The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Rings Around The Moon

Thanks to Cat for the beta

The sound of gunfire rang through the chilly afternoon, disrupting what had been a peaceful autumn day. Pulling Barranca to a skidding halt, Johnny quickly reined him to the left and up the hill while keeping in the cover of the tree line. Below on the road were five men, one Johnny recognized as Gil Martin, a neighbor, a good, hardworking man with three daughters to raise and a sizable ranch to run.

The five men were in a heated exchange of words; suddenly, it turned physical as one of the strangers reached out to violently shove Gil, making him lose his balance, stumble and sprawl on the ground. The sight below raised the hair on the back of Johnny’s neck, and the feeling of dread punched him in the belly. He knew this was trouble; could he get there in time?

He needed to do something and quick, but before he could shoulder his rifle, another shot rang out, and Johnny watched in horror as Gil Martin fell in a heap on the dusty road. The four men gathered around the body, going through his pockets and saddlebags. Johnny snugged the rifle and took aim, firing into the ground just a foot from they stood.

“Hold it! Don’t move!” His cold words rang out, startling the men.

They all jumped to their feet and grabbed their guns.

“I said, don’t move! Ain’t gonna tell ya again!” Johnny warned, coming down off the hill toward them, with Barranca quickly closing the gap.

“Well, boy, there’s four of us, just how’re you gonna manage all four…”

“Shut up! Throw down your guns, last chance…”

Guns were thrown in the dirt when, from behind two of the outlaws, a third man fired a shot into the ground inches from Barranca’s hooves that made him dance out of control, leaving Johnny vulnerable and the outlaws scrambling for their weapons and mounts. The rifle dropped out of his hands, and he made a grab for his Colt, taking aim as he fought for command of his horse, Johnny winged one outlaw in his leg just as a bullet tore its way through the flesh in his left shoulder, knocking him from the saddle. He landed hard, hitting the ground flat on his back. The outlaws scattered except the boy with the wounded leg. The three were over the hill before he got to his feet.

Holding his Colt aimed between the eyes of his prisoner, Johnny quickly checked Gil and, with one look, knew the man was dead. Turning cold eyes to the bandit, Johnny pushed him over from his seated position to make him lie belly down in the road, then he tied the man’s hands behind his back. Knowing he had only minutes before the numbness of the wound wore off, Johnny holstered his pistol, then struggled to load Martin’s body on his horse as the pain awoke from the strain and cold sweat streaked down his face. He drew the Colt and transferred it to his left hand, the weight of it heavy as he fought to hold it steady, then yanked the prisoner to his feet.

“What’s your name?” Johnny asked, his voice cold and deadly. When the young man didn’t answer, Johnny grabbed his hair, viciously pulling his head back.

“I ain’t gonna ask ya again, pendejo!” he hissed in the outlaw’s ear.

“Ahhhhh! Name’s Joey Talbot. Leggo a me! Hey! Ya gotta help me! Ya shot me!”

With his hand still tangled in Joey’s hair, Johnny steered him to his horse and, with a not so gentle boost, shoved him into the saddle.

Hurry up, Madrid, your time’s runnin’ out… The haze in his head was beginning to build, and he could feel the warmth spreading out across his shirt.

“Hey! I can’t ride like this! I’ll get killed!” Joey complained, motioning to his hands tied behind him.

“Then ya better stay in the saddle… An’ don’t forget, I got a Colt aimed at your head,” Johnny muttered as the tragic reality of what had just happened slammed into his brain. He took his rope from his saddle and looped it over the Joey’s mount’s head, slipped off the bridle, and wrapped the end of the line around his saddle horn. The escalating pain in his shoulder made it difficult to concentrate, but he did his best to push it aside and took a deep breath. He stumbled to Barranca and dragged himself into the saddle. With thoughts scrambling in his head, knowing their friend and neighbor was dead, he felt a profound sadness for the Martin girls drop over him, flooding his body as if cold water washed through his veins. Suddenly dizzy, he leaned over the saddle horn in an effort to pull himself together, then straightened and with Joey’s and Gil’s horses in tow, rode into Green River.

The ride took its toll, but Johnny wouldn’t give in to his discomfort, forcing what he could away, out of his mind. He blamed himself for Gil getting killed. If he’d only acted sooner! That thought kept going through his head; as soon as it finished, it started all over again, and now the three Martin girls were alone because I didn’t do somethin’ soonerSon-of-a-bitch!

The hour it took to get into town was one of the longest hours of his life. He’d threatened Joey with bodily harm if he didn’t shut his mouth; it had been constant, nonstop whining, and Johnny, himself, was in no shape to be riding with the added strain of leading two horses, one carrying an outlaw and the other the body of a friend they had all held in high regard. The sight of Green River was a relief, but then the faces of the young ladies he would face later swirled in front of him, and he felt a crushing weight heaped upon his shoulders.

<><><><> 

Val Crawford, sheriff of the dusty town, cracked his eyes open from an afternoon siesta and shook the cobwebs from his head. He filled his coffee cup and took a swallow. Even he grimaced at the acid taste. No wonder Johnny hates my coffee… And his thoughts turned to his amigo of many years when he heard a commotion outside. Setting his cup on the cluttered desk, he stepped out onto the boardwalk. What in hell…?

Riding down the street was Johnny, leading two horses, one of them with a body tossed across the saddle. A crowd began to gather around the riders. Stepping out into the street, Val walked up to the dead man and lifted his head. With a groan and shrug, he looked at Johnny, noticing for the first time the blood soaking his shirt.

“What happened, amigo?”

“Came across this assholean’ three others holdin’ up Gil. They shot him. Tried ta bring them in but didn’t work out so good…” Johnny said, barely above a whisper, the faces of three girls taking over his thoughts.

“Well, I’ll take ‘im inside an’ lock ‘im up, Johnny, you wait here for a minute. One a you fellas wanna get Gil’s body over ta the undertaker?” Val asked of the townsmen that gathered. The identity of the body, slung face down over the saddle now made known, they stood to shake their heads in sadness.  It was no stranger. This time, it was one of their own.

Val yanked Joey out of the saddle, the whole time the outlaw squawked about his hurt leg. Shoving him into a cell, Val slammed the door shut, not bothering to untie the ropes that secured his hands behind his back.

“Hey, Sheriff, wait a minute…!”

Val ignored the bellyaching, shut the office door, and went out to Johnny’s side.

“Looks like ya need ta go see the doc, Johnny. Come on, I’ll give ya a hand.” Val started for Sam Jenkins, the town doctor, and Barranca followed as if sensing his master was in trouble.

Halfway there, Val turned to sneak a glance at Johnny. It was hard to read him, but Val knew Johnny was blaming himself, he could see it in those haunted eyes, what he could see of Johnny’s eyes. They were starting to close.

“Amigo, we’re almost there, ya still with me?” Val shook his leg and jarred him out of his personal hell, the hell he was going to have to deal with telling the girls their father was dead.

Val helped Johnny out of the saddle, but he shook Val off, saying he could manage the stairs into the office by himself, that he wasn’t any damned invalid. And after tripping on the third step, he did allow Val to help him.

Sam opened the door to hear Val say, “Ornery, no good stubborn gunhawk…”

“Johnny, now what happened?” And not waiting for an answer, Doc ushered them into the back room where Johnny claimed Sam kept all his instruments of torture.

The young Lancer sat quietly as Sam checked him over; he cleaned the wound and stitched it closed. The bullet had passed through his shoulder, leaving a small entry hole and a slightly larger exit. The worst issue was blood loss, and Sam gave strict instructions for Johnny to go home and rest, preferably in bed for a few days.

The doctor bandaged it tightly, prompting a string of groans, hisses, and much swearing in Spanish and another language he didn’t understand. Then Sam confined the arm in a sling. He watched as Johnny struggled into the ruined shirt and stood swaying on his feet. Shaking his head, he caught Johnny’s eyes and again stressed the need for rest.

“I will be coming out in the morning to check on you, Johnny, and I want you to take it easy,” Sam warned firmly. “And I expect to find you resting, young man.”

Johnny met his eyes but looked away. Something is going on here, Sam thought, and he gently grasped Johnny’s right arm.

“What is it, Johnny? What’s wrong?” He expected the usual ‘I‘m fine’ or some other flippant answer, but there was nothing from the stubborn young man. Sam turned to Val with a questioning look, but Val wasn’t able to tell him anything. With a shrug, the lawman steered Johnny to the door.

“C’mon, amigo, I’ll help ya get home.” Val winked at Sam and left with his charge.

Johnny insisted on mounting Barranca without help, and after a struggle, he sat upright in the saddle. The two rode slowly out of town, passing the undertakers as they left. Johnny’s belly threatened to empty, but he fought it down and, again, thought of the Martin girls. Better ta get it done now…

<><><><> 

Val hadn’t said anything until they got to the split in the road, and Johnny took the right branch.

“Hey, Johnny, you’re goin’ the wrong way. Need ta get ya home…” When Johnny failed to turn around, Val nudged Milagro alongside Barranca. He was on the verge of taking Johnny’s reins, a move that he would have never done before when Johnny spoke for the first time since leaving town.

“Gotta tell the girls, Val…”

The  agonized reply nearly took Val’s breath away, then he cleared his throat. “I can do it, Johnny. Ya need ta get home…”

“I gotta do it, Val. I hafta be the one ta tell them their father’s dead.”

That’s what’s bothering him, Val thought.  It suddenly occurred to him, and he understood fully now the weight that Johnny carried on his shoulders and in his heart.

Mrs. Martin had died five years ago, and it hit the family hard. It seemed as if they were just coming out of it, just getting their feet under them to carry on as a family should. And Val knew that Johnny felt he was at fault because now the girls were alone and facing another significant adjustment, a life without a father.

“’K, amigo, I’ll just go with, make sure ya don’t fall outta your saddle, though.” And keeping his eye on Johnny, Val rode with him and offered his support.

<><><><> 

The Martin Ranch sat in a secluded valley at the foot of the mountains. It was a picturesque setting complete with a meandering river and stands of pine dotting the valley floor. Cattle grazed, and the calves played, lunging and dodging, raising puffs of dust in their romping.

The two men, one weary and swaying in the saddle, the other watchful and protective, rode up to the house. Johnny slid from his horse and went to the door, with Val one step behind. They had just stepped onto the porch when the door opened, and Valerie, the eldest daughter, came out, surprise evident on her pretty face, then turned to shock when she noticed the blood on Johnny’s shirt.

“Johnny! Oh, Lord, let me help you!” and taking his arm, she tried to hustle him into the house.

Johnny pulled his arm loose and looked into her eyes, but before he could say anything, Valerie was already shouting for her sisters to help.
“Pa’s not here; he went into town…”

“Valerie, wait…” Johnny broke through her concentration, her concern to help him. With wide eyes, she looked into his face and did not like what she saw there. He was hurting, but it wasn’t all physical, and she became alarmed.

“Johnny? What is it?” she whispered.

Looking into her eyes, Johnny took a ragged breath. “Your father, Valerie, he’s dead…” And he watched and waited for her to grasp what he’d just told her. Now, Johnny was glad for Val’s support as he urged them both into the house.

Sitting around the kitchen table, Johnny told the girls what had transpired earlier. The two youngest girls, Stacy and Hayley, were crying softly, while Valerie bravely held herself together, knowing that she would have to be strong for her sisters.

Valerie had made coffee, and it sat untouched in the cups in front of Johnny and Val. She excused herself to step outside, asking a passing hand to send Hank, their foreman, into the house. Seating herself again at the table, she looked at Johnny as he sat riddled with guilt. He held himself accountable, she saw the blame he wore as plain as if it were the shirt on his back.

“Johnny?... Johnny, it wasn’t your fault.” When he didn’t meet her eyes, she reached over and took his hand, then gave it a squeeze. “None of us hold you to blame. If it hadn’t been for you, none of them would have been caught. At least we have one to get answers from.” But she could tell her words did not have the effect she intended. She wondered if Johnny had even heard them.

The heavy footsteps on the front porch broke the silence as Hank knocked on the door. Val got up from his seat, letting the foreman enter the kitchen. His surprise showed on his face when he saw the sheriff and sensed this was not a social call. Then he saw the faces of the girls and Johnny Lancer at the table.

“What happened, Sheriff?” Hank asked, eyes going wide.

Val wasted no time and spelled out the afternoon’s events.

Hank dropped his chin to his chest. “What now? I can have the men ready to ride when ya send out a posse. Just let me know.” Hank put his hand on Valerie’s shoulder in a reassuring pat.

Val got up from his chair. “C’mon, amigo, let’s get you home.”

Johnny got to his feet and stood a minute before he could put into words the thoughts in his mind. “I’m goin’ with…”

“Home!” Val butted in. “Don’t wanna hafta stop ta pick your as… butt outta the dirt when ya fall offa your horse. Only place you’re goin’ is ta bed. Shoulda been there an hour ago.” With a gentle hand on Johnny’s shoulder, Val guided him to the door, but Johnny stopped and faced the girls, looking  each one in the eyes.

“I’m sorry…” was all he could manage to say. One by one, they gathered around him and wrapped their arms gently around his body, their compassion and understanding were enough to push Johnny over the edge, but he struggled for composure he did not feel. He kissed the tops of their heads and turned to go, not able to take any more; his guilt kept pace with their grief. He felt responsible, but they did not hold him to that.

The ride to Lancer was quiet; neither Johnny nor Val had any words. Knowing what was stampeding around in his amigo’s brain, Val finally broke the silence.

“Johnny, ya did the only thing ya coulda done. No one coulda done any more an’ ya brought one of ‘em in… Stop kickin’ yourself about it.” But Val knew it wouldn’t do any good. He could talk until the moon turned blue, and Johnny would still hold himself accountable.

The picture of the three girls that were now without their father exploded in his head and would haunt his dreams for as long as he lived.

<><><><> 

By the time the Lancer arch came into view, Val was holding Johnny in the saddle. His shoulder had started to bleed again, and Val knew it had to hurt like the devil. He was met in the yard by Jelly, and soon, both Murdoch and Scott were helping Johnny down and into the house. Val could hear Johnny with the words so often used, “I’m fine,” but, as usual, no one believed him. He had started to go for the couch in the great room, but Murdoch and Scott overrode him, taking him instead upstairs to his room.

Maria, Lancer cook, housekeeper, and assistant to Dr. Sam, heard the commotion and immediately began getting medical supplies together. She recognized the signs. It sounded as if there was a fight ensuing, but she knew it was nothing out of the ordinary when her niño was involved. She followed them up to Johnny’s room, hoping that he had been put to bed before she got there. Getting him settled was tricky. He was always ‘fine.’

With a tentative knock, she was admitted just as Murdoch peeled away the bandage that Sam had put in place. He scooted aside to allow Maria room to work. Clucking her tongue and mumbling something about rowdy, young troublemakers, she then set to washing and re-bandaging and was relieved none of the stitches had ripped out. Murdoch, Scott, and Val left her alone with her charge and settled in the great room for a drink.
“What happened, Val?” Murdoch questioned.

Val shrugged and relayed the story, complete with Johnny blaming himself.

“Why would anyone want to shoot Gil Martin?” Scott said, echoing Murdoch’s thoughts.

“Just at the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess. Johnny’s blamin’ himself for not getting’ there sooner. Ya shoulda seen ‘im, he went over ta tell the girls himself. Wouldn’t let me do it. He had ta face ‘em and tell ‘em himself. Well, ‘m gettin’ a posse tagether an’ goin’ after the other three tamorrow. Mosta the hands from Gil’s ranch’ll be ridin’ out with me an’ I know there’ll be others wantin’ ta join in,” Val said.

“You can count me in,” Scott volunteered.

“Thanks, Scott, I ‘preciate it. Doc wants Johnny ta rest an’ he did say a coupla day’s bed rest an’ he’ll be out here in the mornin’.” Val turned to leave. “We’ll be headin’ out ‘bout daylight, Scott.”

“I’ll be there.”

Val closed the door behind him as Scott and Murdoch exchanged a look of disbelief, both shaking their heads. Both thinking the same thing, why was Gil dead? Then, thought about the struggle ahead of them. Johnny blamed himself.

Maria came down the stairs, still muttering under her breath and shaking her head.

“How’s he doing, Maria?” Murdoch asked, already having an idea.

“He will be fine, Patrón, if he allows himself enough rest. He is sleeping right now,” Maria grinned, more to herself, but Murdoch knew from that gesture she had successfully sneaked either laudanum or sleeping powders to Johnny. Judging from the blood on his shirt, the loss was significant, and he would be weak for a while. Regenerating blood took time, and Murdoch sincerely hoped that the posse would succeed in their mission tomorrow because Johnny will be right out there as soon as he can get up and dressed.

He certainly didn’t want his son out on horseback traveling to who knew where when Sam ordered he shouldn’t be overdoing it. But he knew nothing he said would change Johnny’s mind. Maybe Sam should stay here for a day or two… Murdoch chuckled, but the chuckle quickly vanished when he thought about Gil Martin and his daughters. Tomorrow he would ride over to see them and make sure that they knew they could count on Lancer for help.

<><><><> 

Scott had ridden out before the sun was up, Murdoch was on his third cup of coffee and Johnny was still sleeping, much to Murdoch’s relief. That boy can prove to be a handful, but Murdoch was stubborn, too. Guess Johnny gets something from me.

Maria, busy preparing breakfast, hustled around the kitchen with biscuits, eggs, bacon, and more coffee. Her attention, at the moment, was on a tray for her niño when he woke. Knowing that food would be the last thing on Johnny’s mind, she needed to make it as appealing as possible. Getting him to eat soon after an accident or injury always proved to be a challenge.

“I think I’ll check on our patient and see if he’s awake,” refilling his coffee, Murdoch turned to the back stairs.

He heard nothing as he traveled further down the hall and stopped at Johnny’s door, then tapped lightly. Murdoch waited for a few seconds then slowly opened the door. He peeked around it to see Johnny under a pile of blankets, his breathing deep and steady, still asleep. Murdoch left the room quietly, feeling much relieved.

Returning to the kitchen, he sat as a plate, piled with eggs and all the trimmings, was placed in front of him.

“How is the niño?” asked Maria, worry in her voice.

“He’s sleeping like a baby, Maria. He’ll be alright. Sam will be coming out this morning, and I’m sure everything will be fine. All he needs is some rest and some of your cooking!” Murdoch reassured her.

She beamed at him and turned to the stove. “That boy is too skinny! He needs some meat on those bones!” And she continued to mumble with promises to fatten him up.

<><><><> 

Sitting at his desk going over the ranch ledgers, Murdoch looked up to see Johnny on the stairs moving slowly down to the great room. Having used only one hand to hastily comb through his hair in an effort to tame the thick mass, it remained unruly, giving him a little boy appearance. His shirt, untucked and unbuttoned, lent credence to the fact that dressing had been an issue. Johnny shuffled over to the couch and gently sat down, his slouched posture eased into the cushions as his head tipped back. He closed his eyes briefly then opened them to find his father’s penetrating gaze assessing him.

“Don’t say it, Murdoch…” Johnny mumbled quietly. Knowing the question was about to be asked. “Can’t sleep forever.”

“Do you want something to eat?” Murdoch asked.

“No, just some coffee,” Johnny sighed in a whisper.

Murdoch called for Maria to bring the pot and cups. As she entered the room, spying her niño, she began to scold him for coming downstairs, not staying in bed and why was he dressed, all the things he really didn’t want to hear. Refusing food, he told her maybe later, and she scurried back to the kitchen with a string of Spanish flowing behind her about certain people not knowing what was good for them.

“Hear anything about when the funeral’s gonna be?” Johnny asked softly, watching the steam rising from the hot brew.

“No, I thought that maybe Sam would know something when he gets here to check on you today. And the posse hasn’t come back so no word there either. Russell Westin is tracking for them, so they’re in good hands, Johnny.”

Knowing that Johnny would want to join them, Murdoch thought it prudent to make him aware that the best tracker in town was with them. It worked. Johnny seemed to settle back onto the cushions. But Murdoch could sense there were still troubling thoughts in that brain; he could see it on Johnny’s face.

“You have to take care of yourself because you are the only one who can put those four men in jail. You are the only witness, and without you, they will go free.”

“Yeah, well, if I’d’ve acted faster, maybe ol’ Gil wouldn’t be dead an’ those three girls would still have a father…” Johnny sat the cup on the table, struggled to his feet, and went upstairs.

Murdoch watched his son go back to his room and threw his pencil on the desk, wondering how to make Johnny understand it was not his fault.

<><><><> 

The visit with Sam was typical. Johnny insisted he was fine, Sam insisted he wasn’t, and he needed to take it easy, that Johnny didn’t realize how serious it could turn if he didn’t take care of himself. Murdoch reprimanded Johnny, telling him to take what Sam was saying seriously and Maria mumbling about these young ones these days are so reckless and don’t listen to their elders and are all too skinny! Chaos prevailed, and all was normal. And typical in the fact that Johnny still thought himself as accountable. No amount of talking from anyone was able to convince him otherwise.

<><><><> 

Johnny lay quietly on his bed. He couldn’t sleep, his mind turning over and over the events of the day before. Gil Martin had just returned recently from a business trip to Denver, having successfully raised the funds he needed for the ranch and brought the girls into Green River several days ago to celebrate the deal he had struck. Gil had taken the girls to dinner at the hotel, and they had been ecstatic, their father was home again, and everything would be alright, until now. Now it had all changed.

Johnny remembered what it had been like when his mother died. He was alone, and now those three girls faced the same cold void, some of the same helplessness that wrapped around him after Maria died. His heart felt as if it was being crushed. His guilt was running rampant, knowing nothing would protect them from more hurt and pain.

Late in the afternoon, the posse returned. They had not been successful; they had not found any trace of the three outlaws after losing the tracks in the rocks. The funeral for Gil would be in the morning, and the Martin ranch hands would be there to say their farewells to the Boss. The posse would start out again after the service. Gil Martin had been well-liked, and people for miles around would be attending the funeral to pay their respects and give comfort and support to the Martin girls. And this was something that Johnny was dreading.
<><><><> 

Sleep was not a friend this night, every time he did fall into a state of rest and hopeful oblivion, the dreams started rolling through his head, jarring him awake, leaving him gasping for air, and drenched in cold sweat. And, in them, Gil would always lie dead in the road.

Throwing off the blankets, Johnny staggered to his feet and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He poured a splash of water into the basin, and with one hand, he scrubbed his face. Leaning further over the large bowl, he grabbed the pitcher once more and upended it over the back of his head. The cold water sluiced through his hair, easing the discomfort of the pounding that threatened to split his head in two. He struggled into his pants, pulled on a shirt, and wrestled on his boots. Sweat continued to bead on his face and run into his eyes. He opened up his door and quietly made his way downstairs, stepping silently, to eliminate the jingle from his spurs, and slipped out onto the patio.

The fresh night air had always soothed away any troubling thoughts. The bright star-studded sky had calmed him, reminding him of nights spent out here, taking ease and comfort from the spectacular scene above him. That comfort had sustained him before, and he could use that sustenance now.

Johnny stood, leaning against the adobe wall, letting his thoughts stray, but they always returned to Gil. Pushing away from the wall, he started to walk across the yard, through Teresa’s garden to the barn. Maybe Barranca could offer a bit of respite and relief, he usually did. The rifle butt slammed into the side of his head, sending an explosion of white-hot pain shooting through his skull, and then there was nothing.

<><><><> 

Pouring himself a cup of hot coffee, Scott settled at the table with his father. Maria bustled around the kitchen, setting food in front of them with her usual efficiency and mothering nature, muttering “¡Comer! ¡Comer!”  (“Eat! Eat!”). She then took the tray she had prepared for Johnny and headed up to his room. Balancing the meal expertly with one hand, she rapped lightly on the door and hearing nothing she eased into the empty room.
<><><><> 

“I’m glad that Hank’s wife is there with the girls. They will definitely need her support in the next several months, and Abby knows them so well, it should be natural for them to rely on her,” Murdoch said, voicing the thoughts in his mind.

Scott agreed, and he looked up as Maria entered the kitchen with the tray she fixed for Johnny. “He still doesn’t want anything?” Scott asked, with growing concern.

Maria stopped, eyes wide with worry. “He is not in his room…”

Scott set the cup on the table and quickly headed for the barn. The barn  where they could usually find Johnny if he was troubled, and Scott hoped to talk sense into him. Halfway to his destination, he saw the tracks in the dirt that told a horrifying account.

“MURDOCH!” Scott stared at the dirt, trying to decipher precisely what he was seeing. The back door opened, and Murdoch came charging out only to be halted by Scott’s outflung arm, signaling him to stop. It was then that Murdoch saw the story written there on the ground.

<><><><> 

The fog in his brain started to clear, but in its place was blinding pain that shot over the top of his head, down into his neck and across his shoulders. His belly rolled as he fought to control the urge to vomit. He could hear voices, men’s voices but did not recognize who they were or what they were saying. Breathing as deeply as he could, he quelled nausea that would betray him to his captors. He needed information before he could reveal that he was conscious. The ploy had worked well in the past. It was amazing what you could learn if your adversary underestimated you. So Johnny stayed still and tried to listen, but it was difficult, and he began to fade out.

“What’d ya hit ‘im so hard for? We need ta find out how much they know!”

“Shut up, you two! Let’s wait till we get back ta camp. Then we’ll get our answers. Ain’t like we can just bust inta town and break Joey outta jail right now, anyway.” All conversation stopped, and Johnny slipped back into merciful oblivion.

The three outlaws and their prisoner entered the tiny secluded canyon. The camp had been set up the night before; after they had eluded the posse, they’d literally stumbled on the place and decided it would be perfect for their needs. They’d stolen a Lancer horse for Johnny when they ambushed him and now would have a horse for Joey when they broke him out of the Green River jail. They just needed a few answers from this cowboy, the one that nearly ruined their escape after shooting that backstabbing Martin. So, tonight, they would find out what they needed to know and make their plans, and if they didn’t end up having to trade Johnny for Joey, they would gladly kill him.

They pulled Johnny off the horse. He landed with a bone-jarring crash on the hard ground, forcing a groan from him. Chuckling at his discomfort, the three bandits nudged him with their boots to rouse him to consciousness. Impatient when he didn’t open his eyes, they dragged him to a tree and tied him securely. Satisfied he couldn’t get away, they unsaddled their horses and prepared to wait. Taking brush and tumbleweeds, they blocked the view into the ravine. A fire was started, coffee was made, and they stretched out in the shade, discussing different plans.

Johnny, again coming out of the fog, remained motionless; head down with his chin on his chest, he listened as best he could and didn’t have to wait long.

“So, Rich, what’d ya think we should do? Get ridda this cowboy?” Gideon Wilks asked his boss around a mouthful of jerky. Rich Talbot stood guard and watched the canyon rim, shielding his eyes from the sun.

“We might need ‘im ta bargain for Joey. I ain’t leavin’ my brother ta rot in jail. Hell, they’ll prob’bly wanna hang ‘im an’ that ain’t gonna happen either.  It’s all gonna depend on what he can tell us.” Rich jerked his head in Johnny’s direction. Hughie Thompson leaned forward and poured the last of the coffee in his cup and listened as the two men decided what they would do.
“’Bout time our ‘company’ woke up. Hughie, fill that pot up with water.”

Without question, Hughie rose and ambled to the small creek meandering along the floor of the canyon. Stooping on the bank, he dipped the pot under the cold water and returned to the fire with the filled container in hand.

Rich reached out and took the water, then walked to the tree where Johnny was tied and threw the water in Johnny’s face. The cold flood surged up his nose into the sinuses and coursed down his throat, causing him to choke and sent Johnny into a fit of coughing. The pressure created in his head set off a pounding that nearly made him black out. Rich leaned in, grabbed a handful of wet hair, and slammed Johnny’s head back into the tree. His brain erupted in a shower of stars that exploded behind his eyes.

“Now you listen up, boy!” Rich spat, “You’re gonna tell us what we wanna know an’ you’re gonna do it now!”

Johnny’s eyes fluttered open, and he laughed as best he could despite the pain. “Don’t think so, pendejo…”  Johnny said in soft, deadly tones.
In all of his life, Rich never had a reaction such as this. He’d always bullied his way to get what he wanted. No one had ever back talked him before, people were afraid of him and his brutish ways, and this shocked him. He sat, momentarily stunned. Then his brain kicked in, as did his temper. With a rolled-up fist, he connected with Johnny’s jaw, snapping his head sideways. Vice-like hands were on Johnny’s shoulders squeezing, threatening to rip arms from his body, as pain flooded over the prisoner in a violent rush.

Johnny felt stitches tear out as vision became gray around the edges, and black spots danced in front of his eyes. Blood began to seep through the bandages onto his shirt.

Rich stared at the growing stain and ripped the sleeve, exposing the injury. He cackled in delight, knowing that one of them had found their target during their attack on Martin. Sliding his knife out of his boot, Rich cut the bandages from Johnny’s body, revealing the wound through his shoulder, ragged now with black threads pulled through the skin, and bleeding badly. Grabbing a loop of the thread, he gave a yank and pulled it out, ripping flesh and sending Johnny’s head spinning out of control. He sagged against his ropes as Rich held him up.

“Now, ya gonna tell us what we wanna know?” he screamed in Johnny’s face.

“… uh uh…” Johnny’s head fell to the side.

Rich smiled. “Oh, I think you will,” he whispered in an evil tone, looking again at the stitches where the skin had barely started to heal together.

<><><><> 

Murdoch represented Lancer at the funeral, while Scott took Cipriano and the four top hands and trackers in search of Johnny. As soon as the service was over, the posse went out again, taking up where they’d left off.

Before leaving the cemetery, Murdoch cornered Val to let him know what had happened. Relaying what Murdoch told him, Val warned the hands that were left at the Martin ranch to be on the lookout. If the posse didn’t have any luck, Val informed Murdoch that they would come to Lancer and start from there.

They watched the posse leave, then Valerie Martin, with her two sisters, tentatively approached Murdoch, each dabbing at their eyes, still weeping from their father’s service.

“Mr. Lancer?”

Turning, Murdoch took Valerie’s hand in his and gave her a heartfelt smile.

The warmth from Murdoch’s gentle grasp was reassuring and gave Valerie strength that she hadn’t felt since before her father’s passing.

“Mr. Lancer,” she started again, “I, we are so sorry this happened. Johnny stopped to help Papa, and this is the thanks he got. I don’t know what to say…” Her eyes welled up with uncontrolled tears.

Murdoch pulled her into an embrace, then his big strong arms encircled all the girls, and he hugged them close.

“Don’t worry, girls, we’ll get through this… together,” he murmured to them. They stood, four sets of arms entangled for a long time, each gathering strength from the others.
<><><><> 

Scott, Cip, Walt, Isidro, Jake, and Joe made good time. The tracks were fresh, and it was plain that the bandits hadn’t tried to cover their trail.

Four hours into the search, Cipriano spoke. “They are heading to Three Canyons. It will be hard to get in there without them knowing we are here. They have chosen well.”

Scott pulled up on the reins, his horse obeying his command. Looking at every man, he finally spoke. “Alright, we need to have a plan that won’t get my brother killed. Anyone have any ideas?”

“I think first we need to know exactly where he is before we can decide what to do. Let’s split up and meet back here in two hours,” the Segundo stated.

Cipriano was worried; the Three Canyons area was dangerous. There was no way to check the canyons without carefully scouting out each one. They were twisted and covered with overhangs and offered excellent cover. The seclusion was perfect for anyone wanting to avoid being seen. It would be risky; the ground was now rocky with no sand to show tracks.

Scott, Walt, and Jake took the west side while Cip, Isidro, and Joe took the east. Scouting around, none of them saw anything. No trail, no tracks, no broken branches, nothing. It was difficult to detect any traces on rocks. Time was passing quickly, and they hadn’t spotted anything, nothing to indicate the passage of any traveler.

Scott was beginning to wonder if they would find Johnny alive. But why had he been taken in the first place? If they had wanted revenge, why not kill him at Lancer when they had the chance. No, they will try to use him somehow, and Johnny will know how to cause a disruption, cause them to lose time and their patience. Yes, Johnny was good at that! A smile grew on Scott’s lips for a minute as he thought of how aggravating his brother could be, but it quickly faded.

While he didn’t think that Johnny was in danger from his injury, Scott did know that his captors were an entirely different matter. They had shot Gil Martin and would not think twice about shooting Johnny, especially knowing that Johnny’s testimony would send them to the gallows.

Cipriano considered Scott carefully, having come to respect, and even like the young Lancer. Scott had proven himself, and Cip took it upon his own shoulders to watch over Scott as he did Johnny. And he was concerned about Scott now.

They had made their camp for the night, all having to convince Scott that they could do no more until it was daylight. Scott hadn’t wanted to stop but knew deep in his heart, and head, they were right. If one of the horses went lame or worse, broke a leg, it would only add to their woes. Keep a level head…

<><><><> 

“Ya better do somethin’ ‘bout that bleedin’, Rich. He dies he ain’t no good ta us. Least not till he talks.”

Rich looked over at their unconscious prisoner. On closer inspection, it appeared that the wound was only oozing a bit now. And there were still  stitches to pull out in his back. He’d talk soon. Night was coming, and it was getting cold. Rich thought the prisoner would start to beg for food and water and maybe a spot closer to the fire. And Rich smiled; their prisoner would get none of it.

“Wonder what ol’ Martin did with that money? Why’d he even want us ta help ‘im steal it an’ then threaten ta turn us in?” Gideon turned his attention to Rich and shrugged. “I mean, what the hell was he thinkin’?”

“He prob’ly got cold feet an’ wanted ta make it right. He had daughters ta think ‘bout. But that don’t do us any good,” Rich said. He got up and wandered into the rocks.

Now it’s makin’ sense. Martin an’ these assholes were partners. Can’t let the girls know ‘bout this. They sure don’t need ta be worryin’ that their father was up ta his neck in somethin’ illegal. How the hell am I gonna make it outta here? The only chance I got is ta wait for Scott. Where are you, Boston? An’ if I don’t get any help, I sure can give ‘em a few headaches…

Johnny assessed his physical condition. While the shoulder was sore, it wasn’t too serious. The blood loss had his belly rolling, and the blow to his head caused the pounding but, if he had to, he would push it all aside, take his chances and raise all the hell he could.

<><><><> 

Dusk was settling in, and Scott was losing patience. That was unusual; Scott had infinite patience, except where Johnny was concerned. After all, he was the older brother, wasn’t it his job to watch out for Johnny? I’m doing a lousy job at it… His heart was pounding in his chest, knowing that precious seconds and minutes were ticking by. What if I don’t find him in time? The words echoed inside his head, bouncing from one side of his skull to the other, what if…what if… what if… A person could drive himself insane, wondering about all the what-ifs. Scott kept telling himself Johnny was resourceful; he would be alright, he had to be alright. Please, just let me get to him in time…

<><><><> 

It’s now or never, Johnny-Boy, he thought to himself. He started to move his head as if he’d just regained consciousness; he groaned, but that was for real. The second he turned his head, it set off fireworks inside his skull. Slowly he opened his eyes; all three bandits turned to watch him. Make it good, Madrid.

Gideon left his place by the fire and walked the short distance to where Johnny sat tied to the tree. Looking down, Gideon smirked. “’Bout time ya came out of it.”

“Untie me. Gotta take a piss,” Johnny grumbled.

Wilks looked to Rich. “Go ahead an’ untie ‘em. He ain’t gonna cause no trouble.”

Gideon stooped behind Johnny and loosened the rope. Johnny rolled onto his right side, gathered his legs under himself, and stood, albeit swaying dangerously. After a few shaky steps, he got his rhythm working, and with Gideon following closely, he made it behind the rocks.

“Don’t you get no ideas ‘bout pullin’ anything sneaky, I got ya covered,” Gideon growled, and just for good measure, he cocked his gun.

“That supposed ta scare me?” Johnny said, much too softly and calmly for Gideon.

“Ya best just finish up an’ get back ta camp.”
Johnny secured the buttons on his calzoneras, took a step, and stopped. He closed his eyes and groaned. Gideon became suspicious and jabbed him with the barrel of the pistol.

“Hey, you, get movin’ now!”

Johnny didn’t move; his head dropped forward, chin on his chest, and his breath came hard and raspy. “Can’t, gonna be sick…” And with that, his rolling belly rebelled, and he vomited fiercely, retching violently, feeling like he was turning inside out, and it made Gideon wince. Breaking out in a cold sweat and physically shaking, Johnny let himself be shoved back into camp.

He stopped on unsteady feet, then bent to pick up a canteen when Gideon shoved him again, hitting his injured shoulder. Johnny hit the ground and instinctively lashed out with his leg, tripping the outlaw-thief.

Gideon hit the ground, and before Johnny could think about what he was doing, he kicked out again with his leg and brought his heel down, rowel first, plunging into Gideon’s throat, ripping through the jugular and severing it completely. Rich sat stunned but quickly recovered. He ran to Gideon’s side and heard the gurgle, the blood poured from his mouth and knew the man was dying.

Standing over Johnny, Rich delivered a savage kick to Johnny’s shoulder that caused a sharp howl of pain. The kick rolled Johnny onto his belly. In a second, Rich had his knife in hand and launched himself onto Johnny’s back, to pierce the exit wound with the weapon, drawing the steel point down his back. The bloodcurdling scream sliced through the dark in an unearthly cry.

White-hot pain exploded through his body, and he knew he had to do something now because, in a few minutes, he’d be dead. If he lost consciousness, Rich would kill him. The faces of the Martin girls flashed through his fading brain; suddenly, fury raged, sparking a flare, and with an explosion of speed, it ignited a short burst of energy, but that burst was all he needed.

Gideon’s gun had landed close, and the kick Rich launched at Johnny rolled him onto it. Battling the blackness threatening to pull him under, Johnny used every shred of fight he had left. Fueled by the sweet faces that sparked in his head, he reached out from under his belly and behind him, blindly aimed the gun as best he could at the menacing target above him and pulled the trigger.

<><><><> 

Scott sat, looking through his spyglass over the canyons. The rocks holding the day’s heat kept the cold night air at bay, for a while. Scanning the stone formations for any movement in the fading light, knowing it was futile, he couldn’t give up. Johnny had to be there. The sun slid behind the mountains and left only a light gold band, it, too, rapidly faded, and then it was gone.

One last glance over canyon rims, and he would call it a night… Wait! What was that? There was a flicker. Focus, Scott, he whispered to himself. And there it was! Reflection from a fire he would never have seen in the daylight. He scrambled madly into camp and collected the five men with him. Could this be where his brother had been taken? Dear God…

They closed the distance remarkably fast, even in the dark. Do you believe in miracles, Scott? Tonight, yes, I do! he thought as he crept up to the edge of the rim. Below the ugly scene played out as Scott realized Johnny was fighting for his life.

The howl of pain sent chills through Scott as he watched the struggle below. He brought the rifle up, hoping to get a clear… then he heard the pistol shot. The man on top of Johnny held a bloody knife; Scott had the man in the crosshairs but watched as the attacker suddenly toppled, falling in a heap beside his brother. He saw Johnny struggling to move, and that was all Scott could take before his legs were carrying him as fast as he could go, down the mountainside, sliding, then falling and tumbling into the rocks, crashing against them, over them and finally coming to a halt.

Scott jumped to his feet. He ignored the screaming in his body from multiple bruises and paused only to rip aside the brush that shielded the opening of the canyon. With his gun drawn, Scott charged into the small camp, pointing at Hughie, who backed down immediately after seeing the six armed men storm into the light of the fire.
Scott held Johnny in his arms, trying to assess the additional harm inflicted. He felt the sticky wetness on his hands and pulled one out from under Johnny’s back. It was covered in an alarming amount of blood. Scott nearly panicked, but kept his tone low, trying to comfort his brother, the brother he’d come to know and cherish, not only as a brother but best friend. Someone he couldn’t bear to lose now, or ever.

“Cip! I need help!” Scott called out, alarm in his voice.

Immediately Cip was there, helping to gently turn Johnny onto his side.

“Oh, my God!” Scott murmured upon viewing the wicked gash down his brother’s back.

Having secured Hughie, they brought in more firewood and retrieved the medical supplies that Maria insisted everyone carry in their saddlebags. Dosing Johnny with a liberal amount of laudanum, they set to work. It would be an awfully long night.

Ripping away the tattered shirt, Scott and Cip washed the wound as best they could, and while Scott pulled the skin tight over the slash, Cip threaded the needle and began to sew the skin together. It was a long and tedious process that had them both covered in Johnny’s blood. Finally done, Cip slathered it with a poultice to help ward off infection and wrapped it tightly with the bandages and strips of torn shirts, securing it with a knot to hold it in place.

It was well past midnight when they settled down for the duration. The two dead men had been dragged out of camp, and Hughie was secured where Johnny had been tied. At sunrise, Scott would send someone out to find Val and the posse and get a wagon to transport Johnny back to Lancer.

Scott sat by his brother’s side, placing a cool cloth over the brow, now hot with fever, murmuring in low tones as much for himself as for Johnny. Scott recalled the terrifying scene, playing it over in his head, wondering how many more times would this reckless brother of his be able to escape death. In the short time they’d known each other, there had been far too many incidents, and Scott knew that one day, Johnny’s luck had to run out.
Johnny’s brain, however drugged, was not shutting off. He felt like he was burning alive, so hot! And the pain was getting worse, too. Gil Martin still haunted his dreams, and he died in every one, over and over, forcing Johnny to re-live the ugly scene time and time again. The girl’s faces haunted him, too. They would appear out of nowhere, swirling around him, not saying any words, only staring at him through accusatory tears. There was something he needed to remember, but it eluded him. Val… He needed to talk to Val but couldn’t remember why. Val… Val could fix it, whatever it was.

“… Val…” Johnny softly called out. He tried to sit up but was restrained. “Val!” calling louder. A low, even voice invaded his senses, and he knew Scott was with him. He started to settle but called out again for Val. Scott would get Val for him; he had to…

“S-Scott, need ta… see Val. I-important, see Val…”

Scott desperately tried to settle his brother but felt the anguish and sensed the desperation surrounding Johnny. It was tangible, a living thing that gripped his brother, suffocating him.

“I’ll get him here as soon as I can, alright, Johnny? Just rest now,” Scott said, repeating his words as Johnny drifted into a troubled sleep. Scott watched the nightmares plaguing his brother’s haunted dreams and wondered if another dose of laudanum should be given. As if Johnny read Scott’s thoughts, he quieted and slept.

The sky was beginning to lighten as Walt and Jake left in search of the posse, and Joe left for Lancer to return with a wagon. Scott watched Johnny as he slept fitfully near the fire. Chills had set in between bouts of spiking fever; Scott was scared. It seemed as if Johnny was fading right in front of his eyes. All he could do was to let Johnny know he was there; cool him down when he got too hot and keep him covered when the shivering wracked his body. Joe wouldn’t be back for another seven or eight hours anyway. He could make it to Lancer in a much shorter time on horseback, but bringing the wagon back would be painfully slow.

Scott looked up as Cip approached; the Segundo was carrying a handful of plants and a small leather pouch. Scott assumed was some ancient herbal remedy, hoping it would aid in staving off some of the symptoms afflicting his brother.

Cip washed the greens and began cutting them into a pot with a bit of water. As the noxious steam rose out of the mixture, he added more water and carefully sprinkled the contents from the pouch into the pot, then let the concoction cook for an hour as he tended it.

“These are herbs that my people have used for centuries. They will help with the fever. Señorita Teresa grows them in her garden,” Cip explained as he worked.

When it was finished cooking, he poured the liquid into a cup to cool, keeping the sediment in the pot. Scott wondered if this would be to put on the gash or to try and get Johnny to swallow it, sincerely hoping it would be the former. He looked down at Johnny and could watch the life flowing out of his body. At the moment, he was very still. Scott resisted the urge to reach out and find the pulse in his neck to make sure Johnny was still alive.

Picking up the cup, Cip urged Scott to lift Johnny to a sitting position. Scott inwardly groaned; this was not going to be easy. The mixture Cip held didn’t look like anything Johnny would take without a fight… and Scott held him tight. He gently slipped his arms around his brother, leaning Johnny against his chest, keeping all pressure away from the knife wound. Scott heard a slight moan and began to whisper, saying soft, soothing words as Johnny settled.

“Juanito, beber,(Johnny, drink) Cipriano urged, tipping the cup to Johnny’s lips. Scott smelled the vile concoction and could only imagine how it tasted, and his suspicions were confirmed as Johnny tried to turn away, spitting out what was in his mouth.

“How much does he have to take, Cip?” Scott questioned.

“As much as we can get into him… If it stays where it should, it will start to work quickly and bring the fever down.” Working together, Johnny was liberally dosed and, in a short amount of time, was resting easier.

Scott sighed in relief as he looked into Cip’s weather-worn face. “Thank you…”

The Segundo rose to his feet and placed a reassuring hand on Scott’s shoulder. “De nada, Señor.” Cip watched the brothers, so new to their bond but solid and loyal.

The afternoon progressed much the same, and as the hours dragged, Johnny seemed to settle into a deeper sleep, not tormented by the nightmares, and the fever gradually lessened. Scott began to watch for the wagon, hoping they wouldn’t be traveling at night in the cold and dark but also wanting to return home as fast as possible.

<><><><> 

Joe raced under the Lancer arch in record time. It had only been about two and a half hours since he’d left the secluded canyon. The direct route from the canyon to the estancia cut many miles and hours from the trip. He reined his horse to a skidding halt as the front door was thrown open. Murdoch, hearing the hooves on the hard-packed road, charged out of the hacienda.

Impatiently waiting for word about his sons, he quickly walked out to meet Joe and get the information he so desperately needed to hear.
“Found ‘im, Mr. Lancer. He’s alive, but he’s hurt pretty bad. Looks like they took a knife to his stitches an’ ripped ‘em all out an’ cut down his back. He’s lost a lotta blood. I gotta have a wagon ta bring ‘im home!”

Murdoch raced into the house, informing Teresa and Maria. The women sprang into action, making the preparations for Johnny’s return. Murdoch went to the barn, saddled Toby, and was ready by the time the wagon was hitched to the team. Blankets and medical supplies were loaded as well as extra water and food. Teresa ran into the barn and saddled her horse, Nicky, informing Murdock she was going into town for Sam.

“Is there anything Sam needs to know, Murdoch?” she asked breathlessly.

“Just tell him a knife wound, extensive blood loss, and to be here when we get back!” With that, Murdoch climbed into the saddle with the agility that belied his age and followed the wagon, traveling as fast as they dared. Teresa raced with them, and going under the arch, they turned north as she turned Nicky south for Green River.

<><><><> 

He heard the soft murmurings, soothing tones, and knew it was Scott. He tried opening his eyes without success. A cup was put to his lips, and for an instant, he fought it until he realized it was only water. Cool, refreshing water. He drank, wanting more, but it was taken from him, and he made out the words ‘easy’, ‘too much’ and ‘sick’. Johnny wanted more but didn’t have the words to tell them. He needed more water to put out the fire in his  body.

Val approached through the canyon opening after Walt and Jake were able to track them down only a few miles west of Three Canyons. Walking quickly to Scott, although never meeting Scott’s eyes, Val watched the form on the ground as he began to talk.

“Looks like ya got everything under control, Scott. How is he?” Val stooped down by Scott’s side, taking in all the soiled bandages littering the ground.

“We’ll know more when we get him home. It was an awfully long night… He’s been asking for you, Val. There’s something he wanted to tell you. He seemed adamant about it but wouldn’t tell me anything.”

“Hey, amigo!” Val whispered.

Johnny’s eyes snapped open, startled, at first, then recognizing Val, a half-smile formed on his mouth, then faded. His voice came softly, and Val had to bend low to hear, but Johnny soon got the words out, telling Val about Gil’s involvement with the outlaws during the trip to Denver.

“Val, the girls… Don’t want ‘em ta know. Gotta protect ‘em…”  That was all he could manage. But it was enough; Val understood.

<><><><> 

Sometime in the late afternoon, Scott heard the wagon approach. He softly called out to Cip to check, and the smile on the Segundo’s face when he returned to the canyon told Scott what he wanted to know. Soon Murdoch ran into the small camp and hunkered down by his sons.

Murdoch reached down and pulled back the blanket, exposing the wrapped torso of his younger boy. His eyes narrowed, and he winced at the amount of  blood that seeped through the bandages across Johnny’s back. His blood began to boil; pure rage flooded his body as he examined the injury. He tried to collect himself, pull his emotions together, but found it impossible. Incensed beyond anything he’d ever experienced, he glanced to where Hughie was tied. Seething, he glared flames straight through the man’s heart. Murdoch turned away and focused on Johnny, refusing to waste any energy on such a despicable act of senseless savagery.

“Let’s get him in the wagon and back to Lancer,” Murdoch said quietly.

<><><><> 

Loaded and secured, they were finally heading home. Val had taken possession of the two bodies and Hughie. He needed to put some thought into how he would keep the revelation quiet from the girls that their father had consorted with these outlaws in Denver only to get cold feet and back out when it came time to divide up the money, had in fact, already sent the money back to Denver. Val would have to wire the authorities there for particulars but, he had the robbers, and Gil, who would have been arrested for his crime, had he not been killed.

His thoughts wandered to Johnny. Oh, Madrid talks a good game, but he has a soft spot in his heart for any innocent critter. Guess that goes for them girls, too. Wants ta protect ‘em from that mistake their Daddy made. Yup, a heart the size of Texas! Val smiled… a smile the size of Texas.

<><><><> 

Having been chased out of Johnny’s room, Scott occupied a place on the couch before the fire while Murdoch paced as they waited for Sam to finish.

“Tell me about it, Scott,” Murdoch whispered, staring out the window into the night.

Taking a deep breath, Scott recited the horrific account. Murdoch pictured it in his head and shuddered as the gruesome tale unfolded.

“When I looked over the rim down into the canyon, Johnny had already been knocked to the ground, it looked like he tripped one of the outlaws and when he fell, Johnny…” another deep breath, “ brought his spur down on the outlaw's throat, killing him. The second outlaw kicked Johnny, rolling him over and jumped on top of him. He had a knife in his hand and… started to carve Johnny’s back.” Scott stopped, seeing, again, the horrifying scene in his head. “I can’t say what or how it happened, but Johnny reached behind; he had a gun in his hand and shot the man on his back. I can’t believe what I saw, but that’s what happened”

Murdoch sat in awe; it was too chilling to think about for very long, too appalling thinking that Johnny had been seconds away from a hideous death. And he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

A knock on the front door brought them out of the nightmare they were living. Scott reached for the massive handle, opening it to find Val standing with a hopeful look on his face.

“Sam’s with him now.” Scott stepped back to allow Val to enter and endure the wait with them.

<><><><> 

Dios! It’s good ta be outta that house! Was feeling’ trapped bein’ so confined, everyone watchin’ everything I did… Only be gone a little while, they won’t even know I left.

It felt like heaven to be riding Barranca again! His hat blew off but hung down his back by the stampede strings. The wind through his hair cleared the cobwebs as he sucked fresh air into his lungs. The last four weeks had been… difficult, for all of them. Johnny’s slow recovery had taken its toll, and the family had suffered right along with him.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop on the hill. Below lay the Green River Cemetery. He watched as the three girls gathered around the grave, then each carefully placed a bouquet of flowers next to the headstone. They stood a moment longer, then climbed into the buggy and left for home. After they’d gone, Johnny gently spurred Barranca down the hill and over to the wrought iron gate.

Dismounting, he looped the reins over the hitch rail and entered the neatly fenced yard. Walking over to the newly mounded grave with three bouquets of fresh flowers, he read the tombstone, ‘Gil Martin, Beloved Husband, and Father.’ Johnny’s mouth turned up in a sad smile. Gil was a good man that, unfortunately, made a mistake. He’d taken the easy way out instead of facing his problems that ultimately resulted in his death. Martin had chased after something that was impossible to attain.

“Chased rings around the moon, Gil, rings around the moon.” Turning silently, Johnny gathered Barranca’s reins, stepped into the saddle, and headed for home.

 

 

~ end ~

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