. Carmody offered his apology.

“Oh, that’s alright, Mr. Carmody, think nothing of it!” Hallie muttered, but she seemed thankful that it was now known; why did she feel she had to hide the fact in the first place? She had no idea.

<><><><> 

They stopped to change the team and have a bite of lunch at a way station run by brothers, Chuck and Kip Mason. It was small but warm and cozy, and the food was delicious. A hot stew would warm their bellies, along with freshly baked bread and served with a large piece of pie and hot coffee. Johnny ate his fill, and after thanking the station attendants, he wandered outside to watch the sky. It had begun to snow. Sammy, the stage driver, helped to get the team changed. He had just finished and was heading in to get something hot in his belly.

“How far ta the next stop?” Johnny asked. Sammy never stopped but threw, “Twelve miles!” over his shoulder and disappeared into the station.

Snowin’ now, twelve more miles ta go ta the next stop an’ ain’t goin’ anywhere ‘cept higher into the mountains. This could get… interestin’. Keeping his thoughts to himself, he didn’t want to alarm his fellow passengers, especially Hallie. He’d heard tales of expectant mothers going into early labor upon receiving distressing news, and he really didn’t want to be delivering a baby on this trip. Johnny had never shied away from duty, any situation that required help, but this was something that he just would rather not have to do.

Hallie and Mr. Carmody were getting settled inside the coach as Johnny approached Sammy.

“Hey, Sammy, think we’ll get any heavy snow before we get ta the next way station?” he asked quietly so as not to alarm the other two passengers.

Sammy looked skyward and shrugged. He didn’t want to tell Johnny what he really thought. “Hard ta say but I think we’ll get through alright. It’s gonna get heavier but should make it without too much trouble.” What Sammy neglected to tell Johnny was that his big toe was throbbing and his toe was never wrong. Best not get our passengers in a tizzy, ‘specially the lady! That baby don’t need ta make its arrival just yet! Sammy thought.

Johnny climbed in the coach, and Sammy tossed in a bag containing some bread and leftover meat in case they needed a repast before the last stop for the night, and they started off hoping to make the next twelve miles before trouble set in. Besides, there was help at the way station. Mrs. McMasters had extensive knowledge in most things medical as she was the closest thing to a doctor for one hundred miles in any direction, except for the garrison. However, with any luck, that baby would stay right where it was.

“My, that was a delicious meal! I’m afraid I ate so much that I feel sleepy!” Hallie declared as she put a dainty hand over her mouth to stifle a yawn.

Johnny smiled but said nothing. Mr. Carmody shook his head in agreement and suppressed a belch. They made small talk, commenting on the temperature drop, the beauty of the scenery, mountains so tall, and they wondered how much further they would travel tonight.

Johnny’s mind kept returning to Seth Lucas until he felt their eyes on him, and he realized Hallie had asked him a question. “Sorry, Ma’… Hallie, didn’t get much sleep last night. Guess I ain’t very good company for ya. What did ya say?” he asked as he pushed his hat back on his head and tried to pay attention.

Hallie smiled. “Oh, Johnny, I am afraid I tend to chatter on! I am truly sorry to have disturbed you,” Hallie murmured with a blush.
“It’s alright, no harm done. What did you ask?” he repeated with his charming smile.

“I only asked where you are from.”

“California. Green River’s the only place ‘round that anyone would know about.”

“So, you’re on your way home?” she asked curiously.

“Yeah, bought some cattle in Boulder an’ now I‘m on my way ta the garrison at Steamboat Springs ta sign a contract with the Army for beef an’ horses.”

“Oh, maybe I will see you there! I would like you to meet my husband!” She smiled sweetly.

Johnny liked the woman but secretly hoped that there would not be any invitations to dinner or socializing as he was anxious to get home and talk about the Lucas Ranch with his family.

<><><><> 

The snow was falling heavier now. And the coach began to slip sideways then settle back onto the road, but Sammy kept the team moving forward, albeit at a bit slower speed.  Muddy roads were making travel difficult. Inside the coach, Hallie shivered and Johnny reached for another blanket to wrap around her. Getting her covered and tucked in, she thanked him as he brushed it off.

“That young’n needs ta be kept warm.” Johnny joked with a smile.

Again, Hallie blushed. “Yes, he does seem to be kicking more than usual today! Oh, he’s probably just getting anxious to be with his father!” Hallie chattered.

Inside Johnny cringed. You just stay right where you are, chico!

Mr. Carmody laughed as if he could read Johnny’s expression as he shared Johnny’s same thoughts.

Their conversation quieted as two of the passengers were lulled into sleepiness, but Johnny began to notice the speed decreasing. He sensed there would be trouble getting through to the way station where they should be spending the night. He risked a look out the window and pulled the shade up just as the driver pulled the team to a stop. Suddenly shots rang out, and a large shape fell past the window.

Tom Gentry, who had been riding shotgun, plunged into the snow and mud in a heap and didn’t move. Sammy tried to settle the horses as they pranced in the traces and shouts cracked through the cold thin air.

“Throw down your guns! That didn’t hafta happen! Toss out your guns before we shoot you, too!” The orders issued from a masked man holding a gun aimed at the coach window.

Johnny sized up the situation quickly as he grabbed for the extra blanket he’d wrapped around Hallie. “When they come in here tell ‘em I been sick! Don’t ask, just do it!” Johnny commanded as he lay on the seat as best he could and covered up with the blanket. He unbuckled his gun belt and tucked it between his body and the back of the seat, keeping the pistol in his hand hidden in the folds of the blanket.

The stage door was yanked open, and a man with a bandana covering his face and a gun in his hand yelled in a gruff voice that brooked no resistance,
“Come on outta there!”

Mr. Carmody stepped down and turned to help Hallie out of the stage and into the snow and slush in the road. Johnny could tell this wasn’t going to end well; he listened as the horses were unhitched and led away, that meant the outlaws would be taking their only way out of these mountains.

“Everybody out! You too!” he bellowed, aiming the pistol at Johnny’s inert body.

Hallie spoke up. “He’s been sick since we left the way station. He passed out a few hours ago!” She sounded desperate. The outlaw stepped inside the coach and lifted the blanket, quickly assessing the man lying there and saw no holster or pistol on the man’s thigh then threw the covering down. “Where’s his gun?”

“They put it up top along with the other luggage.” Mr. Carmody answered.

Satisfied, the outlaw turned his back and began to step down to the road. Heart thudding, Johnny thought it’s now or never! He silently got to his feet as he brought the gun up to aim out the window, quickly sighting the second outlaw holding a rifle on the driver. Johnny pulled the trigger, hitting the second man in the middle of his forehead. A crimson spray with bone and brain matter painted the snow as he tumbled backward off his horse. The animal pranced recklessly, and finding no resistance on the reins, took off at a gallop.

At the same time, the outlaw that had just exited the coach turned, he leveled his gun at the threat behind him, and Johnny’s bullet hit him through the heart. He stood for a full five seconds, literally dead on his feet before he fell in a pile next to Hallie. To her credit, she never screamed, only went white as Mr. Carmody placed his arm across her shoulders and steered her away from the grisly scene.

“You okay?” Johnny questioned as he quickly retrieved the guns from the downed outlaws. Coming to stand on the other side of Hallie, Johnny touched her shoulder.

“Hallie? Hallie, look at me.” Johnny said softly in the tone he reserved for those in need of calming be it the four-legged or two-legged kind. Whatever they were, it always worked. Hallie turned her large shocked-filled green eyes on Johnny, and she swallowed, taking in a large gulp of air.

“Yes, Johnny, thank you…” she murmured.

“Let’s get her back in the coach so she can sit an’ get warm,” Johnny spoke to Mr. Carmody. Between the two men, one on either side, they were able to shield her eyes from the bloody mess in the snow as Mr. Carmody got in the coach and turned an outstretched hand to grasp Hallie’s as Johnny assisted from behind. Climbing in after her and making sure the right side shades had been pulled so she couldn’t see the gore, Johnny proceeded to wrap her with blankets as she began to shiver, as much from fright as cold.

Stepping out of the stage, Johnny collected any other pistols and rifles that he found. He looked up at the driver’s box, seeing what he expected but hoped not to find. Sammy half sat half slouched having taken a fatal shot to the chest; he bled out quickly.

Climbing up onto the stage, Johnny pulled the body across his shoulders. He carefully climbed down and eased Sammy’s body next to Tom Gentry’s. Johnny would have to drag them and the two outlaws away to bury them as best he could. The third outlaw had not come back after making off with the stage horses, especially after the people on the stage had been able to dispatch his partners. His best hope had been to leave, with those horses and not come back, stranding the passengers to fend for themselves.

Bracing himself and with no other choice, Johnny took what could be of some use from all the bodies. Boots, dry socks, gloves, coats, anything. He carefully searched pockets for matches and knives. Then he looked inside the boot at the rear of the stage. Apparently, Mrs. McMaster had sent for a few things, and the stage would deliver her order. Well, she would still get her items, albeit used.

Johnny found a large kettle and a few supplies. Also, there was a large piece of canvas and a few tools. He didn’t think that Mr. Carmody looked much like one who could use a tool, but you never knew, he could have grown up a farm boy before making himself a success in the city.

Johnny then gathered rocks to form a circle and started a fire. He melted snow for water in the kettle and brought all necessary items into the coach. Then he took stock of what they had. With a smile on his face, he looked at Hallie hoping that she’d come out of her shock. He saw a slight upturn at the corners of her mouth and Johnny was relieved. She would do fine out here as an Army wife; she had grit. “Gonna go up top an’ get your luggage down, maybe there’s somethin’ in there that’ll keep ya warm till I get back.”

“Get back? What do you mean ‘get back’? From where? We’re in the middle of nowhere!” Mr. Carmody began to protest.

Johnny was calm with his explanation, but blunt. “Mr. Carmody, we’re halfway between relay stations. We got no horses and little food. No ones gonna know we’re missin’ for a long time.” Speaking more with his eyes than words, Johnny slightly canted his head to Hallie as she sat resting with eyes closed.

“I figure I can make it back ta the station we left this afternoon if I keep walkin’. Goin’ back down will be easier than goin’ further up into the mountains, chance for more or heavier snow will be a lot less.” Johnny smiled again and then climbed up to retrieve their luggage.

“Johnny!” Hallie called as Johnny was closing the coach door, he turned to face her and smiled. “Johnny, there’s a scarf that I made for my husband in my traveling bag. I think you can use it more right now. Bring me the bag, please.”

After getting the luggage from the top Johnny stopped and took off his coat. He then crossed the gun belts of the outlaws over his chest like shorter versions of bandoliers typical of Mexican soldiers, he then retrieved his coat, slipping it on his shivering frame.

Taking the canvas and unfolding it, Johnny was relieved to see it would cover the side of the stage. Tying it off on the luggage rails on top of the coach and on the wheels at the bottom, the canvas worked to block the wind from the north.

“Got some flat rocks heatin’ by the fire, wrap ‘em up and bring ‘em in here ta set your feet on. It’ll help keep the cold away. Here,” Johnny said as he handed Carmody a large skinning knife he’d taken from one of the outlaws.

“This is the best we got for choppin’ wood. You’re gonna hafta keep that fire goin’. Don’t know if ya can use any of the rest a that stuff but there’s some tools. There’s a few supplies here in this bag. Found it in the boot behind the coach. Can you use a gun?” he asked Carmody. Seeing the look of dread in the man’s eyes, Johnny handed over a rifle with a box of shells and Sammy’s pistol.
Taking one last look around to see if anything more could be done, Johnny shrugged with a sigh. “Guess that’s all I can do for right now…”

“Johnny, wait, I want you to know how grateful I am for all you’re doing…” Hallie said with a look of concern for him in her eyes.

“You just take care a that niño, that’s all the thanks I need.” And with a dazzling smile and a nod to Carmody, Johnny stepped out of the coach and closed the door behind him.

<><><><> 

The snow kept falling, even as he walked down the mountain. The storm was overtaking him, and he knew that this was going to be a struggle. He wondered if he would make it. All he could do was try. Then he thought about the baby that Hallie was carrying and he picked up the pace. One foot in front of the other, not letting himself think about how tired he was or how cold he was. Get help, keep going.

Johnny tightened the soft, heavy scarf around his neck, tucking the ends down inside the layers of clothing. It shielded exposed skin against the bitter cold that threatened to sap his energy and slow him down. He was shivering inside his coat and wished he’d taken more time to go through his saddlebags and put on another pair of long underwear. But he didn’t. Just keep walking and don’t think about it.

Dusk settled in, the weather continued to deteriorate, and the temperatures dropped quickly. The swirling snow prevented Johnny from seeing very far ahead, Hell, he didn’t know if he was still on the road, but after walking a bit to the right he felt large rocks almost as if in a line and figured that it signified the edge and beyond that was the steep slope off the side of the rut-filled road. As long as he could feel those ruts that they cursed while in the coach, he would be alright, that is until the snow got too deep.

He figured he’d been gone about three hours now and wondered how Hallie and Carmody were faring. At least they were relatively safe; out of the wind anyway, and Johnny felt relieved about that. He’d done all that he could for them and hoped that Carmody could keep that fire going. If they could keep those rocks hot, they had an excellent chance of staying warm. Warm. That sounded pretty good right about now. How long had it been since he felt warm?

He was glad that he’d taken dry socks with him; in fact, he had taken the boots of one of the dead men that were larger than his, had put on a second pair of socks and slipped the bigger boots on his feet. He kept his hands in the pockets of his coat, that would be as warm as they would get out in this cold damp weather. His breath was freezing on the stubble of beard that was growing close to the skin of his face. It made him colder. Taking his hands from out of the protection of his pockets, he readjusted the scarf, pulling it up to cover his mouth and cheeks hoping that the mantle would stave off more of the chill.

It was slow going, the snow now deep enough to impede his progress. He stumbled and slipped often going down on one knee before regaining what balance he could. His mind began to wander. What the Hell am I doin’ out here? Fuck, it’s cold! Mexico ain’t like this… Guess I ain’t in Mexico no more… Then his mind filled with the picture of a young woman with green eyes wrapped in a blanket and he remembered just what it was he attempted and he picked up his pace having no idea if he was even on the road any longer. With snow was getting so deep, he couldn’t feel the ruts under his feet anymore. Chills ran down his spine, his body felt stiff and slow, but he kept walking, kept holding on.

How far is it? Is what? Where ‘m I goin’?  Scott, is Scott gonna be there? Prob’bly workin’ on that damn book again. What the hell’s he gotta write a book for anyway? That first chapter must be a big one, seems like everything's in that damn chapter one, page one. He makes up shit as he goes ‘long, so no rules are gonna make any dif’rence. Wish he was here, sure would like ta see ‘im again even if he is a smartass.

Pieces of Johnny’s past kept tumbling through his brain. Scattered and blowing around, he couldn’t latch on anyone thought; they skittered in and then were gone. Val, what was he doin’? Probably sitting at the Angels Nest having a beer, flirting with Lilly or Cindy. That’s good. Gets Cindy offa my back. Why would I want Cindy ta leave me alone?... Holly, that’s why! Holly! The name hit him with the force of a punch to the face. Holly Elena Vasquez. His concentration vanished, just beyond his grasp as shivers ripped through his body threatening to overpower him and take him away, maybe someplace warm… But the snow swirled in front of his face, and he didn’t think that he would be any place warm for a while.

What’m I doin’? It was if a light went on in Johnny’s head. Had he been sleeping? No, how could anyone sleep when they’re standing in thigh deep snow. Keep walkin’, just keep puttin’ one foot in front of the other, don’t stop, keep goin’. The mantra kept going through his head over and over. If he stopped, he would die, and he couldn’t let that happen, not with so much at stake. So he pushed himself to his limits and beyond.

He could not fail. He remembered the two people counting on him, sitting stranded in the stage, the stage that had no horses to take them to safety. The only thing that they had was Johnny, trying to get help. Johnny stood and shook his head. How much farther was it to the relay station? He had no idea where he was or if he was going in the right direction.

His brain was numb with cold, and the chills consistently made runs up and down his body. Hell, even his guts felt like ice! Snow continued to swirl around him, preventing him from seeing anything up ahead. His eyes watered freezing on his long lashes, and he would have to rub them clear, or they would freeze shut. He swore he could feel ice crystals in his blood, feel his blood freeze as it slowed in his veins, thick and cold.

It was entirely possible he was going in circles although he had not encountered any trees in his path and that was a good thing. Keep goin’, Madrid. Madrid? Why did he think of Madrid now? Was this his past flashing before his eyes? Nope, ain’t ready ta go just yet, there’s a few things I gotta take care of first. Baby… BABY? What baby? … Oh, yeah, Hallie’s waitin’ for me ta get help. Mierda! The kid’ll be walkin’ by the time I get back there. Get goin’, Madrid!

The night wore on agonizingly slow, the cold numbed not only his body but his mind, too, keeping him in a constant fog so that nothing seemed clear, no sharp thoughts only fragments of people in his life, incidents, and memories. His mother’s face loomed before him, her beautiful features smiling and cajoling him to do something for her before beckoning him to come to her then suddenly fading away.

“Wait! Mama! Where… are you? Wait!” Then out of nowhere, he saw a man standing before him with a hole in the middle of his forehead, a blank stare in his eyes, and then he fell at Johnny’s feet on a pile of other bodies, but when Johnny looked down, he saw nothing but snow, no bodies, no blood. Johnny looked around to see if they would reappear but then shook his head to clear the cobwebs, cobwebs that had grown thick, and muddling his thoughts. He rubbed at his eyes again to brush the ice and snow from his lashes, leaving the blue pools red-rimmed and irritated, watering again only to re-freeze. His breathing rasped in his throat, and his lungs ached, but miraculously, he could still feel his fingers and toes.

Maria watched her son stumble and fall only to rise again, time after time as he tried to walk longer, further to get help for the others. Where had he learned this compassion, this caring, and she felt ashamed that it was none of her doing. But she was very proud of the man he grew to be, very proud, indeed. And she would help him to complete his journey even if she hadn’t been there when he was small, when he needed her the most. But she was here now.

“Juanito, keep going, you can do this thing, I know you can. You are a strong man and good. That you help other people only tells me how noble and honorable you turned out to be. I am sorry, niño, that I was not there for you, to teach you these things and that you learned them without my influence only lets me know that you really never needed me. You could do all these things on your own.

“No! I n-needed you! Always, I needed you…” Johnny yelled into the wind, the words blowing away, ripped out of his mouth and gone.

Maria smiled. “No, hijo mio, you do not need me, but I will be here to watch over you and do now what I should have done many years ago.

Johnny kept walking, on and on, step after step. He pushed himself as never before. That baby depended on him. The night dragged, the cold chilled through to the bone, and Johnny Madrid Lancer kept on walking. Hold on, just hold on… His chest felt like it was on fire. He tried taking a cleansing breath but broke out in a ragged cough, and pain seared through him, making his eyes water more. He rubbed them clear and kept going forward. With the wind howling around him and snow falling deeper and deeper he made one foot go ahead of the other, keep on going, hold on…

Johnny lost track of time throughout the night. Surely it would be light soon… wouldn’t it? He thought, struggling to stay alert, as alert as humanly possible at this point. He’d taken very little food leaving the most of it with Hallie and Mr. Carmody. Hallie needed it more than any of them Johnny knew so he took only a few pieces of jerky and a canteen of water. It was all gone now. He was burning more energy than what he was taking in, and if he didn’t get food soon he would freeze after collapsing in the snow, exhausted, pass out, the snow would cover him, and he would freeze to death. Fuck! Stop thinkin’ ‘bout that! Scott needs me for a… what did he call it? Oh, yeah, a resource for that book he’s writin’ ‘bout bein’ a big brother. I can’t freeze! How’s he gonna finish that book without me?

As he staggered along, the footsteps became more and more erratic, until finally he stumbled and fell. He rolled face up looking at the swirling snow, almost hypnotizing as it blew in tiny whirls above his eyes. The early morning light struggled to break through the heavy snow-filled clouds hanging low on the mountainside began to overcome the dark.

Johnny had to concentrate on what he was looking at, what was it? His numbed mind wondered. A thin amber streak ran down the rock wall; he stared, thinking that he should know what it was, but his head was foggy, his body stiff and cold. He forced himself to his feet, eyes never leaving the amber color, he stood swaying until the reeling stopped and lurched unsteadily to the rock mesmerized by the yellow shade.

A crack in the rock above the yellow leak opened, and as Johnny got closer, his brain registered what he was seeing. A beehive within had leaked honey that had hardened on the rock face. Johnny reached in the crevice and his gloved fingers closed on honeycomb. There were more dead bees than alive, and those were barely moving, sluggish in the winter weather and the bitter cold. Johnny was able to break off a sizable piece of comb, hauling it out of the hive, and bit off a chunk. The honey, although very thick, and the comb hard and waxy, lit off an explosion of taste igniting his brain to register food. Honey was high in energy, and as Johnny chewed the wax comb, the honey flowed down his throat into his belly, too long empty, and instantly into his bloodstream.

He slowed as his belly started to rebel at the richness that invaded with a tangible punch, but quelled after a bit. Johnny couldn’t figure if it was his imagination or if he really could feel it travel through his veins, but quickly he regained a degree of mental clarity. He took another bite. “Here’s somethin’ for that book, Scott, an’ this goes ta the top of page one, chapter one,” Johnny mumbled to himself. He sat for almost twenty minutes and let the blood flow through him before he got to his feet and began the arduous trek through thigh deep snow.

<><><><> 

The sky continued to lighten, and the snow finally tapered off, no longer the blinding, blowing solid curtain that had lasted all night. Johnny’s brain became more alert and allowed coherent thoughts and reasoning. He began to function as Johnny Madrid Lancer, albeit still hungry, cold and exhausted, but the survival instinct was working without the fog and haze that had hampered him throughout much of the night. Taking a clearer look around him, he tried to estimate where he was and figured he must still be on the road.

Maria smiled, very proud of her son…

Johnny looked behind him and saw the mountains reaching up and fading out, still covered by the low clouds. Hallie and Carmody! Had they survived the night? All Johnny could do was to keep going, one foot in front of the other, keep going and try to forget the cold and hunger. Sooner or later he would get to the relay station and help for the stranded pair on the mountain would be on the way. The snow wasn’t quite as deep here and, where any speed was impossible, he could ‘wade’ through easier than he had higher up on the road. The sun had been up, but the gray clouds still overpowered any sign it would shine. Johnny wondered what time it was. Dios, ‘m tired, gotta be getting’ close… don’t I? But he kept walking… and walking.

The scream pierced the frigid morning air, shattering it like glass. MIERDA! Johnny looked around for the cat knowing that it, too, had to be hungry. Wastin’ time on me, I been starvin’, just like you!  With no sign of the mountain lion, Johnny kept going, no other reasonable choice available to him. He put one foot in front of the other and thought about home, his family, and his desire to be back there.

Sleeping in his own bed and riding his own horse. Barranca! What he wouldn’t give to have the cantankerous and spoiled horse give him a head butt! He would brush the golden coat until it gleamed in the sun and ride him at full gallop until he stopped of his own accord, satisfied and winded. Then Johnny would see to it that Barranca got his treat, maybe even two of them. How about an apple and a carrot? The horse was exceptional, he was smart, and Johnny loved that animal and Barranca knew it.

Maybe Teresa will make me a chocolate cake for dessert after dinner. Better keep an eye open for that damn cat, Madrid, getting’ kinda sloppy here. His mind began to wander again, cold piercing into his brain and again, a scream, this one near! Son-of-a-bitch! Told’ya ta keep an eye out for that cat!

The noise was now deafening, and he waited for the fatal slice to his neck where the teeth would sink into his flesh and not let go until he ceased to draw a breath. But the pain never came. He opened his eyes, a large shadow loomed above him, and as he blinked to clear his vision, the shadow became a man. He had made it…

<><><><> 

They pulled him out of the snow where he’d fallen and helped him inside the relay station. The men dragged him over to the fire and laid him down on the rug as close to the warmth as they could. Station attendants, Chuck and Kip Mason, stripped the frozen coat off the shoulders and unwrapped the scarf from around the man’s face.

“Hey! Ain’t that one a the passengers that came through on the way ta McMaster’s relay yesterday?” Chuck asked his brother.

“You’re right! Something musta happened, he looks like he’s come a long way, it’s a plain miracle he made it back here! We gotta get out there! Hey, he’s startin’ ta come out of it! Look…”

Johnny groaned, his lashes fluttered open to reveal bloodshot tired and confused dark blue eyes, wider now as he realized that he was not out in the snow. He tried to sit up but found strong hands steadying him, holding him down.

“Kip, get some a that stew an’ the jug,” Chuck said as he covered Johnny with a blanket.

“Need… help, they’re still up there… in the coach…” Johnny choked out.

Chuck’s heart dropped to his feet. “What happened?” he asked, risking the question that just might make this young fella want to try to get up there after any potential survivors.

Kip returned with a plate of stew that smelled to Johnny as if would be the best meal of his life and a jug with a drinking glass. They gave Johnny small amounts at a time in between the telling of the horrific events that lead to this moment. Amazed, Chuck and Kip watched as Johnny revived a bit right before their eyes. With each mouthful of stew, Johnny grew stronger, and a sip from the glass brought a fire burning back into Johnny’s belly.

“Look, we gotta get up there! Carmody an’ the lady were still alive when I left ‘em an’ she’s pregnant. I ain’t leavin’ ‘em up there ta freeze ta death…” Johnny stated, adamant that something be done and now.

“We’ll go but you ain’t in no shape…” Chuck started not realizing the determination of the man he was arguing with.

“I’m goin’. Just get me some dry clothes.”

Chuck shook his head. There was no time to discuss this. They had to get up to the stranded coach.

“Kip, hitch up Big John an’ Smoky ta the snow wagon. I’ll get blankets and supplies ready.” Kip left out the door. Chuck looked at Johnny as he slowly got up off the floor. “Alright, Mr. Lancer,”

“Johnny,” Johnny stated, and Chuck had to smile.

“Alright, Johnny, come on in here an’ I’ll see what kind of duds we can find for ya ta wear.”

Within an hour, the snow wagon, equipped with skids instead of wheels, loaded with food and blankets, pulled out of the yard hitched to two powerful draft horses. The wagon slid on top of the snow not hindered by the bogging depth, and the shaggy horses seemed happy to get out and on their way.

As Johnny had insisted on going along, he did have to make concessions. Confined to the back of the wagon wrapped in blankets on top of a bed of straw, he fell asleep quickly, rocked by the gentle glide of the skids over the snow. With the hot meal in his belly and a few sips of homemade ‘shine’, it didn’t take long for him to succumb to the lulling sway of the wagon. It was very slow going and not knowing exactly where the stage had been when it was held up, there was no way of estimating when they would get there. The three men in the wagon only hoped it would be in time to save the man and young woman trapped in their snowy prison and hopefully not a grave.

<><><><> 

Chuck looked in the back of the wagon as Johnny slept, wondering at the fortitude, the drive of this young man. He’d obviously walked all night and very lucky he made it when he did. He wouldn’t have lasted too much longer, but as he watched the tracks in the snow, they were relatively straight except when he’d fallen. Chuck noted the slight detour to the rock wall where the beehive was and found it surprising that Johnny had the awareness to raid it for food. The art of survival was no stranger to this man, and that was a fact!

The clouds began to break as brilliant sunlight flooded the mountains with blinding clarity. Chuck and Kip pulled their hats down low to ward off much of the glare and arranged their thick woolen mufflers higher up on their faces. Men had been known to go blind from overexposure, the brightness as intense as an explosion burning the retinas of the eye, so they limited it as much as possible.

“Not too far from the halfway mark,” Chuck commented after many hours of travel. “We ain’t gonna make it back before dark if we keep goin’ but if we don’t keep goin’ those folks on that stage may not make it. With the stage horses gone, we’re gonna hafta keep on ta McMaster’s an’ hope that the snow don’t get much deeper. Don’t ever remember the weather bein’ this bad this early!” Chuck continued to wonder about the young man in the back of the wagon; the will and guts it took to commit to this journey and the tenacity to keep on going were nothing short of miraculous.

The halfway mark was several miles behind them. All of Johnny’s tracks had been long covered by the early season snow storm. Chuck wondered about the stage, knowing that it would be a while to get the road cleared and another team of horses brought in to drive the stage out. No doubt word had already been sent that the coach was late and to discontinue any scheduled trips.

A groan from the back disturbed his thoughts and turning he saw Johnny trying to focus his eyes and remember where he was. The gentle swaying told him he was not in bed, and the cold air that went into his lungs meant he was still outside, but something was different. He was warm… that meant… And he tried to move. The moan escaped his lips, and he opened his eyes a bit wider. Where the Hell am I now? He wondered until looking up, he saw a vaguely familiar face watching him.

“Hey there, Johnny! Glad ta see you’re still with us!” Chuck exclaimed.

Johnny looked up, way up, peering at Chuck as if he were upside down. When he remembered the events that led to them here out in the cold, he quickly sat up and looked around.

“Any sign of the stage yet?” Johnny asked, anxious to see that Hallie and Carmody were safe.

Chuck shrugged. “We gotta be getting’ close, we passed the halfway mark a coupla miles back… Ya just take it easy, Johnny. We found ya more dead than alive. Hey, Boy, ya made it back ta the relay station! On foot through the storm!” Chuck grinned at him as if he should be proud of the accomplishment.

I’ll start grinnin’ when I see ‘em alive… Johnny thought to himself. He settled back into the straw and waited, trying to remember. He was glad that Chuck had faced forward again as Johnny physically jumped. He remembered talking with his mother! Maria had been with him, watching over him, protecting him… Mama… She was as beautiful as he’d ever seen her, and part of that was due to the love he saw in her eyes.

<><><><> 

Darkness was settling in around them and, as expected, the temperature fell, not as cold as last night, but it was damp and cut to the bone. Johnny still lay in the back of the wagon, his body resting as the ordeal of walking through the night and part of the morning had sapped every ounce of strength out of him. Sleep continued to call out to him even now after the bit that he’d had, he felt like he could sack out for a week straight. Wonder what Scott’s book would have ta say ‘bout that? Johnny thought with a slight upturn of his lips. He wondered again what his family was doing at this moment. Mierda! Seth Lucas! He’s waitin’ for me ta contact him, damn!

“Any way a getting’ word out at the next relay?” Johnny asked.

Chuck turned in his seat, barely making out the man lying in the straw covered with blankets. “No, McMaster’s is only a relay, no telegraph. Gonna hafta wait till ya get ta the garrison.”

”Hey! I think I see the stage ahead!” Kip howled, the vapor from his breath hovering around his head.

Johnny shot up out of the straw and blankets looking between the two men on the wagon seat. A dark hulk sat ahead in the road looking abandoned and half covered with snow. Johnny’s heart thumped against his ribs, hoping against hope… Were they still alive? He could see no fire but really didn’t expect it to be still burning, with the snow so deep Carmody wouldn’t have been able to feed it all night and all day.

Kip pulled Big John, and Smokey to a stop and the two men climbed down from the box as Johnny vaulted over the side sinking more than mid-thigh into the snow. His fatigue strangely vanished for the moment. Passing Chuck and Kip Johnny reached the stage door, tugging it open as it dragged across the snow drift in front of it plowing it to the side. There was no sound and no movement to indicate that there was anyone there.

“Hallie? Carmody?” Johnny called out softly, but there was no answer. He stepped into the coach, taking a lantern that Chuck handed him and saw a pile of blankets covering a mound in the corner. Steeling himself for what be found under the woolen mantle, Johnny gently pulled aside one corner as Chuck stepped in behind Johnny to be there should he need assistance.

“Hallie? Carmody?” Johnny repeated as he shined the lantern in the corner. Handing the light to Chuck, Johnny moved in closer, taking his gloves from his hands to remove yet another layer of covering. Johnny’s breath caught in his throat as the pale face of Hallie looking as if in sleep appeared, and he gently put his fingers against her neck. It was faint, but a pulse still beat.

“She’s alive…” Johnny whispered, awestruck and thankful and now hoped again, that he wasn’t too late. Yes, she was still alive but would she live? He wondered. Johnny pulled more of the blanket away as Carmody’s large bulk sat tucked in the corner, eyes open, staring at nothing. The man looked dignified even as death claimed him, freezing his right side solid leaning against the side of the coach as he sat protecting the young woman and the life within her.

“Nothin’ we can do for him, but Hallie’s still breathin’, let’s get her outta here!” Johnny spoke quietly as he and Chuck gently moved the woman from the cold arm that had sheltered her through the night. Kip was outside as Chuck and Johnny handed her through the stage door and as Johnny jumped out, he made for the wagon to prepare a place for Hallie. He spread a double layer of blankets for her to lie on. As the two men handed her into the wagon, Johnny took her shoulders as Kip vaulted into the straw bed and helped to settle her. Johnny covered her with as many blankets as he could, and after taking her luggage and his boots, he loaded it all in the wagon, Chuck and Kip slapped the reins of the two huge horses and continued onto the McMaster’s. Mrs. McMaster would know what to do, they hoped.

Johnny sat, his heart hammering in his chest as he felt her face and neck. It was still relatively warm, and his thoughts took a more positive route. “How far we got ta go yet?” he asked.

Chuck turned looking down in the wagon bed at the two survivors of the snow storm. Even in the dark of night, he could see the young woman was pale and hoped she would be alright. Chuck put a smile on his face. “Not too far, should be there in an hour or so. How’re you doin’, Johnny?”

“I’m fine,” Johnny mumbled.

“Good, then share your body heat with her. Get under the blankets with her…” Chuck said, and with no hesitation, Johnny unbuttoned the sheepskin and scooted under the blankets covering her with half of his already warm coat and pulling the woolen mantle over them both. “Hold on, Hallie, you’re gonna be alright, hold on.” And Johnny lay close beside her, warming her and keeping them alive.

Johnny kept talking to her, quietly, softly, talking about her baby, her husband, and beginning a new life at the garrison. It was beautiful country to raise a son in, raise him into manhood and be proud of him. Where are these words comin’ from? Johnny wondered. But they kept coming, and he wondered if Murdoch thought the same way about his two sons. But as long as the words came Johnny would speak them, maybe she could hear some of them and know that she was not alone, know that they would try and make everything alright, you’re not alone, Hallie, hold on…

Again, Maria smiled, she was so very proud of her hijo! What a fine, good man he turned out to be…
<><><><> 

There was a light coming from the window at the McMaster’s home, a warm, welcoming glow spread in beckoning greetings and hickory scented smoke from the chimney filtered to them. Kip pulled the team to a stop as Chuck jumped from the box to the ground and the snow enveloped him nearly to the hip. He waded through the drifts and up to the path that had been shoveled by the front porch. He pounded on the door shouting his name so as not to alarm the elderly couple overmuch.

He waited a few minutes as he heard shuffling from inside knowing that there would soon be a double barrel shotgun aimed at his heart.

“It’s Chuck an’ Kip Mason! Open up, we got some passengers that need help!” Chuck announced as the portal was thrown open. “Thanks! We got an expectin’ mother out here!” Chuck reported as he went back to help get Hallie Richardson out of the wagon and into the warmth of the cabin.

Hannah McMaster went for the closest room to make ready for the sick guest.

“We got her, Johnny; you still look like ya could rest some more yourself!” Chuck said as Kip gently lifted the woman and handed her down to Chuck. Kip climbed out of the wagon and took her feet as Johnny followed into the house. They marched into the log cabin as Mrs. McMaster led the way to a room where Chuck and Kip put the woman on the bed. Johnny stirred the fire to life and added wood as Mrs. McMaster tended Hallie.

“You her husband?” Hannah asked of Johnny. He stood and looked down at the pale face and shook his head no.

“We were on the stage tagether, her husband’s at the garrison. She wanted ta make it there b’fore the baby got here. That’s all I really know ‘bout her.” Johnny stopped at the door, and with one last look at Hallie, he left closing it quietly behind him.

Ty McMaster went into the cabinet and retrieved his jug. This was the jug reserved for special occasions and special guests. And this was about as special of an occasion as he could imagine. Setting out four cups, he carefully poured a measure into each one handing them to the other three men. They all gratefully accepted and sipped, feeling the liquid fire spread through them, warming from the inside.

“Let me get this straight,” he turned to Johnny to continue. “You walked through that storm last night?” It was clear that he had doubts about it, but after Chuck verified the place where the coach was found and the timing of the rescue, it could be possible he surmised. The boy does look tuckered, more than tuckered…

“Here, son, let me show ya to a room so’s ya can get some sleep…” Ty started, but Johnny held up a hand to stop him. With tired eyes, he met McMaster’s stare.

“I wanna make sure Hallie’s gonna be alright first, thanks anyway,” Johnny spoke softly and sat back in his chair near the fire. Ty smiled with  new respect in his eyes that spoke volumes.

The three men talked with surreptitious glances at Johnny as he barely kept his eyes open. The fire burned in the massive stone fireplace, and the fire from the homemade liquor both did their best to relax and warm him, from inside and out. But he made good on his promise to hear about Hallie before succumbing to sleep. Hannah entered the room, and Johnny was instantly awake and on his feet, questions burning in his eyes. Hannah smiled brightly at him.

“She’s resting easier now. I think that there’s not been any harm done.”

Johnny had all he could do to stay standing, the relief rolled from him and left him weak.

Now ya wanna get some sleep?” Chuck snickered, but inside he also felt an enormous weight lifted.

“We need ta see ta the horses. Can we put ‘em up in your barn?” he asked McMaster.

“Yes, yes, of course, then ya come back in here an’ we’ll all get some sleep. It’s been a long day for all of you!”

Johnny didn’t remember falling into the bed, and he was asleep within seconds. Swirling snow and bitter winds plagued his dreams; cold tendrils crept through his clothing and chills raced up and down his spine. The shivering was so intense he jerked awake only to find himself wrapped in blankets in a warm room with a fire blazing in the hearth. He slowed his racing heart and took a deep breath, relaxing on the bed and closing his eyes was, once more, asleep.

Maria still smiled at her son. She swirled above him and placed a light kiss on his cheek.

The light was blinding. It flooded the room with sun rays shining through the windows. What the hell time is it? Johnny wondered as he stretched his aching muscles and closed his eyes again, relaxing under the mound of blankets. Hallie! He bolted upright and threw the bed covers to the foot of the bed. Pulling on pants, boots, and shirt, Johnny raced out the door and into the living quarters and common room of the way station. The heavenly scent of coffee greeted him as he rounded the corner spotting Mrs. McMaster at the stove.

“Morning, son! I was beginning to think you were going to sleep all day!” she said with a cheery smile.

“Sorry, Ma’am, how’s Hallie?” Johnny asked, the worry in his eyes evident. Hannah smiled again; she was glad to have good news for him.

“She’s fine, just fine! She woke during the night but settled right down and is sleeping soundly. And no need to apologize, you need the rest. Chuck and Kip told us what you did, walking all that way on foot. That was a courageous thing to do.” She pulled out a chair for Johnny, indicating he should sit. She  set a large mug full of coffee on the table and began to fix his breakfast.

Johnny gracefully slid into the chair and took a drink from the mug, thankful for the heady brew. He let it fill his belly with warmth and soothe what had been troublesome thoughts. He felt guilty that he’d not made it in time to save Mr. Carmody, but Carmody had put Hallie’s comfort ahead of his own and protected Hallie’s life and that of her unborn baby.

“Don’t feel too courageous, didn’t get there in time ta save Mr. Carmody.” His voice trailed away softly as he watched the steam swirl from the coffee.
Hannah came to his side and put a comforting hand on Johnny’s shoulder before she spoke. “Maybe not… but because of you Hallie and her baby will be alright. You just keep that in mind. Not everything is going to have a perfect ending, but when you see Hallie, you look into her eyes, and you’ll see that this was as good of an ending that it could be. Just look at her eyes, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

Suddenly, Johnny wanted desperately to get his hands on the third man that had gotten away. Like a coward, the man had taken the stage horses and those of his partners and not come back. If he hadn’t frozen to death in the storm the only other place, he could be was at the garrison. But how would Johnny know? He had not seen the man’s face; he wouldn’t be able to identify him.

“Thanks, Ma’am,” Johnny mumbled as she sat a large plate of food in front of him. His belly growled, and he looked down, embarrassed. Hannah laughed as she refilled his cup.

“That’s a good sign, Johnny, eat!”

“How long before we can get ta the garrison?”

Getting herself a cup, she sat at the table with Johnny as he made short work of the meal. “Don’t know for sure. The men are out checking the situation now. This relay is higher in the mountains than the garrison, and even though it’s less than twenty miles away, there could be some treacherous places along the trail between here and there. I know you’re anxious to get there, but it may be several days yet in all reality. Sorry to have to tell you that.”

Knowing it was out of his control, Johnny could only shrug. Seth Lucas would have to wait, and Johnny hoped he would hanld on long enough to hear from him.

“Do you want more food, Johnny? There’s plenty left,” Hannah asked, hoping he would accept. He looked tired even after ten hours of sleep. She could only guess at the stress and torturous conditions that he traveled through the night before.
Johnny turned his deep blue gaze to her, and with his handsome smile, he declined the offer.

“Then why don’t you go sit by the fire, don’t tell me that you’re alright, I can see it on you, you’re still tired.”

“How long ago did they leave?” Johnny asked, hoping to hear some positive word very soon.

“They’ve been gone a few hours, now.”  Hannah scooted her chair away from the table. “I’m going to check on Hallie, I’ll be right back, Johnny.”

<><><><> 

Why was waiting so hard? He had patience when he went hunting with Murdoch and Scott, would sit for hours and wait for just the right critter to wander into his sights. And he was patient when waiting on an opponent to try and outdraw him, his reputation proved that fact. But sitting here with nothing to do, waiting for someone else and relying on them was making Johnny crazy. He sat by the fire, and he paced. It did feel good to be in his own boots, and he brought in some firewood. Finally, he asked if there were any chores out in the barn that needed doing.

Hannah had been watching him and had seen his distress. “Johnny, I know you need to get to the garrison and as soon as we can get you out of here we will. How about…” Hannah’s voice was drowned out by the stomping feet on the outside porch. The door burst open, and the three snow-covered men billowed into the common room of the relay station looking much like the weather tossed them into the warmth. Johnny watched them anxiously awaiting the news.

“Shhhhhh! The lady is still sleeping!” Hannah shushed them as they stripped their coats, hats, mufflers, and gloves and all crowded in front of the fire to warm their backsides.

“Any chance of us getting’ through?” Johnny asked as the men started to warm.

“Maybe in a couple days. The snow’s not as deep goin’ toward the garrison, but it’s gonna take some time ta get a team of horses up ta that stage an’ get it outta the snow,” Ty stated as he gratefully accepted the mug of hot coffee handed to them by Hannah.

Johnny looked out the window then turned to Chuck and Kip. “Any chance that I could pay you two ta take me ta the garrison in your wagon?” he asked the Mason brothers.

They stopped their fidgeting and turned to face each other then their faces bloomed in smiles. “Well, I don’t see why not!” Chuck said, pleased at the notion of picking up some extra money. “Shouldn’t take but a day ta get there from here in the wagon. When do ya wanna start out?”

“How ‘bout first thing in the mornin’?” Johnny said, relief flooding through him. “What ‘bout Hallie? Think she’ll be ready ta travel in the mornin’?”

Hannah shrugged. “Well, I really don’t know. Depends on her, I’ll go check on her in a bit and see how she is.”

As he never did get a look at the third outlaw, there was no way Johnny could identify him, but he would file a report at the garrison. He knew that Lt. Richardson would want to know all the pertinent details of the incident regarding his wife’s delay. Then there were telegrams that Johnny would send, one to Seth Lucas and another to Murdoch. His restlessness began to ease but was still anxious to be on his way. He suffered through a long evening and, although dinner was delicious and the conversation was pleasant, he needed to be moving.

Hallie was much improved, and after eating a hearty meal, she asked to see Johnny. She was propped up in bed, leaning on several pillows looking chipper and rewarded him with a smile as he quietly stood just inside the door.

“Johnny! It’s so good to see you! Please, come sit,” Hallie said, indicating the chair beside her bed. He cat-walked to the seat, not wanting to annoy her with his spurs.

“How ya feelin’, Hallie? Ya doin’ alright?” he asked, giving her his best Johnny Madrid Lancer smile.

Her eyes looked bright, tired, but bright. Hannah was right. “Yes, thanks to you, Johnny, we both are alright!” And she began to gently rub her belly in a circular motion. She laughed as Johnny watched her. “He’s kicking again!”

“Are ya up ta getting’ an early start in the mornin’? I got a wagon ta take me ta the garrison tomorrow, but before ya say yes, ya gotta know that it ain’t covered, it’s just a wagon…”

“Yes! I want to go!” Hallie responded with no hesitation. Her eyes widened, and there was a sparkle there that hadn’t been present before.

Johnny smiled but again tried to make her realize it was an open wagon, and they would be traveling all day.

“My answer is still yes!”

And Johnny could have sworn that she started to glow. He secretly applauded her courage but found himself questioning her sanity.

“Ya know Hannah’s gonna have somethin’ ta say ‘bout ya goin’, don’t ya?” Johnny said with a sweet smile, his blue eyes danced at her enthusiasm.

“Well, it seems to me that it’s my decision, wouldn’t you say?” And her eyes sparkled back.

Mrs. McMaster had thought of everything to keep Hallie comfortable. The wagon had been lined with another layer of deep straw and rocks had been heated by the fire then wrapped in canvas to provide more heat, especially for the early morning. The day may warm up a bit, but Hallie would be warm and cozy when they started out. Food had been packed in a bag and the wagon bed loaded with blankets. Propping Hallie in the wagon and cocooning her in the protection of woolen coverings, they started off, Hannah standing on the porch waving goodbye, a smile on her old wrinkled face but worry in her heart.

The day started bright and sunny, and although still cold, traveling was pleasant. Hallie appeared to be enjoying herself. The scenery and the company were both fascinating and exciting. Knowing that this is where she would be living brought energy to her heart and soul. The breathtaking mountains were stunning and majestic, the air clean and fresh, and she counted herself fortunate to be able to raise her baby, be it son or daughter, in this environment.

Her company had proved to be not only kind and gallant but more of an enigma, and she wondered about the man that had saved her. He would answer any question she asked of him, but his responses left her with more questions, so she curbed her inquisitive nature, not wanting to sound overly forward. Hallie became quiet and pensive watching the trees as slipped by.

Johnny noticed the change in her trying to read if something was going on in her mind. “Ya all right, Hallie? You’re lookin’ kinda… sad.” Johnny queried softly.

She stared away for a moment but turned to him finally, her eyes, indeed, filled with sadness. “I was thinking about Mr. Carmody. He was so helpful and made sure that I had everything that I needed. I would like to find out if he had a family and if he did I want to write them a letter and let them know what he did for me, that he sacrificed himself for me, for us.”

Under the blanket, Johnny knew that she was gently rubbing her belly again.
“I’m sure that we can find out somethin’ when we get ta the garrison this afternoon. The stage line oughta be able ta tell us somethin’.” Johnny offered up his smile, and Hallie was put at ease.

She was amazed at the comfort it provided to her, and she wanted to make sure that her husband would meet him; she wanted him to know Johnny Lancer and what Johnny did to save her. “Johnny, do you know how much further it is to the garrison?” Hallie asked, her green eyes on him, and he could see the anxiousness bubbling over in them.

“No, shouldn’t be too far. We made ten or twelve miles now.” Looking skyward, he estimated the time. “It’s just past noon, in another coupla hours we should be there.” Johnny couldn’t help but smile, Hallie looked ready to burst with happiness.

Traveling was much easier now that the snow wasn’t as deep. Coming down out of the mountains from McMaster’s relay had been slow going at first, but they were now making up for lost time. With the wagon gliding over the snow, the ride was much smoother, and Hallie thoroughly enjoyed herself even though outside in an open wagon.

Johnny watched her, noting the eagerness in her eyes as she pointed out particularly beautiful areas of mountains, trees and an occasional waterfall cascading down a mountainside. Yeah, she’ll do fine out here. Just hold on, Hallie, we’ll be there soon. And Johnny smiled to himself, her enthusiasm uplifting and overcoming what had been a horrific ordeal.

<><><><> 

“Fort Grant’s just ‘round the bend, Mrs. Richardson!” Chuck Mason announced knowing her anxiousness to be there.

Johnny heard her excitement in her gasp as she clumsily to get to her knees for a better look. He quickly grabbed her arm to keep her steady; how ironic it would be for her to get tossed out of the wagon less than a half mile outside of the garrison’s gates after surviving the incident up in the mountains.

Hallie looked at Johnny with embarrassment on her face. “Oh, Johnny, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you; it’s just that I’m so anxious to see James!”

Johnny smiled and covered her with the blankets. “Well, you been apart a while, I know how it feels…” He stopped before he revealed more than he wanted her to know. He missed Holly desperately and would give about anything he owned to have her with him at this moment.

Before very long Hallie watched as the wagon was pulled through the massive log gates. Soldiers were everywhere, on the walls of the fort looking down into the wagon and running from all directions to surround it. She frantically searched the crowd for a face but couldn’t pick it out of the jostling of the soldiers in the blue uniforms. The wagon stopped as Johnny hopped over the side, taking her arm to steady her as she made her way to the gate. She leaned forward into his outstretched hands, and he gently lowered her to the ground.

Through the clamor of rowdy well-wishers she heard it; the voice she’d been waiting to hear for months, “Hallie!” and as the soldiers broke apart Lt. James Richardson came through the crowd and Hallie launched herself into his arms as he wrapped her in his loving embrace. The soldiers cheered and clapped, some issued celebratory whistles and congratulations as they shared in the reunion. Obviously, the lieutenant was well liked and respected by the outfit.

“James!” Hallie said out of breath from the excitement, pulling away a bit as she faced her husband, “I want you to meet Johnny Lancer, he saved my life!”

Suddenly Johnny found himself the center of attention, something that he never wanted, but curbed his desire to walk away not wanting to spoil Hallie’s homecoming. Lt. James Richardson turned to face Johnny and extended a hand, latching onto Johnny’s with a firm shake.

“Sir, I am indebted to you, thank you!” James, though a seasoned Army officer, was near to losing control, so filled with emotion after the torturous wait for the stage. Always having been at odds with such scrutiny, albeit not threatening, made Johnny uncomfortable and he only wanted it to be over.

“Ya got yourself a woman ta be proud of, Lieutenant, she’s got some grit. But if you’ll excuse me, I need ta talk ta your commanding officer an’ send some telegrams.” Turning to Hallie as she blushed deeply, Johnny said with his dazzling smile, “Welcome home, Hallie!” and then he left her side.

<><><><> 

Johnny found the captain’s office and walked into the warm interior. He greeted the sergeant, seated behind a primitive desk. Eyeing the civilian, Sgt. Angus T. Michaels stood and greeted him, returning a slight smile of his own.
“What can I do for you, young fella?” The enormous handlebar mustache, although well waxed, trembled when he spoke.

“Name’s Johnny Lancer. I need ta talk with Capt. Stockbridge about an attempted holdup on the stage. Just came in with Lt. Richardson’s wife.”

Sgt. Michaels smile quickly disappeared as he jumped from his chair and charged through the door into the Captain’s office behind him. He reappeared in seconds. “The Captain will see you now, Mr. Lancer!” and allowed Johnny access to the room.

“Like, I said before, Capt. Stockbridge, I never saw the third man, he was up front by the horses so there’s no way I could give you a description of him an’ when the shootin’ started he’d already left with the stage team. But the other two an’ driver, shotgun an’ a passenger are still up there under about four feet a snow.”

The Captain mulled over Johnny’s report. After getting Lt. Richardson’s wife’s statement, he would decide how best to handle things. He’d never met Murdoch Lancer’s son before but had no reason to suspect anything that wasn’t on the up and up.

“Captain, I need ta send a couple of wires, where can I do that?”

Stockbridge gave him directions to the communications officer and the quartermaster where Johnny would sign the contract for the sale of horses and beef.

Seth Lucas, Boulder, Colorado

Held up in snowstorm- On way to California soon- Please don’t make any decisions until you hear from me-

Johnny Lancer

 

Murdoch Lancer Green River, California

Have to help Seth- Need to talk to you and Scott- Important

J-

<><><><> 

Seth Lucas sat on his front porch looking out over his ranch, his home, and his life for the last thirty years. He’d given much to this land, sweat, blood, the life of his beloved Esther and that of his daughter-in-law. Now his son and grandchildren left to make a life back east, where he would soon join them.

Johnny Lancer had sent a telegram telling him to not make any decisions until heard from. But that was a month ago. Seth couldn’t wait anymore. The not knowing was tearing him apart, so, he did make a decision. He would leave to join his son in the east. He would venture out one last time to talk with the love of his life long buried under the big oak up on the hill. He would tell her he loved her still and say his goodbyes and he would have Harley Bennett drive him into Boulder to catch the train when it left for Omaha, Nebraska.

From there he would begin his journey eastward and start a new life. He hoped that Esther would understand when he would have their last conversation to tell her his goodbyes. He knew in his heart that she would, but he was still trying to convince himself that he was making the right move.

Seth hated doing this to Harley, a man of his age having to start over somewhere wasn’t an easy thing to do; all Seth could do was to compensate Harley handsomely for his service, loyalty and most importantly, his friendship. Had it not been for Harley, Seth would not have made it through those dark days after Esther passed, and now they would be saying goodbye, forever. Seth would move on to the final chapter in his life, away from Harley, away from this ranch that he loved so much.

Up until now, it had been his heart; it was responsible for the blood coursing through his veins. It had been his reason for living. He loved this land, this wild country that was as much a part of him as were his hands that had worked so hard to make something of this ranch. He cleared his throat loudly, sniffed and blinked away the moisture that had suddenly developed in his eyes. Where was Harley? He’s kept himself busy lately, probably having as hard of a time about leaving as much as I am. Well, things change for a reason. Esther will understand… I hope…

Harley had, indeed, been keeping himself busy, kept himself away from Seth. He couldn’t bear saying goodbye to his friend or the ranch, so he kept away, not able to look into Seth’s eyes. He had gone into town to pick up a few things they would need and take care of last minute business.

When Seth first talked about selling the ranch, Harley wondered what he would do. Would he stay around these parts or start fresh somewhere and hope for the best? He had enough time to make up his mind, and now that he came to his decision, he could only hope it would work out. Nothing is written in stone, and life was one big chance. Whoever knew what fate had in store?

<><><><> 

Where the hell is Harley? He should be around here somewhere. I shouldn’t be too hard on him, though, he’s having as difficult a time as I am. Might as well just sit here and enjoy the place while I can. It won’t be long now…

Seth watched the ranch hands on the hill as they wrangled the last of the cattle and horses into the pastures closer to the house. His mind wandered over his years when he himself was up there chasing after cows, trying to keep them all in one spot as the calves darted and romped and the yearlings tried their best to escape.

Seth remembered teaching young Joe to ride, and after the gangly boy mastered the art of horsemanship, nearly breaking a leg in the process, Seth taught him to shoot a gun. The old tree in the west pasture long dead still bore the marks of the bullets from Joe’s target practice. Seth would not let the hands cut the tree, so sentimental his thoughts about it. It was a reminder of his son entering manhood, a right of passage, so the old tree still stood with all its scars.

Seth’s grandchildren were born in this house as young Joe had been, and this was where Esther died. Seth always thought that one day, he would rest beside his wife under that old oak on the hillside that faced the valley. It had been Esther’s favorite place on the whole ranch. He would find her sometimes sitting there with her sweet smile looking down the valley and Seth would ask her what was wrong and she would reply, ‘Why, Seth Lucas, what could possibly be wrong? I am just enjoying our life! I am quite happy to just sit here and ‘be’.’

Remembering those words still brought a smile to his lips. His Esther was quite the woman, she had made him very proud and more than that, she had made him happy. As a couple, they were complete. And now he was leaving, and his heart was about to break.

Seth wheeled himself into the house, going from room to room, lost in his memories. He touched the desk in the study where he’d kept the ranch ledgers for all those years, running his fingers over the gouge in the top where a buckshot pellet hit when Esther confronted a thief that had broken in through a window, and she unloaded the shotgun into his backside as he tried to escape only to be caught as the lad couldn’t sit his horse.  

She had been a tiny woman, small in stature but had as much grit as Seth himself. His Esther, I will miss you! Seth Lucas was a man with a breaking heart. Joe really didn’t need him, just thought that Seth would want to be with family; Joe really thought he was doing right by Seth and where his heart was in the right place he wasn’t doing his father any favors.

The knock on the front door interrupted his thoughts, and Seth pulled himself together as Harley called out as he stood in the front hall.

“In here, Harley! Where the hel…” Seth’s mouth dropped open as Harley stepped into the study closely followed by Johnny, Murdoch and, Seth assumed, Scott Lancer.

“Murdoch! What in Heaven’s name are you doing here?” Seth sat in total shock and confusion.

Johnny stepped forward and extended his hand as Seth grasped it with the strength of a bear. “Mr. Lucas, we need ta talk, thanks for holdin’ on, an’ after our talk, I need for you ta tell Scott an’ me more stories about our ol’ man! Wait till ya hear these stories, Scott!” Johnny laughed.

Murdoch paled considerably at the thought of his son’s discovering the facts about the rowdy shenanigans of his youth!

“Seth, I’ve got a proposition for you,” Murdoch stated as he pulled his thoughts together. He reached into his pocket and produced the contract they had signed for the cattle, then promptly tore it in half. Murdoch then sat to hammer out the deal that would assure Seth to stay at the ranch… and with his Esther.

Seth, shocked to silence as he listened, realized that Harley had been privy to some of this information and had purposely avoided Seth for fear of spoiling the news, the news that would assure Seth that his sweet Esther would never, ever be alone on the hillside under the big oak.

An agreement would be made as Murdoch and Seth discussed a solution that would allow Seth to remain on his ranch with his beloved Ester. Lancer’s silent backing provided the means for the ranch to remain viable; he would not be leaving after all. Not ever.

He needed to talk with Esther and tell her the good news.

<><><><> 

The letter arrived and waited for Johnny next to his place at the lunch table. The back door slammed shut, and Maria knew that her niñowas hungry as he entered the hacienda with the usual commotion. He fluidly slid into his chair, not waiting for Scott to join him. Seeing the letter, he ripped it open and began to read the neatly formed letters.

 

Dear Johnny,

I wanted to write and let you know about the arrival of our new baby boy! He was born on November 2, and he is beautiful! Thanks to you and poor Mr. Carmody. James and I have named the baby Johnny William in honor of the sacrifice that the two of you made for us. James was in favor of the name, in fact, he suggested it!

I was able to find out that Mr. Carmody left a wife and two grown children back in St. Louis, and I have written them to let them know of his fate. I wanted them to know that my baby and I would not be alive today had it not been for his selfless acts of kindness and consideration that caused his untimely demise.

I hope this finds you well. Thank you for giving me the courage to hold on.

Sincerely,
Hallie, James and Johnny William

 

<><><><> 

The chill in the air, though cold, was a comfort. From his spot here on the hillside under the big oak, he watched the horses and cattle as they grazed on the last of the sweet grass. It was a favorite time of year for him, it had been Esther’s favorite time of year. Thanksgiving was only days away. It would be different this year as Joe, and the two grandchildren would not be there. They were settled into their new life in the East, and Seth was settling into his new life here at his ranch.

Yes, Thanksgiving… This year there was so much more to be thankful for. An old friend from the past with two remarkable sons had made the difference. And Seth Lucas knew he was a lucky man. The only thing that would have made it better would be to have Esther at his side. But she would always be with him, and he would never leave her now. Not ever.

 

 

~ end ~

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