The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Raining Fire

Eighth story 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
Thanks to Cat and Sandy for the beta!

 

The ticket was waiting for her, and she boarded the southbound train to Green River as soon as it had stopped. So anxious to be with Johnny again, Holly was early. She had risen early, had her bags packed early, eaten an early breakfast and had arrived at the platform early to wait for the train to arrive. As Chula was securely boarded in the stock car, and her luggage checked, she boarded the train and was ready to go. Why wasn’t this train moving? She thought the train arrived late, but then she had to laugh at herself. She was early.

Johnny Madrid Lancer had taken over her mind; he was all she could think about; how was she going to make these many hours without driving herself crazy? Oh, she felt like a school girl with her first crush but she wasn't a schoolgirl, and this definitely was not a crush. This was love, pure, sweet and sacred, love at its best. And she blushed with her thoughts. Finally, she heard the conductor call out for everyone to board and the train began to move.

<><><><> 

Johnny woke before dawn and was up to get an early start on his chores to be able to meet the train in Green River at noon. He’d waited for this visit it seemed forever. Scott had teased and joked, but secretly Johnny's older brother knew what this meant to him. Usually, Johnny would go to Holly, but Holly wanted to visit the tiny gravesite of their baby. The baby that had been so small when it was stillborn it could not be determined if it had been a boy or girl. Johnny had buried it up at the lake where he and Holly had pledged themselves to each other; a beautiful valley with a large waterfall that emptied into the lake surrounded by mossy meadows with scattered wildflowers and pine covered-mountains on three sides.

He had set a headstone with their initials intertwined as they could not give the little one a name, so their initials of intertwining HJL had been carved into the small marker and placed inside a ring of carefully chosen stones all tenderly set by Johnny. Holly had not yet been to see the site and was anxious to pay the long overdue homage. Johnny knew that she was a bit nervous about it, and knew she did still grieve. But, the rest of the trip would be enjoyed with family and some friends, mostly Val, and certainly there would be their time alone, very alone.

 Scott would cover for Johnny in his absence and, once again, had stocked the North line shack for them. They would spend several days away from everyone and everything enjoying their special time together. Had Scott not seen the magic for himself he would not have believed it, but he had watched them, Holly and Johnny, quietly sitting before a fire, and swore there had been a sexual encounter between the two. They were sensual in the way they looked at the other, and indeed, with their touch, but the air seemed to carry a charge as the love and tenderness rolled from their bodies in a tangible aura; a mist surrounding the lovers that Scott had witnessed and had been secretly jealous about. It was truly incredible!

Johnny stopped at the door to what would be Holly’s room while she stayed at the hacienda. Teresa had cleaned it from top to bottom, and there on the dresser stood a large vase with a huge spray of flowers to welcome her to Lancer. He smiled as he thought of his ‘sister’ and knew that Teresa was very excited to have Holly stay at the house. The only woman in a house full of bachelors could be difficult, and another woman to help balance the ratio of men to women would be a delightful change.

Johnny would like nothing better than to have Holly sleep in his room, but Holly would not disgrace Murdoch’s hospitality by sharing Johnny’s bed. The Lancer patriarch had a very difficult time accepting this relationship as the two agreed not to marry and this went against everything that Murdoch believed. But eventually the patriarch had come to terms with the illicit affair after a good friend pointed out that he finally had his son back after well over twenty years, ‘do not make him choose between that girl and Lancer. You will lose’. So, given considerable thought, Murdoch welcomed Holly as a cherished member of the family and was now very glad he did. He was beginning to love her like a daughter. And that made Johnny a very happy man.

It looked to Johnny that everything was in order, except for himself. He’d done what chores he could get done early, and now it was time to get into the bath house so he could make it into Green River and not be late. He gathered clean clothes and went out the back door whistling a light-hearted tune.

The hot water felt good on his skin, and he scrubbed his hide until no self-respecting speck of dirt could possibly survive, then he rinsed, dried and dressed in his favorite faded red shirt, and calzoneras, all freshly washed. All he had to do now was get his carcass into Green River, after one last chore.

Barranca acted as if he knew Chula would be there at the train station, he pranced and strutted about, gave Johnny an extra hard head-butt and even tried to nip Johnny's fingers, but at a shrill whistle from Johnny the stallion settled down a bit. The rest of the trip to town was uneventful, and the time dragged for Johnny, but knowing the end result, it would be worth it.

<><><><> 

The train wasn't due for another forty minutes, so Johnny reined Barranca at the hitch rail in front of the sheriff’s office and climbed up onto the boardwalk. Giving the door a shove and letting it bang against the wall, he stepped into the dark interior and looked around. He’d often caught Val taking a snooze, and the banging door would jolt him to consciousness every time. Val wasn't there, but the coffee was still sitting in the pot on the stove. Johnny knew he was taking his chances, everyone knew Val made the worst coffee around and taking a sip, and found this pot was no different. He shook his head, and a shiver skittered through his body as he wondered what made him try it in the first place. Just as he set the cup down Val came through the back door.

“Hell, can’t even take a piss with you findin’ out ‘bout it!” he groused. Looking at the clock on the wall, Val suddenly grinned. “Ya horny ol’ dog, ya still got forty minutes b’fore she gets here!” Val laughed. “Ya even gonna let her get ta Lancer b’fore ya jump ‘er or ya gonna throw ‘er in the bushes on the way back?” Even though Val had been seeing Chrissy for a while his manners had not improved, and he could still be crude, but that was Val and Johnny didn’t take offense. They’d known each other for many years now, Johnny had heard him say much worse, and he just smiled his dazzling Johnny Madrid Lancer smile and said nothing.

“Uh huh, it’s what I thought. Well at least take ‘er over ta the diner an’ get ‘er somethin’ ta eat first. She’s been on that train for a while now!”

Johnny laughed out loud. "Yeah, sure, Val thanks for remindin' me! Woulda forgot ta do that! Hey, how ‘bout I have a decent pot a coffee sent over to ya while we're there?" Johnny joked good-naturedly.

“You don’t like my coffee? Don’t drink it!” Val countered. “An’ tell Maria I invited myself ta supper tonight!”

"She's already plannin' on ya bein' there an' don't be late! Ya know how Murdoch likes ta eat at six so make sure ya got your ornery ass there, so he don’t hafta wait on ya! Hey, Teresa made chocolate cake, too!” knowing that to be the catalyst for Val’s prompt arrival.

“Ya just make sure that you an’ Holly get there in time. If I know ya at all the two a ya’s gonna be rollin’ in the weeds at least three times on the way back ta the ranch!” Val laughed and knew that he would not be too far off the mark.

The banter kept up for the next thirty-five minutes; Johnny knowing that Val was helping to take the edge off the waiting. He always did. Val was always there for him just as he was there for Val. They had been through too much together over the years, and it was just a natural thing to do, being there for the other.

<><><><> 

Johnny stood on the platform as the train whistle sounded a quarter mile down the tracks. His heart was beating rapidly. Trying to get a handle on these emotions was still a new thing for him. Until Holly, he'd never loved a woman before, and the control over the anxiousness to be with the one you loved was taking its time getting established. Did Murdoch feel like this with either of his wives? Johnny wondered. It was difficult to think of his father with these feelings of… what was it that he was experiencing? Lust, of course, but there were a dozen other emotions all clamoring for Holly’s immediate attention. He just needed her to be with him. Did Murdoch have these thoughts about Mama?

And then the train came into view, slowing with great billowing plumes of white steam and the screeching of the brakes clamping over the iron wheels. Johnny stepped forward before the train came to a stop, searching for the exquisite woman who had captured his heart.

And she was there, waiting for the train to stop, then she launched herself off the step to land solidly in his arms, throwing hers around his neck, laughing, and hugging.

With a lusty but quick kiss, he set her on the platform and grabbed her hand. They collected her luggage and went to the stock car as Chula was being offloaded.

Chula was not a happy mare. She kicked and tugged at the lead and tried to bite the fingers of the handler. She almost hit her target until Johnny stepped in and had the situation under control in a mere three seconds. Chula stopped her nervousness at seeing her mistress again and knew Johnny to be the master, trusting him as she had before.

“Easy, Chula, it’s alright,” he murmured over and over in his velvet tones that never ceased to work its magic on frightened and agitated animals. Holly had seen it time and again, and she smiled. Johnny noticed that Holly had dressed in a riding habit and as she only had two pieces of luggage he thought they would just ride back instead of renting a buggy, which suited him just fine.

Holly watched as Johnny took charge of the situation and brought it under control. What a man he is! I am so lucky that he is mine! She stood looking around the town, familiarizing herself again with Green River. It looked the same, neat and friendly until a sight down the main street caught her attention. A young blond woman, obviously, a saloon girl, stopped in her tracks and watched their actions, then suddenly the girl jerked her head away from them to turn into The Angels Nest, quickly disappearing from sight. I wonder what that was about? Holly thought to herself and then turned her attention back to Johnny.

With Chula standing calm, Johnny effortlessly saddled her, tied the lighter of the two bags across the back of the saddle and helped Holly to mount. He collected Barranca, secured the larger bag behind his saddle, and the two headed north out of town.

They rode leisurely for the first two miles before Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt. He leaned over to hold Holly in a sweet, warm embrace, his breathing ragged in his throat.

“Dios, I’ve missed you!” he breathed into her silky raven hair, kissing her hard enough to leave her lips slightly swollen.

She tangled her fingers in his thick brown-black hair, knocking his hat down his back to hang by the stampede strings and pulled him closer, her breathing deep, and hard, her breasts pressed into his chest.

He knew they had to stop now or shock anyone that happened to be on the road. Clamping an iron hand on his rapidly escaping will, he took a deep breath and pulled away from her. Her eyes were twinkling as she already knew what he had planned. They kicked the horses into a pleasant gallop for a few miles then Johnny turned off the road.

They were now on Lancer, and he led the way for a distance until they came to a secluded spot in the trees surrounded by rocks and steep mountainsides. There was a small lake flanked by lush grassy ground dotted with clumps of wildflowers. Johnny reined Barranca to a stop and dismounted, then quickly rounded Chula and pulled Holly into his arms, not allowing her feet to touch the grass. Walking a short distance, he went to his knees and laid her upon a soft blanket; the last chore he’d completed before meeting her at the train station. He looked down at this beauty, this Heavenly work of exquisite art created, he knew, with ethereal hands… And she was all his! He lay beside her and lightly traced a finger over her face and down her nose and neck. He stopped at her collar and toyed with the dark blue fabric of her riding habit.

“This new?” he asked, smiling the smile that Holly knew would initiate the intimacy that would follow.

“Yes, it is new. Do you like it, Juanito?” she asked with wide and heated eyes.

His smile deepened. “Yeah, but ya know what I like ya in better?” he asked.

“No, Querido, what?” she asked in all innocence.

“Nothin’…” and he started to unbutton her blouse and kissed away her feigned protests.

<><><><> 

At four in the afternoon Holly, Johnny, and their horses rode slowly into the yard. Holly had desperately tried to make herself presentable, not wanting to make Murdoch have second thoughts about her visiting. It had taken a long while to get to this point of Murdoch's acceptance of her, and she worked very hard building her courage; certainly, she didn’t want to ruin things now. Honesty had always worked well for her, and she would not lie to him. He was to be respected, and she intended on doing just that.

Jelly, who had been watching for them to arrive, was the first to greet them and Holly’s smile was as bewitching as he remembered it. He was genuinely smitten with her. Taking their horses he said to leave the luggage in the front hall, and he would take it to Holly's room when he finished with their mounts. Johnny lifted Holly down, and as usual let her slide down his body, holding her just off the ground in a lecherous and indecent embrace. Holly started to squirm.

Juanito! Stop! What will people think of us?” she hissed as Johnny laughed.

“Nothin’ they ain’t already thought about!” and still laughing, he set her on the ground, took her by the hand and threw open the front door, loudly announcing their arrival.

Teresa was the first one to greet them as she dashed into the hall, all smiles, and sincerity in her voice.

“Oh, Holly! You are more beautiful each time I see you! Please share your secrets with me?” She held Holly in a sweet but strong embrace before pulling away and asking: “Maybe we can have some ‘girl time’ before this big galoot occupies all of your time!” and she tipped her head in Johnny’s direction.

“Of course! Teresa! I will make time for us! You can count on it, hermana!” and rewarded Teresa with another sweet hug. Scott, followed by Murdoch, entered the foyer as the rest of the greetings were extended. Holly’s smile brightened as she saw Scott and hugged him fiercely. He was special as his devotion to Johnny had endeared him to her, plus his support of their decision to stay apart and not marry had been a critical turning point for Murdoch.

Holly turned to Murdoch with a genuine smile that radiated warmth and kindness. Her black eyes sparkled with happiness, but she wasn't quite sure how he would want to be greeted. With Scott, there had been no question as she threw her arms around him, but with Murdoch, she was still a bit unsure, unsure that is, until he stepped forward and wrapped his huge arms around her and lifted her off her feet in a giant bear hug, and she hugged him in return, there was no question about it any longer!

“Welcome to Lancer, Holly! It is good to see you again, young lady!” Murdoch laughed. Even Maria came from the kitchen as she was just as smitten with Holly as everyone else, and extended a very warm welcome chattering in Spanish about Juanito making her stand there in the front hall when she should be resting before dinner and freshening up!.

“What took you so long to get home, brother? I thought the train got in at noon?” Scott questioned, knowing perfectly well why they were late but wanted to tease.

“Oh, we did a little sight seein’. Thought Holly might wanna see some a Lancer she ain’t seen before,” Johnny answered casually but knew what Scott was doing.

“Oh, you mean the sights in that meadow with the small lake and the soft grass?”

Nice goin' Scott! Spell it out for everyone, why don't cha? But instead he merely answered:
“Yeah, that one.” Johnny smiled slyly back at his brother.

Teresa and Johnny took Holly to her room. Teresa wasn’t getting the message to leave as she stood there with non-stop chatter, Johnny huffed a large sigh as the two young women talked and chatted like long lost sisters. But, in all honesty, Johnny was glad his family genuinely liked her. He would hate to have to choose between Holly and his family. He knew which he would pick but was eternally thankful he did not have to. He could have them all. And for once Madrid had come out on top.

In the great room, the three Lancer men sat discussing work plans for the next day. Both Murdoch and Scott were fully aware that Johnny would be spending quite a bit of time with Holly while she was here, and they knew the reason for her visit. Holly had miscarried more than eight months ago now, and she wanted to see the gravesite of their baby. The pregnancy had come as a complete surprise, catching everyone off guard as it should have never happened. This would be a solemn occasion, one that deserved extra time, and the two older Lancer men would see to it that Johnny and Holly had the time they needed by themselves.

Chatter from the two young women came bubbling down the stairs as Holly and Teresa made their entrance into the great room and joined the men. Holly went directly to Johnny and sat beside him as his arm came quickly around her shoulders. Secretly the other three in the room smiled to themselves, so happy they were for him. Johnny Madrid, ex-gunfighter, doting on this petite woman, they all felt so immensely happy for him in finding someone to love, a someone that loved him in return and loved him desperately!

<><><><> 

Maria announced that dinner was ready just as a knock was heard at the front door.

“Val,” was all Johnny said as he answered the knock. Murdoch took Holly’s arm and escorted her to the table, then seated her on his right. With Teresa on his left, Scott next to his sister, and Johnny, of course, next to Holly, Val sat on Johnny’s other side but not before he greeted Holly with his usual bear hug and kiss in the middle of her forehead.

“Chrissy sends you her love, Valentino!” Holly said and smiled sweetly, knowing that Val hated ‘Valentino’ but could not resist the endearment. Johnny snorted a laugh at Val's embarrassment.

The platters were heaped with generous portions of beef and chicken, vegetables, potatoes, and homemade bread. Val had already popped food in his mouth when Murdoch cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention. Val stopped chewing, swallowed discretely, and as he glanced around the table, he hoped that no one noticed his indiscretion.

“Everyone, due to our special guest," Murdoch halted then continued. "Let me rephrase, please,” and looking Holly directly in the eyes, he started again, “Now that the entire family is together, I would like to say grace.” Everyone bowed their head, and Johnny reached under the table, squeezed Holly’s hand in his, and thought he felt a slight tremble in her fingers.

“Dear Lord, thank you for this bounty that blesses our table, thank you for our health, our family, and friends, and those that have gone before us. And thank you for bringing Holly into all of our lives. We will treasure the gift of her always. Amen.”

‘Amen’ echoed around the table, and Holly raised her eyes to meet those of the once stern Lancer patriarch in stunned surprise. Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears as Murdoch reached over to cover her petite hand with his work-roughened paw, and gave her his warmest smile.

Val sniffed loudly.

The meal was delicious, enhanced by the loved ones sharing the feast. The laughter rang throughout the house as Johnny, Scott, and Val tried to outdo each other with outrageous tales of nonsense and tomfoolery.

Holly got Scott’s attention, and with an innocent look asked: “Oh, Scott, how was your birthday? I hear you are quite a singer. I would like to hear you sometime…”

"No, ya wouldn't!" Johnny quickly interjected, but Holly continued.

“And the horsemanship you displayed on the ride home was nothing short of spectacular, I am told!”

Scott reddened. It started under his collar, and worked up to color his face and ears, and he glared at Johnny.

Holly was referring, of course, to the birthday trip into Green River given to him by his younger brother, when Scott had overindulged, caused a fight between two of the working girls, got on the bar to sing and started to strip when Johnny wisely carried him out after there had been complaints of disturbing the peace. Once outside and insisting that he could mount his horse without help, he put his left foot in the right side stirrup and mounted his horse facing backward. Yes, it was a night he wouldn’t soon forget, but he wished he could.

“Yes, it won’t soon be forgotten, thanks to you, little brother, but don’t forget, what goes around, comes around…” Scott left the threat hanging.

"Hey, you gave me a party! Ya know that I don't like that kinda thing, but ya did it anyway!"

“What good did it do? You were in bed with a bullet hole in your back! You didn’t even get to your own party!” Scott challenged.

Johnny just laughed, thinking he had his own party. He dreamt Holly had been with him that night taking care of him but he had been relieved that he’d missed the arrangements that Scott had made; he appreciated the thought, kind of, but glad he missed it as all of Green River, Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells had been invited.

“Well, it’s the thought that counts, ain’t that right?” Johnny quipped.

They all laughed at Scott’s expense, especially Johnny as he took great delight in knowing that he'd gotten out of what would have been an embarrassing evening.

The night wore on, and Johnny noticed that Holly had suppressed a yawn.

“Ya tired, querida?” and slipped his arms around her neck, pulling her to him, still unable to get enough of her touch. Her sweet scent in his nostrils seemed to go straight to his groin, and he nodded his head to the door that went out onto the patio.

Once outside he took her in his arms with tenderness but held her securely. The tightening in his loins told him to either get on with it or let it alone.

Holly could feel the warring in his body. “Juanito, we need to be careful, Querido, tomorrow, miel, tomorrow.” She returned his passionate kiss with a need of her own and returned to the house. She stopped, looked back at him with a gaze that melted him on the spot, and held out her hand to him. He went to her and together, with his arm around her shoulders, they entered the house.

Their kiss goodnight outside of her bedroom door all but blistered the whitewash on the adobe walls with its passion. The walls closed in; all that there was in the whole world were Holly and Johnny. Overwhelmed with love for this woman, Johnny shut his eyes and breathing hard through his nose, tried without much success to control his lust. Thankfully the sound of Murdoch’s footsteps on the stairs interrupted Johnny’s wandering thoughts and the desperate urges that as of a moment ago were racing wildly through him and seemed now to take a detour. He let his arms fall to his sides but planted one last kiss to her pretty mouth as Murdoch rounded the corner.

“’Night, querida,” Johnny said in his soft velvet tone, but a fire was still burning in his eyes.

Holly smiled, understanding his need, but also with the utmost of respect for Murdoch, so she gently touched a hand to Johnny's face, and an angelic smile graced her lips.
“Good night, mio,” Holly opened her door and stepped through into the dark.

Johnny looked up as Murdoch neared and softly spoke. “Guess we’re gonna go up ta the lake tamorrow…”

Murdoch smiled sadly, knowing that would not be an easy trip. “Take all the time you need, Johnny,” and putting a large hand on his son’s shoulder, Murdoch passed him and went to his room.

<><><><> 

Johnny couldn’t believe how empty his room felt. He and Holly had never made love in his bed but knowing she was in the house and not with him was a contradiction that he could hardly bear. It took every shred of will he had in his body to not go down the hall and take her in his arms, crawl into her bed and… Stop it, Madrid…

He went to the wash basin and upended the pitcher of water over his head, leaning with hands on either side of the table, head drooping between his shoulders. The water sluiced through his hair, cooling off the lust in his brain as it dripped into the basin. He toweled off most of the water, ran his fingers through his hair and let himself collapse on the bed. This is gonna be one long, lonely night… He laid an arm across his face willing the hours to pass until he could see her, hold her, and touch the beauty that had so completely claimed his heart.

Indeed, the night was long, and lonely, for both of them. Each staring at the ceiling, yearning for the arms around them that would make them whole, and fulfilled. The closeness and separation was a torturous combination. The minutes moved agonizingly slowly.

At four in the morning, Johnny finally slipped soundlessly out into the hall, down the stairs, amazingly quiet considering he’d pulled on his boots with spurs still attached, and into the kitchen. The stove had been stoked sufficiently the night before, and red coals still glowed. Bright flames soon danced around added pieces of kindling that produced enough heat for a large pot of strong black coffee.

The sky was still dark declaring a longer wait. As a rule, Johnny was a patient man, with most things. He'd possessed incredible restraint with tense situations, knowing that a successful outcome demanded it, and knew when he could push to hurry along an issue without causing more turmoil. But his patience sadly lacked when he was confined to bed with illness or injury, much to the dismay, and distress of his family, but most of all when it concerned Holly. And here she was, under the same roof, and he was forced to be patient.

Boyish ideas of going outside below her window and tossing pebbles to tap on the glass crossed his mind, and he smiled, restraining himself knowing that she needed her rest. So he waited, not so patiently. He fidgeted with the cup, turning it in circles on the table; he fiddled with the cup handle, running his fingers over the smooth finish. Refilling the cup, he walked to the window looking out at the sky, and seeing no change from the last time he checked, returned to his chair. Then he was hit with an idea. Taking a large gulp of the hot, satisfying brew, Johnny went out the back door, and out to the barn. At least there would be welcoming company with the horses.

Getting a head start for the day before they left the ranch, Johnny passed the time with chores as he knew, with his absence; his work would have to be picked up by others. He’d always done more than his share but didn’t want any ill feelings to develop when Holly would visit. As long as he was up early, he still did what was needed. There was energy in him, this morning, and in no time he accomplished much. Now what?

He went to Barranca, and Chula, and brushed them down, getting them ready for the day. He fed them and gave each an apple, then checked over their gear making sure cinches were strong, and safe, bridles secure with no frays or tears. Before he knew it, dawn had broken, and he could see movement in the kitchen. No doubt Maria was there and had started breakfast. His belly rumbled loudly, and Barranca looked at him with huge eyes.

“What’re you lookin’ at?” Johnny laughed and made his way to the house.

Surprise took hold as he entered the kitchen and watched Maria and Holly working together to provide a large, and satisfying meal for the family. He quickly crossed to Holly and took her in his arms. He planted a deep and passionate kiss on her mouth. Maria watched, noting the look of sheer bliss and the purity of the love in his eyes as they ended the kiss but not the embrace. Tears filled Maria’s eyes as her heart swelled with emotion, emotion for her niño, the one who had been destined to be lost and wayward, but not anymore. Now he had a good woman and a woman that was worthy of him.

“I didn’t expect ya ta be up this early, querida!” Johnny said a bit surprised, but pleasantly so.

Holly laughed. “, I did not either! But I half expected to hear pebbles bouncing off the window to wake me!”

Johnny burst with laughter. “I thought about it!” Johnny took her, again, in a strong embrace and lifted her off the floor.

Maria turned her head, not wanting to intrude in this intimate gesture, but also so the two would not see her tears as they threatened to fall with the joy she felt for this remarkable young couple. Johnny had always been very special to her, and the fact that he’d found a woman to share his life with, one as perfect as Holly, was magnifico! And she was so happy for them both!

Breakfast was shared as the entire family gathered for the morning feast that would start their day. Again, the mood was light, and laughter echoed like welcome rain after a gripping drought. Holly’s presence had, indeed, added an extra element of gaiety with humor, and kindness.

Oh, I wish these two would marry… Murdoch sighed to himself but kept his thoughts private.

With the meal finished, Johnny turned to the beauty beside him. “Ya ready ta go, querida?”  he asked her.

Holly turned a surprised eye to him with her response. “When I have helped to clean up, Juanito. By the time you have everything we need and the horses ready I will be there.” She immediately rose from her chair and began to gather dirty dishes and take them into the kitchen.

Maria scolded her, saying it was not her place to work but Holly returned with a gentle hand on her arm, speaking sincerely and honestly. “Sí, it is, I helped to get the dishes dirty, I will help to clean them,” and she continued with her task. Maria smiled to herself, clearly impressed and grateful.

When Johnny had everything ready to go, Holly came from the house, stunning in her deep burgundy riding skirt, matching jacket, and cream colored blouse that accented her dark, clear complexion and a matching burgundy scarf tied around her raven hair that hung down to her waist. She placed her black, flat-brimmed hat securely on her head then tied a heavier jacket to the back of her saddle along with a small bag of personal items. Holly turned to Murdoch with a smile that took his breath away. Her sparkling black eyes danced as she hugged him goodbye, and with a quick hug to Scott, Teresa, and Jelly they were ready to go.

“Johnny, be careful, but take the time you need, son!” Murdoch urged softly as if he were with them now as they visited the tiny grave. Waving their farewells, if only for a few days, the family retired to the house as Johnny and Holly made their way down under the Lancer arch to the trail that would take them to the lake. Jelly was still watching the empty road minutes later.

“Jelly?...Jelly! They’re gone now. You can go back to work,” Scott urged, and Jelly snapped his mouth closed, embarrassed to have been caught ogling.

<><><><> 

They rode side-by-side holding hands. It was beyond any rational comprehension the comfort, the complete feeling of ecstasy Johnny felt when she was near. The more he thought, the more scrambled his thoughts became. He’d known many married couples, and they didn’t behave anything like this! She had ta be a witch, a witch that I want, but a witch! There was just no other explanation for it. She had cast her spell over him, but it was a spell he had no desire to be free of.

The ride took three hours, and the longer they were in the saddle, the more reserved they became. Holly needed to see the eternal resting place for their baby; the occasion demanded respect, so they reined their passion for a temporary delay. This was a priority, a duty so private and sacred, and so precious to them both; they put all other thoughts from their minds.

The valley was as breathtaking as Holly remembered. The red columbines were not in bloom as they were when she was here last, the season was long past, but there were other flowers she could pick to lay upon the tiny grave. The waterfall was fast, the Ponderosa Pines were washed clean from recent rains, and scented the air with their pure, sweet aroma, everything was fresh, and the colors were brilliant. They tied the horses, and Johnny took her hand as they approached the headstone.

Holly had not seen it, but Johnny had described it to her, and she was not disappointed. It was perfect. Johnny stopped and let her go the final three feet without him. He hung back as Holly knelt beside the circle of stones, stones she noticed that were beautiful in color, and shape. She made the sign of the cross on her chest and laid a tender, soft hand on the marker as if caressing it gently.

She had often wondered what the baby had been, a son to look as handsome, and dashing as his father or a girl, maybe to look like herself… She would never know, but it would be here for all time so she could come and visit to talk and tell the niño that it was loved. Holly closed her eyes, and reached behind her, extending her hand for Johnny, and he was there in a split second, kneeling beside her, holding her tight, and she turned to him and wept.

Johnny spread a blanket on the ground close to the circle of stones. He and Holly sat wrapped in each other's arms, taking great comfort from the other. Holly stopped the tears, and their words were soft and tender.

“What would you have named him, Johnny?” Holly looked at him with wide questioning eyes.

Johnny sat, looking puzzled. “Don’t know. Never thought about it. What would you have named it?” he asked, turning the question around.

Juanito, of course! What about for a girl?”

Johnny smiled at her.  “Ya got a middle name?” Johnny asked.

Holly smiled this time. “, Elena.”

Johnny smiled again. The name Elena held good memories for him. Johnny had known Alejandro and Elena Alvarez for many years, they were good people, and had treated Johnny like a son before Johnny knew he had a family; so the name meant more than Johnny could explain.

"Then I woulda named her Holly Elena, after her beautiful mother," Johnny whispered and leaned over to place a soft kiss on her mouth.

As he pulled away, Holly asked: “What about your middle name, Johnny?”

He hesitated for a minute. His mother had only used it a few times, but he remembered like it was yesterday. “Quintero. Don’t like it much. Guess my mother’s name had ta get stuck in there somewhere, and Murdoch wanted Lancer to be my last name, without hers after. Sure glad he didn’t tag me with one a them Scottish names, though!” And they laughed a bit.

“Thank you, Juanito," Holly said softly.

Johnny looked at her, his eyes warm and compassionate and full of questions. “For what, querida?” 

She leaned her body against him; his arm came around her shoulders and held her close.

Holly smiled, her heart full of love for this man and said: “For the man you are. Te amo.”

“Te amo, Holly.”

They stayed for a few hours, sitting on the blanket and talking. Late in the afternoon, Johnny suggested they get to their campsite. Shaking out the blanket, Johnny secured it to the back of his saddle, and they mounted the horses, riding half way around the lake. The spot was perfect, sheltered from wind and rain but the sky was clear with no threat looming. With a ring of stones and firewood in a pile, Johnny soon had a small blaze going, and the heat was starting to feel good as the sun went down.

They ate a simple but delicious meal, thanks to Maria, and spread their blankets for the night. Johnny wondered how Holly was feeling after spending time at the gravesite. She seemed alright, but he couldn't tell what was going on in her head and heart. She sat and watched the fire, her eyes dry but sparkling. Her face appeared content; there was no frown, no sorrow. When she turned to him and smiled, her beautiful countenance shining through once more, he knew she would be alright.

“Ya alright, chica?” Johnny asked quietly, with a slight grin tipping the corners of his handsome mouth.

She returned it with a sweet smile of her own. “Si, Juanito, I am alright. I am happy. We still have each other, and for that I am grateful, and our niño has a beautiful and sacred resting place. It was not meant to happen, it did not suffer, and we will go on with our lives. We can think of what may have been, but we cannot lose ourselves in it. That would serve no purpose. But we will still love… Come here, mio…" and she smiled seductively.

They spent the night in sweet, passionate lovemaking. It was slow and tender and with an element that neither had felt before. They couldn't put a name to it, no description would fit, but it was as if a mist of ethereal haze enveloped them.  Although they were not married in reality, their pledges said at this very lake, this sacred spot as Murdoch had referred to it, seemed to bless this union, for more devoted lovers, had never been.

<><><><> 

They spent the next two days around the lake, relaxing in the sun, visiting with the niño, and swimming. Johnny had hunted bringing in a rabbit, grouse and even a large goose while Holly fished. They ate well, talked a great deal, they laughed and more than anything else, they loved. Finally, on the third day, they packed up and started back to Lancer.

They stopped for a final farewell at the little circle of stones that held the remains of their tiny infant. Holly dismounted and knelt by the grave, again with Johnny just slightly behind her. He needed for her to have privacy if she wanted it; and, as before she held an arm behind her, pulling Johnny down to her. Her eyes dry and full of sweet emotion she bid the baby goodbye, for now.

Te amo, Little One," and placing a kiss on her fingertips, she pressed it gently to the headstone and smiled.

The ride back to Lancer was peaceful, and so far every day had been one that Holly would hold near and dear in her heart. The initial first few moments had been difficult, but the more time she spent at the grave, the easier it became. Leaving wasn't as hard because she knew she would return, and soon. And as she rode, not only did she hold precious thoughts about the man beside her, her amazement grew every time she was with the Lancer family regarding the way they had accepted her. Sí, there will be more happiness for you, Holly Vasquez! And she secretly smiled to herself.

<><><><> 

Johnny began to get anxious about their trip to the North line shack. Knowing there would be no interruptions, no work to take him away and no patients for her to see, his wandering lust started its rampant and uncontrolled stampede in his brain, and, of course, other parts of his anatomy. The more he held Holly, the more he wanted to hold her. The more he kissed her, the more he needed to kiss her and the more they made love, the more love they needed to make.

It was the same for them both. Their passion was incredibly intense, hot, hard and sweaty, yet intimate and sweet and tender. Often it had brought tears to Holly's eyes merely thinking about their intimacy, and when they were together, it was a fever that needed, demanded treatment, a drug that would take over their every thought. And they wouldn’t have it any other way, so utterly deep was their love, it controlled every part of their lives when they were together.

Johnny looked at the clouds and was concerned; he wondered what was coming. The sky was getting dark, but it had a reddish tinge to it. Well, the ranch was only a short distance, and he was confident it would be alright. If they had to, he was positive that they could outrun whatever was coming with these mounts. Sure-footed, fast and strong, the horses would eat up the miles in no time. He was glad they started back when they did, having no desire to wait it out while still at the lake.

Querida, I think we should get goin’. Looks like a storm’s brewin’ behind us an’ we’re gonna need ta get home as quick as we can.” 

Holly chanced a look behind them, and a frown creased her stunning face. “Si you are right. It looks like a dust storm that we would have down by the border.” She looked into Johnny’s concerned eyes and smiled. “I bet Chula and I can beat you and Barranca!” and lightly tapping Chula with her heels, the two females charged by the boys, and the race was on.

In no time at all Barranca caught up to the graceful mare and ran alongside, both Holly and Johnny laughing as the horses knew it was a ‘whoever gets to the barn first gets fed first’  situation. It seemed as though they were even laughing.

The wind was picking up, blowing straight south and gaining speed by the minute. As if in unison Chula and Barranca picked up their pace, sensing this was no longer fun but a necessity to get home and soon.

The adobe Lancer arch came into view, and Johnny was relieved to see the welcoming structure declaring they were now home safe. The horses skidded to a stop by the barn and Johnny was out of the saddle opening the wide heavy doors in seconds. Jelly ran to help lead Chula with Holly still mounted. Once inside the barn Johnny stood and swatted his hat against his leg as billows of dust rose into the air. He went to Holly’s side and helped her to dismount.

“Ya alright, querida?” Johnny nuzzled against her ear.

She smiled brightly at him. “Si, I am! We would have beaten you here if Barranca wouldn’t have pushed Chula aside!” she laughed.

Jelly stood back and took in the exchange, secretly grinning in his cranky heart that these two once wayward people could finally relax and behave like love-sick young'uns! “You two better get in the house, there’s a storm comin’ on pretty fast. Murdoch’s been worried ‘bout ya.” Jelly took the horses with a promise to get them bedded down, brushed and fed. “That is if this ornery jug-head don’t bite me first.” Jelly was referring to Barranca and the fact that not only was the horse spoiled and wanted only Johnny to care for him, but he also had a mean streak in ‘im! Johnny laughed and advised Jelly to bribe him with a carrot.

With a sheltering arm wrapped around Holly’s shoulders, Johnny quickly steered her through the back door into the kitchen. Maria immediately began a string of chatter in Spanish that both of them were able to follow.

“Sí, Mamacita! We are fine, a little dusty but we’re fine!” Johnny said as he took the cook in a hearty hug making Maria blush with happiness. Her niño was home, and he was safe, and his beautiful senorita! Her worrying over, Maria began to put dinner on the table. Then she told the weary travelers that she would put water on the stove to heat so they could wash before dinner. The subtle hint taken, Johnny escorted Holly up the stairs to her room, and he went to his.

“So, what went wrong while I was gone?” Johnny said to Scott as they sat in the great room after the delicious meal. Scott turned shock filled eyes on his brother.

“Ah, come on, Scott, I know somethin’ had ta go wrong without me here ta fix it!” Johnny teased.

Scott gave out what he took. "Oh, nothing happened, brother. No one got shot or got rolled on by a horse either…" Holly chuckled as did Murdoch. If anyone was ever in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was Johnny, and Holly knew that for a fact. He had been the main source for her knowledge of medicine, and she had much experience because of him.

Suddenly, lightning flashed outside in a hot and blinding bolt that scratched its way across the sky. The wind was still ripping away at the countryside and sand stinging everything that was left out to brave the onslaught.

“This is one nasty storm! This lightning can be dangerous especially if it ignites dry grass…” Murdoch said as he watched out the large window behind his desk noting the flashes south of the ranch. The night sky seemed to flicker with constant hazy flares as if set off by the firing of a giant gun.

“I sure am glad you two made it back before it got too bad out there.” Murdoch turned to face his son and the lovely young lady that had captured his heart.

“Yeah, me too. Hate ta think of spendin’ the night outside in this,” Johnny said as he tightened his arm around Holly’s shoulders.

Murdoch smiled. “Well, I think I’m going to turn in for the night. Good night, everyone!” He went to Holly and placed a fatherly kiss on her head as he did Teresa. Giving Scott and Johnny a nod, he climbed the stairs and went to his room.

Scott turned to Teresa giving her the ‘time to turn in’ look and very soon Holly and Johnny were left alone, sitting in romantic solitude in front of the fireplace. Soon, Johnny's hands began to wander, and Holly gasped.

“Juanito! Not here in your father's house!" She chastised.

“Kay, let’s go out ta the barn…” he said with a sly smile.

She sighed but grinned. “I think I want to go to bed. I am very tired.”

Johnny was on his feet before all the words were out of her mouth.

“In my room, by myself…”

Johnny’s smile quickly disappeared.

<><><><> 

The pounding on the door woke him. At first, he couldn't make out where the noise was coming from then it hit him, the front door! Quickly he was out of bed, pulling on his pants, and with his Colt in hand, Johnny was down the stairs, and with the gun cocked and ready, he eased open the door. Young Ben Catlin stood, face flushed and it looked like he’d been crying.

“Ben, what’s…” was as far as Johnny got.

“Green River, it’s burning! They need help, hurry! Lightning hit and started the whole town on fire! Sheriff Crawford sent me an’ some of the others ta ask everyone for help! I gotta go ta the other ranchers. Go! They need help bad! Doc’s house burned ta the ground an’ they got no medical supplies! Then young Ben was back on his horse galloping down the road.

Johnny raced up the stairs pounding on everyone’s door, yelling for them to get up. Panicked, the doors were jerked open as Johnny stood in the hall and Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, and Holly raced out of their rooms.

“Green River's on fire, they need help! We need ta get goin'. I'll get the hands ready!" Johnny went to his room, quickly pulled on socks, boots, and his shirt and was downstairs and out the back door.

“They will need bandages and medicine for burns!” Holly flashed large eyes to Murdoch.

“Teresa, you and Holly grab whatever you can find to use, sheets, towels, anything! And all the medicines that Maria has. Scott, we'll need water barrels, block, and tackle, ropes. Have Cipriano get the draft horses into town. I'll get Jelly and his supply of poultices and liniments!"

They all scattered, working diligently and efficiently gathering everything they could think of to help those in Green River that would need their assistance. A wagon was pulled in front of the house as blankets, sheets and medicines were loaded into it. Maria came from her small home behind the hacienda and began to load food knowing that fighting fires was a dangerous and exhausting job and folks would need to eat. The residents would need supplies of every kind if their stores were destroyed.

As she deposited a large bag of potatoes into the wagon bed, she heard cattle bawling and looked up to see two ranch hands herding several head of cattle and turn them toward the town. Murdoch Lancer was a generous man. These cattle would feed the whole town; keep the town folk in food while fighting the fire and also feed those who would lose everything they owned. Maria had a few hands load a large cauldron and a heavy iron tripod into the wagon. No doubt they would be cooking outside to feed all those who fought the flames.

Thankfully, the wind had died down, and the sky had cleared, but Murdoch cringed when, looking into the south, he could see an orange glow reflecting skyward. It was Green River burning…

The wagons moved out as fast as they could travel. Johnny and Scott raced ahead not waiting for the convoy of provisions knowing that they could offer help as soon as they arrived and every minute counted. Murdoch, filled with pride and worry, watched as his sons raced toward town. They would fight hard, these people had grown to be their friends, and both of his boys were loyal to their friends. Murdoch also knew that the Conway ranch and every other ranch around would be able to offer much in the way of help, hands to battle the fires and food and medicine. He hoped that most of the damage had been contained but looking again ahead, he began to have serious doubts.

<><><><> 

The train station was on the far north end of town and as they arrived Johnny and Scott watched as people stood as if in shock. Their faces bore the stress of loss. The smoke was thick in the air making it difficult to see, but the town looked charred, a burned out corpse of what had been. Some of the buildings had burned to the ground, and some stood with only partial walls and some still burning. Green River was disintegrating right before their eyes. They spotted Billy, the telegraph operator and approached him.

“Where’s Val?” Johnny asked.

Billy looked toward the burning town and shrugged. “Last I seen him, he was helpin’ Widow Hargis get outta her store.”

Johnny kicked Barranca into a gallop down the street with Scott hot on his tail. The air was filled with smoke, thick and heavy, greasy smoke that made it difficult to see. The church was still standing and on the side, lying on the ground were bodies covered with tarps. There were five… so far.

Men had formed lines from water troughs and were passing buckets of water down those lines to be thrown into the fires. The water seemed to evaporate before it reached the flames, dissipated before it could have any effect. The jail was a complete loss as were the blacksmith and barbershop. The Angels Nest was burning, but it looked to be under control. Johnny spotted Val, a bandana covering his face, as he assisted old man Burgess across the road from his house and out of harm's way.

“Any word from the orphanage, Val?” Johnny yelled above the din as Val stood and wiped at the grime smeared on his face.

“No, but it wasn’t directly in the line of the storm. It should be alright. I’ll send someone out ta check as soon as we can spare 'em. You two can come with me; I gotta make sure everyone's outta the burnin' buildings.” And directing Johnny and Scott to sections of town the three men checked to make sure no one had been trapped and left behind.

A crash behind Johnny made him spin as he watched in horror as the burning roof from the stable caved in, igniting the straw in the loft; screams of panicked horses echoed in the cold night air. With flames spewing out of the roof, red ashes climbed skyward in an exotic gyrating dance accenting the dense, hot air. Smoke poured out from between the locked doors. Johnny pulled them open and bolted into the burning stable. The thick smoke prevented any actual sight but on hearing the horses, Johnny was able to free them, one by one as he quickly untied the ropes that held them secure, then he let them run out wild-eyed and terrified.

Not hearing any more animals Johnny raced for the door and exited just as the loft fell to barn floor seconds after Johnny turned the horses loose, the sending a shower of sparks and ash twenty feet in the air. Once out in the night Johnny took in huge gulps of air and coughed out the smoke that worked its way into his lungs. He then thought about going around back to make sure Danny had not been trapped in the tack room. Often the stable boy slept there, and if he'd been overcome with smoke, he would die. Racing around to the back of the livery, Johnny could see Danny lying on the floor, fallen as he tried to get out. He was dead. Johnny dragged the body out of the burning stable and covered him with a saddle blanket. No time to spend here anymore, onto the next building. There was still the living to attend to.

Outside the house, Johnny could see Sam kneeling on the ground next to a child. Johnny ran to Sam’s side as the doctor looked up and his heavy heart poured out its grief for these people. And the night was far from over.

“Johnny, my house is gone, all the supplies burned. Any chance you have anything I can use at the ranch?” Desperation shown in Sam's eyes, pleading… hoping…

“It’s already on the way. Got about four wagons of supplies comin’ inta town. Shouldn’t be too long now. Maria and Jelly are comin’ and someone else that’ll help!” Johnny said in between coughing spells.

Sam gave him a severe look. “You alright, Johnny?”

“I’m fine.”

And Sam shrugged. That was Johnny’s stock answer. The child Sam was tending started to wake, slow at first then eyes wide and filled with terror. Sam held the small boy to comfort him as the child cried.

“Can I help, Sam?” Johnny asked knowing that this child had been the only survivor from the burning house.

“No, Johnny, I have him. Go and see what else you can do.”

Breaking into a run Johnny went from house to house, kicking in doors and if possible making a trip through what was left of the homes, assuring himself no one was left inside. The smoke was thick making it impossible to see, he kept as low to the floor as he could but made a promise that no one would be left behind, not if he could help it!

Movement at a window got his attention and Johnny ran onto the porch and flung the door open as a woman dressed in a nightgown fell out into his arms. Johnny caught her before she hit the boards of the porch floor. Gathering her limp form in his arms, he carried her away from the burning house. Flames snagged and caught his shirt burning several holes, but he remained relatively unscathed. He ran down the steps with her still in clutched tightly in his arms and away from the heat. He called for help and laid the woman on the ground. The Widow Hargis came to his aid and took over tending the woman while Johnny raced to the next house, coughing as he went.

With the air thick and suffocating, Johnny tied his bandana around his face, but the greasy, black smoke crept under it and into his lungs making him spend more and more time outside gulping what fresh air that he was able and coughing up what he could. His throat became raw, but that was nothing compared to the disaster most of the townspeople felt. They were losing everything.
Much of the town had burned leaving homeless and stunned residents standing in the streets with literally the clothes on their back as their only possessions. Johnny was relieved to see Scott and Val, still on their feet with no injuries. He watched thankfully as Doc Jenkins also had remained unscathed. Only then did he notice that the wagons from Lancer had arrived and saw that Holly had not waited for someone to tell her what needed to be done, but had jumped right in and begun to help Sam with the sick and injured. Jelly, Teresa and Maria were also busy tending victims, slathering them with Jelly's homemade poultices and liniments. There was still much confusion and yelling, people running in shock as everything they owned literally went up in smoke.

Johnny's attention was caught when he heard a woman scream, "Maggie?... MAGGIE!!! Where are you?" And as the woman was about to run back into the house the upper story window opened, and a small girl screamed back hysterically, waving for her mother’s attention.

“Help! Mommy, the door, it won’t open, help me!” The pitiful cries rent the air.

Johnny pulled the mother back, and she fought him, fought like a wildcat. Johnny took her shoulders and shook hard trying to snap the panic out of her frantic brain. Her eyes cleared a bit as she realized help was near.

"I'll get her! You come here an' catch her!" Johnny vaulted up onto the porch railing and grabbed the roof, and pulled himself up and over the edge. He carefully walked to the window and talked in soothing tones not sure if he was connecting with the child or not. Fear clutched her entire being, her eyes glazed as Johnny pulled her through the window. Avoiding her flailing hands, he held her tight in his arms. Her tears made muddy twin paths down her face.

“It’s alright, chica! Your mama’s gonna take you now, ‘k?” And before she had a chance to answer Johnny wrapped her securely in his arms and quickly lowered her down to her mother’s outstretched hands as he lay on his belly and leaned over the edge. He worked so fast the little girl was down before she had a chance to think about it. Mother and child sat in the dust and rocked back and forth sobbing in fear and thankful they were still alive. Rolling off the roof much the same way as he got up, Johnny’s feet touched the ground, the whole event taking only a few minutes.

“Help!” the scream rent the early morning air. Holly looked up as she saw an old woman trying to get back into the house she’d just vacated. Thick, blinding smoke billowed out of the dwelling thick, blinding as Holly ran to the woman’s and side exchanged a few words, and when Johnny moved closer, and what he saw froze him to his core. Holly ran into the burning house, and his feet were moving as fast as they could, seeming of their own accord, eating up space between them. Flames shot out through the roof as it collapsed inward sending sparks high into the sky searing the night air, scorching it and eating up oxygen, suffocating and choking, strangling the life away.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” The howl issued from deep in his throat filled the night, and suddenly he was grabbed and held. He fought with a ferocity he'd never known, his arms locked in iron grasps.

"Lemme go! Get the fuck away from me!" he yelled and wrenching an arm loose he swung with all the power he had and made contact with a jaw. The man went down into the dirt and did not move.

“Johnny! JOHNNY! Listen…” A voice from behind him tried to break through, tried to reason. But he would not have it.

The adrenaline coursed violently through him as he fought. He launched another attack, again, swinging and making contact and he was free and running as he’d never run before, toward the house, the house that was burning… with Holly inside. Flames shot out the door and forced Johnny to gather more speed, and he launched himself through the large front window, shattered the glass and landed with a hard jolt inside. Quickly he rolled to his feet, frantically searching for the love of his life, Holly! Where was Holly? Holly! Holly!

“Holly!” he screamed frantically. Coughing, he began going through the burning house and then he saw her as she helped an old man limping out of the back room. Johnny went to the other side of the man, and together they got him to the broken window, all three climbed out and tumbled onto the porch. Help was there in seconds, pulling the old man to safety, then Holly and Johnny. Dios! She’s safe! Holly’s safe!

“Holly!” Johnny called as he got to his feet, suddenly seeing her and pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her and staggering with her into the middle of the street. He turned to her, her sweet face streaked with soot, hair hanging in tangles and yet still beautiful. Both of his arms came around her as she clung to him and they fell to their knees; he kissed her as he’d never kissed her before, the whole town watching the spectacle, the scandalous, shocking and shameful kiss that had every woman there wishing it was she on the receiving end. The Widow Hargis watched and knew this was love at its purest and surely could not, would not condemn any love this precious as she wiped away a tear and she would have words with anyone who voiced their disapproval.

Murdoch's heart dropped to his feet as he saw Holly run into the house. He'd called for Scott, but as Scott had also seen it he immediately looked for Johnny knowing he would have to be restrained; no one could have escaped the inferno, and he would not let his brother die there, too. Both Scott and Val had grabbed Johnny as he charged for the blaze and both had ended up eating dirt. Scott was still out cold with a massive bruise on his jaw already starting to show.

Johnny panted into her hair as Holly cried on his dirty, tattered shirt, neither saying a word, just holding on to the other kneeling in the street. In his mind, he watched over and over as Holly vanished into the flames and each time his body went cold. But she was here, now, in his arms and she was alright.
 
“Querida! I ain’t never been so scared!” His mouth still on hers, still panting mostly from fear and his heart pounding wildly in his chest, his breath ragged. He held her, hands on either side of her face peering into her black diamond eyes brimming with tears. “Are you alright, Holly?” Desperation made his voice crack. He pulled away to watch her eyes as she spoke.

Si, Juanito, thanks to you, I am fine, mio, what about you? Are you alright?” Matching concern mirrored on her face as she glanced him over and noticed a deep gash on his arm from the glass window he had crashed through.

“You need stitches, Johnny, let me…”

“I’m fine…” And again, he wrapped his arms around her, crushing her to his chest.

She could feel the tremors tearing through his body. She had never witnessed him so shaken, so completely off balance and unsettled. Then she thought about what had happened, and she was shocked herself at her actions. She put herself in his place and had the tables been turned, she would be completely terrified for him. But she had felt that exact emotion for him on other occasions.

Breathing returned to semi-normal and they struggled to their feet. They had not noticed the crowd that had watched. There was still work to do. Much of the town still burned. They had to get moving.

Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief as Holly and Johnny got to their feet. He focused his attention back to Scott who was just now becoming conscious. Scott tried to sit up but fell back onto Murdoch.

“Just relax, Scott, lie still,” Murdoch coaxed and held a dipper of water to his lips.

Scott drank a bit, then sat up and blinked his eyes, and suddenly remembered. “Johnny!” Turning in Murdoch’s arms, with panic in his eyes, Scott tried to get his feet under him.

“He’s fine, Scott, they’re both fine,” and pointed in the direction where Scott could see as Holly made Johnny sit while she attended his arm.

“Remind me never to try and stop him from doing something he really wants to do, will you?” Scott mumbled trying not to move his jaw any more than necessary.

Sam Jenkins knew this was going to be difficult. They had to keep people busy with things that had to be done. Keep their minds off of the loss they’d suffered. Food. Set some of them to cooking to keep a steady stream of nourishing food available. It was desperately needed. Sam was eternally grateful for the Lancers knowing that the steers that had been brought from the ranch would be the primary food source for many days.

He had a fire started, and as soon as the first animal had been butchered they would cook it quickly as possible then they would roast the next one over a pit of coals, keeping it basted to prevent it from drying out. The large cauldron Maria brought was filled with water and spices and herbs were added to make a broth for the sick and injured. Chickens would be added to the mix to make it healing. Along with Maria and Teresa was a beautiful young Mexican woman helping them, no, she was instructing them… Who is she to be instructing Maria? Sam wondered but soon busied himself with easing the pain and the hurt.

Green River smoldered as the sun came up casting a muted glow over the smoke that still choked the air. Small fires flared up here and there but were quickly doused as patrols had been set up to watch for them.

Holly had been instrumental in getting medical issues sorted and seeing to some of the lesser injuries and assisting Sam with serious ones. It dawned on Sam who this woman might be as Murdoch had taken Sam into his confidence and had often told the doctor of Johnny's relationship with her. At first, worrying about their agreement to remain unmarried but in time coming to terms with it, Sam agreed with Murdoch to let them be, not to push and love them as the two fine people they were. This must be Holly! And a treasure she is! Sam thought to himself.

Holly had asked the Widow Hargis if she would take charge of cooking the chickens for a nourishing soup and tactfully asked her to do it a specific way to get the most nutritional benefits from it. Holly had been so polite about it that the Widow had been practically eating out of Holly's hand. This was unheard of. The Widow Hargis was, after all, Green River’s most cantankerous resident and no one told her what to do or how to do it. But Holly did… And the Widow was glad to get it done for her.

Holly also organized a search party to locate as much aloe as possible. They would have to ride far as the plant grew many miles to the west, but enough riders agreed to pitch in and hopefully they would have their first delivery of the soothing remedy and a day or two. Holly went from person to person, checking bandages and giving water or merely talking and offering a beautiful and heartfelt smile. She had very definitely made a huge difference as people were immediately comfortable with her, stranger or not.

And Murdoch watched as her gentleness and compassion laced with humility as it touched those around her and, again, marveled at the extraordinary and gifted woman that she was.

Jelly had been replenishing his supply of poultices and liniments as they had long ago run out. A steady stream of ingredients had been used as he turned out batch after batch of the odious mixtures and glad to be busy rather than having to deal with the destruction. He’d seen much in his long years and was thankful to be on the healing end rather deal with the destruction that lay around them. He’d taken a towel soaked in liniment to hold it on Scott's jaw as the swelling had become serious. A slight battle ensued once Scott got the first whiff, but he had to admit he did start to feel better after he held it in place for a time.

Murdoch, Cipriano and a small crew were pulling down parts of walls that stood to defy gravity. The team of draft horses proved a great benefit as some of the walls were large, but the team worked effortlessly and smoothly.

Val had his hand's full settling arguments and keeping everyone as peaceful as possible, but tempers were running high. There had been volunteers digging graves. They had been lucky the fatalities were not any higher but seven graves in all were needed, and the priest and pastor made their rounds giving comfort to those in need.

Scott looked for Johnny but did not see him. With his jaw feeling a bit better, he set out to look for his brother. They had not yet spoken since Johnny broke free of Scott’s grip delivering the staggering blow that knocked Scott out, leaving him senseless in the dirt.

Stepping around a building that had managed to avoid destruction, Scott caught sight of his brother down a vacant street, a street that had been ravaged by the fire and still smoldered, but something was wrong as he watched Johnny go to his knees and wretch over and over. As fast as possible Scott made it to Johnny’s side, helped him to his feet and to the boardwalk where he sat, his face pale and sweating.

“Johnny? Are you alright?” Scott asked softly.

Johnny sat hunched over, elbows on his thighs with his head hanging low. He ran shaky hands through his hair, and he slowly turned to look his brother in the eyes. “I almost lost her tonight, Scott… I almost lost her…” Johnny whispered.

“But you didn’t, Johnny, she’s alright.” It was all Scott could think of to say.

The flashes of memory kept running through Johnny’s head, Holly disappearing into the flames as the roof caved in… He thought she had died and he could feel the life drain out of him. He’d felt dead inside. He watched Scott’s face, then for the first time noticed the bruise and swelling on Scott’s jaw. “What happened ta you?”

"You," and Scott smiled a bit seeing the puzzled look. "Val and I tried to stop you, and you hit me."

“Sorry. Don’t remember that. Are ya alright?” Johnny asked softly.

“Well, at first I wasn’t sure, but I think it will be fine… in time.” Offering Johnny a smile Scott canted his head, “Come on, Brother. I think you need to see your lady.”

They walked around the back way and looked into the train station that had been converted to a shelter. For a moment, they watched as Holly moved among the injured with natural ease and grace. People liked her, they felt at ease with her presence, her genuine concern about them evident, and they trusted her. Johnny put a hand on the side of a building to steady himself as, once more, the horrifying scene played out in his head, seeing the burning roof cave inside the house that she had just entered and his stomach felt like it was going to turn inside out. But he breathed deeply, taking in great gulps of air and it faded. He turned and walked to a water trough, and bending down, he submerged his head, stood and shook the water from his hair. The cold water helped to clear the awful fog and wash away the gut-wrenching thought that she would be killed and burn inside that building.

Running hands through the wet hair making himself somewhat presentable and a tad clearer minded, Johnny entered the station and went to Holly’s side as she sat on a bench and was comforting a little girl. Holly pulled the child onto her lap and had her wrapped in the safety of her arms; her head bowed as she listened to the girl talk. Holly smiled sweetly and gave the girl a gentle squeeze then eased her back down on the bench and covered her with a blanket. The girl closed her eyes and in seconds was asleep.

Holly looked up to find Johnny standing over her. He looked pale, and she was immediately concerned. She stood and peered deeply into his eyes, but he smiled at her and reached out a finger to wipe a smudge of soot that clung to her face. She smiled but was still worried.

“Ya alright, querida? You look like you’re workin’ too hard. Think ya need a break.” And placing an arm around her shoulders, he took her out the back door. Holly had not yet said a word but kept glancing at him as they walked.

Once around the building and in a private corner of the yard, Johnny wrapped her in his arms, savoring the feel of her against him. He had almost lost her; it had been so close. Holly knew he had been shaken by the events, but she knew if she had it to do all over that she wouldn't change it. She did what she had to but did acknowledge that she had scared… no, she had terrified him. She returned his embrace with one of her own, and they stood  wrapped in the security of the other’s arms for several long moments.

Doc cleared his throat to interrupt the reunion as they looked to see Sam standing there waiting. “I am sorry, you two, but, Holly, I need you, please,” and Sam turned a walked away.

Johnny gave her a last hug, relishing the closeness, and then kissed her on the forehead. He started to pull away when she spoke.

Juanito, are you alright?”

“I am now,” he said softly and gave her his dazzling smile.

<><><><> 

“I’m alright!” came an adamant reply. The voice raised and strained.

“What are you trying to do? Let infection set in? You get right over here, young lady and let me take a look!” Sam could be just as stubborn as anyone. He had to be.

Cindy Middleton limped over to the seat indicated by Sam as he lifted the hem of her dress to reveal an ugly burn on her thigh. He examined the wound, and thought it not too bad and called for Holly.

“Oh, no! She’s not going to touch me!” Cindy hissed through clenched teeth, and Sam looked up at Cindy’s reddening face.

"Well, she's all the help I have… what's the matter with…" then he stopped, and it dawned on him. "Look, Cindy, we are all in a crisis here and have to work together. We can't let our personal problems make matters worse.”

Holly was on her way with bandages and a jar of salve, not yet noticing the distrust and suspicion of the young blond. Holly sat down and began to clean the wound. Suddenly there was a hand on her arm, and Holly looked into cold green eyes that seemed ready to explode.

“Miss, are you al…” Holly didn’t get a chance to finish.

Cindy huffed and pushed Holly’s hands away. “Don’t you touch me!”

Holly was stunned. Until this moment there hadn’t been any issues. Who is this woman? Holly thought, and then it hit her. This was the young woman that covered her face and ran into the saloon the day Holly got into town, and Holly knew this blond girl to be smitten with Johnny.

Slowly Holly got up. "I will get the doctor, and he will treat you." Holly softly muttered and left in search of Sam.

He shook his head, irritated with Cindy that at a time like this she was so childish. When he got to where he'd left her the chair was empty, Cindy was gone.

<><><><> 

The beef roasting was filling the air with delicious aromas, but then, most anything would have smelled appetizing after fighting fires all night. The loss of friends and possessions had been a devastating shock but at the urgings of Dr. Jenkins people began to eat, if only a small amount, regaining the strength of not only their bodies but their minds as well. Gradually their appetites would return, and life would go on.

Agnes Hargis had done an excellent job on the chickens, cooked precisely as Holly had asked. The meat was taken off the bone and cut into bite-sized pieces, and the meat and drippings had been added to the pot; soon a hearty broth was served to those who needed a more simple diet. The herbs Holly had used were medicinal and nutritious, and people were beginning their recoveries. Except for one.

Cindy was in desperate pain, and it was getting worse, but she fought the idea of going to the makeshift hospital if she was still there. Cindy knew she was behaving foolishly. Johnny had told her it was over, there was someone else, but deep in her heart Cindy still held onto the notion that maybe he would come back to her. But after seeing the raven-haired beauty, Cindy knew deep in her soul she was wrong.

Cindy was feeling sick, she knew a fever was taking over, and the look of the burn on her leg was ugly. An infection had set in, and she could not walk. With her concern now centering on staying alive, she tried to go for help. Dragging herself to the back door of The Angels Nest, she called out in a weak voice, but no one heard the feeble, exhausted cries and with vision blurring Cindy fell, knocking over a table and shattering glasses as they hit the wooden floor.

Scott Lancer walked down the boardwalk on his way back to the train station hospital. He and Johnny had been helping Val at the sheriff’s office, picking through the ruined, burned- out building in search of things that might be salvaged. Needing a bandage for Val’s hand that he’d snagged on a piece of wood, Scott headed to the makeshift hospital as Val didn’t seem to think it was that important at the moment. Passing the Angels Nest, he heard a crash and glass breaking. Pushing through the batwing doors, he saw nothing at first then from behind the bar, he saw movement. Ducking in the dark interior with eyes adjusting from the bright sun he saw her. Scott ran to her side, and bending down he checked her over and found the wound on her leg.

“Cindy! Can you hear me?” he asked and received no response. Carefully he picked her up and carried her to the hospital.

Holly stood and rubbed her aching back. She had spent too many hours bent over tending hurts and comforting the restless. She wished Johnny were here and she could feel his strong hands massage and soothe away the ache. The thought made her smile. She turned and started to walk but froze as she saw Scott come through the door carrying the young woman that refused her help earlier in the day. She raced to his side and guided him to a spot where he could lay her down. Holly immediately went to work, and Scott backed away knowing that Holly had the situation as much control as it could be. Holly felt for fever and then began to pull up the skirt that covered the bandaged leg. Removing the soiled wrap, Holly took one look and went for water, salves and a clean cloth. She had her work cut out for her, and this time there would be no resistance. She turned to Scott.

“Get Dr. Jenkins, por favor!”  And Scott was immediately on the errand. Holly carefully cleaned away as much of the infection as she could without causing any more harm to the area. Sam came to Holly’s side and checked the burn.

“Good job, Holly. Can you assist me now or is there anything else that needs your attention?”

"No, Doctor, I am here to help you. You tell me what you need for me to do."

Scott knew that Cindy would get the care she needed, so he backed away and let the treatment for Cindy begin.

Scott returned to Val and insisted he wash and bandage the injured hand, the whole time Val groused and complained but in truth was thankful as it had begun to throb. But he wouldn’t be Val if there wasn’t a crabby and ornery remark. Scott relayed the incident about Cindy and Johnny knew that could be trouble. Everyone knew about Cindy's temper, but he also knew that Holly could hold her own. This would be… interesting. And, indeed, it was interesting.

<><><><> 

Holly stayed with Cindy through the night, she kept the girl cooled down with a cloth soaked in water and treated the burn with the aloe that had finally arrived. When Cindy began to get restless, Holly calmed her, murmuring and holding her hand to let her know that she wasn't alone. Holly had only left her side to check on Johnny during the night, a quick hug and deep kiss did wonders to keep Holly focused. As the sun rose and light won the battle with darkness, Cindy opened her eyes a crack to see Holly sitting there holding her hand with a genuine smile on her beautiful face and Cindy felt ashamed.

During the course of the day, Cindy watched as Holly went about the duties of caring for the townspeople. Holly cast her beautiful smile on them, and they responded with one of their own. Cindy watched her comfort the children as they cried in pain, watched as the tears dried on their little cheeks and finally a smile emerged through onto the tiny faces. She saw the gratitude and the trust the people had for Holly, and it finally began to dawn into her muddled brain that Johnny had made an excellent choice. This woman was kind and giving, nurturing and caring. Holly had cared for her during the night. Cindy remembered opening her eyes, and Holly was there, at her side and comforting her, even after Cindy had told her to get away and not touch her; she was there… with aid and comfort.

The whole town pitched in clearing the debris and rebuilding started as soon as the rubble had been removed. Doc Jenkins’ house, the hotel, and livery were the first to start. Supplies were coming in daily from surrounding towns. They unloaded the wagons, grabbed a bite to eat and headed back out for the next load. A few wandering cowboys stopped in search of work and agreed to help with the rebuilding. The Widow Hargis was a great help and was available whenever Holly asked her for assistance. This puzzled everyone, knowing that the Widow had a stubborn and ornery streak in her as wide as the Missouri River.

“How do you do that Holly?” asked Dr. Jenkins with a look of bewilderment.

Holly gave him a questioning glance. “How do I do what, Doctor?” she asked as Sam smiled.

“Get her to do what you want. She’s shown all of us nothing but orneriness for years!”

Holly didn’t know how to answer at first. It was the same with The Widow Davis back in Salinas. She just got along with her when no one else could.

"All I asked was if she could please help me get the food cooking as it needed to be done with an experienced hand. She asked me who I was and why I was there and I told her that my name is Holly and I am here to help. When I didn't back down or give her an answer that was sarcastic or inappropriate, she smiled and got to work. It was simple." Holly smiled at Sam and Sam knew why Johnny was head over heels in love with this woman. There was no question about it. Holly was a treasure, and he was thankful that Murdoch had finally seen it and was dealing with the situation. Yes, Holly was a gift. To all of them.

<><><><> 

The three saddle tramps entered town from the south, their heads swiveling as they looked from side to side taking in all the destruction. They pulled their horses to a stop when they got a whiff of the fragrant beef that sizzled over the pit of red-hot coals. They watched as Duffy, the blacksmith, slathered sauce over the meat as he turned the spit, roasting the meat to the perfect outcome.

“You boys lookin’ for work?” Duffy asked noting the hunger in their eyes.

“Yeah, looks like you folks had big trouble. Any chance we can help and get somethin’ ta eat?” the leader asked. Duffy nodded at Val standing in front of the Widow Hargis’ store. The building had only suffered mild damage and the goods inside were mostly untouched. Val was organizing a crew to clean it out and wash what could be saved.

“That there man is Sheriff Crawford. Y’all go on over an’ ask him where he wants ya ta start.”

“Obliged,” one said and the three turned their horses toward Val.

"Sheriff, ‘m name's Hoyt Clay, this here's Cass Tapley an' Virgil Waters. We'd be happy ta help out if we could get somethin' ta eat. That beef smells mighty good!”

“Sure. Y’all from around here?” Val asked, not recognizing any of them.

“Nope. We come up from the south, down by Santee an’ El Cajon.” Val’s mind started scrambling. Uh oh, this could be trouble! He started running the names through his brain, checking to see if he remembered any of them and he would have to talk to Johnny about it. No sense asking for any more problems than what they were already dealing with.

Johnny watched as the three men worked, he studied the way they walked, their gestures and most of all their guns. None appeared a threat, and none of them looked familiar. He met Val’s stare and shook his head.

“Uh uh, no one I know.”

And immediately Val was relieved. “Good. That’s what I wanted ta hear.” They returned to their work, progress already beginning with everyone pitching in. They would be alright.

“Is that who I think it is, Johnny?” Scott asked as he elbowed his brother’s side.

Johnny turned in the direction Scott pointed to and had to hold back a laugh. “Yup, looks like him; no one else is that big!” Johnny chuckled as the two brothers watched the man covered in soot stand in line then took his turn washing for the meal. Soon the features of Murdoch Lancer became recognizable.

"Yup. It's him." Johnny declared, and the boys smiled on the verge of a snigger but both suddenly straightening their smiles as Murdoch caught their tomfoolery.

“Uh oh, stop makin’ me laugh, Boston!”

<><><><> 

The meal was taken in shifts as seating was at a premium. As some jobs took longer than others to complete, Green River’s residents cycled through filling their plates, ate their meals and left as others came to do the same. Holly finally made her way over to take a plate and was in line as a large slab of tender meat had been doled out.

“A fine job ya done, Miss Holly! I know folks are mighty glad ya was visitin’ an’ able ta help out. Poor ol’ Doc sure did need all the help he could get!” Duffy beamed as Holly bestowed him with her brilliant smile that made him blush to the top of his hairless pate.

“Thank you, Duffy! I am happy to help!”  Holly went through the line and filled her plate as she searched for Johnny. Spying him standing as he talked with his father she started to make her way to his side when an arm snaked out and grabbed hers, spilling part of the glass of lemonade she carried. Startled, she tried to jerk away and bumped into the Widow Hargis who was behind her.

Pulling her arm to him, Hoyt Clay stared in stunned surprise. “Well, looky here! If it ain’t Miss Holly from the whorehouse down by the border! Hey there, Missy, how’s about you an’ me go an’ take a little roll…”

The crowd grew still and parted as if by magic, and he came forward. Not a word was uttered as Johnny Madrid walked to stand beside her, eyes glared shards of blue ice. Instantly Hoyt shivered. Holly wanted to curl up and die. Not because of the oaf that Hoyt was but because she knew Johnny and the Lancer name would be tarnished merely by association with her. Her worst fear had come true. She had shamed them, the family that had taken her into their hearts and had shown her kindness and love. It was over. She had lost.

Johnny stood appearing relaxed but Holly felt the tension roll from his body, she wished the ground would open up and swallow her this instant. Everyone had stopped talking, they were watching, and as she looked from face to face, she saw a gamut of emotions and expressions. The most explosive of them was Johnny. Did the rest of them hate her now?

"Get your hand off her… now," Johnny said softly, ice not only in his eyes but the chill in his voice was palpable.

“Hey, I don’t mean no offense. She ain’t nothin’ but a whore…” And Hoyt wasn’t able to say anymore with Johnny’s fist in his face. It smashed against his cheek, cutting it to the bone. Hoyt lay on the ground looking up, stunned by what had happened but wisely chose not to say more.

Holly knew she had to say something, nothing could repair the damage, but she had to say something. She locked eyes with the man on the ground completely aware of those watching, the townspeople who had been kind… up until now; she thought and then spoke.

"Yes, I was there. I worked there to survive, and I had to put up with men like you, men that liked to hurt women because they couldn’t get respect any other way, they were not happy unless they felt they could control another life. It made you feel powerful and made you feel better about yourself if you thought that others were beneath you. Some decisions were made for me because I had no control, but I do now, and I was able to pull myself up, able to make something of myself,” Holly paused and raised a delicate brow, “What about you?” And when he didn't answer, she went on. "That's what I thought. Get out of my way. I have sick people to attend to." Holly brushed by him, appearing calm but inwardly she was shaking, almost beyond control. How far would her feet carry her before she crumbled into a heap?

Johnny looked to Val, and Val nodded. Taking control, he took the three men to the outskirts of town to send them on their way.

Hoyt was perplexed, confused beyond anything he’d ever felt before. “What’d I do, Sheriff? She ain’t nothin’ but a…”

Val wanted to pull his gun, but he couldn’t, he was the law in Green River. “That woman saved more lives in the last three years than ya can count! Now ya get outta town, now an’ don’t come back! You’re lucky ya made it out this time without gettin’ shot!”

And that was not far from the truth. Madrid was ready. And Scott was right there with him to back him up.

Holly walked away from the crowd with Johnny by her side. She stared straight ahead, but her resolve was fading. And she knew in her heart that the damage that had been done could not be fixed. People were who they were; there was no changing them. Whores were the bottom of the barrel right alongside saddle tramps like Hoyt Clay. It would never change. Her head felt dizzy, and her breath was shallow. She was numb.

They had walked around a building, and now out of sight, Holly fell. Johnny caught her, clutching her to his chest, holding her with desperation and urgency. He felt her wilt, and she could not hold him back so weak was she with grief.

“Holly? Listen ta me!” Johnny whispered despairingly, knowing she needed to hear something to let her know that she wasn’t to blame. “What he said doesn’t mean a thing! I’ll never stop loving you. An’ if it means that I leave here we’ll go tagether cuz without you life ain’t worth livin’, all I want is you, querida!” He held her close as if willing something positive into her. He felt her tears soaking his shirt, and she sobbed as his arms wrapped her in his love.

Juanito, I am so sorry! I never meant for anything like this to happen! I never want you to leave your family, especially because of me! You finally found happiness, and now I have ruined it for…"

Johnny took her by the shoulders and held her away to look into her eyes, her beautiful black diamond, tear-filled eyes, the eyes in which he could lose himself. “I would leave here in a heartbeat if you wouldn’t be here. I mean that, Holly…"

People sat in stunned silence as Val escorted the saddle tramps from town and Holly and Johnny walked away. Both Murdoch and Scott stood defiantly meeting the eyes of anyone daring some comment. And there was a comment. From the Widow Hargis.

"What is everyone looking at? Do you forget what that young woman has done, for all of us in this town? Without her help, Dr. Jenkins would not have been able to save as many as he did. We would be digging more graves, I can assure you. We all owe her more than we can ever pay, and let’s not forget that! She did what she did in her past to stay alive and I for one, am very glad she did!” Agnes Hargis marched in the direction that Holly and Johnny had taken and as she left she called for Sam and Murdoch. The two men followed the Widow looking very much like contrite males doing what they'd been told and not wanting to disappoint the woman.

Rounding the building the trio skidded to a halt as they watched Johnny holding Holly as they sat in the dirt. Holly was crying, and Johnny was trying to calm the flow as he held her close. Sam was the first to make his way to her. He looked into Johnny’s eyes and saw the sadness in the stormy blue depths.

“Holly?” Sam said quietly. “Let me check you over, dear. You’ve had a shock. Holly, please look at me.” Softly urging her to allow him to help her, he kept talking. But Holly’s breaking voice interrupted his words.

"I am sorry, Dr. Jenkins. I will leave now," Holly mumbled into Johnny's wet shirt.

“Holly, I need you to help me! The town needs your help! Please, don't leave us!" Sam said urgently; he had to convince her!

Agnes nudged Sam aside and stooped down, laying a gentle hand on Holly’s shoulder, she began to talk. “You may not believe this, dear, but the town does need you. You have helped so many people, and whether they know it yet or not, they still need you."

"But now that they know what I was, they will not want me…"

“Oh, pooh, Holly, there’s not one of those people out there that haven't done something or said something that they wished they could change. Not one! And I’ll tell you something else; you did what you did to stay alive. Staying alive takes a lot more effort and courage, a lot more guts to take charge and to change your situation! You are a strong woman Holly, and I am proud to know you! I just wonder why it took this big galoot so long to introduce you to us!" The Widow chuckled, and she took Holly's arms and turned Holly to face to her. "We all have our secrets, my dear. All of us!” And putting her arms around Holly's neck, she pulled the young woman into a tender embrace.

Murdoch and Sam watched in awe. No one would believe the Widow Hargis capable of expressing the heartfelt emotion they witnessed bestowed on Holly, but this would not be a tale that they would tell. This was a very personal and poignant scene and not meant for others to observe or comment about. The town was indebted to Holly; everyone in town owed her a great deal.

“Come now, dear, dry your eyes and blow that pretty nose. This handsome young man here is waiting to kiss you!”

And Johnny grinned his dazzling smile.

<><><><> 

Scott stood his ground and met the eye contact. Soon Jelly and Teresa stood next to him. Duffy went to stand with the Lancer clan to show his support, as did several people that Holly had treated in the makeshift hospital. There were not many that did not show their approval. This was a hard life, and some had a more difficult time than others did. There were those who had had a tougher life, and they all thought of Johnny Madrid Lancer and how well he turned out. Not everyone had easy choices growing up. And all that could be done was the best that they could.

<><><><> 

Is this really happening? Do they really want me to stay? The thoughts tumbled in her brain as Holly walked back to the hospital. She knew the townspeople were talking about her but just perhaps it was in a good way... She hoped. And she knew that Johnny definitely would leave if she did, but she did not want him to. Holly had known Johnny for many years, and until he'd found his family, he'd never been happier. She would not let him leave, but that would mean…

Holly kept herself busy the rest of the afternoon, tending the injured and simply stopping to talk and make folks feel at ease. Cindy Middleton caught Holly's hand as she walked by and in a timid voice asked Holly to sit. Stopping in mid-stride, Holly sat on the edge of Cindy's makeshift bed, smiling down into the green eyes that once shot daggers through her heart.

“I ah… I wanna thank you for what ya did for me. And I’m sorry for how I acted,” Cindy whispered, it all coming out in a rush. “I heard what happened out there, is it true?”
Questions clouded in the green gaze.
A tired smile escaped Holly. “Yes, it is true.” Holly looked down at her hands resting in her lap.

“Well, thank you for that, too. People just don’t understand how things can be. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about a situation.”

“You are right; a lot of them do not. But not everyone is like that, remember that,” and patting Cindy’s hand, Holly left her to tend others.

<><><><> 

Three days later the Lancers were ready to leave for home. The wagons had been hitched and everyone either in them or on horseback for the journey home. Barranca and Chula, once again, assumed the bickering of nipping and bumping into the other but if left alone began looking for their companion. They were bickering when together, missing the other when apart.

Many in the town had expressed their gratitude to Holly for her expertise and kindness during their crisis, and their understanding had touched Holly.

As they started to move out the Widow called out to halt Holly, and she gracefully dismounted as did Johnny. The Widow came to Holly with a warm and strong embrace and whispered in her ear. “You are a delight, my dear, and a credit to how and what a woman should be. It is a pleasure to know you and call you friend!” Standing back she looked at Johnny. “You do know that you have a good woman here, don’t you young man?”

Johnny grinned, his smile going from ear to ear. “Yes, Ma’am, I sure do!” he laughed, and putting an affectionate arm around Holly, he pulled her close.

“Good, and don’t you forget it! Now, as soon as things settle down and the next time you are in town, I want the two of you to come to dinner!” Without waiting for a response, the Widow walked away.

"Let's go home!" Murdoch called out, and the Lancer clan started north out of town.

Scott dropped back to ride beside Holly and Johnny at the end of the procession. "Don't forget about the North line shack. I didn't carry all those provisions there and get the place cleaned up for nothing! I have your chores at the ranch covered… for a couple of days anyway!" Offering the two a sly smile, he rode to the front of the line to discuss with Murdoch what needed to be done once they arrived home. A small crew had been left at the ranch, and as things settled down in Green River, Murdoch released the hands to return so the workload would not be too far behind schedule.

Holly looked at Johnny, still amazed at his family and their warmth, their affection, and understanding. Her heart nearly burst with her love for him. She threw him a seductive smile, and they quickly turned off the road heading to the seclusion and privacy and the intimacy they thrived upon. It was going to be all right, and they reached out, taking the other’s hand and leaned over for the kiss that would very soon lead to more, much more.

 

 

~end~

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