The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Leadville

 

 

The sun beat down mercilessly on his head as he stumbled through the sand. Staggering, weak and dehydrated, Johnny looked toward the yellow glow above him and wiped the sweat from his brow. With a heavy sigh and weakened state of mind and body he resigned himself to continue his trek across the desert.

A multitude of thoughts had sped through his mind during the day. Not the least of which was the horse he'd had to put down not long after dawn when it had stumbled and broken its leg. His main thought was, thank God is wasn't Barranca. Still, it was a fine horse and he was sorry to lose it. Then, he'd wondered why he was bothering to tote the saddle all over creation. Sure, it was a good saddle and in his past he would have lugged it anywhere. But, now that he was in a better position in life, he didn't really *need* to save the saddle. The only reason he did was because he heard his father's voice in his head, telling him to be careful with his money; that they all worked hard for what they had and that it took a lot of hours to pay for the luxuries they did afford themselves.

A sardonic smile crossed his face as Murdoch's words ran through his mind. Quickly enough, the smile faded as the dizziness returned with a vengeance. To top it all off, he'd dropped his canteen when he'd gone careening down a sand dune hours ago. The cap had popped off and he'd felt like his whole world had ended right then. His swimming head was proof enough to Johnny that he was getting very sick but he refused to let himself think too much about that. He just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Until, he stumbled.

On his knees and ready to curse the entire world, Johnny raised his head and looked ahead of him. Blinking several times then wiping his eyes, he stared at the vision. Was it a mirage? Surely he was seeing things. Maybe, though just maybe.

Struggling to his feet, he ran drunkenly toward the town looming before him. Maybe, it *was* real. He was nearing the edge of the desert now. He knew that because the green mountains were, at least, in sight.

As he made it to the edge of the town, he saw the weathered, unreadable sign swinging limply from one hinge on the sign post. His vision blurred even more as he tried to read the name then his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to the ground, unconscious.

*

He heard a groan and realized it was his own. Slowly, Johnny opened his eyes, blinking rapidly as he focused on the vision above him. He looked into the smiling blue eyes and felt his own lips turning up in a small smile. He felt the cool cloth on his forehead and tried to clear his throat. Suddenly, the coolness of metal touched his lips and he responded, trying to inhale the water offered. His eyes never left the brown haired beauty before him.

She pulled the cup away much too soon but he understood somewhere in the haze of memories that he had desert sickness and couldn't drink as much as he wanted. Still, the little she'd given him was like heaven and he tried once more to speak. The sound was alarming to him, so soft and almost squeaky. "Where am I?"

She smiled as she settled back in the chair and stared at him. She didn't speak for a while and he wasn't sure she would. Finally, she opened her mouth. "You're in my bed right now. The name of the town is Leadville. My name is Tillie Thorson."

"Johnny Lancer and thank you for helping me."

Shrugging her slight shoulders, she took the cloth from his head, dipped it in a bowl, and wrung it out before replacing it on his forehead. "My pa found you on the edge of town and brought you here. You'll be fine once you've rested and had some decent food."

He smiled and nodded his head, struggling to keep his eyes open. "How long?"

"Pa found you yesterday evening. I don't know how long you'd been out there but pa says it can't have been too long." She smirked and added, "you ain't burnt to a crisp."

Johnny laughed a little at that then coughed roughly. She gave him more water then stood and smoothed down her dress. "You should sleep now. I got a stew on the stove. Should be ready in about an hour. I'll wake you."

He reached out as she turned to go and took her hand. "Thank you and thank your pa for me."

*

When next he awoke, he found a man sitting beside him and felt the hand on his shoulder.

"Got some stew for ya, boy. Tillie says you came around a while ago. Welcome back to the world."

Johnny took him in. He guessed the man to be about Murdoch's age, graying hair and deep lines around his mouth and eyes. The eyes struck him, ordinary brown in color yet, there was a whole life's worth of knowing there. Plus, something seemed to be amusing the man as those eyes danced and sparkled. Maybe, he was still sun crazy; maybe not. He realized he was staring and hadn't said a thing, so he introduced himself. "Johnny Lancer."

"Hank Thorson's my name. What happened to you?"

Johnny sighed and slowly worked his way up in the bed with a helping hand to position the pillow so he could lean against the headboard. "Thanks. I was on my way home when my horse stumbled, broke his leg. I had to put him down. Since I was between nowhere and nothin, I started walking."

Thorson nodded. "Where's home?"

"Morro Coyo."

"Long ways," the man said tonelessly. "Well, you need to eat and build your strength back up." He handed over the bowl of stew.

Johnny had smelled it when he first awoke and had been salivating for it since but he didn't want to be rude or seem ungrateful. Now, as he took the bowl, he dove in.

"Whoa, there, young fella! Need to go slow or it won't stay down."

Pausing with spoon in midair, Johnny nodded and slowed down. Hank stayed with him while he ate and, when he was finished, the man took the bowl. "Good start, anyways. By the way, your saddle and other gear are over there in the corner." He tossed his head in that direction.

Johnny looked over, easily seeing his rig and not caring much about the rest. "Thanks, again. Seems I owe you my life."

*

The next morning, Johnny awoke feeling much better. He stretched and yawned then slowly sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and quickly throwing the blanket over his bare legs. He frowned then shook his head. He was sure Hank wouldn't have let his daughter help undress him so there was no need to feel embarrassed. Maybe he was still sun crazy the way he was thinking.

He looked over at the dresser and saw his clothes folded neatly there. It was only a short distance. He figured he'd chance the girl not walking in right when he was grabbing his things. Hopefully, she would actually knock. He smiled at that then stood, intending to move quickly. His head spun as soon as he got to his feet and he plopped right back down on the mattress, holding his head in his hands and groaning.

Slowly, the dizziness passed and he gingerly raised his head, blinking several times as his vision cleared. Okay, so maybe that wasn't the smartest idea he'd ever had. Taking a deep breath, he thought to try it again only not so fast. Just as he was about to do that very thing, there was a knock on the door. Johnny laughed softly then made sure he was covered before calling out to enter.

Tillie opened the door, one hand balancing a plate. "Oh, you're up."

Johnny cocked a brow. "Was I not supposed to be?"

"I didn't think you'd feel up to it." She walked on in and set the plate on the dresser.

"I feel much better, thanks. I was just going to get dressed."

She turned and looked at him, seeming to size him up. Without a word, she turned back and picked his clothes up then handed them over. "I'll let pa know so's you can have some privacy."

"Thanks. I won't be long."

"Well, I'll take your breakfast out and keep it warm. If you're not out in ten minutes, I'll heat it up and bring it back."

Johnny watched her go, thinking how kind she was. Her father, too. Hank had saved his life and he wouldn't forget it either.

*

Nine minutes later, Johnny emerged from the room and looked around the small space as he made his way to the kitchen. The living room area was comfortable looking. Just a basic room with basic furniture but it had a family feel to it. He smiled as he walked around the half wall to the kitchen area. Tillie was standing at the stove and he watched her for a while, waiting for her to notice him. She was sure focused on that pot she was stirring.

She tapped the spoon on the side of the pot, set it on the counter then turned and gave a start, her hand going to her chest. "Oh! I didn't know you were there."

"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you," he replied softly.

She blushed a little then went about readying his breakfast. "Have a seat. The coffee's still fresh. Pa will be in soon. He's just gone to feed the chickens."

Johnny took a seat at the table, a slight smile of amusement on his face as he watched her fly around the small kitchen.

"How are you feeling now?" She sat a cup of coffee in front of him then pushed the milk and sugar bowls closer.

"Truth? A little tired." He ignored the condiments and picked up the cup, inhaling the aroma. "This should give me a kick, though."

She smiled at that then went to the stove, returning with his plate then sitting beside him. "I'm glad you're up and about. When pa brought you home, I wasn't too sure you were even alive."

He chuckled at that. "Wouldn't make much sense for him to drag a dead body in here, would it?"

She pulled a face at that then looked up as the front door opened. She was on her feet instantly and back at the stove.

Hank hung his hat on a peg by the door and walked to the table. "Well, you're not lookin too bad, I reckon."

"Thanks, I feel alright. I wanted to thank you again for saving my life."

He waved a hand. "Anybody would've done the same."

Johnny doubted that but he didn't say so.

They finished breakfast in silence. Hank drained his coffee cup then sighed out. "Well, reckon I'll get to work. You just take it easy. If ya need anything, just let Tillie know."

"You a miner?"

"Yeah, reckon we're all just too hard-headed to give up. I'll see ya tonight."

Johnny watched him leave then stared into his cup. He was feeling a little more tired as the minutes ticked by and that aggravated him.

"You should lie down a while."

He looked up at Tillie watching him and smiled. "I think I will. Thanks for breakfast. It was really good."

*

When next he awoke, the room was dimmer. Johnny got up quickly then hesitated, recalling the earlier dizziness. But it wasn't there now and he slumped his shoulders in relief. He looked out the window and frowned, figuring he'd slept the whole damned day away. Frustrated, he went to the dresser and washed up then straightened his clothes and walked out to the living room to find Hank sitting near the cold fireplace.

"Well, was wonderin if you were gonna sleep your life away."

Johnny smiled as he sat in a chair near him. "So was I. Sorry, guess I wasn't doing as well as I thought."

"No need to apologize. Tillie didn't want to wake you for lunch. She's just about got supper on the table, though. Reckon you're pretty hungry by now."

He nodded, hoping his stomach didn't answer for him. He gave Hank a sidelong glance then figured he'd just get it said. "I really appreciate everything you've done for me, both of you. I'd like to repay you."

"No need to talk about that." He looked past Johnny then nodded. "Supper's ready."

Johnny sighed lightly as he followed the man to the table. No way was he going to leave here without repaying these people. A blind man could see they weren't exactly living in the lap of luxury. He knew money didn't solve everything but it helped. They seemed happy enough but he knew he was taking food from their stores. Stores that may not be so plentiful. Well, he'd just leave the money when he left. They weren't likely to hunt him down to return it.

"You lived here long?" he asked half-way through the meal.

"About twenty years now. Tillie was born here. Her ma died four years ago now. Lot of folks have left but there's still some of us hold outs around."

Johnny nodded, wondering what they were holding out for. It wasn't his place to say but surely there couldn't be much gold left. He had never heard of a big gold strike in this area and he'd never heard of this town, either. "Well, maybe I won't sleep tomorrow away and I can get a look at the town."

Tillie smiled at that. "I'd be glad to show you around. It should take about ten minutes."

He looked over and smiled widely at her. It was the first time she'd spoken the whole meal.

"Now, Tillie," Hank reprimanded lightly. "It might not be big but there's good folks here."

She lowered her eyes and replied softly. "I know, pa."

The smile stayed on Johnny's face. It was plain these two had a good relationship. He felt a tug of homesickness and almost laughed aloud at that. Instead, he bit his lip then looked at Hank. "I can stretch out right in front of the hearth tonight. No sense in takin Tillie's room now."

"I don't mind, Johnny. You should be comfortable so you can get the proper rest you need to heal."

He gave her a soft smile. "I'm healed fine, Tillie. It's not right for you to be put out in your own home."

"I'm afraid we just don't have much room here," Hank said.

"You have a real comfortable place, Hank. I was thinking it's making me a little homesick."

"What's your place like, Johnny?" Tillie asked.

He shifted a little in his seat then twirled his glass around. "Well, my father has a big spread. We raise cattle. It's a nice place."

Hank studied him for a minute. "I'm tuckered. Think I'll turn in. I reckon you'll be stayin up a while since you slept all day."

Johnny grinned at that. "Hope I don't get my days and nights mixed up." 'Again', he thought but didn't say. He remembered how much trouble he'd had with that when he first arrived at Lancer. He was used to staying up late then sleeping most of the morning away. He didn't miss it at all.

"I'll get you some bedding before I turn in," Tillie said as she stood and started clearing the table.

*

He managed to sleep about five hours before the sounds and smells from the kitchen woke him. Rubbing his face vigorously, Johnny sat up and looked around. He smiled, thinking of the mound of blankets Tillie had brought him last night. She'd said her mother loved to quilt. She sure must have. They were pretty, too, and comfortable. He made it to his feet and stretched then ambled around the room just trying to get himself awake.

"I put fresh water in my room this morning for you."

He turned to find her watching him from the kitchen. "Thanks," he mumbled and headed to the room. He could swear he heard her laughing softly. He reckoned he must look a mess.

Staring at his reflection in the mirror, he decided he sure was a mess. He washed and shaved then pulled out his clean shirt. He wouldn't say no to a bath but he'd asked enough of these folks. Maybe there was a barber in town with a tub. He was looking forward to checking out the town. Stopping midway through buttoning the blue shirt he grinned and shook his head. I must be bored if I'm lookin forward to going to a mining town.

After breakfast, Hank left for work and Johnny watched Tillie wash the dishes. When she looked finished, he spoke up. "So, you got that ten minutes to spare now?"

She turned and frowned at him then her face relaxed and she laughed. "Just let me run out to the barn and I'll be ready."

*

Johnny figured she was right. It took about ten minutes to see the town. One street with the usual store, saloon and church. There was a hotel or, used to be but the building was closed now, missing shingles and looking like it may fall in on itself at any minute. The side streets had only small homes or shacks that looked like they'd been thrown together in about an hour. He sighed and frowned, thinking it was pretty pathetic that he was feeling tired after that short a walk.

He didn't see many people, either. A few women coming from the store. The saloon looked closed. He guessed the miners were all hard at it. They didn't seem to have a town drunk. Hell, they didn't even have a stray dog. One thing he noticed missing was a livery and he got a bad feeling about that.

"It's not much."

He looked over and gave her a smile. "At least you know all your neighbors."

She laughed a little. "Ready to go back?"

"Yeah," he breathed out. "Guess I'm not as well off as I thought."

Tillie got him home quickly and, once she'd fed him lunch, she made him lie down before supper.

As he stared at the ceiling in her room, he wondered about getting a horse. He figured supplies would be easy. He was going to have to talk to Hank about that. He was still a little weak but it wasn't enough to keep him from heading home.

He figured tonight would be as good a time as any so he'd wait for the man to come home from the mine he worked. He had to wonder if there was anything left in those mines. The gold rush had petered out long before now but he knew there were diehard miners all over California who just wouldn't give up. Maybe Hank was one of those. He didn't know. The man wasn't much of a talker, for sure.

He got up from his position on the bed and stretched. He felt much better and he needed to get going in the morning. As he walked out into the main room which served as kitchen and living area he spied the set table but something wasn't right. Tillie wasn't in the kitchen like she usually was this time of day. He frowned as he walked past the table and to the back door. He was about to go out when the front door opened. He turned to find Hank coming in and smiled at the man. "Good day?"

"About average. Where's Tillie?" he asked, his eyes raking over the room.

"I don't know. I was about to see if she was out back."

Thorson harrumphed and shook his head. "Likely in the barn fussin over those new puppies. That girl loses all track of time when she's fiddlin with the animals."

Johnny smiled and leaned against the wall. "I was hopin we could talk tonight. I need to be leaving soon. My family will be worried."

Thorson looked hard at him for a long time then his eyes went to Johnny's hip. "You always wear that in the house?"

Glancing at his pistol, Johnny shrugged. "Not my own but, when I'm away, yeah, I do. If it bothers you ..."

"Don't bother me. You wear it low." His eyes caught Johnny's for a long beat. "Gunfighter?"

Johnny swore the man sounded almost hopeful and he got a bad feeling in his gut. "Not anymore." He was about to ask why the man wanted to know when Tillie ran in through the back doorway.

"I'm sorry, pa. I lost track. Supper's in the oven. Sit down and I'll get it."

Thorson looked at his daughter with amusement then shook his head and settled at the table. Johnny waited for the man to be seated before taking a chair himself. He got the distinct feeling he shouldn't continue their conversation for now so he said nothing more.

*

Once supper was over and Tillie had gone back out to the barn, Johnny found Hank on the front porch stoop. That was all the porch they had, just the stoop and two steps up to it. He settled beside the man and looked out toward the town, what little he could see of it from here. He kept his voice soft and low. "Why did you ask if I was a gunfighter?"

Thorson said nothing for a long moment. "We could use one. Got some trouble comin our way. There's this gang of outlaws that comes through here every couple of months. They come in and tear up the town, take what they want then ride on after a few days." He sighed heavily and stared at the ground. "I'm afraid for Tillie. They noticed her last time but didn't try anything. I know this time they'll go for her. They've taken some of our women. Ruined them. The whole town's scared, Johnny." He turned then to look at the young man. "If someone like you were to stick around and fight, maybe ... I don't know."

Johnny sighed softly, his eyes on the tips of his boots. "How many are there?"

"Never more than ten."

His head snapped up and he looked at Hank with surprise. "Ten? You expect me to go up against ten men alone?"

Hank stood suddenly and stepped down into the yard, shoving his hands in his pockets. "We're miners not fighters. Most of us, all we have is a huntin rifle and no one here has ever been part of anything like this before." Turning back, he looked into Johnny's upturned face. "I saved your life."

"And now you want to take it." Johnny sighed and stood, walking over to face Thorson. "I can teach you. I'll stand and fight with you but there's no way I can take down ten men at once, Hank. No way."

"We'll take it. I'm sorry to drag you into this. I hope you know that. I'm just worried about Tillie. She don't know anything about men or what we're capable of."

Johnny nodded. "I understand why you asked. I don't want anything to happen to her, either. To any of you. Maybe I should meet these townspeople I'm about to fight for."

Thorson's face took on a chagrined look. "Well, they're meetin in the saloon in about half an hour. I'm supposed to bring you with me." To his surprise, Johnny laughed at that.

*

The inside of the saloon wasn't much, mostly slats of wood slapped together with some nails and mud. Johnny took it in within the blink of an eye before studying the men sitting there staring at him. Miners they were, it was easy to see. Not one of them wore a sidearm. He got that bad feeling in his gut again but he owed Hank Thorson and his daughter. He walked over to the bar and turned to face them all.

"My name is Johnny Lancer. My father, brother and I own a ranch near Morro Coyo. If anything happens to me, one of you will surely survive. I expect you'll find a way to let them know." The room was silent, all eyes glued to him. He sighed and spoke again. "Before I was a rancher, I was a gunfighter and I was pretty good at it. Hank's told me what's going on here and I'm willing to help but I expect you all to fight, too."

Again, there was silence for a moment until one man with a long brown beard and tattered clothes stood. "We don't rightly know how to fight like that, Mr. Lancer."

"It's Johnny and I'm going to teach you how. We're going to make this town one big bear trap and, hopefully, we'll catch what we're hunting." Turning to Hank, he asked, "how much time do we have?"

"We ain't real sure. Seems they come with the changing seasons. A week, maybe a little more but that's all."

Johnny blew out a loud breath then drummed his fingers on the bar. Looking up at the tall, blonde bartender watching him intently, he quirked his mouth. "I could use a beer."

The man said nothing until he sat the mug in front of Johnny. "On the house. Say, I've been a fair amount of places over the years and I can't say as I ever heard of a gunhawk name of Lancer."

Johnny drank down half the glass in one gulp then sighed out. "I don't imagine you have. I used a different name. Madrid . Johnny Madrid."

The barkeep raised his brows, puckered his lips and nodded his head. "Yup, heard of that one."

A smile ghosted across Johnny's face as he turned back to the men. "What kind of weapons do you have?"

"We all got huntin rifles. Sharps, Remingtons, Spencers and I got a Trapdoor Springfield," the bearded man replied with pride.

"Any good with 'em?"

Smiling, the man puffed his chest out a little. "Reckon I'm the best shot in these parts, mister." He seemed to grow a little taller as every man nodded his agreement.

Johnny wasn't terribly impressed with talk. "How about you get that rifle and give us a little demonstration. I need to know what I've got to work with here."

*

He sipped his beer as he leaned against a post on the boardwalk, watching as targets were set up for the boastful man he now knew was named Liam. All the men had gathered along the boardwalk now as Liam appeared with his Springfield . He reminded Johnny of a banty rooster and he would've laughed if the man wasn't so dead serious about showing off his prowess.

As he readied to shoot, Johnny handed off his glass to someone and stepped into the street behind Liam. He hit three of five and Johnny supposed that was impressive to these men but he still had that bad feeling in his gut. He lowered his head and drummed his fingers against his holster.

"Not bad, huh?" Liam asked.

Johnny looked up at him with a flat expression. "Not good, either."

"If you can do better, I'd like to see it."

He turned to the female voice, surprised to hear one outside Hank's home. The woman was dressed in pants, a plaid shirt tucked in that showed little of her figure though Johnny could detect some of the curves there. Her dark brown hair was tied back casually, like she didn't much care about it. He settled his gaze on her hazel eyes and the fire glowing there. She was a handsome woman, not a lick of make-up but she didn't need any in his estimation. There was a tiredness around her mouth that made her look older than she should. She stopped in front of him, hands on hips and a challenge in those fiery eyes.

"Greta," Liam hissed.

Her eyes never wavered from Johnny's. "Well?"

Johnny turned and drew his Colt. Six shots rang out and six targets went down as he slid the pistol back in its place. Silence hovered over the street. He turned back to all of them. "You all need to practice at least six hours every day until you're as good as Liam here. When you're not practicing, you'll be building. Everyone has to do their part, women and children, too. Everything else stops. If you can't do that, tell me now and I'll leave." He looked at her then and thought she might blush but, she only dipped her eyes a second then nodded.

Hank stepped out into the street and glanced back at his neighbors. "We'll do whatever you say, Johnny."

He nodded once then stepped back up and took his beer mug, then looked at them all statically. "Well, better get started practicing. I'll make a list of what else we need while you do that."

They all dispersed to retrieve their weapons and Johnny sighed, shaking his head lightly. He called to Hank as he started past. When the man came near, he leaned in a little and nodded across the street to where the woman had disappeared into the store. "Who was that?"

Hank grimaced. "Greta Noble. She came here with her husband. When he died, she took over his claim. None of us could believe it but she works as hard as any man. Got a mouth on her like a man, too. You should hear her cuss."

Johnny grinned widely. "I have the feelin I will. She live at the store?"

"It's hers, too. Her boy runs it for her durin the day."

"He'll need to stop and fight with the rest of the men."

Hank shook his head. "Can't, Johnny. He's just a boy and well, he ain't quite all there. He ain't dangerous just real slow, ya know?"

Johnny sighed and nodded his head then watched Hank head back home for his rifle. It was then he noticed one man standing at the end of the walkway staring at him. It took all of a second to know. The black suit was a dead giveaway along with that condemning look he was getting. Johnny bowed his head and stared into his beer. "I reckon you don't approve, preacher?"

"No, son, I don't. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."

Johnny smiled a little and looked at him as the man walked closer. "Then, maybe the Lord should get himself a gun and commence."

The preacher balked, his cheeks reddening then he calmed himself with a slow deep breath. "Do you really think these men can defend themselves against a band of outlaws?"

"I don't know, preacher. All I do know is that I owe Hank Thorson and I intend to pay him back. This is what he's asked for in payment. It's something I'm good at and I figure they're in the right anyway."

"Violence only begets violence."

Johnny turned to face him fully, his eyes icy. "Did you tell that to the outlaws? No, I doubt you did. Hard to do when you're hiding under a pulpit. Look, you watch after their souls and I'll watch after their lives and that way, when it's all said and done, we'll both win." He turned on his heel and walked away.

*

Johnny headed across the street to the store. This Greta woman intrigued him and, besides, he needed to know what kind of supplies he could get when he did leave here. IF he left here. With a twitch of his lips, he walked through the open doorway and scanned the shelves. They were surprisingly well-stocked.

"I've got plenty of ammo, Mr. Madrid ."

His eyes found hers as she stood up from behind the counter. He walked over and pushed his hat off his head, letting it rest on his back by the stampede strings. "It's Lancer and I'm glad to hear that. We'll need it. Got any building supplies?"

She looked hard at him for a beat. "Out back."

"Are you willing to donate to the cause?"

She scowled at the amusement lighting his eyes. "Within reason."

A soft laugh came from him as he nodded and followed her to the back of the store. Impressed, Johnny leaned against a stack of lumber. "For the mines?"

"What else? In case you ain't noticed, nobody around here is real interested in building a fine home."

"Yeah, I noticed. You're just full of sunshine, ain't ya?"

She sneered at him. "Am I supposed to put on a dress and act all lady-like? I got over that when my husband died and I got stuck in this god-forsaken place."

He raised a brow at her. "Stuck? You own a mine and a store. Hard to believe you stay here because you have to."

She turned away and walked over to a shelf, pulling down a can. "Nails," she said and placed them atop the lumber. "Hammers are inside. What else you need?"

*

Johnny pushed the food around the plate as he thought about what he was doing here. He'd rather just leave, go home and forget the whole thing. Only problem with that was, he wouldn't be able to forget these people. And besides, he did owe them. The Thorsons, anyway.

Tillie watched him with a worried expression. "You should eat. You ain't all the way better yet."

He looked up and smiled at her. "Guess I'm not very hungry."

"They had no right to ask you to do this."

He sighed and sat back in his chair, glancing at the empty place at the table. Hank was out there still practicing, he knew. "They're all putting their lives on the line, too. Your pa included. And yeah, they did have a right. At least, your pa did. You saved my life and I always pay my debts."

"And if you die in the fight? How does that make things even?"

He watched as her blue eyes teared up and was struck that she'd even care. "What about you and your pa? What about your neighbors? They have a chance they didn't have before to get rid of these men. Why shouldn't they ask for my help?" He reached over and laid a hand on her arm. "I couldn't live with myself if I walked away and something happened to you."

Tillie lowered her eyes and sniffed then stood up suddenly and grabbed her plate. "It's your funeral."

Johnny smiled a little at the sharp tone, figuring she was covering up some other feeling. He stood up and walked to the door. "I've got some planning to do. Thanks for supper." She didn't answer so he walked outside and sat on the stoop.

*

Tillie walked out the front door thirty minutes later and sat on the stoop next to Johnny. She brushed her leg against his before pulling it back casually. She said nothing as she stared into space.

Finally, Johnny spoke. "You have new pups?"

A smile crossed her lips. "Yes, they're five weeks old now. Almost weaned."

"Can I see?"

She looked at him curiously then shrugged and stood, walking around the corner to the small barn out back.

Johnny grinned and followed her. He couldn't quite figure her out but he wasn't sure he should try to, either. When he walked into the barn, he found her on her knees, her back to him. He knelt beside her and looked at the four puppies having their supper. She was cradling one to her bosom.

"This is the runt. They won't let him eat with them. He has to wait for them to finish. Sometimes, his mama doesn't want him either and pushes him away. It's so sad."

Johnny reached over and petted the soft fur. "There's always a runt. Always one nobody wants."

She looked at him with a frown then offered the pup.

He took the small puff of fur in one hand and laughed. "He doesn't weigh a thing, does he? Do you feed him?"

"Yes, I have to sometimes or he'd die. I'll bet he grows up to be the strongest and bravest of them all, though."

If he grows up, Johnny thought. He could see the determination in her face so, instead he said, "I'll bet he does, too." He raised the pup to eye level and looked it over critically. Then again, she might be right. This one had spunk, he could see that. He was yipping as loud as he probably could and pawing at the air. Johnny laughed and looked over at the others, seeing they were finished with their supper. He gently placed the pup next to his mother and waited to see what would happen.

The mama sniffed at her pup then nosed him a way a little. But he came right back, nibbling around to find a teat. Johnny grinned at his gumption. He wasn't giving up and, tonight, she allowed him to feed. " Pest ."

Tillie laughed at that then stood up and backed to the door, watching to make sure the mother didn't push him away again. She leaned back against the door jamb, her eyes on the pup but her mind elsewhere. "I don't want you to die."

A little surprised by the change in subject, Johnny joined her and smiled. "I'm not looking to but it comes to us all."

She turned to face him then, without warning, she kissed him.

*

Johnny hesitated a second, taken aback by the bold move but she wasn't stopping so he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer. After a time, they separated and Tillie rested her head on his chest, still holding him tightly. Johnny rested his head atop hers and rocked slowly side to side.

"What was that all about?"

She lifted her head and smiled at him. "I don't know. I just wanted to."

He laughed softly. "Good enough reason, I guess. As long as it wasn't sympathy."

She pulled away and leaned back against the doorjamb again. "Maybe it was, for myself."

His smile faded as he looked closely at her. "Haven't you ever been kissed?"

Her lilting laugh rose to the rafters. "Have you seen the men in this town? No, I haven't."

He grinned at that. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen any younger men."

"They all left. None of them wanted to mine for what's barely there. Pa makes a living but just. The rest do no better but they won't give up. Sometimes, I wish they would or, at least, that pa would. I hate this place!"

Johnny only nodded, he didn't know what to say but he was hoping she didn't look to him as her salvation. "Have you told him?"

She shook her head. "It wouldn't do any good. He'll never leave Leadville."

"That doesn't mean you have to stay. How old are you, anyway?"

She lowered her eyes a moment then looked steadily at him. "Eighteen."

"That's a nice age. Old enough to look for your own dream, if you have one."

She moved away from the door and wandered further into the barn, near the one stall. "I'm not sure I do. I like being in the country but, I've never been to a big city so I don't know what it's like." She turned to him. "What's it like, Johnny?"

He grimaced. "Noisy. I don't like big cities. A small town does me just fine but, I have the ranch, too. There are a lot of places you can be alone when you want."

Nodding, she folded her arms over her bosom. "That sounds right."

He walked over to her, resting a hand on her arm. "You should talk to your father, Tillie. The man can't know what's on your mind or in your heart if you don't tell him. You might be surprised."

"Maybe you're right but I can't talk to him until this whole thing is over." Her face fell as she thought of the days to come.

Johnny smiled at her then slipped his hand under her arm. "Come on. I think I'd better find your old man and give him a break from practicing."

*

For the next two days, Johnny had them practicing and constructing barricades. He borrowed a horse and rode up into the foothills where Thorson said the outlaws always came in from. At first, he could find no sign of them. Using the scope Hank had given him, he saw smoke in the distance. It had to be a campfire as it was too small to be a brush fire or worse. Small tendrils of smoke floated upward and if you weren't looking you might miss them altogether. He figured they were maybe a day's ride away, maybe less.

He reasoned if they were that close already, it wouldn't be long before they hit town. He wondered not for the first time why these men raided this small town. Were they hoping they'd luck into some bonanza? That the miners would strike it rich and they'd be able to swoop in and take all the gold? It was ridiculous and, if that was the reason, they couldn't be too smart. More like desperate and that made them much more dangerous.

Then again, they could simply be that lazy to prey on a town with not much to offer and no law to worry about and no fear of the locals, either. Sounded a lot like the banditos in Mexico to him.

He couldn't take the time to go up there so he rode back to town and set up a schedule of lookouts. He walked into the saloon once he'd talked with some of the men and ordered a beer then sat at one of the three tables. His thoughts turned to Tillie and he hoped she'd talk to her father once this was over. No one should be forced to stay someplace they didn't want to be and he thought she was old enough to make her own decisions. Maybe she wasn't 'legal' yet but Johnny had never thought much about that particular law.

A man was grown by the time he reached fifteen and set to work instead of going to school, usually. Of course, he knew that wasn't the case all over the country. He knew Scott had never had to do that. Then again, Scott didn't have to work anyway. He'd known that much about his brother almost from the moment he'd met him. That Scott wanted to and embraced the work earned him Johnny's respect pretty damned fast.

He sighed after taking a long pull of his beer. He missed his family and hoped he'd see them again. Nothing said he'd walk away from this but he couldn't say no. The simple fact was, he wouldn't be here to walk away if not for the Thorsons. He owed them and he always paid his debts.

Hank came through the doorway and walked over. "We put a man on watch and the barricades are ready."

Johnny nodded, tilting his chair onto its back legs and rocking a little. "How's the target practice coming?"

Thorson dropped his eyes and shrugged. "Well, Liam does well of course and a lot of us are fair shots. There's two that ain't doin too good."

A smile passed over Johnny's face. "Tell them if they can't hit what they're aimin at, just use the rifles to knock 'em over the head with."

Thorson laughed at that as the bartender put a beer in front of him then joined them both.

"About the women," Johnny said after a moment of quiet. "Is there someplace you can hide them?"

Hank shook his head. "We haven't ever been able to find a place."

"No caves around here? What about an old mine?"

"Most of the mines not bein used have collapsed and if they ain't, they will any minute. That's the trouble. They ain't safe enough to put the women in and the outlaws know where all the workin mines are," the bartender explained.

Johnny looked at the man and realized he didn't even know his name. He drummed his fingers on the table as he thought. "Root cellars?"

Hank's head came up. "You seen my place. Most of us have the same set up. We came here to mine and threw the shacks up pretty fast. No one thought past that. Anybody with a root cellar, it ain't big enough to hold but maybe two or three people."

"What about the church?"

"No cellar."

A sigh escaped the young man's lips as he repositioned himself in his chair, leaning forward and resting his arms on the table's surface. "They should all be together when it starts. It's better for them and we can give them a couple of rifles."

"We ain't got the rifles to spare, mister."

Johnny was losing his patience with these men. They seemed pretty laid back about their problems. As if they accepted this as their fate. He hated that, always had. His mind flashed to the peons he'd fought with and a sense of pride for those men helped him focus. "Bring them all into town until this thing happens. Have them stay at the church since it's the biggest building. Tell them to bring their skillets, brooms, anything they can use as a weapon. It's better than bein lambs to the slaughter."

Hank eyes him critically. "You talk like we're gonna lose."

Hard blue eyes met the man's stare. "I never assume anything, Hank. I plan on beating these men but that don't mean it'll happen. Worst case, those women should be able to protect themselves some. In fact, I want them all at the church tonight at seven so I can talk to them."

*

Johnny waited until a quarter past the hour to enter the simple clapboard structure with the cross on the roof. He opened the door, crossed himself then walked in to find what seemed like the whole town inside. The preacher was at his pulpit trying to talk the people out of fighting. Johnny leaned against the back wall and listened.

"God will take his own vengeance on these men."

"That's all well and good, preacher, but we can't wait for God to take a hand. We'll all be dead by then!" Liam declared.

"Then it will be you who faces his judgment, Liam Halstrom."

"Reckon I got plenty to be judged for already, preacher."

A spattering of laughter came from the group with that proclamation. Then the preacher saw Johnny and pointed at him.

"And this man, this killer for hire. Is that how you really want to solve your problems? To have one of their own kind in our midst."

Okay, Johnny thought, I can't let that one slide. He pushed off the wall and walked toward the front, all eyes on him as he stared down the minister. He stepped up on the platform but stayed away from that pulpit. "First of all, I'm not like those men so don't throw me into the same category. Second, yes, I was a gunfighter but I'm not anymore. If that makes a difference to you or if you don't want me here, speak up now." He turned to the preacher and grinned. "Not you, padre. I already know your vote."

No one said a word and Johnny nodded. "Alright. You all know why I'm here. Hank Thorson and his daughter saved my life and they've asked for my help in return. I intend to give it. What I need is for the women to be as safe as possible. I want you all to gather here every day until this is over. There's more power in numbers. Bring anything you have that you can use as a weapon. Frying pans, brooms, anything at all. It won't be long before they come. Maybe as soon as tomorrow." He stopped as they all started murmuring. He could feel their fear.

"I know you're afraid and you should be but that shouldn't stop you from fighting back. If we lose this fight, those men will come for you and maybe you won't be able to stop them. Maybe you'd rather be taken than killed. That's completely up to you. I can't tell you what to do there. But, if you want to fight, you need something to fight with. We don't have any guns to spare but I'm willin to bet every one of you ladies has at least one nice sharp knife in your kitchen and are pretty handy with a skillet." He grinned a little. "Maybe you even have some experience using those skillets with your husbands."

Choked back laughter emitted from the group. Johnny laughed softly then he grew serious again. Taking in a breath, he glanced at the preacher who'd taken a seat next to a woman Johnny assumed was his wife. "If they do get hold of you, don't forget you have other weapons. Your fingernails and your feet."

"Our feet?" Tillie asked then lowered her eyes, blushing that she'd spoken aloud.

Johnny smiled at her. "Yes, your feet. If you have to," damn, he thought, I'm probably gonna make these men ready to kill me, "kick 'em where it hurts."

He looked over where a gasp had come from and saw the preacher's wife press a handkerchief to her mouth. She looked like she might faint. It didn't escape his notice that all the men had grimaced and he could hardly blame them. "Look, this is war and in war, anything goes. It's up to each one of you women what you're willing to do to survive or not. That's all I'm saying."

No one said a word but he saw several female heads nodding. He figured they might want to use these ladies in the battle. Some of them looked like they could handle themselves as well as any man. "Alright, go home and collect anything you think you can use and some bedding, too. Might as well be comfortable about it."

The preacher stood and tugged at his jacket. "I will not have the house of God turned into a barracks."

"Ain't up to you, padre. This church belongs to these people, not you. If God don't want them here, I reckon he'll let them know." Johnny stepped off the platform and walked out, staring straight ahead.

*

Johnny sat outside the saloon and watched the women return to the church, armed to the teeth it looked like. He glanced over at the store and saw the door still standing open. Frowning, he got up and walked over, stepping inside quietly. "You should get going."

Greta turned quickly from stocking shelves then her eyes hardened. "Get goin where?"

He walked to the counter and leaned against it. "To the church with the rest of the women and children."

She snorted at that and shook her head, turning back to her task. "I have a rifle and I know how to use it. I'll not cower in a church with that preacher and his pious wife."

Johnny's teeth ground together for a moment. "I can't promise I'll be able to protect you."


"I didn't ask for your protection and I don't need it."

He lowered his head then looked back at her, his voice softer with the question. "What about your son?" He saw her tense up and she didn't say anything at first.

"I've already sent him over there."

"What's he gonna do if you get yourself killed?"

She turned back and untied the apron around her waist, shaking it out and folding it. "The same thing he'd do if those men get into the church, Mr. Ma ... Lancer." She put the apron behind the counter and walked around it. "I've never asked the men in this town for anything. When my husband died, most of them offered to buy my claim but I refused. They all thought I was crazy, I guess, to work a mine. They all treat me like I'm crazy still, after five years. Well, that's fine. I don't need them and I don't need you. I can take care of what's mine."

Johnny lowered his eyes. "I guess most men aren't used to seeing a strong woman. Makes them uncomfortable."

"And are you one of those men?"

His eyes came up, a soft glimmer there. "No ma'am. I wish I knew a lot more of them. But, just so I can ease my own mind, where were you plannin on making your stand?"

Hands on hips, she shrugged. "Right here. I can't do a lot about the gold mine but, I can fight for this store. Besides," she hesitated, lowering her eyes and worrying her lips before seeming to brace herself back up, "Toby, my son, knows how to run the store. If the worst happens to me, at least he'll have something of his own."

*

Johnny walked back out onto the street, impressed with the grit Greta possessed. He'd known a few hard women in his time but most of them were only out for themselves. Then again, most of them didn't have anyone else to worry about. He leaned against a hitching post and watched as Hank approached.


"That's everyone except Greta."

"She's not going," Johnny said and looked over his shoulder briefly. When he turned back, he saw fire in Hank's eyes and it surprised him.

"Oh, she ain't, ain't she? Well, we'll just see about that!"

Turning on his heel, Johnny watched the man stalk into the store. A grin came to his face and he shook his head. "Well, I'll be," he whispered. He stayed right where he was, not wanting to miss this. He had a feeling Hank was about to be handed his head.

Sure enough, three minutes later, no longer he was sure, Hank came storming back outside alone then began pacing the street.

"I guess you lost that battle."

The miner's head came up, a deep frown drawing his brows together. "That's the stubbornest woman I ever did meet!"

With a soft laugh, Johnny stepped up to him and leaned in a little. "Looks to me like you've got some feelins for the woman, Hank. Maybe you should do somethin about that."

The man's face fell and he sighed loudly. "Yeah, maybe I should if I'm still around after this is done."

That statement took any enjoyment out of teasing the man and Johnny fell serious, as well. "Try to get some rest. We don't know when this is gonna happen."

He eyed the young man critically. "You should rest, too. I got the feelin you ain't completely healed up yet."

"I'm fine, Hank. You should know I might decide to move to horseback during this fight. Just depends on how things happen. Just keep focused on fighting. Make sure everyone else does too."

*

The night passed quietly for Johnny. He'd dozed off and on in his chair outside the saloon, watching as the guards changed twice during the night. Dawn was about to break and he got a strong feeling in his gut that things were about to start happening now. With a grunt, he stood up and stretched out, loosening his muscles then rolling his shoulders and neck. He shook his arms out before being satisfied. He was relaxed and he was ready. Now, all he had to do was wait some more. That had never been the easy part for him but it had surely taught him patience when it was needed.

He stepped inside the saloon and found the bartender where he always was. The man nodded then set out a cup and poured steaming coffee. Johnny smiled his appreciation as he stepped up to the bar and breathed in the aroma. His first sip was a surprise and his smile widened as he took another drink. "Best coffee I've ever had. What's the secret?"

The man shrugged. "If I told ya, it wouldn't be a secret."

Johnny smirked at him then turned to lean his left side against the bar. A frown came to his face as he realized something. "I don't think I ever heard your name?"

"Scott York."

Johnny nearly choked on the coffee in his mouth then slowly looked at the man. Tall, blonde and muscled, his gray eyes looked perplexed by the reaction. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Johnny attempted a smile. "Sorry, my brother's name is Scott."

He nodded and grinned. "Maybe it'll bring us some luck."

"Maybe." He had a quirky thought that he should have gotten to know this man better. It was crazy but there it was.

"I got some real good ham and eggs in the back unless you was goin back to Hank's."

"No, I'm not goin back. Thanks." He watched the man disappear through a back doorway and his thoughts turned to Tillie. She wasn't his responsibility yet he felt bad for the girl. Stuck in this hole-in-the-wall town there wasn't much chance of her having anything but a hard life.

Of course, nothing said she wouldn't end up worse off. Still, it was her decision to make. He pushed the thoughts away and concentrated on the day ahead. He was sure they'd come today. Why he was sure, he didn't know but that feeling was still there and he heeded it.

*

After finishing off what really was some good ham and eggs, Johnny left the saloon and walked to the edge of town, taking in the vista with an eagle eye. His shoulders tensed when he saw a plume of dust in the distance and he looked around then headed for the nearest building. It happened to be Greta's store but he wasted no time with explanations. He could see her through the window as he jumped up and grabbed hold of the eave, levering himself up and scrambling atop the overhang.

"What the blue blazes are you doin?"

He looked over the edge at her standing there, hands on hips and neck craned to see him. "Need a better vantage point. They're on their way. Best get ready." He said nothing more, just moved away and climbed to the roof where he settled low and found his mark again. A glance to his right saw Greta headed to the saloon. Good girl, he thought.

He watched their progress. They weren't hurrying but they weren't taking a Sunday ride, either. He reckoned they had about twenty minutes before the town was in the outlaws view. He moved to the other side of the building and made his way to the ground. As he emerged from the alleyway, he saw the miners heading toward him.

Johnny waited until they all seemed accounted for before speaking. "Alright, we have ten, maybe, fifteen minutes before they ride in here. Everyone remember where you're supposed to be?" He watched as they all nodded. "Stand your ground, don't let them take your position and if you can't hold on, move out to join someone else. Understood?"

Once they'd all dispersed, he headed to the church and walked inside to find a huddle of nervous women yet most of them held some type of weapon in their hand. He smiled at them. "They're coming now. Remember, it's up to each one of you what you're willing to do and not do. Just, don't hold back. Don't hesitate even for a second because that could make all the difference. I'm hoping we can keep them away from here but if we can't ..." He left it there. They were all well aware of what could happen to them. His eyes met Tillie's and he saw a strength there he'd yet to witness from the young girl. Impressed, he gave her a nod and left them to their own devices.

Outside the church, Johnny's eyes took in the men, well-hidden from normal view. Had he not known where they were, he wouldn't have easily spotted them. Good, he thought with a nod of his head then he wondered what he was so happy about. They were all still lousy shots. Well, surprise was on their side. At least for the first couple of minutes. He hoped that's all he'd need.

Back at the saloon now, he walked in and raised his right hand to catch the rifle being tossed at him. He waited for Scott to come from behind the bar and hand him a box of shells. Johnny opened the box and started stuffing the cartridges in his pockets with a soft 'thanks' for the man. Once well-armed, he looked up at the man with a half-smile. "Do me a favor?"

"Sure, if I can."

"Don't die. Call me crazy but, just ... don't."

The bartender stared at him for a beat then smiled and nodded his head.

*

It was quiet on the streets of Leadville. Not a wisp of wind stirred, no birds sang, not even a bee seemed to buzz about the small hamlet. Johnny stood at the corner of the store and watched the east entrance to town. Any minute, he kept telling himself. Then a thought occurred to him. They may swing around and come in from the west. Why they'd do that, he couldn't say. It was a stupid idea but he figured on them being here by now. Surely, he hadn't misjudged that badly. As the idea fully formed, he saw them appear in the east. He almost smiled, relieved they'd taken the bait they didn't even know about yet.

Moving silently, he eased back from the corner and positioned himself behind some crates as they rode slowly down the street past him. He counted eleven horses, eleven men. Well, Hank was damned close. He moved to the corner across his alley and watched as they neared the saloon and stopped. They all looked at each other then seemed to wait for some signal from what he assumed was the leader as all eyes finally fell on the man in the black Stetson. Johnny smirked then leveled the rifle.

The leader sat still for a long moment then shrugged and started to dismount. That was the move they were all waiting for but Johnny knew none of them would take that first shot so he squeezed the trigger and the black hat went flying as the man fell to the ground with a thud.

All hell broke loose as the firing commenced. Johnny kept his position as ten horses started trying to maneuver and get away. The animals were panic-stricken but the riders were well schooled in handling them. Six broke free as three more went to the ground, another riding up onto the boardwalk. Johnny moved then, running a zig zag pattern across the street for a better position. He slammed against the wall of the broken down hotel and set a bead on one man headed toward him. Squeezing off the shot, he didn't wait to see the man hit the dirt before he was firing again.

The other five headed west and, as they passed the assay office, a barricade suddenly came up from the earth. The horses reared back, running into each other as the outlaws fought for purchase. Johnny smiled, thinking this hadn't been too hard after all. The miners were all firing on the marauders who were taking random shots in any direction. During this melee, Johnny stepped onto the boardwalk and started walking toward the fracas. He heard his name being shouted and turned to find Scott yelling but, he couldn't hear the words. Then, it dawned on him and he turned, dropping the rifle and drawing his Colt. Johnny fired at the man he'd put on the ground just a moment before. He knew he hit his target then he felt the heat of the bullet wound to his head as he fell.

*

White hot pain was all he felt at first then a cool cloth was laid across his forehead. He sighed for the relief it offered, though it was little compared to the throbbing in his head. He moaned, he thought. He'd tried to anyway. The light seemed to grow brighter and he knew he was waking up fully; to what, was the question he dreaded. Then, he heard a most welcome sound. His name being called in a low, calm voice. His lips twitched, he felt it, and he forced his eyes to crack open. "Scott." He wasn't sure he'd even made the sound but he must have for he got an answer.

"Easy, brother. We've got you."

Slowly, the blur eased and his brother's face became sharper before him. Johnny reached out with his right hand and felt the grasp. "What happened?"

"Don't worry about that right now. Just take your time, John."

"Murdoch?" How had they found him? The miners must have sent word but that meant he'd been here a long while. Too long. He closed his eyes and took stock. Other than the headache from hell, he was just a little sore but very weak, he realized. He licked his lips, running his tongue over rough and chapped lips. He frowned deeply at that. What the hell had happened?

Johnny felt a hand behind his neck, easing his head up then the touch of cool metal. He tried to inhale the water but the cup was moved away.

"Easy, son. Too much, too fast and you'll get sick."

He opened his eyes and found his father's worried face. His mind began to clear and memory took hold. "Thanks. What happened? Where's Hank?"

Murdoch shook his head, his frown deepening. "Who's Hank?"

"Hank Thorson. Where's Tillie? Where is everyone? They weren't all killed were they?" He tried to sit up but firm hands pushed him back down.

"Take it easy, brother. You're in no shape to get up right now. Just calm down and tell us who these people are so we can find them."

Johnny eased his aching head back on the pillow and lightly ran a hand down his face. Sighing, he made himself settle down then looked at his brother. "The miners, Scott. The townspeople. Where are they?"

Scott looked over at his father and found the same worried eyes reflecting his own. He watched as Murdoch took hold of himself then reached out and laid a hand on his son's shoulder.

Johnny turned expectantly to his father, completely confused by their reactions.

"Son, we found you here in this old shack. You've been unconscious for I don't know how long. You've had desert sickness."

Frustrated, the young man interrupted. "I know that. Hank found me, brought me here. He and his daughter saved my life. Where are they?"

Murdoch took a deep breath and shook his head. "There's no one here, Johnny. No one has lived here for years. This town is abandoned. We only stopped here for shelter when Scott found your saddle in front of this shack and we found you here."

Johnny shook his head in disbelief. "No, no, no. I've been here for days. I helped them fight off a gang of outlaws. Tillie was here. And Greta and Scott the bartender." He turned to his brother. "He was here, I swear it. They were all here! Now, stop foolin around!" Again, he tried to get up and, again, Scott pushed him back down.

Taking his brother's face in both hands, Scott pegged him with his eyes. "Listen to me, brother. Everything Murdoch said is the truth. You know we wouldn't lie to you or tease you when you're so sick. No one lives here, Johnny. You were sick and delirious. You imagined the whole thing."

Johnny stared at him then slowly, he brought his hand to the side of his head and felt for the bullet wound. There was nothing there but his own sweat-soaked hair. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, then nodded his understanding.

*

Two days passed and Johnny was uncharacteristically quiet. He only responded to their questions of how he felt and if he needed anything with short answers. In his mind, the memories were so vivid. He could see Tillie, hear her voice, feel her sweet lips on his. He could see Hank loping through the house and Scott tending the bar. He could hear Greta, see her looking ready to bash anyone who got in her way. None of it made any sense to him. How could it have all been a dream? And, why would he dream such a thing? Make up these people, this town, their lives.

Part of him couldn't believe it hadn't happened and he wanted to see the town. As the morning waned into noon , he slowly sat up, feeling only a passing dizziness. Dragging his legs to the side of the bed, he raised his head and looked around. The room looked the same yet, it didn't. He frowned then pushed to his feet, swaying for a moment before the world righted itself. Slow steps took him to the dresser and he leaned against it for a second before grabbing his clothes. He remembered the last time he'd tried that and the dizziness that assaulted him then, too. He remembered Tillie coming in with his breakfast. He remembered every single thing!

With a sigh, he walked back and sat on the side of the bed, pushing his legs into his pants then resting from the simple exertion. He had just shrugged into his shirt when the door opened. For a fleeting moment, he expected to see her there.

"Well, I see you're feeling better. At least enough for the stubbornness to kick in." Scott strode across the room, waving a hand. "I know, I know. You're fine." With a slight smile on his lips, he sat beside Johnny then began buttoning his shirt for him. He stole a glance at the somber face as he finished then sat back and laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "You have to see for yourself."

"It's not that I don't believe you, Scott. It was just so real to me."

The older man nodded, hating that Johnny sounded so lost. "Well, come on. We're going to take it very, very slowly."

Johnny stood back up, holding onto Scott's arm for a second before letting go and buttoning his pants. "It only takes ten minutes to walk ..." He stopped and sighed.

*

Murdoch wasn't happy with the idea but he knew Johnny needed to do this to settle it in his own mind. He hated what this had done to his son. Johnny had withdrawn into his own thoughts and he knew the young man couldn't quite believe them. He wasn't about to let them go off without him, though.

With his father on one side and his brother on the other, Johnny rounded the corner to the main street of Leadville and stopped cold. His eyes went to the saloon, the batwing doors gone, tumbleweeds wedged in the doorway and the windows broken out. He looked further up the street and saw the church with the cross lying on the ground nearby, weeds growing up the sides and into the building.

Swallowing hard, he walked slowly down the street. His eyes went to Greta's store, the overhang he'd used to climb to the roof partially gone and all the windows there broken, too. He felt Scott's hand on his arm and was grateful for the support. He felt like he was in a dream world, nothing was real here. He stepped onto the boardwalk and felt the slats give a little under his weight. Inside the store, cobwebs hung thick and dust mites danced in the midday sun. Streaks of light shone on the dust covered shelves and the counter was caved in the middle as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to it.

Johnny turned his back and stood still a moment before walking back outside. He stepped into the street and sighed heavily. "I'd like to go home."

"First thing in the morning, son." Murdoch laid a hand on his shoulder. "Are you alright?"

Shaking his head, Johnny answered softly. "I don't know. It was so real."

Murdoch squeezed his shoulder then gently guided him back down the street. As they came alongside the saloon, Johnny stopped and looked into the dark interior. A wan smile came to his face. He supposed he'd been dreaming about his brother when he named the bartender in his little story. He glanced over at Scott then started walking again.

That evening, he sat at the remarkably study table with his family. Silence surrounded them as they ate a stew then, softly, he began to tell them about the friends he thought he'd found here and the problem they supposedly had. He thought to himself, he must have dreamed up something familiar to him. Outlaws and scared townspeople coming to him for help. It had happened in his past so he supposed it made some kind of strange sense. Still, he didn't think he'd ever forget them even if they were all ghosts.

 

~end~
Winj
Dec 2011



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