The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

South of Midnight

7th 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.
Thanks to Cat and Sandy for the beta
Warning: a bit of cussing

 

“Can ya see anything, Val?” Johnny whispered as he peered through the rain, and darkening sky, trying to pin down where the shots had come from. The flash from the fired bullets was the only indication to the location of their quarry. The fog was filtering up through the air with ghostly fingers grabbing onto the night making visibility impossible.

"Uh uh, can't see a damn thing through this mess…" Val answered, cursing the luck that brought them to this volatile situation. Two outlaws had killed the bank teller, wounded three townspeople and made off with three thousand dollars from the bank in Green River. After four days of trailing them, Val and Johnny were stuck out in the rain and cold in the middle of the night.

“Well, if we can’t see, neither can they,” muttered Johnny straining his eyes to peer through the gloom and suppressing a shudder that crawled over his body. Sitting on the wet rocks leached the heat from him, sucking away any warmth as soon as he produced it leaving him chilled and miserable. Teeth began to chatter uncontrollably forcing both men to clamp their jaws together in hopes of keeping their concentration focused, not that they would pick up on anything with all the rain splattering down.

“We need ta get outta the rain b’fore we freeze ta death, Johnny. Think you can find the way back so’s we can camp where them fellas won’t be able ta see a fire?” Val asked hoping Johnny’s nighttime vision was better than his and they could find shelter without breaking a leg in the dark.

"Sure can, what's the matter, Val? Time for the rockin' chair on the porch, so ya don't hurt yourself in the dark?" Johnny teased but knew that in reality, he couldn’t see much better than Val. Dark is dark!

“Smartass! Just get us outta here in one piece!” They moved out, slipping and sliding down to the shelter hidden deep within in the rocks.

Satisfied they were out of sight they hunkered down to wait out the night. Already wet and cold they knew they wouldn't be sleeping much but if they could get out of the rain and wind, maybe the night wouldn't be so miserable. Johnny reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a bottle of tequila. There’s fire, an’ then there’s fire. He pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth then tipped it to his lips and took a healthy slug; he felt the burn all the way into his gut, the heat spreading out through his body and into his limbs. He handed the bottle to Val who accepted it gratefully and immediately took a drink.

"We gotta be outta our ever-lovin' minds! Ya know that, don’t ya?" Val groused and paused to take a second pull on the bottle before handing it back to Johnny.

“Look at it this way, amigo, maybe the Cattlemen Growers Association’ll see how dedicated ya are an’ give ya that raise ya been askin’ for.” Johnny grinned as he said the remark knowing that it would definitely not get Val the raise.

“Don’t even bring that up! I’d like ta see any one of them out here in this weather, climbin’ all over hell lookin’ for these two idiots! The Association‘s got no idea what this is like!”

“Well, Murdoch does, he use ta be a lawman back in Wichita an’ he’s backin’ you on this,” Johnny calmly responded, swallowing a generous mouthful of his liquid fire.

“Wonder where those two yahoos are? Don’t suppose we hit either of ‘em, do ya?” Val asked, knowing in all likelihood that the two outlaws were not wounded or dead and were probably stumbling around the rocks, just like he and Johnny had been.

The night was long, wet and cold but as the sky was finally starting to lighten the rain stopped, and the clouds rapidly broke apart revealing a stunningly beautiful, bright blue sky. The rays of golden sunlight crawled down the mountainside and entered the deep valley below leaving wisps of fog burning off in the warm light. The world was coming to life again, with the beginning of a new day.

Neither man had gotten much sleep through the wretched night. Johnny and Val were already awake munching on a few pieces of jerky, washing it down with water from their canteens.

“Well, let’s go see if we can find them two assholes and drag ‘em inta jail," Val grumbled, more talking to himself than to Johnny. The two friends started, once again, up the mountain and making good time soon found where the outlaws had spent the night, in much the same conditions as Johnny and Val had. No fire and not much shelter had made for a long night, but both Johnny and Val took great comfort in knowing the outlaws were as miserable as they had been.

“Hey, Val? Look at this.” Johnny held up a scrap of cloth with washed out stains on it. “One of them’s hurt.”

Val huffed. "With any luck, he'll be weak an' we can catch up to ‘em taday an' haul their asses back with us," Val sighed. Johnny shrugged, and they continued to follow the trail down the other side into a small valley.

<><><><> 

Quietly Johnny and Val sat behind the trees and watched as the outlaw went to the stream. He stooped down and shoved the canteen beneath the water. The outlaw looked up to scan the hills surrounding the meager camp and satisfied there was no danger, he returned to his partner stretched out in the bedroll.

“Looks like the other one’s pretty bad off if he’s layin’ down this time a day,” Val said making a hopeful observation. Johnny retrieved the small spyglass, a present from Scott, and took in the scene. Through the glass Johnny could see the shaking under the blanket, chills rippling nonstop over the young man’s body.

"He's shakin' pretty bad; fever's probably got him. Should be easy enough gettin’ the drop on ‘em, with one of ‘em down, you could prob’bly do it all by yourself!” Johnny grinned.

Val, still a bit damp, cold and a lot grouchy, wasn’t in a laughing mood and he grumbled, not taking the bait.

“Aw, come on, Val, look at it this way, we’ll be home in a coupla days an’ outta this weather, tell ya what, I’ll even let ya have more tequila,” Johnny quipped with his dazzling grin.

Val shot him a grizzled look and grabbed the spyglass. “Gimme that thing! Lemme take a look…” He brought it up to his eye, then started. “Good Lord! I gotta get me one a these things! Where’d ya get it?” Val’s eyes were wide with astonishment.

Johnny laughed again watching Val’s eyes widen in amazement. “Scott gave it to me. Makes things a little easier, don’t it? Just like ya can reach out an’ touch them…” Johnny, still amused with Val’s reaction to the glass, reached out and playfully punched his arm.

Taking the glass from his eye, Val carefully inspected it, admiring the excellent workmanship. “Yeah, I gotta get me one a these things…” he mumbled.

They waited a while, letting the sun warm the mountain air a bit as they contemplated their best option. In truth, it felt good to sit still in the sun for a minute letting the rays warm them after the cold and wet night they had had. Then, having warmed in the soothing rays, they thought to circle the young man and come at him from both sides. Both Johnny and Val took off in opposite directions as they quietly made their way down and around the two bank robbers, one prone, the other very much on his feet. With cat-like grace, Johnny soundlessly sidled his way into position waiting for a move from Val, and almost immediately Val did move.

“Throw down that gun and turn around! EASY! Nice an’ slow, you’re surrounded!” The man startled but instead drew his gun and fired at Val, missing, his shot going wide. Johnny fired his colt, hitting the gun in the young man’s hand, and sent it flying through the air into the brush. The young man grabbed his hand in an effort to ease the sharp crippling tingle that shot through his hand and up his arm. Val emerged from the cover of the bushes from one side and Johnny from the other.

“Well, son, you’re under arrest. What’s your name?” Val was met with a glare and no answer.

“He asked ya what’s your name, kid." The kid whirled around to meet the Johnny Madrid ice-blue glare, and he backed up two steps as the glacial shards pierced his heart.

“W-Wade, Tyler Wade,” he stuttered.

Val pointed to the man under the blankets. “Who’s that?”

“My brother, Mason, he’s hurt, bad. I dunno if he’s gonna make it fevered like he is,” Tyler made a step to his brother’s side.

“Just stay where ya are, kid, or I’ll hafta shoot ya again,” Johnny said with his soft tone, but eyes still piercing.

Val moved forward to check Mason. Pulling the blanket back, with his gun aimed at the prone form, he picked Mason’s gun out of the holster and threw it to Johnny who caught it easily with his left hand; right hand still pointing his gun at the kid’s chest. Val knelt on the ground assessing the injury.

"Don't think it'll do any good but we can try an' get ‘im back ta town." Val tossed the handcuffs to Johnny, and he deftly clicked them onto Tyler’s wrists behind his back. Johnny propelled him to sit on a rock with orders to stay put. Together, with the occasional glance at their prisoner Johnny and Val did what they could for Mason. Tyler's eyes did not leave his brother; he sat as he was told, and did not try to escape.

Stupid kids! Val thought. Johnny went for their horses and saddlebags where they kept a few of necessities for addressing injuries. Young Tyler, oblivious regarding clean bandaging, had not done his brother any favors. If the lack of proper dressings didn’t get his brother, infection would.

Johnny returned with their meager supplies and both he and Val used pressure in an attempt to slow the bleeding and re-bandaged the wound. They tied it tightly and could only wait now. Val knew their efforts were wasted, Mason was bleeding out even with their ministrations, and there wasn't a thing they could do about it. Thankfully it didn't take long, not too much time for thinking about it. Watching a man bleed to death knowing no more could be done was like watching sand trickle through an hourglass. Almost done, almost over... dead. Mason sputtered and was gone. Tyler hung his head and cried.

They buried Mason where he died, let Tyler have a few minutes to stand over the grave, then they mounted the horses and made their way back to Green River. No one said anything. The day passed into evening, and they made camp in the shelter of rocks, out of the wind, building a fire to reflect the heat off of the boulders. Coffee in hand and a plate of hot beans, the trio ate in silence, Johnny and Val each giving the kid a chance to grieve, to contemplate and let the consequences of their actions register. His brother was dead because of a stupid, bad decision. And nothing could undo that now. Tyler had to live with it. And most probably hang for it.

<><><><> 

They made good time. Tomorrow night they would be sleeping in their own beds, Val in the back room of the jail and Johnny in his large, comfortable, soft bed at Lancer. This had been a rough trip, and the chill had yet to leave their bones. Johnny sincerely could use some time off.

He desperately wanted to go north to Salinas and spend time with Holly. They hadn't seen each other for over two months, and that was much too long. His arms ached to hold her, touch her, caress her, kiss her and make sweet love to her. Just thinking about her made his groin ache and tighten. Johnny had had many women in his time but never, ever had he felt anything even close to what he felt with her.

She was the most precious part of his life, and he was hers, though they had no plans for marriage, they were committed to the other as if there had been vows before God. They had declared themselves to each other but not in a church before a priest, and this had been a contentious issue between Johnny and his father, Murdoch. But, if the truth were told, the Old Man was getting used to the idea, and that it wasn't about to change, so knowing they would not reach an agreement regarding the situation, he was trying to accept it… rather than lose his son.

They entered Green River just as the sun was setting, exhausted, cold, tired and hungry, and, of course, Val was his usual crabby self. They settled Tyler in his jail cell, locked all the doors and went to the bank to return the stolen money. Luckily, Banker Anderson was still in the office finishing up paperwork from the day's transactions.

The knock on the door startled him as he was lost in his work and he barked out a gruff "Go away! The bank is closed! Come back tomorrow!" but upon hearing Sheriff Crawford's announcement, Anderson quickly let the two men inside. Val handed over the worn saddlebags with every cent that had been taken, and Mr. Anderson immediately deposited it in the vault.

"Thank you, Sheriff! And you, too, Johnny! I thought that money was gone for good! Are the two thieves in jail now?" he asked with a huff.

Val shrugged and looked down at his dirty, scuffed boots.
“No, only one. Other one died up in the mountains. Buried ‘im. But we got the one. Tyler Wade. That name mean anything ta you, Mr. Anderson?”

The banker paused as if in deep thought, then met the sheriff’s gaze. “No, can’t say that it does. Well, at least we’ve got all the money back that they stole. Good job, boys!”

With an exuberant handshake to Johnny and Val, the light was extinguished, and the three men left the bank, Anderson going home and Johnny and Val headed to the saloon.

<><><><> 

Sitting at Johnny’s customary table on the back wall, Johnny and Val relaxed over a beer enjoying their quiet conversations.

“Sure glad ta be back. My bed’s gonna feel pretty good after spendin’ all that time sleepin’ on the cold, wet ground, and sleepin’ alone!” Johnny stated with a grin. “Sure could use a trip ta Salinas…” he said wistfully.

Val eyed him over the foam in his glass and grinned. Johnny sure had it bad for Holly! I bet his britches are near ta bustin’! It’s been a while since they were tagether; this is prob’bly the longest he’s ever gone without fallin’ inta some pretty gal’s bed!

“What’re you grinnin’ at?” Johnny asked, suspiciously watching his partner and taking a sip of beer.

“Oh, just thinkin’ on how you’re lastin’ so long without fallin’ inta bed with someone. Look, there’s Cindy, go have a roll with her,” Val thought it sounded reasonable, it did to him…

“Don’t want Cindy.” Johnny’s blunt reply confirmed what Val already knew and what Johnny wouldn’t admit. Johnny was head over heels in love with Holly Vasquez. Their off and on romance had taken the next step, and they both found themselves committed to the other. They’d known each other for years, meeting when she worked as a ‘lady of the evening’ in the border towns. Johnny had rescued her from certain harm, killing the man holding a knife to her face, going to permanently scar her if she didn’t work for him in his bordello. Johnny ended up shooting him and carrying Holly out of the squalid place and taking her to his room tending her injuries. That was their beginning and of the last two years they were seeing each other exclusively.

Since Johnny had found his family and settled into the life of Johnny Lancer, instead of Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, he'd become less reckless, and not quite the risk taker. The wild young man of his youth, now more responsible, but still not ready to commit to marriage and apparently, that was all right with Holly. She once asked Johnny's older brother, Scott, “What do you think would happen to Johnny if he were caged?” Scott startled, his surprised expression was followed by an emphatic, “He’d die… he would die!” The words seemed to burst from Scott as he firmly answered the question, confirming that he understood his brother’s relationship with this woman, however, their father, Murdoch, was still having a few issues with it and probably always would.

Val continued to watch as Johnny sat nursing his drink, wondering how long it would be before Johnny told the Ol’ Man he was leaving for a week or two. Val thought back to their days riding together before Johnny became a Lancer, the days they were fighting range wars down along the border. What a change they’d both made. Johnny, son of a wealthy rancher and Val sheriff of Green River, yup, they’d both come a long way. Their luck would have been bound to run out sooner or later, more likely sooner.

“When ya think you’ll be goin’ ta Salinas?” Val asked with a smile. Johnny met his stare and grinned back, knowing what Val was implying. He tipped back on two chair legs and leaned against the wall.

“How soon can you get someone ta cover for you at the jail?” Val wrinkled his brow at him.
“Aw, come on, Val, I know you’re gonna come with me. You ain’t seen Chrissy since I seen Holly last!”

Val burst out in a great belly laugh. “Soon as I can, amigo, soon as I can!”

<><><><> 

He stretched out on his bed and let exhaustion overtake him. Within minutes he was asleep, deeply asleep. He dreamed of soft, gentle hands, caressing and teasing, sparkling black eyes promising sweet kisses and more. Long, silky black hair that emanated sweet, clean scents  made him want to wrap himself against her body, tangling the shiny strands around them in a tight cocoon, and the thought made his head spin.

He jolted awake, blinking as he tried to clear the cobwebs, sweet cobwebs that they were. He was glad he was alone, his physical state would have been embarrassing had there been anyone else in his room. Dios, I need her! he thought, trying to get his emotions under control. It was more than just a sexual release that he needed. Holly was a part of him, an essential piece to the complicated puzzle that was Johnny Madrid Lancer. He’d come to realize that he would be part of her as long as she would have him; he knew he was nothing without her. She was the woman he wanted for as long as he lived, no one would ever take her place, and whatever happened, nothing would make him change his mind. They tolerated their forced separations only to have their reunions that much more special and he finally admitted to himself I love her…

Johnny came down the stairs and into the kitchen without his usual rowdy, and exuberant entrance. He got his coffee and sat at the table looking a bit blurry eyed and drawn. The coffee was hot and strong, and it felt good as it made its way down into his belly.

Murdoch paused to watch his younger son battling the morning demons and noticed the tired, gaunt features so out of place instead of the smiling, mischief-making grin that was usually present.

“Johnny, I didn’t know you got in last night, are you feeling all right? You look a little… peaked this morning,” Murdoch asked, concerned at this rare morning countenance.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Johnny said through a yawn.

Murdoch huffed and smiled. Was Johnny ever anything but ‘fine’? “When did you get in?” Trying to get information out of Johnny was, sometimes, difficult.

“After midnight.” Johnny looked up at his father and knew he was waiting for a few details.
Staring down into his cup, he smiled. He still wasn’t used to giving out all the information the Ol’ Man required. So, he began his story.

“An’ then we got back inta town about nine an' got Wade in jail, the money back ta the bank an' got somethin' ta eat. By the time I got home, it was after twelve. Still kinda cold after all that time out in the rain. Hey, Murdoch?" Johnny stopped to meet his father's eyes.

“Yes?”

“How're things lookin’ around here? Anything comin’ up that needs me ta be here for a week or two?” Johnny asked without breaking the direct eye contact. Murdoch knew in his heart what Johnny was asking and where he didn’t honestly and completely approve of this illicit relationship, he also knew how they felt about the other. And knew he wouldn’t be able to deny Johnny’s request.

He hadn’t had any issues when Johnny would stop off at the Angels Nest and visit the working girls there, so what made this any worse? And if he would stop to think about it, it was undeniably a better situation. Johnny was seeing one woman, not any who happened to be free at the time and Holly wasn’t in that profession any more. She had a respectable job now and was an upstanding citizen. The people in Salinas loved her. All right, Murdoch, give a little slack, here he thought to himself.

“No, Johnny, I think everything is well under control here. You look like you could use some time off. When do you think you’ll leave?” Murdoch smiled to himself as he watched Johnny’s face. Some of the tension melted away, leaving only fatigue.

"Hafta see when Val can get someone ta cover for him, but as soon as he does, we'll leave. Thanks, Murdoch."

Murdoch's smiled deepened and reached his eyes.
"Tell her I said hello!" With a gentle hand on Johnny's shoulder, Murdoch left the table, and Johnny sat alone with his coffee, much relieved.

<><><><> 

“Hey, Johnny!” Val called with a wave of his arm motioning his friend over to the boardwalk where he stood. Barranca stopped but danced a bit before he settled down. Johnny leaned his arm across the saddle horn with a hopeful look in his eyes.

“Ya packed yet?” Was all Val said as the smiled deepened on Johnny’s face. “We can leave in the mornin’. I’ll meet ya here.”

Dinner, as usual, had been delicious, flawlessly cooked and they all ate their fill, talking about their day and what was to be on the agenda for tomorrow. They conversed with the usual levity and enthusiasm, except for Johnny. His mind was one hundred miles away, with Holly.
“Johnny...? Johnny! You haven’t heard a thing I’ve said!” Teresa exclaimed, thinking it a bit odd that Johnny was so quiet.

“Huh? Oh, sorry,” he answered with his soft voice. “Guess my mind was somewhere else…” and he continued to push the food around on his plate.

Scott watched with a devilish grin and then spoke. “Well, little brother, you’d better eat and build up some energy. You’re going to need it!” He had a difficult time getting the words out before the laughter took over making it impossible to say any more. Teresa looked to Scott, her eyes asking for an explanation and both Scott and Murdoch laughed. So Johnny finished his meal, not tasting much of it but did indulge in an after-dinner drink in the great room, as was customary.

With his tequila in hand, Johnny slouched in his chair and listened to the tick of the clock.
This was about as close to torture as it could be. He knew his family was watching his every move, knew they thought it ‘cute’ or ‘sweet’ the way he was so anxious to see her. But it was more than just anxiousness.

He was finding it very difficult to stay away for any length of time. This was the most incredible circumstance, no, phenomenon Johnny had ever experienced, the gut-wrenching, toe-curling, exquisite lovemaking was like nothing else, but that wasn't all of it. The way he felt when he was with her, the tenderness of their touches, sweet kisses, the velvet of their skin against the other… he had a difficult time explaining it even to himself. She was his life and forever would be. No other woman had made him feel like Holly made him feel. When he woke in the night and watched her sleeping beside him, he felt as if his heart would burst from his chest, such warmth he’d never experienced from any other woman and not just from their passion, but being near her and knowing she was his was enough to make him gasp and blood pound in his brain.

He could stand it no longer. Rising from the chair, Johnny said his ‘good nights’ and headed for his room, taking the stairs three at a time. Three sets of eyes watched him go. Scott and Murdoch with grins on their faces while Teresa sat looking perplexed, with questions in her eyes.

“All right, will someone please tell me what’s going on?” she pouted.

“Johnny’s in love.” Scott volunteered, still grinning.

Teresa’s grin spread across her face. “Do you think he will ask Holly to marry him?” she asked hopefully.

The smiles on Scott’s and Murdoch’s faces faded.

“No,” was all Scott said.

Once in his room, alone, Johnny lay across the bed, wondering at this relationship. They loved each other so strongly, so incredibly deep and both knew it wouldn't be the same if they were together all the time. It would not stay as it was. As Holly had said before “Do you think if we were together all the time, what we have would stay the same? No, it would lose its magic, and that is what we have, magic!” And so, they lived apart but together in their hearts, always.

He hadn’t expected to sleep much during the night. He lay awake hearing Teresa, Scott and Murdoch retire for the night, and long after, Johnny was still looking at the ceiling. Finally, around two in the morning he shut his eyes, and he dreamed of silken arms closing around his neck and a soft body pressing against his.

<><><><> 

Well, two hours’ sleep is better’n nothin’ was all Johnny thought as he quietly left his room, saddlebags tossed across his shoulder and boots in hand. Not wanting to wake anyone, Johnny walked with cat-like steps down the stairs and into the kitchen. Quietly pulling out a chair he sat and tugged on his boots, grabbed his heavy coat from the hook on the wall and left, shutting the door softly behind him.

He made it into Green River by 5:30. Val was up, even had coffee made. Taking a cup from the shelf and knowing he would regret having any, Johnny helped himself, grimacing as he swallowed.

“Just what the hell do ya do when you make coffee? Use old scrub water?” Johnny asked with a cough.

“If ya don’t like my coffee keep your hands off it!” Val barked with his usual crusty demeanor as he yanked on his boots. Stomping his feet into the worn out and scuffed size twelves, Val shrugged into his jacket and grabbed his gear.

“’K, ‘m ready.” And fifteen minutes later they were headed to Salinas.

<><><><> 

The day dawned bright and beautiful promising good weather, cool, but pleasant. Johnny set the pace, and they made good time but didn't push their horses. They fell into companionable silence, not having to talk, just close friends with private thoughts. They’d ridden together for years, fought side by side and saved each other's lives more times than either could count, and they were as close as brothers. They knew the workings of each other’s minds and understood that if one started a sentence, the other could likely finish it.

 Stopping to give the horses a breather, they took their saddlebags and retrieved a bag of food that Johnny had pilfered from the Lancer kitchen. Actually, the cook, Maria, had left it for her niño, and Johnny was grateful for her foresight and kindness.

“That woman sure can cook! I ain’t never had anything bad that she made!” Val commented as he devoured his sandwich with gusto.

Johnny grinned. “Yeah, just don’t get sick or hurt when she’s around! Between her an’ Jelly they can think of more disgustin’ crap ta make ya drink- an’ tell ya it’s good for ya!” A shudder ripped through his body as he thought of the vile concoctions he’d been forced to drink during accidents or illnesses since returning to Lancer.

Val laughed at his gesture knowing that Johnny had, more than anyone, been subjected to a strict medicinal regimen on many occasions. That boy sure is accident prone! I can imagine what they made him drink!  Val snickered to himself.

“Let’s go, Val.” Johnny interrupted Val’s musings with a nudge from his boot.

Lifting the hat from his face, Val squinted as he looked up at the silhouette standing over him and smiled. “Hey, I thought this was ‘spposta be a relaxin’ trip!” He drew himself to his feet, ambled to where Milagro was ground tied and saddled up. Val couldn't get over the anxious demeanor that seemed to bubble around Johnny; he looked like a lovesick lad!

"So what'd ya have planned for you and Holly ta do when ya get there?" Val asked as they made camp that night. Johnny stopped in mid-stride and very slowly looked at Val with raised brows and a smirk.

“Other than that! Ya horny ol dog! Poor girl won’t get a minute’s rest with ya draggin’ ‘er inta bed every hour!”

“K, Val, what'd ya an' Chrissy have planned?" Johnny asked with a grin from ear to ear, pouring himself a cup of hot coffee from the pot next to the fire.

Val smiled, too. “Same’s you! But maybe I’ll take ‘er out for dinner a time or two, let ‘er ‘come up for air’!”

"Now who's a dog?" Johnny laughed.

They sat together talking of how they met, Johnny had known Holly for several years but reminisced about the trip they'd taken, trailing three brothers that had severely injured Scott and fled south with Johnny and Val in hot pursuit. Passing through Atascadero they’d stopped for the night and ended up at La Casa de Las Rosas, a higher end bordello, and upon entering, Holly was in Johnny’s arms with a passionate greeting before the door had a chance to close. Holly summoned Chrissy to ‘take care of’ Johnny’s friend and they’d been seeing each other ever since. When Holly took the job as the doctor’s assistant in Salinas, Chrissy came with her opening a dressmaker’s shop and was doing very well. Both Johnny and Val had been much relieved to have the girls out of that profession and working at respectable jobs.

The night was chilly, but the sky was beautiful with a magnificent display of stars sparkling as if in celebration of the reunions to come. The moon was full and bright, the old man up there smiling as if he also knew, and he was envious! More wood was tossed on the fire as the temperatures dropped and both Johnny and Val crawled into their bedrolls, leaning against upturned saddles, once again passing the bottle of tequila that they never traveled without. Val took a drink, tossing it back to Johnny, who skillfully picked it out of the air, not spilling a drop and took a long pull.

“Hey, Johnny?”
“Yeah…?”

“You think you’ll ever marry that girl?”

<><><><> 

They settled into sleep, lulled by the tequila, dreams of sweaty, tangled sheets and the women that had stolen their hearts. Val's dreams were of a sweet blond with large blue eyes and a sassy attitude, joking and laughing with warm, satisfying kisses.

Johnny's dreams centered on a seductive beauty with a sensual grace, with the ability to bring him to the heavens over, and over, yet having the strength and intelligence to match him. Her inner splendor held him to her and her exquisite elegance forever bound her to him. They were made for each other, and he would, in the blink of an eye, die for her. The dreams this night were bliss.

Morning brought with it the blush of what they had both been waiting for, the thrill of seeing, once again, the love that had captured their hearts, thoughts of whispers in the dark and secret caresses sending their hearts to pound and the blood rushing in their ears. Soon all these senses would be fulfilled, and then some.

The sun beat down causing Johnny and Val to shed their jackets and stop to let the horses
drink out of the stream. They were anxious; soon they would be in Salinas and with that thought smiles grew on their faces. In just a few hours he would be looking into those remarkable, glittering black eyes that took him to other worlds, making him lose any reasonable thought… Hold it! Take it easy, Johnny, those kinds of thoughts ain’t gonna do ya no good except ta embarrass ya in front of Val! So, for a while, Johnny reined in the lust that had been threatening to run wild and tried to concentrate on his surroundings.

The last twenty miles had been torture. Both Johnny and Val had no desire to waste any time however they knew both of the girls would still be working. Holly would be done at Dr. Hanley's office after four and Chrissy probably made her own hours depending on what dress orders she had to fill.

The first reasonable stop should have been the saloon, but Johnny stopped outside of the doctor's office and told Val if he wanted a drink to go get one "without me…" Flashing Val his wicked grin, Johnny took the stairs two at a time and disappeared into the office. Val waited for a moment, and upon hearing a shriek of sheer joy, he turned his horse, not to the saloon but the rear of the dress shop.

<><><><> 

Holly turned and her breath caught in her throat as Johnny stood, hat tipped back on his head, weight resting on the left leg and thumbs hooked over his belt with his brilliant smile that she couldn't resist. She threw herself at him as he wrapped his arms around her lithe form and hugged her tightly. Their kisses seared the paint off the walls, and Dr. Hanley, once again shook his head, smiling at the absolute purity of their love so utterly beguiling and delightful. He never tired of witnessing their affection to the other, and he discreetly made his way from the room.

The scent of her made his brain spin, and nothing registered except his need, his want of her. This beauty in his arms loved him back, with every fiber of body and mind she was his and reflected his every thought directly back at him.

"Can you get outta here now?" Johnny breathed against her sweet inviting lips. She pulled her head back to look into his eyes and smiled seductively.

“I will tell the doctor that you have a fever and need ‘tending’. He will understand!” she laughed. “Besides, it is time for me to go anyway!" She disappeared through the back door and Johnny could hear her talking with the doctor. A loud belly laugh erupted from the back room, and Johnny could only wonder at the conversation they were having. But it didn't matter because in just a few minutes he and Holly would be walking out of here to spend the much needed time together.

They walked hand in hand the four blocks to the upstairs rooms that Holly and Chrissy shared. They rounded the back of the building taking the flight of outside stairs up and into the large kitchen. Johnny kicked the door shut and took Holly in his arms. He smothered her with hot passionate kisses all the while backing her through the door and into her room. There again, he kicked the door closed, and they fell upon her bed with pants and groans of reckless pleasure, desperately pulling at each other's clothing.

Buckles disconnected, buttons and snaps opened, and the rustle of clothing indicated those articles had been kicked to the floor. Seconds after entering the room the two were locked in the lover's dance that they performed so very well. Their impassioned carnal groans of incredible pleasure matched the thrusting hips as they rocked the bed sending them spiraling heavenward and back down to earth to lay exhausted and spent in their sweaty embrace.

Holly opened her eyes and watched him sleep. He lay with his left arm and leg across her body, her head resting in the crook of his neck with the heavy thudding of his heart on her breast. Would they ever tire of this lust? No, the love was too strong, and once again Holly knew it was because they lived apart. This could not maintain the level of intensity if they were together every day. She smiled in the dim light of her room.

“What’s so funny?” Johnny whispered as he caught the gesture of her sweet lips.

She started a bit when he spoke. “I didn’t know you were awake, querido!  Are you hungry?” she asked.

“Yeah, but what I want is right here…” and he rolled over onto her, his arms on either side of her body taking his weight. His hands tangled in her hair and his mouth lowered onto hers.

Her arms came around his shoulders feeling the muscles rippling under her soft, warm touch, fingers running the length of his back, rubbing and messaging, spreading a tingling sensation through his body. Their kisses were sweet and tender, gentle and loving. He could hold her forever, kiss her until the life drained out of him and his heart ceased to beat.

<><><><> 

The air was brisk, and the horses were anxious to go for a run. The sun, though shining brightly, didn't have the heat of the day before but it was beautiful none the less. Barranca and Chula pranced, each trying for the lead but their riders held them in check. It felt good to get out in the fresh cool air, after all, they had just spent the last eighteen hours in bed…

“How long can you stay, Johnny?” Holly asked, risking a sideways glance at him.

“Oh, a coupla days, told Murdoch I wouldn’t be gone too long,” Johnny answered with a sigh. He reached out his arm, and she leaned into it. He pulled her close and bending his head he kissed her deeply on her mouth, neither wanting to be the one to end the contact; however, Barranca and Chula had no thoughts about it, and they danced as their riders pulled together. Both Holly and Johnny laughed, lips still touching at their horses' play. Letting go of the other, they settled back into their saddles but held hands as they continued their ride.

“Ya wanna have dinner with Chrissy an’ Val tonight?” Johnny asked almost hoping she would say no. He had thoughts of retiring early again tonight… until Holly smiled and said that she would love to dine out with their friends. Well, the night is long, there’ll be plenty a time ta crawl inta her bed. Dios! I can’t get enough of this woman!  The physical aspect with other women only went as far as the pleasure he was seeking at the time. Where he'd always been attentive with his lady for the evening, there was absolutely no comparison with the way he felt for Holly. Yes, he loved her, with all of his heart, soul, and body. Johnny’s brain still could not wrap itself around the feelings he had for her. She had utterly bewitched him; he could think of nothing else when he was with her. He couldn't think of much else when he wasn't with her!

They rode for most of the afternoon, having turned around to head back to town in time to get cleaned up and meet Chrissy and Val.

“Did Chrissy say what they were doin’ taday?” Johnny asked as they stabled the horses.

"I know she had a few orders to finish up, but that would not have taken all day. Val probably went to talk with Sheriff Brody until she was done with work, but after that, I have no idea."

Johnny smiled. He knew…

During their visits with the girls, Johnny and Val were always discreet. They booked a room at the hotel, keeping their things there but used the back entrance when leaving for or returning from the living quarters over the dressmaker's shop. It wasn't worth the trouble it would cause if they made their time in Salinas scandalous. So, discretion was used at all times. Johnny saw Holly to her room, and he went to the room he shared with Val to get ready for dinner.

Val was already changed, and in the process of shaving when Johnny barged in and threw his jacket on the bed, his hat landed next to it.

“I’m goin’ ta get a bath an’ we can go over an’ get the girls ta go ta dinner. Won’t take me but a coupla minutes,” and he was out the door.

<><><><> 

Their meal was taken at Shillman’s Diner, which was not only the best but the only diner in town, the food had always been excellent and tonight was no different. The four of them shared a table in a quiet corner with the lamp turned low. The ladies had ordered chicken and white wine; the men had steak and a beer.

Johnny was impressed as Val suppressed a belch into his napkin instead of his usual ‘let ’er rip!’ tendency, Holly caught it, too, and they shared a smile.

”Maybe there’s hope for him yet!” Johnny said quietly, making both Holly and Chrissy giggle, the whole thing going over Val’s head.

Val looked up at the three watching him with a puzzling twinkle in his eyes. “What? I got somethin’ stuck on my face?” he asked making the three laugh out loud.

The walk after dinner proved delightful. Both men were at their most gallant opening doors for the ladies, brushing off an outside bench before they fanned out their beautiful skirts to sit and even offering to retrieve them refreshments after dinner. Johnny regaled them with colorful stories of their lives before they knew the girls, always elaborating and embellishing their shenanigans, and other silliness and the girls laughed until they begged him to stop.

“Oh, an’ Holly? Next time ya see Scott, ask him about his birthday. He drank so much he got on top of the bar an’ was singin’ an’ started ta strip before I carried him out an’ then he got on his horse backward ta come home. Can’t let him live that one down!” The four young people, again laughing, the girls almost crying, sat on the outside benches for almost an hour. Johnny suddenly got to his feet and pulled Holly up with him. Smiling down into her eyes, he kissed her softly and breathed “Come on,” onto her lips. They left Chrissy and Val to enjoy the night sky and stars alone.

“Was wonderin’ how long he could last…” Val said as Chrissy giggled.

<><><><> 

In Holly's room, they lay under her blankets enveloped in each other's arms, wrapped with the overwhelming love and tenderness that poured from them both.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have you. Even as much as we’re apart the thought of you not being here is more than I could stand. Hell, if we were tagether every day, I wouldn't be able ta get any work done. Murdoch'd have ta fire me!" Johnny chuckled.

Holly smiled. She loved to listen to him talk. He rarely said much, so, the times he did, she listened attentively. She hugged him tightly to her, and he responded. It was a very long and hot, sweaty night.

The next two days were spent much the same and knowing the visit was coming to an end always brought a feeling of deep sadness. At night Holly lay in his arms, holding back the tears that threatened to spill, knowing that Johnny was battling his own demons with the upcoming separation. She bravely held off and tried to be as cheerful as she could. The last day together was very quiet, neither said much, but they were constantly touching, holding hands, kissing, embracing and mostly making sweet and passionate love. 

Standing beside Barranca, Val with Milagro, they said their goodbyes. The girls were crying, trying their best to pull themselves together as the men had all they could manage not to give in to the emotions themselves.

With one last hug, Johnny held on tightly and whispered “Te amo, querida, te amo!” Then gracefully he swung into the saddle, and they rode east out of town, the two women standing close, supporting each other as they watched their men ride away.

"Son-of-a-bitch! That gets harder an' harder every time we leave! One of these days  I’m gonna stay, or I'm gonna take her with me…" Johnny muttered as they left town. Val watched him closely and wondered if he should say anything; usually, he would keep his mouth shut but decided that today he would speak up.

“Ya know she’s right, Amigo… Ya couldn’t possibly stay the same bein’ tagether alla the time…”

“Yeah. I know…”

<><><><> 

This time had been more difficult for Johnny getting back into the routine after returning to the ranch. Murdoch and Scott desperately wanted to help, but Johnny kept telling them he was fine. There was nothing they could do if he wouldn’t acknowledge there was something wrong much less accept their good intentions; but after a few weeks, he began to pull himself together. He corralled his thoughts as he stood out on the patio after dinner, and began to think about when he could see her again.

Everywhere he looked he saw her, everything reminded him of her, but he was getting a grip on how to better handle their self-imposed split. It didn't hurt like it did when he first came home and where it was still a constant ache, his self-control was returning and bringing with it a clearer head. He heard the door open and close behind him and recognized the footfall. Scott would always be there for him, and it felt good to know that his brother  cared so much about him.

“So, are you all right now?” Scott’s soft words seemed comforting, caring. Coming to stand by Johnny at the wall, shoulder to shoulder, he turned to watch Johnny looking skyward. Then his brother dropped his head and looked down at his hands. Johnny smiled, a little too sad for Scott's liking but turning to him, Johnny replied.

“Yeah, I'm fine. Well, gettin’ there. Thanks, Scott.”

Scott raised his brows at the remark. “Thanks for what?”

“Puttin’ up with me…”
 
“Yes, you are a pain in the ass, Little Brother!” And they both laughed, tensions fading from Johnny’s body and he started to feel like his old self.

<><><><> 

"You feel like going into town with me this afternoon, Johnny?" Scott asked, knowing what the answer would be. His younger brother smiled as the snide remark he was going to issue dried in his mouth, and he decided to curb his insolence.

“Yeah… Can ya wait an hour or so till I finish up here?” Johnny asked as he threw a rope at the last of the horses to bring them to the pasture.

“I can wait, don’t dawdle, though, I’m thirsty!” Scott replied with a wink as he turned and rode to the ranch.

“Murdoch asked for the mail to be picked up, and Teresa needs more supplies from Baldomero's so I thought some ‘brother time’ was in order” Scott explained as they rode.

“Brother time or drink time?” Johnny came back, grinning from ear to ear.

“Would it have mattered to you?” Scott asked with a sideways glance and smirk.

“Nope, not a bit…”

The supplies were ordered from Baldomero's Store, mail picked up, and now the brothers could relax with a well-deserved drink. Once again at the back table, they leisurely sipped their beers, talking about the chores they'd been planning and when they would get them done. Planning them was one thing, getting them done as planned was something else altogether.

Out of habit, a habit that had kept him alive longer than most in his former profession, Johnny watched the people coming in and going out of the saloon. He also noticed Cindy working her way over to their table. Cindy had made no effort to hide the fact that she still wanted Johnny, had not accepted that he wasn’t interested in her anymore and would not let the issue drop, so when she sat at their table Scott said ‘hello' while Johnny just looked at her.

“You’re looking well today, Cindy,” Scott complimented her.

“Thank you, Scott! Too bad your brother here is havin’ trouble with his eyes…” Cindy left the statement hanging.

“Nuthin’ wrong with my eyes, Cindy. Things just changed is all.” Johnny spoke softly, his velvet tones sending shivers up and down her spine. She looked crestfallen, but Johnny knew from the beginning that their relationship would not be forever. Too bad Cindy hadn’t realized it, too.

“Well, it seems to me that what’s sitting right in front of you is better than waiting for weeks on end…” She never got to finish the statement as Billy from the telegraph office came into the saloon and headed for the Lancer’s table.

“Good thing I saw your horse outside, Johnny. This just came in for you and thought maybe it was some word you were waiting on." Billy handed Johnny the note and Johnny flipped a coin over the table which was caught.

 "Thanks, Johnny!" Billy said as he smiled widely, and left.

Johnny opened the message and read the brief note:

Need to talk.
-H-

He reread the note, not knowing what to make of it but also knew he would soon be heading for Salinas. Hope Murdoch won’t be too steamed He folded the telegraph message and took another sip of his beer.

"Everything all right, Johnny?" Scott asked quietly hoping that Cindy would go away, and after Johnny hesitated in answering, she left their table with a huff and stalked across the room. Scott watched her go and smiled briefly, offering a silent prayer of sympathy for her. “Johnny?” Scott urged again. Johnny looked over at his brother knowing he needed to say something.

“Dunno…” was all he said and taking the last few swallows of his drink he left the table and headed to the door, stopping as was customary to check the street before stepping out onto the boardwalk.

Reaching into his pocket, he handed the note to Scott who, after reading it looked to Johnny with questions in his eyes. Johnny shrugged his shoulders and didn’t say anything. “Guess I’ll have ta wait till I get there ta find out.” Johnny rode the rest of the way home in silence hoping she was all right but knew in his gut that something was wrong.

<><><><> 

“You were just gone two months ago!” Murdoch raged.

“It's been longer'n that, an’ it was less than a week an’ I been workin’ every day, includin’ Sundays since I got back! I’m goin’…” Johnny stormed out of the great room and up the stairs leaving Murdoch staring at his back. Closing his mouth, Murdoch turned to Scott and seeing the look in his elder son’s eyes knew he was not siding with ‘the Old Man”.

“What’s this about, Scott?” Murdoch asked, trying to understand.

“I wish I knew, sir. All the message said was ‘Need to talk’ singed H. I can’t imagine Holly asking him to come to Salinas just to chat. I'm thinking there's a lot more going on and that  note gave no indication what it was."

Murdoch felt ice forming in his gut. The last time Johnny rushed to Salinas, Holly had been kidnapped, assaulted and Johnny had been seriously injured. Murdoch didn't like this. No, sir, he didn't like this one little bit.

<><><><> 

Before dawn, Johnny was under the Lancer arch headed north to Salinas. Things had not gone well with Murdoch, but that would have to wait until he returned to talk things out. If Murdoch couldn’t deal with the situation, then he would have to fire Johnny and take his share of the ranch back. Johnny didn’t care at the moment; something wasn’t right with Holly, and his world tightened into a small and confined circle, with Holly in the center. He loved being a part of Lancer, he loved his family, but he loved her more, and he would be there for her if she needed him. And he could feel her need for him now.

Barranca ate up the miles in record-breaking time. The magnificent horse could run for long distances without tiring and when he stopped to rest was able to recover in hardly any time at all. He sensed the need to get going and he didn’t let Johnny down.

Johnny had not returned an answer to the telegram, he had just left, as he didn't want to take any more time than necessary, and he had a feeling that time was critical, so he pushed the golden palomino as far as he dared. They stopped to rest for several hours during the night, and Johnny gave Barranca several handfuls of grain, and wiped him down with handfuls of dried grass. Barranca seemed to enjoy the attention, but Johnny's mind was elsewhere. Was Holly all right? Dios, please let her be all right… was all Johnny could think about.

His head began to pound as his body tensed and would not settle down. Madrid! I need some help…. NOW!! And Johnny tried to summon the unique persona that he had worked so hard to lose since he came to have a family. Madrid was the only one Johnny could count on for years before he became Lancer. Madrid had gotten him through many impossible situations, and Johnny needed him now, more than ever. With every passing hour, the feeling of dread grew until he couldn't reason, couldn't think… Except about her.

Barranca rested through the remainder of the night, but Johnny didn't. He lay in his bedroll, got up and paced around the small camp. He picked up a few pieces of firewood and paced again. He lay down, and within seconds he was on his feet pacing. At four in the morning, he saddled Barranca and was on his way more than an hour before dawn broke.

<><><><> 

Salinas was quiet as Johnny rode straight to Doc Hanley’s only to find the office locked and no one there. The only other place Johnny knew to go were the rooms the girls had above the dress shop. He trotted Barranca the four blocks and went around the back. Flipping the reins loosely around the stair railings, he took the stairs two at a time. Not bothering to knock he opened up the door that led into the large kitchen and there he found Chrissy and Dr. Hanley sitting at the table. Chrissy looked to have been crying, and as Johnny stepped into the kitchen, Dr. Hanley stood to face him. Johnny's brain turned icy, and he felt like he'd been kicked in the stomach.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, feeling himself turn cold inside. Hanley took his arm and steered him to Holly’s bedroom door, opening it and closed it after Johnny went through.

Johnny stood frozen to the spot; Holly lay in the bed looking pale and very ill. She turned her head, recognizing Johnny and held out her arms to him. Crossing to her in two long strides Johnny sat next to her on the bed as he leaned into her embrace. Anxious, unsettling thoughts exploded in his head as he watched her face.

Querida… what’s wrong?” he said as he stroked silky her hair, his hands on her not breaking contact.

“Johnny, I didn’t know how to tell you…”  she whispered.

“Tell me what, Holly?”

“I’m pregnant, Johnny…” a small smile growing on her face hoping he would be happy but not quite sure.

Shock flooded through Johnny’s veins. A kick in the stomach from Barranca couldn't have affected him any more than those two words had. He visibly jerked in her arms, staring as if not understanding what she said, his face blank. He frowned as he just watched her, then he exhaled a ragged breath and grabbed her in his arms, breathing into her ear, laughing, his eyes filled with tears. He pulled away to look into her eyes, with a huge silly grin that split his face but questions in his eyes.

“I thought it wasn’t possible after what happened when you were a kid…?” Johnny asked.

"Dr. Hanley said it shouldn't have happened, but we did it, Johnny! Are… are you happy, Querido?”

“I love you, Holly, yes, I’m happy, chica!” Again hugging her, but he suddenly stopped and pulled his head back to stare into her eyes. “But why are you in bed? Is something wrong? You look pale and tired…” he asked worry again taking place on his handsome face. Johnny heard the door open behind him, and Dr. Hanley stepped beside him.

"How about letting her rest for a while, Johnny?" Doc touched Johnny's shoulder, and as he looked into the doctor's eyes, he didn't miss the sadness. Johnny leaned over to kiss Holly and whispered "Te amo" into her ear as she smiled and closed her eyes. He caressed her face then stood turning to the doctor. Hanley motioned him out into the kitchen. They left Holly’s side as Chrissy entered to sit with her.

Once in the kitchen, Johnny turned to face the doctor as Hanley slumped into the chair.

“Doc, what is it?” Johnny said softly. “What’s wrong?”

"She's going to miscarry, Johnny. There's been too much damage that occurred when she was young; this baby never had a chance and the fact that it was conceived should have been impossible in the first place. I can't tell you how very sorry I am but in all honesty, Johnny, it is good it's happening now. Any further along in the pregnancy, well, she wouldn't pull through. She has a chance if it happens now."

Johnny's head snapped up.

"What'd ya mean, ‘she has a chance now’?” His heart dropped to his feet, and he felt lightheaded, dizzy and sick.

“Johnny, childbirth is a risk to begin with, if there are … complications, it’s riskier, yet. And this is a serious complication… I'm so sorry, Johnny."

The room started to spin, and Johnny had time enough to get to a chair. He stared at nothing, he felt sick, and he wanted to cry. Baby? Their baby And it wasn't going to live. Johnny was stunned and felt ice growing in his belly. He'd never even thought about a baby; he knew that Holly wasn't able to have any because of damage due to being raped at the age of twelve by her stepfather. In his wildest dreams he never entertained the possibility of children, and now there was one, but not for long.

The shock was overwhelming; everything was slowing down but spinning, too. There was a baby, and now he was being told it would die and maybe Holly along with it. He gasped and shook his head. I can’t let that happen! 

In that second, that one second in time, Madrid emerged. Johnny looked squarely at Hanley, and measured his words softly, “Save her.” Johnny got up from his chair and went into Holly’s room to be with her. And he would not leave her side.

<><><><> 

Ten minutes after midnight Holly screamed. Johnny had been there beside her, had wiped her sweating brow, murmured into her ear and told her he wouldn’t leave her, told her he loved her and she would be better. They would take another trip into the mountains to the cabin that they enjoyed so much before and stay for as long as she wanted, together, they would be together.

She smiled as she heard his words and then a ripping pain through her belly caused a gushing between her legs and the scream echoed off the walls. Chrissy threw the door open, followed by Hanley. The doctor asked Johnny to leave, but he wouldn’t let her go, wouldn’t take his arms from her body.

“Do what’cha gotta do ta save her, Doc, I ain’t leavin’,” and Johnny did not release his hold on her. The doctor worked as quickly as he could, pulling the blankets from her and removing the mass of bloody tissue that had been expelled, wrapping it tightly and set it on the floor out of the way. Giving Holly a healthy dose of laudanum to make her sleep, he stitched what he could and packed the rest gently but tightly.

It seemed like hours passed, but finally, he cleaned her off and with Chrissy’s help, changed the bed linen of the alarming amount of blood that stained the sheets. The whole time Johnny held her, whispering to her and letting her know he would be there when she woke. He never let go; he held on tight as she slept in his arms.

“Doc?” Johnny called as Hanley finished.

The doctor turned to look Johnny in the eye. "Johnny, it's still too soon to tell, but if there's no hemorrhaging and there’s no fever, she's got a chance. It's a wait-and-see situation. Call me if you need me. I am going into the living room and catch a few minutes of rest,” leaving Johnny and Chrissy to sit with Holly.

Chrissy then got up and went out the door. “Johnny, honey, do you need anything?” She asked, wiping a tear from her face.

All he could do was to shake his head no. He felt as if his heart was in the hand of a giant, crushing it beyond its ability to function, and the air was hard to get into his lungs as if he was suffocating.

Shortly she returned with several more pillows and coming to Johnny’s side she motioned for him to sit forward a bit. He did so without excessive movement that would interrupt Holly’s sleep, and Chrissy packed the pillows behind Johnny's back to enable him to rest more comfortably with Holly in his arms. It was plain that he intended to be here with Holly on her bed until she woke up.

Stretching his aching, tired form alongside her, he tenderly cradled her against him as if to will his strength into her body. His mind refused to rest, it was spinning out of control, and he could still lose her. They had already lost their baby… But he wouldn't lose her. He couldn’t. Chrissy covered him with a blanket and took a chair in the corner.

How did this happen? How could this happen? Questions raced through his mind; his brain could not turn off. He thought about what could have been… raising a son or daughter at Lancer but he found this was torture. It couldn't happen now, ever, and, again, Madrid stepped in, stepped into Johnny’s head to take the reins and be the voice of reason.
You've never had anyone like her, and you still have her. Ya need ta focus on Holly. The baby’s gone, woulda never lived, but she still has a chance. Ya still have Holly!

It was as if a curtain had been opened to let in the light of day. His head cleared of all scrambled thoughts, cleared of fog and blinding clouds. He still had the love of his life, and she was lying in his arms, breathing and alive. He looked down at her drugged, sleeping, beautiful, tired and pale face and his heart melted. She seemed to be resting easier, now, as the dawn broke and the sky turned pink on the horizon.

<><><><> 

A soft groan penetrated his brain. Opening his eyes, he looked down at the beauty in his arms. Her lashes fluttered as she tried to focus her thoughts, then recognizing her room
she relaxed. Johnny was immediately awake and whispered to Chrissy to wake up and get the Doc. Chrissy left quickly and quietly returning seconds later with Hanley. He took his time accessing Holly’s condition and was very pleased there had been no more bleeding. Holly turned to see Johnny and began to cry, as he pulled her close. Hanley and Chrissy discreetly left the room to leave them alone with their grief.

“I am sorry, Johnny, I could not…" she started, but Johnny did not let her finish.

“Shhhh, Holly, it wasn’t your fault, it woulda never happened anyway. Doc told me that it woulda been impossible. Holly, we still have each other, an’ I love you…” He breathed into her hair. “I love you, Querida!” And he felt her relax in his arms as she drifted off to sleep. He still hadn’t released his embrace; he held her safe, trying with every shred of strength in his body to keep her well.

<><><><> 

Holly slowly regained some strength. This miscarriage had taken its toll on her body, but with the devotion of Chrissy and Dr. Hanley, she would recover completely. But most important was the presence of Johnny. He rarely left her side. He bathed her, fed her and kept constant company with her and her heart melted every time he touched her. His tender hands lovingly on her, whether caring for or just being near her, but he was there for her, for whatever she needed. And she needed him. And with his presence, she grew stronger, slowly at first then, every day was a significant improvement. But Johnny worried about her. He would catch her crying, out of the blue she would cry, and he would hold her, sometimes shedding a tear with her. He would kiss her and comfort her any way he could.

It had been two weeks since Johnny arrived and Holly was on her feet but taking it easy. Dr. Hanley had told Johnny the tears, breakdowns, and depressions would fade. Losing a baby had strange symptoms, sometimes terrifying effects and would require patience and understanding… but most of all, love. Hanley knew that Holly would recover not only physically but mentally as well. Johnny Lancer loved her more than any love he had ever had the privilege to witness. Holly and Johnny could be envied by most…

“Johnny, I know you have to return to the ranch.” Holly began. “I am well enough now for you to go if you want to,” she spoke looking up into his deep blue eyes. “You can’t stay here much longer, I know…” She smiled. “And I want to tell you that I feel that same way now that I did before, despite what happened.”

Johnny watched her eyes. Eyes could always be a window into a person’s soul. Johnny had learned long ago how to read them, and she was telling him the truth. He leaned down and kissed her deeply on her lips, savoring the sweetness, savoring her love for him. He wrapped his arms around her as hers went around him and they both reveled in the closeness and warmth. Finally, Johnny pulled back to see her face.

“Holly? I got somethin’ I need ta talk ta ya about." His face was serious, and she became worried.

“What is it, Johnny? We never held anything from each other before. Talk to me, querido,” she said softly.

Taking a deep breath, he told her what he had been thinking. “I wanna bury the baby at the lake where I took ya an’ we said the words by the waterfall. It was so little Doc couldn't even tell if it was a boy or a girl, but I asked if there was any way he could… protect it until I could find a place, a place acceptable an' that was the first thing that came ta my mind. Ya have any objections ta that? At all?" he asked. She was looking deeply into his face, her eyes filled with tears but not tears of grief; these were tears of pure love. She held him as tightly as she could as those tears washed over her cheeks.

 
“Oh, Juanito! Te amo! I think it’s perfect, querido! I am so happy with that thought!”

<><><><> 

The falling water soothed the emotions in his heart. He knew that this little bundle would never have lived, but that made it no less heartbreaking. But, more importantly, Holly had survived and would be all right. Johnny was learning to count the blessings he had rather the blessings he should have had.

The location he chose was perfect. It was close to the spot where he and Holly had pledged themselves to each other and it was protected from elements that could possibly wash it away. He would have a small stone cut and bring it here when it was finished; it would read only ‘HJL' with their initials intertwined. Not knowing if it were to have been a son or daughter they could not put a name on the stone, so they decided their initials were the best decision.

Standing back, Johnny took off his hat and looked at the tiny mound circled with beautiful rocks that he found, rocks of unusual shape or color, and he left room for the headstone to be set.

He could say no words that would matter now, no words that would make any difference but he felt another connection to this place. This was their place, and now it was the resting place for their baby. There were no tears, but there was a great feeling of peace in Johnny's heart. There hadn't been enough time to know about this child, its very brief existence, and now knowing it wasn’t going to be, did leave a void, but he was at peace with it. He still had Holly…

<><><><> 

The night was cold, but Johnny watched as the stars sparkled in the sky and he thought of Holly’s beautiful eyes. And knew exactly how very lucky he was; a bit sad at the moment but lucky. It was almost two in the morning and he’d just gotten Barranca bedded down and had been heading into the house. But he looked skyward and decided to stop on the patio before going to bed.

He sat in a chair, slouching with head tipped back, and legs stretched out in front of him, breathing deeply, clearing all thoughts from his brain. The stars were amazing this night, the sky clear and velvet midnight blue, and he felt like he was drifting. Closing his eyes, he could almost see Holly sitting with their baby at her breast, and he smiled. Then, his heart started to crack… Guess it would take a while. It was incredible to think that in the short time that he knew about his baby that it would take hold that quickly, that desperately.

A light went on inside the house, but Johnny didn't move. He heard the door open and the soft footfalls on the patio and knew it was Murdoch. He would now know what was to be his fate on the ranch. Their last words together had been spoken in anger.

“Johnny? I thought I saw someone out here!” Murdoch quickly sat down next to his younger son, his wild, rowdy son and Johnny saw nothing but concern and worry in his father’s eyes.

“Is everything all right now, Johnny? We were sick with worry!” Murdoch began.

Johnny took a deep breath and sighed. "It will be, I guess…" He said so very softly.
Murdoch could see the exhausted features in the light of the moon.
“Johnny, I don’t mean to pry but what happened?”

Johnny had sent a telegraph message reading that Holly had been sick but no other explanation. Now, Johnny had to make that explanation. Leaning forward, with elbows on his knees he told Murdoch the truth.

“Holly had a miscarriage. She almost died.” So softly were the words spoken that Murdoch had to strain to hear them.

“Johnny, I am so sorry, I had no idea…” he stammered.

Johnny smiled a little. “Yeah, neither did I!” he responded. “But the doctor said that it was a miracle that it happened to begin with an’ that it wouldn’t have been born alive. She woulda lost it an’ if was later in the pregnancy, Holly woulda died, too. Wasn’t there very long, only about six hours before it happened, but it didn't make it any easier when it finally did happen. It's still kinda hard ta think about, but," he looked up into his father's eyes, "I'll be fine." Using the words that he always used when asked how he was feeling; it was a big joke around Lancer. Johnny was always fine
.
"I need ta tell you somethin', Murdoch…" and Johnny hesitated.

Murdoch watched his youngest son struggle with words. "Whatever it is Johnny, say it. It will be all right…" Murdoch urged softly.

Again, Johnny looked up into his father’s face. “I buried it up at the mountain valley with the waterfall and lake. Gonna have a stone made for it but haven’t got to it yet.”

"I couldn't have thought of a better place, Johnny. I know that it's special for you and Holly. And," Murdoch stopped and put his hands on Johnny's shoulders, "I would like to visit my grandbaby sometime…"

Johnny fought as hard as he'd ever fought to keep the tears away. Bowing his head, he whispered: "I'd like that, Murdoch…"

 

 

~end~

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