The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Linda (Kona) and Maureen

 

 

Jointly Authored Fiction

 

 

 

 

A Halloween Story
by  Linda and Maureen

When we first discussed this story in August 2004, we were planning an original post throughout the month of October, to end on Halloween night.  Unfortunately, after a moderate family crisis and the birth of a grandbaby on Linda's end, and three successive hurricanes and a new job on Maureen's end, we found that we could not meet our own deadline (such a word for a Halloween story <eg>!).  So once again, we would like to thank everyone who hung in there with us through the long extended initial posting of this story.

To all our new readers, we hope you enjoy our first joint effort.  We're looking forward to working with each other again . . . It was truly a collaboration of love and friendship.

Thanks are sincerely offered to our beta, KC – and to EM for her “Horse Sense.”  All remaining errors are certainly our responsibility, but they helped us with the weeding!  L&M

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

 

PART ONE

The air was still.  Totally, inexplicably still.  Dead.  There should have been a breeze.  The sky had been darkening for hours, a thick canvas of billowing clouds filling the vista, threatening torrents of rain and a formidable wind.  But instead it was calm.  Too calm.  Too quiet.  But moist.  Oppressively moist – like all the rain those clouds were threatening to release was already filling the air.

“Wish it would just go ahead and rain already,” Johnny announced to seemingly no one at all, nearly a hundred cows between him and the closest vaquero.  But he wasn't talking to himself.  Barranca was listening, and just to prove it the horse shifted uneasily beneath his rider.  Even if he didn't understand the words, the animal could sense the disquiet in his partner.

Horse and rider were out on the range today beginning to move a small portion of Lancer's vast herd to another pasture.  Although it was already early October, the weather had been abnormally warm for weeks, and the smaller ponds were threatening to dry out completely.  Even if the building clouds finally broke and released their moisture, it would be too late.  They'd need a week of steady rain in this area of the ranch to ensure an adequate water supply for the months to come.  Rather than having to start pulling cattle out of the mud puddles that would eventually form, Murdoch Lancer had decreed that they would just move those cows to other grazing land with better irrigation.  Currently short handed, Johnny had been put in charge of seeing that the job was done fast and right.

Barranca was doing his part to help out.  Johnny knew too much about horses to ever claim ownership over the magnificent palomino he always rode.  He understood that finding an animal with the skills Barranca possessed was a rare thing, and not to be taken lightly.  There was a well-established respect between the pair that was mutual.  Some of the hands might joke about the relationship between Johnny and Barranca, man and horse, but Johnny took their partnership seriously.  Barranca was the best horse he had ever claimed the privilege of riding, and the man trusted the animal with his life – no small consideration for an ex-gunfighter who often found trouble without even looking for it.

As Johnny was renowned throughout the area for his horse training skills, Barranca was of course held to a higher standard than any other mount on the Lancer ranch.  The pair did not disappoint.  Over the two years they had been partnered, Johnny had watched, felt, and analyzed every move Barranca made.  And no one else was allowed – or dared – to ride the horse, so man and animal had therefore formed an incredibly close bond, each able to anticipate the others' movements with barely more than a bit of pressure or a shift in weight.

Scott had once said that they should charge admission just to let people watch his brother and Barranca work cattle together – and he hadn't been kidding.  This horse and rider were mesmerizing to behold, like dancers on a stage decorated with live scenery – the dirt and dust and threatening rain just adding to the surrealism of the dramatic ballet ever ready to unfold.

As if to cue the start of a performance, Barranca's ears twitched, and his head cocked to the right.  Those were just the visual signals the horse was transmitting.  A whole other form of communication was being interpreted by the rider as Johnny felt muscles tensing, weight shifting, even a change in Barranca's breathing.

Riding drag on this stunted cattle drive, horse and rider were watching for those cows that inevitably tried to blaze their own trail.  You couldn't beat Barranca as a cow pony – the horse seemed able to sense a cow's intentions before the animal had the thought itself.  Johnny just let himself relax and gave Barranca his head, giving non-verbal permission to the horse to go ahead and take lead for this part of the dance.

Johnny knew which cow was going to cut and run a second before it made its move – but Barranca was already on it.  All the way on the other side of the herd, Johnny instinctually shifted his weight in the saddle, naturally falling into the rhythm of the horse as it took off like a bullet out of a gun.  Eyes intently focused on the recalcitrant cow, Barranca blocked its path before it could manage to get more than fifty feet away from the rest of the herd.

Pulled up short, the dance became interpretive, as Barranca and the cow vied for control.  The animals faced each other performing their unrehearsed choreography, matching each other movement for movement, each direction and step of the cow mirrored perfectly by the horse.

Johnny knew full well who was going to win this dance contest – and the cow soon figured it out, too.  Barranca successfully blocking every chance for the cow's escape, with a doleful bellow the animal admitted its defeat, gave up and turned to once again join the chorus line of the herd.  Barranca dogged the cow all the way back, until Johnny finally gave an imperceptible pull on the reins.  The horse backed off, immediately obeying the command.

Sitting atop Barranca while he worked a cow was one of the most exhilarating experiences Johnny had ever felt.  The performance always left man and horse with too much pent up energy, so once again Johnny gave a silent cue, but this time Barranca took off, almost instantly moving at full speed across the field.  Both relished the power they felt in the animal's long, confident strides, as the pair cut through the still air, creating their own revitalizing breeze.

All too soon however, the available ground had been covered, and man and horse were forced to refocus on their work.  Reined to a reluctant stop, Barranca nevertheless obediently heeded Johnny's request.  Knowing the animal would have much preferred a good run over the slow pace of the drive, Johnny reached down and patted him firmly an the neck, letting his own disappointment come through as he dejectedly promised, “Soon, compadre.  We'll make time for some fun soon.”

All the cows behaving for the moment, Johnny left Barranca to watch over them, as he once again turned his own attention to the still darkening sky.

“Wish it would just go ahead and rain already,” Johnny repeated his plea – but the clouds refused to reply.

 

 

Barranca's performance had not gone without an audience.  High atop a rise, overlooking the flat land where the cattle were being driven, stood a lone figure.  Another horse.  A stallion.  But not just any stallion – this was a superb creature that stood a full fifteen hands high, with a vividly striking blue-black coat.

But there was so much more to this stunning equine than what met one's eye.  There was another presence within the beast who appreciated the symbiotic relationship of Johnny and Barranca perhaps more than any other man could.

//'Only, I'm not so much a man any more, am I,'// the being reflected resentfully, then laughed at “himself” for his bout of self pity.  //'After twenty years you might think that I'd be used to this by now,'// the being suggested, not expecting a reply from the stallion he inhabited – unlike Johnny, who'd at least gotten an uneasy shifting from his “partner” in acknowledgement for his comment about the weather.

The spirit within the stallion had initially tried to maintain its hold in the earthly world by occupying human flesh.  But even the dimmest human mind still held too much conscious thought for him to control as he liked, and overcoming man's strength of will had proved too daunting.

But animals . . . Even the brightest creature was no match for a human – alive or not.  So he'd begun taking over the will of animals, easily controlling them from within.  Using them to exact his own revenge on humankind who had so devastatingly betrayed him.

Full of arrogance and youthful exuberance, Ezra Shanks had tried to make his way west to earn his fortune, confident that he could take advantage of the business opportunities arising from the gold rush of 1849.  But having been raised in relative seclusion and opulence in the big city of Philadelphia, the rich brat's safe passage had depended on the rough and ready pioneers who were already surviving in the western territories.

His trust was misplaced.  Cowboy after cowboy recognized his naïveté, and took advantage of him, eager to teach the arrogant easterner a lesson, slowly stealing away the venture capital funds his self-made millionaire father had lent him – until finally one of those western scoundrels had taken his life along with his money.

Incensed beyond control, Shanks' soul lingered over the earth, until he'd realized that he still held power fueled by his anger – he merely needed a means to wield it.  So he looked to the beasts.  The strongest, smartest, most trusted animals ever owned by man.  And from within them he found a feral intensity he craved and the ability to exact a satisfying revenge on mankind for its treachery against him.

Horses had become Ezra's preferred host – their size and strength and dependence on by humans unmatched.  But dogs had proved useful – and once he had even inhabited a beloved pet cat.  Feeding on the strength and skills of each carefully chosen animal, Shanks took advantage of the relationship between the beings, using his superior intellect to play a slow, deliberate, and always deadly game with the human, until it was time for the ultimate retaliation – a life for a life.  A human life for a human life – at the “hands” of a trusted beast.

And Shanks had just found his next host.  In the valley below him he had witnessed an alliance between man and beast such as he had never seen before.  The display had left him spellbound, and eager, and wanting.  He'd have to get closer to be sure, but right now anything had to be better than . . .

“There you are, you damned horse,” the man called out from behind him.

Turning the stallion so he could see through the animal's eyes, Shanks quickly spotted the worthless wretch limping up the hillside.  He'd been toying with this human for almost a month now, lingering longer than usual only because of the incredible strength he gained from inhabiting such a marvelous creature as the stallion.

“I'm gettin' real tired of havin' ta chase ya down,” the man breathlessly exclaimed as he slowly trudged the last couple of steps up the incline.

If a horse could have ever smiled, the black stallion would be grinning now.  But Shanks did the smirking for him.  //'And I'm tired of you, Mr. McKinney,'// the spirit uttered maliciously from his ethereal world, adding ominously, //'and I've found another pet to play with.'//

Now standing right before the stallion, the man angrily promised, “I swear, you devil.  If you throw me one more time I'm gonna send ya back to hell where you belong.”

//'You first,'// Shanks silently countered, as he compelled the stallion to rear up, letting the hooves of the beast once again bring him the satisfying death of another insignificant human being.

 

 

PART TWO

Murdoch wiped the sweat from his brow with an already drenched bandana.  He'd been standing on the patio for an hour now, watching and waiting.  He couldn't remember ever seeing weather like this.  The thick, rain gorged clouds seemed to hover overhead like a giant broiling canopy, trapping the still air close to the ground.

Over the years he'd seen almost everything Mother Nature had in her arsenal to test both man and beast.  Heat and dust.  Rain and snow.  Drought and floods.  He had seen fog so dense a man would think he was the only living creature on the face of the earth, and snow so heavy he couldn't see his hand two inches from his nose.

But this was different.  The unnatural stillness raised the hairs on his arms and he shivered.

“I've been here two years now . . .” Scott eyed the sky, leaning his shoulder against the patio's white adobe pillar, “. . . but I've never seen a storm quite like this one.”

“Neither have I.  It's like the world is holding its breath.”

Scott felt it too.  He glanced over at Murdoch and saw the lines of worry on the older man's face.  “He'll be back soon.”

Murdoch nodded.  “I know.  But I should have waited another day and sent you out with him.  It's a big job for just three men.”

“He's more than capable . . .”  Scott stood up straighter, straining to see through the thick air as a dark shadow moved toward them then coalesced into the figure of a horse and rider.  He heard an audible sigh of relief from Murdoch as the pair drew closer and he could recognize Johnny and Barranca.

Johnny walked the horse toward the stable and dismounted slowly.  The weather had drained what little strength he had left and he handed the reins to Joe.  Johnny was accustomed to taking care of Barranca himself at the end of the day, but today he knew his friend would understand.  He was dead tired and thirsty.  “Brush him down real good, will ya Joe?  Then turn him out in the corral.  It's too hot inside today.”

“Sure thing, Johnny.  You look like you could use some brushin' down yourself.”  Joe grinned.

Johnny nodded.  “I feel like I'm carryin' ‘bout fifty pounds of sweat.”  He eyed the sky and mumbled, “Wish it would just go ahead and rain already.”

 

 

Shanks hated the feel of the heavy saddle on the stallion's back.  He yearned for the freedom of galloping unfettered.  //'I'll take care of that very soon,'/ Ezra thought.  //'Very soon.'//

He had been watching the palomino and the cowboy interact for the better part of the afternoon, and he now followed them as they slowly made their way back home.  Shanks witnessed the concern the cowboy had for his horse, stopping to fill his own hat with water so the animal could drink.  Ezra knew he would be well taken care of as soon as he made the palomino his.

He also knew he would be in for a challenge – something McKinney never gave him.  The stallion's will had been too easily controlled as well.  The strength he gained from the animal had been invigorating, but the enjoyment of playing with McKinney and the stallion had grown old after only the second week.  That pair had barely interacted with each other, leaving him little opportunity for “amusement.”  He had just been biding his time until he found a new host and companion, a pair that would offer him not only a good fight, but many more possibilities for fun.  The palomino and the cowboy showed a lot of potential.  //'Very promising, indeed.'// Shanks savored the thought.

Finally the cowboy had stopped and spoken with the two riders working with him, and they headed off in different directions.  Both the cowboy and the palomino looked spent.  Shanks knew that was partly due to the oppressive air.  He wished he could take credit for it, but alas, he was not that strong.  //'Not yet.'//

 

 

“Damn it's hot,” Johnny swore as he walked toward his brother and father, every muscle in his body aching.  “I swear a fish could breathe in this air.”

“Any problems moving the cattle?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny lifted his hat and let it fall down his back on the stampede tie.  “They weren't too happy bein' moved ‘round in this heat, but they're all where they're supposed to be.  But . . .” Johnny turned to Scott, tapping his chest.  “The next time them brainless critters need movin', it'll be your turn.”

Scott grinned.  “I'll be sure to pick a nice balmy day.”

“What . . . ?”  Johnny's question went unfinished and unanswered as all three men turned at the sound of material swishing behind them.  Maria appeared, carefully balanced a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses.

“Maria.”  Johnny grinned.  “Bueno.  Su son mi ángel.”

“Sí, Juanito.  It is very hot this day.  You need drink to keep you safe.”

“Hot ain't the word for it,” Johnny said as he downed the first glass in three gulps.

Maria looked toward the mountains hidden behind the heavy air, her face mirroring the worry in her heart.

“There is much inquietud in the air.  You must be cautious.”  She turned sharply on her heel to return to the safety of the house.

“Inquietud?”  Scott looked to Johnny for a translation, but it was Murdoch who answered softly.

“Unease.”

Scott chuckled.  “More of Maria's superstitions?”

“I wouldn't laugh, brother,” Johnny warned seriously.  “I feel it too.”

Scott sipped at his lemonade and contemplated the others' seemingly needless concern.  But he couldn't deny that uneasy feeling he had himself.  He just wished it would start raining.  Even a torrential downpour would be better than this oppressive humidity.

“Hey, boss . . .” Jelly was making his way toward the trio.  “What do ya think that is?”  Jelly was pointing at a black shape moving just beyond the Lancer arch.  The frightened mew of a cow in a distant pasture hung in the air, the dense air distorting the sound.

Soon the shape cleared the Lancer arch and Johnny whistled softly.  He wasn't sure he had ever seen a more magnificent stallion.  The animal's coat seemed to shine even in the heavy gray tinged air, and his jet-black tail flagged proudly as he cantered toward them.  His nostrils flared in the heat, the membranes glowing a ghostly red.

“Where do ya think he comes from?” Jelly whispered, the humidity seemingly growing thicker around him.

“Jelly, tell Cipriano to form a search party.  That horse has a saddle.  The rider could be hurt out there.”

“Sure thing boss . . .” but Jelly didn't move a muscle as the black stallion slowed to a walk in the courtyard and didn't stop until his nose was nuzzling Johnny's shoulder.

Surprised, Johnny combed his fingers through the long thick forelock, revealing a tiny dot of white between the animal's eyes.  It seemed to be the only patch of extra color on the horse.

“Well, I'll be.  He sure does like ya, Johnny.”  Jelly reached toward the stallion but his hand froze in mid-air as the horse slowly turned his head toward him, pinning his ears back.  His deep brown eyes seemed to swirl to blackness for a moment, and fixed him with a dark threatening intensity that could only be described with one word:  Evil.  Jelly had just seen evil.  The old man stepped back, his heart turning to ice.

“Jelly . . . are you all right?”  Scott grabbed his elbow.  “You're as white as a ghost.”

“Ain't . . . ain't nothin',” Jelly stuttered.  “Just the heat is all.  I'll go tell Cip.  And Johnny . . . you watch that horse, ya hear?”

Johnny nodded, moving around the stallion to un-cinch the saddle.  He untied the saddlebags and handed them to Scott.  “Maybe there's a name in there.”

Scott made a search, finding a crumpled letter in the bottom of the second bag.  “It's addressed to ‘Arthur McKinney,' postmarked San Antonio.”

“If the boys don't find anything out there we can give Val the name.  He can take it from there.”

Johnny pulled the saddle off the stallion and used the saddle blanket to rub the animal down.  Whoever “Arthur McKinney” was, Johnny envied him.  He would love to have a horse of this caliber in the Lancer's own stable.

 

 

Shanks felt the weight of the saddle slide off the stallion's back and reveled in the feeling of freedom.  He would only inhabit this horse for a short while longer, and he basked in the experience, greedily lapping up a last taste of strength and power from the beautiful animal – power Ezra would need to quickly exert control over the will of his new host.

He let the cowboy – who he now knew as Johnny – rub his hot skin down with the saddle blanket.  //'You are the perfect one, Johnny,'// Shanks thought.  //'An excellent horseman, a skillful ranch hand . . . possibly my greatest challenge.  But your love for the beasts will be your undoing.  In the end, I will win.  I always win.'//

Thunder rumbled in the hills to the east as Shanks watched the golden palomino being led out of the barn, the glorious animal as different from the stallion as night and day.  Shanks observed his imminent host begin to prance nervously, its ears pinned back, nostrils flaring.  Already the palomino was showing more perception than the stallion ever had, sensing Ezra's spiritual presence with suspicion, even from a distance.  The desire to feel the power and majesty of the palomino from within became instantly overwhelming.

//'It's time!'// Shanks roared inside the stallion's mind, as he charged forward to initiate his transition.

 

 

PART THREE

Without warning the stallion reared up, its hooves missing Johnny's face by mere inches.  Johnny jumped back, colliding hard into Murdoch.  Father caught son and the pair struggled to regain their balance, even as the stallion pivoted on its hind legs and charged toward his quarry.

The palomino had indeed sensed trouble emanating from the stallion as his handler led him out from the stable.  Already wary, Barranca reacted immediately as soon as the black horse made its attack.  Joe, however, was taken off guard as Barranca unexpectedly reared up, neighing loudly.  Finally catching sight of the stallion bearing down on them, Joe realized that a challenge had been initiated between the horses, and dropped the reins to run back and watch from the safety of the stable doors.

Pulling up quickly within mere feet of Barranca, both horses pranced back and forth, their ears pinned back, nostrils flaring.  The stallion expertly countered Barranca's every move as each animal tested the other, looking for weakness.

Teresa and Maria had been drawn out into the courtyard by the animal's frenzied cries, and Murdoch moved to stand beside the women, to ensure their safety and push them back into the house should the contest shift closer.  Scott countered his own position, and reached out to grab Johnny's arm.  He knew how protective his brother was toward his horse, and wasn't going to take a chance that Johnny would do something foolhardy in an attempt to help Barranca.  The younger Lancer son felt the strong hand on his arm and briefly glanced over to meet the concerned eyes of his brother.  Instinctually knowing each other's thoughts, both let the hold stand as they simultaneously turned to continue to watch the confrontation unfold.

Ezra was the first to tire of the game, needing but a brief distraction of the palomino's determination to protect itself from the pending invasion in order to transfer his spirit.  Now in total control of the stallion, Shanks compelled the animal to lunge forward, stretching its neck out to bite Barranca – but his opponent was too quick.  Again and again the stallion attempted to sink its teeth into the palomino, but failed.  Finally Shanks changed tactics and the stallion reared up, its deadly hooves just missing Barranca's shoulder.

Then, as if in slow motion, Barranca turned his back on the stallion and kicked out with both hind legs.  The black horse whinnied and snorted in shock and pain as Barranca's hooves caught him in the side.

Surprisingly, just as quickly as the encounter had started, it was over.  The stallion retreated toward the corrals, obviously hurt.  Barranca stood motionless for a moment, snorting through flared nostrils, his ears still pinned back, eyes glaring at the defeated attacker.

The humans maintained their patient wait just long enough to watch the two horses slowly withdraw from each other.  Barranca calmed quickly, his ears straightening, his breathing settling into a normal rhythm.  But the stallion appeared to die inwardly before their eyes.  His head sagged limply toward the ground, his tail hung listlessly.  Even the blue-black coat that had once appeared to shine despite the heavy air, seemed to drain of its vibrant color.

The magnificent stallion had not merely been defeated – it had been broken.

 

 

Shanks felt the force of Barranca's kick to the stallion, but no pain.  He only knew that the palomino's skillful maneuver had given him the opening he needed, an ever so brief lapse in concentration.  Seizing the opportunity, Ezra rejoiced in the exhilaration of the ascension as he leapt from one being to the next.

For a moment Shanks was left stunned by the power within his new host, but he wisely settled quietly into the mind of the palomino.  Ezra needed to control his desire.  //'Must not raise suspicion too quickly,'// he reminded himself.  But restraint was going to be difficult.  He was already being emboldened by the strength of the animal, feeling a heady excitement in anticipation for the new game to begin.

 

 

Johnny hadn't realized he was holding his breath.  The fight had seemed to last a lifetime but took only minutes.  Now shaking off his brother's hand, he raced across the courtyard, reaching Barranca just as Joe grabbed his reins.

“Check the stallion,” he ordered the hand.

Joe nodded, knowing Johnny would want to examine Barranca for injuries himself.  Catching Jelly's attention as the old man hurried toward the palomino, he instead steered him toward the stallion.

The pair approached the black horse slowly and cautiously, Jelly more wary than he was willing to admit.  But on reaching the stallion they found him disturbingly docile, still winded from the fight with the palomino but with no aggression left within the animal.  Jelly forced himself to face the black horse, eye to eye, but he saw no evidence of the malevolence that had been so clearly directed at him only a short time ago.  No longer sure that he had ever seen anything at all, he muttered, “Musta just been seein' things.”

The old man realized that he had actually voiced his thoughts as Joe asked, “What was that, Jelly?”

Shaking off his earlier mystical concerns, Jelly covered his admission as he redirected his attention back to the stallion's possible injuries.  “I said I see some deep cuts from Barranca's shoes, but the way he's breathin', I reckon he's gonna live.  Let's get him into that corral so's I can get a better look.”

As Jelly and Joe walked the stallion away, they could hear Johnny continuing to talk softly and soothingly to Barranca.  “Easy boy,” Johnny crooned, his voice gentle and reassuring as he expertly ran his hands along Barranca's flanks and down each leg.

Not finding a single cut or any swelling, Johnny turned to his brother hovering nearby, and with astonishment informed him, “I don't think that stallion even touched him.”

Scott nodded his approval for the positive report, even as Johnny turned back to Barranca.  Patting the horse firmly on the neck he complimented, “You sure showed that stallion who was boss, didn't ya amigo?”

In reply Barranca nudged the man's shoulder and nickered softly – and the brothers laughed in relief.

Continuing to chuckle, Scott offered, “I'll go let Murdoch know and check on the stallion.”

Now it was Johnny's turn to nod his approval, as he gathered up Barranca's reins and instructed, “Come on, let's get you settled.”

Barranca followed easily as Johnny led him to the nearest corral, closing the gate behind them.  Removing the horse's bridle, he lowered it to his side and left it to dangle lightly from his fingers.  Watching Barranca sniff at the air, his keen horseman's eye caught an uneasiness in the animal's stance.  Figuring that the oppressive weather and the stallion's attack were combining to keep the animal agitated, Johnny thought it best to just leave his horse alone to run off any remaining excitement within the safe confines of the corral.

Moving around the horse toward the gate latch, Johnny gave his friend one last pat on the rump.  Suddenly Barranca made a quick step sideways, knocking Johnny forcefully against the fence.  His back slammed hard into one of the tall solidly anchored posts that framed the closed gate, instantly knocking the air out of his lungs.  Left stunned by the unexpected maneuver, Johnny was kept trapped in position by the unyielding beast.  He tried to slap Barranca's rump to get him to move, but unbelievably the horse just leaned further into him, pinning him harder against the rough wood.

Johnny didn't panic easily, but as he felt the last bit of air forced from his lungs, the awful direness of his situation became painfully clear – if Barranca didn't step away soon, he was going to suffocate.  ‘Oh Dios, Barranca, get off of me!' his mind shouted.

He felt himself blacking out, his arms and legs losing their strength, the bridle slipping freely from his fingers.  The only thing holding Johnny up was Barranca's weight, and the horse squeezed him tighter until he felt his heart pounding in his ears.

Making one last feeble attempt to get the horse to move, Johnny reached out with his left hand – but the intended slap proved little more than a pet, a mere pass of his hand over Barranca's side.  Despite the lightness of the gesture, the horse seemed to respond, not stepping away, but looking back over his shoulder at the trapped man.  For one brief second Johnny stared eye to eye with Barranca – and the blood in his veins froze.  A look he had never seen before from his beloved horse registered in his mind as he beheld the darkened gaze:  ‘He hates me,' Johnny thought – and then he was unconscious.

 

 

PART FOUR

Having guided the women into the house, the excitement seemingly over for the evening, Murdoch turned back toward the corrals from the great room door just in time to see Barranca slam and pin Johnny against the gatepost.  “Scott!” he called out in alarm as he ran toward his struggling son, his long strides seemingly not long enough as he watched the drama unfold in horror, Johnny's arms finally going limp to his side as the horse continued to press its great weight against him.

Scott rushed past his father from the stallion's corral and vaulted the fence, immediately pushing at Barranca's rump to get him to move.  But the horse merely snorted and ground his body harder against Johnny's chest.

“Barranca, no!” Scott shouted, leery of the horse lashing out at him with his hind leg, but unwilling to stand by and do nothing while his brother faced great injury – or death.

Incredibly the incident was suddenly over.  Barranca calmly stepped away, leaving Johnny to sag to the ground as if there wasn't a bone in his body.  Scott caught him before he hit the dirt and lowered him gently the rest of the way down.

“What the hell happened to that horse?” Murdoch bellowed, swinging the gate open and dropping awkwardly to his knees next to Johnny, relieved as he witnessed his younger son heave in a great breath and then continue to take in quick gasps of air.

Scott was already running his hands over Johnny's chest feeling for broken bones.  “I don't know,” he spat angrily, the ghastly episode leaving him unsettled.  Finally sitting back on his haunches, Scott was reassured by the continued rise and fall of his brother's chest, and his father's strong arm on his shoulder.  Taking in a deep breath of his own, he stated more calmly, “I don't feel anything broken, but maybe we should have Sam take a look at him.  He could be hurt internally.”

“No . . .” Johnny panted, his eyes fluttering open.  “I'm . . . all right.  Just got the . . . wind knocked out of me.”  He tried to sit up, but a deep groan escaped his lips as the pain forced him back down onto the dirt.

“Take it easy,” Scott warned.  “Just lie still for a minute.”

Instead Johnny turned his head to search the corral for Barranca, spotting him standing in the center of the enclosure, his tail swishing nervously.  “He musta been . . . spooked by that stallion . . . more than we thought.”  Johnny offered up the excuse, and then closed his eyes, waiting for the ringing to leave his ears.  “Help me up,” he finally requested, reaching his arms up.  Despite his better judgment, Scott hauled his brother to his feet, holding him steady until he stopped swaying.

“Let's get you into the house.”  Murdoch wrapped his own strong arm around Johnny's back and, with Scott, helped lead him toward the hacienda.

Jelly met them on their way, running over from the other corral.  “I seen what happened.  You okay, Johnny?”

“I'm fine,” the injured man hissed, irritated by all the attention he was getting.  “Keep an eye on Barranca for me, will ya?” he requested, adding, “And Jelly . . . it wasn't his fault.”

Jelly shook his head, offering up his own excuse.  “It's this air,” he said apprehensively.  “It ain't fit for man nor beast.”

 

 

Ezra Shanks smiled triumphantly – the game had officially begun.

He had to give Barranca credit, as the horse had shown his mettle.  The palomino had fought hard to keep Ezra from overpowering him.  But in the end the human entity had proved too strong, and Ezra had been able to easily force the animal to pin his friend against the corral gate.

Shanks now turned Barranca's head so he could watch Johnny's family slowly walk the cowboy toward the house.  He had almost overplayed his first hand, but the opportunity had just been too good to pass up.  He would have to show more discretion.  Ezra didn't want to injure Johnny too seriously too soon – the fun came in whittling away the man's strength and his trust in Barranca. But there had been such a rush of excitement in watching Lancer collapse beneath the twelve hundred pounds of horseflesh.  Still, he admonished himself, //'Next time you must be more careful.'//

Ezra saw the funny old man the others affectionately called Jelly walk into the corral.  He would have to be careful around this human.  He had seen Jelly's reaction to his presence, and knew he had made a mistake by revealing himself within the stallion, as brief as the encounter had been.  But the old man had come between him and his new toy – Johnny.  //'Don't give me too much trouble, old man, or you will regret it,'// Ezra thought menacingly.

Having had his fun for the day, Ezra Shanks settled into a corner of Barranca's mind to wait.  Time was of little consequence to him – it was Johnny Lancer's lifetime that was going to be cut short.

 

 

The horrid stillness that had cloaked the land like a shroud gave way to a swift breeze and the sound of rain, as the clouds at last opened up to release their moisture.

Barranca stood motionless in the center of the corral as the storm's heavier early rain droplets began pelting at his back.  Left profoundly alone, he watched as “Johnny” was slowly led away without a single backward glance.  He had looked on as the other humans had cared for his friend, who had somehow fallen to the ground within the corral, obviously injured.  The angry glances sent his way made him nervous, and told him he had caused the hurt – but how?  He would never intentionally bring harm to his friend, his human herd partner, the man-beast he shared his trails with.

The mind of the animal processed these thoughts in its own way, the emotions of the horse just as strong as a human's, despite an inability to put labels or its own words to the feelings.  Barranca was smart enough to have an intrinsic understanding of the value of “relationships,” important for survival – be they between beast or man.

The horse had a special appreciation for his bond to the human “Johnny.”  This man did not demand obedience to his will, but instead had sought to nurture a mutually beneficial partnership.  The hard work the man requested of the horse could be challenging, but somehow proved a satisfying release of energy, an interesting kind of excitement, a reasonable trade for any true freedom the animal might miss.  Barranca had come to take pleasure in his service to Johnny.

And Johnny rewarded that loyal service with a kind of care that Barranca knew was special, different from how other men treated their animals.  Johnny seemed to sense and share Barranca's needs and wants as an animal.  The horse may be controlled, but he never lacked freedom.  The pair worked together, using and testing each other's talents and abilities, finding pleasure and contentment in their co-dependence.

Trust.  A weighty idea to perceive, but nevertheless necessary to any strong relationship.  The animal might not know the word, but he understood the concept and trusted the human.  And Barranca knew Johnny trusted him.

At least Johnny had trusted him . . .  As Barranca stood in the ever-increasing rain, he felt a strange uneasiness within him that he could not control, a deep down sense of disquiet and a fear that something in his life had just been changed.

 

 

“Madre de Dios . . .” Maria exclaimed, observing the full extent of Johnny's injuries as he gingerly removed his soggy shirt.  She and Teresa had busied themselves preparing to care for the injured man, as his father and brother had gotten him settled onto the couch in the great room.  She now carried a small bottle and a glass of water, and sat them on the table beside him.  “I warned you Juanito . . . inquietud.  Much unrest in the air today.”

“Maria,” Johnny sighed, “Barranca was spooked by the stallion, that's all.  What's that?” he asked suspiciously, pointing at the bottle.

“It's tincture of cone flower,” Teresa answered, stirring a few drops into the glass of water and holding it out to him.  “It will help ease the pain from those bruises.”

“I'd take it brother,” Scott recommended, eyeing the angry discoloration that was already deepening over Johnny's chest and stomach.  He'd had a good look at Johnny's back as well, and saw the ugly bruise from the impact with the post, just to the left of his spine and extending from the nape of his neck to his belt.  ‘Another couple of inches over and Barranca would have broken his back,' Scott thought chillingly.

“You're not looking at you from our angle,” Scott continued to try to convince his brother.  “I guarantee you're going to be hurting in a few hours.  I still think we should have Sam take a look.  You never know . . .”

“I'm all right,” Johnny snapped, downing the medicine despite his resolve not to.  “I think I'd know if something was broke inside.”

Scott raised an eyebrow at Johnny's edgy reply, but let the statement lie.  Experience told him he wouldn't get anywhere with his stubborn brother in that mood.  “Well, the least you can do is lie down here on the sofa.”

Johnny shook his head.  “It's easier to breathe right now sitting up.  I'll be fine by tomorrow.”  Ignoring the deepening looks of concern he was now receiving due to his admission, Johnny addressed his father, asking, “With this rain, do you think we'll still need to get that second herd moved?”

Murdoch grabbed a blanket sitting on the back of the sofa and handed it to Teresa.  “I'm afraid so, son.  But that work detail will not include you, Johnny.  I want you to rest tomorrow.  If Teresa says you can move around then you can take care of things that need to be done around here.  And,” Murdoch raised his hand to cut off the expected protest, “no arguments.”

As Teresa draped the blanket over Johnny's shoulders, Scott walked to the French doors and opened them, watching the now torrential downpour already forming deep puddles in the courtyard.  In the distance he could hear the low rumblings of thunder.  Soon the storm would be overhead.  Scott hoped the rain would not only alleviate the muggy heat, but wash away the last of Maria's inquietud.

 

 

PART FIVE

Johnny gave his family a whole two minutes to fuss over him before he chased them all away.  Already feeling tenser than he was willing to admit, the concerned-filled hovering just made his sense of disquiet worse.  Johnny continued to try and excuse Barranca's actions as nothing more than an overexcited response to the fight with the stallion, but he had to admit – if only to himself – that the strange behavior had left him rattled.

The palomino had never before acted in a way that would have endangered Johnny.  If anything the animal had been the man's protector, steering him clear of hidden obstacles along the trail and always providing a smooth, safe ride.  Barranca could find his way home alone from any of the local towns, in the dark if necessary.  Johnny had once been wounded and near unconscious, but Barranca had ensured that he made it home to the safety of his family.  The Lancers might laugh right along with the ranch hands about the pampering that horse received, but they couldn't deny that Barranca was like a living guardian angel for Johnny.

Knowing Barranca as he did, it was still difficult for Johnny to believe that the whole incident had even happened.  But the increasing discomfort in his chest and back was a harsh reminder that the violent act had indeed occurred.  What he found harder and harder to convince himself of was what he thought he had seen just before he'd passed out.  There had been a look in Barranca's eyes, a momentary flash of – what?  Johnny couldn't quite put his finger on what exactly he thought he had seen.  The gaze had been familiar, but Barranca had never . . .

That was it!  It wasn't Barranca he had faced.  During his rough life as Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, Johnny had stared directly into the eyes of many men who had been determined to kill him.  Unbelievably that's exactly what he now thought he had seen reflected back at him in Barranca's eyes – the cold hard stare of someone who despised his very existence – absolute, unadulterated human hatred.

He had to be mistaken.  Such a thing just wasn't possible.  It had to have been a trick of light, or the angle of his view, or . . . No.  Johnny had trained himself to be observant, the smallest detail often meaning the difference between life and death for a man who made his living with a gun.  He knew what he had seen . . . or did he?

The bewildering notion and his self-doubt left Johnny feeling even more agitated than before.  He had to move, had to do something, so he pulled the blanket off his shoulders and carefully rose up off the sofa, his muscles already tightening from the deep bruising.

He managed three steps before a stern voice questioned behind him, “Just where do you think you're going?”  There was just enough humor reflected in his brother's inflection to tell Johnny that the escape attempt had been totally expected.

“I'm goin' to my room to wash up . . . if it's any of your business.”  Johnny answered without bothering to turn around, keeping his concentration focused on trying to walk with at least a modicum of grace and fluidity – and knowing he was failing miserably.

“Oh, it certainly is my business.  I've been put in charge of making sure you don't do anything stupid before dinner.  Looks like I have my work cut out for me already.”

Johnny made it around the couch and headed toward the door, finally catching sight of his brother leaning against the entrance, holding a mug in his hand and smiling lightly.  “Don't need no nursemaid,” he protested as he continued onward, every step telling him he might just be mistaken about that.

He hadn't planned on stopping, but Scott blocked his way, holding the mug out to him.  “Now what?” Johnny's asked, obviously annoyed.

“Willow bark tea,” Scott answered, the small smile growing into a wide grin.  “Teresa says . . .”

“Scott . . .”  With a roll of his eyes Johnny started to protest, but quickly lowered his head and heaved a frustration-laced sigh instead.  He knew they were only trying to help, but he absolutely could not stand being coddled.  Raising his head, Johnny let his exasperation show as he asked the question he already knew the answer to.  “She's gonna make my life miserable for the next couple a' days, ain't she?”

Scott couldn't help but laugh out loud.  “Yes.  Yes she is,” he agreed, not without sympathy.  “But it's for your own good and you know it.

“Come on.”  Scott turned and led the way.  “You can drink this up in your room.  The least I can do is see that you get there without falling down the stairs.”

 

 

The trip up the staircase proved slow going.  Johnny continued a valiant effort to walk as normally as possible, but the exertion of climbing put a strain on his injured chest muscles and he had to stop half-way up to catch his breath.  Scott realized how hard it was for his young brother to be laid up in any way, so he didn't say a word and he didn't push, just let his close presence act as a reminder to Johnny that he was there to help if needed.

The silence continued up in Johnny's room.  Scott merely handed his winded brother the mug of tea, then moved over to pour water into the washbasin and pull the towel to within reach.  Once again facing his brother, it actually saddened him to see Johnny sipping at the now tepid tea.  Scott realized that Johnny must be starting to hurt pretty bad to willingly drink one of Teresa's concoctions.

Johnny made his way to the washbasin, handing the cup off to Scott, still not asking for assistance.  The older Lancer son gave the younger some privacy and went to place the mug onto the bedside table and light a lamp, then moved over to the window, propping it open slightly to let in the cooling breeze from the storm.  Scott knew Johnny would have preferred the window all the way open on such a warm evening, but the continuing rain prevented that.  Somehow knowing that small detail about his brother's likes and dislikes made him smile.  Taking up the chair beside the window, Scott just sat comfortably and waited.

It didn't take long.  Johnny threw the towel onto the back of the washstand and gingerly made his way over to the bed where, with a barely stifled moan, he managed to sit.  But from the deeply lowered head and the tight grip he had on the top-quilt, Scott knew that was as far as his brother was going.  “You're not coming back down for dinner, are you?” he asked quietly.

The head shook slightly, so Scott rose, stood before his brother, and hoped that his patience would now be rewarded and Johnny would finally accept his help.  “Lay back so I can at least get the boots.”

With an exasperated groan, Johnny did as Scott requested and lay back on the bed with an arm over his eyes.  “I hate this, Scott,” Johnny stated simply.

“I know,” Scott replied with equal brevity, then just went about the business of removing Johnny's boots for him.

Task completed, Scott stood back.  “Anything else?”

“No.”

Scott wanted to do more for his battered brother, but thought it best to just quit while Johnny was still talking to him.  So he just turned to leave.  “I'll bring you up something to eat later,” he called back over his shoulder.

“Scott.”  Johnny stopped him and uncovered his eyes to share a look with his brother.  “Thanks.”

“You're welcome, Johnny,” Scott replied easily with a smile.  “See you later.”  He left, closing the door behind him.

 

 

PART SIX

Teresa was incensed that Scott would dare to leave Johnny on his own.  After many assurances that he wasn't going anywhere and would be fine, Murdoch finally told her he'd look in on his youngest himself before bed, and that seemed to appease her sense of concern.  As promised, Scott took a tray up to Johnny after dinner – complete with a fresh mug of willow bark tea – but he found his brother sleeping soundly and merely returned the food to the kitchen.

After discussing their tasks for the next day, Scott called it a night, his father climbing the stairs soon after.  Murdoch kept his word to Teresa and quietly cracked open the door to his younger son's room.  He found Johnny still asleep, lying mostly on his back but obviously trying to keep the weight off the injured area.  The room was warm, so Murdoch wasn't surprised to see Johnny's covers tossed aside and the sheet bunched up around his waist.

Moving closer to the bed, in the flickering lamplight Murdoch could clearly make out the angry bruises exposed on his son's chest and upper abdomen.  He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly as he remembered seeing Johnny being slammed up against the gatepost by Barranca.  He didn't think that horrifying vision would be leaving his memory anytime soon.  Only by watching the steady rise and fall of his son's chest was he able to calm his renewed anxiety.

Murdoch turned to leave, but nearly stumbled over Johnny's pants, obviously tossed with abandon onto the floor by his ailing son.  Picking them up, he noticed that at least the younger man's boots had been neatly set beside his night table.  And of course Johnny's gun belt was hung per usual on the headboard.  Murdoch crossed the room to set the pants over the back of the chair by the window, picking up a pair of socks along the way, then straightened the towel on the washstand.

A sudden flash of déjà vu took him by surprise.  Murdoch remembered what it was like picking up after his whirlwind of a son when he'd been only a toddler.  No matter how many times he or Maria told him how and where to put his things away, from the moment Johnny had started walking it was a constant battle to get him to pick up after himself.

Taking a moment to look around his son's room in the dim light, Murdoch noticed that there actually wasn't much around to keep straightened.  Johnny had brought little with him when he'd returned to Lancer just two years before.  Scott had arrived at the same time, but the older son had since personalized his own bedroom with books, furniture, photographs and paintings, knick-knacks and remembrances.  The younger son's room was stark in comparison, and seemed to merely reflect those around him.

On the dresser Murdoch saw the framed picture of the family he had given Johnny, a matching one going to Scott.  The bed had a light summer quilt spread over it that Teresa and Maria had teamed up to sew especially for him.  An amazing painting of wild horses hung on the wall, a gift compliments of Scott.

It occurred to Murdoch that the only real thing on the whole ranch that Johnny had claimed all on his own was Barranca.  He smiled at the thought that if his son could get the horse to walk up the stairs he would most likely love to share his room with that animal – the animal that had nearly killed him only hours before.

Like Johnny, Murdoch was left wondering what had come over the horse.  The behavior had been totally uncharacteristic, abnormal for Barranca specifically, but bizarre for horses in general.  As a rule you could never truly trust any animal, but no one in the family would have ever guessed that Barranca could have hurt Johnny in such a manner.  Despite the worrisome incident Murdoch knew his younger son would not voluntarily give up riding the palomino, so he made a mental note to watch for any further signs of unusual behavior from the horse.

Murdoch's attention was once again drawn to the bed.  Johnny was moving slightly, his left hand clutching at the quilt bunched up beside him, his right hand pressing against his chest.  His breath was quickening – a nightmare Murdoch realized and he moved quickly to his son's side.

Not wanting to startle him, he bent down over Johnny and quietly encouraged him to wake, crooning at him softly.  But it was soon apparent by the increasingly agitated movements that the dream was intensifying, the perceived horror threatening his son becoming too real.  Murdoch reached out and simultaneously placed one firm hand on Johnny's bare shoulder and the other over his son's own hand, which was beginning to claw frantically at his chest.  Only then did he call out loudly, “Johnny, wake up.  Johnny!”

As anticipated, Johnny woke with a start, but Murdoch's strong grip kept the injured man from springing up off the bed and hurting himself further.  The quick movement still hurt, and Johnny let out a pain-filled grunt as his father assured him that everything was all right.

“What . . . ?” Johnny started to question breathlessly, his head coming off his pillow as he searched the room desperately, for what he didn't know.

“It's all right, son, settle back.  You were having a nightmare, that's all.  Everything's fine.”  Murdoch's steadying voice finally had an affect, and Johnny started to calm.

“I need to sit up,” he finally requested, and Murdoch helped him, propping the pillow behind his back as he scooted himself backward.  As Johnny ran a shaking hand through his hair, Murdoch took a seat on the edge of the bed, waiting for his son's breathing to slow.

“Barranca?” he finally asked.

Johnny dropped his head and answered quietly.  “Yeah,” he confirmed the dream, but quickly faced his father and added, “He didn't mean to do it though.  I know he didn't.  That fight, it just . . . I don't know, but . . .”

“Johnny, it's all right,” Murdoch tried to be encouraging.  “We'll just keep an eye on him.  I'm sure he's fine.”

He stared at his father for a few seconds, not sure if the older man meant the sentiment, but appreciating his show of support nonetheless.  Johnny gave a nod of agreement, but then continued to gaze at Murdoch intently, finally once again dropped his head.

Being surprisingly intuitive, Murdoch just sat and waited, sensing that Johnny had more he wanted to say.  His patience was rewarded.

“Murdoch . . .”  The question started out tentatively.  “Did you . . . did you ever pass out ‘cause you couldn't breathe?”

That question itself pretty much left Murdoch breathless.  He knew that was a hard experience for his normally secretive son to admit, equally difficult for a concerned father to hear divulged.  Knowing his answer was important, he thought about it carefully before replying.  “Not that I can remember, son.  I once came close to drowning.  But I was able to make it back to the surface on my own.

“What exactly is it that's bothering you about what happened, Johnny?” he questioned back.

He knew the answer – Johnny just didn't quite know how to say it.  “Well . . . just before I blacked out . . . I thought I saw . . . Barranca . . . he kind of looked back at me, and . . . I don't know.  There was somethin' about . . .”

The halting answer trailed off and Johnny seemed totally lost in his thoughts.  “Johnny, what was it?” Murdoch pressed evenly.

There was silence for another moment, and then Johnny gave a kind of scoffing laugh and shook his head.  “Never mind, Murdoch.  It's just stupid.  Don't make sense ‘cause it couldn't have happened.  Just a trick of my eyes was all.”  The excuses didn't make sense to Murdoch, but it was clear that Johnny was dropping the subject.

“Look, why don't you try to get some sleep.  Think about it tomorrow and see if you can explain it better then, okay?”

“Nah, don't worry about it.  Really,” Johnny tried to assure his father.  “I just thought I saw somethin' I couldn't have seen, so no use goin' on about it.  Sleep sounds good.”

Murdoch felt like he was being dismissed, but he wasn't willing to be pushed aside just yet.  “Go ahead and lay down then, son,” he suggested as he stood.  “Can I get you anything?”

Johnny moved to edge his way down the bed, but pulled up short with a grimace.  He was surprised to admit it to himself, but he was actually glad his father was there.  “I'll take that other pillow.”  As Murdoch went around the bed to fetch it, Johnny took the one behind his back and cradled it firmly against his chest as he slowly lay down, leaning on his right side.  He felt exhausted by the time his head hit the other pillow his father handed him.

“Go on to bed Murdoch, I'll be okay,” Johnny encouraged around a huge yawn.

“As soon as you're asleep son,” Murdoch vowed, but he had absolutely no intention of leaving.

 

PART SEVEN

Scott peeked his head into Johnny's bedroom just after dawn, and was totally surprised to see Murdoch sleeping in a chair pulled up beside the bed.  Knowing their plans for the day, he quietly made the way over to his father and lightly shook his shoulder.  Jerking awake, Murdoch thankfully remembered where he was and stayed silent.  Standing he motioned Scott to the door, moved the chair back where it belonged and, with a last look back at Johnny sprawled deeply asleep across the bed, he left the room

“Did you spend the whole night in there?” Scott asked as Murdoch scrubbed his hands over his face.

“Yes.  I was just going to check on him, but he had a nightmare and then couldn't seem to find a comfortable position.  I'm glad he's sleeping now.  He was pretty much up and down all night.”

“Why don't you let me check those fences on my own today,” Scott offered.  “You look like you need some sleep yourself.”

“No,” Murdoch stated, and began leading Scott down the hallway.  “Let me get cleaned up.  I'll meet you downstairs for breakfast and then we can go.  With any luck it won't take as long as we think and I can come back early and catch a nap.”  Just outside Murdoch's bedroom he added, “Make sure Maria has the coffee good and strong this morning, will you.”

Scott grinned broadly.  “I will sir.  I certainly will.”

 

 

Johnny woke to the dismal sound of rain pelting his window and a distant sound of thunder.  After the drought they'd been having he couldn't believe it was still raining.  The dampness that now hung solidly in his room matched the heaviness of his own body and he groaned in misery.  The thought of trying to climb out of bed soured his stomach and he swallowed deeply to calm himself.

It wasn't just a lack of sleep, the ache in his chest or the throbbing pain in his back that were making him uncomfortable.  It was the constant thought of the incident in the corral that still had him feeling unsettled.  His trust in Barranca was now in question.  The unquestionable faith he'd held that his friend would never do anything to harm him had been shaken.

He had to see the palomino – had to wash his mind clear of the questions and doubts before they started to fester and grow.  In his heart he knew nothing like that would ever happen again.  But until he looked into Barranca's eyes . . . A shiver went down his spine as a disturbing memory of those eyes flashed through his mind.  Despite his assurances to his father that it couldn't have happened and there was no use going on about it, Johnny still couldn't shake the remembrance.  That was not the Barranca he hoped to find waiting for him out in the stable today.

His reflections were cut short and his eyes glanced over at the sound of his bedroom door opening.  Scott slipped in, carrying two mugs of steaming liquid.

“Well, it's about time you woke up, brother, the morning's half gone.”  Scott grinned, carefully setting the two cups on the bedside table as Johnny eyed them suspiciously.

“If that ain't coffee you best just take ‘em away.”

“Would I let you down?”  Scott placed his hands on his hips in mock indignation, and then laughed.  “They're both coffee.”

Johnny smiled.  “I owe you.”  He tried to lever himself up but immediately regretted the move as an intense pain drove him back down.

His brother's distress had not been lost on Scott.  “Well, that answers the question of how you feel,” he said with concern.  “Are you sure you don't want Sam to look you over?”

“For the last time, yes, I'm sure.  I'm just sore.  Be better when I start movin' around.”  Johnny once again tried to rise but didn't get any further than the last time.

“I think you had better rest for awhile,” Scott stated emphatically.

“Can't.”  Johnny reached up an arm awkwardly and waited for Scott to help him sit.  “I'll stiffen up for days if I don't start movin' around now.  ‘Sides, I want to check on Barranca.”  He reached for the coffee and hoped Scott would ignore the grimace he knew was on his face.

“Jelly took good care of him last night,” Scott tried to reassure him.  “Johnny, about Barranca . . .

“He just got spooked by that stallion yesterday,” Johnny snapped too quickly.  “He'll be fine.  Even Murdoch said so.”  Johnny softened his voice, regretting his sharp tongue.

Scott smiled.  “But you're not going to be sure until you see him for yourself, are you, brother?”

Johnny nodded and sipped at his coffee.  What he couldn't share with his brother was the reason for that niggling grain of doubt he had in the back of his mind.

 

 

“Easy . . .” Scott cautioned as Johnny swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat hunched over, trying to catch his breath.  “I'm going to tell Murdoch to send for Sam.”

“No I told you, I'll be fine.  Just help me get downstairs.”

It took time for Johnny to finally stand up straight.  Getting dressed was more challenging than he expected, but he managed to get the job done with just a little help from his unobtrusively doting brother.  Taking a cautious breath, he walked unaided toward the door.  “Are you comin'?” he asked over his shoulder.

They found Murdoch waiting at the front door wearing his rain slicker.  “We'd better get a move on, Scott.  This rain isn't going to let up anytime soon.”

Scott nodded as he hit the last step, his arm encircling Johnny's waist as he helped his brother negotiate the last painful stair.  Johnny's face was shiny with sweat, the trip down much harder than the trip up had been the night before.  But Scott knew the man well enough to know that he would be headed to Barranca's stall before he and Murdoch were out of sight of the hacienda.

“Are you all right, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.  He looked washed up himself, dark circles beneath his eyes proof of his missed sleep and concerns during the night.

“I'll be fine.  Just everybody stop worryin' ‘bout me.  I'm just a little stiff is all.”

“Yes . . . well, if you're not doing any better by this time tomorrow I'm sending for Sam.”  Murdoch did not miss the dramatic roll of Johnny's eyes.  “You take it easy today, and I mean it.  If you need something to do, the books need checking.”

“I'll make sure he behaves,” Teresa stated cheerfully as she entered the room with yet another mug of willow bark tea.  “Johnny is going to rest today, isn't that right Johnny?”  Teresa swept up beside him and before he could protest immediately began leading him toward the couch.  “Try to stay dry, you two.  I don't want either one of you coming down with a cold.”

Scott laughed and gave Johnny a sympathetic smile.  “Have a good day,” he called out sarcastically, leaving the poor man in Teresa's overprotective yet capable care.

 

 

PART EIGHT

It was an hour before Teresa stopped hovering enough for Johnny to make his getaway to the stable.  He knew he should have stopped and thrown on a rain slicker, but he was just too sore to move his arms without bringing more pain to his already tortured back.  He didn't want to chance getting caught, either.

The rain had continued to fall steadily since the previous evening, and although they needed the water badly, too much of a good thing could bring disasters of its own.  Johnny made his way slowly to the stable, his boots slipping in the slimy mud and deep puddles of water, every unexpected move a painful reminder of just how bruised up he was.  He finally reached the stable and wrenched open the door, unable to suppress a groan of pain.

“Well, I expected ya before this,” Jelly groused mischievously from the back of the stable.  “What kept ya?  Good sense?”

Johnny grinned despite his discomfort.  “I just wanted to see Barranca for myself.”

“I would a told ya if there was somethin' wrong with him.  He's as fit as a fiddle and a lot drier than you are.  Teresa's gonna have a fit when she see's ya drenched like that.”  Jelly suddenly had a thought. “She don't know yer out here, does she?  Oh Johnny . . .” he laughed.  “Yer a bigger fool than I thought ya was.  She's gonna tear into ya like there was no tomorrow.  Ya best say your hellos to Barranca while ya can.  I'm 'spectin' that little girl ta be in here any minute madder than a wet hen.  With good reason too – Murdoch warned me ‘bout how beat up ya was.  Ya need ta take better care of yerself.”

“I'm fine, Jelly.”  Johnny slowly made his way over to Barranca's stall.  The horse had heard his voice and had his head already stretched out over the gate, waiting for his partner.  Johnny hesitantly walked up to him and hid his apprehension as he allowed the horse to nuzzle his shoulder.  “Sorry amigo, can't lift my arms that high today . . . too sore.”  As if the horse understood, Barranca whinnied softly.

Johnny stared into Barranca's soft brown eyes for a long moment and saw nothing but trust and affection.  How could he have thought yesterday had been anything but a freak accident?

“Everythin' all right Johnny?” Jelly asked.  “Ya look a little lost there.  Somethin' on your mind boy?”

“No,” he answered quietly.  “Just worried about Barranca is all.  I thought maybe the stallion had hurt him somehow and we didn't catch it.”

Jelly shook his head.  “I went over every inch of him.  There's nothin' wrong with that horse a good run won't cure once this rain lets up and yer back ta ridin' agin'.”

“I'll be back to ridin' tomorrow,” Johnny said, now lightly rubbing his cheek against Barranca's nose before turning back to Jelly.

“Oh yeah?  An' who's gonna saddle Barranca fer ya?” Jelly snorted.

Johnny stepped over to Jelly and bent his knees just enough to come eye to eye with the older man.  “You are, Jelly,” he stated with confidence, then beamed that irresistible lop-sided smile that usually got him what he wanted.

Jelly's mouth fell open, rebuking Johnny's attempt to charm.  “You cain't be right in the head boy if you think I'm a gonna saddle any horse fer ya.  You sure ya just hurt yer back yesterday?  Maybe ya hit yer head too.”

The sound of Teresa's angry voice shouting from the courtyard halted Johnny's retort in his throat.  He looked back at Jelly and found the old man shaking his head and clucking his tongue.  “Yer in fer a mess of trouble now, Johnny.  I bet she don't let you out of the house fer a week . . . maybe two if she's mad enough.”

Johnny saw the door fly open, and watched as not only Teresa but Maria marched in.  A barrage of reprimands was shot at him as the ladies both angrily shook the water off their protective shawls.  “Johnny Lancer, I can't believe you'd pull something this stupid.  Look at you, you're soaking wet.  Wait until your father hears about this little stunt.”  Maria stood just slightly behind Teresa, echoing her every word in rapid-fire Spanish.

“Jelly,” Teresa continued, “would you mind coming to the house and helping Johnny out of these wet clothes and into a hot bath?”

“I'd be happy to, Miss T'resa,” Jelly smirked.  “That boy ain't used a lick a' sense today.”

Resigned to his fate, Johnny decided there was no way he could win – three against one, the odds definitely not in his favor.  Nodding his goodbye to Barranca, he let the trio escort him out of the stable, back into the pouring rain.

 

 

Johnny spent the rest of the day roaming the first floor of the hacienda, trying to keep limber.  He didn't have the strength to face the long walk up the stairs to his room, and if he wanted to be perfectly honest with himself, he had no desire to see the inside of those four walls.

He couldn't help but feel trapped.  The steady rain outside and Teresa's constant hovering – not to mention her need to ply him with one of her medicinal concoctions every three hours – were bad enough.  But the dark thoughts that still nagged at the back of his mind conspired to keep his nerves on edge.  Seeing Barranca had helped, but somehow the visit hadn't put him completely at ease.

The sound of a horse led him to the great room's French doors and he saw Cipriano ride past to the back of the house.  He knew he would find him in a few minutes with his hands around a warm mug of coffee.  Giving the books, still sitting unopened on Murdoch's desk, a disgusted glance, he headed for the kitchen.

“Gracias.”  Cipriano nodded his thanks to Maria as she handed him a steaming cup of coffee, then seated himself at the kitchen table.

“Buenos tardes, Juanito.”  Cipriano pushed out a chair for Johnny.  He felt at ease in the company of the patrón's younger son, even though he was part owner of the hacienda and his boss.  In the beginning when he was first finding his way in this new home and dealing with his many new responsibilities as part owner, Johnny had sought a familiar presence and had become friends with the Mexican Segundo.

“How do you feel?  Your back is still painful I see.”

“A little,” Johnny admitted as he eased himself down into the chair opposite Cipriano.  “I'll be fine tomorrow.”

Cipriano raised a skeptical eyebrow.  “You should rest.  I was told of the accident.  I am muy surprised that Barranca would behave in such a way.”

“I warn them,” Maria said from the stove.  “I warn them all of the inquietud.  It still hovers above us.”  Her wooden spoon dramatically spun in the air, pointed at the ceiling.

“Sí.”  Cipriano nodded.  “I feel it too.”

“And you're both crazy.  That's all it was – just an accident.”  Johnny tried to laugh it off, but his own feelings of foreboding increased.

“It is not right that Barranca acted to hurt you.  That stallion . . . it is . . .”

“It's just a stallion,” Johnny cut him off.

“And a man killer.  We found McKinney's body.  He had been trampled to death.”

“Madre de Dios,” Maria whispered as she crossed herself.

“I took his body into town.  Señor Crawford will try to find his familia.  Until then the patron wants the stallion to remain here, in Jelly's care.”

Johnny stood up gingerly, not wanting to bring undue attention to himself but feeling the need to move.  He crossed to the back door and opened it, looking out on the steady rain.  He hated to admit it, but Maria was right – there was a continuing sense of unease hanging heavily in the air.

 

 

PART NINE

Johnny mounted Barranca cautiously, making sure he felt secure enough in the saddle to attempt the ride ahead.  It would be a few days before there was any semblance of the old Johnny Lancer, but he always pushed his limits, never had been one to sit around and mollycoddle himself after an injury.  His back and chest muscles were tightened up and painful and, truth be told, he would have liked nothing better than to go back to bed and not budge for the rest of the week.  But he'd spent the whole day yesterday doing nothing, and he'd had enough inactivity.  Johnny knew the pitfalls of letting himself stiffen up too much for too long.  Experience told him he'd regret it more if he didn't move.

Besides, he couldn't stand the hole Jelly was boring into his back everywhere he went.  The old handyman wasn't happy that the stallion was still on Lancer land.  He was even less happy with Johnny's decision to ride Barranca so soon.  Despite finding nothing wrong with the horse, Jelly wasn't shy about telling the injured man just what he thought about how Barranca had treated Johnny – or about offering up his opinion that there was something strange in the air.  “My elbows are a achin' me somethin' powerful,” he complained.  “You be careful boy.  It ain't natural what Barranca done to ya.  It ain't natural atall!”

Between Maria's continual warnings about inquietud and Jelly's aching elbows, Johnny had a permanent chill down his spine.  The stallion was a killer, there was no doubt about that – finding McKinney's body was ample proof.  But the attack on Barranca had simply spooked the palomino, and there was nothing more to the gatepost accident than that.  Except . . .

‘Watch it Johnny . . .' he grinned to himself, ‘. . . you're starting to think like Jelly.'

He took it slow, letting Barranca take the lead.  The horse knew the way to and from town just as well as Johnny.  As the miles slowly passed and the muggy heat stifled the air, Johnny found his head bobbing.  Practically born to a saddle, the naturalness of the motion acted to soothe his disquiet for the first time in days.  Soon his head sagged forward and his shoulders slumped and he settled into the saddle.  Relaxing into the rhythm of Barranca's steady sway, he gave into his fatigue and allowed himself to sleep.

 

 

//'Easy Barranca,'// Ezra said softly within the palomino's mind.  //'We don't want to spook him.  Not yet.'//  Ezra cautiously came out of hiding, careful not to frighten the horse.  Barranca had proved a challenge for Shanks, and that's what he wanted.  The stallion had given in way too easily, providing no sport.  The trick with this animal was to ease into his mind – take over before he realized it.  He'd never possessed an animal that had tried to put up so many walls to block his control.  Ezra found the battle of wills exciting.

Sensing that Johnny had become totally relaxed, Ezra directed the horse off the road.  Encouraged when there was no correcting pull on the reins, Shanks headed them toward the south pasture where the tall thick grass was heavy with yesterday's downpour.  //'Now we wait.'//  Ezra smiled.

 

 

Johnny cracked one eye open and stared at the pommel of his saddle.  Something wasn't right.  The air was still and humid.  The sound of insects filled the air.  Barranca stood motionless.  He pried his other eye open and slowly lifted his head.

“What the . . . ?”  He stared at an ocean of wavering grass in every direction.  “Barranca?”  The horse remained motionless.

Straightening in the saddle, he groaned as his back and chest protested.  He knew he was in the south pasture, could tell by the mountains in the distance, but he couldn't understand why Barranca had left the road.

“You lost, amigo?” he asked, rubbing Barranca's soft neck.  “This ain't the way to town.”  But instead of getting an answering nicker or a bob of the head, Barranca simply ignored him and began chewing on the tall grass.  Annoyed, Johnny gathered the reins and gently pulled to the right as he tapped the palomino on the side, a signal that should have had the horse instantly trotting north toward the road.  But Barranca remained still except for swatting his tail at the pestering flies.

“Damn it, Barranca . . .”  Johnny shifted in the saddle, irritated.  “I'm hot an' tired an' hurtin', and now we got another two hours before we reach Green River.”

But it wasn't just Barranca's unusual behavior that picked at his nerves.  He couldn't shake the feeling that he was being shadowed.  It was nothing he could put his finger on – just something that came and went like an itch he couldn't scratch.

Johnny took in a carefully controlled breath to try to settle himself, then let it out slowly.  But the feeling of disquiet remained.  It didn't make sense, but he wouldn't – couldn't – ignore it.  He trusted his instincts too much.

A shiver ran down his back.  “Come on, boy.”  Again, he kicked Barranca in the side, harder this time.  “Ain't got all day.”

Barranca raised his head and looked back.  Once again Johnny's focus was drawn to the horse's eyes, and for a moment, just a split second, he perceived something distinctive in the animal's gaze.  Despair.  Not the hopelessness you might see from a human, but a kind of visceral misery you might find in an animal whose spirit was being broken.

But the look was gone as quickly as it had appeared, barely registered by Johnny before the horse simply snorted and turned back toward the road.

//‘I have to keep on my toes with you, horse. You almost gave the game away.  You're a smart one all right.'//  Ezra settled back and watched as Barranca slowly walked back toward the road leading to Green River.  //'But if you fight me too much, your Johnny will be the one to pay.'//

 

 

Johnny finally rode into Green River, already having determined that the first thing he needed was a cool beer.  Heavy black clouds once again hung low in the sky, threatening to pound the earth in another spectacular show of strength.  But for now the air was humid and still, drenching Johnny's clothes in sweat.

“Hey, Johnny, didn't expect ta see ya in town so soon.”  Val Crawford leaned against the post holding up the porch roof outside his office.  “‘Specially on ole Barranca there.  Heard he nearly ground ya inta dust.”

Johnny grinned, dismounting as slowly as he could without drawing attention to himself.  “Who told ya?”

“One of yer hands stopped by last night ta have a drink.  I think he's sweet on Miss Betsy over there.”

Johnny looped the reins around the hitching post.  “Barranca just got a little spooked.  Any word on McKinney?”

“Sent a telegram ta San Antonio . . . that's where the letter was postmarked.  But they never heard of ‘im.  I'll keep askin' around.  Meantime Douglas wants ta get on with the buryin'.”

Johnny pulled out a thin roll of bills stuffed beneath his gun belt and handed Val two.  “Tell Douglas to give him a proper burial.  No man should die without someone caring.”

Val gave his old friend an understanding smile.  “Ain't gonna happen to you, Johnny.  Not any more.”

“Could of . . .” Johnny replied quietly.

Val slipped the money into his pocket.  “I'll see that it gets taken care of.  Now, how ‘bout a cool beer?  Ya look like ya could down a whole keg.”

Johnny grinned.  “Make that two kegs.”

 

 

After only a couple of beers, Johnny started back on what was normally an easy trip to Lancer.  But his back and chest were screaming at him that he really hadn't belonged up in a saddle that soon after nearly being crushed to death.  He thought of how close he had come to that fate, and shifted painfully in the saddle.  Barranca must have felt him tighten up because the palomino instinctively softened his step.  Johnny noticed and smiled guiltily – that was the old Barranca, the one that would never do a thing to hurt him.  How could he have doubted his friend, even for a moment?

Johnny once again relaxed in the saddle, easing his body into the steady rhythm of Barranca's smooth gait.  He let his mind wander to thoughts of the dinner Maria and Teresa had promised to cook.  Maria believed the best way to heal a man, no matter what ailed him, was to feed him good spicy food.  Sometimes he wondered if Scott would ever get used to the hot and spicy Mexican dishes he loved so much . . .

“. . . Hey!”  Johnny clamped his knees hard against the saddle as the horse suddenly bucked, nearly tossing his rider off.  The unexpected jolt sent waves of pain through Johnny's back and chest.  “What the hell's wrong with you?” he gasped, looking around for a bee or a wasp – anything that might explain the behavior.  But he didn't see or hear a thing out of the ordinary.

Johnny settled himself back down, his injuries hurting even more than before, keeping him on edge.  He now wished that he had listened to everyone's warning about it being too soon to be riding.  ‘Damn, I hurt,' he thought with regret.

//'A little sore there, Johnny?'// Ezra thought with delight.

 

 

There was no way Johnny could hide his chalky complexion or the sweat that poured down his face as he was nearly lifted off Barranca by a concerned Murdoch.

“I told you that you weren't ready to ride into town this soon.  Look at yourself.”  Murdoch helped him toward the house and straight into Teresa's worried arms.

“You look awful, Johnny.  Murdoch, help him upstairs.  I'll get something to ease the pain.”

“I ain't taking nothin' that'll knock me out.”

“You'll do as you're told.”

Johnny tried to struggle out of Murdoch's strong grip but he only groaned, his discomfort becoming more evident as he aggravated the already protesting injuries.  “I ain't no kid, Murdoch.  Now let me go,” he argued with frustration, a telling weariness now evident in his voice.

“When you start acting like an adult I'll treat you as one.”

Johnny stopped struggling, strangely at peace with his father's lecture.

He let Murdoch help him up the stairs and into his room, but once again grew annoyed as his father unbuttoned his shirt, pushing Johnny's hands out of the way when he tried to do it himself.  Johnny could only appear sheepish as the older man stood back with a concerned look on his face.  “Johnny, those bruises are deep.  I wish you'd listen to me more often.  Did you at least stop in and let Sam have a look at you while you were in town?”

Johnny dropped his head.

Murdoch could only shake his own head at his son's predictability.  “Why doesn't that surprise me?  Well, tomorrow I want you to stay in this bed all day.”

“Murdoch . . .”

“Johnny!”  Murdoch cut his son off sharply, then sighed deeply.  He knew as well as Scott how badly Johnny took to being ill in any way, making it a frustrating chore to try and get the young man to take care of himself.  Changing tactics, Murdoch softened his tone and offered what he hoped would be an acceptable compromise for his stubborn son.  “Johnny, we're shorthanded and I'm going to need you to move more of the herd on Monday.  I want you to take it easy for at least one day.  And if you complain too loudly I'll make it two days.  It's your call.”

Johnny looked up slyly.  “Thought you called the tune.  You mean I actually have a say?”

Murdoch grinned despite his resolve to be firm.  “Only when I say you have a say.  Now get under those covers before Teresa comes barging in here.”

Actually relieved to be in bed, Johnny didn't even argue when Teresa plied him with two glasses of an especially nasty tasting brew, before he slipped into a much-needed deep sleep.

 

 

“Dios,” Johnny uttered quietly.  Just turning on his side was torturous.  His back and chest had once again stiffened overnight and he could barely move.  Even breathing hurt.  Levering himself up, he sat on the edge of the bed and waited, expecting someone to come in at any minute and chastise him for being up.  But he knew his body better than anyone else and was bound and determined to keep moving.

Minutes passed, but no one came in.  Johnny finally realized that it was Sunday and everyone else had gone to church.  He smiled as he contemplated his brief opportunity for freedom from watchful eyes.  Moving slowly, he got dressed, but decided it would be too much work to try to shove his feet into his boots.  Besides, he was willing to obey Murdoch's request that he rest for the day by at least confining himself to the house.

Johnny padded carefully down the stairs, unexpectedly disturbed by how strange the house seemed with no one else around.  Even Maria took Sundays off.  He found biscuits and some jam on the table in the kitchen, and a tepid pot of coffee on the stove.  He wasn't actually that hungry, so considered the biscuits a suitable meal to satisfy his appetite.

The rest of the morning he spent roaming through the house, keeping himself moving.  He made his way into the great room and glanced at the books sitting on Murdoch's desk.  Johnny considered looking through them, putting an hour or so into the mundane work, but a hint of color caught his eye through the French doors.  He found himself compelled to walk outside to stand on the porch, looking at the far corral.

The black stallion stood in the corner by the fence, his head bent, a light breeze tugging at his dull mane.  His tail hung listlessly, dragging on the ground.

Where was the horse he had seen run into the courtyard just a couple days before?  Where was the fire in its eyes, the proud gait?  Johnny always thought it sad to see a horse's spirit broken, but this went far beyond that.  Something deep inside that animal seemed to have died.

The sound of tack jingling turned his attention toward the Lancer arch and he saw his family returning.  Johnny took a hitching breath, knowing he'd be in for a lecture if caught.  He was ready to run back to his room when he heard Barranca's whinny.

The proud horse trotted to a stop in front of him, his legs muddy up to his fetlocks.  More mud was splattered across his chest.

“Where you been, boy?” he asked, running his hands along the animal's withers, feeling his sweat-dampened hide.

The palomino snorted and shook his head, nuzzling Johnny's hand looking for a treat.  “Not until we get you cooled down,” Johnny admonished.

“Johnny, what are you doing out of bed, and what's Barranca doing out here?”  Murdoch's voice resonated with his displeasure.

“Just came out to say hi and found him wandering.”  Johnny's own voice carried a hint of irritation at his father's instantly accusing tone.

Murdoch looked at the muddy mess.  “Where's he been?”

Johnny shook his head.  “Don't know, but he must have been loose most of the mornin'.  He's all sweated up.”

“How did he get out of the stable?”  Scott was beside them now, his hand wrapped around Teresa's arm to steady her on the muddy ground.

“I don't know,” Johnny shot back, his annoyance growing.  “Jelly was supposed to . . . Where is Jelly?  Jelly!”

“What in tarnation is all the commotion about?”  Jelly had heard the carriage returning and was already making his way across the courtyard from the stable.  “Cain't a man relax on a Sunday once in awhile without havin' someone bellowin' for ‘im?  Hey, what's Barranca doin' out here?”

“That's what I was going to ask you, Jelly,” Johnny snapped.

“I don't rightly know,” Jelly answered back evenly, catching Johnny's short-tempered tone.  “I locked him in his stall after I fed him this mornin'.  Ain't no way he coulda gotten out.”

“Well he did, and by the looks of him, he's been out for awhile.”

“Johnny, I'm sorry . . . but I don't know how it happened.”

“You didn't lock the stall, Jelly.”

Jelly jutted out his chin in defiance.  “Yes I did.”

“Then how did he get out?  Unlock it himself?” Johnny retorted sarcastically.

Jelly looked at Barranca, his reply equally as biting.  “Cain't say that it didn't happen that way, Johnny.”

“Stop it!  Both of you!”  Teresa stepped between them.  “Look at yourselves.  You're both acting like children.  Jelly, it looks like you didn't lock the stall properly.  And Johnny, it was an accident.  Barranca is fine.  What has gotten into the two of you?”

“I don't rightly like bein' called a liar,” Jelly grumbled.

“I didn't call you a liar . . . you just didn't do your job.”

“I don't need no fancy pants boy telling me how ta do my job . . .”

Johnny took a step off the veranda, his stocking feet sinking into the mud.  “If you did your job right to begin with . . .”

“Enough!”  Murdoch stepped between them now.  “Teresa's right, you're both acting like children.  Now Jelly, you get Barranca back to . . .”

“I'll take care of him,” Johnny spat.

“No you won't.”   Murdoch grabbed Johnny's arm and forcefully pulled him back onto the dry patio, his patience gone.  “You have no boots.  And I thought I told you to rest in bed today.”

“I don't need anymore rest,” Johnny argued, his arms wrapped around his chest telling a different story.  “I need to take care of my horse.”

“Jelly will do it.  I trust Jelly, and when you've calmed down you'll remember that you do too.  Now go put on some dry socks.  Scott . . .”

Scott looked up, trying to hide his bemused smile as Murdoch commanded, “You see that Johnny gets upstairs and stays there.”

“Yes sir,” the older Lancer son replied simply, having no desire to bring his father's wrath down upon himself.

Johnny allowed Scott to lead him away, but he kept an eye on Jelly and Barranca for as long as he could.

//'That went well.'//  Ezra was pleased.  Very pleased indeed.

 

 

As dusk settled over the Lancer ranch, Cipriano headed back to his small home a mile from the estancia.  He had been awarded a private house thirty years ago when he had first come to work as Segundo for the young but ambitious Scotsman, fresh from Inverness.  Over the years he had stood beside Murdoch through good and bad, while he raised a family of his own.  Cipriano could now boast three grandchildren to call him abuelo.  But in all his years in this valley he could never remember weather such as this.  The air hummed with unrest, leaving both man and beast on edge.

He gazed up at the threatening looking, low hanging clouds and longed for a clear blue sky that . . . a black shape caught his eye, floating in and out of the clouds, then he spotted another, and still another circling in an ever-tightening circle.  Vultures.  Something had died and laid wasting, food for the carrion birds and wolves.

As he moved closer his horse shied back, and he had to coax it on until he could finally see the carcass of a cow lying in the grass.  Stepping down to take a better look he was sickened to find the unmistakable marks of a horse's hooves scarred into the bloody hide.

“Madre de Dios . . .” Cipriano crossed his heart.  “El Diablo Negro . . .” he uttered quietly, immediately suspecting the black stallion.  The Segundo remounted and altered his direction to head directly to the Lancer hacienda.

 

 

Over the course of the day Murdoch's temper had settled, and he allowed Johnny to leave his room to share dinner with the family.  The meal was a quiet affair, the continuing warmth generated by the weather sapping everyone's energy equally.  Johnny continued to sulk over what he considered the overbearing treatment he had received from his father, as well as Jelly's seeming mishandling of Barranca.  But he had the good sense to brood in silence, lest Murdoch banish him to his room for the rest of the week.

Scott and Johnny wandered out onto the veranda after the meal, hoping to catch some bit of cooling breeze, no matter how slight.  From there they could clearly see Cipriano as he entered the courtyard and make a pass by the corrals, before coming over to address the pair on the porch.

“Cip, what are you doin' out so late on a Sunday night?” Johnny questioned.  “You should be at dinner by now.”

“Sí, that is where I should be,” the Segundo agreed, then added grimly, “but on my way home I found a dead cow.  It had been stomped to death by a horse.”

The Lancer brothers simultaneously glanced to the far corral, peering through the dimming light at the dark shape now moving about like a shadow.  Like Cipriano, they instantly suspected the stallion.

“Let's go look him over, Cip.”  Scott immediately took charge, turning to light one of the lanterns on the porch.

Johnny made a move to follow them, but Scott held out a hand.  “Just where do you think you're going, brother?”

“To look at that stallion.  Where do you think, brother?” Johnny challenged back.

“Oh no you don't.”  Scott shook his head and laughed at Johnny's seemingly unbounded impetuous audaciousness.  “If you expect to be let out of this house at all tomorrow, you stay right where you are on this porch.  Cip and I will give that stallion a good once over.”

Johnny never had been good at waiting, and as he watched his brother and Cipriano examining the black horse his impatience grew.  His fingers began tapping at his thigh as he paced the veranda, waiting for a report.

Finally Scott headed back to the porch as Cipriano mounted up and headed out in the direction of his own home.  Johnny only managed to let his brother get halfway across the courtyard before he called out, “Well, what did you find?”

“Nothing,” Scott called back, recognizing the customary impatience of his sibling.  “Not a sign.  Don't think it was him this time.”

Waiting for his brother to rejoin him, Johnny considered the findings.  If the cow hadn't been killed by the stallion, then by what other horse?

Despite the warmth of the evening, Johnny shivered, again getting that abnormal feeling that he was being stalked.  He glanced over to the second corral and saw the unmistakable form of Barranca, his golden coat conspicuously brighter and less ghostly than the black stallion's in the waning light.  But there was still something disturbing about the horse's appearance – how he stood completely unmoving, staring toward him with those eyes . . .

Johnny shivered again, then chastised himself harshly.  ‘What the hell's wrong with you Madrid?  Been about as jumpy as a cat lately.  Don't watch out you're gonna be shootin' at shadows soon.'

Scott was just about back to the porch, and Johnny spared one last glance at his horse – and then he remembered:  Barranca had been out that morning, running free for who knows how long and God knows where.  Fortunately Scott immediately offered to go inside and give a report on the dead cow to Murdoch.  Johnny barely noticed as his brother stepped into the house – he was too caught up in his own thoughts, trying desperately to recall if Barranca had anything red splattered on his golden hide that morning.  He hadn't seen any blood on the animal, only mud.  Yes, it had been only mud.  Hadn't it?

 

 

PART TEN

Ezra Shanks had a plan.  A mission if you will.  One that he'd been perfecting and executing for a very long time.  Nestled deep within the palomino's mind he hovered silently, malevolently.  Waiting.  In his ethereal world the only thing that existed was his lust for revenge.  And revenge was so much sweeter when it was meted out slowly . . . undermining his animal host while destroying his beloved human rider – slowly.

He had chosen very well this time.  The horse was proud, as proud as any animal he had ever possessed – and strong.  He would have to tread carefully as he maneuvered his way deeper and deeper into the horse's subconscious.

The incident in the corral had been the first test.  He had reveled in the power he felt as he pushed the horse's side into Johnny, watching his body go limp as precious air was crushed from his lungs.  Barranca had no idea what had happened, the animal only knew that Johnny had been hurt, and he was apparently to blame.  Ezra had felt the first tear in the fabric that wove the horse and human together.  The experience had left him feeling wickedly gratified.

Ezra remembered the first time he had killed.  It had been very soon after a bullet to his heart had sent him spiraling into this netherworld.  His disembodied spirit had come upon an old prospector, alone, panning for gold – the precious metal that had inspired Ezra's fatal trip west.  He had leapt into the man's dog . . . he could still hear the screams of the old man, smelled the blood and the fear and, most of all, felt the strength he gained from the betrayal.  But the whole encounter had lasted five minutes at most.  The satisfaction less.  It was then that he realized that the pleasure of the game was found in maintaining control, playing with the victim like a cat toys with a half dead mouse.

The spirit gently moved forward within the animal's subconscious, not wanting to alert the steed, positioning himself where he could exploit the horse's vision and see the temporal world through the beast's eyes.  Ezra smiled as he watched Johnny enter the stable.  //'Ah, you are strong too, my friend.'//  Shanks felt a deep sense of satisfaction to see the young man's stiff carriage – he was obviously hurting . . . but still able to function.  That was the key strategy for the game – keep him in physical discomfort while peeling away all his mental defenses.  Whittle away first his strength, his security, and then his trust.  Make him doubt himself as much as he doubted his friend.  Make him jump at every sound, snap at every word.  Drive a wedge between him and his family.  Divide and conquer – and then crush.

Shanks noticed Johnny stop and hesitate before walking past Barranca's stall to knock on the closed door to the tack room.

“Jelly, I need ya to saddle Barranca for me.”

The door whipped open and Jelly stood indigently in the doorway.  “Didn't you learn nothin' the other day?  You ain't ready ta ride with them bruises.”

“I'm in no mood to argue with you Jelly,” Johnny answered tersely.  “If you won't do it I'll find someone who will.”

Jelly jumped in front of him, jutting his whiskered chin out.  “Ain't no one who'll do it if'n I tell ‘em not to.  They all know how blamed headstrong you are.  ‘Sides . . .”

“'Sides what?”

Ezra caught the hint of anger coloring Johnny's voice, and felt satisfied.  His attempt to drive a wedge between friends had succeeded.  For the moment.  Shanks knew the two men were obviously too close for the animosity to last.  But the quarrel would leave one more valuable chink in the armor that was welded together by the young man's security and trust.

As Ezra had predicted, Jelly's anger with Johnny was already abating, his concern for the younger man overwhelming his enmity and evident in his softened tone.  “I just got this naggin' feelin', Johnny.  It ain't nothin' I kin put my finger on . . . take one of the other horses if'n ya gots ta go,” the old man implored.

Ezra watched Johnny turn back and look at Barranca.  Was there just a moment of hesitation there?  //'That's it, Johnny, give it some thought.  I'll answer your decision this afternoon.'//

 

 

Johnny shifted in the saddle and relaxed.  It felt good to be up and working again.  Although he still ached considerably from the bruises, keeping active was helping.  The ranch was still short of hands so he was needed, giving him a perfect excuse to push himself.

He had spent the morning rounding strays, gathering together another part of the herd so they could be moved to better grazing land.  As always, Barranca was doing his part controlling the cows, seemingly in tune to their every thought.  Again and again the horse moved before they did, and when he missed a telltale sign that a cow was going to bolt, Johnny would inevitably catch the signal and, with barely a twitch from his legs, head the palomino right on its tail.

Johnny gingerly dismounted, making himself work through his discomfort.  The deep bruises would take time to heal, but pain was part of the job.  Accidents were a way of life on a ranch.  Anyone who didn't expect to get hurt would be better served by seeking out a job in town.

Pouring water from his canteen into his hat, Johnny let Barranca lap up the refreshing water before climbing back onboard.  He then took a drink of his own and looped the canteen back onto his saddle.

Johnny looked up to the heavy overcast sky as he wiped the back of his wrist over his forehead.  “I'll tell ya, amigo,” he said as he adjusted the dripping hat on his head, “can't say I won't be sad to see this weather change.”  Kneeing Barranca gently in the side he sighed.  “Let's get this over with so you can get a good rub down and I can get a good bath.”

Barranca whinnied as if he understood every word and took off after a wayward cow.

Then the inexplicable happened – Barranca turned right instead of left, knocking the terrified cow toward the edge of a six-foot drop off into a muddy streambed.  Johnny kicked Barranca on the left side and pulled the reins but the palomino reared up in confusion, missing the steer by mere inches.  Bawling in terror, the cow struggled to keep its traction as it began to slide down the embankment.  Johnny grabbed his rope and the muscles in his chest and back screamed as he lassoed the cow and jumped from the saddle, pulling the frightened animal back onto solid ground.

Unhitching the rope from the cow's neck and swatting it in the rump, Johnny walked back to Barranca, who stood motionless.

“What is wrong with you, amigo?  You been gettin' into loco weed or somethin'?”

Gingerly Johnny climbed back in the saddle, his chest and back on fire.  That was the last thing he needed to happen today.  And that wasn't the end of it.  The rest of the day was met with one disaster after another.  Barranca acted like a green pony, repeatedly missing signals, misreading subtle commands.  Johnny was left confused, worried, and not a little mad.  Horse and rider finally trotted beneath the Lancer arch two hours after everyone else had already finished their day.

Too tired to say a word, Johnny handed Jelly Barranca's reins and headed for the house and his bedroom.  He was even too tired to eat.

//'Well done.'//  Ezra smiled as he slipped back into hiding, very pleased with the thought that tomorrow was another day.

 

 

Johnny lay sprawled across the top of his bed, stripped down to his cut off long johns.  He was grateful to his family that they chose to let him be.  He was too tired to eat or talk – or think for that matter.  The only thing he wanted and needed was sleep.  But his mind just would not settle.  He sat up, groaning at the reignited deep burning pain in his chest and back.  Roping that steer had been more than he could handle and he knew he'd be paying for it for weeks to come.  ‘Damn it, Barranca, why'd ya have ta pick today ta go green on me?'

He pushed himself off the bed and padded over to the open window.  The air was still appallingly humid.  He remembered this kind of weather down around the Texas panhandle, but never here in the valleys overshadowed by the Sierras.  Maybe that was what was niggling at him, the strange weather keeping him on edge.

He looked down at the veranda below and saw a pool of lantern light spilling through the open windows of the great room.  He could hear Scott's pleasing voice faintly reciting a stanza from a favorite poem of Teresa's.  He knew that she enjoyed listening to Scott read, and he had to admit that there were times when he hadn't minded his brother's recitations himself.  At the moment he didn't listen to the words, just the sound of his brother's voice, the perfect cadence, the rhythm of the speech.  It soothed him, as stories told in his mother's lyrical Spanish tongue had done when he had been a child.

Johnny finally padded over to his bed and carefully lay back down and closed his eyes.  But sleep remained elusive.  He listened to the others as they made their way to their own bedrooms, until the only sounds left were the chirping of insects in the humid air and his own heartbeat.  It was close to morning before he slipped into a troubled sleep.

He couldn't breathe.  Suffocating blackness surrounded him.  He pushed and shoved at the unbearable weight that crushed his chest.  He snapped his eyes open to see Barranca felled, the animal's body draped over him, pushing him into a cloying mud.  The palomino's hide felt hot and lathered with sweat, his nostrils flared, his head cocked to one side, mane flowing across the wet ground.  They lay beneath the Lancer arch, Johnny's left hand touching the white adobe. Broiling gray clouds raced overhead, nearly scraping the top of the arch.  Worried voices called to him, but their words were lost in the thick humid air.

He struggled to reach his arm out, his fingers just inches away from Barranca's nose.

‘Amigo . . .' he tried to call out, but there was no air left in his lungs.

And then Barranca opened his eyes . . .

“NO!”  Johnny bolted upright, his chest heaving for air, bruised muscles screaming in protest.  Memories of the nightmare folded in upon themselves . . . slipping from his mind, leaving behind an overwhelmingly frightening feeling of emptiness and unease.

 “Are you all right, son?”  Murdoch stood in the doorway, a candle held high casting an eerie flickering light into the blackness of the room.

Johnny shivered beneath the sweat that covered his body.  “I'm fine,” he said softly, still laboring to get air back into his lungs.

Murdoch wasn't fooled and moved into the room, setting the candle on the nightstand.  “Another nightmare?”

Johnny nodded, wrapping his arms around his heaving chest.

It troubled Murdoch to see his normally fearless son left so vulnerable by a dream.  “Would you be more comfortable sitting back?” Murdoch asked, then quickly arranged an extra pillow behind Johnny's back and helped him slide up.

For the second time in only days, the concerned father found himself sitting on the edge of his younger son's bed.  That was all the excuse he needed to take full control of the situation.  “I want you to rest again today . . . no arguments.  You're obviously pushing yourself too much, and I'm sorry I encouraged you.  I'll have Jelly bring up a tub.  A good long soak in hot water should ease those muscles.”

Johnny sat up against the headboard, his head down, clearly guarding his feelings from his father's appraising eyes.  “Johnny, did you hear me?”

“Yes.”  The answer was quiet.  Too quiet for the young man who normally had no problem barking a response back to his father when ordered to do anything.

“Johnny, the other night you tried to tell me what exactly was bothering you about . . . about how Barranca had acted.  It's obviously still troubling you.  Can you explain it to me now?”

There was a very, very long pause, but Murdoch stayed uncharacteristically patient.  To his disappointment however, all he received in reply was a shake of Johnny's still bowed head.

“Okay son,” he offered reluctantly.  “But Johnny, when you're ready to talk, I'm here.”

Johnny took in a breath of air then let it out in a doleful sigh.  Finally lifting his head, he offered his father some minor satisfaction.  “Thanks Murdoch, I'll remember that.”  But he wondered how he could possibly tell anyone what he didn't understand himself?

 

 

“Eat, por favor,” Maria coaxed as she set a heaping plate of eggs on the table in front of Johnny.  “You are pele y los huesos – skin and bones.  You don't eat and . . . “ she lifted his chin to look into his eyes, tisking at the dark circles, “. . . you do not sleep.  You will make yourself sick, chico.”

Johnny grinned, even as he twisted his face away from her appraising gaze.  “Stop fussin', Maria.  I'm fine.”

“Sí,” she harrumphed with her hands on her hips.  “Like a burro with the colic, you are fine.  I worry for you, Juanito.”

“You worry too much,” he argued halfheartedly as he merely stabbed at the eggs with his fork, not quite awake enough to have much of an appetite.  After Murdoch had left him early that morning, Johnny had managed only about another half-hour of fitful sleep before he'd given up and come down to the kitchen.

“No . . . I do not believe so.  There is much to worry about.”  With an uncustomary candor she sat down next to Johnny and folded his hand in hers.  “There is something muy mal here.  I can feel it in the air.  Look . . .”  She nodded toward the open kitchen door and the dark clouds beyond that dipped ever closer to the ground.

Johnny couldn't fault her for her feelings – he was having a hard time himself trying to dismiss the pall of unease that seemed to be surrounding the ranch.  Cipriano's discovery of the horse-stomped cow had fueled his nerves even more.  And those low-riding clouds looked suspiciously like those he had seen in his dream, scraping over the Lancer arch just before Barranca had . . .

He shivered and chided himself at the same time.  ‘Damn it, Johnny.  You're lettin' Maria get to you.'  It was all the time he was being forced to spend inactive.  It left him too much time to think, and wonder, and second-guess himself.  All would be well and everything would be fine tomorrow when he was allowed to go back to work.  Barranca was just feeling the same disquiet that he felt and was acting out.  That's all that was going on.  As soon as the weather lifted everything would be all right.

Johnny squeezed Maria's hand gently and continued to hide his own fears as he repeated, “You worry too much mamacita.”

“Sí.  How can I not?” she sighed, frustrated that Johnny continued to ignore her sense of foreboding.  She didn't know why, but she worried so for the patrón's younger son, and tried once more to make him see what she felt.  “Be careful . . . trust no one or no thing.  Mal can come from even the ones we trust the most.”

Johnny looked out the door at the hovering clouds and another involuntary shiver ran down his spine.

 

 

The following morning Johnny was up at the crack of dawn, more than ready to ride the fence line.  He much preferred being in the saddle doing something productive than lying for one more minute in bed.  His sleep had been mercifully nightmare free, but not restive, his sore body and wandering mind keeping him from too deep a slumber.  He'd spent the night more awake than asleep, and was desperately in need of a hard day's work – one that would tire his body as well as his mind.  Stiffness in his back and chest still robbed him of his fluid movements, but he didn't care how awkward he looked or how slowly he moved – all he knew was that he was free.

“You ready to work today, boy?” he asked, patting Barranca's neck.  “It's time we earned our keep.  Just promise to go easy on me . . . I'm still hurtin' a bit.”

Barranca snorted and shook his head vigorously, and Johnny recognized the familiar eagerness in the palomino to get moving.  He knew just how the horse felt.

“All right,” he laughed.  “Let's go.”

 

 

The morning was mercifully smooth.  Johnny rode the fence line, making note of any major repairs and fixing the small ones himself.  It felt good to be out working again, although he could still hear Murdoch's voice ringing in his ears, demanding that he take it easy and leave the more strenuous jobs for the hands for a few more days.  He would never admit it to the “old man's” face, but for once Johnny actually intended to follow his father's advice.  He settled deeper into the saddle, contented.  Even though the sun was still hidden behind a canopy of thick gray clouds he felt rejuvenated just being outdoors, surrounded by miles and miles of nothing but open range.

His fears of the last two nights seemed to disappear in the vastness of the land.  No one else was around.  No dangers were in sight.  Barranca felt solid and sure beneath him – a welcome contrast to the confused animal from only a couple of days before.

He spotted another small break in the wire and gingerly dismounted, simply ground tying Barranca.  “This won't take long, boy,” he promised.  “Then we'll find us some nice shade under a tree and rest for a bit.  I don't know ‘bout you, but I'm dead tired.”

Barranca whinnied in response and Johnny grinned.  “I figured that would make you happy.”

//'I assure you, Johnny,'// Ezra thought he as began to stir within his host, //'you do not yet know the meaning of the word tired.  But you will.'//

Johnny didn't see the look of fear that washed over Barranca's face or the sudden shiver that coursed down the palomino's flanks.

//'It's time to have some fun,'// Ezra whispered in Barranca's mind.  He felt the horse freeze for a moment and gently stroked his mind, slipping deeper into his subconscious, pushing aside the animal's will until he had complete control.

He studied Johnny, watching as expert hands worked the wire, even as his arms moved awkwardly against the pain in his back and chest.  He had not meant to injure the man so badly that first day, but observing the cowboy now, he was glad he had.  Johnny Lancer was even stronger than he had thought.  Ezra appreciated the extra edge – and it was time to press his advantage again.

Johnny twisted the last piece of wire until it sang.  Satisfied, he was ready to head back to Barranca. He needed a long cool drink and then that promised tree and some rest.  He was tired and sore now and, truth be told, had already expended all his energy.  After resting he would simply take note of any further repairs but not do any more himself.  Johnny knew one of his faults was pacing himself.  He always barreled into everything full force.  Well, this time he knew he would have to do some serious pacing or he would never make it through the day, let alone the rest of the week.

“I tell ya, amigo,” Johnny addressed Barranca over his shoulder as he made one last check on that section of fence.  “This weather saps the strength right out of a man.  Can't be that comfortable for you neither.  Let's find us that shady spot.”

Johnny finally turned around – and was stopped cold.  Barranca was nowhere in sight.

 

 

Johnny took an inadvertent step back, nearly losing his balance on the uneven ground.

“Barranca . . . ?” he called softly, suddenly feeling very lonely.  The constant companion in his life, Barranca, the one he could always trust unerringly, was faltering, becoming unreliable.  He felt as if the world was being swept away beneath his feet.

 

“Barranca!” Johnny called again, but his voice seemed to soak into the humid air.  He whistled, and still nothing.  He searched in every direction, straining to catch a glimpse of the palomino's blonde coat . . . but nothing.

“Damn it, Barranca . . .” he yelled.  Confusion made way for anger.  Why was the horse acting like this?   Johnny could – and had – trusted Barranca with his life.  Now he wasn't sure if he could depend on the animal to simply get him from one place to another.  Johnny feared he was losing his beloved friend.  Maybe Barranca was just an animal, but he was a friend nonetheless.  During his short life Johnny had found few things he considered dear to him.  And through some means or another – and usually against his own will – he'd lost almost all of them.  So he didn't bear such losses easily.

‘Damn it, Barranca.  Don't do this to me,' he pleaded.

He had to make a decision – wait there and hope Barranca would return, or start walking.  Johnny didn't feel like walking.  He was already hot and tired and still terribly sore.  But he knew he could be there the rest of the afternoon if Barranca had taken off for good.  No one would come looking for him until he was late returning home, and that would be hours from now.

With a reluctant sigh, he tossed the tools he had been using aside and started moving away from the fence line toward an often-used road five miles to the north.  At least going that way he would have a better chance of one of the hands spotting him as they returned from their own chores.

It didn't take long for Johnny to feel like he had walked twenty miles – but in reality he knew it was probably no more than a mile.  He was getting hotter and thirstier by the minute, and his boots were not made for walking long distances.  He took his hat off and wiped at the sweat streaming down his forehead, stinging his eyes.  The humidity made it hard to breathe, and weighed heavily on him.  When . . . not if, but when Barranca returned, he was going to have some choice words for his so-called friend.

Each step Johnny took jarred his back and chest.  He needed water.  He needed shade.  He needed Barranca.

Damn, what he wouldn't do for a nice tall glass of Teresa's cool lemonade.

 

 

Ezra waited just out of Johnny's sight, watching his footsteps grow shorter as his stamina weakened.  He would let him walk a couple more hours, get him good and tired and angry and only then allow the palomino to reemerge.

//'Easy boy,'// he coaxed.  Twice the horse had almost broken through the barrier he erected to control the palomino.  The horse was stronger than any animal he had ever possessed.  It was a fight to keep him under control, but the struggle thrilled him as it meant the outcome of the game was going to be that much sweeter.

The bond between this man and animal was so strong that Ezra was finding it especially rewarding using this particular beast to exact his twisted revenge.  His own trust in man had been horribly misplaced while he'd lived, cowboy after cowboy controlling his destiny while taking advantage of him.  They had all been mere strangers to him, but he had repeatedly put his faith in each and every one of them, only to be left misused in the end.  Well, before he was done with Johnny Lancer, the young man's own devotion to those close to him would be used against him, as his trust in everything and everyone he loved was destroyed.  Ezra was the one in control now.

He continued to watch Johnny walk, a lone figure in the miles of wavering tall grass.  Ezra saw him stumble more often now, actually falling to his knees once . . . exhaustion setting in.  //'Now you know the true meaning of the word tired, don't you Johnny?'//  His plan was working perfectly.

Suddenly there was a flash of color . . . someone was coming.  Ezra couldn't let anyone see Johnny on foot, raising suspicions.

//'We'll play again tomorrow,'// Ezra promised Johnny, then slipped into hiding.

Barranca whinnied in confusion as his will was returned to him.  He pranced nervously, looking about him – he knew the land well and realized that he wasn't anywhere near where he and the man had been working.  The man.  Johnny.  He slowed his frantic movements and, looking more carefully, saw Johnny in the distance, walking alone.  Unsure of what had happened to separate them, Barranca galloped toward the man, stopping before him and nudging his shoulder as he always did.

“Where the hell have you been?” Johnny asked tersely, taking a step back.  Barranca could hear the anger in the voice but did not understand why it was directed at him.  He nickered softly, then cautiously moved in to once again nudge at Johnny's shoulder.

Johnny didn't know what to make of Barranca's behavior – he was much too tired to think clearly.  But the horse seemed to be his old self, attentive to Johnny's needs and seeking affection.  He found himself unable to remain angry at the horse.  “Damn, Barranca.  Where the hell were you?” he asked quietly as he laid his head against the horse's muzzle, his arms too tired to give the animal a reassuring pat.

“Let's get home,” Johnny directed wearily as he moved over and painfully dragged himself up into the saddle.  Barranca stood calm and steady beneath him as Johnny took a long drink of water from the canteen.  He didn't even notice as Joe reined up beside him.

“You all right, Johnny?  You look a little done in.”  Joe waited patiently for a reply, truly concerned for his friend.

“Yeah, just hot,” Johnny answered as he finally capped the canteen and looped it to the saddle.  “I'm headin' back to the house.”  Thoughts of home reminded Johnny of Murdoch – and how very much his father hated a shoddy job.  “I left some tools back along the fence line near that dry creek bed back there.”  Johnny lifted his arm and waved it back down the trail before he realized what he was doing, and pulled up with a grimace.  “Mind pickin' ‘em up for me?” he asked as he massaged his chest.

Joe nodded, but then reiterated his concerns.  “I'll get ‘em now.  You sure you're all right?”

“I'm fine,” Johnny snapped, but immediately regretted it.  “I'm sorry.  It's just this damn weather. .  . Got me all on edge.”

“I know just what you mean.  Most of the men have been on each other's back all day.  You want me to ride home with you?  I can pick up them tools later.”

Johnny shook his head, then smiled a little.  “I'll be fine.  And Joe . . . don't mention this to anyone.  It'll get back to Murdoch, and you know how he is.”

“Yeah.”  Joe grinned back.  “You'll be ridin' a desk for a week.  But Johnny,” and now there was no levity in Joe's voice, “if there is somethin' wrong, you best tell someone.”

Johnny nodded and silently nudged Barranca into a slow walk.  Something was wrong all right - he just couldn't make sense of what it was.

 

 

PART ELEVEN

Johnny pulled his socks on and shoved his aching feet into his boots, for once not even trying to fool himself into believing that there might be one single inch of him that wasn't in some kind of pain.  Yesterday's walk had drained him of what little energy he had regained by taking another day off – and he knew he would not be going anywhere again today.  That fact was confirmed by the lateness of the morning – he didn't need a clock to tell him that it was well past dawn.  No one had disturbed him, allowing him to sleep as long as he needed – and he'd obviously needed a lot of sleep.

Johnny wondered just how long his family would put up with his inability to put in a full day's work.  He'd made a great effort to hide his worsened condition from his family the night before, but hadn't succeeded in fooling anyone.  Murdoch had clearly been the most disappointed, and Johnny really couldn't blame him.  His father had been trying hard to accommodate his younger son's ill health, but Johnny was needed right now, there was no doubt about that.  And for every day that he sloughed off someone else had to pick up his slack.  More than likely that meant Scott was putting in extra hours.  But Johnny knew he couldn't sit a saddle today, he was just too damn sore.

‘You're getting' soft, Madrid.  One more day and that's it, cowboy,' Johnny ordered himself.

He made his way down to the kitchen to find Maria busy, already preparing for lunch.  As he eased his aching body into a kitchen chair, Johnny ignored her look of concern but gratefully accepted a hot cup of coffee.

“Oh chico you look malo.  Your padre, he is right.  You must see Señor Sam.”

“I've had a rough week, Maria, that's for sure.  But I'm starvin' right now, and that's a good sign . . . right?”  An expert at diversion, Johnny favored the housekeeper with his most sincere smile – and she melted right before his eyes.

“Sí.  You go to bed last night with not even a bite to eat.  This is no good.  No good.  You sit right here and I will fix you something especial.”

Johnny sat back and relaxed.  Maria always made him feel better.  She was so much like the mother he wished he would have had growing up . . . the mother he'd seen other boys had to take care of them.  But Maria also elicited from him darker memories of his childhood, remembrances of superstitions he had learned as a child – things his mind knew were impossible . . . but that his heart was now having trouble denying.  He looked out the window at the heavy clouds and his appetite faded.

He begged his mind to focus elsewhere but didn't find much solace, remembering that he owed Jelly an apology.  The day before last the old handyman had dutifully drawn Johnny a hot bath as Murdoch had instructed, but they had barely spoken to each other.  And yesterday the two men hadn't spoken at all.  Jelly's friendship meant too much to him to jeopardize just because Barranca had run around free for a few hours and Johnny had lost a few nights sleep.

Silently, Johnny slipped out of the kitchen.  He knew Maria would put his food into a warming oven and it would be waiting for him later . . . if he ever again felt like eating.

 

 

Johnny found Jelly in the tack room, bent intently over a frayed cinch.  The old man took meticulous care of all the tack and Johnny had been grateful on more than one occasion because of it.  He cleared his throat and waited, but Jelly didn't look up.

Slowly he eased himself into a chair next to Jelly and pulled another frayed cinch toward him, silently beginning to mend it just as Jelly was doing.

“You know I didn't mean what I said on Sunday,” Johnny said softly.

“I know . . .” Jelly answered.

“I've been a real grouch to be ‘round lately.”

“I know . . .”

“You gonna cut me some slack here, Jelly?  I'm tryin' to apologize.”

“I know.”

Johnny suddenly started to grin.  “You know a lot, don't ya?”

“I reckon I do.”

“So are you gonna forgive me?”

Jelly continued to work on the cinch.  “Don't know if there's anythin' ta forgive.  Seems ta me that I was responsible fer Barranca bein' in that stall . . . but he weren't.  That means any forgivin' otta be on ta other foot.”

“I still shouldn't of bit into you like that.”

Jelly finally looked up, and he sighed heavily.  “Everybody's nerves has been a jangled ‘cause of this weather and well . . . if yer willin' ta forgive me, then I say that's an end ta it all.”

Johnny reached over to shake Jelly's offered hand, wincing at the pinch in his back.

Jelly hadn't missed the slight but obvious grimace.  “You ‘bout ready ta try some of my special liniment for them sore muscles?  Fix ya right up.”

“I thought you used it all up on the horses?”

“Nah . . . I always keep some on hand fer the likes of you.”

The pair shared a mischievous look, and Johnny shook his head.  “You know there ain't no help for the likes of me,” Johnny stated with a grin.

“I know,” Jelly replied – and both men laughed heartily, satisfied that their friendship was as strong as ever.

//'You do have a way with you, boy.'//  Ezra smiled, carefully shifting within Barranca, moving forward in the horse's consciousness just enough so he could position the animal to hear better.  But the palomino sensed him stirring and let out a plaintive whinny.  Not wanting to draw attention from Johnny or the old handyman, he slid back into hiding.

The men had indeed both noticed Barranca's cry, and briefly turned an ear toward the horse before switching their attention back to the cinch repair.

“Ya know . . . some mighty strange thing's have been happenin' ‘round here of late,” Jelly ventured cautiously.  “Things that don't make much sense.”

Johnny nodded, but remained silent.

“One of the hands found one rung kicked outta each stretch of fence over in the back corral.”

“A lot of animals been actin' strange.  It's just this weather.”

Jelly nodded.  “Yep.  I've said as much myself,” the old man agreed as he continued to dance around his point.  “Except we ain't had no stock corralled back there all week, and it was done by somethin' on the inside of the fence, not somethin' on the outside tryin' to get in.  I also found a rabbit stomped ta death . . . and ya know that ole barn cat that's been hangin' ‘round forever?  Found him almost bit in two just inside the barn.  Ugly sight.”

Johnny set the repaired cinch down and looked directly at his old friend.  “Just what are you tryin' to say Jelly?”

The old man stood up and adjusted his suspenders, then looked out the tack room door into the stable.  “I'm sayin' ta watch yer back, Johnny,” he whispered, although he wasn't quite sure why he felt the need to.  “Somethin's just not right.”  Jelly turned back to the youngest Lancer, a man he had come to love like a son.  “Johnny, when that stallion first showed up, I saw somethin' in his eyes I ain't never saw in a horse afore.  I cain't exactly describe what it was, but it scart me.  And things ain't felt right ‘round this ranch since.  Just watch yer back.”

Jelly walked out of the tack room leaving Johnny alone with his thoughts.  He felt a cold uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.  Jelly had seen “something” in the stallion's eyes – but what about Barranca?  Had he ever noticed anything wrong with Barranca?  Surely Jelly would have mentioned it just now – wouldn't he have?  Had Jelly just confirmed the feelings he had himself?

Slowly Johnny stood up, realizing every ache and pain he was feeling was a direct result of some action of Barranca's.  Bad luck and coincidences?  Or was Jelly right, and there was something more going on . . .?

Soon he might have to make a decision, but not yet.  Johnny's instincts were telling him that Barranca would never do anything to intentionally harm him, and his instincts were almost always right.  Despite his resolve, Johnny didn't feel like facing Barranca with such questions on his mind, so he took the side door exit and returned to the house.

 

 

 “You doing all right there, brother?”

Scott reined up beside Johnny, concern written all over his face.  It was only mid-morning and they had already been in the saddle for three hours, chasing the last of the strays back to the herd.  He'd kept a wary eye on his brother, watching him give Barranca the reins at times, seemingly trying to conserve his energy.  The man did not belong in the saddle . . . his injuries were obviously still too painful, despite having done nothing more over the past couple of days than rest and drive a buckboard to town for some minor supplies.  But Johnny was stubborn to a fault and just wouldn't stay down, insisting on continuing to try to keep up with his share of the work, which could be hard on a man in the best of health.

“Quit fussin', Scott.  I'm fine.”

“Sure you are.  That's why you're whiter than Teresa's sheets.  I'm taking a break, want to join me?” he fished.

Johnny didn't take the bait, and favored his brother with an impish smile as he whipped Barranca around to catch a straying cow.  “You go right ahead, older brother,” he called back.  “I'll catch up with you.”

Scott cursed beneath his breath as he watched Johnny chase the wayward steer.  The boy was deaf when it came to his own health.  But he had to admit that, even hurt, Johnny was a sight to behold.  Horse and rider were so perfectly in tune they moved as one.  He was hard pressed to remember anyone with the kind of chemistry Johnny had with animals.  Scott considered that perhaps it was because people had treated Johnny so badly as a child that he began trusting animals more – and in turn those animals found equal trust in Johnny.

Another stray caught his own attention and he was off in the opposite direction, hoping that soon he might be able to at least get Johnny to take a long break for lunch.

Johnny was able to keep up an almost normal pace for another hour, but the heat and humidity finally caught up to him and he found himself swaying in the saddle.  Startled, he realized that he had started to doze and Barranca had sought out the shade of a massive oak tree.

“Thanks, amigo,” Johnny smiled, patting Barranca's neck.  “I hope no one saw.  I get caught nappin' I'll be ridin' that desk again before you know it.  You make sure you wake me if I do that again.”

As if he understood, Barranca snorted and moved out of the shade.  Even though heavy clouds covered the sun and the air was sultry, the oak tree had provided a modicum of relief from the heat.  Johnny missed it the moment he was once again out in the open.  He'd grown up in towns in Mexico and south Texas where it was almost always warm, hot even.  So he couldn't understand why this weather was having such an effect on him.

Johnny was never more thankful that Barranca was, among other things, the best cow pony he had ever ridden.  The horse was performing perfectly today, so he gave Barranca his head and let the animal spot strays and herd them back in line.  The movements of the pair were once again in harmony, and Johnny found himself more and more relaxed.  Before he knew it he had dozed off again, his head sagging noticeably toward his chest.

Scott entered a thicket of trees and flushed out another wayward steer, spotting Johnny a dozen yards away.  Even if his brother had not had his head slumped forward, obviously studying the backs of his eyelids, he would not have seen Scott, well hidden among the trees.

Taking the rare opportunity to study his young brother, he paused for a moment and just watched.  It always amazed Scott how Johnny could become so relaxed in the saddle that he could even sleep while mounted.  He could only manage that skill himself when he was dead tired, and even then would wake easily.  A smile crept across his face as he thought of wandering over to tease Johnny about teaching him how to do that trick.  He nudged Charlemagne forward . . . just as the unthinkable happened.

Barranca whinnied once as something seemed to smash into his mind, throwing him into a blackness that took away all thought, all feeling.  Once again Ezra had taken over the animal's will, and the spirit was left staggered by the strength of the horse.  Shanks could not get over how powerful he felt whenever he was in complete control of Barranca, and how hard it was not to take off at a gallop, to once again experience the freedom of movement from within this magnificent beast.  But Ezra knew that there was power to be had in playing with the cowboy as well, so he resisted the temptation and focused back on the opportunity at hand.

Ezra had spotted a patch of grass that was camouflaging a pile of small boulders, and he couldn't resist leading Barranca toward it.  He felt Johnny's knees clamp tighter around the horse's sides, instinctually adjusting to the horse's movements even while he dozed.

//'You mustn't become complacent, Johnny boy.'//  Ezra smiled.  //'Herding cattle can be a dangerous job.  I'll just remind you of that.'//

Ezra stopped and waited, felt Johnny's legs relax, his body shift deeper into the saddle – and then he suddenly bucked.  He felt Johnny lift from the saddle, followed by a harsh gasp as the man hit the ground hard.

In his exuberance, Ezra had failed to consider his surroundings carefully, and had missed noticing Scott as he watched from the stand of trees.  Hearing a cry of surprise, Shanks saw Scott thundering toward him.  Quickly he retreated, returning control to Barranca, leaving the horse staring down at a motionless Johnny on the ground.

“Johnny!”  Scott jumped from his horse before he had come to a compete stop.  “Johnny, are you all right?”

“Yeah, I'm fine,” Johnny sighed, but he didn't move.

“Where are you hurt?”  Scott was kneeling beside him now, beginning to run his hands down Johnny's arms.

Johnny pushed him away, grimacing in pain.  “I said I'm all right,” he stated with exasperation.

“You don't look it,” Scott barked back at him, frustrated that Johnny was once again trying to dismiss what could be a serious injury.

“I just got the wind knocked out of me.”  He didn't dare tell Scott that he had landed solidly on pure rock and his hip was now on fire.

“What happened?” Scott asked as he helped Johnny to sit up.  Watching closely he noticed the pain etched on Johnny's face deepen as he paled, and that his young brother was now favoring his right side.  Scott decided he would somehow have to get a look at Johnny before the day was over.  If the boy was going to be stubborn about admitting when he was really hurt, he and Murdoch were just going to have to take Johnny's well being into their own hands.

Barranca had taken a step closer and was now leaning down to nudge at his shoulder with his muzzle.  Big brown eyes met blue eyes, and Johnny saw nothing but confusion and worry from the horse.  Johnny was feeling more than a little confused himself right at that moment, but he knew Scott was watching him closely so kept his uncertainty to himself.  Hearing Barranca nicker at him nervously, he reached up a hand and gave the animal a quick pat.  “It's okay boy,” he crooned, reassuring himself as he calmed the horse.

Knowing he had to say something to appease Scott, Johnny offered, “I dozed and I guess a rabbit or somethin' spooked Barranca.  It was my fault.  You fall asleep in the saddle and you end up on your butt.”

“Very true,” Scott agreed – but that didn't mean he was convinced.  “Can you stand?”

“Sure,” Johnny stated too eagerly.  Scott pulled the injured man carefully to his feet, and noticed that Johnny wasn't putting his full weight on his right leg.  “Are you sure you're okay?”

“I told ya to quit fussin' once already today.  Now get back to work.  I'll be fine.”

“Why don't you head back to the house?  I think we've got just about all the strays.  I can pick up the stragglers myself.”

“Nah . . . I'll . . .”

“No you won't.”  Scott had had enough, and leaned down to pick up Johnny's hat, placing it firmly on the younger man's head.  “I'm playing big brother today, and I'm ordering you home.”

“You're ordering me?” Johnny asked, but there was only humor, no threat, in his voice.

“Yes.”  Scott said definitively as he mounted his horse.  “I'm ordering you.”

“Fine, I'll head back,” Johnny relented.  “But you better come up with a better reason for sendin' me home than me fallin' off my horse ‘cause I was nappin'.  The old man'll kill me if he finds out.”  Under other circumstances Johnny's look of dread might have been amusing to Scott, but he didn't dare laugh or do anything that might change his brother's mind about returning to the hacienda.

“Don't you worry about Murdoch,” Scott assured his brother.  “I'll take care of him . . . you just take care of yourself.  Please.  I'll see you at dinner.”

Johnny massaged his aching hip as he watched Scott ride away.   He knew he was going to have a sizeable bruise, and that he'd once again aggravated his just healing back.  But he felt lucky that he hadn't cracked a rib – or two.  ‘I'll also be lucky if I can make it upstairs to bed on my own tonight,' he thought ruefully.  “Dammit, Barranca . . .”

The horse heard his name and nickered quietly as he stood attentively nearby.  Johnny looked at Barranca and another bout of apprehension came over him.  Jelly's words popped into his head and he took an involuntary step back from the palomino.

Had this just been more “bad luck?”  Another “coincidence?”  Or was there really something more going on?

He mounted Barranca slowly and painfully headed back toward the house, now unable to hold back the feeling of foreboding washing over him.

Johnny couldn't silence the din of his own thoughts.  Something was not right with Barranca.  He could no longer justify the horse's strange behavior as merely being a series of isolated incidents.  The sudden behavior changes troubled him.  He hadn't mentioned any of the other things that had happened during the week to anyone, including Jelly.  But Scott had seen Barranca buck him off today, and that had him worried.  Johnny had been able to come up with an excuse for the horse's action, and his brother had believed him – but he wasn't sure he believed the explanation himself.  He needed to get a handle on what was going on before his family overreacted and Barranca was set out to pasture – or worse.

He had seen horses go “bad” before.  It didn't happen often, but it was a sad thing to see a once perfectly good horse destroyed because it could no longer be trusted.  Johnny promised himself he would do everything in his power to see that that didn't happen to Barranca.

“Tomorrow's Sunday, amigo,” he said softly to the still air.  “We both get a rest.  We'll get this figured out.  I won't give up on you, no matter what.  You'll see.”

 

 

PART TWELVE

Scott rapped lightly a few times on Johnny's closed bedroom door and, receiving no answer, moved on.  His brother was either feigning sleep or actually getting the rest he so badly needed.  Either way, Scott decided not to disturb him further, although he had really wanted to see how his brother was faring this morning.  Johnny had refused to answer any of Scott's questions the night before about his fall, and had forcefully pushed him out of the room, stopping just short of slamming the door in his face.

The family was headed for church.  Johnny rarely went with them, preferring Catholic services when he did, but he usually at least saw them off.  Scott figured there was no way his brother would have joined them this morning anyway, knowing that the hard pews and frequent kneeling would do nothing for Johnny's aching back after that spill he took off of Barranca.

He found Murdoch sitting in the front seat of the buggy waiting impatiently.  To Scott's surprise he spotted Jelly sitting in the back with Teresa.  He couldn't remember the last time he had seen the handyman join them for church services.

“Jelly . . . ?”  Scott peered dubiously at the old man, wearing his best – and only – suit, and looking woefully out of place.

The old man had his rehearsed excuse ready.  “It cain't hurt ta remind the Good Lord that yer still a breathin' down here on earth.  I figure this is as good a time as any.”

Teresa reached over and patted his hand.  “I think it's wonderful that Jelly has decided to join us.  I just wish Johnny had felt up to coming.  I'm worried about him.”

‘With good reason,' Scott thought, but he kept his particular concerns private, still trying to make sense of it all for himself.

He couldn't get the vision of Barranca bucking Johnny off out of his mind.  Johnny had made all the usual excuses for the incident . . . “a rabbit or somethin' spooked Barranca,” and it had been his own fault for dozing in the saddle.  But something else bothered Scott . . . it was the way Barranca had acted right after Johnny had hit the ground.  The palomino had stood totally motionless over Johnny, merely watching him.  If a rattler or rabbit had spooked him the animal's instincts would have made him turn away from the danger.  Instead the horse hadn't moved until he'd heard the sound of Charlemagne galloping toward him.  Then Barranca had suddenly grown attentive, nuzzling at Johnny's shoulder.

Silence descended over the small group as Murdoch whipped the reins gently and the buggy pulled away from the house.

The thick clouds and heavy air continued to hang over the land like a shroud.  The uncharacteristic dankness for this time of year seemed to permeate everyone and everything.  Even the horses pulling the buggy seemed strangely lethargic.  Half the trip passed before anyone spoke once more.

“I'm worried about Johnny,” Teresa again ventured from the back seat, breaking the stifling stillness.  “He hasn't really had much of a chance to recover from his accident.”

“It didn't help getting thrown from Barranca yesterday.”  Scott allowed his own broiling thoughts to emerge.  “I think he may have bruised a hip or leg,” he added tightly.

Scott felt a hitch in the steady gait of the horses as they sensed a change of grip radiating through the reins Murdoch held in his strong hands.  “He didn't mention getting hurt again last night,” Murdoch stated, adding a stern, “and neither did you.”

“He asked me not to,” Scott explained, realizing he'd disclosed too much and broken his brother's confidence.  “Said it was embarrassing getting thrown from his own horse because he'd dozed in the saddle.”

“I don't like it,” Jelly said flatly.  “I don't like it at'all.  Somethin' ain't right.”

“He didn't belong in the saddle in the first place,” Teresa snapped.

“It's more'n that Teresa.”

Murdoch pulled the team to a stop and twisted around to look back squarely at the older man.  “What's on your mind, Jelly?  Spit it out.”

Jelly looked around nervously, knowing he wasn't going to be believed no matter how he worded his concerns.  But worry for his young friend gave him the strength to speak.  “I cain't put my finger on it, but somethin's mighty wrong back at Lancer.  Ever since that black stallion showed up, things a' been happenin' all over the ranch, ‘specially ta Johnny.  It's almost as if he had the curse of the devil over his head.”

“Come on, Jelly, stop exaggerating,” Murdoch sighed.  “Everyone has a spate of bad luck.  It's just Johnny's turn.”

“You really believe that?” Scott asked, astounded.

“Yes.  Yes I do.”

“It's more'n that boss.”  Jelly sat forward on the seat, his voice becoming more insistent.  “I don't trust that stallion.  I think . . . I think it was him that brought on all the bad luck.”

“I think you're letting your imagination get the best of you, Jelly.  However, there's nothing to say we can't deal with that stallion.  When we get back from church I want you to move him to the south forty.  Let's keep him away from Barranca.”

“And Johnny?” Teresa asked hopefully.

“We keep an eye on him . . . try not to let him do too much.  But this is a working ranch, my dear, and a busy time of year.  We need to move cattle onto grazing land that we should have had the whole winter to prepare.  I need every man we have out working.  Johnny's finally learned that lesson himself, and I'm proud of him for it.”

“I have to agree with Teresa,” Scott added, pressing the majority point.  “Johnny needs rest.”

“And he'll get it.  Today.  All day.”  Murdoch's strict edict drew obvious disappointment, and as he viewed the unhappy faces around him his resolve weakened – slightly.  “Tomorrow we'll see how he feels.  But if he can sit a saddle, then he'll be working.  That's the way Johnny wants it, and it's also just the way it needs to be.”

Murdoch indicated the subject was closed by facing forward and once more whipped the horses into motion.  Silence again settled over the buggy, as each occupant retreated back into their own deep thoughts.

 

 

Monday morning found Johnny limping slightly as he made his way toward the stable.  He had slept most of Sunday away and throughout the night – but not without help.  While the family had been at church he had painfully negotiated the stairs and found Teresa's medical supplies.  There was always a bottle of laudanum kept for emergencies, and he had taken a healthy sip before going back to bed, the bottle hidden under his pillow.

It had been a hard decision to seek out that little brown bottle.  Johnny absolutely hated the medicine and normally would do almost anything to avoid taking it.  But he hurt so badly, and he couldn't let anyone know how much pain he was in.  It was worth the deception for one good night's sleep – and to keep attention away from Barranca.  Johnny really hoped the horse would return the courtesy today and behave.

“I think not!”  Jelly stood before him, hands on hips, chin jutted out in defiance.  “You ain't in no shape to go ridin' all over creation today.  What does Murdoch say ‘bout you bein' out a' bed?”

Johnny smiled.  “It just so happens that I'm followin' Murdoch's orders.  He wants me to oversee the projects, just stop by and make sure everythin' is runnin' smoothly . . . maybe tote some supplies back and forth.  Nothin' tough at all . . . just a few hours in the saddle.  Now, if you don't want the wrath of Murdoch ta come down on you for questionin' his orders, I think you should saddle Barranca here for me so I can be on my way.”

“I'll do it,” Jelly grumbled, taking Johnny's saddlebags and canteen from him.  “But I think it's a dang fool idea.”

Ten minutes later Johnny kicked Barranca into a gentle lope and tipped his hat to Jelly as he rode away from the hacienda, toward the Lancer arch and the open range beyond.

 

 

An hour later Johnny found himself slowing Barranca down to a measured walk, each step of the palomino still jarring his tender back and bruised hip.  He'd thought on it enough to convince himself that there wasn't anything broken, but Johnny knew his side had most likely been bruised down to the bone.  Over the miles the sharp ache had developed into a constant throbbing, the pain now bad enough to make him sick to his stomach.

He reined up and dismounted slowly.  Barranca looked back at him, searching for a treat.  Instead Johnny reached into his saddlebag and pulled out the small bottle of laudanum.  He hated the fact that he needed a dose so early, but he had to do something to be sure he made it through the day.

Johnny looked around carefully, then took a measured swallow of the foul liquid.  He grimaced at the taste as he returned the medicine to the saddlebag.  He knew it would take twenty minutes or more to have an affect, but then he could function for the rest of the day.  Johnny washed the bitter aftertaste of the drug down with a gulp of water, then moved to mount up and get back to work.

//'Well, well, cowboy . . .'//  Ezra had peeked out from his hiding place deep within Barranca's mind, and watched gleefully as Johnny had consumed the familiar pain-killing medicine.  //'You're hurting more than you care to let on, and think you can make yourself feel better.  But I have hundreds of ways to make you suffer.  We'll just have to give you something different to think about.  But not just yet . . .  We'll play soon.'//

 

 

“Oooeeee . . . It sure is a hot one today.”  Johnny reined Barranca to a stop, and once again dismounted – slowly.  The laudanum had taken the edge off the pain but he knew he still had to keep himself moving carefully.  “I'll sure be glad when this weather breaks.  Strangest thing I've ever seen.  You must be as hot as I am, boy.”

Barranca answered Johnny with a quiet nicker and a lowering of his head.  The pair had been checking watering holes all along the way, and every other one was now nothing more than a soupy mud puddle.  Further evidence of the damage being inflicted on Lancer was clearly evident to Johnny as he constantly scanned the landscape, seeing the palette that normally indicated life quickly changing from light green to pale yellow, with brown patches already becoming widespread.  What should have been good grazing ground for at least another month was already turned useless – even dangerous – by the oppressive and unremitting fall heat wave they'd been experiencing.

Johnny unhooked his canteen from the saddle and took off his hat, pouring the tepid water into the improvised vessel to allow Barranca to drink as he continued chattering on about their day.  “We've got about an hours ride over to the mesa where Scott's workin'.  Bet he's plenty tired stringin' fence line in this heat,” he laughed lightly as the horse continued to drink eagerly.  “Then we'll head over and meet up with that crew workin' on the bridge by the south line shack.”

Barranca finally seemed satisfied, so Johnny settled his hat back on his head, relishing the feel of the water dripping into his hair.  “Sounds like a full day to me,” he added, then finally lifted the canteen to his own lips.  He heard a strange whinny from Barranca just before the horse's head butted his hands and the canteen fell to the ground, the precious water streaming out and disappearing into the dry grass.

“What the hell did you do that for?” Johnny irritably questioned, leaning over gingerly to retrieve the canteen.  But Barranca shifted and knocked Johnny off balance.  He righted himself, but the water continued to pour quickly out of the canteen.

“Barranca, no!” Johnny shouted.  But the horse continued to prance around nervously until his hoof finally came down on the canteen, crushing the container – and emptying the last of the water.

 

 

Ezra watched with perverse humor as Johnny studied the ruined canteen.

//'Now new fun begins.  That laudanum you took made you twice as thirsty, didn't it Johnny?  Bet you really needed a drink.  Just how long will it take you to find clean water out here, cowboy?'//

Ezra settled back and watched Johnny angrily toss the ruined canteen away before remounting.  Shanks applauded his patience.  There were so many games he knew how to play . . . so much enjoyment to be had.  And Johnny was turning out to be the perfect toy.

 

 

Johnny couldn't remember being more thirsty.  His mouth felt as if it were stuffed with cotton and every breath caught in his dry throat.  Barranca had kept up a steady gentle pace for the past hour, but the constant throbbing in Johnny's back and hip were back, and taking their toll.  He was starting to feel sick from the pain again, and thought about taking another sip of the laudanum.  But he was already so thirsty, and he didn't think he could stand the thought of that taste lingering in his mouth without something to wash it down.

Instead, he nudged Barranca onward toward the mesa.  Scott would have water, and if need be, a strong arm to help him get back home.  However Johnny really hoped that it wouldn't come to that.  He couldn't spend another day in bed.  He'd benefit, for sure – but everyone else would suffer.  Even Murdoch was out working today.  Johnny had to try to keep going.  He couldn't – wouldn't – let his family down.

Everything would have been okay today if Barranca hadn't knocked the water out of his hand.  Knocked . . . Johnny couldn't get past the feeling that the bump had been intentional.  But why would a horse do that?  Why would his horse do that?  Barranca would never do anything to cause him harm . . .

Johnny shook his head at that last thought.  It was getting real hard to deny that laying a heap of hurt on him was exactly what Barranca had been doing for days.

Pushing those thoughts aside, Johnny heard the sounds of hammering ahead and a loud curse that could only have issued from Scott.  Johnny spurred Barranca on to find his brother nursing an injured digit in his mouth, while Cipriano continued working beside him and tried hard not to laugh.

“You're supposed to hammer the nail, not your finger,” Johnny offered helpfully as he grinned down at Scott.

Scott looked up, but his own burgeoning grin faded as he caught sight of Johnny's pale complexion and sweat-drenched face.  “You all right?” he asked, looking closer and noticing his brother's slightly unfocused eyes.

Johnny nodded, then casually readjusted his hat to avoid the scrutiny.  “Just thirsty.  Lost my canteen an hour or so back.”

“How'd you do that?” Scott asked, quickly handing Johnny his own canteen.

Johnny explained around a series of eager gulps.  “Oh . . . Barranca knocked it out of my hand . . . Then got all upset when I yelled at him . . . and ended up steppin' on it.”

“He stepped on it?” Scott repeated, his voice full of suspicion.

Realizing how incriminating his explanation sounded, Johnny wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt, and then flicked his hand in dismissal.  “Was just an accident is all.  I knew you'd have water, so it don't matter.”

Scott shared a look with Cipriano, then they both turned and eyed Johnny carefully.  “A lot of that happening lately . . . accidents, I mean.”

Johnny shrugged, trying hard not to get into a confrontation that, in his condition, he just might lose.  “It was just a canteen, Boston.  Mind if I keep this?”  He wrapped the strap of the canteen around the pommel of his saddle before Scott could answer.

“Looks like you're almost done here,” he changed the subject.  “Murdoch wants someone to sweep by the stream near the gap, make sure it isn't bogged down yet.  I'm headed over to see how Joe is doing at the south line shack, so I'll check it on my way.”

“Maybe you should call it a day,” Scott suggested.  “You look like you've had enough.”

Johnny shook his head.  “No need, brother.  I'll meet you back at the ranch tonight.”  Johnny pulled Barranca around and headed them both south.

Scott watched his brother ride off as troubling thoughts gathered, and an uneasy feeling stirred in the pit of his stomach.

 

 

PART THIRTEEN

Johnny waited for Scott to reach the bottom of the stairway and disappear toward the kitchen before he dared negotiate the steps himself.  He'd hoped he'd feel a little better today, as the previous day's work hadn't been too strenuous.  But the long ride hadn't done a thing to ease the tightness in his muscles or the pain in his hip.  The injured man would have loved nothing better than to spend a nice leisurely day over by the lake, floating his battered body in the cool water, allowing his mind a chance to totally relax.  ‘Yeah . . . me and every other man on this ranch,' Johnny berated himself, chasing away the frivolous thoughts to ready himself for breakfast with his family.

He heard them all already gathered at the kitchen table, and had a mind to skip the meal.  But Johnny knew failing to eat would only raise more questions about his physical condition, and keep the fire lit under suspicions about Barranca's recent behavior.  Nope.  Best to bite the bullet and show up – and try to act like nothing was wrong.

Truth be told, Johnny loved breakfast, finding comfort and solace in the daily ritual of the meal. Too many times while he lived as Johnny Madrid, breakfast had consisted of burnt coffee and hardtack with a horse his only company.  Now he had more food than he could eat, with Maria hovering over him like an abuela.  He enjoyed the attention and, if he was completely honest with himself, he needed it.  It didn't – couldn't – make up for all the years he had lost being without family while on his own, a child trying to be a man.  But what he had at Lancer helped ease the hurt and heal his soul.  Until now . . .

How could he sit at the table, look those closest to him in the eye, and pretend that nothing was wrong?  Johnny was hurting – so much physically that he had once again taken refuge in a dose of laudanum this morning.  But Johnny's anguish was due to much more than just physical discomfort . . . he was suffering mentally from the uncertainty over what was happening around him.

The incidents with Barranca were random he told himself – just a spate of damn bad luck.  But collectively the events had shaken him.  And for some reason he felt the need to hide as much as he could from his family.  Johnny had survived over the years by always being in command of his life.  Now he felt like everything was out of his control.  He couldn't allow that to happen.

Johnny straightened his shoulders, suppressed a hiss of pain, and walked into the kitchen, hiding his limp the best he could.

The smells of the kitchen were warm and inviting.  Maria was instantly behind his chair, plate in hand, waiting for her chico to take his place.  As always, she had prepared his meal with a little more spice than the rest of the family members could handle.  But this morning there was no warming smile on her face, merely a look of worry and concern.  ‘Inquietud,' she had warned.   Johnny was trying hard not to admit that she was right.

“You should not be out of bed, sí?” Maria scolded, as Johnny carefully slid into his chair.  “You need rest to heal.”

“I'm all right, mamacita.”  Johnny favored her with his most disarming smile as she set the plate in front of him.  “There's lots of work to be done and plenty of easy jobs to go around.  I won't have to do anythin' too rough.  Right Murdoch?”

Murdoch had to smile at his son's enduring tenacity.  “Johnny is right,” he concurred, though his voice didn't quite hold the strong conviction of his words.  “We need every able bodied man to . . .”

“I wouldn't call Johnny able bodied,” Scott snapped.  “He does need to rest.”

“He's sittin' right here, and he feels just fine!” Johnny bit back, instantly riled by Scott's defense on his behalf, the overt attention exactly what he had hoped to avoid.

“Johnny, you always overdo.  You can't . . .”

“I can handle myself,” Johnny flared.  “Always have, always will.”  He threw his napkin onto his plate, covering the untouched food, and jumped to his feet, too fast.  Johnny's hip spasmed and he had to fight for balance, grabbing onto the table and forcing his legs to straighten beneath him.  Embarrassed and angry, he stormed out of the kitchen, now openly favoring his right leg.

Scott had initiated the outburst, but everyone's eyes turned back accusingly toward Murdoch.  The Lancer patriarch shook his head sadly – he'd kept himself blind to the fact that Johnny was indeed still in a lot of pain despite many opportunities to recover.  The father wished he had the luxury of endless time and manpower to allow his younger son a more leisurely period to recuperate.  But the boy was needed, and it was apparent that Johnny was going to remain adamant about his desire to keep working.  He wasn't going to try to coddle his son any longer.  As long as Johnny felt he could sit a horse, that was exactly where Murdoch would let him be – carrying his weight, just like everyone else.

 

 

The sun this morning was doing its best to fight the ever-present clouds for supremacy of the sky, but the uplifting brightness did little to cheer Johnny.  He made his way toward the barn, angry and repentant at the same time.  He shouldn't have lost his temper.  For once he understood that his father was just trying to run the ranch the only way he knew how.  And Scott . . . well, Scott was just trying to be the over-protective big brother.  Johnny normally appreciated the fact that Scott had come to like him enough to care about him.  But right now the attention rankled.

Johnny entered the barn, still a little surly and already a lot sore.  He wished that the day were at its end, not just beginning.  Johnny concentrated on trying to massage the stiffness out of his hip as he walked slowly toward Barranca's stall, moving in and out of shadows as the early morning sun struggled to brighten the dark interior by creeping through the cracks in the old, seasoned barn wood.

He could sense the horse staring at him in anticipation as he approached, the animal waiting eagerly to begin his own day.  Johnny glanced up and saw Barranca with his head familiarly stretched over the gate of his stall, outlined in a fusion of darkness and light, lingering shadows competing with slivers of sun to keep his beloved friend obscured.

The horse turned his head ever so slightly – and Johnny stopped dead in his tracks.  A thin blade of light had cut briefly across the palomino's eyes and sent a cold shiver knifing down Johnny's spine.  He'd seen it again!  For just a moment there had been unmistakable pure hatred in those huge brown eyes that had been tainted black, so malevolent that Johnny felt his knees nearly buckle.  Then it was gone, swallowed back into the shadows as Barranca twisted his head away.

Johnny took a step backwards.  The ground beneath his feet felt off kilter.  Had he just seen what he thought he saw?  It wasn't possible.  He swallowed hard, his heart beating too fast.  Maybe the laudanum was playing tricks with his eyes . . . No.  That explanation wouldn't fly any better as an excuse than the lack of air he'd considered once before.  He couldn't deny that he had once again seen that look . . . that fleeting stare of malice he'd first glimpsed the day Barranca had nearly killed him in the corral.

He heard Barranca nicker, and out of the corner of his own eyes saw the palomino looking at him.  ‘Face him, dammit!' Johnny demanded of himself.  ‘Now!  Don't wait.'  And he did, turning toward the animal and taking the few steps forward to bring himself literally eye to eye with the beast.  But there was no trace of the malevolence or darkness he had seen a moment ago . . . instead the horse looked confused, scared even.  Johnny felt compelled to reach out to his friend, to comfort the horse – but he could not get his arm to move.  Something was wrong.  Something was very wrong.

Barranca dropped his head over the gate waiting for Johnny to rub his head and scratch behind his ears, a daily ritual that reaffirmed the love Johnny had for the palomino.

“Sorry, amigo,” Johnny whispered.  “I can't.  Not today.”

Johnny heard Jelly moving around in the tack room and called out.  “Jelly.  Saddle me a horse.”

The old man stuck his head out of the door.  “Ya ain't planin' on ridin' agin, are ya?”

“Those fences didn't mend themselves overnight,” Johnny snapped.  “Just saddle me a horse.”

“I ain't never seen nobody as mulish as you, Johnny Lancer,” Jelly huffed.  “One of these days you'll listen ta me.  Stubborn fool . . .” he added under his breath, shaking his head as he moved toward Barranca's stall.

“Not Barranca . . .”  Johnny looked at the golden horse and felt a pang of guilt, but he could not escape the image of those hate-filled eyes from only a moment ago.  “He's been favorin' his left hind leg.”  The lie tasted bad on his tongue, but he couldn't take it back.  “I want to rest him for a couple days.”

Jelly looked at Johnny suspiciously.  “I didn't notice him favorin' . . .”

“Just do as I ask, Jelly,” Johnny sighed tiredly.  “Please.”

Jelly raised an eyebrow.  Something was bothering the boy, and he had a hunch it was the same thing that was bothering him – things were just not right at the Lancer ranch, and Barranca was somehow, someway, at the heart of it.

“All right.  I'll saddle Mosey.  But ya take care of yerself, ya hear?”

“I will, Jelly.”

Jelly had Mosey saddled in five minutes – satisfied that he had given Johnny one of the gentlest working horses Lancer owned.  But he watched with a worried heart as Johnny mounted painfully, then slowly rode out of the barn, turning back to look briefly at Barranca.  There was something mighty wrong between those two, and Jelly had a nagging suspicion that he knew what it might just be.

 

 

Ezra settled quietly back into his hiding place inside the palomino, chastising himself.  In his eagerness he had slipped up, allowing Johnny Lancer to glimpse his presence when there had been no good reason for the revelation.  The excitement Shanks drew from commanding Barranca was making him careless.  Now he'd have to lay low, bide his time, regain the cowboy's trust.

Lancer would question what he saw, but in time he would return to his beloved horse, there was no doubt about that.  Johnny's initial reaction to pull away had been completely understandable.  But then the cowboy had turned back quickly and faced his fear.  That boded well for Ezra Shanks . . . very well indeed.  Johnny would certainly ponder on what he'd seen and the horse's recent behavior.  But Ezra knew the cowboy would reach no explainable conclusion.  Who in the world would believe in a possessed horse?  No man he had ever encountered – not until it was too late.

//'Things had been going so well,'// Ezra thought wistfully, adding with regret, //'It would be a shame to have to end this before the game really began.'//

 

 

Johnny pushed himself hard, glad he was working alone today, no one along to weary him with worthless chatter or by incessantly asking him how he was doing.  He worked intensely at a brisk pace, trying to keep his mind focused only on the sagging barbed wire as he strung it tighter around the fence posts.  But the pain that assaulted his body was a constant reminder of his injuries . . . which led to thoughts of Barranca . . . which made him remember that undeniable look of malevolent hatred he'd seen twice now in the horse's eyes.  Again and again he replayed the latest moment, seeing it clearly in his mind's eye.

He glanced over at Mosey, chomping on the tall grass, his tail swishing lazily at the annoying flies.  Even when he was resting, Barranca seemed to be moving . . . there was a life about him that Johnny had not seen in any other horse.  He felt a pang of guilt.  Had he turned his back on his friend for no good reason?  Had he left Barranca to languish in the barn unnecessarily when they could be out here together, like always?  He didn't know . . . couldn't think.  Between the gnawing pain of his body and the uncertainty in his mind he couldn't think anymore.  Nothing in his life was making sense.

The sun that had struggled to remain bright in the sky all morning finally lost its battle, and humidity was building again as the sky threatened to unleash another downpour – that most likely would never occur.  Johnny wished the rain would start now, for once altering the pattern of strange and disquieting weather that had been teasing Lancer for weeks.  Something had to change.

He took a careful breath; his chest ached with each inhalation.  Johnny had a fleeting thought that perhaps Barranca had done more damage than he wanted to admit when the horse had crushed him against the corral fence.  But no, this pain went deeper than any bruises – he had an ache growing in his heart that was caused by the damaging effects of constant uncertainty, loss of trust, and the fear of an unknown but palpable danger he knew he would have to face on his own.

 

 

Johnny had spent the day before working as hard as he could, ignoring his body, trying to tire his mind so he could have one night of uninterrupted sleep.  He'd faced Barranca when he'd returned Mosey to the barn, and he'd seen – nothing.  Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

The hard work had done little to aid his sleep.  This morning he had again faced Barranca, and observed nothing more than an old friend, peering at him from his stall, wondering what adventure they might share this day.  But Johnny hadn't been able to bring himself to ride the palomino.  He'd again taken Mosey out onto the range, assuring Jelly that he was just making sure Barranca was well before he rode him again.  But Johnny knew it wasn't the horse that needed healing – it was his own heart that was breaking, and the only thing that was going to heal him was if he could once again find a way to trust his old companion.

Johnny sat at the dining table with his family, and just as he had the night before, mindlessly ate until he swallowed the last bite of steak, hardly noticing he had finished the meal.  He excused himself from the table, too tired to even think – but that was exactly what he wanted, what he desperately yearned for.  Johnny didn't want to see Barranca in his dreams tonight.  He just wanted to sleep, like the dead, in peace.

“I want you to stay home tomorrow, son,” Murdoch called out as Johnny headed for the stairs, finally seeing what the rest of the family had already acknowledged, unable to deny that his younger son was in trouble.

Without looking back Johnny called, “I'll be fine in the mornin'.  I'll . . .”

“That's an order, Johnny,” Murdoch said sternly, no longer willing to support his younger son's determined desire to keep active.

“I'll be up with some willow bark tea in a bit,” Teresa added.

Before he could say another word, Johnny felt Scott standing beside him.  Johnny didn't care – he just wanted to get up to his room . . . to still his troubled thoughts through sleep.  The brothers silently ascended the stairs, Johnny accepting Scott's arm of support without a fight, anything just to be able to lay his head down in rest.

 

 

Johnny sipped the last of the hot tea and fell into a deep sleep, unaware that Teresa had slipped a packet of sleeping powder into the brew, the bitter taste disguised within the equally unpleasant flavor of the young woman's herbal mix.  Scott grabbed the mug from Johnny's limp fingers before it could tumble to the floor.  He had agreed with Teresa's suggestion for helping his brother get a good night's sleep, and was thoroughly pleased to watch Johnny's eyelids close quickly as he drifted off into an obviously much needed slumber.

Scott pulled the light quilt up around his brother's shoulders.  Johnny had fallen asleep fully clothed, refusing to undress in front of Scott, but allowing him to once again help get his boots off.  Positioning a chair closer to the bed, Scott sat down and rested his feet on the edge of the mattress.  He knew Johnny had not had a decent night's sleep since the incident at the corral with Barranca.  His brother's disturbing lack of rest and obviously painful injuries worried Scott.  But Johnny's increasing denials that anything was wrong were worrying him more.

 

 

Scott didn't notice he had dozed until his head jerked up at the sound of a muffled cry.  He quickly moved over to the lamp and raised the wick.  Shocked, he saw Johnny dripping with sweat, his hands up beside his head twitching as if his wrists were tied to the bed, his head rolling back and forth.  Most disturbing to Scott were his brother's quiet sobbing cries of  “ . . . no . . . no . . . ” – over and over again.

Johnny saw Barranca slowly turn his head to look directly at him, the churning clouds in the sky growing darker, highlighting the palomino's golden coat.  Something was wrong.  He was wedged up against the corral fence again and he couldn't move.  He looked around desperately for someone to help him but he was all alone.  The hacienda appeared long deserted, the windows dark and cold.  The barn door stood open, swinging in the rising wind.  Not a soul was around, man nor beast.

Barranca shifted his weight and Johnny felt the pressure on his chest increase.  He couldn't get his breath.  He wanted to call out to Barranca, to ask his forgiveness for not trusting him, but his throat constricted . . . his voice died in the silence.  Then their eyes met and Johnny's blood ran cold – Barranca's eyes were black holes . . . totally empty . . . dead.

“Johnny!”  A frightened voice called to him from somewhere in the distance.  “Johnny, breathe!  It's all right.”

Barranca turned his head and slowly stepped away.  Johnny could feel himself slide to the ground, unable to break his own fall.  But hands suddenly grabbed his shoulders . . . something cool touched his forehead and he felt the world that was his dream slip away.

Confused, Johnny opened his eyes to find his brother hovering over him, the light from the lantern on the bedside table casting heavy shadows on the ceiling above Scott's head.

“Johnny, wake up.”

Johnny heaved in a huge intake of air, realizing he'd been holding his breath.  He then shivered noticeably, partly from the chill seeping through him from his sweat-dampened clothes, but mostly from the sickening memory of Barranca's wrath.

Left totally dazed by the vivid nightmare, Johnny lay unmoving.

“Come on brother, sit up.”  Scott sounded worried, but he took full control over his unresponsive brother and pulled Johnny off the bed.  “You need to get out of those wet clothes . . .”

“NO!”  Johnny was suddenly fully awake.  “No . . .” he calmed, pulling the quilt up to his chest.  “Just leave me alone.”

Scott reluctantly stood up, but he didn't leave.  Instead he sat back down on the chair and gave his brother a moment.  “You want to talk about it?” he finally asked.

Johnny shook his head and ran a hand over his face, recognizing the telltale source for the hazy cobwebs tangling his mind.  “It was nothin'.  Just a nightmare.  You go on to bed, I'll be fine.”

“Johnny, talking about it might . . .”

“No.  I ain't dyin', so there's no need for you to hover.”

“I beg to differ.  Something is obviously troubling you so badly . . .”

“Get out, Scott.”  The words were uttered as a demand, but they were laced with a deep fatigue that Scott sensed came from a source other than the sleeping powders his brother had been given.

The pair stared at each other for a moment, trying to read each other through the flickering patterns of the dimmed lamp, one brother desperate for some way to compromise.  “Please let me stay, Johnny.”

“No.”  The reply was firm, the affect on Scott obvious as he dropped his head, struggling with a decision to continue the fight or let it go for the moment.  Johnny knew his brother only wanted to help, so he softened, a little, and added, “Please, just leave me alone.  I'll be fine.”

Knowing that further argument would be pointless, Scott lifted his head and nodded, then stood and lowered the lantern wick until only a red glow remained.  “Good night brother,” he whispered and turned to leave.

“Scott.”  The older Lancer stopped and looked back over his shoulder.  “Tell Teresa never to drug me again.  I thought I could trust the two of you.  Reckon I was wrong.”

“Trust goes two ways, brother.  Don't forget that.”  With that Scott did exit the room, leaving Johnny as requested, to fight his demons alone.

 

 

PART FOURTEEN

Johnny sat bolt upright in bed, unable to suppress the moan of pain the swift movement induced as he listened to a wail of anger coming from outside the hacienda.  It took a moment for his sleep-deprived and drug-addled mind to register that it was Maria's voice, the normally well-mannered woman furiously slinging curse words in Spanish he had not heard spoken so proficiently by any other female since he'd been a boy.

Maria was mad.  No, more than mad – she was incensed, infuriated, in an outright rage.

Still dressed from the night before, Johnny grabbed his gun as he stumbled from bed, working desperately to move despite his horribly stiffened muscles.  He hurried out the door to find Scott coming out of his own bedroom, half dressed and equally bleary eyed, obviously woken by Maria's cries as well.  Words were not needed, their mutual concern for their beloved housekeeper spurring them rapidly down the stairs and out the front door.

The pair hadn't bothered with boots, Maria's cries too alarming for delay.  They ran across the courtyard as quickly as they could, following the housekeeper's continued litany of angry words.   Turning the corner behind the barn, it became more than clear what had upset the older woman –  the ground was littered with the dead carcasses of Maria's laying chickens.  They had all been trampled.

“Madre de Dios . . .” Johnny proclaimed breathlessly, tucking the handgun into his waistband as he immediately crossed over to pull Maria into his comforting arms.

“Mucha mal . . .” she cried into his shoulder, instantly beginning to sob uncontrollably.  “Much evil . . . we are not safe here!”

“It's okay, mamacita,” he crooned as he held her tight.  Looking over the carnage of the slaughtered chickens, Johnny understood the source of her fear, and knew that nothing would make her feel safe at Lancer right now.  Her old superstitions were too well ingrained.  “You can go visit your sister in Ojai, sí?” he asked.

Maria nodded vigorously, obviously grateful for Johnny's suggestion.  “Por favor, you go too.  All of you.  Mucha Mal . . .”

“We'll be fine.”  He continued to sooth her as he led her back toward the kitchen, passing his father and brother, who was now similarly comforting Teresa, along the way.  “This afternoon we'll put you on a stage to your hermana.”  Johnny caught Murdoch's nod of approval.  “She'll watch over you until we can send for you again.  Bueno?”

“Sí, Juanito.  Sí.”

Scott pulled Teresa away as well, leaving Murdoch and Jelly still staring in disbelief at the grisly scene before them.

 

 

“Why do I always seem to be in charge of the messiest jobs?” Jelly grumbled as he headed for the barn, the sickening chore of burying the butchered chickens finally completed.  The task had left him plenty of time to determine that he heartily agreed with Maria – there was a whole lot of evil around Lancer lately, ever since that black stallion had turned up nuzzling at Johnny's shoulder.

The thought of that stallion's stare made Jelly shiver.  If it was up to him, he'd hightail it out with Maria, and drag Johnny with him – kicking and screaming if need be.  By his take on things, Johnny was somehow at the center of all these nasty goings-on, and that was definitely not a good place to be.  Jelly was fast developing a real fear that the boy was going to get hurt bad . . . or worse, if something didn't change around this ranch.  “A cow, rabbits, cats . . . an' now them chickens.  What next?”  Jelly continued to mutter to himself as he went to return the shovel.

Jelly entered the barn just in time to see Barranca rear up in his stall, a look of sheer panic on the horse's face as he whinnied in distress.  Suddenly the animal was quiet, standing stock-still.

“Barranca?” Jelly called out gently as he walked cautiously toward the horse's stall.  He managed to get within six feet – and then the beast turned to look at him.

The old handyman was not sure how he kept from wetting his pants.  He had never been so scared in all his born days.  Barranca stood staring at him, and his eyes . . . Jelly took an involuntary step backwards.  The horse's eyes were filled with that unmistakable essence of pure evil – as black as the night, and fixed right on him.

Jelly staggered backward and stumbled over his own feet, dropping the shovel and landing hard on the ground.  Barranca's eyes followed him as the old man scrambled back up, finally tearing his own sight away from the foul vision and rushing directly to the refuge and safety of his room.

 

 

Ezra laughed, enjoying the fear he had instilled in the old man.  He had been with the Lancer family long enough now to feel certain that no one would pay attention to the rantings of an old superstitious man.  If Mr. Jelly Hoskins chose to take any action against him on his own, Shanks would take care of him permanently.  But he didn't think the old man had it in him to do anything that might hurt his best friend's beloved horse.  No.  Jelly could talk all he wanted, but Ezra was sure he would pose no real threat to the spirit.

Ezra was feeling emboldened this morning.  Bringing death to any creature always left Shanks practically giddy with excitement.  Johnny had been avoiding him since he'd slipped up the other day.  Unable to physically release his pent up frustrations, the spirit had learned there were other ways he could deal with the building energy on his own.  So he'd amused himself with the chickens instead.  A sorry substitute he had to admit, but joyful nonetheless.  He could only hope his favorite toy would come back to play – soon.

 

 

Jelly thought he'd never get his heart to stop beating like a drum.  He rummaged frantically in the bottom drawer of his dresser until he brought out a half-full bottle of whiskey.  ‘For medicinal purposes only,' he regularly told himself.  Well, never did he need a dose of his own medicine so badly.  Jelly's had to steady the bottle with both hands as he took a hefty drink.

Had he seen what he thought he saw?  First the stallion – and now Barranca?  It was impossible to believe . . . yet impossible to ignore.  He wasn't daft – something wicked was afoot here, and it could be traced right to the eyes of that palomino.

“Johnny . . .!” he hissed.  He had to make sure Johnny stayed clear of the horse until they knew for sure what the hell was going on.

Jelly rushed into the kitchen of the hacienda and saw Teresa clearing the table of the breakfast dishes – everyone else was gone.

“Where's Johnny?” he snapped.

An instant look of concern spread across Teresa's already worry-drawn face.  “In the barn I guess.  He was getting ready to ride out.  Why?”

“Cause I gotta stop ‘im is why.  How long ago?”

“Ten minutes, maybe.  Jelly, you're scaring me.  What's wrong?”

“Cain't say I know myself,” he called as he ran back out the door.  “We just got ta keep Johnny away from Barranca,” he added under his breath.

Jelly slid to a stop on the hay-covered floor.  Barranca's stall was empty.

“Aaaaa . . . How long ago did Johnny leave?” he demanded of no one and everyone.

“Five minutes . . .” Joe offered, coming out of the tack room unexpectedly – and making Jelly jump as if he'd seen a ghost.  It was painfully easy for the hand to pick up on the older man's distress.  “Why?  What's wrong, Jelly?”

“Scott an' the boss take off too?”

“ ‘Bout fifteen minutes or so.”

“They didn't go together?”

Joe shook his head.  “Not the three of ‘em.  Mr. Lancer and Scott went one way and Johnny ta other.  Surprised me that he could sit a saddle . . . he's still hurtin'.”

“I know.  Where'd he go?”

“Don't know.  Just said he wanted to ride the kinks out of Barranca.”

Jelly bowed his head and passed Joe to enter the tack room, practically slamming the door behind him.  There was more wrong with that horse than just “kinks.”  Jelly paced, debating whether to mount up and track the boy down to . . .  say what exactly?  ‘Johnny, Barranca done inherited the evil eye from that stallion.'  “Yep.  That'll surely keep the boy out of the saddle . . . and pigs‘ll be flyin' in the mornin',” he added sarcastically.

What in the world could he tell Johnny that he'd actually believe?  What exactly did he believe himself?  With a despairing shake of his head, Jelly sent up a silent prayer that Johnny would be all right wherever he'd headed off to, because he sure couldn't think of a thing that would bring him back without Barranca.

 

 

Johnny felt foolish.  He'd let a build-up of boyhood fears and unsubstantiated mistrust cloud his judgment.  Whatever he thought he saw in Barranca's eyes could be nothing more than the figment of an overzealous imagination or the affects of the laudanum.  In either case he felt guilty for abandoning his friend.

This whole situation was getting out of hand.  Sure there had been some accidents with Barranca lately – but that didn't mean the horse was intentionally trying to hurt him.  There was no way Johnny could convince himself of that, no matter what angle he looked at the facts from.  His thoughts were just being confused by his nightmares, his family's overanxious concerns, the foolish ramblings of an old man, and Maria's irrational deep-rooted cultural beliefs.  The Mexican housekeeper's reaction to the dead chickens had been the last straw.  Maria may let her fears chase her away from the ranch, but Johnny wasn't going anywhere – and he wasn't afraid of Barranca.

This had to stop.  Jelly and he had fought, Teresa was drugging him, Murdoch was back to coddling him, and he and Scott were now at odds with each other.  None of this sat well with Johnny at all.  One way or another, life at Lancer was going to get back to normal.

Nudging Barranca gently, the palomino picked up his pace and the pair was soon moving naturally – horse and rider in perfect tune, as always.  The thought that he had questioned Barranca's loyalty, even for a moment, was something Johnny deeply regretted.

“Come on, amigo.  Joe said there's some strays over by Snake Canyon.  Let's get ‘em back home where they belong.”

It didn't take Johnny long to spot the first couple of strays, and he smiled when he felt Barranca respond to the sight, prancing nervously, eager to begin his job.  Working in harmony, the pair quickly had over a dozen cows rounded up and boxed into a draw at the head of the canyon.

Man and horse had been working their way through the rocky terrain all morning without a mishap, steadily adding to their corralled herd.  But suddenly Barranca was everywhere at once – turning right for left . . . left for right.  Once the normally careful steed galloped forward so quickly he nearly toppled Johnny out of the saddle and onto a boulder before the cowboy could rein the horse back under control.  The uncoordinated and erratic movements ripped at Johnny's injuries.  The cows mewled in terror and spread out in every direction, mostly deeper into the canyon.

Finally Barranca stopped and stood stone still, his head raised in a defiant pose, the heaving of his sides the only indication that the animal had just been in frantic motion.

Johnny jumped out of the saddle, regretting the ill-advised movement as his hip cramped, leaving him staggering.  “What the hell's wrong with you?” he shouted directly at the horse, not caring for one minute that the animal might be spooked into running off.  But Barranca didn't move.  “I have half a mind to stall ya again and never let ya out!”

Seething with anger, Johnny began to pace.  All the hurt, all the fear . . . all the emotions that had been building for days came spewing out in a torrent of words that he regretted even as he said them.  But they exploded from his lips anyway, until he sank to his knees, his energy wasted.  He looked up at Barranca, the horse's head still held regally high in what could only be described as defiance, and it spurred Johnny on.  His injuries and pain could be traced to one source – Barranca.  And he was tired of it.

“Dammit, Barranca.  When's this gonna end?”

There was no answering whinny of concern, no gesture of regret – only the maintaining of that irritatingly arrogant position.

“That's it,” Johnny spat, climbing awkwardly to his feet.  “You're gonna spend some stable time.”  He gingerly raised his arms to drag himself back in the saddle when Barranca whipped his head around and bit Johnny in the side.

Johnny dropped to the ground and staggered backward, stunned.  Barranca had nipped him before – most horses did at one time or another as a show of affection or in play.  But this was not just a friendly nip . . . it was a bite that was meant to hurt.  And hurt it did.  Johnny quickly undid his shirt buttons and slid his hand down around the wound.  When he pulled his hand back out there was blood on his fingers.  Johnny stared at the sight in total disbelief.

Barranca was suddenly in front of him, nickering softly, and Johnny took an involuntary step back.  The show of defiance was gone, replaced by a look of confusion.  Barranca came forward to nudge his partner in the shoulder, their gesture of familiarity and companionship, but Johnny again jumped back in alarm.

Barranca responded to the rebuff, his head dipping toward the ground before he trotted off a few steps, distancing himself from Johnny's palpable anger.

Johnny paced again, as he eyed the horse warily, his thoughts in turmoil.  ‘Something's wrong with Barranca,' his mind shouted – but his heart shouted back, ‘Please . . . not Barranca!'

Disbelief turned to confusion then betrayal – then full-circle back to anger.  It was almost an hour before Johnny could bring himself to get near the horse.  Finally he cautiously grabbed the reins and once again mounted Barranca.  Holding his side he nudged the palomino into a slow trot, hoping he could get the cattle they'd gathered moved to grazing ground and himself back to Lancer before Barranca did anything more that both man and beast might very well seriously regret.

 

 

Barranca took a step toward Johnny, but his herd-partner moved back from his advance.  The horse was confused . . . What had just happened?  They'd been herding, working hard, enjoying the hunt, the chase . . . Now Johnny stood before him, and he was afraid . . . the animal could sense it, smell the fear.  Johnny never feared him.  Not from the first.  Something was wrong.  Something had happened.  But Barranca had no idea what.  And the man-beast's fear was spreading – the high-spirited horse picked up the feeling and was left confused and edgy, and not a little worried.  Things were now horribly different.  His compadre was afraid . . . of him . . .

 

 

Ezra slipped back into his hiding place, relishing the confusion emanating from the horse as he watched the cowboy struggle with his doubts.  The game was going so much better than he could have ever hoped for.  Shanks could feel his own strength growing as Johnny Lancer's weakened, physically and mentally.  But there was still so much fight left in the boy . . . and the horse.  Neither was running away.  Ezra knew that surely meant there would be plenty of more opportunities to play.

 

 

Jelly saw a flash of color in the distance and waited.  No one else but Johnny Lancer had the audacity to wear a shirt in that bright salmon hue.  The old man heaved a sigh of relief at the young man's safe return, but his slight smile promptly saddened.  Things were not right here at Lancer, he could feel it in his bones . . . and whatever was happening revolved around Johnny and that palomino of his.  And he wasn't the only one who felt that way.

During the whole trip to town to meet the stage, Maria had gone on and on about “the evil” that had descended upon the ranch.  She had made Jelly promise to take care of all the Lancers, but especially her Juanito.  “El Diablo haunts him,” she'd said.  Well, Jelly couldn't have agreed with her more.  If only he could somehow find a way to get the boy to stop and think . . . to add together all the things that had happened.  Johnny would have to come to the same conclusion – something evil was afoot . . .

The old man had thought about approaching Scott with his supposings.  Jelly was not as close to Scott as he was to Johnny . . . but he was close enough, and more than that, he trusted the elder brother.  But in the end Jelly feared he would come off as nothing more than an old superstitious lunatic if he tried to explain what worried him to the sensibly serious young man.

As horse and rider rapidly approached, Jelly felt himself running out of time – and made a decision.  He would have to step in . . . for Johnny's sake.  Damn the consequences.

Johnny trotted in under the Lancer arch, and Jelly couldn't help but notice the uneasy way he sat in the saddle.  Most times the boy was so comfortable in that rig they became as one.  But not today . . . today Johnny held himself awkwardly atop the horse.  He was still in a lot of pain, and Jelly knew he was about to compound the boy's misery.

Jelly heard Joe say something to another hand behind him, and turned to snag his arm.  “You mind takin' care of Johnny's horse fer me?  I got some jawin' ta do with that boy.”

Joe pushed his hat back and studied the horse and rider coming in, and could guess why Jelly wanted to talk with Johnny.  He recognized it too . . . the obvious, and something else, intangible, but too real to dismiss.  Something was mighty wrong with Johnny, more than just physical pain.  “Sure, Jelly,” he quietly agreed.

Both men waited as Johnny reined Barranca to a stop in front of them, and gingerly slid down off the horse.  The boy was hurting for sure, Jelly thought.

“Here,” Johnny snapped, shoving the reins toward the old handyman.  “He's still favoring that hind leg . . . Stall ‘im again.  I'll ride another horse tomorrow.”

“But . . .”  Jelly had not seen Barranca showing any indication that he was having trouble moving – but he thought better of challenging Johnny on the issue.  The old man pointedly avoided the palomino's eyes as he handed off the reins.  “Joe's gonna take care a him fer ya.  You an' me . . . well . . . we gotta have a talk, Johnny.”

“Later,” Johnny answered sharply, walking away.

“No,” Jelly pressed, following closely.  “Now.  We kin either do it here, or somewheres more private.”

Johnny unexpectedly turned on Jelly, his eyes seething.  “I ain't in the mood for talk right now, Jelly.  Now just leave me alone.”

Jelly reached out and grabbed Johnny's arm.  “But Johnny . . .”

Johnny yanked his arm free, the swift action making him grunt in pain, his hand going reflexively to his side.  Jelly followed the movement, and noticed a splotch of blood on the boy's shirt.

“What happened?  Johnny?”

“Nothin'.”

Jelly watched helplessly as Johnny stomped away.  Turning back toward the barn he saw Joe leading Barranca inside, the horse's head hung low.  ‘There ain't nothin' wrong with that horse's leg,' he thought.  Something had happened out on the range today.  Something bad.  Johnny was mad at Barranca.  That was apparent.  And Barranca looked broken.  It was painfully clear that the spirits of both man and animal were being shattered.

‘Lord a'mighty,' Jelly thought.  “What in heaven's name is happenin' ‘round here?” he pondered aloud.

 

 

Johnny headed straight to his bedroom, stopping himself from slamming the door behind him.  Instead he yanked off his gun belt, threw it on the bed, then grabbed the chair by the window and wedged it up under the unlockable door handle.  Only then did he tear off his shirt and place himself before his mirror.

“Damn,” Johnny muttered.  He looked at the dark bruising already forming over his ribs and the ripped skin where Barranca had “nipped” him.  He'd had his share of bites before.  Barranca was a high-spirited horse, and sometimes in his exuberance he could get carried away.  But it was always done in a playful or sassy mood.  Today it was plainly malicious – and that scared Johnny.

He wiped at the nasty wound . . . one more to add to a litany of injuries.  The fresh bite mark was already darkening to a deep blue-black bruise, the skin red and oozing slightly were the horse's teeth had scratched deeper.  The older bruises across his chest and up his back had turned a lighter purplish black with a reddish-blue hue, but were still apparent – and painful.  He didn't have to look at his hip to know that he'd find the deep contusion there still dark and angry – every step he took reminded him of the damage that had been inflicted to his side . . . that, and all his other pains, provided courtesy of the palomino.

Johnny grabbed a handkerchief out of a drawer, and paced as he laid it over the open bite wound, applying pressure to stop the slight bleeding.  Something was wrong, and he was not embarrassed to admit that he was a little scared . . . no, a lot scared.  But he didn't know what to do about it.  Barranca was out of control.  That was for certain.  But why?  And could he get the horse to stop his troubling behavior?  If he couldn't, the consequences could be deadly for his friend.  But could he let it go on?  How many more “accidents” could he have before he was maimed – maybe even killed?

Maybe if he talked to Scott.  His brother was understanding of almost everything – but how could he be with this?  The Boston-bred brother had instantly dismissed Maria's warnings of “inquietud” as nothing more than the ravings of a superstitious old woman.  Could Scott understand that some of those same superstitions were imbedded deep within him?  That a very young Johnny Lancer had listened to stories of evil, believed them as a boy, and still could not dismiss them now?

Perhaps Jelly was the one to talk to.   He certainly owed the old man an apology.  There was no excuse for his behavior this afternoon.  Johnny felt bad about the way he had treated his old friend.  He would have to make amends, and then maybe they could talk.  But not yet . . . not while Johnny couldn't make sense of what he thought himself.  No . . . he would have to wait.

Johnny resolved to give it a few more days.  He would ride another horse . . . give him and Barranca both another rest.  Give himself a chance to think.  He had a lot of thinking to do.

Decision made, Johnny pulled on a clean shirt, and then retrieved the small brown bottle from beneath his pillow.  He stared at it, considering he just had to get himself through a few more days.  Let the pain lessen.  He'd feel better then, and be able to think clearer.  ‘Just a few more days,' he thought – then pulled out the stopper.

 

 

Dinner was quiet, especially without Maria's familiar presence hovering around the family.  She was dearly missed, and the absence cast a gloomy layer of anxiety over them all.  The day's events were recounted.  Nothing in detail . . . just the facts.  Plans for the next day were made.  They had fallen behind a little, and Johnny lowered his head, knowing he was partly responsible for slowing things down.

Murdoch noticed that Scott was unusually quiet this evening, he and Teresa both avoiding eye contact with Johnny.  ‘What now?' he was left to wonder, as obviously none of them was going to come forward with an explanation.

For his part, Johnny looked worse than the night before, but Murdoch knew the boy would buck if asked how he was.  He cleared his throat before glancing over at Johnny, gauging the boy's disposition by asking, “Jelly tells me that you think Barranca may be coming up lame.”

“Just a slight sprain,” Johnny said softly.  “Thought I'd give him a rest.”

“Good decision.  Jelly will take good care of him.”

“Better than you're taking care of yourself,” Teresa snapped, throwing her napkin on the table.  “Look at you, Johnny.  There's something wrong, and it's about time you told us what it is.”

“Teresa,” Murdoch warned, fearing she was going to set Johnny off before he could express his own concerns.  The tension in the room was palpable, and for once Murdoch was afraid of making it worse.  But he also wasn't willing to let it lie.

“I'm sorry, Murdoch.  But I just can't sit by and watch Johnny looking worse every day.”

“I have to agree with Teresa here.”  Murdoch attempted to exert some control.  “I told you last night to stay home today, Johnny, but you went out and worked anyway.  I think it's time we have Sam take a look at you.”

Johnny stood up slowly.  “There's nothin' wrong with me but some bumps and bruises.”  He looked pointedly at Teresa.  “I'll say what I need and when.  I don't need Sam, and I don't need the rest of you fussin' over me.  I'll be fine in a few days.  Now, if you don't mind, I'm gonna go to bed.  It's been a long day.”

He felt their eyes on his back as he walked out of the room.  God, if only he could believe his own words.

 

 

Johnny turned the wick down in the lantern just low enough to leave a little light in the room.  He didn't feel safe in the dark. When the nightmares came, and he knew they would, he didn't want to wake up to darkness.

He closed his eyes and tried to drift away.  Tried not to think of Barranca.  Tried not to remember the look of worry in his family's eyes.

He heard the door open quietly and the soft pad of bare feet on the floor – Scott was back . . . to keep him safe.   The only problem was, Johnny wasn't really sure what he needed to be kept safe from.  The nightmares would come whether someone was with him or not.

The chair near the window scraped slightly against the floor.  Johnny opened his eyes and caught the shadow of his brother as he tried to move it closer to the bed.  “No, Scott,” Johnny said quietly.  “You ain't stayin'.  I don't need your help.”

Scott stopped, still holding onto the chair, knowing Johnny had every right to kick him out, but feeling a desperate need to do something – anything – to care for his brother.  The way Johnny was pushing them all away was getting frightening.  The worry made him bold.  “Johnny, I'm sorry about last night.  Teresa and I had no right to do that to you.  But you do need help.  Something's wrong, brother, but none of us can figure out what.  And it's more than just a few bumps and bruises.  Talk to me, Johnny.  Please.”

Johnny felt his chest tighten as he worked to contain his emotions.  He did need to talk to someone – and there Scott stood, ready and willing to hear him out.  But what could he say?  ‘Well, brother, I think my horse is out to kill me.  What do you make of that?'  Johnny stifled a laugh at the thought, sure it would come out laced with insanity.  No.  Until he could do some real thinking on this himself, he couldn't explain it to anyone else.  ‘I wish to God I could, but I can't.  Not yet.'

“Nothin' to talk about,” was Johnny's half-true response.  “I'll see you in the mornin', Scott.”

The sigh could be heard across the room, as Scott let his disappointment slip out.  Despite his reservations, the chair was quietly returned to its place near the window, and Scott reluctantly made his way to the door, pausing only briefly to glance back at his young brother's still form on the bed.  No more words passed between them, but Scott thought he'd gotten the final say:  He left Johnny's door cracked open a bit, vowing to listen through the night for any sign of another nightmare.

Scott left his own door open halfway, and sat on the edge of his bed, contemplating the stubbornness of his brother.  From that position it was indeed easy to hear the next sound coming from the younger man's room.  The message was delivered loud and clear – it was the soft click of the latch catching, as Johnny firmly shut his door.

 

 

PART FIFTEEN

Johnny skipped breakfast entirely, having neither the desire nor any extra energy to spar again with his family.  Two more days of work and he would get a rest.  That's all he was focusing his mind on.  That . . . and apologizing to Jelly.

He didn't have to go far to find the old man.  Jelly stood just outside the barn door, and the look of apprehension on his face at Johnny's approach made the young man feel even worse than he already did.  He didn't feel like smiling, but Johnny made an effort nonetheless and was rewarded with a small grin in return.

“Mornin', Jelly,” Johnny greeted.

“Mornin' back at ‘cha, Johnny,” Jelly answered back nervously.

“Jelly . . . ‘bout yesterday.  I'm sorry for snappin' at you.  I . . . well . . . it's just . . . Well, I'm sorry.”

The pair wasn't used to fighting, let alone apologizing, and their awkwardness was mutual.  “It's all right, Johnny.  I know you've had a bit on yer mind lately.  You think we might be able ta have a little talk?”

“Not today, Jelly.”  Johnny sounded more than tired, he sounded as dispirited as Barranca had appeared the night before.  “Can you get Mosey ready for me?” Johnny asked, changing the subject.

Jelly really wanted to push, but he could tell he wouldn't get anywhere trying to get the boy to talk today.  He'd try again some other time . . .

“Sure, Johnny.  Sure.”

 

 

Johnny rode in late, good and tired, hoping his fatigue would translate into some real sleep that night.  He cleaned up and headed into the house, finding Val Crawford talking with Murdoch in the great room.  The sheriff was Johnny's friend, but it always made the ex-gunfighter nervous whenever a lawman paid an unexpected visit.

“Val.  What brings you out here?” he inquired quickly.

Johnny's appearance stunned the sheriff.  He'd known the younger man for a few years, and had seen him when he'd been banged up, broken, feverish, even shot.  But the friend before him looked gaunt and sickly, his normally vibrant and aware eyes now dull and fatigued.  ‘What the hell's happened to him?' he couldn't help but ask himself.

“Evenin', Johnny,” he said instead.  “Just wanted ta let ya'll know that I got a telegram ‘bout that McKinney guy, sayin' someone thought he might be related to a McKinney somewhere near El Paso.  But the marshal in them parts never heard of him, or no other family.  Got no idea what he was doin' over here in California, so looks like you inherited yerself a stallion.”

The younger Lancer lowered his head and walked over to pour himself a drink, a carefully concealed limp easily spotted by the sharp-eyed lawman.  Johnny's response was quiet, came as a surprise to Murdoch and puzzled Val.  “Reckon' we'll just be lettin' ‘im go.  Don't guess he'll be much good as a saddle horse no more, and sure wouldn't want to breed ‘im.”

“You're the one who knows best about horses, Johnny,” Murdoch stated, but his disappointment with the decision was obvious as he added, “It certainly is a shame though.”

“Can't be helped,” Johnny answered evenly, then immediately knocked back his shot of whiskey.  “Drink, Val?” he asked, even as he poured himself another.

“Got me one already.”

“Stay for dinner?”  Johnny was trying to be polite, but his heart wasn't in it.  He kept his back turned to the other men as he slowly sipped at his second glass of liquor.

Murdoch and Val shared a look, the visitor knowing there was a heck of a story to be heard if he stuck around.  “Sure, Johnny.  Thanks.”

Somehow Val sensed that was the last thing Johnny wanted to hear.

 

 

Crawford was very good at his job, his powers of observation well honed.  Johnny was an expert at hiding his feelings, but he couldn't disguise his condition.  As usual he merely picked at his meal, two glasses of wine getting more of the ill man's attention.  While the others seemed eager for Val's company, his supposedly good friend barely added to the conversation.  None of this was lost on Val, and his worry followed him and Johnny out onto the veranda.

Val didn't waste any time.  “You gonna tell me what's eatin' at you, boy?  Or am I just gonna have ta get real nosey ‘n ask Murdoch ‘r Scott?”

Johnny had to laugh.  It was small, brief, and kind of on the ironic side, but it was the most emotion the man had shown all night.  “Nothin' much to tell, Val,” he lied easily.  “Just been havin' a rough month is all.  Nothin' that won't pass.”

“I'll be sure ta tell everyone how optimistic you was durin' yer funeral.  Ya look like hell, ya know that?”

Johnny dipped his head, too tired to fight with his friend.  “Gettin' enough of that from my family, Val.  Don't fuss at me, all right?”

“All right, Johnny.  I'll be good and leave ya to yer misery.”

The pair shared a look, and Johnny couldn't help but give up a small, genuine smile to his friend, who gave him an easy grin in return.

They sat quietly for a minute, listening as the cacophony of night sounds strengthened.  Finally Johnny asked, “Val, you ever had a horse go bad on you before?”  Johnny had been reluctant to ask anyone at the ranch that question, fearful that the query would lead to implications for Barranca.  But he had desperately wanted someone else's opinion on the subject.

For his part, Crawford had no idea that Johnny's question had anything to do with concerns about the palomino's recent behavior, naturally figuring that his friend was asking because of the stallion.  “Not myself.  Sold off a few horses ‘cause they was either just plain stupid or kind of on the ornery side.  But I ain't never come across a man killer before.  Heard of a rancher who outright shot a horse.  Three of his best bronc busters tried to break ‘im, and he bucked every one of ‘em off.  Broke the third man's arm.

“Knew a cowboy once who had to put down his horse.  Saddest day of that man's life.  Darn animal got too unpredictable . . . started fightin' with other horses . . . even threw that boy a couple of times.  Was a local kid, so everyone in town knew ‘bout that horse's problems.  No one else'd have ‘im.  So one day the young man led him off . . . an' come back alone.  Never will forget the look on that boy's face.”

If Val had been paying more attention, he'd have noticed the look on Johnny's face at that moment – and he'd have witnessed a greater depth of sadness than he had ever known.

Val left not too long after that, leaving Johnny out on the veranda, brooding over his ever-troubled thoughts.  He heard an unmistakable whinny come from within the barn across the courtyard, then a couple of loud banging sounds as Barranca kicked at his stall – as if he knew Johnny were nearby and able to hear him, beckoning his herd-partner to restore their bond.

Johnny leaned heavily up against a pillar, and considered going to check on the horse.  But he couldn't.  Not now.  Not in the day, and certainly not in the night.  In the darkness.  Johnny ignored Barranca's call and turned away, entered the house, and went straight up to bed.

 

 

Johnny woke, but couldn't remember falling asleep.  His conversation with Val had left him with more questions than answers, each of them darker than the last.  The only thing Johnny was sure of was that he'd never be able to put Barranca down.  Just the thought of it chilled him to the bone and sliced through his heart.  It was a stupid thought, he knew, but killing that horse would be to him the same as killing his own brother.  He could not bring himself to even consider it as a solution.  Johnny would let his beloved horse go free first.  As difficult as that would be, he'd give Barranca up before he'd let anyone on earth hurt him.

‘Anyone on earth . . .'  Johnny rolled that phrase over in his mind, and something sparked.  He'd been trying to drive the memory of Barranca's rage-filled eyes out of his thoughts for weeks, but lying there, quiet and alone in bed, he forced himself to remember the image.

For two years he and that horse had begun every morning face-to-face, eye-to-eye, reaffirming their bond as partners.  Barranca had always met his gaze, and Johnny had never seen anything but horse staring back at him.  But if you paid attention – and Johnny always did – it was easy to discern a liveliness in Barranca's gaze that was unlike anything he'd ever seen in any other animal's eyes.  The man knew that the horse was observing just as much as he was being observed – equally wanting to know about his compadre.

But on two recent occasions, Johnny had seen a life-force staring back at him from Barranca that was not – could not have been – a part of the horse.  The ex-gunfighter lay on his bed and concentrated hard, rejecting his skepticism and fear, willing himself to admit what he had seen.

Johnny had tried all his life to deny the cultural superstitions that had been rampant in every little Mexican village where he and his mother had lived.  He'd fought to ignore the dark tales of evil spirits that were meant to instill fear in impressionable children.  But Barranca's behavior was unnatural, and something he could no longer ignore.  And then there had been that look . . . that increasingly undeniable vision of pure evil that continually haunted his dreams.

The familiar answer to what he had observed threatened to send him back into disbelief:  Human hatred.  There was no other way for Johnny to describe it.  He was well acquainted with how base human beings could really be.  From an early age Johnny had seen men take out their rage on their fellow humans for the iniquities that life had supposedly dealt them.  Johnny Lancer had started out as a victim, a young boy staring up into the eyes of men five times his size, recognizing their anger and pleading with them not to hurt him.  But they always did anyway.  And that had made Johnny Madrid a defender . . . of himself, and anyone less fortunate around him.   He'd learned to face these men unflinchingly, to look straight into their eyes and tell them “not this time.”

That same look of unconcealed human rage is what Johnny had recognized in Barranca's stare.  But even if he could bring himself to admit that this was what he'd seen, what could he do about it?  And what in God's name was causing it?  Johnny had fought evil men before, and never backed down – but how could he combat now what he couldn't touch?  What he didn't understand . . .

Johnny thought back on his conversation with Jelly in the tack room, when the old man had mentioned seeing “something” in the black stallion's eyes he hadn't ever seen in a horse before.  Whatever it had been had scared Jelly.  Well, now there was definitely something appearing in Barranca's eyes, and it was scaring Johnny.  For the first time in a whole lot of years, Johnny was really and truly frightened.  What was happening at Lancer was much more than common bad luck and simple coincidences.

Johnny needed strength – strength to accept what his mind told him couldn't be but what his heart told him existed.  His instincts were still screaming at him that Barranca would never hurt him, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  But he needed help to continue to trust the horse.  Above all, he needed a way to overcome this evil that had befallen the ranch, that seemed to especially target him for . . . what exactly, he didn't know.  But whatever it was, he had to find a way to stop it.

He sat up slowly, taking careful measure of his condition – a new daily ritual Johnny was getting very tired of.  He wasn't surprised to find that he still hurt everywhere, the bite to his side burning and his hip already aching to the bone.  Tomorrow was Sunday, so he'd get another much needed chance to rest then, without drawing too much attention to the fact that he was still hurting.  But how to make it though the day?

No longer able to avoid the inevitable, Johnny slid gingerly across the mattress and, hanging on to the bedpost, slowly stood up.  He peered down at the bed, knowing that the bottle of laudanum was still secreted beneath his pillow.  He hated the thought of taking any more of the drug, but he had Barranca to think of.  No one could know the horse had hurt him again.  Johnny knew that Murdoch and Scott were already suspicious of Barranca.  Nothing had happened in their presence that he couldn't make an excuse for . . . but proof of the horse's abuse was plainly evident on his body.   He just needed to keep his family from finding out just how badly he was hurting long enough so he could figure out how to get he and Barranca out of this mess.

Johnny let go of the bedpost and tested his hip, taking a step away from the bed.  The muscle tightness immediately grabbed hold, and he turned back quickly, plopping himself down awkwardly onto the mattress before he fell to the floor.  He sadly wondered when the day might come when the bruises would no longer be so painful that he could finally once again walk straight.  But that day was not going to be today.   Johnny reached under his pillow, and retrieved the hated laudanum.  ‘Got to hold on until tomorrow,' he told himself – then he pulled out the stopper and swallowed a dose.

He remained seated on the edge of the bed, slowly working the tightness out of his muscles, giving the laudanum a chance to take hold.  But the day was growing old, so he once again stood slowly and made his way over to the washstand.

Feeling the stubble on his face, Johnny picked up his shaving mug and turned toward the mirror.  “Dios . . .” he uttered quietly.  “No wonder everyone's been harpin' on me.”  The man staring back at him from the glass was more than haggard – he looked downright done in.  Johnny noticed just how pale he'd become, which only accentuated the dark circles beneath his eyes.  He'd lost too much weight on his already thin frame, leaving him looking gaunt and weak.

Taking a good look at himself, Johnny wondered why the hell he kept pushing himself.  But that question could be answered in one word:  Barranca.  A horse.  A partner.  A friend.  Johnny never turned his back on a friend, and he wasn't going to do it now.  But looking back into the mirror, Johnny knew he needed help.  They needed help.  But where in God's name could he turn and not be considered insane?

 

 

With the laudanum performing its magic and after a few more minutes of light stretching, Johnny felt relatively steady and limber enough to tackle the stairs.  Running the family gauntlet seemed more daunting, but he nevertheless put in the effort and joined them for breakfast.  Blessedly nothing was said about his injuries except for general inquiries into how he was feeling, a strained truce being observed by all.  Barranca never came up in the stunted conversation at all.

Johnny forced himself to eat, his appetite lacking more than ever with Maria's warm presence missing.  But he nonetheless thanked Teresa for her efforts at fixing the meal, verified his jobs for the day with Murdoch, then quickly exited for the stables, considering himself a very lucky man to have gotten away so easily.

Johnny got Joe to saddle Mosey for him and immediately headed out to the range, avoiding both Jelly and Barranca.  He worked quickly to get half his tasks done as early in the day as possible.  By that time the horse bite to his side was refusing to be ignored, the pain flaring in ever increasing waves, the bruise pulsating with every breath while the torn skin pulled tighter as it scabbed.  He dared another small dose of laudanum before turning Mosey toward town.

Morro Coyo was bustling on Saturdays, but Johnny deftly avoided all the activity by heading directly to his destination using back trails.  Located near the outskirts of town, the Catholic mission's church would be fairly quiet this time of day.  With morning mass long over, the children from the orphanage would be off working at their delegated tasks around the grounds.  And evening prayers wouldn't start for hours.  This was the perfect time for a troubled ex-gunfighter to seek some private spiritual guidance.

Johnny had been raised a Catholic, instilled with a belief in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  But Johnny Madrid had never called on God to keep him safe in a gunfight, to watch his back, to help him prevail in his quest to take the life of another human.  To stand face to face with a man and will yourself to gun him down was not something God needed to be responsible for.  That was man's choice – more Satan's call on who might live or die.  Divine intervention was never something Johnny counted on to survive.

But Johnny Madrid's skill with a handgun wasn't going to save Johnny Lancer now.  Something unworldly was happening – something more spiritual than secular, and definitely unholy in nature.  Johnny shuddered involuntarily.  He didn't know what he was fighting let alone how to fight it.  All he knew was that he needed help.  Johnny had fought his battles alone for a long time, and he knew there wasn't another man on earth who could help him win this one.  So for the first time in a long time he turned to God for an answer, hoping against hope that there was enough of his soul left for God to want to protect.

He looked around carefully before entering the church.  Sure that he had not been seen, Johnny closed the heavy door behind him.  He pushed his hat off his head and let it dangle on his back by the stampede string, then stood at the entrance for a few moments, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimness.  The only light came from a few small windows left un-shuttered to allow some air to circulate while keeping the oppressively moist heat at bay on the outside.

Johnny felt uncomfortable, so much so that he almost turned and left.  He knew he was welcome here – the padre told him so every chance he got.  The old pious man knew all about the conditions under which Johnny had been raised, and what Johnny had been . . . how he had made a living for so many of his young years.  Johnny had come to feel that his prior occupation made him a sinner of the highest caliber, and he had too much respect for God to dirty his house with his presence any more than on occasion.  But Father Martin felt that church was meant especially for men just like Johnny, and he'd told the young man to come by whenever he felt the need, day or night.

Well, Johnny certainly did feel the need today.  He had no place else to turn, no one else to talk to honestly.

Remembering his purpose for coming, Johnny quietly made his way toward the front of the church, his boots and spurs against the stone flooring too loud to his own ears.  He passed the altar, genuflecting and crossing himself instinctively before the cross.  The gestures were second nature, instilled in him as a child, but the signs of respect were well meant.  He walked over to a table full of devotional candles and found one to light.  Then he pulled some bills out from under his gun belt and deposited them in the poor box.

The whole church was his, but what he needed to do was quiet and private, between him and God alone.  So he returned to the back of the church down a side aisle, and found a half-hidden space on the floor behind the last pew.  A small moan escaped his lips as he knelt, but then there was only silence as Johnny sought answers from the heavens.

 

 

Johnny Madrid Lancer knelt unmoving for a long while, head bent in thoughtful prayer, undisturbed until a door opened at the front of the church to the side of the altar.  He kept his place but slowly raised his head, hoping to avoid being seen.

Father Martin moved to the altar and knelt briefly before it, crossing himself and muttering a short quiet prayer.  He then stood and went to the poor box to retrieve the donations from the earlier service.  Opening the small wooden case, he was surprised to find not only the few meager coins normally given on Saturday mornings, but several bills totaling close to twenty dollars.  The padre held the much needed money in his left hand as he crossed himself in thanks with his right.

But then, he had an intriguing thought . . . the priest knew the poor box donations were always highest when a certain young man decided he was worthy enough for a visit.  Without turning, Father Martin called out, “Are you still here with me, Juanito?”

Johnny had to smile at the old man's observant deduction.  He knew if he didn't speak that the priest would most likely respect his privacy and leave him alone.  But here in the house of God, he was inclined to be polite.  “Sí, padre.  Buenos tardes.”  He stood up from his hiding place as he spoke the greeting, suppressing a groan of pain the best he could, his muscles having stiffened considerably.

The old priest turned and stared into the dimness, past all the pews to the figure lingering in the back amongst the shadows.  “Buenos tardes.  It is good to see you, my son.”  The Father's own smile broadened and he took a few steps forward, hoping to talk with his elusive parishioner.

“Good to see you too, Padre, but I can't stay.”  Johnny was already backing toward the door.  “Gotta get back to work now.”  He waved his hand and turned to leave.

“Juanito!”  The pair had been trying to keep their voices hushed, but Father Martin suddenly felt a desperation to keep Johnny within the church.  The oddness of the Saturday visit between masses was concerning enough, but there was something more niggling at him, a deep sense that Johnny's visit had not been made by chance, but for a more serious purpose.

Johnny stopped, now sorry that he had acknowledged being there.  He couldn't face the priest . . . already knew all the holy man could offer, and that it most likely wouldn't be enough.  But he waited for the question anyway.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?”

He sighed quietly.  “No, Padre. Apenas hable un rezo para mí.”  (No, Father.  Just speak a prayer for me.)

Father Martin knew the very private Johnny Lancer just well enough to realize that the small and simple request was the loudest cry for help he had ever heard.  But he also knew that Johnny would accept nothing more than what he'd asked for from the priest.  “Sí, Juanito.  Vaya con Dios.”  (Go with God.)  He offered up the blessing as he made the sign of the cross in the air in front of him.

Johnny caught the gesture out of the corner of his eye, and knew the old priest would indeed keep him in his thoughts and prayers.  “Gracias, Padre,” Johnny answered, then crossed himself and left the sanctuary of the church to return home to what await him at Lancer.

 

 

With dinner long over and the lamps dimmed throughout the hacienda, Johnny stared at the darkened ceiling of his bedroom and settled in to wait out the night.  He was resistant to the sleep that would most likely change quickly into yet another painful nightmare.  Instead he pondered his day, glad he'd managed to finish all the necessary chores assigned to him, despite his side-trip to town, guaranteeing him a much-needed break from work.

The visit to the church had provided Johnny no solid answers to his dilemma, but he somehow felt emboldened, as if he truly might not have to solve this mystery on his own.  He was still unsure of what exactly he was dealing with, but he knew he couldn't let it gain an upper hand.  Whatever the game was, Johnny was ready to ante up.

Before he knew it the tired cowboy had succumbed to his great fatigue, and fell into a deep slumber.  The sun rising over the distant mountains peeked through his curtains, but for the first morning in what seemed like forever, Johnny slept on in peace.

 

 

Teresa made her way up the mission church steps as Murdoch and Scott headed the wagon over to the orphanage.  Father Martin stood just outside the church doors, offering individual blessings to his congregation as the parishioners exited from the Sunday morning service.

“Buenas dias, Senorita O'Brien,” the padre greeted her.

“Good morning, Father,” she replied cheerfully, always happy to see the benevolent and hard working priest.  “I just wanted to let you know that we brought in half of the fruit and vegetables we promised to the orphanage for this week.  I'm sorry we couldn't gather everything.  Maria went to visit her sister, and we've been shorthanded, and . . .”

The priest cut her excuses off short, distractedly replying, “Do not worry, Teresa.  Juanito was very generous yesterday.  The orphans have been provided for.”

The old man missed the confusion written all over Teresa's face, but caught it in her inflection.  “Johnny was here yesterday?”

Father Martin finally turned toward the young woman standing beside him, his embarrassment now apparent.  “Lo siento, Teresa,” he apologized in a whisper.  “I did not realize that Juanito had not made his visit known to his family.  He is, of course, welcome in the church at any time.”

Teresa was stunned at the news that Johnny had come into town without any of them knowing.  But she kept her head, and allowed for both she and the priest to keep Johnny's confidence.  Keeping her voice equally low, she replied, “Of course, Father.  It's just that, had I known he was coming yesterday, I would have asked him to bring you the supplies earlier.  Johnny certainly need not tell us each time he chooses to come visit with you.”

A small crowd had gathered to receive the priest's blessings, so the good Father felt pressed to give them his full attention.  “The generosity of Lancer is welcome whenever it can be had.  Gracias, Teresa.”

“You're welcome, Father,” Teresa replied, then quickly retreated down the stairs, leaving the priest to his flock.

The young woman slowly made her way over to the orphanage to join Murdoch and Scott.  ‘Johnny went to church yesterday,' her mind repeated.  ‘First Jelly, now Johnny . . .'  Teresa pondered the implications of the unusual religious observance, then stopped herself to wonder, ‘Is that my place?  Surely a man's relationship with God should be personal . . . special.  I have no right to question.'

‘But should Murdoch know?' Teresa asked herself.  She was loath to keep secrets from her guardian – and given Johnny's recent behavior, this might be very important . . .

‘Haven't you interfered in Johnny's life enough for one week?' she chastised herself.  The answer was plain:  Yes.  Teresa would say nothing about Johnny's secret trip to the church.  She could only hope he'd found some comfort in the visit.

 

 

PART SIXTEEN

Dewdrop the gander, clever escape artist that he was, finally succeeded in maneuvering his way out of his pen to freedom.  With a vigorous waggle of his tail, and an impressive flapping of wings, he was off, testing the limits of his self-gained liberation.  The needs of the ranch were lost on the goose – all he knew was that Jelly had been ignoring him lately, and he'd had enough.  If attention were not going to be offered voluntarily, he would insist that interest be paid – one way or another.

Having already investigated all his favorite spots nearest his pen, the goose grew adventurous and wandered farther, heading toward the main stable and corrals, hoping to find the elusive and inattentive handyman.  If there was one thing old Dewdrop was good at, it was raising a ruckus, and he planned to thoroughly express the displeasure he felt over his recent treatment.  The customary apology of much cosseting and an extra ration of feed were fully expected in return, for the goose knew he had Jelly wrapped around his little webbed feet.

Coming around the back of the barn, the goose grew uneasy.  The chickens should have been clucking at him to go away by now, but there was only silence – an oppressive kind of quiet that made the bird extremely nervous.

Dewdrop wanted nothing more than to get away from that particular spot as fast as possible, so he waddled his way over to the barn door, which stood open.  He took a few tentative steps toward the darkened interior – and then froze.  Everyone thought the goose was good for nothing but getting into trouble.  But what he actually was good at was getting attention, which he craved.  Trouble was something the bird tried to avoid at any cost, and that is exactly what he sensed within the barn.  Rather than detecting his favorite human, Dewdrop perceived a presence that instantly scared him.

The poor goose felt himself getting more and more agitated, and he let out a tentative honk, trying to draw Jelly's calming presence to him.  But what he got in response from far within the blackness of the barn was a deep threatening neigh from a very familiar horse – and that was all the confirmation Dewdrop needed that he was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Frantic to distance himself from the enmity emanating at him from within the barn, Dewdrop set off in a panicky display of flapping wings and loud honking – an exhibition guaranteed to draw him some attention.

 

 

Joe felt his unease worsen as he threw open the barn door and walked into the darkened interior.  The young hand had been working the Lancer ranch for near six months, and once he'd gotten past Murdoch's gruffness, he found it one of the best jobs he'd ever held.  He liked getting orders from Scott, who always talked to the men directly and with respect.  Finding out who and what Johnny had been had taken some getting used to, but now he considered the younger Lancer just plain fun to be around.  Well, usually . . .

Things had definitely not been normal around the ranch lately.  Joe could feel a nervous tension on the rise in everyone . . . especially Johnny and Jelly.  Jelly was jumpier than cold water on a hot skillet.  When Johnny wasn't losing his temper, he was way too quiet, and he looked worse everyday.  Joe still couldn't understand why a man who found it too painful to saddle his own horse would want to go out and put in a full day of grueling work.  At first the men had assumed it was old demanding Murdoch forcing his son to keep working, but they'd since figured out that it was Johnny keeping himself in the saddle.  Joe now knew firsthand that the Lancer men's reputation for stubbornness was more than well deserved.

That Johnny hadn't rode out on Barranca in days had Joe completely baffled.  He trusted and respected the youngest Lancer's horse sense just as much as everyone else in the area.  But lately the hand found himself doubting if Johnny knew what he was talking about.  The repeated insistence that Barranca had a bruised leg didn't make a lick of sense.  No one could find even a bit of heat coming from the palomino's limb.  And even if the horse was lame, that didn't excuse Johnny ignoring the animal, especially since the man normally insisted on personally seeing to Barranca's every need.

No, something was definitely wrong at the Lancer ranch.

Feeling a need to get out of the barn as quickly as possible, Joe set about his first chore for the day.  Across from Barranca's stall he found the buckboard loaded with empty vegetable crates, a couple of wobbly chairs, and some busted tack the Lancer's had picked up from the orphanage the day before.  Joe was supposed to get all the crates back out to Teresa's garden and refilled for another trip to town, and help Jelly either get the chairs and tack back into some kind of usable shape, or replaced.  ‘Sounds like a full day's work ta me,' Joe affirmed to himself.

Barranca stretched his head out over his stall gate, nickered and bobbed his head for attention.  Joe spared him a glance, but kept to his task, only offering an assuring, “You just hold on fer Mr. Jelly.  He'll be in ta feed ya presently.  Reckon he'll take another look at that just awful injury of yers, too!”

Joe laughed out loud at his little joke as he moved a crate aside and hefted a heavy harness from the buckboard, trying to clear a path to the chairs.  Looking around for someplace to set the gear, he spied a hook on a post next to him.  About waist high, it was an easy toss.  But the weight of the harness was too much for the old iron hook and it broke off at the shaft, leaving a sharp jagged spike about a half-inch thick and an inch long.

“Great,” Joe declared as he stared at the busted metal.  “Reckon I just added one more thing to my list a' have-ta-do's today.”  He was just bending over to pick up the fallen harness when he heard a small but distinctive honk echo its way back to him from the barn doorway.

Barranca answered what could only be Jelly's Dewdrop, but the tenor of the horse's neigh made Joe straighten immediately and turn to look at the animal.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but he'd never heard a horse whinny in such a manner before, and if truth be told, he didn't think he'd care to hear such a sound ever again.  Wasn't anything he could put a finger on, but his skin had crawled on him just a bit nevertheless.

Apparently old Dewdrop hadn't been comforted any more than him by the horse's answering call, because the next thing Joe knew the barn was filled with the sound of flapping wings and a whole lot of honking.

“Oh, lordy,” Joe stated with a shake of his head as he trudged out of the stable, following the commotion as Dewdrop took off in a panic.  “As if there ain't enough to do ‘round here . . . Jelly!” he shouted, breaking into a run.  “Jelly!  Yer damn duck is out again . . .!”

 

 

Ezra listened to the cowboy's fading calls, then slowly turned Barranca's head until he could once again view the broken hook on the post across from him.  //'If only I had someone to play with,'// the spirit lamented, then dejectedly tucked himself back into hiding.

 

 

Johnny heard Dewdrop honking frantically over by the bunkhouses as he made his way to the barn.  The goose's calls were mixing inharmoniously with the voices of several of the hands, and Johnny knew from experience that meant the gander was out of his pen and raising a ruckus.  From the sound of things and the amount of men already involved, Jelly was going to have his hands full trying to corner that bird for quite awhile – plenty of time for Johnny to finish with what he felt he needed to do first before he could get on with his day.

The minute Johnny entered the barn, Barranca's head came up and over his stall door, and he whinnied noisily.  The movement was not aggressive, but wanting . . . needy.

For his part, Johnny found himself still wary, but feeling guilty.  Even from a distance he could tell that the horse before him was not the standoffish, arrogant beast that had bit him only days before.  No.  This was Barranca, the horse that he'd formed a close bond with.  The animal he'd truly come to love and cherish.

Johnny stepped forward, embarrassed when he noticed himself skirting more toward the equipment and stalls lined up on the opposite side of the barn from Barranca.  There was no way he could bring himself to ride the palomino today, but he needed to see him.  He'd finally gotten a whole day to rest, a couple of good night's sleep, and a chance to think.  He still hadn't been able to reconcile in his mind the strange happenings that had been plaguing Lancer . . . him.  But he somehow continually felt at peace whenever he thought of Barranca.  Whatever was going on, the horse was not at fault.  That belief contradicted all good reason, but Johnny couldn't shake it.

He was suddenly right across from the horse, next to the buckboard still loaded with items from the orphanage.  Johnny thought of his own trip to town, to the church, and he smiled a little.  If nothing else he'd been blessed with some sleep from his visit, and that went a long way to making him feel good for a change.

Barranca's head was nodding up and down, almost as if he had read Johnny's mind and was thoroughly concurring with him.  Johnny took a tentative step forward, and the horse instantly lowered his head, looking for a scratch.

He took another step forward.  Then another.  For the first time in days, his hand reached out, and he found the soft forelock of his beloved compadre.  ‘Dios.  This feels so right . . .' Johnny thought.  His fingers were moving, finding that special place that only he dared scratch, and Barranca was responding, nickering softly, so quietly not another being in the whole barn would have heard it.  But Johnny heard, and considered it a lucky thing that he'd caught up on his sleep – otherwise he'd have been weary enough to let his tears flow.  But he held them back, and just relished the old familiar feeling of man and animal in friendship, in harmony.

His hand unconsciously found the latch to the stall, and if he hadn't been so focused on Barranca, he may have noticed the teeth marks of a horse dug into the wooden handle.

But the gate was being thrown open, and Barranca was there before him, not a thing between them – and this time when the horse stepped forward to nudge Johnny's shoulder, the man didn't recoil.  He took the bump – their familiar gesture of companionship – and in spite of the actual pain he felt in his bruised chest from the push, it still felt good.  Real good.

The pair was practically still.  Only a slight bobbing of the horse's head and the slow movements of the man's hand could be seen.  But there was so much more passing between them, nothing spoken but everything totally understood.

Barranca's head was down, and that's why Johnny missed it.  Ezra couldn't stand it another minute.  The opportunity was just too good to pass up.  The initial daily contact that Johnny and Barranca usually shared had spoiled the spirit.  The more recent distance between man and horse was certainly understandable and expected, but had left Ezra feeling impetuous – and more than a little needy himself.  Shanks surged forward in Barranca's mind and gained control before the animal could emit any sound in warning.  Shanks compelled the horse to nudge Johnny's shoulder again, just as gently as before, and the cowboy took it, didn't back away – and Ezra smiled.

Using the incredible strength of the magnificent palomino, Ezra pulled back the animals head, but this time he put every bit of energy the horse had into a power-filled head butt to the cowboy's shoulder.  Totally unexpected, Johnny staggered backward, his injured muscles screaming as they tried to control his fall.  He felt his leg's scrambling, desperate to keep their purchase, and he almost found his footing.  But then suddenly he was tripping over an object on the floor, something was cutting into him, stabbing into his back, and then he was falling forward . . .

 

 

Johnny gripped his back as he quickly crawled backward on the ground, trying to add some distance between him and Barranca, wary of the horse's hooves.  Hitting a stall wall stopped his movement, and he immediately focused totally on the animal, fearful of what might come next.  Johnny felt vulnerable, and he hated his weakness.

Barranca pranced toward him aggressively, but stopped abruptly after only a couple of steps.  The horse's head bobbed wildly up and down for a moment, and then was still – and that's when Johnny locked on Barranca's eyes.  Once again they were filled with a kind of ethereal darkness, but the blackness was implausibly in motion, churning like those low hanging dark clouds that had been dogging Lancer for weeks.  Quickly the black faded to the familiar velvet brown of Barranca's eyes, and the horse emitted a doleful nicker.

Johnny had seen that look before, but he'd never witnessed the transition from mystifying to familiar.  The vision left him stunned.  This had been no accident – something other than simple bad luck was hounding him, had singled him out for heaven knew what reason, and was using Barranca to get close to him.   The attacks were a cowardly way to challenge a man, but were affective nonetheless – and definitely deliberate.

He pulled his right hand away from his back and gazed forlornly at the blood dripping across his fingers.  He couldn't believe he'd been hurt again, and turned his once more saddened and tired eyes back to Barranca.

His own pain was forgotten.

Barranca was pacing between the stalls, obviously agitated.  He then stood still, and began weaving, shifting his weight back and forth – another readable horse signal that the animal was in distress.  ‘Maybe he's sick,' Johnny thought.  But then that image of blackness roiling in Barranca's eyes filled Johnny's mind, and he denied the possibility, fast.  ‘No.  He's more than sick . . . and just as bad off as me.'

Johnny put his hand back over his newest wound, and pushed himself to his feet.  He hung onto the stall wall to steady himself, then limped forward and approached Barranca cautiously, his left hand held out before him as he crooned quietly.  The horse let out a woeful nicker, then stopped his movement and dropped his head.  Johnny's fingers once again found that special place in Barranca's forelock, and man and horse were surprisingly calmed through the contact.

“Don't worry, amigo,” Johnny whispered into Barranca's ear.  “We'll beat this.  Don't know what it is yet, but we'll meet it together.  Ain't nothin' gonna get between us.  Not never.”  Once more the horse nickered quietly.

The pain was starting to flair in Johnny's back, and he knew he had to get to his room and take a look at the new damage.  He thought briefly about going to find Jelly instead, but he could still hear Dewdrop honking in the distance, and knew the old handyman would have his hands full right about now.

“Come on, boy,” he said, and patted Barranca on the neck.  “Let's get you stalled.”  The horse obeyed immediately, and was easily led.  Johnny gave him one last pat, then closed the stall gate.

 

 

Barranca hung his head over the gate and watched as his partner limped out of the barn, the disturbing scent of blood wafting through the air behind him.  Something had happened again.  Something bad.  But his human herd partner wasn't mad at him this time.  He wasn't much scared either.

No.  The horse was sensing confusion, and concern, and pain, but not anger or fright.  Johnny had left him behind, but he knew the human would be back.  They were still compadres, partners.  Barranca was worried, but he still had trust in his friend.  Johnny would make sure everything was all right.  They'd both be fine, he just had to give it time.

 

 

Joe had followed the honking and flapping Dewdrop all the way to the bunkhouses, where other hands joined him in a vain attempt to corner the agitated bird.  Most times they found the goose's escapades rather humorous, good for a laugh or two at Jelly's expense.  But there was something about the bird's behavior this time that was different, and all the men sensed it.

Already on edge because of all the strange happenings that had been occurring lately around the Lancer ranch, the men were sensitive to anything out of the ordinary.  Dewdrop didn't seem to be just misbehaving as usual, but actually more truly terrified about something.  As Jelly finally showed up to join the chase, some of the hands began to look around for a rattler, anything that might have upset the animal so obviously.  Given the recent spate of animal killings around the ranch, the men figured the goose had a perfect right to be nervous.

Quicker than normal, Jelly had Dewdrop cradled in his arms.  As the old man comforted the exhausted bird, the hands offered up their explanations for what had set him off.  But no theory proven, the boys went along to their chores as Jelly took the poor bird back to his pen.  The originally expected pampering and extra feed was given, and Dewdrop was left more than content to stay just where he was for a very long time.

Joe made his way back to the barn, cursing the goose for putting him behind with his work.  He noticed Barranca weaving nervously in his stall.  “Damn bird got you all upset too, didn't he?” he commented, then bent over to pick up the fallen harness.

Something caught his eye, and he stopped to peer at the small spike now sticking out of the post, the remnant of the broken hook.  The metal was stained red.  Joe gingerly touched the iron, and his fingers came away moist.  He rolled the wetness between his fingers, and could only come to one conclusion:  blood.

“I was only gone . . .” Joe could not believe someone or something could have happened upon the broken hook so quickly, and gotten themselves hurt through his carelessness.  He looked around carefully, and spotted more droplets of blood on the stable floor in the stall next to the buckboard.

“Anyone in here?” he called out, continuing to look around closely for whatever might have been wounded.  But he saw nothing or no one.  Once again his skin had a kind of crawling feeling, and he shuddered violently.  “Definitely somethin' wrong ‘round this place,” he uttered under his breath.

He picked up the harness and headed to the tack room with it, intending to grab a hammer and rid that post of the dangerous spike before something else got snagged on it.  It took longer than needed, because Joe found himself stopping to look over his shoulder more than once, seeking what he couldn't have told you.

 

 

Johnny bunched up his shirttail and wadded it against the wound to his back as he made his way toward the hacienda.  Taking advantage of the empty kitchen, he grabbed some bandaging Teresa always kept on hand in one of the cupboards, before making his way up the back staircase to his bedroom, quickly shutting his door and once more wedging a chair up under the handle.

He threw the bandaging up onto the dresser, then tossed his gun belt on the bed, unbuttoned and removed his shirt.  The wound was just above his beltline on the right side of his back, and he twisted himself awkwardly toward the mirror, trying to gauge the severity of the injury.  After dabbing at it several times with his already bloody shirt, he didn't think the wound was very deep, but he was annoyed at the way it kept oozing fluid.

Keeping the shirt pressed against the wound, Johnny took a minute to think.  He could make up an excuse and get someone else to help him with the injury, but they would most likely notice the other assaults to his body and start asking questions – questions he wasn't ready to answer.  Barranca has caused all the injuries, but he wasn't responsible.  Johnny knew it in his heart – he just had to find a way to get his mind to explain it.

He pulled the shirt away and assessed the bleeding, which had slowed but not stopped.  Johnny pressed against the wound again, and considered his day.  If need be he'd be able to find time to take it easy.  He stared at his pillow, knowing help lay beneath it.  The morning had started out so promising . . . he'd felt sore, but rested, and had left his room initially without a thought to needing any of the dreaded laudanum to get him through the day.  But now . . .

‘Dammit all to hell,' he silently cursed.  ‘Buck it up, Madrid.'  Mind made up, Johnny took himself a dose of the painkiller, then went about cleaning his injury before placing a dressing over it as tightly as he could manage on his own.  He balled up all the bloodied materials into his hand towel, then hid them at the bottom of his dresser before grabbing a clean shirt.  With the laudanum dulling his pain, Johnny took a final look at himself in the mirror, and convinced he'd hidden all evidence of the injury, exited his room to once more try to drag himself through another day.

 

 

Johnny didn't get far.  He spent a couple of hours moving a small bunch of cows away from a muddied pond to better grazing land.  He was fine as long as the animals behaved, but every time one cut and run, Mosey's quick reaction to turn the cow yanked at his injuries – his back most of all – and he thought for sure he was going to pass out more than once.  Johnny hated to admit it, but there was no way he was going to be able to get any work done for the ranch today.

He decided to head back in, trying to think of some excuse that would get him another day of rest without raising too much suspicion.  Keeping his mind preoccupied on that task helped to temporarily stave off having to figure out what the hell was happening to Barranca?  The question had weighed heavily in his thoughts all morning, but he felt no closer to an answer.

A figure on horseback moving toward him caught Johnny's attention.  In no time he was able to easily recognize that it was Jelly.  Johnny briefly debated whether to stay and see what he wanted – or to cut and run himself and avoid the older man's further prying.  Something told him to hold his ground.

“Was thinkin' I'd run into you out here,” Jelly stated as he reined up beside Johnny.  He pointed off to their left and said, “I got that stallion corralled by the line shack over there . . . was kinda hopin' you'd come take a look at ‘im with me.”  Jelly had made it sound like a simple request, but the expression on his face couldn't have begged Johnny any more deeply.

Johnny's first impulse was to say no, but then he considered his options – face Jelly now, or head back to the hacienda, and face Teresa . . . or heaven forbid, Murdoch.  “Sure, Jelly.  I'll look at him with ya.”

More than relieved that Johnny had agreed, Jelly curbed his excitement and just headed them out before young Lancer could change his mind.  ‘Now if I can just get ‘im to talk to me,' Jelly considered as they made their way.

It didn't take the pair long to reach their destination, and they reined up next to the corral.  Under Jelly's care, the wound from Barranca's shoes to the stallion's side had healed well, but was still apparent.  Luckily for Johnny, Jelly got down immediately and went to call the stallion over.  It took all Johnny had to keep his footing as he dismounted himself, a flair of pain from the movement causing a sudden wave of dizziness that nearly had him sitting on the ground.

Johnny leaned heavily against the corral fence as the stallion cautiously came over to greet them.  There didn't seem to be any life left in the animal – his head hung low and his pace was lethargic.  Johnny's keen horsemen's eyes caught other signs that added up to the fact that the stallion's spirit had been broken.  He remembered Jelly saying he'd seen “something” in this animal's eyes when he'd first shown up.  Could that have been the same “something” that was now afflicting Barranca?  And if so, was this the fate in store for his beloved palomino?  That thought, added to his physical pain, made Johnny downright angry.  Whatever this thing was, it wasn't going to defeat him – or Barranca.

“Johnny!”  Jelly had already said the man's name three times, but he seemed to be off somewhere else.

“What?” Johnny turned abruptly, startled by Jelly's seemingly needlessly loud call.

“I asked if ya wanted some coffee.”

Johnny ran a tired hand through his hair, realizing he'd been caught daydreaming.  “Sorry, Jelly,” he apologized.  “Coffee'd be good.  Real good.”

 

 

Jelly set the coffee to boil on the potbellied stove and blew the dust out of two cups before setting them on the old table that dominated the well-worn line shack.  He eyed Johnny suspiciously as he watched the young man pace nervously.  He was worried about the boy.  The lithe movements he associated with the ex-gunslinger were gone.  Johnny's movements were now halting, every action tempered by some kind of pain, both physical and mental Jelly suspected.

“Yer jumpier than a June bug on a hot rock, boy.  What's botherin' ya?”

Johnny stopped his pacing, but merely glanced at Jelly.  “Nothing,” he snapped, his angry thoughts, spurred on from seeing the defeated stallion, still churning darkly.

“Well, I ain't one fer buttin' my nose in where it ain't wanted . . . but somethin' is mighty wrong with ya.  Ya got everybody worried ‘bout ya.  Look at ya boy.  Ya ain't eatin'.  Ya move ‘round like a man twice yer ole man's age . . . Come on Johnny, tell me . . . tell Jelly what's gnawin' at ya.”

Johnny looked over at him, and the sorrow on the young man's face stung Jelly like a physical blow.  But the look was gone in an instant as Johnny bowed his head, obviously fighting with a decision to speak or remain stubbornly silent.

“You kin talk ta me, ya know,” Jelly prodded.  “Now what's a botherin' ya?”

“I told you . . . nothin'.”  Johnny turned away a little too quickly and his side erupted in new pain.  His hand automatically reached for his back.

“There now.  See?” Jelly huffed.  “There is somethin' wrong.  Ya gonna let me take a look, or do I have ta tell yer pa? Cause I will, ya know.”

Johnny's eyes met the old man's with daggers.  But Jelly held his own and didn't back down.  The younger man gave it a few moments consideration, then finally stated, “If I tell you, it stays between us.”

The battle to get Johnny to open up having been hard fought, Jelly couldn't help but agree to such a compromise.  “Just you an' me'll know.”

Johnny sighed heavily, then pulled the shirttail from his pants, raising it high enough to reveal the blooded bandage he had managed to put in place that morning.

Jelly raised an eyebrow.  “Why didn't ya say somethin', boy?”  He didn't waste another minute, immediately hustling around the small room collecting the medical supplies each line shack had on hand for emergencies.  “Yer just too dern stubborn fer yer own good.  Now, take that shirt off so I kin get a good look at that.”

“Shirt stays on,” Johnny declared steadfastly.

Jelly knew better than to force the issue, knowing Johnny could still bolt if he was pressured.   So he accepted the young man's terms.  “How'd this happen?” he asked as he carefully unwrapped the bandage and got his first look at the nasty wound.

“Tripped in the barn this mornin' and gored myself on a broken hook.”

“So it was you . . .”

Johnny looked back, confused.

“Joe broke that hook, and told me that before he had a chance ta fix it someone cut themselves.  He saw the blood.  This needs a good cleanin' out,” Jelly tisked.  “Take a seat.”

Johnny spun a chair around and straddled it backwards facing the table, one arm draped over the back of the chair and the other holding his shirt up.

“Ya gonna tell me what's really eatin' at ya, boy?”  Jelly asked as he began to gently clean the jagged and painful looking wound.

Johnny hesitated, still trying to find the words.  “You ever saw somethin', Jelly, that you knew couldn't be, but you saw it anyway?”

“More'n once, I figure.”  Jelly finished cleaning the wound and wrapped a bandage tightly in place, encircling Johnny's waist several times – none too pleased that the task was made harder by Johnny's staunch refusal to lift his shirt more than a little.  “I guess I been ‘round enough years ta know that some things just got no answer.  Ya got a problem like that, Johnny?”

Jelly let the young man ponder the question while he poured two steaming cups of coffee.  He put one down in front of Johnny, who still seemed reluctant to answer.  So Jelly continued on hesitantly.  “I seen somethin' just awhile back that . . . that darn near took my breath away.”  He watched Johnny carefully, waiting for a reaction.  “I tried to warn you ‘bout it before.  When that stallion came runnin' up ta ya the first day we seen him . . . just afore he went after Barranca . . . I saw . . . well . . . I saw somethin' in his eyes, and it looked like . . .”

“Pure evil,” Johnny finished for him.

Jelly nodded slowly, as he felt a chill run slowly up his spine.  “Ya seen it too?”

Johnny's already pale face whitened even more.  “This mornin' . . . in the barn.”

“Barranca?”  Jelly asked breathlessly, remembering his own encounter with the palomino.

Johnny nodded – then it seemed like all the life drained out of him as he lowered his head onto his arm still slung over the top of the chair.  “I saw it twice before . . . but I didn't want to believe it.”

Jelly reached across the table and patted the hand that grasped the coffee cup.  “Johnny, you ain't crazy.  I seen it too,” he admitted.  “In Barranca.”

The head came up, and Johnny's eyes were full of fear and pleading.  “Jelly, it wasn't Barranca.  Not when . . .”

“I know, boy.  It nearly scared me into my grave when I saw it.  Them eyes . . . black as death.”

Johnny nodded slowly.

“Johnny, tell me true . . . all these accidents you been havin' . . . Barranca done ‘em?”

“No!” Johnny stated emphatically.  “It wasn't Barranca's fault.  I don't know how . . . but it's not him when it happens.  I know that doesn't make sense . . .”

“We gotta tell someone . . . get some kinda help . . .”

“No,” Johnny said softly, shaking his head.  “I've thought it over and over.  No one else will understand.  They'll just think he's gone bad and want to put him down.  I promised him I wouldn't let that happen.  You have to promise me you won't say anything,” Johnny pleaded.

“But Johnny, what ya gonna do?  How you gonna fight somethin' like this?”

“I don't know . . . not yet.  But I'm not gonna let Barranca down.”

“Ya need ta stay away from that horse ‘till we can figure . . .”

“It ain't been his fault, Jelly,” Johnny's temper flared, “. . . and he ain't endin' up like that stallion.”  Johnny grew contemplative.  “Sometimes the only way to fight an enemy is straight on.  I know it's not Barranca now.  Just promise me you won't say anythin' ‘til I can figure this out.”

“Johnny . . .”

“I'll take Barranca and ride out of here today if you don't, Jelly.  And that's not a threat . . . it's a fact.”

Jelly nodded reluctantly.  He knew the boy spoke the truth.  Better to be silent and know Johnny was close by than let him run off to who knows where – alone.

“All right.  I'll keep my tongue.  But if somethin' else happens . . .”

“Fair enough.”  Johnny stood and stuffed his shirttail carefully back into his pants.  It seemed to make his burden easier, having someone else in on his secret that not only knew, but also believed.  “Let's get that stallion cared for and get on back.  I'm more than ready to call it a day.”

Jelly followed Johnny out the door, knowing he'd done a good job getting him to finally admit what was wrong – but wishing that he'd never made that promise.

 

 

The pair made their way back to the hacienda, where Johnny insisted that he needed to check on Barranca before he would go inside to try to rest before dinner.  Jelly in turn insisted that he accompany Johnny, who reluctantly agreed.

“Don't you ever be ‘round this horse alone again before we figure this out.  You hear me, Johnny?” Jelly demanded intensely as he stood nearby while the younger man scratched at Barranca's forehead.

“All right, Jelly,” Johnny agreed quietly, knowing the old man was right.  “We got help now, amigo,” he intoned to the horse, who nickered quietly in response.  “You, me, an' Jelly'll fix this.  Just you wait an' see.”

As the men turned to leave, Ezra Shanks was already considering this increase of players to his nasty little game.  //'Oh, I'll be waiting, Johnny boy.  For you . . . and Jelly, too.'//

 

 

PART SEVENTEEN

Johnny woke languidly and squinted against the dull light filtering through his window.  He drew the blanket higher around his neck, the habit of leaving the window open a crack as he slept often ill advised when the night grew cold and damp.  It was early morning, exactly how early he couldn't tell – but there was a crispness to the air that would only linger for an hour or so after sunrise.

None too happily Johnny noted that the sky was still blanketed by a heavy layer of rain clouds.  But the persistent gloominess of the weather somehow seemed appropriate, a perfect match to his dismal mood.  He was tired, sore, and thoroughly out of sorts.  ‘Just how much longer is this gonna go on?' Johnny wondered, feeling awfully close to the limits of his stamina, both physically and emotionally.

Closing his eyes, Johnny took stock of his condition.  He could feel a burning and tightness in his back where the spike had gored him yesterday, and knew that infection had set in.  ‘Why the hell not,' he thought.  ‘Everythin' else is goin' wrong.'  He would have to find Jelly first thing and have him clean and rewrap the wound, and hope it wouldn't get any worse.  Johnny already felt deep chills and a throbbing headache behind his eyes that told him a fever was building.  He certainly needed to stay clear of his family today.  He wasn't sure if he could manage any more lies – actually, he wasn't exactly sure what the truth was anymore.

Slowly Johnny crawled out of bed, his body protesting now just as much as his mind.  One more “accident” and he just plain wouldn't be able to move.  He took his time shaving a face he no longer recognized, scowling when a slight blush of fever was revealed on his pale cheeks as he scraped away the stubble.  Johnny could no longer deny how bad he looked and felt, knowing he was very close to collapsing.  The laudanum he had been using as a crutch to keep him on his feet was now almost gone.  The distinctive little brown bottle held another two doses at most – if he rationed it carefully.  Then he would be on his own.  Johnny wasn't sure what he would do then . . .

He dressed, the act of pulling on his boots nearly more than he could handle.  He toyed with the idea of lying back down and forgetting everything.  But Johnny knew that would be like waving a red flag in front of his family, signaling that not only did a problem still exist, but was most likely getting worse.  At least he had come to an understanding with Jelly yesterday.  He knew the old handyman would keep his secret and watch his back.  Finally having an ally he could confide in was sweet comfort and lessened the weight of the problem a bit . . . but not enough.  Johnny so wanted to talk to Scott – tell him everything that had happened from the first moment he had suspected something was wrong with Barranca.  But he knew his brother's first thoughts would be for his safety, and at the very least Barranca would be separated from him . . . most likely turned out in one of the outer corrals.

Just like the stallion.

That thought sent a tremor of chills through Johnny that had nothing to do with his rising fever.  He felt bad enough that he hadn't ridden Barranca now for four days.  To banish the horse completely would be like giving up.  He couldn't do that to the animal he'd trusted with his own life.  Some . . . thing, some . . . ungodly, evil . . . thing, was trying to drive man and horse apart through these vicious assaults to his body.  But Johnny had a bead on it now, had seen it and knew someone else had seen it, lurking there within Barranca.  Johnny never walked away from a fight.  Never.  He'd figure this thing out, one way or another.  He'd keep himself off Barranca, but he wasn't going to leave the horse alone.

With renewed determination, Johnny headed downstairs and hoped he was early enough to beat Murdoch and Scott to the breakfast table.  Good luck was on his side for a change, the kitchen empty except for Teresa, who stood humming away as she worked to prepare the day's fare.

“Mornin', querida.”  Johnny was amazed at how lightly he'd been able to utter the greeting.

“Johnny,” Teresa said in surprise as she twisted around, keeping a heavy bowl of chocolate cake batter balanced precariously on the counter in front of her.  “You're up early.”

“Just decided to get an early start.”  Johnny grabbed a biscuit hot out of the oven and juggled it in his hands as he kept walking.  “This'll do me for awhile.  I'm not real hungry this mornin'.”

“Johnny Lancer not hungry?” Teresa asked with suspicion.

“A miracle, ain't it?”  He grinned and disappeared out the back door.

 

 

Johnny headed around to Jelly's personal quarters, a comfortable room attached to the hacienda.  He found the handyman just finishing his morning routine.  Johnny looked on fondly as the old man patted his face dry, carefully combed his beard, then pulled up his suspenders.

Jelly turned and was startled to find Johnny leaning casually in his open doorway.  “Ya need ta learn how ta make some noise when ya walk in on a body,” he huffed.   “Ain't ya got anythin' better ta do than watch a man doin' his mornin' ablutions?”

“Ablutions?” Johnny snorted.  “You been ‘round Scott too much.”

“It's a fine word, an I been usin' it fer a long time . . . ya just never noticed is all.  What ya doin' out here so early?  You had breakfast yet?”

Holding up the cooled biscuit with a small nibble taken off one corner, Johnny nodded his head.  “Not very hungry.”

Jelly moved closer and recognized the flush on Johnny's face.  “Ya got yerself a fever, don't ya? From that hole in yer back, fer sure.”  Johnny found a firm hand on his arm as Jelly tugged him out the door.  “Come on.  Let's go have us a look at it.”

Johnny followed Jelly into the tack room where he was unceremoniously pushed toward a chair.  While the old man closed the door, lit a lantern, and gathered his medical supplies, Johnny straddled the seat and pulled up his shirt just high enough for Jelly to get to the offending injury.

Carefully Jelly unwound the bandage, and grumbled when he saw the telltale redness and swelling around the puncture wound.  “Ya should be seein' Sam ya know.”

“What can he do for me that you can't?”

“Maybe stick ya with one of them needles of his, an' give ya some common sense.  Ya can't go on like this, boy.”

“Just a while longer, Jelly,” Johnny pleaded with a grimace as Jelly worked at cleaning the wound.  “I promise.”

Jelly nodded, but wasn't especially happy with the deal.  “Okay.  But I want ya ta stay ‘round here taday . . . no ridin'.  Joe was gonna keep workin' on them busted things the orphanage sent over, but I guess ya two could switch chores for the day.  He won't mind.”

“Gracias,” Johnny sighed, then fell silent as Jelly cleaned and bandaged his wound.  ‘Oh, Dios.  Please let this end soon,' he prayed.

 

 

“Lordy, would ya look at that,” Jelly said, shaking his head in concerned astonishment.  He stood beside Johnny as they peered into Barranca's stall.  The horse had begun a disturbing behavior of “pawing” at the ground, actually digging a hole across the floor of his stall.

Johnny's heart nearly broke at the sight.  As bad as he felt himself, it was clear that his animal partner was in equal distress.  Barranca was obviously crying out for help, but Johnny was at a loss.  What was truly wrong with the horse?  Was it possible that Barranca was actually turning bad?  It didn't seem likely, but he had heard of it happening – a horse could be good for years and then suddenly it would turn on you, just like a human might.  Fine one day, and the next something just . . . snaps.

What drove a being to insanity?  To cruelty?  Was it always inside?  Did evil just fester within the mind over the course of a lifetime until finally showing itself?  Was that what he had seen appearing in Barranca's eyes three times now?  Was that what Jelly had seen in the black stallion?  And was the stallion's fate now inevitably to be Barranca's?

These thoughts had Johnny frightened to the core of his being.  This was Barranca, his friend, a partner . . . he thought they had a tie that nothing could ever break.  But their bond was fraying.  Could he find out what was wrong before it unraveled completely?

“That horse is in a lot of trouble, Johnny.  I just don't know what ta do ta fix ‘im.”

On seeing Johnny, Barranca immediately stopped the digging and moved over to stretch his head over the stall gate.  The horse nuzzled at Johnny's shoulder, nickering softly, looking for the love and attention he so dearly craved.  But there was something broken between man and horse, and Johnny could do nothing at the moment to restore it . . . and Barranca could sense it.  Jerking his head back over the gate, the palomino stepped back in his stall and once again began to paw at the ground.

“I can't trust him no more, Jelly,” Johnny said so softly the older man barely heard the words.

Jelly stared at Johnny, then looked back over to the horse – and that's when he realized for the first time how really dire the situation was.  He now knew why Johnny had been trying so hard to hide the injuries that Barranca had inflicted upon him:  it was an act of faith.  Man and horse were so devoted to each other that the fate of one was tied to the other.  It had been so easy for everyone to see the relationship between the pair as a joke, an eccentric attachment between a hardened gunfighter and a high-spirited horse.  But seeing how devastated each partner was to this aberrant behavior . . . how both man and animal were equally suffering, Jelly now understood how serious the pair's allegiance was.  And their loyalty was being severely tested.

‘If anythin' happens ta that horse, Johnny is gonna die inside – an' vicer verser,' Jelly thought.  His first instinct was to run as fast as he could to Murdoch Lancer and tell him everything he knew.  But Jelly quickly realized that would only accomplish exactly what needed to be prevented.  No.  For now, Jelly would keep Johnny's confidence and hold his tongue.  But they sure did have their work cut out for them . . .

“We'll get to the bottom of this, Johnny,” Jelly assured his young friend as he moved closer and placed a supportive hand on his shoulder.  “I promise.  Meantime, I don't want ya goin' near ‘im alone.  Understand?”

Johnny merely nodded, his eyes still fixed on the ailing horse.

“I mean it boy.  We both know Barranca ain't doin' these things ta ya on purpose . . . but that don't make it any less dangerous fer ya.  Now, I got yer word on it?”

Johnny nodded again.  “You got my word.”

“Good.”  Jelly took one last look at Barranca and shook his head.  “Come on, boy.  You need to sit down, and that work ain't gonna get done on its own.”

Johnny reluctantly turned his back and walked away, as the rhythmic scrape of a metal horseshoe against the dirt floor echoed hauntingly behind him.

 

 

Johnny kept his word and stayed working around the barn all day, repairing the broken harness and accomplishing a few other odd jobs.  He even managed a short nap – so tired the top of the workbench had become a suitable pillow.  He'd kept a close eye on Barranca – but from a careful distance.

As the day grew late, the inevitable time arrived when Johnny would have to once more sit down to dinner with his family.  A daily ritual that had become cherished was now dreaded.  He didn't know what to say to them.  He hated lying, but he couldn't tell the truth.  Johnny was convinced that they would never understand . . .

Jelly had plied him with a vile assortment of concoctions throughout the whole day, and he had dutifully drunk them all down – considering it small payment for the old man's continued silence.  One of them must have been good for something, because at least he now only had a slight fever.  But his back where the spike had stabbed him was still tender, and protested with every move Johnny made.  Taking the bowl of potatoes from Teresa as it was passed around the table was nearly his undoing, and Scott must have caught the grimace that flashed across his face because he grabbed the bowl before it fell out of Johnny's hand.

“I noticed you were helping Jelly out today,” Scott said by way of getting everyone's attention off the almost dropped bowl of potatoes.

Johnny nodded agreeably as he thought with annoyance, ‘Just great . . . he's spyin' on me now.'  “I just thought I'd stick ‘round close to the house today.  Was workin' on that stuff from the orphanage.”

“Good idea.  You still look a little under the weather,” Murdoch encouraged, glad that his younger son was acting less stubborn and taking care of himself.  “How's Barranca's leg?  I haven't seen you riding him for a few days.”

“Still a little stiff,” Johnny answered, keeping his eyes lowered as he pushed his food around on the plate.  “I'll give him a few more days.”

“Maybe we should have Doc Sandoval take a look at him.  If I'm not mistaken, he should be passing through Morro Coyo on his rounds tomorrow or the next day.”

Johnny shook his head, trying to look calm on the outside.  They couldn't find out just how frightened he was for his friend.  If the area's animal doctor got a good look at Barranca they'd all know for sure that there wasn't a thing physically wrong with the horse – and that would start a whole passel of questions Johnny was going to avoid at all costs.

“No, there's no need.  He'll be fine.  I figure he'll be ready to ride in a day or two.”

“If you're sure.  I trust your judgment when it comes to horseflesh.  But if you think you need doc to look him over, don't hesitate to ask.”

Johnny nodded, thankful that Murdoch dismissed the subject so quickly.

An awkward silence fell over the table.  Even though no one looked his direction he knew all their thoughts were focused on him, wondering just what exactly was wrong.  He wished he could tell them, confide in them and ease his burden even more . . . but he couldn't bring himself to confess while Barranca's destiny was at stake.

 

 

Johnny lingered with his family just long enough to eat a token bite of the cake Teresa had made especially for him, and share a drink with Murdoch and Scott.  But he then excused himself to return to the barn.  He couldn't stay away – not when Barranca was in such need.  The low hanging clouds that had been suspended overhead for so long had now drifted even closer to the ground, giving the buildings, with their flickering candlelight spilling out of the windows, a surreal look.  He walked into the barn and the familiar smells of hay, horses, and liniment eased his mind for a moment – until he heard Barranca's plaintive whinny.

Two lanterns hanging from opposite posts cast long, dark shadows beyond their spill of light.  Johnny's senses were on alert, and he heard the hoot of an owl, the scurry of a mouse in the hayloft, and the nervous movements of other horses in their stalls.  He knew they all felt it – this otherworldly feeling that raised the hackles on the back of his neck.  Johnny found himself hesitating, almost afraid to step further into the barn.

A clinking sound behind him made him whirl around, his right hand going instinctively to his hip.

“What ya doin' out here, Johnny?” Jelly asked impatiently, his arms laden with tack that would need inspecting in the morning.  “I thought ya agreed not ta see Barranca less'n I was here with ya.”

Johnny relaxed just a little, but he still felt the disquiet that filled every inch of the barn.  He eased his gun back into its holster, then moved his hand back to grip his now throbbing wound.  “Dammit, Jelly.  You know better than to sneak up on me.”  Johnny didn't know if he was more annoyed at himself for almost drawing down on his friend, or with Jelly for scaring the heck out of him.  “I wasn't gonna get too close.  I just have to let him know that I'm still here.  This must be killing him inside.”

 “An' you too, boy,” Jelly answered sadly, his earlier suppositions confirmed.  “Well, lets get a move on an' say yer howdys an' goodnights . . . then ya kin get in the house an' ta bed.  You need rest ta fight that infection in yer back.  Blame stupid of me ta agree ta yer terms.  I should be horsewhipped fer lettin' ya talk me inta it.  Now hurry up.”  Jelly set down his armful of tack, grabbed one of the lanterns and followed Johnny closely to Barranca's stall.

Johnny couldn't keep the smile off his face.  He didn't know anyone who could complain more – and mean it less.  But his smile disappeared instantly when he saw Barranca's condition.

The small rut the palomino had started to dig with his pawing had grown, and was now a foot wide and the width of the stall.  Barranca stood unmoving with his forehead pressed against the stall wall.

“Easy, Barranca,” Johnny crooned softly, reaching into the stall to pet the anxious horse.  “What's botherin' you boy?”

“Careful,” Jelly warned, holding the lantern up higher so Johnny could get a good look at the horse.

Barranca slowly raised his head and they could see the confusion and sadness in those tumultuous brown eyes.

“Dang it, Johnny.  I just never seen anythin' like this.  That horse is grieving itself ta death . . . an' I don't know why.”

“We've got to get him out of there before he steps in that hole and breaks a leg.”  Johnny reached for Barranca's halter on a peg next to his stall.

“I don't know Johnny . . .”

Barranca leaned his head over the stall gate, his plaintive eyes asking for help . . . for restoration of the trust man and animal had once shared.

“Maybe we should wait a bit ‘til we can get some more hands in here . . .”

Johnny ignored Jelly's entreaty, raising the halter to slip over the palomino's head.  “Come on amigo, let's get you out of this stall before you hurt yourself.”

Barranca nickered in reply as the halter was placed.  Johnny stretched the lead rope over the stall gate, then stepped back and carefully opened it, he and Jelly both attentive to anything out of the ordinary.  They didn't have to wait long.  Suddenly Barranca's head whipped up and back.  A horrible cry – one that Johnny had only heard resound from horses caught in a fight to the death – stunned him as the palomino kicked at his stall, the wooden slats easily breaking under the onslaught.

Jelly was yelling something at him, but Johnny was caught up in the vision of Barranca's eyes as the color once again started churning, brown mixing with black until darkness finally won the battle and took over completely.  That's when Johnny started yelling as Barranca exploded out of the stall, nearly knocking him over.

“Jelly, watch out!” he shouted, but the old man wasn't quick enough.  Johnny watched helplessly as the palomino deliberately sidestepped into Jelly, knocking him to the ground.  The thud of Jelly's head hitting the hard ground made Johnny ill.

The lantern went sailing across the barn, the glass chimney shattering as it hit the wagon bed of the stored buckboard.  Kerosene spilled out, dripped through the wooden slats and streamed across the hay-covered floor – igniting everything in its path.

Johnny wasn't sure what he did next.  He only knew that he had the old man in his arms and was carrying him out of the smoked filled barn into the foggy courtyard.  Johnny looked back and watched as the far end of the stable was slowly engulfed in flames.  The horses still locked in their stalls began to neigh wildly and kick at their confining walls.

He ran back into the barn, the smoke almost instantly strangling him.  His eyes teared until he could barely see in front of him.  He reached the first two horses and opened their stall gates, whacking them on the rump to get them to move.  The fire was spreading up the barn wall, threatening the rafters.  They'd never stop it if the flames reached the roof . . .

Blessedly Johnny heard voices behind him as he choked on the thick smoke.  A dark shape came pounding out of the haze and Johnny side stepped just in time to avoid being run down by a terrified horse.  He made it to the middle of the barn and heard more voices toward the back.  Some of the hands must have entered through the rear door and began opening stalls.  Johnny grabbed a lead rope and began to slap it against the horses as they ran past him, so terrified they didn't know which way to go.  He opened another stall gate and herded another animal to safety.

The smoke was getting so dense and his eyes were tearing so badly that Johnny couldn't see.  He realized that he no longer knew which direction was out himself.  Fighting down the panic, he tried to listen to anything beyond the roar of the fire and the crackling timbers as the walls fought their losing battle against the flames.

Johnny felt his legs buckle beneath him, and he found himself strangely considering that, as many times as he'd contemplated his own death, he'd never once thought that his life was going to end this way.  But suddenly strong hands were pulling him upward, and he was slung over someone's shoulder.

Fresh air hit his face and he was lowered to the ground and allowed to cough and heave up the smoke from his lungs and stomach.  When he could finally breathe again he found that he was kneeling close to Jelly – but the old man lay beside him, as still as death . . .

A somewhat familiar but utterly strange sound drifted to him.  It was Barranca nickering, but in a manner Johnny had never heard before.  The horse stood in the center of the courtyard, its head held arrogantly high, those black soulless eyes staring at him in triumph.

The pair faced each other unflinching, Johnny Madrid coming to the fore to accept this showdown if the challenge was to be made.  But Barranca's head began to bob, then jerked side to side, and the animal turned himself in a complete circle.  Suddenly his whole body sagged and Barranca's head dipped in defeat toward the ground.

Johnny shivered, not from the rapidly cooling night air, but because he had seen that pose just a day before – as he'd beheld the image of a broken black stallion that had once stood proud.

 

PART EIGHTEEN

Just as the sun began to lighten the sky, Johnny finally lost the fight to stay awake, his head slowly falling forward until his chin rested on his chest.  It had been a long night.  He had insisted on sitting by Jelly's bedside, waiting for the old man to regain consciousness.  But so far – save for an occasional quiet mumble and toss of the head – he had shown hardly a sign of waking.

A nagging cough and singed hair on the back of his hands were easy reminders to Johnny that this was not just a bad dream – that, and Jelly lying motionless in the bed before him.  This “accident” had proved too close this time, and had involved more than just him and Barranca.  The stakes had just been raised.

Totally exhausted, Johnny didn't hear Murdoch and Scott carry a cot into Jelly's room, or feel them lift him out of the chair and lay him down gently.

“Sam's in Green River on rounds and won't be back until the afternoon,” Murdoch whispered, his displeasure over the news obvious as he draped a blanket over Johnny.  “Send Hank into town to wait and bring him here.  After Sam's done with Jelly I want him to have a look at Johnny . . . whether the boy wants it or not.  I don't know what's been going on around here, but it is about to stop.”

“I agree.  I think it's time we had a long discussion with my stubborn brother.”

Murdoch nodded.  “I'll stay here and watch over Jelly.  When Johnny wakes up, I'll see that he stays put.”

Scott grinned.  “Good luck, sir.  I'm going to have a look at the barn . . . see how much damage the fire caused.

 

 

Johnny was surprised to find himself lying down.  It was mid-morning . . . at least that's what he thought – it was hard to tell the exact angle of the sun with the heavy layer of clouds still covering the sky.  He noticed Murdoch sitting with his back to him, watching Jelly.  Johnny was just getting ready to ask about his old friend when the door opened and Scott stepped into the room.

“It looks like most of the damage was contained to the right side of the barn,” Scott said, his voice kept low.  “The main structure is still sound.”

“Good.  Make up a quick list of supplies and have Hank take it with him into town.  If we're lucky, we'll have that barn back in shape before the end of the week.”  Murdoch shook his head in annoyance.  “As if we didn't have enough to . . .”

“Weren't Barranca's fault, Johnny.”   Both men were stunned by the quiet voice that spoke from the bed.  They leaned in as Jelly continued, unaware of to whom he spoke.  Johnny remained silent – but he tensed appreciably.

“The horse ain't hisself.  You be careful ‘round ‘im, boy . . .”  With a sigh, the old man once again drifted back into unconsciousness.

“Sir . . .” Scott stepped back, glancing over toward Johnny to be sure he was still sleeping.  “Do you realize what Jelly just said?”

“That this wasn't just any accident . . . that Barranca was responsible for Jelly getting hurt – and the fire.”  Murdoch finished speaking his thoughts, then ran a tired hand over his face.

“Murdoch, I know that seems impossible to believe, but nothing has made sense about that horse lately.  I haven't been able to get the image of Barranca crushing Johnny against that corral fence out of my mind.  I keep thinking that there's more going on than Johnny has told us.  He hasn't healed like he should.”  Scott glanced over at Johnny's still form again, before continuing in an even quieter voice.  “Have you noticed his eyes?  If I didn't know better I'd say that he was taking something for the pain.”

“You noticed too?”  Murdoch now looked back at Johnny himself, and noted the pallor of his son's skin.  He held no doubt that there was something happening that Johnny was not revealing – but what?

“If you take just one incident, it doesn't mean much,” Scott declared, his mind sorting out the details as he spoke.  “First it was the corral, then Barranca threw him . . . I know Johnny insisted that there was a rattler or something around, but I'm not so sure there was.  I was watching, and the act seemed . . . not so much spontaneous as deliberate.  Then a couple of days later Barranca somehow knocked Johnny's canteen out of his hands, leaving him high and dry on a hot day.”

“And then there were the nightmares,” Murdoch quickly added to the list of incidents, now mulling the events from the past weeks over in his own mind.  “Johnny tried to tell me something after the first one . . . something about how Barranca had looked . . . acted . . . but he couldn't find the right words.  I don't think he understood himself.”

“On top of that,” Scott continued with the condemning evidence, “Johnny hasn't ridden Barranca for days, but he's looked perfectly healthy to me.  If I didn't know better, I'd say that Johnny was afraid of that horse.”

“Are you thinking that Barranca's been trying to hurt Johnny on purpose?”

“Sir, I've seen it happen, during the war . . . a perfectly good horse would go out of control, the strain of being in battle changing the animal . . . reliable one day, the next, totally unpredictable.  Maybe that incident with the stallion was more damaging than we all thought.”

“Do you know what you're suggesting, Scott?”

The older Lancer son nodded.  “If that's not the answer, then what is?  There is definitely something wrong with that horse.  Sickness . . . disease . . . you don't think he could have gotten rabies somehow?”

“I have no idea.  Any way you look at it, if this can be proven then Barranca would have to be put down.”

“No!”  Johnny scrambled off the cot, staggering as the blanket wrapped around his legs.  “Nobody's touchin' my horse.”

Scott tried to reach out and steady him, but Johnny stepped away from the blanket and his brother.  “Nobody's puttin' Barranca down,” he said in a softer voice, unable to hold back a telling cough.

“Johnny, it would only be as a last resort.”  Murdoch tried to keep his voice calm, but he saw the fear in Johnny's eyes.  He thought he'd known how much that horse meant to the boy, but it was painfully obvious that he'd really had no idea.  Murdoch had laughed right along with the men over the relationship between his son and the palomino – but there was no room for laughter right now.  They'd all failed to realize how close the bond was between the pair, despite all the clues indicating just that.  Johnny could trust Barranca with his life – and he had, more than once.  To suggest to him then that his horse had gone “bad” was not something Johnny would ever accept.

Murdoch backed off a little, trying a different tack.  “We were just talking, Johnny . . . throwing ideas back and forth.  But Jelly . . .”

“Well, forget those ideas.  And Jelly's hurt . . . he don't know what he was sayin'.  There's nothin' wrong with Barranca.  He's just been edgy is all.  Maybe that stallion got under his skin, but it ain't gonna last.”  Another cough.

“Son, I don't believe you're seeing this clearly.”  Murdoch was growing impatient with Johnny's excuses, and the more he talked, the angrier he got.  “Look at yourself . . . you're a mess . . . and now Jelly . . . If Barranca is responsible for all this . . .”

“He ain't.”  Johnny was starting to feel desperate as all his fears were being realized.  “Look, Murdoch, I know that horse better'n anyone.  He's been a little rough lately, but it'll pass.”

“I still think it would be better to be cautious.  You are not to ride Barranca until the vet has a chance to examine him first.”  In light of Johnny's recent avoidance of taking Barranca out, Murdoch thought this would be a reasonable request for his son to accept.  He was wrong.

Johnny stepped back, his eyes turning hard.  He felt backed into a corner.  He had to protect Barranca.  What had been happening was not the horse's fault.  Johnny had felt that all along in his heart, and accepted it now as fact.  And he knew that he would fight anyone and anything to save his friend.

“I ain't waitin' for no doctor to tell me what I already know . . . there's nothin' wrong with Barranca!  All he needs to know is I ain't turned my back on him.  I'm takin' him out.”

“I forbid it!”  Murdoch knew as soon as he said the words that he had just made a drastic mistake.

“How you gonna stop me?” Johnny asked coldly as the mask of Johnny Madrid slid into place.  “You gonna hog tie me, old man?”

“Johnny, please . . .” Scott pleaded, as he again reached out a hand toward his brother.

Johnny actually slapped it away.  “Don't try to stop me, Scott.  I know what I'm doin'.”

“No, Johnny, I don't actually think you do,” Scott hissed, but he knew they had lost him.  He could only pray that somehow Johnny did have some idea of what he was doing.

With a glance toward Jelly, Johnny stated softly, “Take care of him.”  He then turned and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Murdoch sat back heavily into his chair.  “Send for the vet, Scott.  Tell him it's an emergency.”

 

 

Barranca found himself in a corral with several other horses – but they were avoiding him, milling around each other, nervous . . . like a predator was near, waiting to move in for the kill.  He tried again to join the herd, taking a few tentative steps toward them, but they snorted in low rumbles and moved farther away.

Something had happened again, but this time, he knew he'd played a part in the mayhem of the night.  He'd been in his stall, and Johnny had come to see him with the older man-beast, Jelly.  Barranca had always sensed Jelly's innate benevolence, and knew Johnny accepted him as a good herd-mate – so the horse did, too.  But Jelly had been hurt last night.  Barranca had seen him, lying still on the ground in the courtyard, the barn burning in the background, and Johnny holding on to him, tight.

And Barranca had liked what he'd seen.

For just a split second, the horse had found pleasure in the dismal scene.  At least, he had thought it was his own enjoyment.  But then he had sensed something else, something not of him . . . something deep inside that was drawing on his energy, feeding on the sight of his friends' pain, his compadre's sorrow.

He had heard himself nickering strangely as he stood there, proud, and Johnny had heard and faced him.  But the man had stared at him with eyes that Barranca had never seen before – the normal bright blue kindness replaced with a dark, hard anger that cut through him, straight down to that abnormal parasitic thing that was there within him.  And the being in the horse had responded to the man's acknowledgment – with fear.  It had backed off, unsure of what to make of the challenging gaze, questioning . . . and Barranca hadn't waited.  He'd bucked from within, pushing the being down, back, out of his mind, exerting his own desires – and the thing had disappeared.

Barranca had been left incredibly weary – and confused.  He could not understand what had just happened, or why, or what this thing was that he sensed within him.  Maybe that's why his herd-mates were staying away – they sensed it too.  There was a predator lying in wait, looking for prey.  And Barranca had a good idea who it could be after.

 

 

Johnny staunchly made his way across the courtyard as quickly as he could get his damaged body to move.  The pain only made him angrier.  Whatever this thing was affecting Barranca it was trying to drive the two of them apart – and now his family was playing right into its hands and demanding that he stay away from the horse as well.  Well, Johnny Madrid never won a fight by running away from it, and he wasn't going to start now.

As bad as he felt, Johnny knew Barranca was suffering too.  They had a special bond, and the animal wouldn't understand if Johnny abandoned him.  And Jelly had been hurt now, too.  Johnny wasn't going to reward this evil thing by backing off.  Previous words of determination echoed in his head – “Sometimes the only way to fight an enemy is straight on.”

Johnny found Barranca in the corral behind the fire-ravaged barn.  The horse stood in the center of the enclosure, head bent and tail dragging toward the ground.  Johnny's heart stopped for a moment, the forlorn stance too easily recognizable . . . totally lacking pride and hope.

He whistled – that special signal only Johnny used and which Barranca always obeyed.  The horse's head came up, large brown eyes taking the man in – but being careful not to stare too directly.  Johnny's presence acted like a kind of balm, seeming to hearten and strengthen the palomino.  But the animal wasn't sure if he should move closer.  That's what “it” wanted, Barranca was sure of it.  And he didn't want Johnny to look at him again with those dark, hate-filled eyes he'd seen last night.

But Johnny was signaling again, calling for their partnership to continue, to remain true.  Why would the man want that if he didn't still trust him?  Barranca remained confused about what was happening, but he trusted Johnny to know what was right.

Deciding to stand by his compadre, to back his play, Barranca trotted over to the fence to drop his head into the man's waiting hands.

“No one's puttin' you down, amigo . . . not as long as I'm standin'.  Whatever this is, we're gonna fight it . . . together.”

As if the horse could understand his every word, Barranca nodded and moved toward the gate.  Johnny smiled with pride.  “You're as ready as I am, huh boy?”

It took Johnny only minutes to saddle Barranca, the anticipation of the ride flooding him with adrenalin, masking his pain.  He swung up into the saddle and barely touched his beloved horse with his spurs and the horse took off in a dead run, both ignoring the rule of no galloping inside the confines of the Lancer arch.

Johnny let Barranca have his head . . . the feel of the powerful animal beneath him and the wind in his face nearly erasing all the turmoil that had beset him for . . . how long, he couldn't remember.

Barranca felt it too.  The man had been avoiding him, shunning him like other horses might do to a sick or wounded member of the herd.  Barranca didn't feel right – but he wasn't sick.  Something else was happening, and it had scared the man.  But Johnny didn't seem afraid anymore, more determined, like he was gearing up for a fight.  He'd carried the man into many battles, shared in the excitement of the confrontation.  Seated firmly on top of him, Johnny was spurring him on, challenging him, giving them both an opportunity to run off their pent up frustrations – and Barranca responded with an exhilarating burst of power and controlled energy, flying ever faster across the range, each reading the other through unspoken commands, anticipating the needs of the partner.

The pair's natural rhythm restored, Barranca seemed satisfied and slowed to a fast trot.

Johnny noticed half a dozen cows huddled together near a pile of large boulders that had tumbled down the hillside in the distant past.

“Feel like doing some work?” Johnny asked, and the palomino immediately fell into the comfortable routine of moving and cutting around the cows.  The work felt good, despite the pain it caused Johnny's body, the ease of the pair's connection and Barranca's eagerness giving him faith.

The peacefulness was short-lived.  Suddenly Barranca lost stride and Johnny could feel a shiver run down the length of the horse.  Barranca came to an abrupt stop and whipped his head back and forth violently.

Skillfully keeping himself mounted, Johnny could sense a strange distress coursing through the animal.  “Easy, boy.  What's wrong?”  Johnny felt a sudden jerk – as if the horse had been pulled tight by a rope.  Without warning Barranca swung around, smashing his side into a six foot high boulder and pinning Johnny's left leg.  He yelled in surprise and pain, then felt Barranca shudder beneath him.  With a frightened snort the palomino sidestepped away from the rock as Johnny tried to right himself in the saddle.  Again the horse turned sharply around toward the boulder, but this time Johnny had time to pull his leg up and out of the way.  Barranca rubbed his side against the stone, then stood still, quiet, chest heaving, lather covering his body like he'd been ridden hard.

 

 

The internal fight waging inside Barranca's mind was infuriating Ezra.  He had never encountered an animal with such a strong will . . . who loved his master so much that it could resist Ezra's power.  But the palomino was exhibiting too much control and determination – and it had to stop.  This particular game was no longer fun.  Time to kill Lancer and then find another host before leaving this fine horse broken like all the other animals he'd inhabited.  //'A shame, really.  But my revenge comes on my terms . . . and I will not be stopped.'//

 

 

His leg beginning to cramp from a new swelling bruise, Johnny had begun to dismount when Barranca bucked violently.  Instinct made Johnny reseat himself in the saddle, but before he could regain complete control the palomino lunged forward, passing beneath a huge old oak tree.  Johnny didn't have time to duck before his head slammed into a low hanging limb and he went crashing to the ground.

Ezra pranced Barranca around the still body, the horse's hooves coming dangerously close to Johnny's head.  But there was an inner turmoil raging within the palomino, Barranca fighting for Johnny's life.  He would not let Ezra make him kill the one who meant so much to him.  With a final snort of defiance Barranca shoved Ezra back into hiding.

Ezra's life force weakened, the animal's intensity taking an unexpected toll on the spirit's power.  He'd never been affected like this before, the flow of strength usually totally controlled by Shanks.  Alarmingly, he found himself unable to keep up the fight.

//'This is not the end,'// Ezra thought as he backed into the blackness.  //'You will not be strong enough to fight me for long.  I will be back . . . and Johnny Lancer will die.'//

Barranca gently nuzzled Johnny's head until the man's eyes opened.  Dazed and confused he climbed unsteadily to his feet and somehow pulled himself up onto the horse.  Barranca moved under him until he felt Johnny settle into the saddle, his body draping over the pommel until his head rested on the horse's neck and he once again blacked out.  Barranca had been placed in this position before, and knew it was up to him to see that Johnny got home safely.  He would protect his partner.

 

 

“Well Jelly, you're going to have one heck of a headache for a few days, but I think you'll live.”  Sam Jenkins began to put his instruments back into his medical bag.  “It's a good thing you landed on your head, otherwise you could have done some serious damage . . .”

Sam chuckled at his own joke as Jelly simply harrumphed and turned his head away in disgust.

“Make him stay in bed for a day or two, until the dizziness is gone,” the doctor instructed more seriously.

“We'll see he behaves,” Murdoch smiled, relieved that Jelly wasn't more badly hurt.  “Teresa has a fresh pot of coffee brewing, Sam.”

“Good, I could use . . .”

Jelly's door suddenly banged open and Scott and Hank carried Johnny's limp body in.

“What happened?” Murdoch demanded, seeing the trail of blood running down the left side of Johnny's face and darkly staining his shirt.

“I don't know,” Scott barked.  “Barranca just brought him in.  I have no idea how he stayed in the saddle . . . he was out cold.”

“Lay him down here,” Sam ordered, pointing at the cot.  “Gently now.  Murdoch, I'll need water and more cloths.  Light some of those lanterns too.”

Johnny didn't move a muscle as Sam began to clean away the blood covering the side of his face.  “This is a nasty cut,” Sam said absently, “and . . .”  Sam felt his forehead and lifted his hand to test for heat, “. . . he feels feverish.  Has he been sick?”

“Check out the boy's back,” Jelly suggested.

All three men looked back at the older man suspiciously.  “He wouldn't let me tell ya, but he caught hisself on a broken hook in the barn the other day.  I been cleanin' it out the best I could, but the fever got to him yesterday.”

“Jelly,” Murdoch growled, “why didn't you tell us?”

“He made me promise not ta.  Ya know a promise is a promise.”

“We'll talk about this later,” Murdoch warned, at once annoyed by and content with Jelly's allegiance to Johnny.

“I'll need to look at it.  Help me take his shirt off.”  As Scott unbuttoned Johnny's shirt and pulled it open, stunned silence filled the room.  “What in the name of heaven happened to this boy?” Sam asked, appalled.

Murdoch glanced at Scott, and his son looked just as aghast as he felt.  How could Johnny have hidden so many injuries?  A harder question to answer was – why he felt he needed to?  They watched Sam's gentle hands press and prod and carefully examine the old bruises on Johnny's chest and abdomen.  He found a smaller but obviously new bruise on Johnny's left forearm, along with several others in various stages of healing – and what could only be a bite from a horse wrapping around his side, also healing, but still painfully inflamed.

Sam cut away the bandaging Jelly had tied around Johnny's waist.  “Sit him up carefully so I can pull this off, Scott,” the doctor instructed, then held the dressing in place as he moved around to Johnny's back.  “Dear . . .” Sam started as he caught sight of the still evident bruise running up and down the left side of Johnny's back.  He glanced over at Murdoch, who quickly explained, “He got that at the same time as the chest and stomach injuries.  Barranca pinned him up against a gatepost for a minute.”

 The doctor seemed to accept the explanation – but it didn't make him pleased.  Sam was becoming more and more upset by the minute.  He carefully pulled Jelly's bandage off the oozing puncture wound.  “This looks like it could be the source of the fever, but I want to get a look at the rest of him first to be sure.”  He pressed a clean bandage against the wound and instructed, “Lay him down again, Scott, and let's get his pants off.”

Murdoch managed to remove Johnny's boots in record time, and he remained unconscious as Scott and Sam pealed away his pants.  Decorum was thrown to the wind as the angry evidence of nearly three weeks of accidents was fully exposed.  “Look at this,” Sam said, drawing his hand along Johnny's right hip.  “This is a deep bruise . . . it had to have hurt like hell.  And this . . .” He carefully examined Johnny's left calf.  “This must have just happened.”  His expert fingers felt for but found no broken bones.  “And don't you feed him anymore?” Sam asked irritably as he viewed Johnny's emaciated form.  “I can't believe Johnny could have hidden all these injuries.  Any one of them would have been terribly painful.  All of them together . . . I'm amazed he could even move, let alone ride a horse.”

Scott snapped his head up to look at Murdoch, feeling sick at the realization that they had suspected Johnny had been medicating himself for pain – but not for the kind of suffering he must have been going through.

“Jelly,” Murdoch turned to look pointedly down at the old man, his anger mounting.  “How could you let Johnny hide these kind of injuries?”

“I only knew about that hole in his back, he wouldn't let me see no more.”  Jelly had been left just as stunned as the others by the revealing examination.  “I knew the boy was hurtin' . . . but believe me boss, I never knew ‘bout the rest of them hurts.”

 “Why, Jelly?” Scott asked.  “Why was he hiding . . .”

A strangled moan escaped Johnny's lips as Sam pressed a cloth against the still bleeding cut to his forehead.

“Easy there,” Sam said softly, sitting on edge of the cot.  “Wake up now.  That's it,” he encouraged as Johnny struggled for consciousness.

He woke incredibly confused, not remembering that he'd managed to mount Barranca before passing out.  Johnny ached from head to toe from the fall, his left leg throbbed mercilessly, and his head was splitting.  He moaned again as he took stock – and realized he was completely naked under the blanket covering him.

Johnny outright panicked, knowing he could no longer deny the injuries Barranca had caused to his body.  Desperate to escape the barrage of questions sure to come, Johnny sat up before Sam could stop him – and immediately turned white.

“Scott!” Sam shouted, but he was already moving, grabbing up a basin and holding it beside the cot as Murdoch helped the doctor steady Johnny while he retched horribly.  There wasn't much in his stomach to bring up, but he heaved repeatedly nonetheless.

Finally spent, they lowered Johnny back down onto the mattress, and waited while he settled.  His brother's face covered in a cold sweat, Scott put the basin aside and dampened a cloth.  He handed it off to Sam, who dabbed it over Johnny's face as he once again sat beside him.

After a couple of minutes, it was clear that Johnny was still conscious, but refusing to open his eyes.  Sam didn't let that deter him.  “Johnny, what in heaven's name did you think you were doing by hiding all these injuries?”  His tone was compassionate, but firm.

“Just accidents,” Johnny sighed, hoping against hope that they'd leave him be for now.

“An awful lot of accidents, brother,” Scott said sharply, obviously not willing to let it drop.

“I would like an explanation, Johnny,” Sam said.  “Whatever's been happening, it's been going on for weeks.  Some of those bruises are old, but the ones on your leg and arm are fresh.  And you didn't get that gash on your head from a mere trip and fall.  What's going on?”

“Just a run of bad luck,” Johnny answered, turning his head away.  He liked Sam a lot, and respected him.  Johnny didn't like lying to him any better than he'd enjoyed keeping the truth from his family.

“It's that dang horse of his,” Jelly sputtered.  “It's Barranca.”

“Shut up, Jelly,” Johnny snapped, his head once more rising quickly off the mattress – the movement instantly regretted as his headache flared.

“Johnny, I want an answer now,” Murdoch demanded gruffly, ignoring his son's obvious discomfort.  “Is Barranca responsible for all this?”

Johnny was feeling more and more sick and confused – and trapped.  “He's been ridin' a little rough . . . but it's just ‘cause that stallion spooked him.  He'll be all right as soon as he settles down.”

“Or he kills you,” Scott growled, his patience spent and his voice rising in anger.  “Why did you feel you needed to hide this?  There's something more going on here.  What exactly is wrong with that horse?”

“Back off, brother,” Johnny warned, the wrong nerve pushed.

They all saw the transformation beginning, knew Johnny's instincts would resurrect Johnny Madrid if he felt too cornered.

“What's going on, Johnny?” Murdoch prodded more gently.  “We only want to help you.”

“I told ya,” Johnny backed off with a sigh, the headache becoming unbearable, his thoughts starting to jumble.  “Barranca's just actin' up.  It happens sometimes, ‘specially with a spirited horse like him.”

“It ain't that an' you know it.”  Jelly sat up, pushing away Sam's hands as the doctor moved over to try to keep him down.  “It's time the truth came out, Johnny.”

“Jelly, please . . .” There was desperation in Johnny's voice as he managed to face the older man.  “You promised.”

“I said only if nothin' else happened ta ya.  This has got ta stop, Johnny.  Yer gonna get yerself killed.”

“What is going on here?” Murdoch demanded.  “I want the truth, and all of it.  Right now.”

Jelly struggled past Sam as he crossed the room to sit on the cot next to Johnny.  “There ain't no easy way ta tell ya.  We don't understand it rightly ourselves . . . we just know it's happenin'.  Somethin' . . . somethin' evil is inside Barranca.”

“Jelly, no.  Not more of your superstitious nonsense,” Scott sighed, as Johnny lifted an arm and laid it across his eyes, hiding his fears beneath his pain.

“It ain't nonsense.  There's somethin' powerfully wrong with Barranca.  Ever since that black stallion . . .”

“All right, I've heard enough.”  Murdoch carefully pulled the old man to his feet.  “Lay down, Jelly, and let Sam finish working on Johnny.  Johnny,” Murdoch turned back to his son, “until the vet can look at Barranca, I don't want you anywhere near that horse.  Do you understand?”

“Don't worry, Murdoch,” Sam said.  “This boy is going nowhere for at least a week.”  He cut off any protests that might dare to rise from the injured man.  “Now, I know how much you hate to stay in bed, Johnny, but you put yourself here.  You've run yourself into the ground, and it's going to take time to get your strength back.”

Sam fished a bottle of laudanum from his bag, and considered for a minute before pouring out a spoonful.  “Johnny, look at me,” he instructed.  It took him a moment, but Johnny finally removed the arm covering his eyes.  He stared at the telltale little brown bottle, and the spoon held out before him.  “I wouldn't normally give this to someone with a head injury, but you need stitches, and I've got my work cut out for me cleaning out your back.  Open up and get it down,” the doctor demanded, his tone making it clear that he wasn't going to take no for an answer.

Everyone expected Johnny to exert the same resistance he usually offered when asked to take any kind of pain medication.  But to their surprise – and further concern – Johnny accepted the medicine without hesitation.

“Go ahead and sleep for awhile,” Sam said as he placed a comforting hand on Johnny's shoulder.
”When I'm done we'll get you up to your room.”

Johnny nodded, knowing that with all the laudanum he'd been taking lately that this small dose was likely to simply dull his pain for a while, but not put him out entirely.  He'd behave for now – but they would not keep him away from Barranca.  Johnny remembered the struggle the horse had waged against whatever was trying to control the animal from within, and the man was going to continue to fight against this unseen foe just as fiercely.  His friend needed him, now more than ever.  The pair might not know the whole of exactly what they were fighting, but Johnny did know who – and there was no way the devil was taking that horse away from him.

 

 

PART NINETEEN

The last day of October dawned dark, the ever-present clouds beginning to swell even as the sun started its rise in the east – sunshine against shadow, battling the sky for dominance.  Given everyone's gloomy mood, there was no doubt which condition would win the day.

Hardly rested themselves, Scott, Murdoch, and Teresa shared the duty of watching over both Johnny and Jelly, leaving Cipriano to keep the ranch running.  To give the Lancer's a much needed break, Joe had offered to keep an eye on Jelly overnight, and Jelly had readily agreed to the arrangement – tired of the disappointed glances shot his way that Scott and Murdoch were finding harder and harder to hide.

Once back on his feet the old man had already made up his mind that he was going to share more than a few choice words with a certain young Mr. Johnny Lancer . . .

Johnny's time in bed passed with an anxious mixture of confusion from his head injury, annoyance at his family's hovering, and a growing impatience to, ‘Do something!'  But Murdoch had warned Johnny vehemently against trying anything at all – going so far as to bring a length of rope up to the bedroom.  The “old man” had held it in front of Johnny, and threw the young man's own words back at him as he exclaimed angrily, “I will most definitely hogtie you if you step one foot out of that bed before Sam allows it!”  Murdoch had then hurled the rope at the wall across from the bed – where it continued to lay ever since, curled in a heap on the floor, a tangible reminder that his family was finished letting him have his way.

But that didn't stop Johnny from making plans . . .

 

 

Once again Johnny struggled to consciousness with one resolute thought – he had to protect Barranca.  Nothing that had happened was the horse's fault, and Johnny couldn't shake his need to defend the animal at all costs.  He opened his eyes, squinting against the light.  He kept losing track of time, but by the direction of the sun figured it for afternoon.  Not daring to hope, Johnny slowly turned his head and scanned his room – and found it empty.  Alone.  He'd been left alone – for how long, he couldn't guess – but he was bound and determined to make the best of the opportunity.

He sat up . . . slowly, deliberately, very carefully – unwilling to risk wasting a second of time on setbacks like getting sick or passing out.  He took equal care getting dressed, the worst moment when he had to gather up and don his boots.

The laudanum was gone, so he doggedly ignored his injuries – to acknowledge any one of them was to fail.  It took all his concentration just to complete the simplest of tasks, and he couldn't afford to be distracted by his pain.  He'd worked through injury and illness plenty of times before, and he'd do it again now.  For Barranca.  He had to get the animal away from the ranch, to safety – distance the horse from the possibility that anyone else might get hurt, which would surely condemn Barranca to an immediate death.  Johnny had to hide him until he could regain his strength and the ability to think the problem out.  They'd beat this.  They had to beat this.

Breathing heavily, his stance unsteady and headache beginning to throb, Johnny made his way to the door, already ajar.  They'd be listening for him, any signal that he was awake.  Steeling himself, he opened the door only a little wider and slipped through.  With that notorious cat-like tread he hugged the wall for support as he made his way down the hallway toward the staircase on the outside of the hacienda.

 

 

Hanging from the headboard, where his family knew it belonged in order to make Johnny feel safe, was his gun.  Johnny had forgotten his gun – and he hadn't even realized it.  He was going to face the beast.  Unaided . . . and unprotected.

 

 

‘Just get to the corral,' Johnny told himself.  ‘Put one foot in front of the other, an' find Barranca.'

The pressure to his head seemed to increase with every limping step, but he finally realized it wasn't coming from within, but from without.  It was the damned weather.  Johnny looked up and squinted against the rapidly diminishing sunlight as he tenaciously made his way toward the barn.  The clouds blanketing the sky were building, expanding ever higher into the atmosphere in great swelling balloons of billowing fury.  White frothiness mixed with gray shadows and angry blackness, and Johnny almost sagged – the churning reminded him of Barranca's eyes, that inexplicable blending of mysterious and familiar that he would no longer deny but was still incapable of explaining.

‘Don't watch it . . . just find Barranca,' he commanded himself.

The reek of the burned barn almost had him doubled over with nausea as Johnny approached, but he fought past it and entered the charred structure, long enough to grab a halter.  He leaned just inside the entrance, gathering his strength as he watched a couple of the boys riding in from the range.  But they headed straight over to the bunkhouses, leaving Johnny free to continue his quest.

They'd isolated Barranca to the far corral, where Johnny found him pacing by the back rails.  Even across that distance, Johnny could tell that Barranca was suffering physically from this mysterious thing afflicting him.  The sight nearly broke the man's heart.

Barranca's once bright coat was now dull, partly from the stress of recent events – especially the fire – and part from neglect.  Johnny felt a pang of guilt that, in his fear, he'd chosen to stay away from the horse, allowing others to see to his care.  He knew that Jelly and Joe had done their best, but no one looked after Barranca like Johnny.

It was obvious that Barranca had been off his feed for some time, Johnny recognizing a telltale outlining of the animal's ribs and a loss of flesh.  ‘Dios.  This has got to stop now,' he thought desperately.

Johnny whistled, and the horse stopped its agitated movements immediately and turned to face him – but came no closer.  The man leaned heavily against the fence and watched forlornly as the horse dipped his head and looked away.  Both had been broken by this evilness that had come between them – but they weren't yet beaten.

For his part, Barranca had been left to feel that he'd failed the man.  He'd gotten Johnny home, but somehow the feat had made the other man-beasts angry with him.  Their raised voices and rough handling had made him nervous, and he'd shied away from them . . . thought about running away.  But he could smell Johnny's blood on his own coat and chose to stay, unwilling to desert his wounded compadre – the partner who once again stood before him, a corral-length apart.

Johnny took a deep breath and whistled again – and once more Barranca faced him.  Then the horse nickered back in reply, and took a tentative step forward.  But the animal's head once again dipped in defeat, unsure of his standing with his herd-mate.  Johnny knew he had to do more to show Barranca that he still trusted him, so he gingerly crawled through the fence rails.  He staggered briefly as his combined injuries jointly protested the activity, and his vision blurred dangerously.  But he held on until the bout of weakness passed.

Barranca was watching him closely now, so Johnny took a step forward and held out his right hand.  The horse nickered again – then took a step forward.  Then another.  And another.  It seemed to take him forever to close the distance, but finally Barranca was standing right before Johnny.

“Hey there, amigo,” Johnny crooned.  “Hope you been missin' me as much as I been missin' you.”  Barranca nickered softly, the man's hand reached forward, and the horse's head dipped to receive the touch.  Johnny was scratching at that special spot only he dared, and Barranca was responding, continuing to nicker quietly as he pressed forward, accepting the coveted contact with his compadre.

“We're bound to get caught for sure, so we best hurry up,” Johnny explained as he fought his emotions back.  “Gotta get out of here, boy.  Gotta go now.”  He raised the halter and held it open.  Barranca automatically shoved his nose into it, while Johnny buckled it at the side of the horse's head.

Johnny's brain had been too muddled for him to think his actions through, and he now realized that he'd either have to lead Barranca over to the barn for a saddle and proper tack, or ride him bareback with merely the halter.  Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't have been a problem at all for this horse and rider.  But taking stock, Johnny knew he wouldn't get far today without a saddle, so he grabbed up the lead rope and headed the horse toward the corral gate.

As Johnny walked, he noticed a shape in the distance, just on the other side of the Lancer arch.  The vision cleared into the figure of a rider.  Scott.  No one else sat a horse like his brother.

“Dammit,” Johnny cursed.  “Not yet.  Not now . . .”

Knowing he'd never be allowed another chance like this, Johnny became desperate.  He pulled Barranca to a stop, and stood beside the horse, gathering his reserves.  Grabbing tightly onto Barranca's mane he instructed, “Hold still for me now, boy,” then vaulted himself onto the horse's back.

A wave of dizziness almost overpowered him, and Johnny had to lay himself down across the horse's neck just to stay mounted.  Barranca sensed his partner's distress, and didn't move a muscle, remaining completely still so he wouldn't unseat the vulnerable man.

Johnny knew he didn't have a lot of time, so he felt blindly for the lead rope, then slowly raised himself up.  Lights were dancing in his eyes, but he ignored the distraction and kneed Barranca forward.

The pair didn't get far.  Johnny quickly realized he hadn't opened the gate before mounting, and he'd either have to get down or lean over to open it – and Johnny knew he was incapable of doing either.  His headache flaring, he leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and gave up a sardonic little laugh.  He couldn't do this.  They were going to get caught, that was all there was to it.

“I'm sorry, amigo,” he whispered.  “I'm done for.”

//'Yes . . . yes you are,'// Ezra agreed, and surged forward.

 

 

Scott couldn't believe what he was seeing.  He'd just reached the edge of the barn when movement caught his eye.  Reining his own mount to a stop, he peered intently at the far corral, and saw someone trying to mount Barranca.  The golden horse was unmistakable, even at that distance, and the dark-haired rider lying atop the palomino was easy to name.  Johnny.

Instantly spurring his own mount onward, Scott saw Barranca take a few steps toward the gate, then stop.  He could just make out Johnny's head tipping back slightly, then wilting forward toward his chest.  Then all hell broke loose.

 

 

Barranca bucked, and Johnny went flying, landing hard in the dirt.  His right shoulder took the brunt of the impact, and he rolled instinctively on hitting the ground.  But his vision instantly faded to a dim gray, blackness threatening to envelop him fully.  He was incapable of moving, his brain unable to tell him how, as unconsciousness threatened.

Once again Ezra tried to get Barranca to stomp on Johnny, but the horse rebelled, exerting his own will with a power Shanks found hard to overcome.  But the toll on the horse was a heavy one as he focused all his energy inward, fighting against the foreign spirit hiding within him.

Scrambling off his horse before it could come to a complete stop, Scott pulled his rifle out of its scabbard as he moved.  He threw open the corral gate and quickly made his way over to Johnny, setting the rifle in the dirt so he could pull the injured man back away from the demented-looking horse.  Johnny put a hand to his aching head and focused his own energy, willing himself to stay conscious and regain his sensibilities.

Barranca pranced before the brothers, greatly agitated, his head alternately bobbing then shaking, as if he were trying to rid himself of some bothersome pest.  Both men were watching the animal's movements closely when he suddenly stood rigid for a moment – then slowly stumbled to his knees.  The dreadful sight disturbed Scott – but Johnny was devastated.  Horses avoided going down at all costs, so for Barranca to do so was totally aberrant behavior, a sign of great distress.

Scott was cradling Johnny against his chest, ready to back them further away if the horse came nearer.  But Barranca was kneeling now right before them, totally still, his sides heaving from some great exertion.  In these positions it was impossible to miss the transformation taking place in Barranca's eyes, the inexplicable churning of darkness and light.

“What the hell is happening to him?” Scott asked, bewildered and amazed as he stared transfixed at the sight.

“It's not Barranca, Scott,” Johnny answered quietly, his own attention glued to the palomino's eyes, the color amazingly shifting from the hardest black to the softest brown, hatred and wickedness tumultuously mixing with confusion and fear.

He had witnessed the sight before, but it was now the abject terror in his beloved horse's eyes that made Johnny finally admit what he'd known all along:  An unholy spiritual presence had somehow attached itself to the horse, lurking in the background, feeding off the animal like a leech sucks blood from its host – and it was draining Barranca's own spirit as the two fought for supremacy and control.

Johnny understood that everything that had happened to him and around the ranch over the last couple of weeks had been caused by this evil presence working from within Barranca.  Why it had targeted Lancer – and him – Johnny didn't know.  But his trust was now fully restored in Barranca, knowing that the horse had not been in control of his own actions.

The man felt duty bound as the animal's keeper – and friend – to free him from this abomination.  To keep him safe.  And Johnny Madrid now had a powerful weapon he could finally use to help attack this thing:  he believed.  With all his heart and mind, Johnny accepted the fact that he had a real enemy to face, to defeat.

Watching Barranca struggle, he knew he wasn't going to have to wage this battle alone.

“Fight ‘im, Barranca!” Johnny shouted at the animal.  “Fight!”

He pulled against Scott's firm grasp, trying to move closer to the horse, but his brother would not let go.  “It ain't Barranca, Scott.  Can't you see?” Johnny pleaded for understanding as he continued to try and break free.

But Scott held fast and yelled back, “I don't know what I see!  He's sick . . .”

Scott finally released a hand from around his brother, but only to reach for the rifle beside them in the dirt.  Johnny caught the movement and frantically grabbed at Scott's arm, pulling it back to him and holding on, tight.

“No he ain't!”  Johnny countered desperately, his fear for Barranca's life giving him strength he shouldn't have had.  Once again focusing totally on the horse, he shouted, “Fight it!”

Barranca heard Johnny, but found it harder and harder to obey.  He was tiring, the inner struggle weakening him mentally and physically.  He gathered his will, and with an enormous effort, pushed the thing within him back, out of his consciousness.

The horse made a doleful sound, and Johnny and Scott watched with rapt attention as the turmoil settled, and Barranca's eyes returned to normal.  But a brightness was missing from the gaze that frightened Johnny to his soul.  The toll the fight took on Barranca was too great.  Johnny sensed that they didn't have much time.  He had to find some way to get this sadistic leech out of Barranca – now.

“Barranca, you gotta stay strong,” he said quietly, and the horse nickered back in reply.  Unsteadily, the animal rose to his feet, shaking his head nervously.  But then he looked directly at Johnny, and stepped forward, lowering his head to nudge his compadre in the shoulder.  Johnny reached out his hand, and laid is against the horse's neck, as man and animal faced each other, eye to eye.

Scott watched carefully, his guard on high alert as Johnny and Barranca performed the same ritual they had been sharing daily for years.  Nothing he had just witnessed had made any sense, so Barranca's familiar gesture was somehow as calming to him as to his brother.

Johnny leaned forward, and Scott could just make out something whispered in Spanish as the man slipped the halter off the horse.  Barranca raised his head and backed away a step, then looked down at Johnny, who nodded.  The horse turned – and ran, galloping past Scott's horse, through the open gate and off toward the distant hills.

Thunder rumbled ominously low across the sky as Johnny sagged against his brother, his energy spent.  The tense moment had drained Scott as well.  “What the hell was happening to him, Johnny?”  His incredulity was apparent in the question as he continued to hold his brother tightly.

Johnny sighed, wondering how exactly to explain the unexplainable.  “It's like Jelly tried to tell you . . . somethin' evil is inside Barranca.  I don't know how, and I don't know why.  I just know we gotta help him.”

Making a great effort to face his brother, Johnny turned and now looked Scott straight in the eyes.  “You gotta trust me, Scott.  None of what happened was Barranca's fault.  You just gotta trust me . . .”

Johnny's voice trailed off, lost in another drawn out sigh, followed by a quiet moan as his head drifted down to lay against his brother's chest.  Scott's concern was instantly redoubled, and he pulled himself out from behind Johnny and laid him down gently.  Johnny closed his eyes, breathing in deeply and deliberately as he fought off an increasing headache.

“Lay still, brother,” Scott instructed.  “I'm going to get help.”  Johnny gave no indication that he'd heard, his eyes remaining closed, his breathing carefully measured.

Scott stood and started out of the corral, scanning the house and outbuildings quickly.  As he passed through the gate he noticed a couple of hands coming in from the range, and waved them over, impatiently moving toward them until they finally met up.

“Hank,” Scott immediately began to issue commands, “ride into town again and get Doctor Jenkins.  Pete, you help me get Johnny back into the house.”

“Looks like Johnny's got other ideas,” Pete answered, looking beyond Scott to the corral.

Hank followed Pete's gaze as Scott turned in time to see Johnny hauling himself up onto his horse.  “Johnny, no!” Scott yelled as he watched his young brother sway in the saddle.  But Johnny pointedly ignored the command.  Rallying his strength, he touched his heels to the horse and whipped the reins, taking off in the direction Barranca had fled.

“Dammit!” Scott cursed, watching his maddeningly stubborn brother's back quickly receding into the distance.

“What do you want us to do, Scott?” Hank asked.

Scott turned, nearly taking out his anger over Johnny's actions on the two cowboys.  But he controlled his temper, and began issuing orders efficiently.  “Go into town like I said Hank, and get doc.  Tell him Johnny fell and hit his head again.  And hurry.”

With a nod, Hank took off without another word.

“Pete, give me your horse.”  The hand immediately dismounted, switching places with Scott as he further instructed, “Find Murdoch and Teresa and tell them Johnny's out chasing Barranca, and I've gone after him.  Then find Cip and have him track us as quick as he can.  I have a feeling I'm going to need some help out there.”

“Good luck, Scott,” Pete called back over his shoulder as he immediately ran toward the hacienda.

‘Johnny's going to need it,' Scott thought anxiously as he turned the mount and looked off into the darkening distance.

“Trust me,” Johnny had asked – and the request now repeated itself over and over in Scott's mind.  He had witnessed the unexplainable, but wasn't sure if he could trust his injured brother to know how to deal with it.

As another threatening roll of thunder flowed over the land, Scott spurred his horse on, seeking Johnny and Barranca, hope and faith . . . and trust – and answers to seemingly unfathomable questions.

 

 

PART TWENTY

Barranca ran, just like Johnny had told him – and because he knew he must.  He . . . no, “it” had hurt Johnny again . . . had actually tried to kill his friend, and Barranca was going to do everything he could to prevent that.

The horse knew there was something within him that wanted his compadre dead, and the animal remembered that he'd been able to fight it off, push it back out of his consciousness, make it stop.  But he wasn't sure if he could do that again.  Barranca was tired, physically and mentally.  He could feel the thing inside of him, stirring within his mind, trying to once again gain control over him so he could hurt Johnny.  He couldn't let that happen, so he ran . . .

 

 

Ezra was angry . . . as incensed as he had been over twenty years before when that ignoble nobody of a cowboy had unjustly put a bullet into his heart and sent him into oblivion.

The very alliance that had so attracted him to Johnny and Barranca was now proving his undoing.  //'I had Lancer . . . there, on the ground before me . . . his brother too!  But this horse . . . this stupid, stubborn, willful horse!'//

The spirit felt himself weakening – and that had him scared.  The continual fight Barranca was now waging against him was taking as much of a toll on Ezra as the horse.  But anger gave Shanks power, and he had allowed the horse to run while he'd lain low, gathering his strength.  But he couldn't let the horse get too far away from his prey.  Ezra had a cowboy to kill, and no insignificant animal was going to get in his way.

With an enormous effort, Ezra surged forward into Barranca's consciousness, exerting control before the animal could put up any stronger mental barriers to block him.  The horse's steady stride faltered a step during the transition, but then Ezra was dictating Barranca's movements, the spirit once again reveling in the power he gained from controlling such a magnificent beast.  He continued to run for a few moments, but then remembered his mission – revenge.  It was time to play – one last, rewarding, deadly game.

Shanks stopped Barranca, and turned the horse to face back along their trail.  It took a couple of minutes, but then the moment Ezra had been waiting for arrived – Johnny was following, just as the spirit expected he would be.  //'You are much too predictable, my friend,'// Ezra thought with a smile, //'But then, that's what has made you such a wonderful toy . . . you refuse to break, and you never give up.  And I know what you want.'//

Over the last few weeks, Ezra had paid close attention to the varied landscape that encompassed the Lancer ranch.  As the last hours of daylight waned and the billowing clouds threatened to finally release a torrential downpour, Shanks turned the horse until he faced a sheer cliff of rock off in the distance.  //'That will be the perfect place for our final showdown, Johnny my boy.  You want the horse, come and get him . . . if you dare.'//

Ezra . . . Barranca . . . once again ran – and not far behind, Johnny Lancer followed.

 

 

Just as Johnny began to wonder how much longer he could keep himself riding at this pace, he spotted Barranca.  The horse had stopped and looked back toward him, but was now moving swiftly away, toward Little Mouth Canyon – so named because only one rider could move through the entrance at a time.  But once you were through the front columns of towering granite, the canyon opened up into a maze of trails, dotted with caves and crevasses through the entire length of the narrow valley.

Johnny suspected he was being led, lured into that forbidding place for a reason.  But he had to follow.  Johnny hadn't been able to bear the terror he'd seen in Barranca's eyes as the animal had fought for control over the mysterious spiritual presence within him.  The horse could not be left to face this evil alone.  For whatever reason, this wicked thing wanted Johnny, and he was willing to act as bait to draw it out.  The man knew that, together, he and Barranca could fight this.  How . . . Johnny had absolutely no idea.  But he sure wasn't going to let the bastard get away.

Scott had seen Barranca attacking Johnny – and the seemingly unexplainable phenomenon manifested in the horse's eyes.  But which did he believe?  That the animal was sick?  Out of control?  A danger to Johnny and everyone else on the ranch?  Or could Scott trust Johnny's staunch conviction that something evil had come to inhabit the horse, and the animal needed their help?  For Barranca's sake, Johnny couldn't take a chance on the answer his brother would give.  Even if Scott believed, would Murdoch?  Johnny wasn't willing to risk Barranca's life to find out.

The oppressive moisture from the impending storm suffused the air and made Johnny feel like he was moving through water . . . bogged down and sluggish.   Thunder continued to rumble across the valley, and flashes of lightning were now beginning to light up the darkening sky like warning beacons of some impending act of unimaginable violence.

Johnny moved doggedly onward, trying to ignore his injuries.  He didn't exactly feel up to the challenge before him, but he believed he had no choice.  Barranca was hurting just as much as him, and he couldn't trust his family right now to protect the horse.  If Johnny gave up now, he was convinced that, one way or another, Barranca was going to die . . .

That dire thought gave Johnny a strength of purpose he could only hope his body would be able to see through to the end.  His bruised left calf was throbbing, the wound in his back burned, and his right shoulder felt numb.  But worst of all was his head, which now ached incessantly.  But every agonizing pain reminded him that he had a real enemy to face that had caused all this misery.  Johnny's hope was that if he could keep the thing distracted enough, Barranca would be able to find some way to rid himself of the evil sprit within him.

They could – would – prevail . . . together.

With the entrance to the canyon looming before him, Johnny steeled his resolve – then slowed his mount and maneuvered his way through the treacherous opening, ready to meet the beast lurking within.

 

 

The trail of the two horses across the parched land had at first been easy to follow.  But as the sky darkened beneath the billowing clouds the path became harder and harder for Scott to see.  He tried to keep focused on the task, but found his mind distracted by those same questions of belief that so concerned Johnny.

Scott had always considered himself a practical man, not given to superstition and wonder.  But no matter how much he tried, he couldn't deny what he had seen in Barranca's eyes – the unfathomable evidence of another presence there within the horse.  He'd never seen anything like it in his life, and couldn't possibly explain it.  Jelly had tried – but the old man's propensity for exaggeration and notorious – almost gullible – acceptance of the implausible had made him easy to dismiss.  But Johnny's entreaty had been harder to reject, although Scott wondered at his brother's ability to think clearly in his condition.

Johnny had survived a difficult life by trusting his instincts.  Scott knew his brother had an uncanny ability to know where danger lay, even when those around him sensed no threat.  Johnny had begged Scott to now trust those instincts implicitly, to believe that Barranca wasn't a threat to any of them . . . that it was, in fact, the horse that needed protection.  But this mysterious thing within Barranca was using the animal to hurt his brother, and Scott couldn't allow that to continue.

There were so many unknowns swirling in Scott's mind that he forced himself to focus on the only thing he was sure of:  if Barranca placed his brother in danger one more time, Scott would kill him.  Johnny would hate him for the rest of his life, but at least he would be alive . . . Scott was going to make sure of that.

 

 

Johnny kept a tight rein on Charley, feeling the horse quiver nervously beneath him.  He nudged the horse forward, forcing the scared animal to enter the narrow corridor of rock that formed the forbidding entrance to the canyon.  Johnny couldn't fault the horse for his trepidation . . . between the inhospitable environment, threatening weather, and uncertainty for what await them, it was getting harder and harder to ignore the feeling of evil permeating the air.  He spoke to Charley softly, the words meaningless to the animal, but Johnny's voice soothing nonetheless.

He found himself taking an involuntary sharp breath as the rock tunnel abruptly opened onto the canyon.  Johnny had been there before, but never had he seen it like this.  The heavy clouds seemed to hang above the cliffs like a suffocating blanket, tendrils of mist clinging to the rocks like fingers.  The air hummed with unrest, pressing in around Johnny until he felt like he couldn't breathe.

Charley sidestepped suddenly, forcing Johnny to grab onto the pommel to keep from falling.  Barranca would have sensed the imbalance and centered himself beneath him, keeping him safe in the saddle.  But Charley was Scott's horse, and a good one – but he and Johnny didn't enjoy the deep connection, the instincts that naturally built up between man and animal as they worked closely together over the course of time.

Johnny settled himself down low and tight in the saddle, knowing that he wouldn't stand a chance on foot.  He kicked Charley sharply, but the horse hesitated.  He kicked him again and the animal responded, walking them deeper into the narrow canyon.

The silence was unnerving to both man and animal.  Nothing else alive seemed to exist there, just Johnny and Charley – and somewhere Barranca, hiding in the labyrinth of caves and crevasses.

The last rays of sunlight, now mostly hidden by the dense cloud cover, were beginning to surrender to the storm's burgeoning darkness – and Johnny knew he had to act fast.  Bracing himself against the flare of pain he knew his next action would cause, he whistled for Barranca.  The sound echoed stridently off the canyon walls.

As if his call had awakened a resting spirit, the wind rose, sending little torrents of sand into the air.  A mournful moan came from the caves as the breeze flowed through the caverns.

Johnny waited . . . patiently . . . until finally, he heard it, the sound seemingly coming from every direction at once – Barranca's whinny.  But the reply held a tone that sent shivers down Johnny's spine.  That wasn't Barranca responding to his signal - that was “it.”

Charley grew more nervous, swinging his head around, attempting to turn back and flee in terror.  Johnny held him in place, but the effort cost him mightily.  Holding the pommel tight he waited for a bout of dizziness to pass.  But the lightheadedness lingered and he swayed, nearly pitching forward over Charley's neck.  Johnny fought back, knowing the consequences if he failed – Barranca would be lost forever.  He would not let that happen, no matter how much it cost him.

He clamped his legs hard against the horse, willing it to stay still as he regained control.  Johnny heard the aberrant whinny again, followed by a sharp sound of iron horseshoes on rock.  The clash of sounds was a painful reminder to Johnny that, for the moment, Barranca was the enemy.  Whatever was controlling the palomino, Johnny knew he had to come face to face with it again.  He had to dare it to not only come for him, but somehow abandon Barranca long enough for Johnny to kill it.  But how?  How do you fight what you can't see, let alone what you don't understand?

For the first time, Johnny realized that he didn't have his gun.  He looked down to find Scott's rifle scabbard empty as well, then remembered that his brother had almost used it on Barranca back in the corral.  The weapon had been left behind in the dirt.  ‘Just as well,' Johnny thought.  Drawing down on the malevolent spirit within Barranca had never been an option.

Sweat plastered Johnny's shirt to his back, the humidity growing ever more stifling.  His headache was continuing to pound madly, his other injuries causing flashes of pain throughout his body.  Johnny was starting to feel irritable, edgy, his anger beginning to build.  But Madrid quickly recognized the signs, and backed the impatience off  – he had to keep rational, remain in control.  He had to be stronger than the devil that had invaded his friend.

Thunder rumbled deeply across the sky and the ground trembled from the intensity – the storm was getting closer.  Johnny heard loose rocks tumbling down the steep walls around him as the dissonant sounds reverberated through the ravine.  His senses were on high alert as he waited for the din to fade.

“Barranca!” Johnny yelled, then listened as the name echoed away.  “Barranca, I've come to take you back . . . take you home.”

Another whinny, this one plaintive . . . Barranca was fighting.  But did he have the energy, the willpower to prevail?  Johnny prayed to God that he did, as he flicked the reins and moved deeper into the canyon.

 

 

The tall rock walls closing in around Johnny rose dizzily toward the sky, adding to his vertigo.  He urged Charley down another narrow crevice, his legs scrapping the sides of the granite, his heart pounding in his chest and throat.  Johnny's head throbbed with each beat, threatening to send him into a fit of dry heaves.  He desperately fought the nausea back – going a round with his stomach would send him into the black abyss that waited for him with a malevolent eagerness.  Johnny knew he was a hairs-breath away from losing everything.

He couldn't remember being more scared, feeling more vulnerable to an attack . . . but he pressed on.  Barranca would not come to him, he had to go to Barranca.  Above him the clouds roiled . . . becoming darker and thicker, the smell of ozone growing sickeningly stronger as the storm marched closer.

Charley stopped suddenly and Johnny swayed, losing his fragile balance.  If not for the closeness of the crevice wall he would have fallen.

“Easy, Charley,” he whispered, righting himself in the saddle.  The very air shuddered with impending doom.  “I know . . . I feel it too.”

The horse bobbed his head and snorted, the instinct to run from the danger almost too strong.  But Johnny's calming voice settled him.

The end of the crevice was just past Charley's nose.  The animal tried to back up, unwilling to discover what lay beyond, but Johnny kicked him hard and Scott's horse moved forward.

Johnny found himself in an arroyo, the walls of the canyon carved into a horseshoe, eroded eons ago by water.  Now cliffs and caves dotted the area.  A small natural trail led off to his right, climbing up and inward until the path disappeared.  Johnny studied the ground closely, damning his blurred vision.  Sure he‘d found Barranca's tracks, he gave Charley a commanding squeeze and walked the hesitant horse nearer to the trail.

Suddenly the granite walls came alive as lightening streaked across the sky, illuminating everything in its path with chaotic pulses of light.  Johnny froze as the canyon exploded with deafening loud crashes of thunder.  His eyes were drawn to a ledge twenty feet above him and he watched with dread as Barranca reared up.  Even with unfocused vision Johnny could make out the horse's unmistakable display of aggression – flared nostrils, ears pinned back.  Most of all Johnny could palpably sense the depth of blackness he knew was coloring the palomino's eyes.

Charley panicked and bolted to the left, instantly throwing Johnny from the saddle.  Johnny could do nothing to break his fall and landed hard on his back, his head hitting the dirt ground with a dull thud.

Johnny heard Barranca's frenzied cry, sounding out like a death knell for both man and horse, as darkness overcame him.

 

 

Ezra guided Barranca down the steep path to the valley below.  The time for play was nearly over.  Johnny Lancer lay hurting – might perhaps already be dead.  The game had been fun . . . his opponent the absolute best.  But now the match was over and he would carry out his last act – making sure Lancer was dead before moving on . . . to find his next host and another toy.

Shanks couldn't remember enjoying this part of the game quite as much before.  Usually he simply killed his prey and moved on.  But this time . . . this time he was going to relish the moment.

 

 

Johnny sifted through the haze that was his mind, searching for awareness.  He felt the ground vibrate beneath him as another clap of thunder rolled through the canyon, the sound bouncing violently against the rock walls.  As the noise drifted away he heard Barranca's slow approach.  There was a hesitation in each step and he knew his beloved friend was continuing to fight the demon that was trying so hard to dominate him.  Johnny could only hope that Barranca would prevail.

It was now or never.  It came down to this final battle and Johnny had no doubt that his chances of survival were slim.  But he could not live with himself if he hadn't tried.  Barranca was so much more to him than just a horse.  The animal was a true friend who never judged the man for what he was or what he had been . . . never turned his back on him for a misspoken word or a job unfinished.  Never asked for anything but loyalty and respect.  Scott had recently said that, “trust goes two ways.”  Well, Johnny was now betting his own life on his trust in Barranca . . .

Slowly Johnny opened his eyes to find his friend standing directly over him, the palomino's blond coat a stark contrast to the dark churning clouds overhead – and his hopes faded.  There was nothing of Barranca in the black malignant eyes staring down at him.  He tried to take a deep breath but it hurt simply to breathe.  There was no way he could make it out of this canyon alive now.  “Lo siento,” he whispered.  “I thought we could win, compadre.”

Barranca pawed at the ground, an iron shod hoof coming dangerously close to Johnny's leg.  Lightening once more streaked across the sky and exploded in sparks at the top of the canyon.  The thunder that followed immediately shook the ground like an earthquake.

All of a sudden, Barranca reared up, his eyes turning wild with fear and confusion, the color once again a churning mixture of light versus dark.  Despite all his earlier resolve, Johnny had shamefully given up – but Barranca was still fighting.

Instinct resurrected itself and Johnny rolled away from the deadly hooves as they crashed onto the ground where his body had just lain.  Too dizzy to stand, Johnny kept crawling as Barranca reared up once more, his head shaking against the unseen enemy as he continued to fight Ezra.  The horse came down again, this time glancing off Johnny's right ankle.  He jerked the leg forward, grimacing from a new flare of pain.  Grateful that his boot had deflected the brunt of the blow, Johnny pulled himself toward the shelter of the rock walls, his will to fight renewed, emboldened by Barranca's unremitting struggle against their tormenter.

A pitiful cry from the palomino was drowned out by yet another crescendo of thunder.

Ezra felt Barranca shift in his mind to push him back.  But the spirit would not be denied this final victory, and pushed back.  The horse screamed in defiance.

The sound ripped at Johnny's heart as he scrambled toward a small crevice, but Ezra cut him off, herding him back to the center of the arroyo.

Under the thick clouds it was growing darker by the moment.  Barranca charged toward Johnny, changing direction in the last second, a hoof now catching his left arm.  The injured man yelled out in pain as the humerus fractured cleanly.  Johnny grabbed at the battered limb as he again rolled away from the attacking beast.  Instead of slowing him down, this last injury made him angry – and determined.  The beast was whittling away at him, and the gunfighter was tired of being played with.  With an agony-filled groan he dragged himself through the dirt until finally reaching the canyon wall.

Johnny knew he had to get off the ground . . . somehow elevate himself above the horse.  Keeping himself out of reach could only frustrate that thing within Barranca, and possibly be enough of a distraction to give the horse a chance to somehow rid himself of the beast.  Barranca was fighting hard, Johnny just had to buy them both some time.

His left arm hanging limply at his side, Johnny desperately tried to climb up the face of the cliff, the jagged rocks forming a dangerous but natural stairway.  His fingers grabbed onto one of the sharp outcroppings that dotted the mountainside and he heaved himself up.  Breathing hard but giving his all, Johnny surprised himself when he managed to gain purchase a couple of feet off the ground.  But his perch was precarious, and he could hear Barranca moving in behind him.  He scrambled to gain height, and reached up . . .

Another sound froze him to the spot – the cry of a large cat . . . very close.  Barranca heard it too.  The horse snorted and jumped back instinctively . . . his white mane flying wildly against the backdrop of an ever-blackening sky.

Ezra heard the cat's cry too – and smiled.  Here was his chance to end this infernal struggle with the willful horse and finally finish off the cowboy.  It was definitely time.  The palomino had given him everything he could use for now.  But he was not worth the effort to continue trying to control.  Tracking the sound of the mountain lion he forced Barranca toward the cry.

Just above Johnny on another outcropping of rock, the tawny cat appeared, its eyes glued hungrily on the man.  Johnny turned and looked back toward where he'd come, and realized his trap – caught literally between a rock and a hard place, prey of two equally deadly beasts.

Ezra pushed the terrified horse closer to the cat . . . he needed to be right beneath the wild and wanting cougar – his new host.

 

 

PART TWENTY-ONE

Johnny watched Barranca's halting approach – recognized his friend's continued struggle mixed with the spirit's determination.  He felt his grip on the jagged rocks begin to weaken, and turned to find better leverage.  But his gaze was drawn upward to the angry mountain lion hovering above him.  A single heavy drop of rain hit Johnny's forehead and splattered, some of the droplets falling into his eyes, further obscuring his already blurred vision.

“Dios, not now,” he spoke despairingly as he dipped his head and tried to wipe away the moisture with his sleeve.

The swipe over his eyes was quick, but as he once again focused on the danger above he found the cat crouched, ready to pounce . . .

 

 

Ezra felt his strength waning as Barranca fought against him.  //‘Just a few more feet, you stupid animal,'// he thought angrily, compelling the horse to stand just below the cat.  Once in position, Shanks did not hesitate.  His spirit released its hold on the horse and ascended.  Ezra rejoiced in the familiar exhilaration of the transfer as he leapt from one being to the next.

The ferocity of the mountain lion surprised Ezra.  But control came easily, and the spirit's power was restored in an instant.  He turned the cat's head slowly, and peered down at his prey – and Ezra saw the terror of recognition in Johnny Lancer's eyes.

//'Yes, my dear, wretched cowboy . . . time to die,'// the spirit thought spitefully.  Then Ezra smiled, and prepared to kill.

 

 

Johnny had been staring right at the cat when the transfer occurred.  Even before he saw the cougar's eyes turn pitch black, he knew the spirit had found a new host.

As several more heavy drops of rain pounded into Johnny, the cat emitted a low threatening growl, then let out an ear-piercing yowl.  There wasn't time to consider a defense as the cat reset himself into a low crouch, then leapt from the outcropping, hurling itself down upon the unprotected man and slamming them both onto the ground.

Johnny hit hard, the impact with the ground combining with the weight of the cat to knock the air completely from his lungs.  He lay there helpless as the cat reared back, sharp claws extending out from an enormous paw as it swiped down upon the man, instantly gouging four deep gashes into his chest.  Johnny closed his eyes against the pain and threw his head back, an agonized silent scream filling his mind only, as he remained unable to breathe.

The cat drew back to once again lash out at Johnny, but suddenly the weight on his chest lifted as the cougar was knocked to the side.  Johnny didn't care how, all he knew was that he could finally breathe.  He reflexively heaved in a deep breath, regretting the movement as a vicious burn ignited along the full length of the deep scratches.

His left arm useless, Johnny tried to move his right hand up to his chest, but found he couldn't move at all.  This last assault was all he could physically stand.  The rain was falling ever harder, the warm water mixing with the blood oozing from his wounds, creating an instant debilitating lethargy.

As his body succumbed to total exhaustion, Johnny concentrated on steadying his breathing and trying to remain conscious.  For better or worse, he put his salvation in God's hands, for the man had absolutely nothing left to give.

 

 

Scott cursed the impending storm and fading light as he made his way through the narrow crevice.  Charley and Barranca's tracks had been clear when he'd entered the forbidding passageway, but he could no longer make out the trail and there was no room to dismount to look closer.  With it impossible to turn around, Scott knew he'd have to follow the path to the end.  Heavy droplets of rain were beginning to pelt him sporadically, and he hoped the deluge would hold off long enough for him to pick up his brother's trail on the other side.

The unmistakable cry of a mountain lion bit through the air and echoed its way down the crevice.  Pete's horse bucked instinctively, smashing Scott's right leg against the side of the tight canyon walls as he attempted to flee.  But Scott ignored the pain and draped himself over the neck of the horse, refusing to be thrown.  He fought with the horse, using all his cavalry-honed skills to control the frightened animal.

Finally once again in command of the horse, Scott realized that the cat's cry had come from in front of him – the end of the crevice where his brother most likely already traveled.  Scott grasped the reins tightly and spurred the horse onward, his anxiety growing as he maneuvered his way along the treacherous path.

Another sharp cry from the cat filled Scott with total dread, knowing without a doubt that Johnny was in great trouble.  Pete's horse once again responded to the ferocious call and tried to stop, but Scott quickly reined him back under control and pressed them forward.

The passageway opened abruptly just as the rain began to come down full force.  The sight before Scott was horrifying – a large mountain lion stood over Johnny as he lay prone on the ground, a paw raised up, ready to strike.  Barranca stood nearby, his head down, seemingly oblivious to the carnage getting ready to take place before him.

Scott's eyes were riveted on the sight, but his hand reached down to grasp Pete's rifle.  He knew he would be too late, but still had to try.  Before he could pull the weapon from the scabbard, however, Barranca seemed to rouse himself.  The horse reared back slightly, then lowered his head and rammed it into the cat, knocking the cougar clear off Johnny's chest.

The cat cried out in surprise as it rolled away from the man.  But the beast quickly regained its footing, and with a low growl, turned in a slow, menacing circle until it faced its attacker.

Barranca's chest was heaving, as if he'd just been under some extreme exertion.  Johnny remained unmoving as the horse stood over him, peering down intently at the severely injured man.  The partner's eyes met, Johnny unable to speak, but Barranca understanding him just the same.

Scott finally had the rifle in his hands, but his primary target was unsure as the horse and cougar stood on opposite sides of Johnny, the attention of each clearly focused on the fallen man.  The barrel of the long gun moved alternately between Barranca and the cat as the elder Lancer son tried to determine the greater danger.  The rain was pouring down now in a torrent, and a succession of too bright lightning flashes made the tense situation all the more surreal.

Pete's horse was dancing beneath Scott, frightened beyond control and ready to run.  He was loath to alter his position with such an impending threat to his brother, but Scott realized he'd never get a clear shot off under the circumstances.  He couldn't risk a stray bullet hitting Johnny, so he dismounted and let the horse go free.

Scott had made a promise to himself to protect his brother from Barranca no matter what the cost.  But the palomino seemed to be trying to protect Johnny now . . . With the menace unclear, he was compelled to stay his hand.

Barranca proved himself worthy of Scott's hesitation.  The horse ignored every inherent instinct within him to run from his natural enemy, and instead turned, shifting his eyes from the tacit conversation with his compadre to focus intently on the cougar.  Ezra caught the movement, and faced the horse.  He'd spent enough time living within the palomino to recognize the clearly determined look in Barranca's eyes.

//'Stupid, stubborn horse,'// Shanks thought with vexation.  //'He's mine, dammit!  And you are not going to stop me!'//

The cougar's muscles were quivering with anticipation, and an angry, menacing yowl screeched its way down the length of the canyon.

Barranca's own muscles tensed, his weight shifted, and his breathing steadied – the horse was ready to take lead for this part of the dance . . . Johnny had trained him well.

The cat sprang forward – two strong leaps and it would be on the man.  But Barranca sidestepped around Johnny and blocked the cat's path before it could manage more than one bound.  Pulled up short, the cougar let out a vicious growl, totally incensed that the horse now stood between him and his prey.  The animals stared intently at each other, while the cat's claws dug at the ground in anticipation for the battle to come.

Ezra feinted to the left, then quickly shifted to his right.  But Barranca followed each move perfectly, the stalemate maintained.

The dance became interpretive, as Barranca and Ezra vied for control.  They faced each other performing their unrehearsed choreography, matching each other movement for movement, each direction and step of the cougar mirrored perfectly by the horse.

Scott recognized the familiar moves of the best cow pony he'd ever seen.  If his brother's life hadn't been hanging in the balance, he would have smiled at the performance.  Barranca was working that cougar like a recalcitrant cow – but cows can't leap.

With Barranca successfully blocking every chance for the cat to move around him, Ezra changed tactics.  Crouching especially low, the cat sprang up with all the strength its powerful muscles could produce.  Barranca caught the movement, but could do little more than rear himself back to catch the leaping cat against his chest.  Animal landed hard against animal, but the cougar extended its claws and tore at Barranca's coat, severely scratching the horse before bounding away to try to once again get around him.

Barranca neighed loudly and pawed at the ground.  He'd held his ground and the defense had cost him.  But his friend's life was worth it, and he readied himself for the cougar's next move.

Ezra stared at the bleeding chest of the palomino, and was pleased.  But he knew he'd have to do a lot more damage to the horse in order to reach his chosen prey.  This inconvenient delay was only increasing his appetite.  Shanks was so going to enjoy dining on the flesh of Johnny Lancer.

Once again Barranca set himself to take a direct assault from the cougar, anything to keep the beast away from Johnny.  The cat had prowled back and forth for a moment, but was now crouching low again, readying for another strike.

The cat leapt and Barranca shifted.  But suddenly the cougar was twisting in the air, its head forced back and the rest of the tawny body following in a jumble of paws and fur.

The report from the rifle shot could finally be heard above the din of the storm as the cat's body impacted hard with the ground – killed instantly by a bullet to the animal's brain . . . accurately delivered by Scott.

 

 

At first, Ezra couldn't figure out what had happened.  One moment he was in complete control of the cougar, every muscle at his command.  The next, the cat lay unmoving upon the ground.  Ezra felt a panic rising as he attempted to connect with the animal's consciousness.  But all he found was blackness.  The cougar was dead.  //'No . . .'// Ezra thought with dismay.  //'This has never . . . it can't be!'//

Shanks felt his power draining rapidly.  He could still see out of the cat's eyes, and saw Barranca standing before him.  Ezra attempted to release his hold on the cougar and ascend, make the spiritual leap he'd done so many times before and regain possession of the horse.  But the lifeless body of the cougar held him, trapping Ezra with its death embrace.  //'This cannot be!'// Ezra shouted to the heavens – but no divine being answered his cry.

Scott ran to Johnny, fear for what he would find intensifying with every step.  He reached his brother and knelt beside him, gratefully amazed to see Johnny blinking away the pounding rain.  Scott leaned over him to block the downpour, then gently wiped the mud from his brother's face.  There was little more solace or care he could offer – both men were soaked to the bone, and the horses that carried any kind of gear had long since fled.

Barranca moved beside them, and nickered softly.  Johnny glanced over, and in the last vestiges of light saw the damage the cat had inflicted upon the horse.  “Dios,” Johnny uttered too quietly, then turned to once again face his brother.  “Scott . . . it wasn't Barranca,” he pleaded.

Placing a calming hand on Johnny's shoulder, Scott assured him, “I know, Johnny.  Just take it easy now.”

A low, mournful moan began to issue from where the dead cat lay.  Scott pointed his rifle at the beast, chastising himself for not checking right away to see if it still lived.  But there was no movement from the carcass, just that woeful moan, growing louder by the second.

The wail intensified, and began to take on the aspects of human speech.  Scott found himself fascinated by the strange phenomenon, but his amazement soon turned to apprehension as a bluish light began to emanate from the dead cougar.  He'd heard tall tales of certain weather conditions that could cause the air to glow blue, but it was becoming ever clear that this light was radiating from within the body of the dead cat.

The manifestation began to take on a shape.  Although Johnny didn't have the strength to lift his head, the rapt attention on Scott's face made him turn to look as well.  The brothers watched as the blue light danced upward to hover just over the cougar's body, ebbing and flowing with the current from the hard, steady rain.

The cougar had fallen to the ground spread eagled, and the blue haze now coalesced into the very clear image of a man on his hands and knees.  The being's head had been hanging down, but it now lifted slowly until the spirit's gaze fell on the unflinching eyes of Johnny Madrid Lancer.

Johnny recognized the eyes staring back at him – over the past month he'd seen them peering at him from within Barranca, with that same depth of evilness and hatred they now held.

The thing stretched out a hand, tendrils of amorphous blue light streaming off the appendage as it reached for Johnny.  But the ex-gunfighter no longer held any fear for the wicked beast.  It had taken he, Barranca, and Scott to face it down, but Johnny knew the spirit was beaten.  But just so the “man” knew he had been defeated, Johnny felt inclined to inform him – in no uncertain terms.  “Go to hell,” he whispered.

Ezra Shanks stared one last time into the eyes of Johnny Lancer, his fury at the defiant cowboy immeasurable.  The apparition's head whipped backward as the spirit issued an ear-piercing scream to the heavens, the final rebellious act of one of the most contemptible souls to have ever existed on earth.  As the intensity of the wail built, the essence of the spirit began to fade correspondingly, until finally, in one dramatic flourish of intense light, the being collapsed back into the shell of the dead cat, and all was still.

Scott finally drew his eyes away from the body of the cougar, and peered down at his brother.  Johnny lay there in the mud, still gazing toward where the impossible had been realized.  As if he could sense his brother's concern, he turned his head slowly to face Scott.  Their eyes met, and Johnny's tired voice almost couldn't be heard.  “It wasn't Barranca,” he said, then drew in a deep breath and let it out with a sigh, as his eyes, finally, closed.

 

 

PART TWENTY-TWO

“You are a mess,” Scott muttered as he worked to assess Johnny's newest injuries before the veil of darkness could become complete.  Barranca stood beside the brothers, his condition just as serious, one hind leg cocked and lungs heaving against the terrible pain from the deep slashes that covered his chest – but still determined to stand guard over Johnny.

‘What is the connection between these two?' Scott asked himself for the hundredth time.  The relationship went well beyond that of simply master and animal . . . there was a tangible link between them – love, and a trust so deep, that either would give his life for the other.  A bond Scott fully understood, for he and Johnny shared it as well.

He looked up at Barranca and searched the animal's eyes, dulled now from pain and exhaustion, but familiar in their absolute attentiveness to Johnny.  What he found gave him the confirmation he needed – Johnny may have been the one in danger, but Barranca had been the one needing their protection all along.

Johnny had known, had tried to explain it to Scott back in the corral.  “It's like Jelly tried to tell you . . . somethin' evil is inside Barranca.   I don't know how, and I don't know why.  I just know we gotta help him.”  And then Johnny had asked for the ultimate – unconditional trust.  “You gotta trust me, Scott.  None of what happened was Barranca's fault.  You just gotta trust me . . .”

Scott almost hadn't.  He remembered pointing that rifle at Barranca, considering the horse just as much a threat to Johnny as the cougar.  But he had stayed his hand and, in the end, the horse had proven its faithfulness.

Whatever it was that had invaded the palomino was now gone, vanquished to some otherworldly place.  Scott could never explain it . . . not in a lifetime.  He wondered if he would ever try to describe what had happened here in this canyon, amid the thunder and lightening and pouring rain – but in his heart he knew what he had seen, and he believed.

Johnny had known so much abuse over the years that he no longer had any tolerance for it – except from those he loved.  He seemed willing to take anything his family could throw at him and come back for more with an empathy that was disturbingly perceptive.  He'd shown that depth of tolerance over and over with Murdoch, giving up only once early on, until the pair had finally worked through their differences.  That Johnny's forbearance would extend to his horse didn't really seem that surprising then.

Through Barranca and Johnny, Scott had witnessed how deep hope and faith and trust could really go.  The lesson had been hard learned by them all, and sorely tested, but in the end the three had stood together and won out, men and animal equal to the task.

“Barranca,” Scott called out, drawing the horse's attention.  “Thank you,” he stated simply, not really expecting the animal to understand.  But Barranca nickered back quietly and bobbed his head, then returned his attention to Johnny.

The uncanny comprehension of the palomino would never cease to amaze Scott, and for the first time in seemingly days, he allowed himself a quick, tired smile - then followed the horse's lead and focused back on Johnny.

As gently as he could, Scott tore away the shredded shirt that covered Johnny's chest, allowing the rain to flush out the deep scratches.  Johnny moaned beneath his brother's caring ministrations, but did not wake.

“We'll have you home soon,” Scott promised, then let his faith in his father and Cipriano take over.  It was full dark now, and the rain continued to beat down mercilessly.  As the thunder and lightning raged above, Scott leaned over Johnny to shelter him as best he could from the storm, and waited.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but as the clamor from another clap of thunder rocked the arroyo and echoed away, a new sound filled the canyon – the clatter of horses, slowly approaching.  Scott looked up and a flood of relief surged through him as he watched Cipriano exit the narrow crevice, torch held high, the flames dancing off the rock walls as they sputtered defiantly against the pouring rain.

As the Segundo drew nearer, Scott could see a look of horror build on the man's face as he stared at Johnny sprawled on the ground, the prone man appearing abnormally still against the chaotic movement of the flickering light.  The dead cat lay nearby, and Barranca stood next to them, head bowed, near to collapsing.  What a sight they made.

“Madre de Dios!” Cipriano whispered.

“Hurry,” Scott yelled, the rain lashing his face.  “We have to get Johnny home.  He's in bad shape.”

Cipriano nodded and dismounted quickly, as two more vaqueros followed him out of the narrow entrance.  The light of two torches and a lantern now cast eerie shadows over the two men hovering around Johnny.

Scott and the Segundo had exchanged a few words of discussion about Johnny's condition, when the injured man's head lolled to the right at the sound of Cipriano's voice.

“Juanito,” Cipriano called as he kneeled next to the injured man.  “Usted es seguro ahora.”  (You are safe now).

Johnny looked up at him, eyes unfocused.  “It wasn't Barranca . . .” he avowed quietly, the effort to speak obviously taxing his meager strength.

Staring down at the vicious scratches across Johnny's chest, Cipriano easily mistook Johnny's assertion.  “Sí, chico, this I know.  You must rest.”

“Take care of him,” Johnny insisted tiredly.  “He . . . he saved my life.”

“Sí, Juanito.  I will see to Barranca.  Now, you rest.”

Johnny's eyes once more slid closed.

“He can't sit a horse,” Scott declared, his voice shaking, the harrowing events of the day catching up to him.  “We'll need to carry him out.”

“Sí,” Cipriano readily concurred, then immediately began calling out orders in rapid Spanish to the other vaqueros.  Quickly Johnny's arm was placed in a protective sling and he was being carefully lifted and laid upon a bedroll spread out beside him.

“El Patrón and Señor Jelly are not far behind with a wagon,” Cipriano stated assuredly.  The Segundo then laid a strong hand on Scott's arm as he asked, “What happened here?”

As he considered an answer, Scott's eyes were drawn to Johnny.  What could he tell the man?  The absolute truth?  That he had seen the impossible?  That a ghost had almost killed his brother?  At that very moment, Scott was too overwhelmed to possibly explain to Cip what he knew . . . and maybe never could.

Scott shook his head wearily, and merely replied, “It doesn't matter right now . . . it's over.  Let's get him home.”

Cipriano sensed that there was a much deeper story to be told, but respected Scott's choice not to explain.  He simply nodded, stood, and efficiently issued final instructions to the other men, as they prepared to take their injured friend to safety.

Carefully, Scott and a vaquero lifted the blanket holding Johnny.  Single file, they followed the lead of the other vaquero as he wrangled two of the horses and lit their way through the narrow exit.  Cipriano gently set a rope around Barranca's neck, then gathered up the reins of his own horse and brought up the rear of the solemn procession.

As they reached the end of the treacherous passageway, there was one last bolt of lightening and a magnificent roll of thunder – and then the rain suddenly drizzled to a stop.  The final sound to echo its way through the canyon was the ring of Barranca's iron horseshoes on rock, as he trod with an uneven gait, faithfully following his compadre.

 

 

Johnny lay in a fevered haze for five days, and every time he woke, no matter who was watching over him, or how many times he was reassured, he told them all the same thing:  “It wasn't Barranca.”

Beside his brother's sickbed, Scott had proudly recounted to the family the incredible tale of how Barranca had gone against every instinct and stood his ground against the mountain lion in Johnny's defense.  He left no room for doubt that Johnny would be dead if it hadn't been for Barranca.

Scott had initially chosen not to mention anything about the unearthly apparition that had died with the cougar, hoping that the incredible events in the canyon would be a truth he shared with Johnny and no one else.  But with Johnny's continual entreaty that Barranca not be blamed, questions were soon being asked, and other events remembered, and before long it seemed like the horse was once again under suspicion.  When Murdoch came right out and asked if Barranca could still be trusted, Scott felt honor bound to both his brother and the horse to tell the whole tale.

Once again, Scott found himself beside Johnny's sickbed, facing Murdoch, Teresa, and Jelly.  Still unsure of how to explain the unexplainable, Scott spoke haltingly, with carefully chosen words.  “Johnny's right.  Everything that happened to him over this last month . . . it wasn't Barranca's fault.  I don't know how to explain it . . . I don't understand it myself . . . but something happened in that canyon that I gave witness to.  Something . . .”

Scott searched for the words that would encompass the enormity of the unnatural embodiment of evil that he saw.  “There was something malevolent, something that did not belong on this earth . . . it invaded Barranca's spirit, and tried to kill Johnny.  We all saw it first in the stallion . . . we all knew something was very wrong.  But Barranca and Johnny were the ones to figure it out, and they stood up for each other against that . . . abomination.  In the end it was Barranca who fought to save Johnny's life, and then we watched while that evil spirit died in the body of that cougar.

“Believe me or not . . . that doesn't matter.  But . . . if you try to keep Johnny away from Barranca, you will lose him.  And I won't allow that horse to be harmed.  Not after what I saw.”

The room was quiet then, while each considered Scott's account.  Jelly was the first to speak, and was polite enough not to gloat.  Instead, he presented his beliefs simply.  “Well, I reckon I know'd it from the first.  I seen that thing lookin' at me outta that stallion, and then in Barranca, too.  I believe for sure that it'd take advantage of that cougar when it got the chance.  You don't gotta worry ‘bout me, Scott.  When Johnny's up to it, I'll have Barranca ready for ‘im.”

Scott shared a smile with the old man, but he'd known that Jelly would be the easiest to convince.  They stood by patiently, waiting for the others to speak.

Teresa offered her affirmation next.  “I never said anything, but I know Johnny spent some time at the church.  He . . . he doesn't often seek comfort there, and . . . well . . . it seems that what you've described would surely be the kind of thing that Johnny might ask God's help with.  I'd like to think that Barranca was the answer to Johnny's prayers.”  The young woman didn't seem fully convinced, but appeared willing to give Barranca, Johnny, and Scott the benefit of the doubt.

Only Murdoch's thoughts remained to be heard, and as Scott turned his attention to his father, what he saw worried him.   Murdoch wore a grim expression and was staring intently at Johnny, who lay unconscious on the bed, seriously injured, feverish, and totally vulnerable.  Scott had just asked their father to believe that Barranca was not the one responsible for his son's severe condition, despite a whole lot of evidence to the contrary.  Time seemed to stand still for them all as Murdoch considered his response.

“The night the stallion showed up,” he began quietly, his eyes still fixed on his ill son, “after Barranca pinned Johnny to that fence, Johnny had a nightmare.  I guessed that it had been about Barranca, and Johnny said it was.  But he insisted that he hadn't meant to hurt him.  Johnny tried to tell me right then that he'd seen something . . . something he couldn't explain . . .”  Murdoch took a long pause, seemingly listening to that conversation from so long ago.

“Johnny knew.  Right from the start, Johnny knew.  But he couldn't explain it.  I guess now I know why.”  Finally Murdoch turned to Scott.  “But he had no right to hide Barranca's actions from us.  He could have been killed, and no animal is worth my son's life.  But I trust you . . .” and looking back at the man on the bed he added, “and I trust Johnny.  If you tell me that Barranca wasn't responsible and is no longer a threat, then I believe you.  I want it clear though, that what happened stays between the five of us.”

All heads nodded solemnly in agreement.  “Now, if you'll excuse me,” Murdoch requested, “I'd like to be alone with Johnny for a bit.”

Scott was the last to reach the door, and Murdoch called out to him before it could close.  “Scott.  Thank you for being there for Johnny.  I don't know if I could have . . .”

“You will,” Scott cut him off, adding definitively before he left, “From now on, you will.”

Murdoch sat in a chair beside Johnny's bed, and took up his son's hand in his own.  He knew he wouldn't hear the words, but the Lancer patriarch needed to get them said.  “I'm sorry I didn't trust you, Johnny.  But Scott's right . . . from now on, I will.”

 

 

Finally, toward dusk on the fifth day, Johnny's fever lowered, and for the first time since the canyon his eyes fluttered open with some semblance of true awareness.

“Hey there, brother,” Scott smiled, wiping Johnny's fevered brow.  “Welcome back.”

Johnny looked past his brother, taking in the candles that had been lit in advance of the approaching darkness.

“How long?” Johnny whispered.

“Five days,” Scott answered cautiously, then watched his brother carefully for his reaction.

Johnny did indeed seem simultaneously upset and confused by the answer, but he didn't question Scott further.  Instead, he began taking stock of his own condition.  A shaky hand rose up to his chest and cautiously ran across the bandages there.  Johnny felt the weight of the plaster cast on his arm, and looked at it like he'd never seen it before, although he'd tugged at it several times in his delirium.  “Broke?”

Scott nodded.  “I'm afraid so.”

The sick man lay still for a minute then, staring at the ceiling, worrying about the next question he had to ask – and fearing the reply.  Gathering his courage, with trepidation Johnny turned back to Scott and asked, “What about Barranca?”

“Barranca is fine,” Scott assured him quickly.  “In fact, he's feeling a whole lot better than you are right now.  Sam says you need to lay very quiet.  That cougar tore you up pretty good.”

His words had clearly been a comfort to Johnny, but Scott's expression turned serious as his brother settled.  “Johnny, why didn't you tell us about Barranca?  You didn't need to go through this all alone.”

Johnny shook his head weakly.  “No one would of believed me.  There was just no other way.  I couldn't let you put Barranca down,” he added with a sigh.

Murdoch suddenly appeared from out of the dark corners of the room, his large shadow moving across the bed until he was leaning over Johnny.  “Son, I'm sorry you didn't feel you could trust us,” Murdoch said gently, combing his fingers through Johnny's sweat dampened hair.  “Scott told us what Barranca did to save you.  I will always be grateful.  You don't have to worry about him anymore.”

“Is he all right?” Johnny asked, his emotions too confused to totally believe the assurances.

Murdoch nodded.  “Jelly and Cipriano tended to him right away, until the vet could get a look at him.  That horse has a strong will to live.  Doc Sandoval did a good job cleaning out the scratches, then prescribed a hot bran mash twice a day, and plenty of rest.  They've been using poultices too, and the cuts are looking pretty good now.  Jelly even mixed up one of his own special concoctions that's helped perk him up.

“Barranca's healing nicely, Johnny.  I think the only thing he needs now is to see you.  But . . .” Murdoch laid a restraining hand on Johnny's shoulder, “. . . that won't be until Sam gives you the okay to get out of bed.  And that, my boy, may be awhile.”

A flash of the old Johnny sparkled in his eyes just before they slid shut.  “We'll see,” he mumbled, as he drifted into a deep, healing sleep.

 

 

It was well over a week before Sam would let the injured man make the trip downstairs.  Johnny sat on a chair outside the great room, relishing the warmth from the bright sunlight on his face.  He was still hurting, and the going had not been easy descending the stairs – but he considered the effort more than worth it when he saw Jelly leading Barranca toward him, a big, silly grin on the old man's face.

“Someone wanted ta see ya,” Jelly beamed.  “He just wasn't gonna wait another minute.”

Johnny stood up slowly, still hobbled by a swollen ankle, the heavy cast on his arm helping to play havoc with his balance as he made his way over to the edge of the veranda.

“Hey there, amigo,” he whispered, nestling his face in Barranca's silky mane.  “You all right, fella?”

The answer was a soft nicker as the palomino drank in Johnny's presence.

“It's all over,” Johnny promised.  Barranca nickered again.

The man's hand reached forward, and the horse's head dipped to receive the touch.  Johnny was scratching at that special spot only he dared, and Barranca was responding, continuing to nicker quietly as he pressed forward, accepting the coveted contact with his compadre.

Jelly let the pair take their time getting reacquainted, but kept a close watch.  When he saw Johnny's stance become unsteady, he knew it was time for the boy to sit down.

“The stallion?” Johnny asked as Jelly led him back to the chair.

“See fer yerself.”  Jelly grinned and pointed to the corral next to the barn.

A smile lit Johnny's face as he watched the stallion prancing inside the fence.  His coat was once again a shiny black and his head was held high.

Jelly chuckled.  “Once we knew fer sure it wasn't the stallion that had gone bad, I brought him back here an', wouldn't ya know, all he needed was some love ‘n comfort.”

“Thanks, Jelly.  Thanks for everything.”

Johnny couldn't put into words how he felt at that moment.  So much had happened over the last month to test his strength and his beliefs.  Evil had touched him and those close to him, and he would never be the same for it.  There would always be questions that could not be answered.  But love and trust had won out over the wicked – and in the end, it was the ones we trust the most that conquered all.

 




~end~
Linda & Maureen,
October 2004 to March 2005

Want to comment? Email Linda or Maureen