The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Burning Bridges

No 11 in the Johnny and Holly series -which is best read in sequence.

Thanks to Cat, Sandy, and Barbara for the Beta, and a special thanks to Adriana for the Spanish lesson
Borrowed Victoria and Jarrod Barkley from The Big Valley for this story

 

Christine Maitland frantically searched her husband’s study for evidence or some kind of damning information that would lead to a conviction. If she could find the proof she needed, she would alert the authorities, take her son, and be free of the abuse she’d suffered for years, free forever. She suspected that her husband had been involved in illegal activities. Strange people came to the house at all hours of the day and night, and Matt would suddenly leave on mysterious trips. And worst of all was knowing that wherever she went, she was followed.

He was a violent man, vicious and brutal. He had beaten her on many occasions that had often confined her to the house until the bruises faded and no one would know of her shame. Once the brute had broken her arm, forcing her to claim she’d taken a nasty fall down the stairs.

But now, Christine Maitland had reached her limit. No longer would she subject their son to the issues this sort of behavior generated; parents locked in a bitter marriage, the arguing and the beatings. No child should ever have to witness violence between his parents, and the possibility that the boy would hear what she just heard could have irreparable consequences.

She could never live with herself if she didn’t fight for young Skip. He had seen enough in his ten years, much more than what was right and Christine was at her limit. She could no longer take the chance that her son would discover the ugly truth about his father. Getting the boy out of the toxic environment was critical. She was terrified he would grow into the type of man his father was and assume this was normal and acceptable behavior.

But today, today was the breaking point for her. She had overheard some ‘business’ this afternoon as Matthew, and his foreman discussed their options for a problem employee. Christine halted in her tracks, not believing the words she thought she heard, so she stayed outside the study door and listened until she was sure.
“You get rid of him before he talks! If word of this shipment gets into the wrong hands, the law will come down on us, and we’ll both be doing time in prison! Just make sure you don’t have witnesses, and you get it done tonight!”

Moving quickly past the office door, Christine Marie Maitland hurried into the parlor of muted sea green and mauve shades that had usually soothed and comforted her. But today they went unnoticed. She sat on the settee at her tapestry, appearing to go through the many colors of thread, as Rob Everly crossed the large foyer with heavy footfalls that echoed through the first floor as he stomped out the door.

Stunned into quiet shock, she sat not moving as she mulled over in her head what she heard. Christine had suspected illegal activities, had been certain of it but never before had she thought murder had been involved. She would need proof, but how would she prove it? What could she possibly do about it when she couldn’t even keep herself safe? But this was murder she overheard her husband speak of! Her stomach turned to a block of ice, and she began to shake. If she could just find something, anything that she could take to the authorities…

But the authorities were his friends; anyone with power in San Francisco would protect him, and if he suspected her, his own wife of exposing the corruption he based his thriving business on, he would, without a doubt, kill her, too. A thought sparked in her brain like a lightning bolt; she had to make a move and then wondered just how many others had he killed? A chill tingled through her body as if hundreds of spiders were crawling over her bare skin. He came to the decision so easily as if this had been a simple solution.

Think, Christine! Make a plan; just get Skip out of here! Lost in her musings, she failed to see Matthew Maitland, owner of Maitland Shipping, as he watched her from the doorway.

She looked pale and upset; he even detected a slight tremble of her hand, and he wondered if she had heard the conversation he had with Everly. Slowly he walked to her side, and she startled when she realized he was so close. His eyes cold, the light gray irises stared from under bushy brows and seemed to pierce through her, ferreting out her thoughts. His weathered, craggy face with fixed frown spoke of no love, no sentiment, and the warm fingers that reached out to stroke her cheek felt dirty on her skin. She lifted her green eyes to his, and he read the turmoil there as he spoke softly, but coldly to let her know what he expected and demanded of her. It was, indeed, a threat.

“The tapestry is beautiful, Christine, I am anxious to see it completed and I know you will devote all your time to see that it is done… soon.” He then turned on his heels and silently went out the front door. The message had been very clear.

She waited until it would be safe to go to the window and was rewarded, not to mention relieved when she saw him as he rode away from the house. It was then that she took a deep breath and bolted to his study. She searched his desk and found nothing that would incriminate him there; she looked behind the pictures that graced the room covered with a thick wallpaper of dark forest green and tiny thin stripes of burgundy. No hidden safe that she could see. Heavy, deep burgundy velvet curtains hung on the windows, and she wondered how much those drapes had kept inside this room, allowed nothing to escape; how many others had Matt condemned? she thought, and the notion sickened her.

She then turned to the bookshelf that lined the wall to the right of the massive, ornately carved desk. There were many books; she wasn’t exactly sure what it was she should be looking for. Just anything! her mind screamed at her. Get moving! All the books looked the same; one covered the legalities of shipping laws, many of them about ships and how to operate them. There were others about navigating the coast of California and one of Mexico. There were books of navigation using the stars, and,,, Mexico? Why would Matt have anything to do with Mexico? He had no license to trade in Mexico… did he? She had never heard about any trade contracts connected with Mexico. But, as she was learning, there were many things about Maitland Shipping she was not aware of.

She kept looking, knowing that her time was limited. A door in the bookshelf caught her attention, but it was locked. Matt kept keys on his watch fob in his pocket; how could she get them? Would she be in time to save a man’s life tonight? Tonight… A man was going to die tonight, and she couldn’t stop it without any proof. And she became ill; the bile rose in her throat as she covered her mouth with her hands and made a dash to her room.

Christine confined herself to her chamber for the remainder of the day. She had convinced Matt a year ago that his snoring kept her up at night and he finally consented for her to have her own space. However, it adjoined his, and he would not allow her to keep it locked. How many times had he barged in her room in the middle of the night and demanded his husbandly rights? He’d smelled of liquor and stale cigars and had brutally satisfied himself with no regard to her needs, only to leave her bruised, hurt, and weeping alone afterward. No time to think about that now… She had to make a plan. The only time she had would be when he bathed. She would take the key and would have to act quickly to get into that locked door, but it was the only chance she would get.

Alright, if I find anything I will have to act fast. The only place he will let me go is to go see Meg, and I know I will be watched. Matt would send someone to make sure that I came back. Disappear, just disappear, don’t go to Meg… A thought hit her like lightning; she felt her heart start to pound only to feel the crush, knowing that she would have to leave Skip… And her heart broke. I can’t do it! A man is going to die tonight, and I can't stop that either! I have to do this… And she cried the rest of the afternoon thinking about her son living alone with his father, a murderer and about the man that was going to die tonight...

She lay in her bed, propped up on pillows, and slowly brushed out her hair. The reflection in the mirror was familiar but did she really know the woman that stared back at her?

Christine thought about how her life had changed, and she huffed. In the beginning, she loved Matt. He, once upon a time, had been kind and attentive. What had happened… And when had it happened?

Her eyes were puffy and red, and she looked as if a fever had started. Then she heard the door slam. He was home, and she steeled herself for the confrontation. Christine heard him call her name as the door was thrown open to crash back against the wall, and he eyed her suspiciously. Those same eyes used to look at her with love reflected in them. He stepped into the room then kicked the door shut and walked to the foot of the bed, his large hand on the tall poster. She met his eyes, but said nothing, and waited.

His gazed narrowed, trying to read the situation. “Are you ill?” he finally asked.

She continued to brush her hair; the long chestnut mass fell almost to her waist. “I’m sure it is nothing. I haven’t been sleeping very well, and this afternoon it just caught up with me. A little rest, and I’ll be fine.”

Matt moved closer, and placed his hand against her forehead, surprised to feel it warm, warmer than it should have been… maybe she isn’t faking…

“Don’t worry, Matt, I’ll be up to hosting your business function on Saturday,” Christine said quietly.

He suddenly grabbed her chin in hard, cruel fingers and twisted her head to face him. He leaned down almost nose to nose, and sneered, “See that you are!” He stood, and went to the door, but not before he fixed her with his familiar cold stare, then he left her alone, and slammed the door behind him.

She waited, listened as he went into his room, and prepared to clean up. Christine got out of bed and peered through the door that adjoined their private quarters just in time to see the door close that led to the water closet. She opened the portal wider only to find he had taken his clothes with him. She would not get the key tonight…

<><><><> 

The San Francisco Chronicle lay open on the table next to Matt’s plate as Christine made her way to her chair for breakfast. The glaring headlines caught her eye. Body Found Floating in the Bay. She forced herself to not react, knowing that her husband was gauging her with hawkish eyes that missed nothing.

“Good morning, Matt,” she greeted softly only to hear a grunt in reply. The maid poured her tea and set a soft-boiled egg in front of her. “Thank you, Maggie! Oh, will you have Hannah come to see me, please?”
Matt huffed at the pleasantries Christine used with the staff. The idea of asking a servant, using please and thank you with them positively irritated him. They were servants! They are here to serve us. There was no need for this nonsense… He shook his head in disgust.

Christine secretly smiled to herself. Even the most insignificant of victories lightened her mood.

A small girl, dressed in a uniform that declared her status within the household, came to stand by Christine’s side. Her eyes were downcast, as Mr. Maitland insisted on it, and she waited quietly, per strict protocol in the presence of Matthew Maitland.

Christine looked up from her egg and smiled sweetly. “Oh, Hannah, good morning, dear!” she purred, knowing it would draw another huff from Matt, but she continued. “Hannah, I would like for you to accompany me to the market this morning. I will need to approve some of the items for the menu for Saturday’s dinner. I will want to leave within the hour, my dear.”

The maid, still looking downward, responded quietly. “Yes, Ma’am, I will be ready,” and she left the dining room.

Matt looked up from his paper to study his wife. “You look much better this morning, Christine,” he stated in his deep voice, the voice that she once loved to hear.

Christine met his gaze. He respected a person if they looked him in the eye, so she did before she spoke, out of defiance more than respect for him. “Thank you, Matt, yes, I feel much better this morning,” she responded with chin raised, almost challenging, and she issued a very slight smile, although it sickened her stomach.

<><><><> 

Christine knew she was being followed, but she carried out her errands, duties better described it, as a devoted wife overseeing an event that would benefit her husband’s business efforts. She went about selecting items of fruits, vegetables, and other necessities for the upcoming dinner party, after all, when entertaining in polite upper-crust society, one simply had to outdo the last social event. Matt would be mortified if this social occasion did not measure up to standards. Yes, he will be mortified alright, Christine thought, and she smiled widely.

Hannah secretly watched as her mistress dropped items into the basket she held, wishing that Mrs. Maitland could be happy all of the time. She had such a pretty smile!

Christine glanced discreetly around and saw the man that followed her sitting outside on a bench. She learned the hard way the who, what, and where of this ‘game’ her husband played. Now, she would be the one to dictate how it was played out. Now, it begins… she thought. She turned to Hannah, knowing the girl was loyal and reached into her handbag to withdraw an envelope.

“Hannah, dear, I need for you to do me a favor, please. And no one must know!”

The young girl looked at her mistress and smiled sweetly. “Yes, Ma’am, anything!” Hannah had been with Christine for about five years now; she loved her mistress and knew how things stood between her and the beast of a man she was married to.

Christine took the envelope and glanced around her again, making sure their shadow was still seated out front and not watching her at the moment. “Hannah, I need the utmost secrecy. Please see to it that this is mailed then hurry back here to me. No questions. What you don’t know, you can’t answer for.” Christine handed the missive to the girl.

Casually, cautiously, it was slipped into Hannah’s pocket; she gave her mistress a smile, a knowing smile that seemed to say ‘finally!’ Hannah left by the back door, walked to the post office three blocks away and was back by her mistresses’ side within fifteen minutes.

Hannah turned to Christine, relief in her pale blue eyes. “Whatever you need, I am here for you.” Then she averted her gaze; she could not let her mistress see the tears that flooded her sweet eyes.
Christine was deeply touched; she knew the girl to be trustworthy, but also knew the girl was taking a considerable risk. If Matt ever found out Hannah was helping her, he would deal with the situation with severe consequences. She placed her hand on the girl’s shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze.

<><><><>

Christine had always been practical and realistic. But this fact would be her undoing if she allowed herself to think about it too much. She would have to leave Skip behind, only for a little while, but that did nothing to lessen the pain, it just had to be, and it broke her heart. Once she got wherever she was going, she would send for him… somehow she would get him back. Christine would willingly go to her grave before she would let her son grow up under his father’s influence.

The waiting was the hard part. She never knew when Matt would start something. She attempted to act as though there was nothing wrong. Once she let herself think about freedom, out from under the controlling thumb of Matthew Maitland, she let herself believe it could happen. She desperately wanted a new life, a life where her son could grow up into an honest and respectable man, and that was something that could not happen around Matt.

<><><><> 

The dinner party came and was successful as apparently the deal Matt made was promising and would be a huge benefit financially. Christine and the wives of Matt’s business associates sat in the parlor with their tea or sherry as the men retired to Matt’s study for whiskey and cigars as was typical. Christine nodded as if she hung of every word spoken to her while she anxiously waited for the night to be over. She excused herself for a moment, going upstairs to check on Skip knowing the boy was alright, but she would use any excuse to make the time go faster.

She opened the bedroom door and watched as he slept, curled under the blankets. The boy, looking so innocent as he lay in his bed, knew some of the discord lurking in the house, knowing that his father was more than strict with his mother. It broke Christine’s heart that he was aware of some of the ugliness of his parent's marriage. Skip had asked her one day, ‘why is Father mad at you all the time?’ She had to be very careful when talking with her son. The boy knew things were not as they should be. She sighed as she watched him now. Would this be one of the last times she would do this, check him in his sleep? It brought tears to her eyes to think of the temporary separation, but she knew, without a doubt, that she had to get help. Staying as long as she dared, Christine finally closed the door and returned to her guests.

It had been unbearable sitting as if nothing was wrong, pretending to enjoy the company, but finally, a bit after midnight, Matt and Christine Maitland bid the last of their guests goodbye. Matt was in a light mood, lighter than he had been for weeks. The liquor he’d consumed celebrating his success, helped loosen the gruff demeanor. Christine informed him that she would let the maids know they could start cleaning up, and then she would be going to bed.

“Well, I have some business down at the wharf. Don’t wait up for me.” He threw his coat over his shoulders and left by way of the front door. Out at the street, he flagged down a coach.

She extinguished the lamp in the parlor and watched out the darkened window as Matt got into a waiting coach and drove away. Suddenly a thought struck her; when Matt left, he was not wearing the same shirt as when the dinner party started. At some point during the night, he changed. Carefully as to not draw attention to herself, Christine went up the stairs on a hunch that Matt had not taken the watch fob. He had been drinking heavily, and there was a slim chance he had forgotten it. She had not seen it on him when he left the house just now.

Going into her room, she quickly slipped through the adjoining door to search for the key. Lying on the floor was the shirt he’d been wearing at the start of the evening, and, indeed, there was a liquor stain on the front of it. She stepped over the shirt and stared; on the top of Matt’s dresser were the watch, fob, and key. Christine felt her heart pound in her chest. It would happen, and soon!

She changed into her nightgown, then waited for the maids to finish in the kitchen before she went down to Matt’s study. Her hand was shaking as she slipped the key into the lock on the door of the book self compartment and turned it, listening for the click of the tumblers. Slowly, she swung the door open. There were stacks of papers that she did not have the time to examine, and glancing at a few of them, she found nothing damning, at first. Then, as she was about ready to resign herself to the fact there was nothing in the compartment, her eyes fell onto a sheaf of papers at the bottom of the pile.

There lay a list of clients and their addresses with dates of transactions, amounts of product, and amounts of money. Under that was a small book with entries of more detailed transactions from Maitland Shipping and accounts containing staggering amounts of capital listed on the pages. In a canvas bag in the back of the compartment, she discovered many thousands of dollars and pulled some out. Not stopping to count it, she arranged the bag as if it had not been disturbed. Christine Maitland now knew to some extent of her husband’s business dealings, and it sickened her to learn more. She pocketed the book, papers, and money then silently closed and relocked the door. She slipped out of the study and made her way to her room.

Under the bed, Christine hid a valise packed with a few essentials; she quickly added the things from the locked compartment in Matt's study under the few items of clothing. She heard the front door slam thinking Matt had not been gone very long unless she spent more time in his study than she thought. She ran into his room, put the watch, fob, and key where she had found it, then returned to her room. She shoved her bag under her bed and climbed under the blankets. She listened to the stagger and stumbling footfalls up the stairs that were now coming down the hall. She knew he was very drunk, and she readied herself for what she knew was coming.

Her door swung open, and Matthew Maitland stumbled into her room already with pants unbuttoned and hand inside them. He walked to the side of her bed and ripped the blankets off her as she clutched at her nightgown. His leer was cold and lecherous as he grabbed the frilled collar and ripped it from her body. The shadows created by the dancing flame in the fireplace enhanced the ugliness in his eyes and distorted the facial expression making him appear devilish.

“Matt… no…” she begged, but he fell upon her grunting like a pig, and forced his way on her. Her tears ran from her eyes and drained into her ears as he pushed into her. It didn’t take long, and he was finished. He immediately fell into a drunken stupor. She pushed him off her and slid out of bed. Tonight… it would be tonight…

Christine dared one last look at Skip but did not linger. She had to move and move now. With the valise in hand and hastily donned clothes, Christine Marie Maitland left the large comfortable house overlooking San Francisco Bay. She kept to the shadows and vanished into the night.

<><><><> 

Meg Bradshaw knocked on the door to Attorney Jarrod Barkley’s office. At his summons, she turned the knob and entered. Meg had seen the successful attorney many times and had kept up with current cases reported to the Sacramento News. She smiled as the man stood to greet her, his expression warm and genuine as he gestured for her to sit.

“Mrs. Bradshaw, it’s a pleasure to meet you. How can I help you?” he asked with sincerity.

Meg willed herself not to cry. “Mr. Barkley, I am here in regard to my sister. To put it bluntly, she asked me to retain an attorney for her. She is seeking a divorce from an abusive husband, and she overheard him talking to a foreman about getting rid of an employee to keep him quiet. Coincidentally, an employee was found the next day floating in the bay. I’ve been following your cases, and I think that you are just the attorney she needs. She can pay whatever fees you wish…”

Jarrod raised his hands to slow the flow of words as a wrinkled frown creased his forehead. “Mrs. Bradshaw, hold on a minute! This is highly irregular. First of all, I am not a divorce lawyer. I’m a criminal attorney. Why isn’t she here herself?”

Meg took a deep breath to start over. Slow down, Meg… “Mr. Barkley, my brother-in-law is a very powerful and brutal man. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Matthew Maitland?” And she saw the look that she was waiting for. Matthew Maitland had been suspected of numerous illegal dealings but remained elusive; no one could actually pin anything on him. “Well, she has some proof but has to be careful as Matt has her followed everywhere she goes. She’s watched constantly.” Meg stopped talking and reached into her handbag, producing the letter she received yesterday and handed it over the desk to Jarrod.

He looked at the writing then opened the letter and read. Then he re-read it and raised his eyes to peer into those of a distraught and concerned sister.“Where is she now?” he asked.

Meg felt sick. “I don’t know, but when Maitland discovers that she is gone, the first place he will look is with me. There are no other relatives or friends she could go to. I, we need your help now!”

Jarrod wondered if this was the break they’d been waiting for.

<><><><> 

Time crawled by. It was only five minutes later than the last time he checked. She didn’t get to visit that often, but, when she did, Johnny Madrid Lancer was a very happy man. Holly Vasquez would be visiting Lancer.

Earning time off of her job as a medical assistant for Dr. Benjamin Hanley in Salinas after an outbreak of fever, she was exhausted, and Doc recommended she take some time, ‘Go see that young man of yours for a couple of weeks!’

Doc knew she was worth the time off. Since Holly had come into his employ, everything ran more smoothly, and the patients were happier. So, now, it was time for her to look after herself. Doc also thought the world of Johnny, and what an exquisite couple they made. They had been two lost souls, had connected and their relationship, while not typical, worked for them and made them happy, and it was beautiful.

Johnny’s family had fallen in love with her, too, however, disappointed they were at the couple’s reluctance to marry. But, they all anxiously anticipated her arrival. By tomorrow this time, she would be there.

Johnny rode back to Lancer, then dismounted in front of the barn intending on brushing down and feeding Barranca. Johnny always took care of his  animal; he depended on the horse with his life, so, what better way to forge a close bond than to give it the attention himself? Stripped of the saddle and bridle, Barranca munched happily on the extra scoop of oats Johnny gave him as the brush ran along the broad back and down the flanks. Johnny could have sworn the horse sighed in pleasure. Well, at least someone is enjoyin' the time, slow as it is... Johnny thought as he continued to brush the golden coat.

<><><><> 

Meg Bradshaw went about her errands as if she had all day. She stopped to chat with friends and neighbors that she met on the boardwalks of Sacramento. She took her time in the milliner’s shop, and then visited the dressmaker. As she passed the post office, Mr. Scofield, postmaster, waved her into the cool interior.

“Good morning, Mr. Scofield! What can I do for you?” Meg’s smile always brightened his day. He hustled over to the window and handed her an envelope.

“This just came for you, Mrs. Bradshaw. Thought ya may as well pick it up now, long as you were right here.”

Meg’s belly flipped over but kept firm control over the emotions and hoped that Mr. Scofield would not hear the thump of her heart. She took the missive, knowing that she was probably watched and tucked it into her handbag. “Thank you, Mr. Scofield! And tell Milly hello for me!” I need to read this now! Christine may need help… Meg gathered her wits and casually walked on her way.

 Taking time for lunch, Meg entered the café and took a table off to the side. She ordered a light meal and only then took the time to read the letter. Even disguised to not look like Christine’s writing, Meg knew it was from her sister.

Dear Meg,

I have left the house though my heart breaks to leave Skip. I can only hope I am doing the right thing. I will know shortly…

I pray that you were successful in locating and retaining an attorney. I will need a good one considering Matt’s ‘army’ of them! I have a little over three thousand dollars with me, I am sure it will be sufficient.

I am staying at a small boarding house in the outskirts of Sacramento, The Hill House, using the name of Alice Carr. Please have the attorney contact me there.

Meg, I’m scared!

“Hello, Miz Bradshaw!” Tim, the boy from the livery, stopped at her table. His hands balanced a large tray laden with lunch items from the menu. “Ol’ Dan said lunch was on him, so I’m eatin’ good taday!” and the boy motioned to the back door where the old man waited.

The idea popped into her head, and before she could give it a second thought, it was out of her mouth. “Tim, when you finish eating could you please stop back in here to see me? I need help with an errand, it will only take five minutes, and I would be happy to pay you.” Meg smiled as she looked into the tall boy’s large, freckled face.

The thought of making a bit of money was something the boy would not have to think twice about. “Yes. Ma’am! I’ll be back in a few minutes!” The boy hurried out the door.

Meg breathed a sigh of relief. She had become used to the idea of being watched when Christine would visit, but at the moment, she could not detect anything unusual. She had taken her first sip of coffee when Tim was standing by her table. He must have inhaled his lunch, she thought.

“’M finished, Miz Bradshaw! What kin I do fer ya?”

Meg casually glanced around and saw no threat. She spoke quietly to the boy, handed him a dollar and the letter, then he was gone out the back door.

<><><><> 

“Mrs. Carr?” asked the neatly dressed gentleman at the door.

Christine nodded, hands shaking and fingers cold from frazzled nerves.

“I’m Jarrod Barkley. Your sister, Meg Bradshaw, contacted me about retaining my services.”

Jarrod Barkley! This is wonderful! She knew the reputation, but she knew she needed to hear what he had to say first. Maybe he wouldn’t take the case... No! She couldn’t think that way! He had to help!

“Yes, Mr. Barkley, please come in.” Christine had made sure they would be left alone. Old Mrs. Hennessey was nearly deaf, and there were no other tenants renting rooms. She shut the parlor door assuring privacy.

“Mrs. Carr,” using that name taking all necessary cautions to assure her safety, Jarrod began, “this is certainly a critical, not to mention an interesting case. You said you had some proof of wrongdoings?” The look in the bright blue eyes of Mr. Barkley seemed to give her hope.

Christine nodded. “Yes, I have some things in my room. I’ll get them.” She quickly left the parlor.

Jarrod sat stunned that the elusive evidence he’d been after for so long had fallen into his lap. The state had been trying for the last several years to find incriminating evidence on Matthew Maitland, and every time they got a lead, he slithered his way out of it. Most likely he’d employed someone to keep one step ahead and had infiltrated into the law firm. Jarrod strongly suspected there was a traitor in their midst.

Christine made her way back to the parlor. She handed the small book and the papers she’d taken from Matt’s study to Jarrod. He looked them over, took his time reading, and all the while, Christine’s heart pounded in her chest and a thousand questions skittered around in her head. She hoped it was enough evidence because she had just now crossed the point of no return.

<><><><> 

“What the hell do you mean ‘she’s gone?’  Just where the hell could she go?” The man before him trembled as he delivered the bad news. Matthew Maitland became livid. ”Find her, now!” She couldn’t be far away. She wouldn’t know how to leave. She was spineless, and she wouldn’t leave the boy. No, she was around, but that’s something that I will have to keep an eye on from now on… But she won’t be doing this again, no matter where she is…

<><><><> 

When Jarrod finally looked up, he smiled and indicated the chair opposite him.

“Mrs. Carr, please sit. We need to talk.” Jarrod opened his briefcase to retrieve paper and pencil. They talked for two hours. He asked very difficult questions, personal and painful for her to answer, many times she had to stop and collect herself before continuing. But she told him everything, including detailed descriptions of her beatings and injuries resulting from them, and even alluded to the embarrassing rapes.

Jarrod called a halt to their meeting. He returned the paper to his briefcase. “Mrs. Carr, I can help you with this, but I need to warn you that this will no doubt get intense, even ugly. It will be difficult as I am sure that your husband’s attorneys have already formulated a solid defense. I only want you to be ready for just about anything…” That was as far as Jarrod got when she dissolved into tears so deeply torn from her soul Jarrod was  at a loss to console her.

“My… my son! I want my son!” she managed to say between breathless sobs.

Jarrod reached over to cover her hands with his, holding them warmly as he tried to give her a sense of strength and support. She looked up into his face, and he had to steel himself as he saw her desperation. The raw pain in her eyes threatened to take his breath away.

“I will do what it takes, Mrs. Maitland, and I will do all I can to get Skip back to you. You can be assured of that. But for now, we need to see to it that you cannot be found. I know what men like your husband are capable of, so, we need to take every precaution. You need to trust me to do what is right for you and your son.”

<><><><> 

Murdoch Lancer read the telegram, delighted in the news but sensing there was something more behind it. Victoria Barkley was coming to visit, just overnight, and then she would leave to get back to Stockton. Val Crawford, Green River’s sheriff, brought the telegram and took great relief that Murdoch was not too upset because what he had to tell Murdoch now would definitely light the fuse with explosions to follow.

“There’s more, Mr. Lancer. Ah, maybe ya wanna siddown?” Val said with a serious expression and a bit of apprehension that settled in his eyes.  

The front door slammed as Johnny strolled into the hacienda when he saw Val’s horse out front. “Hey, amigo! What brings ya here in the middle of the day?” Johnny slapped Val’s shoulder as he stopped to sit on the corner of Murdoch’s massive desk. He picked up his father’s paperweight and tossed it between his hands.

As if choreographed, Scott came from the kitchen to join them. Secretly Val was relieved. It would be good to have both the boys here in case Murdoch went for his throat.

Murdoch let his steely gaze settle on the sheriff.

“Alright, Mr. Lancer, here it is. Jarrod Barkley needs your help. They been tryin’ ta get this guy in San Francisco, Matt Maitland…”

“Maitland Shipping?” Scott butted in.

Val nodded. “He’s suspected in everything from smuggling to murder, but they can never get any charges ta stick… till now. His wife has come forward an' she’s willing ta testify against him. It seems like she just found out how dirty her husband is an' she don’t want their boy raised havin’ a man like him for a father, so…” Val watched Murdoch closely for a response. “So they need a place ta hide her. Not here at the ranch but say that cabin ya got out southwest a here…”

Murdoch made no indication he’d heard, just kept watching Val. Finally, he spoke. “And am I expected to provide guards for her, too?” Murdoch was clearly not happy with disruption soon to take place at the ranch.

“You’d be reimbursed by the state,” Val answered.

Johnny and Scott looked at each other. “Hell, Murdoch, Holly’s comin’ an’ I know she’ll wanna help. If that woman’s willin’ ta testify against her husband, she’s gotta be scared. Holly’s real good with that type a thing an’ I’ll volunteer my time…” He looked to his brother, and Scott nodded.

“You can count me in, too, sir. Maitland Shipping has been suspected of a lot of shady underhanded dealings. If this will help bring it down, I’d be proud to be part of it.”

Murdoch watched his sons, then glanced at Val as the thought suddenly sparked in his brain. I’ve been looking at this the wrong way… Instead of judging the situation as helping out to right a wrong, I’ve been looking at it as how I am going to be inconvenienced… Murdoch Lancer was suddenly contrite and ashamed. He looked down at the floor before lifting his head to contemplate the sheriff; then he smiled almost sheepishly. To have his sons thinking of the bigger picture before he did was humbling.
 
“Sheriff Crawford, Lancer will be proud to help. Whatever is required of us!”

Val’s smile split his face from ear to ear.

<><><><> 

Holly got off the train and launched herself into Johnny’s arms. Holding her tightly, more than was publicly proper, they hugged each other fiercely before he leaned in and kissed her with searing passion, not caring who was watching. His heart pounded against his ribs as he swung her in a circle, her arms wrapped around his neck, threatening to never let him go, and that was fine by him.

From across the street, Dr. Sam Jenkins stopped to watch the pure joy of the two young people, two of the most remarkable people he’d ever had the honor to know. He gave them a few moments together before he came to greet them.

Dios! I’ve missed you, querida! Te amo!”  Johnny breathed into their kiss.

Her black diamond eyes fixed his, riveting them with like passion. She breathed heavily against his lips, overjoyed at the long-awaited physical contact.

“Te amo, Juanito!”Holly responded as her heart began to pound in her chest.

“Holly! What a pleasant surprise!” Sam stepped up onto the platform and startled her, but pleasantly so, with a big fatherly hug. This was the first time he’d been so open about greeting her.

She was delighted and promptly returned the gesture.

“You look as lovely as ever! I’ve been invited to dinner tonight, so I will see you then! It’s so good to see you again, dear!” Sam turned to go as Johnny threw his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close for another blistering hot kiss that left her breathless.

“Let’s go get that horse outta the stock car before she kicks the walls down!” Johnny laughed, knowing that Chula was not content having been cooped up for so long.

As was customary, the ride back to Lancer took a bit longer than the family thought it should. The two, having been separated for close to three months, had taken a detour by way of the quiet, lush meadow enjoying a few intimate hours in the long sweet grass wrapped in each other’s arms, skin to skin, meeting thrust for thrust. Long nights lying alone washed away with these interludes, difficult weeks apart made bearable with these visits. This was their magic, not meant for most, but the arrangement worked for them. Their coming together exploded with the release of mind, body, and spirit.

“Well, guess we better get goin’ before Murdoch sends out a search party. Never live it down if Jelly’d find us like this…” Johnny mumbled as Holly giggled with the thought.

She could envision the old man stammering and stuttering, blushing bright red at catching the two lovers rolling in the grass. They pulled on their clothes and mounted the horses that had been playing their game of nipping and bumping into the other. Just like old married folks, the horses pined when they were apart and quarreled when together. They mounted up and headed out to Lancer.

<><><><> 

Teresa ran out the front door as she dried her hands on the apron that was tied around her slim waist. “Holly! It’s so good to see you again!” She wrapped Holly in a sisterly hug. Holly’s exotic beauty never ceased to amaze her. Oh, how Teresa wished Johnny would marry this woman!

Scott came from the house picking her up much like Johnny had done on the train platform, however, without the passion. He swung her around and placed a sweet kiss on her cheek.

Next was Murdoch, and it never failed to amaze her that this mountain of a man, this God-fearing, puritanical man had accepted her into this family and treated her like a daughter, without the bonds of marriage to his son. Johnny always told her to not look a gift horse in the mouth… So, she would not even think about it any more! Murdoch, too, wrapped her in his bear-like arms, holding her as he would a precious daughter and greeted her affectionately.

And then there was Jelly. Holly stepped over to Jelly and sweetly hugged the crusty old man, making him blush bright pink clear to the tops of his ears. With a quick peck to his cheek, Holly smiled the smile only she could deliver.

“Jelly, it is good to see you! I hope this one has been behaving himself; I know I can count on you to keep him in line when I am not here!” she said as she motioned to Johnny. Everyone laughed and rolled their eyes that anyone other than Holly herself could keep Johnny in line.

“Johnny, ya got things ta do. I’ll take this jughead for ya.” Jelly reached for the reins.

“Thanks, Jelly,” Johnny said, not usually letting anyone tend his horse for him but Jelly was good with Barranca and this only happened on occasion.
“Thanks, Jelly, hey don’t forget the…”

“Already got apples an’ carrots out here. I happen ta wanna keep my fingers!”

Everyone laughed, knowing how Johnny had spoiled his horse and if no treat was offered, Barranca would reward his caretaker with a nip on their fingers.

Talking all at once, the noisy party stepped into the front hall as Maria came into the room, and with a string of rapid-fire Spanish, she greeted Holly warmly while at the same time admonished Juanito for taking so long in getting Holly to the ranch. She had been traveling for hours, and she would be tired.

Johnny smiled innocently while Scott nudged him with a knowing elbow in the ribs. Johnny took Holly’s bags and carried them to her room as Teresa escorted Holly upstairs to freshen up. Murdoch and Scott settled in the great room to be joined by Johnny as they shared their libation of choice while they waited for dinner.

Scott could not help but grin as he saw Johnny watching the clock. Whenever Holly would visit, his brother couldn’t stand it if she wasn’t by his side. ‘So close but yet so far’ Scott thought with amusement.

But, as of yesterday, an element of trepidation hovered in the air like thick, choking smoke. The idea of taking down a suspected criminal like Maitland could be extremely dangerous, and having his wife here, who was willing to testify to what she heard, was bringing that danger right into this house. Val did have a good idea to get her away to a remote part of the ranch, and with guards to keep her safe, they should be able to pull this off.

Scott knew they would have to hogtie Johnny to keep him from this job. He attributed it to the life Johnny used to live. Danger and life-threatening situations were an everyday occurrence, and ranch life could be downright dull, tedious, and predictable. He suspected that Johnny craved a little walk on the wild side. Nothing spiced up life like a … what had Johnny called it?... The Dance, yes, dance… nothing spiced up life like the dance on the wild side. It didn’t need to be a gunfight, just danger.

He saw Johnny’s eyes turn to the hallway above and soon Holly, looking fresh as a rose having changed into a stunning burgundy skirt and white blouse, glided down the stairs. She moved with an elegance seldom seen, confidence few women possessed. She walked straight into Johnny’s arms, and no one could hold back the smiles as he kissed her lovingly on the mouth.

Murdoch thought the sparkle in his son’s deep blue eyes had never been so brilliant, and, now, with Holly, they were also filled with love.

The pounding on the front door brought an end to the endearing scene in the great room as Teresa greeted Val and Sam and the shenanigans began. Val greeted Holly with a warm hug and kiss as drink orders were taken and filled, and pleasantries were exchanged.

“Holly, I think you are more beautiful than when I saw you at the train! How can that be?” Sam said as he took the Scotch Murdoch handed him.

Holly laughed graciously. “Oh, I think that maybe you have something in your eye, Dr. Jenkins!” she laughed, and Johnny thought no, there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with his eyes…

Maria summoned them to the table that was filled with sumptuous dishes, some spicy, and some not, but all delicious and plentiful. Murdoch said grace, they all responded with an ‘amen’ and the meal was started, dishes passed to the right and plates were filled. Johnny called for Maria to come out to the table, but when she appeared, she expected to be asked to get something that hadn’t been put on the table. Johnny rose from his seat, took his glass, and held it up.

“I’d like ta make a toast.” He shrugged. “Ain’t very good at this kind a stuff, but I know Maria worked really hard taday ta get this ready an’ I wanna thank ya for all a your work an’ the trouble ya went through ta do this. Gracias, Mamacita!”

Cheers echoed around the table of “Here, here” as Maria blushed bright red. With her meek and mild ‘Gracias!’, she made to return to the kitchen, but Johnny stopped her, pulled out the chair next to him and motioned for her to join them. Shyly, she slid onto the chair as Johnny bent to place a kiss on her cheek and whispered another “Gracias and she caught the warmth in his eyes that took her breath away. This niño was special to her, and she patted his cheek. And then the eating began…

“Well, Victoria will be here the day after tomorrow with Christine Maitland,” Murdoch began. “Scott, I want you to ride down to the cabin with as many supplies as you can take. Use a packhorse and maybe between you and Maria you can get a list together and get it ready to go. The less time Mrs. Maitland stays here and gets to the cabin, the safer she will be.”

He then turned to Holly and apologized. “Holly, I know that you came here to visit Johnny, I must confess that an emergency came up, things are not going to be exactly conducive for the two of you to have much time alone. I am sorry, my dear.”

Holly met his stare, concern growing in her eyes; but concern for others not because their time had been cut short. “What is it? Can I help?” she asked with a seriousness that endeared her to the family, again. She showed no agitation at the thought of her visit being interrupted, and the first thing out of her mouth was to ask if she could help.

Everyone in the room felt it. Holly was such a treasure, a kind and giving treasure. Johnny knew what she would say, and he only smiled, but under the table, he grasped her hand and gently squeezed.

Murdoch smiled. “Yes, as a matter of fact, you can help us out. The day after tomorrow a woman will be coming here, and to put it bluntly, we will be hiding her until her husband can be apprehended and held for trial on serious charges. She may need another woman to talk to and a friend. If you’d consent to it, I’d like to send you and Johnny to stay with her, and Scott, when I can spare him from the ranch. Will you…”

“Of course I will! I will be more than happy to help. It sounds to me like she will need a friend to talk to.”

Johnny knew that Holly would be perfect for the job. She would do her best to comfort and ease Christine Maitland's fears, knowing that she had an ugly task ahead of her. But Johnny knew Holly would do it. It was in her nature to help. Holly had a sixth sense when it came to easing other’s pain, be it mental or physical. She had done so for Johnny every time he saw her. People responded to her, that was the reason she was so good at the job she had as a medical assistant. The patients loved her, were comfortable around her, and trusted her.

The evening passed quickly as stories were told, and once again, Johnny and Val regaled them all with outrageous and incredible incidents from their past, retelling the humorous events and skipping over the violence of Johnny’s past that would be upsetting for Murdoch and Scott.

Johnny had to censor what he relayed to them as Murdoch still felt the guilt of Johnny growing up alone after his mother died, leaving Johnny virtually orphaned. Scott took things to heart, upset with the violence of Johnny’s younger years. The many brushes with death that, now, seemed to slide off his brother’s shoulders without any second thoughts about,  rattled Scott to his core. How Johnny was able to shrug it off, Scott couldn’t figure out.

The nonsense and tomfoolery were highlighted and embellished, the focus strictly on the lighter, more humorous stories. Even Maria was laughing hard enough to wipe at her eyes with her apron. Finally, it came to an end with light hearts and aching sides.

Sam turned to Johnny and Holly, he hugged her goodnight and shook Johnny’s hand. “You two be careful,” then turned to Holly and said, “Make sure he stays out of trouble,” then he waved a hand, “Forget it, Holly, can’t be done.” And Sam walked out the door with Val on his heels.

“Well, I’m going to get things ready for tomorrow. I am sure Maria will have a good grasp on extras to take for Mrs. Maitland. If you will excuse me?” Scott left for the kitchen.

Murdoch sighed as he watched Johnny and Holly sitting on the couch next to each other. Next to each other? Murdoch thought. I can’t tell where one starts and the other ends! they were sitting so close. But, he would forgo the criticism. They were both incredibly wonderful young people, and he was honored to have them in his life. Given the facts of both of their childhoods, it was of miracle status that either of them lived. How did they get to be such fine adults? Maybe adult was stretching things a bit far at times where Johnny was concerned after hearing the stories just told to them around the table… Murdoch could only smile. He was a happy man. Murdoch Lancer was a proud and happy man.

Feeling in a generous mood, he stopped them as they were ascending the stairs. Holly was going to bed and Johnny would walk her to her room, and, no doubt, end the evening with a kiss hot enough to peel the paint off the walls before he said goodnight to her. Ah, youth!

“Johnny?” Murdoch stopped his son.

Johnny, with his arm around Holly’s shoulders, stood still at the foot of the stairs. He turned to her with a kiss to her lips, “I’ll be right there, querida,”

Holly walked out of Johnny’s embrace and went to Murdoch, placing a kiss on his cheek. “Goodnight, Murdoch, sweet dreams!”

“Goodnight, darling!”  Murdoch answered.

Holly smiled, secretly happy. That was the term he used for Teresa. Holly left for her room as Johnny appreciated the sight of her swaying hips as she went up the stairs. Murdoch couldn’t say a word!

“Son, I know this isn’t working out the way you thought it would for Holly’s visit…”

“Hey, Murdoch, it’s alright. Long as Holly’s wantin’ ta help, we’ll be tagether. No, it ain’t what I planned on, but it’ll be alright.” Johnny smiled his dazzling Johnny Madrid Lancer smile that brought such joy to Murdoch’s heart.

Returning the gesture, Murdoch replied, “I want you to spend the day with Holly tomorrow. I am ordering you to take the day off, young man!” Murdoch spoke sternly but grinned afterward.

“Well, this is one order I can take, ol’ man! Thanks!” Johnny patted Murdoch’s side, turned, and bounded up the stairs.

Murdoch could just about time it. Right about… now! Then Murdoch waited for the paint to sizzle and blister from the heated kiss he knew was in progress in the hallway above. It always struck him as peculiar, but Holly refused Johnny’s advances while they were in the house. He knew she would not disgrace his hacienda; she knew how much Johnny's father wanted them to marry but had accepted the situation and respected their decision so she would honor Murdoch in the only way she could.

<><><><> 

Morning found Johnny awake at dawn; he slid out of bed and pulled on his clothes. He had wanted to talk with Scott before he left but knew he was probably too late. Instead of taking the stairs, he slid down the banister, only indulging in this frolic when Murdoch wasn’t around and bounded into the kitchen to greet Maria. With a great bear hug and loud smooch on her cheek, he startled her as she stood at the stove.

She waved the large spatula at him in a playful threat as he retrieved a cup of coffee.

Johnny waited impatiently for Holly as he sat on the corner of the table, sipping the thick, strong brew.

Maria caught the lively sparkle in his eyes, and her heart was near to bursting with the magic that shown within them and knew it was because of Holly. Her niño had found the woman to match his spirit and soul, and Maria could not be happier. Holly had found a place in the Lancer family, and there was not a single person that could find fault with her. Everyone adored her.

“Juanito, do you want food now?” Maria asked as Johnny waited.

He swung his foot as he sat on the table. Maria knew the answer; he would wait for Holly but would not have to wait long as she caught a glimpse of the girl beyond Johnny’s shoulder. She turned to the stove without waiting for his answer.

Johnny watched the cook as she prepared the morning meal when he felt the silken arms close around his waist. He turned to greet her properly, took her in his arms, and hugged tightly. He inhaled her clean scent; the scent that went straight to his nether regions. Quickly he pulled Holly to stand in front of him until the hot blood settled down and he would not upset Maria overmuch at his boldness.

When the biscuits were done and fresh out of the oven, they sat to eat. Maria politely refused Holly’s offer to help, saying they needed to eat, as Juanito had plans for them today.

As they sat at the table so closely that their bodies touched, Maria had to turn away as her eyes filled with sweet tears and she had to continually wipe them away. Her apron served her well as she watched her niño and his lady.

“I will help you clean up, Maria, and I won’t take no for an answer!” Holly announced when the meal was over. The chore was soon completed, and as Holly hung the towel to dry, Johnny drank his last cup of coffee. Holly turned to him and smiled. His heart melted for the thousandth time. The woman was beyond beautiful… And she was his!

“How about ya get your coat an’ hat and I’ll get the horses saddled?” Johnny said as he nuzzled her neck. He could feel his heart quicken its beating, and his blood began to warm again.

“What about your work today?” Holly asked as she pulled her head back to look into his eyes.

Johnny smiled widely. “Murdoch gave me the day off…” and he raised his brows as his smile turned lecherous. This was a smile she knew well and returned one of her own, one that ended with the tip of her dark pink tongue wetting her lips as she quickly turned to go upstairs. Johnny immediately stood before his body betrayed itself again and left for the barn.

Holly came down the stairs dressed in a riding habit that accented her trim figure. It was exquisitely tailored, and she looked like a breath of spring as she came through the kitchen.

Maria halted mid-step and could only stare at the beauty, her hand over her ample bosom and eyes filling again with tears she could not hold back.

Holly stopped, suddenly alarmed at the tears now tracing wet, shiny streaks down the round face of the housekeeper. “Maria, por favor! What is wrong?” Holly whispered, concern heavy in her voice. She took Maria’s hands and held them tightly as Maria shook her head no.

“Oh, Chica, nothing is wrong! It is what is right! Juanito he is so happy now that he has found you! These are just the tears of a happy old woman. I have been worried that he would not find anyone worthy… He has been so lost for so long… until he found you. You have completed the man he deserves to be, and his spirit is full, and whole, and good!” Maria whispered these words, took Holly by the shoulders, and pulled her into her motherly embrace. Holly returned the hold, both weeping tears of joy as only they could do.

Johnny led Barranca and Chula to the house, surprised that Holly wasn’t waiting for him. He tied the reins to the hitch rail and started to go inside only to have Holly step out into the coppery bronze morning arm in arm with Maria. He knew his family would fall madly in love with her once they got to know her, and he was warmed with the relations that had so swiftly developed. Maria stopped and quickly went into the hacienda only to return with a bag, handing it to Johnny.

“I packed some food for the day.” She turned to Holly and, again, hugged her tightly, then she went to her niño, reaching up to place hands on either side of his face and pull his head down to kiss his cheek.

He wrapped her in a warm hug, sighing deeply, and then kissed her forehead. “Gracias, Mamacita!”  Johnny hooked the string of the bag around the saddle horn and turned to help Holly mount Chula. She adjusted her hat snugly on her head and pulled her jacket around her trim body as Johnny swung up into his saddle. With a quick wave to Maria telling her not to expect them back before dinner, they rode out across the yard and down the road under the adobe Lancer arch.

<><><><> 

The morning gently warmed. The sun, rising in the cloudless blue sky, burned off the mist. Soon Johnny took off the jacket and tied it behind his saddle. Then without a word he reached over and pulled Holly to him, his lips moved gently over hers, and he sighed, eyes closed in pleasure. Finally, he let her go, ready to continue the ride.

They rode on for a few miles enjoying the day, and the company. They heard the cry of a hawk as it soared gracefully on the thermals, then Johnny pointed out a doe at the creek as her twin fawns played in the meadow behind her.

Holly smiled at the running and dashing of the fawns, the dodge, and lunge with seemingly endless energy.

They urged their horses down the trail and soon found themselves at the bottom of a small valley, carpeted with soft grass, moss, and ferns. The scent of pine heavy in the air mixed with the sweet scent of the wildflowers that grew in thick, lush patches. With her heart starting to beat in heavy thumps in her chest, Holly knew this was the destination Johnny had in mind.

They halted their mounts; he secured them and took a blanket to spread on the thick grass before returning to Holly. He bent to kiss her and without breaking their contact, bent lower to scoop her up in his arms and carry her to the blanket.

Johnny lowered their bodies carefully, putting Holly on the soft mantle and gently lay on top of her, his arms taking his weight as they rested on either side of her body and his hands tangled in her silky hair. His tongue pushed its way into her mouth, tasting the sweetness of her. Johnny groaned in pleasure, breaths coming shorter and harder. He reached over to unbutton her blouse and slipped his hand inside to cup her soft breast. The kisses became more urgent, and soon shed the confines of their clothes, they joined in the dance that they perfected so well, so well…

Their dalliance lasted into the late afternoon, leaving them both sated. Holly started to giggle, and Johnny raised his head to stare down into her beautiful face.

“What?” he asked as he raised a brow, and his sweet smile began to grow.

Holly drew a deep breath. “Remind me to thank Murdoch for giving you the day off, por favor!” 

Johnny smirked. “Yeah, think I’ll hafta thank him… again!” They laughed softly together before he rolled over on her one more time...

Their trip back to the hacienda was leisurely as they walked the horses and held hands. Barranca and Chula content at the slow pace as if they sensed their riders need to be close. Gone was the ‘bickering’ attitude the mounts displayed the day before.

The sky had started to lose the light as dusk settled in around them before the riders made it under the Lancer arch. Johnny took the horses and offered Holly the use of the bathhouse first, which she gratefully accepted. He fed the horses and brushed them down, then awarded the cherished apple before he entered the hacienda.

<><><><> 

Dinner was already served, although it was only Murdoch, Teresa, and Jelly at the table. Maria hastily set two more places and smiled sweetly at her niño.

“Think I’ll do ya all a favor an’ take a bath first!” He laughed as he took the stairs two at a time, retrieved his clean clothes, then out to the bathhouse passing Holly in the process.

“Go an’ eat, querida, before it gets too cold. They’re already sittin’ at the table.” Grabbing her for another blistering kiss before they parted, Johnny finally let her go into the dining room.

“I’m curious as to how Jarrod Barkley is going to handle this,” Murdoch said as he sat with Johnny and Holly while they ate dinner. “They have tried in the past to bring Maitland up on charges, but something always happened, and the man slips out of their grasp.”

“Sounds like the man can afford a bunch a lawyers. Ain’t that what lawyers do? Look at what ol’ man Garrett did with you tryin' ta get Scott. If Maitland has that kind of money, it ain’t gonna be easy, 'specially if folks don’t wanna testify against him. But, maybe this time’ll be different,” Johnny said as he finished his meal. “When’s Mrs. Barkley supposed ta get here tomorrow?” Murdoch took a drink of Scotch and savored the elixir as it slid smoothly down his throat.

“Not until late afternoon or early evening. If the train is on time, it will arrive in Green River at four. By the time they get here, it will be after six at the soonest. I thought to have them spend the night and leave as early the next morning as you can. I’m hoping that there will be enough supplies already there, but when Scott gets back, we’ll know one way or the other if you need to take any more.”

“Well, I can do some huntin’ once we get there, too. If Scott stays around for a little while, I’ll hunt, but I don’t wanna leave the cabin unless there’s someone else there.”

“Don’t forget that I can use a rifle, too,” Holly said softly.

“I’m hopin’ that we won’t have any company an’ ya won’t hafta,” Johnny said with a smile but felt relieved that Holly realized there would be that possibility.

“Oh, Murdoch, I want to thank you for giving Johnny the day off! That was very kind. It was a perfect day for a ride, and we so enjoyed the sights!” Holly said as Johnny nearly spewed his tequila out of his nose, then thought that he had certainly enjoyed his ‘site’!

“You are very welcome, Darling. Johnny has been working hard, too hard, and with this Maitland issue that just came up, I know your time together will be limited. But I am sure that there won’t be any danger. I’m assuming that Jarrod has taken all the precautions so that Mrs. Maitland hasn’t been followed.”

Johnny shrugged. “Well, if he’s even half the attorney I think he is, he’ll have it all covered.”

<><><><> 

The night was beautiful as she leaned against the adobe wall, still warm from the daytime sun. Johnny came up behind her and slipped his strong arms around the petite frame, then he pulled her tightly to him, so close that she could feel the beat of his heart. Holly leaned back into him and savored the closeness so comforting and sweet. His musky male scent in her nose made her head spin in delicious circles, evoking the trembling she’d come to anticipate.

“Are there any medical supplies at the cabin, Johnny?” she asked verifying  every contingency had been covered, but sincerely hoped this one wouldn’t be needed.

“Yeah, I‘m pretty sure about that. Murdoch has all the line shacks and huntin’ cabins stocked ta handle anything. Don’t tell him but I left a full bottle of tequila last time I was there!”

Holly smiled and laid her head back on his shoulder.

Scott returned from the cabin shortly after nine that evening. He looked tired but was happy to report that everything had been readied.

“There’s enough canned goods for several weeks, plenty of blankets and Maria thought of things that should make it comfortable for the ladies. There’s enough kerosene to last a month,” Scott announced, and out of  Murdoch’s earshot, Scott whispered: “I even brought a bottle of tequila up there for you, but I saw one already there…” Johnny only smiled, and Scott returned it.
 
“I just hope the lady can ride. It’s gonna take a while gettin’ there an’ if we hafta keep stoppin’ it’ll be after dark. Don’t wanna ride up there in the dark…” Johnny said.

Scott nodded in agreement. It was not a trail to be ridden unless there was daylight.

“Sounds like just about everything’s taken care of. Maybe it won’t be for very long.” Johnny said, and Scott agreed.

<><><><> 

Everyone was busy the next day with last-minute preparations. Johnny finished a few things around the ranch and stuffed a few clothes in his saddlebags that he would take to the cabin.

Holly announced that she was ready, and Teresa volunteered her wardrobe if Mrs. Maitland was not prepared with enough clothing, knowing that she left almost everything she owned at the house in San Francisco. A warm winter coat was something that Teresa knew the woman would not have thought to pack, so she made hers available if it would fit.

It would be cold at the cabin this time of year. Maria insisted they take a few more blankets, “¡Nunca se sabe! (You just never know!), and thought of more food to send. Johnny put extra boxes of ammunition for both Colt and Winchester in the provisions. They checked and rechecked, making sure they had everything. And finally, Maria called them for dinner.

They had just seated themselves around the table when there came a knock at the front door. Scott excused himself to answer and found Victoria Barkley, and he assumed Mrs. Maitland, standing in the doorway, both women looking drained and exhausted.

“Mrs. Barkley, Mrs. Maitland, please come in!” Scott ushered them into the great room while Murdoch, Johnny, Holly, and Teresa came to join them.

Murdoch came forward with open arms. “Victoria! It’s good to see you!”

She returned the greeting and stepped aside. “Christine, this is Murdoch Lancer.”

Murdoch took Christine’s offered hand and held it warmly. “Mrs. Maitland, it is an honor to meet you! This is my son Scott, my younger son, Johnny, my ward, Teresa, and my extended family, Holly Vasquez.”

Christine looked about to cry, so tense with nerves that had been stretched to the breaking point.

“Please, come and have something to eat!” Murdoch said as they returned to the table as Maria set two more places. They passed the dishes of food around as they talked in subdued tones as they all took note of Christine Maitland. Her demeanor screamed exhaustion and frayed nerves. Victoria took the reins and put her hand over Christine’s.

“Would you rather lie down and rest?” Victoria asked, knowing what the woman’s answer would be.

She glanced up at Victoria’s face, grateful for the woman’s consideration. “Yes, I am rather tired. Thank you. Mr. Lancer, I am so sorry…”

Murdoch stood, as did Johnny and Scott. “No need, Mrs. Maitland, I apologize for not thinking of it myself. Please do not think a thing about it.”

Teresa left the table and took the woman upstairs.

<><><><> 

“I hope you will be comfortable here. It’s always been one of my favorite rooms,” Teresa said. “I’ll send Maria up with some warm water if you wish to clean up before you go to bed.” About to leave, Teresa stopped in the doorway and turned to Christine. “You’ve probably been told this before but try not to worry.”

“Thank you, Teresa, but it’s just what I am used to these days. I just can’t seem to pull my emotions together lately.” Teresa left her, and Christine sat on the edge of the bed, the tears racing down her face.

<><><><> 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Maitland, she’s gone, there’s no sign of her anywhere. What do you want me to do?”

Matthew Maitland went livid; his face turned red with rage, and his eyes went dark, filled with fury. What is she trying to do to me? That bitch! She will pay! She’ll never get that boy back… “Get me the Pinkerton Agency, now! Today!”

<><><><> 

“She’s putting on a brave front. My heart just breaks for that woman!” Victoria said. The others around the table were under the same impression as they listened to her talk. “There is something you all need to know. The authorities have known for some time now that there has been a great deal of smuggling in and out of San Francisco and Maitland Shipping is high on their list of suspects.

"Every time that they think they have proof of it, Maitland suddenly has an alibi or the evidence cannot be positively linked to him. Jarrod suspects someone working for Maitland is somewhere in the legal system and covering for him, even perhaps in the law firm where Jarrod is working, so he is asking that none of you try to contact him.

“It will be a slow process, but if Mrs. Maitland needs to get in touch with Jarrod, it should be done through me. Send me a letter or telegram but do not send anything to Jarrod’s office and run the risk of information getting to the wrong people.” Victoria sighed deeply and had a bit of trouble controlling her emotions as she continued. “Christine is sick at heart, having left her son behind... She is devastated and has broken down several times since she’s been with me. I just wish there was something I could do for her…” Victoria’s voice broke and trailed off as a sob threatened to escape her control.

Murdoch reached over and laid his large warm hand over hers. “You’re doing it, Victoria, you’re doing it,” he said softly.

Scott broke the tension. “So, I take it the boy is still with his father at the house in San Francisco?”

Now composed, Victoria nodded yes and continued with the sad chain of events. “Yes, he is still there, although, with his father out most of the time, the boy is under the care of a nanny, and the maids that simply adore him. But, that cannot take the place of a beloved parent. He’s only ten…”

That was the last thing that Johnny heard. Ten. Ten years old and no parent. Holly felt him tense and knew exactly what was going through Johnny’s mind. Johnny, himself, had been ten when his mother was murdered, and from then on had grown up alone. His brain wanted to reject the idea of a similar situation happening all over again. Could he do anything about that fact? He was damn well going to try…

Scott had seen it, too, the lost and agonized reaction on his brother’s face, the deep blue eyes instantly cold, and deadly. Scott also knew what it was like to grow up without a parent. While his grandfather provided him with anything that money could buy, it did not provide the security that could only be gotten from a loving parent. He looked down at his hands, contemplating what could be done…

Under the table, Holly grasped Johnny’s hand in a vise-like grip. She could feel the muscles tighten and flex. She knew what he was thinking, knew that his heart was breaking for this young boy; Johnny was reliving his own horrors, and visions of Skip Maitland tortured not only Johnny but all of them.

When Johnny raised his eyes, he found his brother’s intense gaze on him. They held each other’s regard for a moment, and he nodded in silent agreement. Holly saw the secret exchange and had an idea what it meant, but to her credit, she held her silence.

The stars were beautiful, but could not outshine the brightness that Johnny always found in his lover’s eyes. Her black diamond sparkle held his deep blue as he lowered his mouth to hers for a searing hot kiss. Their arms locked around the other holding tight, sharing the body heat between them as they molded themselves together, standing as one.

Looking out the patio doors, Scott, so very happy, and maybe even a little jealous, watched his brother, and the woman he loved sharing one last moment of passion before they all called it a night. Tomorrow was going to be a very early, and very tiring day. They were all still amazed at the eagerness that Holly expressed to help this woman, a total stranger, but so willing to help. But that was Holly, and that was only one reason why the family loved her.

<><><><> 

Morning came early. The kitchen was busy with breakfast and packing for the journey. Christine Maitland sat at the table, her plate of food basically untouched as Victoria sat beside her and discreetly watched as she moved the eggs around on her plate. She looked sullen and… sick, the circles under her eyes dark with worry, and no sleep.

Holly took one look at her and caught Murdoch’s attention, waving him into the great room for a private word.

He followed quickly when he saw the look on her face. “Yes, Darling, what is it?” he asked, knowing something important was on her mind.

“Murdoch, do you have any sleeping powders here? I know Mrs. Maitland is under much stress, but to see her this morning, I am worried. She is not sleeping well, if at all. She will need strength, and to get that she needs good sleep.”

Murdoch smiled. “Yes, dear, I have some and will send more if you want it.” Murdoch hurried upstairs to his room and returned shortly with a cloth pouch that Holly tucked into her saddlebags.

“Christine,” Victoria began softly and slid her arm around the frail woman’s shoulders. “You need to eat. You have a long way to travel today and have to keep up your strength. Please try to eat something,” Victoria coaxed as Christine gave her a sad smile.

Holly slipped into the pantry where Maria was stuffing the last of the food into a large bag. Her brief request gladly supplied, and another package was added to the sack.

Johnny came in the back door and announced that they were ready to leave.

Christine stood, feeling a bit shaky inside as Victoria Barkley came to her with a warm embrace and whispered into her ear. “Everything will be alright, Christine. Trust them to help you. They are all good and honest people. Jarrod would not have sent you here if he hadn’t thought it best.” She hugged Christine and stood back.

The young woman gathered up her shattered spirit and tried to smile. “Thank you, Mrs. Barkley, for everything…” was all she could manage. Then Christine went to the door, and before leaving, she turned to face Murdoch. “Thank you, too, Mr. Lancer, for your willingness to help. I would never have gotten this far without all of your kindnesses.” Christine met the gaze of everyone there, and Victoria could not get over the look of heartbreak in her eyes, her soul.

Murdoch stepped forward, took her hands, and enfolded them in his. “It is my honor and pleasure, Mrs. Maitland. My boys and Holly will take good care of you, you can be assured.”

With the last words of encouragement spoken between them, Johnny, Holly, Christine Maitland, and Scott left in the final hour of darkness. They were out under the Lancer arch and far across the southwest pasture before dawn lit the sky in colors of glorious magenta, orange, and red. The day would hold promise, for some.

<><><><> 

The small party traveled as fast as was possible, considering Christine Maitland had not ridden a horse in many years. Her husband had not thought it proper for a woman of high society, wife of a prosperous business magnate to be riding, especially astride. Christine knew they were traveling slower than they would have liked, because of her.

They stopped to give the horses a rest. Johnny helped Holly down although she was perfectly capable of dismounting by herself. But Johnny used it as an excuse just to let her body slide the length of his. He smiled at her wickedly, and kissed her mouth, lingering a bit longer to savor the sweetness of her.

Scott assisted Christine, and as her foot touched solid ground, her leg buckled, and she fell into Scott’s arms.

“Oh! I’m… I am so sorry, Mr. Lancer!” she gasped, embarrassed to tears.

Scott smiled kindly. “There’s no need to be sorry; I know this is difficult for you. And, please, call me Scott!”

There was genuine kindness in the man’s eyes, she thought and offered a bit of a smile.

Scott kept close as she walked the kinks out of her legs. She glanced back at him, then over at Holly and Johnny.

“I want to thank you all… I don’t mean to put you out…” Christine stammered.

Johnny took the lead and rewarded her with a dazzling smile that brightened her soul. It was the most spectacular smile she had ever seen!

“Heck, Ma’am, ya ain’t puttin’ any of us out. The Barkley’s an’ Lancer’s do for each other an’ besides, this is a part a Lancer Holly ain’t been to before. A little huntin’, some fishin’ an’ layin’ in the sun, it’s gonna seem like a vacation for us! Hope it’ll ease some of your troubles, too, Ma'am. Nothin’ like the mountains to put some wrongs ta right.”
"Fishing, brother? With your fishing techniques, we'll starve. There's not much left of a fish after you shoot it..." Scott joked, knowing his little brother's penchant to pull the trigger rather than enjoy the tranquility of the art of fishing.

"Funny, Scott, funny..." Johnny mumbled.

He spoke softly in the same soothing tones he would use to ease a spooked horse, and Scott saw his brother’s words had the effect he wanted them to. Christine Maitland offered them the first heartfelt smile he’d seen on the woman yet. And she laughed a bit at their banter.

Considering the slower pace, they still made decent time. At noon they stopped, already over seven hours into the trip with at least another six to go. A fire was started, and Holly made coffee, then handed everyone food, deliciously made from Maria’s kitchen and to Johnny’s surprise, the thoughtful woman even included some apples and carrots for the horses. Johnny took one of each to Barranca while Scott explained to Christine about the spoiled horse.

“Hey, he knows when he’s done good! Besides, I happen ta like my fingers…”

Their joking continued for several minutes, with Holly watching closely trying to get a handle on Mrs. Maitland's demeanor, and then she saw the woman smile at the nonsense. She missed what Scott said but heard Johnny’s response.

“He’s smart, that’s all! Does your horse come when you whistle for him?” Johnny defended.

And Christine smiled again, now enjoying the tomfoolery.

Christine thought she’d never again get on a horse after this. She was sore and stiff even though the bay she had been riding was very gentle. She tried to occupy her mind with thoughts of what life would be like after this horrible ordeal was over. If she had to leave San Francisco, she would as long as she had her son with her. She did not care if it left her penniless. He was all that mattered to her, to get him safely away from Matt and the unscrupulous life that he lived. She anchored her thoughts around Skip, and hopefully a good life soon!

Holly watched the turmoil that shadowed Mrs. Maitland’s face and ached for the woman. It had to have taken great courage to leave like she did, to leave her son. Although it was temporary, she could only imagine what that took.

Holly looked around as they climbed into the mountains. This was something new for her, a place she’d not been to before, and it was beautiful. The pine forests grew thick, scenting the air with the fresh and clean sweet fragrances. The ground, cushioned with pine needles and moss supported clumps of ferns and wildflowers. Down below, a stream wound its lazy way through the meadow and Holly nudged Christine’s arm to point out a doe and fawn getting a drink. She seemed to appreciate the sweet sight and watched as long as she could with the horse still walking. Holly thought perhaps she would be able to help keep her mind busy on other things.

As the day wore on the temperatures began to drop, and Christine shivered. Johnny saw the tremor and came alongside to untie the loaned coat from behind her saddle. She struggled into it as she carefully held the reins.

“Wrap the reins around the saddle horn,” Johnny told her as he grabbed the bridle. The horse was gentle, but she found a bit of comfort knowing that he had control of it.

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer. I appreciate it.” Christine spoke barely above a whisper.

He smiled. “It’s Johnny. Call me Johnny.” She nodded. “It ain’t real far now, maybe another hour an’ you’ll be able ta get off this horse an’ rest. The cabin’s kinda small, but you’ll be safe there.”

She wondered what Skip was doing right now and suddenly felt hot tears prickling her eyes.

<><><><> 

The cabin perched on the mountainside above a small valley secluded from the rest of the world. Mountains rose all around them, effectively cutting them off from civilization. The three of them wondered if Christine could handle the isolation after living in San Francisco for over twelve years. Folks used to city noise usually found the quiet ‘deafening’, but it was necessary to keep Christine alive, and away, safe from her abusive husband.

As the four of them neared the cabin, Holly looked all around, taking in the beauty, thinking this was almost as pretty as the little cabin she and Johnny frequented northwest of Salinas, but not quite.

They dismounted, Christine, completely exhausted, as Holly helped her inside while Johnny and Scott bedded down the horses. Soon Johnny smelled smoke and knew that Holly had taken things into her own hands inside. With sufficient firewood to last through the night and into tomorrow, the Lancer brothers hauled enough water from the nearby stream to cook and wash with.

A meal quickly consumed, everyone turned in early, except for Christine. She was more tired than she’d ever been in her life but knew it was futile to try and sleep. Holly, anticipating Christine’s dilemma, rose from her spot beside Johnny. She brewed a cup of herbal tea and encouraged Christine to drink it. Maria had suggested it before they left the hacienda. Holly wanted to try the tea first before the sleeping powders.

“Mrs. Maitland, I have some tea that might help you sleep. It is not medicine, but it does have herbs that are helpful.” Surprised when Christine took the offered cup, Holly did tell her there were the powders if she thought she needed them instead.

“Oh, Holly, I don’t know how to thank all of you! You’ve all done so much, and I want you to know that I appreciate it. And, please, call me Christine.”
Holly smiled as she gently squeezed the woman’s arm. Christine drank the tea, hoping that it would help, and soon her eyes began to droop. Holly silently thanked Maria, then helped Christine to bed.

With only one bedroom, which they gave to Christine, Johnny, Holly, and Scott slept in the main room on the floor. With Johnny and Holly in front of the fire, Scott claimed a large chair and wiggled in it to find just the right angle. Then he covered himself with a blanket and closed his eyes. He fervently hoped that Johnny would behave himself tonight with Holly so close. Scott knew that when together, they enjoyed themselves with abandon, but he really didn’t want to witness it,  he thought with a smile.

Holly took a lamp with a low wick and silently opened the door to the bedroom. She was relieved to see Christine tucked under the blankets, in deep, healing sleep. Holly quietly backed away and shut the door. She then returned to Johnny in their bed in front of the fire.

“Juanito, she’s sleeping! The poor thing was so tired, but I am hoping that tomorrow will be better for her!” Holly whispered.

“Yeah, I hope that, too,” Johnny said but thought differently. The woman ain’t gonna feel better till she’s got her boy with her… Johnny’s brain ran wild most of the night.

Scott woke with the inevitable crick in his neck. Rotating his head brought only pain that forced him to grimace.

Holly took pity on him and massaged the muscles until they loosened up.

“Thank you, Holly! That feels better already!” Scott said as he moved his head in circles, this time with much less discomfort.

“I coulda fixed that for ya, Boston…” Johnny said sarcastically.

“Why is it that I trust Holly more than you about this, little brother?”

Johnny laughed as he started their breakfast, and now that Holly was done ministering to Scott’s neck, she took over. Johnny did make excellent pan biscuits, and with those started already, Holly did the rest.

Conversing in low tones over their meal, they ate their fill, and when it was finished, Scott took his leave. With no delays, he would get back to Lancer in the early evening. Holly hugged him goodbye, and Johnny slapped him on the shoulder, telling him to be careful.

“That goes double for you, little brother! I’ll be back in a few days!” And then Scott was gone.

Johnny and Holly spent time on the front porch in the warm morning sun. Not wanting to wake Christine, they sat on the steps as they talked in soft tones, sometimes sitting in silence, enjoying the view, and watching the clouds.

Finally, Johnny spoke. “Think I‘m gonna saddle up Barranca an’ see if I can get some rabbits for supper. Will you be alright here? Won't be gone long an’ won’t be far away,” he asked as he gently kissed her, tickling her lips with his, and inhaled her scent deep into his lungs.

“Sí, Juanito, we will be fine. I will make a good dinner with whatever you bring me, querido.

“If ya need help, fire three shots from the rifle into the air an’ I’ll be here quick. I ain’t goin’ far.”

Johnny smiled and hugged her tight. “Te amo, querida!” he breathed into her ear. He went inside the cabin and strapped his Colt around his narrow hips, grabbed the Winchester from behind the door, took his coat from the hook, and quietly went outside closing the door softly behind him.

Holly watched him ride off after a seriously scalding kiss that set her blood wanting more, but she did not want to be caught by Christine in a compromising situation. Under the circumstances, she may not understand or appreciate the lusty rapport between the two lovers. So, any time alone would probably be delayed for the time being. She watched Johnny, astride Barranca, disappear down the trail and sat for a moment in the sun letting the morning magic wash over her.

Her musings strayed to the woman that slept inside the cabin. Holly’s heart broke at the thought of Christine having to leave her son behind. She knew the fact hit Johnny particularly hard as he thought back on his early years, young, alone and very, very scared. That incident would leave permanent emotional scars, but with any luck, this separation would not be for long.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat on the porch enjoying the sun on her face but suddenly was aware of movement inside the cabin. Turning to the door, Holly stepped through to find Christine in the kitchen, looking frightened, alone.

“Oh, Holly! I was so scared for a moment; it was almost as if I was abandoned!” Christine stood with a hand at her throat. Holly went to her with an arm around her shoulders.

“I am sorry, Mrs. Maitland, I was out on the porch, it is a beautiful day! And Johnny went hunting for our supper. Come sit; I will get you some breakfast.” Holly gently urged her toward the table where the broken woman sat in a daze.

“What time is it? I feel it’s late…” Christine stammered.

Holly smiled, thankful the woman finally slept, and soundly. “It’s about nine in the morning! You slept alright, Mrs. Maitland?”

Christine was astonished. “Nine? It’s nine in the morning?”

Holly offered her a huge smile that was immediately returned. “Yes! Do you feel better?”

“Yes, I think I do! And please call me Christine. I think friends should be on a first-name basis!”

Holly was pleased and went about making the woman breakfast.

Christine ate, not as much as Holly would have liked, but it had been more than she’d seen her consume in the time they’d been together, and without pushing the food around on the plate.

“Coffee, Christine?” Holly asked, and Christine nodded. She poured two cups and came to sit with her at the table. There was still a slight tremor in the pale hands that clutched the handle of the mug, but Holly was hoping that would begin to fade with the quiet, healing solitude.

“I have an idea, Christine. Why don’t we go outside and sit on the steps? The sun is warm, and the view is wonderful!” Without waiting for an answer, Holly scooted her chair back and went to the door knowing this woman would likely need coaxing to get her out into the fresh air. Most people accustomed to city life would hesitate to go out in the wilderness and simply sit.

“Come…” Holly said gently, and Christine got to her feet with her mug and sat with Holly in the soothing rays of the sun. Healing medicine Holly thought.

They talked at length, Christine enchanted with this remarkable woman beside her. Holly, obviously of Hispanic descent, was genuinely warm, and very easy to communicate with. Matt had forbidden anyone that was not Caucasian to work in the house, but Christine found the woman to be intelligent, and insightful, not to mention very kind, and concerned. Christine also found herself wanting to talk, but they had just met, after all. She was not sure how much she could confide in this stranger.

In San Francisco, Christine’s social circle consisted of people that Matt had formed friendships and alliances with, wives of business partners; so, her personal relationships had not been allowed to take root and flourish. Now, here she was, Lord knew how many miles away from the world she knew, sitting on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere… with perfect strangers. And, right now she didn’t feel all that alone… Except for the fact that her son was not there with her. Again, she felt the prickle of tears sting her eyes.

Holly caught the grief that suddenly filled this broken woman’s heart and reached over to take her hand. Christine looked up with a watery green gaze, and the dam broke. Holly gently looped her arms around Christine’s shoulders and held her tight, secure, and murmured consoling thoughts. Whether Christine heard them through her grief, Holly didn’t know, but she did know that murmuring, crooned softly, had powers to settle troubled minds.

“Christine, you must believe!” Holly whispered. “Things will work out, but sometimes they take time…” she kept the litany going as she rocked with Christine in her arms.

<><><><> 

Johnny sat quietly, waiting for something to show itself. He preferred to take a few rabbits rather than something more substantial. If tomorrow or the day after a deer wandered into his sights, he would take it, and send most of it home with Scott. But now, quail or rabbits were on the menu. He’d only been gone maybe an hour, so there wasn’t a real need to hurry.

He wondered how long Christine slept. The woman looked like she would drop on her feet if she didn’t get rest soon. Holly’ll take care a her. An’ she’ll make it seem easy, too. Boy, that woman’s got a lot ta deal with. A bastard for a husband and havin’ ta leave her boy… That was the difficult part for Johnny, knowing that boy needed his mother, and she was in hiding. Johnny saw it in her eyes. She was grieving. It was as if she was dying right before him, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it.

<><><><> 

Holly let her cry. It served as cleansing and vented turmoil in one's mind and soul.

“Christine, would you like to lie down and rest?” Holly asked when she had gotten herself under control. With the strength she had left, Christine gathered herself together and wiped her tears as she sat up. With eyes and nose red, lashes stuck together and sniffing, she turned to Holly with a tiny smile.

“No, I need to pull myself together and learn how to handle this, to deal with it.” Her resolve was admirable, but the strength was not there, yet.

Holly smiled and felt proud of this woman. She had a ways to go, but Holly had a feeling she would be alright with time, however, thinking about her son was her weakness. One thought of Skip and Christine’s heart broke, shattering like glass.

Holly knew something about that. She lost the baby that she barely had time to realize she was carrying. The little one wasn’t meant to be, but even in the short while that it was in her body she loved it more than she had words to tell, and knowing it was Johnny’s baby made it all the sweeter. She sympathized with Christine and wanted so very badly to be able to help her through this. She sensed Christine Maitland was a good woman and deserved better than what she had. Holly wanted to help make things right for her.

<><><><> 

He took his time as he gutted, then washed the rabbits in the stream. There would be plenty for supper. He didn’t know if Christine had an appetite back yet, but at least there would be enough nourishing food.

With all the supplies Maria sent, Holly would be able to cook up a hearty stew. He could taste it already. Hopefully, there would be cinnamon peaches for dessert.

As he thought about the woman and the trouble she was in, Johnny wondered to himself if there was something more they could do for her. Having to face her husband in court would be devastating enough, but it sounded to Johnny that Maitland was a pendejo that would not hesitate to do anything he could to remain operating his illegal imports and exports. But the worst part about the whole thing was the ten-year-old boy caught in the middle. Johnny knew well about that, ten years old, and suddenly, your mother is gone…

He quietly kept to the trees, wandering around the cabin, watching for signs of something that shouldn’t be there. He was close now, but out of sight. He had seen the women sitting in the sun and had not wanted to interrupt any conversation that might have a positive effect on Christine.

<><><><> 

They talked for much of the afternoon, and Christine found herself opening up with Holly. Bits and pieces of the ugly, sordid story were revealed, and the more Holly heard, the more she desperately wanted to help the woman. The most critical issue was that of the woman’s son, Skip. How would Christine hold up long enough to go to court and not have her boy? This was going to be a serious and trying time, but what could they do about it? Holly wished there would be word from Christine’s attorney, even if it was just knowing if her husband had been arrested or if they were watching his moves, just anything at all. But she was isolated here, and Holly knew without a doubt that, if it was herself, she would be going insane.

Holly watched as Johnny rode out from the trees and went to meet him. Barranca stopped as Holly reached out to caress the velvety muzzle and he nuzzled her neck. Johnny swung down to pull Holly into an intimate hug with sizzling kisses that made her head spin, and her body ache for him. He held her close from head to toe before he pulled away and looked down into her face.

“How’s she holdin’ up?” Johnny whispered as he put his arm around Holly’s shoulders, and they walked to the cabin.

“She slept this morning until nine! I was very happy about that, and we talked just about all day. That poor woman had no one to talk to; she carried this whole thing herself. But, the one thing that will destroy her is if she doesn’t get her son. It is tearing her apart. I only hope that she can take the strain of it, and this won’t last very long.”

The sadness in her voice weighed heavy on Johnny’s heart.

“Yeah, I been thinkin’ about that all day. Hope that kid is tough cuz it’s gonna be hard enough on him watchin’ his father arrested an’ standin’ trial if he ain’t with his mother. Losin’ both of ‘em ain’t an easy thing ‘specially for one so young.”  Johnny squeezed her again and pulled her closer to him, thankful for the peace she brought to his troubled thoughts.

<><><><> 

“Holly, what can I do to help? Can I peel the potatoes for you? I feel useless just sitting here with nothing to do,” Christine asked as she paced the small cabin. She needed to keep her mind occupied.

The rabbits had been stewing for a while, and it smelled delicious. Holly smiled and handed Christine a knife, several potatoes, and carrots while Holly tended the biscuits. Johnny lay stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace, hands under his head, as he watched the flames.

“How long have you known Johnny?” Christine asked quietly, not wanting to disturb him. Holly smiled as she thought back over their years together along the border. Deciding to give her the shorten version, Holly began their tale.

“We met down by the border. When my parents died, I was left alone. Things were not easy for someone so young, and danger was everywhere. There was a man, an evil man, he wanted me to… work for him in his cantina, and I refused. He beat me severely; I was almost unconscious when Johnny came in and saved me. He’d never seen me before, didn’t know me, but he risked his life to save me. He carried me out of that place and took me to his room that he rented, and tended to me.

“He never asked for anything in return and did not expect anything from me. I got to repay him as ,three days later, he was injured, and now it was me to help him. After a few days, he helped me get to another town. He couldn’t stay, I did not expect him to, but I was sad when he left.

"After that, we would run into each other occasionally, and two years ago, he convinced me to take a job with a doctor in Salinas.” Where Holly never lied to Christine, she did skip over some facts, and Christine had been gracious enough to not ask. She didn’t care. What Holly had told her was enough. These were good people, better than the people she’d been used to, people of ‘upper social class’.

Holly and Johnny had proved themselves to her. Social status had nothing to do with goodness, and Christine bet that Holly could hold her own in any social event that she, herself, had ever attended. Johnny, she suspected, would probably be more at ease away from any social gatherings. But she could tell that he could handle anything that was thrown his way. He was a good man, honest, and trustworthy. He was a man of action and few words, and she was certain that he would be more comfortable out here, in the mountains, where there was peace.

The tranquil setting was starting to agree with her, too, if only she had Skip… Skip! She felt it come crashing down out of nowhere; she audibly gasped, not able to hold it back. Holly was at her side, took the knife and carrot that she held and set them down to envelop her in a tight embrace.

Johnny heard the intake of breath and was on his feet in a split second and at their side.

“Holly?” he asked quietly; Johnny went to the table and pulled out a chair as Holly steered her into it.

Christine sat with her hands covering her face; she cried, unable to stop the suffocating grief of leaving her son behind.

Johnny stood helpless, his heart breaking for the woman and looking to Holly for answers. She could only hold Christine as the tremors tore through her body, and to let her know she was not alone.

“Juanito, the tea that Maria sent, brew some water, por favor.” And in a matter of a few minutes, a mug of hot tea was set on the table, and Holly urged her to sip as much as she could.

Taking her handkerchief that she learned to keep close, Christine dabbed at her eyes and daintily blew her red nose.

“I’m sorry…” she whispered. Holly squeezed her shoulder and smiled a bit as she took her finger and tilted Christine’s chin up so she could see the anguished face.

“Do not be sorry for loving, Christine, that is a great gift. It is going to work out. You have to trust; you have to believe…” Holly whispered, and Christine desperately tried to pull herself together. She grasped Holly’s hands and held them tightly in hers.

“Thank you, Holly, thank you…” After a moment, she struggled to her feet, and took her place at the counter; she picked up the knife and carrots and began to slice them in the pot.

Johnny stood back and watched the ease with which Holly was able to console the woman, once again, completely awed, but not surprised, by the lady he loved.

Christine ate the stew, and Holly was pleased that she finished what was on her plate. She did not talk much during the meal, but she did laugh a bit at Johnny’s attempts at humor. But then who could not laugh at the silly stories of him and Val in their early rowdy days. He tamed them down, not sure how much of the outrageous humor was appropriate for her, and she did enjoy them. But she was tiring, and after helping Holly to clean up from dinner, she bid them goodnight and shut the door to the small bedroom.

Johnny and Holly sat in front of the fireplace, watching the magic of the flames. They danced and gyrated over the logs with the sparks and popping that created a mesmerizing and calming atmosphere in the room.

Holly put her head on Johnny’s shoulder as his arm came around her pulling her close. At this moment, Holly was so thankful, grateful for his strength as she thought about Christine and the agony she was going through; her own private hell that had been burning out of control for… how long now? It was a week and a half or maybe even two weeks since she had left San Francisco. Too long to be without her son.

Johnny laid his cheek on the top of her head as they sat before the flames that were such a comfort to them. “She alright, Holly?” Johnny asked, curious as to the breakdown before dinner.

Holly sighed. “She will be. She misses her son, it comes on so quickly, and it is debilitating when it hits her. She is afraid for him, too. Her husband is not exactly a good father, but it is more that; he ignores the boy. I do not think that he has mistreated Skip, only Christine. Johnny, she told me that the boy was conceived after Maitland raped her. Not a child born out of love, but she’s tried to make it up to him, tried to see that he’s growing up to be a good person. She has taken on too much for one woman to do alone.”

Johnny’s belly began to churn. Ten years old… How well he knew what it was like for a boy without a father and a mother. Scott could relate, too. Despite their different backgrounds, Scott’s of wealth and privilege, Johnny’s of destitution and danger, so different yet with one common thread, no father or mother. In either case, it had drastic effects on one so young. Johnny felt at a loss, helpless, and he began to feel rage growing inside him.

He tried to sleep, but visions of a small boy, lost, alone, and needing his mother plagued his thoughts. He remembered only too well what it was like to suddenly find himself alone; the one person who loved him, however sick she was with her drinking, he always knew she did love him, and it hurt desperately when she was gone. This boy was too young to know what was going on, his father was a suspected criminal, and his mother had to escape, and do it without him, it would have devastated him. Did he know that it was only temporary? Most likely not…

Again, Johnny had to quell the rolling in his belly that was keeping him awake. He couldn’t sleep thinking about that boy, and the more he thought about it, the more his belly rebelled. He gently scooted out of Holly’s arms as he sat up and pulled on his clothes. With Christine having taken the tea, Holly was sure that she would sleep, so Johnny had taken advantage when the opportunity presented itself. His wandering hands persisted and soon the sweet dance they had perfected so well lost them in the throes of their lovemaking. Afterward, Holly fell soundly asleep… Johnny had not.

After he had dressed, he carefully placed another log on the fire and padded into the kitchen. He lit the lamp and turned it low, then sat at the table, his mind in turmoil thinking about the boy. He leaned his elbows on the battered top and covered his face with his hands. How can I help him? I know what he’s feelin’, the loneliness, the isolation, what can I do?...

<><><><> 

It was a small elk buck, young, not fully grown yet. It limped along the stream bed and took time to sniff the wind as it carefully walked, leery of predators, and with good cause. It had been attacked; its flank badly mauled. How it managed to get away from the bear was beyond Johnny, but he took his time and waited for the doomed animal to get within range. It would not last another few days, Johnny knew, and he pulled the trigger with a clean shot to the heart, the buck dropped in its tracks, its suffering put to an end in a split second.

He left his spot behind the rocks and trotted down to the stream; the buck lay in the grass and Johnny began the gory, bloody chore of gutting it out, and wrapped the carcass in a large tarp. Then he washed himself of the mess, letting the stream carry it away. He whistled for Barranca, knowing the horse would shy from the scent of blood, so he met the animal upwind and tied him securely to a branch. Soon, Johnny had the elk thrown across the back of the saddle, much to Barranca’s dismay. Then he mounted up and headed to the cabin.

<><><><> 

“You have something on your mind, Juanito; you are too quiet,querido,” Holly smiled as she put her arms around his neck as he sat on the porch and looked across the peaceful, sweet meadow.

Johnny sighed deeply then met her eyes, but she could sense he was troubled.

“Oh, jus’ thinkin’. Hey, that was a good supper, Holly! Ya outdid yourself on that elk!” He smiled his smile, the one that melted her heart, the one that made her want to hold him to her and never let him go…

But she also knew that he was trying to change the subject. He did have something on his mind but wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. Well, it would come out sooner or later. Scott would be here tomorrow or the next day, and she thought that perhaps Scott would be the one Johnny was waiting for. The brothers were close; they would talk it out. So, she said no more and nuzzled his neck. He leaned into her touch and closed his eyes.

Christine Maitland had pulled herself together as the day went by. It was late in the afternoon as Holly surreptitiously watched the woman struggle with her torment. She is a survivor and does not even know it yet. Holly could only imagine what torture she dealt with. But when her eyes would fill with tears, all Holly could do was to hold her and whisper softly.

It was Johnny that was reliving it all over again. He agonized for the mother who left her son and hurt for the son, not knowing where his mother was or if she was coming back. He’d never felt so lost. It was as if the air was squeezed from his lungs, and he could not draw in anymore. After his mother died, he had to find his way. He was responsible for everything and him alone. He took care of himself.

But standing outside of the circle was as bad as the suffering he’d been through as a boy. This was harder for Johnny to cope with thinking about a young boy whose mother had left him, and he didn’t know why. Johnny couldn’t wrap his brain around this issue because none of this matter was his decision. He could do nothing. It wasn’t his fight, wasn’t his responsibility. Why did it hit him so damned hard? He felt he would burst into pieces, he had no control, yet the idea of this young boy seemed to consume him. He had been in that dark, lonely place, and he knew…

Johnny spent time with the horses as Holly talked with Christine. It must have been divine intervention that Holly chose this specific time to visit. She was precisely the person to be there, depend on, and he thought that Christine seemed to open up to her. It was hard to believe that after all those years in San Francisco, that Christine had no close friends of her own. She lived in her husband’s world; most likely, what her husband allowed her to live.

With the horses tended, he walked off a bit to watch the sun as bowed in defeat and darkness began to spread its blanket over the jagged peaks . The clouds streaked the heavens, staining them vivid pinks, and oranges, and finally, with the last bit of deep red, the sun disappeared behind the pine-covered mountains and announced the end of the day. He heard the cabin door shut and knew Holly was coming up behind him. He turned slightly, extended his arm, and she walked into it as it folded around her shoulders, and he pulled her to him. Johnny looked down at the beauty within his embrace and bent to kiss her, softly, tenderly, passionately.

Christine stood on the porch and watched, her heart racing as she witnessed the gestures of love so openly given; she hated and loved them at the same time, admired and was jealous of them, of the passion they felt for the other. This was what she had craved, and had missed, and it was painful for her to watch the obvious mutual love Johnny and Holly had for the other. It was open and honest, and her heart suffered another crack. With tearing eyes, Christine Maitland turned and entered the cabin leaving the lovers and the red sky alone.

<><><><> 

“Christine, tell me about your son,” Johnny said softly as they sat around the fire.

Christine was silent for a moment as she thought of the young boy she loved more than anything, the most important person in her life. She smiled as she talked, and Holly was delighted that she didn’t break down. She spoke with a pride that wasn’t there before, and as Johnny asked the questions, Christine was able to answer clearly, proudly.

“Well, he’s ten, like most ten-year-olds he likes to play with his friends. However, there aren’t many. His father was particular about the boys he associated with, but there were a few. He’s quiet, a bit shy. He likes to read, and he was learning how to paint…” Johnny digested the things she said, turned them over in his mind, and tried to picture the kind of boy he was. He sounded a lot like Scott.

 Johnny asked his next question. "Does he like horses?"

That is a strange question... Christine thought as she shrugged to explain.
“He’s afraid of them. Matt wouldn’t allow him to learn to ride, so he’s had no exposure to them, I’m afraid…”

I ain’t so sure that I don’t wanna shoot the bastard Johnny thought to himself. Sounds a lot like Scott’s grandfather.

“Oh, he likes to watch the stars at night! He can identify many constellations,” Christine was beaming as she told them of Skip’s accomplishments, for high marks in school, and his ability playing the piano.

Johnny got her talking more, and for the first time, she did not cry.

“I miss him so much… We’ve never been apart before…” Their talk lasted another hour, hearing about the young boy who was almost a stranger to his father.

Johnny could relate to that, however, under very different circumstances than this. He mulled over what he’d learned and was optimistic as Christine held her emotions in check.
Holly glanced out the window and saw it was dark outside. She began to put the evening meal on the table.

Checking the horses before they ate dinner, Johnny was on his way to the cabin as a movement caught his eye. Instantly alert, his hand was at his hip, reaching for his pistol. He watched from cover as a rider appeared from the path along the creek. Soon Scott became recognizable, and Johnny went to greet him. He stopped as Remmie came forward.

“Evenin’, Boston, jus’ in time for dinner,” Johnny said as Scott dismounted and slapped him on the back. “The ol Man doin’ alright without me there ta yell at?” Johnny quipped as Scott laughed in good humor.

“Yes, he’s fine, but I do have some news. Come on, and I’ll tell you all at the same time.”

Johnny hesitated. “Anything I need ta know about before ya tell Christine an’ Holly?”

Scott stepped onto the porch as he turned to his brother with a smile.

“Scott! You are just in time for dinner, hermano!” Holly said as she turned from the stove with a large smile.

“Smells wonderful! What is it?” Scott responded with a huge grin.

“Elk, go wash!”

Scott turned toward Christine and tipped his hat. “Mrs. Maitland…” Scott said as he noted she looked better than the last time he'd seen her.

She nodded her head. “Please, call me Christine… Scott,” and she awarded Scott with a genuine smile.

“Alright, Christine. Might I say you are looking very well?” Scott grinned, then left out the front door with Johnny on his heels.

“So, did ya find out anything? Barkley get back to ya with any news?” Johnny questioned, anxious for anything instead of the limbo that they had been suffocating in.

Scott dipped his hands in the pan of cold water and scrubbed his face with a whoosh of breath at the chill. He took the towel from Johnny and dried the water from his skin before more ran down to soak into his collar.

“Maitland has hired a Pinkerton agent and found out that Christine was at the Barkley ranch but left. The Barkleys are trying to stall any efforts, but Jarrod doesn’t think that there are any charges against him yet. That should come soon.”

Johnny wasn’t sure if that was good news or not.

Scott gave him a smile. “Come on, brother; it may not be that bad of news. How is she doing?”

“Well, thanks ta Holly, I think she’ll be alright if she could get her boy back. She’s been really upset about it, but she was talkin’ taday for the first time without breakin’ down an’ cryin’… I gotta tell ya, Scott, knowin’ that boy is still there is about tearin’ me up inside…”

Scott threw his arm over Johnny’s shoulders, and they headed to the house. “Yes, I know what you mean, come on.”

The brothers entered the cabin as the meal was taken from the stove and set in the middle of the table. The biscuits were hot out of the oven, and the butter and honey set out, along with hot coffee and cold water fresh from the stream. They talked as they ate, the three weighing Scott's words carefully, and Christine asked many questions.

“Have you heard from Mr. Barkley, Scott?”  Christine asked, anxious to hear something about Skip.

“Yes, we have. It seems that your husband has hired a Pinkerton agent that picked up your trail as far as your visit to the Barkley Ranch.”

Christine gasped, and her heart fell to her feet.

Scott hurried to allay her fears. “Now, that may not be a bad thing, Christine. It does mean that things are starting to move. And, I can tell you right now that things will get worse before they get better. You need to know that, prepare yourself for it.”

“My son, have you heard anything about Skip?”

Scott met her stare and told her exactly what he’d heard from Jarrod, not knowing how she would take it. “Jarrod seems to think that your husband is not too concerned with him at the moment. Skip is in the house, and the staff is taking care of him…”

Christine sighed deeply. “Oh, thank God! Better Hannah and the rest of them care for Skip than Matt! He never had the time for our son before.” It seemed her fears were eased knowing Skip was being cared for by the staff, but she was distressed, now, with news that Matt had hired the Pinkerton agent and Scott knew that he needed to quickly relay the rest of the story.

“It might be easy enough to throw the Pinkerton agent off the track for a while, but rest assured that they are very good at what they do.” At this, Johnny huffed. Scott glanced at his brother but continued. “Jarrod seems to think that it will take a bit more time to establish a case against Mr. Maitland, keeping it quiet is the difficult part. Apparently, your husband has a strong legal team behind him, and Jarrod doesn’t want him to find out anything just yet. This may take a few weeks…”

Christine was shocked, her eyes went wide and filled with tears. Holly was immediately at her side, offering the comfort that only Holly could give.

Scott looked over to Johnny, surprised to see the disappointment on his brother’s face. “Legal issues always take time, Christine, Jarrod has to make sure everything is accurate. If they bring him up on charges and are not properly prepared, it could go drastically wrong.”

“I know…” Christine sniffed. “I just want my son…”

Johnny thought about the boy being raised by the staff, they might care for him, but it ain’t like his mother… He leaned his elbows on the table and rubbed the bridge of his nose as if relieving the pressure. His head felt like it would burst. He lowered his hands to the tabletop and studied his fingers for several minutes. Then he raised his deep blue eyes to Scott’s blue-gray stare.

“What? What are you thinking, brother? I know that look…” Scott stated suspiciously as he saw a slight grin begin to tug the corners of Johnny’s mouth.

“You still keep paper in your saddlebags, Boston?” Johnny asked with raised brows.
 
“Yes, I have paper. What for?” Scott asked in a suspicious tone.

“Just get it, por favor…”

Scott went to the bags he’d thrown on the floor in the corner and reaching into one side he withdrew several sheets of paper and handed them to his brother.

“You always have something to say about the paper I carry, but it does seem to serve a purpose on occasion,” Scott quipped.

Johnny took the paper and pencil from his brother and put it on the table, then pushed it in front of Christine.

She looked at Johnny with a bewildered expression clouding in her eyes.

Johnny held her gaze then he said softly: “I need to know the floor plan… Draw it out on the paper.”

Christine did not catch what he was saying. Why do you need to know what the house is like?

But Scott did. “Johnny! NO! You can’t!” He wouldn't let his brother do it!

Johnny calmly looked into his brother's eyes, his own suddenly cool. “Yeah, I can…” and he held his brother's glare with one of his own. He then turned to Christine and urged her to draw. Confused, Christine picked up the pencil and began to sketch.

“If I can get inta the house an’ get that boy outta there, we can be back here in a week, maybe a week an’ a half…” He let the sentence hang, keeping his eyes locked on her. She shivered suddenly, shocked that a stranger would do this.

“Why?” she whispered, stunned that Johnny would even think this. It was incredibly dangerous!

Johnny watched her closely before he answered. “Cuz I know what it’s like ta be without a mother. I know that pain,” he said without blinking.

Scott was still not having it. “Johnny, you can’t just break into the house and kidnap a ten-year-old boy! I’m not going to let you do it!” Again, the glare appeared as Johnny turned back to his brother.

“An’ I ain’t gonna sit here on my ass an’ let a boy stay with a father that don’t give a damn about him! He needs ta be here, with his Mama. Scott, ya got no idea what it’s like.” Johnny calmed a bit and continued in a quieter manner. “Sounds like his mama’s all he’s got, Scott, an’ when that’s threatened your whole world is… shattered. Ten’s awful young ta be goin’ through that.” He turned to Christine and nodded at the paper in front of her.

She picked up the pencil with a shaking hand and sketched out the floor plan.

“What kind of schedules they keep at the house? When does your husband leave in the mornin'? Anyone you can trust there?”

She answered all his questions as Scott sat there with a churning stomach.

Again, he voiced his opinion. “Johnny, please listen to reason! Maitland wouldn’t think twice about killing you if you’re caught!” Scott pleaded, but his efforts fell on deaf ears.
“So, I won’t get caught…” Johnny responded flippantly, and that immediately sent Scott into an elevated irate opposition. This was life and death, and Johnny is talking nonsense!

“You CAN’T DO THIS!” Scott gripped the edge of the table tightly and held it, making his knuckles go white.

Johnny looked down at the tabletop filled with kicks and gouges from careless knives, and Lord knew what else. When he raised his eyes to his brother, he smiled a bit, his soothing tones, again, having that damned calming quality about them.

“Yeah, Scott, I can… Boston, ya ever kidnapped anyone?” Johnny asked point-blank. Scott shook his head negatively as if shocked with the question, and Johnny’s grin leaped across his face.

“Well, I have. A couple a times. Trust me, brother; I know how ta do this.”

Still thinking this a bad idea Scott tried again. “Well, Murdoch is not going to be happy about this, you know that, don’t you?” Thinking the mention of the stern Murdoch Lancer was going to change Johnny’s mind.

Johnny only huffed and let out a small laugh. “Hell, he’s mad at me half the time anyway! Besides, I’ll be back with the boy by the time he finds out, so, ya don’t need ta worry about him.”

Johnny looked at Holly for the first time since the argument began. She had not said a word during the whole conversation, and she reached over to place her hands in his on the table. Johnny read the worry on her face and gave her the smile that he knew she could not refuse. It was a dirty trick, he knew, but he was also sure that he could get that boy back to his mother, the place he needed to be.
 
“I can do this, querida,” he whispered.

Holly gave him a bit of a smile. She knew he’d pulled off some incredible stunts in his days on the border fighting the range wars, but that didn’t eliminate her worries. Maitland was a ruthless man, but her faith in Johnny was firm. However, there would always be worry there, too. She loved him. It was as plain as that, and she would have to trust him. She had trusted Madrid many times in the past.

“So, here’s what I plan ta do, Boston. Feel free ta add anything. I leave at sunup tamorrow, a couple a days of hard ridin’ an’ I should be in San Francisco. I’ll watch the house for a day or two, an' the guards. Then, once I know what their routine is, I’ll go through that cellar window that Christine said was broken an’ up ta the third floor, down the hall last room on the left ta Hannah. I tell her who I am, no that ain’t good.”

He turned to Christine. “I need for ya ta write her a note, let her know that I‘m gonna bring the boy ta you but don’t mention my name. Let her know it’s alright. Ask her ta get a few things tagether for him an’ we’re gone before anyone knows what happened. Hannah goes back ta bed an’ in the mornin’ acts surprised when they find out the boy ain’t there.” Johnny stopped to look at his brother. Scott sat and listened to Johnny, arms crossed stubbornly over his chest, with a ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ look in his blue-gray glare.

“Well?” Johnny asked.

Scott huffed and shook his head. “I don’t like it…” he grumped.

“What don’t cha like?” Johnny asked.

“None of it…”

“Gotta better idea, Boston?”

“Yes, don’t go. Stay here where you belong,” Scott added softly. Now it was Johnny’s turn to shake his head.

“Sorry, Scott, I‘m goin’. I can’t sit here an’ do nothin’ knowin’ that boy’s in that house. An’ ya ain’t gonna stop me so ya might as well help me with this.” Anger and sarcasm gone, Johnny asked for Scott’s help.

“Then let me go with you.” 

Johnny shook his head again. “Someone needs ta stay here with the women. Besides, one man alone will less likely be seen.”

<><><><> 

He left Barranca at the cabin, choosing to ride the horse that Christine rode on the way to their mountain hideout. He would have liked to have his own horse under him, but if there was a Pinkerton agent sniffing around, he sure would notice the flashy Palomino and Johnny didn’t want to draw any attention to himself. He would ride the mare until the first chance he’d get to change mounts. Hopefully, the weather would promote easy travel; he didn’t want the responsibility of a young boy if there would be storms, but he would cope. He wasn’t going to let a little rain stop him anyway. Getting away with this would be dicey enough and needed to have all contingencies covered.

Despite Scott’s opposition, he left at dawn. Christine hugged him fiercely, he shook hands with Scott, who didn’t say a word other than ‘good luck and hurry back’. Holly went with him to the trail where he would head out, and with misty eyes told him she understood, and to be careful.

“Come back to me, querido! Te amo…”  They exchanged a hot passionate kiss, and he swung into the saddle, looked down into the black diamond eyes and smiled.

“Te amo, querida…” Then he gently kicked the mare into a gallop and was gone.

<><><><> 

The bay mare, although gentle, was fast enough as she ate up miles the first day. Hopefully, sometime tomorrow, he would make San Jose, he would stop to see Jason Mackenzie and trade horses temporarily. He did not stop to eat only to rest the horse, he was still making good time, and did not relent.

He didn’t blame Scott. Hell, he knew himself that this might not work out, and if he got to San Francisco and thought it too dangerous, he wouldn’t attempt it. He wouldn’t risk getting the boy injured… or worse, plus the fact that now he had Holly in his life, he wasn’t so reckless. Then the thought of that ten-year-old boy filled his brain, and Johnny knew he had to do something, reckless or not. The memories of his time in that situation fueled the drive, the desperation.

He stopped to camp much later than he should have. It was plain stupid to risk the horse riding in the dark, so Johnny found a spot near a stream. He built a small fire and ate the food that Holly packed for him. Then he slipped into the bedroll and slept only to be up before dawn to start out before the sun had a chance to cast its warmth on the day.

As Johnny rode, he went over his plans, changed some, discarded others, and added a few. He would need to spend time checking the guards and their routines. That would be critical, and until he knew what the security was around the house then, and only then, could he make a final plan. The safety of the boy was paramount.

As Johnny rested the horse, he would study the drawings that Christine made for him. He could only hope they were accurate and that the maid, Hannah, would be cool under pressure. If they were to be caught, Johnny knew he would die before he gave up any information, but death was a terrifying option for a young girl to face, and she would no doubt crack if Maitland found out she had anything to do with it. And a man like Maitland wouldn’t hesitate to make her talk using whatever methods he felt he needed.

<><><><> 

Christine was more quiet than usual. Holly tried to engage her in conversation, but without much success. She had taken to sitting on the porch so she could watch the trail knowing that, if Johnny were to be coming with Skip, this was where they would see them first. She knew that she was silly, he’d only left two days ago, probably wasn’t in San Francisco yet, but she couldn’t help herself. She slid her hands down the sides of her skirt, drying the sweat that persisted in dampening her palms. The door behind her opened, and Holly stepped out to sit beside her.

“Are you alright, Christine?” Holly asked as she linked her arm with Christine’s, a gesture so casual and comforting. With eyes glued to the trailhead, Christine nodded. Holly knew the stress the woman had been under and knew the worry in her heart. There was nothing she could say to ease the pain, so, she sat near, and hopefully, it would be of some relief to reassure and remind Christine that she was not alone.

<><><><> 

Holly watched the two of them as they were ready to eat lunch. Am I the only one with positive thoughts? Apparently, Scott didn’t have much confidence in his brother. I understand Christine’s apprehensions. She’s worried about her boy. But I am surprised at Scott…

“You know, Johnny has done some things that not many men would have attempted. He has come through incredible odds when no one gave him any chance at all. I know this is difficult to think about, the worry is exhausting, but I have faith in him. I think he can do this.” Holly spoke watching the two forlorn faces sitting on either side of her. Scott was still angry at his impulsive younger brother for leaving without him, and Christine, where she had an idea of what Johnny would be facing, simply did not know what Johnny was capable of pulling off.

“Why did Johnny say he ‘knew that pain’?” Christine asked.

Holly smiled a bit. “He wasn’t raised at Lancer. He was born there, but his mother left with him when he was two, and went down to the border towns. When he was ten, he witnessed his mother’s death, and he shot and killed the man that murdered her.”

Christine listened, horrified to hear a tale such as this, so devastating that only now could she even begin to understand just one of the complexities that made the man.

“What happened to him at that age? So young… Where did he go?” Christine asked, shocked, and appalled.

Holly took a deep breath and continued. “Well, he raised himself. He was put in an orphanage for a while until the priests condemned him for his blue eyes. A mestizo is not welcomed much by either side, and he ran away.”
Christine was puzzled.

“Johnny’s mother was a Mexican,” Holly explained.

“Forgive me; I didn’t know…” She looked at Scott, suddenly as if with new eyes. “It never occurred to me that you two look nothing alike.”

Scott smiled. “No need to apologize, Christine, besides you’ve got enough to think about. But, yes, Murdoch married my mother, and she died when I was born. He remarried several years later, and Maria, Johnny’s mother, left him taking Johnny with her. Murdoch and I have talked at length how different Johnny’s life could have been had she left him at Lancer. He would have been spared much. I’ve no doubt that he still would have a penchant for trouble, but his life wouldn’t have been so dangerous, and he wouldn’t have had to make a living with his gun.”

“Gun? Johnny was a gunfighter?” Christine asked as she sat, stunned by the revelation. She now realized there was an aura that surrounded Johnny, a dangerous one but perhaps that would be of benefit and would aid in Skip’s rescue.

Scott watched her eyes, wondering if they should take the conversation in another direction and tell her precisely who Johnny used to be. He quickly decided a diversion was in order.

“Yes, he was, but that’s what helped to make him the man he is today. Resourceful for one, and surprisingly compassionate. Please do not worry about your son under Johnny’s care, because if Johnny can get the boy out of that house, he’s as good as here; I can guarantee that.”

Christine sat confused; her mind tumbled with what she’d just heard. She honestly did not know if she felt better knowing about Johnny’s past or if it gave her another thing to worry about.

<><><><> 

Jason Mackenzie’s ranch was only about five more miles down this road. The mare had given her all, but she was tired, and it was time to let her rest. The need to hurry was strong, but this was a lesson learned the hard way, and one he never forgot. If you wanted to live, take care of your horse, rule number one of survival.

He would be in San Francisco tomorrow morning, find the house and get an idea on the security Maitland had in place. Sometimes a man such as this, pompous, overbearing, and haughty, a man that thought all others to be beneath him also tended to be a little ill-prepared. Did they believe that no one would dare to attempt anything such as Johnny Madrid Lancer had planned to do? From Johnny’s experience in the past, those men ended up learning a thing or two about humility… usually.

The ranch came into view and was a welcome sight. Only a bit after noon and there was much activity as cowboys broke horses in a corral. Johnny watched as a large buckskin stallion did its best to unseat the annoying man on his back. It was looking as if the cowboy had won when the horse jumped stiff-legged and bounced to the side. The man sailed high into the air and hit the ground with a sickening thud. Men hopped off the corral rails and dragged the defeated rider out of harm's way, the horse still bucking with murder in his wide-spaced and wild eyes. Mackenzie clapped the man on his back as he got to his feet and shook off the stunned and glazed look on his face.

Johnny rode up as Jason turned to go into the house.

“Johnny! Good ta see ya! What’d ya doin’ around these parts?” he exclaimed as Johnny dismounted and shook the man's steady hand.

“Hi ya, Jason! Need a favor,” Johnny said, getting right to the point of the visit.

“Sure, Johnny, whatever ya need,” Jason responded, then concerned asked: “Anything I can help ya with?”

Johnny shrugged. “No, other than loanin’ me a horse,” Johnny said as he sighed, then tipped his hat back on his head and offered Jason a big grin.

Jason whistled for a ranch hand that promptly came to his side. “Tack, get that black gelding outta the barn and put this saddle on him, would ya? Thanks!” Jason nodded when the man left.

“Ya ain’t in any kinda trouble, are ya Johnny?” He asked.

Johnny smiled. “No, just in a big hurry.”

Mackenzie looked into those deep blue eyes; they were tired, Johnny needed rest but didn’t look like he was going to stay. The black gelding was brought out, and Johnny admired the animal. He was a strong horse and would serve him well.

“Thanks, Jason, I’ll see ya get him back soon as I can. Might be a week or so.”

“However long ya need him, Johnny. Hey ya sure ya ain’t got trouble? I’ll be glad ta do what I can…” Jason was getting concerned. Something was not right here.

“No, thanks, Jason, only one thing...” Johnny said quietly. Jason perked up only to be disappointed. “If anyone comes lookin’ for me, ya ain’t seen me, alright?” Johnny pierced him with a humorless stare.

“Ya, sure, Johnny. I ain’t seen ya. You be careful, alright?”

“Yeah, thanks, Jason. I’ll see ya soon.” And with a quick wave, and a nudge to the gelding’s side Johnny Lancer left the Mackenzie ranch.

<><><><> 

The gelding, fresh and ready to run, made short work of the miles that remained. Soon Johnny was overlooking the city, crawling with human activity. It looked like chaos to him. The good thing about this was no one would be paying too much attention as he went about trying to blend in.

He made his way into the city, following the instructions that Christine Maitland had given him. He would need to keep out of sight as his clothes were a giveaway. So much for trying to blend in... In this part of town, he was glaringly out of place.

Securing Jason Mackenzie’s gelding at the livery, he walked a few blocks then paid a cab to take him past the Maitland mansion. He then told the driver to pull over, explaining ‘he didn’t want his mother-in-law to know he was in town, yet, so he would sit here a while until he felt it safe to show himself at her house a few blocks away from here’. The driver grinned in secret conspiracy, telling Johnny to take as long as he needed.

Discretion was second nature as Johnny sat and watched the Maitland house from down the block. The guard on duty was blatantly obvious as he walked the perimeter of the grounds like clockwork. Johnny would have to wait for the cover of darkness to do any more investigating. He asked the driver to take him to a small café where he could be alone for a while longer… that mother-in-law is just too mean, scares the hell outta me! The driverlaughed. Very soon, but several blocks away, the driver pulled over in front of the requested destination. Johnny hopped out of the cab and paid the driver handsomely. The driver tipped his hat and pulled away from the café.

Johnny entered the small building and took a seat in the back. It wasn’t too bad; the smells from the kitchen weren’t offensive, so he ordered lunch and coffee. The waitress returned to his table quickly with a steaming cup of the hot, strong black brew. It was heavenly, warming his belly from the inside out. Why the hell is it always so cold here? Johnny thought as he drank. He again went over his plans that he’d memorized, he had questioned Christine extensively about the surrounding area, so he was vaguely familiar with the immediate few blocks that surrounded the large house. The waitress placed his order in front of him, and he thanked her but stopped her as she was about to leave his table.

“Is there a boardin’ house around here? Kinda low on money so it can’t be any place fancy an’ more’n what I can pay,” he asked and noticed that she eyed him from head to toe, then smiled. She knew what it was like dealing with the upper class. Sometimes they could be just plain mean!

“Yes, sir, there is The Collins’ House about two blocks that way,” she pointed behind the café, “And there’s Sally Anne’s right here two doors down.”
Johnny gave her his best Johnny Madrid Lancer smile, and she beamed like a ray of sun on a gray, cloudy day.

“Thanks, ma’am!” he said softly, and she left him to his dinner. Johnny ate his meal as he thought about his plans. As it happened, the livery was very close, the café wasn’t too bad, and there were two boarding houses should he need them. He would start out at Sally Anne’s, and if he needed an extra night, which he sincerely hoped he would not, he would move the two blocks away. There would be less chance for him to be seen this way.

He took his time at the café and had another cup of coffee as he finalized the plan for tonight. He used the extra time brushing McKenzie’s horse at the stable keeping out of sight, and when the last of the daylight faded into deep dusk, Johnny Madrid Lancer set out on his mission.

<><><><> 

The house was vacant; its windows seemed to call out a need for company, for a family to come live within and occupy the large, grand rooms. It did, indeed, look lonely.

Luck was with him as this house was behind, and one lot down from Maitland’s residence. It would provide the exact angle to watch for a carriage to come or go. The carriage house in the back stood dark, a place where Johnny would have normally avoided as, other than the huge door for the horses and carriages to pass through, there was only one other small door to use as an exit. Where they all were locked, Johnny was able to get the small side door open with the aid of his knife, and slipped inside, then quickly shut it behind him.

He risked lighting a match and cupped his hands around it, allowing him to navigate around the interior while still keeping his presence in the carriage house unknown. There was a second floor where he found a perfect spot to watch the back and south side of the Maitland house. The back entrance was easily visible, and he would be able to see if Maitland left for the evening. Christine had said that on Wednesdays, Matt went to his club and would not return until late. Johnny found it hard to believe any man worth anything would be going out to his club if his wife had gone missing, but Christine assured him that her absence would not interfere with his precious time at the elite men’s club. So, Johnny hunkered down to wait.

He sat by the window unseen, and he was able to relax as he watched. Johnny had learned long ago, during his years fighting range wars, to rest when you had the chance because you never knew when the next opportunity would present itself. He let his body unwind but kept his mind sharp. He saw the guards keep their watch on the house, their walks around the mansion timed down to the second. He could not help but wonder where the hell Maitland found these guards or if they’d ever done this kind of work before. That led him to wonder about Maitland’s thriving business. If the man was not competent enough to hire a decent security force, how was he able to handle a shipping business? Johnny hoped that Jarrod Barkley wouldn’t have more than he could handle when he brought this pendejo to trial…

It was subtle, but Johnny saw the movement as the back door to the house opened, and a tall man went down the back steps as an enclosed carriage drove out of the stable. The man stopped as the driver climbed down from his perch on top and opened the door to allow the man to enter. The driver then resumed his place on top and slapped the reins on the horse’s backs. The carriage pulled away, and all was still. Now all he had to do was wait.

The light went off in Skip’s room, and Johnny knew the boy was going to bed; he concentrated on the window on the third floor where Hannah would be. She was the one he needed to see first. He felt his pocket, the note that Christine had written for her was safely tucked away; it was his only proof for the girl to know that he was a friend. The girl was very fond of Skip, and with the absence of her mistress, Hannah would be protective of the boy, Johnny was sure. Without Hannah’s help, this whole thing had the potential to go south very quickly. What the hell, girls like me… Jus’ hope Hannah does too…

There it was. The light in the third-floor window flickered to life; Johnny waited about forty minutes before it was snuffed out. Other lights also extinguished announced that the household staff had retired. Apparently, none of them stayed awake until Maitland returned home. Only a few lamps remained lit in the windows of the first floor. He would give it an hour or two then make his move. The guards kept up their timed patrol, making Johnny quite amused. But he wasn’t taking anything for granted; he would go about this as if it were a crack team of security and act accordingly.

It was time to move out, and Johnny pulled himself off the floor, again, striking a match he cupped it with hands to light his way. He had taken the rope from his saddle when he left the horse at the livery. He may need to subdue the guards and would use it to secure them if the situation dictated. He had also made arrangements that if he decided to leave town earlier than planned, he would get his horse himself and not wake the livery owner. If he was able to get Skip tonight, they would be far away from here with no one knowing except for Hannah.

Once out of the carriage house, Johnny kept to the shadows. He slid silently through the dark, crossing the properties and quickly arrived at the back of Maitland’s house. The carriage house door was open but no lights told of an occupant. Johnny had taken off the spurs he usually wore, although he could walk without the familiar jingle they produced, he would take a potential problem out of the issue before they got to be an issue.

The guard rounded the back of the mansion to walk in front of the vacant carriage house. He stopped for a minute to listen as a dog barked on the next block. He stood, observing the area for a few extra minutes, looked around, then decided all was well and continued on his way, but stopped to light a cigar. He puffed it to life, casually sweeping a glance around the outbuilding. Satisfied all was as it should be, the guard left to complete his turn around the grounds.

At one point Johnny could have sworn the guard looked him in the eyes. He had been less than four feet away from Johnny as he stood shadowed in the night. Then the guard went around to the side of the house, and Johnny headed for the broken cellar window. He had no trouble finding it, and thankfully, it had not been repaired. He dropped to the ground, pushed the window open, and silently slid through into the damp darkness below.

Johnny couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, he had to risk another match, but after he lit it, he found the stairs quickly. He then began the climb up to the first floor and fervently hoped none of the stairs had a squeak. The door at the top indicated the entrance to the kitchen, and luckily, was not locked. He listened carefully for sounds and could see no light coming from under the portal. He slowly pushed it open and was now in Maitland’s kitchen. Johnny hurried through the house, briefly glancing in the rooms he passed to make sure there was no one in them to sound an alarm.

The house was richly appointed with stylish furniture, and costly rugs, what he could see of it and he heard a grandfather clock ticking away the seconds. It sounded unbelievably loud in the quiet. He stayed away from any windows and quickly but quietly went up the stairs.

Johnny stopped on the second floor, and again listened, but heard nothing. Then he climbed up to the third floor. The hallway was long; the last room on the left was Hannah’s. He was almost there when a door behind him opened and a housekeeper came out to head for a door at the opposite end of the passageway. Had she looked, she would have seen Johnny standing in the middle of the hall. That was the last thing he wanted to deal with right now. With the door to the room now shut, he continued his search. Only Hannah could know he’d been there.

He reached the last door and tried the knob; it was unlocked. He quietly entered and walked to the bed. Johnny could not see her very well in the dark, but enough to gently, but firmly, cover her mouth. Hannah came to life as the hand clamped down, her eyes terrified by the stranger in her room.

Holding her securely, Johnny began to speak in his soft voice. “Hannah, don’t scream! I’m not here ta hurt ya. I’m here because Christine told me ta get Skip… Don’t scream… I got a note for you from her. I’m gonna take my hand away now, don’t scream, alright?” The soothing tones held her captive as she watched him with shock filled eyes, and heart-thumping wildly as he reached inside his jacket to pull out a paper.

Hannah saw immediately it was written in her mistress’ delicate writing. Johnny handed it to her and put his finger to his lips, signaling for quiet. Hannah reached out and took the paper while Johnny turned the lamp up just a bit and brought it to her as she read.

Dear Hannah,

Please cooperate, this is a friend, and he is going to bring Skip to me. I can’t tell you where I am, if you don’t know you can’t tell. My husband cannot find out that you’ve helped me! I want you to pack a few sets of clothes in a small valise for Skip, and this man will bring him to me. Please help us! I will see you as soon as I can.

Christine Maitland

“She’s alright?” Hannah whispered, concern, and worry heavy in her words.

Johnny flashed the Johnny Madrid Lancer smile before he answered. “Yeah, but she misses her boy. Miss, we better get movin’. Them guards ain’t too bright, but I don’t wanna get careless with you an’ the boy involved. We gotta hurry!” Johnny whispered.

Hannah was about ready to get up when she realized she had no robe and pulled the blankets up under her chin. Johnny smiled as he saw her dilemma. He stood away from the bed and turned his back as she fumbled for her robe and shoved her arms through the sleeves. Belting it around her waist, Hannah went to her door and peeked out into the hall. It was clear, and she was about to go out when Johnny stopped her.

“What’s at the end of this hall?” he asked and pointed to the other end.

“Water closet,” she answered and tiptoed to the back stairs.

Johnny followed her down to the second floor, and the first room was Skip’s. It was directly under hers. She opened the door, and the two went inside. Johnny quietly crossed to the window to watch for the guards, satisfied they were still on their patrol with no interruptions. Everything was right on time as they kept their watch. Johnny came to stand by the bed and repeated the hand over mouth routine he’d done with Hannah. Skip came alive with a jerk that surprised Johnny.

“Easy, Skip, I‘m here ta take ya ta your mother. Shhhhh. We gotta get ya dressed an' take a ride, but she really misses ya, she wants ya with her, Skip,” Johnny explained, his smooth, soft voice, again, working its magic. He felt the boy relax a bit as his large eyes held Johnny’s while Hannah stuffed a bag with clothes.

“He’s gonna need a heavy coat, Hannah.” Johnny turned back to Skip who was still staring at him, his rugged clothing not at all what gentlemen were wearing in San Francisco these days, and then he noticed the gun low on the man’s hip.

“Hey, we gotta leave quick, so get up an’ pull on some clothes.” Johnny didn’t want to scare the boy but needed to convey the urgency of the situation.

“Hannah, ya got that note with ya?”

“Yes, sir, I do.” She pulled it from her pocket and gave it to Johnny, who held it out for Skip.

“Ya know your mother’s writin’, Skip?”

The boy nodded as he took the missive, looked at the note, and Johnny could see his eyes grow large as twin full moons. Johnny held his finger to his lips, indicating the need for quiet.

“I ain’t lyin’ ta ya, Skip, but we gotta go, now!” The boy made a dive for the clothes that Hannah set out for him and pulled them on despite having the girl in his room. Johnny turned to Hannah as she handed the packed bag to him.

“Now after we leave, you go back ta bed. Ya didn’t see nuthin’ or anyone. That way you’re protecting yourself cuz Maitland is gonna wanna know who helped this ta happen. That’s why I didn’t tell ya my name.”

Hannah nodded before she spoke. “Tell Mrs. Maitland I hope she’s well and I miss her terribly!”

Johnny smiled again and lifted her chin with his finger. “Yes, ma’am, I will! Thanks for the help, Hannah!”

With that, Hannah led them down the stairs, then reminded Skip how important it was to stay quiet, and helped them out the back door. Hannah then stood and watched as the guards took a few minutes to talk in low tones. She motioned to Johnny that it was clear to go down the back steps and across to the carriage house. Johnny knew from there on it would be up to him. He gave Hannah a smile, and they went out the door.

Knowing his mother was waiting for him, Skip was in a hurry and Johnny had to grab his arm to keep the boy from running. They were about halfway to the carriage house when the same dog started to bark, bark in panic. It was probably familiar with Skip’s scent, and now with a strange one along with the boy, the dog sounded the alarm.

“C’mon, Skip! Gotta run!” Johnny shoved Skip in front of him knowing that the guards would come at the sound of the dog, and he was right.

They ran through the glow of the lanterns on the front of the carriage house just as the guards came running from the front of the mansion, and they came armed and firing. Johnny pushed the boy into the shadows then he grabbed Skips shoulder, and they ran as if Satan himself were after them. Bullets whistled past, and Johnny kept the boy directly in front of him, Damn, so close! Johnny thought just as a missile ripped through his jacket tearing a deep path along the top of his left shoulder, searing hot, then quickly numb.

Hannah heard the shots just as she got back to her room. Her heart was close to seizing to a stop; she held her breath as the head of the housekeeping staff ran out into the hall. Hannah waited a moment before she opened her door.

“What’s going on, Hannah, I heard gunshots! Did you?” the older woman asked, eyes wide with worry and wonder. There had been some strange things going on, what with the disappearance of Mrs. Maitland… Then they heard the guards yelling, calling out to the strangers that ran through the yard to stop. But they ceased their firing. Hannah sent up a silent prayer that Skip and the stranger that had come to take him to Mrs. Maitland, had escaped and was already en route to her side.

<><><><> 

“What do you mean ‘my son is missing’?” Maitland railed. He stalked around the private room of the club where the head of his security met him, trembling as his employer screamed inches from his face. “I don’t care if you have to be gone all night! Find him now!”  The veins stood out on Maitland’s neck, the red color flooded over his face, and shards of fury shot out of his eyes. The man was beyond control, beyond livid as he ordered his carriage to be brought out in front of the club as he prepared for the trip home. Someone was going to pay…

<><><><> 

Christine woke in the middle of the night. Johnny had been gone for five days now. Had he found Skip? Was Skip with him? Were they alright? The questions kept running through her mind. She was scared, nervous, and restless. She was exhausted, yet she couldn’t sleep. All Christine wanted was her boy; Matt could keep his money and his shipping business. He was never a good father anyway and worse as a husband. As long as Skip was not bothering him, things were tolerable. But Matt had not wanted to be a father and the only reason there was a child was his taking of Christine, not in love, but lust. He had disregarded her wants and needs satisfying only his weaknesses, his carnal urges with no thought or care for her. And Christine Maitland hated him.

<><><><> 

They ran through the shadows and kept out of sight. It hadn’t taken much to outdistance the guards. They, apparently, were to report back to their employer. Johnny tried to make out the boy’s features as they hid, making sure the way was clear before they would break their cover. The boy was small, barely coming to Johnny’s chest, and as they stood together in the dark, Johnny, with his arm around the boy, felt him shiver.

“You cold, Skip?” he asked quietly. Skip turned to look up into Johnny’s face before he answered, and Johnny thought he saw on tears in the boy’s eyes.

“A little bit, sir.” Johnny pulled Skip closer and huffed out a small laugh.
“Call me Johnny, kid, ya keep callin’ me ‘sir’ an’ I‘ll start thinkin’ my ol’ man’s around.” He could feel the boy relax under his hand, and could tell Skip smiled a bit. “Got a horse about two blocks that way,” Johnny pointed straight ahead, “an’ soon as I make sure there ain’t no guards followin’ we’ll head on outta here, alright?”

“Horse? I don’t ride very well. My father…”

Johnny cut off the remark. “Your father ain’t here an’ if ya wanna get ta where your mama is, you’re gonna hafta ride. She did. Don’t worry, Skip, I‘ll be right next ta ya for the ride back. I won’t leave ya till we get ta her.”

Really? My mother? I started to think that maybe she didn’t want me.” Skip's voice broke.

The pain in the boy’s tone nearly took Johnny’s breath away, and he could feel his heart crack. The feelings he’d pushed away so many years before suddenly boiled to the surface, again. Johnny shook the painful memories away and squeezed the boy’s shoulder.

“Skip, whatever happens, don’t think that of your mama. It was a decision that was hard for her ta make, but in a coupla days, ya can ask her yourself, alright? For now, we gotta move out. Ready?”

Skip gamely nodded, then wondered why he felt safe with this man, this complete stranger.

They slipped through the darkness like the wind. Johnny kept them out of the light of the gas lamps on the street corners, and very soon they were standing at the stable where Johnny saddled the black gelding and grunted as a shard of pain exploded in his shoulder. The numbness had worn off, and he could now feel the warm, sticky blood as it ran down his chest and back from the crease left by the bullet. With the saddle secured and Skip’s valise tied on behind, Johnny encouraged the boy to step into the stirrup. Skip hesitated.

“It’s alright, Skip. This is a good horse an’ I‘m gonna be right behind ya. Ya ain’t gotta do nothin’ but sit there, I‘ll have the reins. We gotta move out, kid.”

Skip’s heart was hammering in his chest as Johnny boosted him up to sit forward in the saddle, and very soon, Johnny was behind him. Though it sent bolts of searing, hot pain through him, Johnny draped his left arm around Skip’s slender body for a bit of security and urged the gelding out onto the cobbled street and headed south out of San Francisco.

They quickly navigated their way into a less populated part of the city, where no one would pay any mind to the two people on the black horse. In less than an hour, they left the city limits behind. Johnny nudged the gelding into a smooth, mile-eating lope. The whole time, Skip sat without saying a word, clutching the saddle horn with both hands in a white-knuckled grip, and leaned into the strong arm that held him in place. He sat tensely in the saddle, and Johnny could feel the boy’s discomfort.

“Ya alright, Skip?” Johnny asked quietly, trying to make an assessment of the boy and to make sure he wasn’t too scared.

The boy said nothing for a minute, then: “I… I guess it’s a little late to ask but, are you really taking me to Mother?”

Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, I am. An’ when ya see her, give her time ta explain. She’s got a good reason doin’ what she did.” Johnny wanted Skip to give his mother the benefit of the doubt.

Skip responded immediately. “I know why she left, well, some of it. My father is mean to her, and I was afraid that she left me to be there with him.” Again, the words pierced Johnny’s heart, knowing that feeling of loneliness, the emptiness brought about thinking you’ve been deserted by a loved one… a mother… “I’m so glad to know that she sent for me!”

Johnny could feel the slender chest heave as he held the boy and knew that the kid was crying. He held him tighter until the pain shot through him again. He gritted his teeth as he regained control.

“No, boy, she’d never leave ya for good an’ it near broke her heart ta walk outta that house when she did. She’s been cryin’ a lot cuz she left ya.”

“Where is she? She is safe… isn’t she?” Skip asked.

“Yeah, she’s safe. I ain’t gonna tell ya where she is, though, an’ the reason for that is your father hired men ta find her. They’re real good at what they do, I expect they’ll be on our trail before too long an’ if they find us they’re gonna try ta take ya back an’ if I tell you where she is then all they gotta do is get that information outta you. An’ they can do it. So we hafta jus’ make sure we stay ahead of ‘em an’ hopefully they’ll lose our trail. Do ya understand why I can’t tell ya where your mama is?” Johnny asked.

“Yes, sir,” Skip mumbled in disappointment.

Johnny lightly joked: “Hey, what’d I say my name was? Ya scared me for a minute there! Thought my father was here, he’s always yellin’ at me for somethin’!” Skip chuckled.

Johnny thought about how he was going to get this boy back, feeling the way he did. His shoulder was throbbing with every step the horse took, and where he knew the wound itself was not serious, he was losing too much blood. There was a good possibility, at some point, he would pass out. The bandana he had stuffed inside his shirt needed changing, he was sure. Well, he would keep going as long as he thought was necessary before he would scare the kid with another problem. He highly doubted if Skip knew anything about bullet wounds.

He stopped the gelding for a minute and reached for the canteen, knowing he would need to increase his liquid intake. Liquid intake. The phrase always made him laugh, and he wondered if tequila was considered liquid. Sam Jenkins never thought so. Aw, hell, Sam ain’t here an’ what he don’t know ain’t gonna hurt him… And Johnny smiled as he offered Skip the water, then wound the leather strap of the canteen around the saddle horn and gently kicked the horse into an easy lope.

“Lean back against me, Skip, the ridin’ ‘ll be easier for ya. I’ve gotcha; ya ain’t gonna fall, not unless I do first!”
Johnny knew that once Skip relaxed and leaned back against his chest, the boy would sleep. With the arm around him holding securely, the boy did, indeed, nod off for a while. Johnny kept the horse moving, even though riding at night was dangerous, it was necessary, and he employed some tactics that would prove useful for deterring those that might be following.  

Johnny backtracked and laid several false trails; then he came across the stream. The water was moving swiftly as Johnny stopped the gelding, letting the horse drink as he filled the canteen. He wanted nothing more than to lay down in the grass and sleep, but they had to keep moving. Johnny encouraged Skip to walk off the soreness. Riding when not accustomed to it could be very painful, and the kid just got his first lesson. Johnny smiled as Skip limped a bit and rubbed his backside, but the kid would be alright.

“You’re gonna be an expert at ridin’ before ya know it,” Johnny joked.

Skip, however, wasn’t so sure. “How long will that take?” Skip asked as he, again, rubbed at his backside.

Johnny couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

Once more, back on the trail, Johnny decided to walk the horse in the water for a while. The stream bed was free of rocks from what he could see in the deepening dusk, mostly smaller pebbles, and the water was clear. As long as nothing got stuck in the gelding’s hooves, they would be alright and leave no trail.

“Why are we in the water, Johnny?” Skip asked, thinking it strange.

“We ain’t leavin’ no trail ta follow. Like we kinda jus’ vanished,” Johnny explained.

“Who’s following us?” Skip asked, suddenly concerned.

Johnny decided to answer Skip’s questions honestly. “Ya ever hear of Pinkerton Agents, Skip?”

The boy’s eyes widened a bit. “Yes, they’re like the law.”
Johnny huffed. “No, they ain’t the law, they ‘find people’. Don’t make no difference if they wanna be found or not. They get paid ta find folks and  investigate.” Johnny explained and wondered if Skip would put the pieces together. The boy looked puzzled.

“Who would…” And the answer scrambled through his brain and he knew. “My father…”

“Yeah, kid, afraid so. But all we gotta do is stay a few steps ahead an’ we’ll get ta your mama, and ya both’ll be safe from him. I promise ya, kid. He won’t hurt your mama ever again,” Johnny added softly, not able to talk any more as the memories bubbled to the surface, searing like acid.

He felt himself sway in the saddle and caught his body with a jerk that woke the pain in his shoulder. He groaned and gasped at the sharp stabbing that threatened to send him to the ground.

Skip felt the twitch in Johnny’s body and wondered if they both would be picking themselves out of the grass.

“Johnny? Are you alright?” Skip asked as he grasped the saddle horn tightly and turned to look at Johnny, only to see his eyes closed and pain lines etched deep in his face.

“Johnny?” Skip whispered, becoming more frightened by the second.

Johnny opened his eyes. “Yeah, I‘m fine, kid, jus’ fine. Jus’ need some sleep is all.” He reached for the canteen and sighed as the cool, sweet water flowed down his parched throat, replacing some of the fluid he had lost. Satisfied things were as good as they would get, he nudged the horse along, closer to the little cabin on Lancer land.

Although he had not wanted to stop just yet, Johnny halted the gelding to make their camp for the night. Skip was tired, and God knew, Johnny needed some sleep. The spot was perfect for their rest. There was adequate shelter and could not be seen unless one happened to stumble onto it, so Johnny decided to stay. He slowly brought his leg over the back of the horse and nearly fell when his knee began to buckle. He groaned but subdued it as much as he could.

“Can ya get down alright, Skip?” he asked as the boy, knowing he was becoming a bit more comfortable around the horse. Skip jumped down with a wide grin. But the grin vanished when he saw Johnny’s face.

“Johnny, what’s wrong?” Shock flooded his features as he watched his rescuer go pale.

“Nothing much, kid, jus’ a little graze when them guards were shooting at us last night. Be alright with some rest.”

Skip had his doubts, but he’d never seen a man shot before. He would have to take Johnny at his word, but he promised himself to be watchful. Johnny slowly went about starting a fire, and Skip began to gather wood without being asked. Johnny had to tell him to stop as the pile had grown and they had enough for the night. Johnny smiled at this; the kid was starting to pull his own weight. It was a good sign and one that Christine would be proud of.

They ate a meal of beans and jerky. Skip wasn’t sure what to do when Johnny handed him the dried beef. His look made Johnny laugh.

“What do I do with this?” Skip asked.

As he shook off the fuzzy cotton from his head, Johnny answered. “It’s jerky, ya eat it, but chew it good before ya swallow it.” Johnny knew this was an entirely different world for the boy. Apparently, he’d never been out of the city before, and everything was new. Johnny wondered if the boy was scared anymore.

He knew at first Skip had great apprehensions, and as the day went on, he  seemed to come to terms with the situation. He may not be having a grand time, but neither was he complaining. Christine Maitland had a fine son, one she could be proud of, and Johnny was going to make it his business to tell her so. He wondered what it would take to shake the boy and where he was in no hurry to find out, he was about to get his answer.

With the meal over, Johnny knew he had to do something about his shoulder. He turned to Skip who had just finished his supper and gathered up the plates to wash.

“Hey, kid, would ya mind givin’ me a hand?” Johnny asked.

Skip smiled. The budding friendship with this mystery man was new, and unlike anything he had ever known before. Skip knew nothing about him except his first name, and he was taking Skip to be with his mother. Now the man was asking for help. His help! It was exciting, Skip thought, to have a grown man ask him for help. Never had his own father even talked much with him, let alone ask for his help. Yes, this was a whole new world for the boy, and he was beginning to enjoy it, for now.

“What kind of help do you need, Johnny?” he asked, feeling good about his contribution in helping this new friend.

Johnny threw out the last of the coffee and handed the kid the pot.

“Could ya go fill that with water outta the stream?”

Skip jumped up and promptly did as asked, returning shortly with the pot filled to the top. Johnny got his spare bandana out of the saddlebag and soaked it with cold water, wrung out the excess and wiped down his face knowing a bit of fever had set in. The water felt like heaven, clearing a few cobwebs that had clouded his mind. He motioned for Skip to set the pot close to the fire.

“Set this on that flat rock by the flames. I’m gonna need ta soak the shirt off my shoulder an’ warm water’ll do it faster’n cold." Skip took the pot and settled it as close to the fire as he could. “Thanks, kid,” Johnny said.

Skip thought he sounded tired; he certainly didn’t look very good.

Johnny leaned back against his upturned saddle and waited for the water to heat. He casually watched the boy, and as darkness settled, Skip became a bit wary.

“Ya never spent the night outside, Skip?” Johnny asked, knowing he was probably scared.

“No, never. Are we going to be alright?” the boy asked as he kept his watch, rotating his head to peer into the dark beyond the light of the flames.

“Sure are. I spent lots a time sleepin’ under the stars. Sittin’ around a fire’s always brought a lotta comfort ta me. Watchin’ the stars, listenin’ ta the crackin’ of the wood burnin’, maybe an ol’ coyote’ll start singin’ for us.”

Skip’s eyes widened at the mention of the beast. “Do they eat people, Johnny?” Skip was suddenly worried.

“Huh? Uh-uh, nope, Skip. Nothin’ ta worry about. Would ya check that water an’ see if it’s hot yet?”

Skip, again, appeared to be anxious to help. He lifted the lid of the pot, and steam billowed off the water. Johnny once more wiped down his face then, with Skip’s help, he slid his jacket off the left side. Skip visibly blanched at the blood that covered Johnny’s shirt. Johnny wondered if he would be doing this himself.

“What… what do you want me to do, Johnny?” Skip asked, never taking his eyes from the bloody sight before him.

Johnny folded the bandana in thirds and held it out; he directed Skip to soak it with the hot water then to put the heated cloth across the top of his shoulder. Johnny hissed through his teeth with pain as his head bent forward, eyes tightly shut. Skip froze, he did not know what to do, and he was scared.

“Johnny?” When he got no answer, he crept closer. “Johnny? Are you alright?”

Finally, Johnny lifted his head, his eyes half shut. “Will be. Jus’ need ta get this unstuck an’ put a new bandage on it.” Johnny held out the cloth as Skip poured fresh water over it. This time Johnny nearly passed out as explosions ignited in his head and bright flashes danced behind his eyes. He placed the cloth back onto the bloody shirt and waited for the pain to ease.

“Skip… saddlebags, where are they?” Johnny ground out. They lay just out of Johnny’s reach. Skip pulled them over and put Johnny’s hand on them. He opened one side, then the other and pulled out a bottle. He yanked the cork out with his teeth, pulled a long swallow, and breathed harshly. His head tipped back now as he felt the burn down his throat into his belly.

Skip watched it all in wonder. “That whiskey, Johnny?”

Breaths coming more normal now Johnny answered, “Uh-uh, tequila.”

The boy had never heard of it. “Tequila? Is it better than whiskey?”

“For me, yeah, it is.” Johnny blew out a breath and reached for the leather bags again, this time pulling out a roll of cloth he carried to use as bandages. He looked at Skip.

“Seein’ blood make ya wanna puke, Skip?” Johnny asked quietly.

Skip could only shrug. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen this much before.”

Well, we’re gonna find out… Johnny thought, sincerely hoping that if the kid was going to be sick, he’d go out of the camp to do it, and he started to take off his shirt. “’M gonna need your help again, Skip, when I get my shirt off gonna need for ya ta take that cloth an’ wrap it around me. I’ll tell ya how ta do it. Think you’re up for it?” It looked to Johnny that Skip pulled himself up and sat straighter. Then he tried to smile a bit.

“I’ll try, Johnny. Just tell me what to do and how to do it.” The kid’s got some spunk… Tell Christine that, too. Johnny took another long pull on the tequila and struggled out of his shirt with Skip’s help. Then he directed the boy to carefully lift the bandanna that he’d shoved under his shirt last night. Not entirely free of the crusted blood, but with a bit more hot water, Skip worked the cloth away, and Johnny heard the boy gasp at the sight of the raw, angry furrow.

“Is it still bleedin’, Skip?” Johnny asked. He heard the boy breathing deeply.

“You’re doin’ good, kid, just keep breathin’ deep.” The boy did as he was told. “Now take some a this cloth an’ fold it into a patch that’s gonna cover that gash.” Skip did as Johnny asked. “Good boy, now wrap the rest with that cloth ‘round my chest an’ over my shoulder, keep it as tight as ya can…”

With Johnny’s direction, Skip placed the bandage around him and pulled it tight, tucking the end of the cloth under the wrapping in the back. Johnny sighed deeply.

“Thanks, kid, ya done good. There’s another shirt inside the bags, could ya get it out for me?”

Skip, remaining silent, retrieved Johnny’s spare shirt and helped him to slip it on. He buttoned the front, then slipped his jacket over him. The kid did look a bit peaked, but Johnny was satisfied with his help.

“There’s a bar of soap an’ a towel in my bags, wash your hands with some of that hot water. Then I think we better turn in. Thanks again, Skip. Feel better already,” Johnny said with a smile.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah, kid…”

“Where does tequila come from?” Skip asked as he lathered his hands, giving them a good scrubbing.

Johnny laughed. “’Cross the border inta Mexico.”

“You ever been there?”

Johnny’s mind was whirling. Have I ever been ta Mexico… That’s almost funny. Almost died there … a couple a times… “Yeah, I spent some time there. Get some sleep kid.”

“You sure coyotes don’t eat people?”

<><><><> 

Johnny heard the twig snap and came wide awake. He lay listening to the sounds, sounds that shouldn't be there. Skip was still asleep. He wondered how long it took the kid to drop off, and now thought he would be lucky to have the kid sleep through whatever was about to happen. His senses picked up a presence just outside the light of the fire, and he chanced moving his right hand to his hip, the Colt secured in his grip as if it was a part of his body. Sometimes he felt as if he had been born with a pistol in his hand. Johnny chanced a glance at the sky; it would be dawn soon. He had to act before Skip was in any more danger, but any decision was taken from him when a voice called out.

“Hey, the camp! Don’t shoot, I’m comin’ in!”

Johnny glanced at Skip, thankful the boy still slept. Johnny took the Colt in his left hand and quickly reached into his boot for the knife he carried. As if by magic a lone figure appeared in the outer ring of light, a lone man but a lone man with a huge gun aimed right at Johnny’s head. The double barrels seemed to gape, hungry for Johnny’s blood. He could feel his heart start to thump but took a deep breath and slowed the beat. The man had a shotgun! Johnny had to take the man out now or risk the chance of Skip being killed along with him.

“Geddup outta that bedroll,” the voice ordered, and Skip started to stir. No, kid!!! Johnny screamed in his mind. The man looked down at the boy, and with eyes off of him, Johnny let the balanced knife fly from his hand, the long, thin blade sang through the air, launched by a quick snap of his wrist, and buried itself up to the hilt in the man’s barrel chest. As deadly with a knife as he was with a gun…

“What… Johnny? What’s happening?” Skip mumbled.

“Stay there, Skip, just stay there,” Johnny ordered as he stepped over the boy and across camp where the man lay. Johnny picked up the shotgun and ejected the shells, throwing them into the darkness then tossed the gun away. He kicked the man’s leg and listened for any sign of life.

Holding the Colt at the man’s head, he searched pockets and pulled out a paper. It was from Maitland with descriptions of Christine and Matthew, Jr. (Skip). Johnny dragged the man out of camp and could only hope he acted alone. Johnny pulled his knife out of the corpse, wiped the blade on the dead man’s clothes, and quickly returned to camp. He called for Skip as he kicked dirt over the fire. Johnny had forgotten about his shoulder until he threw the saddle over the geldings back and felt it rip open. He had to ignore the pain, and the wave of dizziness; thankfully, Skip did as he was told without complaint.

“Who was that man, Johnny?”

Johnny considered lying to him, would he understand that this own father had sent a killer after him and his mother? Johnny sighed. “Guess your father wanted you back…” The truth stretched, and the answer vague, but Skip knew its meaning.

“I don’t ever want to go back, not if he’s there…” Skip whispered.

Johnny pulled some jerky from the bag of food Holly sent with him and handed a piece to the boy. This is one great kid! There ain’t been one complaint outta him, no back talk, nuthin’! Johnny thought of the woman Christine was and thought that Maitland did not deserve the wife and son he had. Pendejo!  If Skip was bothered by the thought that his father had sent someone after his mother and himself, he didn’t show it. Johnny didn’t know for sure if Skip realized what had happened and could only hope the blur of sleep had clouded his brain and did not acknowledge the fact that the man was dead.

“When will we get there, Johnny? Is it far?” Skip asked as they stopped to rest the horse.
 
“Oh, if we keep going like we have, maybe tamorrow night. Told her I’d getcha back as soon as I could, but it slowed us down some with this,” Johnny nodded at his shoulder. He watched as Skip, satisfied with the answer Johnny gave him, went to the horse and brought him to Johnny. They mounted up and were on their way once again.

“How’re ya doin’ sittin’ the saddle?” Johnny asked, knowing that the soreness was not yet over. Skip smiled, probably the first genuine smile Johnny had seen on the kid since they’d left San Francisco.

“I’ll be alright.”

“Good, ya ready for some hard ridin’?” Johnny asked, and the boy, quickly losing his fear of the horse, nearly jumped into the saddle as Johnny gingerly stepped up behind him. He spurred the horse into a gallop, and they were down the road and out of sight in seconds.

They made good time that day even after he handed Skip the reins and showed him how to hold them and how the horse responded to commands. The kid was catching on quickly and appeared to have developed a growing fondness for the animal. Johnny could feel the excitement building in the boy over the newfound love, and he himself smiled knowing that once things had settled down with this mess that Skip would be pestering his mother for his own horse. That was something that Johnny would be happy to help her with.

“Did ya know ya can teach ‘em tricks?” Johnny asked as they traveled.

Skip’s head snapped up, thinking that this was some kind of joke. “Like a dog?” Skip asked, now uncertain if Johnny was pulling his leg or not.

Johnny smiled. “Well, somethin’ like a dog. My horse don’t let no one other than me ride ‘im. He’ll buck ‘em off.” Skip suddenly tensed and grabbed the saddle horn when Johnny realized that he thought this gelding was his.

“No, Skip, this ain’t my horse. I had ta borrow this one on my way ta get ya. My horse is where your mama is. You’ll be seein’ him in the next day or two. I’ll even let ya ride him if ya want.” Johnny was smiling at the wide-eyed look Skip turned on him.

“He won’t buck me off?”

“Nope, not unless I tell him to. Barranca comes when I whistle for him, too. That’s come in handy. Always liked horses, I remember pesterin’ my mama for a horse when I was little.” Johnny started to laugh, and he told Skip of the times someone tried to steal Barranca, and all he did was whistle, and the horse bucked the fellow off his back and sent him flying ten feet into the air.

“Barranca? That’s a funny name. What does it mean?”

Johnny smiled at the thought. “It’s Spanish for canyon. Might even think about it like you’re goin’ down into a deep place.” Johnny didn’t elaborate any further. It was more than going to a deep place. The elderly folks Johnny knew referred to it as a bad place, dark and foreboding, but he didn’t think Skip needed to know that. Mexicans were notoriously superstitious. He chuckled to himself, thinking back to when he chose the name for his horse. It was to remind him of what had been, where he was as Madrid, and where he was now as Lancer.

Skip was silent for a minute. “Why do you call your mother mama?”

Johnny was quiet for a moment. It always bothered him to talk about his mother. But he answered after a minute. “Well, that’s just what kids called their mothers where I grew up.”

“Where did you grow up?”

The kid’s persistent… “Mexico, along the border.”

“Do you live with her?”

“No, kid, she died when I was ten.” Johnny could feel more questions starting to bubble up from the kid. Would he answer them? So he waited.

“Your father, you lived with him, though, didn’t you?

Oh Hell… “Not till two years ago. Hey, how about we find a place ta stay for the night?” The truth was Johnny was tired, he was feverish, and he felt like shit.
 
It was slower traveling than he would have liked, but Johnny knew he couldn’t push himself too far, not with the boy along. He had to make sure he was able to get Skip to his mother and get him there safely. It would do none of them any good if he was careless and let himself become so ill he wouldn’t be able to get to the cabin. And that meant taking more time.

The spot was perfect. Out of sight, sheltered from the weather and a stream burbled nearby. With plenty of sweet grass for the horse, they settled in for the night and grateful for the rest.

The fuzz in his head was building, but the fire was comforting, and so was the tequila. The kid, thankfully, had stopped the flow of questions, but Johnny could see them still swirl inside Skip’s head. Johnny knew the kid was confused, wondering why things had happened as they did and what was to become of them now. Johnny knew he didn’t have any answers but knew that Skip needed to have someone on his side.

Johnny remembered his own struggles after his mother died, and he would have given just about anything to have someone that understood what was happening, someone kind to talk with. He had no one, and he wanted to provide Skip this opportunity, one that he never had. He would be there for the boy, be at least some support, and give the kid what had been lacking in his young life. And even though he really didn’t feel like talking tonight, he answered the questions when the boy asked.

Skip was starting to trust him, like a connection that most young boys had with their father. Skip never had that, and Johnny knew what that was like. Johnny found himself reliving his own childhood through this boy. He wondered if he could help avoid some of the pain that Skip would, without a doubt, experience. But Skip had one thing, a critical resource that Johnny did not; Skip still had his mother.

Carefully he lowered himself to the ground. He leaned against his upturned saddle and with tequila bottle in hand, tried to relax. Hopefully, this would be the last night on the trail and with any luck at all be at the remote cabin in the small mountain valley late tomorrow afternoon.

Holly! Dios! He missed her! Knowing she was waiting for him made the separation almost bearable. He tried to not think about her silky arms around his neck and the press of her body against his. That was something he would rather avoid discussing as his present company was too young, so, he forced himself to think along other routes.

“Johnny?” Skip called as he stared into the fire and watched as the sparks flitted into the darkening sky.

“Yeah, kid?” His voice, soft and soothing encouraged the boy to speak.

“What’s happening? Are my parents in trouble?”

How would he answer? He heard the turmoil in the boy’s question, and it wasn’t up to him to divulge this information. “I honestly don’t know. But one thing that I can tell you is that your mama misses you and wants you with her.” Johnny answered with certainty.

The declaration seemed to satisfy the boy, and Johnny could see the smile start to blossom. Then the kid’s eyes misted over, and with an agitated gesture, Skip turned his head away from Johnny as he blinked away the tears that threatened to fall. Johnny averted his eyes to his hands to avoid any humiliation. Skip may feel embarrassed at having been caught weeping over his mother. A ten-year-old boy did not understand that under these particular circumstances, a tear or two would be absolutely acceptable. Expected even, and that Johnny knew well.

“Hey, kid, ya wanna take over the reins tamorrow?” Johnny asked, covertly changed the subject. Skip’s head snapped around, and the grin there across the young face told Johnny that he been successful at the distraction attempt. Johnny smiled back, forced his discomfort to the back of his mind, and tried to focus on the boy.

“Johnny, when I get my horse, will you show me how to teach him some tricks?”

The excitement that exploded in the bright eyes made Johnny laugh a bit. Then in a serious tone, as if Johnny was discussing an important issue with a grown man, he asked a few questions himself. “Well, that all depends on you.”

Skip’s smile seemed to fade; more questions swirled in his head, he wondered why it would depend on him. “What do you mean?”

“This ain’t somethin’ that ya take lightly, kid. Ya gotta be serious about it. It takes a lotta time an' devotion. It takes patience. Ya can’t get mad if things don’t go right. If it don’t work then ya start over, ya can’t have a temper an' ya gotta talk soft like…” Johnny held the bright eyes with his. “Think ya can do that?”

Skip pondered the issue, and he thought long and hard. “Well, I can’t say for sure, but I’d really like to give it a try!” he said with another smile.

Johnny laughed out loud. The kid seemed happy to talk, ‘man to man’, probably didn’t have any interaction with his father, well, it’s the asshole’s loss, he doesn’t know what a fine son he’s got. Sounds like he’d rather the kid wasn't around. Pendejo... Johnny thought again.

He was done in for the day, far beyond exhausted. “Listen, Skip, I need ta get some sleep. You should, too. We’re gonna make some time tamorrow, travel all day ta get ta your mama so it’ll be hard ridin’. Think ya can handle that horse?” Johnny asked with a smile.

“I’m sure going to try!” Skip grinned, and then suddenly concerned, “Johnny? How’s your shoulder feeling? Do you need to change that bandage?” he asked with wide eyes.

“I’m alright, kid, but thanks, get some sleep.” Well, it was a small lie; Lord knew he was not up for any more pain tonight. He’d let Holly check him out when they got to the cabin. He smiled as he thought about her, again, and this time, covered with his blanket, he let his thoughts fill with her sweetness without embarrassing himself in front of the kid.

The night passed quickly, this time without interruption or company. Johnny woke periodically, hot and feverish with shards of stinging, burning pain raising havoc in his shoulder. Although the wound was not that serious, it just plain hurt like hell. Well, he’d had worse and lived to tell about it. Johnny turned his head to see the kid. Skip was sound asleep as only a kid could do. Hell, was I ever that young? Johnny didn’t think so. Yes, he’d been ten, but he was never a young boy. He missed out on those years and wondered about Skip. Would he get his chance to be a kid and grow up the way a kid should?

The question bothered Johnny more than he wanted to admit. He’d been with this boy for just a few days but found himself wanting to protect him, keep him safe from the ugly things life threw at a person. With a father like his, that would be a monumental challenge, and he wondered what Christine had in mind. Did she have enough of the abuse and decided impulsively to run or had she given it time and made plans? Johnny did not think there had been any strategy, other than to get away as quickly as possible, what kind of plans could she have made? Given the fact that there would be charges filed, if Barkley could build a case against Maitland, this could take a while. Well, Christine would have time for serious thought regarding her future with Skip.

<><><><> 

“Mr. Maitland, I have some news you might want to hear,” the man said as he sat opposite the massive, solid oak desk, impressively large and intimidating. The entire office was intimidating, just like the man that occupied it. Maitland stared with his hawkish, predatory face, eyes cold and piercing as they penetrated those of Calvin H. Walsh of the Pinkerton Agency. He put on a front of callousness, acting unaffected by the glare. He took the report from the leather pouch he carried.

“Well, what have you found out? Where are my wife and son?” Maitland demanded.

Walsh handed over the documents; he expected Maitland to take them, which he did not.

“I am paying you to find my wife not give me reports to read!” Maitland bellowed at the man.
Appearing to be unaffected with his client’s volatile temper, Walsh leaned back in his chair and met the piercing stare.

“Your wife, one Christine Maitland, left San Francisco on September 12th and traveled to Sacramento. She stayed three nights at The Hill House under the name of Alice Carr then left for Stockton where she was a guest of one Victoria Barkley. The next morning they boarded the train for Green River and checked into the hotel there. It was at this point Mrs. Barkley rented a buggy and she and Mrs. Maitland, alias Alice Carr, left Green River at which point, the agent following lost the two women. He found the buggy and horse, unhitched under a tree where there looked to be a picnic set up. The women didn’t return. The agent waited all day.”

Maitland’s mind whirled, spiraled into a rage. “How could two women outfox the Pinkertons?” Maitland was incensed. “You get on it and find her, NOW!”
Maitland sat at the empty table and ate his breakfast. He had been observing the staff, nothing escaped his scrutiny. One of them knows something! He was sure but which one he didn’t know. Christine did spend more time than what Maitland thought was necessary with that girl, Hannah. I’ll have to watch her… he thought.

He called for more food, and when it had been set before him, the steak was not done to his liking. Hannah answered his calls, and he watched her, noting everything about her. She felt the unwanted attention. He suddenly left the table going directly to his study, and Hannah let out the breath she’d been holding. Then the panic rose to levels she’d never felt before as she heard Maitland call her name.

”Hannah, come here. I’d like a word with you.”

She walked hesitantly into the oppressive room, and her insides turned to ice as Maitland shut his study door behind her.

<><><><> 

The smoky saloon was full of rowdy cowboys and happy saloon girls. The busy fall labors were over, and the men returned to town with burning lust and pockets filled with money. The stranger watched, waited, looking for that one who was not happy, who may have some information to sell. The stranger bided his time, acting as if he was there for a bit of socializing, smiling at the bawdy advances of the girls and for a night of blowing off a little steam.

Most of the conversations he discreetly caught were geared to the girls wondering which one to tumble first. He wandered around the room, picking up bits and pieces of alcohol-induced talk when one conversation stopped him in mid-stride. The two men sat at the table looking ready to tangle with the first person that crossed their path.

“That fuckin’ ol’ man! He had no call ta fire us. What’s a coupla a head of beef ta him? He’s been workin’ the shit outta us since them two boys a his left. What’d he let ‘em leave the ranch for if we was so busy?”

“Ah, kin tell why… Ah overheard that ol’ bastard talkin’ ta the sheriff ‘bout somethin’ that sounded like some kinda big ol’ secret.”

The stranger reached into his pocket to retrieve a very large roll of money. He boldly pulled out a chair and sat uninvited with the two unemployed and disgruntled ex-Lancer hands. It was a long and productive night.

<><><><> 

He came awake with a jolt. He looked around, sensing nothing out of the ordinary. He listened for the horse and heard its loud munching, as it contentedly ate grass. He figured it was only the pop and hiss of the fire that woke him. Raising his body to a sitting position, he suddenly came to a halt as the explosion blasted inside his head. Son-of-a-bitch that hurts! Johnny slowly struggled to his feet as the stampede inside his skull trampled and kicked every reasonable thought away, leaving him ready to heave his belly inside out.

Taking deep breaths, Johnny staggered to the bushes and took care of business, then got the rolling belly under some degree of control. Buttoning his calzoneras proved difficult using only one hand, as the injured shoulder had tightened during the night, and he found it almost impossible to use. But he should get to the cabin sometime today, and Holly would take care of him, and he smiled. Holly would take care of him in more ways than one…
Johnny woke Skip who, with no complaining, readied himself for the day. The kid had apparently accepted the meager diet of beans and jerky and ate, anxious for the adventure to continue. If they rode far enough, he would be with his mother today! How long had it been that he’d seen her? It felt like  forever.

“Johnny…” Skip stopped talking, suddenly afraid.

Johnny sat with his plate of food, untouched sitting beside him. Skip thought Johnny’s eyes looked strange, glazed and unfocused. “Johnny?” he almost whispered.

Johnny looked up; he knew the kid was worried. “I’m fine, Skip, jus’ tired… ‘ll be alright.”

Skip filled Johnny’s cup with fresh water and put it in his hand, urging him to drink. “Drink it, Johnny. You told me to make sure you drink enough water, so drink,” Skip ordered.

Johnny had to smile as the kid issued the command. “Yes, sir,” Johnny mumbled and tipped the cup to his mouth. It did taste sweet, and as it slid down the dry, gravelly throat, the flood he felt through his body was like heaven.

It took a while to break camp, more time than Johnny had thought to spend at the chore. But finally, they were ready to leave. All that was left was to saddle the horse.

Curiosity taking over, Johnny wanted to see how game the boy was regarding his determination to handle the horse, and the ruse of his injured shoulder would serve him well. 

“Gonna need ya ta help with this, kid,” Johnny said as he stood next to the saddle on the ground. “It’s heavy an’ don’t think I can do it with one arm.”

“What do I do?” Skip asked, ready and willing, knowing that this experience will help when he got his own horse.

Johnny smiled, knowing the boy did not have the strength to toss the fifty-five pounds of leather across the tall, broad back.

“Think ya can lift it? An’ if ya can’t don’t be afraid ta say so. More’n one cowboy got himself hurt doin’ something he was too proud ta admit that he couldn’t.”

Skip hefted the saddle then turned to Johnny. “It’s pretty heavy, Johnny. How about we lift it together?” Skip met Johnny’s concerned look, and Johnny saw the honesty in the words, words from a ten-year-old boy.

“Alright, kid, we’ll lift it tagether.”

Skip took a deep breath and grabbed the saddle like Johnny showed him to do, fingers through the gullet, and Johnny grasped the cantle. With an awkward swing, they heaved the saddle high, and it landed with a plop on the horse’s back. Johnny steadied the back of the saddle in place as Skip settled the front half. Johnny’s smile grew as he looked at the boy and felt a bit of pride for the kid.

“Good boy! First try an’ ya did it, kid! Now, I’ll show ya how ta cinch it up.” Johnny could almost see the thoughts tumble in the kid’s head, excitement about his own horse, something that, as of three days ago, he’d been afraid of.

Finally, Skip mounted, and Johnny painfully hauled himself up behind.

“Okay, kid, move ‘im out.” Skip took the reins, with a smile stuck on his face that Johnny swore he could see on the back of the kid’s head. They headed south, toward Christine Maitland, toward Lancer. Lancer, it sounded good, and what sounded better was that Holly was waiting for him. Now it was Johnny’s turn to smile as he thought about her ‘healing’ hands. He was glad Skip was in front of him; he would hate to have to explain the silly grin he wore.

“C’mon, kid, let’s get movin’,” Johnny slipped his hand around Skips waist just to reassure the kid, to let him know he was safe on the black gelding, then they took off at a mile-eating run.
They stopped only to rest the horse, again following the routine of the day before. Skip knew what to do; he knew Johnny wasn’t feeling well, so he went about the chores and let Johnny rest as much as he could.

“Johnny, here’s more water, drink.”

Johnny opened his eyes and smiled as he took the cup. “Thanks, kid.” He looked around knowing that in a few hours they would be at the cabin that overlooked the small secluded valley.

“I’m gonna tell ya what ta look for, so ya don’t miss it, Skip. There’s gonna be a narrow trail, ain’t gonna look like much but it’ll take us right ta the cabin’s front door. There’s gonna be steep rocky hills goin’ down into a small valley on the right side, lots a trees an’ there’s gonna be a stream ta follow till we start ta climb up the mountainside a bit.” Johnny knew there would be some questions, and he was right.

“You’re talking like you aren’t going to be with me…” Skip suddenly wasn't sure.

Johnny smiled. “I’m gonna be here, kid, just don’t know if I’ll be awake, is all. If I ain’t an’ you’re not sure what ta do, wake me.”

Skip grinned, the relief on his young face apparent knowing Johnny wasn’t leaving him, and not only was Johnny not leaving him, but Johnny was also trusting him, and this was important. He’d never had a relationship with an adult man on this level, and it made him feel grown up and like… he counted for something. “Think the horse is rested enough now?” the boy asked, anxious to see his mother.

<><><><> 

“Mr. Maitland, I have good news. I’ve located your wife. She’s in a cabin not too far from here. I’m glad you were able to make it on such short notice.”

“Thank you, Mr. Walsh. I wish to leave now. My foreman and I will accompany you; you can point out where the cabin is, and then I will not need your services any longer. I want to surprise dear Christine.”

Rob Everly entered the room. “I have all the arrangements taken care of, Mr. Maitland, and the horses are ready to go.”

“Thank you, Rob. Let’s go get Christine and my son.”

Calvin Walsh had the feeling that something was terribly wrong.

<><><><> 

The sun was losing its hold on the day; the damp evening air settled with a chokehold as it dueled with its adversary, winning out over the warm, bright day. Night sounds started their serenades as a black horse walked down the trail, his two riders tired from their long journey, one excited to be reunited with a loved one, the other aching and exhausted, hurt and woozy from blood loss.

“Johnny, are we close?” Skip turned to watch Johnny’s face. There was no response. “Johnny?” he tried again.

“Huh…” Johnny opened glazed eyes, his hand quickly reached for his Colt then realized there was no danger, and took note of their surroundings. He looked down at Skip and smiled. “Sorry, kid, musta fell asleep.”

Skip smiled. “That’s alright, Johnny, but are we close?”

Johnny looked ahead; they were right on track. “Ya did a good job, kid, got about one more mile ta go an’ ya can see your mama…” Johnny felt the boy tense with excitement. K, Madrid, ya can do this, only a mile ta go now. Keep your eyes open, Holly’s waitin’ an’ don’t make a fool outta yourself by fallin’ on her getting’ offa this horse…

There it was, the small cabin overlooking the valley, and Skip could not help but kick the horse into a trot, and then he remembered his passenger behind him, and slowed the animal to a walk, again.

Almost to the porch, the sound of the door flinging open brought Johnny to full consciousness as Christine Maitland ran out of the cabin, and Skip launched himself from the gelding’s back into his mother’s waiting arms as they folded around him in desperate relief.

“Oh, Skip! Skip!...,” she sobbed as she hugged her boy, tears, happy ones now, coursing down her cheeks and wetting Skip’s face.

Holly passed the couple and went to the gelding where Johnny still sat. In the dim light, she knew something was wrong, and she turned to call for Scott. He made it to Johnny’s side, exchanged glances with her and gently tugged Johnny’s hand only to have his brother fall freely into his hastily raised arms in time to keep Johnny from hitting the ground.

Christine could not stop crying; she would wipe away the tears only to have another trail streaking out of red eyes down her exhausted, pretty face. Every time she saw her son’s sweet eyes, they started anew with a will of their own. But she had been mortified knowing Johnny had been injured. Questioning the boy, she was horrified to know that armed guards around the house fired their guns not knowing who was there; they very well could have hit Skip!

“Mother, no, I wouldn’t have gotten hit. Johnny kept me ahead of him; they were shooting from behind us. He shielded me. I was safe the whole time. Even the night that the man came at us with a shotgun. Johnny took care of it without any danger to me!”

Now Christine was not only horrified, she was furious! And it could have only been Matt to send armed men after Skip. If she had any second thoughts about leaving Matt, they vanished in that instant. Gone. Get yourself together, Christine, she told herself, you’ve still got a long hard battle ahead of you.

“Holly, will he be alright?” Christine asked as Holly finished wrapping Johnny’s shoulder.

“Oh, yes, he will be fine. The wound was not life-threatening, there was blood loss and exhaustion more than anything else. But he will be fine.”

Christine breathed a heavy sigh of relief as Skip smiled with confidence.

“See, Mother, he told me he was fine!” Skip said as he wondered what all the worry was about.

Scott and Holly exchanged glances, knowing that was Johnny’s stock answer ‘I’m fine’. And they smiled.

“I feel horrible taking the only bed here. Johnny should be in it!” Christine said.

Scott huffed, and Holly snickered. “He’ll be fine there in front of the fire, he’ll be up tomorrow, you’ll see,” Scott explained.

They ate a quiet supper, not wanting to disturb Johnny as he slept. They conversed in low tones and listened as Skip told them about the trip here, how Johnny snuck in the house to get him, how Johnny taught him about riding, and how to take care of a horse, and how to survive in the outdoors. Scott smiled and thought Skip had a huge case of hero-worship. Well, it had to happen. His own father didn’t give him any time…

Christine could not help staring at her son. He seemed to have changed in their short time apart. He appeared more outgoing, more sure of himself. Gone was the little boy she had left in San Francisco. She saw he was growing up. When did that happen? She knew that this incredible incident with all the excitement and danger, Skip could not help but grow. Whisked away out of the house, dealing with a strange, although kind man, and the trip in the wide-open country on a horse, not to mention having been shot at, were all new experiences. An attempt made during the dark hours of the night by a man with a shotgun was enough to make anyone grow! And learning about horses was something that all boys should know.

She let her eyes travel around the room and came to rest on Johnny. She had much to repay him for. When this mess was done, and over she would have a talk with him, repay him somehow for all that he’d done, most of all, the sacrifice he made to keep Skip safe. She then looked to Skip. He had not stopped chattering since he sat at the table with Scott and Holly.

“Skip, I think it’s time to go to bed, son,” Christine spoke softly.

He balked at the early hour; he wanted to hear more from Johnny’s brother. “Oh, Mother, can’t I stay up? I want to talk to Scott more!”

“Hey, kid, don’t argue with your mama,” Johnny mumbled, not opening his eyes.

“Johnny! I thought you were going to sleep all night!” Skip quickly slid off the kitchen chair and raced to his side as Johnny slowly peeled his eyes open. He smiled as Skip knelt by him and Holly joined them

“Right now that don’t seem like a bad idea…” Johnny said as he mulled the thought over in his mind.

Christine came to kneel beside her son. “Oh, Johnny, I… I don’t know how to thank you, and I am so very sorry that you were injured!”

Johnny laughed a bit. Holly helped him to sit up and held a cup of water to his mouth. As he drank, he fought to clear the haze in his head.

“Gracias, querida,” he told Holly as she then settled him back on the blankets.

“Juanito, do you think that you could eat something?” she asked.

“Maybe in a little while. Stomach ain’t too settled right now, but thanks.”

“Come, young man,” Christine stood, “time for bed!”

“Go with your mother, kid. Tamorrow maybe I‘ll let ya ride the horse without me on the back.”

Skip’s eyes looked to pop out of his head.

“Really, Johnny?” The elation on Skip’s face indicated he was nowhere ready to settle down.

Johnny grinned. “Only if ya mind your Mama.”

Skip jumped to his feet. “Goodnight, Johnny!”

“’Night, kid.”

After settling Skip in her room, Christine came back to sit at the table with Scott as Holly sat on the floor by Johnny, their fingers entwined and holding tight. Holly wore a beautiful smile as she talked to him in low tones.

Christine sighed as she watched them, and Scott watched her. He saw loss in her face.

“They’re exceptional together, aren’t they?” Scott said so only Christine would hear.

“Yes, they are…” she replied, a bit embarrassed to have been caught watching them.

Scott chuckled as he thought about his brother and the lady that captured his heart, how amazingly alike they were and how things could have very possibly gone horribly wrong for them both.

“They are, without a doubt, the best people I know,” Scott declared proudly and left the table to go outside.

<><><><> 

The two uniformed officers banged loudly with the doorknocker and waited only seconds before the massive portal was pulled open. A large woman, tall and husky in her fifties answered the call.

“May I help you, Officers?” she asked.

“Yes, I hope so. I am Officer Brown, and this is Officer Barnes with the San Francisco Law Enforcement. May we come in, please?”

Margaret Connelly stepped aside to let the men enter. “Is Mr. Maitland at home, Ma’am?” he asked, the question holding the element of authority.

“He isn’t home, sir,” Margaret answered, fearing something more was wrong. First Mrs. Maitland’s disappearance, then Skip’s, Hannah suddenly left, and now Mr. Maitland was gone.

“Do you have any idea where he is at or when he will be home?” Officer Brown asked.

“No, sir. He didn’t say anything to me when he left. He just left, but he did have a bag with him.”

The officer scowled and appeared to be thinking. Then he met her eyes again. “Should he come home would you please notify us immediately, Ma’am, without his knowledge?”

Margaret’s eyes widened in shock. “Whatever is going on?” she asked with her hand, fingers splayed, on her throat.

“I have a warrant for his arrest.”

<><><><> 

He felt like he was floating as he lay in front of the fire. Everyone finally went to bed, Christine and Skip in the bedroom, Scott stretched out on the floor across the room, and Holly lay wrapped within his embrace. Her breath,   a seductive caress on his neck; he wanted nothing more than to roll her under him and have his way… And her way. He probably would have woken her had Scott not been in the room.

As a distraction, his thoughts drifted to Christine Maitland and her son. What would be the next step for them now? He guessed it would depend on what Jarrod Barkley dug up on the bastard Maitland. Johnny wondered just how much Maitland knew about the man that came into the camp the night before last with Maitland’s paper in his pocket, reasonably sure he’d been sent by the shipping magnate.

Till we know more a what’s happenin’ me an’ Scott’ll hafta set up a watch. That fella didn’t seem ta have much trouble followin’ the trail. Guess we should expect ta see someone real soon. Johnny wondered how many bounty hunters Maitland had hired. He could hear the night sounds; there was no disturbance now, so he closed his eyes and breathed in the sweet, heady scent of the lovely woman in his arms. Damn, wish Scott wasn’t here right now…

Morning came slowly, the dark changed into day with bright pinks that changed into creamy yellow, but there was rain on the horizon. Johnny had eased away from Holly’s side and quietly started a fire in the stove for coffee. Before too long, his beautiful woman joined him in the kitchen. Johnny perched on the corner of the table, foot on a chair, the other leg supporting his weight. Holly stood leaning fully against him and snuggled in his one-armed embrace.

“How do you feel this morning, querido?” she asked, peering into his deep blue eyes that never failed to quicken the beat of her heart.

He gave her his dazzling sweet smile. “If there weren’t so many people here in this cabin, I’d show ya how I felt…”

“Soon, mi amor, soon.” She kissed him lightly, and he pulled her closer, wanting more, their kisses became heated, their hearts hammering in their chests. Suddenly, the clearing of a throat interrupted the passion that threatened to sear the paint on the walls.

“Ain’t you got some chores ta do, Boston?” Johnny muttered as Holly pulled away and pushed Johnny into a chair while she started to check the bandage on his shoulder.

“As a matter of fact, brother, I do have some chores, but unfortunately they involve you, too, so when you are ready we need to go outside and look around.”

Johnny became alert. “Ya got somethin’ particular in mind?” Johnny eyed Scott with suspicion.

“Yes, brother, I do. After hearing about your visitor in camp the other night, we need to take all precautions just in case…”

Johnny nodded. “You’re readin’ my mind, Boston.”

Scott gave an exaggerated horror-filled look and shuddered dramatically. “Oh, my, that’s a scary thought!”

Holly burst out laughing while Johnny sat, staring at him.

“Funny, Scott, funny. Make yourself useful, see if the coffee’s done…” and he again pulled Holly to him.

She satisfied him with another kiss then went about taking the old bandage off the angry looking wound. It had bled more during the night and had been too swollen to stitch. With Scott’s help, they were able to pull the gash together and wrap tightly, but without the thread to keep it closed, it was all for naught.

“I will need to soak this off, Juanito,” Holly said quietly.

Johnny nodded as Scott set a large mug of coffee in front of him. “Thanks, Scott.”

“See, I am making myself useful!” Scott said and made as if to bow at the waist as he served royalty.

“Yeah, I see that, thanks. Think I’ll keep ya around.”

Re-bandaged, and now fed, Johnny lazed on the floor in front of the fire with another cup of coffee. Movement could be heard in the bedroom, and soon Christine emerged and greeted everyone. Holly started her breakfast.

“Will your son be getting up soon?” Holly asked

“I’m afraid that once he went to sleep, he slept so hard he barely moved all night!” She smiled and went to Johnny as he lay on the floor. He made to stand, and she waved him back down.

“Oh, Johnny, please, don’t get up! How do you feel this morning?” Christine asked, genuinely concerned as she watched him.

“I’m fine. The kid’s still sleepin’, huh?” Johnny asked with a grin.

Christine smiled, showing  pretty, even teeth. “Yes, he’s soundly asleep! Johnny, I want to thank you again for what you did, it was so dangerous, and I feel horrible that you were injured! But thank you! Now that I have him, I think I’ll be able to handle anything that comes along,” Christine said with tears filling her eyes, but these were happy tears, and thankful, not those of anxiety and loss.

“He’s a good boy, didn’t have no trouble with him, an’ once he knew what needed ta be done he did it an’ I never had ta say anything more. He's a fine boy. An’ I’ll tell ya somethin’ else, he’s got grit. He showed a lotta courage out there on the trail.”

Christine beamed with pride. Her wish had been confirmed, but suddenly her eyes turned very sad. “Well, it’s probably because his father never showed any interest in him. Skip was just another person in the house, and your attention on him brought out something that had always been there but never exposed before.”

Johnny wanted to shoot the bastard. “With all due respect, Christine, sounds ta me like you’re both better off without him.”

Christine nodded in agreement. “Yes, I know that now, especially when I overheard Matt and his foreman talking about getting rid of a man that worked on the docks for them. The next day a body was found floating in the harbor. I had to do something, and the hardest part of all was I couldn’t take Skip with me. A woman and a boy traveling alone would have been too easy to follow.”

“Why wouldn’t he just letcha go if he wasn’t happy with ya around?” Johnny asked.

“Because I know other things, things that… Well, the law will be after him soon, I think.” She thought of the proof she’d handed over to Jarrod Barkley and hoped that it would be enough to convict the man.

Scott approached his brother stretched out on the floor in front of the fire. The chill from outside was staved as more logs were tossed onto the blaze.

“I hate to interrupt your rest, brother, but I think we need to talk.” Scott nodded to the door.

Johnny pulled himself to his feet and struggled into his coat, knowing it was going to be cold. The valley was high in the mountains, and as late in the season as it was, the temperatures were dropping quickly. He pilfered an apple from their supplies before they left the cabin.

“Need ta check on Barranca anyway,” Johnny said as he grabbed his hat from the hook on the back of the door and the two brothers stepped out into the damp new day.

Barranca pranced as much as the rope would let him when he caught Johnny’s scent across the space that separated the small outbuilding from the house, the anticipated treat, first and foremost, on his mind. Johnny greeted his horse affectionately, offered the apple, and a good ear scratch, then he and Scott walked around the area that surrounded the cabin. Neither man talked for several minutes as each considered possibilities in the event they would need to stage a defense.

The fact that Johnny and Skip had been confronted during the night almost assured they would have visitors, and they needed to be ready.

“Now that we know for sure Maitland is sending out men to find Christine, I think we need to find a safe place to hide them. From what you said, Johnny, it's not only the Pinks that are looking for Christine and Skip. If they found you and the boy on the trail coming here, they could they pick up the trail to this cabin,” Scott suggested as Johnny thought over options. He nodded in agreement.

“There ya go again, readin’ my mind…”

Scott grinned. “Yes, and I had to wade through a lot of, ahem, interesting thoughts about a certain young woman before I found this decision in that head of yours, too!”

Johnny laughed in good humor. “Well, ya ain’t blushin’ so ya couldn’t a come ‘cross anything too bad,” Johnny said, enjoying the banter.

Scott raised his brows in a gesture of ‘well, I wouldn’t go that far!’ then he became serious again. “The cabin’s back door leads outside by a small cave in the rock, but there’s no way out, and that would be the first place they would look anyway. I did a little scouting while you were gone after the boy,” Scott stopped talking and looked at Johnny and smiled. “You sure made an impression on him!”

Johnny sighed. His heart still ached for the kid, the future was uncertain where Maitland was concerned, and especially for that woman and her son.

“Well, after we made it outta San Francisco, it was just somethin’ new. He did real good bein’ with the horse, a little saddle sore,” Johnny said with a grin, “but sleepin’ under the stars an’ jus’ bein’ outta the city, he did good. That asshole Maitland oughta be a proud papa insteada sendin’ bounty hunters after his wife an’ kid.” Johnny shook his head. If I just shoot the bastard, I’d save the state a whole lotta money an’ trouble… The thought kept bubbling to the surface in Johnny’s mind.

Johnny and Scott looked out over the valley. Small as it was, the danger would be upon them almost before they would know it was there and that fact limited their options. Johnny tried to forget about the lengths Maitland was willing to go to in silencing his wife and focus on the issue of keeping Christine and Skip safe. However, the cold and ugly truths kept pushing their way into his brain with nauseating clarity, especially when he recalled the man with the shotgun in their camp a few nights ago. Maitland must have a lot to cover up; why else would he be so desperate to silence his wife?

“Johnny, I don’t see any way other than just keep them from getting into the cabin,” Scott said, disappointed that he could not think of any solution, that it might be their only defense. It would depend on how many men he had with him. Too many would definitely draw unwanted attention as they traveled, asking questions about a lone woman and a boy but with the lengths  he’d already resorted to, the man would not hesitate to hire an army if he felt he needed it.

“Did Murdoch build this cabin?” Johnny asked. Scott shrugged not understanding where Johnny was going with the question. “It looks kinda old for him ta have built it.”

“I have no idea, why do you ask?” Scott questioned.

Johnny thought a minute then turned to his brother. “If someone had this place as his only home before Murdoch bought it, wouldn’t he want ta have someplace safe? Ya know, in case of trouble? Murdoch wouldn’t need a safe place, he had Lancer, but say an’ ol’ miner or mountain man sort, he’d want ta have a place for whatever he thought was valuable. Like maybe a root cellar…”

Scott looked at his brother and smiled. “Guess I’ll have to look harder when I read your mind. There are some very devious and sneaky ideas in that head of yours, brother!” Scott slapped Johnny on the back, and the two headed for the cabin.

Skip had just gotten up when Johnny and Scott came through the door.

“Johnny!” The boy ran to Johnny before he could shrug out of his coat and threw his arms around Johnny’s waist.

“Whoa, there, kid! Mornin’ ta you too!” Johnny laughed as he put his hand on Skip’s back.

Christine had never seen her son so animated and chastised him for the rudeness.

“I’m sorry, Mother; I just thought Johnny wasn’t going to be here today when I didn’t see him around!” he said as relief flooded over his surprised face.
Johnny laughed as Scott took the nonsense a bit further. “No such luck, Skip, we’re stuck with him all day!” Everyone laughed, except Johnny.

“You’d miss me if I wasn’t here an’ ya know it, Scott. Who’d ya have ta pick on?” Johnny took his coat off and hung it on the peg on the back of the door. Scott mirrored his actions, then both men set about checking the cabin over for a hatch that led to a possible hiding place. Holly, Christine, and Skip watched as the two brothers scoured the cabin, Scott in the bedroom and Johnny at the far corner of the main room.

Fifteen minutes into the search, Johnny moved an Indian rug that lay at an angle under a large chair in the corner. He smiled to himself as he found a knot in the wood and flipped it out of the floorboard with his knife. On the other end of the knot was a rope. He pulled the rope and the cover to the opening levered up.
 
“Holly, bring me a lamp, would ya, querida?” Johnny asked with a smile. Holly lit the lamp and came to Johnny’s side. “Hey, Scott…” Johnny called as Scott entered the main room, not seeing his brother immediately, then knelt beside him. Leaning down, Johnny let the light from the lantern shine into the opening.

“I’ll go. Johnny. I don’t think you should be moving that shoulder for a while.” Scott took the lantern and went down the ladder into the cellar.

The room had not been used in years. Chances were that Murdoch Lancer wasn’t aware of the room when he purchased this property. It smelled musty, and it was dirty, but it was an excellent hiding place. Scott turned in a complete circle taking in old and filthy provisions. Canned goods, too old now to use, their contents discolored with age, sat with a thick covering of dust and spider’s webs. Discarded burlap bags were piled on a broken chair, and stubbs of candles stashed in a wooden cigar box sat on the floor in the corner with a supply of wicks on top, littered the room. Another Indian blanket hung on the wall.

Johnny struggled down the ladder to stand by his brother’s side.

Scott looked at him with a smile. “You couldn’t stand it, could you?” Scott needled, not surprised to see his brother next to him in the small room.

“Nope.” Taking in their surroundings, Johnny went to the Indian rug on the wall and wondered at the reason it would be there, unless…

He reached out and pulled the blanket aside to reveal a tunnel, the entrance covered with spider webs.

“Hey Scott, look at this… Gimme that lantern.” Scott handed his brother the lamp, and the two of them made their way down the claustrophobic tunnel as it turned, winding its way underground and filled with cobwebs. They found themselves trying to not think about the possible inhabitants of those webs. Johnny stopped and raised the light to illuminate the timbers holding up the mountain. They were expertly fitted and buried into the rock.

“Whoever built this tunnel knew what the hell he was doin’, I‘ll give him that!” Johnny exclaimed as he inspected the handiwork. Scott admired the workmanship with appreciation, thankful now for the insight. The place was sturdy, and they would be safe.

“When we get back to Lancer remind me to ask Murdock about who owned this place before he bought it. I think there’s a story here,” Johnny said as they continued their exploration further down the tunnel.

Suddenly Johnny stopped as Scott barreled into his back.

“Why did you st…” Scott cut off the words as Johnny held the lantern high and cast the light a few feet down the tunnel. There, covered with the remnants of tattered clothing no better than rags, lay the skeletal remains of a man. The jawbones gaped open in an eternal gruesome laugh, or scream, empty eye sockets staring at the roof of the tunnel. The left arm bent at the elbow as long bony fingers gripped the shaft of a broken arrow that had pierced his chest. Clutched in his other hand was a small leather pouch, crudely stitched together, and an old rusted shotgun was at his side.

Johnny stooped down to examine the gun, noting it as from the early 1800s. He untangled the bag from the finger bones that had gripped it tightly in death as it had in life and held it a moment. It was heavy for the size, and he guessed at the contents.

The leather was stiff and almost cracked as Johnny opened it. He spilled the contents into his palm. Gold nuggets. Johnny looked into his brother’s eyes then back at the old-timer whose last moments were spent knowing that he had struck it rich before he tragically expired. A tattered pocket of the old breeches was barely intact, and Scott reached in as his fingers closed on a small chain. He pulled it out to find a watch, the hands frozen at 11:27. He  held it close to the lantern; he saw the initials ‘JK’ etched into it, then returned the timepiece to the pocket.

“I wonder who he was?” Scott said as they stared at the remains in the tunnel.

“We better get something ta cover him up with in case we need ta use this place.” Johnny replaced the nuggets in the pouch and returned it to the man’s bony fingers. He stood, then they went further down the airless tunnel.

The passageway seemed to lead downward. Neither Johnny nor Scott had any clue as to where it would end up, but they had to be sure, so they kept going. Broken bits of tools, a kerosene lamp and a small wagon with only one wheel stood off to the side, reminders of a life long ago began to litter the way. The brothers paid close attention to the floor as they navigated their way through the mess.

How long would they follow what seemed to be an endless underground passageway? But then things started to change. The air was less stale, and Johnny swore there was daylight up ahead. He slowed their pace and around a slight curve was a pile of rocks with an opening that seemed to perch on the rubble. Both Johnny and Scott climbed up the rock pile and looked out. There were trees and brush outside that grew obscuring what there was of the small opening. They scrambled out into the light and saw they were halfway down the hillside. Johnny walked away from the small opening of the tunnel and turned to look up, pleased by what he saw.

“Scott, over here,” Johnny called as Scott trotted to him and followed Johnny’s hand as he pointed up. There sat the cabin.

They scouted around and found a small but wide cave that set Johnny’s thoughts into motion.

“Hey, Scott, what d’ya think about this? We bring all the horses down an’ tie ‘em in that cave. That way if there’s too many that come lookin’, the five of us can skedaddle down that tunnel, get the horses an’ ride out before we’re trapped in the cabin.” Johnny watched his brother and waited for his answer. They inspected the cave where Johnny suggested they move their horses and found no evidence of an occupant and both were pleased with the new arrangements.

“There’s water near and shelter… I think it’s a good idea, Johnny. But let’s take a look around, make sure there’s nothing that would give away any indication that the horses will be here.”

Taking in all their options, which weren’t many to consider, they made their decision. They went back to the tunnel entrance and found it couldn’t be seen unless you knew it was there. Covered by brush and scrub trees, it would lay forgotten and probably never be evident to anyone as long as it remained part of Lancer. This was a good plan.

Forty-five minutes later, Johnny climbed back up the ladder into the living area of the cabin. Ever alert, Holly stood with Johnny’s rifle aimed at the trap door when Johnny’s head popped through and announced their return.

“It’s just us, Holly,” he said as he struggled through the hatch in the floor. Holly realized Scott was not behind him and she sent Johnny a questioning look. As he took the rifle out of her hands, he whispered that Scott was taking care of an issue. A large piece of canvas was found in the room below, and Scott was using it to cover the body of the old miner they’d found. If they needed to use this escape route, it wouldn’t do to expose Christine and Skip to the remains.

Scott joined them in the cabin a few minutes later, and as the brothers sat at the table and discussed the plans they made, Holly, Christine, and Skip listened. Christine became horrified to hear them talking about plans so critical and indeed dangerous, wondering exactly just what had she started and was beginning to regret her actions.

“I don’t mind telling you boys, I feel … regretful… that I started all this. Johnny has already been injured and all this talk of men coming after us and making sure there is enough ammunition… I’m more scared by the minute!” She could not meet their eyes.

“Christine,” Johnny spoke with his calm, soothing tones, “how much longer could you have waited? From what we already know, Maitland is,” he halted, not wanting to say anything against the shipping magnate that would upset the boy, “involved with possible ‘shady’ schemes, an’ more folks could get hurt or worse if you hadn’t come forward. Ya did the right thing, the only thing ya could do. I know it's real uncertain now and will prob’bly get worse before it gets any better, but ya gotta know me an’ Scott’ll do whatever it takes ta keep ya safe.” He smiled, trying to calm her uncertainties.

“You both are taking this in stride. How can you remain so calm?” she asked, finally meeting their eyes. Johnny laughed and shrugged a bit.

“Well, Scott here was a soldier in the war an’ he’s a crack shot, an’ things like this is what I used ta do before I came ta Lancer. I worked a lotta range wars, so if ya gotta be stuck on a mountaintop in the middle a nowhere, we’re the two ya wanna be stuck with!” Johnny said with a laugh.

Christine could only marvel at their attitudes.

“Besides,” Scott offered, “I live with him,” motioning to his brother. “You get used to this sort of trouble if you stay around him for very long!” Both men offered their ear-to-ear grins while trying to comfort her second thoughts.

They continued to make their plans in the event the small cabin would be overrun with armed men wanting to kill them all. On the other hand, a sheltered Skip was beginning to think in terms of another grand adventure, the likes of which he never thought he would have the opportunity to experience. He had never met men like Johnny and Scott before; they were unlike any other adult he’d ever known. And he liked them.

“What do you and Scott have planned, Juanito? Holly asked, fully aware of the potential for conflict. From the things she heard of Maitland, the man would stop at nothing to get what he wanted, and she knew it could very possibly turn deadly. She needed to talk with Johnny about Skip, have Johnny let the boy know this was not a game, this was not something to be taken lightly in much the same way that Johnny had tried to dissuade other youngsters from making a name for themselves as a gunfighter.

But the horrible truth was, those young men hadn’t listened, hadn’t made that name for themselves before falling dead in the dust at Johnny’s expense, making his life the one filled with regrets, his conscience the one filled with remorse. Skip needed to know just how dangerous the situation was.

“Johnny, can I have a word with you, por favor?” Then Holly took her coat from the rack, and Johnny shrugged into his jacket and followed her outside.

He smiled down at her as they walked over to the trailhead. There he pulled her into his arms, and he scoffed at the thickness of their coats between them. “What is it, querida?” he asked softly.

Holly gave him a bit of a smile, the corners of her mouth, the mouth that he ached to kiss, turned up a bit. “It may be nothing, Johnny, but when you and Scott talk about your plans, Skip is like a boy playing an exciting game. His eyes are bright, almost feverish and anxious for it to start, a game he is anticipating, looking forward to.

“I remember you told me about the many young men, boys, that you tried to talk out of gunfighting and they wouldn’t listen, they wanted that excitement… I see that in this boy’s eyes. Talk to him, Juanito. I know that Christine is not prepared for what might happen, either. When you tell them of your plans, if it comes to that, they have to know how dangerous it could be.” Holly felt drained; she knew what the boy was thinking. She’d seen his eyes sparkle with the excitement of an adventure new and fun.

She laid her head against Johnny’s chest and felt the comfort of his arms as they came around to hold her tight, and she heard the steady beat of his heart. Johnny raised his eyes to the sky and saw the clouds darkening, filled with rain. A storm was brewing, and it wasn’t strictly due to the weather.

<><><><> 

“Johnny, I think it’s time to take the horses and hide them down below,” Scott suggested.

Johnny nodded at his brother’s remark as he lifted himself from his place in front of the fire. He hated to move, Holly sat next to him and to be honest, he was feeling the effects of the injury to his shoulder. It pulled, he could feel the wound split open again, and he groaned.

“I can get it done, Johnny. It won’t take but a half an hour. I’ll knock on the hatch then you can let me in,” he motioned to the trap door. Johnny was relieved, and Scott read the look on his face.

“Thanks, brother,” Johnny mumbled, retaking his place in front of the fire.

Scott left after taking a lantern and went out to the horses.

Johnny looked around the room then turned to Skip who sat in the corner as if waiting for the excitement to begin. “Hey, kid, why don’t you bolt the door?” Johnny said quietly.

Skip jumped up, his eyes suddenly bright as he went to the window and looked out. “Are they here?” he asked with an excited smile across his young, innocent face.

“C’mere, kid,” Johnny said with a deep sigh.

Skip crossed the room and sank down to the floor facing Johnny. Johnny saw what Holly had seen; there was anticipation, anxious anticipation radiating out of the boy’s brown eyes. This is a baby! He don’t need ta see this… Johnny thought to himself. Again he wonderedwas he ever that young?

“Kid, listen ta me. I don’t know that there will be anyone ta come after us, but if there is you gotta understand this ain’t a game. If anyone comes, they ain’t gonna be here ta talk. There’s some really bad people in this world, Skip, an’ they won’t stop ta think that what they’re doin’ is wrong. They don’t care who they hurt. They jus’ do it an’ none of it bothers their conscience mostly they cuz ain’t got one. Do ya understand what I'm sayin’?” Johnny watched the boy’s eyes, they stared, and the sparkle flickered out, now they were just wide, round brown pools.

“I… I think, so, Johnny,” Skip stammered.

“Good boy, this ain’t a game, jus’ remember that. This is serious.” He lightly patted the boy’s shoulder. “Why don’t ya throw another log on this fire, it’s burnin’ down fast— an’ bolt the door.”

Skip scrambled to do as Johnny asked. He risked a glance at Christine, and she thanked him with her eyes.

Scott returned having secured the horses and made his way back through the tunnel. When he was settled at the table with a cup of hot coffee in his cold hands, the five of them went over the plans. At the first sign of trouble Holly, Christine and Skip were to get down into the cellar where a lantern, matches, and a bag of provisions had been stored. They would wait there until Johnny and Scott would join them and then they would all hurry as fast as the uneven path would allow to the opening that would take them to the horses and hopefully make a successful escape.

They would try for Lancer, but it was many miles away, almost a whole day’s travel. Johnny honestly didn’t think they would make it that far if Maitland had many men with him, but then if he were going to do something as horrific as attempt to kill his wife and son, he wouldn’t want anyone with him that might talk. It was a toss-up, so they had to be prepared for whichever way it played out. Johnny turned to Skip and leveled a serious stare at the kid. He spoke softly but had the boy’s undivided attention.

“Skip, I know ya think you’re old enough ta handle whatever happens but if we tell ya ta do somethin’ ya do it. No backtalk, no arguin’. Is that clear?”

Skip, obviously filled with disappointment, answered as if he were talking with his father.

“Yes, sir,” and lowered his head in marked disappointment.

Well, better the kid’s pissed at me than getting’ himself or someone else killed… Johnny thought as he watched the boy.

By mid-afternoon, the rain let loose, drenching the little valley and overflowing the banks of the stream. It drummed on the shake roof of the cabin with a deafening roar. Used to nights spent in various line shacks, Johnny and Scott paid no mind to the sounds, but Christine and Skip were scared, more than scared. Skip had never been through anything like this before. The thick walls on the mansion in the city sheltered the noise, and pounding torrents could not be heard, but a line shack or this cabin was something else altogether.

Johnny wondered about Christine. She was putting on a brave front for the boy, he knew, then his eyes strayed to Holly, and she sat with a sweet smile, and he knew what she was thinking. Their cherished time at the cabin on the lake northwest of Salinas held precious and intimate memories, cold and rain outside, warm and love inside, and she felt his eyes on her; she winked and knew his thoughts mirrored hers. Oh, what he wouldn’t give to take her in his arms this second and… Cut it out, Madrid! he told himself and clamped down his emotions with an iron will. Christine and her son were already scared, no need to shock them, too! 

Johnny and Scott took turns casually watching out the window. Having no idea what was going on, if Maitland or his men were near, or perhaps the law hadn’t filed charges yet, they had to stay vigilant, prepared for anything. Hell, Maitland could be sitting in jail right now, and here they were waiting… But the tickle was there, in the back of Johnny’s mind, a whisper that hinted at the thought that something was about to happen. He’d had it before, had trusted it before … And it had saved his life.

Scott studied his brother as he slumped against the wall and peered out into the late afternoon gloom. Scott knew Johnny was hurting, his shoulder had not been stitched due to the swelling and it was causing much pain although Johnny refused to acknowledge it. Madrid was set firmly in place.

Little did Christine know that the best men possible were on the job, injured or not, fighting for her and her son. But before this was over, she would know that fact. Christine Maitland would know all about the two courageous men who were going to risk their lives for her and her son.

“Johnny, I’ll take over. Why don’t you sit down and have Holly check out the shoulder?” He said it loud enough for Holly to hear and she immediately pulled out a chair for Johnny at the table. He, of course, tried to shrug it off.

“I’m fine,” he said in an effort to brush the attention away. Johnny resisted, but Holly overrode his attempt, firmly took his arm and gently pushed him to the table having attacked the toggles on his shirt before he even got a chance to sit.

Scott took his rifle and resumed the watch, noting that the rain had tapered off considerably. A fog had settled around the valley lending an eerie feel, Scott thought, like something from an Edgar Allen Poe story.

Holly worried over Johnny’s injury. Had it been stitched when he received it he wouldn’t be feeling so bad; the pain would have subsided by now but having traveled by horseback for several days with his only help that of a ten-year-old boy, it was starting to become more of an issue. She cleaned what she could and slathered a heavy coat of a noxious smelling salve on it that burned like fire Johnny thought, then she rewrapped it tightly. Christine had paled during the procedure, had not realized the extent of the damage but said nothing. Holly subtly felt his forehead and found heat building like she knew there would be.

He raised his eyes to hers and smiled. “I’m fine, gracias, querida.”

She returned his smile but knew he did not feel fine. Holly turned to the stove, threw a few pieces of wood into it, and started the coffee.

“I will start dinner,” she said as she washed her hands and began the task as much by habit as concentrated effort. Christine rose to help her.

“What does… Gracias que… queri…” Skip struggled to get the words out.

Johnny smiled. “That’s ‘thank you, sweetheart’ in Spanish.”

Skip’s eyes widened. “Are you Spanish?” he looked between Holly and Johnny and Johnny gave him a wide grin.

“No, not Spanish, Holly is Mexican an’ I‘m half Mexican, half white,” Johnny patiently explained.

Skip turned his attention to Scott. “Are you half Mexican, Scott?” Skip asked in innocent curiosity.

Christine was mortified. “Skip! That’s not something…”

“It’s alright, Christine, how’s he gonna know if he don’t ask?” Johnny said with his smile.

“To answer your question, Skip, no, I am not. Johnny and I have the same father. My mother died when I was born, and our father remarried a Mexican woman, then Johnny was born,” Scott patiently explained.

“Oh, I wish I had a brother…” Skip muttered.

Scott started to chuckle, and he leveled Johnny with a direct stare in his eyes, then threw his head back and burst into laughter. “You may want to rethink that Skip. Little brothers can be very irritating!” Scott proclaimed as he turned his eyes to Johnny again.

“Hey, Boston, what would ya do without me? You’d be lonesome, an’ ya know it. You’d be the one that Murdoch yells at all the time if I wasn’t around!”

Skip laughed at the banter, and he hung on every word, eating up the silliness as if starved for it. He’d never seen grown men act this way and was enjoying himself immensely.
“Who is Murdoch?” he asked, feeling a need to know everything about these two men, men that actually talked with him instead of ‘over’ him.

“He’s our ol’ ma… father,” Johnny said, not wanting to appear disrespectful in front of the kid.

The levity between Johnny and Scott bounced off the walls effectively dispelling the anxiety that Christine and Skip were beginning to show. The two men knew if something were to happen, it would be soon. If Maitland was not in jail yet, he would be coming for them. Both the Lancer brothers knew how money could loosen tongues and given the right person, the help it could buy.

Johnny looked at ease, Scott thought; his experience as a gunfighter gave him the ability to appear relaxed, calm, and in control. Scott could feel it in his belly. He’d felt like that during the war, knowing that a battle was looming and not knowing if this was ‘the day’ or not. Trying his best to absorb the aura that Johnny so casually emanated, Scott kept the banter going, putting the other three at ease. Holly, though, realized the attempts made by the boys but said nothing, often throwing in a comment of her own with hilarious results.

“Holly, sometime you and I are going to have to have a nice long talk. There is so much I need to know about my brother!” Scott said as he chuckled over a ridiculous story about Johnny’s early days that had him blushing a bit. Keeping his rifle at the ready and eyes out the window, Scott seemed to be enjoying the stories at Johnny’s expense.

The fog hung in the air. It was thick and concealed movement beyond one hundred feet. The rain was down to a drizzle, icy cold and could chill one to the bone, making him miserable in minutes. The hot coffee tasted good, it warmed Johnny from the inside out. Dios, what he wouldn’t give to flop in a bed, hold Holly tight in his arms, make sweet passionate love and sleep for a whole day! When this is over… The thought so vivid, so heavenly, he could almost feel it…

“Hey! You in the cabin! Send out the woman and the boy and no one will get hurt!”
Johnny and Scott came to full attention, each covering a window on either side of the door.

“Ya see anything, Scott?” Johnny asked as he strained to peer through the gloom.

“Not a thing, Johnny,” Scott answered.

Holly quickly blew out the lantern and hurried to the trap door to pull it open. She then went to the back door and checked to make sure it was secure before she returned to the main room.

“I am not going to say this again, last chance, send out the woman and the boy!” the disembodied voice ordered. Johnny turned to the women and Skip.
“Y’all get ready ta get down inta that cellar…” his tones incredibly soft and casual as if he had asked them to pass the salt when a bullet splintered the window frame next to Scott’s head.

“Ya see where that shot came from, Boston?” Johnny asked as he still had not seen any movement.

“I have a pretty good idea, straight out from the porch about twenty feet and a few feet to the right.”

The second shot hit the window that Johnny defended. “Time for you three ta get below…” Johnny said, the order not open for further discussion, as his eyes never left the fog-covered yard. He could hear the rustle of clothing as they went across the room. Then the shots peppered the front of the cabin. Scott risked a look back and saw Skip standing in the middle of the room in a trance-like state, pale and rooted to the spot as if frozen.

“Skip! Get down!” Scott yelled at the boy, alarmed that he still hadn’t moved. Scott left the window to tackle the boy to the floor, but the impact of the bullet that tore through the muscle in his upper arm and propelled him along, as the two landed in a tangled heap.

“Scott!” Johnny’s frantic yell alerted the women as he kept up his firing. “Holly! Check on Scott! He’s hit!”
Holly crawled across the floor that separated them. Keeping low, she hustled Skip to the trap door and sharply ordered for him to go down the ladder.

She crawled to Scott’s side as he struggled to sit up. Holly quickly assessed his condition. “Scott, stay still!” She saw with relief that the bullet had passed through leaving a sizable exit wound, but she grabbed a cloth set aside for this purpose and tied it tightly around his arm, quickly stemming the flow of precious life-giving blood.

Johnny continued to fire his rifle and heard a rewarding scream as an opponent had been hit. He fired blindly, only able to guess where the shots were coming from behind the blanket of fog. Vaguely he heard Scott say he was alright and he went back to his post at the window, then began to fire the rifle.

“Holly! Geddown inta the cellar!” Johnny yelled, and she scrambled down the ladder to join Christine and Skip. He was as sure as he could be that they were safe. Holly had taken a rifle, and he was confident that she would use it if necessary.

The noise was surprisingly low, Holly thought, as she settled in the corner. Christine held Skip as he sobbed into her shoulder.

“I got him killed, Mother! Scott’s…”

Holly put her hands on Skip’s back. “He’s alright, Skip, the bullet went through Scott’s arm, he’s alright!” she murmured.

Skip turned to her with large watery eyes and surprise glowing on his reddened face.

“He’s… he’s alright?” the shock evident on his face. “I was so scared; I couldn’t move!”

“I know, querido! But Scott will be fine!” she consoled him as best she could. Holly looked into Christine’s questioning face and smiled, nodding her head affirmative.

<><><><> 

“Scott, I think there ain’t too many out there now. I’ll keep firin’ an’ ya get down inta the cellar. GO!” Johnny yelled, not giving Scott any chance to argue.

Scott took a few more shots out the broken window then, moved hunched over and keeping low as he headed to the trap door.

Johnny watched, keen eyes focused on the gloom, then waited several minutes and hoped to get another chance to increase their odds. But nothing moved. It was quiet, too quiet; Johnny knew they were still out there. He chanced a glance back at Scott in time to see the blond head disappear from sight down the ladder and decided it was now time to join them.

Leaving his post, he was halfway across the room when the door crashed open, splintering the wood of the door frame sounding like an explosion in the small cabin, and a body rolled across the floor. Johnny pulled his Colt and fired, and the man collapsed in a heap. He walked to the body and rolled it face up with his boot, and suddenly he was hit, his body pounded to the floor with the force of a maddened bull. His head slammed onto the wooden boards, sending a shower of stars through his brain. He felt a blow to the side of his jaw and hands closed around his neck. Johnny brought up his arms, sudden energy coursing through him in a rush, flooding him with strength. It flowed wildly through his system, and he broke the death grip on his throat. He bucked his attacker off his belly, and the man rolled.

Matthew Maitland was insane; on the brink of madness, his crazed mind lost in frenzied, uncontrolled violence. He spotted blood on the shirt of the man he had just attacked and went for the weakness, landing a powerful kick to Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny felt the wound burst open, and he groaned loudly, painfully as the kick propelled him over. He reached for his pistol, but it was not in the holster; he’d dropped it when Maitland had attacked him.

With his head threatening to blow off his shoulders, Johnny knew his best option was the knife in his boot, but he was too slow; the man was on him again, hands going once more for Johnny’s throat. They latched onto him with a death grip, the light began to fade. Black dots danced in front of his eyes, and he thought Maitland was going to win.

With one last effort dragged up from years of fighting for his life, Johnny twisted his body, using the last of his strength and bucked up, sending the big man off to the side. Maitland rolled across the floor, his brain churning, crazed and deranged. He quickly stood only to be attacked with a pair of booted feet to his chest.

Johnny regained his balance and launched himself, feet first into the massive bulk, knocking him backward, but knew it was a mistake as Maitland went down hard, half falling into the opening of the cellar. Johnny fell to the floor but lunged forward to grasp the man’s arm and roughly yanked him away before he descended below.

Scott heard the fight explode in the room above and prompted the women and Skip down the tunnel. “Holly, take the lamp and go about one hundred feet down then stop, but stay within earshot. Wait for us there, then we can go the rest of the way to the outside together and get to the horses! GO!” Scott followed them for a few feet, just enough to make sure they could navigate the tunnel. Hurry, need to help Johnny!

Scott and his charges had just left the cellar and escaped into the tunnel when Maitland landed in the hatch opening, very near to falling down the ladder and into the room below. He seemed to be plucked away and dragged back into the cabin above by an unseen hand.

Johnny hauled Maitland to his feet. The man towered over him but not for long. His sudden punch to Maitland’s stomach, followed by one to the jaw  propelled the man away from the hatch back across the room. But the maddened bull charged again and tackled Johnny to the floor.

A freight train. He felt like he’d been hit by a freight train. Another shower of stars ignited, and after a blow to the side of his head, Johnny knew he would be dead if he didn’t do something soon.

C’mon, Madrid! FIGHT! This bastard can’t win… he don’t deserve that boy! Don’t. Let. Him. Win!  
It was white-hot rage that flooded Johnny’s body; strength he didn’t know he possessed filled him and, once again, he shoved Maitland off to the side. A feral growl filled the cabin from the insane Maitland. He came to his feet and charged, eyes wild, unfocused, and wanting blood.

Johnny!  Scott knew he would have to hurry, but he needed to see the three safely on their way. The ruckus in the room above sounded like he’d better not waste a second in getting up there. He made his way to the ladder and started up.

It was just enough time for Johnny to grab the wicked six-inch long blade from his boot as Maitland made a dive for him once more. He held the razor-sharp thin blade steady in his hand, fingers around the handle in a death grip just as Maitland made contact and buried the knife to the hilt in Maitland’s chest. Blood from the wound flooded out over the handle and Johnny as Maitland shuddered his last breath, his eyes lost their ability to focus and went dim, unseeing and finally flickered out.

The corpse fell onto Johnny’s chest, and he rolled it off him onto the floor. He lay for several moments panting, desperately trying to slow his breathing. He closed his eyes, wanting nothing more than to drift into a deep sleep, to shut out the throbbing in his shoulder and pounding that assaulted his head.  

Scott climbed the ladder, cautiously looking over the top of the hatch not knowing what he would find. It was too quiet… What happened to his brother? Finding no threat, Scott exited the cellar and scanned the room. Two bodies, one with a knife buried in his chest, lay on the floor and beyond them lay Johnny. Scott rushed to his side and checked for a pulse. Relieved Johnny was still alive and breathing, he made him as comfortable as he could, then dragged Maitland and the other corpse into the bedroom and closed the door. Grabbing another lamp, he once again descended into the cellar to bring Holly, Christine, and Skip back out of the tunnel and into the cabin.

A sweet voice far away called him; he felt a cool touch on his face. Was he in Heaven? Nope, that ain’t gonna happen he thought, but the voice was persistent, and the touch continued, teasing him back as his eyes fluttered open and focused on a black diamond gaze, the beautiful face of an angel looked into his, with a face like that I could be in Heaven… And he was. Holly kept talking, asking him to breathe deep, focus on her voice. Hell, I’d follow that voice anywhere… Johnny shook his head free of the cobwebs and saw Holly clearly, leaning over him with Scott behind her. And it all came back in a rush.  

“Ya alright, Scott?” Johnny asked as he tried to push himself off the floor. Holly, beside him, held him steady as he struggled to his knees and very slowly gained his full height, swaying but at full height.

“From the looks of it, brother, I think I’m in better shape than you!” Scott said with a crooked smile.

Johnny shrugged. “They alright?” he nodded at the kitchen table where Christine sat with her son. Both Holly and Scott smiled.

“Yes, a little shaken but alright,” Scott answered with relief.

Once on his feet, Johnny regained his wits. He was tempted to pile the bodies in a heap outside and let the wild scavengers have their way but, hell, even the scavengers might be picky about it. Only consideration for Christine and Skip made the decision to leave the bodies in the back room an acceptable one.

Holly had gathered their belongings and brought them out into the main rooms of the cabin, and the bedroom door was closed. Christine was shaking; she knew what had happened. Skip was confused. Where were the bad men?

Night had settled as Holly tended to Scott and Johnny, insisting that they take it easy as she and Christine made their supper. The stew and biscuits tasted unbelievably delicious, but no one ate much; the events of the day played over and over in their minds, it dampened their appetites and exhausted them into an early bedtime. Even on the hard floor, they slept soundly.

Christine listened to them all sleep. She lay next to her son, thinking about what would happen now. She knew life without Matt was not going to be a problem, but she had no clue what was in store for them. She was determined to cooperate with the law any way she could but as far as what she would do, where would she go, she had no clue. Would she even want to stay in San Francisco? Well, one step at a time… That’s all I can do. She looked over at Skip and smiled. As long as she had her son, they would be alright.

<><><><> 

Late in the afternoon, a bedraggled group of riders rode under the Lancer arch. Hands ran to take the horses, Jelly, the first to reach them, noted the tired and drawn faces. He ordered one of the hands to ride to town for Doc Jenkins. Murdoch heard the commotion and came out of the hacienda, surprise, shock, and worry streaked across his features. Immediately, Murdoch noticed the boy. When had he arrived? he wondered but suddenly knew… Johnny. Johnny had rescued the boy…

“What happened?” he demanded as his boys came near to falling out of their saddles. As usual, Holly took up the explanations as she went to Johnny’s side and lent him her support.

“Help me, please, Murdoch, take Scott,” she asked with politeness, yet it brooked no room for other comments. Teresa took charge of Christine and Skip.

<><><><> 

“Well, see what I told you? It was true…” Doc turned to Holly when he took his first look at Johnny lying on the bed. Holly looked puzzled. Doc smiled. “He can’t keep out of trouble…” Doc had tended Scott’s arm finding the wound not too severe, mainly blood loss but rest for a week then light chores for a while and he would be fine. Holly had assisted him with both boys, knowing they were stubborn and prone to be difficult, but Holly had her ways of subduing their obstinate tendencies. They both, however, took advantage the first day and slept through the night and into the next morning.

<><><><> 

The pounding on the front door disturbed the tranquil setting on the patio. Teresa answered the door to greet Val as he stood with a huge silly grin from ear to ear.

“Hello, Sheriff! Is this a social or business call?” she asked, returning the smile with one of her own. Val followed her through the hacienda and out onto the patio.

“A little of both, Miss T’resa. How’re them brothers doin’?”

“Oh, they’re better. They’re trying to stay out of trouble, but you know how they are, especially Johnny!”

“Yes, Ma’am, I know that!” Val joked along with her.

The scene on the patio was one of relaxation. The sheriff observed them lounging about, not at all resembling that of a working ranch hand, and Val wondered if perhaps he hadn’t wandered onto the wrong place… This was Lancer, wasn’t it?

Murdoch sat drinking lemonade talking with Christine Maitland, Scott sat, fully dressed, looking as if he were about to attend some function, arm secured in a sling. Johnny and Holly sat on the swing that hung from the tree, Holly looking fresh as wildflowers and Johnny slouched beside her, shirt untucked and only half-buttoned, his right arm around her shoulders. Val stood and looked at them all

“Wouldn’t know this was a workin’ ranch lookin’ at y’all,” Val quipped.

Murdoch rose from his chair to shake his hand. “Val, it’s good to see you! What brings you out here today?”

Val smiled as he took off his hat. Murdoch gestured to an empty chair and offered him a glass of lemonade.

Val took the drink and plopped in the seat. “Got some news I thought Mrs. Maitland would like ta hear.” He turned to her and spoke.
 
“Jarrod Barkley will be here in the mornin’ to accompany you and the boy back to San Francisco. Since ya already identified the body, it’s been sent back, but things are startin’ ta move along. There won’t be a court case, but ya may need ta be consulted ‘bout any names or business partners or such, but Jarrod’ll be there ta help ya get through it all. There might be a reward, too, cuz the authorities up there knew there was some illegal shenanigans goin’ on, just had a hard time provin’ it.”

“Yes, he alluded to the fact there was someone high up either in the law enforcement or with the attorneys keeping Maitland informed, so he was always a step ahead of the law,” Scott said as they all contemplated the length the man went through to keep his criminal and corrupt activities functioning. Many an honest man had lost everything, including some lives at the ruthless and treacherous hands of Matthew Maitland.

“Oh, yeah, Mrs. Maitland, do ya know a Hannah Burke?” Val asked.

Christine’s head jerked up, and she stared at Val, suddenly worried.

“Yes, why do you ask?”

Val smiled as he talked. “Well, Ma’am, it seems she’s gonna be alright!” Val spoke as if he was telling her some wonderful and anticipated news.

Christine looked confused. “Why? What has happened to Hannah?” she asked with concerned, wide eyes.

Val cleared his throat that had suddenly gone dry. “Oh, ah, well… It, ah, it seems that Mr. Maitland worked her over pretty bad ta try an’ find out where you’d gone. He left her for dead but… she wasn’t. When she came to, she was able ta tell the law what had happened an’ said that Maitland did that ta her.”

Christine started to cry; she buried her face in her hands and sobbed. Holly immediately left Johnny’s side and went to her, offering her what comfort she could. Holly helped her into the cool of the hacienda and away from the others.

“That son-of-a-bitch!” Johnny spat.

Murdoch raised his eyes to his younger son. “Johnny, did you know her?” Murdoch was equally appalled but confused at Johnny’s reaction.

“Well, not really, but she helped me ta get Skip outta the house when I went after him. She’s a good girl, didn’t deserve that but I‘m glad she was able ta identify him.”

Murdoch had not heard the whole story in detail, but when everything died down, he was definitely going to have a talk with his two sons.

A commotion sounded around the corner as Jelly and Skip joined them under the large orange tree. Skip spotted Johnny out of bed, dressed, and decided it was now or never.

“Johnny, you promised to let me ride the horse all by myself! Can we do it now? Please?”
 
Johnny smiled, not really feeling up to it, but he heaved himself to his feet. “Sure, kid, c’mon. Maybe I‘ll even letcha ride Barranca.”

Skip’s eyes rounded as big as saucers. “Really? I can ride your horse? You won’t make him buck me off, will you?”

Johnny laughed. “No, kid, I ain’t gonna let him buck ya off.” Johnny, with his hand on Skip’s shoulder, walked with him around the house. Those on the patio listened as questions erupted from Skip in rapid-fire, asking Johnny one thing or another regarding horses, Barranca, in particular. Riding, training, and asking for help to teach a horse to do tricks bubbled out as Skip’s voice faded away. Murdoch and Scott laughed, thinking whether Johnny liked it or not, there was a severe case of hero-worship that both thought would last quite a while.

<><><><> 

Murdoch let things settle down, and two nights later, he found the opportunity to ask exactly what had happened. As he listened to their story, he was, once again, reminded of the remarkable young people they had turned out to be. They each helped fill in any missing pieces, and Murdoch marveled at them all. Scott, Johnny, and Holly each told their part in assisting Christine Maitland to escape her abusive husband and their help in Christine coming to terms with what had been and what was to be.

Holly was critically instrumental in keeping Christine focused and taking a balanced perspective. Again, Murdoch watched the three of them, and he was proud of them all, and even though Holly was not of their blood or legal in name, he was proud to claim her as Lancer.

“Ah, Murdoch? We got a question for you now,” Johnny said when they had finished with their tale. Murdoch raised his brows.

“Yes, Johnny, what is it?”

“Who’d ya buy that property from? The property that cabin is on an’ was the cabin on it already or did ya build it yourself?”

Murdoch was puzzled. Why do they want to know about that? It was years ago! he thought. He went to his desk and paged through a file looking at papers and discarded others when he finally found what he was looking for. He opened an envelope that had ‘Deed’ engraved across the top and pulled out the transaction.

“A Mrs. Justin Keller. Her husband went into the mountains hunting and never returned, and that was ten years before I bought the place. She knew that I had wanted the property and they had a place in town, but he used the cabin for hunting, so we struck a deal, and I’ve had it for thirteen years. Why do you ask?”

Johnny took a deep breath and sighed. “Well, we kinda found a body in a tunnel under the cabin. It was nuthin’ more’n bare bones, but there was a watch in the pocket with ‘JK’ engraved on it. The broken shaft of an arrow was still stuck in him. Couldn’t tell which nation it belonged to, though. Mrs. Keller still around? We oughta let her know…”

Murdoch looked sad. “No, she passed away about eight years now. There were no children either, no living relatives.”

“She buried in Green River?” Johnny asked.

Murdock thought a moment. “No, I seem to remember that she went back East to live.”

“Guess me an’ Scott’ll hafta bury him at the cabin.”

<><><><> 

Johnny and Holly decided to make the last few days count. Traveling to the north line shack, they would spend their time alone, away from the family. And it couldn’t have worked out better for them.

The moonlight sparkled, making her eyes tease him with their lusty promise. They only had two nights together before Holly would have to leave for Salinas. There was a lot of time to make up for, and they used every second to their advantage. Every look, caress, kiss, and thrust made up for lost time; their passion burned, searing and hot, but sweet and tender. They didn’t seem to get enough of the other and knew it would be months before their next tryst, so they didn’t waste any precious minutes, they were experts at filling their moments and enjoyed their time together to the fullest.

<><><><> 

Dear Murdoch, Scott, Johnny, and Holly,

There are no words to convey my gratitude for everything that you have done for us. Both Skip and I are alive because of your kindness, bravery, and efforts. That is not something that I take lightly, and you all will be in my heart forever. Now, whenever I see Skip, I think of the risks you all took to see us safe, and I know that he will be spared the anguish of having a father that did not want him around. That is a tremendous relief, and knowing we won’t have to deal with it ever again is, without a doubt, a huge blessing.

Mr. Barkley has guided me through the court proceedings and helped to make the ordeal much easier for me to navigate. The Maitland Shipping Company is no more, and I can only hope and pray that the associates that were tied to it are brought to justice and will pay for their crimes. I am cooperating with the law and have turned over all ledgers and company documents in hopes of putting this behind us, and getting on with a normal, and healthy life.

My sweet Hannah has completely recovered and joined us as we will be moving to Sacramento to be near my sister. That is the least I can do for her as she very nearly died at the hands of Matt and it gives me joy as she is such a blessing to us and she loves Skip like a brother.

I sincerely hope that you both, Scott and Johnny, are recovering from your injuries you suffered as a result of your selfless acts in protecting my son and myself. It is difficult knowing you were hurt trying to right many, many wrongs, but with your strength and wit, we all made it through the ordeal alive.

And finally, Holly, I would like to say a special thanks to you for your support, the strength you gave me, the courage to face what was to come and mostly for your kind friendship. Without you, I do not think that I would have made it through. Every time I would start to crumble, you were there to pull me back on my feet like a precious sister. You wouldn’t let me fall and give up as it would have been so easy to do so and I love you for it.

I must go now, but I wanted to write this letter and let you know we are doing well and are looking forward to a new life in Sacramento. If ever you are up this way please, please, look us up. You are all welcome in my house.

Very sincerely yours,
Christine and Skip Maitland

P.S. Johnny, Skip wanted me to ask if you would help him train a horse when he gets one!

They listened as Murdoch read the letter and smiled knowing that Christine and Skip would be taken care of, their troubles nearing an end and about to begin a new life.

<><><><> 

It was a beautiful spot, mountains all around, cool green forests and crystal clear water. The only sounds were the hawks calling as they circled on the thermals in the cloudless skies, and woodland chatters and chips of squirrels and small birds annoyed with the two men that had interrupted their peace.

The grave was dug, Johnny and Scott Lancer lowered the canvas wrapped remains of Justin Keller into the hole along with his watch and small leather pouch of gold nuggets. It took only minutes to fill Keller’s eternal resting place, and when they completed the task, they stood in silence, each lost in his own thoughts, absorbing the serenity from the peacefulness of the small valley. They brought a wooden cross that Jelly had made at Lancer with ‘Justin Keller’ burned into the wood. It stood as a reminder of the man who had been there first and who had died probably defending his mountain home and his gold.

Johnny and Scott placed their hats on their heads and gathered their shovels. The walk back to the cabin was quiet until Johnny spoke.

“Well, Boston, I want cha ta get all a that work done while I‘m gone.” His dazzling smile across his face growing wider with Scott’s puzzling look.

“Gone? Gone where?” Scott grumped as he looked suspiciously at his little brother.

“Well, I gotta take that horse back ta Jason Mackenzie before he starts thinkin’ I ain’t gonna bring it back and sends the sheriff after me for stealin’ his horse.”

Scott nodded, alright with the announcement until Johnny added, “Then long as I‘m that far north I‘ll stop by Salinas, ya know, just ta say hello…”

Scott did not think that was humorous at all. Johnny’s laughter could be heard all the way back to the cabin, reverberating through the small valley as Scott chased him up onto the porch and in the front door.

 

 

~end~

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