The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

For My Brother's Blood

First of the Johnny and Holly series - -which is best read in sequence.
Rated R Violence and Adult Situations
Wish they were mine but they are not so I am only borrowing them however Holly and Chrissy are mine

“You’re fired! Get your things, collect your pay and get off my property, now!” Murdoch Lancer bellowed at the three men standing in front of his horse. Shock still registered on their faces having been caught red-handed changing the brands on Lancer beef. With the running irons still in the fire and the cow still tied, they stumbled to their horses and rode out leaving Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny to clean up the mess. “Those three boys have been in more trouble in the last few months than any other hands we’ve hired,” Murdoch groused. “I’m glad to be rid of them!”

“Guess it wouldn’t be too hard ta figure out who it was that cut the fences in the last week or so,” Johnny drawled as he sliced the rope on the cow and swatted her rump to get her back to the herd. “Wonder how many head they got away with...” Johnny let the question hang, but Scott, being the academic of the family had been two steps ahead.

“Thirty two head,” and tossed Johnny an ‘already got it figured out for you, Little Brother' grin.

“Well, Scott, seein’s you’re so smart an’ all, guess you should be the one ta get them books all figured with them numbers you like ta play with so much...” and swung himself onto Barranca’s back with one graceful vault. Turning, he flashed his dazzling Johnny Madrid Lancer smile at his brother, kicked his horse into a gallop and was over the hill by the time Scott realized that he’d just been designated to tally the ranch accounts, again. Murdoch simply sat and listened to the banter, still marveling at his two grown sons and enjoying every minute of it.

 

Dinner was served exactly at six. Why it had to be exactly at six had puzzled Johnn, but then he had not grown up having to conform to such strict regulations. Hell, he’d been lucky to get dinner at all much less have it served at a specific time every night. So, he shut his mouth and did his best to be there at six and not aggravate the Old Man. Sometimes he made it and sometimes... not.

And so it was on this evening that Murdoch, Scott, Johnny and Murdoch’s ward, Teresa were dining on Lancer beef, cooked to perfection thanks to Maria, cook, housekeeper, healer, trusted friend and confidant.

Murdoch looked around the table at his family, wondering to himself for the thousandth time how he got to be so lucky? Except for the fact he had no wife his life was complete.

Scott’s mother had died in childbirth, and his grandfather took Scott. Actually, Scott had been kidnapped but the grandfather was wealthy and had an extensive legal team behind him, Murdoch did not have the resources to fight to get his son returned to him.

Two years later Murdoch had met Johnny’s mother, Maria, in a small Mexican town south of Texas, married her especially after learning of her pregnancy and Johnny was born at Lancer. Maria began to tire of the ranch life, needing more people and activity to occupy her time like dancing and drinking and she ran off in the middle of the night with two-year-old Johnny and a man she had met only a few days prior.

Once again, Murdoch was a man without his son or a wife. All his searches had ended in failures. He knew where to find one of his sons but could not afford the attorneys fees but did not know where to continue the search for the youngest one. This had almost broken Murdoch. Moreover, to see them here, now at the table finally living at Lancer was almost more joy than he could have ever hoped.

Teresa O’Brien’s father, Paul, had been Murdoch’s foreman and close friend and was murdered when thieves stole a prize stallion from the ranch and in pursuit of the animal, they were led into a trap. Paul had been killed, and Murdoch crippled with a bullet in the back. Having been born at Lancer, Murdoch had welcomed Teresa into his house and family.

 

Sitting in the great room after dinner was the normal routine, each enjoying the libation of choice. Murdoch had his Scotch, Scott enjoyed a Scotch with his father, or on occasion, some wine or brandy and Johnny, having spent his time in Mexico and around the border delighted in tequila.

“Hey, Scott, how about a game of checkers or chess or are you afraid I’ll beat ya… again?” teased Johnny.

“No, little brother, I’m going to go to bed. I’ll be up early to fix some of those fences, and I want to get most of it done before it gets too hot. So I bid you all a good night.” Scott stood and left them to retire to his room.

“Guess I better git ta bed, too. Gotta go after them cows that wandered through those cut fences.” Then Johnny was gone up the stairs. The quiet was deafening.

“Well, dear,” Murdoch looked at Teresa and said, “Who would have ever thought that we would be sitting here all by our selves when those two came home? I would have imagined all sorts of noise and shenanigans instead of silence...”

“They do work awfully hard, don’t they, Murdoch?” Teresa smiled.

<><><><> 

The saloon in Green River was packed to capacity. Lively girls danced with cowboys and many tables had poker games in progress. It was smoky and noisy and... fun. A table off to one side occupied by the three suddenly unemployed brothers, each nursing a beer and each well on his way to oblivion.

“Gettin’ caught with them runnin’ irons was some bad luck! We sure coulda used them cows. I hope that ol’ Murdoch Lancer chokes on his own beef!” slurred Spike Gannon, oldest of the three.

“Wish there was a way fer us ta get even...” spouted Vince.

“Yeah, we could jes’ shoot ‘im,” suggested Ben.

Spike snapped up his head. “You boys may be on ta somethin’. We can’t shoot the ol’ man. That would raise too much of a fuss but what ‘bout one a his brats? We could catch one off by hisself, that might jest be what we need. We kin teach that ol’ bastard a lesson...”

The beer having much to do with courage they felt they began to discuss options and make their plans.

<><><><> 

Scott was up and sitting at the table with coffee and a plate of eggs, ham and biscuits. Having loaded the wagon the night before he could spend a bit more time enjoying his meal.

Maria was hovering over him like a mother hen that is until Johnny came down. He wrapped her in an affectionate hug and held her tightly then let her go after he kissed her forehead. Even though she teased with the wooden spoon in her hand threatening to swat his behind, she secretly loved his attention. And Scott was all but forgotten, but Scott understood. Maria, the housekeeper, had been there when Johnny was born and felt like she had lost her own son when Johnny’s mother ran off with him in tow.

Housekeeper Maria grieved for the sweet little boy that had been literally abducted from what would have been a stable and prosperous life at the ranch with his father. He was dragged from one border town to the next and destined to a life of poverty and brutality, and ultimately earning a reputation as a gun hawk. And the fact Johnny had grown into a fine young man that he was, was of miracle status. Even now, especially now, she doted on him, ecstatic that he was finally back where he belonged.

<><><><> 

“Well, least there’s light on the horizon...” Johnny groused, still at odds with rising so early.

After all those years on his own, there really was no reason to be up before the sun when you made your living with a gun. Now there was a lot of work to be done, and Johnny did his part, more than his part. He had thrown himself into ranch life and was actually starting to like it. When he had roamed the border towns with his closest friend, Val Crawford, who was now sheriff in Green River, looking for range wars to fight, never were they in bed before one or two in the morning and never were they up and dressed before eleven or noon. So much had changed and this time for the better.

<><><><> 

While Johnny headed north to track down the cattle that wandered off, Scott headed over to the cut fence line. Coming to a stop, he jumped down off the wagon, pulled on thick leather gloves to wrestle a roll of barbed wire to the ground, and began to restring the lines.

The team of horses suddenly turned their heads in the direction of the trees and became tense, they stomped and sidestepped in the traces. Scott went to the team and patted their necks keeping an eye open on the hillside. Not knowing what had alarmed them, he checked his sidearm, and the rifle satisfied both were at the ready. Could be a mountain lion had come down out of the hills or whatever other varmint would show up, Scott knew he had to be ready.

Content as much as he could be Scott started to work but kept eyes and ears open for potential danger. As he stopped to pull a barb out of his glove, a gruff voice commanded his attention. Casually dropping his hand to his side, close to his holster Scott looked up to see the three fired brothers.

“Well, it looks like you three can’t stay out of trouble, can you? My father did tell you to get off of his property, and yet, here you are... on his property.”

“He don’ look so tough, does he Spike?” Ben asked of his older brother. ”Nope, not tough at all.”

“Sure would have liked ta see that other Lancer pup. Ya know, the one with the big mouth. Always spoutin’ off ‘bout something.” Luke was needling, looking to make Scott edgy, maybe goad him into making a sudden move.

“This’n ‘ill have ta do, boys. Guess we can’t be too choosy. Throw your gun over here, real careful and quick like... NOW!” Spike loudly called out.

Scott did as he was told. Once unarmed the three brothers made their way to him. Vince was the first off his horse and positioned himself behind Scott. Ben picked up Scott’s discarded gun and stuffed it in the waistband of his pants. Spike dismounted then walked straight up to Scott and punched him in the stomach with a balled up fist. Scott doubled over, and Vince hit him on the back of the head. Scott went down hitting the solid packed earth with a grunt. They dragged him to his feet and took turns beating him, punching his face and torso and when he would fall, they kicked him. Repeatedly until Scott lay still. The brothers were panting with exertion and Scott was barely breathing.

“Guess the ol’ man’ll get the message, hey Spike?” Ben looked at his older brother smirking.

Spike looked around and had an idea. He took the roll of wire and with Scott’s gloves safely on his hands, started to wrap the barbed wire around Scotts limp form. Around and around Scott, grinning at the groans and gasps of pain emitted from the slack mouth, then slowly pulled the wire tight and finally tie it off with a hard jerk.

Now the ol’ man’ll get the message!” They all laughed and mounted their horses riding off leaving Scott tied and unable to move and barely able to continue breathing.

<><><><> 

Johnny pulled Barranca to a skidding stop. Scott should be around here somewhere. That fence was cut here... Nope, it’s just over the rise, Johnny knew. He kicked Barranca’s flank, and the palomino flew up the hill as if he had wings. Johnny reined him up short before he had a chance to run full out.

The sight that greeted Johnny was one that he would never forget as long as he lived. He felt like he’d been kicked in the belly by a bull, the air left his lungs in a rush, and his throat was dry.

There below lay his brother on the ground still as death. Johnny raced down the hill to Scott’s side. It seemed to take forever to reach Scott as if they had been running in slow motion, but in reality, it was mere seconds. Johnny threw himself from Barranca’s back and bent over his brother. The ragged gasp that tore from Johnny’s throat sounded agonized, even to his own ears.

The realization that Scott had been beaten and tied with barbed wire sent vile images that exploded through Johnny’s brain. Barely able to keep his mind on getting Scott untangled and the medical help he so desperately needed, Johnny was ready to kill, the trembles raced through his body with no control.

He raced to the wagon for the wire cutters and ever so carefully began to cut the tangled wire from his brother's beaten body. With every movement, Scott groaned, and Johnny tried his best to talk low and even and soothe Scott’s pain, mental and physical. His mind was like shattered glass, he could hear his own heart hammering against his ribs.

“Stay with me, Brother, gonna see ya get back ta the ranch an’ getcha all patched up… I promise, Boston!”

His mind tumbled, worried about Scott, would he be able to free his brother before he bled out? Then wondered who committed this horrendous act and where the hell were they so he could fuckin’ kill them with his bare hands, and kill them he would.

He cut until all the wire had been severed then quickly yet gently tried to unwrap it from his brother’s body, the barbs snagged under the skin and Johnny would have to stop and ease the sharp spikes out as gently as he could with trembling movements. He had managed to snag his own hands on the wire, his blood mixing with his brothers. The deep cuts were bleeding profusely covering both Scott and Johnny.

Johnny’s hands were shaking so badly, and he had to put out of his mind that this was his brother. He was close to insane with his volatile emotions, worry for Scott taking priority, but revenge was coming up fast. The bastards were gonna pay for what they did to Scott.

He had to get this wire off and get his brother home. Every second counted. His heart was thundering in his chest, and his breathing was almost as ragged as Scott’s. It seemed to take an eternity, but Johnny finally snipped the last of the wire easing the barbs out of his brother’s tortured skin and bent to pick Scott up off the ground.

Not knowing if there were broken ribs from the beating he gently lifted his brother carefully in his arms and carried him to the back of the wagon then tied Barranca to the rail, vaulted onto the wagon and drove for home as if there was no time left.

<><><><> 

 “Hey, Boss,” Jelly’s question hung as Murdoch turned to face him, but Jelly was looking down at the road and the Lancer arch.

“What the devil! Everyone knows I don’t want any fast driving down here...” and the reprimand was left unsaid as Murdoch recognized Johnny with Barranca tied behind the wagon. The wagon stirred up huge dust clouds then skidded to a stop in front of the house with Johnny jumping to the ground before it came to a halt.

“Johnny, what are you...” Murdoch was cut off by Johnny’s frantic shout: “Someone go get Sam! We need Sam... NOW!”

Murdoch spied Johnny covered in blood and with Johnny’s attention fixed on the back of the wagon Murdoch felt his heart skip a beat.

“Oh, my Lord! Johnny, what happened?”

But Johnny was not listening. He had jumped in the back of the wagon and was carefully lifting Scott, his adrenaline coursing through his body. Murdoch and Jelly took Scott as Johnny ran ahead to open the door and up the stairs to Scott's room. He tore the covers from the bed to be ready when the two older men brought Scott up to his room and filled the washbasin with cool, clean water. They settled the tall blond on his bed then stripped the bloody, filthy clothing from Scott’s body and tried to clean him as much as possible before Sam Jenkins, the town doctor and very good friend of the Lancer family, arrived.

“Johnny, tell me what you know,” commanded Murdoch. Johnny was staring at Scott’s face as if willing him to open his eyes, sit up, and tell them he was fine. Johnny’s distress very evident on his face; a face that was distraught but also enraged and Murdoch had to ask a second time before Johnny realized he was being spoken to.

Almost in a whisper, Johnny told them what he knew. With hands that were still shaking and covered with Scott's blood, Johnny agonized over how long it had taken to free Scott of the wire and couldn’t help thoughts of wondering if he’d been in time to save his brother.

“Sam will be here soon, and Scott will be alright. Johnny, you need to go get cleaned up and then I want you to get some rest. This has been very difficult, you look like you ...”

“I’ll get cleaned up but comin’ right back here. I wanna be here when he wakes up,” with that, Johnny left the room.

<><><><> 

Most of the cuts had stopped bleeding, but there were some ghastly and gaping wounds. Sam stitched for the better part of two hours before he spoke. Anger etched into his features along with sadness when he finally looked up from the gruesome task.

“Val needs to be notified, Murdoch. This is unusually sadistic and should be investigated.” Sam glanced up and saw Johnny sitting beside Scott, he never moved the whole time the doctor worked. “Johnny, I want you to get some rest. This has been very hard on you, too.”

“I ain’t leavin’ Scott.” Came the blunt and stubborn reply and although spoken barely above a whisper.

“Johnny, he’s not going to regain consciousness for hours, maybe even tomorrow sometime. You need to get...”

“I ain’t leavin’ Scott.”

Sam and Murdoch recognized the fact that there was not any use to argue. Johnny was not going to leave Scott, so Sam began a cursory exam of Johnny.

“Sam, I ain’t hurt. Scott is.” Johnny resisted.

“Yes, I know, but I think you may be in some shock, so I want to...”

“No, I ain’t in no shock. All I‘m doin’ is sittin’ with my brother an’ when I know he’s gonna be all right then I‘m gonna track down these bastards and rip their fuckin’ heads off...” so softly spoken was this threat, no, this promise, both Sam and Murdoch had to strain to hear and shudders ran through them both at this vow.

There was a light tap on the door, and Val peeked his head in. Opening the door further he glanced at the bed cringing when he got a good look at Scott and cringed again when he looked at Johnny. Johnny slowly turned his head and looked into Val’s eyes. Val instantly knew that look and knew that he would have to be there to see that whatever Johnny did was on the right side of the law. However, they had worked in the past was exactly that... the past. Val was the sheriff now, and his duty was to uphold the law regardless of their history.

Johnny held Val’s gaze, and Val knew that they were together in sorting this out, but there had to be different ground rules than there had been before, there had to be ground rules. Val, having been on both sides of the law knew that Johnny was out for blood. The trick was to keep it legal and as they would no doubt be out of Val’s jurisdiction they had to be more than careful... they had to be right.

After getting the story, Val excused himself and went back into town to wrap up a few loose ends to be ready for the search that he was about to be a part of. He and Johnny went back a few years together, more like a lifetime together and whatever Johnny was about to do Val would be there to watch his back. Lord knew Johnny had his back on more than one occasion and things like that you do not forget, sheriff or not.

 

Returning to Lancer Val settled in to wait on Johnny. Johnny had not moved from Scott’s side, and though Scott had not regained consciousness, he was breathing easier.

Val was shown to one of the comfortable guest rooms and slept soundly knowing that when Johnny was ready, they would head out, first investigating the area where Scott had been attacked then tracking whoever was responsible and bring them to justice. Val just hoped that he would be able to control Johnny to some degree and he knew that it would not be easy. All these years they had ridden together Val never knew Johnny to be unreasonable, but all those early years of riding together Johnny had not known he had a brother and that they would become inseparable.

It was a different game now that Johnny had a family that he cared about deeply.

<><><><> 

Scott groaned, and Johnny was instantly sitting forward in the chair speaking softly and encouraging Scott to take a drink. Johnny lifted Scott's head so he could take a sip of water.

“Scott? You all right, brother? Ya know ya had me worried sick, don’t ya?”  Scott almost smiled but could not quite do it.

“Scott... did ya see who did this to you? Was it the Gannon brothers?” Johnny coaxed quietly. Scott nodded his head. With that, Johnny exhaled in a snort. “Bastards...” he spat. “You lay still an’ don’t be movin’ around. O.K.? I’ll get Sam.” Johnny left the room without a sound.

Johnny found Murdoch at the kitchen table with Sam talking over a cup of coffee. “Sam, Scott’s awake.” As Sam went upstairs, Murdoch looked Johnny square in the eye and said, “Johnny, you need to let Val handle this.” Johnny looked down at the table before he spoke.

“You gotta know I’m goin’ after ‘em, Murdoch. I ain’t lettin’ this slide and nothin’ is gonna stop me... Not even you, Ol’ Man.”

This was a tone that Murdoch recognized, and truth be told it chilled him to the bone. He knew that Madrid had put in an appearance. He also knew that Johnny was going and he would bring back the ones responsible for injuring and almost killing Scott.

“I know that I can’t say or do anything to change your mind, Johnny, but I want your promise that you will be careful and that you will come home.” Johnny finally looked up at his father with his icy blue eyes piercing Murdoch with his glacial stare.

“Do my best...” and off Johnny went to his room.

<><><><> 

At four in the morning, Johnny was at Val’s side shaking him awake.

“Come on, Val, we need ta go.”

Val mumbled something about crazy people and crazy hours, but he stumbled out of bed to pull on his clothes and continued his mumbles all the way to the kitchen. They headed to the table for a quick breakfast and pack some food only to find Teresa already up and fixing eggs, bacon, biscuits, and coffee. She also had their food for the trail packed in a bag.

“You find them, Johnny, and bring them in.” Teresa’s eyes welled up, and before he and Val went out the door, she asked Johnny to keep in touch and let Murdoch know where they were going so Lancer could send messages to Johnny and Val and vice versa.

With a kiss to her forehead, Johnny and Val were out to the barn, saddled their horses, and down under the Lancer arch before the sun made its appearance.

<><><><> 

As the first rays peeked over the mountains, Johnny and Val were at the broken fence line scouting the area and picked up the trail, the three sets of hoof prints confirmed there were horses heading south. Neither spoke, they did not have to. They knew what the other was thinking.

If the situation were not so dire, Johnny would have laughed as he thought about Val stressing over being able to control him or not. Well, Val didn’t have to worry ‘bout that. Whatever happens’ll be legal. These bastards ain’t gonna get away with what they did ta Scott, and I’ll bet my life on that... Even if it meant he would have to be law abiding. Hell, Madrid’s Law is law abidin’… ta Madrid.

So, on they rode tracking due south. Until it rained and washed the trail away. Now they went on gut.

<><><><> 

Arriving in San Lucas two days later they sent a telegram to Murdoch with instructions to send a reply to Sheriff Val Crawford in San Miguel, which would be their next stop. Johnny figured they would get there the following day. In the meantime, Val had wired sheriffs in a few of the other surrounding towns asking for information about the three Gannon brothers. Armed, dangerous and wanted and anything to report should be to San Miguel, also.

Johnny was about to lose his mind with worry over Scott. This family stuff sure was a puzzle. A few years ago Johnny didn’t have a worry, none. Now all he did was worry. Murdoch’s gettin’ older; his back is always goin’ out. Teresa’s always wantin’ ta go ta some friends house ta visit. Did she get there all right? An’ then there was Scott. Sure, Scott was in the war, but he still was an Easterner. Did he really know how dangerous it is out here in the West? Guess not, otherwise, he’d been more careful about gettin’ taken by three lowlife brothers...

The hours dragged by. It was hot and getting hotter. There was no trail to follow only hunches. There was no word; no one had seen these three men...

There was nothing except raw nerves.

<><><><> 

They were in San Miguel about four in the afternoon, tying their horses at the telegraph office, they went inside.

“Afternoon” Val said as they entered the office.

“Good afternoon, sir. What can I help you with?”

“Any messages for Sheriff Crawford?” Val asked

“Let me see, here,” as the clerk went through a stack of telegraphs. “Yes, here we are, Sheriff. Just came in about an hour ago. Should I wait for a reply?”

The message was from Murdoch. Scott was slowly becoming more aware and gradually piecing things together, and he was anxious to be out of bed. This put Johnny’s mind at rest. This was really hard work havin’ ta worry ‘bout a brother.

“Yeah, we need to send a reply” as Val wrote out they would be passing through Creston and a day later Atascadero.

The message sent, Johnny and Val headed for the sheriff’s office then the saloon for a beer and dinner. No luck with the sheriff, no strangers passing through but he would keep on the lookout and offered to pass the word to a few other towns. The beer tasted good and the food better.

With the news of Scott starting to mend, the weight Johnny carried on his shoulders was a bit lighter but now he began to think more in terms of catching the sadistic bastards responsible for all of this. He bounced back and forth about doing this all law-abiding, then in the next thought had visions of stringing them up with a knot instead of a noose to let them slowly strangled to death. Knowing Val wouldn’t let that happen he thought he’d better do this the right way, shit! and bring them in for the law to take care of. Knowing that this is what Scott would want to happen helped to make it tolerable, but still not how Madrid really wanted to handle the situation.

“Stop it, Johnny,” Val said staring at Johnny square in the eye.

“Stop what? Ya been out in the sun too long, Val? Think you’re goin’ loco on me,” Johnny said looking over the top of the beer mug.

“You know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout an’ don’t think I don’t know...” Val continued his chiding.

“Too tired ta play games. What the hell you tryin’ ta tell me? Spit it out or shut up.”

“Johnny, I can see what’s goin’ on in that mind a yours! Yer thinkin’ ‘bout what you wanna do ta them assholes... ain’t ‘cha?”

Johnny grinned as he set his glass on the table. “...Yup...” still grinning.

“You ain’t forgot that is will be all legal like, have ya?”

“Val, I gotta tell ya, it’s really strange... all my life there’s been no one, well till I met your sorry ol’ carcass, no one ta care where I was, how I was or even if I was alive. Now I got a father an’ a brother an’ it’s... I can’t put a name to it... I never expected ta like them, but now when I think ‘a Scott wrapped in that wire with the shit kicked outta him, I don’t much care about the law. If Scott don’t make it I will kill them, sure as shit they’ll be dead, I just want you ta know that.”

Val watched Johnny for a minute. “I know... that’s why I’m here, ta keep you from gettin’ yerself hung. I got no jurisdiction here, Johnny. We need ta keep this within the law. But I am here ta help ya. ‘Sides you read Murdoch’s wire. Scott’s startin’ to mend.”

“Told ya before, it’ll be law abiding,’” Johnny said but did not meet Val’s glare.

Val tipped his hat back and fixed Johnny with an unbelieving stare then rolled his eyes.

“Law abindin’ ta what? The law accordin’ ta Madrid?”

Johnny rewarded Val with his dazzling smile. “Yeah, somethin’ like that...” he answered quietly.

“Aww shit! I’ll be sendin’ Murdoch a telegram sayin’, “Hope Scott’s alright. Oh, by the way, Johnny got hisself hung. See ya when I get back!”

Johnny laughed. “Ya worry too much, Val.”

Val shot him a dirty look and huffed in his beer. “I’m used ta that. I travel with you! Have ya forgot the trouble ya get us into?”

“No,” Johnny said innocently enough. “I just look at it like I’m savin’ ya from a borin’ time sittin’ in a rockin’ chair, what with ya bein’ so old an’ all... besides are you tellin’ me you’re afraid of Murdoch?”

“Well, I ain’t afraid ‘a Murdoch... I’m afraid ‘a Teresa an’ don’t do me no favors!” Val groused.

Johnny tipped his head back and laughed, he had not laughed like that in days, and it felt good.

They ordered steaks, and after cleaning their plates, Johnny decided to get a bath and wash off the trail dust of the last several days. Soaking in the steaming water was relaxing as the warmth seeped into his hide and he could feel the tension leech out of his body. He would feel better if Val came back with confirmation about Scott. It was still too soon to think of Scott on the recovery road, anything could still happen. Fever, infection more blood loss... Dios, I ain’t never worried about someone else like this before. Son of a bitch! Wonder what them assholes’re doin’ right now? Where would I be if I was them? Johnny leaned his head back on the edge of the tub and shut his eyes.

As he ran scenarios through his mind, he heard the door open and then close. Years of living on the edge with no one watching your back, until Val that is, brought him to full attention and he was ready for trouble in a split second of the sound. He grabbed the gun from the chair beside the tub, had it cocked and aimed with deadly precision. Val stood with hands in the air and away from his sides.

“It’s only me, you wild idiota!” Val moved up to the tub next to Johnny’s and started to undress but then picked up a bucket of water and poured it over Johnny’s head causing him to choke and sputter.

The bed felt great, and both were asleep within minutes of crawling in between the clean sheets. Johnny’s dreams were filled with loss, holding Scott and watching him breathe his last, feeling the shutter as the last breath was exhaled, then his body went slack in his arms. He was jolted awake just in time to stop himself from yelling out “... NO!!!” Johnny gathered his wits about him and laid his head back on the pillow, forcing his heart to slow down. Val continued to snore without interruption. Was it this hard for everyone who had a family? Do all people worry this much? Dios! Can’t believe it’s like this...

<><><><> 

Dawn found him still awake.

Before heading out of town, they checked the telegraph office again. There were no messages. Damn it! O.K., Madrid, I need you ta take over here... Don’t think I can do this without ya. Not this time. So, out of town, they rode, going on a hunch. No solid leads, no new information and a ton of doubt, questions and “what ifs.”

“We don’t even know if we’re headed in the right direction. These assholes didn’t just vanish inta thin air, Johnny. What’d ya think?”

“I think we need ta keep lookin’. They’ll be seen, sooner or later... an’ we’ll be there ta get them... How many telegrams you send out?”

“’Bout six, not countin’ Murdoch. Should hear from somebody when we get ta Creston. Someone has ta have seen ‘em.” Val was sure their efforts were about to pay off.

Johnny wasn’t. As Madrid started to put in an appearance, a cold, calculating Johnny tried to refigure this situation. No one has sent word. Either the Gannon’s backtracked, or they’re hiding out. The backtracking did not fit. Why go back where people knew where they were and what had happened? So, logical answer was they’re hiding. Where would you hide, Madrid?

The winding road through the mountains was narrow and steep. As they began their ascent, the sky started to darken and as the first drops started to fall both men fell silent and slipped into their own thoughts. No need for talk as the trail became treacherous under the hooves of the horses.

Both Johnny and Val donned their slickers, trying to keep as dry as they could but the pounding rain was relentless, and ever so slowly it would trickle down their backs under the slickers, but they had no choice, they had to continue the rest of the afternoon and get into Creston.

Suddenly, Johnny felt like they were being watched. He casually looked around but saw nothing to indicate they were observed. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and learning to trust his instincts, he held up Barranca for Val to come alongside.

“Yeah, I feel it, too,” was all Val said.

“No place ta take cover. Feel like I got a target on my back.”

“No choice but ta keep going. Don’t think Creston is that far. Let’s keep movin’” So, on to town they went, soaked, tired, cold and hungry and anxious for word from anyone about the three men they were after.

<><><><> 

Spike stuffed the spyglass into his saddlebags. Yup, they were being followed, and by the looks of that palomino, it was Johnny Lancer and probably Val Crawford. Well, they would get a proper welcoming when they got into Creston or if the opportunity was better, jump them in Atascadero. A greeting much like the one they gave the other Lancer pup.

The face held a sneer as he told his brothers what he’d just seen and that they needed to get to Creston before Johnny and Val got there. The three Gannon’s headed out as fast as their horses and the rain would let them. They wanted to be ready for Johnny.

<><><><> 

Creston was small and dusty, muddy now after the rain. The main street was littered with puddles and boards had been thrown across the streets to connect the boardwalks to keep its residents from having to walk through the mud. Not many were out on this late afternoon which suited the two men as they made their way to the hitching post outside the sheriff’s office.

Stepping out of the stirrups and up onto the rail, Johnny dropped to the boardwalk without so much as a small splat of mud on his boots, unlike Val who had stepped out of the stirrups into a puddle and started to sink in mud.

“You havin’ a problem there, Val? Do ya need for me ta carry you onta the boardwalk, Grandpa?” deadpanned Johnny

“Shut up there, Johnny, or I’ll have ya tossed inta jail, smartass, no-good loudmouth...” Val groused. Johnny smiled his “only if you can catch me” smile, the one that Val had seen many, many times before. Then they went into the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Carter stretched his back as he sat at his well-worn desk looking frustrated and disgusted  with the paperwork when the door opened, and two soaked men walked in dripping water everywhere.

“Sheriff Carter? I’m Val Crawford sheriff from up Green River way. I sent you a telegram a day or so ago...” Val stuck out his right hand as Carter stood and grasped it in his. Both Johnny and Val sized him up, typical lawman, had a squint to his eyes and wore the look of suspicion on his weathered face.

“Yes, I’m Carter... So you think the Gannon’s are headed this way, huh?”

“We don’t know, but after nothin’s turned up an’ no responses from the other telegrams, we decided ta keep comin’ south. Oh, this here’s Johnny Lancer, my... deputy. We been lookin’ for these guys almost a week now. Like they vanished inta thin air.”

Johnny nodded his head and keeping his hat lowered down partially covering his face. Can never tell how many of the old wanted posters are still around. Hopefully, this sheriff hasn’t been in office that long to know of them. Never can tell about these things, though.

“Haven’t seen any strangers in town but this rain’s kept most everyone inside for a while now. I’ll be sure to let you know if I see or hear anything. You boys be spending the night here?” the sheriff asked.

“Yeah, we’ll be gettin’ a room, I guess. The hotel got clean sheets and hot food?”

“Yup, the beds are hard and lumpy but the food’s as good as good can get. Ol’ Ma Harris has been cookin’ there as long as I been in Creston and I ain’t had a bad meal with her yet an’ that’s been, oh, ‘bout twenty years now.”

Well, that answers that question, Johnny thought.

“You boys go getcha somethin’ ta eat and if I hear anything I’ll letcha know. Check here tomorrow before you head out, too.” Carter settled back into his chair once again to fret over the pile of paperwork mumbling as Johnny and Val headed out the door.

Johnny gracefully jumped onto the hitch rail and swung into his saddle as Val, once again wadded through the mud puddle to step into the stirrup.

Johnny just rolled his eyes. “You’re a mess, Val. Don’t be draggin’ no mud inta Ma Harris’ place. Don’t think she’d ‘preciate that and I for one ain’t gonna be moppin’ up no mud ‘n water off her floors...” Johnny shook his head. Dios, what a slob... “Why don’t you go in an’ I’ll take the horses down ta the livery? Order me a steak and get us a room.”

“Sounds good, amigo,” Val agreed and tossed Johnny his reins. Johnny caught them in mid-air, and with Milagro trailing behind Barranca he headed to the barn at the end of the muddy street. Val stood on the boardwalk and watched as Johnny entered the barn then, after stamping what mud he could off his boots he turned and went into the dining area to take a table.

<><><><> 

The barn was dimly lit barn as Johnny crossed into the darkness, he saw no one there and called for the livery attendant. He dismounted, holding both sets of reins in his hand.

“Anyone here?” he yelled a little louder.

With no answer, he led the two horses into stalls and started to unsaddle them. Once finished he looked around again still seeing no one. Hafta come back after...

He never saw the shovel that came slamming across his back and shoulders knocking him into the straw-covered floor. Stars exploded in his head and threatened to send him into blackness. Two sets of hands roughly dragged him to his feet and pinned his arms securely behind him as blows started raining down on him. The fists connected with his stomach and as he doubled over a powerful uppercut slammed into his chin sending him backward, but he launched himself farther back ripping out of their grasps.

He gathered himself up off the floor and got a lucky punch into one of his attackers. The man fell back and did not move. One down. Johnny thought but quickly realized the odds were still in their favor as Johnny, attention turned on one failed to keep the other in sight and felt hands grab him from behind.

As his arms were once again pulled behind, him he felt a savage kick to the belly, and he fell like a sack of rocks to all fours as his breath failed to catch. Another kick to the ribs sent him rolling. He struggled to regain footing, and his hands touched the shovel used in the initial attack. He came up swinging and heard it connect with bone, a sickening snap, and a scream. Another blow from behind sent him to the floor, and several more kicks to the ribs sent searing pain shooting through his chest.

Then there was nothing.

<><><><> 

Val sat enjoying his steak but started to wonder what was keeping Johnny. Honestly, that boy’s got a mind of his own an’ ain’t nuthin’ gonna change it. What the hell’s he doin’  out there when his steak’s getting’ cold?  

Val mind started to shift, suddenly he became cold inside, and he was up out of his chair in seconds and out the door. He left in such a hurry his slicker was still hanging on the coat rack in the dining room. Down the boardwalk, he ran as fast as he could to the livery.

No light.

Damn it! He fumbled around in the dark and finally located a lamp only after he dug a match out of his pocket and scratched it to flame with his thumbnail. He stood in the middle of the barn and turned a full circle. Barranca and Milagro were in a stall but no Johnny. Val found another lamp hanging from a hook on the wall and lit the wick. Light flooded the interior, and then he heard it.

A muffled groan, then louder.

He turned again until he found the source. Johnny lay in a heap, blood streaming down the side of his face and fighting for breath. Val knelt down to access the damage.

“Whoa, there amigo. Don’t be movin’ around so much till we can tell how bad you’re hurt.”

“Not too bad, can feel my head’s ‘bout pounded in but I can still breathe... kinda...” Johnny pulled his feet under him to rise, but Val stopped him.

“Just take it slow, Johnny. Did you see who it was?”

“Nope. But there were three of ‘em, Val an’ we know who it was. We gotta get goin’, now,”

“I think we better get you to a doctor first just ta make sure you’re alright.”

“’M fine but I think goin’ ta see the doctor is a good idea cuz I think I broke one of their arms. Come on, let’s go!” He staggered to his feet and stumbled.

Val caught him as he almost went down. “Just take it slow, there, Johnny.”

“No time, Val, come on...” and Johnny started out the door weaving his way down the walk looking like a drunk on Saturday night.

They found the doctors office and knocked on the door. After what seemed like an awfully long wait, the door opened, and a portly man with unruly white hair stepped out. After scrutinizing these two dubious characters on his porch, he then noticed Johnny’s questionable and bleeding appearance.

“Looks like you’ve got a bit of trouble, there son. Come on in. I’m Dr. Benning”

Both Val and Johnny stepped into the foyer, and the doctor motioned them into a room off the front hall.

“Didn’t expect much business tonight but it’s been pretty lucrative this evening!”

“Let me guess... a busted arm, huh?” questioned Johnny.

The doctor eyed him suspiciously when Val spoke up. “I’m Sheriff Crawford from up Green River way an’ this here’s my deputy. We been trailin’ these outlaws and Johnny here ran inta them in the livery and, ‘course, they tangled. How bad’s the other one hurt, Doc?”

“Well, the break was rather bad. I told them to take it easy for a couple of days but, somehow, I don’t think that’s what they’re going to do.”

“What’d they do?” Val questioned.

“They rode out of here going due south.”

Johnny started to get up, and both the doctor and Val called him back to sit down.

“We’re already here, Johnny. Let him check you over.”

Then the doctor voiced his speculation of a possible concussion and broken ribs that could have the capability to make him pass out cold in the saddle or puncture a lung. Hauling Johnny back to the chair the doctor proceeded to check his eyes and probe the cut on his head. The doctor then had Johnny move to the examination table to which Johnny put up a monumental tantrum.

“It ain’t that bad, Val. Look, we hafta get goin’ after them, Val. Gotta go now!”

“NOT till the doc has looked ya over. Now take that shirt off and get on that table...”

“C’mon, Val! We gotta get goin’! They’re puttin’ miles between us as it is!” Johnny pleaded.

But Val wasn’t giving up. “Just let the doc check you over an’ then we’ll haul ass, but not till you get checked out. ‘Sides, what good are ya gonna do Scott if ya can’t even sit in a saddle? Now, get your ass on that table... NOW!”

Johnny hung his head mumbling under his breath. Dios, if it ain’t Scott, it’s Val!

“’K, Doc, make it fast. We ain’t got a lotta time.” As Johnny struggled to take off his coat both the doctor and Val helped ease the clothing off Johnny’s shoulders. Johnny hissed as his arms were pulled back behind him and he managed to not punch the doctor when he was poking and prodding the rib cage.

Dr. Benning let out a sharp breath when he saw the ugly bruise already starting to form across Johnny’s back where he’d been struck with the shovel.

“Boy, you’re in a world of hurting, here. You’d best forget about heading out after those fellas and get yourself to bed for a few days. You’re one big mass of contusions and possible broken ribs!”

“No time, Doc. Just get me fixed up an’ we’ll be outta your hair.”

“I don’t advise that, young man.” The doctor was adamant.

“Just patch me up, Doc...” And with the glacial blue stare, the doctor set about to ‘patch Johnny up’.

A half hour later, it would have been longer but Johnny raised such a fuss the doctor just wanted him gone, Val and Johnny left the office and got on their horses. Johnny was moving slowly as the longer he sat with the doctor, the stiffer he became.

“Son of a bitch, I feel like I can’t breathe! What the hell kind of doctor does that to a fella?” Johnny groused. The doctor had, indeed, ‘patched’ him up, wrapped him tight and he couldn’t draw a breath. The ribs were wrapped snuggly, his head stitched and liniment rubbed on his back and shoulders.

Val kept watching him out of the corner of his eye. “A doc that wants his patient ta get better... that’s what kind of doctor! We shoulda stayed the night in that town. You coulda used the rest.”

“I’m fine an’ I’ll be better when we get those bastards that hurt Scott.”

“We’ll get ‘em, Johnny, we’ll get ‘em, but first we’re gonna stay a day or two in Atascadero and wait on a few telegrams. That’ll give you a chance to give them ribs some time offa your horse. Don’t need ta go bouncin’ ‘round any more ‘n ya hafta. Sides, I’m tired ‘a haulin’ your pile a shit carcass all over hell...” Val shot Johnny a side glance to let him know he was against them traveling at night. But in his heart, he knew that Johnny was right in wanting to keep after the Gannon’s. Val hoped that there would be a telegram waiting for them to let them know Scott would be alright.

Through the damp night they rode each lost in his own thoughts. Val worried about Johnny. Johnny worried about Scott, and they both worried about losing the Gannon brothers. Though the rain had stopped and the moon was full, tracking was almost impossible. They were going on gut, gut, and hope. Thankfully the way to Atascadero was easy traveling and uneventful, and Johnny had been able to stay on his horse with no problem. Val slowed the pace that didn’t go unnoticed by Johnny.

“Hell, Jelly could go faster’n this...” Johnny complained.

“Well, ol’ Jelly didn’t have the shit kicked outta him, either. Just relax, Johnny. We’ll be there before tomorrow night.” So, they kept on riding through the night and into the next day stopping only to water and rest the horses and grab a quick meal. The grazing was good, and water was plentiful. Val had dawdled thinking Johnny could use some rest but as soon as the horses were tended Johnny was on Barranca and ready to head out. The trail was easier now, more level and not as many rocks and ruts.

“You treat that horse a yours better ‘n ya take care a yourself. Yeah, ol’ Barranca looks smarter ‘n you, too...”

“Shut up, Val...” but there was a slight grin behind the bite, and Val knew it. He also knew how much it took out of Johnny, first still not knowing how Scott was and secondly what it took to stay riding feeling like he was.

Val knew they should be coming to Atascadero soon, he was tired and hungry and thinking about it, he sure could use some company of the soft feminine kind. Wonder what kind of fillies was in town. Find out soon ‘nough, Val thought.

There should be some word from all the telegrams that he’d sent, too. Something from Murdoch if nothing else. Val had wondered about these Gannon brothers, what made them resort to this kind of sadistic torture... Scott took a terrible beating but to have been tied with barbed wire was vicious and ruthless.

If Johnny hadn’t been feeling as bad as he did he and Val would have been pushing harder to get to town, and Val knew there wouldn’t have been much he could do to hold Johnny in check. Johnny and Scott had become almost inseparable, and that fact amazed Val. He had known Johnny for years and to see him trying to settle in with a family, a real family, was something that neither Val nor Johnny ever thought possible. Val also knew that Johnny had thought of himself as not worthy of such blessings and that had always bothered Val. Why Johnny thought so little of himself was a mystery. He had actually done much for so many people; Val had seen it with his own eyes. And yet Johnny was the only one that didn’t see, couldn’t see his worth.

“Whatcha thinkin’ about so hard?” Johnny asked, jolting Val from his musings.

“Oh, just thinkin’ ‘bout what a chunk head ya are,” Val grinned.

The blue stare and raised eyebrows that had terrified so many men had simply rolled off Val’s back. “No, I’m just thinkin’ ‘bout you ‘n Scott, how close ya got ta be, is all.”

Johnny smiled and looked down like he always did when something was puzzling him or when he was humbled, and he was definitely humbled when he thought of Scott. “Yeah, I can’t explain it, that’s for sure. I told ya b’fore it’s strange how it came about. Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout buttin’ heads with Murdoch but me ‘n Scott—I just ain’t never felt this way about anyone... Up till then, you ‘re the closest thing ta family I ever had”

“Well, that’s the way it should be with brothers,” Val replied with a smile that nearly split his face.

“An’ good friends...” Johnny looked Val in the eye and returned a grin.

And Val, thinking on Johnny’s words suddenly remembered that terrifying moment five years ago when Johnny, trying to save Val from an ambush, jumped in front of Val and took the bullet himself, crashing backward into Val knocking him to the ground... and saving his life. Val almost lost Johnny that night and thinking about it now, at that moment, Val also knew the fear of losing a brother. The stark realization that Johnny very probably would not live to see the sunrise helped him to come to terms of thinking of Johnny as his brother. Johnny had risked everything to save Val... and that’s what brothers do.

<><><><> 

Atascadero was only a few miles away. Both Val and Johnny were ready to stop for the night and get some much-needed sleep. Val was blurry eyed, and Johnny was about to fall out of the saddle. They rode into town, and their first stop was the sheriff’s office. Val dismounted and tied off the reins then turning to Barranca he made to reach up and help Johnny out of the saddle, but Johnny brushed him off.

“I can make it,” came the ground out reply through clenched teeth. Even with bound ribs and the pain that comes from pushing oneself to his limit, Johnny gracefully stepped from the saddle but stood still to lean against Barranca for a moment to catch his breath. His eyes constantly swept both sides of the street, a habit from his gunfighting days.

Climbing up on the boardwalk, albeit slowly, they entered Atascadero’s jail. Standing in the office in front of the stove stood a middle-aged man with red-brown hair and the biggest and bushiest beard Val had ever seen. Setting his coffee mug aside Sheriff Evan Colter looked the two strangers over and introduced himself. Val shook the offered hand and indicated Johnny, who was leaning back against the door, as his deputy.

“We’re on the trail of the Gannon brothers. There’s three of ‘em, one has a busted arm. They’re wanted up near Green River for attempted murder. You seen ‘em come through here taday?” Val questioned, hopefully.

“No, not personally but a rancher just south of here reported three horses were taken from his pasture this afternoon. Sounds like it could be the men you’re after. Let’s get over to the telegraph office, and we’ll send out notices to the neighboring towns. Maybe with any luck, they’ll be caught, and we’ll be able ta help getting’ them back to Green River.” Sheriff Colter eyed Johnny, still leaning on the door. “You don’t look so good, Deputy. You need a doctor?”

“No, I‘m fine, just tired, thanks.” Johnny, again, had pulled the brim of his hat down to partially cover his face so he wouldn’t be recognized as Madrid. He needed to get those old wanted posters called in before he met with an ‘accident’.

“This way to the telegraph office.”

Colter, Val, and Johnny left the sheriff’s office and walked down the street with hopes that a message waited for them and if nothing else they would send out new ones. The town was settling down for the night, except of course for the saloons and brothels, and no one took notice of the three lawmen on their way to the telegraph office.

As they entered the building the sleeping agent at the window snapped to attention not wanting to be caught napping on the job.

“Hi, George, glad we didn’t bother you much,” joked the sheriff. George was always sleeping on the job, and everyone in town knew it, except George. “Any telegrams for Sheriff Crawford come in the last few days?” Colter asked indicating Val.

“Ahhh, let me see here, there are several new messages here... here, there’s two for you Sheriff Crawford.”

George handed the messages over to Val. Looking at them he handed the news from Murdoch over to Johnny, and Val kept the message from Shandon.

Johnny read and with a visible sigh of relief let himself slump on the edge of the counter.

“Whatcha got, Johnny?” asked Val with a hopeful smile.

“Pretty good news... Scott’s up an’ around a little. Doc says he’ll be alright in a couple ‘a weeks. Ya got anything there?” Johnny was starting to come alive again. The thought of gaining ground on these bastards was beginning to pump adrenaline into his blood.

“Maybe. We need ta get some sleep before we do anything though. I’ll need ta send a message ta Shandon an’ have the sheriff there hold the Gannon brothers if he gets the chance” Val turned to Colter after he’d sent the telegram. “We’re gonna get a room for the night an’ stop back in the mornin’ an’ talk. Can’t do much tanight anyways. Come on, Johnny. You’re ‘bout done in.” They started out the door, and Val tossed a “Thanks, Sheriff,” over his shoulder.

“You wanna get somethin’ ta eat first or you gonna hit the sack,” Val looked at Johnny and waited for his answer.

Johnny stepped off the boardwalk intending on going to the diner that shared the saloon but stopped and stood to look down the street at the building at the end of the road. A smile crossed his face.

“Got a better idea, Val...” and Johnny switched gears and direction. He was beginning to feel a little better about their chances of capturing the Gannon brothers and with that came another kind of hunger.

Val caught the meaning and laughed. “You’re about as horny as a dog, Johnny, ya know that?”

“Well, maybe I just ain’t as old an’ decrepit as you. ‘Sides, I‘m feelin’ a little more optimistic about findin’ those bastards. I wanna be at my best when we catch up ta them an’ what better way ta feel ‘better’....?” he laughed climbing the steps and opening the door to the bordello.

<><><><> 

La Casa de la Rosas was a large three-story building painted in meticulous pale blue with dark blue trim with neat gardens in the yard, and wicker furniture on the wide porch boasted of high-end company. The two dusty men tramped into the foyer after stamping their feet on the mat and slapping their hats against their bodies to loosen what they could of the trail dust outside. From behind a heavy dark red curtain, a chunky blond woman entered the room clad in a lounging robe with obviously not much worn beneath it. Heavy makeup painted her face as the smile blossomed upon seeing the two handsome men.

“Hello, boys! What can we do for you tonight?” positioning herself between them and hugging their arms to her ample bosom she led them through the heavy velvet curtain and into a large room. Expensively furnished with obvious taste Val and Johnny stood and looked around. Val secretly giving his thanks for Johnny’s ‘hunger’.

“We’d like some company for the night....” Johnny started only to be cut off with a shriek. A tall, lithe woman with waist length silky, black hair and black eyes crossed the room and threw her arms around Johnny’s neck.

“Querido mio, Juanito!...” And she kissed him deeply as if sucking all the air out of his lungs.

Johnny grinned broadly, wrapped his arms around her and hugged as hard as his bruised ribs would allow. She knocked his hat off and let it fall along his back to hang by the stampede stings. Val stood and rolled his eyes thinking that only Johnny could walk into a strange town and find a long lost novia.

“Holly! Dios! How long has it been?” Johnny pulled her away at arm's length and gave her a slow and sensual perusal.

“Too long, miel! Come with me, and I will see your friend,” giving Val a look that made his blood boil right there, “ has... someone, perfecto!Chrissy, come! There is someone who wants to meet you!” A small pert blond with the largest blue eyes that Val had ever seen came through the doorway and sidled up to Val. Putting her small delicate hand on his chest, she whispered into Val’s ear, and he blushed to leave Johnny’s head thrown back in laughter.

He drew Holly into his arms and hugged her again. “Where do we go, querida?”

“A bath first. And I will.... help you” she breathed into his kiss.

Lounging in the tub Holly gasped at the large ugly bruise across Johnny’s back and shoulders. He laid against her in the tub, his back to her front as she rubbed his chest and belly softly with her hands creating soapy, slippery trails across his skin and prompted his heart to pound thunderously as his blood scorched in his brain.

“Miel, what happened to you? Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I‘m fine. Had a run in with some fellas. Just a little tired, been ridin’ over a week now.”

“I hope you’re not too tired, Juanito... It has been a long time since I have seen you, querido...” as she leaned forward and ran her tongue around his ear.

He leaned his head back against her shoulder and closed his eyes. Dios, she knows what she’s doin’, he thought. He was so relaxed at this moment he didn’t think he could even get out of the tub. Then her hands explored further down, and he was immediately awake with an erection like he had not had in a long time. Oh, yeah, she knows what she’s doin’ alright! They took their time, kissing, and touching, and renewing their passion that seemed so easily reignited. They had been drawn to each other from their very first meeting and with every subsequent visit found that what they felt for each other hadn’t diminished at all but, in fact, intensified. She knew what he wanted and she was glad to give for Juanito was special, very special.

They left the tub, and she wrapped a large fluffy towel around them drying them both before tumbling into bed with clean, crisp sheets. Johnny still stunned at finding Holly tonight, had yet to recover from the shock, so unexpected it was it only served to heighten their pleasure.

As he rolled her under him, he took her head in his hands and tangled his fingers through her silky hair. He nuzzled her neck then using his tongue he trailed light feathery paths across her skin, teasing with a light nip and smothering her cries of delight with hot, smoldering kisses. His pain and discomfort forgotten, he spent the next hours indulged in slow, hot and extremely sensual lovemaking that he hadn’t experienced in a long, long time. It was very late when they finally fell into an exhausted sound sleep still entangled, still enjoying each other’s touch.

Holly woke and very quietly turned to watch Johnny as he slept. How many times had she done this exact thing? He was so very interesting, so handsome and such a caring and attentive lover she had never had before.

Since their first encounter, he had shown her nothing but respect and compassion. He was not like any other man she had ever been with, and he would always, always be welcome. Her mind went back to their first meeting, and she shivered with the thought. She had been beaten senseless by Antonio Escobar, a despicable man that wanted her to work for him in his brothel. When she refused, he beat her, and as if it weren’t enough for him, he then took a knife and was seconds away from marring the perfect beauty with a slice to her face. Out of nowhere, a soft but deadly voice very calmly told Escobar if he so much as nicked her with that knife he’d be dead where he stood. Escobar, foolishly thinking who would fight for a whore, turned and recklessly lashed out with the knife only to see a flash, the last he would ever see, as a bullet smashed through his skull dead center between his eyes.

Holly fell to the floor in exhausted terror, not knowing what happened only relief that that man was dead. She suddenly felt hands on her shoulders and that same soft voice asking if she was alright. An honest and concerned question. A caring and very handsome face loomed above her as she tried to focus her eyes. Then she felt herself being gently picked up off the floor, held securely by strong arms and carried from the room. It seemed an eternity ago. And, here they were again, tangled in sweaty sheets after hours of sweet, satisfying lovemaking.

<><><><> 

The pounding on the door snapped Johnny to attention and a mere split second later his gun was in his hand, cocked and aimed at the door. It slowly creaked open and, once again, Val found himself looking down the business end of Johnny’s Colt.

“Dios, Val, I'm gonna blow your fool head off one a these days!” His head fell back on the pillow, and his hand flopped onto the bed.

“Sorry, amigo, just thought I’d see if ya want ta go for breakfast with me an’ check the telegraph office...” Val waited for a reply, but none came. “Ah, I’ll check on ya later, then.” and with that Val closed the door.

“Wait here for me, querido. I’ll be back with something for us to eat.” With a passionate kiss, Holly left him to doze.

Val stopped back an hour later, once again took a chance and knocked on the door. He opened the door slowly and saw Johnny sitting in bed finishing his meal.

“Take your time there, Johnny, the sheriff over in Shandon picked up the Gannon’s an’ has ‘em locked up. There’s a storm comin’ in soon so we might as well stay here till it moves out.”

“Sounds good. Where’s Holly? We ain’t done yet...”

“You are a dog!”

“Hey, I didn’t hear her complainin’ besides, Chrissy looked pretty happy this mornin’!”

“When did you see Chrissy?”

“She came in earlier ta see how I was... guess she’s worried about me...” Val shot Johnny his best keep your hands off my girl look. With that Holly brushed past Val in the doorway and joined Johnny in the bed. Johnny took her in his arms and pulled her under him as he rolled on top of her.

“Get out, Val.”

<><><><> 

The storm lasted till mid-afternoon both outside and in. Johnny finally got out of bed and dressed leaving a very exhausted, but very satisfied Holly eyeing him from the bed. He sat on a chair beside the window and pulled on his boots. Leaning his elbows on his knees, he looked Holly square in the eyes and grinned. How was it possible that she looked more beautiful now, how many years later? Dios, but she is pretty!

Johnny rose from the chair to lie across the bed savoring a long and passion filled last kiss. She about took his breath away. Again, with head spinning and pounding heart he got up and walked out the door.

Val was downstairs settling their bill, and then they left the bordello.

That, amigo, was a good idea,” Val said with his silly grin plastered all over his face.

“Thought you’d like it,” was all Johnny said. They retrieved their horses from the livery and started out for Shandon just as the sun broke through the clouds. It had rained the night before, and the road was slippery and muddy causing a slower pace than what Johnny would have liked.

Once more he focused on the Gannon’s and bringing them back to stand trial for the assault on Scott. He still wanted to bring justice down around their ears himself, but he’d have to be satisfied that all three were apprehended and the law would take care of them. Johnny’s mind went back to that morning when he’d found Scott, beaten within an inch of his life and wrapped in the barbed wire. He could feel his will weaken and temper rise to a boiling point.

Val could see it coming. “What’s the matter with you?” Val asked as he watched Johnny’s internal struggles.

Johnny shook his head as if to clear the troubled thoughts.

“All I can think of is Scott layin’ there with the shit kicked outta him an’ wrapped in that damned wire. Val, it seemed like it took hours ta get it all off him, the whole time he was grittin’ his teeth in pain an’ eyes glazin’ over... I thought he was gonna die before I got done... thought he was gonna die in my arms!” Johnny took a minute to gather his thoughts. “I hope these assholes don’t give me any reason ta make their trip back ta Morro Coyo... difficult. Don’t know that I’ll be able ta control anything that’ll happen.” He looked Val square in the eye. “Just lettin’ ya know how it is, Val.”

Val’s gut tightened. He knew Johnny was a fair and honest man. He also knew how Johnny felt about his brother. “Just make it law abidin’ an’ we got no issues, Johnny. So, tell me, how’d ya meet Holly?”

Thankful for the diversion Johnny began the story. “She was about one second away from havin’ her face sliced and I... helped her out. Been, let’s see, five years or so now. Been friends ever since,” Johnny smiled as he remembered the times they’d spent together. They were good times! Sweet times, some of the best times he had since... well, a long, long time.

<><><><> 

The rain started again during the night. Torrents of water cascaded down mountainsides and accumulated where it had never been before. Again, they were soaked, cold and hungry. And still hours away from Shandon.

They kept going, lulled after a time to the clip-clop of the horse's footsteps. They dared not travel any faster than a walk, the footing treacherous for both horses and their riders.

And still more hours passed and the rain did not let up. The bridge leading north out of Shandon washed out leaving the only exit back the way they’d come. Val swore at the news, but there was nothing they could do to change anything now. The town looked deserted due only to the fact the weather forced everyone inside. They took a room at the hotel and stayed the night and most of the next day waiting for the rain to stop. Once again, Johnny was thankful for the chance to be warm and dry and have a comfortable bed for the night, not as comfortable as he was in Holly’s bed but comfortable none the less.

“Never in my time here have I seen it rain like this!”  The sheriff spouted. And Jack Kincaid had seen a lot. “Back in ‘59 there was a blizzard up here that lasted two days but nothin’ like this...” Kincaid exclaimed looking out the window. “You fellas better plan on a long trip home. You really oughta consider goin’ back to Atascadero an’ gettin’ on a train back ta Green River. God only knows how many bridges are washed out by now. An’ it don’t look like it’s gonna let up any time soon.”

<><><><> 

The Gannons huddled together in their cell commiserating over their present situation. Spike finally let it be known that he had lifted a pistol from the sheriff’s office when they were brought in, his brothers stared in disbelief but quickly became excited over their good luck and hopes of escape.

“Hafta wait fer just the right time. An’ don’t neither of ya’s let anybody know I got this here gun! There’ll come just the right time an’ you let me decide when that time’ll be... I can hear that they’ll be takin’ us back ta Green River, so we have a ways ta make a plan...” He smiled at his brothers thinking that he would show the law just how smart he was. And just maybe, he’d show that Johnny Lancer a thing or two…

<><><><> 

Still raining. How the hell can it still be rainin’? Thought Val. How can so much water get wrung out of the clouds? It’s been raining three solid days, what the hell? If we don’t get outta here soon, we’ll be swimmin’ home! Damn it!

“What’d ya say, Johnny? Wanna try for home... or wait?” Val couldn’t make up his mind. One choice was as bad as the other. If he let Johnny make the decision, then he could complain about it all the way home…

“What about waiting for one more day. If it still rainin’ we’ll go but give it another day.” During the next few hours, the rain was lighter and did finally stop; however, the sky was still dark. Johnny and Val got supplies ready, hauled out the prisoners and handcuffed them to the saddles. Johnny had wanted them tied with their hands behind them, but Val insisted, because of the muddy conditions that they would need their hands in front. Spike had smiled at that.

“Hey, Lancer, that brother a yours got a few scars on ‘im? Maybe one or two across that dandy face, huh?” Spike goaded but was not happy that Johnny hadn’t taken the bait.

Val let out a sigh of relief. Don’t let him get ta ya, Johnny!

They started the return trip after sending a telegram to Murdoch to let him know the Gannon’s were found and arrested and would be back in Green River as soon as they could.

Traveling was slow, agonizingly so for Johnny. He still hurt from the fight in Creston and even under Holly’s special care Johnny continued to feel the shards of white-hot pain shooting through his body. Maybe that sheriff had a good idea ‘bout takin’ the train back...

The higher in elevation, the colder it got, and the rain had started to spit. They broke for a light meal. No fire, just sandwiches from the diner. They all sure could have used a cup of coffee.

Although trying to get Johnny in a conversation in an attempt to get him riled, Spike bided his time knowing that he would have his chance. And still, he smiled.

“Val, got this feelin’... Gannon’s been smilin’ an awful lot. Be on your toes, somethin’s gonna happen,” Johnny spoke so low that Val had to strain to hear him as they watched out of the corners of their eyes. “Ben ain’t gonna be much of a problem with that busted up arm, but the other two look like they’re gonna explode.”

Both Johnny and Val agreed that it was only a matter of time before the Gannon’s tried to make a run for the hills. That ain’t about ta happen, boys... Johnny kept watching for ‘the moment’ things would break loose. It would be soon. Bet these idiots are a dead give away in a poker game. Can’t believe these two.

“Hey, Lancer... that brother a yours still alive? Bet he’s gonna have some pretty good scars ta boast ‘bout, huh? Next time maybe the wire will be ‘round his neck. Pull that tight an’ watch the show!”

Johnny got up and walked to stand in front Spike.

“Johnny....?” Val let the question hang in the air as Johnny standing casually, weight on one leg, stared Spike in the eyes with the cold Madrid smile, the smile that put the fear of God in better men than what was sitting in front of him now. He never broke the contact.

But Spike did. He looked over to where Val was sitting and knew he had pushed too far. Well, maybe this’ll be the time ta show this Lancer pup he ain’t near as good as he thinks he is...

“No need ta get your back up, Lancer, I’m just funnin’. Ya know, the funny thing is between stealing Lancer beef an’ kickin the shit outta that dandy brother a yours, I was having a real hard time tryin’ ta figure out which one was the most entertainin’. Changin’ the brands was interestin’ but then again so was watchin’ your brother’s eyes rollin’ back in his head while we beat him unconscious...”

Spike never saw the slight narrowing of Johnny’s eyes, but Val knew it would be there. Val stood up and got between Johnny and Spike, taking Johnny by the shoulders and trying to back him away. Spike saw his chance. He jumped to his feet as he reached around to the back of his waistband and pulled out the gun and fired. Val shrieked and sagged in front of Johnny.

Spike made a dive for the rocks that would offer cover with Johnny right behind. Spike turned and fired, but the shot went wild. With hands still cuffed together shooting was, of course, difficult. He’d gained a slight advantage though as Johnny wasn’t moving at his regular speed due to the earlier injuries. He’d made it behind a pile of rocks and waited. He watched as Johnny got closer, and from his hiding place he knew this was it. The time to finish this. Hell, I can’t miss from here! And he fired. But what he heard was the immediate return from Johnny’s gun. Johnny had seen the movement and fired almost the split second Gannon did.

Spikes bullet caught him in the shoulder and spun him around, he went down on one knee. Johnny knew that it was his only chance and made it good. Almost simultaneously, the reports rang in the cold mountain air. Johnny’s bullet had ripped open Spike’s throat, blood was staining the ground and washing away. Gannon’s body slumped in the dirt, lifeless, wasted, and very, very dead. Johnny checked the body, picked up Gannon’s gun and walked back to camp.

Val sat with a gun on Vince and Ben. Both nearly as white as Val. Spikes bullet had creased Val’s upper arm with a ragged, ugly furrow and it bled profusely. His gun was held steady as Johnny stumbled through the brush.

“It’s me, Val...” Johnny called out before he came into the clearing.

“Hey, where’s my brother?” screamed Vince, jumping up as Johnny made his way to Val’s side.

“Dead,”  came the cold response as Vince went wild and started to come at Johnny. Johnny turned and had his pistol in his hand before he even knew it and Val’s command broke through to everyone.

“Siddown and shut up, NOW!” Vince’s legs caved in, and he crumpled to the ground. Val looked up at Johnny, and his mouth fell open.

“Jesus, Johnny, what’re ya tryin’ ta do? You an’ Scott got a contest goin’ on here?” Val was alarmed when he saw the blood streaming down Johnny’s chest.

“Huh?” Johnny wasn’t even sure he’d heard Val correctly then shook his head and tried to clear the fuzz. “Uh, I‘m alright, I guess.”

“No, ya ain’t, amigo. Just siddown here an’ let me take a look.” He glanced at the two brothers sitting in disbelief that their older and “wiser” brother was no longer a part of them. “You two so much as sneeze an’ you’ll be joinin’ your idiot brother.” Val watched them as they hung their heads, neither about to give either lawman an excuse to fire any more weapons.

Val helped Johnny off with the rain-soaked coat. As Johnny held a gun on the brothers Val tightly bandaged Johnny’s shoulder and helped him put on a clean shirt then the coat. Johnny insisted on checking Val’s arm, wrapping it in a clean part of the shirt Johnny had taken off.

After deciding to continue on to Atascadero they wrestled Spikes body onto his horse, broke camp and left, no one spoke, no one even so much as belched. Johnny led out, and Val brought up the rear. He watched all three men ahead of him and trusted his faithful Milagro for sure footing. They still had a long way to go. And it was still raining.

The afternoon was waning, and Val wondered if they should try for town tonight. They were all saddle-weary, but Val knew that Johnny probably shouldn’t be out in this weather. With no shelter in between, he made the decision to keep moving. As long as they stayed in the saddle, he guessed they were alright.

As night started to fall, Val calculated they were only about ten miles out of Atascadero. They would make it and was sure looking forward to spending the night with Chrissy. Knowing that Johnny would need a day or so, and Val knew it would be the “or so” option, they would all get some much-needed rest.

The Gannon’s would be spending it in the courtesy of the Atascadero jail. Johnny mentioned the thought of taking the train home and now it looked like that would be their best option, as neither man was at optimum capability.

Val watched as Johnny swayed and battled to stay upright. Luckily, Barranca seemed to know where they were headed; maybe he could smell that warm, clean barn from here, who knew about these things. The horses sometimes seemed to know more than their owners, which at times like these, was a good thing.

The rain was slowing, and Val caught a glimpse of lights through the trees. Couldn’t be much past nine, but they had made pretty good time considering all that had happened.

Val took the reins of the Gannon brother’s horses as they pulled up in front of the sheriff’s office. “Alright you two, off them horses an’ no funny stuff. NOW!” The two brothers stiffly dismounted after Val unlocked their cuffs, and stepped up onto the boardwalk where they stopped and turned to look at their brother for the last time then Val led them into the jail. Sheriff Colter was sitting behind his desk when Val ushered the brothers inside. Val swore the sheriff’s beard had grown at least two inches since he’d seen the man last.

“Well, there, Crawford... looks like ya found what you were lookin’ for! But I thought there were three of them...?”

“Yeah, there still is ‘cept ones dead. Tried ta draw on my deputy and was shot. An’ so was the deputy. He’s outside still on his horse waitin’ till these hooligans are locked up an’ the dead man’s slung ‘cross ‘is saddle waitin’ ta get buried.” Val explained

“Well, let me get to this an’ you get your deputy taken care of.”

“Thanks, Colter. Which way to the doctor’s?’ Val inquired.

“Next street over. Doc Sloan”

“Thanks. Make sure you separate them two. Don’t want ‘em together. I’ll be over tomorrow ta talk with ‘em. Thanks again. G’night” Val left as sheriff Colter locked up the two remaining Gannon brothers.

Colter smiled broadly and called after Val. “I got four empty cells. I’ll put one on either end. How’s that?”

Val turned in the doorway and smiled. “Perfect! Thanks!”

“Johnny? Ya still with me, amigo?” Val asked as he watched Johnny sag in the saddle.

“Yeah. Startin’ ta get tired,” was all he said.

Val shook his head. ‘Startin’ ta get tired…’ He’s ‘bout ta fall off his horse he’s so tired. He took Barranca’s reins and led him over to the doctors and tied up at the hitch rail. Val helped Johnny down.

It took a minute for Johnny to get his legs under him and he had to lean against his horse to steady himself, but finally, he was able to move albeit wobbly and climbed up on the porch. Val knocked on the door, and a few minutes later a chubby, bespectacled man stood in the doorway eyeing the two travel worn and drenched men before him. They both needed medical attention, and he motioned them into his house.

They turned into the first room on the right, and Val shoved Johnny over to the examination table. Johnny stood swaying as he tried to get his coat off of his shoulders and with a little help from the other men it was hung on the back of the door.

“Looks like you boys ran into some trouble. Let’s take a look, here,” as he proceeded to look into Johnny’s eyes, listen to his heart and then reached for the buttons to his shirt. Cutting away the bandage that Val had wrapped Johnny in, the doctor noted the vivid bruising from the beating Johnny took in the barn in Creston and the myriad of old scars on Johnny’s torso.

“Well, I see you’ve had worse—let’s get you checked over, young man,” and the doctor started his poking and prodding, eliciting groans and hisses from Johnny.

“Well” after a lengthy exam, “Nothing too bad. There’s a bed here in the back room you can have for a few days so I can keep an eye on you...”

“I ain’t stayin’. Just get the bullet out an’ stitch it up, Doc,” Johnny managed to grind out.

“Alright, I can’t make you stay so I’ll have laudanum and sleeping powders sent over to the hotel for you.”

“Ain’t gonna be at the hotel..."

“Well, you’re not going to stay at that cold, drafty jail! You’ll get pneumonia!”

“Nope, ain’t gonna be there neither..."

“Then the only other choice is here!” harrumphed the doctor confidently with a smug look on his flabby face.

“Uhh, Doc, no offense but... well, ya just ain’t that pretty,” Johnny flippantly answered.

The light finally went on in the doctor’s head as he realized just exactly what Johnny was implying.

“Well, you just listen here, Deputy. You need to be taking it easy, not bouncing around on a bed. You’ve lost a lot of blood! Now, that wound isn’t life-threatening, but if you don’t take care of yourself you will end up in trouble! You really need...”

“I ‘preciate your help, Doc, an’ I have every intention of takin’ care a myself, I know what I need,” Johnny smiled, barely able to contain his mirth and his smile dangerously close to running away with him. Val sat there shaking his head; he couldn’t believe that Johnny was pulling this off.

Doctor Sloan was beside himself with frustration. “I really don’t think you’re grasping the seriousness of the situation, young man!”

“Yeah, Doc, I am. I’m gonna get taken care of real good, believe me! So, get to it. Time’s wastin’...” Johnny lay back on the table as the doctor started to clean the wound. He handed Johnny a glass and told him to drink the liquid until it was gone.

“Don’t need it, just get the bullet, Doc, now!”

The doctor sighed with irritation then began to probe for the bullet. Val offered a hand to steady Johnny, and shortly the bullet was pulled free of Johnny’s shoulder. The wound was not bad, however, it was bleeding badly again. After several minutes of applying pressure, the bleeding slowed enough to stitch the hole, another wash with carbolic, which produced a very loud groan and a long string of swearing in Spanish and English, then finally a layer of thick salve and clean bandages.

“Now, you just lay here until I get the sheriff cleaned up. We’ll be right over there by that table,” the doctor told Johnny. As Sloan cleaned and stitched Val’s arm, he looked into Val’s eyes and asked, “Is he always this obstinate?”

“Oh, no, usually he’s worse, this is a good day! He shot the last doctor...”

The doctor let his eyes slide over to the bandaged man stretched out on the table, he visibly trembled, and Val almost felt bad for the deception and smiled. Finished at last Val stood and put on his shirt. Johnny opened his eyes, rolled to his right side, and pushed himself up with his hand. With a deep groan, he made it to his feet and shrugged into his coat with help from Val.

“You got the doc scared,” Val said in a low tone.

“Me? What’d I do?” Eyes wide and innocent

“For some reason, Doc thinks you’re gonna shoot him.”

“Where’d he get that idea, Val?”

“Got no clue, Johnny. No clue atall. Let’s get over ta them girls. Good plan, amigo! Good plan!” After settling up with the doctor, they made it out the door, onto their horses and were finally on their way back to see the girls.

La Casa de la Rosas was truly a welcoming sight. It seemed to be calling out to them. The nearer they got, the louder they were called. Johnny actually felt... not terrible, all things considered. They walked in the front door, and as before Tess, the madam of the house escorted them into the sitting room.

Both Holly and Chrissy were there, and each hurried to their man. Holly, realizing there was something wrong judging by the way Johnny stood held off any overzealous attention. She went to him, again with a kiss that would boil an ocean and took his hand leading him to the stairs.

Halfway up Val had a thought. “Johnny, watch that shoulder!” with a reminder to his young friend.

Johnny stopped and turned as he swayed slightly, eyeing Val in disbelief. “Uh, Val?... I ain’t gonna use my shoulder... do I gotta explain how all this works... again?” All the girls giggled and laughed at Val’s expense as he turned many shades of very pretty reds.

“You get that useless carcass up them stairs an’ don’t you go worryin’ ‘bout me!” he sputtered.

“So you’re alright? I don’t gotta explain nuthin’?” Johnny pursued.

“Get the hell up there!” Val huffed in exasperation as he tried to corral the embarrassment.

The girls were enjoying the entertainment to the fullest. They were still laughing as Johnny turned to Chrissy and gave her a sympathetic look and shrug. Holly prodded Johnny to go up the stairs.

Once in her room, she helped Johnny off with his coat and boots. She kissed his face gently as she unbuttoned his shirt sliding her hands over the thick bandages covering Johnny’s chest.

“Mio,”  she crooned in his ear, “You take so many chances. I think one day you won’t come back to me...”

She carefully pushed him back to lie on the bed as she continued to slowly undress him. As she pulled at his clothes, he sighed deeply and closed his eyes letting her work her magic with her soft, sweet touch. He felt like he was melting in her hands, all the stress and tension literally pouring off his body. It was an exquisite sensation, and he was enjoying every minute of it. She lay down beside him and traced his profile with her finger. He opened his eyes and pulled her to him with one effortless move. He rolled over on her, and she gasped a bit.

“Oh, Juanito, be careful of your shoulder!’

“You been talkin’ ta Val? I told him I wasn’t gonna be usin’ that! Do I gotta explain things ta you, too?” he asked with a silly grin.

She giggled as his mouth came down on hers. The night was very long, very noisy, and very exciting.

<><><><> 

He opened his eyes and realized that he was alone in the bed. Wondering at the time but with no energy to look, or even care, he decided he would wait for Holly to return to him. Yup, this was a good idea. Gotta agree with Val on that... Then he shut his eyes again and was asleep in seconds.

<><><><> 

Val entered the sheriff’s office and sat down in the chair opposite the desk. Colter was just finishing up some dreaded paperwork and offered Val a cup of coffee. Taking the mug, Val waited for Colter to put the papers away.

“Them rowdies give ya any trouble last night?” Val asked indicating the two prisoners.

“Nope, they were pretty quiet all night. No complainin’ even when they got their breakfast this morning. How’s your deputy doin’?”

“He’ll be alright after a day or two of rest. We been ridin’ the better part a two weeks an’ I gotta tell ya, we’re ‘bout done in so’s a little rest’ll do us both good,” Val replied, but his mind was on getting back to spend an’ enjoyable afternoon with Chrissy. “Thought I’d stop by an’ have a little talk with them two, one at a time, though. Give ‘em somethin’ ta think ‘bout.”

“Sure, I’ll let you have the back room so you can have some privacy.”

“Thanks, Colter.” Val wasn’t sure what he was going to say, but he had to make it good and convincing.

He went into the back room and sat down to wait for the first of the two remaining brothers to come in. He knew most likely that Spike was the instigator in this whole mess and now with Spike out of the picture the other two would not have the cajones to carry on as before. Ben was shown into the room and sat down to face Val. Sheriff Colter said he’d be right outside if Val needed any assistance and closed the door.

Ben fidgeted in his chair. Val just glared at him for a moment. Ben, nervous under the scrutiny, looked down at his hands breaking eye contact. He looked like he would cry.

“Have a restful night?” Val asked, and Ben jumped as the voice seemed to explode in the small room. Ben shook his head.

“Good, then you’ll be up for answerin’ some questions. Spike tell ya ta rough up Scot Lancer?”

“...Y-yeah.” Ben’s mouth clamped shut still not raising his eyes.

“You do everythin’ your brother says ta do?”

“Yeah.”

“Ya know you’re in big trouble... don’tcha?” Ben shook his head yes. “It’s gonna go better for you if ya cooperate with me, ya know that?” Again, a head shake. “Good.” Val got up and stood by the door to signal Colter he was finished. As they got to the cell doors and Ben stepped through Val said, “Thanks for the help, Ben.” Val left the jail letting Vince wonder how exactly had Ben helped...

Val, anxious to get back to see if Johnny had finally woke stepped into the dark interior of the bordello. Immediately Chrissy was by his side wrapping her arms around his waist and purring into his ear. He paused to give her a bear hug and lifted her off the floor then swung her up in his arms and carried her up the stairs; Chrissy nuzzled his neck all the way.

“Johnny been up yet this mornin’?” Val asked hopefully.

“I haven’t seen him, and Holly hasn’t said anything. Why don’t you go check on him, and I’ll see you in a few minutes?” came her soft reply. Val set her on her feet, and she went down the hall to her room. Val knocked on Holly’s door, and when there was no answer, he slowly eased it open.  Johnny was still in bed, but an eye cracked open.

“Hey, there, Johnny. How’re ya feelin’ amigo?” Val asked.

“....Like a new man...” Johnny mumbled slurring his words.

“Huh, seems like the same ol’ sorry ass, pile a shit, dusty carcass that I hauled in here last night...”

“Fuck you, Val...”

“Feelin’ better, I see.”

“Yeah, some. Where’s Holly? You seen her?’ Johnny asked softly like it was an effort to talk.

“No, but I can go find her for ya.” Val left the room and as he descended the stairs met the doctor on his way up.

“Hey, Doc! Here ta see Johnny or are you here on a more... social visit?” The doctor huffed indignantly.

“I am here to see that stubborn, ornery deputy of yours. Bad enough that he wouldn’t stay at the office where he should be but makes me be seen here in this... establishment!”

“Oh, hi Doc! It’s nice to see you again so soon!” two of the girls were passing in the hall and called out in acknowledgment.

The good doctor huffed and in flustered embarrassment at being noticed he hurried on to Holly’s room as the deep shade of red flowed up to the top of his bald pate. Val couldn’t hide his amusement and laughed. Well, ol’ Johnny’s got some company now, granted not the company he was wantin’... and he left in pursuit of Chrissy.

The doctor hurried into the room and quietly set his bag on the bedside table. He reached over and laid a hand on Johnny’s forehead and immediately tried to pull away as his wrist was locked in a grip like a vise. Johnny’s eyes fixed on the doctor’s terrified glazed over face and almost laughed.

“Doc, that’s a good way ta get yourself killed...” and let go of the doctor as he eased back on the bed, closing his eyes again.

Gathering what little composure he had left the doctor began his examination. Johnny kept quiet through most of it, answering when he was asked a question but volunteering nothing.

“Well, how are you feeling this afternoon?”

“’M fine, just tired.”

“Yes, I don’t doubt that. You lost an awful lot of blood. You’re very lucky that bullet wasn’t all that deep otherwise you probably would have bled to death before you got to town. I’ll change the bandage, and I want you to get more rest... Did you hear? I want you to rest.”

“Yeah, Doc, I heard. You rest your way an’ I’ll rest my way...” Johnny let the statement hanging and smiled directly into the doctor’s eyes.

With a look of disgust, he changed the bandages and left the building by the back door skirting around so anyone watching wouldn’t have a clue from which direction he’d come.

Holly quietly eased open the door and came to the edge of the bed and watched Johnny sleep. She knew that he and Val would be leaving in the next day or two. Oh, how she would miss Johnny when he was gone! It was like a knife through her heart every time she saw him. Why couldn’t they have met when they were both younger? Knowing full well that Johnny would never have settled down then and in truth, neither would she. But she would have to be content with his tumbleweed ways if she wanted any contact with him at all. He would never be tied down to one woman, and a man usually would not be tied down to a woman especially if she had been a whore.

He moved and sighed as he slept. Rounding the bed, she took off her robe and lifted the blankets crawling in beside him, and careful not to wake him she cuddled as close as she dared and fell asleep.

<><><><> 

Val made his way to the sheriff’s office. Time to divide and conquer. He opened the door to find the brothers each pacing in their respective cells, neither talking to the other. Sheriff

Colter looking frustrated and out of patience.

“Look at these two! They’re driving me to the edge, Crawford. When’re you gonna get them outta here?” the sheriff had clearly had enough.

“”We’ll be leavin’ on the next train north. I wanna talk with Vince, backroom alright, sheriff?”

“Yeah, I’ll get ‘im for ya.” The sheriff retrieved the keys to the cell and assuring himself that Vince was securely cuffed escorted him into the room where Val was seated then took his leave.

“How’re ya doin’, Vince?” Val asked with a clear I really don’t give a shit expression on his face.

“What’ya want? An’ don’t tell me ya care ‘bout my comfort!” Vince retorted, obviously irritated.

“Oh, but I do care! Ya got me all wrong! I just wanna make sure that the wrong man doesn’t go ta jail for somethin’ that he didn’t do, that’s all I’m sayin’. Ya know, I’m beginnin’ ta see things better now. I bet that it was Spike an’ Ben that almost killed Scott Lancer, after what Ben told me... Ah, I can’t get inta that but I know that I can’t believe everythin’ that I been told. You got anythin’ ta say ta me?”

“What’d Ben tell ya?” Vince was near to screaming at Val.

“Oh, he told me a lot but ‘m willin’ ta listen ta whatever you got ta say. Well, I need ta be runnin’ along. I’ll stop by later when you’re in a better mood ta talk”.

Vince began to talk, but Val cut off any conversation and signaled the sheriff he was finished. With Vince back in his cell, Val left to make arrangements for the next train to Green River.

<><><><> 

Johnny opened his eyes to a beautiful sight. Holly rested next to him, her black, silken hair fanned out over the pillow framing her face. He studied the perfect nose, her stunning eyes fringed with long and thick black lashes and lips that begged him to kiss her. He felt himself begin to get aroused. Dios, I’ve had more sex in the last week than I’ve had in the last six months and lookin’ for more...

He snuck his arm under her neck and pulled her to him as he rolled over her. Her arms came around his neck and again they came together in an explosion of heated passion, exchanging kiss for kiss and thrust for thrust and with each encounter, each incredible release was more intense than the last, leaving them gasping for breath, laying in complete and total sweaty exhaustion... and not wanting it to end. But end it would as they knew it must. Until then, they would use the time left wisely.

Johnny was starting to feel like himself. The fatigue was abating, and the restlessness was setting in. The only time he was completely relaxed was when Holly was with him.

They lounged in the tub, she washed his hair and....other things, and with the straight razor, she shaved him although she was starting to like the beard but she also liked his handsome, clean face... and oh! What a face! Holly smothered him with sweet kisses that he gladly accepted and returned the favor with his very capable mouth and tongue that brought her to screaming delights.

And on the third day, Johnny and Val packed up to head home. Both Johnny and Holly were quiet, but they had been realistic and resigned themselves to the fact that this would eventually happen. Johnny went to Holly and gathered her in his arms, he kissed her passionately, and she returned his hot kisses with equal abandon. They stayed embraced for several minutes before pulling away.

“I have somethin’ for you, Holly,” and he reached into his jacket to pull out a large roll of money. He tucked it into her hand and said,” I want you to buy somethin’ for yourself, somethin’ that reminds you of me.” Then with a kiss that made Holly’s head spin, he was gone.

<><><><> 

The train started its chugging that almost threatened to unseat the four passengers in the back of the rail car. Johnny sat with his back against the wall with Ben next to him on the inside seat. Val and Vince faced Johnny and Ben. Barranca and Milagro where in the stock car as were the rest of their provisions. Everything was settled, and they moved out, toward home.

Johnny was more than ready to be back at Lancer. He missed Scott. Well, he missed all of them, but he missed Scott the most. However, he felt the deep loss of Holly. Dios, do I love her? 

After pondering hard on that he thought no, he didn’t love her in the marrying sense, God knows he wasn’t ready for that, but he missed his spiritual equal, his lover and the one person who understood what it was like to be on that side of the struggle. She understood him and respected what he’d been through. She was and always would be very, very special to him, as he would be to her.

The day he saved her from Escobar, he’d been about to lose his sanity, his self. He was at the brink of something he could never hope to return from. A point of no return but when he saw her helpless and about to be maimed a light ignited in Johnny’s brain, and he was brought back from that edge, the abyss that had been so close to his ruin. And he was glad he’d had that last chance, and he took it. She had saved him as much as he saved her. He did love her for that and he always would.

He shook himself from those thoughts to the situation at hand. Once these two assholes were locked in the Green River jail, he would go home, go to bed and sleep for a week. Well, maybe a couple of hours, but he would be home. That was a nice word... almost as nice as Holly…

The afternoon was getting hot, and they were all sweating, all were grimy, they were hungry, and tempers were starting to fray. Johnny sat with a smile, and Val knew something was about to give. He watched Johnny as closely as he watched the two Gannon brothers.

“Sure had a real nice relaxin’ time in town. Good food, lots a... company, soft feminine company. Yeah, that’s somethin’ that you boys are gonna hafta learn ta live without. Feminine company that is...” Johnny’s words hit Ben and his eyes widened with shock at Johnny was implying.

That was something he hadn’t contemplated before this moment. Company but not feminine... Val snorted in humor. Johnny watched their reactions as they sat and squirmed in their seats.

The monotonous hours passed and the heat finally let loose of its stifling grip. The passenger car was now comfortable as the train snaked its way through the higher elevations. Johnny and Val took turns sleeping, as much as they could with these two idiots as the train lurched and chugged but managed to pass the night without incident. Johnny was getting restless. They still had a day and a half to go cooped up on this train. The other passengers were leisurely watching the scenery out of the windows. A friendly poker game progressed several rows ahead of them and a few small families grouped together in soft conversation. No one seemed to take much notice of the four men in the back of the car.

Johnny sat with his hat pulled down over his face in an attempt to sleep. The train’s motion jerked Johnny into consciousness and with that came the pulling of stitches still tying the hole shut in his shoulder. His right hand started messaging the stinging pain.

“You all right, there, Johnny?” Val asked watching his amigo with a look of concern.

“Yeah, I‘m fine. Just a little hitch...” came the noncommittal shrug and answer. Johnny sat up in his seat and pushed his hat back on his head, sweat starting to bead on his forehead and upper lip.

“Too bad my brother didn’t finish you off, Lancer!” spat Vince with all the poison he could muster.

Johnny reached forward with a speed that the eye couldn’t follow and grabbed Vince by the front of the shirt pulling him up off the seat. Val, on his feet almost as quickly, wormed between the two and got Vince settled back in his spot with a push. Vince plunked down with a grunt. With a calming word to the rest of the travelers in the car, Val had the situation under control.

“Easy, amigo. Don’t let ‘im get to ya. Still got a long ride inta Green River.”

Johnny knew he needed to settle down. Can’t let him know his gettin’ under my skin... He took a deep breath.

As Val watched Johnny compose himself, he was glad that he’d telegraphed Murdoch to have Sam meet them when the train arrived. Johnny still wasn’t feeling all that good.

The night started to descend, and folks were settling into sleep. Val slept like the dead. Johnny always thought that Val could sleep standing up in the middle of a brawling saloon. The two Gannon brothers were also asleep. Ben hadn’t uttered a single word since they’d left Atascadero, but the same could not be said for Vince. Only after Johnny’s threat to gag him did Vince show the slightest amount of sense and close his mouth.

Val got out of his seat to answer the call of nature. Watching him exit the rail car Vince opened his eyes and suddenly smiled.

“Go ahead, Vince,” Johnny’s soft reply seemed to echo in the confines of the rail car and his smile did not reach his eyes as he pulled his coat aside exposing the pistol ready, low on his hip. “Gimme a reason...”

The glacial stare froze Vince in his seat, and for the first time, Vince was genuinely afraid. Johnny had not moved, had not blinked, and Vince knew he’d be dead if so much as sneezed. Ben still hadn’t said a word.

As Val returned to his seat, he felt the chill. “Glad ta see ya ain’t as stupid as I thought ya were, Vince,” sensing there had been an incident.

Johnny grinned. And the night wore slowly on. Val was starting to wonder if they would make it into Green River without any more headaches.

As dawn broke over the mountains, it bespoke of a beautiful and promising day. The pink, orange, and purple sky was glorious in its color as the sun slowly rose up and over the granite peaks forcing the day to take a deep breath and race into a new beginning.

Ben still hadn’t spoken, and Val was starting to wonder if the boy was in control of what little faculties he seemed to have before all this mess had started. Surely good sense had never been a strong suit for him as he mindlessly followed his two older, but not wiser, brothers down a road of self-destruction. And for what? To end up serving time for an attack, a particularly violent and vicious attack on an innocent person. What made some people do what they did? Val could feel his brain start to ache and decided he wasn’t going to waste another second wondering about these Gannon boys.

There was a commotion in the far end of the rail car as red-headed twin boys began to run down the aisle between the rows of seats. As Johnny’s head snapped up coming to full alert, Vince grabbed Johnny’s sling and yanked with all his strength propelling Johnny forward into Val. Vince jumped over Johnny’s gasping inert form and made it out the door.

Johnny was stunned, but his head was screaming to get up and get going! He untangled himself from Val and out the door, hot on Vince’s heels he went.

Val stood up and identified himself as sheriff of Green River escorting prisoners back and asked for a volunteer to watch Ben. As two men stepped forward and sat on the seats vacated by Val and Johnny, Val followed out the back to retrieve Vince.

As Johnny exited the back door of the passenger car, he immediately saw Vince’s boots disappear up the ladder onto the roof of the stock car behind them. Johnny followed stopping just shy of the top easing up just in case Vince was right there to reward him with a kick in the teeth.

Vince was halfway down the length of the car as Johnny vaulted up on the roof but when he turned around Johnny was right behind him. He lashed out with his fists but missed, and Johnny was there in a heartbeat as they went down in a heap. Johnny was stunned, they landed with Johnny on the bottom on his injured shoulder, and he lay there in a pain filled haze.

Vince gained his feet first and delivered a kick to Johnny’s ribs then he turned to make a run for freedom but was knocked off balance by the lurch of the train. They both regained their footing at the same time. They traded blows, Johnny landing them more often than Vince as Vince went down then rolled to his feet ran at Johnny and tackled him, a tackle that propelled them both off the side of the car.

Val cleared the roof in time to see them fall from sight. His heart stopped, his breath seemed knocked out of him as he stood in disbelief. Suddenly he snapped to attention as he scrambled madly back down to the rail car they had all just exited and took off full speed to the nearest conductor to get the train stopped.

When the train stopped, Val quickly organized men to aid in the search. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he found he couldn’t think clearly. Johnny couldn’t be dead...

He ran back along the tracks to the spot he thought they were when he’d last seen the two men fall from the roof. They frantically searched the embankment finding no trace of either man. Val was about to lose his mind. This can’t be happening! They were so close! Amigo, I have ta find you! WHERE ARE YOU!!!!! His mind screamed. He was sweating, and his heart was hammering in his chest.

“Over here!” came a shout and Val turned in the direction of the report. Several of the searchers had made it before Val, but they turned and walked away from the scene. Vince Gannon’s body lay in a broken mass, arms and legs and head bent in impossible angles. The rocks he laid on looked like sentinels of justice, thought Val. You son of a bitch! Ya got what ya deserved!  Where’s Johnny?

The search continued for another half an hour. The men were about to give up. They’d already searched this area! There was no one here Sheriff Crawford! One last look and he saw it. A scuff in the dirt and bent grass leading downward just past the rocks that had signaled the end for Vince Gannon. Val slid down the steep incline and at the bottom was Johnny Madrid Lancer, flat on his back, arms flayed out from his body and... not moving.

“Amigo! Johnny? Can ya hear me?” slapping his face trying to bring those glorious storm blue eyes open. “I need some help down here!” Val screamed.

“Shut up, Val...” came an almost inaudible reply.

“Johnny....? Johnny? Can ya hear me?” Val begged.

“...ain’t dead... yet...” and that was all Johnny could manage.

His head rolled to the side, and Val could have cried. Never was he so glad to hear Johnny as he was at that moment. Ropes were thrown down to them and soon both men, conscious and not, were brought up to the safety of the train. Vince’s body had been recovered and wrapped in a blanket, and stored in the baggage car.

Val had Johnny brought into the stock car on a bed of deep straw covered with blankets. He needed to be kept quiet and hopefully lay flat until they got into Green River. Having no doctor on board the only thing for Val to rely on was the laudanum from Dr. Sloan when they’d been in Atascadero. The stitches in Johnny’s shoulder had ripped open, and ribs were at least cracked if not broken but it could have been so much worse. They were very lucky. Very lucky!!

After forcing a healthy dose of the painkiller down Johnny’s throat, Val covered him with a blanket. Satisfied that, for now, he’d done what he could to make Johnny comfortable. He went back to the passenger car and brought Ben to ride with them. Cuffing his hands as tight as his broken arm would allow Val pushed him into the straw and tied his feet securing him to an iron ring in the wall that was normally used for tethering livestock. Then Val collapsed on the floor beside Johnny.

<><><><> 

The last stop before Green River was made. It was eighteen hours since Vince made a break for his freedom. They would be in Green River about seven in the morning, and Val was anxious for this trip to be over. Not half as anxious as you are, huh, amigo? He thought as he looked over at Johnny. Just as the thought was made Val saw Johnny’s eyes move under the lids.

“Can ya hear me, amigo?” Val asked softly, taking a cloth, wetting it from a canteen and laying it over Johnny’s forehead.

“....yeah, I can hear ya...Where are we?” came the weak reply.

“’Bout six hours outta Green River.”

Johnny opened his eyes and looked around. His gaze settled on Ben and hardened. “Looks like you’re gonna be the one ta pay for my brother’s blood...” and with that, he closed his eyes and slept.

Ben sat in the corner and hung his head.

<><><><> 

Green River had never looked so good! They had made it, albeit with only one of their prisoners, but they were home... The train was slowing as Val stood up and slid the door open. As they stopped, he leaned out and saw Murdoch, Sam, and Scott waiting down by the passenger car.

“Hey! Over here!” waving to get their attention.

Johnny had opened his eyes and recognizing Green River through the open door started to get to his feet. Val turned just as Johnny would have risen up to full height.

“Hey there, Johnny, better wait...”

“What happened?” Boomed Murdoch as he entered the stock car. Johnny winced as the explosion in his head erupted. “Son, we need to let Sam check you over. Let’s get him out of here, Val!

<><><><> 

“Fell off the train! How the hell did that happen, Val?” Murdoch voiced his very unhappy opinion.

“First, he got beat up, then shot? I don’t believe it!” Scott added incredulously.

“Now, just settle down! I can explain...everything.” Val started mentally preparing for just the right words.

<><><><> 

The rain began with a mere drizzle but quickly escalated into a downpour that made Johnny smile. Lately, he had begun to like the sound, lulling him into relaxation, a comfort that reminded him of... her. Those quiet hours filled with passion, hot, hard and exhausting, heart pounding, panting and sweating.... sweet passion. How many hours had he spent in her bed? he wondered. And then there were the hours they had been slow and took their time. Hours spent just touching and enjoying each other’s skin against their own skin. Sweet kisses, another bath together and laying in each other’s arms. More lovemaking, exquisite each time...That was the best time he’d ever had recuperating from an injury!

He could hear someone out in the hall and thought to tone down his thoughts or be caught in an embarrassing state. The door opened, and Scott came in. Walking over to the chair next to Johnny’s bed, he seated himself and just looked at his brother.

“What?” Johnny asked when Scott didn’t speak.

“What do you mean ‘what’? YOU FELL OFF A TRAIN!!! What were you thinking?”

“Hell, Scott, you’re welcome! If all’s you’re gonna do is yell at me, go away. My head hurts now!” Johnny tried to pull the extra pillow over his head, but Scott grabbed it and yanked it free.

“...I’m sorry... I just found out from Val what happened. I guess I’m shocked. I’m sorry, Johnny. I should be thanking you instead of yelling. Johnny...? Thank you. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. Only hurts when I move fast... or breathe. Hey, Boston, all in a days work when you’re Val’s deputy... Hey, Scott? You up for a trip?”

“Trip? What kind of trip are you thinking about, little brother?” Scott asked with suspicion on his face.

“Well, I know this town, and there’s some really pretty girls... I mean really pretty!”  Johnny said with a sparkle in his eyes.

 

 

~ end ~

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