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Buckskin

 

 

Shadow Of The Wolf

No 10 in the Johnny and Holly series -which is best read in sequence.

Thanks to Cat, Sandy and Barbara for the beta
Tenth in the Johnny and Holly Series
All mistakes are mine

 

He was going crazy. The forced inactivity left him bored, bored, and restless. There was only so many times you could clean your pistol, only so many times you could watch the clock with its slow-moving hands tick away the minutes and hours, and he had a long way to go before he would be cleared to do any work around the estancia.

The first two days that he was allowed out of bed were alright; he sat in the sun and let the warmth comfort his bruised and aching muscles but regenerating the blood he had lost would take a long time to complete, longer than he had the patience for. He tried to let the familiar sounds comfort him, the gentle lowing of the cattle or a hawk calling out as it rode the thermals. Johnny honestly tried to relax as he knew it was hard on his family, too. But keeping a hold on the anxiousness and impatience was difficult. They all suffered as much as he did. Probably more…

He had heard it said that time could be your best friend or your worst enemy, that sometimes there was a very fine line that divided the two and at this moment, Johnny Madrid Lancer was torn between them. He knew without a doubt he needed to heal, but why did it always take so damn long? He was about to find out which was the case for him… best friend or worst enemy.

Johnny stared at the barn and wondered how far he’d get before he was stopped and sent back to the hacienda. There was no one around to intercept him, and he decided to make his move. Johnny slowly and painfully heaved himself to his feet and stood for a moment before the dizziness cleared, and he could get his legs moving in sync. Finally, he was on his way to the barn. It was good to walk, to feel the ground beneath his boots and the breeze on his face. He’d had enough of staring at walls and the smell of carbolic and medicines.

The interior of the barn was dark and cool, and it made him wish he had brought his jacket, but after all, he was supposed to be resting in the sun on the patio. Well, he would make this a short visit, but he wanted to see his amigo. His eyes adjusted to the low light as he looked at an empty stall. For a few seconds, his heart raced as he fought to control the alarm exploding through his brain.

“Jelly!... JELLY!”  he called out as the grumpy old handyman raced into the barn.

Jelly took one look at the wavering figure as he teetered back and forth on unsteady feet and quickly stepped forward to lend his hand should Johnny’s legs give out. Lord, this boy ain’t got a lick a sense! Shouldn’t even be outta bed much less out in the cold, damp barn! What’s the matter with ‘im? As Jelly mentally berated Johnny for the complete lack of concern for his health, he knew the need for Johnny to see his beloved palomino, Barranca.

“Jelly, where’s…” was as far as he got when Jelly came to him and wrapped an arm around his waist, guiding him to a bale of hay where he could sit and not risk any further injury.

“Think ya can sit there an’ not fall off? What in tarnation are ya doin’ out here anyway? You’re s’posta be in bed! With alla that blood ya lost ‘m surprised ya can walk at all!” Jelly railed. “Ya better not let Murdoch see ya out here…” The lecture was meant well; Jelly had been worried sick as were the rest of the family, but the chastising covered up his concern.

“Where’s Barranca!?” Johnny asked. His temper quickly reached the boiling point, his eyes went cold. Jelly eased his scolding, knowing that Johnny had a need to see the horse. It went further than any typical bond of man and beast. They were truly amigos, and it went far beyond anything Jelly had ever seen before.

“Ever’ things alright, Johnny. I just put him out in the north pasture ta get some a that sweet grass up there, risked my fingers doin’ it, too! That jug-head liked ta bite off three of ‘em b’fore we got gotta the barn! Don’t you worry none, he’s jus’ fine. A sight better’n you are if ya don’t mind my sayin’ so!” Jelly’s hand lingered on Johnny’s right shoulder; he could feel the tremors as they faded away, and the panic left Johnny’s eyes as he let out a deep sigh.
“Now ya better get yerself back up ta the house… never mind. I’ll make sure ya get there…” Jelly wrestled Johnny to his feet and tried to take his arm, but Johnny was not having any part of it.

“Jelly, I‘m fine, I can make it. Just hafta go a little slow, is all.” Johnny’s stubborn streak kicked in. “But thanks, anyway.” Johnny turned his dazzling smile on the grizzled old handyman.

Jelly held a soft spot in his heart for this young man, he could have been one of Jelly’s boys that he collected and cared for; boys that had been abandoned or orphaned and Jelly took care of them all. When they had stumbled onto Lancer land, Jelly found a job and a place to call home while Johnny managed to see that the boys found good families to take them in and raise as their own. Jelly never forgot how much Johnny had helped and felt that he could never repay Johnny for what he’d done for him and his boys.

“All right, now, ya sit there an’ no more wand’rin’,” he scolded once he had Johnny settled back on the patio. “I’ll have one a the hands go get Barranca for ya,” Jelly said and turned away, muttering under his breath all the way back to the barn.

Johnny sat back into the comfortable chair and watched Jelly’s departure. He had to smile at the verbal cloud left in the man’s wake. There was no holding back if Jelly thought a reprimand was in order, then a reprimand ya got!

The sun warmed him again, the chill from the barn had seeped through his clothes, had cooled him a bit, and while Johnny relaxed, he felt his eyes grow heavy, and finally, he slept.

<><><><> 

“Johnny, I heard you took a little walk today,” Murdoch spoke softly, albeit firmly, as they sat around the dinner table. This was the first meal Johnny had taken with his family since a bullet had viciously torn a very large hole in his shoulder causing extensive damage and blood loss. The family had been very patient, but John Madrid Lancer was indeed challenging to deal with when injured. He loathed the ‘hovering’ and getting him to take the pain relievers would tax a saint. They all wanted him better but knew the injury couldn’t be hurried along, and it had the potential to go very bad if Johnny didn’t take care of himself; to have him laid up any longer was likely to do them all in.

Johnny turned a brilliant smile on his father, the smile he that knew melted Murdoch’s heart.

“Yup, sure did an’ I gotta tell ya it felt good ta get out. Gotta move around otherwise ya stiffen up and takes longer ta get healed.”

Murdoch noticed that while Johnny was eating more than he had since taking the bullet, he still was not eating like he should. But he returned the smile and cut off the words his son was about to say.

“Well, please don’t rush this and be careful. This was too serious to brush off like it was nothing, son.” That was it. Murdoch would say no more about it tonight as he saw the smile disappear. Just these few words had Johnny  already building the walls of defense around himself, and Murdoch wondered if he would even finish the meal with them.

Now, Johnny was pushing the food around on his plate instead of eating, which was the first sign. The next would be his reluctance to join in the conversation, and then he would excuse himself and go either out on the patio to watch the sky or back to his room. I wonder what he will do tonight? Murdoch thought to himself.

Johnny felt the confines tightening and walls were closing in. Can’t take the fussin’…

“Johnny… Johnny!” Scott repeated when there had been no answer.

Johnny looked to his brother, self-conscious that he’d not been listening, that Scott had to make the effort a second time for his attention. “What’d ya say, Scott? Sorry, wasn’t listenin’…” he muttered.

Scott smiled and tried to draw him into conversation as he, too, had seen the barriers erected, as Johnny began shutting everyone out.

“I asked if you would be up for a game of chess after dinner,” Scott repeated with a hopeful smile.

Johnny sighed. “Maybe tamorrow night, Boston. Think I'm gonna turn in. ‘Scuse me.” He slowly got to his feet and left the table.

Teresa looked at the plate he left; most of the food was still on it, and she shrugged.

“He’s not eating enough to keep a bird alive. Maybe I’ll fix him something later and take it to him,” she said as she started to clear the table. Murdoch and Scott exchanged looks, both concerned but holding off with any comments.

<><><><> 

This was the hardest part for him. The pain of taking a bullet was nothing compared to the slow convalescence, the fussing they insisted on to smother him, not able to do anything, and the reminders to take it easy and not overdo. It made him crazy and irritable. It was torture. He knew his family cared and wanted what was best for him, but it still made him edgy and not able to relax. He had been feeling better every day, too bad he couldn’t convince his family of that.

The need to run was building, and it was intense, and stronger with each passing minute. And then it hit him. Holly. Salinas. He was long overdue for a visit, and that was one bed that he could easily stay in all day, as long as she was with him… If he could get into town with no one finding out and catch the train to Salinas, he could escape without them worrying overmuch, that way he wouldn’t be riding Barranca the entire distance there, so why would anyone care? So Johnny made his plans and very shortly he would leave. He knew his family would object to him going anywhere at this point, but what was going to make it worse was how they found out he was gone. The fur would definitely fly…

Johnny pretended to sleep as he heard the footfalls coming down the hall. He knew it was Teresa probably bringing him food, and he was right. The knock was soft on the door, then hesitant as if waiting for an answer, but  none was issued. He could see her in his mind as she balanced the tray of food she was carrying and opened the door just enough to take a peek into the room. Johnny lay still in bed under the blankets. No lamp had been lit, and he hoped she thought he was asleep, and would quietly close the door behind her when she left.

Shortly after she left, Johnny heard the others as they retired for the night, both Murdoch and Scott stopped by perhaps hoping to catch Johnny still awake. He was wrong to avoid them, and he knew it, but it saved a lot of aggravation for him; it kept the focus off his injury and eliminated the hovering that he detested. With the interruptions now gone for the night, Johnny lay in his bed and thoughts of Holly teased his mind.

Had it really been only eight weeks since they’d seen each other last? It seemed more like twenty. And if the family had anything to say about it, it would be another eight weeks before they would consent to him leaving. Well, they wouldn’t have to worry about him; Holly, he knew, would take excellent care and make sure he healed. Johnny would give it another four days before he made his getaway, and in the meantime, he would try his best to avoid the exhausting confrontations. But it would be difficult.

Thoughts of the beautiful woman filled his head as he lay alone, and he wished she was there with him now. She knew how to ease the anxiousness and subdue the pain without forcing the hated drugs on him. And she knew how to love him. How am I gonna last another four days? He would have to find something to occupy his mind until he would quietly ride out and make his way to Green River.

The sun was bright as it blazed its way through the open window. The curtains swayed in the breeze that cleared the stuffiness out of the room and filled it with clean, fresh air. It had to have been after midnight when Johnny finally fell asleep, and now as he checked his pocket watch that he left on the bedside table, he saw it was after eight. Too late for breakfast, too early for lunch but he was sure that Maria would find him something to eat.

Slowly, Johnny rolled out of bed and pulled on his pants, socks, and shirt. Stuffing his feet into leather moccasins, he took the back stairs and made his way into the kitchen to find Maria at the stove. She heard the chair scuff across the tiles and turned to find her niñoas he sat at the table.

Juanito! You are too quiet! You need to eat…” She muttered a string of rapid-fire Spanish, half scolding him for not staying in bed and then for not eating, he was too skinny, and he would blow away with the wind if he didn’t put some meat on his bones. Johnny couldn’t help but smile as Maria chattered while she made him breakfast.

He was surprised when she set a cup of coffee in front of him. Up until now, they made sure it was Willow bark tea, or horse piss, as he called it. He swore he had drunk gallons of the vile, bitter stuff. It was always the dreaded tea that he had been given and as he swallowed his coveted morning coffee, his eyes closed with pleasure. He savored the hot strong brew having had missed it for the last two weeks. Now it was like Heaven as it flowed into his belly, flooding his body with that that he had been denied.

It was strange that something as simple as a morning cup of coffee could make you feel so good. It was the only way to start his day. Johnny anticipated eggs and bacon but was cruelly jolted back to the world of bland food when Maria sat a bowl of oatmeal in front of him. It was almost comical the way his smile disappeared, and his pout was a work of art. Maria could not resist a grin and had to work at holding herself together at the crestfallen expression when he looked into her face.

“Be happy I gave you coffee today and not more tea! Now eat!” she scolded him and went about her cooking. Suddenly there was a thunk across his knuckles as the wooden spoon made contact.

Johnny quickly pulled his hand away after he issued a very loud “OWW!”

Juanito! Where is your sling? You know that you still need it!”

Mierda! I forgot the damn sling! And thus began his day.

Once again, the warm rays of the sun covered him like a healing blanket. He felt better today than he had since he had taken the bullet. Maria had settled him on the patio with strict instructions that he tried to ignore. He bit his tongue as the ‘rules’ had been laid out for his time outside, and with one last glance at her charge, Maria finally left him alone after she deposited a large glass of fresh juice on the table beside his chair. She then adjusted the blanket snugly around him. When she reached the door that led back into the kitchen, she looked once more, and confident he was safely ensconced, and out of trouble, she disappeared into the estancia.

Johnny relaxed, giving it about half an hour, knowing that she would be sneaking a peek through the window to make sure he followed ‘the rules’. A small nap served him well, then he slowly got to his feet and walked around to work out any kinks. The blood started to flow, and Johnny could tell he was making progress, getting stronger, and that thought was the best medicine of all. That and, of course, knowing that he would be in Holly’s arms very soon!

He could see her black diamond eyes sparkle at him, filled with love and passion, her long straight, silken hair spread out on the pillow then wrapped around them both in a glorious soft cocoon. His smile stretched across his handsome mouth when his thoughts turned to her.

It still mystified him when he thought about her, and how his mind could be wrapped in such a sweet and heavenly trap; he’d never before felt this way, and he was baffled, and confused. He found that when he thought about Holly that nothing made sense, but he didn’t want it to. He was completely enamored. Scott had been able to put it into words: Johnny loved her beyond anything else. He would, without a doubt, die for her.

“Hey, brother! Are you behaving yourself out here?” The jovial words spilled out of Scott’s mouth with a laugh, but Scott knew in his own mind that something was going through his brother’s head that shouldn’t be there. Johnny had been trying too hard to be agreeable and not draw attention to himself. Yes, something is going on in that mind of his…

Johnny smiled, glad for the company even though there would be some mention of ‘the rules’. “Just what else exactly could I be doin’ other than followin’ them damn rules? Maria’s been watchin’ me like a hawk after a chicken!” Johnny huffed, although a bit humored and honestly glad for his brother’s company, despite the teasing.

Scott occupied the chair next to Johnny, and soon Maria hustled out of the kitchen with a tray of lunch. Scott quickly reached for the sandwich of thick-sliced beef, leaving the bowl of soup for Johnny. He couldn’t resist a chuckle at the look of disbelief and shock, on his little brother’s face when the tasty sandwich had been plucked off the plate right out from under his nose. He had, indeed, been robbed!

“Uh, Scott?” Johnny began as he watched Boston take a large bite of the tempting sandwich. He looked over, having difficulty chewing and laughing at Johnny’s expression.

“What?” Scott said around a mouthful of tender beef.

“You, uh, ya wouldn’t wanna trade… would ya?” Johnny swallowed thinking about how good that sandwich would taste instead of the soup, which was no doubt bland broth.

Scott feigned a shocked, wide-eyed glance at Johnny.

“What? And risk Maria’s wrath? Not on your life, little brother! Now eat your soup!” Scott said in a mocking tone, then chuckled.

How ‘bout I just shoot ya? Johnny thought as he shot ice-cold shards at Scott that served no purpose except to make Scott laugh harder.

“You’re going to have to work on that look, Johnny. You’re losing your touch!”

Johnny stared at the bowl; finally, he picked up the spoon and ate only to be pleasantly surprised that submerged under the broth were chunks of tender and tasty chicken. At least it was something!

But the day went downhill from there. Maria still had him confined to the patio under her watchful eye; Scott teased him about not being able to handle a beef sandwich, that he could only have soup. Later in the day, Jelly badgered him about staying in the sun too long, and Teresa chastised him for not drinking enough fluids.

“You lost a lot of blood, Johnny! Sam said…”

He tried to shut her out, and when that didn’t work, he slowly got to his feet and walked into the house, leaving her standing with open mouth and shocked and hurt feelings.

As he passed Murdoch sitting at his desk, he began admonishing Johnny for not resting and for not wearing the sling on his arm. Johnny closed his eyes, wishing to disappear, drop off the face of the earth and be anywhere but here. The constant scrutiny was more than he could handle. He fought desperately to hold his temper in check, and he bit his tongue for fear of saying something he would regret later. He went to his room and started to pack a few things into his saddlebags and be ready to make his escape.

<><><><> 

The note was safely tucked in his pocket as he slowly and quietly navigated the back stairs into the kitchen. Johnny had waited the four days that he’d promised himself before making this trip. It was difficult, but he’d done it.

He walked silently past Jelly’s room and made it across the yard to the barn without raising any alarm. Apparently, the noisy and nosey goose, Dewdrop, was either sleeping or had realized it was Johnny and not a threat, and remained where he was without a ruckus.

Once in the barn, Johnny went to Barranca and scratched the soft ears, murmuring to the horse and received a head butt. Johnny grinned at the Palomino; he missed their rides and was looking forward to the trip into Green River, just the two of them. No one to tell him to rest or eat or take medicine. No one to say… anything.

He smoothed the thick cloth on the sturdy, golden back but struggled with the saddle. He finally maneuvered it to settle onto the blanket after a mighty one-armed wield that landed it into place. With the cinch tightened and saddlebags tied behind, Johnny led Barranca out of the barn and closed the doors. He stepped into the stirrup and fluidly swung into the saddle. Then with a nudge to his amigo, they quietly left Lancer before the sun had a chance to lighten the sky.

Johnny took his time getting into Green River. There was no pain… yet, and he didn’t want to take a step back in his recovery now that he’d made so much progress. He knew he’d been severely injured, had been badly injured  before, but it was the ‘mothering’ that had him on the run. The constant attention and ‘do this’ and ‘no, you can’t do that’ drove him to flight. Holly could use those same words, and they weren’t the confining, irritating demands and admonishments used by his family. The thought of her brought a sweet smile to his face, and he was anxious to be with her. Soon…

<><><><> 

The sun had come over the mountains with a promise of a beautiful day as Johnny sat in the sheriff’s office waiting for the train that would soon have him on his way. There were only a few more minutes until it would leave, then Johnny handed the note to Val.

“Hey, do me a favor an’ see that Murdoch or Scott gets this, would ya?” Johnny asked of Val Crawford, his longtime amigo, and ‘other brother’.

Val laughed. “So, yer makin’ me an accessory ta the crime, are ya?” Of anyone, Val understood Johnny’s need to leave and would make sure that those at Lancer knew he was alright.

The trip by horseback wouldn’t be the forced confinement and though he craved the freedom it would provide, the slow travel on meandering tracks through the mountains was a better option for one in Johnny’s physical condition. The four or five-hour ride on a train was not so bad; Johnny could snooze, get a little rest and then Holly would be there to take care of him. Didn’t sound too bad to Val.

He walked Johnny down to the station and got Barranca settled into the stock car, then Johnny bid Val thanks and to see him in a week or two.

Johnny Madrid Lancer boarded the train, and it chugged out of Green River northwest to Salinas and into the arms Holly Elena Vasquez, the love of his life.

Val had a crazy notion of taking a wander up there in a couple of days, maybe surprise Chrissy with a visit not to mention to make sure Johnny was behaving. Yup, that sounds like a good idea ta me! Val thought.

Johnny settled in the back of the train car, pulled his hat down over his eyes only after he checked out those in the car with him. Nothing or no one appeared threatening, no particular feelings or suspicions pricked his brain, so Johnny shut his eyes and enjoyed a nap as the train threaded its way through the mountains.

The day was perfect for travel, the air in the higher elevations was crisp and clear, and Johnny rested as comfortably as was possible on the hard wooden seat. The car swayed and chugged over the tracks as Johnny drifted in and out, occasionally glancing at the mountains, trees and blue sky as it slid past the window. Time seemed to crawl by, but it was only after the whistle blew, and the engineer applied the breaks for the next stop that he was jolted to full awareness. Johnny opened his eyes to realize they were over halfway to Salinas.

<><><><> 

What was he thinking?” Murdoch railed as he held the note that Val gave him. Scott reached for the missive in his father’s hand as Murdoch turned his heated glare to the sheriff with eyes that blazed fire.

“And you didn’t try and stop him?” With his raised voice, Murdoch’s bellow rang through the estancia and bounced off the walls.

Val knew it was worry behind the tone more than irritation with him. “He’s a grown man, Mr. Lancer. What kind of trouble can he get into on a train? An’ he’ll be with Holly, an’ I know she’ll take good care a him…”

Murdoch turned to Scott as Scott turned to his father. Each shocked, they exchanged a roll of their eyes in exasperation.
“Val, I might remind you this is Johnny we’re talking about…” Scott said sarcastically, and Val shrugged, knowing if there was trouble that Johnny would find it.

<><><><> 

Johnny shook his head and cleared away the last vestiges of sleep. Anxious now more than ever to fall into Holly’s arms, feel them wrap around him and pull him close. He could taste her sweet lips, and the scent she used filled his head with promises of honey-sweet kisses and fires of precious, heated passion. Feelin’ better already!

She was unlike any other woman Johnny had ever known, and he knew that she was the only woman he would ever love. He smiled as he thought of how she’d turned his world upside down, inside out and backward and knowing then what he knew now, he’d love her all over again. She was his life and much of the reason he got up every day. What spell she had cast on him, he didn’t know, nor did he care.

When he stopped to think about it, he became confused as his early life with his mother did not promote anything that resembled devotion or faithfulness. Greed, carnal desires, and self were the things that Johnny had been subjected to, and those ill-chosen wants had driven his mother as she deteriorated before his young eyes.

Vows spoken before God meant nothing; so where did these feelings that Johnny held in his heart for Holly come from? It was a puzzle to him. He’d given it considerable thought. He had only recently come to the conclusion that his mother had missed out of much that she coveted and that that had been within her reach. Much that she did have before she threw it all away, running out on and away from a life that, given a chance, would have suited her wants and needs.

Unfortunately, she had dragged her baby son, Johnny, with her and denied him of what was rightfully his, his place to grow up at Lancer. So, now, here he was, grown into a man, strong, honest, and good and with the love of a woman from an equally appalling childhood, and of equally outstanding character. The question he asked himself was: Why? Scott had said that it was destiny, that they were created for each other. Well, maybe, Boston’s right, I ain’t gonna argue the fact. I’m just glad it happened… With no different answer, Johnny would settle for that, and that was alright…

The last hour of the train ride was painfully slow. She was just beyond his reach, and that thought should have eased the anxiousness, but it didn’t. It only intensified the need to be with her. It was only three minutes past the last time he checked the watch. Murdoch always said Johnny was impatient. He was even born early.

Johnny fidgeted in his seat and forced himself to settle down. Now that he was so close, he was losing patience. How was it that their separation worked as well as it did? There were one hundred miles between them, as the crow flies, and often weeks and weeks between visits. Holly said it would not be the same if they were together all the time. They were both independent, both had suffered through decisions made for them and control over them at a very young age, ending badly for each. Now they fiercely defended and protected of their ‘freedom’, they were self-sufficient and independent. Where the situation wasn’t meant for most, it worked very well for these two lovers. They pledged their love to the other and remained devoted.

Salinas was a thriving town. Every time Johnny arrived, there were new buildings and more folks on the boardwalks. Holly worked for Dr. Hanley, and as the only doctor for miles around, they were kept very busy with the growing population. Johnny had kept the visit a secret but now wondered if it was a bad idea to just surprise her. Too late ta worry about that now… Johnny thought as the train stopped.

He disembarked and headed to the stock car to collect Barranca. The horse,  unhappy at his confinement, did his best to show his displeasure and attempted to nip the fingers that were now working the bridle in place and tightening the cinch of the saddle. An ear-piercing whistle brought a stop to the nonsense as Johnny had no desire to appear before Holly with bite marks on his hands. There would be enough to explain when she found out about the wound in his shoulder.

Johnny stiffly mounted Barranca and took the back way around to the dress shop where Holly shared living quarters with Chrissy, Salinas’ dressmaker. Both girls had worked together in the brothels along the border, and when Holly came to Salinas at Johnny’s urging, Chrissy came with her. Now both respectable and well-liked with the citizens of the town, their new lives held nothing but promise and a stable future.

Johnny boarded Barranca at the livery and walked into the back of the dress shop without a sound. He heard Chrissy chatting with a customer and listened to the goodbyes, then the front door shut announced by the pleasant tinkling sound from a small bell.

Johnny cat-walked behind Chrissy and wrapped her with a hug as she yelped in surprise. She turned in his arms, and a squeal of joy split the air as she grabbed his arms and pulled him to her as she returned the hug. Her zealous actions brought a groan, and he paled at the movement. He pulled away a bit, and she frowned, not knowing what had happened. Johnny offered her a smile of reassurance.

“It’s alright, I'm fine. Don’t worry about it, Chrissy.”

But she was having none of it. She knew both Johnny and Val would not level about their discomfort.

“Johnny, what happened, honey?”

“Oh, nothing too excitin’,” he re-directed the conversation to another route. “Holly doesn’t know I’m here an’ don’t wanna take her away early if Doc needs her so I’ll wait upstairs, alright?” he asked as Chrissy started up the back stairs after him.

“Sure, Johnny, you just take a little nap, and she’ll be here later this afternoon. Val alright?” she asked hoping that he would surprise her with a visit, but she understood with his obligation as sheriff, his time was limited.

Johnny laughed at her inquiry. “Yeah, he’s alright, ornery ol’ cuss! Wish you’d teach him how ta make a decent cup a coffee, though. That man makes the worst coffee I ever had, it’s like poison!”

Chrissy laughed and winked. “Do you need anything, Johnny? Are you hungry, do you want a drink?”

“No thanks, chica, I‘m fine, just a little tired, thanks anyway.” He opened the bedroom door and walked to the chair to sit as he toed off his boots.
Chrissy closed the door behind him and went down to her shop wishing that Val had come along this time. Well, she would have to bide her time and wait for him.

Johnny stretched out on Holly’s comfortable bed and closed his eyes. He wished she was here right now but knew that he would be with her in a few hours. He’d better get some sleep… while he could, he thought with a smile.

When his eyes cracked open, it was still light out, but the sun had just begun its descent in the sky, so Johnny knew he hadn’t been asleep too long. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, then fingered his watch out of his pocket. He slept longer than he wanted, but at least Holly wasn’t home yet, that was until he heard the key slip into the lock. He hurried to stand leaning against the doorframe of her room, thumbs hooked over his belt, his blue eyes sparkled in mischief with a smile to match as she came in from the back stairway.

She hummed a sweet tune as she walked into the kitchen and slid to a stop when she realized she was not alone. A gasp escaped her lips, followed closely by a shriek of delight, and she launched herself across the room and into his arms. But she stopped as her body contacted with his, and he pulled away  before he could stop himself. She quickly stepped back and had not missed the pale features that stared back at her.

Juanito! What is wrong? Are you alright, querido? The worry in her eyes touched his heart, and he offered a sly grin as he wrapped her in a gentle but firm hug, but she pulled away, searching his eyes with hers full of questions. He laughed as he watched her face that was suddenly serious.

“Sí, querida, I’m fine… now!” He laughed and pulled her close; he buried his face in her hair and inhaled deeply as her scent filled his head with more intimate thoughts. His heart quickened in his chest as he nuzzled her ear.

The gentle touch sent delicious goosebumps down her entire body, but she had to find out what was wrong. She pulled away once more to check him over carefully and found the thick bandage that covered his shoulder and chest under his shirt. She took his arm in a firm grip leading him to the bed and issued a soft but no-nonsense command.

“Sit,” she ordered and began to unbutton his shirt.
His hands started their wandering, he couldn’t help himself, she was so close he had to touch her.

“Juanito, be serious, por favor!”

“I couldn’t be more serious!” he said as he looped his right arm around her shoulders and rolled, taking her with him across the bed until she lay trapped beneath him. He met her black diamond gaze as it sparkled into his, and again he wondered how he’d gotten so lucky to have this woman for his own. His breath caught in his throat as he watched the beauty under him, and he bent to kiss that perfect mouth, and taste the lips that were sweet beyond any he’d ever kissed.

Holly could feel the thunder of his heart against his ribs and felt hers quicken, but again she pulled away. “Juanito! Let me check you out!” she whispered.

He sighed, knowing she would not rest until she was satisfied he was alright. “I’m fine, honest. Just a little bullet hole…”

Bullet hole! Johnny! What happened?” she asked suddenly more worried than she had been before. Her nimble fingers had a few toggles on his shirt undone before Johnny realized what she was doing. She grabbed the back of his shirt, pulling the tail as she gently tugged it free of his calzoneras. Now it was her turn to roll over onto him.

She peeled away what she could of the bandage then slipped off the bed and collected scissors from her bureau drawer. She sat next to Johnny, and he watched her as she tended him. The gentle touch was soft as silk as she cut away the binding that Sam had changed at Lancer. She frowned as the wound was exposed, she knew it had been a serious injury, however, it was healing nicely, and the stitches could be removed very soon. She looked into his eyes with a delicate raised brow.

“Do Murdoch, Scott, and Sam know that you’re here? Did you tell them you were leaving the ranch?”
 
“They know now. Val took care a that for me…” He reached for her, but she backed away before his hand could trap her.

“Johnny, you are muy terco (stubborn), querido! Where is your sling? You should be wearing one, this is a bad injury, she whispered as she re-bandaged the wound and settled him into her bed.

Now, Johnny was only too accommodating as she undressed him and pulled the sweet-scented sheets and blanket up to his chest. She stood and went to the door, much to his dismay.

“Hey, where ya goin’?” She’s s’posta join me in here… She turned to him, damn, that eyebrow’s still raised… Could be trouble…
 
“To the kitchen. You need something to eat. Rest, and I will be back later.” She left him alone in her bed. Huh, hadn’t figured it’d go like this exactly.

Holly returned, a tray laden with food balanced in her arms. She smiled as she watched Johnny open his eyes, and in her heart, she knew that he shouldn’t be here; he should be at Lancer in his own bed. She also knew that the family and Sam would be furious with him about leaving, and rightfully so. Well, he was here now and would be in this bed for as long as she could keep him there. That will not be too difficult! she thought with a grin, come to think of it she could use some ‘rest’ herself!

Holly set the tray on the small table beside her bed and sat down next to Johnny. With eyes still heavy from sleep, he gazed at her sweet angel face, and he felt himself grow warm; she was, without a doubt, the best woman he had ever known, he couldn’t help but love her.

She reached across him and took the other pillow to stuff behind him as he lifted his head and shoulders to sit up a bit. Holly noticed that he kept his left arm close to his body and wasn’t moving it much.

She sighed as she readied the food and set the tray across his lap. A plate of hot stew and two thick slices of bread with butter, a cup of hot coffee and a large glass of water looked enticing. As appreciative as he was for the food, Johnny was hungrier for her, but she insisted he eat his meal before she let him have the tempting dessert. With her most seductive stare, she dampened her lips with the tip of her tongue. It was almost more than he could handle, and she laughed.

“Now, eat!” she ordered with a smile

Reluctantly, he picked up his fork and began his meal.

“Do you have any pain?” she asked.

He looked her square in the eyes and with the lecherous grin crawling across his face, he nodded yes.

Holly huffed as she caught his meaning. “Let me ask another way, do you have any pain from your wound?” she asked as if talking to a child.

“Nope. Ain’t done nothin’ ta make it hurt. Couldn’t do no work at the ranch, hell, they wouldn’t let me ride, had ta stay sittin’ in a chair, and that’s after I finally got outta bed… Started ta feel too closed in so thought I’d come an’ spend a coupla days here. I know that ya prob’bly can’t be with me mosta the day, but we can still have some time tagether when ya get done workin’ unless ya want me ta go back home…” he added quietly.

“Finish your dinner, and I will show you what I want…” she replied, equally quiet.

Their evening was spent in each other’s arms, not the desperate lovemaking they usually enjoyed when first coming together, but slow and sweet and filled with their incredible passion. Their play lasted late into the evening when exhaustion overtook them, and they fell deeply asleep locked in each other’s arms, both completely sated and hearts near to bursting with their intimate touch.

<><><><> 

Holly watched as the room began to lighten. The paleness of Johnny’s face had faded, and a more normal color was back tinged with a healthy pink. He looked very… satisfied lying there. She almost giggled when she thought of the idea that making sweet passion-filled love could get Johnny back on his feet faster than anything that Sam Jenkins could prescribe!

She studied his face, now relaxed in slumber, the strong line of his jaw so handsome and rugged contrasted dramatically with the long and thick lashes that feathered over his cheeks. Never had she seen such beautiful lashes on man or woman. She raised an arm to brush aside the hair that fell down over his forehead, soft and thick, black-brown hair that she loved to run her fingers through. She couldn’t resist tangling them in the silky-soft mass. She chuckled knowing his father always wanted him to get his hair cut, but Holly loved the way it dragged across the collar of his shirt, and as she lay beside him now, it was all she could do to not pet his hair and run her fingers through it as she had done last night.

But she had to leave the bed to be at work on time. Dr. Hanley was very generous about giving her time off when he knew Johnny was coming to visit. Hanley genuinely liked the young man and knew what it meant to Holly to have him visit.

They were an exceptional couple, and Hanley would do whatever he could to allow them their time together. He knew of their arrangement, and where he did not support the notion of affairs without the bond of marriage, he also understood the background of them both and knew they were committed to the other. Who was he to condemn what they did? And, he knew of the pledge they made to the other in that secluded valley at Lancer, the valley that Johnny’s father had deemed sacred. After all, God did not reside strictly in a church…

Holly dressed quietly. Not wanting to disturb Johnny as he lay in her bed, she let him sleep and perhaps she would ask Dr. Hanley to check out his shoulder just to make sure it was still healing properly, especially after making this trip that she was positive had not been given the okay by Dr. Jenkins in Green River.

It had been a severe wound, and she knew that he definitely should not have been traveling. The blood loss had been extreme, and it was probably the reason that he did not wake when Holly left the bed. He still needed the rest.

Soon Holly was ready and on her way to the doctor’s office. She would discuss with him Johnny’s condition and had no doubt that Hanley would be glad to help.

<><><><> 

Johnny’s eyes cracked open, and for a minute he wondered where he was, then a sweet memory of last night took over his thoughts, and he smiled,  smiled until he turned his head and saw that Holly was gone. Maybe he would stay here for a while then take Holly to lunch. Yup, Madrid, sounds like a good plan. With that thought in mind, he closed his eyes, pulled her pillow into his arm, then fell back to sleep as her sweet scent filled his head. The dreams were of Holly as she wrapped her silken arms around his neck and held him tight, she smothered him with tender kisses with the promise of much more. Even in his sleep, his heart thundered against his chest.

Johnny stretched as he lay under the blankets and took stock of his condition. Truthfully, he was feeling better than he had for quite a while. He felt rested as the time spent in this bed had definitely been of benefit, but as his thoughts drifted back to last evening, he knew he could use a bit more of Holly’s healing touch, and he smiled.

Pulling himself back to the present, Johnny knew he needed to get moving to make it in time to take Holly to the diner, and just maybe he would invite Doc. He threw back the blankets and rolled gingerly out of bed, then sat on the edge of the mattress for a few minutes. He hadn’t felt this good for  weeks, but then he‘d just spent a long sweet night with the woman he loved. That would make any man feel relaxed, he thought. He reached for his clothes where Holly had neatly folded them away before she left this morning and smiled when he spied the sling she put right on top of the pile. Better wear the damn thing, she’ll skin me alive if she sees me without it…

Twenty minutes later saw Johnny, dressed, shaved and on his way out the door complete with the sling on his arm. He left by the back stairs and collected Barranca from the livery where Tiny Christianson insisted on saddling the horse when he saw Johnny had entered the barn. Johnny thanked the man and mounted Barranca to ride the four blocks to Doc Hanley’s office. Along the way, he was stopped by Sheriff Brody and with a ‘good to see you again’ conversation. Johnny smiled, then continued on his way nodding in greeting with others he knew.

As he tied Barranca to the hitch rail, the door to Dr. Hanley’s opened, and an older man exited and made his way down the boardwalk. Johnny tipped his hat as he passed the man and entered the office just as Holly stepped into the waiting area.

“Johnny, mio!” She smiled radiantly and stepped up on tiptoes to press a kiss to his mouth. Johnny wrapped his arm around her and hugged her tight then she tipped her head back and eyed the sling.

“I am glad to see you behaving, querido, I would hate to have to use force and put that on you myself!”

A wicked, leering grin crawled across his face. “You could try but think you’d have your hands full doin’ it! Can ya get away for lunch? I‘ll take ya over ta the diner, an’ we can eat. I’m starvin’!”  

Holly broke away from his embrace. “I will tell the doctor I am leaving, unomomento, por favor, Juanito.”

“Holly, ask Doc if he wants ta join us if he can,” Johnny suggested as she swept into the back. Several seconds later, Johnny heard the doctor offer an affirmative answer as both Holly and Hanley walked out to the small lobby. Dr. Hanley held out a hand and greeted Johnny, sincerely glad to see the man again. He scrutinized the sling on Johnny’s arm.

“When we get back I want to look at that shoulder, Johnny. Holly said it was  serious.”

Johnny shrugged and smiled. “It’s alright, an’ I’m feelin’ pretty good,” trying to brush aside the concern.

Hanley’s eyes narrowed. “Well, I think that I’ll just check it out anyway. Tell me, were you cleared with your doctor to come here?”

Johnny looked into Holly’s eyes and knew that she had already talked to Doc about it. Resolved to the fact that he would be examined Johnny shrugged again. “Let’s wait till after lunch. I’m starvin’! C’mon!” Johnny held the door open as the three stepped out onto the boardwalk and proceed to Shillman’s Diner.

The special of the day was pot roast, mashed potatoes, and green beans. They all were enjoying the meal together when Sheriff Brody walked through the door. Johnny waved him over to join them as the waitress set a plateful of food on the table for Brody. The Sheriff took his first bite, anticipating the tasty meal when the door burst open and George Benson, owner of the general store, hurried over to the table, worry and shock clouded his features.

“Sheriff, come quick! It’s Miss Carver! She’s… dead! I found her out behind my store just layin’ in the alley!”

Brody stood up so fast he tipped the chair back to land with a loud bang on the floor, drawing curious looks from others in the diner as they stopped eating, shocked at the commotion. Doc Hanley left the table with him, and the two men charged out the door. Holly met Johnny’s stare; he saw her turmoil, she and the school teacher had become friends. Holly got up from her chair, and Johnny threw a handful of coins on the table and went after her.

“Johnny, you shouldn’t be coming with us. There is nothing for you to do,” Holly admonished.

But he did not turn back.
A small crowd had gathered around the body, and Johnny watched as the Sheriff and Doc pushed their way through and knelt down beside the victim. Holly politely got through the gathering crowd and was kneeling in the dirt along with the doctor, but Johnny stayed back so they could do their work.

“Anyone see anything suspicious?” the sheriff spoke to the crowd, all with the same response, no, no one had seen anything. “Alright, everyone, if ya got no information ta tell me, ya’ll go about your business. Let Doc an’ me handle it. Go on, now, go home…”

Brody broke up the crowd and Johnny held back, but he started to scour the area for any sign of a struggle or tracks indicating something had been dragged in the dirt. There was nothing he could see, but the crowd could have obliterated such clues when they started to gather. Johnny kept going in an ever-widening circle. There was an odd heel print he found in several areas but not much else.

A blanket was spread on the ground, and Miss Carver was lifted onto it and covered. She was then taken to the undertaker’s with Doc Hanley and Holly following after him. Brody stood, and Johnny thought the man looked shaken.

He finally noticed Johnny standing off to the side. “Find anything, Johnny?” the Sheriff asked with hope in his voice.

Johnny sighed, then shrugged and shook his head. “Dunno, it ain’t much, but there’s a few tracks here. If there was more of them could be somethin’, but with all the folks that was just here they coulda got trampled over.”

Brody came to where Johnny stood and saw the tracks stamped in the dirt. He examined print and frowned. “Don’t look like any boot print I ever saw b’fore,” he said, then stood and went along a bit further than Johnny had ventured but found nothing. He huffed out a breath.

“She was a nice lady. Don’t know why anyone would wanna do her any harm…”

“Maybe she saw something that she shouldn’t have. Could be as simple as bein’ in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Johnny offered softly.

“Well, I’m goin’ over ta the undertakers. Ya wanna come with me?” Brody asked.

“Not really but I need ta be with Holly. She’s pretty shaken about this.”

Sheriff Brody dispersed the crowd that had gathered in front of the undertakers. He could never figure out why folks would want to congregate over such a morbid site. He knew that Miss Carver had been well-liked in Salinas, but there would be time enough to gawk at her funeral. Brody and Johnny opened the door to ‘The Peaceful Valley Undertaker’s’ as Henry came out of the back.

“Sheriff,” Henry Jacobs greeted Brody and nodded his head at Johnny.
“Doc’s still with the body. He shouldn’t be too long, now. Can I get you gentlemen some coffee?” he asked as Brody and Johnny took a seat in the outer room.

“No thanks, Henry, just came by to see what Doc thinks. Miss Carver didn’t have any family here as far as I know. Someone said she came here from Denver; only been here a year or so, maybe a little less. Everyone seemed to like her, haven’t heard of any problems she had with anyone.” Brody sighed and rubbed his forehead. He turned to Johnny.

Johnny could only shrug.

Henry looked genuinely shaken. It wasn’t a usual thing to have one so young that needed his services. He sniffed loudly. “Such a shame, it is. She was a nice lady, never said a bad word about anyone, and never heard anything bad said about her. She was about the best school teacher we ever had, and she attended church every Sunday. Why would anyone want to do this, Sheriff?”

Brody scrubbed his face with his hands. “I don’t know, Henry, but I aim to find out. I’ll see what Doc says, and then I’ll have to go over and check out the room she rented at the boarding house. Doubt if I’ll find anything there, but it’s a start…”

Johnny remained silent. He felt a profound sadness for the young woman, and even though he did not know her, he did know much about the loss of one so dear. She had contributed much to the community, and the town would suffer because of her demise, but they would have to go on. An’ hope this won’t happen again… Johnny thought.

Half an hour later, Dr. Hanley and Holly came out of the room where they had examined the body of the young teacher. Brody stood as Hanley took off his spectacles and Johnny extended a supportive arm around Holly. He thought she looked shaken, but she turned to him with a slight smile and leaned into his embrace. He placed a soft kiss on her head, and tenderly squeezed her shoulders. The gesture was not missed by either Brody or Dr. Hanley, and both men were touched by the sweetness of these two; however, it was overshadowed by the tragedy of what had just happened in their town.

“She died from strangulation. Probably happened about ten hours ago. There wasn’t much of a struggle, she most likely had been surprised by the attack and had no time to fight back. There was a bit of blood and tissue under her nails on one hand, she might have scratched her attacker. But there are no signs of any other trauma, only deep tissue bruising on her neck and a bruise on her arm where she had been grabbed. Her clothes were not torn or ripped, nor had she been assaulted.” Hanley looked to the sheriff. “Do we know if she had any family?”

Brody shook his head. “Not certain about that, she came here from Denver, so I’ll notify the Marshall there, and maybe he can help us with any information.” Brody left the undertakers.

“Well, you two,” Hanley began as he faced Holly and Johnny, “why don’t you take the afternoon off, dear, I have a feeling that things will be pretty slow for the rest of the day. If I should need you, I’ll send for you.” He smiled at Johnny, and the three of them turned to the door.

The walk back to the doctor’s office was made in silence. Dr. Hanley went through the door and immediately into the back to his private office. Johnny stopped by the hitch rail to collect Barranca then he and Holly walked back to the rooms that she shared with Chrissy above the dress shop.

Once inside, Holly put on a pot of coffee and sat at the table with Johnny. He could read the grief in her actions, her eyes sad, desperately holding back tears. He took her hands in his good one holding them tight, willing her strength. She raised her eyes to his, and it broke his heart at what he saw there.

“She was a sweet woman,” Holly said. “She was very shy at first, like a timid little mouse. I think she had a hard life before she came here.”

“What makes ya say that, querida?” Johnny asked, still holding her hands.

Holly smiled a bit before she answered. “She seemed very nervous. I saw her more than once looking around her as if she expected for someone to be following her. But there was never anyone there. It seemed to be just the opposite of who she turned out to be. She was a wonderful teacher, all the children liked her, and everyone in town liked her. Oh, Johnny, how could this happen to her?”

Johnny could only shrug. “Dunno, Holly, but if this guy’s still around, that means no one’s safe. Think I’ll be stayin’ for a coupla days, that is if ya don’t mind…” and his wink at her brought a smile to her face, the same sweet smile that melted his heart.

“Sí, I would like that, Juanito!”

<><><><> 

Sheriff Brody inserted the key into the lock on Monica Carver’s door. It swung partway open before its path was blocked. He pushed his way into the room; it lay in shambles and had been ransacked. Furniture was moved, cushions taken from the chairs and cut open. The mattress was half off the bed, and feathers from the pillows lay like soft, pure snow that covered that everything.

The drawers that should have been in the dresser were emptied, and their contents strewn across the floor. Pictures had been taken down, and the backs ripped away. The closet had been thoroughly searched, and the dresses that had hung there now lay in tangled mounds amongst the feathers. Brody checked the window and found it to be unlocked; whoever ransacked the room left by the window. Someone had killed the teacher and came here looking for something. Now Brody would have to find out what that something was before anyone else got hurt.

Nettie Brown entered the room that Monica Carver rented, her hand going to her mouth in shock as she witnessed the destruction of the room that was ordinarily neat as a pin. Sheriff Brody turned to her and saw the sorrow written on the old lady’s wrinkled face. She dabbed at her eyes with a dainty handkerchief.

“Oh, Sheriff, who would do such a thing?” she sniffled, again dabbing at her face.

Brody shrugged not having an answer. He turned to the woman, knowing she had been badly shaken, but he had to ask, raising his voice to be heard by her near-deaf ears.

“Did ya hear anything last night, Miz Brown?”

The old woman grew more upset the longer she stood looking at the mess knowing that the sweet woman that resided there in her house as of several hours ago now lay at the undertakers, cold and alone.

“No, nothing out of the ordinary and she was my only tenant, so I would have heard something…” Her voice trailed off into silence. Brody looked around the room again, his mind swirling with questions.

“Well, if ya think of somethin’ you’ll let me know?” Probably wouldn’ta heard something if it woulda been in the same room the way her hearin’ is…

                                                               <><><><>
                                                                       
“Hey, querida, we never got ta eat. Ya hungry?” Johnny asked as he watched Holly pace the floor. She would sit then be up again walking as if going about an intentional act, a mission, and then she would stop and stare. Johnny thought to get her mind off the fact that a woman had been brutally murdered; not just a resident of Salinas, but she had been a friend. Holly was grieving.

Johnny rose from his chair and gently took her into his arm. Easing his left out of the sling, he wrapped it around her and held her as if in safekeeping. No words were spoken; he bent his head and nuzzled her neck. The minutes ticked by and Holly seemed to gather herself and leaned back to look into Johnny’s eyes.

“Sí, Juanito, you need to eat.” About to reach the back door on their way out an ear-shattering scream echoed up from Chrissy’s dress shop. Johnny bolted for the back stairs that led to the storeroom below and charged into the shop with Colt drawn ready to do battle only to find Val standing with Chrissy in his arms.

Dios, Val! Almost put a bullet between your eyes… What’d ya doin’ here?” Johnny let out the breath he’d been holding. Val and Chrissy broke their kiss; Chrissy wiped the tears away as Val still held her in the circle of his arms. Holly came to Val and briefly hugged him when Val noticed the distracted look on their faces.

“What’s the matter with y’all? Ya look like someone just died!” Three sets of shocked eyes turned on him, and he swallowed hard.

“Uh oh, what happened?” he asked, watching their faces.

“C’mon,” Johnny said, “Tell ya over lunch.”

Chrissy locked the door, and the two couples walked to Shillman’s Diner.

Val wolfed down his food, Johnny ate his fill, but the two girls just picked at their plates.

“Brody ever get any deputies?” Val asked of the girls. Salinas was growing, and the sheriff was working alone last Val knew.

“No, he is still by himself. Are you going to help him with this, Honey?” Chrissy asked hopeful that Val would be around for a few days anyway.
“Only if he asks but I’d be glad ta help. Any leads so far?” he asked Johnny.

“Not unless he turned up something in her rented room. That’s where he went off to last time I saw him. After we see the girls back, we’ll go over ta the office an’ check.”

Val nodded in agreement and smiled as he turned to Johnny. “Oh, by the way, amigo, yer in hot water with Murdoch. Jus’ thought you’d like ta know.”

Johnny grinned back and rolled his eyes. So what else is new? It wouldn’t be normal if I wasn’t in trouble with the ol’ man…
<><><><> 

“Val! Good ta see ya! Ya just get inta town?” Sheriff Aaron Brody extended a hand as Val and Johnny walked into his office. Val shook the huge paw and smiled briefly as Brody held up the pot of coffee in offering.

Both Johnny and Val accepted a cup, and with a glance at Val, Johnny quipped: “It’s better’n yours, I bet…”

Val huffed at the dig, and Johnny laughed.

“Yeah, heard ‘bout your coffee, Val. Reckon ya can sell that for embalmin’ fluid?” Brody joined in.

“An’ I was gonna offer ta help you!”

“All jokin’ aside, I’ll take that offer, Val, you, too, Johnny.” Brody tossed a deputy’s badge across his desk, and it skid to a stop by Johnny’s hand. “Johnny, I gotta ask… ya feelin’ up ta this?”

With a smirk, he said: “Yeah, I’m fine. Holly’s been takin’ good care of me. No pain hardly at all,” Johnny said. Then he hesitated, wondering if Brody knew anything about his past as Madrid. He’d have to have a chat with the sheriff one of these days he thought. He also realized Brody had not asked him to help, it was almost a command, but it was accepted none the less.

“Consider yourselves deputized. Say ‘I do’ an’ it’ll be official.”
Johnny looked at the badge as it lay by his hand. Other than Val, and only on occasion, had he been deputized and where he had usually lived within the limits of the law, especially of the last several years, working with a badge pinned on his shirt felt… strange. But he picked it up and responded with a soft “I do” then pinned it under the sling that Holly had retrieved before they left her room.

“Find anything over at the boardin’ house?” Johnny asked and received the answer that he had anticipated.

“Nope, nuthin’ but someone had been there lookin’ for somethin’. The room was torn apart; whoever was there did a real thorough job searchin’.” Brody sighed. “I sent a wire to Denver, that’s where she came from. Still waitin’ for an answer.”

“She was the school teacher here, huh?” Val questioned, and Brody nodded his shaggy head.

“Guess we should go over an’ check out the school, though why any clue would be there is beyond me. Let’s go.”

Johnny and Val set the coffee mugs down on Brody’s desk and followed him out the door.

The school was a small one-room building tucked away in a corner of town. The building stood apart from other structures no doubt to limit the amount of noise generated while students were out playing at recess. Brody tried the door. It was open and his brows raised in concern as he turned to Johnny and Val.

“Shoulda been locked…” he said as he pushed the heavy door into the classroom. The three men stood and were not surprised by the shambles that greeted them. As in Monica Carver’s rented room at the boarding house, the classroom had been turned inside out. The three began looking for anything that could possibly hold a clue as to why someone would want to murder a sweet innocent school teacher.

It didn’t take long before Brody, Johnny, and Val were standing in the middle of the room after they scoured behind pictures and checked for hidden compartments in the walls to realize they were at a dead end. Val went outside to check the well. Who knew? Johnny walked around the room, a thought began to take root. As he reached the desk, he noticed a drawer that had not been emptied. Brody saw the questions as they swirled in Johnny’s head.

“That there drawer’s stuck. Gonna hafta get a pry bar ta get it open,” Brody commented.

Johnny lowered himself to the floor and took out the drawer under the one that was stuck shut. Pleased he experienced no dizziness, he ran his hand around the bottom of the drawer and suddenly stopped when his fingers snagged on the sharp tip of a nail… a nail that was pounded into the drawer bottom to fix it to the desk frame.

“Drawer’s been nailed shut…” Johnny said quietly.

Brody watched and came to stand by Johnny’s side as he got to his knees and grabbed the drawer handle to give a yank. He grimaced as the jerk wrenched the stitches in his shoulder.

Brody pushed him aside and bracing a hand on the desk he pulled with his considerable weight behind him, and on the third tug, the frame began to splinter. One last tug the drawer broke loose as the contents held within spilled to the floor. Setting the empty drawer on the desk, Aaron Brody picked through the items and looked at Johnny with a blank expression.

“There’s nothing here…” he whispered.

Johnny smiled a bit. “Look again, Sheriff,” and he pointed to the backside of the drawer that faced him. Tacked to the end of the wood was an envelope.

<><><><> 

One day earlier…

Monica Carver was a frightened woman. She had seen the man as he stepped out of the diner that afternoon and knew it was only a matter of time before he found her. He was tenacious in his endeavors and had been after her for almost a year now, but she had been able to keep one step ahead, until now. This had been the longest she had been able to elude the dangers she knew awaited her at his hands.

The smug look on his face made her physically ill, and she found herself wanting to slap it right off the dandy, well-groomed, pompous features. She wanted to feel the monocle he always wore crush under her shoes, and she could almost envision the cane that was constantly swinging in his hand come crashing down over his head… What would the town’s people think of her then if they knew her thoughts? She was aware of the  fact they liked her but would they continue to like her if they knew her story? If they really knew who she was? She thought not…

Now she had to leave. Just stay out of sight and leave on the next train out of Salinas. San Francisco! She would go to San Francisco and blend in. Maybe he would finally give up, but in her mind, she knew he would not. He wouldn’t stop until he found her and her only other option would be to turn herself in and that she couldn’t do. Her best plan would be to leave and the sooner, the better.

Once in her rented room at the boarding house, she began to pack just a few things and would use the cover of darkness to make her escape. She would hide until the early train would leave and hopefully be far away by the time he found she was gone. Why did she ever think that she could trust him?

He watched her as she melted into the shadows, he’d kept out of sight and found her shortly after getting into town. He knew by her nervous and hurried actions that she had seen him. A little game of cat and mouse suited him just fine. Anticipation!

He smiled to himself as he wondered just how long she thought she could stay ahead of him. He was amused thinking about the two he had partnered with. How could they believe they would be smart enough to steal this money and leave him out of their deal? The money that he had planned on, it had been his idea! He made the arrangements, they were only accessories and thought themselves smart enough and cagey enough to take it from him!

Her brother thought he would be able to keep the money from him after the two of them decided to double-cross Maxwell, so he had taken care of Joshua, now it was her time to be dealt with, and David Maxwell knew how to handle her. David knew how he would make her pay. She would regret the day she decided to take all of the money the three of them had taken; had schemed and lied for. The money they had stolen together and now was basically in her possession. With her brother dead and her time running out, David Maxwell would be the sole owner of a copious amount of money. Thirty thousand dollars would last him a long, long time. Yes, she would regret the double-cross.

Monica Carver stood in the shadows with her valise clutched in her hand. She knew he was out there, following her and she was scared, again. She’d been scared for the last year. But if she could just make it through these next few days, she knew she would be alright. San Francisco was a big city, and she could lose herself without the worry of being found. Not even by him!

David Maxwell was an evil man, he had killed her brother and was now looking for her. Monica had to stay ahead of him, or she would not be able to spend all that money, the money Joshua gave his life for. She turned and looked behind her. The alley was dark, and no one was around. It was late, after midnight. If she could only last for a few more hours, just enough time to get out of town, then remain out of his sight for the next two or three days she was sure she could lose him in San Francisco.

Her steps increased as she hurried down the alley. She had to get to the school! What was that?A noise behind her made her look again, but nothing was there! Her feet moved faster, and she ran into something solid as she stifled a scream! A hand covered her mouth as a second hand grabbed her arm. There was no escape.

“Hello, Monica… Going somewhere?” His voice purred in satisfaction…

<><><><> 

Brody stared at the drawer for a second, wondering if this would provide any answers. He looked at Johnny then carefully picked the tacks from the envelope that held it secure. The seal was still intact, and Brody ripped it open to reveal a small paper with the number thirty-six, the numerals written with a neat hand, and a key. The door opened, and Val walked in announcing that there was nothing unusual outside when he saw the paper and the drawer on the desktop.

“What’d ya find?” he sidled over next to Johnny and read the paper in Brody’s hand.

“What’s thirty-six mean?” he asked, looking between Johnny and the sheriff.

“Don’t know that yet but maybe we’ll get some answers when the reply from Denver comes in.”

Maxwell watched as the sheriff and two other men, one wearing a sling on his left arm and a rig low on his hip, went inside the school. He had been interrupted in his search and never got that drawer to open. When he saw through the window the three men were coming toward the school, he knew he had to escape or risk getting caught in the building. He left through the back door, then settled behind the cover of wooden crates stacked in an alley to watch.

After coming up short tearing ‘Monica’s’ room apart at the boarding house, he knew he would have to get to the school and look for that key. The key was the only way he could get the money they had stolen and now with both Joshua and ‘Monica’ out of the way David Maxwell would be the single owner of thirty thousand dollars… But only if he had possession of that key.

The schoolhouse door opened, and three men walked out. Maxwell saw the sheriff tuck an envelope into his shirt pocket. Had they found what he’d been looking for? He waited until the men were gone and went back into the school. Immediately saw the drawer that had been stuck shut lying on top of the desk and he had his answer.

<><><><> 

“Sheriff, this just came for ya!” Lou Perkins handed Brody a lengthy wire… From Denver.

No Monica Carver from Denver. Your description fits a woman, Clair Jeffords, also a school teacher, wanted for questioning along with brother, Joshua Jeffords for robbery. Birthmark on the back of her neck, dark brown spot the size of a penny. Third suspect wanted. David Maxwell. Small build, fancy clothes, wears a monocle and carries a cane. They are dangerous. Proceed with caution. Stole thirty thousand dollars and killed a bank guard.

Sheriff Cole Morgan
Denver

Brody handed the wire to Val with Johnny reading over his shoulder.

“How long has she been teachin’ school here?” Johnny asked as he watched Brody sag into his chair. The Sheriff scrubbed a hand over his face making a scratching sound on the stubble of his chin.

“Oh, not long, a year maybe. Seemed friendly enough, a little jumpy, now that I think about it,” Brody sighed as he scratched at his jaw.

“Yeah, Holly said the same thing. Said the woman was always lookin’ around like she thought someone was followin’ her,” Johnny said.

Val was putting it all together.

“So, the Jeffords’, Joshua an’ Clair an’ a dandy type steal thirty thousand dollars, the dandy gets it in his head ta take it from the other two, kills the brother, but she gets away… with a key that’s gonna unlock where ever they stashed the money. That key got any markin’s on it?” Val asked.

Brody fished the key from his pocket and turned it over in his fingers.

“Nuthin’ these old eyes can make out.” He handed it to Val, who shook his head no. Johnny absently rubbed at his shoulder, which had started to ache.

“You alright there, Johnny?” Brody asked.
Johnny’s mind had been focused on the robbery, and Brody’s question grabbed him back to the present. “Huh? Oh, yeah, just pulled it a little when I yanked on that drawer…”

Val smirked. “Well, don’t let Holly see ya doin’ that. She’ll have ya at the Doc’s b’fore ya can say ‘yer fine’…”

Johnny smiled, but his mind was still on the crime. There was a niggling in the back of his brain. Something was trying to spark to life, but it wouldn’t ignite. What is it?  Johnny went to the door and was halfway through when Val stopped him.

“Where ya goin’, amigo?”

Johnny turned his blue-eyed stare on them, and a sly smile came over his features. “Undertakers, see if that woman has that mark on the back of her neck.”

Val was behind him in a heartbeat, and the two left Brody sitting at his desk wondering if a sweet lady like that could be the same one wanted by the law in Denver for robbery and murder.

The bell on the door jingled lightly as Henry Jacobs, Salinas’ undertaker, came from the back room. Knowing the two only from working with Sheriff Brody, Henry greeted them, curious at their visit.

“Gentlemen, I didn’t expect to see you back here so soon. What can I do for you?”

“We’d like ta see the body if ya don’t mind,” Val explained.

A frown creased Henry’s forehead. “Yes, well, one minute, please.” He disappeared behind the heavy curtains only to reappear shortly. “This way, please.”

Val and Johnny followed him into the back room where tools of his trade lay on a large counter. They looked like instruments of torture designed to inflict pain and Johnny was sure they would be in his nightmares, not that he needed any help with those. The smell was overpowering, and the sooner they were out of there, the better Johnny would be. The young woman lay on a table covered with a sheet up to her neck.

“What is it that you need to see, sheriff?” Henry asked of Val.

“A mark, a birthmark on the back of her neck.”

Henry gently turned the woman’s head to the left, there was nothing. Then he turned it to the right. There was nothing. No mark.

“Well, guess this is the wrong girl…” Val muttered as Henry was about to withdraw his hand.

Johnny came forward, and Val stepped to the side. “Wait,” Johnny said, and he reached over to brush aside a tangle of hair. There, just under the hairline was the birthmark.

“Well, what’d ya know… We got us a…” Val stopped. No need to have rumors spreading all over. He and Johnny exchanged glances and left without an explanation.

“Thanks for the help, Henry!” Val said. They immediately turned to the door leaving poor old Henry to stare after them.

<><><><> 

To say Brody was shocked was an understatement. The young woman they knew as Monica Carver was a suspected thief and possible murderer. No one in town would believe it, and Johnny dreaded the thought of telling Holly. But, Holly also knew that things were not always as they seemed to be. Sometimes a situation that arose stemmed from an issue out of that person’s control. Both Johnny and Holly knew this first hand that judgment was not always fair.

Brody leaned back in his chair, not quite sure what to do. “Guess we keep our eyes open for this Maxwell character. ‘M gonna go over ta the hotel an’ see if anyone has checked in that matches the description. Why don’t you two spend the rest of the day with your ladies? Not much more we can do here unless I can turn up somethin’.”

Brody left the office as Johnny, and Val went back to the living quarters above the dressmaker’s shop.
<><><><> 

He watched from his secluded spot as the sheriff did the obvious, he went to the hotel. Maxwell tried to cover his tracks. He needed to get into the sheriff’s office, but it was too early, he could easily be seen. However, he thought, the sheriff left the office, and it should be vacant. He would take the chance.  Again, keeping to the shadows, he took the alleys and now stood at the back door to the jail, but the door was locked. Time to blend in, he thought. He came out of the alley and casually went down the boardwalk, then into the jail. Maxwell quickly found the back door, unlocked it, and exited through the back way without raising any unwanted attention.

<><><><> 

Both Holly and Chrissy were stunned at the fact that the young woman they thought so much about was a suspect in a robbery and murder. Neither of them believed she had anything to do with the killing. She may know something about it but doubted she had an actual hand in it. The four of them sat around the kitchen table as they had their dinner.

The intimate meals they often shared together served them well this night. None of them felt the need to go to the diner. The pall that shrouded them did not make for a social evening. Johnny was hoping for an early night, and although he was more than happy to help Brody with this problem, he did come here to ‘rest’ with Holly. And the short time they had together, he was, indeed, feeling better.

Johnny looked at Val and smirked.

“So, how mad was Murdoch when ya gave him my note?” he asked of his amigo.

Val put his hands to his ears. “Huh? What’d ya say? Still can’t hear right from all his yellin’!” Johnny grimaced a bit. “I told ‘im yer gonna be on a train, how much trouble can ya get into on a train? Then Scott had ta stick his nose in an’ remind me that it was you that we’re talkin’ ‘bout…” It felt good to let loose with a bit of tomfoolery after the day they had.

Holly suddenly stopped laughing when she thought of the reason for Johnny’s visit.

Querido, the doctor still hasn’t looked at your shoulder! That needs to be done!”

Then Val added his two cents worth. “Yeah, Holly he yanked the stitches when he pulled on a drawer that was stuck. He coulda pulled some out. It was botherin’ ‘im this afternoon… An’ ya know he ain’t gonna tell ya ‘bout it!”

Johnny shot Val an icy stare. “I’m fine! Nuthin’ ta worry about!”

Holly was on her feet and tugged at his right arm.

“I think that I will be the judge of that!” she informed him in no uncertain terms as she steered him in the direction of her room and closed the door softly.

Val looked at Chrissy and spoke in a soft voice: “Was wond’ring how long it would take them two!” Chrissy giggled, and Val pulled her onto his lap for a passionate kiss before he picked her up to carry her into her room at the other end of the living quarters and kicked the door shut.

<><><><> 

Brody sat at his desk as dusk spread her cloak over town. The dark sometimes soothed his thoughts when a mystery such as this swirled in his head and refused to let go. He tried to piece together what might have happened; a job gone wrong? Was it a case of double-cross? Or was it a simple case of greed? Or something else he hadn’t thought of yet?

Never in a million years would he ever have thought that Monica Carver would be involved in a robbery and murder and had appeared to be someone she was not. What do they say? Can’t judge a book by the cover… And that certainly was the case here.

He had confirmed with Denver that the body that lay over at The Peaceful Valley Undertakers was, indeed, that of Clair Jeffords and relayed that it appeared that Miss Jeffords was hiding a key that possibly was number thirty-six. Did that fact have any bearing on the issue? If so, Brody would return the key. Maybe tomorrow he would have an answer, but for now, he needed to watch for a man, small in stature, dressed as a city boy with a monocle and a cane.

The night was quiet, there wasn’t much going on as the residents took exception to the fact that a strangler was loose in their fine city. Brody noticed the townsfolk were staying off the streets and in their homes, which was fine by him.

His thoughts strayed to Johnny Lancer and Val Crawford, and he smiled when it came to him that they, too, were staying ‘in’. If I had me a little gal like what they have, I’d be stayin’ home tanight, too! Holly Vasquez and Chrissy Templar certainly livened things up around here. They were both a delight, and all the townspeople had fallen in love with their caring and sweet personalities. Most knew of their pasts, and it was of common opinion that sometimes, things happened that are not of one’s doing and accepted the two women into their community and into their hearts.

Sometimes life was not fair, and folks suffered horrible consequences that were no fault of their own. Such were the cases of these two young women and, again, Brody wondered about Monica Carver or Clair Jeffords, whichever name fit. As he sat at his desk pondering life’s questions, mysteries, and differences, he tipped his chair back, put his feet on his desk and pulled the hat down over his eyes. Soon heavy snores filled the office.

The back door eased open and small, stylishly booted feet stepped quietly across the floor to the back of the chair. The blow came quick and hard as Brody crashed to the wooden planks with a loud thud. David Maxwell bent over the sheriff and went through his pockets. Maxwell grinned as his fingers curled around the key, and he felt his heart hammer in his chest. With both Joshua and Clair out of the picture, the money would now be his. He stood and looked down at the sheriff lying in an ever-growing puddle of blood. He smiled and left by the back door.

<><><><> 

Val woke early and slipped out of bed. No doubt Johnny was still sleeping.  He softly walked to the stove and was putting on a pot of coffee when Holly’s door opened, and Johnny padded out in his socked feet. His calzoneras were pulled on, and buttoned, and his shirt was pulled around his shoulders but hanging open. He grinned as he watched Val measure the grounds into the pot.

“Uh, uh! I’m makin’ the coffee!” he said with a quiet laugh as Val stood with his mouth hanging open.

“Now what’s wrong with my coffee?” he whispered in a defiant tone.

Johnny laughed again. “The question is, Val, what’s right about it…”

The first cup was consumed, and the two left quietly, taking the back stairs.
 
“Let’s go see if Brody wants ta have breakfast with us. Hope the diner’s open, it’s still early,” Val talked as they walked down the boardwalk. “How ya feelin’, amigo?”

Johnny turned a crooked smile to him. “I’m fine.”

Val huffed. “Are you ever anything except fine?”

“An’ I’m a lot better since I’m sleepin’ with Holly!” The crooked smile turned into a leer.

Val could only shrug.

Johnny laughed aloud. “Hell, yeah, I’m fine, but sometimes I‘m irritated, sometimes I‘m exasperated, an’ sometimes I‘m plain pissed off an’ it all happens when I‘m with you!” The two men bantered as they went and Val got in the last jab.

“Well, yer in hot water now, though, I gotta tell ya.” Val grinned as Johnny watched the foolishness growing behind the smile.

“Yeah, an’ why’s that?” Johnny couldn’t help but ask.

Val laughed as he spelled it out: “Ya forgot yer sling! Holly’s gonna be mad ‘bout that!”

Johnny dropped his head. Son-of-a-bitch!

They walked into the sheriff’s office and spied the man lying sprawled on the floor. Racing to his side, and alarmed at the blood drying in a pool around Brody’s head, Val sprinted to the door. “I’ll get Doc!” he offered, and he was gone.

Johnny checked for a pulse on Brody’s neck, it was there but weak and thready, then thought of the key. He searched Brody’s pockets and came up empty. Then he began to look around. He found the back door open and stepped out  scouring the ground. He froze in mid-stride. A small booted print… just like the one he found around the young woman’s body. Identical. That was the spark…

With Brody taken to Dr. Hanley’s, Johnny and Val spent precious time following the tracks as they wove a path through town. They lost them a few times, trampled out as the every-day morning activity became busy, but Johnny was able to pick them up again after scouting around.

They ended up in a part of town that was not populated. For the most part, there were a few abandoned buildings, and much of it used strictly for storage. There Johnny found where a camp had been made; someone had stayed here, someone that wore very small boots leaving the same prints exactly like the ones around Monica’s body and outside the back door of the sheriff’s office.

“Val, we gotta get goin’, this son-of-a-bitch has got about a four-hour head start an’ if we can get outta here soon we’ll be able ta catch up ta him taday or tamorrow… If we start now…”

“Yeah, let’s get the horses an’ a few supplies. We’ll stop by the livery an’ find out if he said anything to Tiny, askin’ for directions or some such thing,” Val said in agreement.

Johnny turned to him with a sheepish look on his face. “How about I get the supplies an’ you tell the girls…”

‘Don’t tell me that Holly has you scared…” Val chuckled.

Johnny shrugged. “No, I jus’ don’t feel like arguin’ with her. She’s gonna put up a fuss…”

“Amigo, tell me… are you up for this?” Val asked, scrutinizing the face before him.

Johnny met his stare and nodded, smiling. “You jus’ try an’ keep up, alright?”

Val laughed and shook his head.

Johnny was right, Holly raised a considerable fuss; now, not only in hot water with Murdoch, Johnny would have to deal with Holly when they got back.
“Boy, I sure don’t envy you none, Johnny!” Val chirped thinking about the fit Holly threw when she found out they were going out after a criminal.

Johnny huffed. “You jus’ keep your eyes on the trail an’ let me worry about Holly!” he countered with a smile. He knew he would have to suffer through her chastising and wait until she got over her mad. And he knew she was right, but he was also a deputy to the sheriff; wasn’t this his job? She would be upset, but she would have to get over it. If Johnny played his cards right maybe, he could help her get past it…

They scouted around the empty building where the man had stayed. The small tracks were everywhere, and Johnny and Val came to the conclusion he had left on horseback. They followed the hoof prints as they headed due north.  Tiny at the livery confirmed seeing the man they described and that he had purchased a horse and left in the early morning hours. Now Val wished that he would have sent wires to the sheriffs and marshals in the towns of the northern counties. Well, the next place where he could send a message would have to do. Hopefully, they would take Maxwell before he had a chance to lose himself in San Francisco because unless they caught him within the next day or so, he just might get away.

<><><><> 

Johnny noticed the trail wandered a bit; it wasn’t the trail of a man that knew exactly where he was going. And that was a good thing… If Maxwell took his time getting into the north country, Johnny and Val stood an excellent chance to catch up to him. There was very rough terrain ahead, and apparently, the thief-murderer wasn’t aware of it. He was riding straight for it. If he wanted to get to San Francisco, there were definitely more accessible ways to get there. What the hell was this key for? Was it worth the lives of three people? Johnny wondered for the hundredth time.

<><><><> 

David Maxwell thought things could not have worked out better. With no one to split the money, he could have it all! His plans were coming to fruition. He almost laughed, so pleased with himself that he and Clair had posed as a married couple and had opened an account at the Bank of Denver. They had also taken advantage of a new service sweeping the country, a safe deposit box. A private, personal vault that would be used to store the money from the very bank they robbed. How ingenious he thought!

They paid the rental fee in advance when they opened their account. Under the ruse of a newly married couple, they would be abroad on their honeymoon for a time and not quite sure as to when they would return. Their portrayal of giddy newlyweds was convincing, happy giggles and sparkling eyes filled with shy passion effectively disguised the ugly truth beneath. Who would ever figure out that the money stolen from the bank was hidden in that very bank?

The robbery had gone smoothly except for the unfortunate guard; Joshua had been a bit over overzealous, and the poor guard ended up very dead. But that was the only hitch until Clair became greedy and decided that she would take the key and run after Joshua had been killed. But David had taken care of her, just like he’d taken care of Joshua. Now all he had to do was get back to Denver, masquerade as Stephan Clark, the name he used to open their account and collect his money.

He was giddy with anticipation, but he kept vigilant and watched the trail behind him. He was confident that he’d gotten away, but he would have to make sure. Those two that he’d seen with the sheriff looked to be threatening. Perhaps he should wait along the trail just as a precaution…

<><><><> 

Val kept a surreptitious eye on Johnny as they rode. He still wasn’t back to normal. Val had been there when Johnny had been wounded, and he’d seen for himself how serious it was. Dang fool! He shoulda never came up here… but if he never came up here this asshole we’re after would a for sure got away. Well, jus’ hafta watch ‘im cuz he ain’t gonna watch hisself… for now, ol’ Johnny seems ta be holdin’ up just fine.

In truth, Johnny knew he should not have come out on this search. He could feel he wasn’t really up to this but, what the hell, he’d be fine. He talked himself into feeling fine. But that was alright, he’d end up back in Holly’s bed and get the ‘rest’ he needed. But for now, he needed to keep his eyes open and watch the trail. Ya jus’ never knew when the bastard would try somethin’.

Looking ahead, Johnny noted the terrain littered with large boulders, prime ambush country. He pulled up and waited for Val to come alongside.
 
“You thinkin’ what I‘m thinkin’, Val?” Johnny asked as his eyes never left the rock ahead.

“Yup. I think we need ta split up. If’n we can get him between us maybe he wouldn’t be so likely ta try somethin’, maybe be more apt ta listen without givin’ us too much trouble.”

Johnny slowly turned to face his amigo, and give him a scrutinizing stare as if the man had suddenly grown another head.

“Are you outta your mind? This idiota ain’t gonna give up without a fight. He’s killed three people now an’ two more ain’t gonna stop him if he can get the drop on us. We need ta stay on our toes.” Val knew Johnny was right. “We might be able ta get him in a crossfire but he ain’t comin’ easy,” Johnny said as he studied the rocks ahead and noted there were no sounds of birds, no crickets. Something had disturbed the expected sounds of the wild.
 
“We’re gonna hafta make camp soon an’ so will Maxwell. Even he knows he can’t travel at night. We passed a good spot ‘bout a mile back, what’d ya say we stop an’ get a early start in the mornin’, amigo?” Val suggested.

His brain told him they needed to keep going, maybe they would catch up to him in the dark, but his body was screaming for sleep. If he was tired, there was a strong possibility that he would become careless, and if that happened, there was a greater chance to lose the man they followed, or be killed.

Johnny reluctantly acquiesced.

<><><><> 

David Maxwell was pressing his luck. He did not stop as soon as he should have. The trail was rocky, and he trusted the horse to pick its way through the rough terrain as the need to gain ground was critical. He had watched from cover as the two men turned around. Are they giving up? Could it be his luck would hold out, and he would make his way to freedom?

Maxwell made the decision to keep going, but as the sun descended behind the mountains, he became cold, and darkness was quickly upon him.

Not accustomed to nighttime in the mountains, he had underestimated what he would need to survive, and he shivered uncontrollably as icy tendrils of cold damp air fingered through the light clothing he wore, and chills crawled down his spine. Thirty thousand dollars, thirty thousand dollars… The mantra ran through his head over and over. It was his and his alone if he made it out of these mountains and got back to Denver.

The mournful howl of a coyote pierced the night air as Maxwell frantically looked around him, frightened that the animal would find him a tasty and easy meal and he wondered if the canine would attack a human. They ate meat, why wouldn’t it attack? he thought.

He wanted to keep going, but he could no longer make out the trail and knew he had to stop. Lord, he was cold! But could he afford to start a fire? Where were those two that followed him? They had turned around, he watched as they went back, then he made a decision; he would chance it. He dismounted and felt around on the ground, and found a handful of dried grass and twigs.

As the pitiful fire started to burn, it cast a glow in which he was able to find a bit more wood. He unsaddled the horse and pulled the blanket from it’s back to wrap around his shoulders. He huddled as close as he dared to the flames. As Maxwell raised his eyes to the sky, he frowned at what he saw. The clouds thickened and were low. It would rain before the night was over.

<><><><> 

Sheltered from the rain by a large overhang of granite, Johnny and Val wondered if Maxwell would survive the night. Their fire reflected off the rock that surrounded them. They were comfortable enough considering the weather, especially after Johnny pulled the bottle from his saddlebag, the bottle he was rarely without. After taking a large swallow, he handed the tequila over to Val who gratefully accepted it. Johnny could see the sparkle in Val’s eyes light up at the sight of the libation. He took a long pull, sighed, and a second swallow followed. He then tossed the bottle back to Johnny.

“Well, what’d ya figure ol’ Maxwell’s doin’ right now?” Val spoke softly.

“Dunno, but watchin’ his trail go this way then that way, I don’t think he knows where he’s goin’,” Johnny replied. “But I do think that we need ta get an early start tamorrow. Maybe we can surprise him. More’n likely he ain’t too cozy right now.” The smile lit up Johnny’s face, and Val snorted at the remark.

“Nope, prob’bly not,” Val said with a grin.

The two men hunkered down to sleep; morning would be here all too soon.

<><><><> 

Not very far away, David Maxwell frantically struggled to keep his small fire going. Lightning scratched at the sky, a warning that things were about to get worse. He patted his shirt pocket, making sure the key was still there. He thought it funny that such a small piece of metal could represent such wealth.

Maxwell let his mind wander to the money, and he felt his heart beat faster. When he got back to Denver, the first thing he would do would be to get cleaned up, go to the bank, and take out the stolen cash. He wanted to see it, touch it and then he could start his new life… without the Jeffords. He’d scraped and skimped his whole existence, and now he wouldn’t have to anymore. Life was going to be so good! Now he had money and would have the power and respect that he’d coveted. Thirty thousand dollars! he thought as he sat there shivering.

The rain held off until just before dawn. With teeth chattering and unprepared in the extreme cold, Maxwell pulled the blanket tighter around him. He must have drifted to sleep at some point because he now noticed the small fire was out, well, he would be moving on shortly. He jumped in fright when the blast of thunder exploded out of the heavens with a deafening crash that resonated throughout the mountains.

The horse stomped and tossed his head. A second crash soon afterward  startled the animal. It broke free to run past Maxwell, almost trampling him in the process. David jumped out of the animal’s path but could only watch helplessly as the horse plunged recklessly out of sight. Damn his luck! Now he would have to confront the two that pursued him; he had hoped to avoid that.  Two more dead men won’t make any difference, Maxwell thought with confidence as he picked himself up off the ground and began to make a plan. After all, one of them had been injured; it shouldn’t be that difficult…

<><><><> 

“Ya doin’ alright there, amigo?” Val asked as he watched Johnny struggle to open his eyes.

“Yeah, I‘m fine. Just tryin’ ta wake up. Hey, Val?”

“Yeah?” Val met Johnny’s eyes, his own filled with questions.

“I’ll make the coffee…” Johnny said softly, then laughed.

Val gave Johnny an exaggerated grin, then a “Fuck you, Madrid!” which only served to increase Johnny’s mirth.

They broke camp as the first of the rain started to fall, mist filling the air and wetting everything with a slippery glaze. Footing was treacherous for both man and animal, but Johnny and Val pressed on. After an hour Johnny suddenly stopped and motioned for Val to come alongside him. He pointed over the rocky embankment  as the mountain fell away. There, lying in a heap up against a large boulder was a horse in a tangled mass, legs and neck all pointed at grotesque angles.

“Looks like our boy is on foot now… Should take some a the fight outta ‘im…” Val muttered.

“Or make him more desperate,” Johnny answered. Val gave him a stare and nodded. They kept going, watching for signs they were getting closer and then decided to split up.

“We go ahead on foot. No sense our horses joinin’ his down there,” Val said.

Johnny nodded in agreement, and they continued on their search, then Val stopped.

“Hey, Johnny?” Johnny looked over to his amigo of many years. “You be careful…” Val took his role as a protective older brother seriously.

Johnny answered with his dazzling Johnny Madrid Lancer smile.

<><><><> 

Higher up the mountain, Maxwell watched from the bit of cover he found as the two men slowly made their way toward him and grinned as they parted, one coming from the right, the other from the left. Whichever of them got there first would soon feel the blade that was tucked in the end of his cane. Not only was the cane part of his disguise, but it also served  as a weapon. All he had to do was be within an arm’s length of an adversary and push the small hidden button on the underside of the grip. The razor-sharp blade snapped into position at the end of the cane becoming as lethal and terrifying as any gun. He took refuge in the rocks and waited for them to come.

<><><><> 

Johnny had to admit, to himself anyway, that he wasn’t up to snuff. But he knew that the sheriff needed the help and Johnny could honestly say that he’d never turned down anyone in need. What’d Scott call that? … Oh, yeah, my civic duty… and he smiled as he thought about his brother.

Johnny’s life had definitely changed for the better since he’d found his family. But he knew that his brother would not be happy with him right about now if he knew what Johnny was up to. Instead of recovering at home and taking it easy, Johnny was traipsing all over the mountains looking for a murdering thief and getting rained on, to boot! Nope, Scott wouldn’t be happy at all. He stopped to see if he could spot Val and slowly he looked above him then around to the side. He could see nothing except rain.

Val struggled on the slippery rocks taking one side and sending Johnny up the other way. This way was more than treacherous, and he knew Johnny was not at his best. He couldn’t count the number of times his amigo had his back, had protected him, had even taken bullets for him a time or two. Yes, he would do everything he could to have Johnny’s back so he slipped and stumbled his way up to where he thought the criminal might be hiding.

<><><><> 

Maxwell cursed his calfskin boots. They were not meant for travel in the mountains, but then he never thought that he would need something sturdier. His sense of fashion overshadowed practicality, maybe after he had dispatched one of the two that were so close to him now, he would take their boots although the thought of wearing some else’s boots was truly repulsive when he stopped to think about it. Don’t think about that! Think about thirty thousand dollars! It will be worth it! His breathing became heavier, and a smile crawled across as lips as he drew back his arm for the strike.

<><><><> 

Val was getting wetter by the minute. Every time he looked up, the water would pour off the brim of his hat and run down his back. He had to stop and pull his slicker higher on his shoulders every few minutes, and his patience was wearing thin. Swearing a blue streak, he yanked on the oversized rain gear when a blow to his shoulder knocked him off his feet, and a searing hot sensation pierced his flesh. With a loud groan, he went to his knees as his hand found his pistol. With a cold finger around the trigger, he brought the weapon up to fire blindly above him.

The shot echoed through the heavy air and bounced off one mountain only to hit the next and slam back in a tangible blow. Johnny’s blood ran cold as he jumped around the rock wall only to see Val fall to his knees as a man of small stature took aim at the man below him.

There was no time to think. Johnny pulled his Colt and fired, chipping the granite wall of rock a mere hair’s breadth over the man’s head. He disappeared through the rain, and Johnny knew he had to reach Val. He scrambled upward as fast as he could in the mud and loose rocks and traversed the mountain face, keeping his eyes open ahead. His breath, harsh and heavy, panted out of his lungs and billowed streams of white vapor to dissipate in the cold air. He had to get to Val…

Maxwell struggled upward to get out of sight, one of the men was down, but he had to make sure the other wasn’t going to follow. Nothing was going to stop him now! He took off at a run as his boot slipped on the wet rocks, and he promptly fell, twisting his ankle.  He stood and tried taking a step only to feel the shooting pain explode in his leg. This isn’t happening! Maxwell now had to outwit the second man. Thirty thousand dollars!

Johnny skirted around the rock and listened, but all he could hear was the drum of the falling rain, and he took a chance. With his Colt in his hand, he slid around the boulder to confront whoever would be there. But it was only Val who tipped his head back, knocking his hat from his head and glared at Johnny through pain-filled eyes.

Son-of-a-bitch!” he hissed through clenched teeth as Johnny stooped down to assess the damage. He reached over and untied the bandana knotted at Val’s throat to stuff under the shirt and pressed it against the wound.

“You’ll live, just stay quiet and stay put!” Johnny ordered, but Val would have none of it. He tried to get his legs under him to stand and pursue their quarry. Johnny shoved him back. “No, Val, stay put, you’re bleedin’ too bad…” And then he was gone.

<><><><> 

Maxwell chanced a look below him and saw what he feared; someone in pursuit, however, it was only one. He knew that he must have caused significant damage to the other. Alright, there’s only one, I can do this… He stuffed himself in a crevice between the rocks and waited. The only way he would survive this was an ambush, so he stood, with ankle throbbing painfully, and he waited for the lone man.

Reaching under the flimsy coat, he grasped the derringer in his hand with numbing fingers, cold enough that feeling was beginning to leave them. His entire body shook with cold, and he couldn’t feel his toes any longer. The rain had penetrated through to his skin, and his teeth chattered as if of a will of their own. He had little control over his body and only now did he have thoughts of not coming out of this alive, but now, it was too late, especially as he felt the tiny gun fall from his stiff fingers to lose it in the rocks below.

Johnny caught a glimpse of something sliding through the dirt and chunks of granite as he stopped his ascent and took cover. Looking down, he saw the derringer and knew that the job had just gotten a degree easier. There was no rifle when he watched the figure as he confronted Val, so all the man had now was a knife of some kind, and after Johnny had tended Val, he knew the knife was enough to be deadly.

Johnny had left the sheriff in a serious state, and he knew he could not waste much time up here, or Val would bleed out. That was the only good thing about it being so cold. There was a possibility that it would slow down the bleeding. But he had to hurry and catch this pendejo and get out of these mountains first.

Johnny took a quick look above but saw nothing. He inched forward quietly, knowing the man was close. He would need to rely on all his senses, every ability he had honed over the years of trying to stay alive. He steadied his breathing, slowed it down, and concentrated on his surroundings. Then moved silently around the boulders.

David Maxwell could not stop shaking. He had dropped his gun and now, armed only with his cane, he stood and waited in the rain. Another deafening blast of thunder reverberated as the lightning ripped its way through the sky served only to heighten the fear that was beginning to flood his mind. His heart pounded in his chest, and he held his breath. The next several minutes were going to tell what would happen. Oh, but he was so cold! He gripped the cane and stood ready to defend himself.

Johnny figured the attack would come any second, but the rocks, boulders, and rain prevented visibility for any distance. He would be right on the bastard before he realized it; he had to be careful, so he went slowly. How long had it been that he left Val? Johnny didn’t know. What he did know was he had to hurry for Val’s sake. He reached a large boulder and edged around when he felt the blow.

Maxwell swung with all the strength he had as the cane slammed into the side of the head of the man who pursued him. Johnny went to his knees with his Colt in his hand and pulled the trigger.

When the smoke cleared Johnny saw a small man hunched over, holding his stunned hand, the shattered cane in pieces on the ground. The steel blade lay exposed as the rain beaded on its glistening surface and washed Val’s blood away to seep into the dirt and rocks.

Johnny scrambled to his feet as the stars exploded in his head and felt blood drip down his face. Getting his balance, he grabbed the man and slammed him against the granite wall. The man seemed to whimper as Johnny searched him and found something interesting in his shirt pocket. He pulled the object out, and the key lay in his hand.

Cold eyes bored into David Maxwell, and he felt the ice grow through his body. Never in his life had he stared into the face of his own death, and he trembled, his false bravado melted away, leaving him to feel like he had no spine.

Johnny searched him for other weapons and found none. With his own bandana, Johnny tied Maxwell’s hands together and shoved man ahead of him back down in between the rocks. With the push, Maxwell went down to his knees and grabbed his leg. Having no sympathy, Johnny reached for the man’s arm and hauled him back to his feet. He jabbed his Colt into the man’s back, a signal for him to get moving. With his head threatening to explode off his shoulders, Johnny focused on the slight, but deadly man in front of him.

“I can’t walk,” Maxwell said and turned to see glacial ice in the eyes of the man behind him.

“Too bad. Get movin’. NOW!” And the pounding in Johnny’s head began in earnest.

It seemed to take forever to get back to Val’s side. Maxwell hobbled slowly, the ankle inside his low cut boots swelling grotesquely.

“I… I can’t make it any further…” Maxwell ground out in between gasps for air. However, his captor said nothing, just pushed the barrel of the Colt into his back again.

“Keep movin’,” Johnny ordered. He felt as if his head was filled with boulders. They slammed around inside, pulverizing his brain into mush, and he thought he would be sick, but he pushed that feeling to the back of his mind and concentrated on his prisoner.

Finally, they were standing beside Val. Johnny shoved Maxwell over to a rock and ordered him to sit.
“Ya move before I tell ya to an’ you’re gonna be dead.” Though spoken softly, the tones were lethal.

Maxwell looked into the icy blue eyes, and this time, it was not the weather that chilled him. Johnny turned his attention to his amigo. He peeked inside Val’s shirt and satisfied the bleeding had slowed, he pulled Val to his feet.

“Ya ready ta get the hell outta here, Sheriff?” Johnny asked loud enough for Maxwell to hear.

Oh, good Lord, he’s a sheriff, and I tried to kill him! Johnny smirked as Maxwell went pale. The rest of the trip down to their horses went peacefully but painfully, for all of them.

For the rest of the day, no one spoke. All three were wet, and all three were hurting. Johnny watched as Val sat weaving in the saddle with Maxwell riding behind him. It would take longer to get back to Salinas with three men and two horses. Taking turns riding double was their only option.

As he sat there, Maxwell ran scenarios through his head, wondering if he could get away. If he made a break for it he would go to Denver and claim he was robbed and beaten, hence the injured leg, and the bank would issue him a new key, he would take out all of his money before these bumpkins would be able to figure everything out. He could still get his money! So he bided his time.

And, finally, it came. He was riding with Johnny now on a flashy palomino. A very fast palomino, Maxwell surmised. He glanced over at Val and saw the sheriff swaying dangerously in the saddle almost asleep, and had not felt Johnny move behind him in a while. It was now or never.

Maxwell jerked his head back colliding into Johnny’s, barely missing the gash left by the blow of the cane. Not a direct hit but enough to break the wound open, Johnny fell as a bright spray of blood gushed from his head. White-hot explosions ignited with merciless intensity after hitting the ground on his wounded shoulder. Maxwell grabbed the reins and kicked the horse viciously into a gallop. Johnny rolled on the ground, coming up to his knees with a piercing whistle that rent the air.

“Barranca!” he shouted, and with another whistle, the golden horse skidded to a stop despite the kicks to his flanks and turned to look at his rider. And the horse  expressed his displeasure. If he could have talked Barranca would have said, “Who the hell are you and get the fuck offa me!” and then he started to buck, hard enough to make Maxwell’s teeth snap together with a threat to break them off, and sent him airborne. He somersaulted and landed with a sickening thud on the cold, wet ground. Barranca turned back to stand by Johnny as he stood weaving dangerously and made a grab for the saddle horn to steady himself. If he thought he hurt before, he was in agony now.

Val stopped Milagro and came alongside. He winced as he saw Johnny’s face as blood gushed down to his jaw and soaked his collar, not to mention the shoulder wound that was also bleeding, torn open from the impact with the rocky ground. Val huffed out a breath, nudged his horse over to where Maxwell lay groaning.

“Get up…” Val ordered, the harsh words coming with not an ounce of pity. “I said, GET UP!”

Maxwell moaned again and rolled onto his back. “I think my arm is broken…” he groaned as he held his limb tightly. Val snorted and saw the scratches on his arm most likely put there when he strangled Clair Jeffords.

“I don’t care if yer neck’s broke, I said GET UP, NOW!”

David Maxwell rolled to his feet as Val rode up beside him and dropped a loop of rope around his shoulders then pulled tight, forcing a cry of pain from the dandy’s lips. Then, Val looped the rope in coils around his body and knotted it off. He pulled the line tight again, yanking Maxwell over to stand next to Johnny. Val met Madrid’s cold and painful stare.

“Give him a shove up here, he can ride with me an’ if you see him tryin’ ta start anything, I give you the go-ahead ta shoot his miserable ass outta the saddle. Sound alright ta you, amigo?” Johnny grinned and tried to hide the white-hot explosions that scrambled his brain. He shoved Maxwell behind Val, then dragged himself onto Barranca and headed out of the mountains for Salinas, and Holly.

<><<><> 

It was almost midnight when the trio, exhausted beyond belief, shuffled into Salinas. The sheriff’s office was dark, but Val banged on the door until Brody opened it with mumbles and promises that this had better be important or whoever was on the other side would be spendin’ the night in one a them cells! With the lamp in hand, Brody yanked the door open to a sorry sight.

“Well, I see you two earned your keep! Get this idiot in here!”

As Val and Johnny escorted the prisoner into the jail, Brody turned up the lamp and stopped dead in his tracks.

“Never you mind, you two! I’ll take ‘im, you two get on over ta see Doc!”

<><><><> 

It was late; they were wet, tired, hungry, and hurting like hell. Brody got them to the back stairs of the rooms the girls shared and watched, trying very hard not to laugh as they went up to the second floor, not quite sure who was leaning on who. After they knocked on the door, the light showed through the windows and shrieks of greetings were heard until the owners of the female voices saw the condition of their men. All he could hear then was the boys being chastised for not being more careful and giving the girls so much to worry about.

He cleared his throat to get the attention of the girls as each checked over her man and Brody handed Holly a bundle of bandages and medicines sent by Dr. Hanley. Then he quickly took his leave. He thought he heard a groan or two from Val and or Johnny. Brody laughed and thought he was glad it wasn’t him up there getting chewed out… Then in an afterthought, it came to mind that when the girls settled down, they would want to comfort their men… Maybe that didn’t sound so bad after all!

<><><><> 

He had to admit, the sun did feel pretty good today. He sat with eyes closed, pretending to sleep to escape any more chastising and ‘you ought to know better’ looks. He’d had enough of them to last a lifetime. He couldn’t help what had happened, and all he did was help the law catch a killer and a thief. Well, they just worry too much, is all Johnny thought to himself. He heard voices in the great room and shortly Val came out onto the patio with his usual blaring voice bellering like an old bull.

“Hey there, amigo! How’re ya feelin’?” Val, with his arm still in a sling, boomed as he saw Johnny trying his best to relax in a chair. Johnny flinched thinking Val much too loud; what the hell was he yellin’ about now? He cracked his eyes open and glared at Val only to promote a belly laugh.
 
“Johnny, ya better start workin’ on that glare cuz if that’s the best ya can do, ya ain’t scarin’ a ant! Hey, I got a telegram from Brody. Listen ta this…” Johnny sat up straighter and listened as Val relaied the contents of the lengthy missive.

“After getting Maxwell back to Denver, the folks at the bank identified the key as belonging to them. It was discovered that the missing thirty thousand dollars had been locked in one of their own safe deposit boxes. That’s what the number thirty-six meant. Box thirty-six. The money was at the bank the whole time. After they robbed the bank, they hid it in the safe deposit box. Maxwell had been identified as the one who opened the account in the name of Stephan Clark. Pretty slick, huh?” Val laughed.

Looking up Val saw Murdoch standing at the door watching them, and shortly afterward he saw Maria peek out around the side of the house to check on Johnny. Then Jelly looked over the adobe wall that surrounded the patio. Johnny saw Val’s smile disappear. He let out a deep breath.

“See what I mean? It’s like I was two years old again. Can’t stand it no more. Hey, break me outta here will ya?” Johnny asked pitifully.

Val hung his head as if commiserating in Johnny’s distress. “Sorry, amigo, can’t do that. Uh, oh!” Val said as he looked at the great room doors again to find Teresa standing guard, watching them with hands on her hips and no smile on her face. “The warden just showed up, Johnny, now ya behave yerself an’ maybe visitin’ hours will be extended a bit.”

With that Val left and as he passed Teresa, he touched the brim of his hat, smiled sweetly and said; “Ya have a good day, Warden!”

She frowned. What was that all about? she wondered. But returned her attention to her brother as if daring him to leave the patio.

Damn, wasn’t I just here a few days ago? Johnny pouted to himself. He closed his eyes and hoped sleep would carry him away.

 

 

~end~

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