The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buttercup

 

 

FThe Ghost Of Johnny Madrid
xxEpisode One
: Confrontations

                Murdoch stood at the large window of his study, his palms pressed against the glass, his back bent, shoulders slumped as if under a great weight.  One small lamp flickered on the desk, casting surreal shadows about the room.  The fire in the fireplace had long since burnt down to glowing embers. Though he appeared to be staring out the window, Murdoch’s mind was elsewhere.  A barely audible sigh escaped him, yet he continued to stare out the windows into the darkness of night.  If he had been paying attention to the scene in front of him, he would have noticed the moonlight disappearing behind dark, heavy clouds, enveloping the faint outlines of corrals and trees in the hazy blackness of night; but that was not what his mind was on.

                “Johnny.”

                The one quiet word uttered by the man grew in the solitude of the room until it caused Murdoch to visibly shudder.  Wearily, he slowly turned and surveyed the large, empty room.  The room, where once again he had managed to say the wrong thing to Johnny, his younger son.  Why could he never seem to say the correct thing where this son was concerned?  Why did Johnny always have to take everything Murdoch said as an attack?  And why did it always seem to end with Johnny turning to him with that haunted look, that look that cried out for understanding, though icing over when help was offered?  A look heavy with the word ‘why?’

                Murdoch’s eyes trailed back to the window.  He preferred the darkness.  It matched his mood.  He sighed heavily and shook his head.  The night had started out so promising…

 

************

 

                “King me!”  Johnny laughed as he jumped his black checker piece over Scott’s red piece.  “Again!”

                “I think you’re cheating.”  Scott placed the extra black piece on top of the first, then rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  “I just have to figure out how.”

                “Oh, come now!  Just ‘cus I’m winning doesn’t mean I’m cheatin’!”

                “Hmmm,” Scott muttered, then took a sip of his brandy.  A grin crossed his face.  “I know.  You’ve been insidiously getting me drunk so that I’ll make silly, stupid mistakes, and,” he nodded at Murdoch with a wink, “in my befuddled state you’ve probably been taking extra turns, too.  What do you say, Murdoch?”

                Murdoch grinned over his book.  “You’re trying to get me in trouble again.”

                “Well, I, for one,” Teresa cut in, “have been watching you play all night, and Johnny has been beating you fair and square.  You’ve just been playing really lousy games all evening!”

                Scott laughed and pushed himself back in his chair.  “And on that high note, I think I’ll concede defeat and head to bed!”

                As Scott stood up, Johnny cocked his head to the side, a playful expression on his face.  “Well, I’m not sure, Scott, but I don’t think she really paid me a compliment either.”

                Scott reached over, took his glass from the table, and downed the last swallow.  Then he formally nodded to Murdoch and Teresa. “No, I know when it’s time to retire the troops, and this is definitely the time.”  He grinned at Johnny.  “But I demand a rematch for tomorrow night.”

                “No problem, Brother.”  Johnny grinned back.  “I can beat you anytime, anywhere.”

                “Oh, now that is a challenge I plan to accept.”

                “As long as you’re talking checkers,” Murdoch warned.

                Johnny winked at Scott, then turned a sober face to their father.  “Of course.  What else could we possibly be talking about?”

                Murdoch rolled his eyes and turned back to his book.

                After Scott had left, Teresa also stood up.  “I’d best be getting to bed, too.  I really hadn’t noticed it was so late.”  She stifled a yawn.  “Heading to bed, Murdoch?”

                Murdoch set his book down on the nearby table.  Teresa was always on him about getting to bed earlier.  But he was a man who carried all his problems with him, and he needed a long opportunity to release as much of the day’s worries as possible before he went to bed, or else he found himself awake the whole night.

                He smiled affectionately at his ward.  “I’m going to have one brandy before I head off to bed.”  He then emphasized as he saw her open her mouth to protest, “A small one.  I’ll be in bed within the hour.”  He watched her set her chin stubbornly and put her hands on her hips.  “Half hour,” he then amended with a twitch of a grin.

                Teresa finally nodded.  “Half hour.  You’ve promised now.”

                “I’ve promised.”

                Teresa walked out of the drawing room with one backward glance.  Murdoch smiled to himself.  It was a game they played.  It made her feel better to think she was taking proper care of him, and it made him feel better just knowing she cared enough to give him a hard time.  They both knew that he’d get to bed when he got there.

                “She sure fusses over you,” Johnny remarked as he finished putting away the checker pieces.

                Murdoch nodded and walked to the brandy decanter.  “She fusses over all of us.”

                “Yeah, I suppose so,” Johnny quietly responded.

                Murdoch studied Johnny as he poured a shot of brandy into a glass.  A sudden heaviness thickened across his chest at the realization that this was just the moment he had been promising himself he’d search for in order to accomplish what he’d been needing to do; what he should have done ages ago, but conveniently avoided.  With steeled resolve, he filled another snifter and turned to Johnny, who was just standing up to leave.

                “Here.  I poured you a shot, too.”  Murdoch held it out.  “Why don’t you stay a spell.  We could talk.”

                Murdoch noticed that Johnny froze to his spot for an instant, a quick dart of his eyes reminding Murdoch of a cornered animal.  Murdoch tried to smile reassuringly.

                Johnny studied his father for a second, unsure whether to accept Murdoch’s offer.   For one, even though Johnny had never met a liquor he didn’t like (though there had been plenty that didn’t like him), Scott and Murdoch’s eastern brandy was not one of his favorites.  Second, and most importantly, in the Language of Murdoch, ‘Johnny, let’s talk’, meant ‘Johnny, you messed up again.’

                Johnny noticed Murdoch’s tentative smile as he stood, brandy glass held out.  There was really no place to go but forward.  So, Johnny stepped up, albeit reluctantly, and accepted the glass.

                Murdoch smiled again at his son.  He could sense his wariness and tried to think of a way to approach the uncomfortable topic in a tactful manner.  Unfortunately, Murdoch knew, diplomacy was not one of his gifts.  Turning, he walked toward the large wall map of the Lancer land on the wall.

                “Lancer sure is a large place.  Lots of untamed areas, yet domesticated areas, too.”  He paused.  “It’s kind of like a person.”

                Johnny glanced at the map, yet stood where he was.  “I suppose,” he said cautiously.

                “I mean,” Murdoch continued, “it has a lot of different personalities, different temperaments…like, say, up here,” his hand swept towards the top of the map, “where we are.  It’s been pretty tamed.  We have roads into town, fences for cattle, Teresa’s garden.  It’s all well known and explored.  But down here,” his hand swept to the bottom of the map, “there are a lot of wild forests, unexplored meadows, peaceful streams, dangerous waterfalls.” He paused thoughtfully.  “It’s a lot like you, Johnny.”

                Johnny carefully sipped the brandy, unsure how to respond.  He, a lot like Lancer?  He would have chuckled except that he knew his father was trying to be serious.  Silently, he admitted to himself that this wasn’t the ‘Johnny, you messed up again’ speech he had expected.

As Johnny watched Murdoch slowly turn around, he noticed his father was thoughtfully biting his bottom lip, as if he was attempting to say something, but failing to find the right words.

                “I’m sorry, Johnny,” Murdoch sighed and ran his fingers through his coarse, gray hair.  “I owe you an apology.  I’m not handling this very well.”

                Johnny took a small step and leaned on the corner of Murdoch’s desk, resting the brandy glass on his leg.  “I’m afraid I don’t quite get what you’re driving at.  If it was the incident with the holding pen earlier in the week, I thought you understood that I hadn’t realized the delivery date had been moved up…”

                “No, no.”  Murdoch waved his hand dismissively.  “No, Johnny.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  That was an honest mistake.  You handled it well.  You took care of things as soon as you found out about the change, and everything turned out fine—”

                “Then what, Murdoch?  I don’t understand what the problem is?”

                Murdoch looked at his son, whose face clearly showed his puzzlement at the turn the conversation had taken.  He studied his son’s eyes a second before walking to his desk.  In silence he opened his top drawer and drew out a key.  He studied it a moment before reaching down to unlock the bottom drawer.  Underneath a stack of papers, his hand reluctantly found what he knew was there.  Slowly he drew it out and placed it on the desk.  “This,” he stated simply.

                Johnny felt his entire body go rigid in shock.  There, staring up at him from the desk, was what he’d always feared existed, what he knew deep down must have existed.  The dark-colored formal folder with the Pinkerton seal on the top, underneath of which the words Johnny Lancer, Alias Johnny Madrid, were written in neat block lettering.  He turned his face away in an attempt to hide the shame he felt at having his life laid out on paper.

                “A report,” he stated evenly, without looking up.  “On me.”

                “I’m sorry, Johnny.  I didn’t know how to handle this.  There,” he faltered. “There never seemed to be a good time to bring it up.”

                Johnny turned back to his father, his eyes hooded.  “And what made this moment so special?”

                Murdoch avoided the question.  “Johnny, when I finally hired the Pinkertons to track you down, I was desperate.  I had tried every avenue I could think of.  I didn’t know if you were even alive.  And when they told me they had finally tracked you down, that you lived under a different name, and that you were a…” his voice trailed away.

                “A gunfighter,” Johnny finished in clipped tones as he stood up stiffly.  “You can say it; the world won’t stop.”

                Murdoch looked up unhappily.  “That’s not what I mean, Johnny.”

                “Then what do you mean?”

                Murdoch looked back down at the folder lying between them.  “I was saddened by what life had dealt you.  I remembered you as a smiling, carefree little boy.  It’s not the future I would have wished for you.”

                “Sorry to disappoint you, Murdoch.  But I did what I needed to do.”  The next words were cold.  “And I did it well.”

                Murdoch closed his eyes, wanting to block out the callousness with which Johnny spoke.  A heavy sigh enveloped him.  “I know,” he whispered.  “That’s why we need to talk about this.”

                “Well, you go ahead and talk, but I don’t have to listen.  I already lived it, remember?”  Johnny’s voice rose.

                Murdoch pushed himself back from the desk.  “Yes, I remember, Johnny.  But your past has affected us all and will continue to do so.”

                Johnny gestured widely.  “Oh, that’s just wonderful!  You want I should go invite Scott and Teresa down here, too?  And how about Jelly while we’re at it?  Might as well get a full jury!”

                “Johnny!”  Murdoch straightened up, his voice sharp.  “I am not trying to judge your actions.”

                “Coulda fooled me,” Johnny retorted.  “Looks pretty much like you want to be judge and jury here.  Let’s find out what horrible things Johnny Madrid did.”  He picked up the file and held it out.  “Well, guess what, Murdoch?  I may have done a lot of bad things, and a lot of bad things were done to me, but at least I survived!”

                “Barely,” Murdoch replied coldly.

                “Oh, yeah,” Johnny snorted.  “Forgot to thank you for that.”  He paused sarcastically.  “Thanks.”  He dropped the folder ceremoniously onto the desk and turned away.

                “Johnny.”  Murdoch’s voice was a command.  “Are you willing to risk Scott and Teresa’s lives because you find it too uncomfortable to talk about your past?  Don’t they have a right to know who might show up next month with a grudge to settle?  Or if you’re suddenly killed coming out of a saloon one evening, doesn’t your brother deserve to know why?  Don’t I?”

                Johnny stopped, his back to Murdoch.  “What do you want from me?”

                Murdoch picked up the file.  “An explanation.  Information only you can supply.”

                “I can’t, Murdoch.”  Johnny’s voice was strained.  “I can’t.  Don’t you understand that?”

                “What I understand is that you want to avoid an uncomfortable subject.  I appreciate that.  I would, too.  But it’s your duty to this family to let us know where you stand with some of this.”

                Johnny turned slowly, and though his expression was one of stoical reserve, it didn’t manage to mask the pain in his eyes.  “Murdoch, why can’t we just drop this?  Why can’t you just let me be who I am?”

                “Who are you, Johnny?”  Murdoch’s question was sharp and brutal.  “That’s just what I want to know; who, Johnny?”  He opened the folder.  “Are you aware that you have three personal warrants out on you?  That there are a number of areas in Mexico where it’d be best you never visited again?  And what about Kansas?”  Murdoch watched Johnny carefully, but his son’s face registered no surprise.  “Would you like to explain the two thousand dollar warrant from that state?”

                “Only two thousand?”  Johnny’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

                Murdoch ignored the interruption.  “Three months ago, when you ran into Reveles, Scott came back very concerned.”

                Johnny eyed his father warily.  “Why?”

                “Because while you were negotiating with Reveles, the sheriff realized he’d seen a personal bounty on you from Texas.”  Murdoch continued to study his son.

                “Scott saw it?”  The words were quietly spoken.

                Murdoch nodded grimly.  “Do you know what that did to Scott?  The position it put him in?  He was totally unprepared with no explanation to provide.”  Murdoch continued, “And then he worried about you and what this bounty might mean.  It took him two weeks before he finally came to me with the knowledge.”

                “And what did you tell him?”  Johnny crossed his arms defiantly.

                “I told him I knew about it already,” Murdoch pressed. “He was disappointed that you had never confided in him.”

                “How could I?”

                “How could you not?”  Murdoch asked.  “Doesn’t he deserve an explanation?”

                At Johnny’s stony silence, Murdoch continued, “Johnny, there are many things in here that demand an explanation, that—”

                “No, you demand an explanation!”  Johnny grabbed the folder away from his father and forcefully flipped it open.  “You and your Pinkerton report.  You think you know everything about me.  Well, you don’t!”  He glanced quickly at the top sheet.  “A rather thorough report of my whereabouts.  But look at this,” he demanded tauntingly.  “Seems they couldn’t figure out what happened to me while I was eleven.  Need an explanation there, Murdoch?”  He continued, his voice increasingly sarcastic, “I was living in the back room of a whorehouse near Yuma.  Surprised?  Shouldn’t be.  Mother turned to prostitution rather than go back to you.”  Ignoring the pained look in his father’s eyes, Johnny turned back to the folder in his hands.  “Oh, and look at this.  Says here I killed my first man when I was fifteen.”  He looked back up at his father, his eyes cold and hard.  “Wrong again.  I was a lot younger.”  He threw the report onto the table with disgust, the papers scattering across the desktop.  “Have you had enough answers?  If so, then I’m going to bed.”

                Murdoch tried to think of something else to say, but words escaped him.  He could only watch as his younger son stalked out of the room, the questions and ghosts of Johnny Madrid now clinging to him tighter than ever.

 

                                                                                **************

 

                Johnny stormed up the stairs to his room.  Flinging open the door, he tensely entered, then slammed the door closed behind him.  As he glared around the room his heart beat a rapid, irregular rhythm.

                Why did this have to happen?  Why did that report have to exist?

                Were you really surprised?  You knew it had to have existed.  In fact, didn’t you deep down wonder why it hadn’t been brought up?  Why it seemed such a taboo subject and secretly wished it would finally be brought out in the open?

                Johnny growled quietly between clenched teeth.  Lifting his head, his gaze fell on a carved, wooden box sitting on his dresser.  He sighed and closed his eyes.  Then, with a defeated shake of his head, he slumped against the door.

                Everything Murdoch said was true.  He had hit the nail on the head when he had demanded that Johnny choose who he was.  Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid. Almost two and a half years of living at the ranch and Johnny still didn’t know.  Johnny Madrid didn’t want to die.  His hold on life was strong.  It wasn’t so much that everyone used it against him as much as it was that Johnny couldn’t quite part with his ghost.

                Standing upright, he walked over to the dresser, his eyes riveted on the decorated box.  Putting his hands on either side of the polished wood, he rubbed his fingers over its carved pattern.  Then, slowly and with care, he opened the lid.  On top lay a carefully folded, embroidered, black lace mantilla, which he lifted out and placed on the bureau beside the box.  Next he took out a small daguerreotype of a lady with dark hair and laughing eyes.  This he studied thoughtfully, a small wistful smile appearing for a moment on his lips, before he placed it atop the mantilla.  Then he pulled out a silver ring, which he set beside the daguerreotype.  Reaching his hand in once more, he drew out a medallion necklace.  He smiled at the small etching of St Francis of Assis, let his thumb rub along the surface to feel the finely wrought design.  He smiled again, a smile of poignant remembrance, then gently added it to the pile.  Next he reached in and drew out a couple more pieces of handmade, beaded jewelry, which he set absently on the bureau beside the other items.

                It was then that Johnny hesitated.  For he knew what lay at the bottom.  The last of the only real possessions of Johnny Madrid.

                Taking a breath, Johnny reached in one final time and pulled out a larger object wrapped in a black silk piece of cloth.  Carefully and methodically, he unfolded the fabric.  There in his hands lay Johnny Madrid’s gun.  The gun he had learned to modify under the tutelage of his mentor, Reveles.

                He rubbed a finger along the barrel.   He knew every inch of this gun.  A mixture of dread and elation, hate and desire, filled him like a drunk who has been too long without his liquor and has just discovered a hidden cache.  The intensity of the hold the gun held over him was palpable.

                Abruptly, Johnny laid the gun down on the bureau.  Forcing his gaze away, he turned his back and glared instead at the opposite wall.  It was hard to think straight while he held the revolver in his hands.  It knew him too well—and he, it.

 

                He walked to the end of his bed and sat down, slumping forward to rest his head in his hands.  His thoughts drifted back to the time when Scott had first seen the gun.  How embarrassed he had felt—and how surprised he had been by that discovery.

With a deep sigh, Johnny paused in his thoughts.  Closing his eyes, he leaned back until he was lying flat on the bed.  He let his mind continue to drift to that difficult time just over a year ago…

Soon after Mattie had left and he’d regained his sight…

There had been that doomed hunting exhibition with Scott that had ended nearly tragically.  It had amused him to find out later that everyone thought he’d been dead, and for weeks he’d had the most vivid dreams of an enormous mountain and colors that were alive.…………

He remembered going out to the balcony one evening, soon after the accident, to watch the sun set.  He was amazed at the threads of gold and silver he saw everywhere.  Scott eventually had joined him, and after they had watched for some time, Johnny had asked Scott if he didn’t see the shimmering silvers and golds hidden among all the colors.

                Scott looked at him with a smile, put an arm around him and said, “Johnny, deep down I think you’re a poet.”

                With a grin, Johnny just shook his head and went back to watch the setting sun.

                Later that evening, after supper, Johnny had returned to his room.  Upon entering, he had been drawn to the same wooden box, the box which held the memories of his past life; the bits and pieces that made up Johnny Madrid.

                He had taken each item out until he reached the last one.  The revolver.  And for the first time he could remember, he was suddenly and overwhelmingly inundated with conflicting emotions about the weapon.  This sensation had startled him.  It had always been a tool to him, a part of who he was, and suddenly he was sickened by the sight of it.

                He had never tried to hide who or what he had been.  He had been good at his profession and had always taken a certain amount of pride in that fact.  Yet, the truth of the matter was, he hated what he had done and how he had lived.  But he had been good at it, and it had kept him alive.

                Suddenly, the door to his room had opened.  And startled, he had turned to see Scott entering, a big smile on his face and two glasses of wine in his hands.  Johnny quickly put the gun down on the bureau and as nonchalantly as possible, covered it with the black piece of cloth.

                “Hey, Johnny!  There just happened to have been enough wine in that old bottle of Murdoch’s for two glasses.  And your wonderful big brother, being the caring and concerned individual—”

                “And modest,” Johnny added with an amused smirk.

                “Oh, yes,” Scott nodded his approval as he handed over one of the glasses.  “Mustn’t forget that.  Caring, concerned and modest individual that he is, immediately offered to take it off Murdoch’s hands and put it to good use.”

                Johnny accepted the wineglass and held it up.  “To us.”

                “Who better?”  Scott grinned and took a sip.  As he lowered his glass, Scott’s eyes took in the opened box and the items laid out on the bureau.  “Hey, what’s all this?”

                Johnny shrugged noncommittally.  “Ah, nothin’.  Just some ol’ stuff.”

                Though his answer had been worded to assuage Scott’s curiosity, Johnny immediately sensed that his brother saw through the ruse.  Hoping yet to discourage Scott from asking more questions, Johnny quickly positioned himself in front of the box and tried to adopt a nonchalant stance as he took a quick sip from the wine.

                “Hey,” Scott grinned, “I promise I won’t steal anything.”

                Wondering how his brother could be so amazingly dense, Johnny turned his back, set the wineglass down, and quickly began to gather up the items.  “Ain’t nothin’ worth stealin’,” he snapped in a tone he knew was sharper than he’d actually intended.

                There was a moment of silence as Johnny managed to shove some of the items back in the box, then he heard Scott quietly comment, “I remember that.  You were wearing it back when you first arrived at the ranch.”

                Recognizing the tone as the one his brother used when he was trying to make amends, Johnny paused to glance down at his palm where the small medallion of St Francis lay.  “Yeah, I guess so,” he shrugged noncommittally.

                Scott leaned forward for a closer look.  “There’s a design on it.”

                “It’s a saint.”

                “Oh?”  Scott paused and took another sip from his wineglass.

                “I got it from a priest.”

                “A priest, huh?”  Scott asked.

                “Yeah.”  He managed a half-grin. “Father Simon even blessed it for me.  He thought I might need it.”  He chuckled slightly.

Scott bent to get a better look at the engraving.  “It’s really a nice piece.  Wonderful craftmanship.  Did he make it?”

Johnny nodded, lowered his eyes.  “Yeah, he thought I might need it.”

Scott nodded thoughtfully, glanced up.  “Saint Francis, isn’t it?”

Johnny nodded, worried his bottom lip a moment, and for a fleeting moment, he almost continued.  He knew his brother was waiting, giving him the opportunity to resume.  But the story wasn’t willing to see the light of day.  Not yet. With a shake of his head, Johnny turned back and quickly scooped up a couple more items in the same hand, then grabbed the revolver, hidden among the silk wrapping, in the other.   Unfortunately, the silk wrapping slid back, exposing the coal-black barrel.

                “Hey, that’s a gun!”  Scott exclaimed.

                “Murdoch’ll be pleased to know that your Harvard schoolin’ wasn’t a complete waste,” Johnny snorted wryly.

                “Can I see it?”  Scott reached out a hand.

                After a second’s hesitation, Johnny reluctantly turned over the wrapped bundle.

                As Scott pulled away the fabric, Johnny busied himself with putting the other items away in the box, aware that his brother was studying with fascination the coal, dull-black finish of the weapon.

“This is the strangest looking revolver I’ve ever seen.  It has no sight, and it’s missing a good two inches off the end of the barrel.”

                Johnny shrugged.

                “You’re gonna lose some accuracy with the shortened barrel.”

                “Accuracy ain’t its main design.”

                Scott’s eyebrows furrowed.  “Never seen you carry this.”

                “Haven’t needed it here.”

                “Then why do you have it?”

                Johnny shrugged again.  “It proved useful at one time.”

                “For what?”

                “For killin’”

                “All guns kill, Johnny.”

                Johnny turned to his brother, knew his expression matched his words.  “That gun’s made for killin’ men.”

                Scott opened his mouth as if to reply, but instead his eyes were drawn back down to the black revolver.

                Johnny suddenly reached out and took the gun, the ease with which he wielded it proving they were ‘old friends’.

                “It was modified for speed.”  Johnny’s voice took on a detached tone.  “The shortened barrel allows for a faster clearance from the holster.  The lack of a sight is for two reasons.  It’s unnecessary in a gunfight, and second, there’s always the possibility of catching the sight on the holster when it’s being drawn.  Also, the grip has been modified to fit perfectly in my hand and there’s been adjustments made to the trigger release mechanism.”  Johnny twirled it quickly then held it out, keeping his expression guarded and without emotion.

Without hesitating, Scott met his gaze and accepted the gun, his own expression impassive.  He held the weapon a moment, seemed to weigh it then let a finger trail along its barrel.  With a solemn nod, he looked back up, his expression now changed to solemn understanding.

“I’m glad you learned to take care of yourself,” was his brother’s reply.

 

**************

 

                Murdoch sighed and rubbed his eyes.  He could barely make out a faint lightening of the sky.  Morning was dawning, and he had never even been to bed.  He turned around to look at the desk where the Pinkerton report sat, the scattered papers once again put neatly back into the folder.  He stepped across to the desk and picked it up.  Slowly he ran his finger over Johnny’s name.

                Maybe he had been wrong to tell Johnny he had the report.  Maybe he should have burned it two years ago.  But he hadn’t.  Just when things were finally starting to work out between them, had he made things worse by confronting Johnny with the report?  His intention had been to wait until there had been time for trust to develop between them, but instead had he destroyed that trust?

                Murdoch bent down and opened the bottom drawer of his desk.  Picking up the other papers in it, he slid the report underneath, closed the drawer, and locked it once again.                                                                 

  **************

 

                Johnny lay on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, his head resting on his arms.  His boots were off, otherwise he lay fully clothed upon the bed covers.  Silence permeated the room as Johnny’s thoughts quickly navigated the scenes of his life.  How long he had lain like this, he wasn’t sure.  He noticed, however, a faint lightening in the room from the window.

                He pulled his gaze downward, toward the wooden box and its contents, still scattered across the bureau.  The only one that interested him, at that moment, was the larger one wrapped in the old cloth.

                It had taken him over two years to reach this decision, but it was a decision that should have been made long ago, though he had lacked the conviction and strength to do it before.  It had all reached a climax at Murdoch’s challenge.  Which are you?  Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid?

                Murdoch was right.  His family did need to know what had happened in his past life, but until Johnny took that final step and truly buried Johnny Madrid, Johnny Lancer was always in danger of being overshadowed.  Until he came to peace with his own past, Johnny was never going to be able to face up to it with his family.

                And the first step…Johnny smoothly rose from the bed and crossed the room to the bureau….is to get rid of the gun of Johnny Madrid.

                Scott had been right when he had asked why he still kept it.  Did Johnny really think he was going to be called out, here?  Now?  The only purpose that revolver served was as a reminder of who he had been and what he had done.  A reminder of death and a dark life from which he had barely escaped.

                He hurriedly put the rest of the items back in the box.  After pulling on his boots, he grabbed his holster off the bedpost and buckled it on.  Then he went to the bureau and pulled out an extra shirt and bandana, an extra pair of socks, grabbed his jacket off the corner chair and finally added the still-wrapped gun to the pile.  With a last cursory glance around the room, he opened the door to the hall and went out, quietly closing the door behind him.

                In the hallway, Johnny paused and glanced at the door to Scott’s room.  With a shake of his head, he overcame the momentary desire to talk to his brother, and turned his gaze away.   Now was not the time.  Later, after he had made the break.  Later, when he could come clean.  Later, when he could look his brother in the eye and tell him all the awful truths.

                He quietly walked down the steps and at the landing turned to cross the great room.  He’d almost made it to the door when he heard a noise.  He continued, dreading what was sure to come.

                “Johnny.”

                Johnny stopped, but didn’t turn around.  He heard Murdoch get up from his chair and take a couple of steps.  “Where are you going?”

                Inwardly sighing, Johnny momentarily closed his eyes.  Not now, he thought.  Give me the chance to do this myself.  Give me the chance to save a little dignity.  He opened his eyes then turned to face his father.  “I need to get away for a few days.”

                Johnny noticed his father hesitate, then step forward.  “Why?”

                Johnny studied the pile of clothes tucked under his arm.  “I just do, that’s all.”

                “If it’s about last night, Johnny.  I’m sorry.  I want to understand…to help….”

                While Murdoch took another step forward, Johnny unconsciously took a step back.  “Not now, Murdoch, please.”

                Murdoch stopped, sensing Johnny’s unease.  “So you’re just going to leave?  Run away?”

                Johnny shook his head, his voice taking on a hard edge.  “I’m not runnin’.  I just need some time to think.”  He tried to rein in his emotions, but knew he wasn’t succeeding as well as he would have liked.  How come he could calmly face down a half dozen guns, but seemed to lose all composure when faced with Murdoch?  “I’ll be gone a few days,” Johnny abruptly added, then turned and left.

                As the front door slammed shut, Murdoch took a deep breath and shook his head.  Would he and Johnny ever be able to understand each other?

                “I see steam.”

                Murdoch turned.

Scott stood watching him from the doorway, eyebrows raised, hands on hips.  He broke into a long stride and nodded at his father as he entered the room.  “It’s coming from your ears.  Must mean that was Johnny’s unmistakable door slam I heard.”  A hint of a smile crossed his face, but was quickly swallowed when he noticed Murdoch wasn’t appreciating his attempt at humor.  He wisely changed tactics.  “Something I could help with?”

                Murdoch gave a snort and stalked back to his desk. “I wish I knew.”

                Scott continued tentatively, “I heard Johnny come to bed last night.”

                “So?” Murdoch grunted as he sat down in his chair and rested his head in his heads.

                “The door had that same ‘slamming’ quality to its sound.”

                Murdoch barely moved his fingers out of the way to shoot Scott a murderous look.

                “I take it I missed a rather heated discussion after I went to bed last night.”

                Murdoch covered his eyes again.  “It was not much of a discussion.”

                Scott glanced down at the floor, then back at his father whose fatigue was obvious.  “What was it about, if I may ask?”  

                Pushing away from the desk, Murdoch once more stood.  “Maybe you should ask your brother,” he replied curtly as he headed for the stairs.  “I’m going up to my room for awhile.”

                Scott watched his father wearily leave the room, a look of defeat on his face.  Whatever it was they had discussed the night before, the outcome had obviously not been what either had hoped.  Wishing to help resolve the conflict, Scott turned and headed out the front door.

                Once outside, the coolness of the morning air made Scott wish he had grabbed his jacket.  As he crossed to the barn, he nodded a greeting to Miguel, who was coming out of the bunkhouse, yawning widely.

                “Morning, Señor Lancer.”  Miguel smiled.

                “Seen Johnny?”

                “No, Señor Lancer.  I haven’t,” Miguel answered, then continued on his way to the water pump.

                “I done seen him.”

                Scott turned to see Jelly crossing the yard.

                “He’s in the barn saddlin’ Barranca.”  Jelly hooked a thumb in the general direction.  “Tried to wish him a good mornin’, too, but he pert’near bit my head off.”

                “Sorry, Jelly.”  Scott patted his friend on the arm.  “He and Murdoch had words.”

                “Coulda guessed that,” Jelly huffed.  “It’s been too quiet around here of late.  They wuz overdue.”

                “I’ll see if I can straighten it out.”  Scott grinned wryly and headed for the barn.

                “Hope you don’t come back without your head,” Jelly called after him.

                As Scott entered the barn he paused a second to allow his eyes to adjust, then continued toward the stalls.  He found Johnny as Jelly had described, leading Barranca, fully geared, out of his stall.

                Johnny slowed when he saw Scott, but didn’t stop.

                Scott decided not to attempt good-natured kidding after its disastrous results with Murdoch and opted for light-hearted banter instead.  “In a hurry to check for strays today, I see.”

                Johnny gave his brother a sour look.  “I’ll be gone a few days.  Sorry if it puts extra work on you, but it can’t be helped.”

                “Why?  Where are you going?”  Scott had to step aside as Johnny brushed past.

                “I just gotta get somethin’ done.”

                Scott followed along Barranca’s other side.  “Why now?  Why don’t you give me two or three days, then we could go together?” Scott added as they re-entered the early morning sunshine.  “Hey, I have a great idea.  We could go hunting together!”

                Johnny abruptly halted, then stooped to glance from under Barranca’s neck, his eyebrows raised in amusement.  “Boston, think.  You.  Me.  Hunting.  Not a good idea.  Remember?”

                Scott grinned at Johnny’s use of the nickname.  “Then why don’t you wait a couple of days and we’ll go together and do anything but hunt?”

                “Scott.”  Johnny turned and opened the gate of the paddock, his voice sounding weary.  “I don’t want to argue with you.  I need to be alone.”

                Scott followed and closed the gate behind them.

                “Is Murdoch in there?”  Johnny nodded toward the front of the large house.

                “Are things that bad that you need to avoid him?”

                Shooting Scott a disgusted look, Johnny sighed.  “Never mind.  I’ll go through the kitchen door.” He  continued to lead Barranca around the house where he dropped the reins outside the kitchen door.  As he put his hand on the doorknob, he suddenly turned to Scott, who was following close behind. “You’re not going to leave me alone, are you?”

                Despite the tell-tale smoldering that was beginning to darken Johnny’s eyes, Scott shook his head ruefully.  “Not until I know what’s going on.”

                “You wanna know what’s goin’ on?” demanded Johnny.  “I’ll tell you what’s goin’ on.  I’m trying to get some provisions without a confrontation.  That’s what’s goin’ on!”  He jerked open the door and stormed into the kitchen.

                Scott followed, sensing that neither light-hearted banter nor good-natured kidding were working today, which left only the direct approach.  With an inward groan, Scott trailed Johnny into the kitchen, determined to get to the bottom of what was eating at his brother.

                As Scott watched Johnny wrap up some day-old biscuits and jerky in a cloth, he calmly leaned against the table.  “Enough pussy footin’.  What’s up, Johnny?”

                Johnny grabbed two cans of beans from out of the pantry.  “I told you, it’s nothing.  I just need a few days to myself.”

                “Is some one after you?”

                Johnny paused, seemingly startled by the question.  He turned to look at his brother’s worried expression.  “No, Scott.  No one is out to get me, if that’s what you’re worried about.”  He gathered the items up and began putting them into the saddlebag.

                “Then what’s the big secret?” Scott demanded.  “Why can’t you talk to me about it?  What’s Murdoch so stormed about?  I’d like to help…”

                “You can’t,” Johnny snapped, his eyes flashing.  “I don’t know why that’s so hard for you to understand.”

                “Because I care.”

                Scott’s simple answer caught Johnny off guard.  Reluctantly he looked down at the saddlebag, then roughly grabbed it off the counter.  “Then you care too much,” he muttered.

                “That’s not possible,” Scott replied quietly as he moved to stand in front of Johnny, blocking his way.  “You’re my brother.”

                Johnny locked eyes with Scott, though he knew his own were betraying him.  “Move, Scott.  Otherwise Teresa’s not gonna be very happy when she sees the condition of her kitchen this mornin’”

                “Please talk to me, Johnny.”  Scott attempted once more, laying a hand on his brother’s arm.  “Don’t I have a right to know what’s going on?”

                Murdoch’s words echoed back in Johnny’s mind.  Doesn’t your brother deserve to know why…

                Scott noticed Johnny’s hesitation, but it was quickly masked with a shake of his head.  “You’d better go ‘n’ talk to Murdoch, then.  I can’t…I can’t explain right now.”  Roughly Johnny pushed past Scott and went out the door, leaving Scott shaking his head in regret as the door slammed ominously behind his brother.

                For a moment he stood in tense silence.  Then suddenly, his pent-up frustration getting the better of him, Scott slammed his fist on the table.  “Damn!”

                “Well, my, my, Scott!  If I’d known you were so hungry, I’d have been up earlier.”

                Startled, Scott turned.  Teresa stood in the kitchen doorway, a smile spreading across her face.  Embarrassed, Scott sheepishly looked down at his clenched fist.

                Sensing Scott’s discomfort at being caught releasing his anger, Teresa lightly entered the room and brushed Scott’s shoulder with her hand.  “I’ll have you some eggs and biscuits before you know it.  Just give me five minutes or so.”  She turned and began to stoke the banked embers on the centrally located brick oven.

                “You know that’s not it.”  Scott sat down heavily.

                Teresa quietly turned back to study Scott’s bent head.  She watched, concerned, as he rubbed his face with both hands and sighed.  “It’s Johnny.”  He dropped his hands and gazed up at Teresa’s concerned face.

                Teresa nodded.  “I know.”  At Scott’s raised eyebrow, she explained, “You always look like this when you’re worried about Johnny.”  Then she paused, smiling as she added, “And I heard him slam the door.”

                Scott couldn’t help but smile.  “How could you tell it wasn’t Murdoch’s slam.”

                “I heard Murdoch in his room as I came down the hall this morning.”  Teresa’s grin spread.  “He’s slamming things in there, too.”

                Scott chuckled, then suddenly sighed sadly.  “I just don’t get it, Teresa.  Why won’t he talk to me?  We’ve known each other for over two years now.  I’ve never given him any reason not to trust me.  Yet, there he goes—” Scott flung his hand in the direction of the outside door, “off by himself again.  He says he trusts me, yet he won’t tell me what’s going on.  Why?”

                Teresa paused, her eyes reflecting back the pain she could so clearly read in Scott’s face.  With a small shake of her head, she stepped forward, pulled out the chair opposite Scott’s and sat down.  “Tell me what happened.”

                Scott sadly shook his head.  “I don’t really know.  I guess after we left last night, Murdoch and Johnny had words about something.”  He shrugged.  “I heard Johnny come up to bed but,” he couldn’t help a wry smile, “when I heard the door slam I figured I’d talk to him in the morning after he’d had a chance to cool off.”

                Teresa nodded, waiting.

                “This morning I came downstairs just as I heard Johnny storm out the front door.  I tried to talk to Murdoch, but got no where.  He’s not in a much better mood than Johnny, and he looks like he hasn’t slept all night.”  Scott looked down at the table and paused when he noticed the burn marks from when Drago had challenged him to an arm wrestling contest.  Another ghost from Johnny’s past.  He quickly looked back up.  “I followed him out to the barn where he was getting ready to leave.  I tried to talk to him, even followed him back here, but he wouldn’t tell me a thing.  Just said he needed to do something, and that if I wanted any answers I’d better talk to Murdoch.”  Scott’s voice rose in frustration.

                Teresa put a calming hand out.  “Maybe he’s telling the truth.  Maybe he just needs a break for a few days.”

                Scott emphatically shook his head.  “No.  There’s more to it than that.  I know it.  I can feel it.  Something’s up.”  His index finger stabbed at the table in his effort to make a point.  “I asked him if someone was after him.  He told me, no.”  Scott paused as he looked at Teresa.  “Do you think he could have been lying?  Trying to keep me from following into some dangerous situation he’s in?”

                Teresa shook her head.  “No, Scott.  Johnny wouldn’t lie to you.  I know that for a fact.”  She smiled.  “When you both first got here, I know he didn’t think you could take care of yourself, that eventually you’d find your ‘sorry Boston hide in a ditch’, as he once told me.”  She smirked at the astonished look on Scott’s face.

                “He said that?”

                “Yes, he did.”  Teresa grinned.  “But he doesn’t think of you as a greenhorn to be coddled anymore; you’ve more than proved to him that he doesn’t have to worry about you.  You can take care of yourself.”

                Teresa’s heart sank as Scott sadly shook his head.  “But I want to be there for him, to take care of him like I was never able to do as we were growing up—like somebody should have been doing.”

                “You do, Scott.”  She covered his hand with her own.  “You do.  He knows it.”

                “Then why?”  Scott demanded.  “Why won’t he talk to me?  Why won’t he trust me?”

                “Scott?”  Teresa paused as she studied his tortured face.  “Maybe it’s the other way around.”

                “Huh?”  Scott raised both eyebrows.

                “Maybe he’s worried you won’t trust him anymore.”

                Teresa watched as Scott absorbed the idea, his eyes drifting off to a corner of the room in thought.  Then, suddenly, he fixed Teresa with a deep look.  “That’s not possible.”  His gaze didn’t waver.  “I’d trust him with my life.”

 

***********

Johnny reined up Barranca and surveyed the golden valley below him.  He’d been pushing it most of the morning, driven for some inexplicable reason to put as much distance between himself and Scott’s reproachful look.  He knew he had hurt him, had disappointed him in the way he had brushed off the offer of help.  But how could he discuss Johnny Madrid until he managed to bury him?

Dismounting with an ease born of years on horseback, Johnny let Barranca’s reins drop, allowing the animal to nibble at the few blades of green grass managing to still find a toe-hold in the soil, while he stretched out his saddle-sore muscles.  He gave a grunt of satisfaction as he felt his back crack.

Slipping the canteen off the saddlehorn, Johnny took a long swallow, then poured some into his hand and let Barranca’s rough tongue lick up the moisture.  He refilled his hand three times, then took another long sip before he recapped the canteen and looped it back on the saddle.  Water wasn’t really an issue.  He’d be at one of the streams running out of the foothills within the hour, where he planned to take a long noon break and allow Barranca to rest.

With a last glance at his surroundings, he swung back up in the saddle and continued farther south.

 

**********

Scott took off his shirt and shook it out.  After laying it on the small stool, he pumped water into the basin.  He felt itchy all over and was sure there were bits of straw sticking out of his hair.  He hated loading hay.  He hated being itchy.  He hated having his nose running, and he hated having Johnny gone.  In a grunt of frustration, Scott stuck his head straight under the pump and let the cold water cool his temper.  He had been in a bad mood all day and knew it.  Ever since this morning, when Johnny had left.  As the day had progressed, his mood had only gotten worse.

When he’d finally had enough and decided it was maybe time to breathe, he came up for air, savagely wiping the water from his face with a towel that had been hung on the pump handle.  Finished, he slapped it back on the pump and irritably shook out his shirt once more.

“I’d try again.”

                Scott turned at the sound of Teresa’s voice.

                “Try what?” he asked.

                “Cooling off.”  Teresa smiled knowingly and nodded at the pump.  “You still look a bit steamy.”

                Scott had to grin despite himself.  “Am I that obvious?”

                Teresa walked up and gave him a pat on the shoulder.  “Only to someone who knows you so well.”  She paused to change the subject.  “I just put fresh water, soap and a clean towel back by the side entrance.”

                “Thanks, Teresa.”  Scott picked up his shirt and shook it out again, watching the hay dust explode into a cloud.  “I think I’ll change before supper.”

                “That would be nice,” she replied as her eyes followed the dust settling to the ground.

                As Teresa turned to start for the house, Scott suddenly asked, “Have you talked to Murdoch?”

                Teresa shook her head.  “I didn’t see him leave this morning and he just came back about fifteen minutes ago.”  Her face broke into a wry grin.  “And if you still look steamy, he’s throwing off enough sparks to start a range fire.”

                Scott sighed heavily.  “Not a good sign.”

                “Well,” Teresa added brightly, “I did make him his favorite supper.”

                Scott reached out, cupping Teresa’s chin briefly.  “Get a man’s belly happy and full, and his disposition improves, hmmm?”

                “That’s the plan.”

                “You, Teresa, are one wise woman.”

                Teresa looked at Scott with mock surprise.  “And this comes as a shock, Mr. Scott Lancer?”

                “Of course not, Miss Teresa.”  Scott laughed as she wrinkled her nose at him and turned back toward the house.

                Scott stretched his arms outward and groaned.  He still hated baling hay.  He glanced apprehensively toward the house.  Well, with some luck and Teresa's cooking, maybe, just maybe, he could find out what the real story was.  Scott was NOT fond of mysteries.  He’d already had his share of riddles where Johnny's past was concerned; and he was quite ready to put an end to it.  With a determined look, he headed toward the side door where he found the water basin, soap and towel.  Teresa appreciated, what Johnny referred to as, ‘Scott’s Eastern Cleanliness Quirk’, and was always ready with clean water and towels.

                After as thorough a washing as was possible in a basin, Scott entered the kitchen.  Teresa and Dolores, the Lancer’s new maid, were finishing the preparations for supper.

                “Fifteen minutes,” Teresa called as Scott made his way to the opposite door.  Nodding, Scott continued out into the hall and up the stairs.

                Once in his room, he crossed to the armoire and pulled out a clean pair of pants and a shirt.  After changing, he pulled a comb through his hair and was on the verge of opening his door when he heard Murdoch’s familiar steps echoing down the hall.  He paused, hesitant to confront his father just yet.   He waited until he heard the footsteps fading away down the stairs.  Scott bowed his head and sighed.  Generally he had no problem confronting his father like Johnny seemed to have, but he felt a sudden empathy for his brother.  For some reason, the idea of confronting Murdoch intimidated him this time.  It made no sense, really.  He and Murdoch always seemed to have gotten along, which was a main reason why he felt a certain responsibility to always stand by his younger brother in any disagreement and plead his case for him.  Murdoch and Johnny were like two bulls in the same pasture, both determined to be in charge at all costs.  Scott felt the need to be the voice of reason in their sometimes irrational and childish disputes.  With another sigh, Scott opened the door and descended the stairs to the dining room.

                Teresa had gone to a lot of trouble to provide a pleasant atmosphere.  Whether Murdoch was aware of it or not was impossible to read, but Scott felt that Teresa’s touch in the evening was obvious.  The meal was excellent and Teresa’s light-hearted conversation was just what the two men needed.  As she cleaned away the dishes, Scott got up from the table and walked to the corner of the room where Murdoch kept his brandy.

                “May I pour you a glass?”  Scott asked, raising an empty brandy snifter to his father.

                Scott felt Murdoch’s gaze linger on him a few seconds before his father reluctantly nodded.  Turning back to the decanter, Scott poured two brandies as his father rose from his chair and came to join him.  Handing his father one of the snifters, Scott decided to directly broach the subject he had been carrying with him all day.  “Murdoch, I really need to talk to you about Johnny.”

                Scott watched uncomfortably as Murdoch’s eyes darkened.  “I’d rather not discuss it right now if you don’t mind.”

                “But I do mind,” Scott replied quickly.  “I tried to talk to him this morning, but he wouldn't tell me a thing. You tell me to talk to him, and he tells me to talk to you.  Well, since it seems that you’re the only one here at the moment, I’m asking you to tell me what happened with Johnny.”

                Murdoch turned and walked to the large windows behind his desk.  Scott watched as his father gazed outside, then turned slowly back to him.  “I can’t tell you right now, Scott.  You’ll just have to accept that.  Hopefully, when Johnny returns, we’ll be able to sit down together and talk this over.”

                “Hopefully?” Scott retorted.  “Why is it the two of you never seem to be able to get along for any length of time?  I thought things were great last night, and suddenly I awake to find Johnny riding off, a large chip on his shoulder.  What did you say that drove him away this time?”  As soon as the last sentence was out of Scott’s mouth, he regretted saying it.  But, damn it! He meant it!

                “He just wants a few days by himself.  I suggest we give it to him,” Murdoch replied in clipped tones, then turned quickly away.

                Scott sighed, a feeling that he had accomplished nothing settled on him.  “That’s your final word, then?”

                Scott saw Murdoch bow his head.  “That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.  We need to wait until Johnny returns.”

                Scott glared down at the brandy in his hands.  Seeing that he hadn’t even taken a sip yet, he downed it in one gulp.  He felt a perverse satisfaction as the strong liquor immediately heated his insides.  At least he could enjoy the satisfaction of the fire in his belly, if his proper Eastern upbringing wouldn’t let him spout the fire in his thoughts.  With an abruptness that would have startled his brother to see, Scott savagely grabbed the brandy decanter, refilled his snifter, and stormed up to his room.

 

                                                                                *******************

 

                Johnny awoke to the sound of Barranca neighing gently.  He let his eyes open slowly, and took in the peaceful surroundings of the camp he had picked out the night before.  It felt good to be out under the clear sky, to revel in the quiet beginnings of a new day.  He sometimes forgot how clear everything seemed after a night under the stars.  How simple things could look with a fresh beginning.  Today was his day to start afresh.  Today was the day that he buried Johnny Madrid permanently.

                After quickly heating some old coffee grounds, and making a simple breakfast from a can of beans and the two biscuits he had left from the day before, Johnny left camp and started toward his destination.

                After he had left the Lancer hacienda the morning before, he had headed straight south, then after the first hour, confident he hadn’t been followed by Scott, he had turned and headed past the far south-east corner of Lancer, toward the distant foothills of the Sierras.  It was here that he knew he would find the small lake where he could bury Johnny Madrid, or rather Johnny Madrid’s gun; the gun that now lay nestled among the extra clothes in his saddlebag.  Momentarily, upon leaving the ranch, he had entertained the rather theatrical notion of heading to the ocean and casting the weapon into the waves.  The idea had appealed to his dramatic nature.  But after the original enjoyment of playing the scene over in his mind a couple of times, he realized that first of all, it was too far to the ocean and his increased absence would set both Murdoch and Scott off, and two, with his luck, the waves would just wash the gun right back to him.  And he certainly didn’t want that.  He was trying to make a clean break, a break he should have made at least a year ago, he wryly admitted to himself.  And now that he had made the decision, he wanted it done quick and clean.

                As the morning progressed, horse and rider made their way across the floor of the San Joaquin.  As they drew nearer to the area around the foothills, the path became increasingly rugged.  Sparse, dry grasses clung tenaciously to the ground, and the dust rose with each step Barranca took.  Johnny had felt no urgent need to hurry as he had the day before, so instead he took his time, enjoying the quiet and solitude the day was affording him.  The momentary calm before he went through with his decision.

As the cool morning hours slipped by, their crystal clearness allowing him the time to work out any reservations he had about his decision, Johnny’s thoughts returned to the years he had spent before he had returned to Lancer; the years of the hunted and the hunting, of excitement and exhaustion, of destruction and death.  He realized, with some surprise, that he saw most of the scenes in his mind as if he had been reading a dime novel.  It was someone else’s life.  That wasn’t him anymore.  Johnny Madrid had been slowly dying all the time, only Johnny Lancer hadn’t been able to quite let go.  It was a difficult break to make.  He had lived with Madrid for many years, and Johnny had to admit he owed Madrid his life.  But it was time to make it on his own.  He didn’t need Madrid to watch his back for him anymore.  He had Scott.

                Johnny suddenly smiled.  Scott.  He closed his eyes, imaging the scene when he returned home the next day.  He would walk in, calm and confident, his ghost now buried.  With a clear conscience, he would go up to Murdoch and ask him to gather Scott and Teresa, that it was time they had a talk. His father's face would register pride.  And confidence.  Not in his ability with a gun, but in him as a person.

                No, not that way.  Johnny paused in his musings as he vaguely noticed the rugged boulders strewn along the path, his subconscious barely registering that there had been a recent landslide in the area.

                His mind returned to the scene he was playing out in his thoughts.  No, instead Johnny would walk in, calm and confident, and say he wanted to talk to Scott alone.  Yes.  That was better.  He needed time with Scott first, just the two of them.  Then he would talk with Murdoch and Teresa.  He wanted to have the opportunity to confide in his brother without anyone else listening in.  He felt he owed his brother that much, for all the times Scott had stood by him without criticism, steadfastly and without reservation, though God only knew how hard that must have been for him.

                Johnny suddenly smiled to himself at the thought.  It felt good to be making this decision.  And it would feel so good to come clean with Scott.  The smile had barely had time to spread across his face when the sound of a cartridge being locked in place brought his reflexes to bear.  His gun was immediately drawn and he had twisted in his saddle at a low angle, ready to fire at the sound, but no sooner had his eyes taken in the barren scene behind him when he heard the unmistakable sound of another cartridge locking into place to his front.  He didn’t even bother to turn around.  He knew he was taken and a fast reaction would probably only get himself killed.

                And then the words.  The words that wrapped around him, enveloping him in their frightening familiarity.

                “Drop it, Madrid!”

                Only after Johnny let his gun drop to the ground, did he risk turning around to confront his captor.  The man facing him looked roughly ten years older than he was, but similar in build.  Dark hair, dark coloring, but the eyes that glinted with cocky amusement were a dark brown.

“Pete, grab the gun,” the man instructed.

The sound of boots scuffing in gravel sounded from behind and Johnny turned as the second man come around one of the boulders.  Silently he watched as Pete stooped to pick up his gun.  When the other man glanced up, there was a hint of a sarcastic grin on his face as he nodded a greeting.  Johnny thought he looked a few years younger than the first man.  He was taller, with long, dirty blond hair and a moustache that trailed along the sides of his mouth.  The fact that both men wore their holsters low and looked quite at ease handling their rifles, did not go unnoticed.

                “Off your horse,” the darker man instructed.

                “And if I don’t?”

                “Then I guess we’ll be forced to help you, and I don’t think you want that.”

                Johnny raised an eyebrow, but did as instructed, sliding silently to the ground.

The first man nodded to Pete, who produced a length of rope and tied Johnny’s hands securely behind him.  Next Pete pulled a bandana out of his pocket and proceeded to gag him.  At Johnny’s surprised look, the darker man explained, “You see, Madrid. We checked into you closely.  Can’t prompt that horse of yours this way.”  He then made a nod to Pete, who grabbed Johnny’s arm and helped him back into his saddle.  Then Pete grabbed the reins and led the way down the path with the other man following directly behind, his rifle trained on Johnny’s back.

They hadn’t gone far before they came across the two men’s horses.  Pete quickly mounted, still holding the reins to Barranca.  Then he took out his gun and trained it on Johnny while the other man mounted.

                “Okay, Cage, on to Mendota?”  Pete asked.

                “Well, I think that’s best.  They’ve got a telegraph office there so we can wire Mr. Stanton, tell him we’ve got Madrid and that we’re gonna need three tickets on the train from San Francisco to Kansas.”

                “We’ll have to get him up there, first,” Pete said with a nod of his head at Johnny.

                “We just gotta avoid his family finding us.”  Cage shook his head.  “So, that means we ain’t got much time.  Let’s get outta this area.”

                Johnny had listened to the exchange, hardly believing what he had heard.  Stanton?  Johnny closed his eyes as his chest constricted, making it difficult to breathe.  No, it wasn’t possible.  Please, God, don't let it be him.  I can't face this.  Not now!  Not when I was going to bury all my past!  He opened his eyes and noticed Pete looking at him with a certain amount of wonder and respect.

                “Geez!  Four thousand dollars!  Can you believe it?”  Pete glanced at Cage, then back at Johnny and shook his head.   “You sure did mess with the wrong man,” he informed Johnny with a grin.

                Johnny looked away, the same thought having occurred to him.

 

                                                                                **************

 

                Evening was falling, and Johnny’s arms had long since ceased having any feeling in them.  The two men kept the pace up, obviously worried about putting as much distance as they could between themselves and the Lancer Ranch, so talk had also been kept to a minimum.  Instead, Johnny was left with his thoughts, thoughts of a time six years earlier.  The only time he could remember thinking he had finally pulled his life together, that he wasn’t just a low-life, half-breed gunhawk with nothing to live for, but was really somebody, a person to be wanted and loved.  And then, to have it all blow up in his face so cruelly, so horribly...  Even after so many years, he couldn’t think of it without feeling an enormous crushing of his soul, a shame and degradation he couldn’t even find words to express.  In anger, he closed his eyes against the tears he felt welling up.  God, after so many years, you still can’t think of it, of her, without crying.  He physically shook himself to get rid of the emotions he felt rising to the surface.  Gees, Johnny, now’s not the time to fall apart.  You knew of all the bounties out on you, this was the only one that really counted.  That actually had the possibility of ruining your life...and the life of your family.  All the others are personal grudges, one person putting out the word that they’d like your hide, but this... this is different.  Johnny closed his eyes and shook his head.  God, how different.  And now, all because your pig-headed refusal to acknowledge it, to come clean with your family who only wanted to help and protect you.  Now they'll have no idea what’s happened to you.  Where you’ve gone.  Kansas is a hell of a long way from here.

                “Let’s set up camp here,” Pete suddenly announced, raising his hand to signal a stop.

                “Looks good,” Cage agreed, as he pulled up along side Pete, the reins to Barranca in his hand.  “I’m dead tired.  This has been a helluva job.”

                Pete quickly dismounted and took the reins from Cage.  After they had tied Johnny to a tree, each checking the cords, they proceeded to split up chores.  Cage took care of the horses, while Pete saw to starting a fire and fixing up a quick supper.

                It took Cage about as long to see to the horses and set up their camp, as it did for Pete to put together a quick meal of hard-tack biscuits and a watery bean and jerky stew.  Cage had just settled himself near the fire as Pete gave his concoction a final taste.  With a nod of his head, he deemed it satisfactory, and began to dish up portions onto three rather battered tin plates.  Johnny watched, detached, as the two men went about their respective chores.  Theirs was obviously a long-standing partnership, Johnny noticed unhappily.  It made it even more unlikely that they'd make some mistake that would eventually lead to his being able to escape.  They were neither flamboyant nor obnoxious in their behavior.  Instead, it was a calmness and ease born of many years of practice.  He had only once before run into a pair of bounty hunters that actually scared him, and that was just about two years ago when a pair of bounty hunters had mistaken Scott for someone else.

                Pete suddenly stood and brought one of the plates over toward Johnny.  With a grin, he knelt before him.  “Sorry, but you’ll understand if I don’t untie your hands.  However it is impossible to eat with a gag in your mouth, I will get rid of that for you.”  He leaned over and quickly untied the knot holding the gag in place.

                Johnny flexed his jaw muscles a couple of times, immensely relieved to have the foul thing out of his mouth.  He watched with a bit of trepidation as Pete scooped up a spoonful of the watery stew.  Pete grinned at him, noticing the obvious dismay on his captive’s face.  “Sorry.  Know it’s a bit humiliating having someone feed ya, but it’s better’n goin’ hungry.  Beside, I ain’t spilled on anyone yet.  Well, least wise if they weren’t being ornery and trying to knock it out of my hand!”

                Cage, who had been watching the proceedings with amusement, guffawed loudly before turning back to tend the fire.  With a sigh, Johnny did the only thing he could, and allowed himself to be fed.

                When he had finished feeding Johnny the stew, Pete held out the canteen for Johnny to take a drink.  The water was tepid, but tasted wonderful after being gagged for half a day, and the aftertaste was better than the stew’s.

                As Pete set the plate on the ground and reached for the bandana, Johnny quickly asked the question that had been nagging at him all afternoon.  “The bounty,” he said. “I heard you say four thousand.”

                Pete nodded.  “Yeah, Madrid, you’re worth a helluva lot of money to us.  We’ll be sure to treat you right, since Alive’s one of the conditions.”

                “I thought it was only two thousand.”

                Pete snorted.  “Did’ja hear that, Cage?  Only two thousand.”  He turned back to Johnny.  “Well, you’re right.  Mr. Stanton raised the bounty a couple years ago, since nobody seemed to be able to get the job done.  Being so far away kept you safe for quite some time.  Long way to Kansas.  But with the railroad finished now…” He shrugged.

                “What made you come after me?”

                Cage got up from his place by the fire and walked over to stand behind Pete.  “Other than the fact that you’ve got the damned highest bounty in Kansas right now?”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Well, let’s say we decided it was our professional duty to bring you to justice, and with a little luck,” he smiled slyly at Pete, “we just might get ourselves hired permanently with Mr. Stanton.  We’re gettin’ a bit old to be continuing this line of work much longer.  Wouldn't mind getting hired permanent-like by Old Mr. Stanton.  He's got himself a pack o’money and a lot of land to take care of.  Though, I suppose you know that.”

                Johnny returned the look, unflinchingly.  “I didn’t do it, what the warrant says.”

                “No, I don’t suppose you did,” Cage replied.  “They never do.”  His eyes suddenly narrowed.  “I don’t have anything against you personally, Madrid.  A gunhawk’s a gunhawk, as far as I’m concerned.  He’s hired to do his job.  But what you did,” he shook his head in disgust, “just makes me sick.”  He looked down at Pete and nodded at the bandana. “Get him gagged again.  I really can’t stomach listening to him much longer.”  He turned and strode back toward the warmth of the fire.

                Pete smiled wryly.  “Sorry about that.  Don’t mean to get you riled.  But Cage,” he looked back at his partner’s form, “well, he’s got a daughter that gal’s age.”

                Before Johnny could reply, the bandana was forced into his mouth, effectively silencing his denial.

 

***************

 

                After an uncomfortable and sleepless night, entertained with haunting scenes from his past life, Johnny was actually relieved to see the first rays of morning breaking through the east.  It had been a cold night for August, and he was glad to have his jacket on for the added warmth.  It had been difficult keeping the mental demons at bay, but with the first light Johnny's mood improved, suddenly confident that he would still be able to figure out a way out of his dilemma.

If only Scott knew....

This thought was the one that haunted him the most; the way he left things with his brother.  The only true, unconditional acceptance he had really received since he had come to Lancer.  Johnny winced inwardly.  He still couldn’t call it home.  It was always ‘Lancer’ to him.

                Where was home?

                He didn’t have any.

                And whose fault was that?

                Johnny suddenly let out a quiet grunt of dismay.  It was his own fault.  Murdoch had tried, in his way.  Teresa had done all she could to make him feel like part of the family.  But Scott...  He had gone above and beyond what anyone could expect.  With no reason to, with no overtures on Johnny’s part, if anything, even the opposite, especially at the beginning, was true.  Johnny had, at times, antagonized and ignored Scott’s attempts at forming a bond.  He argued with himself that it was for Scott’s own good; that he wasn’t exactly a safe companion to be around.   But in reality, Johnny felt he wasn’t worthy of such trust and love.

                 That was really it.  A lump formed in the bottom of Johnny’s throat.  He wasn’t worthy.  He wasn’t worthy.

                 If he had been, he would have already made this decision by himself.  He wouldn’t have let it keep sliding, forcing his father to ultimately confront him in an attempt to make him face up to his past when Johnny should have already done so himself.   If he had been worthy of their trust, he would have been able to do this himself without having to be pushed into it.

                Suddenly Johnny was roused from his reverie by the sounds of the men starting to move around.  He opened his eyes, noticing the sky had brightened considerably.  How long had he been caught up in his own thoughts, he didn’t know.  The whole night had slid past like that.  One uncomfortable revelation after another.  No wonder he hadn’t slept at all.

                Pete and Cage were obviously in a hurry, and wasted no time on preparing a breakfast.  After heating some stale coffee, they were soon on their way.

                The routine was the same.  One held his horse’s reins while the other rode a shot-gun position behind him.  They took turns in their jobs until around noon, when suddenly Cage called for a stop. Off in the distance, Johnny could make out the outlines of Mendota. 

                “Let’s set you up here,” Cage said as he dismounted.  He kept his rifle leveled at Johnny as Pete swung out of his saddle, his hand still grasping Barranca’s reins.

                Johnny was relieved to be getting out of the saddle and hoped he would be rid of the bandana in his mouth, if only for a few moments.  His mouth was so dry, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, as the dust had been thick, forcing its way into his nostrils.  He stood silently, calmly watching all movements between the two men.  He had no desire to end up dead, or taken to Kansas, but he knew he was the only one he could count on to get himself out of this mess.  There would be no help from the 'cavalry' this time.  He was on his own, and he had no one to blame for that but himself.  After watching the two men for a day and a half, he knew they were professional and thorough, not likely to make a blatant mistake.  But everyone made mistakes.  And it was now his job to catch it.

                He was led to the shade of a tree and tied once again.  He was disappointed that they didn't ungag him immediately, but as they hadn’t tied up Barranca yet, he shouldn’t have been surprised.  He smiled inwardly, amused at the care they had taken to check into his background fully before they had made their move to take him.

                After discussing quietly amongst themselves for a minute, Pete jumped back onto his horse and headed toward the town in the distance.  Cage and Johnny both watched the dust disappear.  Then Cage turned, both hands resting on his hips, and studied his prisoner.

                “Well, Madrid, until Pete comes back, I guess it's just you and me.  I know I'm bone dry.  How about you?”

                Johnny raised an eyebrow, amused at the stupidity of the question.

                Cage suddenly laughed loudly.  “Yeah, I s’pose you are!”  He chuckled and walked to his horse where he grabbed his canteen.  After taking a long drink, he came forward and untied Johnny's gag and held the canteen to his lips.  The water tasted wonderful to Johnny’s parched throat, and he wasted no energy on pride.  There was plenty of time later for smart aleck remarks, after he’d had a drink.

                Cage pulled the canteen away and recapped it, then walked back and replaced it on his horse's saddle horn.  Johnny was just grateful not to have the dreaded bandana back in his mouth.  He weighed carefully his next words, very conscious of the fact that his normal antagonistic remarks wouldn't work on a man as well honed in his craft as Cage obviously was.  He wasn't going to get him to make any careless slips or to make any rash decisions.  But Johnny did want some answers.

                “So, what’s Pete doing?”

                Cage finished digging through his saddlebag before he turned to Johnny, a large piece of jerky in his hands.  Walking toward Johnny, he ripped a small piece off and offered it to him.  Reluctantly, Johnny opened his mouth to accept it.

                “Pete went in to send a wire to Mr. Stanton.  We're going to need three tickets from San Francisco now that we have his piece of merchandise.”  Cage grinned at his own humor, then his face darkened as he noticed Johnny's look of contempt.  “Think you’re better than us, don’t you, Madrid?”

                “I’m not the one making money on someone else's life,” Johnny remarked.

                Cage snorted.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Madrid.  You made money on other people's deaths instead.”

                “I don’t anymore,” Johnny responded quickly.  “And I was not responsible for Laura’s death!”

                “Oh, so you remember the name of the girl you killed?”

                “I said I didn’t...”

                “I heard what you said, Madrid!”  Cage retorted angrily.  “And I’m really not interested in what you have to say.  It’s not my place to judge you or what you did.  It’s just my job to see I get you back to Kansas to stand trial.”  He stood up, glaring down at his prisoner.  “My personal feeling is that you're little more than garbage.  However, I’ll treat you right 'til we get you to our destination.”

                “Won’t you at least let me send a note to my family to let them know what happened?  They deserve to know why I haven't returned...”

                “Come now, Madrid.  If we were to contact your father, you think we’d get outta this state alive?”

                “Murdoch wouldn't use his influence that way,” Johnny replied, with a pride that astonished him.  “I wouldn’t want him to.  Just let me wire him that I need to take care of some business out of state.  He doesn’t have to know you've taken me.”  Johnny looked down at the ground uncomfortably.  “I just want him to know why I haven't returned.”

                Cage was silent a moment, eyeing the young man in front of him.  Despite his feelings regarding what he had heard about this gunfighter’s life and what he was accused of, he found himself strangely affected by the man’s quiet, intense manner.  He had heard plenty of stories about this Johnny Madrid, even though Johnny had only been in the Kansas area for a few months. And though he was sure much of what he had heard had been embellished with time, he had expected a vastly different personality than the one in front of him.  That was not to say he wasn’t aware of the fact that Johnny would take any advantage he could find to make an escape.  He had been a bounty hunter for far too long to make that mistake.  But Johnny seemed to be missing the cold, calculating heart of most gunfighters he had run across.  Maybe he got religion.  He laughed to himself.

                “Tell you what, Madrid.  When we get to San Francisco, I’ll let you send a wire before we leave.”

                Johnny nodded a thanks, satisfied to let the conversation drop, then watched as Cage broke off another piece of jerky.

                Cage cautiously offered the small piece to his captive, and watched him chew silently.  He paused uncomfortably as the dark blue eyes watched him.  He stared back a long time, struck by the lack of hate he saw there.  Get a grip on yourself, Cage.  He's just a murderer, like the rest.  He'd bury you in a second if he had the chance, and you know it.  He pulled his gaze away, and turned to find a spot under an adjacent tree where he could rest up, yet keep an eye on his prisoner.

                Johnny watched Cage settle in a few yards away, the rifle once again laid across his lap.  The noonday sun was warm, and Johnny was grateful to be out from under it.  As the other man began to lightly doze, Johnny began on his one attempt at escape.

                In settling up against the tree to get comfortable, Johnny had noticed there were numerous small stones lying amidst the sun-dried weeds and bits of grass around the base of the tree he was tied to.  As slowly and as cautiously as he was able, he ran his fingers along the ground, feeling for a sharp-edged, small stone.  It was difficult work, as he was tightly tied, and aware that any real stretch of movement would immediately alert Cage to his intent.  It was a slow work of a good ten minutes, with one nonchalant grunt of dissatisfaction with his current seating arrangement that allowed him to mask his shift in position, before he had found a stone that would work.  It had to be sharp enough and small enough to hide in his palm in case his captor decided to take a good look at him.  Over the next half-hour, he slowly and diligently worked away, barely making any movement that would give away his true design.  He even feigned sleep, his head lolling forwards, eyes closed, chest rising and falling in an even pattern.

Johnny amused himself with thoughts of Scott, who was always accusing his younger brother of acting rashly and impetuously.  Maybe so, on a ranch, where the most excitement some days was a discussion of when the winter rains would come and how much snow accumulations there would be in the Sierras to feed the summer streams that ran through Lancer.  Sure, sometimes it was hard to just sit still and not be really ‘doing something.’  But Scott really had no idea how good Johnny could be at waiting.  Waiting had meant the difference between life and death for him many times, and he had learned to do it well.

                Finally his quiet labor was rewarded as he felt the small stone press against his flesh.  There were a few mere strands holding the rope in place now, which could be easily yanked apart.  The next problem would be the rope that went across his chest and around the tree he was up against.

                Johnny slowly lifted his eyes to look out across the valley toward the town.  No rider could be seen.  He knew he would only have a few minutes once the dust from Pete's horse became visible.

                He shifted his focus to rest on Cage, who still seemed to be dozing.  He knew he would have but seconds once he made his move.  But the opportunity had presented itself, and he was going to take it.  Johnny had determined earlier, as soon as Pete had ridden off, that if he was going to have any hope of escape, it would have to be now while he had only one captor to contend with.  And he'd better make the most of it.  His cool, indifferent demeanor had hidden his plans fully.  He hadn't been in so many difficult situations in his life not to have learned the best poker face in the business.

                Johnny slowly sucked in his breath, filling his lungs, then slowly exhaled.  In the matter of a split second, he had pushed himself back against the tree, yanked apart the wrist cords and had pulled the rope that bound his chest upwards, clearing his head.  At the movement, Cage immediately jerked to full attention.  As Johnny flung his body forward with the force of a canon, Cage swung the rifle upwards.  Johnny had no time to contemplate his fate as he saw the rifle lifted toward him.  He was simply aware of the fact that this was his one and only chance.  The sound of the rifle exploding momentarily deafened him as he dove into Cage.  The fact that the shot barely missed him did not go unnoticed.  Getting the rifle away from Cage became his primary goal as the two of them wrestled for control of the weapon.  Johnny was also acutely aware of the fact that Cage also carried a revolver.  He knew he needed to gain control of one or the other. Both men fought for the upper hand, but their weight and size were so evenly matched that neither could release a hold on the rifle in order to make a grab for the pistol.  Johnny fleetingly wished for a third arm with which to deliver a good solid right hook to his opponent.  He knew his time was running out before Pete would return and put a quick end to his escape plan.  In a desperate move, Johnny released his left hand from the rifle at the same time that he rolled forward onto Cage, falling flat against him, hoping the close proximity would make the rifle useless, though acutely aware that the rifle was pointed between their respective heads.  His left hand snaked forward, reaching for the gun that he knew Cage wore on his right hip, and deftly unhooked the leather thong, releasing it from its holster.  As soon as it was in his hand, he shoved it into Cage’s side.

“I think there’s been a change of plans,” he announced between his heavy breathing.

                Cage's eyes registered his surprise at feeling the gun pressing against his side.  He stopped his struggle for the rifle, but didn’t release his hold.  His eyes locked onto Johnny's.  “You won’t make it.”

                “I think I will,” Johnny replied, still maintaining his position, unwilling to back off until he knew he had control of the rifle.  At this close proximity, he knew Cage wouldn’t dare try to fire it.  But he didn’t trust Cage not to make the attempt the minute Johnny pushed off.

                “It appears we’re in a stalemate,” Cage observed.

                “Think again, Bounty Hunter.”  Johnny's eyes narrowed.  “If you fire, we both go, if I fire, just you bite it.”

                “You still haven’t a chance.  We’ll catch up with you eventually.  We know where you are now.”  Cage paused.  “Unless you plan on killing me and my partner, Madrid.”

                Johnny fought to keep his face impassive, realizing what the bounty hunter said was true.  And if not these two, there would be others, now that Mr. Stanton had risen the bounty on him so dramatically.  His days of obscure safety had been dealt its final deathblow with that action.

                Cage carefully watched the gunfighter’s face, trying to decipher his intent, wondering if he could hold out until his partner arrived. Pete better not have stopped at the saloon.

                “Seeing as you're the one with the gun in the ribs, I'd say I'm still in charge.”  Johnny growled, hoping Cage wouldn't call his bluff.  “So if you want to see tomorrow, Bounty Hunter, get your hands off that rifle.”

                “Or what?”  Cage met his stare.  “You'll add another notch to your gun?  That shouldn't be too hard for Johnny Madrid.”

                His bluff was called.  Johnny's heart sank as the realization washed over him.  The whole thing had been for nothing.  He couldn't shoot the bounty hunter, and he couldn’t back off without the bounty hunter shooting him.

                The sound of a horse approaching broke the strained silence and put an end to the stalemate.

                “Pete!” Cage called out.

                A warning shot rang out above Johnny’s head.  Johnny didn't even bother looking up.  He knew he was beat.  With a slow shake of his head, he drew out the gun and threw it away.  Then with a sigh, he pushed off from Cage, his hands rising in submission.

                 Pete leaned down and offered Cage a hand, his other keeping a steady aim at Johnny.  “You mind telling me how this happened?” he asked dryly.  “Can't leave you a few minutes and you get yourself in trouble.”

                Cage grimaced.  “It's a long story.  He managed to get his hands free some way.  Next thing I know he’s flying through the air at me.”

                Johnny raised an eyebrow at the description, while Pete laughed.  “Well, it looks like this gunhawk's wings have just been clipped!”

                Cage shook his head.  “Pete, I don't think I can handle your jokes right now.  Just get him tied up, okay?”

                Pete nodded and handed Cage his gun, while he grabbed a new length of rope.  “C’mon, Madrid.  Let's get you a new set of bracelets.”  Grabbing Johnny's arms, he swung them around behind, trussing him even tighter than before.

                “Put the gag back on him, too,” Cage instructed coldly.  “I really don’t want to hear from him the rest of this trip.”

                Once more the dry, dirt-encrusted bandana was forced into Johnny’s mouth, and he was unceremoniously tossed up onto Barranca.

                “Business taken care of?”  Cage asked as he swung up into his saddle.

                “The wire was sent.  Just a matter of getting him to Kansas now,” Pete nodded at Johnny, “without further incident.”

                “On to San Francisco, then.”  Cage looked off toward the west.  “I don't want to head north until we’ve cleared that mountain range.  I’d like to get that between us and his family before we start cutting back north.  If we push good the rest of today, we should be able to start crossing it tomorrow.”  He settled his hat on his head and turned toward his partner.  “It’ll be rough travel the next three, maybe four days, but I think after that we won’t have to worry as much about being followed.  Then it’ll be just a few more days and we'll be in San Francisco.”

                “Sounds good.”  Pete grinned.  “Westward it is.”  He pulled Barranca’s reins firmly through his hand and nodded that he was ready.  Taking the lead, he started across the valley floor, Cage following behind, his rifle at the ready once more.

                Johnny watched without interest as the dry, patchy grasses and weeds slid past.  His attempt to escape had failed.  In a matter of days he would be on a train, on his way to Kansas to stand trial for the murder of the girl he had wanted to marry, a murder he hadn't committed.  A murder that ripped a family apart and threw his life into a downward spiral.  A death that needn't have happened.  If only...

                With difficulty, Johnny attempted to swallow.  Dwelling on the past wasn't going to help him right now.  He still had to keep his wits about him in the unlikely chance that he would get another attempt at making an escape.

                The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully.  The heat of the August sun drenched their bodies in a sweat that immediately evaporated in the dry air.  They stopped only twice at streams to allow the horses to drink and to refill canteens.  These were the only times the bandana was removed to allow Johnny a chance at a drink and another piece of dry jerky.  Johnny was relieved when the hot sun began to disappear behind the mountains.  They would be camping in its shadow this evening, ready to get an early start at the crossing in the morning.  There were many different trails through these mountains, which were nothing compared to the Sierras, but were still a formidable obstacle if not crossed in the right place.

                After Johnny was once again trussed to a tree, the campsite was quickly set up.  He was relieved when they didn’t put the bandana back on after letting him have a drink.  The temperature was dropping, and Johnny was glad he had on his jacket.  The drastic fluctuation in temperature was common for him, but he noticed with amusement that Pete and Cage weren't used to it.  Cage, especially, didn't care for the California weather.

                “Dead!”  Cage announced to Pete with a sweep of his hand.  “The entire state dies during the summer!  Have you ever seen anything so barren and dry?”

                “Well, there's the Arizona Territory.”  Kneeling in front of the fire, Pete grinned and turned the rabbit over that he had shot earlier in the afternoon.

                “How can anyone make a living in this area?” Cage persisted dramatically.  “What a God-forsaken place.”

                “I hear it’s quite gorgeous in the spring.”  Pete cut a small piece off the rabbit and tasted it.  “'Bout done.”

                “I’ll be glad to get back to Kansas.  I thought I'd seen dry, but nothing beats this.”  Cage squatted beside Pete.

                “Watch out for tarantulas,” Johnny couldn’t help adding, grinning despite himself when he saw Cage jump up and glare at the ground.

                Pete laughed.  “Good one!”  He turned a sideways look at Johnny.  “What a shame we gotta take you in.  I think I could get to like you.”  He pulled the rabbit off the fire and began to cut it into pieces.  “Ready to eat something, Cage, or are you going to glare at the ground all night?”

                “He's right.”  Cage jerked his head toward Johnny.  “We saw all sorts of tarantulas this afternoon.”

                “They're molting,” Johnny explained.

                “Oh, great.”  Cage shook his head.  “I can't wait to leave this state.”

                “Just think.”  Pete gave his partner a chunk of rabbit skewered on the end of a knife.  “It'll all be worth it when we collect that money and get ourselves in good with Mr. Stanton.  You'll never need come to this state again.”

                “And I won’t,” Cage announced firmly, then took a bite of the rabbit.  “Tastes good.”

                “Thanks.”  Pete stuck another piece of rabbit on the end of a stick and walked over to Johnny.  “I'm going to untie one hand to let you eat this, but if you try anything, it'll be the last time I do so.”

                “I'd add another rope around his neck, though,” Cage suggested as he paused between bites.  “He's trouble.”

                A lop-sided grin crossed Pete's face as he gazed down at Johnny.  “Yeah, you're probably right.”  He grabbed another length of rope, fastening it securely around Johnny's neck, then to the tree, before he undid Johnny's left hand.  “Enjoy.”

                Johnny reached out and accepted the rabbit.  His arm barely wanted to obey him, and he was embarrassed at how it trembled as he tried to bring the meat to his lips.  He had been tied so tightly that his arm felt leaden and throbbed painfully, and his wrists were bloody and raw from rubbing on the tight cords.

Johnny slowly ate at the rabbit, surprised at how good it tasted.  How many days had it been since he’d had a really decent meal?  Three days?  It seemed like it had been longer.  He should have been home by now.  Would Scott be missing him?  Would Murdoch?  Johnny shook his head.  How was he going to let them know that he hadn't left in anger?  That he had meant to come back?  That his only desire had been to leave Madrid’s gun at the bottom of a lake, so that he could return to them and clean his slate?

                After Johnny had finished his rabbit, Cage and Pete untied him long enough to let him relieve himself in the brush.  It was a necessary duty, but uncomfortable under full guard.  Then, once again, he was bound securely for the night.

                Cage and Pete each took a turn watching their prisoner.  Despite being bone-tired, Johnny still couldn’t settle down to sleep.  Each time he closed his eyes, the face of Laura came back to him.  The shock and sadness in her eyes as she realized she was going to die.  The feeling of his heart being squeezed from his chest as he, too, realized her last breaths were going to be in his arms.  That there was nothing he could do to save her.  Her and their baby...  Johnny clenched his teeth, forcing back the lump in his throat.  The worst nightmare of his life had come back to haunt him.  A year in the life of Johnny Madrid he had hoped would have stayed buried and forgotten, forever.                            

 

                                                                                ******************

 

Teresa shifted the basket of vegetables that she had just picked from the garden into the crook of her left arm, and pulled open the backdoor to the kitchen.    As she entered she saw Scott standing over the centrally located stove, gently stirring the contents of the stew she was preparing for supper.  Upon hearing her enter, he quickly turned to face her, an expectant look on his face.  At the sad shake of her head, his face fell, and he went back to stirring the pot.  Teresa gently set the vegetables on the table and walked up beside him.  “Sorry, Scott.  Nothing yet,” she murmured as she took the large wooden spoon from him.

                “It’s going on three days now!”  Scott’s irritation was evident in his voice.  “What’s he waiting for?”

                “Who?  Murdoch or Johnny?”

                Scott’s eyes snapped in anger.  “Take your pick!  They’re both a couple of mule-headed jack-asses.”

                “Scott,” Teresa reproved quietly.  “Isn’t that a bit strong?”

                He glowered.  “Not considering the sources.”

                Teresa went back to stirring the pot, biting her lip to keep from making a comment that she knew would only escalate Scott’s frustration and irritation with his father and brother.

                “I’m going to try again tonight,” Scott stated.  “I’ve had enough of these games.  I kept my peace all yesterday.  But if Johnny’s not back by this evening, I’m going to make Murdoch tell me what’s going on.”  With that said, he turned and stormed out of the kitchen.

              

 

Scott waited until the meal was finished and Teresa began to clear away the dishes before turning to Murdoch.  His hand quietly rotated his empty wine goblet as he ordered his thoughts and waited for Teresa to leave the room. Once she had, he cleared his throat and forged ahead.  “Murdoch, it’s been three days.  How much longer do you plan to let this go on?”

                Murdoch drained the last of the wine from his goblet before he raised his eyes to his son.  “I know.”

                “You know what, exactly?”  Scott prompted.

                Murdoch sighed.  “That it’s been three days.  I can count.”

                Scott’s attempt at remaining calm quickly dissipated. “Murdoch, I think it’s time I knew what was going on.  You said we needed to give Johnny a few days, and he’s had it.  Frankly, I’m worried.  Aren’t you?”

                Murdoch reached for the wine bottle, refilled his goblet, then held it up to Scott in a questioning manner.  Scott shook his head.  “I don’t want any more wine.  I want to know what happened between you and Johnny.”

                “Scott, I...” Murdoch let the sentence hang with a shake of his head.  Then abruptly, he pushed away from the table, grabbed his wine goblet, and strode into the living area of the great room.  Scott quickly followed, determined that this time he was going to get an answer out of his father.

                “Murdoch—”

                “I think we need to face the possibility that Johnny may have left.”

                “What?”  Scott felt like he’d been hit in the gut.  He closed the space between himself and his father in two large strides, his hands clenched into tight fists at his side.  “Why would you think that?  What did you say to him?  What happened?”  Murdoch stopped on the other side of his large, imposing desk and set his wine goblet down.  Scott noticed his face looked haggard and worried, but decided he had the bull by the horns and he wasn’t going to let go, at least not without a brutal fight.  He unclenched his fists and calmly moved the goblet to the side before leaning forwards across the desk, his voice low.  “You’re going to tell me what happened between you two.”

                “Sit down, Scott.”

                Scott remained where he was, his eyes unblinking, his palms still resting on the desktop.

                “Sit down!”

                 The command from his father hit him forcefully.  Scott felt the obedient part of him had already found a chair in which to sit at the first command, but the other half of him, the part that told him this was a time to take control, kept him where he was.  “I think I prefer to stand, sir.”

                Murdoch paused, regarding his son with a mixture of surprise and anger.  Obviously Johnny had rubbed off more on his older brother than Murdoch would have liked.  Resolved to handle this better than he had with Johnny, Murdoch backed off.  “Scott, do you remember when you came to me about Reveles and the Presidio bounty you had discovered?”

                Scott nodded curtly, yet kept his position.  “You already knew about it.”

                “Did you wonder why?”

                Scott raised an eyebrow.  “I assumed Johnny had talked to you about it.”

                Murdoch grunted and shook his head.  “Hardly.”

                “Then...?”

                Murdoch reached into his desk and brought out a key.  For a moment he paused, studying Scott’s face, wondering if he was doing the right thing, but knowing his son was not going to be dissuaded much longer.

Scott picked up on his father’s hesitation, noticing that his hand gripped the small key so tightly it seemed he would surely crush it.  Scott barely breathed, suddenly uncertain of what he had started, fearing he was going to come to regret the next few minutes.

                Regaining his composure, Murdoch reached down and unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk.  Scott waited as his father moved some papers, then slowly produced a black folder.  “This,” Murdoch stated quietly, “is what we were arguing about.”

 

                Scott blinked in surprise as the folder landed on the table between his palms, his brother’s name staring up at him, and the Pinkerton seal emblazoned across the top.  A myriad of emotions assaulted him.  Shock.  Hurt.  Anger.  Betrayal.  And sadness.  His eyes narrowed and he looked up.  “Where did you get this?”

                “Johnny wasn’t easy to track down.  You know that,” Murdoch replied.  “I had hired the Pinkertons before to try to find him, but had dropped it when the leads started drying up again.   Besides, to be honest, as the years passed, I wasn’t sure what I would discover, and I didn’t know if I really wanted to find out. But this last time, after I was shot and I knew I needed help, I decided to try to pursue it one more time.  I hired the Pinkertons to approach you, since I knew Harlan was intercepting all letters I sent, and I hired them to try once more to find Johnny.  This time they were successful.”

                “And this...?”  Scott nodded at the folder.

                “It’s their final report.”

                “Report?”

                “All the information they had gathered while they were looking for him,” Murdoch replied.

                “You mean,” Scott spat sarcastically as he imagined the shock the report must have been to his brother, “all the dirt they uncovered.”

                “We’ve all got dirt.”

                “And I’m sure you mentioned that as you threw this in his face,” Scott growled as he pushed the report across the table.  “I can’t believe you showed this to him.  You really can be an unfeeling sonuvabitch!”

                Murdoch slammed his fists down on the table.  “That’s enough!” he ordered as he stood up, glaring.  “That’s enough!”

                “No, it’s not!”  Scott savagely snapped back.  “How could you do that to him?  To bring this out after two and a half years.  What were you thinking?”

                “I was thinking it was about time we had some answers!  There are things in there that we need to be prepared to deal with!  You seem to forget he didn't have the life you had.  Reveles was a good example.  I saw how worried you were about that whole episode, and then finding out Johnny was wanted in Texas...”

                “It was a personal bounty, even the sheriff in the town told me that,” Scott interrupted.

                “Well, it’s not the only one,” Murdoch replied grimly.  “And we’ve got a bounty from the state of Kansas in there, too.”  He paused as he watched Scott’s reaction to that piece of information.  “Scott, I wasn't trying to drive Johnny away.  But things were going to start coming to a head.  I could see it.  Johnny was relatively safe here, the first year or so, as no one knew where he was.  Johnny Madrid had just dropped out of sight.  But word was getting around.  And it was only time.”  Murdoch sighed heavily, his eyes fixing on Scott’s.  “It was only time...”

                “...before someone came gunning for him,” Scott finished the sentence, and suddenly found he wanted to sit down.  Tearing his eyes from his father’s, Scott pushed back from the table and turned around.  Silently he stood, drawing his hand wearily down the length of his face.  “Things had just started to go well...” he faltered.

                “I had hoped that eventually Johnny would come to me, himself,” Murdoch attempted to explain.  “I prayed he would, so this chore would have been spared me.  But as time went by, it was apparent he wasn’t going to.  Then I hoped that, perhaps, he had confided in you.  That he had felt more comfortable...”  Murdoch’s voice began to crack, and he swallowed hard.  “But after what happened with Reveles, I knew that hadn’t happened, either.”  There was a long pause as Murdoch seemed to search for the strength to continue.  “I needed to do something.  I didn’t want to find out Johnny had been shot in the back coming out of a saloon, and not know why.  I felt we all had a right to know what ghost was lurking around the next corner, waiting to make an appearance.”

                “But to show him that.”  Scott slowly turned to face his father.  “All his mistakes, his struggles, laid out like a book,” his tone took on an openly sarcastic ring, “for your casual reading pleasure.”

                “Scott,” Murdoch’s voice lowered.  “I’m not the unfeeling son of a bitch you seem to think I am.  I had hoped it would all turn out differently.  That he would have been able to talk to me about this.”  He gestured toward the folder.  “I hadn’t expected he would have reacted quite like he had.”

                “How did you think he’d react?”  Scott asked with a snort.  “Oh, sure, Pa, let’s talk about all the men I’ve killed, then we’ll move on to all the men who want to kill me, and maybe, if you’re not too tired, we can cap it off with all the warrants I have pending.”  Scott snorted again.  “Sounds like a reasonable response.”

                Scott’s sarcasm was not lost on his father.  “Scott, I was trying to handle this to everyone’s benefit.   I couldn’t just think about Johnny, but about you and Teresa, too.  I was trying to be as objective as I could...”

                “Objective?”  Scott’s voice rose.  “You’re not supposed to be objective!  You’re his father!”

                “I can’t afford NOT to be objective, where Johnny is concerned.  He's not you.  His life, his upbringing, they all ended up being so different from yours.”

                “Which certainly wasn’t his fault!”

                “I’m not trying to lay blame here!”  Murdoch retorted.  “It’s a fact that his life was not all I had hoped it would be.  That it was very different—”

                “But he left all of that,” Scott cut in.  “He chose to live a normal life.”

                Murdoch sadly shook his head.  “He lost that choice when he was two.”  He sat back down heavily in his chair.  “God, if I could only take back time, I’d shoot Preston dead.”

                Scott didn’t respond.  His father’s quiet confession shocked him.  He let his eyes wander back to the report on the desk.  He shook his head slightly to himself, imagining the shock it must have been for Johnny to see it.  His own chest constricted with the very sight of the report, and it wasn’t even his.

                Murdoch noticed Scott looking at the report.  He leaned forward and pushed it across the desk.  “I think maybe you should take a look at it.”

                Scott shook his head.  “No.  I think I’ll wait until Johnny wants to show it to me, if he ever does.”  Then he paused as a thought came to him.  “What about me?”

                Murdoch looked confused.  “You, what?”

                “I’m assuming you have a report on me,” Scott replied, a slight smile reaching the corner of his mouth.  “When were you planning to surprise me with it?”

                Murdoch closed his eyes and gave a tired sigh.  “Yes, I do have one on you, too.  However, compared to Johnny’s, yours is pretty tame stuff.”

                “You mean to say I’m boring?” Scott replied in mock indignation, but he knew the attempt fell short under the currently strained conditions.

                Murdoch forced a chuckle.  “God, how I wish Johnny had been half as boring.”  He smiled.  “Your skeletons don’t seem to rattle as much.”  Then he paused, as a serious expression settled on his face. “Really, Scott.  You grew up to be the son I would have wished you to be.  I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, but despite everything Harlan did to keep us apart, I have to give him credit in that he did raise you to be a fine young man.  He gave you every opportunity you deserved in life.  I may not like how he did it, but he did provide you with a stable and healthy environment.”

                Scott studied the floor, saddened that everything Murdoch acknowledged about his upbringing, the opposite had been true for his brother.  And now, despite the fact that it hadn’t been Johnny’s fault, Johnny was the one left feeling persecuted.  Slowly he looked up.  “Murdoch, I need to go look for Johnny.”

                Murdoch looked back down at the folder and picked it up.  “Maybe we should give him a few more days.  He wasn’t in the best of moods when he left.”

                Scott shook his head.  “No.  I feel a need to look for him now.”  He watched his father finger the cover of the report, then slide it back into the bottom drawer.  “Do you have any idea where he might have gone?”

                Murdoch shook his head.  “What he told me, he told you.  That he wanted to get away for a few days to think.  I’m just worried,” he paused, “that he…he may have thought it over and decided not to come back.”

                Scott’s eyes narrowed.  “Why, exactly, would you think he would decide to leave?  That would be a bit drastic, wouldn’t it?”
                Murdoch sighed uncomfortably.  “I’m afraid I asked him to choose who he was.  Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid.”

                Scott bit back an acid remark that he knew would not help the situation any further.  “I’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.  Don’t expect me back for a couple nights, either.”  He quickly turned and left the room, leaving Murdoch alone with his thoughts.

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                I’m sorry, Murdoch.  How did you do it?  Two years, and not once did you question me about my past.  Never did you push it.  You had to have wondered.  Was this prodigal son really a wolf in sheep's clothing?  Why didn't I come to you about my past, ask for your help?  I wondered at first whether I was really just another hired gun to you, but you must have been wondering if you weren't just a safe hide-out for Johnny Madrid, too.  We both weren't being completely honest with each other.  We both had our doubts, our concerns.  I wouldn't even completely trust Scott.  He was one of the few people in my whole life who had never given me any reason not to trust him, and I still held out.  Why?  Why couldn't I learn to trust again?  Instead I ignored him, left him totally in the dark when all he wanted was to help me, to understand what had happened.  I don't deserve a brother like Scott.  He’s too good for me...too caring.  He deserves better than what I have to offer.    Whenever I did manage to reach out, it made him so happy.  Such a simple thing to him, but it seemed so difficult for me.  Why?  Did I really think he would turn on me like everyone else had?  That it was all a game to him?….

 No.  I really didn't.  I truly believed he was the one person I had ever met who truly cared and wanted to be MY friend.  Not Johnny Madrid's friend, but actually Johnny Lancer's friend.  So, why was it so hard for me?  Trust....  It’s so hard to trust again....  Scott, I'm sorry.  I want to trust you.  But mostly I want you to trust me.  If I’m only given one more chance....

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                The sun was just beginning to warm the eastern sky when Johnny awoke with a groan.  Bringing his head up, he was immediately rewarded with an excruciating pain in the side of his neck.  He winced as he tried to straighten his neck out, then noticed his entire right shoulder and arm had fallen asleep, too.

Sleep.  Well, at least he had managed to get some this time.

He blinked hard to awaken himself, and stretched out his neck once again.  It was going to be another long day in the saddle and he was going to have a wonderful kink in his neck to keep him company.

                “'Mornin'.”  Pete walked into the small clearing and began the task of reheating old coffee grounds.  “Have a cup for you soon.”

                “Thanks,” Johnny replied.

                “Cage," Pete called.  “Time to get your sorry hide movin'!”

                Groaning, Cage stirred from his blanket.  “God!  I think mornin' comes even earlier in this state!”

                Pete rolled his eyes and grinned.  “Not another one of those days!”

                Cage chanted softly to himself.  “Just a couple more weeks.  Just a couple more weeks.”  Then he stood up and nodded toward the trees.  “Back in a sec.”

                “I ain’t goin' anywhere,” Pete replied.

                After Cage left, Pete glanced over at Johnny.  “Got some sleep I see.”

                Johnny nodded.

                “That’s good.  We have a hard few days ahead of us.”

                “Will you still let me contact my family when we get to San Francisco?”

                Still kneeling in front of the fire, Pete paused, resting his arms on his knees. “I think that can be arranged.  We’re not unreasonable.  I just don’t think I’d pull a stunt again like you did yesterday.  That would not be the way to get Cage’s cooperation.”

                Johnny nodded wryly, both men fully aware that Johnny would take any chance he could get at escaping.

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                After a quick breakfast, the party of three began their crossing of the Diablo Mountains.  They were rugged but passable, with sporadic areas of pooled water.  Unfortunately, being August, the supply of fresh water was difficult to find.  Pete had heard of one area, when he had gone into town, that could be counted on as a reliable place to resupply their water, and this is the pass they headed toward.  The trail leading through the mountains was easily followed, since it had been used by anyone in the area trying to cross from the San Joaquin valley to the Salinas valley.  Still, it was a tedious, slow-moving process that took a lot out of the horses in the dry, August heat.

 As the day wore on, they found themselves among the high regions of the mountains, the trail more rugged and difficult.  Pete had been told that most water supplies would have pretty well dried up for the summer, except for the spring-fed lake they headed toward, so they had taken all the water they could carry with them, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to count on much to resupply their needs during the day.

                Johnny was tired and sore, his wrists bloody and rubbed raw from the constant pull against the cords that bound them.  His arms and shoulders were constantly numb from being pulled so tightly back, and he was stiff from trying to hold his seat in the rugged countryside.  He found himself silently praising Barranca.  Seeming to understand Johnny’s predicament, he had kept up the pace, yet his footing was unusually sure and cautious.

                It was late afternoon, the sun low in the sky, as the men crested the highest hill they had to traverse.  Johnny looked off toward the west, scanning the horizon.  Low clouds could be seen hugging the hazy coastal ranges in the far distance.  As they started down the other side, Johnny stole one last glance back toward the east, toward the clear skies of the San Joaquin valley, toward the home he wasn’t sure he’d see again.

                “Cage,” Pete shifted the rifle to his other arm.  It was his turn to ride shot-gun on Johnny.  “What’s the first thing you plan to do with your half of the reward money when we get back to Kansas?”

                “Besides take a bath?”

                Pete laughed loudly.  “Hell, with half of four thousand dollars, you can take all the baths you want!”

                Cage joined in.  “Add to that a shave, some fancy new duds, one of those new-fangled time pieces, a new dress for my wife and daughter, oh, a new horse and saddle, a small farm—hey, how much you think I got left?”

                “Oh, only another thousand!”

                Johnny listened half-heartedly to the conversation.  His mind was in another place.

 

Unknown to the three men, two other men were watching from some distance off the trail.  And they had heard everything.  

 

                                                                                *******************

                An hour later, as Cage, Pete and Johnny had stopped for a short break from the afternoon heat, giving their mounts and themselves a chance for a drink and a breather, they heard singing on the trail behind them.  Cage stood up, his hand at the ready, as two men, singing a raucous trail song, appeared from amongst rugged outcroppings.

                The darker of the two men pulled up his mount.  “What, ho!” he exclaimed with a wide grin.  “Other travelers!”

                Cage didn’t smile back, but Pete stood up and nodded a reserved greeting.

                The other man smiled widely.  “We’re heading west.  How ‘bout you?”

                Pete nodded slowly.  “Yeah, we’re heading that direction.”

                “Name’s Ketchin.”  The darker man dismounted.  “Picked a good spot for a coupla moments rest.  Mind if we join ya?”

                Pete glanced at Cage who raised a doubtful eye toward his partner.

                Ketchin didn’t seem to notice that he wasn’t welcome as he walked up, leading his horse.  “My friend’s Jack.”

                Jack nodded as he also dismounted and swiped the trail dust from his pants.

                As Ketchin walked up to Cage and Pete, his eyes wandered to Johnny, his eyebrows raising as he noticed that this third man was tied up.  “Uh, what’s with him?”  He inclined his head.  “Prisoner?”

                Cage and Pete exchanged glances again.  “Yeah,” Pete finally answered.

                Ketchin shot a nervous look at Jack, then turned back to Cage. “He ain’t no murderer, is he?”

                “He’s no threat to you,” Pete replied curtly.  “You might prefer to go on ahead, though, if he bothers you.”

                “Ah, nah,” Jack broke in.  “He don’t bother us none.”

                “Too bad,” Johnny heard Cage grumble under his breath as the bounty hunter turned away from the newcomers to offer Johnny a drink from his canteen.

                Johnny accepted the water, but kept a wary eye on the two men.  He, like Cage, did not feel comfortable about them.  They appeared too much at ease, too nonchalant.

                “Hear there’s a small mountain stream up ‘ways,” Ketchin was saying.

                “So we’ve heard,” Pete replied.

                “We wuz plannin’ on campin’ there for the night,” Ketchin continued, then groaned as he stretched backwards.  “Gad, what a climb that wuz!  Sure’ll be glad t’get ta the Salinas Valley, eh?”

                Pete nodded noncommittally.

                Jack took a swig of his canteen, then offered it to Ketchin.  “You fellas have ‘nuff water?”

                “We got what we need,” Cage replied, keeping his tone even.

                “Just thought I’d ask,” Jack countered.  “We got plenty, thought ya might be low.”

                “We’re fine.”  Pete’s gaze wandered to his partner, who nodded slightly.  “Well, looks like we’re ready to move on.  Be seein’ you.”

                Cage turned once more back to Johnny, and untied him from the tree where he had been sitting.  As he started to take the bandana out of his pocket once more, Johnny locked eyes with him.  “Don’t put that on this time,” he whispered, then flicked his gaze back toward the two newcomers.  “I don’t like them.”

                Cage raised an amused eyebrow.  “You don’t like them?” he whispered back.  “For all we know, they’re friends of yours, come to set you free.”

                “They’re no friends of mine,” Johnny replied, keeping his voice low.  “Never seen them before.  But I don’t think they can be trusted.”

                Cage almost laughed.  “You don’t trust them?  Ain’t that kinda like the pot callin’ the kettle black?”  He tied the bandana around the back of Johnny’s head, all the while feeling his prisoner’s eyes boring into him with a strange intensity.  It made him feel uncomfortable.  Almost as uncomfortable as the two new men.  He stood up and turned abruptly back toward his partner.  “Ready?”

                Pete nodded, a none too happy expression on his face.  “Ready,” Pete replied. “Seems like these two fellas would like to come along with us.”

                “Don’t mind, d’ya?”  Ketchin asked.  “I mean, with ya bein’ sheriffs and all, we’d feel safer.  Lots of bandits around these hills.  Indians, too.”  He glanced meaningfully around the hills.

                “We’d just like ta reach Salinas in one piece,” Jack added.

                Cage took a deep breath, cursing his luck.  “We ain’t sheriffs,” he retorted, a little stronger than he’d meant to.

                “Oh,” Ketchin paused, “I just thought…” he glanced at Johnny.  “…ya know, with him and all, that you were sheriffs.”

                Pete walked over to Johnny and led him to Barranca, as Cage gathered up the reins to his and Pete’s horses.  “We’re just takin’ him in, is all.”

                Johnny noticed Ketchin glance meaningfully at Jack.  He was feeling more uneasy about these two newcomers with every passing minute.  If he only had his gun….

 

                                                                                ***************

 

                Later, as evening fell, the five men stopped beside the small, springfed mountain lake.  After securing Johnny once again to a tree, Cage had remarked that he thought they’d be out of the mountains and in the valley the next day.  He knew he’d be relieved to get rid of their unwanted company.

                Pete went to gather wood to start a small fire as Cage set up camp.  Jack and Ketchin offered to catch fish for their supper meal, saying it was the least they could do to say thanks for letting them tag along.  Cage had been glad to let them go, relieved to get them out from under foot, if only for a short while.

                Ketchin and Jack had been good to their word and brought back four fish.  They weren’t large, but were a treat after the trail food they had eaten for the last week.

                Night slowly came.  Being on the west side of the mountains, they could watch the sun sinking slowly in the horizon.  Pete offered to take first watch.

                “Wake me in two hours,” Cage instructed.   He was aware that Pete knew the drill, but thought he’d reiterate that they had a fairly strict routine for the benefit of their newfound company.

                Pete merely nodded, understanding Cage’s need to state the obvious.

                “Be glad to sit with ya,” Ketchin offered.

                “No need,” Pete replied.

                “It’d be no problem,” Ketchin continued.  “I don’t mind none.”

                Pete glanced at his partner and rolled his eyes slightly.  “Really no need, but suit yourself.”

                It was soon after he’d eaten his supper and been re-secured to the tree, that Johnny noticed something shine at him out of the corner of his eye.  The setting sun flashed against a small piece of metal in the dirt to his left.  Feigning a stretch, he nudged the object with the toe of his boot.

                Johnny couldn’t believe his luck.  There in the dirt was his escape; a small rowel that had fallen off another traveler’s spur.  He lazily rested his boot atop it, effectively hiding it from view.  Now it was just a matter of getting a hold of it.  He cursed the luck that would have him see it after he’d had his meal, for he knew he would probably have to wait until breakfast to pick it up.  Johnny began praying that his hands would be untied for the morning meal, and more importantly, that Ketchin and Jack wouldn’t make any move during the night.  He had the dark hours, however, to carefully move the rowel gradually closer to his hands.

                As the night wore on, Johnny noticed no one seemed to sleep very comfortably.  Cage and Pete seemed to be nervous with Jack and Ketchin around.   Johnny wasn’t surprised.  He didn’t trust their story about just wanting some company for the trip, and hoped Cage and Pete didn’t either.

                With the very first rays of light, Cage decided they might as well get an early start.  Johnny was relieved to be getting a move on, just as much as Cage and Pete seemed to be.  He hadn’t slept much either, between trying to carefully move the spur rowel within reach and the uneasiness he felt about their two new companions.

                Cage and Pete seemed more than a little occupied with keeping an eye on Ketchin and Jack, to Johnny’s advantage.  After letting Johnny see to his morning brush visit, Johnny was pleased when they left one hand free for him to eat his breakfast.  He took advantage of Ketchin’s and Jack’s presence to pick up the item and maneuver it to safe hiding under his belt in back.  He knew Cage would thoroughly check his hands and sleeves to see if he was hiding anything, but he hoped the idea of checking under his belt would not suddenly occur to him.

                The camp was quickly packed up.  Cage and Pete still seemed wary of their companions, but Pete, at least, seemed to have resigned himself to their company.  Johnny could sense that Pete had expected Ketchin and Jack to try something during the night, and once the evening had passed without incident, he seemed to have accepted them, albeit, reluctantly.  Johnny, however, still held his opinion in reserve.  When Cage came to untie him from the tree, Johnny tried once again to mention his doubts about the two men.  Cage, however, despite his own misgivings, wanted nothing to do with a gunfighter’s opinion, and promptly shut Johnny up with his bandana.

                Cage followed shot-gun on Johnny for the first couple hours.  The early morning was cool, but within a short time, the day grew hot and unrelenting.  Johnny kept a quiet, yet constant vigil on all four men.  He noticed both Pete and Cage were showing signs of the long nights and little sleep they had endured for the last week as they took turns watching over their prisoner.  When Pete and Cage changed places, Johnny decided now was the time to carefully pull out the small rowel and begin working on his wrist binds.  He knew it was only a matter of time before Ketchin and Jack made their move, and he had no intention of being an easy target.

                After a long hour of slowly working on the coarse ropes, his eyes half-closed as he feigned sleep, he could feel that they were ready to drop off.  He paused in his efforts, knowing the binds could be pulled apart now.

Pete, riding directly in front of Johnny, missed the hooded looks which were being passed between Ketchin and Jack, as they were riding off to his right and slightly behind.  The looks, however, told Johnny the other men were soon to act.  He knew the look well, for he had used it himself in an earlier time.  He wanted to alert Cage and Pete, but knew it would be useless.  Instead, he quickly took inventory of the surrounding countryside.  They were on a part of the trail that slopped gently down toward the valley floor, though on their right, there was a drop-off of a good eight to ten feet or so.  A detail to be mindful of.

And then it happened in a matter of seconds.  With no prior warning, Ketchin twisted around in his saddle, his gun drawn, and fired on Pete before the bounty hunter even had a chance to raise his rifle.  Johnny heard Pete’s yell of surprise and the thud as he landed on the ground.  Cage, who had been riding shot-gun on Johnny, threw himself forward against his horse’s neck just as a bullet from Jack’s gun grazed along his back leaving a red trail.

At the first movement from Ketchin, Johnny had torn his binds off and jumped clear of Barranca, yanking off his gag in the process.  With a whistle, he called to Barranca, who then reared up, causing Ketchin’s mount to buck.  At the same time, Cage, now just to the left of Johnny, leapt off his horse, his gun drawn and aimed at Ketchin; the shot just missed the bandit as his mount continued to buck.

Johnny threw himself on the ground next to Pete’s body, grabbed up the rifle and aimed at Jack, the blast sending the bandit flying through the air.  Johnny then quickly turned his aim at Ketchin, just as Ketchin brought his horse under control.  Johnny squeezed the trigger of the rifle, only to find it jammed. The faulty mechanism gave Ketchin the second he needed to fire at Cage, wounding him in the leg.  With a curse of pain, Cage went down behind his horse.

With an expletive of his own, Johnny threw the useless rifle to the side and grabbed for Pete’s revolver.  It was missing.  He turned quickly back toward Ketchin, noticing that the bandit now had Cage in his sights, aiming to finish him off.  Leaping up, Johnny hastily scanned the area for another weapon, his eyes falling on a revolver that lay in the dust a few yards away.  As he made a dash for it, he heard Ketchin and Cage both fire off shots.  Grabbing up the pistol, Johnny spun around, ready to fire, only to find that Ketchin had already turned his attention on Johnny as Cage now lay dead in the dirt.  Dropping instantaneously to one knee, Johnny abruptly fired off a shot at Ketchin, his choices now minimal with the edge of the cliff directly behind him.  Ketchin’s face registered shock as he slowly slid off his horse, his shirt stained red with blood.

                Johnny slowly stood up, breathing heavily.  He looked around him at the aftermath of carnage that was left.  Barranca stood off a number of yards away, while two of the other horses had completely disappeared from view.  Ketchin’s horse skittered nervously around his fallen rider.  Johnny looked down at the revolver in his hands.  Four men dead, two from his own hands.  Once again death had trailed him, clinging to him like poison ivy.  He tossed the pistol savagely to the ground, then turned away from the scene.

                The peaceful valley lying in front of him was a strong contrast to the destruction behind him.  He sighed deeply, wishing to forget it all.  Even though Cage and Pete were dead, there would be others coming for the bounty.  It wasn’t going to end here.

                “Put your hands up and turn around.”  The words snapped Johnny out of his thoughts.  He turned slowly to see Ketchin, clutching his left arm to his chest, sluggishly holding his gun on Johnny.  “Thought you’d make it away, eh, boy?  You may have killed my partner, but no mind.  I just won’t have to share, that’s all.”

                Johnny registered no surprise.  “You want the bounty, too.”

                Ketchin tried to laugh but stopped as pain overtook him.  “Damn right.  Four thousand dollars is a helluva lot of money.”

                “You gotta get me all the way to Kansas,” Johnny stated impassively.

                “I’ll take you all the way to Hell, if I need to,” Ketchin hissed.

                “You just might have to do that,” Johnny replied darkly.  “But in your condition, I think you’re gonna beat me there.”

                Ketchin’s eyes tightened.  Johnny could see the pain coursing through the man in waves, the blood seeping through his fingers, dripping onto the dusty ground.  He knew Ketchin wasn’t going to be going anywhere, except six feet under.

Ketchin’s eyes locked onto Johnny’s, and he suddenly grimaced, the smile ghastly on his sweaty, pale face.  “No, I think not.”  He paused, his eyes glazing over.  “We’ll go together.”  

                The shot tore into Johnny’s side, throwing him backwards.  A flash of blue sky and tree tops streamed past his vision, the edges already hazing over as his mind sought to escape from the pain.  In a split second he realized he hadn’t hit the ground immediately, and knew he was falling over the cliff.  Darkness claimed him before he hit the bottom.

 

Revelations

 

                Jamie looked up.  The sound of shots resounding through the small canyon in which he sat.   Digger, his dog, leapt to his feet at the sound.

                “Come on, boy!”  Jamie dashed toward the noise.  It sounded like someone was shooting up the whole hillside.  “Maybe some of the men cornered that mountain lion they’ve been after!”  Jamie informed his companion as they continued running toward the noise.  “I ain’t never seen no mountain lion!”

                As they got closer, Jamie was surprised when a horse came barreling out of the trees, its eyes wild with fright.  Jamie knelt down and put an arm around Digger’s neck to keep him close.  Then, silently, he crept up toward the trail that led out of the mountains from the San Joaquin Valley.

                Hidden among the brush, Jamie was astounded at the sight before him.  One man lay dead in the dirt, not far from where he was crouched.  Another man was trying to calm his panicked mount, while attempting to get off a shot at a third man who was already wounded in the leg.  A fourth man, who also appeared to be dead, was lying in the ground, with a fifth man beside him, rifle in his hands.  Jamie watched, fascinated, as the fifth man tried to fire the rifle, but it appeared to be jammed.  Just then the man on the horse shot the wounded man down.  The man with the rifle turned, noticing that he was now the sole target.  He threw the rifle to the ground with an oath of disgust as he dived for a pistol lying in the dirt a couple of yards away.  Jamie was amazed.  He had never seen anyone so fast.  The man had no sooner hit the ground, when he was rolling and firing, shooting the man on the horse, who slid to the ground, the shock of death on his face.

                Jamie just stared, as the dark-haired man slowly stood up, seemingly drained of all energy.  Jamie noticed that he appeared sad.  Then the man threw his gun down and turned away to stare out over the cliff that opened up to the valley below.  Jamie was ready to stand up and call out to him, when he noticed the man who had just been shot suddenly push himself up from the ground.  He wanted to call out to the dark-haired man, to warn him, but he was afraid.  Instead, he tightened his grip on Digger.

                He heard the man with the gun command the dark-haired man to turn around, heard him accuse the man of killing his friend.  The dark-haired man didn’t appear afraid, only saddened by the confrontation.

                “You want the bounty, too.”

                It was a statement, Jamie noticed, not a question.

                “Damned right.  Four thousand is a helluva lot of money.”

                Jamie’s mouth dropped open.  Four thousand dollars?!  He couldn’t imagine so much money.  What had the dark-haired man done to be worth so much?  Jamie focused his attention back onto the two men.  The man with the gun was laboring for air and appeared ready to drop to the ground.  “We’ll go together.”  Jamie heard him gasp as he fired his gun and fell dead.  Jamie watched, shocked, as the dark-haired man stumbled backwards, falling over the side of the drop-off.  He heard the sickening thud as the man’s body hit the bottom.  It took a few moments before Jamie realized he was holding his breath.  He forcibly released it, then looked down at Digger, who was pressed up close by his side, Jamie’s hand clutching his fur.

                Jamie’s eyes darted quickly around the scene, but nothing moved save for one horse that the man who now lay dead on the ground had been riding earlier; all other mounts apparently had bolted from the noise and confusion.

                Jamie stood shakily to his feet.  “C’mon, Digger,” he whispered.   “Let’s go see how that dark-haired man is.”

                Digger followed close beside Jamie, as the two made their way down among the brush to come out at the bottom of the ten foot drop-off.  Jamie paused when he saw the dark-haired man lying among the rocks and rubble.  Cautiously, keeping one hand on the back of Digger’s neck, Jamie crept forward, then paused when he was within a couple feet of the man.  The man’s suede jacket was lying open, exposing the stain of blood along his right side.  His face was pale, his limbs sprawled at haphazard angles.  Taking a deep breath, Jamie knelt down beside the man.  Bending over him, he put an ear to his mouth and was surprised to find the warmth of a breath on the side of his face.

                “Mister,” Jamie whispered, not at all sure he really wanted to wake the stranger up.  “Mister,” he tried again, then put a hand under his head.  A warm, sticky sensation surprised Jamie.  He drew his hand away, only to find it covered with the man’s blood.

                “I think we need Matthew,” Jamie informed Digger, who watched his young master with dogged interest.

                Jamie rubbed Digger’s ears.  “Go get Matthew,” Jamie instructed.  “Bring Matthew here, okay, boy?”

                Digger barked and Jamie grinned.

                “Go, Digger!  Get Matthew!”

                Digger barked once more, then turned and ran into the brush.

                Jamie watched Digger disappear before turning his attention back to the dark-haired stranger.  As he quietly sat and waited for his brother, he wondered what had brought the man to this area, why the other man had wanted to kill him, and how come he was worth four thousand dollars.

                It wasn’t but fifteen minutes later that Jamie heard Digger barking and knew his older brother would help him figure out what to do with the stranger who had literally fallen into their midst.

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                Grace straightened up from where she had been bending over the small table in the cabin cutting up carrots for the stew, and pushed a wisp of brownish red hair out of her eyes.  The day had turned into a real scorcher and she welcomed the breeze that blew through the front door and the two open windows on opposite sides of the small room.  It wasn’t a large home, but she had lived there all her life, along with her two brothers.  Their parents had died years earlier; their mother soon after Jamie had been born, their father two summers past.  Grace had long since been the woman of the household, and after their father’s death, Matthew, two years her senior, had stepped into the role of head of the household.  The small farm was adequate for their needs and had been passed down through a number of generations since the first Franciscan Priests had come into the area to start a mission for the local Indian population.  Their grandfather had been a Franciscan priest when the order came down to close up the mission and return to Spain.  He hadn’t wanted to leave the area.  He had fallen in love with the wilds of the California territory and refused to return.  Instead he took a local maiden as his wife and settled down outside the mission walls.  Eventually a small town sprang up around the area of the old mission, with a few scattered farms hugging the perimeter.  A small oasis in a wild country.  And so they had all continued to live a quiet existence without interruption.

                Until recently.  Grace thought to herself with a grimace.  It’s just not fair.

                Grace slid the last of the carrots to the center of the table and began to attack them with just a bit more zeal than was probably necessary, seeing as they really had no possibility of escape.  The snap of the knife as it cut through each carrot gave her a certain amount of satisfaction, though, and she allowed herself the small enjoyment it afforded.  She started when she heard the sound of boots on the front porch and the voice of her brother Matthew.

                “Grace!”

                Grace turned to see Matthew carrying a dark-haired man into the cabin.  “What…?”

                Matthew grunted under the weight of the man.  “…put him?” he managed to ask.

                Grace quickly looked around the room.  Matthew and Jamie’s cots were pushed into the far corner near the fireplace.  She quickly ran over, pulled one away from the wall and yanked off the blanket.   Just then Jamie ran in, excitedly pointing.  “He’s been shot!”

                “Shot?”  Grace turned and watched as Matthew laid the man on the small bed.

                “Yeah,” Matthew stood up and stretched out his back.  “He’s been shot, Grace.  We need to get him taken care of.  He’s also had a nasty fall.”

                “Oh, dear.”  Grace turned and grabbed an empty kettle from the small corner cupboard.  “Jamie, quick run out and fill this with water.”  She then went to her basket of cloth scraps and gathered up some of the larger pieces.

                “How bad is it?”  She asked Matthew as she set the fabric on the floor beside the man, then went to her small cupboard and took down a small, clay container.  “And who is he?”

                Matthew had finished pulling the man’s jacket off and had unbuttoned his shirt.  “It looks like it went clean through, just below the ribs.”  He suddenly stood and grabbed the knife off the kitchen table.  Wiping it quickly across his pants, he explained, “I’m just gonna cut the shirt off.  It’s ruined anyway.  It’ll make it a lot easier.”

                Grace nodded and watched silently as Matthew cut away the bloodied fabric.  After he was through, he wadded the stained fabric up and tossed it to the side.  At the sound of his sister’s small gasp, he turned back to her quizzically.  “What’s wrong?”

                He followed Grace’s large, brown eyes as they looked from him to the man lying in front of them.

                The dark-haired man’s right side was stained red with the smear of blood, and the wound was still oozing a small, fresh trickle.  But what had gained his sister’s attention, were the three puckered, pinkish scars from previous bullet wounds: one along his left side, another to his left shoulder and also to his upper left arm.

                “He’s either the clumsiest man with a gun, or he’s someone you shouldn’t have brought here.”

                Matthew kept his eyes averted from the scrutiny of his sister’s intense stare.  Now was not the time to tell her he had brought a wanted man into their home, even if he might be the one they needed to save it.

                “Let’s get him taken care of before he bleeds to death,” Matthew replied.  “There’s plenty of time for me to fill you in with details later.”

                Grace opened her mouth to retort, but was cut short by the sound of Jamie banging through the doorway.  With a warning glare at her older brother, Grace turned her attention to her younger brother. “It’s not going to do me any good if you go and spill all the water before you even get it on the fire.”  She jerked her head.  “Matthew, help him get it on the fire, then get me the water bucket from the front door.  I can at least start cleaning him up.”

                While Matthew set the water to heating, Jamie fetched the water bucket and brought it to his sister.  She immediately went to work cleaning away the blood and dirt from the man’s side.

                “He’s got a head injury, too,” Matthew stated after he’d helped Jamie put the water on the fire.  “I can start to clean that up if you want.”

                Grace nodded and handed Matthew a piece of cloth and a chain.

“What’s this?” Matthew asked as he held up the golden chain, a round medallion dangling at the end.

“He was wearing it,” Grace replied.  “It was in my way.  Set it on the table.”  Then she gave a nod with her head to her younger brother as he came to stand behind her. “Jamie, watch the water and let me know when it’s boiling.”

                “Aw,” Jamie protested.  “Can’t I help?”

                “Jamie!”  Matthew scolded.  “That will be helping.  Now do as you’re told.”

                Matthew turned back to finish the task of cleaning the man’s head wound.

                “How’s it look?”  Grace asked after she had cleaned away the blood and was holding a clean cloth to the still oozing side wound.

                “Nasty gash,” Matthew replied.  “It’s not bleeding anymore, though, so I suppose that’s good.”

                Grace nodded.  “I need you to help me roll him to his side.  I have to get the exit wound cleaned up, too.  And I think I’m going to need more cloth than I have.”  She turned to look at Jamie, who was standing quietly beside the fireplace, one eye on the kettle and one eye keeping a keen watch on the proceedings.  “Jamie, that shirt you’ve about out-grown.”

                “The one with patches on the elbows?”

                Grace nodded.  “Yes.  I’m going to need it for bandages, so get it out of the trunk and rip it into a few large pieces, okay?”

                Jamie nodded, glad to be doing something more interesting than simply watching a kettle of water.

                Grace turned to Matthew.  “Ready to roll him over for me?  I need to get a good look at his back.”

                Matthew nodded and placed his hands firmly under the dark-haired stranger.  Then, lifting him as gently as was possible, Matthew rolled him onto his side.

                “Just look at this.”  Grace shook her head at the sight of more old scars as she began to clean away the blood.  “What have you brought us here, Matthew?”

                “A gunfighter!”  Jamie exclaimed with a grin as he began to rip his old shirt into bandages.  “And I found him,” he added importantly.  “Me’n Digger, anyways.”

                Grace’s hands froze in their task of washing away the blood.  “What?!”  She turned, her mouth open in shock.  “Matthew?”

                Matthew shot a withering glance at his younger brother.  “Thanks, Big Mouth.”

                Crestfallen, Jamie studied the pile of newly formed bandages he held in his arms while Matthew turned back toward their sister.  “Grace, he still needs our help.”

                As Grace pushed back onto her heels, her eyes flicked to the old scars.  “At the rate he’s been going, he’s gonna need a lot more help than we can give.”

                “Grace.”  Matthew lowered his voice.  “What would grandfather have done?  Or Dad, for that matter?”

                “Yeah, and look what it got them.”  She shook her head slowly.  “This was really stupid, Matthew.”

                Matthew put his hand on his sister’s arm.  “He may be able to help us.  You know there’s been talk of hiring a gun….”

                “Which I also think is stupid,” Grace interjected.

                Matthew sighed.  “Grace.  Put your feelings aside for now, okay?  Let’s just do what we can for him, and we’ll talk about this later.”

                Grace looked down at her hands, hands covered with the blood of a hired killer.  “I don’t know….”

                “The water’s boiling!”  Jamie interrupted.

                Matthew quickly stood up and went to pull the kettle off the fire.  Carefully he brought it over and set it on the floor near his sister.  “Well?”

                Sighing again, Grace looked up at her brother.  “I don’t like this.”

                “You don’t have to like it.  You just have to do it.”

                Determination etched into her face, Grace grabbed up a fresh piece of cloth and dipped it into the hot water.  “I’ll start with this back wound first, then, and you clean that head wound again.  And don’t forget to add some of this salve before you bandage it up.”

                Nodding, Matthew quickly set to work, relieved that at least for now, he had his sister’s cooperation.

 

                                                                                *****************

 

                Grace dried her hands off on her apron and sat down at the table.  Her two brothers were already seated, Jamie’s eyes large and excited, while Matthew was busy tracing an unseen pattern on the wood.

                “Well, I think now is when you can start explaining.”

                “I found him!”  Jamie repeated his earlier claim.  “There was this big gunfight and there were two guys dead already, and this other guy on a horse was shooting at a man who was already wounded, and the gunfighter grabbed up another gun and shot the man on the horse.  You shoulda seen him!  He was so fast!”

                “That doesn’t mean he’s a gunfighter,” Grace interrupted, putting a hand out to slow her younger brother down in his narrative.  “He probably just seemed fast…”

                “Oh, no!”  Jamie shook his head vehemently.  “He was fast!  And he is a gunfighter!  He thought he killed the guy on the horse, but he hadn’t!  He had dropped his gun and turned around, but the other guy stood up, but he was bleeding all over the place.  It was drippin’ all over the ground and—”

                “We understand,” Matthew quickly cut off Jamie’s vivid description.  “Go on.”

                “Well, the bleedin’ fella with the gun told the gunfighter that he wanted the four thousand dollars!  Four thousand dollars!!  Can you believe that?”  Jamie looked at Grace’s surprised expression with satisfaction.

                “Four thousand?”  Grace glanced at Matthew, then at the figure lying in the cot on the other side of the room.

                Matthew nodded, then reached into his back pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper.  “Take a look at this.”

                Grace watched as Matthew unfolded the paper and placed it on the table in front of her.  “We managed to catch two of the horses that the men had been riding, and this was in one of their saddle bags.”

Grace tentatively reached out and picked up the sheet of paper.  It was a reward poster from Kansas for four thousand dollars for a gunfighter by the name of Johnny Madrid.  Grace studied the drawing, then looked back at the unconscious stranger.  The resemblance was striking.  She looked back at the poster.  Mid 20’s.  Black hair, Blue eyes.  Half-breed Mexican. Deadly  Wanted for the murder of Laura Stanton and Chet Riley.  One thousand reward from the state of Kansas, Alive.  Three thousand reward from Edward Stanton.

                “Matthew…” Grace faltered, then leaned across the table, lowering her voice.  “Why did you bring him here?”

                “You know what’s happening, with James Wakeman and all,” Matthew paused. “Well, you know….there’s already been talk of hiring a gun…”

                “Just because there’s talk, doesn’t mean it’s right!”  Grace retorted angrily.

                “Well, Mr. Angelou and Mr. Solero think we should!  They may have sent for one already!”  Matthew replied hotly.

                “In that case, we certainly don’t need another!”

                “With two, James Wakeman don’t dare try to run us off!”  Jamie threw in.

                Grace and Matthew both turned and glared at their younger brother, who immediately sank into his chair.

                “Matthew….”

                “Grace,” Matthew sighed.  “There’s really not much we can do about it now, is there?  He’s here, he’s injured, and the only Christian thing to do is to help him, no matter who he is.”

                “Or what he did?”  Grace asked icily.

                Matthew nodded.  “You know I’m right.”  He reached out and patted her clenched fists.  “I’ll talk to the other ranchers and the men from the town and see what they say.  Perhaps they’ll agree with you, that it’s best not to pursue the idea of hiring a gunfighter.”

                Grace raised a doubtful face to her brother.  She knew he was just telling her that to make her feel better.  There was no way the other ranchers would turn their backs on—what they were sure to consider to be—providence.  Not given the situation they were all in.   Unhappily she nodded.  “I suppose.  But you better get some more of that salve from Señor DarkCloud in town.”  She cast a dour look toward the unwelcome visitor.  “And make sure you put all weapons well hidden away.  I don’t want him waking up in the middle of the night and deciding to shoot us in our sleep.”

                Matthew nodded his agreement and watched as his sister pushed away from the table and stood up.  He knew she wasn’t happy with the situation, but he truly believed that God had brought the gunfighter to help them.  And he was going to see that such a gift was not wasted on his sister’s more delicate sensibilities of right and wrong.

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                A haze.  Voices.  Discordant voices.  A dream of faces swirling past his vision.  Though each time he tried to reach out and catch one, it faded from view.

                Confusion.  A feeling of disorientation—and fear.  He fought to open his eyes, to discover where the voices were coming from.

                A ceiling swam into view.  He tried to focus on it, but it continued to undulate sickeningly.

                Voices again.  Then the shadow of a face moved over him.  He tried to blink, but felt numb.  He couldn’t seem to connect to his body.

                Who?

                Where?

                “Madrid…Madrid….”

                He grabbed onto the word.  It seemed familiar.  Who?  A name.  A name from the past.  A name he knew.  Why?

                Madrid.

                Oblivion.

 

                                                                                *******************

 

                Scott pulled Charlemagne to a halt.  The sun was high in the sky and the sweat was dripping down the sides of his face.  Scott pulled his hat off and fanned himself with the brim a couple times, then grabbed the bandana out of his back pocket and wiped first his face, then the inside of his hat.

                Damn it’s hot!

                Scott set the hat back on his head, then unhooked his canteen from the saddle horn.  After quenching his thirst, he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth before replacing the canteen in its customary spot.

                Ungodly hot!

                Scott squinted into the distance, where the haze from the sun-baked ground rose in waves from the earth.  He had been searching for three days for some clue as to where Johnny had gone but had turned up nothing.  The few men he had run across on the ranch hadn’t seen him either.  Scott could only suppose that Johnny had left the Lancer boundaries.  He had originally hoped he would have found Johnny holed up in one of the old line shacks, or camping beside one of his favorite watering holes, nursing his bruised ego.  But that hadn’t proved the case.  Scott had searched the whole southern area of the ranch, and was now on his way into Green River.  He hoped Sheriff Crawford, Johnny’s friend, might have some idea of where he was.

                Scott patted Charlemagne’s side.  “At least you’ll get yourself a proper stable and I’ll get a hotel room for the night, and we’ll both have a decent supper.”

                Charlemagne let out a nicker of approval to the plan.  Scott grinned.  “Let’s go, then.  It’s still a three hour ride from here, and I’m anxious for a bath.”

                Scott clicked Charlemage forward, and they continued, the dust rising in small clouds that settled immediately in the breezeless air.

 

                                                                                *******************

 

                Darkness.  Throbbing pain.  An incessant buzzing in a grey fog of swirling images.  That is what he was first aware of.    He tried to pull himself out of the fog, but the disorientation was overwhelming.  A noise, sharp and ringing, broke through the buzzing.  He concentrated on it, let it draw him up and out of the heavy haze.  As he pushed through the last layer of fog, he drew in a sharp breath, suddenly aware of an intense pain in his right side.  His eyes flashed open, frantically searching out his surroundings.

 

                Grace had just finished drying the last of the dishes and was setting them on the small shelf over the sink, when she heard a moan.  Her heart jumping, she quickly turned, her hands gripping the side of the counter, and found herself starring into the dark blue eyes of the stranger.  He didn’t move, but continued to stare at her with an intensity that Grace found neither threatening, nor friendly, just confused.  Though he made no move, she was scared, and wished that Matthew, or even Jamie, would walk in.

                The stranger finally blinked, then made as if to push himself up, but fell back with a soft moan.  Instinctively, Grace grabbed a clean mug, poured some water into it from the pitcher, and brought it over.  “Here.”  She knelt down beside the cot.  “You must be thirsty.”

                The man opened his eyes again, slowly focusing on her face, then nodded gratefully.

                Gently, Grace put a hand behind his bandaged head and helped him rise up enough to take a long drink.  After she had helped him lie back down, she saw him mouth the word, ‘thanks’.

                Grace smiled tentatively.  “Can I get you anything else?”

                The stranger studied her, his brows drawing into a confused furrow.  “W’happ’n?” he breathed.

                Hesitantly, Grace put her hand on the man’s shoulder and carefully explained.  “You were shot.  My brothers found you and brought you to our cabin.”

                “Shot?”  He winced as he raised his left hand to his bandaged right side.  Then, unsteadily, he moved his hand to his head.

                “You were shot through the side, just under the rib cage.  I think you’ll be fine, though, if you take it easy for awhile.  But you also had a nasty fall and cracked your head pretty good.”

                In answer, he closed his eyes momentarily and groaned.   Tiredly he lowered his hand back to the bed.  “When?”

                “Yesterday.”

                The man opened his eyes again and Grace couldn’t help but notice that the deep blueness of his eyes was a strong contrast to his raven-black hair and dark complexion.  Under the intense scrutiny, Grace began to feel uncomfortable and started to rise.   She hesitated as he put out a shaky hand, a feeble attempt to draw her back before she could move away.

                “Who…shot?”

                Grace raised an eyebrow at the question.  “Why, the bounty hunter, I presume.”

                “Boun-ty-hun-ter?” he slowly questioned, his voice barely above a whisper.

                Grace pursed her lips, suddenly reminding herself who the man in front of her really was.  He seemed weak and helpless, but he was a trained killer.  Stalking death’s doorstep was an everyday hazard of his job, of which he’d obviously done his share.  He wasn’t going to gain her sympathy, no matter how blue his eyes, or how needy he appeared.  “Yes, Mr. Madrid.  The bounty hunter.   But from what Matthew and Jamie said, you needn’t worry about any of those men finding you.  It appears you managed to take care of all four of them quite thoroughly.”

                The man tried raising himself again, a question apparent on his face, but with a sharp intake of breath, he clenched his jaw and closed his eyes as the pain from his wound overwhelmed him.  Feeling just a little bit guilty for her sharp choice of words, Grace hurried to the corner cabinet, poured a small amount of laudanum into his cup then returned.

                “Here.”  She knelt down once more and put a steadying hand under his head.  “This’ll help with the pain.”

                The dark blue eyes watched her as she lifted the cup to his lips.  He took a swallow, then suddenly shook his head. 

                “Here, drink the rest,” she instructed.

                “Nnno,” he mumbled.  “Sick.”

                “I know you’re sick.  You need this to feel better.  Now drink it.”

                Despite his objection, Grace managed to force him to drink the rest of the medicine, then in exhaustion he fell weakly back onto the cot.  Within seconds he had once again succumbed to sleep.

                Grace sighed deeply and closed her eyes.  It looked like she wasn’t going to have to worry about their resident gunfighter jumping out of bed and killing them in their sleep any time soon.  She figured they were all safe, at least for the next couple of days.

 

                                                                                ****************

 

Scott reined Charlemagne to a halt in front of the Green River Sheriff’s Office.  Quickly he scanned the dusty street for any sign of Barranca, but Johnny’s palomino was not to be found among the animals tethered along the various hitching posts.

                Undaunted, Scott dismounted, flipped Charlemagne’s reins over the railing, and strode into the small office.  He tossed his hat on the hook near the door, then looked to the corner of the office.

                Sheriff Crawford sat, or rather lay, back in his chair, his feet propped up on his desk, a newspaper open in front of his face.  Scott was in the process of opening his mouth to speak, when the unmistakable sound of a snore rumbled from behind the paper.

                Scott walked around the desk.  Sure enough, Sheriff Crawford’s head was tilted back, his mouth hanging open, eyes closed to the various articles in front of him.

                Suppressing a smile, Scott walked back to the front door, opened it once more, and then firmly slammed it shut.  There was a grunt, followed by the smack of boots hitting the floor.

                “Uh, Scott?  Scott!”  Jumping up, Val Crawford ran a hand through his unruly hair and grinned sheepishly.  “Ain’t seen you for awhile.  What’cha doin’ in town?”  His eyes flicked past Scott toward the door.  “Johnny here?”

                Dismayed to have his question already answered, Scott sighed.  “No, ‘fraid not, Val.  In fact, I was hoping you’d seen him.”

                Val shook his head, his hand rubbing the stubble of his chin thoughtfully.  “No.  No, I ain’t seen Johnny in, oh, ‘bout three weeks now.  You know, when Johnny and I took you over to Lolita’s Cantina and introduced you to a certain ‘speciality’ of the house….”

                Val’s eyes twinkled as Scott waved his hands in mock horror.  “Now, wait a minute!  I don’t believe half of what you guys claimed I did that night!”

                “Johnny’s right.  You do have a purty singin’ voice.”

                Scott groaned, “Val, I think it’s time to change the subject.”

                “Oh, I don’t know.”  Val grinned wickedly, a gleam of pure mirth in his eyes.  “Me ‘n Johnny plan to get a lot of enjoyment outta that night.  We’re not even above bribery…”

                Scott chuckled, then walked closer to the desk, his face growing more somber.

As the anxiety in Scott’s expression became evident, the humor in Val’s face quickly disappeared…  “What’s wrong, Scott?  Is it Johnny?”  At Scott’s worried nod, Val motioned to the extra chair.  “Have a seat.”  Then grabbing his own chair, he swung it around the desk.

                Scott nodded his thanks and sat down, a sudden feeling of exhaustion overcoming him.  Closing his eyes, he leaned back in the chair and tilted his head against the wall, then brought his hands up to tiredly rub his eyes.  “How’d you know?”

 

                Seeing Johnny’s brother looking so defeated, Val went to the coffeepot still warming on the stove and poured two cups.  “It’s the look you get.  Kinda drawn ‘round the eyes, a worried sorta mother bear look.”

                Lowering his hands, Scott raised his eyebrows at the description.  “Mother bear?”

                Val shrugged and handed over the cup.  “It’s what it reminds me of.  You know, when a mother bear’s got her cubs, and she suddenly senses—”

                “I get it!”  Scott interrupted, then smiled.  “Just don’t tell Johnny, okay?”

                “Ah, he already knows,” Val laughed dismissively as he sat down in the other chair.

                “What?”

                “Oh, yeah, I kid him about it all the time.”  At Scott’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “I seen you give that look whenever we’re out together, and things are goin’ along smooth, and suddenly something happens, a noise maybe, or somethin’s said, I dunno, but Johnny’ll make a move, or flinch-like….you know, show Madrid again….and that look comes over you.  You get all mother beary lookin’.”  Val shrugged at his vague attempt to explain.

                Scott pursed his lips thoughtfully a second.  “I—I hadn’t realized.”

                Val shrugged again.  “’Course you ain’t.   You’re his brother.”

                Sighing, Scott’s gaze dropped to study the floor.

                “So, what’d Johnny do?”  Val asked pointedly.

                Drawing his legs in, Scott pushed himself up straighter in his chair and took a sip of the coffee.  “He’s missing.”

                Val’s expression registered alarm.  “For how long?”

                “Six days.”

                Val’s brows knit in confusion.  “He’s been gone longer ’n that before.”

                Scott nodded.  “Yeah, I know.  But this time’s different.”  He paused a beat.  “Murdoch and Johnny had some pretty strong words.  Some—some things came up which probably shouldn’t have.”

                Val waited a second, hoping Scott would continue, but when he didn’t, he asked, “So you think he got mad and left?”

                “Possibly.”

                “Musta been pretty serious.”

                “It was.”

                In the look Scott gave him, and the tone Scott used, Val sensed Scott wasn’t exaggerating.  He knew there was more to tell, but waited, hoping Scott would decide to confide in him.

                “So, where’d you look?”

                Scott rubbed his hand across his forehead.  “I’ve been all over Lancer, hoping I’d find him camped out, or in one of the line-shacks, just taking some time to collect his thoughts.  You know…” he paused vaguely.

                Val nodded.

                “I couldn’t find any trace of him anywhere, and I’ve been looking for days.  No one’s seen him.”  Scott shrugged almost apologetically.   “Then I thought maybe he came by here.  Maybe you’d seen him.”

                Val shook his head sadly.  “Wish I had, Scott.”

                Groaning, Scott leaned his head back against the chair and uttered an uncharacteristic curse.  “Damn!”  Then with a sudden growl, Scott sprang up, set his coffee cup on the desk, and began to pace the room in quick, irritated steps.

                Val watched in partial amusement as a cornered mother bear once again came to mind.  He bit back the desire to share his observation with Scott, as he didn’t think Scott would appreciate the comparison at that moment.  Instead, he remained quiet as Scott began wearing a path in his floor, his hands clenching and unclenching, clearly working his way to a decision.

                Eventually the pacing slowed, and Scott seemed to have made up his mind.  He stopped in front of Val, his expression both tentative and wary, his eyes searching deeply into Val’s, until Val finally looked down at his own coffee cup.

                In a forced, even tone, Scott asked, “Did Johnny ever tell you about a bounty on him?”

                Scott watched Val’s eyes quickly rise, the surprise in them supplying the answer he both hoped for and dreaded.  Sighing, Scott sat back down heavily and leaned forward, his head in his hands.

                “You didn’t know either,” he stated quietly.  “Part of me’s glad.  Part of me…” he shrugged.  “I thought maybe he’d—he’d felt like he could confide in you.  Or,” Scott sat up and searched Val’s eyes, “that maybe you needed to know.”

                Val slowly shook his head, his teeth worrying across his bottom lip.

                “Oh, God!”  Scott suddenly groaned and leaned back in the chair again.

                “He knew about the bounty, then?” Val asked.

                Scott stared up at the ceiling. “Appears so.”

                “Where’s it from?”

                “Oh, I don’t know.”  Scott shook his head, but his eyes remained fixed on the ceiling.  “Kansas, I guess.”

                “That explains why I don’t know about it,” Val replied.  “Though Johnny does have a habit of comin’ in here and flippin’ through the posters.  Never think much of it, though.  He’s always pickin’ stuff up and fiddlin’ with it.  Kinda nervous habit, I guess.”  Val tried to lighten the mood.  “But I never keep anything from that far away anyhow, even if it makes it to my office.  I just worry about the local trouble.”

Val paused, waiting for some reaction from Scott.  Finally he asked, “What’s it for?”

                In a low, strained voice, Scott replied, “Murder.”

                The dead tone of Scott’s voice had the effect of sending a lightening bolt through Val’s body.  Suddenly he stood up and began pacing where Scott had left off.  “So, you think that has somethin’ to do with Johnny’s disappearance?  How long’s the bounty been out?”

                Scott’s entire demeanor spelled complete defeat.  “I don’t know, Val,” he sighed.  “Years, I guess.”

                “How’d you find out about it?”

                “Damned Pinkerton Report,” Scott swore.

                Val’s pacing came to an abrupt halt.  His eyes narrowed.  “Pinkertons?  Who got the damn Pinks on Johnny?”

                Scott closed his eyes as if to block out some terrible memory.  In the prolonged silence, Val thought he was going to have to repeat his question.

                Finally Scott whispered, “Murdoch.”

                Val took a step closer, his face registering shock.  “Murdoch?!  What’d he go and do somethin’ like that for?!”

                Scott suddenly moved, though his actions still seemed weighted under an enormous load.  “He’s had it for awhile.  He used the Pinkertons to track Johnny down two and a half years ago…you know…” He made a vague gesture with his hand. “He had a difficult time finding Johnny and all,” Scott explained weakly, his nonchalance forced.  “Johnny didn’t know, ‘till recently, that Murdoch had a report on him.”

                “And that’s when he left?”

                Scott nodded slowly and rubbed his hand across his face.  Wearily he sighed.  “Val, I don’t know what to do next.  Guess go back to Lancer and tell Murdoch I couldn’t find him.”

                “Maybe he showed up while you’ve been out lookin’ for him.”

                “I guess you’re right,” Scott said though his tone seemed to indicate that he had little faith in that possibility.

                “How’s Murdoch takin’ it?”

                Val was surprised at the sudden disgust which colored Scott’s eyes.  “How do you think?” he retorted.  “He says Johnny just needs some time, and if he chooses not to return, well then, that’s how it should be.”  Scott stood and added sarcastically, “Yeah, Murdoch’s real choked up about it.”

                Val stood, trying to think of some way to help.  The vehemence with which Scott spoke shocked him.  “I’ll keep my eyes and ears open, Scott, and let you know if I hear anything at all.  You do the same, okay?”

                Scott nodded weakly.  “Thanks, Val.”

                “You’re not headin’ back tonight, are you?”

                Scott shook his head.  “No, I don’t think I’m up to it.  I’ll head back in the morning.”

                Val put a hand on Scott’s shoulder.  “He’ll turn up, Scott.  Murdoch might be right.  He might just be needin’ some time.”

                Scott grabbed his hat off the hook by the door.  Though his lips smiled, his eyes held no hope.  “Sure.”

                Scott walked out the door to the darkening, dusty street.  Charlemagne looked at him tiredly.

                “Let’s get some rest, boy.”

                As Scott grabbed Charlemagne’s reins and walked slowly down the street toward the livery, Val watched through the window.  With a sigh, he turned and leaned his back against the wall, his arms crossed.  A murder bounty had turned many a man to running.

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                “—and bless this food.”

                Matthew had barely finished the benediction, when Jamie exclaimed, “He really woke up?”

                “Yes, Jamie,” Grace replied patiently.  “Twice.  The first time, though, he just opened his eyes and looked around for a few seconds.  I managed to give him a little more medicine for his pain before he fell back asleep.”

                “Did he say anything?”  Jamie quickly shoved a piece of meat into his mouth and waited expectantly.

                “Not much really.”  Grace smiled at her younger brother’s enthusiasm.  “He wanted to know what had happened.”

                “You mean he doesn’t remember?”

                “Jamie,” Matthew cut in.  “Think about it.  He’s been wounded and had a nasty fall.  Next thing he knows he wakes up in a strange house, with a person he’s never seen before.  It’s only natural that he’s gonna be confused.”

                Jamie nodded his head, satisfied with the explanation.  He pondered the information as he took a couple more bites of food.  “So, when do you think he’ll be well enough to talk to?”

                Matthew shrugged.  “I’m not sure.  Probably another day or two.”  He looked at Grace for her opinion, but she only shrugged noncommittally.

                “Have ya told Mr. Angelou, yet?”

                Matthew shook his head.

                “Aw,” Jamie pouted.  “I thought you was gonna.”

                “I thought you were, too,” Grace added.

                Matthew took a drink of water from his cup, then glanced at the unconscious man in the corner.  “I had planned to.  Mr. Angelou is gone for the next few days.  He’s expected back at the end of the week.  I told DarkCloud about him when I went into town for the medicine.  He thinks Mr. Solero and Mr. Angelou already sent for a gun, but that having Madrid here would be better than anything the town could afford.”  Pausing, he grinned at his sister.  “In fact, I didn’t have to pay for the medicine, or the extra laudanum.  ‘On the house,’ he told me.  He seems to think it would be right wonderful if our gunfighter felt he owed us for saving his life.  Might make him feel a bit indebted.”

                Grace grimaced.  “He’s a gunfighter, Matthew.  Not a Samaritan, or a Robin Hood.  He won’t care one way or the other.”

                “That’s not what DarkCloud said.  Seems he’s heard about our Mr. Madrid, here.”

                Grace looked up sharply.  “What do you mean?”

                “DarkCloud says he’s got quite a name for himself down around the border.  He’s heard he’s the fastest thing around those parts.  DarkCloud’s got some family down that area that talk quite highly of him.  And,” he paused for emphasis, “he has a reputation for working for less than he’s worth, if it’s for a good cause.”

                Laughing softly, Grace eyed the still figure lying in the corner of the room.  “That’s ridiculous.  If he’s in such high demand, why would he take less than he’s worth?”

                Matthew shrugged.  “I’m just relatin’ what I heard from DarkCloud.”

                “Well, I just want him to wake up so’s I can talk to him.  I ain’t never met a gunfighter before,” Jamie chimed in.

                “I haven’t ever met a gunfighter before,” Grace corrected her younger brother.

                Jamie looked at his sister with a puzzled expression.  “Of course you ain’t.”

                Grace sighed.  “No, Jamie, I mean—”

                Matthew put a hand out and grinned.  “Let it go.”

                Grace shook her head.  “We really need to get a teacher in town.”

                Matthew’s eyes locked with his sister’s.  “We need to keep the town, first.”

 

**************

 

Though he knew the possibility was slim at best, Scott’s eyes still quickly searched for Barranca among the horses in the corral.  No golden palomino was among them.  In a puff of dust, he reined up near the corral and quickly dismounted just as Jelly appeared from the side of the barn, Dewdrop in his arms.

“I keep tellin’ ya, Dewdrop, you gotta learn to leave them chicks alone.  Teresa’s gonna get— Scott!”  Jelly exclaimed as he turned Dewdrop loose.  “Scott!”  He took a couple steps forward, then paused when he noticed Scott’s expression.  “No luck, huh?”

                “No, Jelly,” Scott replied.  “I’ve even been to Green River.”

                “You’re back!”

                Scott turned to see Teresa sprinting toward him from the front courtyard, a hopeful expression on her face.

                “Johnny?”

                Dropping his eyes, Scott shook his head.  “Nothing.”

                “Oh, Scott.”  Teresa walked up and put a hand on his arm.  “I’d hoped…”

                “I had, too.”  Scott’s reply was soft as he turned his back to her.  He leaned heavily against the fence and sighed.  “I talked to Sheriff Crawford, but he doesn’t know anything.  Hasn’t seen Johnny at all.”  He paused as he took a deep breath, his hands suddenly clenching the fence railing.  “Damn!”  He forcefully slammed his open palm against the wood.  “This needn’t have happened!”

                “Scott!”  Teresa exclaimed as she jumped back in surprise.

                His palm tightening into a fist, his head bent, Scott hissed with a vehemence that surprised his listeners, “Damn it!  I just wanna hit something!”

                “Like me?”

                There was a long, shocked silence as Jelly and Teresa both slowly pivoted, surprise and embarrassment clearly showing on their faces.  Scott, however, remained motionless, head still bent against the railing.  “Murdoch,” he stated wearily.

 

                “Yes.”  Murdoch’s tone was even, his face totally impassive.  “I think you’d better come in.  We need to talk.”  Without another word, he turned and walked stiffly back to the house.

                Jelly whistled and shook his head.  “Oh, I sure as hell would cover my ass before enterin’ that house, if I were you.”

                “Jelly,” Teresa admonished softly.

                Jelly smiled apologetically.  “Y’shoulda heard what I really wanted to say.”  He leaned over and gave Scott’s still unmoving form a reassuring pat on the back.  “Don’t worry.  You’re too big for a whupping.”  Then with a nod to Teresa, he turned and ambled toward the barn.

                Teresa studied Scott’s form, still bent tiredly against the fence.  Finally, with a sigh, he pushed himself up, but his face remained hidden.

                “I’ll take care of Charlemagne for you,” Teresa offered.

                “Thanks,” Scott replied.  “Have one of the hands help you with the saddle.”

                “Scott,” a smirk appeared in the corner of her mouth, “I used to handle my own saddle just fine before you boys came here.”

                Scott turned and cocked his head.  “Yeah, I suppose so.  I tend to forget that.”

                “I know you do.”

                Scott gazed sullenly toward the house.  “Guess I should be getting in there.”

                Teresa nodded, then put a hand once more on his arm, securing his attention.  “Later I need to talk to you though.”

                “What about?” His eyes quickly narrowed.  “Something about Johnny?”

                Teresa nodded hesitantly. “But it can wait.” She glanced toward the house, her dark eyes registering her concern.  “You’d better take care of this first.  And Scott,” her fingers tightened around his shirt, “try to go easy.  He’s worried, too.”

                Disbelief showed on Scott’s face as he shook his head with a sigh.  Then he patted her hand with his free one and started for the front door.

                Once inside, Scott pushed the door closed, then waited a second as his eyes adjusted to the darker atmosphere of the great room.  Murdoch, arms clasped tightly behind his back, stood rigidly in front of the map of the Lancer Ranch, his back to the door.

                                               

“You hate me now, I suppose.”

                Scott took a deep breath.  “I’m disappointed.”

                “I wish you wouldn’t judge me so harshly,” Murdoch replied.

                “How should I judge you?”  Scott stepped down into the room, then paused.

                “I’d lost two wives and two sons.  Partially because of my own stubbornness, partially because of events beyond my control.”  Though his back was still turned, Scott could sense the fatigue in his father’s voice.  “Used to be a time this ranch was all that mattered to me.  All I had.  All that remained….” his voice grew soft, and Scott took a couple steps closer.  “And then that day—when everything changed.  When Teresa’s father was murdered, and I thought I might die.  When I realized I needed more.  That I needed my sons….”

                “You’re expecting me to feel sorry for you because you suddenly realized you were mortal?  Excuse me, Sir, but most people come to that realization a little sooner.”  Scott couldn’t help a hint of sarcasm creeping into his voice.  He was tired and discouraged, and angry with the man who had, once again, forced his brother into a decision to leave.

                Murdoch turned slowly, a spark of anger in his eyes, yet he replied in a carefully modulated voice.  “That’s not what I’m asking for, Scott.  I just want you to hear me out.  I just want you to understand.”

                “Understand?  Understand what?  Why you say you need us so badly, yet you always seem to be pushing Johnny away?”

                Murdoch rubbed his forehead, his face drawn and tired.  “Scott, when Harlan took you, I wasn’t happy about it.  But I knew where you were.  I knew you were being raised well.  I knew how you were doing.  Harlan, despite everything else, was very meticulous in sending me a formal report on your progress every year.  I’m sure it was done as much for legal reasons as it was for his own satisfaction in letting me know all the opportunities you were being given, as well as what a wonderful job he was doing raising you.  That’s really beside the point here, however.  What is important, is that I knew how you were, Scott.  I knew you were happy and well cared for and lacked for nothing.”

                “Except a father,” Scott replied tersely.

                “Scott,” Murdoch shook his head.  “I had no idea you needed me.”

                “Every boy needs his father.”

                Murdoch sighed heavily.  “I know that now, Scott.  But at the time, I thought I was doing what was best for you.  I believed you were happy.  I was still angry with Harlan, especially when I found out he wasn’t giving you my letters.  But I still knew where you were.  You were still my son in my heart.  Harlan even sent me a few photographs of you over the years.  Did you know that?”

                Scott shook his head slowly.  “No, I didn’t.”

                “I still have them,” Murdoch replied softly, then closed his eyes.  “I could look at them and see my son.”

                Scott regarded Murdoch silently, waiting.

                When Murdoch opened his eyes, they were weighted with sadness.  “But Johnny.  When I lost him, it was a whole different sense of loss, pain…and anger.  One day he was there—my son, young, happy, playing—and then he was gone.  You can’t understand the panic and dread that takes over when a child of yours just disappears.  The pain was unbearable.  I was half out of my mind—frantic.  I tried everything to find him, to find them.  I wanted him back so badly—but it wasn’t to be.  He had disappeared….”  Murdoch’s voice trailed off to a whisper, his eyes dropped to the floor.   “So, I buried him.  It was all I could do, Scott.  I had to bury him so that I could finally go on.”

                “You buried him?  I don’t understand.  You’ve said that you still looked for him.”

                Murdoch nodded slowly.  “I did.  But after a few years, I didn’t really think he would be found.”

                “So you continued to look—from what?  A sense of obligation?”

                “I guess so.”  Murdoch’s eyes sought Scott’s.  “Oh, there’d be this small glimmer of hope each time.  But I never let myself think on it much.  I couldn’t function, if I did.  But in the end, I expected to hear that Maria and Johnny had died.  I just wanted to know for sure.”

                “So, the Pinkertons,” Scott’s brows were furrowed, “you didn’t really think they’d find Johnny or what?  I don’t understand.”

                Murdoch suddenly grew quiet.  He turned and walked to the window, but the drapes were drawn; there was nothing to look at.  His hand went out to touch the drape, as if to pull it back, but then he let it drop, and turned back toward Scott.

The anguish in his father’s eyes was plain, leaving Scott feeling uncomfortable.  He wanted to look away, but found he couldn’t. 

                “I—I need to tell you something, Scott.”  There was a long moment of uneasy silence, as Murdoch seemed to brace himself, obviously preparing for a moment of confession.  “Your showing up at Lancer around the same time that Johnny did was no real accident.”              

                Scott looked confused and doubtful.  “I don’t understand.”

                “The first time I hired the Pinkertons, it was sixty-sixty.”

                “I still don’t—”

                “I finally had the money to hire the best, and that’s what the Pinkertons are.”

                “Yes, so…?”

                Murdoch paused meaningfully. “The Pinkertons usually accomplish what they set out to do.”

                Scott waved his hands in exasperation.  “I know.  You’d hired the Pinkertons to look for Johnny once before.  I don’t know where this is getting us!”

                Murdoch’s eyes held Scott’s before he added in a carefully guarded tone, “It took awhile, but they found him the first time.”

                Scott’s mouth dropped opened in stunned confusion.  It took him a few seconds just to collect his senses enough to utter a strangled, “What?”

                Murdoch, his gaze unflinching, took a deep breath.  “They found him the first time.  I’ve known who, and generally where he was, since the summer of sixty-nine.”

                Scott put a hand out, his face still registering his complete shock.  “You mean you knew where to find him for over a year, yet you didn’t send for him?  How could you?”

                “Scott,” Murdoch shook his head sadly, “I thought they’d tell me he was dead.  Instead, I found out he was the gunfighter Johnny Madrid.  I’d even heard about him and his exploits down around the border.  Try to imagine it, Scott.  Finding out that the young son you still pictured in your mind, who you’d buried sadly in your heart, was instead a hardened gunfighter, a man hired to kill other men.  When I found out,” Murdoch paused, unable to continue, his voice cracking under the strain, “when I found out, I couldn’t accept it, I—” He dropped his gaze for a second before he managed to face Scott, “I—found myself wishing instead he was dead.”

                Scott felt numb, the room suddenly cold.  “You decided you didn’t want a gunfighter for a son.”

                Murdoch nodded weakly.  “It was too much of a shock, I guess.  Too hard to deal with.  And the report…well, I just knew too much.”  He turned to look out the window.  “So instead, I threw myself more totally into the ranch.”

                “Does he know,” Scott demanded quietly.

                Shaking his head, Murdoch turned back.

                “Then why, why did you suddenly send for him?  A desire to see him before you died?  A wish to make amends?  What?  It makes no sense.  Unless…” Scott’s expression suddenly tightened, “unless you suddenly needed him for the very reason you decided you didn’t want him in the first place.  His gun.”

                Murdoch put a hand to his face, wishing to hide the truth, but he knew he was too late.  Scott had already seen.  He could do nothing but nod weakly.  “Yes, a son like Johnny Madrid became an asset.”  At Scott’s enraged expression, Murdoch quickly continued.  “But that wasn’t the only reason, Scott.  When I was first shot, it did give me a lot of time to think.  I realized my reaction had been wrong.  That he was still my son, regardless of what he had become.  That I needed to try, at least, to contact him.  To give him a choice, an opportunity for something better than the life he was leading.”

                “And how wonderful that this realization suddenly came to you when you stood to benefit by it,” Scott replied sarcastically as he suddenly began to stalk back and forth in an unconscious effort to expend his rising tension.   “No wonder you act like you do.  You didn’t really want him to stick around!  You hoped he’d do his job and move on, like any other hired gun!”  He suddenly stopped and rounded on his father.  “It suddenly makes a lot more sense to me why you act like you do.  You see Johnny as a liability!”

                “Scott, that’s not true.  I did offer him one-third ownership of the ranch.”

“That it seems you’ve been all too willing to take back if he couldn’t live up to your expectations!”

                  “Scott, you must understand.  I wasn’t sure what sort of person he was going to be.  How he was going to react to me.  I was apprehensive, to say the least, and expected the worse.  It was easier for you.  You had the luxury of meeting him first before you found out who and what he was.  To you, he’s always been your brother, who happened to have been Johnny Madrid at one time.  But I didn’t have that luxury!  He was Johnny Madrid first, and then my son.”

                “That shouldn’t matter!”

                “But it does!  It’s difficult for me.  Every time I look at him, Scott, I see my failures.  My failure in finding him…in saving him.  That what he became, I am partially responsible for.  And I realize he’s tried to adapt, to fit into life here.  But he’s still there, Scott.  Even after more than two years, Johnny Madrid’s still there.  It’s in his eyes, in his actions.  You’ve seen it, too.  I know you have.  He’ll be dozing in the evening, and someone will make a sudden noise…startle him, and he’ll reach for his gun.  Or we’ll be somewhere and he’ll hear a gunshot and his whole body goes rigid.  Or worse yet, someone recognizes him.  Even if Johnny tries to correct them and say that he’s Johnny Lancer, Madrid’s been mentioned.  At these times, he’ll look at me quickly out of the corner of his eyes, and he’ll see it.  The disappointment.  I try to hide it, but he knows it’s there.  And then I’ll see the accusation in his eyes.  The blame.”

                Scott shook his head.  “He doesn’t blame you anymore.”

                “Yes, he does, Scott.  He’ll never admit to it, but he does.  I’m responsible for how his life turned out.”

                “You’re only responsible for the additional year of the life he was living, when you could have acted and didn’t.  From all you’ve ever said, you did all you could to find him after Maria left.  You even searched yourself.  You hired men to try to track them down.  You spent all the money you had at the time trying to locate them.”

                “I still had the ranch, Scott.  I could have sold the ranch.”

                “And then what would you have had?”

                Murdoch replied quietly, “I might have had my son.”

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                After Matthew and Jamie had left to do the chores in the barn, Grace gathered the supplies she needed to change the bandages on the gunfighter.  She checked the head wound first, satisfying herself that it was healing properly, then rebandaged it.  Next she removed the old bandaging from the bullet wound.  She was relieved to see that it was no longer oozing.  The salve from DarkCloud quite often kept the dreaded infection from appearing, and everyone in the area always kept a supply of his medicine on hand.

                Gently she took a clean cloth and wiped the old layer of salve off.  Then, after dipping her fingers in the small clay container, she began to apply a new thin coat on the wound.  Suddenly, and without warning, the man’s left hand snaked out to grip her wrist.   With a gasp, she turned startled eyes to the gunfighter’s face.  His dark blue eyes searched her face, trying to focus.

                “Who?” he asked, his voice thick and raspy.

                Her heart beating uncontrollably, Grace only stared at the man, unable to answer.

                “Who?” he repeated again, then tried to rise, but instead gasped sharply, falling weakly back onto the bed with a guttural groan as the pain from the wound flared.

                “I’m—I’m Grace,” Grace answered, her voice trembling despite her best efforts.  “My—my brothers found you, remember?”

                The man released her wrist.  “Grace,” he repeated softly.  “Grace.”

                With more compassion than she would have earlier thought possible, Grace put a hand on the gunfighter’s arm.  “That’s right, Mr. Madrid.  My name’s Grace.  My brothers brought you down out of the hills.  Remember?”

                He put a shaky hand to his head.  “I fell?”

                “Yes.”

                “I—I was shot.”  His voice was still weak, but his gaze was unnervingly strong.  “I think…I think I remember.”

                “That’s good.”  Grace smiled.  “Are you hungry?  Let me get you something to eat.”

                Grace stood up and walked toward the small wood stove.  “I have a few scrambled eggs I’ve kept warm in case you woke up.”  She grabbed up a hot pad, then moved an iron skillet that held a few scrambled eggs from the back of the stove.  She quickly scooped them onto a plate, picked up the skillet and set it to cool on the table, then carried the eggs to the gunfighter.  She was surprised to see he had managed to push himself up onto his left elbow, though he still hugged his right arm to his side protectively.

                Gently, Grace spoon-fed him the few mouthfuls of scrambled eggs.  She was relieved to see he ate well.  However the way his eyes watched her closely, following her every movement with a guarded intensity, made her uneasy.

                After he had taken the last bite, she stood up and carried the plate to the table where the bottle of laudanum sat.  She poured a dosage onto a spoon, then picked up a cup of water and carried them both to the gunfighter.

                “Here.”  She held the spoon out.  “This’ll help with the pain.”

                He looked at her intently, then tentatively took a taste.

                “No,” he said, suddenly pulling away, the movement causing him to gasp.  “It’s laudanum.  I can’t.”

                “Mr. Madrid.”  Grace pursed her lips.  “It’ll make you feel better, and I know it doesn’t taste great, but I have a glass of water here.  Now, come on.”  She put the spoon once more to his lips.

                “No,” he mumbled again, shaking his head weakly as he lay back onto the cot.  “No.  No laudanum.”

                Grace sighed heavily.  It appeared gunfighters could be just as childish as other men.  “And why not?”  The irritation was evident in her voice.

                The gunfighter looked at her then his eyes lost their focus as he seemed to be pulled backward, a confused look weighing on his face, until he quietly breathed, “Kansas.  Promised.”

                Grace noticed his skin was slowly losing its color, a sheen of sweat from the recent exertion glistened on his forehead and neck.  He blinked his eyes slowly, trying to regain eye contact, but she could see he was losing the battle.

                “Water,” she blurted, quickly putting a hand behind his head.  “At least take a sip of water.  You need more liquids.”

                Relieved, she watched him drink half the cup of water, before he fell back, exhausted.  He immediately slipped into a deep sleep.

 

                                                                                ******************

Scott tiredly walked down the hallway to his room, the conversation with his father still echoing in his mind.  The revelation that Murdoch had known for over a year where Johnny had been and had chosen not to contact him and save him from that added year of struggling in death’s shadow, had filled Scott with a weight of forbidden knowledge that seemed to have sucked out all his energy.  All he wanted to do was to collapse on his bed for the rest of the day and not speak to anyone.  Better yet, the idea of a brandy induced stupor sounded damned appealing.

He opened the door to his room, eyes downcast, and shuffled in.

                “Scott?”  Teresa gave him a long, questioning look.  “What’s wrong?”

                Closing the door behind him, Scott slowly shook his head.  “Nothing.”

                “You don’t look well,” Teresa pursued cautiously, noting his strained, pale expression.

                Scott shrugged without comment and moved to the side table where he observed that Teresa had thoughtfully refilled his pitcher with fresh water.  He poured it into the basin, then leaned down and splashed water on his face.

                “I’ve been waiting for you,” Teresa said as she moved to stand behind Scott.  She watched him as he splashed water on his face a second time, sighed, and then finally grabbed up the towel hanging to the side.  Teresa had the distinct impression that he wanted to bury his face in the towel and not come out.

                “Was Murdoch’s tongue lashing that bad?”

                “Hmmmm?”  Scott seemed distracted as he re-hung the towel. “Uh, no, no.  I just…” Scott rubbed his face tiredly. “What was it you wanted, Teresa?”

                “I needed to talk to you about something—something about Johnny, remember?”

                Scott’s eyes instantly focused on Teresa, fixing her with an intensity that she found disturbing.  “Now, what?” he snapped.

                Teresa’s mouth gaped open, surprised at Scott’s reaction.  “I, uh…maybe I’d better talk to you later.”

                Shaking his head, Scott apologized, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to sound so cross, I’m just…” he waved his hands tiredly, then turned and walked to the window.  “It’s not been a good few days, Teresa, and my talk with Murdoch about did me in.  I’m just tired, and disappointed, and ready for some good news for a change.”  Turning back, he smiled apologetically.  “I don’t suppose you have any good news?”

                Teresa shook her head sadly.  “I’m afraid not.”

                “Well, sit down and let’s hear it.”  He motioned to the stuffed chair in the corner, then pulled the smaller wooden chair out from his writing desk, flipped it around, and straddled it tiredly.

                Teresa stood looking at him, wondering if her news would be better left until later.  Add to that the fact that she really didn’t feel like subjecting herself to Scott’s now rather tired and cross scrutiny when she told him her information.  She gazed around the room uncomfortably, then spied the brandy decanter on the table.  She was quite certain Scott wouldn’t turn down a glass, and it gave her something to do.  She walked over to it and began to pour.

                “This doesn’t bode well.  You’re pouring me a drink,” Scott remarked dryly.

                “You just look like you could use it,” Teresa replied.  “Looks like Murdoch took some of the wind out of your sails.”

                “That’s not the half of it,” he responded tiredly as he rested his chin on the back of the chair.

                After pouring the drink, Teresa turned, a smile crossing her face as she studied Scott, eyes now closed, his chin resting on the chair back.  He looked like such a little boy, a lost little boy.  Or, she thought sadly, a little boy who’s just lost his best friend.  As she walked over to the chair, he tiredly opened his eyes and smiled weakly.  She hated to tell him what she had found out, but knew it had to be done.

                Scott sat up and accepted the brandy gratefully.  “You’re an angel.”

                Teresa gave Scott a small smile.  “I know.”

                “Now tell me this important news.”

                Teresa took a deep breath.  “Well, while you were gone, I thought I’d…  Well, I was dusting…”

                “Go on,” Scott prompted.

                “I was dusting in Johnny’s room.” Teresa continued meaningfully.

                Scott couldn’t help a grin from appearing.  “Very thoughtful of you.  Keeping everything tidy for his return, no doubt.”

                She feigned shock.  “Of course!  I wouldn’t want him coming home to a messy bedroom.”

                “Of course not.”  He took a sip.  “And what did you discover while you were dusting?”

                “Well, it’s not so much what I discovered, as much as what wasn’t there anymore,” Teresa replied.

                “And what was that?”

                “Johnny’s gun,” Teresa stated quietly.

                Scott laughed.  “Teresa, what’s so strange about that?  Of course he has his gun with him!  He always has his gun with him!  The only time I’ve ever seen him without it, is at church, and that’s under duress!”

                “No, no!  You don’t understand.  It’s a different gun.  He has this other gun—” Teresa stopped, startled as Scott abruptly stood up, his chair scrapping loudly against the floor.

                “This other gun.  Where was it?”

                Teresa looked uncomfortable.  “I was sort of dusting around this small wooden chest he has, and I sort of…”

                “I know,” Scott gestured quickly, “needed to dust inside.  You’re very thorough.  Just remind me to lock anything up I don’t want you to dust from now on.”

                Teresa rolled her eyes.  “Scott!”

                “The gun in the chest, Madrid’s gun is gone,” Scott continued, as the memory of the time he’d held the ominous-looking weapon in his hand while Johnny had carefully watched him for some reaction, a time he knew he was being tested, came back to him.  He always wondered if he’d failed, had felt inadequate as he’d searched for something to say to his brother.

 “Is that what you call it?”

                Shaking himself back to the present, Scott grimaced as he realized how he had referred to the weapon.  “Yeah, I guess so.”

                “I knew it was something like that,” Teresa replied softly.

                “How’d you find out about it?” Scott asked.

                “A couple years ago, you know, after Johnny left that other time and that friend of his was killed.”

                Scott nodded.  “Yeah, Wes, I think his name was.”

                “Well, when Johnny came back, I got to thinking, he didn’t really seem to have that much, you know.  Not like you.  Of his previous life, I mean.  You showed up with a valise and a trunk, but Johnny really had nothing but a saddle and a saddlebag.  It was kind of like he was always ready to just move on.”  She paused, trying to explain.  “You even sent for a whole ‘nother trunk from Boston later, but Johnny…I don’t know.  It just seemed sad somehow.  He had nothing.”  She grimaced, sensing Scott wanted her to get on with the story.  “Anyway, I suddenly remembered that when I was little, I used to go up into the attic.  And there was this beautiful, old carved chest.  Inside was a black lace mantilla.  I just knew it had to be Johnny’s mother’s.  There was also a small image of her in there.  And I thought, perhaps, if I gave these things to him, maybe he’d feel more of a connection to Lancer, more at home here, like he belonged.”

                Scott nodded for Teresa to continue.

                “Well, I went up and got them, and brought them to him,” she paused remembering, “I think it was the day after he had returned.  I knew he felt a bit uncomfortable about the whole situation…everything that had happened, so I tried to be light about it.  I stopped by his room when he was there, and told him I had just found this of his mother’s.  I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.  You know how he gets.”

                Scott nodded.

                “I saw the old saddlebag lying there, so after setting the chest on the dresser, I picked the saddle bag up and teased him about it being time to unpack.  Then I reached in and pulled out the oddest-looking pistol I’d ever seen.  You should have seen the look he gave me.  Sort of startled and cautious.  I didn’t know what to make of it, so I kind of laughed and said it was the funniest looking gun I’d ever seen.”  Teresa paused again.  “He gave me this half-smile, then his eyes narrowed, and he replied really quiet like, ‘There’s a lot of dead men wouldn’t call it that.’  Then he just stood there, like he was testing me to see what I’d do.”

                Scott sighed.  “He sure used to have a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder.”

                Teresa smiled sadly.  “And it just recently seemed like it had finally started to melt away.”

                Scott rubbed his eyes tiredly.  “Was there anything else missing?”

                Teresa shrugged, her eyebrows raised in mock surprise.  “I don’t generally make a habit of dusting through his private things.”

                Teresa was rewarded with a small smile.  “That’s good to know.  Though I think I’ll still make a habit of locking up anything I don’t want you, uh, dusting.”

                A grin flashed across her face, but was quickly replaced by an expression of concern.  “So, what do you think it all means?”
                Shaking his head tiredly, Scott crossed the room and absently stared out the window.  “I don’t know, Teresa.  I’m so tired, I can barely think straight anymore.”

                “Do you think we should mention it to Murdoch?”

                Scott turned away from the window.  “Definitely not.  I’m sure Murdoch didn’t even know about the gun.  He’d never have allowed it in the house.  I only found out about it a year ago or so myself.”

                Teresa nodded quietly.

                Scott walked tiredly to the bed and sat down.  Leaning forward, he rested his head in his hands.  “Johnny, Johnny…what’s going on?”

                Distressed at the despair she heard in Scott’s voice, Teresa walked over to the bed and placed her hand on Scott’s hunched form.  When he didn’t respond, she sat down next to him.  “I wish I knew what to do.”

                Scott sighed, then rubbed his eyes once more before he sat up.  “So do I.”  He sighed once more.  “I guess I’ll go talk to Sheriff Crawford again.  Maybe he knows something about what the missing gun might mean.”  He shook his head dispiritedly.  “Though I rather doubt it.”

                Teresa sat silently beside Scott for a few seconds, wondering if there was anything she could do to help the situation.  Then, just as she was ready to get up to leave, Scott suddenly turned to her.  “I do have a question, though.”

                “Sure.  What is it?”

                “Do you remember much about when Murdoch first sent the Pinkertons to look for Johnny?”

                Teresa’s gaze floated thoughtfully out into space. “Well, I vaguely remember Murdoch and my dad discussing it.  I was pretty young at the time.  Thirteen or fourteen maybe.”  She lowered her gaze to Scott’s.  “It didn’t really make much of an impression.  Seemed every few years, Murdoch would hire someone to try to find his missing wife and son.”  She shrugged apologetically.  “Other than sounding all a bit romantic…long-lost son and all…I’m afraid it didn’t really mean much to me.  Was there something specific you wanted?”

                Scott shook his head.  “No.  No, not really.  I’m not even sure why I asked.”

                Teresa stood up, then turned back, a thoughtful expression on her face.  “There is something I always thought rather odd, though.”

                “What’s that?”

                “Well, it had to do when Murdoch announced that he’d heard from the Pinkertons that you had both accepted his offer to come to Lancer.”

                “And?”

                Teresa paused, her brows knit.  “Well, I thought it was strange.  He seemed really pleased that you were coming, and told me when to expect you.  But with Johnny…” She made a vague gesture.  “He seemed, I don’t know….”

                “Wary?”  Scott supplied.

                “Yes.”  Teresa nodded.  “Wary and cautious.  I thought it a strange way to act when you’ve just heard you’re finally going to meet the son you’ve spent years searching for.  And…and I was surprised, too.  Surprised that Murdoch had found Johnny.  After Murdoch had called off the Pinkertons the first time, I had overheard my dad asking Murdoch if that wasn’t it, then.  And Murdoch had replied, yes, that he’d heard Johnny was dead.”

                “Well, the Pinkertons must have been wrong the first time.”  Scott patted Teresa’s hand, but avoided her eyes.  “That must have been a shock for him to suddenly find out he wasn’t dead.  And then there’s Johnny’s rather colorful background.  I’m sure the whole thing was a bit hard to accept at first.”

                “But still,” Teresa persisted. “After that many years of searching?  He was positively beaming when he mentioned you.  But with Johnny…he was very vague…like he didn’t want to discuss it.”  Teresa’s voice had dropped, causing Scott to look up at her.  “I wondered if perhaps he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing, that he felt…oh, I don’t know.”  Teresa paused again, and her eyes held Scott’s as she continued, her words carefully spoken.  “But he did make the right decision.  This is Johnny’s home and we’re his family.  And Johnny belongs here.  With us.”

 

                                                                                ********************

 

Grace reiterated her instructions as she picked up the basket filled with vegetables and a loaf of bread.  “I won’t be long.  After I get these delivered to Mrs. Sterling, I’ll return.  Just stay here in the cabin and keep an eye on both the stew and…” she paused with a glance at the sleeping form, “our visitor.”

                Jamie nodded, his brown eyes following his sister’s gaze.

                “If you need anything, Matthew’s out in the barn.”  As Grace turned to go out the door, she paused once more.  “He probably won’t awaken again so soon, but if he does, get Matthew.  I’d rather you not be in here alone with him.”

                “I’ll be fine,” Jamie assured, anxious to get his sister on her way so that he could finally be alone with Madrid.  Even if Madrid didn’t awaken, at least he could tell his friends he’d been with the gunfighter all by himself, even if he was unconscious at the time.

                “Oh, and please sweep for me, too.  Might as well have you accomplish something other than just sitting here.”

                “I’ll take care of it right away.”  Jamie smiled patiently as his sister cast one last anxious glance toward the corner of the room, then turned and left.  With a relieved sigh, Jamie quickly grabbed the broom and set about giving the cabin a thorough sweeping, all the while keeping one eye on the gunfighter.

                Once he’d finished his chore, Jamie put the broom back in its corner behind the door, then went to the stove and stirred the stew.  The aroma was already setting his stomach to growling.  Finished, he turned to the center table and dragged a chair away from it, hauling it next to the cot.  Thoughtfully, he sat down and closely studied the gunfighter’s face.

                After a few moments, Jamie sat back in his chair, a dissatisfied set to his jaw.  He had expected Madrid to look different up close.  More powerful…  More dangerous…  More…deadly.  Instead he looked like anyone else while they slept.

                But, thought Jamie, he has all those scars he heard Grace and Matthew talk about.  Scars that told the tale of a life lived on the edge. ‘Of a man who courted danger,’ Grace had wryly announced the night before.

                Oh, how he wanted to see all those scars.  To hear the stories of how Madrid had earned them.  He would be the envy of all his friends.  Why, just yesterday, Zito told Jamie he had to be the luckiest boy alive to have a real gunfighter in his house.  Zito laughed and said that he’d gladly trade his little sister for Madrid if Jamie wanted to.

                Jamie smiled at the memory.  His eyes followed the gunfighter’s strong shoulders down to his hands.  ‘The hands of a killer,’ Grace had proclaimed along with her earlier observation: ‘Stained with the blood of innocent lives.’

                Jamie studied them closely.  They looked like ordinary hands to him.  They certainly weren’t stained with blood.  There was no way by looking at the man’s hands to tell that he was a gunfighter.

                Suddenly Jamie saw the hand twitch and heard a soft moan.  Though his heart made a leap, which caused him to gasp slightly, Jamie managed to turn calm eyes toward Madrid’s face.

                It was then that Jamie saw it.  Eyes that were burdened with not just physical pain, but the pain of death met, witnessed, and suffered.  The eyes of a gunfighter.

                “Uh, Mr. Madrid.  You—you’re awake.”  Jamie smiled what he hoped was a brave smile.

                The gunfighter focused on Jamie, blinking away his momentary confusion.

                “I’m Jamie.”

                Jamie was relieved to see a ghost of a smile cross Madrid’s face.  “Jamie,” he repeated, then licked his lips and swallowed weakly.  “Your sister—she said that you found me.”

                Jamie nodded in reply.  “Me’n Digger.”

                “Digger?”

                “My dog.”

                “Well, then I guess I owe you…and your dog…my thanks.”  Madrid replied hesitantly.  Then he slowly pushed himself up, guarding his right side with his arm until he was sitting.  Jamie cautiously watched him survey the room, his eyes appearing to take in his entire surroundings in one sweeping glance.  Then apparently satisfied, at least for the moment, they returned to rest once more on Jamie.

                At this point, Jamie noticed that Madrid’s breath was starting to sound raspy, and that his face was showing the strain of sitting up.

                “Mr. Madrid, uh, you probably shouldn’t be moving around yet, leastwise without someone to help you.  Matthew, my brother, is in the barn.  You want I should go get him?”

                A half-smile curled up in the corner of Madrid’s mouth, and he leaned his head back against the wall for support.  “Do I look that bad?”

                “Ye-no, well, I mean…”

                Madrid grinned even wider.  “Don’t worry about it, kid.  Just give me a few seconds here.”

                As the gunfighter closed his eyes and steadied his breathing, Jamie’s gaze fell upon the bottle sitting on the small table near the cot.

                “Do you need some more medicine, Mr. Madrid?”

                “No.”  The gunfighter’s eyes darted open, the intensity a strange contrast to his otherwise shaky appearance.  “No medicine.”

                “It’ll help with the pain.  Grace said you should have some anytime you woke up.”

                Madrid shook his head slowly, keeping his right arm up tight against his side.  “I can’t.  No—no laudanum.”

                Jamie sat quietly for a few moments, watching as the gunfighter rested against the wall.  Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer.

                “How—how many men have you killed?”  Jamie blurted out.

                Madrid’s eyes flashed open in surprise, only to find the wide-eyed expectant gaze of the young boy in front of him.  A sinking feeling settled in the pit of his stomach, leaving him uncomfortably cold.

                “I—I don’t know.”

                “That many?”  Jamie’s voice rose in wonder.

                Madrid took a slow deep breath—until the wound in his side made him wince.  “No—I’m—I can’t remember.”

                Jamie’s brows furrowed.  “Oh,” he paused, then brightened.  “It’s probably because you fell.  You fell real hard.  I saw it,” he added importantly.  “Grace said you’ll probably be dis—des—ordered—something for awhile.”

                “Disoriented?”  The gunfighter grinned despite the obvious pain he was in.

                “Yeah.  That’s it!”  A broad smile spread across Jamie’s face.  “Can I call you Johnny, or do you want me t’call you Mr. Madrid?”

                Johnny.  The simple word jumped right at him and felt at home.

                “Yes,” Johnny answered slowly.  “Yes, Johnny is better.”

                “We got your gun and all.”

                “Hmmmm?”  Johnny mumbled, the exertion of sitting up and conversing had drained him of the small amount of energy he’d had.

                “We caught a coupla the horses and found your gun and stuff in one of the saddle bags.”

                “Oh.”  Johnny’s eyes were refusing to stay open, the room slowly going gray.

                Jamie noticed he was losing his audience.  Desperate to keep his gunfighter awake, he grabbed the cup of water off the small stand.  “Would you like some water?”

                Johnny nodded vaguely, his eyes already closed.

                Jamie leaned forward and put the cup to Johnny’s lips.  The gunfighter took a couple sips, then slowly sank back down onto the cot.

                Jamie sat back in his chair, a self-satisfied grin on his face.  He was now on a first-name basis with the gunfighter.  Wait until Zito heard about this.

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                Early the next morning, Scott stood in the courtyard of the Lancer hacienda, watching with detached amusement the antics of DewDrop, Jelly’s goose, as he followed around three baby chicks.  After they had all turned the corner and disappeared out of sight, he sighed to himself and stared up at the blue, cloudless sky.  After his discussion with Teresa the day before, he had pleaded exhaustion, and tried to find solace in the quiet comfort of his room.  But even laid out on his bed with curtains drawn, he found himself unable to relax; his mind kept returning to the disappearance of Johnny and the unwanted knowledge he now possessed.  Teresa had finally brought him up his supper, asking if he didn’t feel well.  Though he’d tried to reassure her, he knew she could tell he was deeply troubled by the events surrounding Johnny’s disappearance.  Eventually sleep had come, but it had been an uneasy sleep, filled with visions of Johnny being shot over and over again by a firing squad.  The haunting question of ‘what if Murdoch hadn’t been pushed into the decision to send for Johnny’ continued to torment him throughout the night.

                “Oh, there you are,” Jelly said as he rounded the corner from where DewDrop and the chicks had just headed.  “You don’t look none the worse for wear.”  He grinned widely despite the dour look he received.

                “I think I’ll be heading back to Green River tomorrow, then take a couple days and head over to Morro Coyo again,” Scott replied, ignoring Jelly’s jibe.

                Jelly frowned.  “You just got back yesterday.”

                “I know.” Scott cast a dark look toward the house.  “But I need to talk to Sheriff Crawford about something.”

                Jelly shuffled his feet, the characteristic immediately gaining Scott’s attention.  “Scott, uh, I think it’d be best if you stuck ‘round a coupla days before you took off again.”

                Scott raised an eyebrow.  “Why?”

                “Well,” Jelly also cast a look toward the house then regarded Scott seriously.  “Things ain’t gettin’ done like they should.  Last few days you been gone, Murdoch just hasn’t been himself, like.”

                Scott threw the older man a look of disbelief.

                “It’s true, Scott,” Jelly persisted.  “He ain’t left the house since you took off to look fer Johnny.  The men,” Jelly shrugged, “well, they’re gettin’ a bit confused and concerned.”

                Scott glanced toward the house.  “He hasn’t left the house?”

                Jelly nodded.  “It’d help the situation if’n you were to go out with the men for a day or two.  Get everyone kinda back on track, so to speak.” Jelly glanced down at the dirt before looking back up at his boss’ son.  “I think this whole mess has got Murdoch upset mor’n you think.”

                Scott put his hands on his hips.  “He has a strange way of showing it.”

                “You can’t condemn him just ‘cuz he’s showin’ his worry in a way diff’rent than yours.”

                “No, I suppose not,” Scott replied, then watched as Jelly smiled apologetically and walked out of the courtyard.

Scott turned once more and darkly regarded the house.  “Too many other things to condemn him for,” he added in a low voice.

              

                                                                                ******************

 

                Whirls of scenes.  A beautiful girl with long brown hair, playful green eyes and a teasing smile.

 Who are you?

  She laughed, then faded from view.

 Who are you?

 Then suddenly another girl, the hair also long and brown, but lighter than the first… smiling, dancing brown eyes, but he knew her.  Knew her well.

                She gazed tenderly at Johnny, her eyes slowly welling up with tears.  “I love you,” she whispered, as she faded from view.

                No!

                “No!”  The cry stuck in Johnny’s throat as he found himself staring up at a rough wood ceiling. the ceiling.  “No—Laura,” he whispered.

                Johnny blinked and looked around.  The cabin.  He remembered waking up before.  The young boy.  There had been a girl, too.  Hadn’t there?  He closed his eyes and concentrated.

                Yes.  He put a shaky hand to his head.  There was a bandage wrapped around it, and he noticed it was tender in the back of his skull.

                And his side.  His hand then dropped to his right side.  Shot.  He started to roll onto his left side, but stopped with a sharp intake of breath.  And painful yet, too.  How long had it been?

                Carefully, he pulled himself to a sitting position and swung his legs to the floor.  He was sitting on a low cot against a wall in a small cabin.  Two doors were situated on either side of him, and appeared to lead to back rooms.  A door was situated on the opposite wall with two windows on either side, along with a set of low cupboards and a basin.  One of the windows, he noted, had no glass in it and the shutters were closed.  A small, square table with four chairs sat in the middle of the floor.  A simple wooden corner cupboard was near a stove on the wall to his right, and there appeared to be something cooking on it.  On the left wall was a single window.

                Most importantly, however, there was no sign of his holster or gun.

                Where was he?  How did he get here?

                He’d obviously been injured in some gunfight.  Johnny shook his head disgustedly.  How the hell had he managed to get himself into this predicament?  He couldn’t remember.  Everything was blurry and vague.  Like an old story he’d heard years ago.

                He grunted softly to himself as he forced himself to stand, albeit shakily.  He could only hope that the other guy looked even worse.

                After taking a few rather tentative steps to the table, he put his hand out and paused, leaning against it heavily.  He was surprised at how weak and shaky he was after only a couple of steps.  He surveyed the room once again, noting other minor details.  Through the window near the door he could see a barn, through the one on the side wall were trees that shaded the house from the setting sun.

                The room was neat but sparse.  He turned and glanced at the two doors behind him.  Shuffling carefully, protecting his side, he made his way to the door on the left.  He had to lean against it to catch his breath before opening it.  Inside he discovered a small bedroom.  A simple bed, a chest for clothes and one small table with a basin and pitcher was all it held, save for two items hanging on the wall: a cracked mirror and a needlepoint of The Lord’s Prayer.

                Johnny closed the bedroom door and painfully made his way to the other door.  It was a slightly larger room used for a pantry and storage.  No information to tell him where he was or how he’d got there.

                After closing the door, Johnny turned back toward the center of the cabin.  His side was hot with pain and he was starting to break out in a sweat, but he didn’t want to lie back down until he had some answers.  And the answers must be hidden here somewhere.

                Johnny groaned and shivered visibly as a spasm of pain shot through his side followed by a wave of nausea.  He leaned all his weight against the table and closed his eyes, trying to regain control.

                Suddenly the sound of the front door banging open brought him back to the present and he sprang to a partial crouch behind the table in a reflex action that immediately brought both a curse and a groan to his lips.

                “Johnny!”  Jamie was so delighted at seeing his gunfighter up and about that he totally missed the agony on Johnny’s face, or the ragged breathing, as the gunfighter hauled himself back up against the table.  “You’re awake!  Matthew will be so happy!”

                “Matthew?”  Johnny wiped the sweat that had formed on his brow and tried to steady his breathing.  He knew he was going to have to give in soon and sit down, or else find himself laid out on the floor.

                “Matthew.  Y’know.  My brother.”

                Johnny nodded slowly.  “Matthew.  Yeah, and you’re –”

                “Jamie.  Jamie Viera.  Remember, I found you.”

                “That’s right.  You and your dog.”  Johnny managed a weak grin despite the growing intensity of the pain.  “I do remember now.  You braved unknown perils, wild animals and a legion of desperados to pull me out of the clutches of certain death.”

                Jamie’s face fell.  “Well, uh, … not really.”

                “No?”

                “Nah,” Jamie replied sadly.  “But I did see ya shoot two of those guys, and I saw that bad guy shoot you knocking you off the cliff!”

                Johnny carefully stored the information.  “So, you saw what happened?”

                “Not all of it,” Jamie admitted.  “Wish I had!  You’re sure fast!”

                With a lopsided grin, Johnny cocked his head to the side.  “Not fast enough, apparently.”

                “Well, there were four of ‘em!”  Jamie countered.  “And the guy who shot ya did so when you didn’t have no gun!”

                Johnny listened intently, desperately trying to recall any of the events, but his mind remained a blank.

                Two soft steps sounded on the porch outside.  Johnny looked past Jamie as the young boy turned around.  A tall, pretty young lady with reddish-brown hair braided into a bun stepped through the door and halted.

                “Oh!”  Her face clearly registered shock at seeing her unwelcome visitor up and around.

                Johnny attempted to smile, but he knew it was a feeble one at best, as he was slowly losing his ability to remain on his feet as waves of dizziness were making it hard to stay focused.

                “Mr. Madrid!” she finally managed to gasp.

                “He’s awake, Grace!”  Jamie blurted out happily.  “Ain’t it wonderful?!”

                Glancing at her younger brother, Grace had to bite back the reply that perhaps, in that case, Mr. Madrid was well enough to leave.  Instead she managed to regain her composure.

                “It’s good to see you up and around.  I’m sure you’re hungry, Mr. Madrid.  I’ll have you something to eat in just a minute.”

                “Thanks,” Johnny replied.  He could feel himself breaking out in a cold sweat and wondered how long it’d be before he collapsed in front of them.  He gritted his teeth, determined to hold out until he had some answers to the myriad of questions surrounding his vague memory.

                Grace had walked to the set of low cupboards that were against the wall.  Picking up a pitcher, she turned to Jamie and instructed, “Take this out and refill it with fresh water, then go find Matthew.”

                Jamie nodded and took the pitcher from his sister.  He cast a grin at Johnny as he went out the door.

                “And you,” Grace turned her attention back to Johnny, “had better sit down before you fall down.  You shouldn’t really be moving around yet.”

                Johnny sank into the chair gratefully.  “How long’s it been?”

                “Just three days,” Grace replied.

                “Three days?”  Johnny leaned forward onto the table, resting his forehead on his left palm, keeping his right arm protectively against his side.  “Seems longer.”

                “I’m surprised you’re moving around so soon.”  Grace pulled a plate and cup out of the corner cupboard, then walked to the storage room.

                “Here’s the water!”  Jamie called as he ran in through the door.

                “Thanks.”  Grace stuck her head out from the small storage room.  “Now go get Matthew and tell him our company’s awake and we’ll be eating supper early.”

                “Okay.”  Jamie nodded, then looked at Johnny.  “I’ll be right back.”  He paused, reluctant to leave.

                Johnny managed another grin.  “I ain’t goin’ anywheres.  Best go get your brother.”

                Jamie smiled and took off, the door slamming behind him.

                “Thanks,” Grace said as she carried an assortment of food items in and set them on the counter.  “I’m afraid he’s quite taken with you.”

                “Seems like a great kid.”

                “He is.  And I’d rather he not get hurt.”

                “By who?”

                “By you.”

                Johnny raised an eyebrow.  “Don’t think I follow.”

                “He seems to think you’re something you’re not.”

                “And what exactly is that?”

                Grace’s eyes locked with Johnny’s.  “A hero.”

                Johnny paused.  “I don’t think I understand.”

                “You soon will.”  Grace turned back to her task of preparing supper, her words ringing in Johnny’s ears.  He closed his eyes, trying to make some sense of all that was happening.  How had he managed to get himself connected to these people, and what had happened to him up in the hills?  Everything seemed so confusing, so vaguely disconnected.  The harder he tried to make sense out of his memories, the more elusive they became.

                Suddenly he jerked his head up, the uncomfortable feeling that he had dozed off momentarily coming over him as he heard the sound of a plate being placed on the table.

“It’ll be a little while before supper.  Thought you’d better have a little something while you wait.”

                “Thank you.”  He smiled, then winced as he tried reaching for the bread with his right hand.  He made a quick decision to eat left-handed, at least for the next couple days.  “This is good,” he added after taking a bite.

                Grace shrugged.  “You’re hungry.”

                Just then the door banged open and Jamie burst in, followed closely by a young man about Johnny’s age.  Johnny studied him closely, aware that the young man had stopped just inside the door, his dark eyes openly searching Johnny’s face.

                “Mr. Madrid.”  Matthew suddenly smiled and walked forward, stretching his hand out in greeting.

                Caught totally off guard, Johnny tried to force himself to stand, then grimaced as he, too, reached out his right hand.

                Matthew, realizing immediately the awkward position he had put his injured guest in, stepped quickly around the table, grasping his hand warmly, while putting his left arm out for support.  “Sorry!” he apologized profusely.  “I wasn’t thinking.”

                “My fault for gettin’ shot up,” Johnny replied, accepting the proffered hand as a better alternative to toppling over.  He was embarrassed at how weak his knees felt.

                “I’m glad to see you up and about, Mr. Madrid.  But I hate to see you over doing it.”  After helping Johnny sit back down, Matthew settled into the chair opposite him.

As Jamie settled into the chair next to Johnny, Grace called, “Jamie, I need you to get the table set for me and I need another pitcher full of water.”

                A pained expression crossed Jamie’s face as his head bent in resignation.  “Ah, Grace….”

                “Jamie,” Matthew intoned meaningfully.

                Johnny grinned, amused by the youngster’s fear of missing something important.  “Better do as your sister says, Jamie.”

                Jamie looked up.  “Sure, Johnny.”  He then grinned widely, enjoying Matthew’s reaction at hearing the familiarity with which Madrid spoke to him.  As he turned to go out the door, his expression clearly showed that he could barely contain his feeling of self-importance.

                Johnny turned his attention back to Matthew.  Though he’d had a few bites of food and most of his cup of water, he was beginning to feel extremely weak.  Lying back down on the cot was starting to look better all the time.  “Where are we?”

 

                Matthew raised an eyebrow at the question.  “You mean, our location?”

                Johnny nodded.

                “We’re outside of the small town of Soledad.”

                “Soledad,” Johnny repeated thoughtfully.  “There’s a mission there.”

                “Was,” Grace corrected from where she was slicing vegetables on the counter.

                Matthew nodded.  “That’s the place.”

                Johnny shook his head.  Instead of getting questions answered, he was uncovering more questions.  Last he remembered, he was down around the border of Mexico.  Soledad was halfway up the California coast.  Something was not making sense.  The fall really must have jumbled everything in his memory.  He closed his eyes, trying to find some common thread.  The only time he recalled feeling this disoriented was the one time after he got shot up after Kansas.  He shook his head again.  Always in pain, dependent on that medicine…could it be?  How much of that stuff had they given him?

                Suddenly he was seized by another thought.  If he was in California, then he wasn’t just confused about where he was, but about when he was.  Soledad was a hell of a distance from the Mexican border.

                “…. not looking so good.”  Johnny suddenly realized Matthew was talking.  “Are you sure you’re all right?  Grace could get you some medicine.”

                Johnny shook his head.  The feeling that the room was closing in was making it difficult to concentrate, and the food he’d just put in his stomach was starting to rebel.  “No.  No medicine,” he mumbled.

                “See.  I told you,” Grace replied, a bit sarcastically.  “It wasn’t me being difficult.  It’s him.”

                Matthew’s brows tightened thoughtfully.  He looked at Johnny, who was beginning to shiver.  “I think he needs a shirt, Grace.  Get him one of mine.”

                Grace started to protest, but shook her head instead.  She knew it would be useless to argue.  Turning, she went to the large trunk and dug out one of Matthew’s older shirts.

                “Mr. Madrid.”  Matthew stood up.  “I think maybe it’d be best if you laid down a bit before supper.”

                Johnny’s eyes trailed behind Matthew.  He blinked.  “I need to know…”

                Matthew leaned down.  “What?”

                Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he tried to recall the date.  Mexico.  Rurales.  Being over-run, screaming, scattering men, blood….February?  Yes, February.  “The date?”

                Matthew smiled, confused.  “The date?  Well, it’s, let me see…”  He looked up at Grace as she brought over the shirt.  “I think it’s the twenty-first.  Or is it the twenty-second?”

                “The twenty-first,” Grace replied.

                Matthew looked back down at the gunfighter, who was now shaking uncontrollably, wincing as fresh waves of pain accompanied the spasm of chills.  “The twenty-first of August.”

                “Six months,” Johnny whispered.

                “What?”  Matthew asked.

                Johnny put a hand to his head.  “I’ve lost six months.”

                Matthew took the shirt from his sister and nodded to the corner cupboard that held the medicine.  “He really needs some medicine.  He’s not doing so well.”

                Grace nodded her agreement and went to the cupboard.  She took out the bottle of laudanum and turned back toward the table.  Matthew was trying to put the shirt around the gunfighter’s shoulders, but he was mumbling and shaking his head.

                “…six months…Kansas….lost six months after …after Laura...”

                Matthew looked at Grace as she stopped at his side.  With a shrug, he shook his head.  “We need to get him to lay down again.  He’s not making any sense.”

                Johnny’s eyes vaguely followed upward to Matthew’s voice.   “…lost six months after Laura…”  he whispered, “…after ….wasn’t watching my back…”  He groaned as his body was wracked with another wave of pain, his face and chest now covered in a sheen of sweat.

                Matthew nodded toward the bottle Grace held in her hands.  “Pour some in his cup.  Then help me get him to the cot.  He shouldn’t have been up this soon.  He’s gonna have that wound bleeding again.”

                Grace quickly did as instructed, then Matthew took the cup from her.

                Johnny’s vision had clouded to a fuzzy grayness void of color.  Desperately his mind sought to focus on something, to make some connection to the outside world surrounding him, but the buzzing in his ears, the violent shaking of his body, the explosions of pain through his side, all conspired to make it impossible.  He blinked, trying to force the gray forms swirling in front of him to solidify into something recognizable.

                He felt a hand settle cautiously behind his head, then a cup pressed to his lips.  The liquid had just touched his tongue as he made the connection.  Laudanum. 

                “No!”

                Matthew was startled as Johnny jerked his head away and lashed out with his hand.  The cup went flying through the air, smashing in front of the door just as Jamie walked in.  Johnny tried to push up from the table, but lacked the strength to actually stand.  He collapsed to the floor as Matthew grabbed for him.

 

                                                                                *****************

 

                An explosion of a gunshot, the weight of Laura’s body falling against his own, her scream echoing in his mind, followed by his own anguished cry.

                Johnny “Johnny…Johnny!”

                Johnny jerked awake, his body covered in a sweat, his breathing tense and labored.  Jamie’s face hovered over his own, a look of concern filling his young eyes.

                “Johnny?  Johnny, you okay?”

                Slowly releasing his breath, Johnny consciously relaxed his taunt muscles.  As he did so, his side spasmed with a sharp twist of pain, causing him to catch his breath again.  He slowly licked his lips and continued to forcefully relax his body, all the while the face of Jamie hovered over him.

                Finally he managed a reassuring smile.  “What happened?”

                Jamie sighed happily, relieved that Johnny could talk.  “You passed out last night.  Matthew said you were pushin’ it too much, trying to get around and all.”

                Johnny blinked, then put his left hand under his eye.  He felt a lump.

                “Hit the side of the table,” Jamie explained.  “Got a black eye, now, too.”

                “Oh, perfect,” Johnny grunted.  “Just what I needed.”

                Jamie grinned.  “Makes ya look meaner.”

                Johnny grinned back.  “Just the look I was after.”

                Jamie laughed.  Suddenly a shot rang out.  Johnny jumped, pulling himself quickly to a sitting position, then groaned as he was hit immediately with a searing pain from his wound.

                “It’s just Matthew.”  A grin spread across Jamie’s face.  “Sounds like he ain’t havin’ much luck with them crows in the barn.  Bettcha you could shoot both wings off a crow with one bullet.”

                Relaxing at the information, and Jamie’s unconcern, Johnny managed to grin wryly back.  “I’d say you’ve a flair for exaggeratin’.”

                Jamie rolled his eyes comically.  “Maybe a bit.”  Then he added, “Grace is outside hanging laundry.  She left some food here in case you woke up.”

                Johnny slowly stood up and went to the table as Jamie brought out some pancakes, eggs and bacon, and a large cup of water.  He noticed the sun was streaming in the opposite window.  He had lost another night.  But at least he had learned some details.

                The food looked appetizing, and Johnny had determined not to let any of it go to waste.  As he finished the last bite, he realized that for the first time in days, he actually felt pretty good.  The exploding headache and roaring in his ears was finally gone.  And though his side was throbbing constantly, he felt strong enough to move around without being in danger of landing in a heap.

                “How ‘bout you gettin’ me my boots, then showing me around your place, Jamie?”

                Jamie grinned, then paused doubtfully.  “Are you sure you’re up to it, Johnny?”

                “Never felt better!” he exclaimed, then winked at Jamie.  “Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration of my own, but I’m sure feeling better than I have in days.”

Jamie quickly ran to the side of the cot, grabbed Johnny’s boots and brought them to him.  With a grin he helped Johnny step into them.  Then, straightening up, he asked again, “Are you really sure you wanna go outside?”

Johnny rose from the table, and though he was careful of his side, he felt steady on his feet.  He paused and put a hand out on Jamie’s shoulder.  “I bet if I have you to lean on, I’ll be just fine.”

                Jamie turned his face upward and broke into a wide grin.  “Lean on me any time you need to, Johnny.”

                “We’ve got a deal.”  Johnny put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder and let him lead the way out the door on to the small front porch.

                Once outside, Jamie was instantly greeted with a series of loud barks, and a good-sized mongrel dog came bounding toward him from the shade of a tree.  Jamie leaned down and gave the dog a big hug.  Straightening up, he announced proudly, “This here’s Digger.”

“Hello, Digger,” Johnny responded.  “So, I finally get to meet the dog who helped save me.”

Jamie, if possible, grinned even more.  “He’s a good dog.  Grace won’t let him in the house, though.  She says he gets hair in the food.”  Jamie cocked his head in disgust.  “A little hair never hurt nobody.  Just pick it out if it bugs you, don’t you think, Johnny?”

Johnny grinned back.  “Nope, a little hair never hurt me none.”

Jamie nodded, pleased to have somebody understand.  Then he paused to let Johnny look around.  A small barn stood off to the southeast a short ways with a small corral where a pair of horses stood, lazily swishing their tails.  Two hens strutted past pecking at the dirt, until the sound of another gun blast sent them squawking around the side of the house.

                “Matthew!”

                Jamie and Johnny both turned at the sound of Grace’s voice coming from around the other corner of the house.

                “Matthew, must you do that n—,” Grace stopped in mid-sentence as she rounded the corner.  She raised her eyebrows in surprise at the sight of Johnny standing beside Jamie.

                “Mr. Madrid!  I’m surprised to see you out here.”

                Johnny glanced down at Jamie and squeezed his shoulder.  “Jamie, here, kindly offered to show me around.  He also gave me the breakfast you had made up for me.  Thank you.”

                “Oh.”  Grace paused, her hands crossed tightly against her chest.  “You’re welcome, I suppose…”

                “I’m gonna take him out to the barn,” Jamie quickly continued, eager to get away before his sister could think of some chore that needed to be done.  “We’ll go see Matthew.”

                “Okay…” Grace still lingered, thinking.  “Tell Matthew lunch will be ready in about an hour or so.  I know he isn’t planning to be around this evening, so I’ll make him a big meal.”

                “Sure,” Jamie said as he grabbed Johnny’s arm and herded him toward the barn.  “I’ll tell him.”

                Johnny followed Jamie, Grace’s disapproving gaze leaving him with an uncomfortable feeling.

              

                Matthew put the rifle down and glared at the nest in the far corner of the barn.  A crow cawed obscenities at him from its perch while another lazily flew overhead.  Matthew felt sure the birds were mocking him.

                With a grunt of dissatisfaction, Matthew let the butt of the rifle drop to the ground beside him.

                “Hey, Matthew!”

                Matthew turned around to see Jamie grinning.  Madrid stood beside him, Matthew’s old shirt draped across his shoulders.

                “Mr. Madrid.  Jamie,” Matthew greeted warmly.  “You must be feeling better.”

                Johnny nodded.  “Actually, much better this morning.”  He winked at Jamie.  “Jamie, here, made sure I ate all the breakfast that Grace had fixed for me.”

                “Well, that’s good.  I’m sure glad you’re feeling better, though you’d better take it easy yet for a few more days.”

                “I plan to.”  Johnny nodded, then his eyes wandered around the inside of the barn.

                “Any luck gettin’ them old crows?”  Jamie asked.

                Grimacing, Matthew shot a disgusted look upward toward the offending birds.  “Didn’t manage to hit a one, but I don’t think I need to ever worry about my barn getting away.”  Johnny and Jamie followed Matthew’s gaze toward the four holes in the roof.

                “I thought I heard five shots,” Jamie remarked.

                Matthew sighed.  “Yeah, well, one went out the window up there.”

                Jamie dropped his gaze, trying to hide a laugh, then his eyes slid up to Johnny.  “Betcha Johnny could nail them birds no problem.”

                With a slight shake of his head, Matthew tried to suppress a grin.  “I’m sure Mr. Madrid is still sore from his injury and would rather not, Jamie.”

                “Oh, no!  I’m sure he wouldn’t mind, would ya, Johnny?”  Jamie turned pleading eyes to the gunfighter.

                “Oh, I don’t know.”  Johnny raised a questioning eyebrow to Matthew.

                Matthew looked from Jamie, to Johnny, and back down to Jamie’s expectant expression.  With a chortle, he shook a finger at Jamie.  “You sure are determined not to give Mr. Madrid a moments rest, are ya?”

                “Well…” Jamie grinned sheepishly, “no…”

                Matthew turned back to Johnny and held out the rifle.  “Wanna give it a try?”

                His face taking on a pained expression, Johnny glanced at the rifle, then nodded apologetically at Jamie.  “I’m ‘fraid the rifle’s a bit much with my side right now.”

                “How ‘bout if I go get Johnny his gun?  Okay, Matthew?”

                “My gun?”  Johnny cocked his head.

                “Yeah, Johnny, ‘member?  I told ya before.  We found it in one of the horse’s saddle bags that we caught up there in the hills.”

                Without waiting for an answer, Jamie turned and dashed back toward the house, leaving Johnny and Matthew in the silence of the barn.

                Johnny dropped his gaze to his boots, then shuffled his weight to his opposite foot.  This was the longest he’d been on his feet for days and was starting to get tired.  He didn’t want to disappoint Jamie, though, and had to admit he was relieved to be getting his revolver back.

                “Jamie’s pretty excited about having you around,” Matthew said, his voice breaking the silence.

                Johnny looked up and studied the other young man expressionlessly for a second before answering.  “I’ve noticed.”  He let a small smile tug the corners of his mouth.  “I enjoy him.  He sure is full of energy.”

                Matthew nodded.  “That he is.”  He then paused and took a deep breath.  Johnny noticed he licked his lips uncomfortably, avoiding Johnny’s gaze.  “Jamie’s….Jamie’s hoping you might be able to help us.”  He hesitated then added, “I am, too.  Hoping, I mean.”

                Johnny waited, unsure how to respond.

                Matthew continued, emboldened by his initial revelation.  “There’s been trouble. Trouble that…” He paused, glancing at his feet uncomfortably.  “We’re having problems with…”

                “What he means is, we need you to kill someone for us.”

                Matthew and Johnny both turned toward the barn door.  Grace stood, outlined by the sunshine, Jamie beside her, an unhappy expression on his face.

                “Grace.”  Matthew put a hand out, his voice low and pleading.

                Ignoring her brother, Grace thrust out the gunbelt and revolver she held in her hands.  “This is what they want to see, Mr. Madrid.  A gunfighter.  A killer in action.”  Her gaze penetrated, mocking the two men in front of her.  “What Matthew really wants to know, is were you worth all the trouble to rescue?  Are you as good as the stories make you out of be?”

                “Grace!”  Matthew voice was sharp.  “That’s not true!”

                Grace barely flicked her gaze to her brother before she continued.  “Oh, it is, Matthew.  And you know it.”  She turned her full attention back to Johnny.  “See, Matthew’s hoping you were sent to save our ranch, our town.  And Jamie here,” she nodded at her younger brother, “looks to you as the famous defender of the righteous, hero of the hopeless causes.”

                “And you?”  Johnny spoke the words quietly and slowly.

                “Personally I think you’re simply a soulless shell of a man, living in your own private hell until you finally find the real one.”

                “Grace,” Matthew’s shocked admonishment was barely above a whisper.

                “So, tell me, Mr. Madrid.  Which are you?  Soulless killer or white knight?”  Grace took a step forward, the belt and revolver held out.  “Were you worth saving?”

                Johnny stood, frozen as the words Grace challenged him with cut him more deeply than the hole through his side.  They reverberated through him, echoing in his mind.  He’d heard those words before, …..Who are you?….

                Johnny blinked, then shook away the echoes.  Of course he’d heard that phrase before.  He’d repeated it to himself many times.  What are you, Madrid?  What are you really?  The answer always seemed to elude him.

                Meeting Grace’s challenge, Johnny let the shirt that draped over his shoulders fall to the floor of the barn.  Immediately Jamie leaned down to grab it.  Then Johnny stepped forward and accepted the belt.  Deftly he slung it around his waist, buckling it so that it hung low on his hips.  His actions pulled painfully on his wound, but he was determined not to show it; especially not with such a critical and condemning eye watching his every move.

                He then reached out and casually took the revolver from Grace.  The revolver he had modified to be his chosen weapon.  The cold, black metal warmed immediately to his touch.  He didn’t even need to look at it, he knew by the feel that it was his weapon.  The weapon of the gunslinger, Johnny Madrid.  His gaze unwavering, he slid it into its position in his gun belt.

                For a few seconds he didn’t move; he didn’t breath.  He felt the three pair of eyes watching him, one of adoration, one of hope, one of scorn.  He calmed his beating heart and consciously numbed the pain in his side.  Later he’d pay the price, but now he chose to ignore it.

                He heard the fluttering of wings above him in the rafters.  In his mind he could see the position of the nest.  With the faintest exhale of breath, Johnny reached for his gun, pivoting to a partial crouch as his arm came up.  His eyes had already located his targets.

                Grace gasped as Madrid sprang from his seemingly relaxed position to one of blurred movement.  Like a cat pouncing on its prey.

                Two shots were fired.  One hitting the side of the barn and the other sending the crow’s nest tumbling out of the rafters. Before Grace had even gasped, it was over.

                Calmly straightening up, Johnny reholstered his pistol and turned to face Grace, his face expressionless.  “I’m just a man who’s good with a gun.”  He paused a beat as his eyes searched hers.  “So tell me, was I worth saving?”

                Grace opened her mouth to reply, but closed it again when a retort escaped her.

                “But ya missed the crow, Johnny,” Jamie said, disappointment evident in his voice.

                Johnny turned slowly to look at Jamie’s upturned face.

                “I wasn’t aimin’ at the crow, Jamie,” Johnny replied.

                Jamie’s brows knit in confusion.  “Ya weren’t?  Why not?  Why’d ya shoot the side of the barn, then?”

                Johnny’s eyes crinkled slightly.  “The crows’ll leave now.  They’re not dangerous.  No need to kill’em.  The rat though….”

                “Rat?”  Jamie exclaimed.

                “What rat?”  Matthew added.

                Johnny nodded his head toward the dark corner of the barn where his bullet had hit.  “Jamie, go up on the bales there.”

                Jamie dashed across the floor and scrambled up the bales piled along the length of the barn.  Within seconds he was exclaiming, “He’s right!  Matthew, he’s right!  There’s a dead rat here!  Jiminy!  He done shot the head clean off!!!”

                “Jamie!”  Matthew called.  “You don’t need to supply all the details!”

                Jamie crawled back down from the stack of bales, a sheepish expression on his face.  “Just thought you’d wanna know.”

                Matthew turned back toward the door, but Johnny didn’t move.  He knew Grace had left.  He had heard her retreating steps.

                Jamie came and stood in front of Johnny, his eyes suddenly growing large.  “Johnny, you’re bleeding!”

                Matthew turned sharply at the pronouncement to find the bandage along Johnny’s side stained a deep red.  Concern clouded his face as he noticed Johnny’s pale complexion.  “Jamie, c’mon.  We gotta get him back to the house.”

                “No.”  Johnny shook his head.  “Not right now.”  He started wavering, a tingling sensation spreading over him as the rush of adrenaline dissipated.  But he had no desire to return to the cabin.  Not after the look he had seen in Grace’s eyes.

                Matthew grabbed Johnny under the left arm as he saw him start to waver.  “Jamie, clean off that bench!”

                Jamie ran to the bench positioned against the side of the barn wall near the door.  Quickly he cleared off the assorted tools that were piled there.

                Johnny let Matthew carefully guide him over to the bench.  He knew his strength was rapidly ebbing after the exertion, and had no desire for a repeat performance of landing in a heap.

                “Jamie, run into the house, tell Grace and get some fresh bandages.”

                “No.”  Johnny shook his head again as Matthew helped him onto the bench, his eyes closing against the waves of pain that now made it difficult to breathe.

                Matthew and Jamie both looked at Johnny and paused, unsure of what to do.

                Johnny licked his lips, slowly inhaled then opened his eyes, fixing the two brothers with a tired look.  “I don’t want you to bother your sister.  I’ll be fine.”  He took another slow breath and closed his eyes again.  “I’ve been worse.  Just give me a few minutes.”

                With a soft grunt, he leaned his head back against the wall, his face pale and covered with perspiration.

                Matthew looked at Jamie, who stood helplessly, clutching the old shirt to his chest.  “Jamie.”  Matthew nodded from the shirt to Johnny.

                Understanding, Jamie walked quietly up to the gunfighter.  Carefully he unfolded the shirt and leaned over to drape it across Johnny’s chest.  Johnny opened his eyes slowly and smiled.  “Thanks,” he whispered.

                Jamie watched as Johnny closed his eyes again, then he turned back to Matthew.  His brother signaled silently for him.  Jamie walked quietly to his brother, who leaned down and whispered in his ear.  “Sweep out the stalls for me while I go in and talk to Grace.”

                Jamie looked at Matthew and nodded.  Then he looked questioningly at Johnny.

                “Just let him rest for now,” Matthew instructed.  “We’ll help him back to the house when lunch is ready.”

                Biting his lip, Jamie hesitated for a second before asking, “He was fast, wasn’t he, Matthew?”

                Matthew nodded.  “Yes, Jamie, he was fast.”  Giving his younger brother’s head a tousle, Matthew turned and headed toward the house.

 

                Grace was stirring a pot of soup over the fire as the door to the cabin opened.  She recognized the sound of Matthew’s boots on the floor.

                “Grace, we need to talk.”

                Grace sighed and turned around.  “Why?”

                “You know why,” Matthew responded sharply.  “That was the most unChristian-like behavior I’ve ever witnessed of you.  I can’t believe you said those things to our guest.  What would Grandfather say?”

                “What would Grandfather say about hiring a gunfighter to kill someone?”  Grace retorted, her eyes flashing.

                “That’s not what I’m discussing with you.  That’s up to the town and Mr. Madrid.  What I would like to see, however, is for you to treat this man with a little more respect.”

                “Respect?!”  Grace laughed.  “I’m sure it’s something he’s used to getting a lot of.”  Her voice took on a mocking tone.  “Here comes Mr. Hired Killer, ooooh, better get out of the way!”

                Matthew’s face darkened, his voice low and controlled.  “I guess that says a lot about you.  While you stand here mocking and judging him, he’s laying out in the barn bleeding, refusing our help in bringing him in here because he knows you don’t want to be troubled with him.”

                Stunned, Grace looked away, embarrassed.  “I didn’t know.”

                “Of course you wouldn’t.  You’re too busy condemning him.”

                Regaining her composure, Grace turned back.  “You’d better bring him back in here.”

                Matthew crossed his arms.  “I don’t think he’ll come back in right now.  When lunch is ready, we’ll get him in here, and I expect you to treat him with a little more civility.  Save your high-horse for later.”   With a disappointed shake of his head, he turned and left the cabin.

                Grace watched the door slam shut.  Tiredly, she let her head drop.  She stood unmoving for a few seconds, thinking of all Matthew had said.  He was right, and she knew it.  She had known it before he had even walked in the door.  She had known it from the moment when Johnny had turned to her, with dark, haunted eyes, and asked, “Was I worth saving?”

 

                                                                                ******************

 

                Startled, Johnny jerked awake with a grunt that ended in a grimace of pain. Jamie was kneeling in front of him, his left hand poised in the air over Johnny’s shoulder.  Johnny blinked.  He was lying on his left side on a small wooden bench in the old barn, paying his dues for fool-heartedly accepting the recent challenge.  In hindsight, he couldn’t believe he had allowed himself to fall for the very vainness Reveles had often warned against.  Even now, he could hear Reveles’ words echoing through his thoughts; ‘Vainness has gotten more good gunfighters killed than anything else.’

                He should count himself lucky that his vainness hadn’t cost him his life, just a reopened wound.

                Taking a steadying breath, Johnny grunted softly as he slowly pushed himself up, while Jamie backed up respectfully, giving him some room.  As Johnny settled his back against the wall, Matthew appeared next to his younger brother, a look of both concern and hope on his face.

                “You’ve been asleep for over an hour,” Matthew said.  “Grace just called that lunch is ready.”

                Johnny hesitated before answering.  His left shoulder was cramped and numb from the hard bench and he would really enjoy a bit of food and the comfort of the cot again, but he didn’t think he could handle any more of Grace’s condemning looks.

                But the truth was, he was injured, he had no horse, no money, and though he’d managed to get back his gun, he still had a foggy recollection of what had brought him to the area in the first place.  He was, to put it bluntly, at their mercy.

                He laughed inwardly at the idea.  Johnny Madrid, at the mercy of a couple of poor dirt farmers:  an idealizing young boy, an optimistic young man, and…and an old shrew!  Okay, a young shrew.

                Sighing slowly, he turned his attention to Jamie.  “How ‘bout if you bring me out a bit of food.  I kinda like it right here.”

                “No, Mr. Madrid,” Matthew spoke firmly.  “I insist that you come back to the house.  We need to get that bandage changed.  And Grace has cooked up a nice stew and made fresh bread, and will feel slighted if you don’t come and enjoy it.”

                Johnny turned a doubtful eye on Matthew, surprised at the young man’s ability to keep a straight face.

                “You oughta be a lawyer,” Johnny muttered.

                “How’s that?”

                “Nuthin’.”  Johnny took another breath and held his arm out to Jamie.  “In that case, perhaps you’d be so kind as to let me lean on you again?”

                Jamie grinned.  “Sure thing, Johnny.”

                Johnny let Jamie help him up, then followed him out of the barn to the house while Matthew went ahead to open the door.  As they approached, Johnny noticed Matthew shot a warning look into the shadows of the cabin, which he felt sure was meant as some sort of admonition to Grace.  With a certain amount of trepidation, Johnny allowed Jamie to lead him in.  He noticed immediately that the table was already set, and Grace stood off to the side, a small wash basin in her hands.

                “I thought before we ate we’d better get that wound looked at again.  Don’t want you to end up with an infection,” she explained.

                “I’ll be fine,” Johnny replied.  “I’ll just rebandage it.”

                “No.”  Grace shook her head.  “It really needs to be cleaned again, and I need to add some more of the salve.”

                Johnny hesitated.  The last thing he wanted was for Grace to be tending any more to his wound.

                Matthew noticed his reluctance and came to the rescue.  “How ‘bout I help you, Johnny, while Grace dishes up the meal?”  He took a hold of Johnny’s arm and steered him over to a chair.  Grace wordlessly handed over the supplies then went back to the table to begin ladling out the stew.

                “Jamie.  Here, wet this for me, will you?” Matthew said as held out a small strip of cloth to his brother.

Jamie dipped the cloth into the basin and held it ready as his brother unwrapped the bandage that wound around Johnny’s middle.

                Johnny tried to ignore the uncomfortable feeling of being on display.  He knew it was silly, as his wound had obviously been taken care of for the past number of days, but this was really the first time he had been conscious of it.  He glanced at Grace out of the corner of his eyes, but she was busy with the meal preparations.  He sensed she was trying to give him some semblance of privacy.

                Johnny winced as the last of the bandage was peeled away from the wound, pulling away some of the dried blood.  Matthew quickly took the wet cloth from Jamie and began to carefully clean away the remaining blood, mindful to avoid the wound itself as much as possible.  Then he opened a clay jar of salve and spread it over the area.  That done, he wrapped a new bandage around Johnny’s middle and stood up.

                “Jamie, go empty this outside, wash up and get ready to eat,” Matthew instructed as he gave his brother the basin.  Then he turned to Johnny and grinned.  “Well, you’re back in shape, now.  No more shooting at crow’s nests, or rats for that matter, for a few days.”

                “Hey!”  Jamie turned back just as he reached the front door.  “I never saw no rat, Johnny.  How’d you see him?  How’d you know he was there?”

                Johnny looked at Jamie thoughtfully.  “I’ve learned that the enemy isn’t always where you expect him to be.”  Matthew glanced at Grace as Johnny continued.  “The good guy, the bad guy….sometimes it’s not always clear where the danger is coming from.”

                Jamie paused, thinking over what Johnny said, then shrugged with a grin.  “Well, I sure didn’t see no rat!”

                Johnny grinned back.  “I hate rats.”

                “Me, too!”  Jamie turned and went out the door.

                Matthew replaced the top on the salve and picked up the rest of the unused bandages.  Then he carried them over to the corner cabinet where he put them away.  Noticing the bottle of laudanum, he picked it up thoughtfully and turned to Johnny, who was watching him carefully.

                “You don’t want this, do you?”

                Johnny shook his head, his eyes narrowing, but a smile played across his lips.  “You people sure do have a thing for that damned stuff.”

                Matthew felt, rather than saw, Grace’s eyebrows rise at Johnny’s language, but he kept his eyes centered on the gunfighter.  “It would help with the pain.”

                “I’d rather have the pain.”

                Matthew thoughtfully sat the bottle back on the shelf, then announced, “I think I’ll go wash up, too.”

                Just as Matthew left Jamie returned, the now empty basin in his hands.  He quickly sat the basin on the counter, then took a seat next to Johnny.  As Grace placed the loaf of bread, already sliced, on the table, Matthew walked in and sat down.  Grace took the seat next to him.

                Johnny was just reaching for his spoon, when he noticed the others had folded their hands and lowered their heads.  He quickly followed suit.

                “Thank you, Lord, for this meal you have once again provided for us, the home that shelters us, and the means to keep it,” Matthew intoned.

                From under hooded eyes, Johnny noticed Grace shot her brother a withering look.

                “…in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

                Johnny automatically crossed himself.

                “I see you were raised Catholic,” Matthew observed as he picked up his spoon.

                “Uh, yes, I was.”  Johnny nodded.  “My mother was Catholic, and I spent some time living in an orphanage run by a Catholic Priest after her death.”

                “Wow!”  Jamie exclaimed.  “I bet he were none too happy ‘bout you becomin’ a gunfighter!”

                Johnny looked down at Jamie’s surprised expression and couldn’t help but chuckle.  “No, no, I guess you could say he wasn’t too thrilled with the news.  But he understood, or least-wise as well as he could.”

                Johnny took a bite, uncomfortably aware that he was the center of attention at the table.  Desperate to change the subject, Johnny ventured, “My, this is good, Miss Grace.”

                Grace smiled awkwardly back.  “I’m glad you like it, Mr. Madrid.  There’s plenty more.  I’m sure you are hungry.”

                “Johnny,” Johnny offered tentatively.

                “What?”

                “You can call me Johnny if you want.”

                Grace paused uncomfortably.  “I think I prefer Mr. Madrid.”

                “Grace,” Matthew admonished.

                “No.  No.  That’s alright,” Johnny quickly interjected.  “My mistake, really.”

                “Well, I like calling you Johnny,” Jamie announced loudly, his mouth full of food.

                Matthew matched Jamie’s smile.  “And I think I will, too.”

                Grace turned back to her food, trying to piece together her conflicting emotions regarding their visitor.

                The rest of the meal passed quietly.   Johnny couldn’t help but notice the furtive looks passing between Matthew and his sister.  Jamie, however, beamed anytime Johnny looked at him, and by the time the meal was over, he was practically sitting on Johnny’s lap.

                While Grace started to clean away the dishes, Matthew stood up.  “I need to run into town this afternoon now, and won’t be back until late.  Jamie,” he turned his attention to his brother, “I want you to get all your chores done this afternoon without Grace having to remind you.  Then I want you to entertain our guest here.  Do you think you can do that?”

                Jamie nodded emphatically.  “I’ll do them right away, Matthew.”  He glanced at Johnny, a hopeful expression on his face.  “Maybe Johnny would like to come along with me.”

                “Johnny needs to get some rest.”  Matthew grinned at Johnny.  “Don’t let him talk you into anything.  He’s real good at it.”

                Johnny looked at Jamie.  “Well, I betcha I could sit out on the porch for awhile, if you got some chores to do outside.”

                “Sure!  That’d be great, Johnny!”  Jamie was all smiles.

                “Okay, then.”  Matthew grabbed up a jacket and headed out the door.  “Don’t hold supper for me!” he instructed Grace.

                Grace nodded her understanding, then went back to cleaning up the dishes.

 

                                                                                *******************

 

                The rest of the day passed quickly for Johnny.  After the meal, the exhaustion and the day’s ordeal, the idea of sitting on the front porch seemed like a wonderful idea.  He settled down on the chair while Jamie ran around the yard doing the different chores Matthew and Grace had assigned to him, every so often stopping in front of Johnny just to make sure he was still paying attention to his steady run of conversation.  Eventually, Johnny nodded off.

                “….don’t you think, Johnny?  Johnny?”

                “Hmmm?  What?”  Johnny groggily opened his eyes.  Jamie stood in front of him, just off the edge of the porch, his hands planted on his hips.

                “Don’t you think you’re faster than anybody?”

                Johnny shook his head.  “There’s always somebody faster.”

                Jamie looked doubtful.  “Well, I don’t think so.  I think you’re the fastest thing I ever did see!”

                Johnny smiled.  “And how many gunfighters have you seen?”

                Jamie wrinkled his nose.  “Aw, Johnny.”  He looked down at his boots and began to knock the dust off them against the side of the porch.  “When you shot at them birds, you were just a blur.  I didn’t even see you, you was so fast.”

                Sitting up in the chair, Johnny leaned his weight away from his wound.  “Easy to be fast against a crow’s nest and a rat.  They weren’t shootin’ back.”

                Jamie looked back up, unconvinced.  “I still say you’re the fastest.  Faster than James Wakeman’s hired gun.”

                “Who?”

                “But how come you ain’t got no notches?”

                Johnny shook his head, trying to keep up with the rapid change of subject.  “Notches?”

                “Your gun.”  Jamie rolled his eyes impatiently.  “When we found that belt and gun in that horse’s saddle bag, I knew it was yours.”

                “You did?”  Johnny replied, curious.

                “Oh, yeah.  Easy.  It’s got JM carved on the butt of the pistol, and there’s that JM that’s burned on the inside of the belt.”

                “Quite a detective.”  Johnny smiled.

                “But there ain’t any notches on the pistol.  I looked.  As fast as you are, you ought’a have killed lots of men.  How come you ain’t got no notches?”

                Johnny closed his eyes momentarily.  When he opened them, they looked dark, and his voice took on a hard edge.  “Notches are for vain gunfighters.”

                “Don’t you wanna keep track of how many men you killed?”

                “No, I don’t.”  Ignoring the pain to his side, Johnny abruptly stood up and walked to the edge of the porch, where he glared down at Jamie.  “But unfortunately you can’t forget.  You don’t need any notches to remember.”  He stepped off the porch then took Jamie by the arm and leaned down, biting back a groan that threatened to escape, until he was eye to eye with him.  “Killin’s not good, Jamie.  And I don’t want you to ever think it is.  But it’s what I do best.  I wish it weren’t, but I didn’t have many choices in my life.  You’ve got choices.  You’ve got a family that loves you.  You’ve got a home.  That’s better’n anything else a boy could wish for.  Don’t ever, ever be thinkin’ it’s good to be a gunfighter, ‘cuz it ain’t.  But it’s what I am now, and I can’t escape it.”

                Astonished at the intensity with which Johnny had spoken, Jamie just stared up at him, his mouth gapping.

                With a slight wince, Johnny straightened back up, then put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder.  “What say we go for a short walk around the house.  I’m feelin’ cramped after sitting in that chair all afternoon.”

                Jamie nodded, and walked slowly along beside Johnny as they made their way toward the corral, his lips pursed in a thoughtful expression.

                Grace stood in the shadow of the doorway, two glasses of lemonade in her hands, and a disturbed look on her face as she watched the two figures cross the yard.

 

                                                                                *****************

 

                When supper was ready, Grace called Jamie and Johnny back into the cabin.  Johnny ate as unobtrusively as he could.  The day had exhausted most conversation out of him, and though Jamie tried his utmost to remain lively, even he seemed to feel the weight of the day’s activities.

                After the meal, Johnny tried to help by clearing the dishes from the table, but felt he was making Grace even more uncomfortable, so he went back and sat down at the table.  Whereupon Jamie brought out some cards and proceeded to quietly show Johnny a game.  Jamie took great pleasure in explaining this new game, which he was quick to point out he had just learned from his best friend, Zito, who had learned it last week from a cousin who was visiting, who had learned it from a neighbor’s relative who had just moved from way out east in Wisconsin.

                Johnny didn’t quite catch all the rules, and was sure that Jamie was making up a few as he went along, but it kept his mind occupied.  Eventually the sound of Matthew’s horse cantering into the yard could be heard.  Jamie got up and ran out to help his brother bed down the animal.

                Johnny was sitting silently at the table when Matthew walked in, the cool night air quickly entering the tiny cabin.  Grace sat rocking by the stove, mending by the firelight and the light of a lantern placed near her on a table.   She looked up, pausing in her work.  “Hungry?  I saved some supper for you.”

                Matthew nodded.  “Just a bit.  I grabbed something in town, but I sure wouldn’t turn down a helping of your stew if you saved any.”

                Grace put her mending to the side and went to fetch Matthew his supper.  Matthew put his rifle down at the side of the door, then shrugged out of his jacket.  Smiling at Johnny, he walked over to the table and sat down.  “So, how’d your day go?  Jamie keep you busy?”

                Johnny chuckled slightly.  “You could say that.  You might wanna keep him out of them gaming houses.”

                Matthew grinned at the joke, then moved his hands off to the side as Grace set a bowl of stew down before him.  “Great!  Just the thing!”

                As Matthew dug into his soup, Jamie entered the cabin.  “Got ‘im all takin’ care of.”

                “Good,” Matthew replied.

                Jamie came and sat down next to Johnny and proceeded to deal out the deck of cards again, including Matthew in the game this time, despite the fact that he was still eating.

                “So, this here’s your new game you were tellin’ me about, eh?”  Matthew pushed the now empty soup bowl off to the side and grabbed up his cards.

                Jamie nodded emphatically.  “Yup.  It’s the one Zito taught me.”

                “Hmmmmm.”  Matthew’s inflection seemed to be both one of concealed amusement and a commentary on Zito’s reliability.

                Johnny and Matthew tried in vain to hold their own against Jamie’s ever changing rules.  After losing for the third time in a row, Matthew groaned and pushed back from the table.  “I don’t know about you, Johnny, but I think we’ve got a card shark in our midst.”

                “I’m thinking you may be right, Matthew,” Johnny agreed with a resigned sigh.  “He’s certainly too good for me to take on.  I know when I’ve met my match.”

                Jamie’s grin could hardly be contained as the two young men began to gather up the cards.

                “Let’s play one more!”

                “Nah, you’ve wupped us good.  Besides, isn’t it time you were hitting the sack?”

                “Ah, Matthew, I ain’t tired yet!”  Jamie tried unsuccessfully to conceal a yawn.

                “Well, maybe not.  But I am,” Johnny added.  “Watching you workin’ all afternoon really wore me out.”

                Jamie laughed loudly, then turned slyly to Johnny.  “You’ll let me take you on again tomorrow, won’t ya?”

                “Of course!”  Johnny replied.  “I gotta regain my reputation!”

                Satisfied, Jamie got up from the table.  As Johnny watched him gather a couple of blankets out of the trunk and lay them out by the fire, it suddenly occurred to him that he had taken over Jamie’s bed.  He was turning to Matthew to ask him about it, when Matthew jerked his head toward the front door.

“Can I talk to you outside?”

                Johnny nodded.  Rising carefully, he followed Matthew to the door, noticing that both Jamie and Grace were watching them leave.  The look on Grace’s face told him she knew what the conversation was going to be about, and she wasn’t too pleased about it.

                The evening was cool and clear.  The moon was just rising over the silhouette of the hills to the east.  Matthew walked to the edge of the porch and leaned against the railing.  Johnny waited quietly for him to begin, curious as to what the young man needed to talk to him about.  But Matthew seemed unsure how to begin.  He stared out into the darkness, seemingly at a loss for words.

                When Matthew finally did speak, his first words were so quiet Johnny had to strain to hear him.

                “This is all we have.”

                Johnny waited knowing more was to come.

                Matthew lowered his head.  “We don’t have much, but this small parcel of land that has been in our family for a number of generations.  It was once part of the mission lands.  Our grandfather had actually been a priest here when Spain still controlled the area.  He fell in love with the area and chose not to leave when Spain pulled out.  He married a local Indian maiden.”  His head turned, scanning the dark countryside. “Most of the people around here are like us.  Ties to the original mission.  Spanish, Mexican, Indian or mixture.  Our father married the daughter of an Eastern ship’s captain who lived up around Monterey.  He met my dad when they were both younger and they would go hunting together.”  Matthew paused, then suddenly turned to Johnny.  “I guess I’m trying to say that none of us here have much, but the land we live on.  And we’re in danger of losing that unless you’re willing to help.”

                “Help?”

                “Yes.  There’s a man from up north who’s tryin’ to take over our lands.  He’s been giving us quite a bit of grief.”  Matthew paused, his tone turning bitter.  “We didn’t want no trouble, but he seems determined to make it.  But we’re no match for him or the type of men he hires.  We’re just farmers.  We aren’t gunmen.  We really could use your help.”

                 “My help.” Johnny’s voice lowered as he echoed Matthew’s statement.  For a reason he couldn’t explain, he felt a need to look away from Matthew’s open look of pleading.  A sudden chill displaced the warmth that had earlier settled on him during his quiet evening of card playing.  After a long silence, Johnny looked back at Matthew.  It was the moment of truth, and he felt it.  “How do you mean?”

                Matthew noticed a change had come over Johnny.  His earlier open stance was now closed and guarded, and the eyes that turned toward him were haunted with sadness, yet at the same time, touched by a cold hardness.

                “We, the town I mean, we’d like to hire you.”  Matthew was surprised how difficult it was to say the words as they came tumbling awkwardly out into the open.

                Johnny registered no surprise, but stood impassively.

                With a sinking heart, Matthew plunged on.  “We don’t have much.  All we had we already….”  He took a hesitant step forward, his hands reached out then dropped weakly to his side.  “Some of the men, they’d like permission to come out and talk to you tomorrow afternoon.”

                Johnny hadn’t moved a muscle since Matthew’s revelation, but now replied in a careful, even tone,  “I’ll meet with them.”

                Matthew breathed a sigh of relief.  “Thanks, Johnny.  You don’t know what this means to me…to all of us.”

                In answer, Johnny turned and studied the night shadows.

                Matthew cleared his throat. “I’m headin’ in.  You comin’?”

                “In a few minutes,” Johnny replied softly.

                The cold darkness of night was broken by a flash of warmth and firelight then was gone.  Johnny crossed his arms against his chest, only partially for warmth.

                You don’t know what this means to us.  The words echoed in his mind, and a soft voice cried back, You don’t know what it means to me.

 

                                                                                ***************

 

                “That about does it,” Scott announced as he hit the last nail into the final length of wood for the bottom of the bridge floor.

                “Same here, Señor,” Cipriano stated from the opposite end of the same piece of wood.  He stood up and gazed at Scott, who still knelt at the edge of the bridge.  “Pedro and I could have finished it so that you could have been back in time for supper.”

                Scott raised his head to look across the valley toward the distant San Benito Mountains, the sun having already set behind them, casting long shadows throughout the valley floor.  He stood and stretched.  “No, no. Pedro had been working all day, too.”

                “Sí, Señor,” Cipriano replied, but he cast a doubtful look at his boss’ son.

                Turning, Scott suddenly smiled.  “Besides, Teresa will probably have something waiting for me.”

                “Of course, Señor.” Cipriano stooped to pick up the extra nails lying at his feet before heading toward the two horses waiting nearby under a tree.

                Scott followed, quite certain that the old trusted ranch hand saw through his flimsy deception to miss supper on purpose.  After speaking to Jelly the afternoon before, he had gone out immediately to talk to a few of the crew leaders and discovered where they were in their jobs and what decisions needed to be made that Murdoch had been surprisingly apathetic about.  He also, by design, had managed to come in late for supper, thus managing to miss a confrontation with Murdoch which he felt he really was unable to handle at the time.  And now, with a bit of finagling, he had managed to work it out so that he was missing supper again.

                Cipriano and Scott mounted and headed north toward the hacienda, the evening air quickly cooling around them.  Scott turned in the saddle, quickly untied his jacket from the saddlebag and shrugged into it as the sweat from his earlier exertion was causing him to quickly cool down.

                “Is it true that Señor Lancer threw Johnny off the ranch?” Cipriano suddenly asked.

                Scott looked at the older man, then shook his head.  “No, he didn’t throw him off.  They—there was a disagreement.”

                Smiling slightly, Cipriano glanced at Scott out of the corner of his eyes.  “That is not so new.”

                Scott chuckled despite himself.  “No, no I guess not.”

“That is what I said,” the older man announced with some smugness.

                “There’s talk, huh?”

                Cipriano nodded. “Sí, Señor.  Some were saying that Señor Lancer threw his son off the ranch.  That is why you are upset, too, and that you were threatening to also leave.”

                Scott remained silent for a few seconds.  “Do they say anything else?”

                It was Cipriano’s turn to pause before continuing.  “Well, some of the newer men, especially, they say they’ll leave if you and Johnny aren’t here.  They like working for you—with you.  Señor Lancer, well, he can be, oh…” Cipriano faltered.

                “Intimidating?”

                Cipriano smiled.  “Sí.”

                Scott turned once more, regarding the man he knew had been with his father a long time.  “Don’t worry, Cipriano.  You tell the men that I’m not leaving, and that Johnny is coming back.  He just needed some time off for awhile.”

                Cipriano nodded.  “That’s good.  The men will be happy to hear it.”

                “Well, I’ll make sure they’re not too happy,” Scott joked.  “I’m going to keep them mighty busy tomorrow.”

                Cipriano laughed.  “That’s even better, Señor!”

                Scott was silent then.  “I will be leaving for a couple days after tomorrow.  However, I’ll only be gone for a short time, so I expect you to not let anyone slack off, or they’ll have me to contend with, and I can be even more intimidating than Murdoch if I’ve a mind to.”

                Cipriano smiled.

                

                The yard was enveloped in the darkness of the cool summer night as Scott rode through the gates.  Cipriano had turned off just moments earlier to head toward the small ranchette Murdoch had given him near the Lancer hacienda a few years earlier as payment for his long-standing support and help through the difficult years they’d faced.   The faint murmur of men talking reached him from the bunkhouse as he dismounted and led his horse into the stables.

In the far corner stood Jelly, lantern in hand.  “Teresa was just out lookin’ for you,” he announced.  “Better go in and get some supper.  I’ll take care of Charlie for you,” Jelly immediately added, expecting Scott’s protest.

                “Charlemagne,” Scott corrected.  “And no, I can do it.”

                Jelly walked up and took the reins from Scott’s hands.  “Now, you git goin’, Scott Lancer, before Teresa’s forced to come out and haul your sorry hide in.  I’m gonna be here anyway, might as well take care of Charlie.” He turned and nodded toward the corner where a horse stood watching them.  “I got me a young mare goin’ into labor for the first time.”

                Scott looked from the horse to Jelly.  “Proud father?” he jibed.

                Jelly huffed indignantly.  “She’s scared, Scott.  I thought I’d just keep her company.”

                Scott momentarily looked away, composing his face, before he turned back to the older man.  “Of course, Jelly.  Might as well give you something to do.   I’ll head in then.”  He paused before walking out the door.  “Let me know how it goes with the mare.”

                Jelly nodded seriously.  “Certainly, Scott.”  He patted Charlemagne and led him toward one of the stalls.  “Come along, Charlie.”

                “Charlemagne,” Scott called back as he walked out into the yard.  

                In mid stride, Scott noticed light filtering out from around the heavy, great room curtains.  Murdoch was probably at his desk.  Changing his direction, Scott headed toward the back kitchen door.  He was aware that he needed to talk to Murdoch, but he felt like he’d rather have supper first before taking on the beast.

                Scott grinned to himself at the description as he opened the door to the kitchen.  Just as expected, Teresa had a plate laid out for him.  He had just settled tiredly in his seat and lifted the glass of wine to his lips when the kitchen door opened and Teresa walked in.  She smiled warmly at him, then nodded toward his plate of food.

                “I expected you a bit earlier, so I’m sure it’s getting cold.  Why don’t you let me reheat it for you.”

                Scott shook his head and smiled back.  “If I’m going to show up late, I should expect to eat a cold meal.”

                Teresa walked to the counter, picked up a plate and began drying it.  “Have you talked to Murdoch yet?”

                Scott shook his head.  “No, but I plan to this evening.  I’ll stick around another day, then I need to take off for a short while.  I’ll head over to Sheriff Crawford first, then I’m going back toward Morro Coyo.”  He sighed, took another bite, then rubbed his forehead tiredly while he chewed.  “I just can’t believe it’s been over a week now, and no one’s heard a thing.  Not a thing.”

                Teresa set the plate on the counter and walked over.  “I’m sure we’ll hear something soon.”

                “I hope so,” Scott replied.  “I would have thought he’d have sent a wire, at least.”

                Teresa patted him on the back.  “Oh, Scott, you know Johnny and his sense of time.”

                Scott glanced up.  “Yeah, well, given the circumstances he left under, I think he would have at least wired me, if not Murdoch, if he was going to be gone much longer than the few days he originally planned.”

                Teresa didn’t reply, knowing what Scott said was true, and that neither of them wanted to voice their fear that either something had happened to Johnny that kept him from contacting them or he had decided not to return.

                Scott turned back to his food and quietly ate while Teresa went back to the task of drying the dishes.  After Scott finished, he stood up and carried his empty plate to the sink.

                “Thanks.” Teresa accepted the plate from him.

                “I think I’ll keep the goblet,” Scott grinned wryly.  “In fact, I think I’ll get a refill before I go out there.”  He nodded his head toward the great room.

                “Scott,” Teresa admonished, “I didn’t think you needed wine to bolster your confidence.”

                Scott chuckled.  “Just tonight.”

                Shaking her head in amusement, Teresa watched as Scott went to the counter and refilled his goblet from the decanter.   He took a couple sips, topped it off once more, then with a determined nod he headed out the door.

                Scott found Murdoch sitting in front of the fire in the great room.  Though a book lay open on his lap, his eyes remained fixed on the fire.  At the sound of the door opening and Scott’s steps, he turned and regarded his son with caution.  “Scott,” he intoned evenly.

                Scott nodded a greeting and crossed the expanse of the room, the wine goblet clutched tightly in his hands.

                “I had hoped to see you at supper,” Murdoch said, his tone reminding Scott of Jelly talking to one of his wounded animals.

                Scott came to a halt near Murdoch’s chair and watched as the older man cast a glance to the fire, down to the book that sat in his lap, then back upwards.  “I—I thought I’d do some reading this evening while I waited for you.”

                “I’m sorry,” Scott replied, his tone also guarded.  “I didn’t realize you were waiting for me.”

                Murdoch shook his head.  “No, of course not.”  He glanced back at the fire, then nodded toward the sofa.  “I had hoped we could talk.”

                Taking a deep breath, Scott walked to the sofa where he sat down on the edge.  He took a quick sip of his wine, then he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, the wineglass still gripped in his hand.  “I need to talk to you, too, Murdoch.”

                Murdoch carefully drew his hands together in his lap and regarded Scott intently.  “I know you’ve been avoiding me, and I realize why.  This whole situation has been—”

                “Situation!” Scott blurted before he could stop himself.  “Is that what you call it?  A situation?”

                Murdoch barely blinked.  “What would you have me call it?”

                Scott’s eyes narrowed.  “Catastrophe comes to mind,” he replied curtly.

                “Scott—”

                “No, Murdoch, no!” Scott jumped to his feet, his eyes crackling with pent-up frustration, hurt and rage.  “Perhaps I’m not as callous as you’d like me to be.  But excuse me if it takes a few days for me to come to terms with the information you recently decided to impart.  Which, by the way, I wish you’d kept to yourself.  Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I preferred it when I naively assumed you wanted Johnny here!”

                “Scott!” Murdoch also went to his feet, sending the book careening to the floor.  “That’s uncalled for!  I thought I had explained myself—”

                “No, you attempted to excuse yourself!” Scott retorted with a vehemence that he knew was half wine.  Glaring tersely at the goblet in his hand, he suddenly and brusquely downed the contents.  Then setting the empty goblet down on the end table, he faced his father once more.  “This is getting us nowhere, Murdoch.”  He lowered his voice, not wanting to alarm Teresa.  “I disagree with you, your methods and your reasoning.  But there’s nothing I can do about that, and neither can you.  What we have to deal with is Johnny’s disappearance.  That is the only thing that concerns me now.  Regardless of your reasons, or lack of, in bringing him here, he is my brother and I intend to find him.”

                “I want you to,” Murdoch replied softly.

                Scott paused, stunned by his father’s quiet reply.  “You do?”

                “Yes, I do,” Murdoch stated more firmly.  “I want him back, Scott.  He is my son.”  He turned suddenly and stared at the fire.  “I’m sorry for telling you about—about the Pinkertons.  I should have kept it to myself.  I thought—maybe someone else should know.  That it might explain things…”  He turned back to Scott.  “I thought maybe it might help you to understand why sometimes it’s difficult for me…with Johnny.”

                Scott watched his father face the fire once more.

                “He was everything to me when he was young…  I—I loved him so…  I had such plans for him to take over the ranch after I grew old…to follow in my footsteps.  Harlan had you, but I—I had Johnny.  I saw him growing up on the ranch, loving the ranch as I do…working it side by side with me.”   He suddenly stopped, turned toward Scott, a wistful smile on his face.  “I harbored a hope that someday you would decide to leave Boston, to come out to California.  I envisioned you being an accountant like Harlan, and you’d step in to handle the business end of the empire Johnny and I had built together.”

                Scott looked down, a small smile at the corner of his mouth.  “An accountant?”  He glanced back up at his father.  “I guess you never saw the grades I got in accounting at college, huh?”

                Murdoch smiled back.  “Well, Harlan never saw fit to share it with me, however I do have your entire grades in that Pinkerton report.”

                “Oh, no!” Scott suddenly laughed, the sound dissipating some of the heightened anger he was feeling.  “And you mean you actually sat on that information all this time!”

                Murdoch rubbed his hand across his face.  “Oh, Scott, I hardly think a ‘C’ qualifies as scandalous news.”

                “Oh, don’t be so sure of that, Murdoch,” Scott said as he picked up his wine goblet.  “I have Johnny believing I never got anything but ‘A’s.”

                Murdoch bent to retrieve the fallen book.  “You’re going to go looking for Johnny again, aren’t you?”

                Scott nodded.  “I’ll leave the morning after tomorrow.”  He paused.  “We fixed the bridge a couple miles south of here over that gully.  The one that gets a lot of use.”

                Murdoch nodded.  “Good.  It needed to be done.”  He glanced down at the book in his hands.  “I’ve had a hard time concentrating on the ranch.”

                Scott watched his father with a feeling of having a fleeting glimpse of insight into the man, a man who was neither beast nor saint.  Just another man to whom fate had dealt some harsh blows.  A man who was not so unlike his younger son.  They had both tried to play the cards laid before them in the best way possible.  That didn’t always win, but at least they managed to stay in the game.

                “We’ll find him,” Scott said.

                

                                                                                ****************

 

                In the morning, Jamie was up early, ready to take Johnny on with his card-playing prowess, but Matthew quickly informed him that he had chores to do first.  Reluctantly, he headed out the door, a backward glance lingering over Johnny.

                After a good night’s rest, Johnny’s mood had improved.  As he watched the small family go about their morning chores, he realized he couldn’t blame them for their actions.  They were just doing what they needed in order to preserve the life they led.  There was no malice in their request.  Just a sense of self-preservation—a trait Johnny had to admit he was quite familiar with.

                His mood continued to improve with the light-hearted conversations he had with Jamie as he attempted to be of some help to his young friend.  Jamie enjoyed telling Johnny which chores he was able to help with and which were too taxing for him in his injured and weakened condition.  Johnny went along, content to let Jamie be in charge, while he was mostly relegated to watching and listening.

                Matthew was gone for the morning checking his irrigation ditch, but returned in time for dinner, a sour look on his dusty face.  When Grace pressed for a reason for his look, he admitted that he’d found their one main irrigation ditch blocked up—not accidentally—and that it would take him a number of hours to get it running smoothly again.

                After finishing his last bite of his bean enchilada, Johnny turned to Jamie, a twinkle in his eye.  “How ‘bout, after we’re done here, if you give me that chance to get even?”

                Jamie’s eyes brightened up immediately.  “Sure!”  He turned quickly to Matthew.  “I got all my chores done.”

                Matthew looked at Johnny, then back to Jamie.  “Just for a little while, and only after you help Grace clean up.  Johnny and I have some business to take care of this afternoon.”

                “The men from town?”  Jamie asked.

                “Yes,” he nodded gravely.  “And while they’re here, I’ll need you to stay out of the way.  Do you understand?”

                Jamie nodded, then looked up at Johnny, his face open with trust.  “You’ll help us, won’t ya, Johnny?  Since you’re the best, we won’t have to move.  I don’t wanna move.”

                Johnny took a slow breath, quieting his thumping heart.  He put his hand out and rumpled Jamie’s unruly hair.  “I’ll do what I can, Jamie.  Now why don’t you help your sister, and then set about dealing up those cards.”

                Jamie jumped up to do as directed, content in the knowledge that his hero was going to take care of everything.

 

                                                                                ****************

 

                As Jamie dealt the second hand, Johnny picked up each card, groaning elaborately at the sight of each one.  Each groan, more exaggerated than the last, brought squeals of laughter from his young friend.

                But the sound of approaching horses put an instant finality to the congenial atmosphere and Johnny reluctantly folded his cards.  “I’m sorry, Jamie.  We’ll play again later tonight.”

                “Promise?”

                “Promise.”

                “Okay.”  Jamie obediently gathered up the cards and was standing to leave when Matthew and four men entered the room.  The men stood off to the side as Jamie left the small cabin.

                Grace, who had been outside tending to her garden when the men rode up, brought in a pitcher of fresh water.  Though the men murmured their thanks as she set out cups for their use, it was obvious by her expression that she disapproved of what was going to transpire.  Once finished, she curtly took her leave and went back outside.            

Johnny coolly raised his eyes to watch as the men uneasily arranged themselves about the small cabin, his expression carefully honed to show nothing but mild boredom.  Self-consciously Matthew grabbed a small bench from along one wall and added it to the four chairs sitting around the small table.  Johnny felt all eyes on him, knowing their curiosity was a morbid one, filled with hope and fear that all they’d heard about him was true.  He had been in this position many times, and made sure all they saw was the indifferent attitude of a seasoned gunfighter.  It was what they expected to see, what they wanted to see, and he knew just how to deliver it.

                After Matthew had moved the chairs over to accommodate the bench, he straightened up and cleared his throat self-consciously.  The four men were all standing quietly in a group, all of them casting furtive glances at the man still seated at the far side of the table.  Matthew shot Johnny his own furtive glance and was shocked to see how different he suddenly looked.  Though he still wore Matthew’s old shirt, it was now buttoned, effectively hiding his injured side.  And he wore an attitude of calm indifference to the four men who were trying, unsuccessfully, not to stare.  His entire manner, just recently so jovial and relaxed with Jamie, was now guarded with a superiority that bordered on ill-concealed conceit.  He didn’t look at all like the Johnny, Matthew had come to know.  Instead, he looked like…..like a gunfighter.

                “Uh-hem,” Matthew cleared his throat again.  “Um, Mr. Madrid…”

                Johnny’s eyes flicked lazily, barely acknowledging Matthew.

                “Uh, these are some of the men I told you about earlier.  Mr. Solero.”

                A tall man of very dark coloring stepped forward hesitantly.  He smiled as he held out his hand in greeting.  Johnny didn’t move other than to acknowledge the man with a slight nod of his head.  Slightly embarrassed, the man withdrew his hand and likewise nodded a greeting.

                “Um, Mr. Solero owns the livery in town,” Matthew hurriedly explained.  “And Mr. Rosti,” he gestured, “is our postmaster and owns the hotel and saloon.”

                Mr. Rosti, a green-eyed, brown-haired man of medium build and height with a receding hairline, nervously opted not to try to shake hands.  Instead he bravely nodded.  “G’d afternoon, Mr. Madrid.”

                Once again, Johnny merely nodded.

                “And this,” Matthew directed, “is Señor DarkCloud.  He’s our town doctor and apothecary.”

                DarkCloud greeted Johnny with a grin and an appraising eye.  “Pleased, Mr. Madrid.  Your reputation precedes you.”

                Johnny’s gaze lingered on DarkCloud for a moment before he allowed a hint of a smile to cross his lips.  “It generally does.”

                “And this,” Matthew continued, “is Mr. Angelou.  He has the largest spread around here.”

                Mr. Angelou, a short, stocky man with a full beard, stepped forward importantly, addressing Johnny in a tone that conveyed his own feeling of importance.

                “Mr. Madrid,” he greeted formally. “Matthew, here, has told us all about you.  We’re very pleased that you decided to meet with us.”

                Johnny leaned back farther into his seat and gave the same cursory nod to Angelou as he had to the other gentlemen.  Surprised, but a bit amused by this action, Matthew nodded around the table.  “Perhaps we should all take a seat.  I know we have a lot to discuss.”

                Johnny remained unmoving, elbows on the arms of his chair, hands crossed in front of him, as the men quickly took their seats.

Mr. Angelou immediately leaned forward in an attempt to take charge of the meeting.

                “Mr. Madrid.  I’m not sure if Matthew explained to you what our specific problem is—what our need is.”

                The men all held their breath as Johnny casually looked them over before replying in a voice of total indifference, “Oh, I believe Matthew was pretty clear.  You need somebody killed.”

                In the stunned silence that followed his blatant revelation, Johnny turned his attention to Matthew.  “You wouldn’t happen to know if there’s a piece of that pecan pie left from last night, would you?”   He continued without waiting, “That was mighty good pie.  I could sure use a piece.”

                Surprised, and with mouth slightly agape, Matthew hurriedly jumped to his feet.  “Why, uh, yes, I think there’s some left.”

                As Matthew hurried to the kitchen corner to fetch a piece of pie, Johnny turned back to the other men seated at the table.  “Gentlemen, do any of you care for a piece?  Miss Grace sure does make a tasty pecan pie.”  He winked at Angelou and nodded, “Looks like you enjoy pie.”  He then turned in his seat.  “Hey, Matthew, I think Mr. Angelou would like a piece.”

                Slightly flustered, Mr. Angelou interrupted, “No, no, really, I’m not interested in any pie.”

                Johnny turned back to him, a surprised look on his face.  “Are you sure?”

                Angelou nodded emphatically, his face flushed.  “Quite sure!”

                Johnny looked around the table.  “How about anybody else, then?”

                The other three men looked at each other, then back at Johnny.  Slowly Mr. Solero and Mr. Rosti shook their heads.

                “DarkCloud?”

                The half-breed’s eyes sparkled as he met Johnny’s look.  “I think a piece of pie sounds wonderful, Mr. Madrid.”

                “Well, then.  Matthew, I guess it’s just me and DarkCloud!”

                Matthew returned to the table with two small plates of pecan pie.  With a satisfied sigh, Johnny leaned forward and accepted his piece, while DarkCloud also took his plate from Matthew.  The four men watched with a confused expression as Johnny picked up his fork and began to eat.  With a grin, DarkCloud followed suit.

                Mr. Angelou shot Matthew an imploring look.  Shrugging slightly, Matthew raised his eyebrows in an apologetic grimace as he sat down again.

                “Uh, Mr. Madrid—” Mr. Angelou attempted to regain some order of the meeting.

                “Yes, yes.”  Johnny took another bite and held up his fork.  “Where were we?  Oh, that’s right—killing someone.”

                The room was again immediately still.  Johnny took the last bite of pie and chewed it slowly, seeming to savor the flavor.  “Good isn’t it?” he asked DarkCloud.

“Quite,” DarkCloud agreed.

Then, finished, Johnny put down his fork and leaned back in his chair, relaxed and comfortable.  “Before I decide if this is worth my trouble, I’d like to hear the whole story.”

                “Where shall we start from?”  Angelou asked.

                Johnny raised an amused eyebrow.  “Mr. Angelou, I find it’s best to start at the beginning.”

                Mr. Angelou pulled himself up importantly, trying to retain some semblance of control.  “Why, yes, of course.  The beginning.”  He paused as he gathered his thoughts.  “About two years ago it was, the trouble started.  Judge Wakeman’s son, James, came through town one day with some of his men.”

                “On their way to Paso Robles,” supplied Mr. Solero.

                “I don’t think that’s important,” admonished Mr. Angelou.  He turned his attention back to the gunfighter.  “Not many people come through here, you have to realize.  The stage goes through every so often, but most people prefer to catch a boat at Monterey if they’re headin’ south. Within the year, though, we’ll have a railroad that’ll connect us to Salinas, but until then,” he shrugged, “no one much comes through here.”

                Johnny watched the men all nod their agreement.

                “We’re out in the middle of nowhere, as you can see.  It’s a day’s ride north to get to Salinas, and it’s a good two and a half days ride to Paso Robles.  Nobody much stops here.  Most people trying to get from north to south usually take a boat in Monterey.  And, from what Matthew told us, you saw how difficult it is to get through the Diablo Mountains to our east, and then there’s the mountains to our west, but nobody goes through there anyway.  Get to the other side there’s even less there than here.  The ocean and a few Indians.”  Mr. Angelou paused with a shrug, his hands opened expressively.  “We aren’t really much of a town, we haven’t even a sheriff.  There’s about eighteen families living around this old mission site.  Seven make up what little we can call a town, and the rest of us are small ranchers.  We raise a few cattle, some sheep, I and Mr. Solero raise a few horses.  We all do a little farming.  We don’t have much and we’ve never been bothered by anyone.”

                “Until James Wakeman,” Mr. Rosti remarked dryly, and Johnny heard the other men murmur their agreement.

                “James’ father used to be a judge up in Salinas.  He’s retired now, but he still has a place to the southwest of the town.  James came through here, and for some reason decided he liked this area.  First tried to buy out a few of us, but when we refused, he started raiding us—”

                “Shootin’ up our homes and livestock—”

                “Damming up our water supply—”

                “Tramplin’ or burnin’ our crops—”

                “And he and his men even broke into Jed Fisher’s place when he weren’t there and—” Mr. Rosti broke off.

                Angelou finished in a subdued tone.  “He had a daughter, Mr. Madrid.  It weren’t decent what they done.”

                “They’ve since moved away,” added Solero.

                Johnny looked around the table at the five pairs of eyes, all imploring him to help.   Keeping his face impassive, he nevertheless pushed himself upward in his chair slightly, his signal for them to continue, that he was still listening.

                Mr. Angelou drew his hands back off the table and clasped them tightly in his lap.  “It had gotten pretty bad, Mr. Madrid.  We were startin’ to fear for our lives.  About a month ago, a few weeks after the Fisher incident, Herve Almada was found dead.  His place was farthest north of here.  He lived alone.”  He paused.  “It was then that we decided we couldn’t go on like we were.  Something had to be done.”

                “I assume there’s a good reason you didn’t try to get some help?”  Johnny asked quietly.

                Mr. Angelou nodded.  “We have no telegraph.  It’s too far to go for any help down south, and the Judge’s got a lot of pull yet in Salinas.  We tried a number of times to contact the sheriff there in town, but the sheriff said we were exaggeratin’.    Judge Wakeman would say that there was no way his son could have done any of those things as James had been with him each time.  And then, the next time Mr. Rosti and Mr. Solero did try to go up that way, they were ambushed by James and his men.  Driven right back to town and told that if they knew what was good for them, they’d keep quiet and just sell their places.  That was ‘bout six months ago.  Since then, we aren’t even gettin’ our regular shipment of supplies from Salinas anymore.  We used to get a load of supplies down every other week or so before, but nothin’s come down in a long while.”

                Johnny tapped his fingers together thoughtfully.  “I see.”

                “So we decided we needed to hire protection,” Mr. Angelou continued.  “So a little over a week ago I headed south to Paso to see about hiring us…uh…some help.”

                At this news, Johnny raised an eyebrow.

                “We didn’t know we’d have the famous Johnny Madrid drop right into our laps at the time,” Mr. Solero quickly added.

                “I suppose not,” Johnny smiled slightly, then looked at Mr. Angelou.  “So, did you hire your—help?”

                Mr. Angelou nodded.  “Yes, I did.  He’s supposed to be here in four or five days.  Name of Tuscon.  Heard of him?”

                “No, can’t say that I have.”  Johnny unfolded his hands.  “Looks like you don’t need me, then, gentlemen.”

                The men quickly looked at Mr. Angelou, who barely managed to stay in his seat as he thrust his hands once more out onto the table in a unconcealed attempt to stop Johnny from leaving.  “That’s not true, Mr. Madrid!  We’ve talked it over and feel our chances of stopping this ugly business would be drastically improved if you would help us, too, only…”

                Johnny cocked his head to the side.  “Only, what?”

                There was silence as Angelou cast embarrassed looks at the other men around the table, his right hand finding its way back to start tugging nervously at his beard.  Finally, he faced Johnny, but his eyes remained downcast.  “We, uh, Mr. Madrid, we used all our money to hire Tuscon.”  He forced himself to look at the gunfighter.  “The town pooled all its money.  I was chosen to go down to Paso and use it to hire ourselves a gunfighter.  It’s all we had.”  His eyes dropped once more.  “We don’t have any more money to pay you.”

                “No money?” Johnny raised an eyebrow in amused disbelief.  “Makes it a bit hard to do business, doesn’t it?”

                Mr. Angelou licked his lips nervously.  “But we have another idea.”

                “You do,” Johnny rubbed his chin, effectively hiding a twitch of a smile.

                “Yes.”  Mr. Angelou glanced around the table once more as if to assure himself of everyone’s support.  “We thought we could trade in services.”

                “Services, huh?” Johnny repeated dubiously.

                “Uh, yes.”  Mr. Angelou once more shot a look at the other men before he continued.  “A room and meals at Mr. Rosti’s saloon, a horse from myself along with boarding from Mr. Solero.   Mr. Calientes owns a small general store and has offered anything in his place you might want, though he cautions that there isn’t much to choose from since we’ve been cut off from getting shipments from Salinas.  And anything else you can think of you might need, we’ll attempt to take care of it for you.”

                Johnny sat thoughtfully rubbing his chin, his expression carefully blank as he thought over the offer.  It was a decent offer, and an offer he knew he wouldn’t refuse.  He had long since decided he’d help these people, regardless.  He never could stand bullies.  But he also liked a show, and he wanted to make sure these people got what they expected.

                Mr. Angelou watched attentively as Johnny first rubbed his chin, then sighed and folded his hands on the table.  His eyes trailed down to study the gunfighter’s thumbs as he rubbed them together.  The sigh worried Angelou.  He glanced nervously back at the men at the table.

Quite aware of the effect his sigh had put into the larger man, Johnny clasped his hands and momentarily closed his eyes, letting his thoughts stray to other times, other hopeless situations with hopeful faces—other jobs.  It was time to tell them he accepted.  But would they realize what the real cost was?  Did they understand that each time Johnny Madrid ‘helped’, he damned another piece of his soul?  Did they even care?

No.  And it was better that way.  If he wasn’t a real man with a soul, just a tool, then they could still sleep at night.  Even if he couldn’t.

                Opening his eyes, Johnny looked up.  “I accept your offer,” he stated simply.

                It was Mr. Angelou’s turn to sigh, this time in relief.  “Wonderful!”  Then there was another pause.  “But, uh, we had one question.”

                “Which is?”

                At Mr. Angelou’s hesitation, Mr. Solero spoke up, “Are you as fast as they say you are?”

                Dashing a quick glance at Johnny, Matthew cut in.  “I’ve seen him, and he’s faster’n anything I’ve ever seen.”

                “Yeah, but we wanna make sure he can handle all of James’ men.  He’s got four or five guns of his own he’s hired,” Mr. Rosti replied.

                “And now we’ll have two,” Matthew countered.

                Mr. Angelou waved a hand to interrupt the two men.  “Mr. Madrid.  We’re simply worried about the recent injury you’ve sustained.  We want to make sure it’s not serious enough to hinder your…uh, your performance.” He paused, his cheeks reddening under his beard.  “We, uh, we just don’t want to start something that we can’t finish.”

                Johnny regarded Angelou evenly before answering.  “That’s three.”

“Huh?”

“You said you had one question and you just asked three.  How fast am I, how badly am I injured, and can I finish what I start.”

                Angelou’s mouth gaped open a second before he closed it.

                Johnny continued, “But what it really comes down to, is that you want to find out if you’re trading for damaged goods.”

                “Mr. Madrid…” Matthew’s formal tone hid a note of warning.

                “I don’t think we need to bother Mr. Madrid about this now,” DarkCloud suddenly spoke up.  “I, for one, am relieved he’ll help us out.”

                “You’re right,” Mr. Solero nodded.

                Johnny noted, however, an unsatisfied expression still on Rosti’s and Angelou’s faces, and he leveled them with a disdainful look that clearly showed he was not amused.  “You want to see what you’re buyin’?”

                “Johnny.” Matthew’s tone took on a more direct note, which elicited a sharp look.

                Unable to do anything but watch with apprehension, Matthew held his breath as Johnny slowly rose from his chair, and found himself impressed by how well the gunfighter hid his injury.  There was nothing in either expression or movement to show the discomfort Matthew knew he must be experiencing.  And all for a foolish demonstration to satisfy the curiosity of a few stubborn old men.  A demonstration which they both were fully aware would set Johnny back once again in his healing.  Biting back another futile admonition, Matthew quickly stood, determined to help in any way he could.

                The men all stepped out of the way as Johnny walked around the table to the front door.  As he pulled it open, they could hear Jamie’s voice squealing in laughter.

Johnny walked out onto the porch, then paused to watch as Jamie threw an old rag ball into the air.  Digger happily chased after it, expertly catching it in his teeth and bringing it back to his young master.

                “Jamie,” Johnny called.

                Jamie immediately stopped what he was doing and turned, a large smile on his face.  “Johnny!  You gonna help us?”

                Johnny nodded.  “I need your ball, though.”

                Looking down at the old ball he held in his hands, Jamie shrugged.  “Sure.”  He walked forward and handed it to Johnny, an expression of curiosity on his face.

                Johnny accepted the ball, then turned slowly to face Angelou, a hard glint in his eyes.  “I expect three things from you.”  Pausing, he took a step closer to Angelou before continuing.  “First of all, I expect you to be back here in three days with the fastest, surest-footed animal you got.  Second, I’m comin’ into town in five days, and I expect your other man to be there and to be already set straight on how things are gonna be.”

                “And how’s that?”

                “I’m in charge,” Johnny enunciated slowly.

                “And the third,” Angelou asked, his eyes furtively seeking out support from his comrades, who were standing a pace behind him.

                “And third, I expect you to take this ball out there to where the field starts and to throw it as far away from you as possible, as it’d be a shame if I were to hit you while aiming for the ball.”  Johnny paused again and leaned in closer, his voice dropping to barely a whisper.  “It’s always possible I’m a little off since my injury.”

                Putting a hand to his lips to hide a smile, Matthew watched Angelou step back nervously from Johnny’s intense stare.  He had to admit to a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing Johnny get old Angelou’s goat, as he, too, sometimes grew tired of the older rancher’s constant need to order everyone about.

                Johnny stepped down off the porch while Angelou, casting nervous glances over his shoulder, quickly walked out to the edge of the field.  As the other men grouped together on the edge of the porch, Matthew stepped down after Johnny, Jamie tagging slightly behind.

                “Johnny,” Matthew whispered.  “Is this smart?  You know what happened just yesterday…”  Matthew’s words trailed off as Johnny turned around to face him, the determination already set in the gunfighter’s eyes.

                Jamie, sensing his brother’s concern, glanced up in confusion.  “Johnny, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing to worry about.” Johnny smiled reassuringly at Jamie, then turned back to Matthew, his voice low.  “You know as well as I do that this has to be done.  They need proof, just like you did.”

                Embarrassed, Matthew looked down.

                “It’s how it works,” Johnny went on.  “Besides, this way I make sure I’m in charge.  I don’t know who this Tuscon is, but I can tell you now, I’m gonna be runnin’ this.  I don’t wanna be in the middle of another bloodbath.”

                “Another?”

                Johnny shook his head dismissively.  “Better move back out of the way.”  He paused as a hint of a smile tugged at his lips.  “I gotta get this show on the road before old Angelou pees his pants out there from his sudden nervous disposition.”

Matthew coughed exaggeratedly as he tried to hide his laughter.

Johnny grinned back and gave Jamie a quick wink before his face grew serious.  “There’s one thing you could do for me though.”

                “Sure,” Matthew replied.

                Johnny dropped his gaze for a split second before looking back up, a flicker of embarrassment crossing his face.  Sensing Johnny’s discomfort, Matthew leaned in closer.

                “Afterward, if it looks like I’m gonna lose it, get me in to the house.  I’m not goin’ down in the dirt in front of those men.”

                Matthew gave a single nod, then whispered back, “How’re you doin’ so far?”

                “Holding up.”

                Matthew glanced sidewise at the men waiting on the porch, then softly replied, “Don’t worry. If it comes to it, I’ll think of something.”

Johnny nodded gratefully, then turned his back on Matthew and Jamie as they went to join the others.  As he heard their steps echo on the porch, Johnny turned his attention to Angelou, who stood fidgeting awkwardly with the ball.  As he took a deep, calming breath, he felt the tug of the bandaging around his middle.  Matthew was right, this wasn’t very smart, but it was necessary—he really had no choice.  If he could just play this out, hold on a bit longer, he’d gain the upper hand so that he could be in charge.  He had found himself in too many uncontrolled fracases already, and had no desire to get caught in the middle of another one.   As he took another slow breath, he flexed his fingers, then called out to Angelou.  “Anytime!”  Then turning his back on Angelou, he instructed Jamie, “You let me know when he tosses it, okay?  But make sure to wait until he’s lettin’ it fly, until it’s goin’ out of his hands.”

                Jamie nodded.

                Up on the porch, DarkCloud moved up close to Matthew.  “Is this wise?” he murmured.

The words spoken were so low only Matthew had heard them.  Matthew shrugged and replied under his breath, “Wise, I don’t know.  But he seems to think it’s necessary.”

                Out in the field, Angelou rubbed the palms of his hands on his pants, then gripped the ball tightly.  He suddenly thought of an old story he’d heard when he was young.   He remembered it having to do with an apple, though, and a guy with a bow and arrow instead of a gun.  He looked toward the gunfighter whose back was turned to him, and tried desperately to remember if the guy with the apple lived.  The feeling that this hadn’t been such a good idea after all was growing stronger by the second.

Conscious that all eyes were on him, waiting for him to toss the ball, Angelou took a deep breath and let it fly into the air with as much force as he could manage.

                The old rag ball had barely cleared a couple of feet above his head when he felt, rather than heard, the shot explode, sending waves reverberating through his body.  Before he could even move, another shot followed the second.  He gasped a strangled cry as he dropped straight to the ground, a third shot echoing over his now prone body.

                Jamie had taken his job seriously.  He’d watched as Angelou fidgeted before grimly winding up to throw.  Not until Angelou’s arm was thrust forward in the act of releasing the ball, had Jamie yelled, “Now!”

                Johnny, who had been as relaxed as a sleeping tiger, suddenly sprang around in a half-crouch, his gun already cleared from the holster and shooting, before the ball had gotten more than two yards from Angelou’s head.  As it flew backward toward the field another shot immediately followed, sending it even farther away.  Then as it dropped to the ground, one last shot made it hop in the dirt.  The pathetically trailing loose strips of fabric made it look like some freakish tarantula in its death throes as it rolled along the ground, coming to rest in an unraveled mass of frayed and tattered appendages. There was a collective gasp of dismay from those gathered on the porch at the same time that Angelou hit the dirt with his own yelp of surprise.

                “Yea, Johnny!”  Jamie exclaimed as he jumped up and down.

                Johnny slowly straightened, reholstered his gun then turned to give his young friend a smile.

                Matthew, however, immediately noted Johnny’s lack of color and quickly stepped off the porch.

Johnny, aware of the movement, managed a slight, forced smile.  Matthew nodded back and positioned himself near Johnny’s injured side as the men rushed off the porch to congratulate the gunfighter.  It hadn’t escaped Matthew’s notice, nor DarkCloud’s, that Johnny now held his arm in tight against his body, protecting the wound.

                “Oooooeeeee!  You’re not a’kiddin’!”  Rosti exclaimed, clapping Matthew on the back.  “Mr. Madrid here’s got to be the fastest thing this side of the Mississippi!”

                A wide, child-like grin on his own face, Solero was quick to add his own opinion, “Ain’t nobody gonna be able to take you, Mr. Madrid.  Ol’ Jimmy won’t know what hit him now!”

                The group pulled back as Angelou walked up, his front covered in dust, his face a mixture of indignation and surprise.  “You coulda killed me!”

                Johnny raised an eyebrow in mild amusement.  “Oh, don’t get yourself all in a pucker, Mr. Angelou.  I was aimin’ for the ball.  It ain’t my fault you throw like a girl.”

                As the men chortled, Angelou retorted, “But you coulda missed!”

                Johnny fixed him with one of his half-smiles.  “Mr. Angelou, I never miss.”

                A general whoop of delight swept through the group, Angelou shaking his head before he finally smiled too.  With a snort of approval, he then stepped up and offered Johnny his hand.  “Glad you’re on our side, Mr. Madrid.”

                Despite the flaming pain in his side, Johnny reached out and accepted Angelou’s hand.  “I’ll see you in three days when you bring me my horse.”

                Angelou grinned.  “Have a color preference?”

                Johnny paused, then nodded.  “Black.”

                Angelou released his grip.  “Understood.  Fast, sure-footed, and black.  Anything else?”

                “Yeah,” Johnny laughed slightly, “I guess I’ll need some tack.”

                “Got it,” Solero quickly offered.

                “And we’ll see you in five days, in town, right?” Rosti asked.

                Though Johnny nodded, Matthew noticed his arm was once again protecting his side.  And despite the attempts at levity, he could see the strain he was under.  A shimmer of perspiration was appearing on his forehead and neck, and there was a tightness around his mouth that hadn’t been there earlier.

                “I’ll have him there myself,” Matthew said as he took a step up closer to Johnny.

                “Meet at my place.  Drinks and food on me!” Rosti announced.  “About two o’clock good for everyone?”

                Matthew and the other men nodded their agreement.

                Rosti turned and headed for the horses, Solero following behind.  “See you in town.”

                Johnny nodded and Matthew gave a small wave.

                Angelou looked at Matthew with a smile and ran his fingers through his beard.  “That was damn fine luck, Matthew, finding Mr. Madrid here.”

                “I found ‘im!”     

Angelou smiled down.  “Well, Jamie, I thank you heartily.  You may have just saved our town.”

                Jamie smiled importantly.  “You’re welcome.”

                Angelou looked at Johnny again.  “I’ll be back in three days.”

                “We’ll be expectin’ you,” Matthew replied.

                “Just one thing, though, Mr. Madrid.” Angelou grimaced with exaggeration, the corners of his mouth twitching.  “No more ball playing with you.”

                “Deal,” Johnny replied and forced a smile.

                Angelou nodded, then turned to leave.  “Comin’?” he asked DarkCloud.

                DarkCloud had stepped up closer to Johnny’s other side, his eyes registering his concern to Matthew.  “I’m just gonna run in and get that recipe for that pie,” DarkCloud replied off-handedly.  “Mr. Madrid was quite right when he said that Miss Grace makes a really excellent pecan pie.”

                “I can wait for you if you want.  We could ride back part ways together.”

                “Nah, that’s okay.  You go on ahead.  You got the farthest way to go,” DarkCloud assured.

                Johnny listened to the exchange, wishing both men would just leave.  His side felt like it was on fire, and he had to fight to keep his breathing even.  He just wanted to go in and lie down.

                “Okay, then.  We’ll be seeing you in five days.”  Angelou nodded again to Matthew and Johnny, then turned and walked to his horse.

                While Angelou rode out of the yard, Johnny stood watching, flanked by Matthew and DarkCloud.

                “Let’s go in,” Matthew said after Angelou had left.  He reached a hand toward Johnny’s elbow.

                “I can do it myself,” Johnny replied, mindful of the fact that DarkCloud was standing nearby, watching his every move.

                DarkCloud shot Matthew a look that conveyed his apprehension about letting the gunfighter make his own way into the house, but Matthew’s reply was a small shake of his head.

                Johnny slowly turned and headed toward the door, hoping DarkCloud would quickly get his recipe and leave.  He could feel his shirt beginning to stick from the cold sweat that was enveloping him, and he knew his breathing was beginning to sound rapid and shallow.  He needed desperately to sit down, or better yet, lie down.  If only this last man would leave.

                What’s he need that damned recipe for anyway?  The pie wasn’t really that good!

                He thought he was hiding his discomfort well, until he reached the step to the porch.  In his weakening condition, he stumbled and started to fall.  As he did so, he felt Matthew’s hands quickly grab him, and another pair of hands that could only belong to DarkCloud.

                “I’m fine,” he mumbled, trying to regain his sense of balance.

                “Is he always this stubborn?” DarkCloud asked Matthew.

                Matthew nodded, “Even worse.”

                “I have some sympathy for Miss Grace then,” DarkCloud replied as he supported Johnny with one arm while opening the front door with the other.

                “What would you know about it?” Johnny retorted, trying to pull his arm away, then gasped when the action sent pain ripping through his side.

                “More than you know,” DarkCloud replied.  “Now why don’t you behave yourself while I try to help.”

                His eyes demanding an answer, Johnny glared at Matthew while he reluctantly accepted their support into the house.

                “Jamie, go fill the basin with fresh water,” Matthew ordered.  As his young brother went out the front door, Matthew then turned his attention back to Johnny.  “I told DarkCloud,” he explained as they helped Johnny to the small bed.

                “I don’t wanna…lay…down.  Told him….what?”  Johnny’s breath was coming in painful gasps as he tried not to move his injured side any more than absolutely necessary.

                “I gotta mule who’s got more sense than you do,” DarkCloud interrupted.  “And you will lie down while I take a look at your injuries.”

                “Damn,” Johnny muttered under his breath.  “I’m fine.”

                “You’d better let us help you,” Matthew offered.

                “Just let go of me,” Johnny snapped, then buckled as he felt a spasm of pain shoot through his side.  “Damn,” he hissed through clenched teeth as Matthew and DarkCloud lowered him carefully onto the cot, his face now waxy and damp.

                Johnny was no longer able to hide the fact that each breath was torment, an agony only succumbed to from the basic need for air.

                “You need to try to relax,” DarkCloud knelt down beside the cot.

                “I’d relax—if—you’d just—leave,” Johnny hissed tightly.

                DarkCloud shook his head wryly at Matthew.  “Are all gunfighters this stubborn?”

                Matthew shrugged, “Can’t say for sure.  He’s the only one I’ve met.”

                “I’m—not—stubborn,” Johnny replied.  “I’ll be—fine—in a—day or two.”

                Crossing his arms, DarkCloud regarded Johnny carefully.  “You need to be more than fine, and you need more than a day or two.  You’ve just taken on a pretty big job, and it’s liable to get ugly.”

                Taking a deep breath, Johnny glared back.  “My business usually is.”

                “Then I suggest you let me help get you back in shape.”

                Johnny closed his eyes.  “I just…need…….some rest.”

                DarkCloud glanced up at Matthew, then back down at Johnny, whose eyes remained closed.  “You’d rest easier if you took something for the pain.”

                Johnny’s eyes snapped open, quickly darting to Matthew, then DarkCloud.  “I don’t take—”

                “Laudanum.  Yes, I know,” DarkCloud replied softly.  “Matthew informed me of your, um, hesitation to take it.”

                Johnny studied DarkCloud silently, unsure how to respond.

                “How’d it happen?”

                “How’d what happen?” Johnny replied through clenched teeth.

                DarkCloud turned to Matthew.  “I’ll need fresh bandages, if you have them,” he prompted.  After Matthew had left, DarkCloud turned back and casually continued, “Your, well, allergy to laudanum.”

                Despite the pain, Johnny almost laughed. “Allergy!”  He paused for breath.  “Haven’t—heard it called that before.”

“What would you have me call it?”

When Johnny didn’t respond, DarkCloud continued, “Were you having problems with it recently or—”

“Here you go,” Matthew interrupted, carrying a handful of clean strips, just as Jamie came in the front door with a basin of fresh water.

                “Good.” DarkCloud gestured.  “Put them down here.  Then Jamie, would you also go out to my horse and bring in my saddlebag?”

                “Sure thing,” Jamie replied, then hesitated at the sight of Johnny lying on the cot.  “Johnny okay?”

                DarkCloud smiled reassuringly.  “He’ll be fine.  I’ll have him up and taking care of Wakeman in no time at all.”

                Jamie grinned and headed back out the door.

                “Now, let’s take a look at what shape you’re in.”  DarkCloud leaned over and began unbuttoning Johnny shirt.

                “Just leave—it—alone!” Johnny growled, then sucked in a painful gasp.

                DarkCloud paused, fixing Johnny with a stern, chastising stare.  “Let’s get this straight, Madrid.  I’m not one of your fancy town doctors, but I’m the best you’re liable to find out here.  And I know what I’m doing probably a damned sight better than they do, anyway.  You’re lucky to have me.”  He continued, his tone not lightening, “So either you can make this easy on yourself and let me do what needs to be done, or I can have Matthew here hog-tie you first.  Either way, I’m gonna check out these injuries you have—to my satisfaction.”

                A stubborn glare remained in Johnny’s eyes a few seconds, until he finally closed them, relenting.  He was too exhausted to fight any further.

                He felt DarkCloud unbutton his shirt and carefully draw it open, revealing his bandaged side.  Then the door opened and Jamie ran in carrying DarkCloud’s saddlebag, Grace following close behind.  She stopped just inside the door and looked questioningly at Matthew.  The dark look he sent her, and the sight of DarkCloud bent over the gunfighter laid out on the bed, told her all she needed to know.

                “Just what I needed,” DarkCloud remarked as he opened the bag and took out a pair of scissors.  “I’d rather not move him anymore than I need to right now,” he explained as he cut through the old bandages.  “It looks like it’s bleedin’ again.”

                “Jamie, move back and give DarkCloud some room,” Matthew ordered.

                “Ah, Matthew.” Groaning, Jamie retreated to a chair at the table where Grace came to stand beside him, her hand resting on his back.

                “Yeah, we’ve got some fresh blood here,” DarkCloud announced as he pulled away the bandage.

                “Really?” Jamie exclaimed.

                “Jamie,” Matthew warned.

                “Sorry,” Jamie replied softly, then looked up at Grace.  She shook her head and put a finger to her lips, then turned and went to the corner where her rag basket sat and began to cut more strips for use.

                “Though considering it’s only been, what, not quite a week, and you’ve been over-doing it with your showing off, I’d say I expected a lot worse,” DarkCloud remarked dryly.

                Johnny opened his eyes.  “I wasn’t showin’ off.”

                DarkCloud raised his eyebrows in amusement.  “Well, you could have fooled me.”  Taking a new strip of cloth, he dipped it into the basin and began to clean around the wound, his eyes taking in the other scars.  “Looks like I could guess where your allergy came from.”

                Johnny shot DarkCloud a withering look.  “Who taught you your bedside manners?  The Apache?”

                “Ooooo, touche¢,” DarkCloud remarked with a laugh.  “Though I don’t happen to be Apache.”

                “Are you sure?” Johnny winced as DarkCloud pushed on the area around the wound, checking the color of the discharge.

                “I have a sister-in-law who has a brother who’s married to one,” DarkCloud continued as he nodded to Matthew for help in supporting Johnny so that he could get a better look at the exit wound.

                “Knew…there had to be……some Apache there………somewhere,” Johnny hissed painfully as Matthew put a hand underneath his shoulder and hip, supporting him as he gingerly rolled onto his side.

                “I’ll be glad to send your greetings along,” DarkCloud continued as he took a new cloth and once again began the work of cleaning away the fresh blood.

                “Don’t bother,” Johnny mumbled.  “We’ve probably already met.”

                “I hope you don’t mean in the conjugal sense.”

Matthew watched as DarkCloud grabbed a container from the saddlebag and opened it.  Inside was a clear, thin salve.  After spreading on a fine layer, the doctor then opened another jar and applied the thicker, darker ointment that Grace had been putting on from the beginning.  Once finished, DarkCloud added a small square of cloth over the wound before nodding to Matthew, who carefully lowered Johnny back onto the cot.

Johnny groaned as his side came into contact with the bed once more.  Though the strain was showing, he forced a laugh, “’fraid my meetin’s with Apache ain’t been so pleasant as that.”

“My sister-in-law’s brother will no doubt be happy to hear that.”

DarkCloud applied the same ointments to the entrance wound.  Though his touch was quick and gentle, Johnny still held his breath.  The constant pressure around the wound was making the pain intense, and he desperately wanted to be left alone.

“Any chance some of my relatives gave you any of those?” DarkCloud nodded to the old wounds that puckered the gunfighter’s skin.

Johnny glared, “You wish.”

DarkCloud shrugged and began to rebandage the wound.  “That one to the shoulder looks fairly recent, and pretty ugly.”

“I don’t—happen to—remember,” Johnny hissed as DarkCloud applied more pressure to the wound as he tightened the bandage.

Finished, DarkCloud leaned back onto his heels.  “The head wound, huh?”

“You don’t know when to quit, do ya?” Johnny retorted.

DarkCloud paused thoughtfully, “No, I guess not.  Part of my bedside manner.”

Johnny sighed and closed his eyes.  “I’m just fuzzy on some things is all.”

“What things?”  DarkCloud asked as he tilted Johnny’s head to the side to get a look at the gash in the back.

“Nothin’ important,” Johnny replied.

“He couldn’t remember the date or how he got hurt, or where he was, or—,”

“Jamie!” Despite the discomfort, Johnny managed to crane his neck to get a look at Jamie sitting at the table.  “I thought you were on my side!”

“Oh, sorry,” Jamie replied quickly, then added in deadpan seriousness.  “He’s fine.  Really.”

Sighing, Johnny rolled his eyes.

“So you were unclear about all that?” DarkCloud persisted as he coaxed Johnny to tilt his head once more toward the wall.  “You knew your name, though, right?”

Johnny sighed again. “Yes.  I remember that.”

“Then how much is blank?”

Johnny tilted his head once more to study DarkCloud and Matthew, then wearily rubbed his face with his left hand.  “I’m really tired.”

“Mr. Madrid—Johnny, I’m not planning to share any of this with anyone else.”  DarkCloud released his hold on Johnny’s head, and clasped his hands on his knee.  “My only interest is in getting you healthy.  This is my town, too, and I’d like to see it stay that way.  And right now, as it stands, you’re our best shot.”

Johnny lowered his arm to his side.  With a sigh that caused him to wince, he replied,  “I think about six months.  Matthew said it was the end of August.  I last remember it being February.  I was down in Mexico.  Bit of rebellion that went wrong.”  He nodded slightly toward his shoulder.  “Think I might have gotten this down there.  And I have another scar on my leg that I don’t remember getting, but it look’s like I might have gotten it about the same time.”

DarkCloud paused thoughtfully.  “Rebellion in Mexico, huh?  That’s the last you remember?”

“Yeah,” Johnny replied slowly.  “I was even startin’ to wonder if after I got shot up bad, someone, the doc, mighta, you know, not known about … my allergy.”  He dropped his gaze to study the wall.  “When it happened before, the laudanum, I, uh, there’s a few months I hardly remember….”  His voice trailed off thickly.

Resting his elbow on his knee, DarkCloud rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  “Could be, I suppose.”  He was quiet a moment, then gave a sad shake of his head.  “But I’m afraid that you’ve lost more than six months.”

Johnny turned an incredulous gaze back toward DarkCloud.  “What’d’ya mean?”

“Johnny, it’s seventy-three.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open, his eyes grew wide.  Groaning, he weakly pushed his way up onto his elbow.  “What?”

“It’s seventy-three.  That rebellion you were in, that was back in seventy—late seventy and early seventy-one, I believe.”  DarkCloud put a steadying hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “You’d better lay back down.”

“It can’t be seventy-three!” Johnny exclaimed, refusing DarkCloud’s prompting to lay back down.  “Then what’s happened since then?”

DarkCloud shook his head.  “I don’t know, Johnny.  I have relatives down in Mexico.  Last reports of Johnny Madrid was that the Rurales had captured you and you were to go up in front of a firing squad.”

Johnny stared at DarkCloud, his face incredulous.  Finally he whispered, “I don’t remember any of it.”

“Then what do you last remember?”

Johnny closed his eyes for a moment, then slowly opened them, a haunted look buried in them.  “The rebellion had gone all wrong.  Our location had been discovered, turned in for the reward most likely.”  He shook his head sadly.   “It was a mistake from the beginning.  The leaders couldn’t even agree among themselves.”  He closed his eyes again as the memories came back.  “It was the worst slaughter I’ve ever been in.  They were comin’ at us from every angle.  Women and children were runnin’ in all directions, trying to find some escape.  But the Rurales were cuttin’ them down as they ran.”  Shaking his head, he opened his eyes once more.  “I’ve been in plenty of ugly situations, men killin’ men.  It’s not pretty.  But these were women with little babies at their breasts.”  He looked down and studied the folds of the blanket he lay on.  “I tried to help.  I saw one young girl.  She had a tiny baby.  I knew she was alone—had no one.  Her father had been killed in a raid the week before, and there was no father to the baby.  Part of the reason her father had joined the rebellion in the first place.”

“What happened?” DarkCloud prompted when Johnny seemed unwilling to continue.

Johnny carefully lowered himself, a soft sigh escaping as he rested his head back against the thin pillow, his eyes staring vacantly up at the ceiling.  “Don’t put too much stock in me savin’ the town.  I couldn’t even save her.”

“Johnny, that wasn’t your fault,” Matthew said.

Johnny ignored Matthew’s comment.  “Wonderful last memory, isn’t it?”

“That’s the very last memory you have?”

Johnny nodded slightly.  “Her dying.  And the baby.”  He paused suddenly, a constriction in his throat.  He swallowed hard and took a deep breath.  “I’m afraid there’s a lot of dying around me.  Everyone seems to either leave or die off.”  He smiled weakly.  “Guess it’s an occupational hazard.”

“Ever think of getting a new occupation?”

Snorting slightly, Johnny shook his head.  “No.  It’s what I do.”  Then he paused and gave DarkCloud a long look.  “And I do it well.”

DarkCloud nodded somberly then looked over at Matthew.  “Heard any rumors about Johnny Madrid?”

Matthew shook his head.  “Can’t say as I have.  Honest, I didn’t know who he was.  If Jamie hadn’t heard the bounty hunter say he wanted the four thousand, and then finding the poster on him in the saddlebag of the horse we captured, we wouldn’t of known who he was.”

“Matthew!  I thought we weren’t supposed to tell anybody about the poster!” Jamie interrupted from his place at the table.

Matthew glanced over at his brother.  “You’re right, Jamie.  But I think DarkCloud needs to know so he can help.  But we don’t want anyone else to know.”

“So I still can’t tell Zito?” Jamie asked.

Matthew shook his head.  “No, Jamie, you still can’t tell Zito.”

Jamie groaned and went back to knocking his feet against the chair leg.

“The bounty, where’s it from?” DarkCloud asked.

“It’s from Kansas, and I didn’t do it,” Johnny cut in tersely.

“I’ve got it here,” Matthew added as he stood and walked to the storage room.

“I didn’t,” Johnny reiterated.

DarkCloud looked at Johnny.  “Four thousand’s a lot of money to offer for a innocent man.”

Johnny started to push up again, but DarkCloud put a hand to his shoulder.  “You’re gonna mess up my work.  Stay still.”

“Here it is.”  Matthew unfolded a sheet of paper and handed it to DarkCloud.

DarkCloud studied it a few moments, then nodded.  “Well, that’s you.”

“Who’d you think I was?” Johnny retorted.

DarkCloud raised an eyebrow.  “Well, you never know.  With your memory fuzzy and all, perhaps you really are Bob the Baker.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed in irritation.  “Would Bob the Baker shoot like I do?”

DarkCloud shrugged with a grin.  “Probably not, but then maybe you also make a mean biscuit.”  He handed the poster back to Matthew.  “Think it was wise not to make this common knowledge.  Four thousand’s a heck of a lot of money.  Nobody here in town would try anything, but no need giving James any more information than necessary.”

Matthew nodded.  “That’s kinda what I thought.”

“Last I knew it was two thousand.”

At Johnny’s revelation, DarkCloud turned his attention, “But you remember it?”

“’Course I remember it.  Happened three, no, damn, five or six years ago.”  He put his hand to his head again, and sighed.  “Don’t you got some other patients to bother?”

DarkCloud feigned deep concentration, then replied with exaggerated innocence,  “No, looks like you’re the only one right now.”

“My luck,” Johnny closed his eyes tiredly.

“Breathing getting easier?” DarkCloud asked.

Johnny nodded.  “Side feels better.”

“I put something on it to help numb the pain to some extent.  I’m leaving a jar of it here for you to use.”  He then smiled.  “I think I’ll have Grace make you up some of my special tea—”

“I don’t drink tea,” Johnny announced firmly.

Sighing, DarkCloud rolled his eyes at Matthew.  “There he goes again.  Stubborn as an ol’ mule.”

“I’m not—”

“Don’t think of it as tea.  Think of it as an elixir of health, an infusion for the body, a draught for strength, a libation to cure lethargy—”

“It’s snake-oil, isn’t it?” Johnny retorted dryly.

DarkCloud grinned, “Actually it’s just an old recipe to help you relax and sleep better, and it’ll help some with the pain.  It’ll help you fight off infection, too, so I want you to drink it three or four times a day.”  At Johnny’s dubious expression, he added, “And there’s not a drop of laudanum in the thing.  Promise.”

DarkCloud stood and signaled to Grace.  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to show you how to make up a special potion I have that will help Johnny get better.”

“It’s tea,” Johnny mumbled unhappily.

DarkCloud glanced at Johnny, then grinned.  “You can make it out of whiskey, for all I care.”

“Whiskey’d be better,” Johnny agreed.  “Or tequila.”

“We don’t have either,” Matthew apologized.

DarkCloud shrugged at Johnny.  “I tried.”

As DarkCloud went to show Grace how to make the tea, Matthew knelt down once more by Johnny.  “Feelin’ better?”

“Yeah, guess so,” he replied, then his face grew serious, though his eyes crinkled in a hidden smile, “but you won’t be doin’ so well if you tell anyone I’m drinkin’ tea.”

Shaking his head, his palms raised in exaggerated alarm, Matthew assured, “It’s our secret!”

“Better be.”

DarkCloud walked back over and knelt down beside the cot again.  “How’s it going?”

“Oh, besides his threats against me if I tell a soul he’s drinking tea, it’s great,” Matthew replied with a laugh.

DarkCloud shook his head.  “My mule’s always giving me the evil eye, too.”  Then he turned his attention back to his patient.  “Now, about that old wound to your leg.  I’d like to take a look at it.”

Johnny’s eyes widened.  “Oh, no you’re not!  I don’t care if you do think you’re a doctor, I’m not droppin’ my drawers for anyone!  And would you quit comparing me to your mule!”

“I would, if you’d quit acting like my mule!  Though my mule has a hell of a lot more sense than you do!”  DarkCloud replied shortly, his arms crossed in indignation.

“Then go play doctor with your mule and leave me alone.”  Johnny glared.

“Can’t.”  DarkCloud grinned.  “My mule’s mad at me for comparing him to you.”

Johnny groaned weakly.

Jamie walked up beside Matthew and tugged at his shirt.  “Matthew?” he whispered.

Matthew leaned down.

“They don’t like each other much, do they?”

Matthew grinned reassuringly at the young, concerned face.  “They actually like each other a lot.  They’re just having fun.”

“Oh,” Jamie’s brows knit in disbelief.  “You sure?”

“Positive,” Matthew replied and tweaked Jamie’s nose.  “Why don’t you help me out by going and starting the chores.  We’re about done here, and I’ll be out to help in just a few minutes.  Okay?”

“Okay.”  Jamie lingered.  “You’ll make sure Johnny’s okay?”

“Won’t leave ‘til he is,” Matthew assured.

Jamie cast a last look at Johnny, then left.

Matthew turned back to DarkCloud and Johnny.

“—much help with putting together your past, Johnny.  I’ve heard a few rumors, most a bit ridiculous.”

“You have?” Johnny tilted his head to the side.  “What’cha heard?”

“Well, from what my relatives down in Mexico say, you’ve turned into something of a legend.  Appears that Johnny Madrid was saved from that firing squad by an angel.”

Johnny snorted in amusement.  “Angels ain’t likely.”

“Makes for a good story, though, huh?”

“Yeah, probably better’n the truth, which is more likely I high-tailed it when one of those idiots the Rurales use in their firin’ squads actually shot another in the ass.”

DarkCloud laughed loudly.  “Born away by an angel is much more romantic than saved by a stray bullet to the ass.”

Grace loudly set a spoon on the counter, causing Matthew and DarkCloud to grin with embarrassment.

“Anything else?” Johnny prompted.

“Well, I didn’t really hear anything myself, but Rosti was telling me yesterday that he heard about you from a drifter that was passing through town about six months ago, just before we started having that real trouble with James.”

“What he’d say?”  Curious, Matthew knelt down again.

“Well, seems this drifter was saying he was lookin’ for work.  Said he had worked for a guy by the name of Marvin over in the next valley, near, Rosti thinks, McCall’s Crossing.  He wasn’t sure of that.  This drifter, however, said that his boss and some other rancher had gotten some bad blood between them.  Seems this other rancher had hired you to take out Mr. Marvin so he could have the run of valley.  This fellow left along with a number of the other hands rather than face you, then went on to say that he was in another small town just a few months earlier, and all the talk in that town was about how you took down another gunfighter by the name of Reveles.  Said he was sure glad he’d left McCall’s Crossing when he did.”

“Reveles?”  Johnny pushed himself up, the shock apparent on his face.  “Reveles?!  Are you sure?”

“Would you lie back down?” DarkCloud admonished.

Ignoring the look, Johnny hugged his left arm to his stomach, his hand pressing against the wound.  “Reveles.  You sure the man said Reveles?”

Crossing his arms, DarkCloud’s eyes narrowed.  “I’m not telling you a thing more ‘til you lay back down.”

“I’m not lying down ‘til you tell me what you know,” Johnny hissed, “and if you make one more crack about your mule, I’m gonna shoot you.”

DarkCloud fixed Johnny with a look of warning.  “I think I can hold out longer than you,” he stated then turned his head to allow Johnny the chance to give in and lay back down.  “You have my magic potion yet, Miss Grace?”

“Just finishing it,” Grace replied.

DarkCloud adjusted his position on the floor, then waited as Grace walked over with the steaming cup of tea.  He accepted it with a smile.  “Miss Grace, you wouldn’t happen to have another blanket or pillow we could put behind Johnny so he could drink this easier, do you?”

Grace looked at Matthew, then nodded.  “I’ll get another blanket.”  She turned and disappeared into the storage room and returned a few seconds later with an old patched blanket.  “We use it for picnics and such,” she explained vaguely.

“It’ll do fine,” DarkCloud replied as he gave the cup to Matthew to hold.  “Roll it up while I help Johnny sit up a bit.”

“I can do it myself,” Johnny said.

“The idea, here, is to give you complete bed rest for at least two days.  No unnecessary moving at all.  Think you can handle that, Mule?”

“Two days?!”

“I can make it longer if you like?” DarkCloud threatened.

“Look who’s the mule,” Johnny retorted.

DarkCloud feigned indignation.  “I am the soaring eagle with the sharp eyesight that sees through all your feeble attempts at deception.”

Closing his eyes, Johnny sighed dispiritedly, “No, you’re just the dark cloud of my life.”

Matthew choked back a laugh and noticed even Grace was smiling.

“Come on, Mule.”  DarkCloud stood up and put his hands around Johnny’s shoulders.  “Let’s get some of that wonderful elixir into you.”

“Tea,” Johnny grumbled, then bit back a groan as DarkCloud helped him rise so that Grace could position the blanket under his shoulders and head.

“There, now.”  DarkCloud took the cup from Matthew and held it to out to Johnny.  “You want me to hold it while you take a sip?”

“I think I’d rather be bit by a rattler.”

DarkCloud grinned as Johnny accepted the cup with his left hand and put it tentatively to his lips.

“God, this smells terrible,” Johnny announced as he wrinkled his nose.

“It tastes better,” DarkCloud assured.

Johnny gave a sigh and took a sip.  Then he drew it away, his face drawn up in disgust.  “That’s awful!”

DarkCloud shrugged apologetically. “Or I guess it could taste worse.”

Johnny’s look was pure annoyance.  “I’m down, I’m good, I’m drinkin’ your damned tea, now would you tell me what else you know?”

Sighing, DarkCloud knelt once more, one elbow resting along the side of the small bed, his hands clasped tightly.  “Johnny, I’m sorry.  I really don’t know much more, and I don’t think Rosti does either.  Gotta remember, this was awhile back when Rosti heard this, way before he ever thought you’d come around this little backwater town.  Rosti didn’t ask any questions of the guy.  He just knows what this fella happened to be talking about while he had a drink as he was waiting for his meal to be fixed.”

Johnny took another sip of the tea, then studied DarkCloud closely.  “But you’re sure he said I took down Reveles?”

DarkCloud nodded.  “You knew him?”

Johnny nodded slowly.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I did.”

“Was he a friend of yours?”

Johnny studied the cup in his hands.  His words were quiet.  “Apparently not.”

“And you don’t remember a thing about it?”

Johnny slowly shook his head.  “No.”

“Then maybe the man was wrong.  Maybe it wasn’t Reveles.  Maybe it wasn’t you.  We don’t know for sure that it happened.”

“We don’t know for sure that it didn’t,” Johnny replied softly.  He took another sip of the tea, then looked up at DarkCloud.  “How long ‘til I get my memory back?”

DarkCloud shook his head.  “I don’t know.  The mind’s a funny thing.  You might get it back tomorrow.  You might not get it back at all.  It might slowly come back to you in pieces.”  He paused as he noticed Johnny’s distressed look.  “I wouldn’t worry about it, though.  Your injury just happened.  You’ve barely had a chance to begin healing.  Give it some time.”

Johnny nodded dispiritedly.

“When you get in town, I’ll want to see you, check over your wound and you can let me know if there’s any change with your memories.  You may begin to remember people or scenes from your dreams, for instance.”

Johnny nodded again.  “I do seem to be dreaming a lot, but when I wake up, they get all hazy and confused.  I can’t seem to put them together.”

DarkCloud put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “I think your memories are trying to come back.  Two and a half years is a lot to remember.”

Johnny fixed DarkCloud with a long look.  “Two and a half years is a lot to forget.”

DarkCloud nodded sadly and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder.  Then he stood up and turned to Matthew.  “Get me immediately if you notice any infection, or if the wound starts bleeding profusely.  That’s what’s important right now.  We’ve got to get it healed, or he’s not going to be taking on anybody.”  He turned to Grace and continued, “And let him have that tea as needed.  It’ll help him sleep a lot easier.”  Then he leaned over and picked up the two containers from the floor.  “Here’s some more of the salve to fight off infection, and here’s another to help with the pain.  Put a thin layer of this on before adding the other, each time the wound’s redressed.”

Grace nodded.

DarkCloud turned once more to Johnny.  “I’ll see you in a few days.  You should be feeling a lot better, if you behave yourself.  And when Angelou gets here with your horse, you do not have my permission to go riding all over the countryside.  Look him over, try him out a bit to keep Angelou in the dark, but absolutely no over-doing it.”

“No jumpin’ fences?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Damn.”

Chuckling, DarkCloud turned and nodded a farewell to Grace, “Miss Grace.”

“Thanks,” she replied quietly.

“I’ll walk you out,” Matthew followed DarkCloud to the door.  “I gotta get out to the barn before Jamie comes in here chewing me out for not helpin’ him like I promised.”

“Yeah, he would, too.” DarkCloud grinned.

Once they were outside, Matthew followed DarkCloud to his horse.  “I’m glad you stayed to help.”

“I am too,” DarkCloud replied as he untied his horse from the fence then turned to study Matthew soberly.  “That wound looks better than I would have thought given it’s only been—what? Five days?  But it’s still a nasty one that is far from being anywhere near healed and infection is still a real possibility.  I don’t see how he’s managing to get around like he is.”  He sighed before continuing.  “I hope we know what we’re doing.”  He broke contact, gazing sadly at the surrounding landscape instead.  “And we don’t end up regretting the decision we’ve made.”

“Why?”

DarkCloud continued, “Johnny’s right.  These things can get ugly.  I really do hope he’s up to it.”  He fixed Matthew with a dark look again.  “Regardless of what he may say, he’s had a bullet through his side.  He’s damned lucky there wasn’t any internal damage, but he ought to be taking it easy for at least a month, not just a couple of weeks.”  He shook his head.  “I really don’t know if he can handle it.  He may have convinced the others, but…”

“You’re worried?”

DarkCloud paused slightly, “Aren’t you?”  Turning, he mounted his horse, and with a nod, set off for town, Matthew watching him thoughtfully.

To next part

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