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FlissB and Lacy

 

 

Covenant

 

 

 

 

This, our second joint story, stands alone, though it is part of a planned trilogy that started with The Ties That Bind.
All the usual disclaimers apply. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.

 

Fliss and Lacy
February 2010

= = = = = = =

 

CHAPTER ONE

Thursday

Murdoch crumpled the letter in his fist before striding over to the fireplace and casting the envelope into the flames. The fire flared briefly, hungry flames engulfing the delicate paper, before the light dimmed once more. He stood there, head bowed, staring into the ebbing glow, his thoughts circling like great birds of prey.

Unsure how long he had stood there, he straightened at the noise from the foyer. The sound of Johnny's spurs ringing in the hallway and two men's soft chuckles floated across the vast expanse of the room as his sons thrust open the door, jostling in an effort to be first to the liquor cabinet.

Startled by the unusual gloom, they drew up short, their eyes wide.

“Hey Murdoch, why are you here in the dark? We run out of wood?” Johnny's voice held the distinct sound of laughter as he swallowed back a chuckle. “And where's Teresa? It's not like her to let the fire die.”

Johnny walked over to stoke the fire in the grate as Scott moved about the room, lighting the lamps, dispelling the gathering shadows.

Murdoch turned slowly, then eyed each of his sons carefully as if seeking to forever sear their images into his consciousness. He quickly shoved the wadded up missive into his pocket as a brief spasm of guilt gripped his heart. Though he realized silence could result in further harm to his family, he held on to the position that it was the lesser of two evils. At least for tonight. In the cold light of dawn perhaps things would appear differently.

Scott and Johnny stood still, all remnants of joviality dismissed. They exchanged worried glances then returned their attention to their father. Their features now expressed the questions they had yet to ask.

Finally, as if unable to bear the silence any longer, Scott broke the stillness of the room. “Murdoch, is something wrong?”

Murdoch took a deep breath and reaffirmed his earlier decision quickly. He would say nothing, at least not yet. “No, Son. I guess I just lost track of the time. I was merely weighing our choices for the winter.”

Unconvinced, Johnny took a step closer and pressed, “What choices? I thought all that had been decided on last night.”

“Well yes, but I'm still unsure the northern pasture can support so many of the cattle.” The explanation sounded feeble, even to his own ears. Or maybe it was simply the guilt of his deception. He shook off his remorse and lifted his head high, striving to overpower the younger men by his stature.

“We've already discussed this,” rejoined Scott, ignoring his father's posturing. “Don't you remember? We decided we'd at least try and then, if it isn't working, we'd re-assess our situation.”

“Yeah, Murdoch,” added Johnny. “It's all fixed. Cip's already handed out new jobs to the work crews.” He moved to stand closer to his father. “So what's really going on?”

Murdoch wilted beneath the weight of Johnny's stare. Anger flared briefly as he sought to avoid the darkening eyes of his younger son. He clenched his jaw tightly against the belligerent words forming in his throat and turned back to the fire.

“There's something you're not telling us, isn't there?” Johnny's voice had grown soft, but not the gentle tone one might expect from a curious offspring. Rather, the quiet calm of a gambler who had read the cards and was calling his opponent's bluff.

“Johnny, don't push me now.” Murdoch dared not face his son. His emotions lay bare on his face and Johnny would quickly read them. “Just get cleaned up for supper. It's almost ready.”

“Nope.” Johnny shoved his thumbs into his waistband, indicating a man prepared to forgo his dinner for something of greater importance. “Don't think we can let this drop.”

“I agree, Murdoch,” added Scott. “It's quite obvious something is troubling you and if it's to do with our land then I think you need to share it with us.”

“It's nothing to do with Lancer,” snapped Murdoch.

“But it sure sounds like it's something to do with one of the Lancers,” snarled Johnny. Only a ghost from the past could raise the old man's ire in such a manner. In the nine months since he and Scott had returned home, Johnny had learned this lesson all too well. In spite of Murdoch's declarations to the contrary, the old man did indeed bristle against the former life of Johnny Madrid.

At this Scott grew pensive. If his father had a problem he was choosing not to share with them, was it wise to push him? How would he feel if circumstances were reversed? Would he expect his father to meddle in something he considered personal? But one look at his brother and Scott knew his sentiments were not shared. In fact, Johnny was taking on the graceful slouch Scott was coming to recognize presaged trouble.

Biting back a cutting retort, Murdoch strove for control and deliberately lowered his voice. “Johnny, Son, if there is something I wish to keep private then I think you should do me the courtesy of respecting my wishes. I am not a child who needs nurse-maiding. Now go and get ready for supper.”

Johnny couldn't help himself. He knew he was taking the bait but his temper had a hold now and he allowed it to carry him along. A small voice was whispering in his mind, pushing for the truth, a truth he knew had to do with his alter ego. “And I am not a child to be dismissed.”

“You're my child and you will do what you're told!” Murdoch regretted the words as soon as he opened his mouth to speak them. He saw the defenses of his younger son slam down tight. Any attempt to reason with the boy would be lost on the stony façade that was Johnny Madrid.

Johnny stared insolently at him for a long moment. The deepest blue eyes Murdoch had ever seen flashed with the fire of anger before Johnny stalked out of the room. His footsteps, accentuated by the ringing of his spurs, could clearly be heard as he mounted the stairs.

Scott shook his head in confusion. Though his first instinct was to pursue his brother, his insistent curiosity demanded satisfaction. “Murdoch, what was that all about?” If his family was at odds, again, there had better be a good reason and Scott would not let the older man off as easily as had Johnny.

Without a word, without further thought, Murdoch pulled the letter from his pocket and held it out to Scott. The crumpled paper fluttered in his shaking hand, like a flag waved in challenge.

Hesitantly, Scott accepted the letter, smoothed out the creases and read the brief note. The penmanship of the author was clear and clean, indicating a person of some education. The hand of fear gripped his chest, squeezing until he felt he could not breathe. Scott read it twice, before raising his eyes to his father's. “Is this some kind of sick joke?”

“I'm afraid not. You haven't heard of Shane Bodine?” Murdoch spoke flatly as if a great weight was on his shoulders, stooping him beneath its knowledge. “He's the stuff of legends.”

“Of course I have. Even back East we've heard of him. I know he was a gunfighter famous for sending letters to his targets, but I thought he had given it up years ago. Why this? Why now?” Seeking an activity that could in some small measure release the building tension, Scott moved over to the cabinet laden with various bottles of liquor and poured two tumblers of whiskey. He emptied his glass in one swallow then refilled it before turning back to Murdoch. “Anyway, how do we even know it's from him?”

Murdoch accepted the proffered glass. He took a slow sip, and then moved to the picture window behind his desk, his back to Scott as he tried to make out familiar shapes in the gathering dusk. “It's from him. Of that there is no doubt.”

“Perhaps you'd better start at the beginning, Murdoch.”

= = = = = = =

Johnny slammed the bedroom door behind him and leaned back against the cool wood, fists clenched, breathing heavily. He struggled to regain his composure, slowly loosening every muscle in his body, starting from his neck and shoulders and then working his way down. He closed his eyes and focused on the sounds of the ranch: the snort of a horse still in the corral; the scrape of pots and pans echoing in the kitchen below; a guitar being gently strummed in the bunkhouse; the creak of the barn door. When he finally felt in control once again he strode over to the open window, drew aside the curtain and looked out into the now inky night, surprised by the length of time that had passed.

The full moon, low on the horizon, was obscured by drifting clouds. Had he been of a more fanciful nature he may have seen it as mirroring the subterfuge of the men in the great room below. Instead he again closed his eyes and breathed deeply, taking in the night air and allowing its soothing coolness to smother the heat of his anger. When he opened his eyes once more the clouds had passed, revealing the glorious full light of the moon, bright enough to complement the myriad of stars shining above. Peace and calm had descended on him, a comforting balm for the struggle within.

It had taken every ounce of resolve Johnny could muster to have headed up the stairs instead of straight out the front door. In the last few months he had slowly but surely begun to find alternate outlets for his temper, yet the urge to ride away had been more prevalent tonight than any other time of late. He cursed – first his old man, then himself – for the situation he now found himself in.

Still stifling the prompting in his soul to saddle his horse and head for the cover of darkness, Johnny plopped heavily into the chair beside the window. He leaned his head back and pressed his fists against his eyes. Was life meant to be so hard? At times such as this he yearned for the simplicity of Madrid. Though he knew he had been on a trail hell-bent for death, at least he had fully understood that life. But this? This family business was more taxing than any gunfight had ever been.

Learning how a family behaved was not an easy lesson. But no, that wasn't strictly so. He'd had a family, for a while. His mother had loved and cherished him and he'd had her wrapped around his little finger. There was nothing she wouldn't have done for him. Back then Johnny had taken her love and devotion for granted and, truth be told, had even played on it. But now, as a man, he had acquired a new father, a sire whose iron will meant they were bound to clash. And this father seemingly chose to overlook the fact that his son was a man, fully capable of making his own decisions.

A child. That's what Murdoch had called him. More to the point, his child. While at any other time that expression of love and affection may have been well received, it now felt more like a proverbial slap in the face. And no one slapped Johnny Madrid Lancer.

Johnny had raised himself since his mother's death without the aid of any father figure and now, when he least needed it, he was expected to accept his father's word without argument. Expecting blind obedience was folly on Murdoch's part and simply brought out Johnny's rebellious streak. He sighed wearily at the toll this was taking. When dealing with his father a smart mouth, a quick wit, and a fast hand were of no use whatsoever. This man demanded something more of him. And at this moment, Johnny had to admit, he didn't comprehend what more.

He thought back to the father figure of his childhood. Manuel Gonzales had been a strict man but a just man. He had first laid eyes on the fiery Maria some time after she had fled the Lancer hacienda with her young son in arms. He was instantly infatuated. That he was prepared to accept another man's child, a mestizo no less, proved his devotion to her. Maria had been equally smitten. Love at first sight, so the poets would declare. He proposed marriage but, when pressed, Maria had explained why she could never marry, though declaring that she did indeed wish to share Manuel's life. So he set about forming a strong and loving family unit, and kept his beautiful first love satisfied.

Manuel made a comfortable living and provided well for them. He insisted Johnny take his name of Gonzales even though Maria, for some perverse reason she never divulged, had discouraged Johnny from calling this man ‘papa'. Regardless, a father is what Manuel was to the perpetually scrawny child with vivid blue eyes, a child obviously not his biological son. Manuel Gonzales was a man who understood children needed boundaries and that once those boundaries were crossed there were consequences. While Johnny's mother had indulged his every whim, Manuel had provided some much-needed discipline and for ten years life was rich and full.

It was an idyllic life with mama and Manuel, and Johnny was a happy child. Until eight years ago. Until Manuel left town on business and a rogue band of marauders invaded the cozy little house. Maria had shoved Johnny into a closet, then met the men alone. They had taken advantage of the amenities the comfortable home had to offer, including Johnny's mother. Alone in the silent darkness of the closet Johnny had peered through the keyhole and witnessed first hand the brutality of mankind's lust. Paralyzed by the horror of his mother's rape and subsequent murder, Johnny had nonetheless seared the memory of the men's faces into his mind.

Once left alone with the burden of his grief, the shame of his inaction, the smell of his mother's blood in his nostrils, Johnny had symbolically burned the small house, a rite of passage as Johnny Gonzales' peaceful existence died. The man he had come to love as a father had deserted them and so, when Manuel returned from business, he would find both wife and son gone. For two years, Johnny wandered the border towns. He picked up a gun and honed his craft until he was ready to face his mother's killers. When confronted by the thin youth wearing a gun rig that seemed far too heavy for his frame, recognition had been slow in coming to the men. But it had come and, as they died, Johnny Madrid was born.

Jerking his morbid thoughts back to the present, Johnny found the quiet of his room vaguely disturbing. He grit his teeth, realizing the precipice on which he stood for precisely what it was. A marauder, this time in the form of Murdoch Lancer, once more threatened his security, his home. And Johnny swore he would not allow anyone to rob him of his new-found family. Even if his father was the very man he had to fight to protect it.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Thursday

Murdoch nodded pensively before beginning. “When I sent for you boys… Lord, was it really less than a year ago? ... I believed we would have just one battle on our hands, before we could take the time to grow as a family. I expected you, with your education and background, to thrive learning the ropes here. And Johnny…” Murdoch paused as his voice broke. He swallowed hard before continuing. “I expected Johnny to hang up his gun. Yes, I was well aware of his reputation and his talent.” He spat the word out bitterly. “I suppose in another place and another time I could have been proud of Johnny Madrid, the best pistolero west of the Mississippi. A father's pride rests in his offspring being the best they can be – but this? How can I condone his skill? How can killing for a living make a father proud?”

“Murdoch, that's not fair. You're being too harsh.” Scott struggled against the flame of anger that his father's words had ignited. But he knew there was more and he fought down his temper, determined to hear his father out to the end.

Murdoch continued. “Johnny is different, he's an enigma and I can't solve the puzzle. I know he still practices; I know his skill has been honed to razor sharpness. But to get a letter like that? How does a father sit idly by and watch while a man plots to kill his son?”

“Murdoch, you have to tell him.”

“And if he takes the bait? If he goes to meet Bodine?”

Scott moved closer to his father's side, his voice low and pleading. “Anything we do without his knowledge could compromise him. It has to be on his terms.” Scott gripped his father's arm. “It has to be Johnny's decision.”

“Scott, your brother grew up without knowing the protection only a father's love can bring. It may be too little, too late, but I have to do what I can now to protect him. He deserves a chance.”

“I understand how you must feel, but listen to reason, Murdoch. Leaving Johnny without knowledge of this could be dangerous.”

Murdoch turned to face his son. “Enough, Scott! I've decided. You're not to breathe a word of this to your brother.”

“And now you'll order me around as well? Murdoch, what's come over you? You're not thinking clearly. I know you feel guilty…”

“No,” thundered his father. He reined in his anger. “Guilt has nothing to do with it. I'm just doing what's right for my boy. It's a father's duty. Johnny Madrid is gone and I intend to keep it that way. ”

“I still think you're wrong.”

“Be that as it may, it's not your decision.” The fight seemed suddenly to go out of the older man. “Please, Scott. Please let me do this. Let me do this my way. Let me make up for lost time.”

Without commenting one way or another, Scott realized the current course of their discussion was likely to achieve little so he opted to change tactics and avoid the looming head-on confrontation. “How is it that this Bodine has sent the letter to you? Does he usually involve the fathers of the men he calls out?” Scott's skepticism was obvious.

Shame washed over Murdoch's face. He shook his head. “Raul brought the mail in from town. I opened it.”

“What do you mean?” Then suddenly it became clear. “You mean you opened a letter addressed to Johnny? How could you do that?”

“Because I've been expecting this letter. Expecting it for some time. Ever since the Cattlemen's Association Ball in Sacramento last month, in fact.”

“Now you come to say it, you have seemed a little preoccupied since then.”

“The evening was very pleasant. Seeing Teresa dancing with all those eligible young men and enjoying the company of the other young women made me happy I had decided to take her along. She seemed to blossom overnight. She was the belle of the ball, so alive and animated. I haven't seen her like that in so long.” Murdoch's eyes took on a faraway glow as fond memories carried him further back in time. When he spoke once more, his voice was soft, almost reverent. “Last time I saw her like that was at her fifteenth birthday dinner when Paul gave her that emerald ring she wears so often.”

Murdoch broke off his reminiscing and forced himself back to recounting the subject at hand. His voice turned harsher, as if concealing the anger of betrayal. Haltingly, he continued. “Towards the end of the evening I had wandered outside for a breath of fresh air when a man followed me and introduced himself. Dylan Shaw. I had laid eyes on him earlier in the night: he cut quite a figure. Dressed a little too flashily for my like, but it was obvious the young ladies were quite smitten with him. And it wasn't surprising; his manners were impeccable and his conversation engaging. We chatted privately at some length. He said he came from old money, graduated from Yale with honors, and had settled in San Francisco where he had prospered due to lucrative investments. I can't remember the whole conversation but it included talk of my ranch. From there it naturally progressed to discussion of my sons. At this point I was still thoroughly engaged. It's what came next that chilled me to the bone and made me leave immediately, despite Teresa's disappointment. I just couldn't think clearly.”

“Go on,” encouraged Scott.

“He leaned in very close and lowered his voice so I had to strain to hear him. He said, ‘I have a message, Mr. Lancer, from Shane Bodine.' I must have looked shocked. I had heard the name. I mean, who hasn't.” Murdoch turned aside once more.

“Murdoch,” Scott pressed gently.

Murdoch shook his head and struggled for composure. “Once Mr. Shaw was certain he had my attention, he said, 'Now please tell Johnny Madrid to prepare himself. He will be hearing from Mr. Bodine very soon.' I watched as a smile crossed the man's features. He was a messenger who was enjoying his work. My first thought was to find Teresa, make sure she was all right. And as I looked for her he slipped away. I knew I had no proof of the threat to Johnny. It would have been my word against Shaw's. We are not so far removed from towns like Tombstone or Deadwood as to be totally closed off. I know how Bodine works and God help me I believed Shaw. I knew the man had committed no crime and since I had no reason to believe Bodine was nearby there seemed no point in contacting the law. They couldn't have done anything anyway, so I kept it to myself.”

"Murdoch, you should have told Johnny about this as soon as you got home," accused Scott.

"Perhaps, but that can't be undone now." Murdoch shook his head. “So you see, I've been expecting a letter. Word is, Bodine prides himself on never back-shooting a man, never even catching him unawares. He always issues a formal invitation, just like this.”

Suddenly, a few events of late made more sense to Scott. “So this is why Johnny hasn't been ‘allowed' into town lately? Why you've always had something more pressing for him to do? Why he's never been alone on jobs, and why those jobs have been closer to home? And why someone else has been picking up the mail? ”

“Have I been that obvious, Son?” Murdoch searched his son's eyes, and seemingly found no reason to believe his maneuvering had been found out. He made no attempt to disguise his relief when Scott answered him.

“No, not really, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. And it can't have been too bad as Johnny hasn't felt provoked by it. Until tonight, that is.” Scott pursed his lips in disapproval. “I still think you should tell him. Otherwise he could be blindsided by this. We're talking about his life, Murdoch.”

“Knowing Bodine's reputation I believed Johnny would be safe until the letter arrived, but I wasn't prepared to take any chances. To trust in a gunfighter's integrity would have been unthinkable to me a year ago but now that I know Johnny I know it doesn't only exist in upright, law-abiding citizens. But God help me I am worried. Johnny Madrid in action is a fearsome thing, but so is Bodine, by all reports. What if Bodine is faster? Could you sit by while he guns down Johnny? Could you?”

Scott inwardly struggled against taking issue with Murdoch's talk of integrity and his persuasive voice of reason. Reason? It sounded more like terror. And to be honest Scott felt the same pang of fear clench his stomach. “And if Johnny doesn't appear at the time and place Bodine wants? What then? What do you think this honorable gunfighter will do then?”

“I don't know. All I ask, Scott, is that you let me do my duty as a father. Let me protect my son.”

"I can't promise that.”

= = = = = = =

Shane Bodine stopped to study the street ahead. San Francisco was beautiful, with its hills and horse-drawn street cars, elegant homes along the gas-lighted streets, and the ever present scent of the ocean. This night was the epitome of all that was good and well with the world; dream-like and rich with promise, the promise of love. With her on his arm, he was within reach of fulfilling all his dreams and hers as well.

Other couples passed by, the men smiling appreciatively at the young woman on Shane's arm while the women allowed hungry promises to shine in their eyes. Shane and Amelia made a striking couple and he was well aware of it. Shane was six feet tall, with wide shoulders and slender hips, his clothing was tailor made and the fit impeccable. His auburn hair was cut with precision and his clear grey eyes stared out from classically handsome features. His body was rock hard and strong and his back was straight and tall. He possessed not the arrogance of pride but the confidence of his manhood and position in society.

Shane became aware that he'd grown distracted and wasn't paying the young woman at his shoulder the attention she merited. His mouth curved into a gracious smile as he allowed his gaze to sweep over her beautiful form.

Amelia Dunbarton's cloak had parted slightly to reveal a slender figure that was perfectly proportioned. Full breasts pressed against the velvet of her gown as if seeking escape from the constricting fabric. Her tiny waist flowed seductively into round hips. She had a creamy complexion, dainty nose and full lips the color of the ripest cherry. Long raven hair, blue in its blackness, cascaded down her back in tiny ringlets. But her most striking feature was her eyes. Violet like the finest amethyst, they were framed by long black lashes. Now they sparkled seductively up at him.

“My dear Mr. Bodine, you did promise me your undivided attention tonight.” She pouted and pressed closer to his side.

“So I did, my dear.” He took her hand in his, bowed deeply and raised it to his lips. “Amelia, you will, of course, accept my humblest apology. Please allow me to make restitution for my lack of what custom deems a gentleman's appropriate behavior when in the company of a lovely woman.” Gazing sincerely into her eyes, he bestowed a light kiss on the back of her gloved hand.

A smile curved the corners of her mouth. “But of course, kind sir. Your apology is accepted. Now shall we engage in that repast you spoke of earlier?”

Shane Bodine straightened, but his hand lingered suggestively on hers before he released it and offered his arm. “I would be delighted, dear. This way.”

The moon cast long shafts of light on the boardwalk before them as if guiding their steps. Stars danced merrily as if in the tempo of an unheard symphony played in the heavens by nature's orchestra. Under the canopy of such natural ambience, the couple walked casually to the hotel.

Amelia was somewhat surprised when, instead of stopping in the hotel's restaurant, Shane led her upstairs to his room. As they paused at the door, the thought flitted through her mind that this would be regarded as improper by the members of proper society. A young woman being entertained in a man's room. But this man was one of the most eligible, and now respected, bachelors in San Francisco and with one look at him, his eyes shining with obvious affection, she threw propriety to the wind and waited as he swung open the door. With his small bow, he stepped aside to allow Amelia to absorb the splendor of the suite.

A table covered in the finest linen was laden with crystal stemware and china that gleamed in the candlelight of tall tapers. Polished salvers revealed an array of dishes that slowly released savory aromas. On a small sideboard to the left of the table was a bowl of strawberries and beside it the finest champagne sat chilling in a silver ice bucket. Baskets of beautiful flowers were strategically placed around the room, adding their aromas to the heavenly scent of the food. Plush carpets covered the highly polished floor and the music of the restaurant below wafted on the breeze as if to lend the couple a private serenade.

Amelia gasped in pleasure, and placed a small hand at her throat. “My, my Mr. Bodine, you provide such an exquisite feast. I am perfectly enchanted.”

With a gentle hand on Amelia's back, Shane ushered her into the room, and loosened the ties of her cloak, which he slid off her shoulders before draping it carefully across the back of the nearest chair. “Champagne, darling?”

Without awaiting her response he moved to the sideboard and skillfully popped the cork from the bottle. Amelia laughed, a mesmerizing, gentle sound that pleased him. With a flourish he poured a glass and offered it to her, then poured his own. “A toast my dear, to a night of romance, gentle whispers and perhaps a meeting of souls.”

Amelia gazed at him through thick lashes then took a sip of the bubbling liquid. She licked her lips, and moved closer to him. With the boldness of a woman yet the innocence of a child, she took his hand, and whispered huskily, “Perhaps we might enjoy the meeting of souls first.”

A slight curve of his lips was Shane Bodine's only answer as he lowered his head to hers, and claimed her mouth first gently then with ever increasing passion.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

Friday

Dawn was breaking over the horizon and Johnny hoisted himself out the chair by his bedroom window. He stretched, easing out the kinks a night without sleep had brought his body. Not having undressed the night before he could make his way downstairs without delay, in the hope of avoiding the others in his family who would soon be rising. Only a fool would seek out another altercation on top of last night's. Time heals all wounds and time is what he was playing for.

Johnny stalked through the still-quiet house, not realizing he was stepping in time to the ponderous ticking of the grandfather clock as it echoed through the hallways. As he approached the kitchen he could smell breakfast cooking and hear the light chatter of female voices. He steeled himself for the inevitable inquisition that lay ahead, then strode into the warmth.

“Johnny!” exclaimed Teresa. Her smile lit up the room for him. “I thought from what Murdoch had said that you were out last night. We missed you at dinner.”

“So what will you feed me now to make up for it?” he asked, reaching out and tugging at a thin wisp of hair that had escaped the ribbon nestled at the back of her neck.

Exasperated, she pulled away, smoothing her hair with the back of one hand and wagging a finger at him with the other. “Breakfast will be on the table in less than five minutes. But you keep up that mischief and I may not be very generous when it comes to loading your plate.”

Johnny laughed. “Hmm, food or mischief, mischief or food. You force some tough decisions.” He reached into a drawer and removed a fork, grabbing an apple from a bowl with his other hand as he slid the drawer shut with his hip. Weaving around Teresa he poked the fork into the pan at her elbow. “Five minutes is an awful long time for a man with an empty stomach, honey. I'll just take what I can get now. Gotta get an early start.”

Scoring precious little with his haphazard stab, yet unwilling to give Teresa time for more questions, he threw the fork into the sink and grabbed another two apples, juggling them as he headed to the door.

As he made his way outside Maria appeared at his side and pressed a small package and a flask of coffee into his hand. It wouldn't stay warm for long but it would fill the gnawing hole in his belly. Bless the woman, she saw and heard everything that happened within these walls, yet she remained discreet and tactful and faithful to all her charges.

He swapped his two apples for the more promising offering in Maria's hands then leaned down and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Gracias, mamacita.” And then he was gone.

= = = = = = =

The early morning sun streamed through the open window, slanted fingers of light dancing across the woman's raven hair and lighting it with flames of vibrant blue. Amelia uttered a soft moan and her eyes moved under the closed lids but she did not awaken. Her full breasts rose and fell with every breath. He stared at them a while, almost mesmerized, then leaned over and placed a tentative kiss on one dark nipple.

Sighing, Shane rested his head on one of his hands and allowed his eyes to take in her every curve. God, she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. That had been obvious from the moment he had first caught sight of her. But what he hadn't expected was the depth to which his affection for her would grow. And now not only could he envision a lifetime with her, it had become, in fact, his driving ambition; a home to share, endless hours of love making, perhaps even children.

Shane shook off his dream, for that's what it was. A dream. Still, it was now within his grasp. He had but one obstacle. Madrid. Once he had dealt with Madrid, he would be free of his past and better able to pursue his love affair with Amelia Dunbarton. She would wait for him. He knew she would. He had suspected, hoped, indeed prayed, that she returned his love despite the vehemence of her denials. In fact, in all the months of their courtship she had never allowed him to engage her in discussion about their relationship or possible future. Not once. Until last night she had allowed nothing more than the most chaste of good night kisses.

But last night, here in the hotel, far from the prying eyes of family and servants, with only the full moon as witness, he had taken her, and her body and her eyes had revealed the truth. During their love making, she had responded with a hunger and passion that matched his own and in the heat of ecstasy she had at last professed her love for him. She had called his name in the throes of passion, declaring her undying devotion which, in light of his past, she had long denied.

He had arrived in San Francisco at his father's summons. Years of estrangement were put aside at his father's deathbed. As the lure of his lifestyle had long ago waned for the gunfighter and the youthful rebellion that had led him astray had dissipated in the face of maturity, Shane acceded to his father's plea to put down his gun. Only a fool would fail to see that the life of a gunfighter held no future, and Shane Bodine was no fool. The son's redemption that the father had sought took several years and many earnest endeavors to achieve.

Wise investments afforded the younger Bodine the chance to contribute to the city's needs and he provided for both church and state. Over time, aided by the lure of wealth and prompted by both Shane's own work and his esteemed father's wishes, society forgave the young man and offered him another chance. That he had taken care never to be found guilty of drawing first helped his case. People understood that the ways of the West were different. Allowances were made.

Bringing himself back to the here and now, he caressed Amelia's cheek and kissed her bare shoulder before rising and walking naked to the window. He pulled the curtain aside with one finger and laid his head against the cool window pane. Soon now they would have to be up and dressed and away from this haven. This very afternoon she would be calling on him at his home, shown into his drawing room. How will they both face such formality after the freedom they had taken pleasure in here? He sighed as he contemplated the distress that the news of his imminent departure would cause her. There was, however, no alternative. Though he hated to leave her after all they had discovered this past evening, that same discovery made his assignation all the more urgent.

He had managed to denounce his violent past but for one thing. Madrid. The name haunted him, incited him to an ambition even greater than his need to claim Amelia. Madrid stood between them, interfering with all that was right and good in his life. One man. How could one man, a man he had never met, never even laid eyes on, disrupt his idyllic existence? The very fact the man had such an impact on his world threatened to transform a matter of a simple business affair into something more personal. And it was business. He felt no malice toward Madrid. In fact, he admired him for all his accomplishments. His skill must be an awesome and terrifying thing.

But Shane was a businessman, a very effective and prosperous man, and he had learned all too well you do not succeed in business affairs by taking second place. No, he had never been second, not in his class at Yale, not in the mercantile and banking industries and not in his talent for neutralizing gunmen.

He was not a man prepared to settle for second best. He could not offer a woman such as Amelia anything less than the best of everything. But Madrid was now the best, having attained the reputation Shane once held, and that reality ground a fistful of salt into an otherwise healing wound. It grated on his nerves and enflamed his soul. He burned to face the boy, test his superiority with a handgun. Shane ached to watch the youngster die at his hand, in essence marking him once more as the finest pistolero the country had even seen. His hunger was insatiable, unyielding, a ceaseless painful throbbing. Save for a few hours of bliss wrapped inside the woman he loved, the anguish of his ambition was like a burden on his shoulders. And he had to liberate himself. He had to know, once and for all, who was the best. In this way he could free himself to live in peace with this woman in his bed.

However, for his dreams and ambitions to be fulfilled, Madrid had to die. He knew the boy had found family and security, snatched from the certain grasp of the specter of death by one fortuitous act performed by a Pinkerton agent. Perhaps it would have been better had the boy died then and there. Perhaps it would have been more humane to spare him the anguish of finding family only to lose it. And for his family to lose him.

But no one could predict the fickle nature of fate. Thus it was left to him. One man's gain required another man's loss. He felt a slight pang of regret but brushed it off. He would do what he must to remain true to himself. All he needed to do was find reason to take offense at Madrid's words or deeds and call him out. And when the deed was done, when the final notch was carved into the handle of Bodine's gun, he would return to Amelia and claim her in marriage just as he had claimed her virginity last night.

With his heart and mind of one accord, he stared at the sun rising in all her glory over the earth and felt a warmth rise up within his soul that mirrored that of the dawning day.

Behind him Amelia stirred, stifling a yawn. “Come back to bed,” she whispered.

His body stirred at the huskiness of her voice. Thoughts of his coming journey vanished. With an attitude of purpose he crossed the room and slid beneath the covers. His hand sought her hidden treasure and she gasped as he took her once more.

= = = = = = =

Scott dressed and left his room, carrying his gunbelt and boots. He hadn't heard a sound from Johnny's room since he had awakened. Scott suspected his brother had not slept. In his mind's eye he saw the dark-haired young man tossing and turning. He padded across the hall and saw his brother's door ajar. He pushed it open. The bed had not been slept in and for a long moment Scott's heart hammered in his chest, as the idea that his brother was gone, perhaps for good this time, stole his breath.

But he shook his head in denial. The altercation last night had been mild in comparison to some, worse than others, but since the episode with the Strykers and the stallion, Johnny had remained close to home. He no longer disappeared into the night, feeling the need to ‘ride off his mad', as he had once phrased it. Scott almost smiled at that thought. Well, almost.

Instead he stepped into his boots and strapped on his gunbelt then went downstairs in search of his missing sibling. The dining room was occupied by one figure, Murdoch, who sat scowling at his coffee while he tapped his spoon on the rim of the cup. He raised his eyes in acknowledgement of Scott's entrance into the room then resumed his study of the coffee cup.

“Good morning, Sir,” Scott greeted.

Murdoch grunted, continuing to tap his spoon in such a way that Scott's nerves started to jangle in tempo.

“Have you seen Johnny?” Scott was unprepared for the glare directed his way by his father, but he maintained his best poker face, aware that any reaction would not be welcome and could, in fact, make him the target of his father's pending tirade. “You're still upset about last night?”

“You're damned right I am. I make a parent's decision and not one but two of my children dare to oppose me.” A good night's sleep had not improved his father's disposition.

The Lancer tendency towards displays of temper took hold of Scott. All he could think of was just how infuriating Murdoch Lancer could be. “Now wait a minute. You've crossed the line here, Sir. You have no right to make our decisions. I'm not talking about just Johnny's but mine as well. If you believe this is acceptable behavior from you as a father, where do any of us draw the line?”

“You're as insolent as your brother.” Murdoch dropped his spoon, which struck the edge of his coffee cup with a sharp clang, and pushed back his chair from the table.

“And what you call insolence would be considered by most people to be a reasonable display of assertion.” Scott wrenched himself free of his chair, leaving it teetering behind him. “We may be your sons, Murdoch, but that does not give you the right to dictate our every move. It's just a little late for that, don't you think?”

Murdoch gained his feet and, with hands pressed on the tabletop, leaned over, as if closer proximity to Scott would lend his words more effect. “I won't have you take that tone with me.”

“Then stop goading, stop pushing, and above all,” advised Scott through clenched teeth, “stop trying to control us.

Murdoch straightened and sucked in a sharp breath. “It's my responsibility. I'm your father. I deserve respect.”

“Respect, Sir, is earned.” Scott struggled to regain his composure. His usual good grace and self-control, etched into his character as a result of his strict upbringing and his service as an officer in the army, deserted him. No-one but his father could do this to him. Still, he could not help the words that now escaped his lips. “And this arrogance of yours is going to drive away your family – but I suspect you've already experienced that, some twenty years ago.”

Scott strode from the room, breakfast forgotten. By the time he reached the veranda remorse at the enormity of his final words hit him. He leaned back against the wall, drawing in deep gulps of the cool morning air. That hadn't gone well at all. Though he knew an apology was in order he could not bring himself to offer it. Not yet. Still ringing in his ears, battling with his own angry retort, were his father's unrealistic demands. Outrage at Murdoch's unrelenting pride and sanctimonious pleas for filial piety drove Scott deeper into anger. He needed time and space. He needed to find Johnny.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Friday

In the barn, Johnny was sitting on one of the bales, a blade of hay clenched between his teeth. At his feet lay Barranca's new halter but he had made no move to perform the final adjustments necessary to ensure his stallion a comfortable fit. Idle fingers drummed on his thighs and his eyes stared unseeing into the gloom of the building. Restless, he rose and stalked toward the palomino's stall. A sudden shuffle in the hay had Johnny twirling to his right, the deadly Colt in his hand.

“Whoa, brother. Easy now.” Although still seething from the altercation with his father, Scott raised his hands in mock surrender. If he were to have a productive conversation with his younger sibling, he knew it was not wise to approach Johnny with too much temper.

But Johnny found no humor in the situation. Instead fury hardened his mouth and narrowed his eyes. “Damn it Scott. You got a death wish or something?" Johnny lowered his gun but maintained his grip on it.

“Oh relax, brother. You're too jumpy.” Scott swallowed his temper. One display was enough. They needed to talk, and to do that he needed to put aside his own anger and calm Johnny.

“You know better than to sneak up on me. After all this time too. What the hell is wrong with you?” Johnny waved the Colt in the air, then, as if surprised by its presence in his hand, he lowered his head and reholstered the pistol. He turned toward Barranca's stall once more and reached in to scratch the golden neck, remorse leading to embarrassment. “Lo siento, mi hermano.”

Scott ignored his brother's earlier outburst and laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder. He smothered a frown when the younger man shrugged it off and turned back to face him. “We missed you at supper.”

Scott watched in dismay as Johnny Lancer withdrew and the blank mask of the gunfighter descended. “I wasn't hungry.”

“Well, you missed more excitement at breakfast, too.” Scott studied his brother for any sign of interest but Johnny's expression remained unreadable.

“Don't see why the Old Man would bother ranting since I wasn't even there to hear it.” The soft words were spoken with no evidence of bitterness or pain, just a flat expression of fact.

“You know, you're not the only one to butt heads with him, Johnny. He and I have our fair share of disagreements too.” Scott struggled to remain calm but Johnny's insolence, or in this case lack of concern, was grating on his last nerves.

“Yeah, Scott.” Finally, a hint of frustration was discernible between Johnny's well-guarded words. “Like he really has a go at you. I tell you, it's nothing compared to how he tries to treat me.”

“I have to disagree with you.” Scott pushed harder, somehow determined to garner a reaction from his brother. Though he knew it was reckless to press on, he disregarded the warning in the younger man's eyes and continued. “In fact, I'd go so far as to say you get along with him much better than I do. I just don't let it show.”

“What's that supposed to mean? You saying I go around belly achin' every time we don't see eye-to-eye?”

Realizing he had perhaps gone too far, Scott raised a hand in a placating manner and lowered his voice. He took a step toward his brother. “That's not what I said at all, though come to mention it, you're really not very good at hiding your distress. I thought gunfighters were supposed to be good at that sort of thing.”

“You know what Scott?” Johnny held his ground but the retreat was obvious nonetheless. Once again, Johnny Lancer backed up into the dark recesses of Johnny Madrid's strength and submitted to the control of the gunfighter. The warning was soft yet lethal. “I think you ought to just go away and leave me alone. I came here for a bit of peace and it's being disturbed.”

Though Scott was aware he was allowing this conversation to go the way his last conversation with their father had gone, he felt powerless to stop himself. “What? You mean you're sticking around? You're not going to take off? Find yourself a saloon to drown your sorrows. Some faraway place to kill time?” Scott taunted.

Johnny's reaction was sudden, unexpected. He grabbed Scott's shoulders and pushed him back against the wall of the stall. “No, Scott, I'm not. This land is mine. And I'm sticking around to make sure it stays that way.”

As sudden as the attack had been, the release was just as swift. Johnny lowered his arms and stepped away. Scott gripped the lower rail of the stall, whether for support or for restraint he wasn't sure. Staring into the stormy eyes of his brother, he bit back the angry retort. He still felt the sour taste of the last words he had spoken to his father. He didn't need to repeat it here. Not when there was so much at stake. They needed to talk but now was not the time. Things had gone too far between them.

Pushing his hat more firmly on his head, Scott looked at his brother and determined their conversation would have to wait. He turned aside, and as he pushed past his brother as he strode from the barn he threw a final comment over his shoulder. “This land is, in fact, ours.”

= = = = = = =

“Oh must you leave?” Amelia pleaded.

“My dear, I did warn you I would have a little business matter to attend to.” His heart softened upon seeing the distress his impending absence was causing her. He reassured her, “I'll be gone just a few days. A week at the most.” He moved to the bell pull beside the drawing room door to summon one of his servants. "I think we should have some tea. Our time together is precious, let's not engage in a petty argument."

“I should not think it to be petty, Shane. I simply can't go to the Myers' dinner alone tomorrow. It wouldn't be proper. Everyone is so looking forward to your company. As am I.” On any other woman the pout would have looked manipulative, but on Amelia it was endearing. With every move she made and every word she uttered she was drawing him closer. Always, in the past, Shane had been the one in control of the romance; the direction it took, the commitment demanded. But this time was different. Amelia was the woman who had given him the strength to lock the door on a past he had found increasingly distasteful.

“Amelia, my dearest, I intend to be back within a week and when I return there are some very important matters we need to discuss.”

“What could be of such importance that you would deny me an escort to the dinner of the year?”

“Dearest, I am discharging a certain unpleasant matter of business that shall ensure our future. As I relieve myself of the shackles of the past, I shall be in fact freeing both of us for a more permanent union. Please have faith in me. I have the most honorable intentions in this matter. If I can dispose of this particular matter sooner then I shall, with all haste, return to your side, where I shall be content to remain as long you permit me.”

"And would this past include Johnny Madrid?" Amelia's question caught him off guard.

"Madrid? Darling, whatever do you mean?" Consternation at hearing that name on her lips was outweighed by his need to ascertain the extent of her knowledge.

She walked to the writing desk and tapped her finger on the journal lying there. "Madrid would seem to be far more than an 'unpleasant matter of business'. It appears he is more of an obsession." The haughty tilt of her head enforced her disapproval.

"You've betrayed my confidence, my dear. I should not have thought you susceptible to the temptation of perusing a gentleman's private journal. You disappoint me." He strode over to the desk and she took a faltering step back. He swept past her, refusing to meet her gaze, and returned his journal to the drawer.

As he turned away she reached out and laid one trembling hand on his shoulder. "Oh Shane, please forgive me. When I arrived your butler advised me of your being detained and, in accordance with your instructions, invited me to wait in here. I found your journal, quite by accident, lying open on the desk, and while I am not normally prone to such indulgences the name 'Madrid' immediately captured my attention. I was unable to resist." She choked back a sob. "My darling, how can this be? I believed you had left that life behind long ago."

Remorse at causing her distress stayed his anger. He covered her small hand with his own then pressed it to his lips. "Amelia, dearest, I wished to save you from the burden of such knowledge. I understand that an inquisitive creature such as yourself would be hard pressed to avoid such a lure. It is, however, a pity that you are now aware of the true nature of my impending trip to Spanish Wells."

" 'A pity'?" she gasped, snatching away her hand, refusing his comfort. "That's your summation of the enormity of this situation? Do you not realize what you are risking? Your social standing? Your future with me? Perhaps even your very life?" Amelia was outraged by his attitude. "And after all I've given you? How can this man, a man it appears you have never even met, be of such importance that you would risk all you have accomplished?” She swallowed hard. “Do I mean so little to you?"

"He tasks me, Amelia, he tasks me and I shall have him."

The pompous words made her question whether Shane Bodine was the man she thought he was. "This man can mean nothing to you, Shane. He has said nothing, done nothing to earn such rancor. For my sake, please, I implore you, turn aside from this. You can't believe this would end here. Can't you see? There'll always be another. You'd always be looking over your shoulder, wondering.”

Realizing he was embarking on actions that could cost him the woman he loved more than life itself, but unable, nonetheless, to abandon his quest, Shane remained resolute. "I know all I need to know about him. He is, in essence, me, and I have to deal with myself before I can offer myself to you.”

"Then I am afraid you leave me no alternative. The man I love would not consider taking a life without extreme provocation. And hubris is scant reason for such actions. This is a dangerous obsession. If you follow this course of action, take my word, I will not be here when you return."

"I am sorry you feel that way but this is something I have to do. I cannot expect you to understand."

Tears filled Amelia's eyes and spilled down her cheeks. The sight of her anguish filled him with remorse. Madrid on the one hand, Amelia on the other, he weighed his need against hers and discovered the true depths of his love for her. For this woman he could and he would put aside his own desires, his own driving needs, and surrender to her all she desired. His only wish was for her happiness. For that moment he could glimpse this folly from her perspective and he wanted nothing more than to yield to her better judgment. His pride was the least he could offer her.

As fate would have it, however, he had no opportunity to allay her fears by pledging to sacrifice this aspiration as his butler chose that very moment to appear with the tea tray.

Discreetly wiping away her tears Amelia composed herself. "Wilkins, please have my carriage brought around. I shan't be staying for tea after all."

Without a backward glance Amelia swept from the room and from his life.

= = = = = = =

Striding from the barn Scott concentrated on steadying his breathing as anger threatened to breach his control. The encounter with Johnny, on top of his argument with Murdoch, had left him off-balance and agitated. In the last half hour Scott had managed to clash with both father and brother and had failed to hold the conversation he knew to be of paramount importance. Things were going from bad to worse.

Still engaged in his tremendous battle of emotions, seeking his center and warring against failure, he almost collided with his father who was on his way to the corral.

Murdoch took one look at the thunderous face of his elder son, having spied his younger son leaving the barn not long before, and he knew his offspring had been engaged in another exchange of a less than civil nature. He was well aware he had infuriated his older son with his unyielding position but it would seem Johnny had done little, if anything, to douse those flames of anger. Perhaps the secret he longed to be allowed to deal with himself was still secure. Although he knew he was taking advantage of the situation, Murdoch hoped that Scott's encounter with Johnny would put himself in a better position to reason with his first born. He had to be sure. Drawing a breath and focusing on projecting a serenity he didn't quite feel under the circumstances, he said, “I saw Johnny just now. You've spoken to him?”

“If you could call that ‘speaking', then yes, I have.” Scott tugged his hat from his head and fingered the band. “Johnny and I seemed to have differing ideas about the concept of conversation. We didn't get much further than ‘hello'.” His frustration was evident in his expression yet he managed to maintain his composure. He cast his gaze about the empty yard. Even Dewdrop was giving them a wide berth.

“While I don't like to see my sons at odds with each other I must confess it helps to know I'm not the only one who makes mistakes. Scott, I may have pushed you too far to cause you to say… what you said before.”

Scott's anger with his father had been somewhat dimmed by the encounter with his brother and now Murdoch had handed him an easy way to resolve their argument. Still, as prepared as Scott was to apologize, he felt the need to try to make his father see reason first. “Only ‘may have'?”

“Yes, I may be going about it all wrong, but I still maintain that a father should be allowed to protect his family. You may not agree with my actions, but you can't argue with my intentions. We all make mistakes, Scott. Facing those mistakes often means swallowing your pride.”

Murdoch's unprecedented honesty sobered Scott, even as he felt the sting of the rebuke.

Murdoch continued. “I have a feeling you might have been in a better frame of mind to talk to Johnny if we had not already crossed each other.” Murdoch had the good grace to look chastened by the unspoken words which hung between them. By way of compromise he offered, “And making mistakes with Johnny is quite an easy thing to do.”

Scott recognized the effort his father was making. He replaced his hat on his head and faced the corral. Looking towards their horses that Cipriano had tethered by the gate in preparation for the day's work, Scott put aside his earlier anger at his father. “Sir, I apologize for what I said before. It was uncalled for.”

“It's in the past. It's forgotten.”

Scott nodded his appreciation. “I'm still unconvinced, though, that leaving Johnny unaware of the situation is at all wise.”

“There's time yet.”

“You're sure of that?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Murdoch, this is your son's life at stake. You'd better be very sure.”

“I realize that. I said I am. Just a little longer, Scott. Please.”

Scott nodded, yet he remained determined to bring Murdoch to reason. Having made his peace with his father it left just his brother to contend with. He resolved to catch up with Johnny later, once they'd both had a chance to cool down.

Scott tilted his head towards their waiting mounts. “Let's get out to the men at the holding yard and see how the branding's going.”

Murdoch nodded, his gratitude for his son's understanding glowing in his eyes. He matched his gait to his son's and as one they crossed the yard to the corral. They mounted up and urged their horses into a trot.

As they passed under the Lancer arch, they were unaware of a pair of sapphire eyes that traced their every movement from the picture window of the great room.

= = = = = = =

Shane was plagued by remorse. How had it all gone so wrong? He hadn't even felt himself to be on slippery ground. His senses gave him no warning that the woman he loved was slipping from his grasp. He felt torn between overseeing his valet as he finished packing his case and rushing to Amelia's side to reassure her of his desire to put her needs before his own.

But as hours passed the urgency of the moment that his butler had interrupted dimmed in his mind. Arrogance, perhaps, encouraged him to believe that Amelia's love would return her to his side, regardless of his actions. Once again his need to prove himself urged him on. His need for Amelia was subsiding into a dull throb rather than the overpowering imperative it had been. He fought to drive the regret from his mind. He was determined to have both his woman and his pride.

As the hour chimed on the mantel clock he hurried downstairs, conscious of his need to get to Spanish Wells, and of the stagecoach that wouldn't wait for him.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Friday

Johnny urged the mighty stallion on to yet greater speed. Though his mind urged caution his anger fueled the need to escape, if only for mere hours. The rage that had been simmering had boiled over at the sight of his brother's seeming betrayal. Standing at the picture window of the great room, he had watched Murdoch and his brother, in a display of unity, mounting their horses and riding off under the Lancer arch. A bitter twinge had knifed through him.

He attempted to convince himself he had misunderstood their intentions, yet he knew they were hiding something. What was worse, they were excluding him, and this knowledge troubled him more than he cared to admit. More than anything he wanted to be an accepted part of his family. He knew, however, he would have to get over his anger before he would be able to confront them and have any hope of settling this matter.

Since the night before, when he and Scott had found Murdoch in the great room in obvious distress, Johnny had known his father was withholding information, information that concerned Johnny, information which the old man had later shared with Scott. Of that much he was certain. And now the fact his father and his brother were in collusion, with a common goal – that of excluding Johnny from participating in resolving the problem – angered him even more than had Pardee's attacks on Lancer. At least with Pardee he had known the who and the why of things.

Murdoch, Scott and he had sworn, with the signing of the contract of ownership of Lancer, that they were equal partners. And if he were to believe all their talk of trust and loyalty, all their talk of family and unity, then how could they now treat him as an outsider? An outsider with no voice in the running of the ranch, if indeed the ranch were at risk. Yet even as that thought crossed his mind, he knew, he just knew, this situation was not centered on the security of the ranch. It was focused on Madrid. Try as he might, his past continued to haunt him. The choices seemed few; either they were attempting to protect him or, worse, they were ashamed of something in his past, in spite of their declarations to the contrary.

His anger now under control, it left only hurt in its place. Johnny slowed Barranca's great stride. Without being aware of his ultimate destination, he had followed the path to his favorite place on the ranch – a small knoll bordered by lush foliage, with a gently flowing creek at its edge. Now he leapt from the palomino's back and removed the stallion's saddle and then the bridle in favor of the halter that was always carried in his saddlebags.

The stallion shook his head, overjoyed at his freedom, and, after kicking up his heels, trotted to the creek and sank his velvety muzzle into the cool water. After drinking his fill the golden stallion started grazing on the lush green grass of the bank.

Johnny sank to the ground not far away, willing the horse's serenity to wash over him. He gazed at the water gurgling past and turned his thoughts towards the actions over which he had control. As he sat there he determined to return to the hacienda, to take his rightful place at his father's table, and prove himself capable of working with his family, rather than against them.

= = = = = = =

Scott's nose had long since become accustomed to the stench of burned flesh. His back, however, left him well aware of the many hours he had spent hunched over struggling cattle. He took a moment to straighten up and ease the ache, only then realizing that the last cow was being shoved through the chute to the pen beyond. A firm slap on his shoulder and the words “Well done, Son,” affirmed that the job was indeed finished. It intrigued him that his father's approval was still able to raise a flush of satisfaction.

“Thank you. The men worked really hard. Perhaps they'd appreciate an early start to their weekend.”

“Good idea,” agreed Murdoch who then positioned himself so he could be heard above the din. “Men, it seems my son here thinks all of you have earned a night on the town. The first round is on us. Cip will okay the bar tab at Spanish Wells but remember, after the first one you're on your own and you're still expected back at first light Monday, ready for a full day's work. We'll see you then. Stay out of trouble and don't give Sheriff Gabe a hard time.”

As the men scrambled for their horses, whooping and hollering along the way, Scott smiled at his father. “And when exactly will we be headed in to town to round up those who have managed to give our good sheriff something to do?”

Murdoch returned his son's smile. “Are you busy tomorrow afternoon?”

Neither mentioned the fact that in three days' time the youngest Lancer's fate could well be sealed in that very town.

= = = = = = =

Dinner had been consumed in a heavy silence.

Johnny had returned to the hacienda with every intention of putting aside their earlier disagreement, but when he saw his father and brother so at ease in each other's company it caused a resurgence of irritation that he was hard pressed to ignore.

As far as Scott was concerned, Johnny's current moodiness led him to wonder if perhaps Murdoch had a point in trying to protect Johnny from his past.

All Murdoch could do was look at his two sons and wonder how he could ever hope to make amends for his absence in their youth.

This left Teresa to carry the conversation at the table which she did with her usual cheerfulness until the somber air surrounding them grew too oppressive for even her to withstand. At that point she stopped clearing the table and announced that cleaning up would have to wait as she was retiring to her room. Before she'd even made it to the stairs Johnny, too, had pushed back his chair, once again heading upstairs rather than out into the night.

“Murdoch,” pleaded Scott, “we have to tell Johnny. We should get him back here now.”

A great weight seemed to once again descend upon the older man's shoulders. “We still have time, Scott. The deadline isn't until Monday. Please let me have a little more time to think things through. Please don't oppose me on this decision.”

Scott balanced the needs of his father against those of his brother and decided he could allow his father some time, though very little time, to come to terms with the actions he knew to be fit and proper. “Very well, Murdoch. But Monday is only days away. Tomorrow night I expect a conclusion to this – one way or another. After that there is no more time. And it would be much better for all of us if this came from you rather than me. You will tell Johnny tomorrow. Or I will.”

= = = = = = =

Saturday

Johnny was up and dressed before the thin cold light of the sun had much of a chance to cast long shadows through the morning mist. Although determined not to run any longer, Johnny didn't believe it meant he had to suffer the company of a family whose demands were unreasonable, whose expectations were stifling, and whose collusion left him an outsider. To make his point he didn't wait for breakfast, but on his way through the kitchen and out to the barn he grabbed a biscuit and a chunk of beef that Maria had put aside, no doubt for him.

He knew just where he was going and what he was going to do. During the roundup at Black Mesa the previous week, a sorrel colt had been brought in; a rather disagreeable animal, one Murdoch had ordered be released. ‘That animal is vicious', he had declared, ‘and a killer. He's no good to us.' But, that was enough to attract Johnny, a kindred spirit perhaps.

The crew had then gone on to separate the horses they were planning on keeping from the few deemed too old or too cantankerous to be of service to them. Those few were released to return to their mountain retreat. But rather than release the sorrel, Johnny had instructed the men to leave it in the pasture they had been using as the holding yard. He'd already planned to go back once the other horses had been removed, giving the copper-colored colt a chance to calm down. The pasture had plenty of feed and water for the animal and the only difficulty Johnny foresaw was the possibility the colt had leapt the fence to re-join the herd. That was a chance he was prepared to take, and a chance he was prepared to offer.

Now seemed to Johnny to be the perfect time to return to the sorrel. He was as anxious for battle as he had ever been, and though he knew Murdoch was disturbed by the unnaturally hateful spirit of the animal, he felt drawn like a moth to a flame. With the events of the past few days, Johnny was in just the right frame of mind to test his own resolve against that of the beast. Or was it the wrong frame of mind? Either way he knew Murdoch would be angered by his actions, and he had to admit he just didn't care.

“To hell with Murdoch,” Johnny growled. “I'll break the horse, if only to show him I can.”

With a tight smile and a grim set to his jaw he mounted Barranca and headed to Black Mesa, determined to bring the sorrel colt back to the corral where the battle of wills would take place. He could hardly wait for his father to witness the coming spectacle.

= = = = = = =

Scott wasn't fooled by the seemingly casual glance Murdoch threw around the dining room. Choking back a curse, he felt the situation spiraling out of control. He stabbed a piece of bacon and shoved it into his mouth. He continued to study his father, all the while aware of his own disappointment that Johnny had failed to show up for yet another meal.

Though present at dinner the night before, it had not gone well and it was quite obvious Johnny was avoiding their company. Not that Scott could blame the younger man. He obviously sensed their father's subterfuge and he must resent the fact Scott was privy to it. It pained Scott to hide anything from his brother and he was aware of the breach it was causing in his own relationship with the younger man. He only prayed Johnny would forgive him, forgive them both.

As if to break the heavy atmosphere of despair that was settling in the room and covering its occupants, Murdoch revealed to his ward that he and Scott were making the trip in to Spanish Wells that afternoon.

“Oh, that's perfect, Murdoch. I was going to ask you to let me go in to Morro Coyo but I can easily get everything I need in Spanish Wells. Just tell me when you're ready to head off. I'll only need a few minutes to get changed and I'll be ready before the buggy is.” Teresa was thrilled to have even a few hours in which to escape the usual drudgery that defined her existence within the hacienda. She loved her home, treasured her role as mistress of Lancer, would rather be within its walls that anywhere else, but still she longed for the moments of freedom the outdoors afforded her and the obvious social lure of town was not to be resisted.

“Just a minute there, young lady,” admonished Murdoch. “For a start we're not going until much later. And even then I don't think it's such a good idea for you to come along. Scott and I are likely to have our hands full and we won't be able to watch out for you.”

“Oh, Murdoch, don't be silly. Tell him, Scott.” Her eyes implored the blond Lancer to side with her. “Spanish Wells isn't the place it used to be. A young lady can walk down the street these days without being accosted. And it's not as if I intend going anywhere near the saloon or, or, other places. I just need some sewing knick knacks.” Her features settled into a mischievous grin. “Of course, you could, if you prefer, pick up the things for me. Let's see, I need a Prussian grosgrain shawl collar just like the one I saw in Green River last month, and a dozen vermilion glass buttons, no more than a quarter of an inch wide mind you, and a hank of fine…”

“Okay, okay,” Murdoch threw up his arms in mock surrender. “You can come along but Scott will stay with you while we're there. You're not to leave his side.”

Murdoch and Scott shared a troubled glance, both aware of who might already be waiting in Spanish Wells.

= = = = = = =

The stage was punctual for the first time in months… if you could call the arrival at 11:19 prompt for the 11:00am stage. Grimacing against the choking cloud of dust, Shane Bodine exited the stage. He wiped his brow with a clean white handkerchief, his appearance distinguished and very much the gentlemen. A woman, with three children in tow, paused on her journey to the general store to throw an appreciative glance at the handsome man who had reached for the luggage the stage driver was handing down. Aware of her scrutiny, Shane captured her eye. She was young and pretty and, in another time, another place, he might have entertained the idea of a night of passion with the lady. But now his eyes saw only the lover he had left behind in San Francisco. With a curt nod he dismissed the woman and, as her cheeks flamed crimson, she fled with her children.

Shane gathered his carpetbags and sought out the town's only hotel. He secured a room and retreated to the meager privacy it afforded him while he laid out his next course of action. He wanted to gather all the information he could on the Lancers and he knew the best way to do that was to find someone whose tongue could be loosened by the liberal application of spirits.

= = = = = = =

Murdoch's discomfort increased the closer they got to town. Scott, normally so adept at the art of conversation, had been distracted their entire trip in to Spanish Wells. It would appear that even the level-headed elder Lancer son was not immune to the turmoil lurking beneath the surface.

The Lancers were engaged in an inner struggle that threatened the security of their family, much as Pardee had threatened their land. And the tension lying just beneath the casual words spoken over meals, the nonchalant glances tossed from one member to the other, was telling in and of itself. They shared a common nightmare from which none of the household could escape. It seemed years of unbearable pain since Murdoch's world had, to all intents and purposes, collapsed, when in fact it was mere days only.

The undercurrent of dread lent a dreary shadow to even Teresa's usual gaiety. Teresa. It seemed she was the only Lancer immune, through ignorance, to the disease of strife which threatened to tear their family apart.

Sighing, Murdoch struggled to focus on his young ward's chatter. Aware of the tension between himself and his blond son, Murdoch jerked his attention back to Teresa's topic of conversation as the horses, responding to the anxiety in the air, plodded along the road to town.

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

Saturday

Amelia sat at her dressing table, dabbing away the final traces of the torrent of tears that had flowed since fleeing Shane's drawing room the day before. Looking in the mirror allowed her to steel her resolve. The sight that greeted her was not pretty but by scrutinizing the hurt that showed in her face she found she could put aside the weakness it represented and instead draw on the strength she needed to facilitate action. She had escaped the hurt Shane's determination had caused by running away. Now that the disappointment she had felt at having her desires dismissed had settled into a small knot around her stomach she could focus on the yearning that still gnawed at her heart. She could not give up on the man she loved more dearly than her own life. She would not give up.

She pulled a small valise from the dressing room and proceeded to prepare what she would need for the trip to Spanish Wells. Though the very name of the town caused her to feel like the earth was dropping away from beneath her feet, the thought of such an undertaking, secretive and bold as it was, spurred her on to action. It was not the first time her love for Shane had led her to turn her back on society's expectations.

= = = = = = =

Scott had once again paced the few steps from the shop counter to the door of the mercantile and back again. “Come on, Teresa honey. We're going to be late meeting Murdoch if we don't finish up here soon.” Scott pushed his hat back on his head. He drew a deep breath as if struggling to control anxiety, the cause of which she was as yet unaware.

“Just one more minute, Scott. Please.” His obvious agitation was enough to spur her on to finalize her purchases.

As they waited for the shopkeeper to finish wrapping their packages Scott strode again to the door and back to the counter. As soon as the shopkeeper finished tying the last knot in the string Scott scooped up the parcels and ushered Teresa towards the door. Before they could reach it, however, the door swung inwards and a Lancer cowhand charged in. A look of relief swept over his face as he eyed Scott.

“Your father,” he panted, “needs you right now. Down at the saloon.” To emphasize his instructions, he waved his hand at a destination down the street.

Scott took charge of the situation at hand. He thrust the parcels at the youth and turned to Teresa. “Stay here.” He placed a finger under her chin and tilted her head back to gain eye contact with her. “Don't leave this place until I get back.” Then, turning back to the young ranch hand, “You, stay with her.” And with that, he was gone.

Teresa turned to Pete, the bearer of Murdoch's summons. Apprehensive, she demanded, “What's wrong? What's happening?”

Pete bowed his head. “Not sure as I should say, Miss Teresa.” Freeing one hand, he snatched the hat from his head as an afterthought.

“Pete, look at me please.” She searched his features, willing Pete to meet her gaze.

The man raised his head and allowed her to read his troubled expression.

“You don't need to protect me. If my family is in trouble then I should know what's going on.” Though she kept her voice was cool and level, the plea was nonetheless unmistakable.

“Well, Miss Teresa, yer see, it ain't ladylike.” Pete could not hold her stare and lowered his head once more, his cheeks reddening under the weight of her gaze. “Some of the fellas who spent the night in town have found theirselves a little, uhmm …”

“Inebriated?” interrupted Teresa. She choked back a laugh. When, oh when, would the men of Lancer realize she possessed a wisdom that far exceeded her years?

“Yessum. That's it. Inebriated.” He rolled the word around his mouth, as if familiar with the sound of it but not the feel. “And when they get a little inebriated,” apparently the word appealed to him this time as he took obvious delight in vocalizing it, “they can be a little excitable. Mr. Lancer was tryin' to keep ‘em separated, to keep ‘em out of trouble with the sheriff.”

“I see.”

Pete's gaze returned to door, his misery at missing the action plain on his face.

Teresa's understanding of the situation, if not her compassion, took in the young man's discomfort. “Pete, I need you to do me a favor.”

“Anythin', Miss Teresa, for you.”

At the sound of such boyish excitement a small smile crossed Teresa's features. “Not knowing what's happening down there is causing me a great deal of concern. Would you please go back and find out if everyone is all right? I promise I will stay right here until you return. Just leave my parcels with me.”

“Oh, I don't know, Miss. Your…, Mr Lancer, was real clear on where I had to be.” Though Pete offered her the obligatory objection, Teresa could still hear the excitement evident in his voice. She reached for the packages and he made no effort to stop her.

“I think Scott would be more interested in knowing I was not feeling agitated.” She shifted the packages in her arms; a move not born of the weight of the parcels, but rather as an impatient gesture of dismissal. “He'd want you to set my mind at ease. I know that.”

Pete had been inching his way across the room, with her following close behind, and now they were by the open door. He craned his neck in an effort to see what was happening down the road. Eagerness clouded his plain features. He fingered the brim of his hat.

“Please, Pete.” She juggled the packages once again so she could rest one hand on his forearm.

He looked down at her gloved hand and the flush that had colored his features spread to the tips of his ears and down his neck, much as it might in a very warm and airless room. He gulped once, nodded twice, and fled the mercantile.

Following him out the door, she'd gone no more than a three steps before her progress was halted by an unfamiliar baritone. “Excuse me, Miss. Is this parcel yours?”

She turned to see a flamboyantly-dressed stranger holding up a small parcel. During the exchange with Pete, Teresa had failed to notice one of her packages falling from her less than secure grasp.

“Why yes, yes I believe it is.” She raised her eyes to the tall stranger before her and felt a warmth spread across her chest. The man was handsome and as she looked closer there was something about him that made Teresa think she had seen him before. Trying to bring the memory to the fore, she realized she was staring, and his equally frank appraisal of her took away her breath. “Thank you, Sir.”

“Please, allow me to carry these to your carriage.” He extended a hand in her direction, indicating the remaining packages now clenched in her arms.

Aware that she could hardly confide in this man that she was, in fact, on her way towards the saloon, she hesitated. It seemed strange to her that she was not inclined to reveal the fact she was meeting family. Strange, yet oddly intoxicating. After all, she was a woman now, and not immune to the attraction of a gentleman.

He swept the hat from his head, bowed, replaced his hat and reached for the goods she bore, stacking them with ease under his left arm. Then, taking her hand in his free one, “Of course, pardon my rudeness. Allow me to introduce myself. Dylan Shaw, from San Francisco, here on business. Little did I imagine that such a small town could boast such beauteous sights.” With a flourish he brought her hand up to his lips in order to place the lightest of kisses, his eyes never leaving hers.

Teresa blushed, despite herself. Familiar with the clumsy flattery of local youths, she could recognize a master of the art. Such knowledge, however, did not make her immune.

His smile broadened as he kept hold of her hand. “And whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

“Teresa O'Brien.” And then as an afterthought, “Of Lancer.”

“Now that we're acquainted, Miss O'Brien, I believe it would not be improper of me to escort you on your way.” He tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow as he skillfully juggled her parcels. “Right or left, Miss O'Brien? If it helps sway your decision, I could remind you that a very serviceable café can be found to the right. Would you care to join me?”

Teresa's eyes had not left his face so the harsh bark of her name from behind caused her to spin around, startled. She recovered her composure. “Scott, you're back.”

“I am. I thought I told you to stay inside.” He took the young woman's free hand and removed her from the stranger's hold. “And you sir, would be…?”

“Oh, how remiss of me.” In her embarrassment Teresa found herself tripping over her words. “Scott, this is Mr. Dylan Shaw.”

The stranger inclined his head and extended his hand in a gesture of introduction. “Of San Francisco.”

Scott didn't need to hear the town to register the terror the name conveyed. He didn't allow Teresa to complete the introduction. He roughly pushed her in the direction of the family buggy. Only his hand on her elbow prevented her from stumbling. “Teresa, get in the buggy.”

Regaining her balance, Teresa was outraged at his uncharacteristic treatment of her. “Scott, what's gotten into you?” Teresa was bewildered. The man she called brother had impeccable manners but now he was refusing to even shake this man's hand. “It's not like you to behave this way. Mr. Shaw is new to our town and…”

“Now.” The manner in which Scott spat out that single word brooked no argument. Still unaware of what exactly was happening around her Teresa reached for her parcels, bobbed a small curtsey, and walked over to their buggy.

= = = = = = =

Once sure Teresa was out of earshot, and out of danger, Scott addressed the stranger. “Mr. Shaw, I see you're still playing Hermes.” Scott allowed his contempt for both man and mission to show. He hissed through clenched teeth, “I know why you're in town and you can tell your friend Shane Bodine it's no use.” He felt a small muscle in his jaw twitch with the emotion the man's appearance had elicited. “My brother will not be making an appearance on Monday. On that, you have my word.”

“The great Johnny Madrid, renowned pistolero, has turned coward? My, my, how times change,” Shaw taunted, a tight smirk curving his full lips. Shaw had made no move to shorten the distance between them, yet Scott felt as if the world had retreated as this man rose to the challenge.

Close proximity to the messenger whose purpose was to guide his brother to the Underworld enraged Scott as nothing in his life had ever done before. The man's insolence was intolerable and Scott's tremulous grip on his temper was becoming even more difficult to maintain. Clenching his fists at his side as he sought to control his building anger, Scott spat out, “Johnny Madrid, renowned pistolero, has turned into Johnny Lancer, renowned rancher. My brother's no coward. He won't be here because he doesn't know anything about your friend's summons.” Scott stood firm, daring the man to disagree.

“I find that hard to believe. I imparted a warning to your father and I sent the letter myself.” Shaw idly brushed the fine coating of dust off his lapel. His movements were casual yet precise, imparting an element of danger. There would be no safe journey for his brother with this man leading the way.

Scott knew the stranger was mocking him, seeking to elicit an altercation in which he himself would clearly be the aggressor. He fought against rising to the bait. “Johnny has no knowledge of the letter. He can't respond to something he knows nothing about.”

The stranger's eyes narrowed. “No knowledge? How can that be?” He considered the information briefly then laughed. “Ah yes, Johnny Madrid, coward, is hiding behind his overbearing father.”

Scott's blood boiled at the insult this man had aimed at both brother and father. He succumbed. Without warning his fist struck out and landed with a satisfying thud on Bodine's jaw and the stranger found himself on his back.

With as much dignity as he could muster, the man regained his feet, removed his handkerchief from his sleeve and dabbed at his bleeding lip. Scott took satisfaction in seeing that dust now covered more than his lapel.

“Mr. Lancer, where I come from such an action allows me to call you out. Very well, I give you a choice.” Shaw's tone had morphed into the deadly drawl of a gunfighter, a tone Scott had learned well, a result of many hours spent with his brother. “If your brother is not here on Monday at noon, I expect you to be. I will have my moment of honor, one way or the other.”

A wave of regret washed over Scott as he realized what his precipitous action, his cursed temper, had caused. Foolishly, he had played into this man's hands. Then a question rose unbidden.

“You?” Scott's anger momentarily cast aside, he posed the question, hoping against hope that he had misunderstood Shaw's intentions. “I thought it was Shane Bodine who was intent on claiming my brother's life.”

“A slight deception on my part, Mr. Lancer. Dylan Shaw is a name I find convenient to use upon occasion. The fact remains, it will be either you or your brother come Monday noon. I have been chivalrous in giving warning. Should that warning be ignored I have no compunction about doing whatever must be done to appease my honor.” Bodine drew himself to his full height, thrust out his chin and snorted, “Good day, sir.”

Bodine/Shaw turned around and walked away, no doubt confident that Scott's integrity would prevent him from shooting a man in the back. That, and the fact that his revelation and this latest turn of events would also be giving Scott much to think about.

Scott watched the man retreat then crossed the road to the buggy and Teresa, who was still sitting there with her hand to her mouth, the shock of what she had seen, though not heard, clear in her expression. He climbed in, took the reins and turned the buggy towards the saloon and his waiting father.

= = = = = = =

“Scott, what's going on?” An unknown fear descended, taking root in Teresa's soul. She whispered, “Who was that man? Did you know him? I'm sure I've seen him somewhere before.”

Scott, resolute, continued to glare ahead. His emotions were overwhelming, his inner balance disrupted. Torn between his desire to protect his brother and shock at his own careless actions, Scott could but stare over the rumps of the matched pair of horses before him. The full enormity of the consequences of striking Bodine washed over him and his shoulders bowed under the weight. He could now appreciate the motivation behind his father's demand for secrecy.

“Scott!” Teresa shook his arm, her eyes wide with terror. Something had occurred between her brother and the stranger, and instinct told her it would have disastrous ramifications for her family.

“Not now.” Scott refused to meet her eye and she knew no explanation would be forthcoming.

Unused to such behavior from him, Teresa was stunned into silence. She would wait until they reached Murdoch. Then she would demand some answers.

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

Saturday

The trip home from town had been choked by sullen silence as neither Scott nor Murdoch uttered a word. As soon as they had met Murdoch, Teresa had blurted out that Scott had been involved in a fight and Murdoch had shot Scott a look, both furious and anxious.

“Not now, Murdoch,” had been Scott's stern response and that was where it was left.

The roar of a crowd assaulted their ears as the three of them pulled up at the hitching post outside the great room. A dozen hands were straddling the corral, their focus intent on the center of the ring, their enthusiasm rising to fever pitch. A cloud of dust had boiled up and was wafting across the yard.

His ears now picking out the enraged cries of the sorrel colt, Murdoch leapt out of the wagon and moved toward the corral, his sudden speed and agility a marvelous thing. Purpose and determination drove him on, his jaw tightening in anger. Unaware that his elder son shadowed his footsteps he reached the fence enclosing the new colt and stepped up onto the bottom rail. Scott had matched his father's strides and as one they peered into the corral.

The copper-colored colt, his great body covered in lather, his mouth tossing flecks of foam over the man on his back, reared high and went over backwards. His rider went with the motion, lithely falling to one side before regaining his feet and vaulting back into the saddle as the animal rose again.

Sweat covered Johnny's body, plastering his hair to his head and his shirt to his back. A small trickle of blood oozed from his nostril, mute testimony to the effort being expended. From the appearance of man and beast the battle had raged for an excessive period of time. Then, quite suddenly and without any warning, it was over. The colt, now spent, staggered to a halt and lowered his head in submission, blowing heavily. Rather than dismounting, his rider urged him around the corral, putting him through the paces as if to anchor his dominance in the young horse's mind.

The beast was beaten and after a few laps of the corral Johnny lowered himself to the ground. He patted the horse's neck and whispered in its ear. As he dropped the reins and made for the gate, the sorrel followed him, only stopping when a hand grasped his bridle.

Unaware of his father's eyes boring a hole in his back, Johnny went to the water trough and scooped up handfuls of water. He splashed the cool liquid over his head, before cupping his mouth under the faucet and sucking in a great mouthful. Rubbing the stubble on his chin, he took a few deep breaths to allow the adrenaline that had energized him to slowly ebb.

Murdoch continued towards him until he was standing mere inches away.

“What the hell do you think you were doing?” Murdoch bellowed.

Johnny's head jerked up. For long moments he returned his father's stare, then drawled, “I broke that horse, Old Man. Now he's of some use.”

“And I forbade you to go near that monster!” Suddenly aware of the tense silence, Murdoch looked at the men still hovering around the corral and he lowered his voice. “When I give you an order, you will obey me.”

“I don't take orders from anyone.” Johnny met Murdoch's gaze and pushed back. This time it was the older man who took a step backward.

“Johnny, there is only one man who calls the tune around here.” Johnny opened his mouth to reply but was silenced when Murdoch pointed a rigid finger at his own chest. “And that man is me.”

“We're partners, Old Man, and nothing more. Nowhere in the contract does it say I have to blindly take orders, nor will I.” He was unrelenting, defiant, and unmoved by the older man's declaration. “So, I'll stay out of your way. And you stay out of mine!” With a withering glance thrown at his brother for good measure, Johnny stalked to the barn.

Scott moved to his father's side, resisting the temptation to follow his brother. After their last disastrous encounter in the barn, Scott would know not to press Johnny. They both watched the youngest Lancer disappear into the dark recesses of the barn then Scott turned back to Murdoch and snarled, “Well, that went well, wouldn't you say, Sir?” before striding off in the opposite direction.

Murdoch was left standing alone.

Frustration and fear warred for dominance in the older man's heart. The situation was intolerable and he began to question his decisions. Though made with the best of intentions, his position on this matter was destroying the bonds of his family. Fear temporarily had the upper hand and Murdoch sighed. The realization that whatever had happened in town earlier could very well signal the loss of one, if not both, of his sons, sank like a stone in his stomach.

= = = = = = =

For the first time in days the family was all gathered at the table. Dinner was, however, a rather solemn affair. After watching Johnny break the colt, Murdoch and Scott had appeared to be at odds and had gone their separate ways. They were no longer talking. Johnny had joined them at dinner but kept his tongue and, for once, Teresa could not be bothered trying to buoy the conversation.

As soon as the last plates were removed from the table Scott took a book down from the shelves and headed up to his room while Murdoch poured a glass of brandy and took it outside, his bulk framed in the light pouring out the French doors.

Johnny, head down, remained seated at the table, more interested in the tablecloth than the disappearance of his father and brother.

“I guess that just leaves you and me, Johnny,” whispered Teresa, determined to make peace with at least one of the men in the household. “Will you at least stop treating me like a child and tell me what's going on?” The plea in her voice raised Johnny's head and as his gaze met hers the young woman saw her own hurt mirrored in his blue eyes.

“Querida, if I knew, I'd tell you. Truth is, whatever's going on, they're hiding it from me, too. And I think that spells trouble.” His finger continued tracing the design on the tablecloth as he spoke.

“Did you know Scott was in a fight today?” Her soft words were designed to engage this fiery dark brother of hers in an exchange of information.

Johnny's head jerked up. He didn't need to say a word: the question was chiseled on his handsome features.

Teresa continued. “In town. I don't suppose you could really call it a fight, though. The other man, a stranger in town, name of Dylan Shaw, just seemed to take it when Scott punched him.”

Johnny leaned in closer. “Now that is interesting. Better start at the beginning, Teresa, and tell me everything you know.”

= = = = = = =

Sunday

Somewhere in the background Scott registered the voice of Reverend Jones delivering his sermon, but his own thoughts remained fixed on the Bible reading. John, Chapter 15, Verse 13. Meditation on the lines confirmed for him the validity, the necessity, of the course of action he had committed to.

The gentle rustle of Teresa's skirts as she shifted in the seat beside him reminded him of the others who now shared his life. He thought of this young woman who, though only months had passed since their introduction, had become as close to a sister as he could ever have imagined. The thought of her living her life in constant danger as they waited for one crazed man to make his move left him determined to protect her at all costs.

Beyond her sat the bear of a man who was his father. The man had prickly ways, to be sure, but there was no doubting that he loved his family and was prepared to do anything to protect them. It appeared that sentiment was something he had passed on to his sons. If being a family meant doing all one could to shield them from life's dangers then it seemed that they had indeed bonded.

Conspicuous by his absence was his brother. Not that Scott expected Johnny to join them at church. Some things Johnny ceded but thus far regular attendance at Sunday worship had not been one of them. Yes, Johnny was a brother to Scott – but Johnny was more, he was also a friend. And he had become the closest friend Scott had ever known. Though sharing the old man's blood had brought them together, and a range war for the Lancer ranch had bound them together, it was mutual respect and admiration that had forged an impenetrable link.

John, Chapter 15, Verse 13. No greater love than this. To die for a friend. Scott weighed the words, mediating on the meaning of the passage. It could not be mere coincidence that Reverend Jones had chosen this verse for this day. Scott believed it to be destiny.

Sacrifice and honor were concepts he was very familiar with. In the heat of battle decisions were made in a heartbeat. This time it was different. Now, for the first time, he was faced with the prospect of making the ultimate sacrifice with advance warning. And with a means to avoid it, if he so chose. It was a test and Scott knew this passage from the Bible was confirming the whispering of his soul. He was prepared to die for a man he loved more than life itself. His brother.

John, Chapter 15, Verse 13. Tomorrow he would put it into practice. He had no death wish and would fight the man to the best of his ability but he suspected a renowned, though retired, gunfighter would most likely force him to show his love for his friend, his brother, by laying down his life. He'd fight it, but he'd face it. There was no other way to protect Johnny. Greater love hath no man than this…

= = = = = = =

As Murdoch, Scott and Teresa pulled into the yard on their return from church they crossed paths with Johnny. With head down he'd mumbled something about needing to check the fence lines towards Black Mesa so they entered the dining room and in silence endured a meal they could neither taste nor enjoy without him. Soon after the meal was finished Teresa changed clothes and sought refuge in her garden where she could dig and weed and slash to her heart's content.

Once Scott was sure she wouldn't be returning for a while, he drew Murdoch aside in the great room. Encouraged by the morning's sermon, he was prepared to make his father see reason. Though he had expected Murdoch's resistance, even his rage as his father learned the latest turn of events, he was surprised at the rapid reversal of their positions.

Without even understanding why, Scott found himself in Murdoch's role as guardian, now ready to do battle to protect his absent sibling. How had their positions become reversed? Just a day ago, he had been at odds with his father over the older man's decision to hide the truth from Johnny. Now he found himself, strangely enough, in the same position, while Murdoch was determined to reveal all to the youngest Lancer.

The argument between the two older Lancers continued for some time, yet they didn't seem to be getting anywhere.

“The deadline is tomorrow and if I don't show up then who knows what will happen. Even if I went to Gabe tomorrow the law can't help us. And you know that, Murdoch. Under the law he has done nothing wrong. Why, not even that letter is incriminating enough to hold him. But Bodine made very clear that he'll have his fight with one of us, and if it isn't tomorrow at noon, then who knows where or when. Are you prepared to take that gamble? What about Teresa? She could get caught in the middle of this mess. You've got to see we can't live our lives like that.” Scott faced his father, daring him to disagree.

“This has to stop. I have not protected one son only to have the other jeopardize his life.” Murdoch ran a hand through his hair. What had started as an attempt to protect Johnny from harm, possibly death, had escalated into a battle that was tearing his family apart.

“Murdoch, whether you like it or not it's your actions that have led to this.” Scott's accusation landed hard, and sank deep into the pit of Murdoch's stomach. Yet Scott was unrelenting and continued his verbal assault. “I may have thrown the punch that gave Bodine an excuse, but by leaving Johnny out of this we've been boxed into a corner. It's what comes of keeping secrets that aren't yours to keep.”

“Then I confess, Scott, you were right all along and I can't protect Johnny from this any longer.” Murdoch bowed his head, whether in prayer or despair. “I'll go tell him. It's time to stop the secrets.”

“Oh, no you won't, Murdoch. Not now. It's too late for that now. You've kept it from him this long. Now it's my turn. You were right about one thing. Johnny deserves to be given a chance to leave that life behind. Now I kept your secret, the least you can do is keep mine. You owe me that.” Scott settled his hat on his head and turned away.

“Scott, be reasonable. I can't sit back and let you sacrifice yourself for your brother. That makes no sense.” He approached Scott and placed his hand on Scott's rigid back.

Scott shrugged off his father's hand and took a step away, the physical separation indicative of a more emotional division. “You heard the reading this morning… Greater love and all that.”

His father remained silent and Scott turned back to face him, scorn etched on the chiseled features. “Why Murdoch, aren't you going to remind me that you call the tune? Isn't that what you just told Johnny? When he dared use his own judgment and bring that colt back to the ranch?”

“Scott, son…” Murdoch sought to regain the ground he knew he had lost with his perilous lack of judgment.

“Are you outraged by my lack of respect?” Scott raised his hand in a mocking gesture, one slender finger pointed at his own chest, as he mimicked Murdoch's earlier actions. “Where was your respect for Johnny and me three days ago?”

“I admit I was wrong.” Murdoch swallowed hard, refusing to rise to the bait. “Now we need to figure out what to do. We've got to tell your brother. I see that now. I was foolish to try to pretend that Madrid is not a part of Johnny. He needs to know.” Sorrow filled the older man's heart. His actions had brought them to this precipice. His arrogant belief he could control the situation had spiraled downward into the dark depths of despair.

Scott choked back a bitter laugh. “You've already taken matters into your own hands once. Look where it's brought us. Now you want to change your tune? It doesn't matter what you say, Murdoch, I will be there on Monday.”

“You can't expect me to sit back and allow you to face Bodine.” Murdoch struggled against the growing panic. He had to make Scott see reason. He had to. Bodine was a professional gunfighter and only another gunfighter could have a chance against him. It would seem one of his sons was going to face Bodine's guns and possibly meet his death. Feeling more and more like he was being forced into signing the death warrant of one of his children, he closed his eyes against the image of his blond son laying face down while his life's blood flowed into the dirt. When he opened his eyes once more, he found that son studying him.

“Maybe, had you been open and honest with Johnny in the beginning, we wouldn't be standing here now, having this conversation. “ Scott's anger seemed to drain away, leaving him wilted under the agony of the past few days and, more importantly, the enormity of his own actions. “Remember the Strykers? I thought we had learned something from that.”

“You have every right to be angry with me. This whole situation can be laid at my feet. And I am prepared to do what I should have all along. I should have listened, Scott.” Murdoch crossed the room to stand before the picture window behind his desk. He clasped his hands behind his back and bowed his head. “We, I mean I, will have to talk with Johnny as soon as he gets in. Madrid may be in the past but it will always be a part of him. And he's the only one with the skill necessary to have a fighting chance when dealing with the likes of Shane Bodine.”

= = = = = = =

Teresa heard the raised voices in the great room and knew Murdoch and Scott were going another round. Pain sliced through her heart at the thought of the discord that had filled the Lancer home of late. She had bitten her tongue, hoping and praying the three men she called family would work things out. But now, with the sound of yet another argument proceeding in the great room, her patience was exhausted. She swept into the room unnoticed by the two men, only to be held speechless by the words she was hearing.

As Murdoch crossed to his desk and uttered the name of Bodine, she could no longer remain silent.

“Shane Bodine? The gunfighter? What does Shane Bodine have to do with us?”

Both men spun to face the young woman standing by the French doors.

“Nothing, Teresa. Forget it,” commanded her guardian. “It's nothing to do with you, nothing you need be concerned about.”

Teresa spat out a contemptuous laugh. “You can't be serious, Murdoch. For days now every person in this household has been acting like death is knocking at the door. You've all been at each other's throats and I can't take it anymore. Talk to me.” Her exasperation led to a drawn out sigh. “Please Murdoch, stop treating me like a child. In case you haven't noticed I've grown up.”

She turned to Scott. “Tell him, Scott. He still sees me as the little girl who lost her father and needs protection. Well, protecting me is one thing, but leaving me out is another.”

She walked over to Murdoch and rested her hands on his arm. “Murdoch, having my family at odds is more than I can bear. If Scott is in danger, we need to know so we can all help protect him. Please.”

The two men shared a glance, Murdoch imploring, Scott warning, then Murdoch took Teresa's hands in his.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Sunday

Since dinner the previous night Johnny had thought of nothing but the implications of Scott's fight in town that day. He had come up with several possible scenarios, but nothing had prepared him for the further news Teresa had ridden out with this afternoon. He hadn't followed the fence line far before he had to stop and re-string a section. It was there that she found him. She fell out of the saddle and into his arms, sobbing. It was a while before she could tell the story. He listened, fury urging him to action, and only the need to calm the girl gave him the time he needed to think things through. Drying her eyes, he murmured promises, seeking to reassure her. He made sure she was safely back within sight of the hacienda, her absence undetected, before riding off to do what he knew he had to do.

Once again Johnny found himself making his way to the small knoll he had visited just two days before. Leaving Barranca by the water's edge, he removed his saddlebags and carried them, and his canteen, towards the clearing. His target remained pinned to the largest tree at the heart of a copse, a silent witness to hours of practice.

Johnny turned his attention to the Colt on his hip. He withdrew the gun, reveling in the feel of the weapon, its comforting weight becoming an extension of his hand. He stared at the target hanging yards away. Johnny allowed Madrid to take control, then, in a blinding explosion, he fired six shots, each one piercing the bull's-eye. He reloaded, drew and fired until he had used all the remaining ammunition in his belt, oblivious to the smoke curling out of the gun's barrel and the acrid smell of the gunpowder.

As each bullet tore through the paper of the target, Johnny experienced a similar release of his pent up anger and frustration. Although Teresa's startling revelation had unnerved him and his first reaction was rage at the stupidity that had misguided his father and brother into thinking they could, and should, protect him, his anger was now giving way to understanding and appreciation. He would keep Teresa's secret, as surprise would work in his favor. He would avoid his family as much as possible because if Scott and Murdoch didn't realize he knew all about Bodine, they wouldn't be looking for him to try to stop them.

The heat of the gun, the cloud of smoke in the air, all served to remind him of the past, a past he could not ignore and could not escape. A past that once again stood between him and the family and home he had come to love. Tomorrow Shane Bodine would have his showdown and it would be with Johnny Madrid. Sighing, he retrieved his saddlebags and sought out the extra bullets he always carried, refilling his gun, then his gunbelt.

The setting sun gave testimony to the hours that had passed in a flurry of rage and gunfire. He would be late getting home for supper but lacked concern over the consternation he knew that would cause his father. In light of the events of the past few days, dinner was the least of his worries. Instead, Johnny moved with the determined actions of one who was eager to face an opponent, even if the opponent today presented itself in the form of his father and brother. He now understood the driving motivation behind his father's attitude of late, and Scott's too.

This time, though, the knowledge of their conspiracy did not fill him with hurt and anger. His family was expressing their love for him the only way they knew how - by protecting him from harm in spite of the fact they were ill-equipped to do so. Now Johnny's heart was filled with gratitude and love. They were willing to give their lives for him, and he vowed they would come to no harm. He whispered, “You've been watching my back. Now it's my turn to watch yours.”

Gritting his teeth, he whistled sharply and heard the immediate drumming of hooves as the stallion responded to his master's call.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Monday

The tension at Lancer was unrelenting, leaving no-one untouched. Even the ranch hands had been affected by the tension among their employers. They received their day's assignments then quickly retreated as if unwilling to remain in close proximity of any man named Lancer. So on edge were all the Lancers that Johnny's late arrival for dinner the night before had almost been welcomed by his family.

Teresa pondered all she knew and stifled a sob. One member of her family could well end up dead today and she didn't know what more she could do about it.

Scott entered the great room where she was bustling around, setting the table for breakfast, keeping herself busy.

He glanced around the room. “Where is everyone?” Though he attempted to remain unemotional, she could hear the tension in his baritone voice.

“Good morning to you too, Scott.” She regretted her words as soon as she had uttered them. Nothing good could come of this day and her acerbic dismissal of the anguish wracking her family resounded in her own ears. She swallowed hard and forced her voice to remain neutral. “Murdoch left well before dawn, so Maria told me, and Johnny has already eaten and headed out to the bunkhouse. I guess he's rousing the men, making sure they all made it back from town and know what they have to do today…”

“Teresa?” Scott interrupted her mindless prattle and reached for her.

She deftly avoided his outstretched hand and continued filling his plate with hotcakes and eggs. “You really should eat. You're much too thin. Now Johnny, on the other hand, he eats so much it's amazing he isn't fat.”

“Are you all right?” Scott leaned in closer, finally succeeding in taking her hand in his.

She blinked and stared mutely into his face.

“It's going to work out fine, Teresa. You'll see. It was unkind to burden you with this. We'll all get through it. You've no need to worry.” But his assurances fell on deaf ears.

“Oh Scott,” she choked. “How can it possibly be all right? One of you could die! Murdoch and I might have to b..bu..bury one of you.” She fell into his arms, sobs wracking her slender frame.

Scott wrapped his arms around her and she silently offered up a prayer.

= = = = = = =

No sooner had Murdoch knocked on the door than it opened, Bodine fully dressed despite the early hour.

“I wondered if I might see you this morning, Mr. Lancer. Please, come in.” Bodine shut the door behind them and gestured to a chair by the window.

Murdoch remained standing, his bulk an advantage he was not prepared to yield. “I know who you are, Bodine, and I know what your game is.”

A small smile creased Bodine's lips. “Then I'm sure you understand why I had to avail myself of all pertinent knowledge of my adversary and take all measures necessary to ensure a satisfactory conclusion to our business.”

Knowing discussion would do little except raise his temper, Murdoch reached for his wallet. “I've come here this morning to offer you $5000 to leave town. Turn around, no questions asked. Just leave us alone.” Though he knew both his sons would be angered by this interference, he pushed on with his course of action, desperate to protect them with any means at his disposal.

“Mr. Lancer, it appears you fail to grasp just what is at stake here for me. I'm afraid no amount of money can sway me from this course of action to which I have been pledged.” Bodine looked at the money in Murdoch's outstretched hand and snorted. “I, sir, am a gentleman and I demand satisfaction. I have been seriously aggrieved. It is a matter of honor.”

“Honor?” Murdoch was stunned. This man's haughty arrogance was astounding. But if bribing the monster who stood before him in the form of human flesh was necessary, he would give the money and more. He would give his life. No cost was too great. “Then I appeal to your sense of honor. Please. I have never begged anyone for anything before, but I am begging you now. I have only just gotten my boys back. Please don't take them away from me.”

“Your lack of care in the past is of no importance to me, Mr. Lancer. The die is cast. Fate will now play her hand.”

Bodine walked over to the small table and raised his cup, a silent offer for Murdoch to join him. The older man glared in reply. Bodine gave a slight shrug then took a leisurely sip. “I'm afraid I can't back down from this, Mr. Lancer. Your son's assault on my person demands action. Alas, Scott Lancer has taken the decision out of my hands. I have no choice but to accept the life of your firstborn.”

Murdoch took his greatest gamble yet. “Bodine, I own 100,000 acres of land, 20,000 head of beef, and the best breeding stock in the San Joaquin. There's enough work for 150 vaqueros. Leave my boys alone and I will sign over to you, here and now, one third of it all. My lawyers are just across the street. We can have this settled in no time.”

“I'm sorry, Mr. Lancer. I truly am. I understand your conundrum, but my honor must be appeased. I am not interested in your money, nor your land. Truth be told, I'm not even all that interested in your elder son. Perhaps I could be persuaded after all to overcome my distress at his effrontery if an acceptable alternative could be agreed upon.” A sly smile creased his face. “Allow me to make this suggestion as a means to resolve this matter to the satisfaction of all. Inform Johnny Madrid of our assignation. Then perhaps Mr. Scott Lancer can convince his brother to take his place. I would much prefer to meet Madrid. He possesses a caliber of talent that is much more appealing, a more worthy challenge. Ultimately defeating him in the field of battle would be infinitely more satisfying.”

“I won't offer one son in exchange for the other. And Scott wouldn't stand for it either. You talk of honor – why, my sons have more honor in their little fingers than you have in your whole body. Dammit, man. If you lay a finger on one of my boys there will be no place you can hide. I will hunt you down and kill you, as God is my witness.”

“And what's stopping you from doing that right here, right now?” Bodine sneered. He finished his coffee in a single gulp, then rose.

Murdoch dropped his head, looked down at the gun strapped to his side and back up at Bodine.

“God help you, Bodine,” Murdoch lowered his voice to a mere growl. “Harm either one of my sons, and I will send you to Hell personally.”

With a nod of understanding, Bodine approached Murdoch and leaned in to whisper in his ear. “You, Sir, are welcome to try.”

 

= = = = = = =

 

Overwrought by her flood of tears, Teresa pulled away from Scott and, with that typical mindlessness born of exhaustion, she laid a plate before him.

Scott looked down at the dish, recognizing it as the condemned man's last meal. Suddenly he had no appetite, the bile rising to the back of his throat enough to stifle any thought of food. He had spent the night contemplating the action he was about to take and, at some point in the cold dark night, tranquility had descended. He was at peace with his decision, knowing the only way to protect his brother, his friend who deserved a chance at a new life, was to ride into town today and face Shane Bodine, gunfighter. John, Chapter 15, Verse 13. It was time to put it into practice.

Scott had expected to face an argument from Murdoch this morning but it appeared fortune was smiling on him. The absence of his father, though puzzling, was making it easier to get into town. He only prayed his family would understand, that the letters he had placed on his dresser to each of them said the words they would need to hear. He turned from the table and wasted no time in making his way to the barn to saddle Shiloh.

 

= = = = = = =

 

The soft cough from just outside the stall, where Scott was at work briskly brushing the horse's withers, caused him to pause momentarily. Knowing, without turning around, that it was his brother, he resumed his grooming. As the silence stretched between them he led the horse out into the aisle between the stalls and cross tied the animal then retrieved his saddle and bridle.

Finally, breaking the quiet in the barn, Johnny enquired genially, “So, heading out?”

Scott ignored the question and threw the saddle across the gelding's back. “You were up early.”

Johnny studied the toe of his boot. “You know how it goes – get an early start and you just might free up some time to do whatever takes your fancy.”

Scott paused as the enormity of the inevitable result of his course of action crushed his chest and made the very act of breathing difficult. He swallowed hard, knowing this could be the last time he ever spoke to his brother, yet unable to put into words the emotion now overwhelming him.

Johnny ran a hand down the gelding's shoulder. “You didn't say where you were headed.”

“Just like you said, Johnny, wherever takes my fancy.” Scott faced the younger man, schooling his features into his best poker face. “Seems like you've been doing a lot of what you want to do the last few days. What's good for the goose and all that.”

“You're kinda prickly this morning, aren't you?” Johnny cocked his head, a strange light glowing in the blue eyes.

Scott searched his brother's face, seeking any hint as to what was going on in the younger man's head but the expression on Johnny's face was unreadable, like nothing Scott had seen before. “No Brother, actually I'm not. I just have business to attend to and I don't want to be late.” Realizing he may have revealed too much, Scott back-tracked. “Look, I'm just taking a ride before we start the day.”

“Sounds good.” Johnny bent over and plucked a piece of straw from the floor. “Want some company?”

Scott looked Johnny in the eye, torn between his desire to share this ride with him and the need to protect him from what was waiting at the end of it. “At any other time I'd say yes, but at the moment I think I need to be alone.” He paused a moment, gathering his resolve. “We're okay, Johnny.” He had to offer that reassurance, at least. “It's just there are times a man needs to be left alone. I'm sure you understand that.”

Something, a trick of the light perhaps, left Scott with the impression that there was a hint of a tear in Johnny's eyes. He shook off this fanciful notion as he resumed saddling Shiloh.

Tightening the cinch was the last thing Scott remembered.

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

Monday

Murdoch burst through the sheriff's door, sending the lawman diving for the rifle propped by his side.

“Murdoch, land's sake man, what is it sends you tearing in here like a pack of wolves was on your tail?” Gabe laid down the rifle and righted the chair he'd sent flying when Murdoch burst into the room.

“Gabe, there's a stranger in town after trouble. He's aiming to kill my boys. And if you don't do something about him, I will,” Murdoch thundered, his face taking on the red flush of anger.

“Hold your horses, Murdoch.” Gabe raised his hand, the gesture silencing the angry rancher. “If you're talking about that fancy-pants city fella, I've seen him. Spoke to him, too, in passing. Now you'd best tell me what exactly is going on.”

Practiced at recounting the story, Murdoch was concise and soon the sheriff had the details he needed. As Murdoch neared the conclusion, relating the morning's threats, he could see that it was of no use. Gabe was stroking his chin, brows furrowed, head slowly shaking.

“Murdoch, I hate to have to tell you this, but there's nothing I can hold this Bodine on. So far he's done nothing wrong. And I've already checked, there are no warrants out on him. He's only ever been involved in fair fights. Why, the man doesn't even spit tobacco. I can keep an eye on him, but I can't arrest him. He's real crafty and hasn't put a foot wrong. Nothing you can prove, leastways. I'm sorry, Murdoch, the law can't help you.”

The sheriff's final words echoed through Murdoch's head. He'd heard them from Scott and now from Gabe and he knew them to be true himself. So far Bodine had done nothing wrong. Without another word to the sheriff, he stumbled out of the jailhouse into the bright morning light and mounted up. Realizing his plans were falling apart Murdoch gathered up the reins and headed back to Lancer, determined to stop Scott before he could get into town.

The full weight of his actions exploding in his heart, Murdoch was wracked with guilt. He should have trusted his sons. They were grown men and, as they had proven in the fight with Pardee, were more than capable of dealing with the situation in which they were all engulfed. When would he learn? When would he ever allow for the fact his sons had grown up? There could be no making up for lost time.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Johnny was a blur as he drew his gun and brought the butt of the Colt down on the blond head. As Scott collapsed, Johnny caught him in his arms and lowered him to the floor. He strode to the storage room and retrieved a length of rope, then dragged his unconscious brother to the far stall, leaned him against the rails and tied his hands there behind his back. Johnny checked that the ropes were secure and that his brother was as comfortable as possible.

With the sting of tears in his eyes, Johnny laid a hand on his brother's throat. The pulse was strong and steady and Scott's breathing was easy. “Sorry, Boston,” murmured Johnny, resting his hand lightly on Scott's blond head. “I knew you couldn't be talked out of this, but this dance is mine.”

Then, without a backward glance, he led out an already-saddled Barranca, mounted up and galloped off.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Remorse, fear, anger coursed through Teresa in waves. Frustrated by her impotence she felt tears pricking her eyes and in anger she brushed them away. She'd shed enough tears and now was the time for action. Doing anything would be better than standing here in the kitchen. She ripped her apron off and flung it onto the bench by the kitchen door as she ran into the yard, searching for the men who meant so much to her.

By quizzing the men working around the corral she discovered that Johnny had earlier torn out of the barn, riding as if the hounds of Hell were in hot pursuit. They made no mention of Scott and, wondering whether he had taken off after his brother, she made her way into the barn. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom she could see Scott's horse still standing cross-tied in the aisle. He was saddled, ready to go, and this left her a little perplexed. Looking further confirmed both Johnny's and Murdoch's horses were missing. As she stood there deliberating on her next course of action she heard a low noise coming from an empty stall near the rear of the barn. The noise turned into a groan and she rushed towards it only to discover Scott, arms tied behind his back, on the verge of regaining consciousness.

“Scott, are you all right? What happened?” She ran her hands over his head looking for wounds and found an egg-sized lump on the back of his head.

Scott, eyes squeezed shut, jerked himself free of Teresa's ministrations, as well as his binds would allow. “My head's fine, Teresa. Just get me loose. Johnny must have knocked me out. And the only reason he could have for doing that is if he suspects something.”

“He doesn't suspect, Scott. He knows.” Teresa lowered her head, and wiped at the solitary tear coursing down her cheek.

“What do you mean?”

She didn't answer. She knew he would figure it out.

“I knew it, I knew we couldn't trust you to keep it from Johnny. I should never have gone along with it. Do you realize what you've done? Now Johnny is going to pay the price. He's going to meet Bodine, standing in my place, prepared to die, and all for something he has no knowledge of.

Teresa scrambled behind Scott, pulling futilely at the rope binding him to the rail, tears of frustration blurring the knot she was trying to undo.

“A knife, Teresa. Get a knife.”

She nodded and scurried away to find it. As she was shuffling through the detritus on the shelves she started her confession. “I'm sorry. I know you didn't want him to find out but he had a right to know.” She found a knife they used to cut lariats and scuttled behind Scott to free him. As she sawed through the rope she declared. “I had to, Scott.”

Finally free of the ropes Scott spun around and grabbed Teresa by the shoulders. “Do you know what you've done?”

“Yes, I do. I've improved the odds.”

“By sending Johnny to his death?” Scott pushed her aside, loosened Shiloh's reins, swung up onto his back and bolted out of the barn without a backward glance at the young woman.

Teresa yelled after him, “Johnny, at least, has a chance against Shane Bodine.” She watched him leave then marched to the stall where her mare was stabled and started to saddle her.

 

= = = = = = =

 

The angle of the sun's rays confirmed for Johnny he still had plenty of time. He kept an ear out for anyone following him as made his way towards Spanish Wells. He'd left too many people back at Lancer aware of the fact he had left in a hurry. Instead of pursuit, though, it was the sight of dust billowing up ahead that caused him a degree of alarm. Not wishing to be seen by any further witnesses who could convey news of his movements back to the ranch, Johnny chose a small stand of trees to hide in until the rider passed. He nudged Barranca off the road and waited in silence.

When he could make out the figure headed his way he wasn't all that surprised. So, Murdoch had been to town. He didn't like the old man's chances of having changed Bodine's mind but the fact he was alive and well was all that mattered at the moment.

Once his father had passed from sight Johnny urged Barranca back onto the road and on to his destiny.

= = = = = = =

Too much time had passed for Scott's liking, leaving him fearful he would be too late. He cursed his brother for his invidious ways as he dug his heels in. Then, ahead, he caught sight of a rider. For a brief moment he thought he had caught up to his brother, but he soon realized the horse was headed towards him, not towards town. In no time the looming rider took on the familiar form of his father and Scott reined his horse to a halt.

“You're not going to Spanish Wells. I can't let you, Scott. I'll hogtie you to that saddle before I let you go.” Murdoch reined his own horse in, placing the large animal between Scott and town.

“Take it easy, Murdoch. You might want to hear what I have to say before you go doing that.” Scott proceeded to tell his father all that had happened that morning. When he reached the part about Johnny knocking him on the head he noticed his father's searching gaze, looking for signs of injury. It reminded him of the blinding headache he was doing his best to ignore. As he concluded with the fact that Teresa had confessed to telling Johnny everything, and that Barranca was gone, Murdoch's dismay turned to outright alarm.

“How long ago was this? I've seen no-one else on this road.” Murdoch turned in his saddle and swept his gaze from one end of the road to the other.

“I think we'd better assume that Johnny is most likely already there. We have no time to waste.” Scott's voice broke for the first time since the nightmare had begun, his emotional endurance and stamina having been pushed to their limits.

With full knowledge of the disaster they could have averted smothering him, he locked eyes with his father. He prayed the older man would see no condemnation in his eyes, only understanding and a desire to make things right.

As one they wheeled their horses around and headed to town.

 

= = = = = = =

 

The sound of the 11.00 stage roaring into town prompted Johnny to pull out his pocket watch and check the time. 11.52am. The stage was late, as always. Not long now. He snapped the cover shut and leaned back against the hitching rail outside the mercantile, idly rubbing his thumb over the engraving, remembering the events that had led to his ownership of the timepiece.

The fight with the Strykers over ownership of a black stallion had brought him lower than he'd ever thought possible. Sure, he had been engaged in range wars and gunfights. He had taken lives and suffered wounds. But the pain of being estranged from his family, a family he had just met, had almost been his undoing. If not for the efforts of Scott and the revelation of the truth by Teresa, he might never have returned to Lancer. But once the young girl had revealed the truth of the matter to him, he and Murdoch and Scott had presented a united front and fought off the Strykers. In spite of being outnumbered, they had prevailed against the odds.

Now, strangely enough, Johnny found himself in a similar position. Once again the Lancers owed Teresa their gratitude. If not for her he would have gone about his daily chores while Scott came to town and met his death at the hands of Bodine. But fate had intervened in the form of a slip of a girl and now Johnny was here, waiting for the man who was gunning for his brother. He only hoped he would live long enough to thank Teresa, and Scott too.

Johnny had used the ride into town to find his center, to focus on the job at hand. And it had to be a job, business as usual. It could not be a personal affair. Detaching his emotions gave him the edge he needed. He had heard of Bodine. Who hadn't? The man's skill with a gun was legendary. Had Bodine not dropped out of the business before Johnny had made a name for himself it would have been inevitable that the two of them should have met. Now Father Time was reaching his hand out anyway and today would see them face each other.

Jerking his thoughts back into submission, he put away his watch, pulled out his gun and rechecked the load. The weapon was comforting, offering him an unnatural sense of security. Closing his eyes, he sought out the confidence of Madrid. His alter ego rose from the darkest corner of his mind and washed over him. When he opened his eyes, all that was Lancer had disappeared, replaced by the deadly calm of the gunfighter. Madrid was a terrible and fearsome sight and somewhere deep inside his soul he was grateful that the old man and Scott would not witness the transformation.

Although absorbed by his deliberations, he was still well aware of what was happening around him. A woman had disembarked from the stage and was accosting people she encountered along the boardwalk. She was a beautiful woman, but disheveled and distraught. When the driver called out to her to retrieve her valise she dismissed him, ordering him to leave it where it had landed on the boardwalk. And now she was headed right his way.

She marched straight up to Johnny, a curious blend of fear and intent. A tear streaked down her cheek and she brushed it away with her gloved hand before latching onto his arm. She stared at Johnny imploringly as she asked, “Have you seen Shane Bodine? I need to find him now. I have to stop him.”

Johnny sucked in a breath and wrenched his arm from her grasp. “Ma'am, a lady like you ought to know not to talk to strangers.” Narrowing his eyes, he stepped off the boardwalk.

She recoiled from the ferocity of his gaze then careened off to approach a man and his wife, walking down the opposite side of the street. Johnny watched them shake their heads, then he lost sight of her as she entered the hotel behind them.

The encounter with the woman had unnerved him. She was looking for Shane Bodine and judging by her heightened emotional state, he was of great importance to her. Were they kin? Or was the connection of a more romantic nature? Whichever it might be, Shane Bodine had a woman after him and she could be the very distraction that affected the outcome of their imminent gun fight.

“Damn,” Johnny growled. How was he to pull on Bodine when this woman could be witness to the event? A witness who wanted to stop it before it began. A vision of Scott floated before his eyes and a small groan escaped Johnny's lips. Someone was going to feel the pain of loss and Johnny realized that the victor in this affair would find no satisfaction in the end result.

He tucked that piece of information away and took up position again, leaning back against the hitching post. To the passers-by he was the epitome of nonchalance and indifference, just another man in the street. A movement in Johnny's peripheral vision caught his attention and he turned his head toward the eastern end of the street. Bodine. In this town of simple folk, Johnny would have known the man without introduction.

The tall man was attired in a fine black suit, his coat billowing on the midday breeze to reveal the handle of an ivory Colt. Exuding confidence with every step, he strolled down the center of the street. His stride, his attitude, his bearing, all were that of a man sure of his purpose and equally certain of the outcome of the imminent battle. Possessing a talent both deadly and envied, Bodine was a warrior to be respected and feared.

Yet he regarded Johnny with equal respect. Before him stood a combatant with honor and integrity. As an indication of this, Bodine assumed a position in the street whereby the sun would be neither an advantage nor a handicap to either of them. He offered Johnny a barely discernible nod in acknowledgement and waited for the younger man to accept his invitation.

With a small sigh, Johnny pushed away from the post and took up position fifty feet from Bodine. He glanced in recognition towards the sun and returned the nod. In their business honor was in high demand yet small measure. No matter the outcome, Johnny knew this man would not take his life, or death, lightly.

Suddenly the streets were empty, as if knowledge of what was about to transpire had been broadcast to one and all. Dust eddied with the wind that snaked through the town yet neither man so much as flinched. They stood, waiting for the other to make his move. They both knew why they were here.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

Monday

Murdoch and Scott raced toward town, pressing their mounts to their utmost speed. The horses, sensing the urgency of their riders, strained to meet their riders' expectations, and sooner than they had any right to expect they were on the outskirts of Spanish Wells. Fear of loss swept away common sense and the two men rode headlong into town. Side by side the two horses wheeled around the corner into the main street. As one, Murdoch and Scott pulled up sharply, the sight of two lone figures at the other end of the street was all they needed to tell them they were too late. They tied their horses to the nearest hitching post and moved carefully down the boardwalk, mindful of making noise and movement behind Johnny that could have disastrous consequences if it distracted him, yet anxious to be near enough to see and hear all that was to pass.

“I have anticipated this day for a long time, Johnny Madrid.” Bodine's voice carried towards them. “We're two of a kind, you and I. I understand that as much as we try to flee our past it is never really that far away. In that respect it appears your family doesn't understand you as well as I do.”

“Are you going to keep prattling, Bodine? Or have you come here for business?” Johnny assumed a cat-like slouch indicating his readiness.

A chilling smile crossed Bodine's face. “Yes, you're right, it is business I'm after. But that doesn't mean it can't be interesting. When one has looked forward with such anticipation to a particular day, it isn't reasonable to rush it along to its inevitable conclusion. Look around you, Johnny Madrid. The boardwalks are empty. Let's call out the good folk of this town to watch. This is, after all, history in the making. It isn't every day two such great adversaries meet. Why, once the dust settles and I walk away victor of this contest, people will be falling over each other to tell the tale. For years to come talk of this day will earn them drinks in any saloon west of the Mississippi, perhaps even across the country. Details of our every move will be in the newspapers, and even books.”

It sickened Scott to hear the man speak. It reminded him of the war, and the attitude some of his commanding officers had displayed. They were men to whom the cost was inconsequential; all that mattered was their pride.

Johnny interrupted Bodine's tirade with a smile, his tone matter of fact. “You're wrong. Your name will be forgotten faster than you can draw your gun.”

For the first time since he had commenced this quest, Bodine glimpsed an insight into his adversary and recognized precisely how deadly a foe was the younger gunhawk opposite him. Everything about Madrid proclaimed his ability. He was now more than just a reputation. Bodine fought down the momentary waver in his resolve and willed his confidence in his own talent to reign again. He fought down the anger this realization had fueled. He had to do something to even the odds again. He had noticed Madrid's father and brother appear at the end of the street and recognized at once that they would be the chink in Madrid's armor. He sought to take advantage of the distraction they would cause his opponent. He continued, “Sir, I do believe It's only fitting there should be reliable witnesses, besides your father and brother.”

A slight twitch of Johnny's head was the only indication he recognized that his family stood nearby.

Now close enough to hear Bodine's words clearly, Scott's stomach lurched at the thought of what their presence might cost Johnny.

“We need to put on a show for these townsfolk, make it worth the telling for them. There's no reason we can't be civilized about this.” Bodine's eyes never left Johnny's. “I propose a little competition to start. There's a sign on the roof to your left that says ‘Saloon'.”

“I know it.” Johnny's tone remained cool and slow, his customary drawl sounding almost sleepy.

“What say we start with that? If you'll allow me to go first?” Shane Bodine offered a slight bow then turned to face the saloon.

Now almost level with Johnny, Scott looked up at the roof of the saloon across the road and back to his brother. He could tell Johnny's eyes hadn't moved from Bodine's.

Johnny sighed. He knew the cost this man had exacted on his family the last couple of days and regretted prolonging their agony. “Is that why you called me out, Bodine? Because if all you want is to see who's the better marksman I'll be happy to wager a little bet on it. I know a place we could go that would be perfect. No need to shoot up the town.”

“I'm sure what you have in mind is a perfectly adequate location for displays of marksmanship but please, Johnny Madrid, indulge me, don't insult me. Talent such as ours should be celebrated. I'm afraid it has to be here and now. I have no intention of drawing on you without a fair fight. I do not wish to walk away from our encounter and into the arms of the law. I believe we deserve to acknowledge each other's prowess a little first. Please be so kind as to watch this.”

Bodine turned to his right and drew. Scott couldn't help but gasp as Johnny didn't move. Murdoch reached for his own gun. But Johnny had read the man correctly. It wasn't a fast draw from Bodine, just a relaxed raising of his pistol as he was seeking accuracy, not speed. A single shot rang out.

Scott followed the line of fire and saw a bullet hole dead center of the first ‘o' in ‘Saloon'. He looked back at Johnny whose eyes had not left Bodine.

Bodine faced Johnny again, a smile creasing his features.

“Come now, Madrid. Don't you want to see what you're up against?” taunted the older gunfighter.

“I know what your game is, Bodine.” Johnny sounded bored yet resigned.

“And you don't want to play?” Bodine lifted his eyebrows as dismay momentarily flashed across his features, in stark contrast to Johnny's seeming display of boredom. It almost looked as if Johnny was mocking this deadly foe by his lack of reaction.

Just as Scott had begun to believe that his brother was going to decline Bodine's invitation, Johnny casually spun to his left and another circular hole appeared in the saloon's sign, this time in the exact center of the second ‘o'.

“Bravo, Johnny Madrid,” applauded Bodine. “Now you're getting into the spirit of things.”

Up the road two figures, who were engaged in their own exchange outside the hotel, stopped to watch.

Bodine nodded in their direction, without looking away from his adversary. “It appears our audience has doubled. Shall we offer them a little something more?”

Bodine's gaze wandered over the stores lining the street behind him, but Johnny didn't move. Scott was transfixed, not daring to even chance a look at his father. Bodine had made up his mind as he turned back to Johnny and announced his next challenge.

“I was going to suggest the town's fire bell as that would be sure to attract a great deal of interest, but I suspect you would be averse to attention of that nature and the confusion it may cause. Instead, to your right and behind me, Madrid, is the livery. Now I'm certain I don't need to point out that hanging from the top is the pulley hook. A smaller target than the sign. Would you like to go first this time?”

Johnny made no move.

“Ah, I see I still need to convince you my intentions are honorable. Very well.” Again the relaxed draw preceded a single shot and a moment later the bullet ricocheted off the hook with a loud metallic ring. Bodine turned back to face Johnny. “Your turn, Sir.”

Scott watched in fascination as Johnny drew and again the shot was followed by a shrill metallic ring. As he looked back to his brother Scott became dimly aware that several more cautious souls had now ventured on to the boardwalks, witnesses to this strange gunplay.

“Well done, Johnny Madrid.” Bodine complimented. “You are proving to be a most worthy opponent.”

“That's two bullets, Bodine. Are we going to keep this up all day?” Johnny sneered. “ ‘Cause I've got better things to do.”

“Oh, Johnny, you can't want this to end already?” Bodine sounded disappointed. “We're just starting to have fun.”

“You've got your audience, Bodine. Let's end it here and now. Before anyone else gets hurt.” Johnny's voice was softer this time, the warning unmistakable. “It's not too late to just call it a draw and head our separate ways.”

“Now, now Johnny, you disappoint me,” Bodine admitted. “You know that can't happen. You know I came here looking for you. And you're such a hard man to get to. Tell me Johnny, when exactly did your family finally decide to let you in on their little secret?”

For the first time since their encounter, Johnny took his eyes off Bodine and tossed a glance at Scott. The brothers locked eyes and a thousand words were spoken. But the exchange was fleeting, so much so that later Scott would doubt it had even occurred. Before Scott had time to take his next breath, something in Johnny Lancer's eyes disappeared and all that was good and loving was snuffed out, replaced by someone, or something, out of a nightmare. A being, a man, terrifying and deadly stood where Johnny Lancer had been.

Scott realized he had finally met Johnny Madrid. A shudder went through his lean frame as the gunfighter turned back to Bodine.

Bodine, too, sensed the transformation and knew the time had come to engage his opponent in the ultimate test of nerve and skill. Madrid was no longer going to indulge this game.

“I sense you're growing tired of this little game of mine - there's so little challenge in it I can't say I blame you. So let's try something new. We've proven our marksmanship. Let's make it a little more interesting. I suggest a little moving target practice. We start walking towards each other. No blood, just nerve. Let's see how close we can get.”

Holding up his right hand as a sign, Bodine very slowly removed his gun with his left hand. Johnny did likewise. As one, they transferred their guns to their preferred hands and started the walk towards each other.

Bodine fired off the first round, the dust kicking up where the bullet had struck beside Johnny's foot. Scott was in awe of his brother's sangfroid as he didn't miss a step and didn't show any sign of concern. He simply squeezed off his own round that hit the dirt between Bodine's feet.

Bodine's next shot nicked Johnny's hat brim and Johnny's return shot caught the crown of Bodine's hat.

All the while they kept up the steady walk towards each other. The tension was maddening and Scott realized he hadn't drawn breath since the deadly walk had begun. He'd counted four bullets each.

Bodine's next shot caught Johnny's left sleeve, jolting his arm. Both men stopped. Beyond that there was no reaction. A slight staining slowly appeared around the bullet hole.

“Oh dear. It seems I have drawn first blood,” apologized Bodine.

Without looking at his shoulder Johnny aimed at Bodine who didn't flinch. A shot fired and Bodine's left arm was flung back as a bullet tore through his flesh, mirroring the injury he had caused Johnny.

Johnny replaced his Colt in his holster. Voice as cold and hard as steel, Johnny growled, “Last bullet, Bodine. How do you want to play this?”

The ice in his brother's voice chilled Scott to the marrow. It broke the spell. He gripped his father by the arm. “Murdoch, we have to stop this. This is barbaric. Where's Gabe?”

“I'm right behind you, Scott.” The lawman's voice came from a place just over Scott's left shoulder.

“Then do something, for God's sake,” Scott whispered, all the while his eyes never leaving his brother.

“He can't.” Murdoch's voice sounded distant. “It's gone too far for that now, Scott. Gabe understands that.”

And then it occurred to Scott that, indeed, there was no way to stop the fight. It had to end, here and now. All he could do was pray his brother was the victor. And vow that either way Bodine would not walk away from this encounter. He looked back to the action in the street.

Bodine brushed an imaginary speck of dust off his sleeve then reholstered his weapon. “I won't keep you waiting any longer, Johnny.”

Bodine was answering Johnny's challenge, yet both men stood still, neither man making the slightest move. These men were professionals and Scott could discern no sign. He'd heard Johnny talk of a slight narrowing of the eyes but Scott saw nothing. Again he wasn't drawing breath and the tightening in his chest was painful. He forced himself to breathe.

Bodine's voice sounded loud and clear. “We could be at this all day, Johnny, but since you want to get this over with, I suggest we have someone toss a coin to get us started. When the coin hits the ground, we draw. Shall we give your brother the honor?”

“Leave my family out of this,” snarled Johnny.

“No.” It took Scott a moment to realize he had spoken out loud. He took a step off the boardwalk. “No, I'll do it.”

Though Johnny's eyes never left Bodine, the slight tightening of his brother's jaw told Scott all he needed to know.

Scott reached into his pocket and pulled out his lucky 1804 silver dollar. He prayed his luck would be with his brother as he rubbed his hand down the side of his trousers then hefted the coin in his hand, getting a feel for the weight. Ignoring Bodine, he looked only at his brother, whose eyes were fixed on his opponent. There was nothing more to be said and it now rested in Scott's hands to make the call. Drawing a deep breath to steel himself, Scott threw the coin into the air between the two men, and prayed it might never hit the ground.

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Monday

It had taken Teresa no time to saddle her sturdy little mare and the speed with which she took off after Scott left the men working around the barn curious, if the looks on their faces were anything to go by. More than once on the ride into town she offered up a prayer: of thanksgiving for the fact she was already wearing riding clothes; of intercession for her brother and his fate; of penitence for the role she had played in these events.

Fearing she would arrive too late she urged her spirited mare to greater speed. She was uncertain how her presence could make any difference but she was determined Johnny would know she was with him. She swallowed the fear in her chest as the possibility he could die at Bodine's hand circled her mind like shadows of the darkest night. Surely Johnny would not be defeated. Madrid was the best. The Lancers believed her ignorant of the ways of the world in which Johnny had grown up, but she was a wise woman, wise beyond her years. She could be silent and listen. And listen she had – first to the talk of the ranch hands after Johnny and Scott had arrived and fought off Pardee, and then to the whispers of admiration of Johnny's prowess with a Colt after the incident with the Strykers. She simply stood back and listened. It really was the best way to learn. Yet, with all she had discovered of Johnny's proficiency, her anxiety only increased as she neared Spanish Wells.

Rounding the corner onto the main road, she drew to a halt. Her mare made her displeasure at Teresa's treatment of her known; she pranced beneath her rider, tossing her head in a fight for release of the tight grip on her mouth. Regaining control of her horse, Teresa stared down the street. Her heart sank into the pit of her stomach and bile rose in her throat threatening to choke her. Ahead of her at the other end of town, standing still in the middle of the dusty main road, were two men facing each other. One, a man she loved and called brother, the other a murderous enemy who sought to rob the Lancer family of a dear member.

Gathering her scattered thoughts, common sense told her it was unwise to ride any closer, so she dismounted and tied her horse to the nearest hitching rail, only then realizing that Murdoch's and Scott's horses were already tethered there. She looked back down the road, this time lifting a hand against the noonday sun, and sought them out. She found them, standing on the boardwalk, just yards behind Johnny. She began to make her way towards them, grateful their attention was focused on the action playing out in the street ahead. She knew Murdoch would be furious with her for being there, but even knowledge of the possible consequences of invoking his displeasure was too little to make her stray from her course.

Teresa hadn't gone far. As she drew level with the door to the hotel a woman barreled out of the establishment and ran straight into Teresa. Though well dressed, the woman was travel-worn and disheveled, her dismay clear to see. Her red-rimmed eyes and clenched jaw left Teresa in little doubt that the action down the road was at the root of this woman's dismay, and despite the obvious fact that this woman had to be connected to Shane Bodine, Teresa recognized a woman in the same throes of anxiety as herself.

Teresa reached out to steady both herself and the other woman, who had grasped at Teresa's shoulders for balance. The woman's violet eyes, bright with unshed tears, met Teresa's brown ones and the message they conveyed set Teresa's heart to pounding.

“Excuse me. I apologize but please release me, Miss. I have to get to him before it's too late.”

Teresa shook her head. It wasn't hard to understand that the ‘him' the woman referred to was Bodine. “But it's already too late, can't you see that?” She tightened her grip forcing the other woman to stand still and look down the street. “If you run out there now you could be killed.”

“Rather that than watch my fiancé kill, or be killed.” Amelia stopped struggling against the grip on her arms and instead sought to reason with the younger woman, her gaze never leaving the dueling men. “I must get to Shane. Surely you can see that. I can not lose him. I can make him stop this nonsense. I'm sure I can. I'm just sorry I've left it so late. I should have tried harder. I should have made it here sooner. He'll listen to me. Don't you understand?”

“Of course I understand.” Teresa nodded in the direction of the two gunfighters. “That's my brother out there facing Bodine.”

Amelia looked back from the street to Teresa, her eyes wide with shock. “Johnny Madrid has a sister?”

“Yes, a sister. And a brother and a father.” Teresa's legs threatened to buckle beneath the strain and she held Amelia's shoulders tighter to steady herself. “And friends. But he's not Johnny Madrid anymore. He's Johnny Lancer and he's made a life for himself here.” She choked back a sob.

“Then you do understand. You can't want this to happen any more than I do.” For a moment Amelia's features softened, the panic replaced by compassion. “We appear to have much in common.”

“I don't think so.” Teresa sniffed indignantly, the comparison of the two men as salt to a wound. “Johnny Lancer is a good man. He'd never call out someone who had done nothing to hurt him, or hurt someone he loved.”

“I can see how this must seem to you but please believe me when I say this is not the Shane Bodine I have come to love. We all have our faults, and Shane's pride is his flaw. But in the time I have known him I have seen it peeled away, slowly, leaving a man who would give anything for me. It was all looking so promising that I could finally see a future for us, until something Shane saw written in a newspaper brought Johnny Madrid to his attention and then this obsession grew until it became more like a sickness.” Amelia shook off Teresa's hands and straightened her shoulders. She seemed to grow stronger, more confident, with each word spoken. “But trust me, I know I can get to him. I know I can make him see reason. Just let me go to him now, before it's too late. I have no quarrel with you. It would seem we both have the unenviable position of loving men who are not as we would have them be.”

Teresa shook her head, yet empathy for the other woman granted her insight into her devotion. She sensed an unexpected ally born of a love of family and fear for their safety. Still puzzled, however, she asked, “Do you really believe you can make a difference? When it's already gone so far?”

The other woman took one of Teresa's hands in both of hers. “Please. My name is Amelia Dunbarton and I love that man. You're a woman, you understand we follow our hearts. And our men need us. We understand them, we give them purpose. I realize that you must look at Shane and see evil, but you don't understand him the way I do. I promise you, the Shane you see here today isn't like him at all. But we can't give up hope. I know I can get him to see reason and we seem to have that common goal. Please help me!”

“What do you really think we can do? To go there now could tip the balance - one way or the other.” Teresa chanced a glance down the street. The two combatants were still engaged in conversation and she felt the first stirring of hope. Maybe Johnny and Bodine could reach some semblance of an agreement without the need for bloodshed. Maybe if she and Amelia presented a united front they could talk sense into the men they loved.

But her hope was dashed as soon as it was formed. A shot rang out and both women spun to face the men in the street. Then, as one, they gasped to see Johnny raise his pistol and aim at the roof of the saloon down the road.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Two shots, close together, though not close enough to signal a gunfight, echoed outside and Gabe dived for his rifle as he headed out the door of his office and into the dusty street. Down at the end of the road he could see two men standing off from each other. Though two shots had been fired, there did not seem to be a gunfight imminent. Gabe turned to his deputy who had followed him outside. “Go down the alley and around the back to Sam's. If he's not at home go find him. Bring him here, but keep him out of the way. I have a bad feeling we're going to need him before this day is through. I'll try to end this before it goes too far, but if it's too late I want to have the doc nearby.”

The deputy nodded once then took off down the side alley. As Gabe watched him go his gaze happened upon two women standing outside the hotel up the road. He recognized Teresa O'Brien immediately and was dismayed to see her in danger. He felt torn between getting to his friend's son, perhaps preventing his death at the hands of the stranger, and ensuring the safety of his friend's ward. He knew his old friend would expect him to put Teresa first.

With a groan, he reached the same conclusion, and strode down the boardwalk, away from Johnny, towards the hotel, placing himself between the two women and the street. “Miss Teresa, Ma'am, I have to instruct you ladies to go back inside the hotel. Now. It's for your own safety.”

“Please, Sheriff,” implored Teresa, “you can't honestly expect me to go when my family is there in the street.”

“I can, and do. Why Miss Teresa, think of what it would do to your family if any harm was to come to you. Be reasonable. You have to go inside.” No matter the outcome, he knew the three Lancer men would want the young woman safe. “You're not safe here.”

“It's not safe for anyone here, Sheriff,” interposed Amelia. “Certainly, you can make us go inside but we'll simply come out again. Unless you intend to secure us physically!”

“Ma'am, I don't have time to argue with you.” Gabe was growing impatient; the activity on the street was growing louder as town folk slowly exited various buildings, drawn by the sound of gunfire. “I have a job to do and standing here trying to get you ladies to safety is stopping me from doing that job.”

Realizing the futility of further argument, Gabe instructed the two women to remain behind a barrel at the mouth of the hotel's side alley then he made his way down the boardwalk towards his friend of many years, knowing that he was now more than likely too late to be able to interrupt the gunfight that was threatening. His years as a lawman had taught him that the best way to end a gunfight was to make sure it never had a chance to begin, because once two men got it into their heads that only death would appease an insult there was little anyone could do to stop them. Even putting them behind bars just prolonged the inevitable. He had looked, in vain, for any excuse to order Bodine from his town, and his failure was the reason Johnny Lancer had brought Johnny Madrid to town.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Sam had just returned from the Borden farm where he had been setting Javier Nunez's arm. Jack Borden was a hothead himself, so it didn't surprise Sam that he allowed his men to get carried away with the sort of shenanigans that usually meant someone got hurt, and this time it was young Javier who had paid the price. Fortunately it had been a simple fracture and after a period of resting the arm, and allowing the splint to do its job, Sam was convinced the young man would recover fully.

He made a note to check that Borden continued to do the right thing by his cowhand. Another trip out to the Borden spread next week seemed in order. Sighing, he set the kettle on the stove and opened the cupboard to take out a cup and the coffee grounds. The long rides that were a part of doctoring in the country were taking their toll on him and he wanted nothing more than a cup of coffee, sitting in his over-stuffed armchair.

Before the water had come to a boil a frantic pounding at his back door told him something was amiss. He took the kettle from the heat and reached for his bag before opening the door. Someone else was in need of the doctor's services. “Deputy Collins, what is it?”

The deputy struggled to catch his breath, his exertion, coupled with an eagerness to witness two legendary gunfighters in their element, and on his streets, had stolen his very breath. “Gabe sent me for you in case you're needed,” he gasped. “Johnny Lancer's down the street ready to face that stranger in town.” He reached for the doorknob, silently willing the old doctor to make haste.

“Oh my Lord!” Sam's heart took up a rapid beat, an echo of the deputy's fist on the old wooden door. “All right, lead the way. Do you know where Murdoch Lancer is?”

“Yes, Doc, he's right there, watching.” The deputy strode ahead, confident the doctor was close on his heels, and anxious not to miss any of the action. “Johnny's brother, too.”

“Lord, a'mighty, how did it get to this?” Sam glanced skyward, his prayers joining with those of the witnesses now watching the gunhawks.

The deputy led him through the back streets, ensuring they would not be in the crossfire, nor cause any distraction that could result in the death of one, if not both, of the men in question. They heard several more shots and hastened their pace. None too soon, Sam found himself coming up behind the massive frame of his friend. For some unknown reason Scott was stepping off the boardwalk and into the street. The young man's words ‘No, I'll do it' chilled Sam.

A wave of fear swept through him. “Murdoch, what's he doing?” he whispered anxiously as he gripped Murdoch's forearm.

His friend, looking defeated, declared, “They're finishing it.”

With that Scott threw a coin high into the air. Among the many gathered to witness the spectacle, six people held their breath, their eyes fixed in horror on the shiny small orb. It seemed to hover at its apogee, then it fell to the ground where it kicked up the smallest puff of dirt.

At that sign two men went for their guns.

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

Monday

In dismay Gabe watched as the two men, both civilized and honorable, engaged in a battle that was neither. That they could stand, emotionless, facing one another for the sole purpose of wielding death was unfathomable to the sheriff. Yet these two men, one of whom was the son of a dear friend, seemed unaffected by the barbarism in which they were engaged.

He had no time to dwell on these morbid thoughts as he was jerked back to reality by the sight of a coin spinning high in the air. Gravity took its toll and the disk fell to the dirt between the two gunmen and two shots were fired, almost as one. He watched in horror, holding his breath as two men embraced the impact of their deeds. For what seemed an eternity both men stood in the middle of the street, eyes fixed on one another. Then one man crumpled to the dirt and the other lowered both his gun and his head.

“Johnny,” Murdoch groaned. The anguish in the older man's voice was reflected by the expression in his eyes.

Gabe tossed a glance at Scott; the young man stood unmoving, his head turned toward his brother.

For long moments silence reigned, the witnesses to the drama paralyzed by the result of the encounter. Then with a scream as startling as a crack of thunder on a moonless night, the young woman he had tried to keep away ran sobbing into the street. She dropped to the ground beside the fallen combatant, her anguished cries heard by all who now stood watching, frozen in place. Close behind her followed the doctor.

His legs like lead, Gabe pushed himself off the boardwalk to join them in the street. This was no time for emotion, he had a job to do.

Sam knelt down and opened his bag to withdraw a wad of bandages to stop the flow of blood. Already the dirt around them was stained where the blood had soaked in. He watched the woman's clothes change from blue to purple as the man's blood continued to flow all too freely. Gabe knew well enough to let the doctor take care of the injury without interruption. He looked back to Murdoch and Scott who still had not moved and wondered what was holding them back. How could they leave Johnny alone at a time like this?

Before him the wounded man coughed lightly as he struggled to speak. “Amelia. You came.” Though clearly in a great deal of pain, Bodine used his wounded left arm to pull the young woman into an embrace.

“How could you do this?” she sobbed. “To yourself, to us? How could you?” She raised her eyes, now red with tears, and cast an accusing look at her beloved.

“I told you why.” Bodine met Amelia's violet eyes with an intensity that took his breath. Repentant, he pleaded with her for understanding. “Back then it seemed so important. But I was a fool.” He struggled for breath as he fought unconsciousness. “I was wrong. I'm so sorry, my love. Forgive me?”

Amelia pushed him to arm's length and looked deep into his eyes. She stifled yet another sob and whispered, “I thought I'd lost you.”

Interrupting the reunion of the couple, Doc Jenkins retorted, “Well, not quite. What he has lost is quite possibly his right arm. His left arm will be fine, it's just been nicked.” Sam caught Bodine's gaze. “But sir, it's your right arm that's a worry. The humerus has been shattered. I've bound it up as best I can to stop the bleeding, but I need to get you back to my surgery. I'll do all I can for you, but I can't make any promises. Infection is always a problem. If you're very lucky you may keep some movement in this arm, however your shooting days are clearly over. Right now we need to remove the broken bits of bone.”

Listening to the couple's conversation, and now the doctor's assessment of Bodine's injury, Gabe shook his head in wonder. He would never understand the Lancer boy but his respect for him had grown immeasurably. The young gunhawk could have ended Bodine's life but for reasons unknown to anyone but himself, Johnny had spared the other man.

Suddenly aware of the ever-growing crowd that was gathering, Gabe left the doctor to his business. It seemed the only people who hadn't flooded into the street were the Lancers. With arms extended, Gabe stood between the townspeople and the doctor. “That's all folks, nothing here to see. Go on about your business.”

Reluctantly the crowd dispersed and Doc Jenkins fulfilled his responsibilities. The old doctor was fastidious in his work and skillfully ministered to the gunfighter in the dusty street of their town.

Mopping his brow with one sleeve, the doctor addressed Gabe, rather than Bodine. “I've done all I can do here, Gabe. Now I'll need help getting him to my place for surgery.”

Gabe tapped his finger on the butt of his gun and took a deep breath. The sooner Bodine and his lady left town, the better he would like it, but he realized the man needed tending and would not be leaving any time soon.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Bodine buried his head in the young woman's hair and breathed deeply. Never mind he still lay in a dusty street, his life blood seeping into the dirt around them. Amelia had come to him, had indeed found him and, as if in league with Johnny Madrid, she had saved him. God, how he loved this woman, and the realization of what his actions had nearly cost him awakened an anguish in his heart that overcame the pain in his arm.

Amelia gasped. He followed her gaze and saw the once-white bandages now scarlet with blood. And though the wrapping prevented her from seeing the full extent of the injury, it was clear it was not good.

“Oh my God, Shane!” Amelia's features paled at the sight of so much blood. It covered her gown, his hands and now their future.

He couldn't bear the thought of losing her. “It will be fine, my dear. Just fine, you'll see,” Shane attempted to comfort her, the doctor's diagnosis sending her into a heightened state of fear. He squeezed her and whispered, “Don't worry. I still have one arm to hold you with.”

And at the moment that arm was the only thing keeping him from lying sprawled in the street. He wrapped it more tightly around her.

Unknown to Amelia, Bodine looked over her shoulder at Johnny Madrid. He stared at his opponent who remained standing in the street and was overwhelmed with the emotion of relief that was replacing any anger at the devastating injury the younger man had inflicted upon his person. In fact, he was surprised to discover he was not just relieved but grateful. His days of the gun were indeed behind him. He knew he would never recover the talent of which he had been proud. Not now, not ever. He was free of that life and his quest for victory. He was finally free to pursue a life with the woman who knelt in the dirt beside him. And there would be no shame. The best had bested him, and given him a way out forever. He smiled and nodded.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Johnny found he could not tear his eyes from the couple in the street. He'd always walked away in the past, hidden deep within himself to deal with the aftermath of his actions, but this time he felt compelled to stand and bear witness as the doctor performed his job. At least this time it was the doctor, and not the undertaker. This had to be a first in his life; after the dust settled to be able to stand and watch while a man ministered to his challenger rather than measuring him for a wooden box.

The woman had indeed affected him, influenced his actions. The whole situation had been inexplicably altered by one chance encounter with the distraught woman. And he was grateful. Grateful that he had succumbed to her influence, that Bodine lived still, that he could stand and face them openly, with no regret.

And then his vigil was rewarded. Bodine caught his eye. With no word spoken, none needed, understanding passed between them. Bodine nodded his head, a movement so slight as to be barely perceptible. But Johnny had seen it and he knew. They understood each other. It was enough.

Johnny turned aside, content now to leave the sheriff and the doctor to do their jobs, when he caught sight of his father and brother. Teresa's presence at Murdoch's side was noted with some measure of surprise but quickly accepted. It was her right to be there, acknowledgment of the role she had played. As Johnny watched, Murdoch turned to Teresa and whispered something to her, which elicited a firm nod. Then he stepped off the boardwalk and, together with Scott, Murdoch approached him, both men using all the caution they would with a wild animal. But Madrid had not yet retreated, he was still firmly in control. He could not face them. Not yet. He turned away.

On some level he knew his family had seen him at his worst and, as was his way, he needed time to come to grips with the events of the morning. While relieved he had survived, he was still overwhelmed by a pain never before experienced. His family had witnessed him at his worst, seen the ugliness he had striven so diligently to conceal. In one raw, brutal moment in time, he had lowered his guard and exhibited the most heinous, primal action imaginable. Surely Murdoch, Scott and Teresa would hate him. Surely they would turn away, revolted by the disgusting truth he carried in his soul. And he couldn't blame them, when they did. A man, though not dead, had been grievously wounded and he was responsible. Though it seemed Bodine forgave him the injury, he wasn't certain he could forgive himself. Nor that his family could. But wasn't it better, he argued with himself, to let a man live? Even with such a wound? Still the violence he knew himself capable of had little place among decent people.

“Johnny?” He heard the struggle it was for Murdoch to speak. His father was ashamed, obviously regretting the day he had sent for his infamous son. It was in his voice, in his expression. His father hated him. Scott moved to stand beside Murdoch, his countenance the mirror image of his father's. Waves of disgust rolled over and through Johnny.

He may have been the victor today, but the family's standing in the small town had suffered a blemish from which they would not recover. The gunfight had been won but Johnny knew the war was not over. Thoughts of the battle still to come, a battle with his family where they faced the consequences of their betrayal, left Johnny morose.

Madrid shook off the sorrowful brooding of Johnny Lancer. He concentrated on the deception his family had engaged in, and allowed anger to ease his turmoil. Anger was comforting; it strengthened him and would serve as a shield in the hours to come. He would confront them, and it would be his last act before he left Lancer. He would confront them as decidedly as he had met Bodine. All he had wanted was to keep the home he had found, yet their actions had forced him to lose that which he held most dear.

Unable to bear the grief their rejection caused, Johnny turned aside. He would not let them see his pain, he would leave his home, his family, spare them the embarrassment of his presence in the community. Resolved, he swallowed down the anguish, both physical and mental, his decision made.

Still entrenched in Madrid's control, and aware of that same slow-burning anger festering deep within himself, Johnny turned back to face Murdoch and Scott. Something in his expression must have been clear because they drew back instinctively. “What are you doing here?” he growled. “Go away. Leave me alone.”

 

= = = = = = =

 

Scott stood transfixed, his eyes on the silver orb as it lifted high in the air then settled in the dust. With brilliant clarity, the gunshots echoed in his ears, drowning out all other sounds. Long heartbeats ticked by as the smoke curled around the barrel of two guns and two men teetered on the brink of life and death. The one man stood unmoving while the other man collapsed. From out of nowhere a screaming woman rushed to the fallen man's side before Scott's vision narrowed and landed on the man left standing. Relief exploded in his heart and mind, yet the realization his brother had prevailed crashed headlong into an unfathomable anger. Murdoch had sought to avoid this event, but in so doing had sent the whole family over the precipice, facing life and death. And despite his own best efforts, Scott had not been able to prevent Johnny from engaging in a game with deadly consequences.

No, that wasn't true. Shame flooded Scott's soul as he acknowledged Johnny had only done what he had to do. Johnny had taken the same course of action, which he, Scott, had been prepared to take. The warring emotions of relief and anger combined to heighten the awareness of the pounding in his head. Absently, he rubbed a hand over the lump on the back of his head. A phrase from a book he had once read, Bickersteth's treatise on prayer, drifted unbidden through his mind as he glanced at Bodine. “There, but for the grace of God, go I…”

Or was it by the grace of Johnny Madrid? Johnny Madrid had risked his life for his brother. Sighing, Scott realized the enigma, the riddle of the man he called brother, would have to wait for another day. For now, it was enough to know the Lancers had survived.

“Johnny?”

His father's voice carried all the dismay Scott felt. But one glance at the closed expression on Johnny Madrid's face and Scott knew the real battle was yet to begin.

“What are you doing here? Go away. Leave me alone.”

Despite himself, Scott took a step backwards. He knew they deserved Johnny's rancor but it didn't lessen the suffering it caused. The thought of what Murdoch must be going through flashed through his mind. This chain of events had been started by a man whose one wish was to protect his son. Right or wrong, the knowledge that his actions had been for nothing, that they were enacting the very event he tried to avoid, must be causing him anguish. And as Johnny now knew all that had led to this point it was crucial he keep them apart until emotions had settled. Scott could not allow words to be spoken from which there could be no return.

“Murdoch, you'd better let me deal with Johnny.”

His father shook his head, eyes never leaving his younger son. The sorrow, the regret was plain to hear. “No, it's all my fault. All along. I need to make it right.”

“And you will. But now is not the time. Please, Murdoch. I think Johnny needs to be left alone for a while.” Scott laid a hand on his father's shoulder, knowing both father and brother were unprepared for any confrontation. “Let me stay with him. Let me reach him. He will come around and I'll be there when he's ready to talk. If we set him off now he'll just leave. And none of us wants that.”

The older man heaved a sigh. One more glance at the dangerous man standing across from them, his eyes flashing with clear warning, served to bear witness to Scott's wisdom. “You're right. He'll hardly want to see me and I can't blame him. Just don't let him leave. I'll stay with Teresa. The poor girl must be beside herself. Scott, tell him…”

The words never came but Scott understood. He nodded then turned back to his brother. There was a sense of relief that he would face Johnny alone. Somehow he had to find Johnny Lancer; he had to pull him back from the brink of extinction. Resolved, he ignored his throbbing head and focused on the gunman still standing in the street. Despite the warning etched on Johnny's features, Scott took a careful step toward the young man. He held his hands out to his sides and stepped ever closer. “Johnny, come on.” Scott made every effort to keep his voice low and soothing yet he remained watchful.

For a mere moment, Johnny Lancer stared back out of the haunted face, then the doors to his soul slammed shut and the gunfighter returned.

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Monday

Scott persisted, “Brother, let's go home.”

“I said leave me alone.” If his best Madrid snarl didn't deter his brother, nothing would. Johnny turned his back and walked over to the hitching post. He picked up his jacket and shrugged into it. Though the injury of the gunfight caused him some difficulty, there was no way he would let it show.

“If that's what you want. But first you have to let Sam look at your arm.” Scott's attempt to reason with his brother was lost on Madrid. He had always taken care of himself in the past and he would continue to do so. Still Scott pressed ahead. “You were shot.”

“It's just a scratch. It's Bodine who needs the doc.” Johnny's soft voice dropped even lower. “Now this is the last time I'll say it. Leave me alone.”

Wanting nothing more than to get away from the people who had witnessed the battle, he made his way into the saloon. Pushing his way through the doors he strode up to the bar and slammed down some coins. “Tequila.”

The bartender wasted no time in producing a bottle and a glass. Before Johnny poured the drink he threw more coins down on the bar. “Here, get yourself a new sign.” He took his drink and the bottle to a table in the corner and sat down. He had demons to battle.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Teresa's approach helped break the dilemma Scott struggled with. “Why did you let him walk away? He's hurt. He needs us.”

“Steady, Teresa. We're all a bit shaken by what has just happened.” Scott put his arm around her shoulders and held her close. “We just have to give him some time.”

Teresa pulled back from his hold. “Don't be ridiculous. He needs Sam. We have to do something.”

“He shouldn't be going through this alone.” Murdoch hung back, his gaze following his younger son into the saloon.

Scott knew what they said was true, but he dreaded the cost. He nodded. “I said I will deal with Johnny, Murdoch, and I will. You stay with Teresa. We've all been through a lot.”

Scott looked to the street where the doctor had been working, only to find it now deserted. Where the gunfighter had fallen there remained nothing but a stain seeping into the dirt. “It looks like Sam is busy with Bodine at the moment. I'm sure as soon as he's through he'll come look at Johnny.”

“Teresa's going to go and see that the young woman is all right. What did you say her name was, sweetheart?” asked Murdoch.

“Amelia Dunbarton.”

“We'll leave you to it, Scott. I'll go with Teresa to Sam's and let him know where to find Johnny, then I'll go on to see Gabe and make sure Johnny's in no trouble with him. If we meet you back here in about an hour, will that be enough time?”

“I have no idea, Murdoch. I guess we'll find out soon enough.” Scott left Murdoch and Teresa hurrying down the boardwalk towards the doctor's place. With little to stop him now from facing the inevitable confrontation he walked into the saloon. He spotted his brother at the corner table and with more confidence than he felt Scott strode up to the table and asked, “Mind if I join you?”

When he received no answer, he pulled out a chair and motioned to the bartender to bring him a glass. Without another word he poured himself a drink and tossed it down before re-filling both glasses. They sat that way for some time, just pouring and drinking, not always as one, and Scott began to see that the wound in his brother's arm and the liberal doses of tequila were having an effect on Johnny.

Yet, the man sitting across the table from him was still not his brother, not the man Scott had met months before and come to know as Johnny Lancer. Scott knew Madrid would not withdraw while Johnny needed him. Surely he would not let down his guard unless, and until, all threats were dealt with. So why was his presence lingering now?

Bodine was in the doctor's office, being tended. He had been alone, no accomplices. The gunfight was over, the result now common knowledge. Yet still Madrid was protecting a damaged Lancer.

A creeping sense of fear stole over Scott once again. The relief he felt at seeing his brother left standing was being replaced by the fear of losing his brother anyway. If Madrid was strong enough to persuade Lancer to return to his former life, a life of the gun and of death, then Johnny's days were surely numbered.

Lost in these thoughts Scott was caught off guard when Johnny suddenly raised his head and leaned across the table. With lip curled into a sneer and rage hardening his otherwise youthful features, Johnny railed, “What the hell did you think you were doing? Trying to take on Bodine that way!”

Scott recoiled momentarily from the unexpected ferocity of Johnny's words but quickly recovered. Refusing to challenge his brother's anger with that of his own, Scott softened his gaze and swallowed back his own volatility. He replied, “It's simple. Greater love hath no man than this…”

In shock, Johnny sat back, his eyes widening with an understanding that had been lacking in the days leading up to the encounter with Bodine. When he finally spoke, it was with a voice so low Scott had to strain to hear him. “You were prepared to face Bodine, knowing he would kill you? For me?”

 

= = = = = = =

 

Murdoch opened the door and ushered Teresa into the waiting room where the young woman who had rushed to Bodine's side was now seated. She looked up with a startled gasp at the intrusion in her grief.

Teresa moved towards her and sat down in the seat next to her. Taking Amelia's hand in her own, she offered comfort. “How are you holding up?”

“I wish I could say I was anything but distressed but I could not manage a lie at this time.” Amelia dipped her head and her free hand dabbed at the tear that trickled down her cheek.

“Nor should you. We have all had a very difficult few hours.” Teresa released Amelia's hand and drew her into an embrace, empathy coloring her cheeks. “And I know you still have some hard moments ahead. But I would like to help, if I could.”

Amelia nodded her head gratefully. “You are most generous, given the circumstances.”

“Not at all, I just understand your pain.” As if aware of Murdoch's presence for the first time, Teresa waved a hand in his direction. “Amelia Dunbarton, this is Murdoch Lancer, Johnny Lancer's father.”

Murdoch observed the unlikely bond that seemed to be developing between the two women. While their loved ones had sought to kill each other, the women had apparently found a common objective. With Johnny Madrid's perfectly placed bullet, their goal had been realized. Regardless of the outcome of Bodine's surgery, Murdoch knew the couple had a future. Thanks to Johnny Madrid. Yet Johnny's own future seemed to teeter in the balance.

Suddenly aware that Amelia's violet eyes were studying him expectantly, Murdoch doffed his hat. “Ma'am.”

Amelia managed nothing more than a nod in his direction. Whether it was from grief or embarrassment he couldn't say. Quickly coming to Amelia's aid, Teresa continued. “Does Sam have help in there?”

Amelia shook her head. “No, I believe he lacks an assistant. It's not quite like the hospital in San Francisco. How I wish Shane had never ventured to this place.”

Murdoch once more felt a stirring of gratitude that his son had spared Bodine. He ached to see Johnny, to tell him how very proud he was of him. But the tormented look in his son's face floated before his eyes as the events of the morning were replayed in his mind. With a start, he refocused on Amelia and Teresa. “I'll see how he's doing,” offered Murdoch, leaving the two women alone to talk.

He pushed open the door and Sam looked up, clearly surprised at the interruption. “Murdoch, what are you doing here?”

Murdoch closed the door behind him. “Teresa is seeing that Miss Dunbarton is all right. I just wanted to know if you need anything here.”

“I'm just removing some fragments of bone,” Sam explained without taking his eyes off an unconscious Bodine. “As soon as I finish I'll see to Johnny.”

“Thank you.” Gratitude once more stirred in Murdoch's soul, this time for the understanding of a friend. “I have to admit I'm worried about him.”

“I saw him shot in the shoulder, old friend, but I also saw little blood. As long as you stop the flow and keep it as clean as you can he'll be fine until I can get there.” Sam replaced a bloodied bandage with a clean one. “Right now this man needs me more.”

“That's not what's worrying me.” Murdoch twisted his hat in his hands and admitted, “He doesn't want anything to do with us.”

“Murdoch, he'll understand I have to be here now, doing all I can for this man.” Sam pressed a hand over Bodine's wounded arm. His voice was firm. “Whether you care to face the facts or not, your son is not new to this. He has faced bullets before and he knows what needs to be done. He's survived this long without you. He'll do what's best for himself.” Sam paused and examined the wound. Softer this time, with an equal balance of compassion and direction, he continued, “It just sounds like he needs to be alone for now.”

“I wish he trusted me, Sam. Not that I deserve it. I should have trusted him from the beginning.” The pain in Murdoch's voice was clearly evident. “I wish he'd just come home.”

“And he will, Murdoch. Of course he will. For the time being you'll help him by trusting him to do what's right.” Sam tossed another glance at his friend. “Now let me finish my work here so I can get to Johnny. Where is he?”

“I last saw him headed into the saloon. Scott's with him.” Murdoch turned away from Sam and bowed his head. “I'm going to find Gabe. I'll be back for Teresa soon.”

“Make sure you shut the door as you leave. I don't want Miss Dunbarton to witness what I have to do here.”

Murdoch left the room and closed the door softly behind him. The two women in the waiting room were seated next to each other, heads bowed together as Teresa comforted the other woman. He leaned back against the door and listened to the words of wisdom and comfort his young ward was sharing.

“Amelia, I have seen Sam do some amazing things. Why, those brothers of mine seem to get into more trouble than you could imagine. By all rights they should each have fallen victim to their injuries long ago. But Sam keeps stitching them up and they're as good as new.”

“I hope you're right,” the other woman sighed. “I feel like I finally have Shane back. To lose him now would be too cruel.”

“You're lucky he's alive. I'm very sorry for your loss and the pain you're suffering, but I knew all along Johnny would win.” Teresa squeezed Amelia's shoulder. “Bodine should never have come to Spanish Wells.”

Amelia leveled an intense stare on Teresa. “I know. I suppose I am grateful that Shane is alive.”

Nodding her head in agreement, Teresa admitted. “We all are. More than you can know. And no one is more grateful than Johnny…except perhaps you.

Murdoch felt uncomfortable overhearing the conversation. He cleared his throat and both women looked in his direction. “I'm going to see Gabe. I'll be back for you soon.” Again he doffed his hat and strode out into the harsh afternoon sun. As he made his way to the sheriff's office he looked towards the saloon. There was no sign of Scott or Johnny but both their horses were still tethered in the street.

He entered Gabe's office and found his friend cleaning his rifle. He didn't seem surprised to see Murdoch.

“How's Johnny?” Gabe paused in his labor, watching Murdoch expectantly.

“I wish I could tell you, Gabe. It looks like the wound in his arm is the least of his problems.” Murdoch removed his hat and sank into the chair opposite the lawman.

“It's hard to face the barrel of a gun and walk away. Murdoch, the boy will be fine, just give him time.” Gabe resumed his chore and nodded toward the pot on the stove. “Want some coffee?”

“No, thanks.” Murdoch sighed heavily. He was tired, so very tired. The strain of the last few days had taken a toll. “I know we should step back for now. But knowing and doing can be very different things.”

“Well, you know you have time. I witnessed the gunplay and can vouch for the fact Johnny was pushed into it and didn't draw first.” Gabe caught Murdoch's eye. “He has nothing to answer for. There'll be no charges to face.”

“Thank you for that, old friend.” Murdoch rose and placed his hat firmly on his head. “At least that's one worry I can put aside.”

Murdoch left and went back to Sam's, hoping Teresa was ready to return with him to find out how Scott was doing. There was a seat on the boardwalk opposite the saloon. They could sit there and wait if they needed.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Suddenly, as if Madrid had heard Scott's thoughts, read his mind in fact, he pushed back from the table and stood up. “Seems we've been reading the same scripture, brother.” For the first time he met Scott's gaze with his own. “I'm going home. And nothing is going to stop me from getting there now. It doesn't mean I've forgotten what's gone on. Doesn't mean I want to talk about it either.” He strode across the room and out the batwing doors.

With a nod Scott followed him outside. He reached out and tried to draw the young man closer but felt a shudder in his brother's body before his hand was roughly shrugged off. Johnny shifted away again and drew his jacket tighter around him.

Unsure what to do, but sensing his brother's needs, Scott took a few steps back. Silent and helpless, he looked on. Gone was the gunfighter's insouciant slouch. What had taken its place was something infinitely more disturbing.

As soon as Murdoch and Teresa saw them exit the saloon, they leaped up and moved to Scott's side as Johnny made his way up the street to Barranca.

“Where's he going?” The panic in Teresa's voice was obvious.

“He's going home.” Scott nodded toward their own horses. “Let's saddle up.”

Murdoch offered Teresa a hand up and, once satisfied she was in the saddle, turned to his own mount. He tossed a concerned glance at his younger son, now mounted and riding slowly out of town. “Thank God it's over,” murmured Murdoch.

But Scott had his doubts. Johnny Madrid's refusal to relinquish control to Lancer was still a worry and the nagging feeling would not lessen. In fact, it was increasing with every minute. Scott leaped into his saddle and spurred to catch up with his father and Teresa as they followed Johnny from town.

They rode for some distance, Johnny resolutely headed towards Lancer, yet nothing in his bearing invited discussion. He sat hunched in the saddle, arms pressed to his sides. It was clear their company was not desired. Still, they trailed behind him, just grateful he had escaped relatively unscathed.

Scott's gaze was fixed on Johnny, riding just ahead of them. They'd left the witnesses of town behind them. Somehow it seemed fitting that they were watching his back. But Scott could feel the torment rolling off his brother likes waves against the shore.

Then, without warning, Johnny leaned to one side then slowly slid from his saddle, hitting the ground with a sickening thud.

Teresa's cry pierced the heavy air. “Johnny!”

In a flash Scott was off his horse and running for the fallen man. “Dammit, Murdoch, I knew something was wrong.”

Johnny's coat had splayed open and as Scott kneeled in the dirt beside his brother he noticed for the first time a large bloodstain covering Johnny's right side.

“He's not breathing.”

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Monday

Gabe was tired, so very tired. The emotional trauma of the day's events had left him weary and off balance. His years as a lawman had exposed him to a great deal of violence. He had witnessed men fighting and killing each other on too many occasions. And to what end? A name, a reputation that was both wrought with danger and so very fleeting. A reputation that was destined to destroy the one bearing it. Yet none of the murderous events he had seen in the past had prepared him for the battle that had occurred a short while ago. Never had he been as involved in the outcome of a duel. Never had he watched a friend suffered as had Murdoch Lancer. And never had he been as relieved by the result of such a gunfight as now.

It was the relief that worried him. The fact a man had been maimed was not the bother; quite the contrary. It was the thought that it could have been his friend's son who was now suffering. While he sympathized with Amelia Dunbarton, recognized her fear and concern as her beloved underwent surgery, Gabe could not avoid the reality that he was pleased Johnny Lancer had lived to walk away. To view gunplay in terms of the victor and the defeated was understandable, but to stand by silently praying that one, rather than the other, would be victorious? Was he so jaded? So unfeeling? Were these the thoughts and actions of a seasoned lawman?

Gabe shook his head. No, he was neither jaded nor unfeeling. He was simply showing loyalty to a friend and concern for the well-being of that friend's son. Johnny Madrid Lancer. The man was amazing. His blinding speed was impressive, but even more so his ability to hit his intended target with unerring accuracy. Yet even as Gabe acknowledged the skill of the younger Lancer, he was equally in awe of the older son.

Scott Lancer had surely known he could not defeat Bodine, still he had been determined to stand in his brother's stead to ensure Johnny would live to see the next sunrise. What kind of man could be so courageous, so noble? Scott Lancer was an enigma, as impressive in his own way as his brother.

Gabe shrugged off his musings on the Lancer family. For now, he had a job to do and part of his duty was to enquire as to the condition of Shane Bodine. Duty? No, it was not a question of duty. It was the desire to assure himself the man, and his fiancée, would soon be able to leave his town, and the tragic events of this morning, behind them.

Sighing, he rose from his chair and crossed to the doorway. He paused to retrieve his hat from the coat rack then left the office, intent on discovering the doctor's prognosis for one Shane Bodine, ex-gunfighter.

 

= = = = = = =

 

“What do you mean he's not breathing? He must be.” Murdoch threw himself from his horse to join Scott at Johnny's side. “Check again.”

Teresa had dismounted and she now stood, dumbstruck and pale, watching as her family fell apart.

Scott scrambled around until he was kneeling at Johnny's head. “Here, Murdoch, help me get Johnny's arms up above his head.”

His father raised Johnny's arms and Scott took hold of them. He began to rhythmically press Johnny's arms down across his chest then pull them upwards and outwards, forcing air into his brother's lungs.

Seeing what Scott intended Murdoch kept watch for signs that it was effective. Scott repeated the action several times before a change appeared in the movement of his younger son's chest.

“It's all right,” encouraged Murdoch. “I think you can stop. It looks like it's worked.”

With profound relief they noticed Johnny's eyelids flutter.

“I think,” panted Scott, “Johnny just had the wind knocked out of him by the fall from Barranca. Thank God for that. But this wound of his needs attention.”

“Here.” Teresa's single word surprised Murdoch. He turned to see her holding out a wadded piece of cotton. “Use this to press into the wound.”

Not stopping to ask where she had found it Murdoch took the cloth and pressed it firmly to Johnny's side. “We've got to get him to Sam.”

“Or get Sam to him,” offered Teresa.

“Whatever we do, we'd better do it fast. He's lost a lot of blood.”

Scott was already gathering the horses and leading them over. “Murdoch, if you can hold Johnny on the horse with you, and at least start towards town, I can ride ahead and give Sam warning.”

“It makes sense, Son. Help me get him up.”

Together the men lifted Johnny and Teresa helped Scott support his weight while Murdoch mounted his horse. Between the three of them they hoisted Johnny into the saddle in front of Murdoch, careful to avoid his injured side. Teresa gathered up Barranca and mounted her mare as Scott leapt into his saddle and rode off, back towards town.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Sam had done everything he could to repair the damage to Bodine's right arm. He had removed bone fragments, cleaned the wound with carbolic acid and stitched it. The bandage was fresh and white and no blood or fluid was seeping through. Now it was up to Bodine. The gunhawk was resting under the lingering effects of the laudanum but when he awoke the pain would make itself known. The man would need liberal doses of the drug for some time to keep the pain under control. Especially as he faced a bone-jarring stagecoach ride back to San Francisco. Once home again it would be an uphill battle to overcome the grievous injury to his arm. He would require therapy, of that Sam was certain. Still, Bodine was strong enough, and it appeared, given time and the proper motivation, he could regain a minimal range of motion. Certainly enough to embrace the beautiful young woman who even now was waiting outside.

The promise of Amelia Dunbarton's affection would give any man reason enough to fight. Amelia Dunbarton. How had such a fine young lady ever allowed herself to become involved with the likes of Shane Bodine? To win the heart of such a tender and gracious young woman was quite a coup. He hoped Bodine was aware of the treasure he held. As Sam finished washing his hands, he realized he should delay no longer. He strode from the room to make his report to Shane Bodine's lady.

As Sam entered the waiting area, Amelia rose to her feet, her hands clenched across her small waist. She lifted vivid amethyst eyes that shone with unshed tears to Sam's faded ones, urging him to speak, willing him to utter the words for which she had been praying. “Will he be all right, Doctor?” Her voice was faint yet full of hope.

“Actually, Miss, he has a better chance of recovery than I had first thought.” Sam saw the expression of relief that flashed in her eyes, watched as a single tear drifted down her cheek.

“Oh dear Lord, I was so frightened.” Her voice was stronger this time, but her fear and doubt were still evident. “Are you completely assured he will make a full recovery? I can not consider the possibility of his demise.”

“It isn't all good news, Miss Dunbarton.” Sam hesitated, aware of the effect his words would have on her emotional state. “If we can fight off any infection, if the bone will stabilize and if he will follow my instructions to the letter, he may retain a small use of his arm. Make no mistake, he will never draw a gun, or do any strenuous labor, but he should manage to do minor activities. Like hold your hand.” The latter was quickly added as Sam saw the dread returning to Amelia's delicate features.

She took a tremulous breath, then lifted her chin, fortitude strengthening the set of her jaw. “He shall, my good doctor, indeed recover. I will not contemplate otherwise.”

“I'm sure your determination will help him a great deal. He's very lucky to have you, Miss Dunbarton.” Sam's tone left no doubt of his sincerity.

Recognizing the compliment, Amelia blushed and took one of Sam's hands in her own. “No, Dr. Jenkins, it is we who are lucky to have you. I must thank you for the extraordinary care you have given to a man you must despise.”

“Nonsense. I am a doctor and he is my patient. That's all I need to consider.” In spite of her connection to the man who had tried to murder his best friend's son, Sam was growing to like this woman. Her sterling character and unwavering devotion were touching. Once again he found himself pondering the wonder of her remarkable love for Bodine. He knew what Bodine could see in her, but for her to deem Bodine worthy of her love was mystifying. Perhaps, in spite of his earlier course of action, there was more to the man than met the eye. “And as my patient I can tell you that Mr. Bodine will not be fit to leave town tonight. Do you have a room at the hotel?”

Her response was interrupted as Gabe pushed open the door and entered the room.

“Ma'am,” Gabe tipped his hat. “I'm sorry to intrude but I've got to speak to the doc here about his patient.”

“We've just been doing that very thing, Sheriff.” Amelia seemed undisturbed by the interruption. Instead, with dignity and poise, she continued, “Your doctor has been setting my mind at ease. I trust you have not come to cause it further disquiet?”

“No, Ma'am. At least, I hope not.” Gabe remembered his manners and removed his hat, which he twisted in his hands.

Sam knew the young woman was aware of the discomfort Bodine's presence had wrought upon the sheriff's town. Still, she was prepared to defend her betrothed at all costs. Sam trusted Gabe to avoid causing her any more grief than the day's events had already. Even as the thought crossed Sam's mind, Gabe lent it voice.

“Enough harm has been done today. I just need to know when Mr. Bodine will be fit to leave town.”

“Then if Dr. Jenkins will be so kind as to allow me to go through and see how Shane is, I will leave you gentlemen to your discussion.” She looked askance of the doctor and when he nodded in agreement, she swept from the room.

“So will Bodine recover?” Gabe focused his attention on Sam. “How soon can he leave Spanish Wells?”

“Sheriff, the man is no longer a threat.” Sam was a good doctor and knew the needs of his patient, any patient, were first and foremost in importance. “He can no longer hurt anyone.”

“I understand that, but this town is my responsibility and, as sheriff, I will decide who stays and who goes.” Gabe challenged the doctor to disagree.

Still Sam was equally stubborn. “That may be true, but the man is my patient and I will have the last say on when he may travel.”

Before the two men had time to pursue their discussion of the patient's condition the furious pounding of hooves signaled the approach of someone galloping into town.

= = = = = = =

 

Not for the first time that day a Lancer came tearing into town at breakneck speed. Reining Shiloh to a shuddering halt, dust billowing beneath the horse's hooves, Scott slid from the saddle before the animal had come to a complete stop.

Scott threw the reins over the hitching post and burst through the doctor's door. Without acknowledging Gabe Scott directed his words to Sam. “Murdoch's on his way here with Johnny. He's hurt. I've come ahead to make sure you're ready.”

“Easy, Scott, of course I'm ready. But Johnny's wound was just a scratch.” Sam did not understand the need for such concern but sought to reassure Scott Lancer nonetheless. “No need to ride like the hounds of Hell are on your tail.”

“No, you don't understand.” Scott struggled to steady his breath and maintain some semblance of control. All the while his heart pounded with the fear that Bodine's bullet could still rob Johnny of his life, even now, hours after the fact. “Sam, Johnny was shot. A second time. On the other side, his right. Murdoch is bringing him in.” Scott gripped the doctor's shoulder. “For a while he wasn't breathing.”

“Lord a'mighty, why didn't you say so sooner?” Sam brushed off Scott's hand and marched into the second surgery room, pausing briefly to toss over his shoulder, “I'll be ready when they get here.”

As Sam prepared what he might need to tend to Johnny, Scott ran back out into the street, closely followed by Gabe.

“Do you think they'll need a wagon? I can head to the livery and get one hitched,” offered Gabe.

“No. Thank you. I know Murdoch will get Johnny here. He should be here any moment. If not, Sam can take my horse and head out to meet them.”

“Better yet, then, I'll get my horse ready. He's fresh.”

“Thank you, Gabe. For everything,” pressed Scott.

With those words they heard the sound of approaching hooves and around the bend into the main street appeared Murdoch and Teresa. Perched before the massive frame of his father was his brother, clearly suffering from the effects of the ride. When Murdoch reined up at the hitching post, Scott ran to his father's side, helping to lower Johnny from the horse. With relief Scott noticed his brother had regained consciousness. Though dazed and disoriented Johnny seemed determined to make his own way into Sam's. He took a shuddering breath and shrugged off the hands that supported him, keeping one hand on the horse's withers as support. He took a step and faltered. Prepared for the curse of Lancer pride, Scott was by his side in an instant. He propped Johnny up and threw one of his brother's arms over his shoulder, saying, “I've got you, brother. This dance is mine.”

Little did Scott realize he had uttered the very expression used by Johnny in the barn hours earlier. Aiding his brother, they made it into the surgery where Sam was waiting. The doctor set to work with calm precision, stripping away Johnny's shirt and trousers and inspecting both wounds. He started work on the bullet hole to Johnny's side. Scott looked around to see his father watching, Gabe's hand resting on his shoulder, and Teresa gathering water to put to the boil.

“Although he's lost a fair amount of blood, it doesn't appear to be too serious. A clean wound, just flesh, no organs or major arteries involved.” Sam's calm appraisal worked to ease the tension in the room. A collective sigh passed from each observer.

“Teresa, get the carbolic acid please. Again, it's infection that's the greatest concern.”

“Is someone else hurt?” So focused on what was happening with Johnny, no-one had heard Amelia appear at the door.

Without answering her inquiry, Sam turned to face the group that was crammed into the tiny surgical room. “Murdoch, Gabe, please take everyone out into the waiting room so I can do my job.”

Nodding in understanding, Murdoch ushered everyone from the room. The tension in the waiting area was thick, settling on each individual like a cloying fog. The women sat close together as if gaining strength from one another. The men alternately stood or sat in the remaining chairs, each lost in his own thoughts. Minutes turned into an hour, and all felt their patience waning, the pressure of fear having taxed their endurance to the limits.

When the small group felt they could bear no more the door to the surgical room swung open. All heads turned expectantly at the sound of the opening door, and as Sam entered the room, his face testifying to the exhaustion the day's events had wrought upon him, as well as the others, each wondered when the nightmare would end.

But the end was nowhere in sight. In fact the trauma was intensifying, as the doctor's words chilled each soul to the core of their being.

“Murdoch, I'm sorry….”

 

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Monday

Amelia took her leave of the doctor and the sheriff and swept from the room, eager to see for herself how Shane was faring. She gently opened the door to his room and peeked inside, anxious not to waken him if he was resting. As her gaze fell upon the man she loved, her lips softened into a gentle smile. She studied him quietly for long moments. Her heart gave a slight tremor as she recognized the countenance of the man she dearly loved, a man she had not seen in so very long.

Shane Bodine's head was turned toward the window, eyes shut, as if to soak up all the warmth the late afternoon sun could bestow upon him. As the slivers of gold streamed in through the gap between the curtains, they caressed his cheek with their gentle glow, casting strategic shadows across his features. In this manner, this state of relaxation, her betrothed seemed both peaceful and so very handsome.

Suddenly, shattering the magical moment, he turned his head towards her, sensing her close proximity. Reluctantly, she realized the spell had been broken and with a slight sense of trepidation she entered the room and closed the door behind her. Her voice was barely above a whisper but, in the stillness of the room, he caught her words. “You're awake.”

For a long moment, he simply studied her as if seeing her for the first time, then he whispered, “And alive.”

His tone conveyed his gratitude at her presence, and her heart rejoiced as the realization a love equal to her own was blazing in his eyes once again, igniting the space between them.

“You've no idea how good it feels, my darling.”

“Oh my dearest Shane, I wouldn't be too sure of that.” She crossed the distance between them in hurried steps and captured his left hand in hers. “What you have faced, I have faced. When you left San Francisco, I feared the worst, that even if you were the victor, we were fated to…” Her voice broke and she lowered her head.

He extricated his uninjured hand from hers in order to place it under her chin to lift her head. Her eyes met his and a single tear traced its way down her cheek. In response to her obvious despair, he looked grim. “I have put you through a great deal, Amelia. I was obsessed with my own desires and they were such foolish desires. Yet when you started to walk away I wanted to stop you. I wanted to stop Wilkins from calling your carriage. I wanted to put aside my quest and live my life just for you. I don't know what happened. I just know I failed you. Yet you came back for me. You tried to save me from myself. And now my folly has cost us this.” He raised his heavily bandaged right arm an inch off the bed, the pain it elicited causing him to let it fall back. “I am so sorry, my darling. Can you ever forgive me?”

“I came here, didn't I?” She placed one delicate hand on his cheek and leaned in closer. “Doesn't that tell you all you need to know?”

Their conversation lulled briefly as they paused to contemplate their future. With no further word, he pulled her to him, a slight hiss the only indication that the action caused him pain. She succumbed to her own need and laid her head on his chest, mindful of his bandages. For long moments they remained, as if frozen in the magic of their love, frozen in time, floating between the world of fantasy and reality.

But reality has a way of crashing in, loudly clamoring for acknowledgment, demanding its own way. And so it did as a disturbance in another room reached their ears.

“Who's out there, Amelia?” Shane lifted his head, grimacing at the pain the sudden move caused. He strained to hear, to decipher words from the low rumbling in the next room.

Curiously, Amelia listened, intent on the voices outside their sanctuary. “Just the sheriff. However, he made it very clear there would be no charges to answer. I can't imagine any discussion between him and the doctor would necessitate such a ruckus. Perhaps someone else has been injured today. Shall I go and enquire as to the cause of the disturbance?”

“Do that, my dear.” Exhaustion marred Shane's handsome features. “I'm feeling quite weary and would be so grateful for the opportunity to close my eyes for a moment.”

No sooner had he uttered the words than his eyelids slid shut and his breathing deepened. Amelia studied him, her eyes taking in every curve, every contour of his face. Although reluctant to leave, she rose and made her way back into the waiting room and on towards the source of the noise. As she swung open the door, she was surprised to see the Lancers, Teresa and the sheriff, crowded together in heated conversation.

As they seemed unaware of her presence, she listened unashamedly to Sam's pronouncement.

“Although he's lost a fair amount of blood, it doesn't appear to be too serious. A clean wound, just flesh, no organs or major arteries involved.” Sam turned to Teresa, his instructions directed at the young woman. “Teresa, get the carbolic acid please. Again, it's infection that's the greatest concern.”

Certain of the answer yet unable to remain quiet any longer Amelia interrupted, “Is someone else hurt?”

Her words seemed to remind Sam that he had an audience. “Murdoch, Gabe, please take everyone out into the waiting room so I can do my job.”

Unwilling to intrude upon the Lancers who were clearly distraught at Johnny's injury, yet unsure where else to go now that Shane was resting, Amelia hovered at the edge of the group. Seeing her uncertainty, Teresa took her hand and led her back into the waiting room with them. “Please, sit with me. I'd like to talk. And you know these men would rather eat their boots than face today's consequences.”

“I really don't know that my presence would be welcome.” Still Amelia hung back.

“Amelia, you have done nothing wrong. You don't need to apologize for the actions of another.” Teresa led her to a sofa and together they sat with heads bowed towards each other, their lowered voices allowing them a modicum of privacy in the crowded room. The three men remained standing, Scott and Murdoch at the fireplace and Gabe at the window, where he had pulled back the curtain.

Amelia found herself empathizing with the Lancers. Had she not that long ago sat where they were now sitting? In their shoes, praying and hoping the nightmare would soon end, that soon they would awaken to find all was right with the world once again. But the terrifying reality was beyond escape. It seemed reluctant to release its grip, instead plunging the two families into one disaster after the other.

Sighing, she met Teresa's eyes and squeezed her hand. “It will be fine, just fine. I know he can not possibly be in any true danger. Your good doctor is very thorough.”

“I know, Amelia and I am grateful for your company. It's just…” Teresa paused to regain her self control. “It seems like a lifetime since there was any real peace. I just want all this to be over. To be home again, with my family.”

“Oh, how I regret the anguish which we have thrust upon you. I would that I could undo all the damage.” Amelia lowered her head, as waves of regret rolled through her soul and into her heart, landing hard with a gut-wrenching despair. “I can fathom no possible way for us to make amends.”

“Nonsense. You are not responsible for this. You did all you could to prevent the gunfight. And we will always be grateful.” Teresa's next words were quickly halted by the sound of footsteps then an opening door. Sam stood momentarily framed in the doorway, his aged shoulders slumped with exhaustion. He wiped a hand across his face then entered the room. His demeanor, though calm, instilled a chilling fear in the hearts of those who awaited his report.

“Murdoch, I'm sorry for not getting out here to reassure you sooner.” Sam seemed oblivious to the collective gasp his first few words elicited. “Johnny has been drifting in and out of consciousness and I wasn't keen to leave him alone. He seems to be resisting the effects of the laudanum.”

Murdoch took a step toward the doctor, frustration mounting and evident in his clenched jaw. “Sam, please. Is Johnny going to be alright?”

Sam nodded. “Apparently their final bullets both struck home. I know I was watching but I failed to see Bodine's bullet hit Johnny. As soon as Bodine dropped to the ground I stopped looking at Johnny. That boy has a way of hiding his pain. The wound to his arm was minor. Bodine only just grazed him below the shoulder. And then the final shot led to a lot of blood loss, but fortunately it hit Johnny just above his belt on the right side. There was no major damage. As I said before, the wound is clean and nothing but flesh was damaged.”

“But he'll be all right?” Teresa asked the question foremost in everyone's mind.

“As always, it's infection that's our biggest hurdle. That and keeping the young man in bed.” Sam sighed heavily. “Lord, that could very well be our biggest problem. But if we can keep everything under control all will be well, given time and rest. But nobody is going home just yet. I have two patients under my roof who need care. I suggest you all either go home or find a room.”

Murdoch looked about the room. “Teresa, I don't suppose I can convince you to go back to Lancer?”

“You know I'd much rather stay here with Johnny until he can come home with us.” Teresa had risen to her feet, her gaze fixed on Murdoch, imploring him to allow her to stay. Sensing an ally, she maintained her grip on Amelia's hand, who rose to stand beside her, their closeness presenting a united front.

Murdoch acquiesced. “Very well, then. Let's get two rooms at the hotel. Miss Dunbarton, would you be so good as to stay with Teresa tonight? I'd appreciate knowing she had a companion, even if she is in the room next door.”

Surprised by the generosity of a family who had suffered such pain at the hands of her intended, Amelia demurred. “Mr. Lancer, I couldn't presume upon your kindness.”

“Nonsense, it is you who would be doing us a service.” Murdoch moved toward her, his hat in his hands. “We would be grateful for your company.”

With immense gratitude Amelia accepted. It was only after his offer had been made that it occurred to her she had not thought any further ahead than getting off the stage and finding Shane. “Oh my. I quite forgot. I failed to make arrangements for my luggage.”

“Miss Dunbarton, your bags have been left at the hotel for you already,” informed Gabe.

“Thank you, Sheriff. It seems the people of this town put good Christian faith into action.”

Scott had been leaning against the fireplace throughout the conversation. He now pushed away from the mantel and, after casting a quick look towards the inner room, offered, “I'll go and look after our horses.”

“We'll get the rooms then meet you at the café.”

= = = = = = =

 

After checking in on his sleeping son, Murdoch led the family and Amelia to the café for supper. It was not lost on any in the group that hours had passed without notice of the need for nourishment. And while dinner was taken in a solemn attitude, it was nonetheless with a sense of relief. Tragedy had been averted, to the credit of a gunman whose heart outgunned his Colt. And to a woman who had been able to impress upon both men the horrific consequences of their actions.

It was also acknowledged that a unique bond had been forged between two women, which would bind the families inextricably together. Amelia Dunbarton's determination was equally matched only by Teresa O'Brien's. And they had set their minds on a single purpose. Peace. Perhaps it was a purpose he would do well to emulate.

After they had eaten Murdoch entrusted Teresa and Amelia to Scott's care and he watched them make their way back to the hotel before heading to Sam's. Although the hour was late a light was still burning in Sam's office. He quickly answered Murdoch's knock.

“I figured you'd be back.” Sam stepped aside and allowed Murdoch entry then softly closed the door behind him.

“How is he?” Direct as always, Murdoch waited impatiently for a response.

“He's resting well. There's no sign of infection so far. He's asleep now. You really shouldn't disturb him. After all, you know that as soon as there's any change I'll let you know. I'll be staying up all night, watching them both.”

“How is Bodine?”

“He is in a great deal of pain. I expect it will continue for some time. Yet he's facing it remarkably stoically. He's been refusing the laudanum - almost as if he wants to feel the pain.”

Murdoch glanced toward the room where he knew Shane Bodine rested. “Can I speak to him?”

“Murdoch, old friend, why would you want to do that?” Sam's eyes narrowed.

“Don't worry, Sam. I'm not going to do anything. You can trust me. I just want to talk to the man.”

Though unease was clear in Sam's eyes, he allowed Murdoch to enter the gunfighter's room. A lamp was burning and the light cast flickering shadows across the walls. Murdoch moved to the foot of the bed. Bodine was flat on his back, eyes closed, and for a moment Murdoch wondered if he was asleep.

Without opening his eyes, Bodine denied the need for any medicinal aid. “I told you, Doctor, I don't want your potions.”

“I'm not the doctor. And I haven't come to offer you relief.”

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Monday

Scott held open the hotel door for Teresa and Amelia then followed them into the hotel lobby. He approached the desk where the manager Bert Stimson's boy, Tommy, was overseeing business. The young man eyed the two women standing closely behind Scott Lancer but his attention returned to the taller man when Scott cleared his throat in reproach of the younger man's leering.

Scott pushed his hat back on his head and leaned an elbow on the counter. Despite the fatigue threatening to sap what remained of his endurance, he would not tolerate such behavior towards the women entrusted to his care. He hoped his glare would suffice in ensuring Tommy remain a gentleman; he was in no mood for further confrontation. "Could we have our keys now, please Tommy?"

Now embarrassed by his brazen appraisal of the ladies, Tommy sighed in relief when he recognized the reprieve Scott had granted. "Sure thing, Mr. Lancer. Here you go." The young man handed over two keys which Scott accepted before leading the young women upstairs.

When they reached the room the women were sharing Scott unlocked the door and entered first, casting about the room for anything askew. Convinced all was well, Scott started for the door but the sight of Amelia's luggage reminded him. "Teresa, you brought nothing to town this morning and all you have are the clothes you're wearing. Will you be all right for the night?"

Teresa smothered a smile. "Yes, Scott, I'll be fine. Amelia and I have already talked about it. It's good of you to ask but you can stop worrying."

"If you're sure." Though completely exhausted, his first duty was to see to the comfort of the women in his charge. "Remember, we'll just be in the room right across the hall. Call out if you need anything."

Once again he turned for the door. As he reached for the doorknob Amelia interrupted him.

"Mr. Lancer, thank you once again for your kindness. Your attitude towards a man you have every right to despise has been generous indeed. Shane and I are indebted to you and your family."

Scott straightened his shoulders and turned to face Amelia, disdain of her betrothed evident in his expression. "I won't pretend to like your fiancé, Miss Dunbarton, but that doesn't mean we would expect you to bear the burden of the consequences of his actions."

"What Shane did was deplorable and I would not try to convince you otherwise. But I wish you knew the man he was, rather than the man he has become." Amelia was equally adamant in her assertions. "I believe in Shane with all my heart. I know he can redeem himself. Perhaps never for the damage he has done your family, but at least for the damage he has done himself."

"Then perhaps that's the place to start. If he can forgive himself, the rest may follow." Scott tipped his hat and turned toward the door.

"Good night Scott." Teresa gave Scott's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "If Murdoch comes back with bad news you will let us know immediately, won't you? Otherwise we'll wait and see Johnny in the morning."

Scott nodded and closed the door behind him then took the few short steps across the hall to the room he would be sharing with Murdoch. Once inside he stood in thought, hand resting on the doorknob, as he pondered the mystery of the beautiful Amelia Dunbarton.

 

= = = = = =

 

Reassured by Sam that Johnny was sleeping and shouldn't be disturbed, Murdoch instead entered Bodine's room. From the foot of his bed, where Murdoch now stood, it appeared the gunfighter was also sleeping, so Murdoch was somewhat taken aback to hear him say, "I told you, Doctor, I don't want your potions."

"I'm not the doctor. And I haven't come to offer you relief."

Shane opened his eyes and lifted his head. "Then precisely why are you here, Mr. Lancer?" Shane looked guarded.

"To protect my son." Murdoch swallowed back his anger, but his determination was clear nonetheless. "I tried to do that before, and I made a mistake. I failed. But this time I know just what to do."

A shadow of uncertainty crossed Bodine's features. It gave Murdoch a slight measure of satisfaction.

"Mr. Lancer, I am clearly no threat to your son any longer." Bodine nodded towards his right arm, the heavy bandaging a stark reminder of the damage to the limb. "It is apparent I can no longer hold a gun, courtesy of Johnny Madrid."

The mention of Madrid served to further incite Murdoch but he managed to once more contain himself. "Bodine, I believe the reason you are still alive is because it was also Johnny Lancer who faced you in that street today." Murdoch took a step closer to the bed as he attempted to impress upon Bodine his son's honor. "For a while my son made a living by his gun, it's true, but I can guarantee that every man he has faced has weighed heavily on his conscience. You would have caused him more harm dead than alive. No, the only threat you now pose is one of Johnny's own making. The fact he left you maimed will still cause him grief, and the warning I am delivering is that if you do anything to reinforce that belief you will suffer."

Shane looked to be pondering Murdoch's words before lying back, and allowing his guard to fall. "Mr. Lancer I have no intention of causing your son any further grief. If I had only realized this morning what I now know, neither of us would be here in this situation. Your son has, in fact, done me a great service." Shane Bodine's tone indicated his sincerity. "I have no doubt your son could have taken my life today. I have no doubt he chose not to. Now I may not be able to fathom his reasons, but I can appreciate his magnanimity. My hubris has taken a well-deserved beating and I admit defeat. Mr. Lancer, Sir, your son is quite a gunfighter."

"No, my son is quite a man." Murdoch made no effort to deny his pride in the man who was Johnny Madrid Lancer. "He has shown you more forgiveness than you could ever hope for from me."

"You, Sir, are absolutely correct in your assessment, and I shall not be forgetting your son's benevolence." Shane nodded and offered his left hand but his intention was acknowledged when after a brief pause, Murdoch accepted it and shook it gently.

Confident they had reached an understanding, Murdoch left Bodine's room and went to look in on Johnny. The soft snores confirmed Sam's earlier assertion that Johnny was resting and Murdoch backed out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Hearing the door close, Johnny opened his eyes. He had recognized the voices of Shane Bodine and his father and, while intrigued, had been unwilling to confront his father so he had maintained the ruse of sleeping. He hadn't been able to make out the words that had passed between the two men, but the tone of the voices had seemed civil, the volume discreet. As he heard the heavy footfalls of Murdoch Lancer retreating down the hallway, he eased himself off the bed and padded to the door. Pressing his ear against the wood he heard the murmured farewells of Murdoch and Sam before the front door closed. Johnny stood there for a while, knowing Sam would return at some stage to check on his patients. When the doctor didn't appear straightaway Johnny left his room and made his way to the room he assumed Bodine would be using. He opened the door a hand's breadth, just enough to see the patient inside.

The man on the bed had none of the bravura of the man in the street earlier in the day. This man looked defeated, uncertain, chastened. Eventually Bodine looked towards the door, surprise crossing his countenance as he recognized his nemesis.

The two men studied one another but it was Bodine who broke the strained silence. "It seems this is my evening for visits from the Lancer men. Should I prepare myself for your brother as well?"

Johnny's lips curved into a slight smile. "You ought to have figured it out by now - Lancer takes care of its own."

Bodine nodded in agreement. "We are fortunate men, Mr. Lancer, to have people who care for us. Perhaps that is the path to our redemption. We just need to ensure we take the time to listen to those people."

"Might be easier to listen if they actually talked to us."

Bodine smiled. "Sometimes they talk but we still don't hear. We can be a stubborn breed."

"You think we're alike?"

"In some ways, yes."

Johnny gave a small shrug of his shoulders. "You may be right. But it seems to me those who are doing the caring don't always get it right."

"Perhaps not. With hindsight it's easy to see that. While we can't always trust in their wisdom, we can trust their intentions."

Johnny recognized the truth of the words. "Can't argue with that, Bodine."

"You and I have much to live for." Bodine swallowed, the effort his words were costing him evident. "I thank you that I am able to say that tonight." Once more this evening he offered his hand and this time the man who accepted it was no longer his enemy. Understanding had opened the minds of both men and forged a path toward peace.

Johnny left the room and returned to his own, his mind weighed by the simple truths revealed in his conversation with Shane Bodine. He pondered the man's words as he stood leaning against the doorjamb in thoughtful silence. Perhaps somewhere in the anguish of the last few days there was also the beginning of revelation. The talk of intention helped put into perspective his father's actions and the sacrifice Scott had been prepared to make. Gratitude washed over Johnny and he smiled.

= = = = = = =

Tuesday

Not waiting for breakfast, Teresa and Amelia urged Murdoch and Scott to visit the doctor's as soon as possible. Sam would need respite after keeping watch over Johnny and Shane through the night and the two women were keen to fill the role.

The unlikely quartet made their way up the main street from the hotel, oblivious to the whispers and stares that followed them. Few people were out and about at this early hour, but those few were well aware of the previous day's events. It had been the topic of conversation in every sitting room - titillation and admiration outweighing the pretended condemnation.

Sam looked up gratefully as the four of them entered his office. He had coffee brewing and as soon as the patients had been seen to the women took instruction from Sam regarding their care while Murdoch and Scott set about cooking breakfast, at Sam's invitation.

Left alone in Shane's room, behind closed doors, Amelia felt able to speak at ease with her betrothed. "You're looking much better this morning, dearest. You slept well?"

"Not very well, I'm sorry to say. But if I look any better it is because the pain in my heart, rather than the pain in my arms, has eased somewhat."

"Whatever do you mean, Shane?"

"I have made peace with my demons, though they were of my own making."

Amelia sat gently on the bed, mindful not to disturb Shane's injury. "I find this news to be most comforting, Shane. Without such healing I could not imagine a happy future for us. To say I am relieved would be an understatement." She took his hand and held it to her cheek. "It is a hard lesson you have learned, dearest, but some might say a more then just one. The Lancers have been generous to a fault. Yet all we have offered them is pain and distress. You owe them your life. And our happiness."

"I hope, dear Amelia, you know I am fully aware of their charity." Shane's thumb stroked her cheek. "Without it I would not be here now able to offer you this. If you will still have me, I am yours, forever and only yours."

"Oh Shane, need you ask?" Tears welled in the violet eyes, while frustration tightened her lips. "I have not turned my back on you, even when you turned away from us."

"I have done nothing to deserve that with which I have been blessed." Suddenly animated by the knowledge he had not lost the love of his life, Shane implored, "Amelia, my love, let's leave this town by the earliest possible stagecoach. The least we can do for the Lancers is to leave them. They have their own healing to do and our presence is an unnecessary distraction."

Amelia`s answering smile shone through her tears. "Shane, you only need to ask me once. I am ready, if you feel you can make the trip."

"I can make the trip, because I must."

Amelia rose and smoothed her skirts. "Then I shall look into it this very morning." She leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead. With one last glance at her fiancé, Amelia swept from the room.

Shane lay back and sighed deeply. In spite of his lasting physical impairment, he had never felt better.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Following breakfast Scott joined his father on the porch.

Long minutes passed before Murdoch broke the silence between them. "I haven't been able to talk to Johnny since he found out we'd kept things from him. He's still angry, isn't he?"

Murdoch sounded old and tired. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed heavily. "He just doesn't understand."

"I'm not sure I do either, Murdoch. We all did what we did out of concern for one another. And somewhere deep down Johnny has to know that, too." Scott absent-mindedly fingered the lump on his head left by the butt of his brother's gun. "That can't be a bad thing." Scott's reassurance lifted the older man's spirits.

"I've learnt something, Scott." Murdoch rubbed the stubble on his chin, and closed his eyes briefly. "I will always be a father but my sons are grown men. I can't treat them like children.

It's a difficult thing for a man to come to terms with."

"You can't blame yourself for having little experience with fatherhood." His son's raised eyebrow urged him on.

"When a man has a son, he's stronger than that boy. But there comes a day in all men's lives when they realize their son is stronger than they are. We wrestle with our sons, race them, compete with them. Remember how you just had to arm-wrestle Johnny after Drago left?"

Scott nodded although he really had no idea what point his father was trying to make. Yet he wanted to keep him talking.

Murdoch sensed the hesitancy in Scott and pressed on. "There comes a day when the father and son wrestle and the son puts the father down, when the father is not the stronger of the two. And on that day the father has to face the fact his son is now the bigger man. It's sad in some ways but true and it's the nature of the world."

Scott pushed his hat back and eyed Murdoch. "You're saying a man has lost a child when the child is grown to manhood?"

Murdoch swallowed hard. "I'm saying I, like many fathers before me, have discovered that old stallions must eventually give way to new colts." Murdoch squared his shoulders. "But I'm also saying I'm not ready to be put out to pasture."

Scott patted his father's shoulder. "No one thinks you should be. Least of all Johnny. But we do have to accept that Madrid will always be a part of him."

"I know. When we signed that contract, Scott, and Johnny used the name `Lancer' I mistakenly believed his past was behind him. I think I understand, I think I can even accept now, that `Madrid' will forever be a part of Johnny and trying to pretend it isn't, trying to keep him from it, is wrong. I can't protect my child, I have to respect my son."

"I think Johnny is trying to understand you, too. We've all made mistakes and we'll make many more, I'm sure. But we are family and we do have the commitment that comes with it." Scott laid a hand on his father's arm. "We will get through this."

"Johnny believes we interfered and should have told him everything from the beginning. He's right. You tried to tell me but I wouldn't listen. The question remains, how will we get through this now? How will we rebuild the trust lost?"

 

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Tuesday

“Well, I don't see why we have to wait, Murdoch. I'm sure Johnny can travel. Even Sam said the wound was not so very bad.” Teresa's determination was clearly evident; her small hands planted on her slim hips, her full lips pursed in disapproval.

“Darling, we just don't want him to overdo things.” Murdoch placed his large hands on the young woman's shoulders. “You know how hard it is for Johnny to stay down. Or for us to keep him down. It would be detrimental to take him home while he is, at least so far, following doctor's orders.”

“I think we should ask him. I'm sure he would really feel much better back home in his own bed.”

Murdoch was not convinced. He shook his head, opening his mouth to object once more but Teresa interrupted him before he could begin.

“Scott, you agree with me, don't you?” Met with silence, she lifted pleading eyes to the older Lancer son. “Besides, I think if we go home, all of us, we have a better chance of working things out.”

Revelation dawned on Scott's face. “You're frightened, aren't you Teresa? You're frightened that Johnny won't come home with us.”

“Not just Johnny.” The young woman threw caution to the wind and plunged in. “All three of you have made mistakes. None of you handled this situation as you should have and you all know it. But if you avoid it, or hide behind Sam, it can only get worse.”

For the second time in so many days, the young woman's wisdom was beyond contestation. And once more Scott marveled at the depth of her perceptions. It occurred to Scott that over the past week Murdoch, Johnny and he himself had all been behaving in ways that were out of the ordinary, against their very natures. Murdoch had been less than forthcoming with Johnny, Johnny had been forced to reveal the violence of Madrid to his family and, on his own part, Scott had been less than reasonable in his willingness to face a gunfighter. Since nothing was as it ought to be Teresa's unease seemed valid.

“Teresa, I understand your concerns but let me reassure you I am going nowhere except home.” Scott took his gloves from his gunbelt and prepared to put them on. “And I daresay so is Johnny. If he is thinking otherwise, we will just have to change his mind.” Scott, having been swayed by Teresa's argument, turned to Murdoch. “I guess there is no harm in asking Sam if Johnny is fit to travel. I'll go do it now.”

“No Scott, you stay with Teresa and Amelia. I'll check with Sam, and Johnny, and meet you in about an hour for lunch.” Murdoch placed his hat firmly on his head and moved toward the door. “Since I made the first mistake in judgment, I think the first gesture should come from me.”

“Murdoch, don't lose your temper.” Scott's warning was not without merit and Murdoch nodded in agreement.

“I won't.”

= = = = = = =

 

Johnny was restless. The stress of the last few days, the chance encounter with Amelia Bodine, followed by the confrontation with Bodine himself, had all conspired to tax his self-control. Madrid's indomitable fortitude, his flawless grip on his emotions, all warred with the generous giving spirit of his Lancer alter-ego. The result? Johnny felt the need to move. He certainly couldn't stay in bed any longer.

The conversation with Shane Bodine had served to pacify Johnny Lancer's need for peace. In fact, a part of Madrid was at peace as well. Yet the dilemma remained. How could he reconcile the events of the last few days, the decisions of his family, and even his own actions, with the character that defined the Lancer name? How could he hope to understand what had caused his father to behave in a manner contrary to his reputation for direct and candid interactions? How could he hope to understand what had caused his brother to turn his back on his reasonable, sensible attitudes in order to accept the challenge of a gunfighter bound to claim his life? And how could he understand the need he had felt to turn his back on his desire for a civilized life and once again follow the path of a gunfighter? For days the Lancer men had been acting against their natures, and the trouble that ensued would haunt them for a while yet. These thoughts continued to circle, snapping at the outer edges of his mind, pecking away at his soul like those big ugly birds that ate of rotting flesh.

Johnny retrieved his clothing and quickly dressed. The last item he donned was the gunbelt that housed the Colt of the gunfighter. Not the heavy Colt of a rancher but that of a professional killer. Shoving that menacing line of thinking as far away as he could, he softly left the room and headed for the stable down the road.

Once inside, he paused and took a deep breath. The scent of leather, horseflesh and hay all united to soothe his restless nerves. As the steadying comfort of the stable closed in on his wayward thoughts, Johnny surrendered to the spell. He moved deeper into the warmth and sought out his companion.

Barranca had immediately recognized his master's scent and now stood with his head over the stall door. In the dim lighting of the barn his golden coat and silver mane and tail seemed to take on an ethereal glow. With an enthusiasm that mirrored that of his master, he nickered softly and stamped his hoof in anticipation.

Johnny smiled in spite of the burden of his meditations and reached into his pocket to retrieve the lump of sugar he had hidden there. Stroking the stallion's powerful neck he offered the delicate ambrosia to his friend. The palomino gently took the cube and chewed while pressing into the hand that gently caressed his neck.

“Yeah, you like that, don't you boy?” Barranca snorted in agreement, widening the smile on the young man's handsome features.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Murdoch paused just outside the door to the doctor's office. Emotions – regret, failure, fear – assaulted him at every turn. He should have heeded Scott's advice from the very beginning, should have given the letter to Johnny. He should have allowed the young man a say in the handling of the whole affair. His own stubborn belief that he alone should call the tune could still cost him one, if not both, of his sons. As Scott had once said, Murdoch and Johnny were both cut from the same cloth. Now Murdoch's greatest concern was that Johnny would behave much as he, Murdoch, had a few days ago. That Johnny would make his choices without the input of his family. That he would choose not to forgive. But he, Murdoch Lancer, would plead his most earnest case. He would not lose his sons, not again. Resolved now and armed with all the love of a father, his son's words ringing repeatedly in his ears, he turned the doorknob.

His old friend looked up, weariness evident in the circles under his eyes. “I knew one of you wouldn't be far off, although to be honest I half expected it to be Scott.”

“Scott's with the girls. We're meeting for lunch but I couldn't eat without getting this off my chest. There are things I need to say to Johnny first.” Murdoch closed the door behind him and stepped further into the room. “And we'd like to be able to take him home, Sam. What do you think?”

“About lunch, chests, or Johnny?” Sam chuckled. “I'm surprised it has taken this long for you to ask.”

“Sam, could you just answer the question, please?” Murdoch sighed in exasperation.

“You are a good friend but you really need to work on your sense of humor.” Sam couldn't resist teasing his old friend but at the sight of Murdoch's gloomy expression he relented. “I have no objections to you taking him home, Murdoch. I know he'll be well cared for and I can come out in a couple of days to check on him. All you need to do now is speak to him about it. Go on through.”

Murdoch nodded his appreciation then stepped into Johnny's room. The sight of the disheveled bed was not sufficient to cause him too much anxiety. “Has he gone to use the outhouse?” asked Murdoch over his shoulder.

“Johnny? Why, no. He's not there? He was a half hour ago. Murdoch, you don't think…”

“No, Sam, I know just where he'll be.” Murdoch left by the front door without another word.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Amelia put the hair brush down and studied her reflection in the mirror. Deep violet eyes stared back at her through a frame of long black lashes. The sun streaming in the open window lifted the darkness of her long locks to a bluish hue while full red lips parted in a slight smile. As she pondered her appearance, she attributed the rosy stain of her cheeks to the miracle of love. She had finally captured the man of her dreams. Or had he worked his wiles in her heart? Either way, she was sure her chest would burst with joy long before she could say ‘I do'.

She had one remaining task – she had to get Shane Bodine back to San Francisco. Once there, they could dust the dirt of this small town off their feet and begin the life they had, until now, only dreamed of. Here she paused. While Spanish Wells could not compare to the bustling city she called home, it was not without its merits. Unbidden, her thoughts turned to the Lancers. The three men had exhibited a bond that was certainly most admirable. Shane had informed her of Murdoch's visits, both before and after the gunfight, and she had witnessed the acts of both Scott and Johnny. Such devotion was commendable and rare. Yet she understood. After all, she was completely devoted to Shane, and he to her. Perhaps it was not so unusual. It seemed the only explanation was love. A greater love than self. The Lancers had been prepared to die for one another, determined to spare each other harm. And in the process they had taught Shane those same lessons.

Roused from her rumination by the gentle knocking at the door, Amelia laid down her hair brush and crossed the room. She turned the knob and swung the door wide. Teresa stood waiting in the hall, returned from speaking with the Lancers, and she entered when Amelia stepped aside.

“Teresa,” Amelia studied her newly-found friend. “You seem quite animated. I trust Johnny is doing well then.”

“Yes, he is. Murdoch has gone to see him and will meet us in the café for lunch. We're to have a meal before we see you off on the afternoon stage.”

“How very generous. I must admit to being more than slightly overwhelmed by the magnanimity of your family. Why, I am nothing if not a stranger, and betrothed to one who meant you and yours harm. Yet still you persist in this display of generosity.” Amelia put one hand to her throat as tears welled in her eyes.

“Amelia, you have to stop that. We have already explained you owe us nothing. Please let it go.” Teresa embraced the other woman briefly. “Everything is working out for the best. My family will be stronger because of all of this and you have finally caught your man.” The mischievous twinkle in Teresa's eyes was answered by Amelia's own smile.

“I have, I certainly have.” Amelia grew suddenly sober. “May I presume to impose further?”

“Of course. What can I do?” Teresa was puzzled but intent on her friend.

“Would you do me the honor of attending my wedding?” Amelia clasped both hands before her and leaned forward. “Perhaps even as one of my bridesmaids? It would mean a great deal to me to have your support on that day.”

Teresa squealed in delight and gripped the other woman's hands. “Oh, I would be happy to. This is wonderful. We must tell the others. Now. At lunch.”

 

= = = = = = =

 

Murdoch stood at the doorway into the stables, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. He heard the soft nickering from the far stall before he became aware of the faint sounds of the sweeping movements of a brush over the golden coat of his son's horse.

“Johnny? I'd like to talk to you.” He kept his voice low and neutral, remembering Scott's warning.

His son stopped brushing but kept his face turned towards the silver mane. It seemed to Murdoch the best he was going to get so he launched into his apology.

“I made a mistake, Johnny.”

Johnny swung quickly toward him, his eyes flashing with anger. “Damned right you did.”

“I know it. And I'm sure you're angry. You have every right to be. I don't expect you to get over it in a hurry.” Murdoch tightened the lid on his own anger. He was disturbed, as realization sank like a weight into the pit of his stomach, at how quickly his son's emotions could inflame his own. Still, determined to maintain his self-control, silently giving heed to caution, he continued. “But I hope you'll give us, you'll give me, a chance to make amends. I wanted to protect you because that's what fathers do. I went about it all wrong. I won't make that mistake again.” He took a breath, steeling himself for the response. “Johnny, are you ready to come home with us?”

As suddenly as Johnny's anger had flared, it was smothered. Murdoch's soft gentle tone, his lack of rage, had conspired to take the edge off the fury that had belabored Johnny for the past three days. “Murdoch, you've just said it all. I'm angry as Hell for what you did, but I do understand why you did it. Maybe that makes it easier to get over, maybe not. I guess time will tell.” He sighed and put the brush he'd been holding back on the shelf. “Yes, I'll come home. That's really all I ever wanted.”

Johnny started to walk past Murdoch towards the door but found himself enveloped in the big man's arms. With two pats on his father's back, Johnny released himself from the grip and headed out into the brilliant sunshine. Without turning back, he threw over his shoulder, “You've got to learn to trust me. And honesty is probably a good idea from now on, too.”

“So is a good gun.”

Johnny paused, then slowly turned to study his father. “You sure about that?” He patted the modified gun on his hip.

Murdoch smiled tightly and nodded at the lethal Colt in his son's holster. “Son, if that gun gives you the edge and keeps you safe, then I have no objection to you carrying it. In fact, I think you should.” Honesty laced his carefully chosen words. “I can now acknowledge that Johnny Madrid is never going to be too far away. And he is needed here.”

Johnny tilted his head and squinted, searching his father's face for any sign of deception. After apparently reaching the conclusion Murdoch was laying his cards in the open, he offered him a brilliant smile. “You know, old man, there's hope for us yet.” With a sharp nod, he turned on his heel and headed for the café.

Murdoch shook his head in wonder at the conversation. He couldn't fathom why he had taken the position he had but realized he was in earnest. For the first time he had successfully communicated with his younger son, and with no conflict. Scott had been correct in his assessment of the situation and his intuition of the approach to his brother. It would seem Scott knew his brother far better than the father knew his son. Perhaps he should spend more time taking lessons. With a tight smile he followed Johnny across the street and felt a burden lift from his shoulders. For the last week the Lancers had been unrecognizable. Not one of them had been true to their natures. Though acutely aware of his own lapse in judgment, Murdoch could also see that Scott had been less than sensible in his eagerness to take on a renowned gunfighter and Johnny had been unwillingly drawn back into a life he longed to leave behind. Perhaps an equilibrium could once more be achieved, now that the conflict had passed and lessons had been learned.

= = = = = =

 

The afternoon stagecoach lumbered into town and pulled to a halt before the stage depot. Amelia rose from their seat, casting about for assistance in loading their baggage. Shane burned with the indignity of watching his fiancée having to tend to their belongings. He moved to her side, intent on aiding her despite the limited use of only one arm.

As he reached for the first piece of luggage a hand roughly gripped his elbow and a voice snarled in his ear.

“What do you think you're doing?”

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Tuesday

The final plate had been swept away and each of them sat further back in their chairs. Their conversation was still a little guarded despite the fact everyone would be heading back to Lancer after lunch.

Scott's smile was tentative. “You had no trouble putting away that food, Johnny. It was piled high enough to feed the army.”

“I left room for Teresa's pie - when we get home.” His voice was strong yet he refused to meet Scott's eyes. Instead he cast a quick glance at Teresa.

The young woman beamed with relief. She searched the faces of the three men who sat at the table. They were all intent on their plate, glass, anything it would seem except each other. But in her heart Teresa knew appearances could be deceptive. She knew the men she called family were searching their hearts, their souls, determining the extent of their mistakes and the means by which they would be able to repair any damage done, whether intentional or otherwise. She was also aware they had learned a profound lesson regarding honesty in one's relationships, and none more so than Murdoch. The father had come to terms with his attitude toward his sons, had in fact acknowledged they were indeed grown men. So as she studied the three somber faces she knew that, though cautious, each was trying to do his best to build bridges, to repair the damage done, to regain the trust lost.

As the silence stretched before them even Teresa began to experience the discomfort of the heaviness that still lingered between the four people at the table. At long last, thankfully, Murdoch pulled out his watch and flipped it open. “Speaking of home, we ought to be on our way. The stage should be in any time now and if you want to talk to Bodine and Miss Dunbarton before they leave then we should head on over.”

Johnny eyed his father, his thoughts and emotions masked by a casual demeanor, before he pushed back his chair, settled his hat on his head, and left the café.

Murdoch sighed and Teresa knew his heart must be burdened by the fear of what awaited them once they were alone, out of the public eye. Would the steps he had taken to repair the damage be enough? Could they build on that, or was it just a matter of time before anger reappeared? Was the family destined to be forever divided?

Striving to maintain the façade they had presented to the other patrons of the café, Murdoch tossed a nonchalant glance at Scott and Teresa, the turmoil hidden behind his eyes.

As he tossed a couple of coins on the table, Scott rose. “Shall we join Johnny in seeing them off?”

 

= = = = = = =

 

At the sound of the stage rolling into his town, Gabe pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. With a grunt he acknowledged its late arrival into town. 1:37. As usual the 1:00 stage missed the mark. Wearily, he rose to his feet, grabbed his hat and his rifle and headed out the door. He was tired, drained by the emotional struggles of his friends. He wanted nothing more than to offer all parties involved, including himself, closure. So one way or the other, his town's unwanted guest was going to be on that stage. He'd had enough of Bodine's kind of trouble. And he was certain the Lancers had, too.

= = = = = = =

 

Instincts at full alert, Johnny paused just outside the door to the waiting area of the stage depot. A voice, unknown, the words indistinguishable, had reached his ears. He recognized the tone and knew the intent was less than honorable. It was the sound of a gunhawk on the prowl. The sort of bully who delighted in goading the weak and defenseless. And he knew that Bodine, in his fancy clothes and injured state, would attract just such a threat. Nerves screaming a warning, he silently slid through the open door, pressed his back against the wall and took in the positions of the room's furnishing and its occupants. To his left Bodine stood frozen, back to him, his left arm in the grasp of a filthy man with a pock-marked face and a cigar held clamped between rotten teeth. In his right hand the unknown assailant held a Colt which was pointed unerringly at Bodine's head.

Amelia was at the counter and well out of Johnny's line of fire. Her eyes filled with hope as their eyes met and she acknowledged his arrival. Lifting a finger in warning, he implored her not to react to his presence. She understood the nature of his warning and took yet another step back, clearing the space between Bodine and the gunman, and Johnny.

“I asked you a question, Mister. What do you think you're doing?” The man shook Bodine's arm, eliciting an unbidden moan as pain throbbed through the injured limb.

“I can assure you, Sir, nothing I may have inadvertently done is worthy of such attention.” Bodine's voice was strong despite his obvious discomfort. “I am leaving your town forthwith.”

“Oh, don't you talk fancy. Nah, I don't think you're going anywhere ‘til we get a chance to dance. Name's Gruber and I love dancing.” The grizzled man released Bodine's left arm and took the cigar from his mouth. Clearly enjoying himself, he blew a mouthful of smoke into Shane's eyes. He seemed deflated when his effort resulted in no reaction. “Well now, yes siree, I think we have a hard one here.”

Distracted as he was by his smoke and his pondering of the mystery of Bodine, the gunman was taken off-guard when Johnny's silken drawl filled the distance between them. “You should be careful with that gun, you might get hurt.”

Gruber shoved Shane Bodine aside, sending him stumbling toward the counter, as he sought to bring his weapon to bear on the newcomer. Yet his hand froze at his side when he found himself facing the business end of Johnny Madrid's Colt.

Gruber gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing in his throat. He took in the low slung gunbelt of Johnny Madrid and the modified Colt in Johnny's hand. “Hey, I got no beef with you.” As suddenly as the urge to wage battle against the wounded Bodine had crossed his mind, it fled before the vision of the lethal young gunfighter who was now staring at him as he would a bug to be squashed. Holding out a shaking hand Gruber attempted to placate his new opponent. “No need to get excited. I was only funning.”

“I'm not.” Johnny allowed a slight sneer to curve his lips. “But I am kinda fond of dancing myself. How about you and me…?”

For a moment Gruber appeared to struggle against losing his last meal: his face blanched and the hand holding his gun fell to his side. But then, unexpectedly, a cunning glint lit his beady eyes.

A footstep behind him sent icy fingers down Johnny's spine. He knew the cause of the change in his opponent's attitude but he kept his eyes on Gruber and refused to react. He counted the seconds, not liking his chances of getting off two shots before either Gruber or his friend returned fired. The need to put his reactions to the test, however, was averted by the sounds of a scuffle behind him. An angry cry was sharply silenced as the sound of a fist striking a soft surface thudded across the heavy atmosphere of the room. Then a low groan was followed by the sound of two sets of boots, one acutely familiar, approaching, and Johnny relaxed. A welcome voice spoke from a position just over his left shoulder.

“He thought he could put a bullet in you, brother. I think I've convinced him that was a bad idea.” Scott's voice was laced with a touch of humor but grew sober as he leaned in and whispered in his brother's ear, “I've got your back.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Gabe, with Murdoch and Teresa in tow.

“Well, well, you Lancers can't seem to get enough of trouble.” Gabe lifted his rifle, covering the group before him. “Scott, you and your brother tend to Mr. Bodine and Miss Dunbarton and allow me to take these two off your hands. They could do with some time in a four by four for assault. If I look real hard I might even find a couple of warrants on them. Might take me a while though.”

“Thank you, Gabe,” Scott pushed the man he had apprehended toward the sheriff then went over to the one who had been threatening Bodine. “You too Gruber, move.”

With a glare for good measure, Gruber followed his accomplice out of the depot. The sheriff's rifle prodding them in the back served as an obvious reminder of the danger of disagreeing.

“It would seem I am once more in your debt, Mr. Madrid.” Bodine recovered quickly, “I apologize. I should say Mr. Lancer.”

“No apology necessary. And forget it, you would have done the same for me.” Johnny offered a hand which was grasped in return.

 

= = = = = = =

 

Scott stood observing the interaction between the two gunfighters. The code of the West was difficult to decipher on the best of days and dime novels could not do the gunfighter's code justice. It would seem that honorable gunfighters were a rare breed; a breed of men who lived and died by the gun yet possessed a strong sense of respect and nobility. Judging by the events he had witnessed yesterday, he still had a long way to go in understanding the way of life his brother had once endured. Shaking off such musing, Scott was somewhat surprised when he realized Johnny and Shane Bodine were engaged in a conversation that could almost be considered friendly.

Bodine looked from his bandaged arm to the eyes of the gunfighter beside him. He admitted to feeling no anger and he offered a heartfelt apology for his reference to Madrid, which Johnny graciously accepted. He then he sought out Amelia and she hurried, unharmed and relieved, to his side and wrapped her arm around his waist. He cautiously lifted his left arm around her shoulders. “It would appear, Sir, that my career is over.”

“That's true enough,” drawled Johnny, before casting an approving eye over the beautiful woman accompanying Bodine. “But it seems your life is just beginning.”

The two gunfighters exchanged knowing looks, like two pugilists tapping gloves at the end of the fight. It was an unspoken language, the language of the gun among gunfighters who were principled. With a tight nod Johnny turned away and joined his brother.

Scott drew closer to Johnny's side, the conversation of the two men puzzling yet somehow appropriate in nature. He nudged Johnny. “Their bags. Have you forgotten your manners?”

Johnny nodded briefly and followed his brother to the luggage piled in the floor. They each picked up a couple of pieces and headed for the stage.

This afforded Bodine the opportunity to draw Murdoch aside. “When I spoke to you before Mr. Lancer I made a mistake. Allow me to rectify that now. I feel obliged to acknowledge your son as quite a man.”

“And you have yourself quite a woman there. I don't think you need me to tell you that if you ever do anything to hurt your fiancée in any way you can expect to hear from three very angry Lancer men.”

Bodine chuckled. “Mr. Lancer, the last thing I want in life is to ever again hurt that woman. And the second to last thing I want is to earn the scorn of Lancer men. Sir, I think we are in one accord. Farewell.”

“Goodbye, Bodine. And good luck.”

= = = = = = =

 

Teresa rushed to Amelia and drew her away to the side of the depot. “I'm sorry but it seems there is no end to your trouble here.”

“I am of the same opinion. I will be most pleased to put this town behind me.” Amelia sighed and took Teresa's hand. “That's not entirely true. Some good has come of this. I have my fiancé and a good friend.”

“The best friend, Amelia. We are two of a kind you know.”

Amelia tilted her head in bewilderment. “Why should you think such a thing? Our lives are very different.”

“Not so different. We both love dangerous men and we are both strong enough to fight to keep them.” Teresa squeezed Amelia's hand as understanding colored her delicate features.

“You are indeed correct. I apologize if I appear less than gracious. I believe these recent events...” she nodded her head in the direction of Bodine and Murdoch, “are still too upsetting.”

“Perhaps when I come to San Francisco for your wedding you can show me a more civilized manner of living.” Teresa's eyes sparkled with mirth. “I just hope, after the excitement we've offered you, it won't be boring.”

Amelia's mouth curved into a knowing grin. She leaned closer and whispered, “I can assure you, we shall not be bored.”

Both women laughed softly and embraced one another.

“Come early, Teresa. I shall enjoy introducing you to my life.”

= = = = = = =

 

Shane turned back to see that their luggage had been stowed away and Amelia ensconced in the stagecoach, a lace handkerchief peeping from her small, gloved hand. Scott and Johnny stood, Teresa between them, waving to Amelia. Murdoch shook Bodine's hand and joined his family. With difficulty, having little ability to steady himself but his pride forestalling any attempts to assist him, Bodine clambered in and settled in the seat beside his betrothed.

“All aboard!” The driver's call signaled the need to clear the street. A final curt nod and they clattered out of town, on their way back to San Francisco.

As they disappeared from view, Scott clapped Johnny on the shoulder. “So, brother, are you ready to take that spoilt horse of yours home?”

“Home? Sure, that sounds like a place he'd like to be.”

 

 

EPILOGUE

Two weeks later

Sunday lunch finished, the family that had gathered around the table started drifting off in different directions. Murdoch took down from the bookshelf his copy of Innocents Abroad and retreated to his bedroom. He had announced for weeks that he was intent on reading Twain's latest work and the only surprise was that it had taken him so long to begin it. Teresa put on her straw hat and went out to the garden, intent on weeding the flower bed where her daisies were struggling to bloom. Johnny waited for Scott to make a move, but it seemed the only move Scott was intent on making was sliding his glass from one side of his place setting to the other. Without a word, Johnny pushed back his chair and left the room. He stopped at the hat stand by the front door and started buckling on his gunbelt. With an ease born of familiarity he settled the belt low on his hips and pulled it tight then tighter still. Head still hanging, Johnny sensed his brother's presence.

“Going somewhere, brother?” Scott's level tone indicated the question was in actuality a statement of fact.

“On a free Sunday afternoon, Scott? What do you think?” Johnny reached for his hat hanging on the rack. He shook his head, and rubbed one hand down his thigh.

“I think I might join you.” Scott's eyes drifted down to the modified Colt resting securely in Johnny's low slung rig. “I see you've decided to keep that one near. In fact, I haven't seen you without it since the episode with Shane Bodine.”

“Shane Bodine is an example of what could happen at any given time. I think it's a good idea to keep this one handy… just in case.”

Scott rubbed his chin thoughtfully then reached for the gloves tucked into his gunbelt. “You may not have any college teaching but you do have some smarts. I'll give you that.”

Johnny glared at his brother in response. “You know Scott, well, I kind of feel like a bit of time alone.”

“Now, you're going to make me feel left out of things, brother.”

“Are you trying to rile me, Boston? This isn't the day for it.” Johnny voice dropped to a bare whisper. Suddenly he realized he did indeed want his brother beside him. Johnny Madrid was a tool, nothing more, a weapon to be wielded when his family was threatened. But he was Johnny Lancer. Giving voice, however, to his change of mind would not come easy.

Scott settled his hat on his head and pushed it back from his face. “I'm just thinking it might be a good idea to join you. It seems you've been out to that knoll alone often enough.” A smile teased the corners of Scott's mouth. “Don't you think it's time you asked me along?”

Johnny met Scott's penetrating gaze. He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “So you know about the knoll.”

“Johnny, we're not totally blind to what you do. Nor why you do it. Most of the time we just turn a blind eye, probably because it's easier.” Scott leaned closer, as if the weight of his proximity would persuade his sibling to his point of view. “But I'm thinking it's time you let me in on it.” Leaning away again he added, “After all, I might be able to give you a few pointers.”

The impudence combined with the grin helped crack Johnny's resolve and allowed him to give in. “All right. Come. I guess you could do with some lessons. But I warn you Scott, you may not like what you see.”

“Johnny, unless that tree starts shooting back I'm sure I'll be able to cope.”

Laughing, with arms around each other's shoulders, the two Lancer brothers left the hacienda, ready to face together whatever the future held.

There would be no further discussion. Nothing more was needed. Each man was prepared to lay down his life for the other and blood had been spilled to prove it. No longer alone, no longer merely joined by the blood of their father, each man accepted that an unbreakable bond had been forged. They were bound by an unspoken oath. They had indeed entered into a covenant.

 

 

~end~

 

Fliss&Lacy
June 2010

= = = = = = = = = =

Authors' Note: Inspiration comes in many guises - sometimes recognized, sometimes unintentional. A few of you may recognize an element from an episode of The Young Riders in chapter ten. We just borrowed it and returned it unharmed.