The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Faith and Strength

Third in the Johnny and Holly series --which is best read in sequence.

Disclaimer: The boys unfortunately do not belong to me. I would have treated them better. However, the characters of Holly Vasquez and Chrissy Templar are mine. They were born in my head and are the loves of Johnny and Val.
Rated R. Implied adult situations
A huge thanks goes out to Cat for the beta!

Chula’s hoof beats drummed on the hard, dry road in the chilly early morning air. The gentle but spirited dapple gray mare pranced elegantly as the striking young woman on her back rode astride with perfect posture. The day was beautiful; clouds brilliant and fluffy graced the blue sky in striking contrast. Birds were singing and the sun warmed her back. Holly Vasquez was happy. Her mare, wanting to run, was held in check with experienced hands and responded to her mistress’s command. Chula was, indeed, a special horse and matched Holly’s personality flawlessly; she had been a gift to Holly from someone very close to her heart.

A certain young man, exciting and handsome, had given Chula to Holly after she moved to Salinas and took a position working as an assistant to Dr. Benjamin Hanley. The mare seemed to equal both the grace and essence that defined the woman she was. Holly had come from ‘the other side of town’, in fact, she had been a whore, a lady of the night but it had not been a choice she made willingly. She had to eat, had no one to care for her and was not ready to starve; with the only option available, she worked in the bordellos around the border. But had she not taken this course she would never have met Johnny.

Johnny Madrid was a gunfighter, notorious, fast on the draw who became her lover after he rescued her from certain harm. Their relationship was very… unusual. There were no strings, they went their separate ways after their trysts with no jealousy and complete understandings that each had their own life, however much they were attracted to the other. Several months ago Johnny had invited her to come to Salinas for a few days and when it was over he’d persuaded her to take a job offered by the town doctor after she assisted him with an accident victim.  

The doctor had been awed by her ability to handle the situation. She reassured the patient and in doing so, gained her trust. Her knowledge of medicine was astounding. She reluctantly  agreed to the job after much convincing that she could, in fact, handle whatever situations arose. Johnny knew that Holly would need everything, new clothes, a place to live and a horse. She’d always loved horses and was an accomplished rider. Johnny had rented this showy dapple gray mare for her when they met in Salinas and purchased it for her before he left. Holly felt truly blessed; no one had ever shown her this kind of consideration, this attention or this love. She’d named the horse Chula, partly because the mare was lovely and partly because Johnny had unknowingly endeared himself to her for this sweet and heartfelt gesture.

<><><><> 

She rode out this morning to visit Widow Davis, five miles out of Salinas on the Old Thicket Road. The widow should have moved into town years ago but stubbornness grew as she aged and no one could persuade her to move closer to the people who cared for her, and there weren’t many. The weather was getting cold and she’d caught a chill. With Dr. Hanley currently in San Francisco, Holly rode the circuit, visiting the patients who could not come into town. Among the medical supplies she carried was tonic to ease the cough that gripped the old woman’s lungs.

They had made quick and fast friends, the widow and Holly, a most unlikely friendship but one that took root and flourished. The majority of the town disliked the Widow Davis; she was sharp with her tongue and didn’t hesitate to use it. With Holly’s volatile past she’d learned to stand her ground and the first time the widow’s sharp words erupted from her mouth Holly fired immediately back, defended herself and won the respect of the widow and in the end both earned the respect of the other.

<><><><> 

He’d been watching her since she left town. She had come from the doctor’s office with her medical bag, retrieved her horse and stopped by the dressmakers shop. He watched as she disappeared through the door only to come back out onto the boardwalk arm in arm with a pretty blond. The two women talked a minute then with a quick embrace the young Mexican woman mounted her horse and rode west out of town, alone. And he followed her.

<><><><> 

Chula was unusually nervous this morning as she pranced, snorted and wanted to run. Holly relented and gave the horse her head.  A fast ride will do us both good! she thought.

He had a difficulty keeping up with her; the horse was very fast and she rode recklessly. But he was able to follow and took cover in trees and boulders when the young woman stopped at a small, neat farm. Chickens scratched looking for feed hidden in the dirt in front of the whitewashed clapboard house but scattered at the interruption as the lively horse pranced into the yard. Holly dismounted and tied Chula at the rail. A squirrel scampered on the porch roof, chattering and scolding at the intrusion. The man watched as Holly knocked on the front door and was affectionately greeted by an old woman. They entered the house, the door closed and he waited.

<><><><> 

The Widow Davis could be a gruff and testy old woman and most did not like her, but Holly did. This old woman had seen much, had been through many of life’s tragedies and sufferings and persevered, much like Holly, herself. They made friends immediately; each recognized in the other the elements of a survivor. Neither complained or bemoaned any part of their lives. What happened simply happened. Can’t wallow in it or have time for regrets and self pity. Time was wasted on that, get on with living and move ahead.

Holly checked the old woman and declared the Widow was going to out live her, so much improved she was. Holly brought more tonics anyway and suspected the Widow took the brew as much for the alcohol content as for the healing benefits.

The door finally opened as Holly emerged from the house and with a quick hug to the old woman she stepped up onto the dapple gray's back with ease and turned its head east, back to town. He waited until she was out of sight and earshot from the little house and he made his move.
<><><><> 

Riding under the Lancer arch was like a welcome home embrace. He’d never known a permanent home before and it had taken some getting used to but finally the word ‘home’ began to feel good. Having people that actually cared for him was another aspect that took time to digest and appreciate but Johnny Madrid Lancer had settled in and was enjoying his role in this family. The brother that he’d finally come to know was his best friend, outside of Val Crawford, and the two became very close in a very short amount of time.

Johnny trotted Barranca over to the barn where he dismounted and began the ritual of stripping off the saddle and brushing the golden coat until it glowed. The horse knew if patient enough he would be rewarded with a carrot and today was no exception. The treat was pulled from Johnny’s pocket and Barranca munched it happily, Johnny receiving a head butt in the chest as a thank you. He stood rubbing his ribs with his hand trying to soothe the deeply bruised area injured a week ago while breaking horses they had sold to the army. Broken horses brought a higher price, but then a broken Johnny turned out to be expensive as he’d not been able to do much around the ranch to help with all the chores, repairs and whatever else Murdoch Lancer thought up for his boys to do.

“I see that ya need some remindin’ ‘bout takin’ it easy like Sam told ya ta do.” Jelly Hoskins spoke in his know it all, ‘see, I told you so’ voice as he stepped out of the barn watching as Johnny held his chest.

“’M alright, Jelly. He was just sayin’ thanks,” Johnny turned his smile, the smile that never failed to win the heart of his family, to the grizzled old man. Jelly while not related by blood was a valued part of the extended Lancer family. He assumed the role as an 'old bachelor uncle', always there and more than a little grumpy but full of love and loyalty for the entire family and those who worked on the Lancer ranch.

“You best get inta the house b’fore Murdoch sees ya carryin’ on out here. Ya oughta know better, ya just got back on yer feet.” With the last admonishment Johnny knew the old man was right, so he relinquished the care of Barranca over to the bearded man and headed for the house.

Dinner was served at six, always at six, and one had better not be late. Johnny had suffered many a cold sandwich instead of a delicious hot meal with the rest of the family after arriving late for dinner. Well, if this was the worst part of being in a family then he could do it. But there was still the occasional issue with being on time for the meal, one of the perils of co-owning a working ranch.

He entered the house through the back kitchen door. Sniffing the aromas that drifted in the air he decided that he’d done the right thing and gotten here on time. It smelled heavenly and he had to restrain himself from snitching food from the platters on the table.

“Juanito! Go wash!” commanded Maria as she stood watch over the food with the aid of a very large wooden spoon. Ready to deliver a light whack across the knuckles should a pilfering hand threaten the food before the family was all seated, she secretly smiled as he turned back out the door.

At six o’clock sharp everyone was gathered around the table and the meal was served. Murdoch had taken the chair befitting the patriarch with Scott to his left and Teresa and Johnny on his right. The conversation was light and ranged from everything to the weather and when the first snow fall would be, to the upcoming holidays, to how many more horses could be broken for the army. Murdoch turned his attention to Johnny and thought he had seen fatigue on his younger son’s face.

“How are you feeling Johnny? And don’t say that you’re fine because I know you’re not fine yet.”

Johnny grinned. “’M fine” he said and offered 'that' grin. “Take more’n a horse fallin’ on me ta put me down. B’sides, the Army’s gonna pay a good price for that horse.”

Scott raised his brows. “Well, we still don’t know who broke who. Hey, maybe the Army will buy you! Wonder how much we could get?”

Murdoch, taking a drink of water, came close to choking as he laughed, Teresa hid her face and coughed into her napkin. Scott finally lost his control and laughed along with them, all the while Johnny looked from one to another wondering if they had indulged in after dinner drinks before dinner. Well, it was funny, kind of. Johnny Madrid, in the Army, saluting, standing at attention, doing as ordered... Nope, that wasn’t happenin’…

“Funny, Scott, funny,” he mumbled after the three settled down.

Teresa wiped her eyes, still giggling. “Don’t worry, Johnny, I’d never let them sell you,” then she turned to Scott and asked, “Unless you think we can get a good price!” And the laughter resumed. The meal progressed with humor and further discussions preparing for the upcoming winter. Having all that he could take, Murdoch rose from the table to relax before the fire in the great room. The others followed and took their usual seating. Johnny stretched out on the couch with a sigh. Murdoch watched his young son and shook his head, then spoke.

“You over did it today, didn’t you, Johnny?”

“Not really. Just a little tired. Nuthin’ a good night’s sleep won’t take care of.” He yawned the last few words. "'Scuse me..."

“Tomorrow we need to start….” Scott’s words were drowned out by thundering hooves in the front of the house. They stopped as the front door was thrown open, and Johnny reached out of reflex to his hip for the Colt that was hanging from the coat rack in the front hall. Val came through the door and skidded to a stop. Johnny saw the desperation in his eyes and vaulted over the back of the couch and the table behind it, disregarding the protesting ribs.

“What?” Johnny commanded. Val didn’t say a word but reached into his pocket and handed Johnny the telegram. He took the paper and began to read. A sharp exhale escaped his lungs as he swayed dangerously. Val grabbed an arm and Scott came to his other side, together they steered him to sit on the couch he’d so recently vacated. Johnny looked to Val, eyes like ice pierced through to the sheriff's brain.

“When?” Johnny whispered.

“Yesterday mornin’,” Val answered quietly. Murdoch, watching the exchange was alarmed.

“What is it Johnny?”  No answer came. Johnny read the paper again then shook off the hands holding him. He looked Murdoch in the eyes when he spoke.

“Gotta go….” He left the room with Scott hot on his heels. Murdoch, with Teresa clutching his arm, turned to Val.

“Val, what’s this all about? Where’s he going?”

“Mr. Lancer, I think you should hear this from Johnny.” Val answered not wanting to say any more than he should.

“I am asking you! What's going on?" Murdoch's words thundered in the room.

<><><><> 

Scott shadowed Johnny to his room.

“Tell me, Brother, please don’t shut me out,” he said and he grabbed his brother's arm but Johnny quickly, forcefully pulled away.

Johnny! I want to help you, now what’s wrong?”

“Scott, I don’t have a lot of time to explain, gotta go,” came Johnny’s reply as he struggled to keep his composure.

The tone in Johnny's voice and the troubled aura that rolled from his body filled Scott's brain with fear. Whatever it was, he would be there for Johnny, he would have his brother's back, no matter what. “Alright, then, I’m going with you and this time I am NOT taking no for an answer!” He left Johnny’s room in a rush and did not bother to turn around when Johnny called after him.

“Scott….!” Scott didn’t come back. With no time to waste Johnny got his things together, not much for traveling light, and was down the back stairs only to find Scott waiting for him.

“Scott….” Johnny started.

I’m going,” he said, then softer, “I’m going with you, Brother.”

Murdoch entered the kitchen quietly; he observed the exchange between his sons. Johnny’s face wore emotions Murdoch had never seen and it scared him. He had never seen Johnny distraught as he was at this moment. All Val had told him was that a close friend was missing, nothing more but Murdoch knew that there was more to it, a great deal more. Teresa hadn’t said a word, but she was terrified. She’d never known Johnny to falter and she had just witnessed him almost going to his knees. Yes, she was scared.

“Johnny, son, please be careful,” Murdoch said softly and Johnny met his father’s gaze and held it, then all he could do was nod, and he was out of the hacienda followed by Val and Scott leaving Murdoch and Teresa to stare at the closed door.

<><><><> 

Holly had not asked any questions. She recognized the look on the face as the tall man stepped out into the road. He would kill her if she gave him trouble. The ‘new’ Holly wanted to scream but her experience in her former profession appeared as if by magic, or maybe self preservation, and suddenly she felt a bit more confident. She had lived through dangerous and difficult circumstances in the past and had always made it through without serious consequences. He hadn’t told her what he wanted, she could only guess. They’d been traveling for about three hours now straight across country. By tomorrow night they could be in the San Benitos Mountains and the thought sent shivers through her. Easy, Chica, keep your mouth shut, eyes and ears open. The chance will come and you will take it. Be patient... And brave.

It was late in the afternoon when the man reined his horse to a stop. Holly was exhausted but wisely said nothing. He pulled his bedroll from behind his saddle and threw it to her seeing she had no coat.

“Use this,” he said and she wrapped the blanket across her shoulders and they continued on.

The trail grew narrow, and then faded altogether. She kept telling herself not to cause any problems and it would be alright. It had to be alright.

<><><><> 

Scott continually watched his brother, never having seen Johnny so troubled. This friend must sure be something. He thought. The tension rolled off Johnny like a storm and his countenance was tangible and lethal. Scott could feel it. They spent the night in Green River as the hour was late and first thing in the morning they would send a telegram to Chrissy in Salinas to see if Holly had returned. They would start from there.

<><><><> 

Johnny sat in the corner of the saloon at the back table he favored, a bottle of tequila in front of him, his glass full. Scott and Val made their way to the table and sat on either side of him. Johnny was a hard read and Scott couldn’t tell what was going on inside his brother’s stubborn head. Val seemed edgy, too. Who the hell is this person? Scott thought for the hundredth time.

“Johnny, are you going to tell me anything about this,” Scott asked softly, but kept the anxious tone under control, he did not push. Johnny's cold eyes slowly met those of his brother

“Can’t….yet,” Johnny said, struggling, then got up and left the saloon.

<><><><> 

He sought sanctuary with Barranca. The horse always gave him comfort and Johnny needed that comfort now. His hands shook and his belly rolled like he would be sick. What was happening to him? As far back as he could remember he’d never had this feeling. He’d thought about it before and asked himself again do I love her? True, he’d never really loved a woman, only for a night or two, but nothing like this. Could he live with her? He honestly didn’t know, but could he live without her? And he didn’t even have to think about it. If Holly wouldn’t be there anymore then he didn’t want to be either. Did he want to marry her? He couldn’t answer that. Barranca sensed his master's turmoil and gently leaned his head into Johnny’s chest, standing still and offered his calming companionship.

<><><><> 

Scott looked at Val after his brother’s back disappeared out the door.

“Are you going to tell me anything?” Scott asked, turning irritated eyes on the sheriff. Val held his ground.

“Scott, I’m gonna tell you what I told Murdoch, yer gonna hafta hear it from Johnny. It’s his decision to tell, not mine.” And he clammed up.

“It’s a woman, isn’t it?” Val just stared at him but gave no answer. “There’s so much about my brother that I don’t know and all I want to do is help…”

“Scott, let ‘im work it out himself cuz if you go askin’ questions all yer gonna do is piss ‘im off. Let him handle it his own way.” Scott knew Val was right but at the moment all he could feel was helplessness.

<><><><> 

They had stopped at an abandoned shack. A fire was lit and they ate a light meal, then wrapped in what few blankets and coats they had, slept on the hard floor. The man never touched her nor made any threatening gestures. What does he want? Holly just couldn’t figure it out. And in the morning the man saddled the horses and they continued to ride.

<><><><> 

Scott awoke to find that Johnny’s bed had not been slept in. His first thought was that he had already left and if that was the case his little brother was going to get a piece of his mind. After all, Johnny still wasn’t up to much of anything having just been rolled on by the horse he was trying to break and now with the added stress and strain of a missing ‘friend’ Scott wasn’t sure at all how Johnny was going to fare. Hopefully, this would be solved quickly not only because it was a friend of Johnny’s but Johnny had suffered so much loss in his young life already and this person obviously means a great deal to him. Johnny will be alright, Johnny will be alright, Johnny has to be alright.

Holly had not yet returned. She had been with the Widow Davis out on Old Thicket Road and that was the last she’d been seen. As Johnny read the message from Chrissy his hands began to shake. He had to get a hold of himself. He would not be able to do this without help. With determination made of sheer stubborn will, he pushed these unstable emotions behind him and Madrid made his appearance to replace the shaken Johnny Lancer.

“I say we start at Old Thicket Road and follow as long as we can. I know we’re gonna lose the trail if they take ta the mountains but maybe we’ll find somethin’.” Val’s idea was as good as any other they’d tossed around and shortly after sunrise the three men were on their way.

Since Madrid’s appearance Johnny seemed to have settled a bit. Gone were the shaking hands and the haunted look in his eyes but in their place were the granite nerves and eyes filled with danger and violence and if Scott were to be honest, with one look he was scared. He was scared of his own brother. But he understood…

Johnny was trying to piece together exactly what it was that he felt for Holly. Where he’d never loved a woman enough to marry, and although he really liked his life style, what he and Holly shared was beyond special, beyond the two coming together as one. They were their own persons. But the magic they felt when they were together was undeniable but as Holly had told him in the past, “Juanito, do you think that if we were together all the time that it would be the same? It would lose its magic, querido,” And again, she’d been right. What it really boiled down to was they had the proverbial cake and could eat it, too. But only if he could find her.

<><><><> 

She’d come a long way, Holly thought, from an innocent sweet child, loved and doted on by not only dedicated parents but her parent’s employers, a childless couple, Mr. and Mrs. Martin. But as her father died unexpectedly and her mother remarried, Holly’s world began to change, slowly at first, but rapidly gained speed and suddenly spiraled out of control. A sickness had claimed the lives of her mother first and then both Mr. and Mrs. Martin. From that point Holly was literally alone except for a brief time after the deaths she lived with her step father. After a few weeks he had raped her at the tender age of twelve.

She’d shot him, still bleeding and beaten from his brutal attack, and he lay dead at her feet. In one moment Holly went from an adorable, sweet child straight into adulthood knowing she could rely on no one, except herself. In that moment, that one short moment, she became her own person and she stayed alive, growing savvy in the ways of the world. She’d dealt with adversities, disadvantages, anything that had been thrown at her and she survived. And changed. The lessons learned the hard way were not likely ever forgotten.

Holly now had a respectable job, no longer had to sell her body to live and people in Salinas respected and liked her. They were people from a class that used to look down their noses at her and whisper about her behind her back. Now, here she was, forced at gunpoint to go to who knows where? And she felt right back from where she started. People making decisions for her and her only recourse was to deal with it. She was tired of that and she wanted to turn the tables on them. Holly made up her mind right then she would survive this, too. Whatever the cost.

<><><><> 

Johnny felt Scott’s eyes on him ever since they’d left Lancer. He should tell Scott about Holly, should have told them all. He didn’t intentionally withhold this information but it had been Holly’s decision, she still felt ashamed of what she had been and she didn’t want to shame Johnny most of all. He was now a respectable rancher and he’d worked hard to earn the trust of the people in the valley, but in truth, he’d only been himself and the folks there learned that Madrid wasn't the desperado that legend claimed. He wasn't the bloodthirsty killer of legend and fiction. And it worked out, once folks got past the 'Madrid' part of him.

Johnny didn’t give a damn about what other’s thought of Holly. He knew who and what she was and, in truth hadn’t known many people worthy of her. He knew her spirit, her loyalty, her goodness and kindness. And the fact she’d been a whore made no difference what-so-ever. She was a good person and one he’d been proud to call... friend?  Certainly lover and confidant. She was simply very special to him. Well, his brother was special, too. Although he really didn’t have any particular words to describe this situation, he would tell Scott about her.

“Scott?” Johnny began very quietly. Scott looked up from his coffee and saw something in his brother’s eyes, something troubling that seemed to have blanketed him; wrapped Johnny in a heavy, confining shield and kept all else out. He scooted over to let Johnny have enough room by the fire then Scott handed him a cup of hot coffee. He sensed Johnny needed or wanted to talk so he began the conversation, breaking the ice that Johnny often had difficulties overcoming.

“Are you feeling alright, Brother? You look like you’re hurting.” Scott made an accurate
assessment and it irritated Johnny a bit to know that he couldn’t hide this fact from Scott.

Johnny’s brows went up and then he smirked a bit. He did not like giving into the fact others could read his discomforts. “’M fine. I, ah, I need ta apologize for somethin’, Scott.”

Now it was Scott’s turn with the raised brows. “What for?” Scott asked, sincerely surprised.

“It’s ‘bout what we’re doin’ out here. Ya deserve ta know what’s goin’ on but it’s been hard for me ta talk about it. Don’t exactly know where ta start…” Johnny stammered, words hard in coming.

“Well, I always find the beginning a good place.” Scott returned with a smile. Johnny reciprocated but with a “Smartass,” attached.

“Her name’s Holly Vasquez and I met her down by the border over six years ago, now. Was workin’ a range war an’ it turned out bad, a lot of my men didn’t make, in fact, most of ‘em didn’t. After it was over I went inta this cantina, a place where I knew there’d be trouble. Guess I wanted ta put an end ta me, too.” At this Scott visibly winced. “Anyway, there wasn’t anyone at the bar an’ I went inta the back room ta find the barkeep an' that’s when I saw the owner leanin’ over this girl, she was beat up pretty bad, almost unconscious an’ he had a knife out an’ was startin’ ta cut her face. I ended up shootin’ ‘im an’ took her out of there. We been … close ever since.

“For a lotta years we never knew where the other was but we’d run inta each other and stay tagether for a week or so then go our own way. When Val an’ I trailed after the Gannon brothers we ran inta her down at Atascadero an’ we been in contact since then. She’s workin’ for a doctor up in Salinas now, has a respectable job an’ the people there really like her. She went out ta check on a ol’ widow lady an’ never came back. I hafta find her, Scott.”

Scott remained silent, but a question nagged at him so he decided to ask. “Do you love her, Johnny?” Now was Johnny’s turn to remain silent. He stared into the flames not knowing how to answer his brother.

“If you’re asking am I gonna marry her, the answer’s no, but I will tell ya that she’s the best woman I ever met and I hafta find her. An’ if anyone has laid a finger on her I will kill them. Just want ya ta know that. I will kill them.”

“Why didn’t you tell us about her, Johnny? Murdoch will want to meet her and you know Teresa, once she finds out she’ll be pestering you to bring her to Lancer.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s been Holly’s decision to stay away. She doesn’t want to embarrass the family with her past bein’ a whore. Doesn’t want to shame the Lancer name. But I’ll be honest with ya, Scott, she’s really special, really… good.” He stared into the fire and resumed his talk.

“You asked if I loved her an’ the answer is yes, I do, but not in the way you think. She’s not like anyone I ever met b’fore. We talked once ‘bout it and she’s the one that didn’t want things ta change between us, cuz what we have is….." Johnny stopped for a moment remembering Holly's words. " What we have is magic. An’ anything other’n what we have will change it.” As the brother's talked, Scott began to understand. He had more questions but, for now, this was enough.

Johnny rolled into his blanket and Scott was glad that he was getting badly needed sleep. He sat with Val drinking coffee and feeding the fire. Finally Scott had to ask.

“What do you think of Holly, Val?” He was in desperate need of trying to understand, trying to put more pieces of this mystery together and solve this enigma of his younger brother’s relationship with this woman named Holly.

“What I think don’t matter. It’ll boil down to what you an’ Murdoch think, that is, if ya ever get ta meet ‘er. She’s scared ‘bout that an’ don’t go shakin’ yer head no, cuz she’s run inta that all her life. Just cuz she’s respectable now don’t mean she can change in a heartbeat. People like her remember an’ protect themselves. IF ya get ta meet ‘er, give ‘er time, cuz she’s worth it.

“Now, if you’re askin’ ‘bout ‘er being with Johnny, she’s the only one I’d settle for ta be with ‘im.” Val said no more, laid back on his saddle and pulled his hat down over his face, an indication the talk was over and he fell asleep.

Johnny wasn’t sleeping. He’d listened to Val’s testimony and smiled, yeah, she sure is something and he prayed she was still alive.

Scott, again, watched his brother and began to wonder how many more surprises there would be. With Johnny there was truly never any dull moments and as Scott reflected on the man his brother was, he noticed an ever growing swell of pride that this remarkable person was his brother and Scott was very proud of the fact. And for the millionth time wondered what it would have been like to have been raised together.

<><><><> 

Holly was nudged awake and as she stiffly moved off the floor began, again, to wonder why she was here. The man that held her at gun point did not hurt her, then again, she’d not given him a reason to, but he did want something from her. What was it?  She would soon learn but for now all she could do is follow him up the mountain side and hope for the best.

It was nearing late afternoon when they stopped. There had been no trail to follow, just patches of snow on a dusty, rocky ground. They topped a small rise as a tiny valley spread out before them. Working their way down the steep mountain side through the scrub pines into the hollow Holly thought she smelled wood smoke. There were now tracks in the dirt, both hoof and boot prints. The rocks in front of them sheltered the area and seemed to hold this place secluded from the outside world.

A small corral could be seen to the left as the side of the mountain curved to form an alcove of sorts. A rough fence made of saplings created an enclosed area where horses were kept. Their heads came up, ears pricked forward at the intrusion, but sensing no harm, they returned, once again, to graze. Around a few boulders and hidden from immediate sight was a small entrance, a cave that snugged into the side of the mountain surrounded by solid rock. To the right of the cave were a few boulders that sat at the edge of a sheer drop off. It was a place of outlaws, a secluded spot where one would never be found and Holly felt alone and isolated. The large man signaled her to step down from her horse and motioned her inside the cave.

The man led her into the cave and trough a twenty foot tunnel that opened into a larger cavern. It was fairly warm inside as a large fire in the middle burned brightly, the smoke floating up through an unseen opening and out into the early evening sky. Four men got to their feet at her arrival and stood looking her over, scrutinizing every minute detail and a few with lust in their eyes, not having expected a woman, much less a beautiful one.

On the ground lay a man covered with blankets and shivering with cold. Holly looked from man to man, meeting each with a stare that, she hoped, spoke of confidence, that she wasn’t afraid and would permit no interference with her. But inside her head her brain was screaming and she was truly scared. Don’t let them see that your fear! So, she stared each man down with defiance. She walked over to the man lying on the ground, obviously injured in some way and understood now why she had been taken. Not waiting to be told she knelt by the man and pulled away the blankets that covered him.

“I told ya ta get a doctor, not some woman!” The admonishment issued from one of the men.

“Doc was outta town. This is all they had. Look, he’s hurt an’ if she can fix ‘em up let her try. She was out lookin’ after people when I found her so she’s gotta know somethin’.”

Holly continued her examination and discovered a bullet lodged in the man’s gut. It did not look good. She did not have enough medicines or the right instruments for this kind of injury. She looked up, the men watching her every move.

“I need hot water and bandages.” None of them made any effort to help. “If you expect me to try and save him I will need help! Now, I need hot water and bandages,” she repeated but this time she repeated it with spark in her voice and fire in her eyes. A cooking pot filled with water was brought to her and a few old shirts in dubious degrees of cleanliness were dropped in the dirt at her feet. She closed her eyes in disgust at the total disregard for clean dressings. Sterile dressings were out of the question, she knew, but at the very least clean had been expected. She began to work, first by washing her hands. Then she cut away the old crusted and soiled cloth wrapped around the man’s middle.

“Who is he?” she asked with as much authority in her voice as she could muster.

“What difference does it make, just patch ‘em up,” came a sharp reply.

“The difference is this is a serious injury and his family needs to be notified. I cannot try to remove that bullet without their consent. Now, who is this man?”

“His name’s Jarrod Carter, my brother,” answered a thin man with dirty, stringy hair. “Is he gonna make it?” he asked stepping forward and standing over her.

“You’re in my light and I cannot see. Get away, please,” she snapped. When the man backed away, she responded to his question. “I do not know, all I can do is try but I do not have what I need for this….”

“What’dya mean ‘don’t have what ya need’? You do know about medicine, don’t cha? What’dya got in that bag, buttons, ribbons an’ lace?” This from the man that seemed to be in charge. Holly knew she was in for a very difficult time. She had to establish herself as difficult as they were, she couldn’t let them get the upper hand, couldn’t let them push her very hard. She jumped to her feet and went nose to nose with the imbecile. Talking with measured words and with a sarcastic tone she summoned her courage and with all the fire she could fill into her glare, she hissed the response she hoped sounded fierce enough to give them pause.

“What I have in that bag is for an old woman with lung congestion. I did not expect to be kidnapped by a stranger at gunpoint and taken against my will into the mountains where I am held by idiots and forced to work under primitive conditions, at best, to save a man that is most likely to die because you are too stupid to take care of the smallest details, like cleanliness. So, do not talk to me of ribbons and lace and pretty things that you know nothing about because, it is obvious that you know nothing at all! Do not bother me. Get away.”

It seemed that once she began the admonishment she could not stop and now wondered if she had gone too far. Her temper ran away with her and she knew that was not good. Do not show your fear! Holly turned her back, dismissing him as if he were but a fly, a lowly fly. He made a grab for her and sensing this she quickly stooped and picked up a bucket which she shoved into his hands and said, “Water. Now.” The impact of the bucket slammed into his chest and the air left his lungs with a whoosh as he stared at this slight woman, who was now in charge and would not brook any interference. Maybe she needs some someone ta teach ‘er some manners, he thought sadistically.

<><><><> 

She looped her arms around his neck and brought her body into his. They were as one, no telling where one started and the other left off. Her warmth comforted his weariness, and eased the tensions away; he could feel the energies coursing through his veins. Never had he felt like this for another woman. She was truly his strength and spirit and made him feel the goodness that had been inside of him instead of the all the death and destruction that he’d always thought was his definition, his life. But she made that fade to non existence and when he was with her he felt loved.

Johnny woke with a start. The fire almost out, red embers slowly turning to black. Scott and Val still slept. He kicked off the blanket and quietly rose from off the cold ground to put more wood on the dying embers. He then started the coffee knowing there would be no more sleep for him on this early, chilly morning.

He stretched to loosen the knotted and tight muscles, still very sore from breaking the horse two weeks ago.He then thought about what they had learned the day before at the town they’d passed through and a shiver tore down his spine. There had been a robbery in Soledad, the bank had been hit and when the smoke cleared the outlaws made a get-a-way leaving one bank teller dead and a deputy wounded. But the outlaws also had one wounded. Were they responsible for Holly’s disappearance? If that were the case they would need her alive and Johnny knew she could hold her own... for a while. But time would be running out; he had to find her soon. If they hurt her they would pay. Val could take them into custody and just maybe keep him from killing them first.

The coffee was boiling and he leaned to reach the pot. A catch from his ribs made him groan but he quieted as Scott stirred in his bedroll. Johnny sat leaning against his upturned saddle with the hot cup in his hands as Scott struggled to consciousness. As his eyes cracked open he spotted his brother watching him and realized the coffee was ready. Thank God, he thought.

“How long have you been awake, Johnny?” Scott asked quietly.

“Oh, not too long. Just enough time ta get the coffee goin’,” Johnny’s soft voice answered. Scott noticed the eyes were clear but a haunting shadow was lurking in the stormy troubled depths. He suspected that things were raging inside his brother’s head, things that Johnny was having difficulty sorting out.

Val had told him a few things about Holly and Johnny, about their unusual relationship and he knew that Johnny would be churning like a tornado, volatile and unpredictable until Holly was once again safe in his arms. And his heart broke for this younger brother who’d never known what it was like to love someone before and now to have that love ripped out of his grasp had to be devastating. Scott knew all he could do was to be there for Johnny if… when Johnny needed him. Scott kept watching his brother. How could he keep her a secret? If she were mine I’d want the world to know.

But these were two completely different worlds they came from, the social drawing room, formal dinner parties, beautiful gowns, top hats and cravats; then there were the border towns, brothels with whores and gunfighters and violence, bullets and death. And once again Scott sent up his thanks that his brother had survived. He was also seeing another side of Johnny he’d never known before. Johnny loved this woman, this ‘lady of the evening’, and even Val had said that there was no one he’d rather see Johnny with. She must really be something.

Scott tried to picture what she would look like and knowing his brother she would be exquisite. Johnny did, indeed, have fine taste in women.

They weren’t that far from Lancer and Scott wondered if Holly would like to see the ranch and meet Murdoch and Teresa. Then he remembered Johnny’s words ‘we talked ‘bout gettin’ married but Holly didn’t want what they had to change.’ Well, what they have must be extraordinary if she doesn’t want to marry.  Scott couldn’t imagine anything so exciting that could get in the way of marrying the one you loved. Suddenly he found a bit of jealousy growing and he was instantly ashamed. Here was his brother who had grown up alone and had to fight for every scrap, everything to stay alive and he, Scott, had grown up wanting for nothing and now was jealous. He suddenly grew anxious and needed to find this remarkable woman, the woman that had caught and captured his brother’s heart. Whore or not, she would be something very special.

They kept climbing and it was getting colder. The air was much thinner and it was harder to breathe. Johnny shivered inside his coat. He hated the cold, being raised so far south where scorching dry days were normal, the sand beneath bare feet so hot that it would burn and blister. He hoped Holly was warm enough and silently vowed that she’d never be cold again. All he wanted to do at this moment was to hold her close, feel her body against his, the swell of her…. Stop it, Madrid!  He couldn’t turn it off. He sincerely wanted to hold her, touch her. He needed her. And he would find her and she would be alive.

<><><><> 

Holly sat next to the injured man all through the night. Though she still didn’t know if he would live or not, he was resting easier and the fever was down a bit. She was terrified but fought to appear strong. The instant she showed any weakness she would be in immediate danger; at this moment her captors were still baffled at her bravado. When spoken to she established eye contact with a look of disdain and if asked a question she would answer with brief and concise explanations, as if talking with them bored her to tears, which it did, but she needed to stay on the offensive. She could not show them she was afraid.

She wondered if Johnny would be proud of her. And suddenly she knew he was looking for her. The confidence that he was searching for her seemed to fill her with hope and washed over her like a comforting blanket. There was a flicker of spark that went off in her head. And that flicker was her connection with him. She felt him and she couldn’t help but smile. Juanito, her Johnny. I will make you proud, querido, and I love you! She felt her heart lighten. Yes, she would make him proud. Then she removed the smile from her face as quickly as it came. Bucket man, as she had come to call him, advanced toward her and she busied herself with checking the injured man as if she had no time for anything else.

“Say, there, Lady, how ‘bout you an’ me…”

And that’s as far as he got before she exploded. “You will address me as Ma’am and that is as close as you will ever get! I have no time for the culo that you are, you imbecile! Go get more water as that is all you are good for and do not bother me again!” But she knew she was pressing her luck. She only hoped that Johnny could find her before that luck ran out.

<><><><> 

“Scott! Val! Over here!” Johnny yelled in the cold mountain air, his breath billowing out to be swept away by the wind. He stood looking down at the ground where a partial set of hoof prints were visible in the dirt littered with stones and pieces of shale. And beside them lay a woman’s comb, Holly’s comb. Johnny had seen her wear it before, had taken it out of her hair many, many times to let the glorious mass tumble down her back just prior to falling into bed. Johnny picked up the comb in a gloved hand and stared at it, turning it over in his fingers, slowly and lovingly, as if it had just been taken from her hair. He then wrapped it in a clenched fist, his breath coming hard, eyes shut and heart pounding in his chest. Dios, where was she?

<><><><> 

She had come to know their names after a while. Where she never spoke to them unless it was necessary, she picked up parts of the conversations. She’d known the injured man was Jarred Carter and that his younger brother was called Will. The tall man that brought her here was named Lucky Connell. Bucket man’s name was Hagen, though she never heard a first name mentioned. The last two were Victor Simmons and a giant and gentle man named Lonesome, just Lonesome. Hagen fancied himself the leader of this rag tag group and no one seemed to challenge him for the title. No wonder why these idiotas are in such trouble with that one leading them! she thought to herself as she tended Jarrod Carter's injury. He did seem to be resting easier now, maybe she did alright in removing the bullet however she still wasn’t sure. He hadn’t regained consciousness yet but it had only been a day and the conditions were deplorable. She’d done all she could and now it was out of her hands.

<><><><> 

He felt a hand on his arm, then Scott’s voice softly asking if he was alright. When Scott and Val heard Johnny call out they’d immediately thought the worst and when Scott found Johnny standing with bowed head, his heart sank. He quickly dismounted Remmie and made his way to his brother’s side.

“Johnny, are you alright? What is it?” Johnny opened his eyes and shook off the despair he felt, he then focused and Scott swore he saw the physical change take over his brother. Johnny pointed to the tracks then held out his fist and unwrapped his fingers revealing the precious comb that he held so tightly as if to feel the spirit of her.

“It’s Holly’s,” It was all he could manage to say. Then he looked down at the tracks. “Not more’n a day ahead a us. We should catch up ta them tomorrow.” Scott looked into Johnny’s face and could read nothing but he knew Johnny’s heart was breaking. This fact only reaffirmed his desire to meet this woman as he watched his brother again but Johnny’s face was still unreadable. Johnny swung gracefully up on Barranca’s back and with a slight thump to his ribs the stallion took off up the mountain with Scott and Val behind.

<><><><> 

Holly had been busy. Jarrod’s fever began to spike and she’d not been able to bring it down. Will was hanging over her shoulder to stay with his brother. The other men watched every move she made but did not ask to help. She had drained the wound of infection, cleaned it thoroughly and packed it tight after applying an herbal salve. And still the fever rose.

Will was frantic, asking questions she could not answer. She was patient with him, he was just a kid and he was watching his brother die. She could not be angry with him and gave the boy small chores to do, fetch water, make an herbal tea and get a bucket full of snow that she used to pack around Jarrod’s body to help lower the heat burning inside him. But nothing helped.

Hagen, who had been watching with interest, walked to Holly and nudged her with his boot. She immediately swatted his foot away. He reached down and grabbed her by her hair and hauled her to her feet. Her eyes spit fire and her nails raked down his face. He tightened the grip on her hair almost lifting her off her feet.

“You an’ me got ta have an understandin’, little lady,” breathing foul air in her face. She visibly retched and he laughed at her helplessness. He fingered the scratches on the side of his face and brought his mouth close to hers in an attempt to kiss her. She turned her head so that he missed her mouth and with every ounce of strength she had she brought her knee up to ram into his groin. He fell to the ground howling in pain, holding his crotch and curled into a ball.

Holly couldn’t hold her temper in check. She spit in his face and tried to kick his chin but he grabbed her boot and twisted it until she fell, lying next to him. He was on her in an instant pulling at her clothes, hands rough on her breasts. Memories came flooding back as she struggled, a torrent of unwanted reminders of how ugly the world can be. Of hurtful and mean people that used their size to overpower and dominate if others do not bend to their will. Well, Holly wasn’t going to bend to this pendejo, this evil, small minded man. And suddenly he was not on her anymore but seemed to hang in mid air with arms and legs flailing as if trying to fly away. Then she realized that Lonesome had seen enough and picked Hagen up by the seat of the pants and collar and held him so she could get to her feet and straighten her clothes.

Lonesome stood with Hagen struggling in his grasp. Although shaken, Holly nodded her appreciation to the giant and he grinned in response as he dropped Hagen into the dirt, disregarding him as he were garbage. Holly, keeping scorn filled eyes on Hagen, stepped back to the injured man's side.

Hagen picked himself out of the dirt and limped to stand before Lonesome's large frame. "Outside, asshole!"

Holly spent the rest of the night caring for Jarrod and as he deteriorated she tried to prepare Will for what was to come. Will caught on to what she was telling him and he sat by his brother’s side and held his hand. Hagen scoffed and mumbled something about moving on and leaving the two brothers if they weren’t up to traveling. Both Victor and Lucky looked at each other, not believing what they were hearing. Hagen was wanting to leave Jarrod? This was low, even for Hagen, but Hagen was embarrassed, he'd been livid with Lonesome for interrupting when he attacked the woman. They knew he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her and when Lonesome interfered they were all afraid for the big man’s life. They’d seen Hagen kill men for less. He was humiliated by a giant with the mental capacity of a small boy. Hagen sent him outside, to ‘cool off’ he said but they all knew it would be Hagen cooling off, not Lonesome.

<><><><> 

She wasn’t far, he could feel her. It was like a soft mist around him, gently touching, caressing and he wanted so badly to reach out and hold her. He just hoped that it wasn’t her ghost he was feeling. But it was a tangible thing, a physical presence. She was close. They made camp for the night in a hollow, sheltered from the wind and out of sight. If they were as close to Holly and the men that took her as Johnny thought, he didn’t want to announce a grand entrance. But tomorrow would be a whole different story. Tomorrow he’d let them all know just what exactly they’d done. They made a monumental mistake when they had taken Holly and now they would have to face Johnny Madrid.

Both Scott and Val tried to engage Johnny in conversation but they realized at this point it was no use and, thankfully, left him alone. They both also knew that the inside of Johnny’s head was overrun with plans to cover every possible circumstance they may run into regarding a safe rescue. Johnny hadn’t gotten this far in life by not being prepared. He sat by himself for the rest of the evening running scenarios through his head and Scott and Val had the courtesy and the good sense to leave him alone with those thoughts.

Scott watched as Johnny sat motionless staring at the flames of the fire. He was fascinated with the emotions that played across his brother’s face and he saw death in those cold eyes. Johnny would kill them and Scott wasn’t about to let Johnny hang for murder in trying to rescue the woman he loved from the scum that had kidnapped her. Scott and Val would have to be diligent in their efforts; Johnny would have no second thoughts about putting bullets between their eyes. So he watched and was entranced and more than a little afraid by what he saw in his brother’s face.

<><><><> 

Johnny lay awake. Knowing in his heart that Holly was close he couldn’t sleep and suddenly was out of the bedroll and on his feet walking in the dark, walking up the mountain.

Val also lay awake, wondering if he should follow Johnny or not. Deep down he knew, and he shrugged out of the blanket and struggled with his boots. Johnny could walk like a cat, Val had seen him pass within a few feet of their enemies and go undetected while working the range wars. If Johnny thought Holly was close then the chances were that she was and far be it from Val to tell him otherwise. It was as if Johnny had a sixth sense about these things and more often than not he was right. This night had been particularly hard on him and since finding Holly’s comb he'd become more withdrawn, more…. alone. But Val had seen it before, and he knew what was to come. If the kidnappers knew what was in store for them they’d hand Holly over right now and wish they’d never laid eyes on her.

<><><><> 

Johnny hadn’t gotten very far when he heard the twig snap. He took cover in the rocks and waited. Madrid spotted a man walking down the mountain. He was a giant of a man and Johnny knew he’d have to play this right, would only get one chance. He stood, not moving and barely breathing, blended into the cover and became part of the landscape. As the man got closer Johnny didn’t see anything threatening about him, other than his size. He didn’t carry himself with the confidence of someone that knew where he was going or with any purpose. This looked like a wanderer with no destination in mind and Johnny could not see a weapon. So he took a chance. The large man walked within feet of Johnny and when he passed Johnny stepped out of the cover that had shielded him and pulled back the hammer of his Colt letting the snick echo in the frozen air. The giant stopped in his tracks, held his hands away from his sides, and slightly raised.

“Turn around…. Slow.” Johnny’s voice, low and foreboding. The giant turned to face him.
“Who are you an’ what’re ya doin’ out here?”

“Name’s Lonesome an’ I’m out for a walk an’ I gotta cool off b’fore he let’s me back in cave.”

“Lonesome. Your name’s Lonesome?”

“Yup,” Lonesome said with a smile of a person that was about seven years old. Johnny had known people that had been the subject of ridicule because of being mentally disabled. If he played his cards right he might get a few answers.

“What’s got ya so riled that he won’t let ya back inta the cave?” Johnny asked, talking as if he knew about the cave and situation. “Ya got a gun on ya?” Johnny quickly asked, hoping the tone of his voice was a friendlier one than he had used before. He needed this man to be on his side. Lonesome shook his head no and Johnny had him lower his arms.

“Is the woman alright?” Johnny took another chance with this question.

“Yeah, she’s a nice lady. She’s tryin’ ta help Jarrod but he don’t look so good. I think he’s gonna die.”

“Did anyone touch her?” Johnny asked quietly.

Lonesome smiled a huge grin. “Hagen tried but I picked ‘im up and held onta him till she could get away,” Lonesome stated proudly. Johnny, still wanting to shoot because he was in the gang that took Holly to begin with suddenly changed his mind about this man. Without him, Holly may have been hurt or worse.

“Tell ya what, Lonesome, can ya take me to the cave? I’d like ta see it.”

“Well, I don’t think that Hagen’ll like that. Don’t wanna make ‘im mad anymore,” Lonesome said as he looked at the ground as if he was in the wrong. He was willing to take the blame for the abuse of a bully named Hagen when it had been Hagen that tried to hurt Holly. That was all Johnny needed. Point out this pendejo an’ I’ll take care ‘a him.....

It started to snow. Not much at first but as the early morning hours arrived it fell heavier and harder.  Johnny wondered if Holly was warm enough. And hopefully in a few hours it would be him to warm her. And he could feel the soft warm skin on his…..

The sun started to climb as Johnny hunkered down behind cover, close enough to urge Lonesome in his task. Scott settled further up the side of the rise behind Johnny that faced down into the small valley. Val held a position off to the left by the corral. Johnny had charge of Lonesome and he hoped that Lonesome would stay out of the way, because if he didn’t, Johnny was certain that Hagen would shoot him. They surrounded the entrance to the cave; the right side dropped off three hundred feet, straight down. Johnny knew they’d be safe from any threat where they had settled in, so they waited and finally the opportunity arrived. Johnny’s heart was hammering in his chest and he paused as the first man exited the cave. Johnny nudged Lonesome.

“Is that Hagen?” Johnny asked quietly.

“Nah, that’s Simmons. He got the safe open for us. He’s a nice man. He helped me…”

“Shut up, Lonesome. Don’t need ta know anymore.” Johnny’s tone was sharp. He needed Lonesome to know that was enough. “Lonesome, I’m gonna start now, alright?”

Johnny had taken Lonesome back to camp, nudged Scott awake and the four of them began to make their plan. Lonesome was told there was going to be a trick on Hagen but they needed his help. His job would be to get the attention of one of the men in the cave when they told him to, and now Johnny gave Lonesome the go-ahead to engage Simmons in conversation. The man was shocked to see Lonesome, he had been out all night after Hagen ordered him away. Val got around the side of the opening, behind Simmons and knocked him out with the butt of his Colt, then tied him up.

“Hey, Lonesome, ya did a good job!” Johnny patted him on the back as Lonesome looked over at Simmons clearly wondering what exactly was so good about cracking Simmons on the head but Johnny looked happy so he thought he should, too. “We need ta go in there now, Lonesome, think you’re gonna be alright ta do that?” Johnny asked. Lonesome was still preoccupied with Simmons lying tied on the ground. Val dragged Simmons unconscious form into the corral and out of sight.

“Y-yeah, think so, Johnny, yeah,” he said straightening to full height, “I kin do it for ya,” and he offered Johnny a huge grin.

“Good, cuz I’m countin on ya, alright?”

“’K, Johnny, I kin do it.”

“Good, now call Connell out, tell ‘em ta come help you and Simmons with the horses. Tell ‘em the fence is broke.” Lonesome had reservations about doing this, but Johnny and the others had been nice to him, it must be alright to help them… Lonesome went down off the ridge to the opening of the cave, Johnny was trusting him to help. Hagen never trusted me......

“Hey, Lucky! Lucky, kin ya hear me? I need some help with the horses! They busted through the fence! Come an’ help!”

Lucky heard his name and started for the cave entrance. He stopped at the opening looking at the snow.

“Shit! Damn horses had ta wait till it snowed this deep ta break loose,” And he shuffled out into the wind. Head down he rounded the corner to the small corral and felt a gun in his ribs.

“Hands up, shut your mouth an’ behave an’ ya might live,” Val said softly from behind him. Scott came over to lend Val a hand and tied and gagged Lucky. That only left a kid, the wounded man and Hagen in the cave with Holly.

Hagen was drinking a cup of coffee when Simmons left the cave. Then he heard Lonesome call, Lonesome who’d been missing half the night and suddenly he was there calling for Lucky. Son-of-a-bitch! This don’t feel right!

“Get over here!” he screamed at Holly. “Now!” Wasting no time he pulled his gun and was aiming at her head. Taking the saddlebags stuffed with stolen money from the ground he slung them over his shoulders, grabbed Holly by her arm to pull her close in front of him using her body to shield himself. If there was to be any shooting he was determined to be the one to get out alive. With his arm around her throat he moved her down the tunnel and to the entrance of the cave. Her heart hammered in her breast but she was alert for a chance to run.

Will hadn’t moved from his brother’s side and looked up from Jarrod’s pale face to see Hagen and the woman standing by the opening. Will was sure that Jarrod wouldn’t make it through the day and he, himself, had made a decision during the night that he was done with this life, and Hagen. If there was going to be trouble he would face it, pay what sentence he would get for his crimes and start a new life. And it would be without his older brother. He turned back to Jarrod to feel the shudder go through the cold hand he held and hung his head.

“Lonesome! Lonesome, somebody out there with ya?” called Hagen, hoping that the idiot would give him a clue as to what was happening.

“Hey, Hagen! Come help! Horses are gettin’ away!” Lonesome was doing a fine job coaxing Hagen out of the cave, Johnny thought. Hagen took a chance and peered around the edge of the cave, seeing Lonesome standing there in the snow.

“Hagen! Come an’ help!” and Lonesome started to walk to the corral. Then he stopped and looked up into the trees and Hagen spotted Scott. Turning his revolver away from Holly, he squeezed off a shot and caught Scott in the upper left arm. He then swung the gun to Lonesome and pulled the trigger. Lonesome went down like redwood. Johnny watched helplessly as Hagen secured his arm around Holly’s neck, dragging her along as he made his way to the cave opening and around to the boulders at the edge of the cliff. Johnny closed the distance from his cover to the mouth of the cave but as Hagen continued to back up, he returned gun to Holly’s temple. She spotted Johnny and wanted to sink to her knees but did not want to distract him; she could see the fire and danger boiling in his searing and deadly eyes.

“Let her go, Hagen an’ you might live.” Johnny called out with seemingly no emotion in his voice, but Val knew better. He knew that Johnny was going to kill Hagen if he didn’t do something and quick. Hagen glared at Johnny and spat out his order.

“Throw down your gun or I’ll blow her brains out!” Hagen sneered.

Johnny showed no emotion knowing that Holly was his only cover, and Hagen wasn’t about to give that up. Johnny kept advancing, slowly, but advancing and Hagen kept backing up.

“You better stop right there, got no where ta go, Hagen.” Johnny watched as Hagen kept moving backwards and got ready for his move. “Stop! Hagen….” Hagen retreated one more step, one step too far as his foot slipped in the snow and he fought for purchase on the ledge, his grip on Holly’s throat tightening as he teetered on the edge of the cliff, the cliff that plunged down three hundred feet, a sheer drop, and no outcroppings to land on. Hagen struggled as he realized his fatal mistake too late, he lost control and he started to go over, taking Holly with him. Johnny watched as Holly was dragged backwards to plunge to her death. With his heart frozen in his chest, and a ragged “NOOOOO!” tore from his throat, Johnny made his move.

He lunged forward just as Holly was going backward with her captor, frantically reaching out for Johnny's hand, she couldn’t fall, he couldn’t watch Holly disappear from his sight, and she didn’t want him to watch her die. The adrenaline surged through his veins as Johnny caught her outstretched arm, his fingers closing tightly around her wrist with the strength of steel. He was slammed to the ground in a belly flop with a harsh woof of air that was forced from his lungs as the two people went over the edge. Johnny desperately grabbed with his left hand at an exposed tree root to stop his descent and flattened his body, spread eagle, creating resistance to slow the advance of his body before falling into the abyss. His grip unsure, he frantically called for Val’s help. He could feel the struggle as Holly tried to fend off Hagen as he clung to her leg.

Holly felt the weight on her leg jerk fiercely to a halt as the plummet abruptly stopped. It yanked sharply on her body, snapping her fiercely, much like a human whip. It stretched muscles until she was sure she would break in two as Hagen clutched her in a desperate effort to keep from falling. Reflex caused her to kick her feet.

“Holly! Stop kickin’! Stay still!” Johnny called to her. He looked down into her eyes and caught her terrified stare.

“Trust me?” he asked her and she nodded. Johnny swore he could feel his shoulder separating in his body, his ribs screaming in protest. With Hagen still kicking, the strain was  more than he could handle but with another look into her eyes, he knew he would die before he would let her go. “Holly, don’t look down, watch me…” He forced his eyes to calm and she looked into them, held them with hers taking comfort that he was there. His guts felt like they were tied in knots and burned like fire. His heart pounded in his chest until he thought it would burst out through his ribs. He didn’t have a lot of time or strength left. He had to convince her to kick Hagen from his death grip on her leg or they would all go over the cliff. His whole body shook with the strain, bones felt like they were being slowly pulled apart and muscles stretching beyond their capabilities.

“Holly… kick him loose. Do it now!” Johnny tightened his grip on her hand and waited for the sharp pulling to begin, the violent jerk on his arm that could very possibly send Holly plummeting to her death along with Hagen. Holly looked horrified. She was about to send a man to certain destruction. Johnny hoped against hope that she could do it. She squeezed her eyes shut, did not think she could! “Holly! Do it! Can’t hold on much longer!” he whispered to her.

Holly was torn. She was a healer, she took care of people and helped to save lives, now she had to take one. “Dios, forgive me!” As she kicked out with her foot, she caught Hagen across the bridge of his nose with her boot heel. He fought for control a moment and suddenly slipped from her leg screaming all the way down until his voice faded and all they could hear was silence…. and Johnny’s tortured breathing. He let out a groan but held eye contact with her, speaking softly as his bruised muscles pulled, forcing them far beyond their limits. But he concentrated on her eyes, the terror in them fading as black searched blue.

He was determined she would not fall. His sheer will and stubborn grit held her tight in his hand. He also saw her love for him and he watched her eyes well with unshed tears. He held those eyes, and concentrated on what he saw in them. They were his strength and Johnny saw her trust in him, and saw her faith in him solid and strong. He held her life literally in his grasp. And his grasp was weakening but he would not let her go, for they were inseparable.

 She could feel the strain in his arm, it trembled violently but she watched his face as some of the tension ebbed and then he was slipping, slipping off the edge.

He tried with his remaining strength to pull her up but he kept sliding. “Val!” Johnny yelled, suddenly there was a tug on his belt and Johnny was pulled back from the edge. Holly’s head could be seen rising above the rim now, and stepping over Johnny’s prone body Val grabbed her other hand and pulled her up. She fell beside Johnny and they came together in an embrace, rolling in the snow, arms wrapped around each other neither letting go. Holly cried in great heaving sobs and clung to his neck as Johnny, close to passing out, lay with her in his arms, hugging tightly as huge ragged breaths escaped his lips, the strain on his bruised body obvious with visible tremors. They lay in the snow fighting the lack of air in their lungs until their breathing returned to normal. They kissed long and hard, snow clinging to their hair and faces but neither cared.

Scott stood on unsteady feet and watched his younger brother cheat death, once again, but this time it had come too close. He rounded the corner with Val as Val jumped ahead to grab Johnny’s belt and haul him back on solid ground. Johnny wasn’t alone. Scott watched as Val reached down and pulled, he watched as a graceful hand, arm then head and torso were hauled to safety. They're safe! His brother was safe, they were both safe and Scott could breathe again.

<><><><> 

Lucky Connell, Victor Simmons and Will Carter sat on the floor of the cave, tied securely and covered with blankets. Will had given his promise that he would not cause any problems. Jarrod had passed as the fight began, his body had been taken out and buried as best it could be in the snow along with Lonesome. Holly was tending Scott's arm, Val sat guarding the prisoners and Johnny lay by the fire covered with a blanket, eyes shut and totally exhausted. His relief at finding Holly suddenly flooded his body with fatigue and he collapsed by the fire after entering the cave.

<><><><> 

Holly had taken care of Scott’s arm and turned her attention to Johnny. She was concerned with his breathing. She looked at Val with questions in her eyes.

“Johnny, ah..... had a little accident ‘bout two weeks ago. Horse fell on ‘im an’ I know some ribs were bruised. Coulda cracked some. He’s still a mite sore.” Holly thought of him getting slammed to the ground with the weight of two people hanging from his arm. The struggle to keep her from falling, forcing him to hold her all the while his body was stretched beyond the limits, all this with a prior injury. She wanted to cry for him but she pushed those thoughts aside, to help ease his discomfort and pain if she could. She pulled the blanket down and as she did so talked softly to let him know her intentions. She did not want any more stress added with him moving suddenly as she probed the area.

“Johnny, Juanito? Wake up, querido….. Juanito.” Johnny rolled his head to one side and cracked open glazed and weary eyes. The first thing he saw was Holly’s dirty, gorgeous face and his dazzling smile melted her heart. He reached a hand up to touch her cheek, hoping this was not a dream. His fingers connected with warm flesh and his heart started to race. Dios, she’s safe! She leaned down to place a feather-light kiss on his lips as he pulled her down beside him.

“Juanito! Val, your brother, they are watching!” she whispered against his mouth.

“Don’t care…” And he kissed her deeply. Enough to make her want to ignore the two men watching them and join him under the blanket, but she gathered herself together and sat up before Johnny could go any further.

“I need to check your ribs. Val told me you were hurt…. Let me take a look.”

“’M fine.” Holly smiled and lifted his shirt to find not only old and fading bruises but the start of vivid new ones. She hoped there was nothing broken when he was yanked to the ground and landed on his belly. With nimble fingers, fingers that Johnny was very well familiar with, she felt down one side then the other, careful not to irritate any more than was necessary. Checking for broken ribs was always a painful exam and her heart cracked with every hiss and groan he made. He was bathed in cold sweat; her hand lay flat on his chest as she looked into his face. Pain lines were etched deep and she knew that what she saw was nothing compared to the pain he was feeling. He would not let her see any more than possible. But they both were safe. That was all that mattered.

<><><><> 

Scott watched them; he was mesmerized at what he saw, this wild, impetuous brother and his exquisite lady. She was truly incredible and he knew why his brother was so committed to her. This was more than two people that cared for each other. He felt what they felt, well, some of what they felt; it was unique to them, of who and what these two people were. They were more than lovers and Scott suddenly realized that this was like nothing he’d ever known before. These two belonged together, regardless of conventional bonds, the words spoken before God in a church cemented most people. Holly and Johnny already had that. Living together, or not. But when they were together, it was …. magic. Scott looked over to Val and caught the ‘see, what’d I tell ya’ look. Val smiled. And Scott understood. But would Murdoch?

<><><><> 

They settled in for the night, tomorrow they would start back but for the rest of the night they all tried to rest and take it easy. Holly checked the dressing on Scott's arm, taking great care to clean it again, reapply medicinal salve and re-bandage the wound, then secure it in a sling.

“Thank you, Holly. You certainly are a credit to the medical profession,” Scott smiled as he paid her this compliment. Holly looked at him and returned the gesture.

Gracias, Scott.”

He didn’t know where to start but he desperately needed to talk with her. So, he just began. “Can we talk for a minute?” And her beautiful smile disappeared immediately. She became suspicious. This is where he will tell me not to see Johnny any more… Scott watched her closely and took note of the fleeting emotions he saw wash over her stunning face. “I’m sorry if I’m upsetting you. That was not my intention, I can assure you. I only meant to find out more about the two of you. Johnny has been so secretive, he’s not mentioned you and now to find how… close you are is puzzling, to say the least.” His eyes held no harm, no accusations and Holly decided to tell Scott, sensing he was a good man, everything he wanted to know. After all, Juanito had spoken so highly of his brother and Holly wanted to trust him, too.

“I asked him not to.” She watched his eyes. He did not let her down as they widened in surprise.

“Why?” was the only response that came to his shocked brain.

She locked him in a contemplative stare when she answered. “Do you know what I am?”

“You’re a medical assistant.”

“No, before that? Do you know?” Her eyes demanded an answer.

“Yes, I do,” returning her stare, “And I know that it was your idea not to meet Johnny’s family. But we would like to meet you. And I know that I can speak for our father and sister.” Holly was shocked and her face showed it. “Holly,” Scott started, taking her hand, “Please give us a chance,” he asked softly.

Holly's head dipped as she stared at her hands. “All my life decisions have been made for me, all I could do was live with them. I did not choose to be a whore, I had to eat, I had to live. When people hear what I am, or was, they assume certain things about me and I can not change how people think. For the first time in my life I am making my own choices. I come and go as I please, I have a respectable job and the people there like me… for who I am. I have to be honest with myself and Johnny. Tell me, Scott, how long have you known him? He told me you were not raised together.”

“Three years, now.”

“I have known him for six. We were almost children when we met and we are so very much alike, both alone very young.”

“Yes, he told me that last night.”

“Juanito is like the wolf or the eagle. What do you think would happen to him if he were to be put in a cage?”

Scott smiled sadly. “He wouldn’t last very long, I know.”

“Scott, I am going to be very honest with you when I say this. I am willing to be with Johnny as he is now and only see him now and again than have him every day with a chain around his neck. That would kill him and what destroys him, destroys me. I have never known this feeling before and will not do anything to change what we have. If we were to marry, how long do you think it would take before someone from my past tells people, your neighbors and friends, what I was? That would come between you all and destroy your family. No, Johnny has worked too hard and come so very far to be ruined by vicious wagging tongues and it would not stop there with him, it would hurt you and your family, too. I would rather put a gun to my head and pull the trigger before I let that happen.” The look in her eyes told him that she could not have been more serious.

“But, what about you? Don’t you want marriage and children?” Scott asked.

Her eyes drifted to Johnny’s stretched out form under the blankets by the fire and said:
“I already have what I want.”

And Scott saw a love as deep and true as anything he’d ever witnessed and couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever experience what these two extraordinary people had built around themselves. He wondered what Murdoch’s reaction would be. Would he raise the obvious wall of tradition that two people had to repeat the vows in the presence of God in front of a priest and witnesses? Or would he have the openness, the courage to overlook what others would scorn and allow his younger son, the son he’d almost lost several times, over much less serious issues, to remain at the ranch with a …..prostitute?

It was increasingly difficult to think of Holly as a loose woman as she could definitely hold her own in any Boston drawing room dinner party but she was absolutely correct in her musings about someone from her past recognizing her from her former life. Scott wondered how this was going to pan out. Would Murdoch accept this situation? Could he?

As Johnny slept, Scott kept thinking over what was to come. When Val had pulled Holly over the edge of the rim Scott had seen the look of relief, of love in his brother’s eyes. He’d never seen anything like it. No one in his entire life had ever looked on another person with that emotion, raw, intense and completely true, straight from the heart and soul. And Scott would never, ever deny his brother after seeing that. It was love at its finest, it’s best and it was Johnny Madrid Lancer, his brother. Scott made up his mind then and there that Holly and Johnny would have an ally in him. He would make Murdoch understand or Murdoch would lose them both.

<><><><> 

Johnny sensed her lying beside him and he tried to roll over onto her but sore muscles and deep bruising prevented much movement. He groaned and she was awake in a heartbeat.

“Querido, are you alright?” her worried eyes searched his face as he tried to get his breathing under control.
 
Through clenched teeth, he muttered, “Yeah,” but could not manage anything more. He closed his eyes as she got up, went to her medical bag and produced a small bottle.

“He ain’t gonna like that.” Val stated but Holly ignored him and poured some laudanum into a cup. She lifted his head a bit and quickly poured the vile medicine down his throat before he realized what she’d done. A cough erupted then a groan and he was out before she could climb under the blankets again. She smiled as she put her hand on his chest and could feel his heart beating with a normal rhythm. He would be alright, in time, but having a second issue with ribs so soon after the first was painful and she knew it would be a compound problem with Johnny. He was impatient and wouldn’t give the first injury time to heal. Oh, Querido! What am I to do with you? she thought as her shoulders began to tighten, strained from being suspended over the edge of the drop off. She knew the morning would be difficult but for now she would sleep.

Dawn was breaking, and Holly was up fixing coffee and a meager breakfast when Scott and Val walked into the cave. They’d been getting the horses ready to travel and it took no time to saddle up. They’d had a difficult time keeping Barranca from mounting Holly’s Chula, much like their owners, both Scott and Val had thought, but they’d managed to keep them separated and were soon ready to get started. Johnny looked a bit better today, although still a little peaked but under Holly’s careful direction he would be alright, they hoped. They tied Simmons' hands together and he voiced his objection.

“Hey, I can’t ride like this with my hands tied, I’ll be killed!”

“Then ya better not fall off,” came Johnny’s unconcerned response and he mounted Barranca. They began the climb down to lower elevations. The morning was chilly but started to warm the further down the mountain they went. There had been no snow here, only some rain and travel was a bit easier.

They had been riding for several hours. Everyone was getting tired, the prisoners cranky and complaining. Scott’s arm was beginning to throb unmercifully and he knew if his arm was hurting that Johnny’s ribs were screaming by now. He’d had seriously bruised ribs when the horse tumbled on him and now, Lord only knew what damage was caused trying to keep Holly from falling off a cliff. He saw the new bruising last night when Holly checked him over and suspected that Johnny was in agony but he wouldn’t let on. He didn’t want Holly to worry.

<><><><> 

For her part Holly never complained, she dealt with her pulled muscles without a word and just focused her attention on Johnny. Scott wondered what she was thinking. Was she scared? She seemed to be able to take what was thrown at her. She was, indeed, a survivor and Scott was impressed. Scott never attended church regularly, only on holidays or special occasions like weddings and the weddings he had witnessed had ended in unfaithfulness. Could it be what Johnny and Holly had was blessed in someway? They were definitely devoted to each other. And perhaps, he thought, there had been a divine intervention moment as, surely, Holly could have been killed during her time with the outlaws and Johnny almost sliding over the edge while trying to rescue her was, indeed, facing certain death. So, why weren’t they dead? Because, Scott thought, they were here for a reason. For each other, he was sure.

<><><><> 

At a fork in the road Val suggested that Scott, Johnny and Holly go on to Lancer, while he toke the prisoners on into Green River and notify the sheriff in Soledad. He caught Holly’s panicked face but she quickly recovered and said nothing. Scott agreed but Johnny looked at her; he would not insist she go to Lancer.

“Your decision, Holly. I’ll go along with what ever ya want. All I wanna do is get some sleep.” Johnny waited as she looked from him to Scott.

“Holly, please give us a chance,” Scott repeated from their conversation of the night before.

She was torn; she knew what would happen when anyone found out who she had been but she also knew that maybe she was doing Johnny’s family a disservice. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Scott saw how difficult it was for her but suddenly she raised her head and spoke.

“Let us get Johnny home into his own bed and talk things out,” she said then managed a thin smile. They moved out at a walk knowing in a few hours they would be one happy family or be torn apart, maybe forever.

“Holly.” Once again, Johnny spoke up. “You don’t have ta do this,” he said, his voice soft and pleasing to her ears. She looked into his face, not showing how afraid she was. She remembered his eyes when she was dangling from his arm and knew that she had to try.

“It will be alright, Juanito.”

But he knew it would not. He’d made up his mind that if Holly wasn’t welcome at Lancer then he wouldn’t be either. And he would leave with her. He thought they needed to give Murdoch a chance to deal with it, though; maybe he would surprise them…

<><><><> 

She could see a great adobe arch engraved with LANCER straddling the road. Second thoughts about this whole thing raced in her mind but as she looked over at Johnny she knew he needed rest, he was hurting badly but wouldn’t say anything. So her concern for him became her voice of reason and she kept going using the thought of Johnny’s comfort as her motivation.

As they neared the huge hacienda, a small wiry man hustled out of the barn, at a run to take the horses.

“Well, I see you two ain’t got the sense of a ….” And Jelly’s mouth dropped open as he saw Holly for the first time. He stammered and stuttered as Scott made the introductions.

“Holly, I’d like for you to meet Jelly, our handy man and the one that keeps us all in line, especially Johnny. Jelly, this is Holly Vasquez, Johnny’s…. friend.” Jelly took her hand and kissed it as if she were a queen.

“Miss Vasquez, it is truly an honor to meet you! Let me tend to your horse.” Jelly took Chula’s reins as well as Remmie’s and Barranca’s and headed off to the barn mumbling under his breath about ‘that big galoot keepin’ secrets’. Johnny stumbled as they turned to go into the house and both Scott and Holly were at his side to help.

“’M fine, just tired,” he stated as he took his arm out of Scott’s grip but left his other in Holly’s. Scott smiled at the gesture.

As they stepped into the foyer Holly’s eyes widened as she took in the grand house. Never in her young life had she ever seen anything so beautiful. But then she heard voices and she was instantly scared. Chica, get a hold of yourself! You’ve been through worse…. Have I? And she felt a tremble in her body. Johnny felt it, too, and whispered in her ear:
“It’s alright, querida.” He smiled down into her face and she felt a bit of calm come over her. Just then a very tall man came around the corner and came to an abrupt halt, shocked by the appearance of his two sons.

“Scott, Johnny, you’re back! Is everything….” He then spotted Holly and was stunned to silence, eyes widening.

Johnny spoke up first in his velvet soft but exhausted tone. “Murdoch, this's Holly Vasquez. Holly, our father Murdoch Lancer.”

Murdoch found his voice and was once again in control. He reached out a hand and Holly took it, found it warm and there was comfort in it. She looked up into his eyes and saw a virtuous man and honorable but, would he be understanding? She thought they would soon find out. However, she also saw questions burning in those eyes.

“Senor Lancer, I am pleased to meet you,” she graciously responded.

“The pleasure is mine, I assure you, Miss Vasquez,” he said warmly.

“Holly, please call me Holly.” And all talk was silenced when chatter from the kitchen turned louder and Teresa rounded the corner in an apron with flour covering her hands, halfway up her arms and smudges on her cheek and nose.

“Scott, Johnny! When did you get home?” She ran to Johnny first throwing her arms around his neck and he cringed as her body contacted with his, knees threatening to buckle.

“Johnny! Are you hurt again?” Teresa questioned, worry in her voice.

“’M fine,” was all Johnny could manage but he had paled a bit. Teresa then spotted Holly and introduced herself, wiping a hand on a towel before extending it for Holly to grasp.

“Hello, I’m Teresa and you are…?”

Scott spoke up for the introductions. “Teresa, this is Holly Vasquez, a friend of Johnny’s. Holly, our sister, Teresa,” Scott said making the introductions

“Holly, please come with me and I’ll see to it that you can get cleaned up and a rest before dinner…..” Teresa tugged at Holly’s arm but Holly stood firm.

“Por favor, I need to see to Johnny first, he’s not feeling well and needs to be in bed. Scott will need a new dressing on his arm, too.” With that, Scott moved to the stairs and the whole time Johnny was doing his best to tell everyone he was fine, just tired, and he could put himself to bed, but no one was listening. Teresa went first up the stairs to Johnny’s room and started a fire then went for fresh water, Scott and Holly hovered around Johnny and Murdoch stood looking as though he was wondering just what the heck was going on in his house.

With the commotion of everyone upstairs bumping into each other attempting to get everything under control, it finally dawned on Murdoch to ask what had happened. He cleared his throat and got the attention of all four young people.

“Excuse me, but what happened to you boys? Val wouldn’t tell us much and then you were gone,” Murdoch said with questions pouring from his mind. But it was Holly that took the lead, to everyone’s surprise.

“Senor, I was taken against my will and held captive for a brief while until Johnny, Val and Scott found and rescued me. But, Senor, if you don’t mind I need to get them both settled and then I will be ready to answer any questions you have for me. Por favor, may I get some hot water and fresh bandages?”

“Yes, yes, of course! Teresa, please help Miss Vasqu… Holly with what she needs, dear.”

“Gracias, senor. Johnny,” getting his attention she pointed to the bed, “Scott, where is your room, please?” Murdoch looked confused. Holly was giving out orders like she was a doctor and in charge…. What was going on?

Scott saw the knitted brow and leaned into his father saying, “She’s a medical assistant and may as well be a doctor. She fixed me up with a bullet wound and did an excellent job. Let her do what needs to be done.” Johnny was still standing where he’d been before the triad of orders had been issued and she turned to him with a sharp admonishment. “Juanito! Bed… Now!” And with a flash of bright black eyes, she was out of his room and tending to Scott’s injured arm.

When she returned to Johnny he had already fallen asleep. She quietly walked to the bedside, careful to not step on the discarded pants and boots that Johnny left lying around. She watched him for a minute to assess his breathing and noticed he had not taken off the underwear top and she surmised he couldn't pull it over his head without help. That was alright, it would do nothing but keep him warm. Satisfied there would not be an issue with lungs, she reached over to pull the blankets down to his waist when he stirred, slowly opening eyes of the deep blue that never failed to consume her.

“You gonna be alright bein’ here, querida?” he asked her, “’cuz if ya ain’t we can go as soon as you’re ready.”

She stopped her ministrations and looked him with a small smile. “You are not going anywhere,” she responded in her most authoritative voice.

Out in the hallway Murdoch, en route to Scott’s room, stopped in mid stride as he caught this part of the exchange between Johnny and Holly and he lingered, not meaning to eavesdrop, but so much had happened in such a short time he desperately wanted answers, so he listened.

“Holly, ‘m fine,” Johnny insisted.

Murdoch thought Johnny sounded like he was trying to get out of taking some medicine.

“Yes, I can see that,” Holly responded sarcastically.

“I’d really be good if ya got in here with me under these blankets,” he teased with a leering grin.

Out in the hall, Murdoch could imagine the grin his son wore.

“Juanito! I will not dishonor your father’s house! You ought to be ashamed!” Holly chastised.

“Now you behave yourself, por favor.Holly began to straighten the room and picked up Johnny's clothes that he had strewn on the floor.

Was she trying to check ribs and get a liniment on them? Murdoch wasn't sure but he left the hall and went to the great room instead of going to see Scott as originally intended. He sat behind the mammoth desk and waited. Dinner would be ready soon and Murdoch was anxious to talk with Holly.

<><><><> 

She descended the stairs and took a seat in front of Murdoch’s desk. Meeting his questioning eyes, she waited.

“I’d like to thank you for tending to my sons, Holly. Scott tells me that you are a medical assistant in Salinas,” Murdoch began cautiously.

“Si, I work for Dr. Hanley and it was Johnny that talked me into taking the position.” Murdoch looked perplexed and she smiled.

“I have known Johnny for over six years; in fact much of what I have learned about healing was from taking care of him. Over the years I have removed bullets, stitched knife wounds and tended many cracked heads and broken bones for him. When a carriage overturned injuring a young woman, Johnny and I were close by. Johnny went for the doctor and I stayed with the woman then helped Dr Hanley with her. And he offered me a job as his assistant. It has been over a year now.” She volunteered this much, now let him ask the rest.

“May I ask what happened a few days ago? All I know is that our sheriff, Val Crawford, came here with a telegram for Johnny and he left, all that Val would say was that a friend of Johnny’s was missing. Judging by his reaction I knew it had to be someone very close to him, but, if you will forgive me for saying this, he’s never mentioned you before. And, now, after meeting you, I have to tell you I am very confused. Can you enlighten me?”

Holly looked down at her hands then raising her eyes and locked them on Murdoch. “I was out taking medicine to an old woman who lives outside of town. When I left her house I was taken by a man at gunpoint up into the mountains. He didn’t say a word except to tell me to wrap his blanket around me. I had no coat when I left and did not expect to end up in the mountains. After two days of travel he brought me to a cave. Altogether there were six men, one badly wounded. They had robbed the bank in Soledad and one of them had a bullet in his stomach. I could not save him… The morning he died is when Johnny, Scott, and Val found me and Johnny saved my life, again.”

Holly stopped her narrative in an attempt to gather herself, obviously still emotional over the events that had unfolded and Murdoch gave her the time she needed. He went to the sideboard and retrieved a glass of brandy which he handed to her and sat beside her on the couch. The same couch that Johnny had been stretched out on when Val came to give him the news that Holly was missing.

“Gracias.  She took a sip, raising elegant brows in a gesture of appreciation. Then she continued. “The leader of the outlaws took me and was using me as a shield, his arm around my neck; he was backing up and slipped off the cliff, taking me with him. Johnny caught my arm but he was pulled to the ground as Hagen, the leader, grabbed my leg. There were two of us holding onto Johnny’s arm hanging off the cliff and.… he would not let go.” Her eyes filled with tears as she finished. “He would not let me fall, would not let me die. I saw it in his eyes, I felt the muscles straining, tremors through his body and still he would not let me fall.” All Murdoch could do was to take her hand and wait for her to calm herself. He reached into his pocket and gave her a handkerchief.

“Oh! Gracias! I am sorry, I do not usually cry but remembering that look, his eyes, it is very emotional for me.

“I understand. Well, tell me how you and Johnny met,” hoping to steer the conversation to a safer area. Holly, again, met his stare with an unwavering one of her own. Her heart pounded.

“Senor Lancer, I will answer all your questions if you are sure you want to hear. I will be honest with you but some of this will not make you happy.” She watched his face, not missing any telltale expression.

Do I want to hear this? he thought. Well I’ve read the Pinkerton’s reports, how much worse can it get?

“If you don’t mind, Holly, yes, I would like to hear.” She took a deep ragged breath. She didn’t want to hurt this man, he’d shown her kindness, but that was before he was going to find out about her, about who she was and what she did. She took another deep breath, this time not as ragged and she forged ahead.

Holly told the story of their meeting, leaving nothing out. She told Murdoch what he asked to hear and knew that it would not be what he wanted for his son, but she didn't lie, she wouldn't lie. But telling the truth was not easy. She knew this man before her was not happy. She saw his eyes turn hard.

 

“There can be months in between our visits but eventually we run into each other again, spend a week or so together then go our separate ways. We met again when Johnny and Val went after the brothers that hurt Scott and they chased them into southern California. Then I met Johnny in Salinas, which led to my taking the job with Dr, Hanley and I have been there ever since.

“I know that this was not easy to hear. Not easy to understand why your son has a relationship with a woman of the night. Everything I have told you is the truth and I do not ,  will not come between Johnny and his family. He had just found you, found Johnny Lancer instead of Johnny Madrid and in all truth, I really do not know how much longer Madrid would be alive. He was so reckless, the chances he took... it scared me. I once told Johnny that I did not want to marry. I am now my own person, make my own decisions and can care for myself without interference from anyone…”

“Do you think marriage is an interference?” Murdoch asked, his frosty tone held a sharp edge and raising an eyebrow he seemed to condemn her words. 

“No, but I have told Johnny and Scott that once anyone finds out what I am, what I was, do you think it will be the same? You will suffer shame and ridicule. I know this to be true and I would never, ever do that to all of you. You are everything to Johnny, I know, he is much happier since he has been a part of this family. I will not tie Johnny down, he would die. I need to check on him now. Please excuse me, Senor.” And Holly gracefully excused herself from Murdoch’s presence.

Murdoch wanted to follow her, but decided to give them privacy; after all, he did hear Holly say she wouldn’t disgrace his household. Was he, Murdoch, really growing into that sour old person that couldn’t understand physical attraction between a beautiful woman and a handsome young man? He watched her climb the stairs and wondered about his younger son. He’d known that Johnny regularly visited The Angels Nest and the cribs upstairs, there were several of the girls pining after him. Why didn’t that bother him? And here was Holly, a beautiful and gifted young woman, totally devoted to him and he to her if Murdoch could believe what Scott had told him, and he was having doubts and negative thoughts about this relationship. From what Scott had told him Johnny was completely in love with her. How was he going to handle this situation of Johnny having a relationship not sanctioned by law or the church?
<><><><> 

Holly quietly opened Johnny’s door to see him sleeping like a baby. He looked so innocent and young, although he still had several days’ growth of beard on his face. When he woke she would shave him. Watching him she felt the familiar tingle in her breasts and loins that she only experienced with him. Dios, she loved him! She came to the side of the bed, reached out a hand and gently laid it on his forehead. Warm, but not overly so, she thought. He had given her so much, and mostly he had given her love and expected nothing in return. She couldn’t, wouldn’t come between him and his family. She would not take that away from him after all the time he’d spent alone and now he had what was so important.

Leaving Johnny’s room she went in to check on Scott, also sleeping soundly. No fever and resting comfortably. Backing out into the hall she met Teresa, who bubbled over with sincere and enthusiastic thankfulness and hospitality.

“Oh, Holly! You must be exhausted! I have a tub of hot water waiting for you in the bathhouse. There are towels and clean clothes there, too! Come on!” And grabbing her arm Teresa led Holly out back.

As she leaned back against the door, Holly closed her eyes and could have fallen asleep on her feet but for Teresa’s chatter. Teresa suddenly realized Holly’s dilemma and became apologetic.
“Holly, I am so sorry! Here’s a towel and everything you’ll need. Please, take your time. I will have a bed ready for you when you get done. You look as tired as Scott and Johnny!”
Teresa left her alone. Holly sank down in the tub and found the water hot and relaxing, nearly putting her to sleep. She opened her eyes and started a bit when she realized that she'd come close to falling asleep in the tub.

The conversation with Johnny’s father had completely drained her of any energy she had left after the harrowing ordeal in the mountains. She didn’t want to think about anything right now but knew there would a crucial and difficult decision to make very soon. She would not come between Johnny and his family and she wanted to cry, she knew this could possibly tear them all apart. Standing, she reached for the towel and dried herself off, then put on the clothes and walked to the house.

Teresa was in the kitchen as Holly entered and took her to a room upstairs where she fell into bed and although exhausted she lay comfortably ensconced in the welcoming arms of warmth and rest but did not drift off immediately like she wanted. She really didn’t want to think right now; her thoughts would stray over into the dark as the fatigue distorted any logical reasoning and she needed to be clear headed for what lay ahead of her.  

<><><><> 

He opened his eyes to light streaming through the windows and a sunny blue sky. The brightness pierced his brain and he groaned.

“Juanito, can I get you something to eat?” spouted a cheery voice from somewhere in the room.

“Uhhh….. later. Can’t right now,” he said and slammed his eyes shut against the light.

“Querido, you need something in your belly. Here, I have some nice hot broth for you.’” And he felt something press a bit against his lips. It smelled good but he knew better. If he swallowed it, it would make its re appearance and he would be puking with broken ribs. Not a good combination.

“Later, por favor….” He mumbled without making eye contact. He sighed as deeply as the damaged ribs would allow and was asleep again in minutes. Holly took the bowl downstairs and into the kitchen.

<><><><> 

Murdoch and Scott sat watching as Holly quietly walked to the countertop and set the bowl down. She stood a minute with her back to them then turned around and told them she would be going for a ride and asked where Chula was. Scott left his chair and was out the door calling for Jelly. Their conversation could be heard as Scott asked Jelly to saddle the gray mare for Miss Vasquez. Jelly couldn’t move fast enough to start the chore. Scott entered the kitchen laughing to himself.

“Holly, you haven’t been here for a full day yet and Jelly is smitten!” Scott said with a grin.

Holly smiled a bit, though she really wasn’t humored. She was, indeed, deeply troubled.

Scott watched Murdoch after Holly left for her ride. He looked unsettled, uncomfortable and upset.

“So, let me guess. You’re not happy about Holly and Johnny.” Scott posed the question that Murdoch barely heard.

“What, son?” Murdoch asked absently.

“I said, that I guessed you’re not happy about Holly and Johnny?” Scott had raised his voice, already irritated at what he knew was coming.

“Should I be? My younger son is in a relationship with a…. loose woman. And they aren’t even considering marriage.”

“Would that make you feel any better if Johnny were to marry a ‘loose’ woman?”  Scott started on the defensive but then softened. “Murdoch, what Holly and Johnny have is beyond vows I’ve seen spoken in church….”

“I don’t care! It’s not…. moral!” Murdoch argued, his voice starting to raise.

“Was it moral that Johnny had to fight as a child just to eat? Fight just to live? Was it moral that Holly was raped at twelve and forced into prostitution to live? It’s a plain miracle that they are alive today! And to have both of them turn out as the fine people they are makes me more than privileged just to know them! To Hell with convention! They are still alive for a reason and that reason is each other! Murdoch,” Scott started again, more gently, “I am begging you, please don’t turn your back on them because Johnny will leave and not come back this time and I will be with him.” And with that last statement, Scott left the table. Murdoch sat looking at the chair Scott had just vacated. Am I wrong? I can’t abide this ‘living in sin! This was his son! And he only wanted what was best for him. But then a thought struck him and hit him as hard as if it had been lightning. God didn’t forsake His son.

<><><><> 

Johnny lay in his bed. He didn’t know what time it was but it was getting late and he hadn’t seen Holly for several hours. Slowly he got out of the tangle of blankets and gradually got his feet under him; he pushed off the bed gaining his balance and took a tentative step. Huh, not too bad he thought, then he searched out some clothes. Shuffling down the stairs he made his way to the kitchen only to find it empty, he rummaged in the cupboard and retrieved a cup, filling it with hot, black coffee. He settled at the table and savored the strong brew. Hearing boots on the tile floor, he recognized Scott’s footfalls and waited as his brother joined him at the table.

“You don’t look so good, Brother!” Scott teased.

“Thanks…” Johnny said and smiled into his cup. “Where’s Holly? Haven’t seen her for a while.”

“She asked for her horse to be saddled around noon and went for a ride.”

“What time is it now?” Johnny was suddenly uneasy… and worried.

<><><><> 

Holly left the hacienda and turned south. She had no destination in mind, just wanted to ride and clear the tumbling thoughts and fears that threatened to reduce her to a puddle of tears and rattled, raw nerves. What had happened that she wanted to cry all the time? Is this what love does to a soul? I love him but I need to be my own person….Why can’t people understand that? Juanito does…. Suddenly Holly realized how fragile love was. She knew he loved her but also knew what he felt for his family.

She reined Chula to a spot by a stream and tied the spirited mare to a bush. Taking a seat on a rock she listened to the burble of the water. Soon she was caught up in the frantic chasing of two squirrels which coaxed her into smiling and the scolding chatter of a jay above her made her look up. It was then she saw the clouds billowing in the sky and she was reminded of the time she and Johnny spent alone at the mountain cabin. She felt warmth inside her; it filled not only her heart but her soul, as well. And whatever happened, she would always love him.

Her ride took her past a small church. She hadn’t been inside a church in years. After all, it was only four walls, a floor and ceiling. Why had she avoided going? She stopped in front of the old adobe structure just as an old priest in tattered robes rounded the corner, a rope clutched in a gnarled hands that led a goat. He stopped when he spied her and tied off the rope on the gate then shuffled slowly in his sandled feet toward the pleasant sight; the young woman astride the stunning gray mare. A fine horse for a fine lady, he thought.

“It is a beautiful day for a ride, my child. Can I be of some service?” the kindly old Padre asked.

“No, Padre, gracias, I was out riding and saw the church…” she explained lamely.

“You are not from around here,” the old Padre stated and waited for a reply.

“No, Father, I am a guest at Lancer.”

“Ahhh, perhaps a friend of Juanito’s?” Then he bestowed her a benevolent smile at her look of astonishment.

“Juanito has talked about you,” he said and again Holly’s eyes went wide.

“Come, my daughter and sit for a while.” And without waiting for her answer he turned, retrieved the rope and hobbled around the side of the church.

Holly sat stunned that the Father had guessed who she was. Johnny had talked about her? What had he told the old priest? Did he come here often? She dismounted and tied Chula at the rail and followed him. As she got to the back of the church she saw him at a small table in the shade of a large orange tree. After taking a chair opposite the old man she asked:
“Does Juanito come here often?”

“Sometimes. He will visit when he is troubled and sometimes just to talk. He is a good man, despite the way he grew up.”

“Si, he is a good man and I would not be where I am today if it were not for him; he means a great deal to me,” Holly said.

“I know and I know you mean a great deal to him.”

The old man admired her beauty, Ahh, To be young again! Maybe he would have chosen another path in life. Indeed, she was lovely! Juanito was a lucky man.

She smiled and looked down at her lap “Father, what has Juanito told you about me?” Holly asked.

“I cannot say as it was in confidence.”

“Was it a confession?” Holly quizzed.

“No, just confidence. He will always tell me that he has nothing to hide and will not take confession.” 

Holly smiled a bit. That sounded like Juanito! Then her smile faded. “Father I am afraid and I do not know what to do.”

“What does your heart say?” The kind old eyes pierced into hers.

“It tells me I love him,” was all she said.

“Is this the answer you want?” the old padre waited with patient countenance.

Then she continued. "Yes... and no. As long as I can remember others have been in control of my life then Juanito came to me. He helped me to change my… circumstances and I now depend on no one. I am respectable and I take care of myself. Because Juanito and I are…. close, his father does not approve of our relationship. I will not come between him and his family. He has just come to belong to one; I won’t take that from him.” Then she paused with a hitch in her breath and added in a whisper, “But I love him.” Tears slipped down her cheeks. The kindly old priest put a weathered, leathery hand on hers and patted it gently.

“Child, follow your heart, for it will not fail you.” Then the old man rose from the rickety chair with the thought this caring and considerate young woman would eventually find what she needed to do and filled with confidence he left Holly sitting alone and still confused.

She rode under the Lancer arch, heart still aching and mind tumbling. She thought the visit with the priest would help to settle her scattered and confused feelings. What was she going to do? She slowed Chula to a trot and dismounted as Jelly took the horse from her, commenting on what a beautiful day it was for a ride. She fixed him with a sweet smile and Jelly’s heart melted. Between those two, they got the purdiest smiles ah ever seen! Think ‘bout the smiles their young’uns'd have!

<><><><> 

“Stop worrying, she’s coming now. Jelly just took her horse.” Johnny went to the window as quickly as his sore muscles would allow him to move and standing with his left arm held tight against his side to minimize the movement. As she entered the kitchen, Johnny’s smile lit up her weary heart as it never failed to do. Surprised to see him out of bed she quickly looked him over, noting the arm held fast against his side and pale complexion, however he seemed to be feeling better.

She carefully looped her arms around his neck and he held her as tightly as he could, closing his eyes and enjoying the sensual feel of the silky hair against his face and the gentle scent that rose from it. He inhaled deeply and, too late to catch himself, groaned at the hitch in his chest from the deep breath. She immediately held him away a bit to see if he was alright.

Seeing her distress, he smiled. “’M fine.” And pulled her to him again but this time for a kiss that made her head spin and left her breathless. Scott couldn’t help but watch. This whole situation of Johnny so completely captivated by this woman intrigued him. And to see it was magical and beautiful. It had an aura about it, a life of its own.

<><><><> 

Dinner that night was quiet and strained. Murdoch sat at the head of the table as usual but tonight Murdoch was flanked by the two young women, with Scott next to Teresa and Johnny, of course, next to Holly. The food was excellent but no one tasted it. With an attempt to start a conversation, Murdoch asked Johnny how he was feeling. He watched as Johnny did nothing more than push food around on his plate.

“’M fine. Just not hungry, is all. ‘Scuse me.” He left the table expanding on the tension that had settled over the room.

He sought the solace often found in the comfort of the patio and leaned against the adobe wall still warm from the day time sun. Johnny looked at the sky, crystal clear and full of stars. It would get cold tonight, he thought, however, the sky was bright and stunning. The stars that hung in the velvet night sparkled and reminded him of that night he and Holly were at the cabin. She had been wading in the water and he came out to join her. As she turned to him the brightness from the moon and stars reflected in her eyes to take his breath away. She was so beautiful! He still found it difficult believing she had given him her heart. So lost in his thoughts he didn’t hear the voice until it was whispered next to him.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Johnny started and held back a groan. Concerned, Murdoch watched him carefully.

“Do you need to sit down, son?” Johnny slightly canted his head to look at his father.

“No, ‘m fine,” came the soft reply.

Murdoch snorted. “Are you ever anything but fine?” Then he smiled. Johnny laughed a bit then returned his attention to the sky. “It’s almost sacred, isn’t it? Such beauty around us and so many places here on Lancer are so very special. Have you ever been up around the North Pass to the valley with the water fall? It’s as if you are in church when you’re there.”

“Murdoch?”

“Yes, Johnny…?”

“Answer me straight?” Johnny asked with troubled eyes.

“You know I will, Johnny.” And with no hesitation Johnny asked what was on his mind. This answer would tell him much and ultimately give him the clue as to the course he would need to take.

“Do you like Holly?” He held Murdoch’s eyes in a stare, then Murdoch broke that stare.

“It’s not a matter of….”

Johnny butted in. “That’s not what I asked. Do you like her?”

“Yes.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that there are no vows spoken before God. It’s not legal, not recognized by law.” Johnny started to laugh, softly at first then as hard as he dared as muscles snagged across broken ribs.

“Ya know, Murdoch, you’re a hypocrite. Seems ta me I r'member you sayin' that my mother was pregnant with me before she married you. An’ I want ya ta know that there‘s not that much difference between Holly an’ me. We both had ta do things ta stay alive, even if it was somethin' that we didn’t wanna do an’ knew it was wrong, but ya know what? We are who an’ what we are, nothin’ can change it now an’ I can live with that.” Even though the words were spoken softly their impact slammed into Murdoch’s soul with a physical blow and never had he felt the impact as he did this night. Johnny looked his father in the eye then turned to slowly walk back into the house. He did not look back for if he had he would have seen Murdoch hang his head in shame.

<><><><> 

“Everything alright out there, Johnny?” Scott asked as he watched Johnny come through the door alone, a cold but calm determination settled across the handsome features.

“It’s as alright as it’s gonna get, I guess.” Johnny looked at Scott expecting a lecture from his older and ‘wiser’ brother.

“Did Murdoch say anything?”

“He can say whatever he wants, after all, he’s been married twice.… an’ look how well it’s worked for him…..” Johnny passed by his brother and headed upstairs.

<><><><> 

Two quiet days passed but tension in the air was palpable as Johnny and Holly stayed mostly to themselves. They were seen walking together during the daylight hours, Johnny proudly showing Holly the horses that he and Scott were raising. His expression beamed his pride in their efforts. However, it only served to add another layer of uncertainty to her fragile thoughts. Night time would find them together on the patio, watching the celestial displays and the beauty it provided.

Johnny knew he had to do something. He had given the situation much thought and wondered if his decision would be enough...

<><><><> 

“Holly? Holly, wake up!” Johnny whispered. “Come on, get dressed, here, put this on, an’ hurry! Come on down to the kitchen and make it quick!” Then Johnny was gone. It was still dark outside! Is Juanito out of his mind? But she knew better. He was the sanest person she knew. She quickly got out of bed and put on the clothes that Johnny had laid on the blanket, then she went down to the kitchen. He was waiting for her with a cup of coffee in his hand and while she drank hers, Johnny stuffed a bag with apples, biscuits and other food that he found in the pantry.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Ready for what, Juanito?”

“No fair askin’ questions. Come on.” He hustled her out the back door into the cold early morning hours. The sky wasn’t even pink on the horizon yet. What is he up to? she wondered. Once outside she saw that Barranca and Chula were saddled and ready to go, they appeared anxious and sensed an adventure. Once mounted they headed down the dark road and were under the Lancer arch in less than five minutes.

<><><><> 

The sun had risen about an hour ago, no words passed between them but Holly could sense something, something good. She watched Johnny up ahead and where he was not healed by any means, he seemed to hold himself differently on this day. They had ridden about three hours when suddenly before them was a beautiful valley with a spectacular waterfall cascading down a mountain side at one end. There were moss carpeted clearings and scattered about the valley floor were large patches of deep red columbines. Their elegant flowers seeming to dance in the breeze and welcome these handsome visitors. Huge white clouds billowed over the mountains and Holly was once again reminded of their time at the cabin.

Johnny stopped Barranca, dismounted in one fluid motion and helped Holly down from Chula’s back. It was only then that she saw Scott standing off to one side holding a huge bouquet of the crimson columbines which he handed to Johnny. Johnny took them and placed the flowers in Holly’s arms.

She made a gorgeous picture that he would remember always, she stood with her black hair hanging down to her waist in remarkable contrast against the white dress and the stunning red flowers in her arms. The backdrop of the crystal lake surrounded with majestic mountains and the deep green of the pines seemed to frame her in a picture no artist could replicate.

Johnny then led her to a large flat rock at the edge of a small lake, the surface still and smooth as glass. Standing on the rock he took her hand and pulled her to stand next to him. An eagle screamed above them, soaring on the thermals, drifting through crystal skies. Scott stood beside the rock as he waited and in the water, a mirror image of the two lovers reflected flawlessly; Scott knew at this moment that this place was, indeed, superior to a church. It fit these two incredible people that he was privileged to know and he was honored to be included in this special day. He was proud of them and for them.

With her hand tucked between both of his, Johnny spoke softly. “With my life I will honor you, protect you and love you, as long as I live, for eternity and as long as you will have me. You are my life.” With tears filling her eyes and blurring her vision Holly took a deep breath.

“And I am yours! Without you, I am nothing, I love you, Johnny! Te amo!””

Then he took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly, then deeply. No other vows needed to be said. Standing in a beautiful, peaceful valley, blessed by God and witnessed by his brother, Johnny and Holly were one. As she looked around her to see Johnny as honest and humbled as she’d ever seen him, she noticed the care he’d taken to make this day special for her. This was a place held in God’s hands, a sacred place and now it was theirs and she loved him for it. It touched Holly’s heart that Johnny had considered her wants and desires as no one had ever done before and she felt her love for this incredible man consume her entire being.

<><><><> 

As Scott watched his brother promise his life to this exquisite and beautiful woman, he wondered if their father could ever appreciate the significance of this place, the dawning of this special day and the young son, with such goodness, strength, passion and grace in his soul. Scott collected his horse and left Holly and Johnny alone.

 

 

~end~

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