The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Preponderance

 

 

 

Scott tossed the sack of flour from his shoulder to the wagon bed then pushed it into place. He rested his elbow on the sack as he leaned in, lifting his hat with his other hand then resettling it on his head. It was hot! He puffed out a breath and wondered if the wagon bed would hold all they'd ordered. As he pondered, he saw Johnny emerge from the store with a sack of his own. Scott pushed off his resting place and headed back inside, passing his brother.

Johnny mimicked his brother's move of a moment before with the tossing of his sack of sugar in the opposite corner of the wagon then arranging it so it stayed put. He glanced up and saw Val Crawford walking down the boardwalk. Thinking nothing of it, Johnny continued his chore for two seconds before he realized something wasn't right. He looked up slowly as Val progressed, almost strolling toward him. Johnny took two steps back and gawked openly at the man then made his way to the boardwalk. Stepping up, he wrapped an arm around a supporting post and swung himself forward, facing Val.

Scott walked out, his sack blocking his view of Val and he passed between the two men, focused on finishing the job at hand.

As Scott cleared Val's line of vision, he saw Johnny watching him with that grin on his face. He came to a stop in front of his friend and just waited.

Johnny was still swinging a bit as he reached out and flicked a pearl button. "Well, look at you. New blue shirt, clean pants," his eyes went all the way down then came back up, his brows raised. "Boots shinin to beat the devil. Is that a new hat?"

"What of it? Man needs to look his best," Val growled.

"Since when?" Johnny's soft laugh went unreciprocated. "What gives, Val?" He let go of the post and started circling the sheriff, eyeing him like a stallion he was thinking of buying. He came back around to face Val, mere inches from the man's face. "What's got you so smarted up?" He locked onto the man's eyes, his own crinkling with humor at the blush creeping onto the older man's face.

"Nothin! And I ain't got time to fool around with you, either. Now, go on about your business." Val started to step around Johnny when he heard a low whistle.

Both men turned to the wagon to find Scott grinning ear to ear, his arms crossed over his chest. "Val Crawford, is that you?"

"Course it's me!"

Scott relaxed his arms to his sides and stepped onto the boardwalk. He circled Val, looking him up and down. "I don't think so." He stopped and peered closely at Val's hat. "Did you get a real haircut?"

"He must've. I ain't cut it for him in months," Johnny interjected.

"I'm real glad you two got nothin better to do than stick your noses in my business. Now, get on out of here and let me get back to work!" Val sidestepped Johnny and huffed away.

Johnny leaned against the post and crossed one ankle over the other as Scott stepped up beside him to watch the disappearing back of the sheriff. "Scott?"

"Yes?"

"If Val's in such a hurry to get to work, how come he's headed in the opposite direction from his office?"

Scott thought about this for a moment then shrugged. "I think, as upright and concerned citizens, we should find out. Perhaps the good sheriff has addled his brain. If that's the case, someone should let the association know."

"And as the sons of the president of the association, it falls on us to take that responsibility in hand," Johnny added and looked at his brother.

They both grinned and headed down the boardwalk in pursuit of Val.

*

Reaching the corner, they stopped and peered around it. Easily enough, they spotted the new and improved Val Crawford standing in front of the door to a dress shop.

"What's he doin?"

"I think he's trying to get up the nerve to go in," Scott surmised.

Johnny looked at him funnily. "Why would he want to go in a dress shop, Scott?"

Sighing and rolling his eyes, Scott gave his brother a most fraternal look. "Because, Johnny, young ladies work in dress shops."

Johnny burst out laughing, bending over at the waist and holding onto his knees. Scott grabbed his arm and jerked him back before Val saw them.

"Be quiet! He'll hear you."

Johnny snuffled and got himself under control - mostly. "Val sparkin a girl? Come on, Boston!"

"It's not impossible, Johnny. You've known him longer than I have. Are you saying he isn't interested in women?"

Johnny's face fell then his brows knitted together. "Hey, that ain't funny, Scott. Val's got all kinds of interest. I've just never seen him try to court anyone before."

"Well, apparently, he's quite serious."

Johnny's face was flat, unreadable and he looked back around the corner. Val wasn't there anymore. "Come on."

"Whoa, brother. There's fun and then there's being intrusive. We don't have any right to get in the middle of this."

"We don't know what this is, Scott. He won't see us. Besides, if it ain't a gal then, something else is goin on and we need to find out what."

Scott looked unconvinced. "We do? Why?"

Johnny now rolled his eyes. "Because, he might be into somethin over his head. You see how he acts around Teresa. Val's real shy with women, Boston. He might need our help. He's our friend. It ain't right to leave him swingin in the wind. Now, come on!" Johnny grabbed Scott's arm and hauled him around the corner and across the street.

Scott finally wrenched loose as they approached the dress shop. He stood back as Johnny peeked into the window. "What do you see?"

"Val's back. He did get a real haircut. He's got his hat off and he's talkin to someone. Can't see ... wait! He moved a little. Well, I'll be damned." Johnny pulled back and leaned against the building, a wide grin on his face. "She's pretty."

Scott's curiosity got the better of his good sense and he pushed his brother out of the way to get a good look. He didn't see the Widow McIntyre coming toward them but Johnny did. He deftly moved away to the store next door and perused the apple barrel.

The widow swaggered up, her hips swaying more than the rest of her. She frowned at Johnny as she passed him by, his hat raised in a gesture of respect. She sniffed her acknowledgement then stopped once she reached Scott. Johnny bit the inside of his cheek as he waited.

"Scott Lancer!"

Scott jumped three feet then whirled around looking like a kid caught stealing cookies. "M...mmma'am." He cleared his throat and swiped his hat off his head. "Mrs. McIntyre. Good day."

"Good day, indeed! What are you doing spying through that window?" Hands on her impressive hips, she glared at him.

Scott shot a look past her at his brother who was, by now, sitting on the boardwalk laughing his head off. "I, um, I wasn't spying, ma'am. You see, you see, there's a dress Teresa was interested in. Yes, and I just wanted to see if it's still there. I thought to buy it as a gift, you see."

She studied him closely then a smile broke out on her face. Scott made himself not cringe. It did nothing for her. "Well, how very thoughtful of you, Scott. It's a pity others in your family aren't as well-mannered and considerate as yourself." She gave a half-glance behind her. "I hope the dress is still there?"

Scott's eyes widened a bit then he bowed his head. "Uh, no, ma'am, I'm afraid it isn't. I'm sure there'll be another, though."

"Ah well, at least you tried. It's the thought that counts." She smiled even wider as she leaned in toward him. Scott used every ounce of self-restraint he had not to back away. "Although, we ladies may say that, we really don't mean it." Then, she winked at him. "Good day, Scott. Do try to take that brother of yours in hand."

"Yes, ma'am, I'll try. Good day." Scott managed a smile then turned slowly toward his brother, a murderous gleam in his eye.

Johnny could only raise a hand in defeat as he rolled under the table outside the store.

*

Scott hadn't spoken a word to his brother since Johnny got up, dusted himself off and, with bowed head, quickly made his way back to the wagon. Now, five miles outside town, Scott flicked the reins once to get the horses moving a bit faster.

"If it had been me, you'd've laughed, too," Johnny finally mumbled.

"Yes, I would have," Scott replied flatly. His lips twitched then he bit the inside of his cheek.

But, Johnny was watching him and he'd seen it. He smiled a little then nudged his brother's arm with his elbow. "What do you think of Val sparkin? I mean, it's kind of strange. Wonder who she is."

"I'm sure you'll find out."

"Me? Why me?"

Scott looked over at him. "Because, you are the nosiest person I've ever met, Johnny."

Leaning back, Johnny's mouth fell open. "What are you talking about? I mind my own business."

"Yes, and everyone else's, too. It was your idea to follow Val."

Johnny was quick to defend himself. "Oh, hang on there a minute, brother. It was *you* who said we should find out what was goin on in case his brain was addled."

Scott grimaced at that reminder. "Well, I was only joking."

"Hmph! Well, it don't matter. I think it's great, ya know. Val deserves to be happy. Always did think he should settle down. You might not believe this but, he's pretty good with kids."

"Kids? Johnny, he's only courting the young lady. Suddenly, you've got him married with kids!"

Johnny shrugged. "Gotta start somewhere."

*

Val smiled shyly as he waited for her answer. He kept twisting his new hat in his hands and she reached out, touching those hands lightly. With a small laugh, she said, "you're going to wear that out before we ever get to dinner tonight."

His face lit up and he stopped wringing the life out of the Stetson. Shoulders sagging a little in relief, he nodded. "I'll pick you up at seven?"

"That would be fine, Sheriff." She lifted her chin and stared into his brown eyes, giving him a slight smirk then turning on her heel and heading into the storeroom.

Val stared after her, a cock-eyed grin on his face. She was perfect. He never thought he'd ever meet a woman who could stand him. Not only could she do that, she seemed to enjoy it. She teased him about his clothes and hygiene in a way that wasn't demeaning and it had made him want to spiffy up for her. Of course, he hadn't been prepared that day a week ago when he first showed off his new look to her. She'd damned near started bawlin on him and he didn't know what to do with that.

Settling his hat on his head, he walked out of the dress shop still thinking about that day. She hadn't really cried, just got kind of teary eyed, is all. Seems she pulled herself together pretty quick. He could tell when she pulled back those little shoulders and drew in a breath before pokin that chin out like she had a habit of doin. He loved it when she did that. A grin spread across his face.

She was pretty, no doubt, with all that soft brown hair and just as soft brown eyes. Not short, though. No, she was almost eye level to him. That was good. He never did like havin to look down at a small woman. It was her skin that he couldn't stop starin at. It was like silk, just the look of it. Creamy, yeah, that was the word. Not pale but natural lookin. He lowered his head as he started across the street, unable to stop a burst of laughter. Her nose. It was the cutest, littlest thing he'd ever seen.

As he opened the door to his office and stepped inside he realized he was gone. Head over heels gone. Settling at his desk, his smile turned to a frown as he wondered if she felt anything close to that for him. Why would she? Wasn't like he was the greatest catch in the world. Still, he had a good job, a little place of his own. Together, they could ...

He shook his head and sighed. Gettin a little ahead of yourself, Crawford. Only known her a few weeks. Ain't took her out but once before this. But, she was perfect. At least, in his eyes. Sure, she wasn't what you'd call beautiful. Not one of those women who'd stop ten men riding down the street, all with their mouths hangin open and drool runnin out. But, she was a fine lookin gal. She was saucy, too. Had a mouth on her, he could tell. If she ever got mad at him, he knew he'd be in for it. He almost looked forward to seein that. The smile returned as he leaned back in his chair, hands cupped behind his neck, and rocked back and forth.

*

Johnny stopped and stood up straight when he heard the horse. He couldn't see it yet, but he'd heard it and no one was supposed to be out here but him. He walked over to Barranca and rested his hand lightly on the butt of the Colt. Probably Scott come to torment him but you couldn't be too careful.

When the horse appeared on the small rise, Johnny smiled immediately. It wasn't the rider he recognized right off, for sure. It was the stallion. He hadn't seen the man in a month and he wasn't used to this new and improved Val Crawford but he'd know that horse anywhere. He shook his head a little as Val neared then walked over to meet him as he dismounted.

"Hey, Val. Long ways from town."

Crawford tethered the animal to a low-hanging branch before turning to face his friend. "Why is it you hafta work at the farthest spot from the house? Took me an hour to get here."

"Just lucky, I guess. What brings you out? Somethin wrong?"

Val took his hat off and slapped it against his thigh then glanced at Johnny quickly before moving a few steps away. He looked out over the vista before him and a smile tugged at his face. "Pretty."

Johnny moved to his side and nodded but he said nothing.

Val was quiet a while longer and Johnny was about to say something when he spoke. "Was wonderin if you had any plans end of next month."

Raising a brow, Johnny thought about that. "How the hell do I know? Don't know what I'm doin on a good day." He grinned and smacked his friend's arm.

Val smiled back then his face fell and he turned to look at his friend. "Well, don't make no plans for Saturday, the twentieth."

"Why?"

"Need ya to do somethin for me ... with me."

Johnny sighed and put his hands on his hips. "Such as?"

Bowing his head, Val stared at the ground between them. He shrugged before looking back up, unsure if Johnny wouldn't laugh right in his face. "Need a best man to stand up for me."

*

Slowly, the words sank in. Johnny frowned for a beat then his eyes widened then, the smile erupted big and bright. He grabbed Val and hugged him, slapping his back hard before pushing the man away. "You old dog! That didn't take long."

"Don't reckon I got much time to be wastin."

Johnny's eyes narrowed in anger. "Don't talk like that."

Val gave him a surprised look then shrugged. "Just jokin. Anyways, ya gonna do it or not?"

"Of course, I'm gonna do it! I'd be honored, Val, really. Only, do I hafta wear a tie?"

Val smacked his cheek lightly. "Yeah, a tie and a suit. And ya gotta step foot in a church, too!"

Johnny rolled his eyes then, he got inspired. "Hey! Why do all that? Why don't you get hitched at Lancer? There's plenty of room. Teresa would be happy to help out. She'll have the whole place fancied up."

Val grimaced. "I don't know, Johnny. Ya ain't even met Hannah."

"So, that's her name. Don't you think we should meet before the wedding? I mean, just so she knows I am supposed to be hangin around. Bring her to supper Sunday so we can all meet her."

Val waved a hand in the air. "Ain't so sure she can handle meetin ALL the Lancers at once."

"Thanks a lot, Val. It ain't like we're a bunch of cutthroats. Come on," he hung an arm around Val's shoulders, "bring her out and let's meet the lady. All I know about her is she works at a dress shop and she's pretty."

Val pulled back, stepping away. With one eye cocked, he managed to narrow both. "And how would you know that much?"

Johnny lowered his eyes and stepped away a couple of feet. "Well, I saw her that day me and Scott were in town. Well, it was his idea to follow you! He said you were actin strange and we needed to keep an eye out."

"Uh huh. Scott said. Is that right? Wonder what he'd say if I asked him how it went down?" Val took two steps forward.

"Okay, it was both our idea. We were worried about ya, is all. After seein what had you so prettied up, we left." Johnny held up both hands as Val advanced. "I swear, Val! Hand to God, I only looked for a second!"

Val stopped and considered him then smiled a little. "Well, reckon she should meet ya before the weddin. We'll come out Sunday if she's agreeable. I'll send word if we can't make it."

Johnny smiled. "We. Sounds nice, Val. I'm real happy for ya, amigo."

"Thanks, Johnny. I gotta tell ya, I can't hardly believe it's happenin. Can't imagine what that gal sees in me."

Twisting his mouth, Johnny considered a couple of ways to answer that unasked question. He decided sincerity was in order. "She sees what anyone with half a brain sees. Not the way you dress or, used to dress. But, the man behind all that and the grouchin." He looked at the ground then reached down and picked a blade of grass, shredding it as he went on, his head still down. "You used to tell me I was worth more than I thought. It took me a long time to understand what you were sayin but I never forgot it, Val. I never did. Well, the same is true of you, amigo. You got a lot to offer a woman and this one must be really special cause she saw it and you don't let many see."

Slowly, his head came up, his eyes clear and bright with the truth. "I've never met a better man, Val. I mean that."

Val quirked his lips. "Besides your pa and brother, I don't reckon ya met many that weren't varmints."

"No," Johnny said quickly and stepped up, taking hold of Val's arm tightly. "No, I mean no one. Murdoch and Scott are two of the finest men I know. You're the third. There ain't no difference between you to my way of thinkin."

Val swallowed hard and looked away. He felt the heat rising on the back of his neck and knew this was one of those rare times he and Johnny had when they were being completely honest with each other. Well, Johnny was bein. It was his turn now. "Me neither, ya know. Don't reckon none of 'em rates better'n you. When I was thinkin on this, you were the only person I knew could be my best man. If, for some reason ya said no or couldn't do it, I figured I just wouldn't have one."

Johnny smiled and shook his arm then let go. "Sunday, then?"

Clearing his throat, Val slammed his hat on his head and headed for his horse, calling behind him. "Yep, Sunday!"

*

"Married?" Murdoch Lancer stood up from behind his desk and stared at his younger son.

"Yep, on the twentieth of next month. I invited him and his bride-to-be out for supper Sunday. Hope that's okay."

"Yes, of course it is, son. I just didn't know Val was interested in anyone."

"Well, we knew he was courting someone but, I had no idea he was that serious," Scott said from the sofa. He wore as surprised a look as his father.

Johnny laughed. "I tell ya, I just about passed slick out when he told me. Her name is Hannah." He frowned then. "Didn't ask her last name."

"Do you know anything about her?" Murdoch asked.

"Just that she's pretty and she works at the dress shop in Green River. Oh, I, uh, sort of told him he could have the wedding here. He said somethin about a church. Anyway, guess it depends on what she wants."

Murdoch frowned deeply as he retook his seat. Johnny stepped closer to the desk with his own frown. "Is that a problem, old man?"

Looking up rather surprised, Murdoch shook his head then sighed. "No, son. I was just thinking. It's fine if they want to have the wedding here."

Scott joined them, watching his father closer. "What is it, Sir? This news doesn't seem to be making you very happy."

"I'm not sure, son. It's just so sudden. I mean, how well does he really know her?"

Johnny perched on the edge of the desk. "What difference does it make to you? It's Val gettin married. Not like it's one of us. You hardly know him, anyway."

"I'd like to think I've gotten to know him fairly well, Johnny. I realize not as well as you but I do respect the man and think he's a fine lawman. I'm concerned for him, is all. Is that alright?"

Chagrined, Johnny lowered his eyes then looked back at Murdoch with a small grin. "Yeah. Sorry, it's just that Val deserves this. He's had a rough life and he should be happy. If Hannah can do that and put up with him ta boot, then she must be something pretty special."

Scott smiled. "Well, I for one, can't wait to meet this woman. Johnny said it. If she can put up with Val, she must be a saint!" He noticed his brother didn't seem to appreciate his joke. Scott reached out and tapped his arm.

"Look, I know Val's an easy target for makin sport of. I do it, too. It's just that, when she's here ..."

"Johnny, I think I still remember how to behave like a gentleman," Scott interrupted.

Raising his brows, Johnny asked, "you sure, Scott? Cause, I ain't seen it in so long, I figured we just beat it right out of ya."

Murdoch chuckled as he watched his older son chase his younger out the French doors. He knew Johnny was right. It wasn't his business but, he'd been on the bad end of a whirlwind romance and he hoped Val wasn't making the same mistake he had. He knew he should have taken more time with Maria, let their relationship grow and get to know her better before marrying. Then again, if they'd done that, he may not have Johnny. It was a conundrum he'd wrestled with many times in the past. Sighing, he leaned forward and put his focus on the ledgers. Val would work out his own affairs as every man had the right to do.

*

Sunday afternoon, Johnny walked into the dining room and whistled. He walked around the table and tapped a fork here, a spoon there. Then, he leaned over and sniffed the vase of fresh flowers in the middle.

"Stop that!"

Jumping a little, he turned and frowned at Teresa. "Just admirin all your hard work, honey."

She frowned at him. "Admire from afar. Don't mess up my table, Johnny. I spent all morning getting it perfect."

Johnny walked over and put an arm around her shoulders. "I can tell but, she ain't a queen or anything, Teresa. No need to put all this special china and stuff out. It's Val."

"And his fiancé. We don't know anything about her, Johnny. I want to make a good impression. I want her to want to have the wedding here. It would be so wonderful!"

He squeezed her closer. "I'd like that, too. That way, I can stay out of the church and the roof won't fall in right when they're sayin their 'I do's'."

Teresa elbowed him in the stomach and pulled away. "Sometimes, you're impossible. Now, try to behave. Don't tease Val tonight, okay?"

"I've tried to teach him to be a gentleman, Teresa, but he refuses." Scott stepped into the room with a grin.

Teresa smirked. "I'm sure Johnny knows how to behave himself. I think I saw him do it ... once."

"You two, done? Ain't I the one that said no foolin around tonight? I'm not really interested in impressin her. I want to get to know the gal a little before I stand up for Val. Bad enough I hafta wear a tie tonight, too!"

"Alright, brother, alright. Just calm down. We are all going to be on our best behavior for the young lady, I'm sure. She'll love us."

"I hope she likes pot roast," Teresa muttered as she returned to her kitchen.

Scott was watching his brother and didn't really pay attention to her mumbling. Johnny seemed tense and he wondered why. He shook his brother's shoulder. "Hey, what's eating you?"

Johnny glanced at him then moved away, into the living room. "I don't know. It's Murdoch. He doesn't seem real happy about this. In fact, he acts like it's a bad idea."

Scott nodded, knowing their father hadn't been exactly over the moon at the news. "I think he's just concerned for Val. He wants the man to be sure of what he's doing. You have to admit, it's been pretty fast."

"Yeah, like when he married my mother, right? We know what a mistake that was."

"Now, hold on a minute, Johnny. No one said that. Don't make this about Murdoch and your mother. This is Val's time."

Johnny turned and looked at his brother with a flat expression. "It ain't me that's makin it about that, Scott. I'm not stupid. I know what he's thinkin."

"Then know he's grateful to have you. Even though his marriage to your mother failed, at least he got you out of the bargain. I really think that's how he sees it, Johnny."

Johnny breathed out hard through his nose then gave his brother a smile. "Yeah, how'd he get so lucky?" The smile widened.

Scott laughed and reached out, tapping him on the arm. "Come on. Let's get ready for this big night."

*

Hannah glanced over at Val again as she had several times during the ride. He hadn't said two words and she was worried. Why, she didn't know. Well, only one way to find out, she thought then touched his arm. "What's wrong? You're so quiet."

"Nothin," he grumbled then gave her an apologetic smile. "Just that sometimes me and Johnny go at each other."

"Go at each other? You mean fight?"

"No, nothin like that. Well, there's been a couple of times. No, I mean teasin at each other. If he starts that, don't think nothin of it."

She smiled and nodded. "I see. Can I get in on this deal? Sounds like fun."

Val laughed at that. "You're good at it, too. Might even give ole Johnny a run for his money."

She leaned into him, slipping her hand around his arm. "You and Johnny are very close, aren't you? I know you're worried what he might think of me."

"Don't care what he thinks of ya and I mean that. Yeah, we're real good friends. Fact is, I never met a better man. It's just that he don't always know when to quit."

"How long have you known him?"

Val had to think about that. It seemed to him he'd always known Johnny. "Been about five or six years now, I reckon. He's younger'n me. Met up with him when he was about seventeen or so. Yeah, that's right, it's been six years. Seems longer, though."

She smiled and rested her head on his arm. "He was a gunfighter, too, then?"

Val pulled back on the reins and set the brake. Hannah raised her head and looked curiously at him.

"Yeah, he was and he was real good, too. Bein from New Mexico, ya might've heard of 'im. He ain't changed that much far as the man he is but he's a rancher now and he's settled down pretty well, I reckon. Anyways, he used to go by the name of Johnny Madrid."

Hannah's eyes widened then her expression showed she was impressed. "Well, my dear, I can't wait to meet the infamous Johnny Madrid! I'm willing to bet he's not as dark and dangerous as he's portrayed. He can't be if he's such a good friend to you." She smiled at him, her eyes softening with a twinkle of teasing.   

Val smirked at that and released the brake, slapping the reins and hoping she wasn't all *that* impressed.

*

Johnny paced the living room, chewing on the side of his thumb and glancing at the clock every few seconds.

"Son, please sit down." Murdoch was tired just watching Johnny. He had no idea why his son was acting this way.

Johnny looked over at him then ambled toward the chair his father was seated in. "What if she doesn't like me? I mean, me and Val go way back. What if me and her don't hit it off and ..."

"Stop worrying about things that haven't and probably won't even happen. I mean, if she likes Val, it's pretty much a given she'll like you, too, son."

Johnny frowned at that. "Like? Don't you mean love Val?"

Murdoch sighed. "Yes, that's what I mean. Just sit down and wait for them to get here."

"No need. They're here," Scott said from the French doors. He turned and smiled. "She's prettier than I remember."

Johnny grinned. "Yeah, well, the Widow probably made you forget what Val looks like." He walked over to Scott and stood right in front of him. "Is my tie straight?"

"Yes, but your head is crooked," Scott replied then cuffed him on the side of that head. He straightened the tie and patted his brother's shoulders. "Just be yourself, Johnny. It'll be fine."

"It'd be pretty bad if she didn't like me. You know that, right?" Johnny whispered.

Scott smiled and looked in his brother's eyes. "I know, Johnny. Trust me, okay? Murdoch was right. She loves Val so she has to like you. The two of you just go together like you and I do."

Johnny smiled and relaxed then went to the front door. He opened it wide as the couple stepped onto the porch. He gave her his most charming smile and even gave a little bow. "Welcome to Lancer, Miss Hannah."

*

She was still a little overwhelmed by the enormity of the house but when she looked at Johnny, smiling and being so charming, she felt the tension drain. A smile on her face, she gave him a bow of her head. "Thank you for inviting us, Mr. Lancer."

Val, standing just behind and to her left, rolled his eyes then gave Johnny his best warning glare which he ignored.

"It's Johnny. Please, come in," he continued, sweeping his hand toward the inner sanctum.

Hannah looked up and back at Val who plastered a smile on his face and took her elbow, guiding her inside.

They stopped near the middle of the room and Val sucked in a breath. "Mr. Lancer, Scott, this is Hannah Brown."

Murdoch immediately approached her with a smile and hand extended. "Welcome to our home, Miss Brown. It's very nice to meet you."

Scott waited his turn and thought about messing with Val but he'd made Johnny a promise so he behaved. "Scott Lancer, Miss Brown. A pleasure."

She smiled, delighted with the greeting. "Well, you're all so nice to have us here. Val didn't tell me the Lancers were such a handsome family. Please, call me Hannah."

Teresa hurried into the room, smoothing her skirt as she made her way to their guest.

"This is my ward, Teresa O'Brien. This is Hannah Brown."

She glanced at Murdoch then smiled at the young woman, shaking her hand lightly. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Hannah. I'm sure we're going to get along wonderfully. Please, come in and sit." Teresa took Hannah's hand and led her to the sofa, all the while a little surprised she appeared to be quite a bit younger than Val. Then again, she had no idea how old Val was. Funny, she thought, it had never occurred to her before or even made a difference, for that matter. "Please, excuse me a moment. I'll just get us some refreshments."

Val settled beside Hannah and breathed. So far, so good, he thought as he eyed Johnny. He was the wildcard; the one Val couldn't trust not to make a fuss about somethin or other. Johnny had seated himself across from Hannah and he was still smiling. Val leered at him.

No one spoke and it was starting to be uncomfortable. Scott took a breath and dove in. "Well, Hannah, did you enjoy the drive out?"

"Oh, yes. The land is beautiful. I enjoy it much more than New Mexico."

"Where in New Mexico?" Johnny asked then hurriedly followed it with, "I spent some time there."

"Santa Fe. It's quite a bit dustier there."

Johnny laughed a little at that. "Yes, ma'am. Nice people for the most part, though."

She didn't say anything to that as Teresa returned at that moment, pouring lemonade and offering little sandwiches which the men just stared at. "Supper will be about half an hour, yet," she explained.

"These are delicious, Teresa. May I have the recipe?" Hannah asked.

Beaming, Teresa answered. "I'll write it out for you. I'm so glad you like them. It's simple really, something Maria and I came up with."

"Maria?"

"She's our housekeeper and mother hen," Johnny said with a grin.

"Well, you have a beautiful home but I'd hate to have to clean all this everyday."

"So do I," Teresa interjected then smiled.

"When I rebuilt it, I was planning on a large family. One of these days, I hope that still happens," Murdoch said and eyed his sons.

Johnny snorted and Scott just smiled a little, ducking his head.

"You two found a place yet? I mean, Val's is a little small for two people," Johnny asked.

For the first time since sitting down, Val spoke. "Yeah, we looked at the old Wilson place at the end of town. I figure that's perfect bein right in town and all and it's just a couple of blocks from the shop for Hannah."

"Oh, you plan on working after you're married?" Teresa asked.

"Oh, yes. I love my little shop. It's not much but I enjoy it."

"I haven't been to Green River for so long, I'd love to see it."

"Please, come by anytime, Teresa. We'll close up and have lunch. Make a day of it, even."

Teresa smiled at her, thrilled to have another woman in her life now. "I'd love that. I should check on supper. Excuse me."

*

"What a lovely girl," Hannah commented once Teresa left the room.

"She's a bear," Johnny said.

Murdoch shot him a look then smiled at Hannah. "Teresa is a wonderful girl. Maybe, someday, you can help her plan her wedding."

"You'd have to let her off the ranch and out of your sight for that to happen, Sir," Scott laughed.

"What made you move to California, Hannah?" Johnny asked.

The room went quiet and Val leaned toward her a little, the move almost imperceptible. "Hannah's family was killed in a wagon accident."

Johnny bowed his head and sighed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked that. None of my business."

"It's alright, Johnny, really. You couldn't have known. It was devastating and I just couldn't stay there without them. I've managed to make a life for myself and I was very lucky to settle in Green River." She looked at Val and smiled.

At that moment, Johnny knew for certain she was in love with his best friend. He smiled then looked at Val and saw his friend was head over heels. Johnny settled in his chair and figured things couldn't get much better. His eyes met his brother's and they shared a grin.

"Well, I must say you have made a definite impression on our sheriff and for the better," Scott said and raised his glass in a toasting motion.

"It was mutual, believe me," she said and turned to Johnny. "I understand Val's horse was a gift from you, Johnny. You have a good eye for horses."

His face lit in a smile. "Yeah, Milagro is one fine animal. You ride?"

"You should see her on a horse, amigo. She might even best you," Val bragged.

Johnny raised a brow at that then smiled at her. "We'll have to test that out sometime."

"I look forward to it."

*

Supper went off without a hitch, the conversation benign and pleasant. Johnny wanted it to be over so they could relax a little more. Seemed to him, it was hard to eat and talk at the same time. His food always got cold when he did that. At this point, all he was waiting for was his father to make his move. Finally, he did.

"Well, why don't we retire to the living room with our coffee," Murdoch said and stood.

Teresa stood and picked up her plate. "I'll be along as soon as I clear the table."

"I'll help."

"Oh, no, Hannah. You're our guest. I couldn't possibly ..."

"You didn't. I offered. I'd really like to help, please," Hannah said even as she started picking up plates.

Teresa smiled and nodded but she still felt terrible. She looked over at Val who had a small smile on his face and pride in his eyes. Feeling somehow exonerated, she went about the task as the men headed to the living room.

Johnny poured drinks all around then started in. "Boy, Val, she's somethin. I can see how she turned your head."

"She's a lovely woman. Congratulations, Val," Scott added, making a toasting motion with his glass.

Val lowered his head and looked at his own glass. "Thanks. Still don't know what she sees in me but I ain't gonna ask her."

"Want me to?" Johnny's eyes shined with the devil.

A loud chorus of three resounded. "No!" Then they all laughed.

Loud Spanish could be heard as Maria flew into the dining room to clear the dishes. Hannah was on her heels, replying to her in fluent Spanish. Johnny listened, impressed not only that she spoke the language so well, but moreso that she was standing up to his mamacita. No one at Lancer had ever tried that. But, Hannah made her case for helping the women very well and, much to everyone's surprise, Maria relented. Their voices faded as they returned to the kitchen.

"Val," Johnny said, his demeanor very serious, "I don't think I can let you marry Hannah. I think we need her here more. Unless you two wanna move in. I mean, anybody that can stand up to Maria..." he trailed off, his lips turning up.

Sitting forward, Val set his drink down and clasped his hands between his knees. "That's just it. I mean, that's how she is. Reckon that's what got me about her. She's tough as nails but ya can't tell by just lookin at her. She gives as good as she gets and not just with women. She can ride, works hard, tells it straight and don't take no guff."

Johnny smiled softly. "Sounds like the perfect woman. Too bad she don't have a sister."

"Why? She'd be wasting her time on you, brother. She'd have to wait another ten years to get you to the altar."

Johnny made a face at his brother, sorely tempted to stick out his tongue just to see Scott's reaction.

"What about you, Mr. Lancer? You ain't said much about Hannah," Val asked.

Murdoch looked over at him blankly for a second before smiling. "She's a lovely young woman, Val. I can see why you'd be attracted to her. She sounds like a great match for you."

Val stared hard at him. "You don't sound too convinced."

"Murdoch gets a rash when people start talkin about gettin married," Johnny said.

*

In the kitchen, Teresa put the last plate away and turned to watch Hannah finish wiping down the counter. "Thanks for the help. You really didn't have to."

Hannah folded the towel and laid it across the counter to dry. "I didn't mind at all. I enjoy it, actually."

Smiling, Teresa leaned against the sink and crossed her arms. "May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

Twisting her mouth, she found her courage. "What attracted you to Val?"

Hannah looked over at her, a bit surprised then smiled and walked over to sit at the table. Teresa joined her. "His eyes were the first thing I noticed. He has such kind eyes." She glanced at the younger girl. "I know what people say. I've heard the talk. But, you can't judge a man by how he dresses. I just don't think Val ever had any reason to care and, I think he did it partly because people don't like it. Oh, it took me a while to figure out but, that's what I came up with."

"That's what Johnny said, too. Val likes to go against the grain. He's never one to conform. How did you meet him?"

"Actually, in an official capacity." She laughed lightly at the stunned look on Teresa's face. "Not long after I opened the store, I came to work one morning and found someone had broken in. I went to the sheriff's office and there he was, feet up on the desk, leaning back with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. When he saw me, he fell out of the chair."

Teresa laughed aloud at that. She could picture Val doing just such a thing. "Did he find the culprit?"

"No, it was odd. Nothing was taken just moved around. It was like someone was shopping in the fabrics. They were all mussed up." She shrugged then glanced sideways at Teresa. "Johnny knows Val very well, doesn't he?"

Teresa nodded. "Better than anyone, I guess. I don't think Val has any family. I'm afraid I don't know much about him, either. What I do know is he's very loyal to Johnny and would do anything for him and Johnny's the same."  

"I could tell by how he talks about Johnny."

Clasping her hands atop the table, Teresa glanced sideways. "Did Val tell you how he and Johnny met?"

"Not exactly. If you're asking did he tell me he used to be a gunfighter, yes he did. And he told me today who Johnny used to be."

Teresa leaned forward. "You weren't worried?"

Hannah laughed lightly. "Not at all. I trust Val completely. He would never be friends with someone cruel or hateful." She leaned in as well. "Truthfully, I found it impressive. And Johnny isn't at all how people say he is. Well, in New Mexico, anyway, there were all kind of stories about him. Some saying he was a hero but a lot saying something very different. If I listened to gossip, Teresa, I wouldn't have ever spoken to Val. According to the busybodies in town, he's impolite, crude and uncaring."

Teresa made a snorting noise and waved a hand. "The Widow McIntyre, I'm sure. She's always telling people how I shouldn't be here with all these men. How it isn't proper. She has nothing better to do with her time."

Hannah sighed. "Yes, I've met her. She always has something to say about someone. I suppose there are a lot of people like that in the world. All we can do is ignore them."

"It's not easy to do that sometimes, though." Teresa's frown vanished and a smile lit her face. "So, what do you think about having your wedding here at Lancer? Did Val tell you Johnny offered?"

*

Val stood up quickly as the women walked into the room. He immediately didn't like the look on Hannah's face as she headed straight for him. "Everything alright?"

"The kitchen is clean as a whistle. Now, why didn't you tell me Johnny offered to let us get married here?"

Johnny looked at Teresa and smiled widely as the girl winked at him. Scott stood up and deftly moved away from the couple, finding a spot on the arm of the chair his father occupied.   It was a good vantage point. He didn't want to miss this.

Val swallowed then pulled his shoulders back. "Well, you hadn't even met 'em yet. I didn't think it was fair to throw that at ya, put ya on the spot."

She stared at him for a second then relaxed and smiled. "Of course, that does make sense."

"So?" Johnny asked as he stood. "What do you think of the idea? There's plenty of room and we can use the yard. Teresa is a master at decorating for parties."

"Only if Hannah wants my help," Teresa put in quickly. "After all, it's her wedding."

Hannah looked at all of them in turn then back to Val. "It's a beautiful house. As long as everyone is in agreement, I'd love to get married in your best friend's home."

Scott stood up, and raised his glass. "Then, it's settled. You'll get married here."

They all converged and the women moved off, already making plans. Murdoch watched them all and wondered what was wrong with him. Why couldn't he get into the spirit of things? It was ridiculous and he wouldn't allow his own bad experiences to dampen the evening any more than they had. He was well aware his younger son had been shooting daggers at him all day; discreetly, of course. He stood and walked over to the sideboard, pouring sherry for the ladies and handing them off then refilling the men's glasses from the whiskey bottle.

With all eyes on him, Murdoch smiled. "I'd like to make a toast to the happy couple. May you live and long and happy life together and may you enjoy all the fruits of your union."

Johnny smiled at his father, his eyes shining with gratitude.

*

They stood in the yard as Val helped Hannah into the surrey then rounded to his side. Hannah smoothed her skirts then looked over at them.

"Thank you all for a wonderful evening. I hope we can do it again soon."

"I'm sure we will. And, I'm sure we'll be seeing more of you than Val while you plan the wedding," Murdoch smiled.

She smiled brightly at him then turned her attention. "Oh, Johnny, would you like to join us next Sunday for a ride?"

He stepped up beside her and glanced at Val who had one foot in the surrey, the other hanging in midair and stopped cold at the invitation. "Oh, well, I don't wanna barge in."

"Nonsense. Val and I have the rest of our lives to spend together. Besides, I'd like to see if you ride as well as Val claims."

She winked at him and he laughed before checking on Val again. The sheriff seemed to be alright with the idea now. "Well, alright. For a ride then."

"We'll meet up with ya at Angel Creek around ten," Val said then addressed Hannah. "It's on Lancer and it's a real nice spot for ridin."

"Perfect. Thank you again for tonight." She leaned over toward Johnny. "You've made me feel very welcome."

"You are welcome, Hannah. Anyone that can lasso Val has to be special. I'm glad I got to see for myself."

She reached out and squeezed his arm, her eyes brightening with tears.

"Well, reckon we'll go now," Val said in his usual brusque tone.

"Goodnight, you two. Hannah, I'll see you Tuesday," Teresa called as they drove away.

Johnny kept watching as they drove under the arch, smiling ear to ear. He felt someone come to stand beside him. "She's perfect for him."

"Yes, I believe you're right, son. I'm sorry I wasn't as hospitable as I should have been."

Johnny turned and looked at him. "You over that?"

Chuckling, Murdoch rested a hand on his shoulder. "I am. It will be nice to have a wedding here. Good practice." He raised a brow at his son and Johnny moved quickly from under his touch, heading inside before the lecture started.

*

Tuesday morning, Hannah arrived at Lancer to begin planning her wedding. Teresa was well ready for her with magazines, paper and pen and a hundred ideas. They sat with their heads together at the dining room table for two hours.

Teresa looked up when the front door opened. "Who could that be?" she wondered aloud as she stood and rounded the table.

"Hey, querida. I hope you got a bite to eat for me. I'm starvin to death!" Johnny walked in and snagged a bit of her hair, tugging gently before he saw she wasn't alone. "Hey, Hannah. That's your horse outside, huh? How're the wedding plans going?"

"Very well. We've gotten a lot done. Right now, we're working on the guest list."

"And I didn't realize how late it is. I'm sorry, Johnny. I'll get you something to eat." Teresa started to turn until Johnny stopped her by taking her arm.

"Forget that. Maria's in there, right? She'll take care of me. You two got more important work to do. I just have one request." His eyes were shining and Teresa gave him a sidelong, wary look. "Don't invite Maisy Haskell. She'll be followin me around all night!"

Hannah laughed aloud then cupped her hand over her mouth.

"Johnny, that poor girl is plain in love wth you. I don't know why you treat her so shamefully," Teresa berated.

"Cause she looks like that new calf I just helped birth last week. I can't help how she feels, honey. Ain't like I ever gave her cause. But, every time she's anywhere near me, I get myself a shadow I can't shake."

Teresa quirked her mouth. "Well, I'm sorry but Val likes her father."

"I like her father, too. Why can't ya just invite him."

Teresa looked mortified. "Johnny! You can't invite one member of a family to a wedding!"

"I'm afraid you'll have to put up with her, Johnny. But, maybe I can do something about it. I'm sure I can think of someone else for her to latch onto."

Johnny looked over at Hannah and saw the wheels turning. "If you can do that, you'll have my gratitude forever, Hannah."

"I'd rather have your measurements. For your suit. Well, Val would, anyway."

Johnny huffed. "I can get my own suit."

Teresa rolled her eyes. "Forget it, Hannah. He's impossible. I'll take care of it."

Johnny put his hands on his hips and cocked his head. "Oh, you will, huh? How?"

"Never mind how. Go eat and leave us in peace." Teresa grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the kitchen.

*

"Who is Maisy Haskell?" Hannah asked once they were alone.

Teresa snickered. "She's sixteen, skinny as a bean pole with pock marks on her face. The sad part is she's a sweet girl but she's so shy! She does follow him around but always a few feet behind him. She hides at corners and watches him, listens to his every word. It's pitiful."

"Maybe, someone should tell her Johnny's not perfect. I mean, I think he's wonderful but no man is worth all that."

"It would be good for her to be with people her own age. She's just completely infatuated with him. And Scott's no help. He teases Johnny mercilessly about her. Of course, the boys her age are too busy being boys to notice much." Teresa sighed out, feeling more sorry for the girl with every passing second.

"Well, I'm sure she'll grow out of it. I hope he isn't impatient with her."

"Johnny? No, he'll grumble about it but he's always sweet to her, smiles and speaks to her. I think that's why she's so stuck on him. He's just nice to her."

Hannah frowned, remembering when she was sixteen. It didn't seem that hard to her but, she supposed everyone was different. She turned when she heard Johnny's spurs. "That didn't take long."

"She threw me out. Said she'd call me when she was ready to feed me." He sat at the table with them and shrugged. "She's a tyrant, as Scott would say."

"You just couldn't sweet talk her today," Teresa said, waving him off.

Johnny rested his cheek on the palm of his hand as he leaned his elbow on the table. "I guess. What's this?" He fingered the magazine.

"Oh, just getting some ideas for a wedding dress. These are too fancy for me but if you take some of the frills and lace off, the basic design is very nice."

Johnny half nodded, about as interested in wedding dresses as watching the grass grow. "What'ya think a good wedding present would be for Val? I've been thinking on it and I can't come up with anything. I mean, after Milagro, everything else seems ..." he just shrugged.

Both women laughed at him. Teresa reached across the table and tapped his arm. "The wedding gift is supposed to be for both people, Johnny."

"I know that, Teresa. I just wanted to get him somethin, ya know? Already has a new hat." He grinned at that then his head came up and he leaned back, snapping his fingers. "I've got it! Thanks, girls."

Hannah blinked twice. "We didn't say anything."

"Well, sometimes just askin a question out loud helps you come up with the answer." Johnny smiled, thinking of his gift for Val and knowing he'd love it. He'd have to get to work on it tonight. Time was running out fast on him.

Teresa rolled her eyes and shook her head. Sometimes, talking to Johnny gave her a headache. "Do you want some more tea, Hannah?"

"Yes, please."

"Can you see if Maria fell asleep in there. I'm wastin away!" Johnny called to her back as she left.

*

"You're funny, Johnny."

"Thanks. I try."

Hannah folded her hands atop the table. "I have to admit, I'm surprised you were so accepting of me."

"Why?"

"Well," she sighed, "Val and I haven't known each other very long."

Johnny picked at the table, a small smile on his face. "I bet, when you first started talkin to him, you were wondering why you were tellin him somethin personal or why it was you felt so easy around him."

"Yes, I did! It was like we'd known each other all our lives. How did you know?"

He looked at her. "It was the same with me. When I first met Val, we were signin up for a range war and on opposite sides. Then, he went and saved my life for no good reason. But, even before that, I felt real comfortable with him. Never felt that way with anyone else. It was really strange and I couldn't figure it out. Never did figure it out but, after that, we just fell into ridin together."

She relaxed and leaned back in her chair, resting her hands in her lap. "He's a special man."

"That he is." Johnny sighed and shook his head. "Makes me mad how people look down on him. I know he does a lot of things just to aggravate folks, especially that mayor. But, people judge by what they see."

"I would imagine you've suffered the same in your life."

Johnny looked up at her, surprise on his face. It faded quickly into a smile. "Reckon so and I reckon it don't bother him anymore than it ever bothered me. Sometimes, it can get to you but mostly, I just say the hell with 'em."

"What else can you do? I've found that once people make up their minds, it's very hard to change their thinking."

Snorting at that, Johnny nodded his head. "I can see you and Val think a lot alike. This might sound funny and out of line but, I'm real glad he found you. He'd never admit it but, he's been lonely a good part of his life."

She reached over and squeezed his hand. "Until he met you."

"And after for awhile, too, I reckon. When we parted ways, we didn't see each other for a year or so. That was hard."

"Why did you, if you don't mind my asking?"

He laughed softly. "He went and got respectable on me. Took a job as a sheriff in some flea-bit town near the border. Tried to get me to get out of the game, too, but I couldn't - no, I didn't think I could. Anyway, I owe him."

She smiled softly and shook her head slowly. "Funny, he told me he owes you."

Johnny leaned forward and took her hand again. "All I ask is you love him, treat him good and don't let him get fat."

*

The following Sunday, Johnny arrived at Angel Creek a little early. He looked over the landscape, searching for any hidden dangers. Rabbit holes and the like. He didn't want Hannah stumbling and hurting herself. Lord knew, Val would kill him if the girl got hurt. He smiled a little as he made one last turn and saw them approaching at a fast trot.

Hannah was all smiles but Val didn't look too happy. Johnny immediately tensed, knowing something was wrong.

"Good morning, Johnny!" Hannah called as she dismounted near a tree.

"Morning." He walked over and looked at her horse, a nice mare, and nodded his approval.

"Oh, my! Is this the infamous Barranca? Val's told me you spoil him rotten and I can see why. He's beautiful." She oohed and awed over the palomino, stroking it's mane and kissing it's cheek.

Johnny cocked a brow and wondered if she thought it was a dog but he couldn't stop a chuckle. "Yeah, that's Barranca. He's not spoiled, either. He just knows he's special."

She laughed at that. "Val said you've trained him."

"He does some tricks for me." He tried to keep up the conversation but his eyes were on Val standing off a little and pretending to fiddle with something in his saddle bags. Johnny walked over. "What's wrong?"

Val tugged hard on the strap of the saddle bag then huffed out a breath. "Someone broke into Hannah's shop again last night."

"Again? What'ya mean again?"

Val looked at him and shrugged. "Happened once before. That's how we met. Nothin was taken either time but someone was in there messin around with the fabric. It's damned odd."

Johnny frowned and shook his head. "Don't make sense, does it?"

"No, it don't. She ain't worried about it but I am. I don't like it a bit."

"Any strangers in town lately?"

"Nope," Val shook his head. "Besides, the first time was three months ago. Look, don't say nothin to her about it. She wants to have a good day."

Johnny looked up from studying the ground and the events. "Yeah, sure. How about you do the same? Nothin you can do about it today, amigo. Might as well enjoy some time with your woman." He slung an arm around Val's shoulders and grinned. "And your best man."

Hannah watched them from her periphery and knew Val was telling Johnny. She didn't mind him knowing but she didn't want the day ruined. She turned as they approached. "Are you two ready to get beaten by a woman?"

"Already? Ya ain't even married him yet and already the strops comin out!"

She pursed her lips and put her hands on her hips. "In a race, Johnny. In a race."

*

Johnny thought if she'd had a better horse, she might just have beaten him today. He'd never admit it but the lady had given Barranca and Milagro a run for their money. As they sat near the creek's bank, he kept watching Val. His mood seemed to improve but then he'd get dark again and Johnny knew he was thinking on the break-ins again. He couldn't blame the man.

"Hey, Hannah. I just had a brilliant idea as my brother would say."

"I can't wait ta hear this," Val grumbled.

Hannah leaned into her fiancé. "What is it, Johnny?"

"Well, since you and Teresa will be spending so much time together planning the wedding and I don't see how you're gonna keep your store running until afterwards, I thought you should close up until the wedding and stay at Lancer. That way, you gals will be able to spend all your time gettin all that frilly stuff just how ya want it." Johnny grinned, truly thinking this was the best idea he'd had in a while. Soon enough, the smile faded as he watched Hannah's face turn red and her eyes fire up.

She took in a deep breath and let it out before saying anything. "I appreciate your concern, Johnny, but I'm fine. I don't need a babysitter or a bodyguard."

Johnny stared at her, not knowing what to say to that.

"He didn't mean anything, Honey," Val said in an unusually soft voice.

"You told him about the break-ins, didn't you?"

"Well, yeah, but ..."

"Then, he did mean something."

Johnny sighed. "Look, I just thought it would be better for you to be at the house where you can see how everything's set up. Yes, Val told me and it's strange but, it doesn't seem like anybody is after you or anything. I mean, they didn't tear the place up."

She deflated and her cheeks flushed attractively. "Forgive me. I shouldn't have assumed anything. It's very kind of you to offer but, really, I don't want to close the store now. Maybe a week before the wedding. I think that would be the best thing."

"Maybe ya got fired up because it bothers you more than you'll say. You don't have to prove anything to anyone. I don't like the idea of you livin over that store, Hannah. Not with people bustin in and all." Val stared into her eyes, his worry clear.

"He's got a point, ya know. Everybody needs help now and then. Even me and I'm the worst for askin," Johnny said, trying to lighten the mood just a little. "Tell ya what. Think about it, talk to grouch there and let me know. The invitation's open anytime. I'm gonna head back and let you two have the rest of your day together."

"You don't have to leave, Johnny." Hannah stood up as he did.

Johnny grinned. "I know but well, if I had a lady like you, Hannah, I'd be kicking his ... backside all the way back to town to get him out of the way."  

She walked over and hugged him tightly. Johnny was taken aback a little but he heard Val snickering. He smiled as she pulled away but he held onto her arms a moment longer. Softly, he said, "if anything happened to you, it would kill him and I mean kill him. Sometimes, I think you have to do things for the person you love even if you don't want to. Just to ease their mind. Anyway, think about it and if you decide to come, just pack a bag and come."

"I'll think about it. I promise and thank you." She kissed his cheek.

Johnny turned quickly and strode to his horse. Val walked over, a smirk on his face that died when he came to a stop. "Thanks for the offer. I hope she does come out and stay with ya'll for a while. I don't like whatever is goin on."

"Well, I told her to just come on if she wants to. Teresa would love it, too. I'll see ya, Val."

*

Hannah stepped up and wrapped an arm around Val's waist. "He's a good friend."

"Yeah, the best. Ya know it wouldn't be so bad stayin with the Lancers for a while. They got faster horses than that mare of yours."

"Nice try, Sheriff. I'm not worried, Val. Really, I'm not. I wish you wouldn't."

He turned and pulled her into his arms. "Honey, I'm not gonna stop worryin until we're married and you're out of there or I catch the crazy that's doin this."

"I have to admit, it's a little upsetting. Why didn't they take anything? What were they doing in the first place?"

He could feel her trembling and he held her tighter. "That's it, woman. Tomorrow, you're goin to Lancer. I ain't gonna hear no more about it."

Hannah's hackles went up but she forced them back down. He was worried and easing his mind was more important than her silly pride. She pulled her head away from his chest and smiled at him. "Yes, dear."

Val's moustache twitched just before she kissed him. When they finally parted, Hannah was frowning. "I reckon you want me to shave it off."

She looked puzzled for a second. "No, that's not it. I just thought of something. I don't know why it didn't occur to me before."

Val released his hold and took her hand, helping her to settle back down on their blanket. "What is it?"

"Well, it seemed so unimportant, really. There is a man who has been coming in the store since I opened. About every week or two he shows up, browses through the fabric tables and smiles at me. He's always smiling at me and watching me. He never speaks and he always comes in when there are other customers. He's never asked a question or bought anything."

Val's instincts awoke. "Do you know who he is?"

She frowned again in thought for a moment. "I think one woman said hello to him one day. Actually, when she did he seemed upset. He tipped his hat, never spoke and left quickly. Now, why didn't I think that was odd before?"

"Never mind that, honey. Do you recall the name? Or the woman who spoke to him?"

Shaking her head, she tried to remember. "No, I'm sorry I don't remember what she called him but it was Mrs. Haverty. I'm sure of that."

Val nodded and rubbed his chin. "I'll talk to her when we get back to town. I still want you to go to Lancer tomorrow. Could be nothin will come of this fella. Can ya describe him?"

"Oh, yes. He's short. About five foot, five with dark brown hair parted on the side and slicked down. He always wears the same brown suit and jacket and a string tie. He's ... stocky but not really fat."

"Not like the mayor," Val said.

She smiled. "No, not like the mayor. Small, brown eyes too far apart and he's balding in the front. He seems to sweat a lot."

"Don't sound familiar but sounds like an ugly cuss."

Hannah laughed a little. "He's not attractive."

"Okay, I'll find out who he is and you ..."

"Will pack my bags in the morning. I promise, dear." She smiled, caressed his cheek then kissed him again.

*

Val arrived at his office at eight o'clock the next morning in a foul mood. Mrs. Haverty had gone to visit her daughter and wouldn't return until today. Well, he reckoned he'd just have to wait on her. At least, Hannah was going out to Lancer soon. That helped ease his mind some. He'd put her into her little rooms over the store last night, double checked all the locks and hung around outside for an hour just to be sure she was tucked away safely.

His mood improved when he thought of Johnny's offer. It was good to have friends like Johnny; people you could really count on in a crunch. He hadn't even had to ask and, honestly, he was thinking on it himself. Anything to get Hannah away from that store. He just wished she'd thought about this man sooner. It sounded too strange to him; a man actin that way. Hell, hangin around a dress shop was odd enough let alone everything else she'd told him.

As he took hold of the door handle, he heard the first wagon of the day rolling down the street. Looking to his right, he smiled when he saw Johnny and Scott. He stepped off the boardwalk and waved them to a stop.

"Good morning, Val."

"Mornin, Scott, Johnny. Listen, Hannah's gonna take ya up on that offer today. Said she'd pack up and come on out."

Johnny smiled more with relief than anything. "Great! Tell her to wait on us and we'll ride back with her."

"Will do. I'll head over there soon as I get some coffee in me."

Scott grinned. "I hope the lady can learn to make that mud you drink. How are you going to manage staying away from her in the mornings until you've drank a gallon of that wagon grease, anyway?"

Johnny laughed outright and smacked his brother on the arm.

Val narrowed his eyes. "Funny. Real funny, Scott. I'll see ya." He turned and stomped into his office.

"That was a good one, brother."

"Thank you, brother. And so early in the morning, too," Scott said, quite proud of himself.

Johnny pulled a face at that. "Yeah, I think Murdoch made us come in so early so the saloon wouldn't be open when we got done."

"Yes, I think he's caught onto us. Well, there's always Saturday." Scott clicked his tongue and slapped the reins, moving the wagon down the road to the general store.

*

An hour later, Val felt human enough to see Hannah. He had to admit, he wondered himself how she'd take him in the mornings. He wasn't the most lively first thing. Well, I reckon I can change that - for her. Smiling, he grabbed his hat and settled it on his head, still unused to the feel of the 'new' hat.

He headed down the street, waving at the Lancer brothers as he passed opposite them before turning the corner. He pulled up short when he saw the Widow McIntyre heading straight for him. Val looked left and right then sighed. There was no way out. He was trapped. He resigned himself to speaking to the woman.

"Sheriff Crawford!" she screeched and he actually cringed.

"Mornin, ma'am." He tipped his hat at the old bat.

"Yes, yes, good morning. Why isn't Hannah open yet? I've been waiting ten minutes! I need some thread." She stopped directly in front of him, craning her neck to look up.

Val had never seen a midget before but he thought she qualified. "Well, the store's gonna be closed for a while, ma'am. Hannah's gonna spend some time out at Lancer with Teresa, plannin the weddin." He smiled then, he just couldn't help himself. "Reckon you'll have to buy your thread at the general store."

Her sour face turned even sourer. "Yes, I'd heard you were having the ceremony there. At least, Teresa will have some female company for a while. I do hope that poor girl finds a man, soon. I wish Murdoch Lancer would bring the girl to town more often. You know, my son has been staying with me and he's a fine young man."

Val's stomach almost turned and he thought he'd have Hannah tell Murdoch to keep Teresa away from Green River forever. "Yes, ma'am."

"That poor child is going to be an old maid, soon. It's such a shame." She tsked at him.

"Yes, ma'am. Well, I best be goin. Good day." He tipped his hat again and sidled past her as she kept right on talking. She always did that. No matter how many times a body told her they had to be on their way, she kept right on. It hadn't taken Val long to figure out he just had to walk away. Otherwise, he'd be standin there til nightfall.

He climbed the outside stairs to Hannah's home, around the back of the building. Something else he didn't like about the set up, he thought. He tapped on the door and it opened. Val frowned and stepped inside, calling her name. His second call to her stalled in his throat when he saw the blood.

*

Val froze one foot inside the door. The blood on the floor outside her bedroom made his stomach roll. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. All the while he kept telling himself to pull it together and check on her. She needed help. She needed the doctor. His heart told him this, his head said different.

Slowly, he walked to the slightly ajar door, his eyes travelling the path of the blood smears. Reaching out with a trembling hand, he pushed the door open and stepped inside. The bed covers were askew, half draping onto the floor. It finally registered in his mind that the blood smears he'd seen were footprints. He side-stepped them and rounded the bed then his world stopped.

"Hannah?" His voice was but a squeak as he called her name. She didn't move. Of course, she didn't move, his mind shouted. One step closer, then another until he reached her and knelt down, careful of the blood now pooled, thick and dark.

He reached for her, lying on her side, eyes wide open and filled with terror. Cold fingers found her neck and pressed lightly. He hung his head, tears leaking out and shook his head slowly. No, no, no! his mind screamed.

Val stood up and backed away from her, backed out the bedroom door and out onto the landing. He stood there, sucking in air and leaning over, waiting to puke. Finally, he wretched over the back railing then hung there, limp and sweating.

*

Johnny leapt up two steps then stopped when he saw Val. "Hey, ain't she decent yet? Val?" He waited but his friend didn't acknowledge him, didn't move and Johnny slowly climbed the steps. "Val?" He reached out and touched Val's shoulder and got a jerk in response. Still Val didn't move otherwise.

Johnny stood there a few seconds, not knowing what to do. He stuck his head through the doorway and scanned the room until his eyes fell on a stain. Stepping inside, he walked over and squatted down for a better look. Fear and something he couldn't describe grabbed hold of him with an iron fist. He stood up and went into the bedroom.

Moments later, Johnny emerged and stood next to his best friend, at a complete loss. "Lo siento, mi amigo. Muy lo siento," he whispered and reached out again.

Val reacted this time, turning quickly to glare at him then, seeming to recognize the man, he slumped and Johnny caught him, holding him as close as he could while still holding Val's weight up.

Scott rounded the corner, the smile on his face dropping like a boulder when he saw the scene at the top of the stairs. Johnny spied his brother, grateful to see Scott. He swallowed dryly and called as softly as he could. "Get Sam."

Scott could only nod and he took off.

"Okay, Val. We're goin downstairs now. Come on, amigo. I've got you." Johnny turned his friend and helped him down, practically having to drag Val. When they got to the bottom, Johnny turned and headed around the back of the buildings, not stopping until he reached Val's office. He kicked in the back door and pulled Val into a cell, laying him on the cot.

Val just stared straight ahead and Johnny knew he was in shock, of course. He headed to the main office and grabbed a bucket of water. He paused on his way back and went to Val's desk, jerking the drawer open and grabbing a bottle and glass then heading back to the cell.

He sat on a small stool beside Val and wet his bandana, wiping Val's forehead and face. Then, he poured the whiskey and held Val's head up, forcing him to take a sip.

Val grimaced and pushed the hand away, his stomach unable to handle the strong liquor. He grunted as Johnny eased his head back down.

*

Scott stood just inside the bedroom door and waited for Sam to finish. His only thought was how Val was doing. This might just destroy the man. Who would do such a thing? His anger rose as he thought of the woman lying there.

Sam stood up and sighed then shook his head before turning to Scott. "She's been abused, beaten and stabbed in the chest. She bled to death. Must have happened sometime between midnight and dawn."

"Can you be more specific?"

"I'm afraid not yet. I'll have the undertaker come get her and I'll examine her again. Where's Val?"

"Johnny took him ... I guess to his office. It's the closest place."

"What kind of animal ..." Sam trailed off, too angry to finish. He sucked in a breath. "I'll talk to Mortimer then I'll come see Val."

"That's where I'll be. Sam, can we be as discreet as possible?"

"Of course, Scott. Of course."

Scott nodded tersely and left, anxious to get away from the smell of death and the sight of this poor woman. He didn't think he'd ever forget the sheer panic and terror in her eyes. Val had to have seen that, too. He grit his teeth as he hurried to the sheriff's office.

*

Johnny didn't know what to say. What was there to say? He just sat there and watched Val staring at the ceiling and he tried to prepare himself for whatever happened next. He heard the front door open but he wasn't about to leave his friend. Soon, Scott walked into the cell and nodded.

Johnny stood and joined his brother at the open door.

"Sam's not sure of a time yet. He'll look again after Mortimer picks her up. He's coming over here as soon as he's finished at the undertaker's." He lowered his voice even more. "She was abused, beaten and stabbed. Sam said she bled to death."

Johnny took in the information. When Scott finished, his face turned to granite, his mouth a thin white line and his jaw twitched with barely contained rage. He felt Scott's hand on his arm but it brought no comfort. He glanced at his brother and nodded.

"Has he said anything?" Scott asked.

"Not a word. He's just starin at the ceiling. Scott, unload the wagon and lay down some hay. We'll take him back to Lancer."

"No!"

Both men turned, startled at the sudden voice.

Val sat up and swung his legs over the side of the cot. He looked up at them with eyes that held nothing. "I ain't goin nowhere except back to Hannah's. Need to look for evidence."

"Val, I can do that for ya. You know I can," Johnny said, a pleading tone to his voice.

Shaking his head violently, Val got to his feet. He swayed for a second but waved Johnny off when he took a step closer. "It's my job."

"The hell with the job, Val! Johnny and I can do this for you. We want to help."

"Don't need no help. Just back off, Scott!"

Johnny stepped closer and reached out only to be rebuked. "Hey, Val. Come on, now. We can at least help you."

Sam walked in just then and Val focused in on him. "How'd she die?"

Taken aback a little, the doctor gave him a discerning once over through the cell bars. "Val, I'd like to examine you."

"I ain't sick, Doc. Just tell me how she died!"

Sam met Johnny's eyes and the young man just shook his head. "She was stabbed in the chest and bled to death. I don't know yet a more specific time than between midnight and dawn. I'll let you know when I do."  

"What else? I saw the bruises. What else?"

"Val, please let me take a look at you," Sam implored.

Val stepped around Johnny and shouldered past Scott to face the physician. His voice was low, cold and menacing. "Just like anybody else that got killed in this town, Sam. Tell me everything there is to tell."

"She was beaten and ... abused."

Val grabbed the bars in a white knuckled grasp. Johnny moved to stand behind him and when Val's head dropped, he reached out.

Val rounded on him and pushed him into Scott who grabbed hold of his brother. "You Lancers go on about your business and I'll go about mine. I got a murder to investigate." With that, he stomped out of the room. Two seconds later, the front door slammed.

*

The room was deafeningly quiet for a moment.

"Son of a bitch!" Johnny cussed then headed after his friend.

Scott caught him at the door and grabbed his arm. "Wait a minute, Johnny. I don't think it's a good idea to tail him right now. He might shoot you."

"He ain't gonna shoot me, Scott, and I'm not goin home!" He took a breath and lowered his voice. "But, I want you to. Tell Murdoch what's happened and ... Teresa then, come back. I'm gonna need your help." Johnny looked at the door. "I'm not so sure I'm gonna be able to rein him in."

"I'm staying, Johnny. You're right, he's out of control. We need to get him someplace and sit on him a while."

Shaking his head, Johnny looked back at his brother. "That ain't gonna happen. All we can do is be with him. Follow him if he won't let us stay close. Right now, he might not shoot me but I can't speak for the rest of the town. Well, come on."

"Boys, just a minute," Sam called. "If things get too bad, drag him to my office. If I have to, I'll sedate him."

Johnny's shoulders went up at that but he didn't say anything. But, he knew if anyone tried that, they'd be fighting not only Val, but him, as well. He wouldn't let anyone do that to his friend no matter what happened.

Scott and Johnny stepped onto the boardwalk and found themselves being stared at. "Well, that didn't take long," Scott muttered.

"He'll be at Hannah's. Come on."

As they walked toward the store, Scott thought about Val. "How will he handle this, Johnny?"

"I don't know. Ain't like it's ever happened before. I've never known him to lose someone he loved, Scott. He ..." Johnny shook his head and said nothing else.

When they got to the store, the door was open and they stepped inside.


"Told you ta go home."

"I'm not goin anywhere, Val. We're here to help. Just tell us what you need."

Val tossed the print fabric back on the table and glared at them both. "Need to be left to my business."

Scott walked toward him. "Look, you can't hide behind your job and you can't do your job efficiently when you're feeling like this. I know you're ready to kill someone and you can't be blamed for that but you're not thinking clearly, Val. You need to give yourself some time. Johnny and I ..."

"You ain't the law here. If I can't do my job, then fire me. Won't stop me from doin this. I'm gonna find out who done this then I'm gonna watch 'im swing from a rope. I'm gonna be the one to pull the lever, Scott. But, before that, I'm gonna beat the livin hell outta him! That's all there is to it. Don't even think about tryin to stop me, neither."

Johnny stepped around his brother. "We ain't tryin to stop you. We're tryin to help you find the piece of shit that did this. You can yell at me all ya want, Val. You can hit me if ya want but I'm not leaving you alone like this. Amigos para la vida, Val."

"Fuck off, Madrid!" Val lunged for him, knocking Johnny back against the counter. He had his hands around his friend's throat and Val saw nothing but red.

Scott grabbed him and tried to pull him off. Val had a death grip on his brother and he was having a hard time getting those hands pried away.

Johnny just stood there and didn't move. He couldn't breathe but he stared at Val, waiting, hoping the man would look into his eyes. Val finally did and he stopped cold. Slowly, he released his grip as Johnny raised a hand to back Scott off.

Val's hands slid down Johnny's chest as the younger man sucked in some air. He rubbed at his throat but didn't make to move away. Val hung his head and took one step back, breathing heavily.

Scott stood there, unsure but ready for anything, he hoped.

Johnny reached out and tapped Val on the arm. When his friend looked up, he tried not to wince at the pain he saw there. "Scott will stay here and make sure no one comes inside. Let's me and you take a walk, just for a few minutes."  

*

Val nodded and let Johnny guide him outside. There were a dozen people on the boardwalk waiting and watching. At the front, was Mayor Higgs. He opened his mouth and Johnny gave him his best stare. Higgs clamped his mouth shut and Johnny took Val away.

They walked down the block then into an alleyway and around the back of the Feed and Seed before stopping. Johnny leaned against the building and stared off at the field.

"I'm sorry."

"I know. Don't worry about that. I'm gonna take you home soon, Val. And I mean to Lancer. For today anyway. I'll send some men to stand guard so no one gets near but you can't do anything right now. We'll start fresh tomorrow."

Val sniffed and turned his back. "Tomorrow," he muttered then sighed heavily and shook his head. "No, Johnny. I thank ya but, no. Trail will get cold soon."

Johnny looked to the heavens then stared at Val's back. "Got any ideas?"

"One. Fella was hangin around her store for months. Was gonna talk to Mrs. Haverty. Hannah said she knew who he was. She's out of town but due back today. And there was footprints in the ... the house. Need to take a closer look at those."

"I'll do that. You and Scott can check the store over. Okay?"

Val finally turned, his face flat, no emotion in his eyes. "Yeah, okay. Best get back before that crowd bowls your brother over."

Johnny nodded and pushed off the side of the building.

Val grabbed his arm. "I am sorry. Thanks for puttin up with me."

"Damn, Val. What else am I gonna do? I know what you're goin through. I just don't want you to ... you hafta deal with it at some point. That's all I'm sayin."

"Yeah, I reckon but, not right now. Let's go."

Johnny hesitated a second, wondering how the hell he was going to get Val through this. She was his chance and who knew if he'd ever get another? A man sometimes didn't even get that one in his life. He sighed and hurried to catch up.

*

As he rounded the corner, just catching up to Val's stride, Johnny groaned at the scene. People were still milling about, practically breaking their necks trying to see inside the store. And there was Scott, standing on the threshold, arms crossed over his chest and scowling at them all. He was speaking with the mayor but Johnny couldn't hear yet what he was saying. He also saw Val's shoulders go up even more and he maneuvered himself a step ahead, keeping his left shoulder just in front of Val's right as they got within earshot.

"And as I've already said, no one is going inside until or unless the sheriff agrees." Scott's tone was well-recognized by his brother. Firm, brooking no argument.

"Ain't nobody needs to go inside nothin. You folks need to go on about your business now and let me get to mine." Val had stopped once he'd wedged himself through the crowd and stood just behind the mayor.

Higgs turned and raised his chin. "As mayor, it's my responsibility to reassure the good people of town that there's no danger to them. I insist on being involved, Sheriff."

Johnny leaned toward the little man, hearing Val's teeth grinding. "I think you need to back off right about now, Mayor. This ain't your job and, until Val finds out what happened, no one *is* safe. The longer you stand here and politic, the longer that's gonna take."

"It isn't your place to tell me how to run this town, Johnny Lancer. You and your family don't run things around here."

Val growled and pushed past both Johnny and Higgs then stepped to the door. Scott moved aside to let him in then retook his stance.

"Are you stupid or somethin? You know what she was to Val. You don't want to be pushin him right now, Mayor, and I'm not gonna let you. Back off or I'll back you off!"

Scott watched the confrontation. Part of him wanted to step in and ease Johnny off but a bigger part said Johnny was absolutely right. He stood his ground and waited to see if Johnny could intimidate the sometimes mindless mayor.

Higgs stared into the darkened eyes and swallowed dryly. Sweat broke out on his forehead then his eyes darted to the citizens watching the stand off. He cleared his throat but said nothing.

Johnny could practically see what he was thinking. He didn't have time for this but, he also knew it would be a lot easier to get rid of these people if the mayor could save face. "What was that, Mayor? Yeah, you're absolutely right. Of course, the sheriff will keep you informed about his investigation." His eyes never softened though his voice did.

Higgs relaxed a little and nodded then spoke loudly enough for all to hear. "Very well, Johnny. Alright, everyone. You all need to move off now. You're impeding a murder investigation. The culprit will be brought to justice. That is my promise to the good citizens of Green River."

With loud murmuring, the crowd dispersed and Johnny blew out a breath as he stepped up to his brother who was smiling a little.

"Brother, I believe with a little practice, you could run for office."

"Yeah, cause I was this close," he put two fingers very close together, "to blowin his damned head off."

Scott cocked a brow. "Well, maybe not then."

"Stay with him, Scott. I'm goin upstairs to take a closer look at those footprints."

"You sure?"

Johnny lowered his eyes and sighed. "He can't do it and I promised him I would. Just don't ... don't push him about nothin but sit on him if ya can."

"I'm sure I can handle it, Johnny." Scott patted his shoulder.

Johnny wasn't sure about that at all but he nodded and headed around the back.

*

Scott looked to the heavens then went inside, closing the door tightly and locking it for good measure. He spied Val behind the counter, bent over and rummagin around.

"How'd Johnny get rid of 'im?"

"How else?" Scott snorted.

Val glanced up then nodded and went back to his chore.

Scott scanned the interior, noting nothing out of place other than the fabrics Val had been fiddling with earlier.

"What time is it, Scott?"

Pulling his pocket watch out, Scott noted the time. "Ten thirty." He couldn't believe it had been less than two hours since this all happened.

"Stage don't come in til noon. Mrs. Haverty's comin home today and I need to talk to her." Val quickly informed Scott of the woman's role in all this.

"Sounds like a good lead." Scott didn't know what else to say. He couldn't help wondering why Hannah didn't think the man's strange behavior important enough to mention until the second break-in. Well, he supposed she didn't think there was a threat. He had to wonder if anything else had happened she'd failed to tell Val.

Val stood up and ran a hand through his hair. "Nuthin!" He turned quickly to the door when he heard a knock, glaring at the interruption.

Scott opened the door for Sam and stepped aside.

"Val, I can tell you she most likely died between two and four o'clock in the morning. That means the ... the attack started maybe thirty to sixty minutes before that." Sam held his breath and waited to see the reaction but there wasn't one. Val just looked blankly at him for several beats.

"Did he ..." Val sucked in a breath, "rape her?"

Sam could only nod. He and Scott watched the sheriff turn his back to them for a few seconds then move toward them. As he reached them, Scott grabbed his arm. "Where are you going?"

"Upstairs."

"Johnny's checking that out, Val. You should let him finish."

"Johnny ain't the sheriff!"

"No, but he's the best tracker I know aside from you and Cipriano. If there's a sign to find, he'll find it and you know it. Let's go back to your office and wait for the stage."

"Scott's right, Val. Let your friends help you with this. There's no need to put yourself through that again," Sam implored.

*

Johnny studied the prints. They weren't from a boot, he could tell that. Shoes. City shoes. He frowned. Well, that means it was somebody from town, it seemed. As he knelt by the bloody print, he hung his head then rubbed his eyes. His mind wanted to go to Val and how he was going to get through this but he didn't want to go there. He pushed it back and looked up, into the bedroom. He spied something laying on the floor near the bed and slowly stood, moving to it. He squatted down and examined it then pulled his bandana out and picked the item up, turning it over and trying to figure out what the hell it was. Suddenly, it struck him.

Scott had one of these. He called it a tie clasp. Something cityslickers used when they got all fancied up. Scott had only worn one once since being in California. Johnny remembered well because he'd teased his brother about it. This one was different than Scott's, though. It had some kind of design on it he couldn't quite make out. Maybe Scott would know what it was. He wrapped it in the bandana and pushed it into his shirt pocket then started scouring the bedroom.

As he went around the bed, he stopped and stared at the dark, thick pool of blood; too much for the carpet to absorb. His stomach turned and he pictured her face in his mind. Eyes wide-opened, horror stamped forever in that expression. Her mouth had been open a little, a trail of blood dried down to her chin. He shuddered and tried to focus on the task at hand. He made himself look past the blood, around it and the area. Getting down on one knee, he looked under the bed then around the baseboards along the wall.

It took a while to see it but Johnny knew what it was the instant his eyes settled on it. He reached out and picked up the ring, a small diamond in the center of it and shook his head. How the hell did it get over there? With clarity, he realized the man must have taken it off her finger.

Johnny stood up slowly, wondering if this was some sort of revenge against Val or some crazy obsession over a woman this bastard could never have. He'd known men like that. Men who thought if they couldn't have a certain woman then nobody would have her. That made more sense to him especially knowing someone had been hanging around Hannah before she'd even met Val.

He slipped the ring on his left pinky finger, unable to get it over the knuckle, then went on with his search. After thirty minutes, he felt he'd covered the whole place, small as it was. He found nothing else. Before leaving, he grabbed a towel and paid it over the footprint, hoping to preserve it then, he headed out.

*

Scott leaned against the wall next to the door and watched Val pace, his head down. Occasionally, the sheriff would mumble something Scott couldn't hear. He only hoped Val wouldn't decide to tear out of there because, he couldn't let that happen. He also couldn't tell the man to relax or sit or anything else. He could not imagine the pain Val was in, hiding behind the rage broiling within.

Both men started as the door opened. Scott was the only one to relax when he saw Johnny. Val practically pounced on his friend, the unasked question heard loudly.

Johnny wasted no time. He hesitated only long enough to glance at the potbellied stove, craving coffee. "The print was from a shoe, not a boot." Pulling the bandana from his shirt, he opened it. "I found this. It's a tie clasp, I think but I don't know what this design means. Scott?"

Scott moved closer and looked closely at the small object for a second before recognizing it and grimacing. "It's a school clasp. Yale. That's in Connecticut."


"Ain't nobody around here from Connecticut," Val groused.

Scott gave a quick smile. "I'm not really from Boston but I went to Harvard. Is there anyone here that may have been sent east to school?"

Johnny and Val both shrugged. If there was any such person around, they both figured Scott would know better than they.

Val looked at the clasp again then he noticed Johnny's hand. He grabbed that hand, causing Johnny to drop the bandana and clasp with a light clink as it hit the floor.

"Easy, Val!"

"Give it to me!"

Johnny sighed and pulled his hand back. "I was going to, amigo. I found it on the floor by the wall. I think he ... took it off and threw it. That's what it looked like." He pulled the ring off and handed it to his friend.

Scott bent over and picked the clasp and bandana up, folding the evidence back inside the cloth as Val clenched the ring in his fist and turned away. Johnny caught his brother's eyes and shook his head sadly. He didn't want to discuss this evidence with Val and he wished the man would let them do this for him. He walked over to the stove and checked the coffee pot then grabbed a cup and poured. Sipping cautiously, he grimaced at the thick, strong brew.

"Maybe you should ride back to the ranch now and let Murdoch know what's happened, Scott."

"I guess that's the best thing. Mrs. Haverty's stage will be here soon." Scott gave his brother a look that Johnny read easily. He simply nodded as Scott grabbed his hat and settled it on his head. "I'll be back soon."

*

It was silent in the office once Scott closed the door behind him. Johnny tried to drink his coffee and figured it was enough to keep him going for a week. He poured another cup and walked over to Val who hadn't moved. Giving him a nudge, Johnny offered the cup but Val shook his head.

"What woman in her right mind would choose me? That's what I kept askin myself all the time. But, I stopped doin that here lately and just figured I should count my lucky stars. Even started thinkin about maybe havin a kid or two. Thought we'd name the first one John."

"That woulda been rough if it was a girl," Johnny tried.

Val shot him a look. "Don't worry. I reconsidered!"

Johnny lowered his eyes and said nothing. He wanted to comfort his friend but he knew there was no comfort now. Maybe, not for a very long time. The only thing keeping Val going right now was revenge and Johnny knew he had to stay close.

"What time is it?" Val asked after a moment.

"Almost noon."

Val nodded and headed for the door. "Best get to the stage depot."

"We got some time, Val. Stage is never on time, ya know. Why don't you drink some of this hell brew? Sit for a minute?"

Val stopped with his hand on the door knob, his head down. "Can't."

"Yeah," Johnny sighed out. "Look, we need to go easy here when you find out this fella's name. Don't mean he's the one that did this."

"I know that! Ain't like I'm gonna just shoot 'im on sight!"

Johnny closed his eyes a second before setting the cup down and walking over to Val. "Well, let's go then."

*

Murdoch held Teresa tightly as she cried. Scott watched and swallowed hard several times. He never could stand to see the girl cry for any reason but, this was so much more. Teresa's heart was breaking; the sound undeniable.

Scott looked at his father and saw the sorrow there. For some reason, it helped to know Murdoch felt grief for Val. Why Scott thought that, he didn't know. Other than it would be a great help to Johnny at some point.

Eventually, Teresa quieted. Wiping her nose, she looked at Scott with puffy eyes. "I hope Johnny and Val find whoever did this and kill him!"

Murdoch tightened his hold on the girl and shushed her. "Why don't you lie down a while, sweetheart?"

She nodded and stood then walked over to Scott and hugged him before heading for her room.

"Dear God, in heaven. How is Val?" Murdoch asked.

"A mess. He's been so angry. He attacked Johnny."

Murdoch came to his feet, his hands curling into fists.

Scott waved him off. "He didn't really know what he was doing. Once he looked at Johnny he stopped right away. He's just so torn up, Murdoch."

Relaxing a little, the rancher sighed. "I can imagine. No, I don't have to imagine."

Scott cocked a brow. "It's not the same, Sir. Val found her."

Closing his eyes briefly, Murdoch nodded. "What can I do?"

"Nothing except understand Johnny and I are going to stay with Val until this is resolved. I've never seen my brother truly afraid before, Sir. Today, I saw real fear in his eyes. I can't leave him or Val."

"Of course not, son. Just let me know if you need anything at all."

*

Val paced the boardwalk, glowering at anyone who dared pass him by. Hands clasped behind his back and shoulders stooped, he stared at the wooden planks as he moved across them. Every five minutes or so, he walked over to the window and asked again. Fearing for his life, the clerk shakily answered the same every time. There'd been no word the stage was delayed.

Johnny leaned against a support beam and watched Val, feeling about as useful as a one-legged dog. Finally, he heard the unmistakable sound of the stage coming and perked up, moving to stand close to Val who had moved to the edge of the boardwalk.

Dust plumed around them as the stage came to a stop. The clerk came out and set a step stool down by the door before opening it. Val watched closely as two people disembarked before Mrs. Haverty came into view.

Travel-worn and dusty, the woman tried to brush some dust off even as she made her way onto the boardwalk. Looking around, she waited for her bag to be unloaded. Val didn't. He walked right up to her.

"Mrs. Haverty."

"Oh, hello, Sheriff. How are you?"

Val ground his teeth. "Ma'am, I need you to come over to my office with me. It's important and it can't wait." Even as he spoke, he took her arm, just above the elbow.

Flustered, the woman looked back toward the stage. "Well, my bag."

"I've got it, ma'am," Johnny said as he stepped up and extended his arms toward the driver offloading.

"Come with me, ma'am," Val said and pulled her to walk with him.

"Well, I must say, this isn't the greeting I expected, Sheriff. Not that I expected one, of course. My husband never takes a lunch on Mondays. The bank is always so busy on Monday." She had to run a little to catch up with his gait, holding her hat on her head with one hand as Val kept firm hold of the other arm.

He opened the office door and pulled her in, then released her. "Sit down." He turned and looked at her, then added, "please, ma'am."

She huffed a little and sat down, trying to straighten her hat now sitting off kilter on the side of her head. She gave it up and simply removed the hat, trying to smooth her hair down.

Johnny walked in then and set her bag beside the chair then perched on the edge of the desk as Val settled in his chair.

"What in the world is going on, gentlemen?"

*

Val clasped his hands atop the desk and stared at her. "I need you to tell me about a man that was hangin around Hannah Brown's store. She said you knew him, even called him by name."

She frowned and shook her head, completely confused. Then, her eyes alit. "Oh, you mean George McIntyre. The Widow McIntyre's son. Yes, I saw him at Hannah's more than once. I thought it odd but then, George is a little odd. Ever since he came home, the only time I've seen him out is in Hannah's store. She's such a lovely girl, Sheriff. You are a very lucky man."

Val lowered his head then raised a hand and scrubbed it across his face.

Johnny winced and leaned over, touching her arm. "Where's George been all this time? I didn't even know the widow had a son."

She laughed a little. "Then, you haven't spent more than a minute with her. She's always going on about George. How smart he is and bragging how he graduated top of his class. Of course, it took him six years to get through school so I find that hard to believe."

Johnny's stomach clenched. He saw Val's head come up. "What school was that, ma'am?"

"Why, Yale. She's so proud of him. Mind you, the man hasn't worked a lick since he's been home."

Using all his restraint and praying Val would stay seated, Johnny went on. "How long's he been back?"

She looked upward and twisted her mouth as if in thought. "I suppose it's been four, maybe five months now. Why? What is going on here?"

"Nothin." Val said brusquely then stood up, scraping the chair against the floor in his haste. "Thanks for you help, ma'am. You can go now."

Mrs. Haverty stood slowly and stared openly at the man. "Well!"

Johnny came to his feet and picked up her bag, handing it off to her. "Thanks for the help, ma'am." He took her arm and guided her out the door. All the while, the woman kept looking back over her shoulder at Val.

Johnny closed the door behind her and turned quickly. "We need to go easy here, Val."

"Do we? She done told us everything we need ta know!"

"It all sounds bad but, we still have to be sure."

Val came around his desk and walked over to stand in front of Johnny. "How can you be so calm? He went to Yale. We got that tie thing. She ain't never seen him anywhere but Hannah's store. He's useless, from what she said."

"From what she said, Val. Look, I know how it looks and I'm with ya. All I'm sayin is take it slow. We'll get him. I swear it."

*

Scott dismounted in front of Val's office, noting Mrs. Haverty heading toward the bank. He surmised the conversation had been had with her so he quickly went inside to find Johnny and Val squared off again. "Well?"

"George McIntyre. The widow's son. Been at Yale the past six years and just got back a few months ago. She says he's odd and don't work. I'm ready ta go but your brother here has other ideas." Val never took his eyes off Johnny as he answered.

"That ain't what I said, Val. I said go easy. We have to be sure!"

Scott looked at them each in turn then took another step closer. "That sounds like good advice, Val. Just go over there and talk to him. See what he has to say for himself."

Val glanced at Scott then back at Johnny. "Fine. Let's go!"

Johnny and Scott walked behind Val as he stormed toward the widow's house near the north end of town. He turned a corner onto a tree-lined street looking like a man ready for a gunfight in Johnny's eyes.

Softly, Johnny spoke to his brother. "Go in with him. I'll check out the back of the house."

Scott nodded, glad his brother had been able to keep his wits about him. He didn't know how. He did know how Johnny felt about Val so it pleased him his brother was taking a critical stance here. Reviewing the evidence and not jumping to conclusions was the way to build this case. Val had said the guilty party would swing; that he would pull the lever. Scott hoped that meant a trial would happen first.

As they reached the porch of the moderate white clapboard home, Val stopped and turned to them both. "Don't get in my way."

"I'm goin around back just in case. Let Scott go in with you. Ya know how that old bat is, Val. Best to try and be nice at first until we know if he's even home."

Val nodded sharply then headed for the door. Scott sighed and followed him as Johnny went to the back door.

*

The Widow McIntyre opened the door, her surprise unconcealed. "Well, Scott Lancer and Sheriff Crawford. What a surprise! What may I do for you?"

"Your son home?"

Scott rolled his eyes and stepped up beside Val. "We'd like to have a word with George, ma'am."

She looked suspiciously at them. "What's this about?"

"Well," Scott spoke quickly, "I understand George went to Yale. I may have a proposition for him."

"Oh? How intriguing. You know, it's been so hard for George to find employment in such a small town. But, why is the sheriff here?"

"Oh, Val's just helping me with another matter. We decided to stop here first since it's on our way. May we?" Scott asked politely, even smiled at the woman.

She smiled back at him and opened the door wider to allow them entry. "I'll get George for you then make some tea. Please wait in the parlor." She headed down the hall toward the back of the house then called behind her, "Oh, Sheriff, do tell Hannah I'll be to see her end of the week for my dress."

Val glowered at her then stalked into the parlor. He managed to pace the small room in ten seconds before rounding on Scott. "Ain't you Mr. Sweet and Light?"

"She never would have let us in with you being so rude to her," Scott reasoned.

"I'm always rude to her."


"I know and that's why we had to be nice. Don't think for a moment I enjoyed that, Val. Just try to hold onto your restraint a while longer. And, for God's sake, don't attack the man as soon as he walks in the room."

Val hmmphed but promised nothing.

Mrs. McIntyre came back in looking a little pale. "Well, gentlemen, I'm sorry. I was sure George was in his room. He doesn't seem to be home. I hope you can come back another time. I know he'd be very interested in any proposal you have, Mr. Lancer."

Val took one step toward her as Scott stepped between them. "Well, you wouldn't happen to know where he may have gone, do you?"

"No, as I said, I thought he was home." She squinched her face. "And I know I closed that window in his room today after I cleaned it."

She turned quickly as the two men bolted out the door.

*

Johnny wandered back and forth in front of the back door, watching like a hawk for any movement. He stopped and craned his neck when he heard a noise. Moving quietly and quickly to the corner of the house, he watched as the window opened wider and a leg appeared. Johnny stood perfectly still as the next leg along with a grunt and a curse issued forth. Then, he saw a backside and grimaced, wondering if it would fit through the opening.

George McIntyre dropped to the ground and staggered, trying to keep his footing and barely succeeding. He wiped his sweaty forehead then turned and took one step, nearly walking right into Johnny.

"Howdy, George. Goin somewhere?"

The short, plump man took a step back and licked his lips. "Just, um, going for a stroll."

Unimpressed, Johnny stared at him, letting his right hand drop easily to his gun. "Uh huh. Might've been easier to use the door."

"Well," he laughed nervously, "my mother isn't the easiest person to get away from."

"Yeah? Well, that may be but, guess what?" Johnny took two steps closer and leaned in, their faces an inch apart. "I'm impossible to get away from."

He licked his lips again. "W..w..why would I want to get away from you? I don't even know you."

"You know who I am, though, right?"

"Of course. Johnny Lancer, isn't it?" George's voice shook as he swiped a hand over his forehead again.

Johnny shook his head slowly. "Nooo. Not today, George. Today, I'm Johnny Madrid and I'm really, really pissed."

He backed up until he was pressed against the building. George looked left then right then back at Johnny. Smoldering eyes stared at him, the grim, stony face ungiving. He swallowed hard. "I've done nothing to you."

"I sure hope not, mister." Johnny heard footsteps coming quickly toward them but he didn't move, didn't even look as Val and Scott slowed to a stop.

Val moved closer, nudging Johnny away a little as he leered at the man. "Me and you got some talkin to do, mister."

*

Scott still wasn't sure how he'd gotten elected for this job. He was perfectly capable of keeping Val from killing McIntyre as he took him to the jail. No one told him he'd have to endure his own special kind of torture. As he searched George's room, he tried to tune out the shrieking, distraught woman but it was proving impossible. Finally, he reached his limit and whirled around, glaring at her as she stood wringing her hands and standing in the doorway.

"Mrs. McIntyre, I don't pretend to enjoy doing this but I am going to do it. Your son is a suspect in a crime and Sheriff Crawford has enlisted my brother's and my help in his investigation. That's all there is to it. Now, please, let me do this as quickly as possible so I can get out of here."

"But, why can't you tell me what he's accused of? My son is a good boy. He graduated top of his class at Yale. He's intelligent and certainly doesn't need to commit crimes!"

Scott returned to his task. "Sometimes, men commit crimes because they can not for any need."

She stepped further into the room. "I insist you tell me what he's accused of!"

"At the moment, I don't believe he's been accused of anything. The sheriff just wants to talk to ..." Scott trailed off as he pulled his hand from the back of a drawer. He held the necklace up and looked closely at it. He knew it was Hannah's. She wore it every time he'd ever seen her. It was a cameo on a thin leather string. He didn't know the significance of it but had always assumed it probably belonged to her mother. The string was broken, frayed edges marking a violent removal.

"What is that? I've never seen that before."

Scott turned, his face pained. "Are you sure? Not here but you're sure you've never seen anyone wearing this necklace?"

She shook her head slowly back and forth, confused by all that had transpired.

"Well, I have." Scott tucked the necklace into his pocket and continued his search with more fervor. In short order, he found a scarf. He couldn't identify it as Hannah's but Val might be able to. He set it aside and finished, finding nothing else.

For once, the Widow McIntyre did not ramble on. He left her crying in her parlor and bemoaning her poor child as he headed straight for Sam's office.

*

Val sat in a chair beside George McIntyre as Johnny stood nearby, arms folded across his chest but coiled and ready for anything.

"Where were ya last night?" Val started.

"Home, of course. Sheriff, I don't understand any of this. What is going on?"

"Ya don't understand, huh? How come you were climbin out your bedroom window when I was at your house?"

George shifted a little and Val leaned in. "I ... as I told your friend, I wanted to go for a walk and my mother isn't the easiest person to get away from."

"So, you was home all night?"

"Yes."

Val leaned back and looked him up and down with disgust. "When's the last time ya saw Hannah Brown?"

George swallowed and licked his lips. "Who?"

Val launched at him, grabbing him by the shirtfront and bringing him to his feet, shaking him hard. "You know damned well who!"

"I ... I don't know! Days!"

Val released him with a shove. "Sit down!" He sat there, unable to think clearly. Val wanted to shake the truth from the man. No, beat it out of him. It took everything he had not to and he wondered why he bothered.

"Why do you spend so much time at the dress shop, George?" Johnny asked in a soft voice.

Val looked back at him as George focused on Johnny, too.

"I don't think I need to explain that to you."

Johnny shrugged. "It's just strange, don't ya think? I mean, a man hangin around a woman's store so much. Makes a body wonder if he's admiring the ladies or the clothes." He grinned wickedly.

"How dare you? I certainly was not admiring the clothing!"

"Then, it was the ladies or, one lady, you were admiring. Well, she's easy to admire. Ain't nothin wrong with that. Only thing is, you never even spoke to her. Never introduced yourself or asked her out. How come, George. Ain't ya got no guts?"

McIntyre clamped his mouth shut, his face turning bright red as his eyes dropped to the floor.

Johnny walked around and knelt next to his chair. "Yeah, I see that. Ain't easy askin a woman out especially, if ya know she's gonna turn ya down. And especially, if she's already taken. Must've been hard to watch her bein courted by another man and her likin it. Must've made ya madder than a wet hen. I'll bet you just wanted to tell her how you feel about her. Was just about to bust a gut to make her see how she should be with you. Ain't that right, George?"

He said nothing but Johnny saw his breathing getting faster. "Boy, it's hard. What if she laughs right in your face? That's hard ta take. Ever had a woman laugh in your face, George? I'll bet ya have and I'll bet you never wanted it to happen again. But, you had to try, at least. You went to see Hannah last night, didn't you? You waited til it was late so you'd be sure she was alone, right? You tried to make her understand. But, she didn't laugh at you, did she? She felt sorry for ya. She tried to let you down easy but that was even worse than bein laughed at."

George's head snapped up. "What would you know about it? You, a Lancer. All the women swoon over you and your brother." He bit his lip and looked away. Taking a deep breath, he said, "I was home all night last night. My mother will tell you."

Johnny was about to shoot the man just on principle when the door opened.

*

Scott walked in with Sam, his eyes lighting on Val who was staring McIntyre down. Johnny stood up when he saw the look on his brother's face. Scott kept his voice low when he spoke. "Get him in a cell, Johnny."

Needing no further words of explanation, Johnny walked over and grabbed the cell keys then jerked George from his seat, shoving him to the back room and into a cell. He returned as Val was asking what had happened.

Scott produced the necklace and handed it over.

"That's Hannah's. Where'd you find it?"

Scott looked forlornly at Val. Tossing his head toward the back room, he answered. "In his drawer. I found this, too." He supplied the scarf and Val rubbed it between his fingers. "Is it Hannah's?"

Val nodded and glanced up at him. His voice cracked when he answered. "I gave it to her as a present bout a month ago."

Scott sighed and continued his report. "The necklace is broken. I asked Sam to come because there's a mark on the back of her neck consistent with having the necklace jerked off."

"The size matches and I found a small piece of leather embedded ..." Sam stopped when he saw Val's face blanch white.

Clenching his fists, his face turning to granite, Val turned, drawing his gun as he did.

Johnny was standing right behind him and moved slightly to completely block his path. "No, Val. We'll do it right and watch him swing. You'll pull the lever, remember?"

Val's hold on the gun tightened and he brought it up slightly, causing it to point at Johnny's midsection. Scott moved forward but Johnny looked past Val and shook his head. "This is how it has to be, amigo. This is how she'd want it done. Don't do somethin that'll get you hung. Hannah would hate that."

Val looked into his eyes, unseeing.

"It's over, Val. You've got him and he will pay, I swear it. Now, it's time to take care of Hannah."

The sheriff's hand began to shake and Johnny gently took hold of the barrel of the gun, lowering it then slipping it from Val's grasp. Scott breathed again and took a step back as Val slumped forward. Johnny put an arm around him then looked at the other to men, tossing his head toward the door. Scott nodded and turned, following Sam outside.

*

Johnny eased Val into a chair then knelt in front of him, setting the gun on the floor. He kept a hand on Val's shoulder, massaging the tight muscle there. "You need to think about how you want to do this. You're the only family she had left. I'd be proud if you wanted to lay her to rest on Lancer land, amigo. Someplace pretty where you can visit without folks gawkin."

Val snuffled, a half sniff, half hiccough and nodded his head.

"Maybe, near Angel Creek? Want me to go with you to Mortimer's?"

Val looked up quickly then wiped a sleeve across his nose. "Yeah, thanks," he said in a tight voice.

Johnny nodded then took a deep breath. "We need to find someone to stay here, keep watch. Scott can do it right now but then, until the trial ..."

Val's head slowly came up and he frowned. "Ain't never needed help before."

"I know but this is different, Val. It'd be better ..."

"You think I'm gonna kill him when nobody's around?"

"I think you ain't in no shape to be guarding any prisoner. I can ask some of the hands at Lancer to volunteer. I'm willing to bet you'll have more than you'd need. Val, you can't do this and I think you know that."

Val straightened up, shrugging Johnny's hand off. "Then, you don't know me like ya thought you did, Johnny."

"Val, this ain't like anything else you've ever faced! You loved her and he killed her! Jesus! Give yourself a break here."

Standing up, Val walked away from his friend, closer to the door. "We need to get going. Get this done."

Johnny sighed and came to his feet. "Fine."

*

Scott looked up when the door to the sheriff's office opened and he couldn't hide the grimace from his face. Why was it always him? He sighed and stood up.

"Where is Sheriff Crawford?" the Widow McIntyre demanded.

"He's at the undertakers making arrangements to bury his murdered fiancé," Scott responded flatly. He was sure he'd go to hell for the satisfaction he got from seeing the woman flinch.

She faltered then pulled her shoulders back. "Where is my son?"

"In a cell where he's staying."

"I want to see him this instant!"

Scott sighed again and opened a drawer, pulling the keys out and walking over to unlock the back room. He waved a hand toward the back.

She paused at his side and looked up at him. "You're wrong. George would never do such a thing."

"Then why did he have her necklace and scarf?"

She lowered her eyes for a second before glaring at him. "That is precisely what I intend to find out." With that, she made to pass by him.

Scott took hold of her arm. "I'm sorry, you'll have to leave the bag."

"Don't be ridiculous!"

"Mrs. McIntyre," he began, feeling more tired than he had in years, "if you want to see your son, you'll have to leave the bag. It's up to you."

She hesitated then made her decision, thrusting the bag at him and walking past.

Scott rolled his eyes, left the door open and went back to the desk. He didn't pause a second as he opened the purse and searched it. Nothing there, but he wasn't betting on it staying that way. He did wonder to what lengths she'd go to save her 'precious' son.

*

Johnny watched his friend like a hawk. As they stood on the street outside the undertakers, he knew how much it was costing Val to keep the stone visage intact. He also knew Val would never let anyone see him grieve. Well, he hoped that was almost no one. Eventually, and Johnny figured sooner rather than later, Val would break. He hoped to God he was there when it happened. He laid a gentle hand on Val's back. "Come on, amigo. Let's get back to your office and see Scott."

Val took in a long, deep breath and nodded. Head down, he turned toward the jail.

Johnny's eyes scanned the streets as they walked. He saw everyone staring at Val, most with sympathetic looks, a few just curious. He gave those few a good looking at as he passed.

Val walked in and tossed his hat somewhere in the vicinity of the peg where he normally put it. Johnny scooped it off the floor and hung it up. Scott stood and moved away from the desk, watching his brother for any indication there'd been a problem. Johnny just wore the same sad look he had most of the day, though.

"His mother's in there with him."

Val stopped and looked hard at Scott. "She carryin anything."

"No, Val. I made her leave her bag. It's on the desk and there's nothing of importance in it."

Johnny grinned for the first time since finding his friend that morning. "I was thinkin maybe Shep could watch things until we get somebody from the ranch, Val. We should go on and head out."

Val turned and cocked his head to one side. "Head out? Head out where?"

"Lancer."

"Now, why the hell would I wanna go to Lancer?"

"Because," Scott broke in, "that's where the people who care about you are and, you'll have some privacy."

"Got plenty of privacy at my place. More. I don't need no babysitters, Scott. Just leave me be."

"Val, you need to pick a place by Angel Creek, too," Johnny said gently.

"You pick it out, Johnny. I trust ya. I can't do that right now anyways."

Both Lancers were at a loss but neither wanted to leave Val alone. Johnny twisted his mouth and gave Scott one nod. "Okay, Val. I reckon you do need some time to yourself. Still, we'll get Shep and you can go on home. Try to rest if you can."

"Yeah," Val sighed and rubbed a hand over his head. "Yeah, that'd be alright."

"I'll go over to the saloon and talk to Shep. I'm sure there won't be a problem," Scott offered then took his leave, giving his brother a quizzical look as he passed by.

"I'll stay here, Val. You go on."

Val snorted. "You mean so's I don't run into the Widow? Reckon I don't want to be doin that." He looked up at Johnny. "Thanks for today, I know it wasn't easy. I wasn't easy."

Johnny waved a hand. "Go on home. I'll see ya tomorrow."

*

As soon as Val walked outside, the Widow McIntyre came out of the back room, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. When she saw Johnny, her face contorted with anger. "You! This is all your doing, isn't it? You convinced them my boy was guilty. Well, you're not going to get away with it. George will have the best lawyer in the state. My son would never hurt another person let alone such a sweet girl as Hannah."

Johnny just looked flatly at her. "I don't care what you think of me, ma'am. That 'boy' as you call him, is a full grown man with some peculiar likes. Ever wonder why he spent so much time hanging around in a woman's dress shop?"

"Just because a man is sweet on a girl doesn't make him a killer." She smirked and added,   "You should know what makes a man a killer!"

Johnny smiled at her. "Sure do." He paused then frowned at her. "You knew George was sweet on Hannah?"

"Of course, I knew. We talked about it several times. We were both aghast when she became engaged to that ... sheriff." She wrinkled her nose as if she'd just smelled something bad.

Shaking his head, Johnny sighed. "Well, I reckon you're the one who sent him over to see her last night?"

"George needed to tell her ..." she stopped and bit her lip. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Dios! He killed her and you're makin excuses for him. Do you know what he did to her? He beat the hell out of her, took her then stabbed her in the heart!"

She shook her head as she moved around him, giving him a wide berth. Pale and perspiring, she just kept shaking her head. Then, she put her hand to her mouth and bolted out the door.

Johnny stumbled over to the desk, leaning heavily against it as the full weight of what happened finally hit him with his own words. He felt sick to his stomach and he wrapped an arm around his midsection. Taking slow, deep breaths, he tried to quell the nausea. Finally, it subsided and he looked toward the back room. He'd never been so tempted in his life to kill another man. Not even ... he stopped and hitched a breath.

"Johnny?"

He turned quickly and stared at Scott, stunned he'd hadn't heard the door open.

Scott walked over quickly and took his arm. "Hey, are you okay?"

Johnny nodded then looked behind Scott. "Hey, Shep. Thanks for doing this," he whispered.

The bartender ambled in. He was taller than Murdoch, built like a bull and able to kick the ass of every man in the valley, all were convinced. Yet, he was also one of the kindest men Johnny had ever met. He nodded his bald head, his soft brown eyes showing his sympathy. "Not a problem, Johnny. Just real sorry for Val. You take your time sending relief. Already got the saloon covered for the night."

"Come on, brother. Time to go home." Scott wrapped an arm around Johnny's shoulders as the younger man straightened his stance.

"His mother was here but she's gone now. It's probably best no one sees him again today," Johnny told.

"Bess will bring some supper for him later. Ain't nobody gettin back there while I'm here. Don't worry bout the other sheriffin, neither. I got some experience there. I'll keep an eye on the town."

"You're a good man, Shep. Thanks," Scott said as he helped his brother to the door.

*

Johnny settled on the wagon bench as Scott drove toward home. He was quiet and Scott kept close vigil. When he'd walked into Val's office, he'd thought Johnny was going to pass out. It occurred to him now, neither of them had eaten anything since breakfast and it was fast approaching supper time. Of course, he knew that had little to do with Johnny's condition at the moment. Scott surmised it had all caught up with him in one hit, knocking his brother off his normal even keel.

All day, Johnny had been a rock for Val, keeping calm himself and doing a more than fair job of keeping Val from going over the edge. He felt his brother needed to hear that, too. "I'm impressed, brother."

Johnny's head came up. He blinked then turned to Scott. "With what?"

"You. The way you handled Val and everything else today. You must be bone tired and starving. I can't believe how calm you were when Val was choking you and again, when he drew his gun."

"I told ya he wouldn't shoot me. Never said he wouldn't strangle me. Might even belt me before it's over. Scott, when we get home, I'm getting Barranca and going over to Val's."

Scott looked sharply at him. "I'm not so sure that's a good idea, Johnny. The man really does need some time alone."

"I know. I'm not going inside but, right now, I'm not so sure he won't do something stupid. Especially, once he's had time to let it really sink in. So, I'm gonna camp out where I can keep a watch on his place."

"Alright. But, I'm going with you. We both need sleep so we can stay sharp."

Johnny shook his head. "I don't know, brother. Murdoch..."

"Murdoch will be fine with it," Scott interrupted. "He said to do what we needed to do and offered any help we wanted or needed."

Johnny sighed and stretched his legs out. "How'd Teresa take it?"

Scott glanced sidelong at him. "About how you'd expect."

He grimaced with that. "I was ready to go in there and kill him when you showed up. I was gonna do it, Scott."

Closing his eyes for a second, Scott didn't know how to respond to that. Finally, he came up with, "I don't believe that. I'm sure you wanted to, so do I but, it's not in you to commit murder, Johnny."

Johnny said nothing, not wanting to argue with what Scott couldn't believe but, he knew he could and would do it if he had to.

*

Val sat in his leather easy chair and stared at the wall, a bottle of rye grasped tightly in his right hand. Occasionally, he lifted the bottle to his lips and took a swig then went back to staring. With his mind blanked out, memories started creeping in. Ones of his childhood of all things, his so-called father, leaving what his old man laughingly called a home when he was fourteen and striking out on his own. He recalled the day he first picked up a gun and decided to use it to make a living. The years after that converged into one long, thick and muddled event. Until the day he walked into a saloon in a hot, dry and dusty small town in Texas. He couldn't even recall the name of the place. Wasn't sure he ever really knew it and didn't care. What mattered was who walked in a day later.

That was the first day in a very long time he'd laughed honestly about anything. The first day he'd seen those cold, hard eyes, and the first day he'd seen those eyes soften with humor. That was the day he'd met his best friend for life. It was a good memory. One of too few in his past. Riding with Johnny had been mostly a joy, though. But, it had ended. Everything ended. That thought brought him to his present state and he lifted the bottle, taking a longer pull this time.

He should've known better. History was a telling teacher if a body would listen. He hadn't listened. He'd let himself get caught up in thinkin things could go smooth for a change. Since he'd come to Green River, he'd done nothin but fight with that asshole Higgs and ignored the smirking remarks from the citizens. Course, they were all real glad to have him around when there was trouble. Until then, most didn't pay him no mind. That was alright, it really was. But, sometimes, they forgot he knew how to do this job well. That's when things started botherin him and he'd always turned to Johnny then.

Until Hannah came along. He'd started turnin to her lately and it was a whole lot easier. He could tell her things he couldn't say to Johnny. Even with his best friend, he could never admit how much the talk got to him sometimes. Johnny knew, of course. Didn't need to hear the words to know what Val was thinkin. Still, it helped to say it out loud from time to time. With Hannah, he could do that and not feel stupid or embarrassed.

But, it was a pipe dream and he shoulda known it. She was too perfect to be real. But, she was very real. At least, for a while. Now, she was just another memory in a long line. Only trouble was, she was the most painful memory and he knew that would never change. Not ever. Now, he had to watch 'em put her in the ground. But, he'd never bury her.

Val swiped a hand down his face then pulled his head back and studied the palm with surprise. It was wet and he blinked a few times. He didn't even know he'd been crying. Sniffing and snorting, he took another long pull from the bottle and wondered what Johnny was doin. Probably pickin out a nice place for Hannah to rest, he imagined. He trusted the man to do a good job of it. Johnny had a real soft heart sometimes and Val knew how hard he'd been on his friend today. He also knew he didn't need to apologize again but, he would anyway. Sometime or other.

He sighed heavily and shifted in the chair. He kinda wished Johnny was here right now but then, he was glad to be alone. Hell, he didn't want anyone seein him cry like a girl! Course, Johnny had already seen him do that once before so it wasn't like it'd be a new thing. He scrubbed at his scalp with his free hand then let it flop back on the arm rest. I'm thinkin crazy now. Well, reckon I got the right.

He stood up suddenly and stalked around the room then went to the front door and jerked it open, stepping onto the small porch and taking a deep breath of the cooler night air. Val opened his eyes and sniffed the air again. Frowning, he stepped into the yard and peered into the dark. His lips quirked a second before he shook his head slowly.

"Might as well come on in! Hard floor's at least better'n the hard ground!" He turned and went back inside, leaving the front door open.

*

Johnny blew softly on the small fire then started making a pot of coffee. He glanced up when Barranca nickered, frowning at his horse then shushing him.

Scott walked over to the animals and patted Barranca's neck then headed to the small campfire with his bulging saddlebags. As he squatted down, he started emptying the contents. "I think Maria packed a seven course meal in here."

Smiling a   little, Johnny repositioned the coffee pot over the flames then sat back, leaning against his saddle and staring up through the trees at the stars.

Scott saw him and smiled. "Nice night. No rain, at least."

"Don't push our luck, Boston. It ain't been too good today as it is."

He heard the sadness in his brother's voice and Scott paused in his chore for a second before finishing his meal preparations. "What do you think he's doing right now?"

Johnny lowered his eyes and looked at his brother. "Sittin in that chair with a bottle and his memories." He crossed his ankles and his arms.

"Tell me what to expect."

Frowning, Johnny shook his head. "What do you mean?"

Scott stopped and looked directly at his brother. "Val. How will he deal with this after the initial shock? I mean, will he leave, hole up, what?"

Johnny shrugged. "I'm not sure. He'll probably hole up a while but I don't think he'll leave."

"Would you?" Scott asked in a whisper.

"Yeah, most likely. For a while, at least."

Scott only nodded and handed off a plate. Johnny leaned forward to take it then settled back, looking at the meal with disinterest.

"Eat something, brother. You need your strength."

"Verdad," Johnny whispered and forked a bite of pot roast into his mouth.

They ate quietly, neither in the mood to talk further at the moment. Scott kept a wary eye on his brother and noted Johnny played with his food more than he ate. Finally, his brother leaned forward and tossed most of the meal into the fire.

"Well, that was enough to keep you going for a minute."

"Don't mother me, Scott." The words were said tiredly, without anger or irritation.

Scott stood and held out his hand for the plate then went about cleaning up. Johnny sat and stared at the fire for a moment before helping him. Once the tins were packed away, they sat silently sipping the last of the coffee. Johnny kept looking at the trees to his left, in the direction of Val's house less than a quarter mile away. He knew the fire couldn't be seen through all the trees and underbrush unless it was blazing but it also meant he couldn't see the house. He would still hear a horse nearby, and that had to be good enough. Val deserved his privacy but he also deserved a friend nearby should he want one.

"Will you tell me how you met Val?" Scott's voice broke the near silence of the night and Johnny looked up at him blankly then, a small smile lit his face.

"Might as well. It'll pass the time." Before he could begin, though, they heard the sheriff's voice loud and clear. Johnny chuckled then stood up. "Some other time, Boston. Why don't you go on home? We'll be fine."

Scott got to his feet. "Are you sure? He's still armed."

"Yeah, we'll be okay. I'll see you tomorrow."

Scott nodded then his face fell somber. "Get him to the ranch early so you can clean up for the funeral."

Johnny picked up his saddle, pausing briefly with the words then hefting it to his shoulder. He nodded then went to saddle Barranca.

*

He walked to the small house, having kept a loose cinch to his saddle so he could easily slip it off. He led Barranca to the barn and did just that, stabling him beside Milagro. Johnny checked Val's horse, happy he'd seen to the animal. It meant he wasn't completely in a daze. At least he was still managing the daily chores of life. Sometimes, a man could drown in his sorrow if he allowed it. Johnny had been more worried than he let anyone see about such a thing happening with Val.

He saw the front door standing wide open and stepped into the threshold, leaning against the frame and staring at his friend. Val was just as he'd told Scott the man would be but he was a little surprised he'd been that right. "I must be turnin into one of them crystal ball gazers. I told Scott this is exactly where you'd be and what you'd be doin." He pushed off and walked on in, closing the door.

"Well, ya know me!" Val sneered and took another swig of rye.

Johnny walked to the table and let his saddlebags slide off his shoulder as he laid them gently on the surface. Flipping open one side, he pulled out a bottle of tequila. "What the hell ya drinkin that slop for?" he asked as he handed the bottle over.

Val took the bottle but he didn't trade off the rye. He just slid the new bottle in the chair at his side. "Scott with ya?"

"He was. I sent him home since I won't be alone in the dark now." Johnny grabbed a chair from the table and swung it around, sitting backwards on it, his arms folded over the back. "You gonna share that?" He nodded at the whiskey.

Val looked at the bottle and considered then handed it over and opened the tequila, glancing at the label and snorting. "The good stuff, huh? Spared no expense for the poor slob."

Johnny raised a brow then took a drink. He sighed as the rye burned a path down his gullet then he eyed Val sideways. "Might be a good idea to go easy for just tonight. We need to be at the ranch early tomorrow so we can clean up. After that, we'll get stinkin drunk."

"Ya know what the problem with good ideas is? They ain't all that good. Besides, you don't get stinkin drunk."

Shrugging, Johnny replied nonchalantly. "Well, I will tomorrow night."

Val hmmphed and took a long drink of tequila then sat the bottle on the floor with a thud. "Well, I'm goin ta bed. Do whatever ya want. There's blankets in the chest. You know where everything is."

Johnny lowered his head and smiled a little. "Yeah, sure. 'Night, Val."

*

He laid awake most of the night listening to Val mutter and moan in his sleep. He cringed a little as he heard a small sob escape. Johnny was torn between waking the man and letting him at least get some sleep. He finally decided Val would not be happy if he woke him because he was dreaming.

As dawn broke, Johnny jerked awake having dozed off not long before. He rubbed his face and sat up, wincing as his back protested the hard floor. Shit! was his first thought of the day. He figured it was likely to be the best one. Scrambling to his feet, he stretched then went to the kitchen to make coffee. He sighed and shook his head as he grabbed the skillet then he stopped dead in his tracks.

He hung his head and leaned against the sink. A coffee pot. Such a stupid thing. It was going to be a joke gift to Val. His infamous skillet coffee had nearly been Johnny's end more than once. He'd thought it would be so funny to present it to his friend sincerely then watch Val's reaction. Now, it seemed liked a mean trick.

"Head hurtin?"

He swung around, saw Val in the doorway and took a deep breath to slow his heart. He blew out the breath and glared at the man for a second. "Maybe a little," he lied then turned back to the sink.

Val said nothing and headed out the back door.

He'd rummaged for food but found nothing much. Val shook off breakfast anyway but Johnny figured he'd get something down the man at Lancer. He knew Val hadn't eaten since yesterday morning, if then. He looked like hell, too. No surprise there. Leaning back in his chair, Johnny settled his coffee cup on his thigh.

"You need somethin to wear?"

Val looked up and shook his head. "Got some new duds for ... I can wear them."

Johnny lowered his eyes then leaned forward, setting the cup down and standing up. "In the closet?" At Val's nod he went about collecting the clothes for his friend and folding them carefully then stuffing them in his saddlebags. Anything else Val might need, he could get at Lancer. "I'll saddle the horses."

"Johnny," Val called as the younger man opened the front door. "Thanks for last night."

He turned halfway around. "I didn't do anything."

Val pulled a face. "Yeah, ya did."

Nodding, Johnny walked outside.

*

Lancer was quiet this morning as they rode into the yard. Johnny looked all around but could see no one at work. His nerves jangled a little at that and he cautiously walked in the front door. Finding his father and brother sitting in the great room, seemingly relaxed, he breathed a soft sigh of relief.

Murdoch stood and walked over to them, taking Val's hand and shaking it. "I'm so sorry, Val. We've got a room ready for you right next to Johnny. You can clean up, rest, whatever you need."

Val was touched by the man's sincerity. He'd gotten the feeling Murdoch Lancer wasn't crazy about him getting married but he had no idea why. It didn't matter now since it would never happen.

"He needs to get some food in him first," Johnny said, his voice louder than needed as he saw Teresa walking into the dining room. He knew Val wouldn't be able to turn the girl down. Whatever it took, he was going to look after his friend.

Teresa's head came up and she hurried over, hugging Val quickly. "I was just getting breakfast on the table. We waited for you both. Please, come inside, Val." She took his hand, giving him no time to reply and leading him to the table.

Johnny saw the pain flash across his face when Teresa hugged him and felt like a fool. He shouldn't have set the girl on Val, knowing she couldn't control her instinct to mother anyone in pain. It wasn't her fault and it was from her heart. Still, he'd have a quiet word with her about Val and how he handled things.

Teresa sat Val down next to Johnny's seat which was her usual place then poured him a cup of coffee. "Now, you all just sit down and we'll get the food on the table."

Johnny lingered as everyone settled at the table. "Excuse me a minute," he said and headed for the kitchen.

*

Maria was at the stove and when she saw him, she gave him one of her sorrowful little smiles that nearly had him in tears no matter the circumstances. Whether it was the death of a good friend or the cat spilling the milk, that look always made it seem like the world was ending. He hugged her and gave her a kiss then went to Teresa.

"Querida, can you step into the garden with me a minute?"

"Can it wait until after breakfast, Johnny? Val looks so hungry."

He almost asked her what hungry looked like but he only smiled a little. "No, it can't wait. See, it's about Val. Come on, it'll just take a minute."

She frowned and set the plate of biscuits down then wiped her hands down her apron as she walked outside. "How is he holding up?"

Johnny wrapped his arms across his abdomen and hung his head. "Not good. He's barely hangin on. Honey, I know you want to help him and I appreciate it. Val will appreciate it, too, when he can but, right now, he can't."

She smiled and put a hand on his arm. "I don't expect him to."

Johnny let go of himself and held his arms out. She stepped into them and hugged him tightly. He released her and looked down into her sad eyes. "It's just that he can't handle bein touched right now. Especially, by a woman. I know you just want to comfort him but, he can't handle it real well. I don't want to hurt your feelings."

She squeezed his arm and smiled up at him. "You aren't and you're right, I didn't think. Of course he probably wouldn't want that kind of contact. I'll be careful."

"Gracias, querida." He kissed her on the forehead then started inside but she held onto his arm.

"What about you, Johnny? How are you holding up? Have you given yourself any time to grieve?"

He sighed loudly and shrugged. "Ain't about me. I'm alright, Teresa. I just need to stay close to him right now."

Her brow winkled as she bit her lip. "Johnny, he wouldn't ... hurt himself, would he?"

"No," he answered quickly and shook his head emphatically. "I've seen Val bad off before. Not like this but almost. He'd never hurt himself. He might take a notion to hurt someone else, though. That's why I need to stick close."

"What if it's you he hurts?"

"Well, I'm hopin it is. See, he'll hold back some on me where he wouldn't on anyone else. I don't mind a punch in the jaw long as I can keep him from doin any real damage."

She hugged him again then pulled back and sniffed. "You're a good friend, Johnny. I'm glad you're on my side in life."

*

When they returned to the dining room, Maria had all the food laid out. Johnny sat down beside his friend and glanced at his untouched plate. Val sat with his head down, staring at the food. Johnny looked at Murdoch who shook his head a little. He leaned over to Val and spoke in a whisper.

"You need to eat something so you don't pass out."

Val turned his head and glared but Johnny held his eyes. Val turned back to his plate and stabbed a piece of bacon, sticking most of it in his mouth and chewing with a vengeance.

Johnny smiled a little and turned back to his own plate.


"What time's this gonna happen?" Val asked after several minutes of silence.

Scott looked up and frowned. He assumed Johnny would have give Val the details. "Ten o'clock. Everyone will gather at the ... at Angel Creek then come back here."

Val looked over at him. "Come back here for what?"

"It's just part of the process, Val. People will want to be together, grieve together," Murdoch offered.

Val snorted. "Who's watchin my town?"

"Shep did last night. Walt and Frank are there today. Someone will relieve them later," Scott supplied.

"No need for that. I'll head back after the service."

Johnny looked over at him. "Not a good idea, is it? You haven't had a whole lot of rest. Take today, Val. Tomorrow is soon enough."

Val slammed his fork down and turned his whole body to look at Johnny. "Seems like you been tryin to tell me what to do for a while now. Best you mind your own business."

"Val..." Murdoch started.

Johnny looked toward his father and shook his head then turned to Val. "That'd be because I'm trying to look out for you."

"Don't need lookin after. Been doin my own lookin after my whole life."

"You've never had to deal with something like this before, either," Johnny rejoined.

"Somethin like what? Somebody I care about dyin? Hell, that's happened more times than I can count!"

"This is different and you know it. Look, I know you're mad and you got a right but just let us help you."

Val stood so suddenly, the chair toppled back, clattering loudly against the floor. "I didn't ask for your help and I don't need it. Just leave me alone!"

Johnny stood as he stalked out of the room and took a few steps until he saw Val heading up the stairs. He sat back down and lowered his head, closing his eyes. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up at his father, offering a sliver of a smile.

"You know it isn't you he's angry with."

"I know, Murdoch. I'm alright. I'm just worried about him. I don't want him anywhere near McIntyre right now."

Murdoch nodded. "I've been thinking about that, too. I think it would be wise to have him moved to Spanish Wells. I thought we could talk to Gabe about that after the funeral."

"That's a very good idea," Scott said.

*

The funeral went well as funerals go. Johnny had picked a spot near a willow tree just up a sloping hill from Angel Creek to lay Hannah to rest. She'd told him the one time he'd come out here with them how much she admired willow trees. He hadn't forgotten that. He watched Val closely, standing shoulder to shoulder with the man as the minister spoke of the young woman who had made such an impact on the lives of all in attendance.

And there were many people in attendance. In the short time Hannah Brown had been in Green River, she'd become well-loved by so many people and had done charitable work at the orphanage. Johnny reckoned it was because she was an orphan, too, no matter her age when her parents died. He used to think of himself as an orphan after his mother died. Figuring a father who wanted nothing to do with him was as good as the man being dead, that left him with no parents.

He shook his head to rid himself of the thoughts, focusing back on Val and almost wishing the man would break down at some point. Maybe, not here but soon. Val had to let it go or he'd just explode.

Once the minister was finished, the parade of people walked past Val, offering their condolences and shaking hands. Val never looked at a single person and later, wouldn't be able to say who had been there. As Scott walked back to the surrey with Val, Johnny spied someone in a buggy under a tree several yards away. It took him a minute to recognize the Widow McIntyre and his face flushed with anger. He immediately looked over at Val but, the man hadn't seen her and Johnny hoped he wouldn't. Lord only knew how he'd react. He decided to keep it to himself as no one else seemed to notice her, either.

As soon as the surrey pulled to a stop in the yard, Val was out of it and headed inside. He left the door open and Johnny could see him loping up the stairs. He sighed, not surprised by it. Val hated any kind of group gathering more than he did.

*

Johnny stood outside the bedroom door for a moment before walking to his own. He figured Val hadn't had enough time to himself yet. He also knew, while it was a good idea to move McIntyre, Val would not go for it. They'd have a battle on their hands with that one. Another battle. He sighed tiredly as he walked into his room then stopped cold as he saw Val sitting in a chair by the window.

"Get lost?"

"Yeah, I did. Lost my mind, anyway. Sorry about that at breakfast. I know you're just lookin out for me."

Johnny walked over and sat in the chair opposite him.

"Nice room."

"You've seen it before."

Val looked over quickly. "Yeah, but I never paid no mind. You was sick then."

"Yeah, that's right. I meant what I said last night. We can go back to your place and get drunk later."

Shaking his head, Val looked fully at Johnny. "I need to do somethin, Johnny. I can't just sit around and think myself crazy. See? That's what I was doin last night. I smelled the smoke from your campfire and knew it was you. I was glad for the company cause I was driving myself loco."

"I understand that, Val. I'm the same way. There's just one problem with that. I'm worried about you being alone with McIntyre. I'm not sayin you'd plan on doin anything but, if he said somethin about her ... well, I'd rip his head off and shove it up his ass myself. Murdoch thought of something that makes sense to me."

Val frowned at him. "I can do my job."

Sighing, Johnny gave him a look of frustration. "I know that. I'm sayin you can do it without that piece of shit in your back room. Let's send him over to Gabe in Spanish Wells until the trial."

Val stood up slowly, steam practically coming from his ears. "So, I can't be trusted now, is that it? Can't keep a prisoner in my own jail?"

Johnny stood as well. "Not this prisoner. Think about it, Val. If he so much as nicks himself shavin, they're gonna blame you for it. You don't want that bastard to get off, do you?"

"Oh, he ain't gettin off nothin!"

"From the start you said he'd swing and you'd pull the lever. From the start you were set on doin things legal. This is the best way to make sure that happens, *Sheriff*."

Val reached out and grabbed his shirtfront. "You think I need this fuckin job? You think I can't get on a horse and ride out of here and never look back?"

Johnny grasped Val's hands. "You think you can?"

"Yeah, I can! I nearly did once before. Don't think for a second YOU'D be a reason for me to stay!" Val released him with a shove that sent Johnny spilling back into the chair. It rocked precariously before landing on all four legs. The door slammed, rattling everything not nailed down in the room.  

*

Johnny sat forward and tugged his shirt into place when the door opened and Scott walked in, looking around. "What happened?"

"Val happened. I told him about Murdoch's idea of moving McIntyre. He wasn't real thrilled with the notion."

Scott sat in the chair next to Johnny. "Did he hurt you?"

"No, just shoved me a little. No big deal. He's got so much anger in him, Scott. I don't know what he'll do."

Scott frowned and sat back. "Do you think he'd really do something to George?"

Johnny shook his head slowly but he didn't really know. Before he could form an opinion, they heard a loud crash downstairs. Both men took off at a dead run.

Scott nearly bowled his brother over as Johnny had come to a dead stop in the living room entry. Scott grabbed the wall to keep from crashing into the man. His eyes widened in disbelief as he saw who was at the center of the commotion. Scott couldn't see Johnny's face but he was sure it resembled Val's; deep red cheeks with eyes as cold as a Boston January. He found his father's face, too, and saw something more like worry there.

Johnny stepped into the room and walked over to the woman being stared down. His eyes flickered to a punch bowl lying in pieces on the floor by the wall and he winced when he recognized it as Teresa's crystal. Red punch dripped down the wall, spreading out in a pool behind the widow and it reminded Johnny of Hannah.

"Get out," he hissed in her ear.

She turned and stared in wide-eyed terror at Johnny. Her mouth opened and closed twice before she could form words. "I don't want him near my son. He'll kill him!"

Johnny grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the door, ignoring the shouts from his father to stop.

Scott said nothing as Johnny and the widow passed him by. He walked over and took Val's arm, leading him away to the kitchen; away from the audience he had.

*

Johnny let go of her once in the yard. "Are you out of your mind? What do you think you're doin here? It's bad enough you showed up at the funeral. You're lucky he didn't see you then and you should've had the decency to go on home!"

She straightened her dress and rubbed her arm where he'd grabbed her. "George hasn't been convicted of anything and he won't be. He's innocent! But, if that man gets near him, my son won't live to see a trial."

"And you thought today of all days was the time to say something to him about that? He just buried the woman he loves. Dios, lady. Don't you have any shame?"

She started to speak but he cut her off.

"Get off our land and don't you ever step foot on it again. You got some nerve. Your son is gonna swing by the hand of the law. A judge will see to that. Until then, nobody here wants to see you let alone talk to you!"

"If anything happens to George while he's in that man's custody, it will be Sheriff Crawford who swings! I will see to that!"

Johnny never heard his father come outside but he suddenly felt the man's presence behind him.

"Mrs. McIntyre, my son told you to leave here. Do it now."

She sneered at Murdoch. "Your son. He's part of all this. He set my boy up to look guilty and if anything happens to George, *he* will be as guilty as the sheriff. Your money and power won't be able to help him escape justice. I will see to that as well."

Murdoch stepped around Johnny and towered over the diminutive woman. "You will not threaten my family again. I strongly suggest you close that vicious mouth of yours and get out of here before I forget you're a woman."

She paled and took a step back then turned and quickly fled to her buggy. Johnny didn't move a muscle until she was well under the Lancer arch. He felt Murdoch's hand on his shoulder and he turned with a small smile. "Thanks for the back up."

"Anytime, son. Scott took Val out back."

Johnny shook his head. "He won't stay. He got pretty riled up when I told him your idea about movin McIntyre. Said we thought he couldn't do his job."

Murdoch sighed. "It isn't about that. I don't know why he'd want to be anywhere near that animal anyway."

Johnny started to say something but never got the chance. Milagro came galloping out of the barn, Val laid low over his neck to clear the building then, they took off like a bullet down the road.

Scott came running from the side of the house, a deep scowl on his face. "He gave me the slip."

Sighing, Johnny shrugged. "I figured he would. I'll go after him."

"Johnny, Gabe is going to get McIntyre in the morning."

He only nodded and headed for Barranca, dreading where he might find his friend.

*

Val went to his knees in the grass and stared at the pile of brown dirt, all rounded off and packed down. He pulled his hat off his head and let it fall where it may. Resting his hands loosely in his lap, he took a deep breath and slowly released it then, his eyes came up to look around.

He'd seen nothing earlier today. Not the blue, cloudless sky, not the deep green grass, not even the willow tree, whose branches waved softly above his head. He hadn't felt the warmth of the sun or the light breeze on his skin. Hadn't heard the soft lapping of the water as it bubbled downstream. He took it all in now and almost smiled. Almost.

Johnny. About the only thing he'd been aware of at the service was Johnny's shoulder touching his. It had kept him on his feet when all he wanted to do was lay down right there with her. Johnny had picked this spot for him. Val knew he'd do a good job but this really was perfect. She loved this place, had made him promise to bring her back often. No hardship as far as he was concerned. He even gave a harsh laugh when he recalled her telling him to never make Johnny mad at him so they could always come back here.

Hell, if he hadn't made Johnny mad at him by now, he didn't know how to do it. Val knew he'd treated his friend awful but he couldn't help it. All he wanted was to be left alone. He didn't want to eat or think or sleep just because he ought to. He knew they only wanted to help but he didn't want it.

He moved to sit properly on his backside, drawing his knees up and resting his forearms on them, hands dangling loosely. And he stared at the grave. Squinching his face in thought, he tried to remember what Scott had said about the headstone. It would be ready in a week, he thought the man had told. He shook his head slightly. It didn't matter, really. Whatever they put on a piece of stone, none of it mattered.

Lowering his head, he rested it on his arms, closing his eyes and wondering how any of this had happened. Meeting her, falling in love. How the hell had it happened? And why? He would never get that part. What had she seen in a grouchy old goat like him?

Val felt a kind of trembling course through his body and it didn't stop. He couldn't make it stop and his eyes burned. He squeezed them tighter, hoping that would help but it only made matters worse. Slowly, he brought his head up and swiped a hand down his face. Cryin again. Damned fool! Well, ain't nobody around, anyways. Besides, wasn't that what you were supposed to do? He didn't know but it was what he *was* doing so the hell with 'supposed to'.

He blinked several times and looked over at Milagro, wishing he had a bottle somewhere nearby. Then, he had a thought. Johnny had saddled his horse for him. Had he thought to bring the proper supplies? Val grunted as he climbed to his feet and half-staggered over to the horse. He patted the saddlebag and sighed relief. Opening the flap, he pulled the bottle out. Another high-priced tequila. "Thanks, amigo," he muttered then walked back to Hannah.

Plopping down, he opened the bottle and took a long, long pull then sighed after swallowing, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. "Sorry, honey. I know you don't like that but, the truth is, I'm a slob. Was willin to change for you but, that don't matter no more. I don't reckon nothin matters anymore."

Without any warning, or so he thought, Val burst into tears. He didn't try to stop it, hoped he could get it all out. It was a fleeting thought and the only one he had for quite some time thereafter.

*

Johnny hadn't immediately thought to head to Angel Creek and that irked him some. He started toward Green River, more worried about Val doing something foolish. It didn't take him long to realize where his friend might head, though.

As he sat behind a tree some distance off, he watched Val stumble over to his horse. He smiled a little when Val found his gift then settled his back against the tree and waited. For what, he didn't know. He could see Val talking, to her, he knew. He couldn't go over there. Val hadn't had any time with her. He needed this. But, when he saw his friend break down, Johnny turned his head and looked away.

He sat there, staring at nothing for a long time. Aware of Val but trying not to listen. He couldn't imagine what the man was going through, really. He'd lost love before but, not like this. Not with such a permanent end. And, he didn't think he'd really known love like Val and Hannah's, either. He envied his friend that but, not this. Never this. And if he didn't really have an understanding of what Val was going through, how could he help him?

Just be there. The thought popped into his head and he sighed softly. Yeah, let him yell, shove, hit, choke, whatever he needs to do. Johnny could take that easy. Would take it from this man.

He jerked, grabbing his gun and turning quickly when he heard the shot. Johnny was up on one knee before he realized what was happening. Val had either emptied the bottle into his gullet or poured it out. Either way, the man had turned away from the grave site and was blowing that bottle to hell.

He sat back on his heel and sighed, trying to slow his heart down. At least, he ain't shootin towards me. He settled back and waited, wondering if Val had noticed him there. It was a crap shoot. The man was so intent on his target, it was hard to tell if he was aware of anything else. The Val he knew would feel him there but, right now, this wasn't the Val he knew. This was a broken man and Johnny could only pray he'd mend again.

It got quiet and he watched Val reload then shove the gun into his holster. At least he had the presence of mind to strap the damned thing on after the funeral, he thought. Johnny stood as he saw Val mount up and head back toward town. He waited a while before he followed, hoping the man just went home.

*

This time, Johnny camped out all night in the same spot. Val never came outside but he had a feeling his friend knew he was there. So, he settled in and listened for anything out of place. But, the night was quiet and as the moon started it's arch over the sky, Johnny slipped into sleep.

He awoke with a start and raised his head, looking all around him. Then, he laid back and rubbed his face, wondering if something had stirred or he'd simply woke up. Sometimes, it was hard to tell. But, he heard nothing else so he got up and pulled himself together.

The fire was long cold but it didn't matter. He'd get something to eat in town, maybe. He just wanted to get going before Val made it outside. If they were very lucky, they'd have McIntyre moved before Val ever saddled his horse. Johnny snorted as he mounted up. Yeah, right. That'll happen.

He headed to Green River wondering what his family had done to prepare for today. He hadn't intended to be gone all night, well, he'd meant to go back home first but, he knew they wouldn't worry. As long as they got McIntyre to Spanish Wells without any trouble, he'd be happy. At least, until Val found out. He almost smiled at the thought but, knowing he was about to do some damage to his friendship wiped the idea of that smile out of his mind.

No matter what they thought or how right they might be, Val would take this as an insult to him. He'd say just what he'd said yesterday. They didn't trust him to do his job. No amount of reasoning would work, either. Not for a long while. Johnny resigned himself to the very good possibility that Val might not speak to him for quite some time.

It was worth the risk to him. He didn't really believe Val would purposely hurt the man but, if anything at all happened to George McIntyre while in Val's custody, his friend might find himself on the wrong side of a cell door. Johnny couldn't take that. Hell, Val couldn't take that. No matter what either of them had done in their past, they never quite stepped over that line and he wasn't about to let Val start now.

He wasn't thinking straight so Johnny felt he had to think for his friend. Pretty arrogant of him, he reckoned. Still, he'd do worse than that for someone he cared about. There weren't too many people in his life he cared for as much as he did Val. His family and Jelly were about it. And there was no one he trusted more to have his back than Val, for sure. Scott and Murdoch were right alongside but, not ahead of Val. That was the plain truth of it.

He rolled his shoulders just before entering the town. Once he turned onto the main street, Johnny stopped and stared, his gut tying itself up tight.

*

There were people standing everywhere along the street but a crowd of them were in front of the jail. Another crowd in front of the old abandoned land office or, what was left of it. Smoke still curled upward, drifting away from the direction Johnny had come from. Must be why I didn't smell the smoke, he thought.

It was strange for that building to burn but what got his attention was why people were loitering around Val's office. He spurred Barranca on down the street, feeling that knot tighten even more when he saw his father and brother walk out of the jail. Both men looked like they'd swallowed a whole toad. Their faces contorted in anger and frustration. Scott was easier to read but not by much. Whatever had happened, it was bad. Real bad.

Johnny suddenly felt like turning around and heading back to Val's place or anywhere else. He didn't want to hear this. He almost knew what had happened. He pulled to a stop at the end of the block and dismounted. Walking slowly toward the crowd, he heard the rumble grow a little louder. Then, he heard his father's voice raised above the rest.

"We don't know what happened yet!"

"Why it's as plain as the nose on your face, Murdoch." That was the mayor and Johnny ground his teeth together.

Just before he got to the edge of the throng of people, he happened to look across the street. The Widow McIntyre stood there, dressed in black and Johnny found that curious. She was staring right at him, her face full of hate and something else he couldn't quite place. He turned away from her and pushed his way through the townspeople.

"Johnny, thank God!" Murdoch said and pulled his son to his side.

"What's happened, Murdoch?"

"You know very well what's happened, Johnny Lancer. Val killed George McIntyre!"

Johnny stared at Mayor Higgs like he had two heads. "No, he didn't. He never left his place last night."

"You were with him?" the mayor asked.

Johnny lowered his eyes for a second. "Not exactly but I was nearby."

Higgs harrumphed and Johnny wanted to smack him. He felt Murdoch pulling on his shoulder.

"Let's go inside, son, and talk this out. Gabe's in there now with Sam."

*

Murdoch closed the door with a hard slam then leaned against it.

"What the hell happened?" Johnny asked anyone.

Scott stepped up to his brother. "When we got here this morning, Harvey was down the street helping put out a fire at the land office. The door was unlocked and we walked on in."

"He left the jail unattended?" Johnny asked, feeling his stomach fall further.

"Yes. He said he didn't think about it. He was more worried about the whole town going up in flames. Anyway, Gabe and I went in the back to check on McIntyre and found him dead."

Johnny sat down hard on the edge of the desk, his shoulders slumped. "How'd he die?"

"Knife wound. Right through the heart," Sam answered as he came from the back room. "I can't find any other injuries or really much sign of a struggle. It's very strange."

"Yeah, it is. He'd put up a fight, at least, don't you think?" Johnny asked.

"One would think so. It was a clean wound as far as that goes. That means the knife was well-honed."

Murdoch walked over to his sons and put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Where's Val?"

Johnny looked sharply at him. "At home. I camped out nearby. I would've heard him ride off, Murdoch."

Scott winced but said what was on his mind. "Maybe not if he knew you were there again."

Johnny came to his feet and looked between his father and brother. "Val didn't do this."

"Who else would have a reason, son?"

"I don't know!" He walked away from them, ending up beside the stove, his arms crossed over his chest. "I don't know but I'm goin to see Val. Let him know what's happened."

"No, you're not." Gabe Henshaw spoke for the first time. He walked over to Johnny. "I'll go see Val."

"Gabe..."

"It's my job now, Johnny."

"What's that mean? You got no jurisdiction here."

Gabe turned to look at Murdoch then addressed Johnny. "As of half an hour ago, I do. I've been asked to stand in as sheriff until this thing is resolved."

Johnny just stared at him for a beat before turning to his father. "The cattlemen appoint the sheriff. Did you do this?"

"Son, try to understand. No matter who did this, Val is in no shape to run an investigation and I have to wonder if he'd try very hard."

His arms fell to his sides and he felt like he could just fall down, too. He shook his head slowly back and forth. "I can't believe what I'm hearin. He found Hannah's murderer and locked him up. Didn't hurt him, didn't even smack him around. Now, you're sayin he can't do this? What's the matter with you? Scott, you agree with this?"

Scott looked at his brother for a while before answering. "I just think it's best if Val's not involved. He is volatile, Johnny. He may not have done anything to McIntyre but he's been pretty hard on you."

"That's because he knows I'll let him! He IS thinkin, ya know. Ain't like he's sittin around slobberin on himself."

"The decision has been made, Johnny. I'm sorry, but it's as much for Val's protection as anything."

Johnny turned to his father, narrowed his eyes and strode up to him. "Keep tellin yourself that, old man. You're all ready to lock him away as it is. Already think he's guilty. Not a lick of evidence but that don't matter. Well, I'm not gonna let it happen and that's all!" He moved past his father toward the door.

"Where are you going?"

He turned and glared at them all. "Until you all decide I was in on it with him, I'm walkin out of here. Where I go ain't none of your business." He jerked the door open and walked out, slamming it.

Mayor Higgs pounced, grabbing Johnny's arm and opening his mouth.

"Don't." Johnny looked down at him and the little man released his grip and backed away. Johnny walked quickly to Barranca, jumped in the saddle and took off at a gallop.

*

It was silent in the jail for a few seconds after Johnny left. Then, Gabe swore under his breath yet loud enough for everyone to hear. "Well, I'd best get goin. We all know where he's headed."

"Let me go with you, Gabe. I can talk Johnny down," Scott suggested.

Gabe pulled up on his way to the door and turned to Scott. "You mean like you did just now?"

Scott scowled at him but said nothing, grabbed his hat and walked to the door. "Would you rather face Johnny and Val alone?"

Gabe gave that a moment's thought then shook his head. "Nope."

"We'll all go. I'm not going to let Johnny do something foolish," Murdoch decreed.

As they walked outside, the crowd had dispersed somewhat. Standing in the street just in front of the boardwalk was the widow. Scott groaned and Murdoch tensed his shoulders at the woman who stepped up on the planks to face the three men.

"You let him go? Just let him ride right out to what? Get his friend so they can escape?"

Gabe, who didn't know the woman at all, spoke. "Johnny's not accused of anything, ma'am. I can't make him stay put. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have someplace to be."

"Sheriff, perhaps you aren't aware of the fact that Johnny Lancer and Val Crawford are thick as thieves. They railroaded my son into jail then conspired to kill him. Do you really think his family is going to help you capture him?"

Scott's shoulders went up and he opened his mouth but Murdoch clamped a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.

"Like I said, ma'am, Johnny hasn't been accused of anything. Right now, we're trying to gather evidence and find out who killed your son. If that's what you want to happen, you need to let me get on with it."

"I already know who did it!" she shouted.

Gabe sighed and put his hat on his head. "I'm not going to tell you again, ma'am. Step aside. You're interfering with the law."

She just stared at him so Gabe stepped around her and the Lancers followed his lead. As they headed across the street to their horses, they could still hear her.

"Well, you all see how much power Murdoch Lancer has. No lawman around here is going to stand up against him. My son's murderers are getting away and they aren't doing a thing to stop it. You are all witnesses to this outrageousness!"

Once on his horse, Scott turned to look back at her. Half a dozen people had surrounded her, offering comfort. He couldn't help but notice most of them were people who would make an extra effort to avoid the widow on any given day.

*

Johnny flew off his horse before Barranca even came to a stop. Bursting through the front door, he stopped when he saw it was empty. He ran through to the kitchen but found no one there, either. Heading back outside, he went to the barn and saw Milagro's empty stall. He took a moment to breathe and think. Where would he go?

His head came up and he walked back over to Barranca, throwing himself in the saddle and heading for Lancer.

*

As they made their way to Val's, Scott looked over at his father. The stoic face was firmly in place. Not for a moment did he believe Johnny was involved in this, of course. But, how far would his brother go to protect Val? Scott didn't know that Val had anything to do with this but, he couldn't think of anyone else who would want George McIntyre dead.

But, Val had done the right thing all along as far as getting the perpetrator behind bars. Why would he risk everything now? Simple, Scott surmised, because the shock wore off and reality crashed in. Still, he was wont to believe it of Val. He didn't know the man as well as Johnny, but he thought he knew him well enough to know his character.

*

Johnny didn't hide in the trees this time. He rode up and dismounted, leaving Barranca ground-tied beside Milagro. Removing his hat, he walked over to the graveside and waited for Val to acknowledge him.

"What?" Val finally asked irritably.

Johnny squatted down across from him. "George McIntyre is dead. Stabbed to death in your jail last night."

Val raised his head slowly, the surprise on his face undeniable. "Who did it?"

Johnny lowered his eyes briefly then looked at his friend. "From the talk goin around town and in your office, they're thinkin it was you. I figured I'd best get to you first before Gabe finds ya."

Val leaned back, trying to figure this out in his head. "What's Gabe got to do with it?"

Johnny stood up, twirling his hat in his hands a little as he paced away. "I told you they wanted to move him. Gabe went to town with Murdoch and Scott this mornin to get him. Apparently, someone set the land office on fire and the guard went to check it out and help. When Gabe got there, McIntyre was dead." Johnny winced then turned to Val. "Murdoch appointed him sheriff for the investigation."

Val rose slowly to his feet, his fists clenched. "Did he now? And where were you when all this was goin on?"

"Camped out near your place same as the night before. I told them you didn't do it. You were home all night but, since I didn't see you, they're not takin my word."

Val just stared at him a beat then nodded and seemed to relax a little. "Well, who ya reckon woulda done it? I mean, far as I know, nobody but me wanted him dead."

Johnny pulled a face. "Might not want to say that out loud to anyone else, amigo. I don't know who did it but the widow is after your blood, I'm sure."

Val snorted loudly at that then turned away, running a hand through his hair. He stared out across the land for a few minutes before sighing and turning back. "Well, reckon I oughta show my face in town, then."

"I imagine Gabe's at your place by now."

"He'll find me. He can lock me up if he wants." Val bent down and swept his hat up, shoving it on his head then heading for his horse.

"Val," Johnny called and the man stopped and looked at him. "I'm not gonna let them do this to you."

A quirky smile came across Val's face briefly. "Don't trouble yourself, amigo. I don't give a rat's ass."

"I do and, in time, so will you." Johnny glanced back toward the grave. "I know she would."

Val said nothing to that, turned quickly and mounted his horse. He didn't move, just stared at the willow for a moment.

*

"Well, he's not here obviously," Scott said as they stood in the yard of Val's home.

"Think Johnny grabbed him and ran?" Gabe asked.

Murdoch turned quickly to face the man. "Of course not! Gabe, don't assume Val did this. I know he's the most likely suspect but that doesn't mean he's guilty. Johnny believes in him."

"No offense, Mr. Lancer, but Johnny and Val go way back. They'd do anything for each other and I think you know that. I'm not saying Val's guilty. That's not up to me. But, I have to question him and that's hard to do if he's not around."

"Johnny wouldn't let Val run, Gabe. He'd want him to face this head on," Murdoch said confidently.

Gabe nodded more in acknowledgement of the statement than agreement. "Well, we're here. Might as well look around."

Murdoch and Gabe walked inside the small house as Scott stayed in the yard. He walked around the entire perimeter, checking shrubs. When he got back near the front, just off to the left side, he knelt down. It looked like footprints but they were distorted now. He couldn't say how long they'd been there but he thought they were pretty recent.

He saw the horse prints, too. Had seen them upon first arriving and figured them for Barranca's. The horse was moving fast coming and going. Scott sighed and stood up, raised his hat off his head before resettling it. He walked over to the rain barrel and grabbed the ladle then removed the top and dipped up a drink of water. It was almost to his lips when he saw it was discolored.

Frowning, he looked closely at the dipper then inside the barrel. His heart skipped a beat and before he realized it, he was calling for his father.

Murdoch and Gabe ran outside and stared at him, waiting. Scott pointed at the barrel. "You'd better take a look at this."

Both men moved over and peered inside. Gabe rolled his sleeve up and dipped his hand in, coming back out with a long bladed knife. He examined it and could see faint traces of what appeared to be blood. He looked at the Lancers. "Well, that's pretty damning."

"Let's go back to town and see if they've shown up there." Scott shrugged at the disbelieving looks he got. "It's possible."

Gabe nodded and headed for his horse. "If they're not there, I'm going to have to get a posse together."

Scott frowned at that then looked at his father who shook his head. Scott wasn't sure if that was a 'no way in hell are you sending a posse after my son' or a 'I can't believe Johnny would do this' shake.

*

Val stared straight ahead as he rode into town with Johnny. He felt all eyes on him but he only scowled his usual scowl. He gave no indication he knew he was being watched.

Johnny almost smiled and felt ridiculous for it. This reminded him of the old days when they'd come into a new place and people would stop and stare. Only now, they were staring for a whole different reason. He eyed the sheriff's office as they neared, relieved no one was milling about. He wasn't about to tell Val about the mayor. Val would lose it, for sure.

They dismounted and, without looking around, Val walked into his office with Johnny on his heels. Johnny did look around, wanting to make sure no hotheads who decided they knew best were going to pop up and take their best shot. He closed the door and tossed his hat on the rack then followed Val into the back room.

Val looked into the cell, taking it all in. "Do ya know if they moved anything?"

"You mean besides the body? No, I didn't come back here before. Sam was still back here."

It took all his forbearance not to turn around and smack Johnny in the mouth but he managed. His eyes continued to take in the scene then, he stepped inside and over to the cot. A large dark stain covered the upper part of the bedding right where McIntyre would've been lying. Val turned and looked at the door then back at the cot. He straightened up and scratched his jaw. "That's strange."

"What?" Johnny asked from the doorway.

"Don't look like he put up a fight at all."

"That's what Sam said. I guess that means he knew who it was and wasn't afraid?"

"That'd be my guess. I didn't think he knew anyone in town, least not well enough to trust 'em."

Johnny turned as he heard the front door open then sighed. "Well, I guess that's the posse."

Val ignored the comment, his brows drawn together in thought. He walked over to Johnny and stood facing the cot again then, he walked back to the cot and stepped up, peering out the small window above.

"Val, I've been looking for you," Gabe said as he walked in.

"So I hear. Well, ya found me." Val stepped down and turned to his counterpart. "Before ya ask, no, I didn't kill the bastard but I wanted to. Seems kinda strange there ain't no sign of a fight in here. If I had come after him, there'd be fingernail scratches all over this wall where the weasel would've tried to get away from me." He smirked then and Johnny rolled his eyes.

Gabe raised a brow but didn't comment on that. "Tell me where you were yesterday from the time you left Lancer."

Val stared at him, considering whether to answer. One quick glance at Johnny and he relented. "Mind if we go back out front?" He didn't wait for an answer and walked out of the room.

*

The five men converged in the office. Val sat in his own chair as Johnny perched on the edge of the desk cattycorner to him. Gabe settled in one of the chairs as Murdoch and Scott positioned themselves by the wall near the stove.

"Left Lancer and went to Angel Creek for a spell then I went home and stayed there until this mornin."

"Where'd you go this morning?" Gabe asked.

Val's moustache twitched. "Back to Angel Creek. That's where Johnny found me."

"And you never left your place?"

"Nope."

Gabe stared at him, hating this with every inch of himself. He sighed as he pulled open a flap of his saddlebags lying on the desk. "Ever seen this before?" He pulled the knife out and laid it on the desk top.

Val whistled. "Seen the type before. Nasty things. Can't say I've ever owned one like it, though. Is that the murder weapon?"

"Most likely."

"It's a possibility," Scott piped up.

Johnny turned to look at his brother and a chill ran over his body. "Where'd you find it, Gabe?" he asked as he turned back to the sheriff.

Gabe stared at the knife a second before looking directly at Val. "It was in the rain barrel outside your place, Val."

Johnny came to his feet and saw his father move toward him from his periphery. Val held a hand up to his friend, his own demeanor calm.

"Well, it'd make sense to put it there, now wouldn't it? Since I'm the only person anyone knows of that wanted the skunk dead. Nice set up." He leaned back in his chair.

Johnny cocked his head to the side as he regarded his friend. A flicker of a smile flew across his face. He settled back on the desk and crossed his arms loosely over one leg. It hit him then and he frowned, thinking hard. "I thought I heard somethin."

"What do you mean, son?"

He looked at his father and shook his head a little. "When I woke up this mornin, I thought I heard somethin but, I just shrugged it off. Coulda been whoever stashed that knife."

Scott grimaced and lowered his head, crossing his own arms over his chest and hoping his brother wasn't placing his faith on fanciful ideas. Then, he remembered. "There were footprints near the barrel but they were dusted over and I couldn't make them out very well," he supplied.

Johnny waved a hand toward his brother. "Well, there ya go."

"What do you mean 'there ya go'? They could've been Val's," Gabe pointed out.

"Coulda been if Scott couldn't tell how long they'd been there," Val shrugged.

"Well, I'll go look at 'em," Johnny said and stood up.

"I wish you'd told me about this before, Scott," Gabe said, his tone reprimanding.

"Sorry, I was just so surprised by the knife."

Gabe sighed and came to his feet. "I'm going with you, Johnny." He turned and looked at Val. "Right after I lock you up. I'm sorry, Val, but I've got no choice."

"That's bullshit!"

"Johnny!" Murdoch berated.

"What? He didn't do it and, if you knew him at all, you'd know that, Murdoch!" Johnny turned to Gabe. "Come on, Gabe. You know he didn't do it. You can't lock him up now. He just got done ..."

"Johnny!" Val was on his feet, leaning over the desk toward his friend.

He stopped and looked at Val, something near panic in his eyes, his breaths coming in short bursts like they always did when he was hurt or angry.

In a calmer tone, Val continued. "Go take a look at those footprints with Gabe. Scott and Murdoch will guard me while you're gone. It's alright, amigo."

Johnny shook his head slowly. "No, it ain't alright, Val. It ain't anywhere near alright." He turned and grabbed his hat then walked out the door.

*

Val stared after his friend as Gabe headed off in pursuit. Shoulders sagging, the sheriff of Green River walked to the back room and into a cell, closing the door behind him. Murdoch followed him with the key and locked the door.

"I'm sorry, Val," he muttered.

"Are ya?"

Murdoch's head jerked up and he looked curiously at the man. "What does that mean?"

Val shrugged and walked over to the cot, plopping down. He scooted back so his back rested against the wall, one leg crooked with his foot flat of the bed as he considered the man before him then the other one who walked in. "Might want to have Sam take a look at that knife. Probably be able to tell ya for sure if it's the same kind that killed the weasel."

Scott grabbed hold of a bar and nodded. "We'll do that. I'm sorry, Val. I hate this."

"Johnny's gonna take it hard if he can't get me outta this. Might wanna try stayin on his good side so he don't turn on ya."

Murdoch's jaw clenched. "Why would he turn on us?"

Val looked into his eyes. "Because, that's what he does. He gets mad and takes it out on the people he cares most about. Kinda like me."

Scott moved closer to his father. "You act like you don't care what happens to you."

Val just shrugged.

Scott's face turned to stone as he glared at the man. "If you're so concerned about how Johnny will take this, help us figure out who killed McIntyre before you hang for it, Val."

"Well, ya got me there, Scott. I don't have a clue. Don't even know if anybody gave two hoots for him aside from his mama." He winked at Scott. "Might wanna look into that, too."

Scott smiled a little. "We will. It would help if you were looking into it with us."

Val scowled as he looked at Murdoch. "Seems that's been taken outta my hands, thanks to your father."

"Do I really have to explain that to you, Val?" Murdoch growled.

"Reckon so since I didn't see ya riding in here like the hounds of hell when I was lookin for Hannah's killer! Ya didn't seem to give a damn who was runnin things then!" His face turned bright red and he came off the cot, walking over to stand as close to Murdoch as he could. "Reckon there was no need then since there wasn't no way for Johnny to get into trouble over that one."

Scott looked at each man in turn and saw this could not get any better. "Murdoch, let's go. We have things to do and Val needs some time alone."

Murdoch turned on his heel and stalked out of the room. Scott breathed a sigh of relief then looked at Val. "You sure know how to piss people off."

"Comes natural," he snorted then went back to the cot.

*

Scott decided it was best to ask Sam to join them rather than trudge around town with what was probably the murder weapon. He watched his father stew over a cup of coffee. Scott was a bit amused when Murdoch looked for a seat and almost sat in Val's chair then abruptly moved to one of the other chairs. He settled his own self behind the desk and stared at the knife, frowning.

"Why did he do that?" Murdoch asked quietly.

Sighing lightly, Scott answered in just as soft a voice. "Because he just lost the woman he loved in the most violent way and he did everything by the book, Sir. Well, mostly. He didn't kill McIntyre right there on the spot, he didn't lay a hand on him, in fact. Now, he's accused of killing the man one day after burying his fiancé. How would you react?"

Murdoch looked up at his son with sadness. "You're right. He's been through hell and it's not over yet. He's right, too, about Johnny. I'm more worried about him than Val. Is that wrong?"

Scott grimaced. "No, I don't think it's wrong to be worried about Johnny. I know you and Val aren't friends but, Sir, I'd think you would be supportive of a man who has saved your son's life in the past and been the only decent friend he had before coming home. Sometimes, I think you don't like Val because he knew Johnny as Madrid. He knows about Johnny's past and you don't. He lived that past with Johnny. Shared things with him you'll never share."

Murdoch took to his feet, pacing about the room. He didn't speak for a long while. "No, I don't consider Val Crawford my friend and I do know how close Johnny is to him. Maybe, you're right, son. Maybe I do harbor some animosity for the man for just those reasons. I should be grateful to him but I find myself trying to see just what in the world draws Johnny to a man like that."

Scott clenched his jaw and considered his words. "The problem is, you don't know Val. You can't see past what everyone else sees. You hired him because Johnny recommended him and, I dare say, you were probably trying to placate Johnny more than anything. I don't pretend to know Val very well but I do know enough. He's a good lawman and a loyal friend to anyone he feels deserves it. He's been kind to me and for no other reason at first than because I'm Johnny's brother. The man has a good heart, Murdoch. You know about those Indian children."

"Yes, I know," he sighed out then retook his seat. "I don't suppose I've tried very hard to get to know him, either. Let's just hope it's not too late."

The door opened then and Sam walked through.

*

Johnny studied the prints for a long time, aware Gabe was watching intently. Finally, he looked up and around then stood. "They're not clear enough to be sure but they look too small to be Val's. He's got some big feet."

Gabe nodded. "They are small but that's not evidence."

"I know," Johnny murmured then walked away. "He didn't do it, Gabe. I know that's not evidence either, but I know Val Crawford. I'd stake my life on this."

"I hate to ask this of you but I need a witness. We never got to finish the search once Scott found the knife. I need to look around inside some more."

Frowning, Johnny started to say no but, he nodded his head and walked inside.

Gabe started in the main room so Johnny headed to the kitchen. He glanced around, disinterested in rummaging through his friend's belongings. He pushed the frying pan around on the cold stove then looked in the sink, finding a dirty coffee cup. He wandered around and opened a cabinet door, pushing cans aside then closing it.

He knelt down and opened the cabinet under the sink and pulled a bucket out. Then, he stopped breathing. Slowly, Johnny reached inside the bucket and pulled out the shirt. Val's old blue shirt with all the holes in it. The one Johnny was always after him to replace. The one only Hannah could talk him into replacing. He closed his eyes as he pulled the shirt to his chest. With a stuttering breath, he looked down at the blood stains.

He screamed inside his own mind. No, no, no! It's a set up. A damned good set up. Val didn't do this. He would've heard the man leave this house. He knew that. Someone was going to a lot of trouble to get his best friend hung and Johnny vowed right then, they wouldn't get away with it.

He shoved the shirt back in the bucket then reached up to the sink and grabbed the towel there, putting it on top the shirt. He then replaced the bucket under the sink and slammed the door shut. Just so Gabe would hear him searching.

*

"It's the same type of blade but what's interesting is this small chip along the edge. See?" Sam pointed to the imperfection. "I'll have to look at the body again to see if I can match it up." He looked at them both when he got no reaction. "Where is Val?"

Scott stood up straight from leaning over the desk. "He's in a cell. Gabe locked him up. Well, we locked him up for Gabe. He's gone back out to Val's place with Johnny to look at some footprints I found out there."

Sam raised a brow at that. "Somehow, I doubt Johnny or Val took that very well."

"Actually, Val did. Johnny got a little crazy. Would you mind going back there and talking to Val, Sam? I'm worried about him. He doesn't seem to care too much what happens to him."

"I can understand that, Scott. He's been through hell and now this. Of course, I'll see him but, you know Val. He probably won't talk to anyone but Johnny." The doctor hesitated a moment. "Do you think he did it?"

Neither man answered right away. Finally, Murdoch spoke. "I don't want to but who else would want McIntyre dead?"

"Find the answer to that and you may save Val," Sam said then headed to the back room.

Scott contemplated the advice. The same thing Val had said. "Sir, I'm going to ask around. See who knew McIntyre. I'll start with Mrs. Haverty. She's the one who pointed us in his direction in the first place."

"That's a good idea, son. Just don't get into any arguments with anyone. People love to sling mud and you'll probably get an earful about Val. Maybe, Johnny, too."

Scott headed to the door then turned to his father. "I can't promise anything. I won't listen to anyone badmouth my brother or my friend."

Murdoch smiled a little as Scott left, proud of the way his son was dealing so calmly with all of this. On the other hand, he was worried about Johnny. If the worst came to pass, he didn't know how Johnny would handle it.

*

Johnny's face was blank. He gave nothing away as he and Gabe rode back to town. His insides were another matter. He felt like someone was ripping them apart piece by piece and he just wanted to hit something or shoot something or get drunk.

When they walked into the office, Murdoch and Sam were there.

"We didn't find anything else and those prints weren't clear enough to read," Gabe reported.

"They also looked too small to be Val's," Johnny added irritably. "How is he?"

"Close-mouthed," Sam said. "I tried to talk to him but he was having none of it."

Johnny snorted and looked around. "Where's Scott?"

"Talking to townspeople. He's trying to find out who knew McIntyre well." Murdoch frowned then decided against telling Johnny what Scott had said about defending him.

"Well, I'm goin to talk to Val then I'll catch up to Scott." He strode to the back room, trying to seem casual and hoping he'd pulled it off. He closed the door behind him and grabbed a small chair, sidling up to the bars and leaning his forehead against them.

Val leaned forward off the cot and watched him closely then moved a stool closer. "What?"

Johnny took a deep breath then looked up. "The footprints are a dead-end though, I know they ain't yours. Too small but they're dusted over too much for Gabe. Val, he wanted to check the house again so I went with him. I found somethin in the kitchen, under the sink."

Val waited but Johnny didn't look like he wanted to say more. "Well, what was it?!"

He glared at the man for a second before glancing back at the door. "That piecemeal blue shirt of yours was stuffed in a bucket under the sink. It had blood on it."

Val sat back, eyes wide. He blinked then shook his head.

"Where was it? I mean, where'd you put it?"

"In a drawer. Where do ya think I'd put a shirt? I don't know how it got there, Johnny."

He nodded, knowing that would be the answer.

Val looked sidelong at him. "Did ya give it to Gabe?"

"Hell no! I put it back, put a towel over it and kept my mouth shut. Talk about the last nail in the coffin!"

"I think it's called a preponderance of evidence," he smirked.

Johnny ignored the smirk. "Val, whoever is doin this thought it out. They must've got that shirt maybe, while we were at Lancer. I don't know how they got it under the sink, though."

Val scratched his jaw. "Don't reckon it'd been too hard. I was so drunk last night, canon fire wouldn't've woke me."

"I *knew* I heard somethin this mornin. Dammit!" Johnny slammed his hand against the bars.


"Don't do that, Johnny. Don't blame yourself for somethin stupid like that. We just gotta figure this out, is all."

He sighed and nodded. "Scott's out questioning people about who knew McIntyre well or at all."

*

They sat quietly for a few minutes, both trying to think. Val's thoughts went to this man and his brother and then, Murdoch Lancer. He sighed hard through his nose and Johnny looked up at him questioningly.

With a smirk, Val shrugged. "Don't think your old man thinks much of me. He probably thinks I'm guilty."

"Why? What did he say?"

"Nothin, really. Just the way he's actin. I figure he's worried about you gettin caught up in all this."

Johnny pulled a face, annoyed with his father. "Too damned bad. I am in this and I'm stayin in it and that's all. Anyways, I should go find Scott and give him a hand. I just wish you weren't in there."

"Me too. I'm gettin hungry and I could sure use a drink."

Johnny grinned at him. "I can take care of that." He stood up and put the chair back against the wall before turning back. "Look, whatever happens, I'm not gonna let them hang you. I'll do what I have to, Val."

"No, you won't. If it comes to it, you leave it alone, Johnny. Don't go gettin yourself in ten kinds of trouble over this. I don't want that. I won't let you ruin your life."

"And I won't let you die for somethin you didn't do, Val. Besides, we just have to make sure it don't come to that, right?"

"Sure, amigo, sure."

Johnny frowned at him. He didn't like that tone. It sounded like Val was giving up and he wouldn't let that happen, either. Before he could say anything, they both heard the raised voices in the front room. Val cringed like he always did when he heard that voice. Johnny's hands curled into tight fists. "She ain't gettin back here."

"That's somethin you can do for me right there. She gets close enough, I might just strangle the old bitch."

Johnny chuckled at that and reached through the bars, patting his friend on the arm before taking a deep breath and walking out front.

*

"I have every right to face the man who killed my son!" Mrs. McIntyre demanded.

Gabe was standing toe to toe with her, looking down into her chubby face. Murdoch was standing near the back room, arms crossed over his chest when Johnny walked out. He gave his father a look that wasn't kind before she saw him.

"And there's the other one! Walking around free as a bird. Why isn't he in a cell?"

"Ma'am, you're going to have to leave now. You can't see the prisoner." Gabe sounded like he'd aged twenty years.

"I have a right."

"No, you don't." Johnny's soft voice cut through the static air as he walked over to her. "When we find who really killed your son, he's all yours. Val didn't do it and I'm gonna prove it."

"You mean you're going to plant evidence like you did with my son!" Fists on hips, she faced Johnny.

He tried to find some patience. After all, she'd lost her boy. Well, he wasn't a boy but Johnny figured that's how she saw him. "First of all, we didn't have time to plant anything. As soon as we found out he was the one lurkin around Hannah, we headed to your house. Second," he paused for a steadying breath, "how'd he get her necklace and scarf? You watched Scott search his room. You know my brother would never do anything like that."

"I know no such thing. Why, Scott was peeking through the store window not a few months ago. How do I know he isn't the one who killed her? Maybe he didn't think Crawford was good enough for her, either!"

Johnny never thought of himself as a patient man. He was more likely to go off the deep end than anyone else in his family and they'd had to rein him in more than once. So, he was pretty shocked when Murdoch took the roof off.

"How dare you!?!" Murdoch advanced on them all and she shrunk away from him. "My son is not a killer!"

She found her fortitude and shot back. "How do you know? This one certainly is."

Johnny grabbed his father's arm and held tight, pushing Murdoch back a few feet.

"This is getting us nowhere. Mrs. McIntyre, when I'm through with this investigation, I'll make sure to let you know the results. Until then, you're going to leave and don't come back here again." Gabe took her arm and guided her out the door, closing it firmly behind her. He sank against the door and sighed, then wiped his forehead.

Murdoch was leaning against the back wall, Johnny still with a hand to his chest as he waited for the man to calm down a little. When he heard the door shut, he let go and walked away. Something was bothering him. Well, more than all the other but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"That woman is a menace!" Murdoch spouted.

"Her son was murdered. Try to understand," Gabe tried.

"You don't understand, Gabe. She's always been like this. It's just more now," Murdoch explained.

Johnny heaved a sigh. "Well, I'm gonna go find Scott. Hopefully, he hasn't gotten into a fracas of his own."

Murdoch met him at the door and took his arm. "What else is bothering you, Johnny?"

He gave a quick, crooked smile. "Not sure. I'll see ya." With that, he slipped outside, leaving Murdoch to wonder once more what was eating at his son. It was more than this mess or, maybe more *of* this mess. He hadn't missed the look he received when Johnny came out of the back room. He surmised Val had told his son some of their conversation earlier, if not all of it. He wished this nightmare would end.

*

Johnny stood on the boardwalk and watched her waddle away. He still felt something ... off but his brain wouldn't tell him what it was. He sighed with annoyance and headed in the opposite direction, to Mrs. Haverty's. He figured that's where Scott would start.

His brother and been and gone, she told him and pointed him toward the preacher's house. Johnny grimaced a little at that and wondered why she'd think the reverend would be able to tell them anything. Johnny never had much interaction with Reverend Simons. Actually, he'd only met the man once since he and his wife had arrived in Green River ten or so months ago. Well, twice since he'd resided over Hannah's funeral. Funny, he thought, it was Val who introduced them.

Shaking his head to clear unimportant thoughts, he arrived at the simple home and rapped on the door. When the door opened, Johnny grabbed his hat off his head. "Ma'am. I was looking for my brother, Scott Lancer?"

She smiled kindly at him and stepped to one side. "He's here. Please, come in, Johnny." She waited for him to step through and closed the door. "Your brother and I were just about to have tea. Please, join us."

Johnny smiled tightly, not wanting any damned tea or any polite conversation or to even be polite but, he knew he had to if he wanted any information. What these people could tell them, he hadn't a clue. He had to admire her, though. She was a handsome middle-aged woman. Still not a speck of gray in her auburn hair. She moved lightly and with grace as she led him into the parlor, still with a slight, warm smile on her face. She doesn't even have any wrinkles, he thought idly and wondered how old she really was. The idea slipped from his mind as he saw his brother come to his feet.

"Johnny, how did it go?"

He gave his brother a wary look and just shook his head as they both waited for Mrs. Simons to sit down. "Tea, Johnny?"

"No, thank you, ma'am."

She nodded then sat down on the settee and began to pour the tea, her back arrow straight yet relaxed. "Scott was just telling me some of the details of what happened this morning. Of course, I'd heard of the murder but that's all. It's terrible the sheriff has been accused. As much as I can understand people assuming he would exact revenge, I just don't see him as that type of man."

Johnny relaxed measurably into the chair beside his brother. "I'm not sure exactly why Mrs. Haverty sent my brother to you, ma'am."

"Because, I know ... knew ... George McIntyre and his mother. I've spent some time with the two of them since George returned from back east." She handed Scott a cup then paused before taking her own. "I could make you some coffee, Johnny. It's no trouble."

"I'm fine, ma'am, thanks."

"You were saying you spent time with them?" Scott pushed gently.

"Yes, as the wife of a minister, I am open to offer comfort and advice to our parishioners.   Mrs. McIntyre sought me out soon after we arrived here and ..." she stopped and lowered her head. "Forgive me, it's not very Christian but she can be difficult at times."

Johnny snorted loudly at that. He figured he shouldn't mention she'd just accused his brother of murdering Hannah.  

*

She picked up her cup and saucer, resting them on her lap then sighed lightly. "Please understand, I would never speak of this if not for the dire circumstances." She looked at each of them in turn as they nodded. "She was concerned because George had no apparent desire to socialize with people. He told her he just wanted some time to rest up and make some decisions about getting a job and, maybe, moving out of her home. She didn't like that idea at all. Privately, she told me of her hope that George would always live with her. She wanted him to marry but she was willing to allow his wife to stay there, as well. That's how she said it. Allow her to stay there."

Johnny couldn't really stand it any longer. "Ma'am, I'm really sorry but, we all pretty much know what kind of woman Mrs. McIntyre is. Could you just tell us what you need to?"

"Johnny," Scott hissed.

"No, Scott, he's right. I'm sorry. I was trying to explain circumstances that led up to the conversations that came later. I understand you're anxious to help Sheriff Crawford."

"Yes, ma'am. He's not in a good way right now and being locked in his own jail doesn't help."

She lowered her head for a second. "That poor man." Taking a deep breath, she went on. "A few months ago, she and George came over for tea one afternoon. Mildred was practically glowing and she announced that George had met someone special and was planning to marry her. He was smiling ear to ear as well and they both gushed over this woman. Finally, they told me who it was. Hannah Brown."

Silence fell on the room as Scott and Johnny turned to each other. Scott cocked a brow and Johnny seethed.

"I knew, of course, the sheriff was courting Hannah. I honestly thought it was just some fantasy of George's and once he learned she was involved with another man, he'd move on. I'd gotten to know Hannah and knew she wasn't a woman to lead a man on. I should have said something then but they were both so happy, I found myself unable.

"Another month passed and by then, Hannah and Val were engaged. Mildred and George came over again for tea, it was becoming a monthly ritual. They both still went on about Hannah and how George was going to ask her to marry him. Well, I couldn't just sit there and listen. I told them both, as gently as possible, about Hannah's engagement. Both were quite stunned, I could tell. That's when the most disturbing thing happened.

"Mildred stood up and announced this news was ridiculous and Hannah had no intentions of marrying - in her words - that scruffy, lazy, good for nothing excuse for a man. I tried to reason with her but it did no good. George seemed to pale at the news then, his face turned very red and he stood and ran from the house. He literally ran out. Mildred just stood there staring after him. Then, she said she wouldn't allow Val or anyone else to ruin her son's happiness."

Scott took in a breath. "That is disturbing. It's obvious George had some fairy tale idea in his head about Hannah. We know he killed her and we reasoned it was because he was obsessed with her. But, this isn't really news, I'm afraid."

She set her saucer on the table and folded her hands in her lap, clasping them together tightly. "That isn't all of it." She raised her eyes and looked at them both. "The day before the funeral, she came to see me again, distraught over George's incarceration. She said they would not be able to hold her son. That she wouldn't allow a trial. You see, Mildred knew George wasn't quite right in the mind. He wasn't really able to distinguish reality from fantasy. She had confided in me before he returned home that he'd had problems in Connecticut."

"What sort of problems?" Scott asked.

She blushed a little and that got Johnny's attention. "It seems there was a young woman there he was interested in. He was arrested for breaking into her home. She was a waitress, I believe and he followed her around for weeks, leaving her notes and generally making a pest of himself. Mildred tried to downplay it by saying she'd led him on but, she also told me George had always been a little 'off the mark' as she put it.

"She said she'd hoped he was better but she had hidden it for all these years and she didn't intend to let the secret become common knowledge. She was worried about her good name, you see."

"Why didn't you tell Val about all this?" Johnny asked.

"I was planning on it, after the funeral. I didn't want to throw all this at him while he was grieving. I wrongly believed there was time enough."

Scott leaned forward and placed his mostly full tea cup on the tray. "We understand you were only thinking of his grief. Thank you for your time, Mrs. Simons." He rose and Johnny came to his feet as well.

"I hope everything turns out well for Val. I got to know him through Hannah. She was a wonderful girl and a good judge of character. It's such a waste." Her green eyes filled and she pulled her shoulders back. "I'll walk you out."

*

Johnny stood in the street outside her home and stared out at nothing. "What do you make of all that?"

Scott walked up beside him and shrugged. "That George killed Hannah and he was a sick bastard. That doesn't really help us with who killed George, though. What did you find at Val's?"

Johnny looked over at his brother then glanced around. Nodding toward the corral down by the livery, he said, "let's talk over there."

Scott hesitated a moment after his brother walked off, a feeling of dread washing through him.

Once Johnny was satisfied they were alone, he started. "The prints weren't clear, like you said but, they were too small to be Val's. Gabe said it wasn't enough so, we finished searching the house." He sucked in a breath and blew it out. "I found Val's old blue shirt in a bucket under the sink, covered in blood."

Scott closed his eyes for a second. "What did Gabe have to say about that?"

Johnny looked away. "I didn't tell him. I put it back where I found it. I'm going out there later and I'm gonna burn it."

Grabbing his brother's arm, Scott jerked the younger man around. "Are you insane? You can't do that, Johnny!"

"The hell I can't!"

"If anyone were to find out they could charge you as an accessory after the fact. That's still a murder charge!"

Johnny pulled out of Scott's grasp and glared at him. "Nobody is going to find out, Scott, unless you tell them. I know Val didn't do this and I'm not gonna let him get railroaded. That's all!"

Scott gave his brother a hard, sidelong look. Eyes flashing with anger, he stepped closer. "If you do this, you'll be guilty of obstruction of justice at the very least."

"Since when did you become a lawyer, brother?"

"I don't need to be a lawyer to know the law, Johnny. I won't let you do this."

Johnny narrowed his eyes as he searched his brother's face. "I'd do it for you."

"I wouldn't want you to and I'm sure Val won't either!"

"That's why I didn't tell him what I was plannin to do anymore than I'd tell you. They'll hang him, Scott! Don't you understand?" Johnny tired to control himself but he felt that anger, hurt and panic rise up. His heart began to race and his breathing increased as he implored his brother with his eyes to understand.

*

Scott's jaw clenched as he tried to rein himself in and reason with his brother. "Yes, I do understand but we can't take the law in our own hands, Johnny. We can't decide what evidence we want to deal with and what we don't. It doesn't work that way. Val will be exonerated."

"How? By magic? By wishin it true? Come on, Scott. You know as well as I do that sometimes, innocent people pay the price! This ain't goin away because we want it to. We have to *make* it go away. That damned knife was bad enough. You never should've showed it to Gabe."

Scott's mouth fell open as he stared at his brother. Slowly, he shook his head. "I can't believe I'm hearing this. Val is the first person to tell you that knife *and* the shirt should be handed over."

"Then, how come he didn't when I told him I put it back?"

"Because, he's not thinking clearly at the moment," Scott shot.

Johnny walked away a few paces, his head down. "I just need some time to find who did this, Scott. If I give Gabe that shirt, there won't be anymore looking. He'll say Val did it and the judge will be called in faster than a wildfire." He turned back to his brother. "He didn't do it."

"You keep saying that."

"Because it's true."

Scott sighed and walked over to his brother, dreading his next words. "Are you sure, Johnny? Val rode with you so you know how good he is. Can you honestly tell me he never left the house last night? Could you swear to it on Murdoch's life?"

The blue eyes flickered before locking onto Scott's. The pain of betrayal shone clearly through. "Can I say he couldn't have left? No. I am saying he didn't leave. Yeah, Scott, I rode with him. I know him as well as I know myself. And I know he didn't kill George McIntyre."

Lowering his eyes, Scott swallowed hard. "And if you're proven wrong?"

Johnny turned sharply to his left and hung his head. "Then, the lies worked and an innocent man will pay the price. The only way I could ever be convinced is if Val looked me in the eyes and told me himself. But, he can't do that cause I know I'd see the lie."

They fell quiet for a few moments as each man toiled with their thoughts.

"You gonna rat me out, Scott?" The question was asked softly, a slight quiver in the voice.

The older man's head came up and he looked at his brother's back. He didn't answer and Johnny turned to him. Scott bit his lower lip then shook his head. "No, brother."

*

They walked back to the jail side by side but neither man felt very comfortable. Johnny decided he needed to try and ease the air between them.

"She came to the jail, ya know. Wantin to see Val but Gabe wouldn't let her. She was huffin and puffin like she does. She even accused you of killin Hannah."

Scott stopped in his tracks and gaped at his brother. Johnny stopped a few feet ahead and turned back, shrugging.

"Well, she said it. You were peeking through the store window that day."

"Your sense of humor has taken a blow, brother."

Johnny winced and rubbed his neck. "Yeah, I know. Sorry."

They started walking again and Scott glanced over. "He's like a brother to you. Val, I mean."

Johnny heard more than what was in the seemingly simple question but he could never lie to Scott. "Yeah, he is. That bother you?"

"Maybe, a little but, I understand it."

"Did you have someone like that back east?"

"I did. I still stay in touch with him."

"I'd like to meet him some day."

Scott chortled. "You'd have to go to Boston. He said once in a letter he'd never set foot west of St. Louis."

Johnny grinned. "Man's got no sense of adventure, then. Hard to believe you'd be friends with someone like that."

Scott gave a small, uncomfortable smile as they stepped onto the boardwalk and stopped, neither in much of a hurry to go back into the sheriff's office. "I suppose people get used to where they live and sometimes can't imagine living anywhere else."

"Yeah, I'd never want to go back east."

"But, you would if there was a reason."

Johnny shrugged. "Only one reason I can think of. If you got yourself kidnapped and taken back there." He smiled and grabbed Scott around the neck.

Struggling free of the hold, Scott glanced across the street and stopped cold.

Johnny felt a change in his brother and let go, watching where Scott was looking. His eyes grew wide as he stared in unadulterated shock. Shaking his head hard to clear his mind, he sighed loudly. "She's got balls, I'll give her that."

Across the street, the Widow McIntyre sat in front of the hotel holding a sign that read MURDERERS GO FREE IN GREEN RIVER. PROTECT YOURSELVES AND LEAVE THIS DEN OF EVIL   Nailed onto the support post was another sign. VAL CRAWFORD AND JOHNNY MADRID ARE KILLERS. THEY RUN THIS TOWN. FLEE NOW BEFORE THEY KILL YOU ALL IN YOUR SLEEP.

A slow smile spread across Johnny's face as she glared at him. He tipped his hat to her as Scott opened the door to the sheriff's office and hailed Gabe and Murdoch.

"Hey, brother, how come your name's not up there? She said you could've killed Hannah."

Scott frowned deeply at him. "Maybe she ran out of paint."

*

If Johnny thought his father had been as angry as he'd ever seen him earlier in the day, he was wrong. Murdoch's face contorted with unconcealed hatred as he glared at the signs and the woman.

Gabe winced and sighed then headed across the street as a few people gathered to watch.

"That's libel," Scott ground out.

"Libel to what?" Johnny asked.

Scott glanced at him and shook his head. "Libel. Written defamation of character. Lying about someone," he expounded.

Johnny cocked a brow at him but stayed his tongue, knowing his father was right there and knowing he would not appreciate the quip.

"If she keeps this up, Val will have company in his cell because I'm going to wring her neck!" Murdoch spat.

Johnny grinned at that. No matter how bad things looked, sometimes his old man cracked him up when he got really mad.

"Take it easy, Sir. Gabe will handle it."

Murdoch snorted. "For now, Scott. Maybe she'll melt from wearing all that black."

It hit Johnny like a ton of bricks directly atop his head. He almost passed out from the insight that assaulted him. He closed his eyes and turned his back to the street, trying to get a handle on his thoughts as they whirled through his mind at breakneck speed. Could it be? Was that what had been bothering him all day?

Murdoch noticed him leaning his hand against the wall and hanging his head. He put a hand on Johnny's back and felt heat. "Johnny? Johnny, what's wrong?"

Scott went to his family, concern etched on his face as he took in his brother's state.

"I need to go inside," Johnny whispered and Murdoch took a firmer hold, guiding his son indoors.

*

Johnny sat in a chair as Scott got him a glass of water. He downed it in one breath then heaved for air. Leaning forward, he put his head down nearly between his legs as he slowed his breathing. Both older men waited for him, one on each side and both with a hand on his back.

Slowly, Johnny raised back up, his face red from the blood rushing to his cheeks. He opened his eyes and looked at them. "I'm okay."

"What happened, son?" Murdoch knelt beside him.

"Can you bear with me and answer a couple of questions first? I need to be sure."

Murdoch grabbed the other chair and sat down. "Of course."

Scott perched on the edge of the desk near his brother and crossed his wrists over each other.

"What time did you get here this morning?"

Murdoch frowned in thought. "It was early. Around seven?"


"Yes, that's right," Scott concurred.

"Did you see the widow then?"

Neither man answered for a few seconds as they ran through the events in their minds. Scott finally replied. "Not right away but, as soon as we found McIntyre, I went to get Sam and I saw her near her home and heading this way."

"Think real careful, Scott. What was she wearing?"

"What difference does that make?" Murdoch burst out.

Closing his eyes a second, Johnny inhaled slowly. "Please, just answer the question."

Scott was at a loss but he did as his brother asked. He closed his eyes and took himself back to the morning. Leaving here and walking quickly to Sam's. Around the corner and down the street. Just as he was about to turn to the left, he'd seen her walking this way. His eyes opened wide and he blinked. "Exactly what she's wearing now."

"And when she got here, what happened?"

Murdoch grimaced. "Gabe told her George was dead and I thought she was going to faint. She screamed bloody murder and swooned. Gabe sat her down and she started moaning and crying for a minute or so then she started accusing Val."

Johnny nodded, his brow creased. "Yesterday at the funeral, what was she wearing?"

"Some dark blue frumpy, lacy dress. I remember because it looked hideous," Scott said.

Johnny looked up at his brother. "Why was she wearing mourning clothes *before* she knew her son was dead?"

*

Neither man could answer that question but it did seem very odd.

"What are you getting at, son?"

"Well," Johnny sighed, "I saw her when I rode in this morning and I noticed she was wearing black. At first, I figured she'd gone home to change but, you hadn't been here very long when I arrived. It didn't make sense but I guess I just didn't think anymore of it. Then, when she was here a while ago spouting off, she said something that didn't seem important at the time. Something like Scott not thinking Val was good enough for Hannah, either. It was the 'either' that got me. Like she didn't think so and neither did George."

"That's no secret, Johnny," Scott said.

"I know, it just sounded strange. And what about what Mrs. Simons said about her worrying about word gettin out that somethin was wrong with George? She was real worried about that, Mrs. Simons said."

Scott nodded. "Yes, she did say that. Mrs. McIntyre was worried about her good name."

Murdoch shifted in his seat. "Johnny, do you really think she'd kill her own son to protect her reputation?"

Johnny shrugged. "She knew he was guilty, Murdoch. She knew he was gonna hang anyway. Mrs. Simons said she didn't want a trial and she hates Val. It's not much of a stretch that she'd set him up for it. Coulda been her I heard out at Val's place this morning. She would've had time to drop that knife off and get back."

"Let's think about that," Scott said and stood. He walked away and started pacing a cadence. "The fire at the land office broke out around five o'clock. Harvey was gone for about two hours fighting it and helping with the clean up. In fact, we beat him back here so it was at least two hours. Whoever started the fire would have been here, maybe around the back before anyone even noticed the blaze." Scott stopped and turned to face them. "Who did see the fire? Who sounded the alarm?"

"Harvey told me it was old Seth, the town drunk. He was heading home after waking in the alley by the saloon," Murdoch answered.

Scott nodded and went on. "Okay, so Seth sounds the alarm, Harvey reacts, sees the fire and goes. We know the front door was left unlocked. So, the killer watched Harvey leave and went in. There were no signs of a struggle so George knew the killer and wasn't afraid of them, we can surmise. He could have even still been asleep. They enter the cell, walk over to the cot and stab him in the heart then walk out unseen. It takes about thirty minutes to get to Val's place on foot. Johnny would have heard a horse but they didn't know Johnny was there, most likely. Still, they wouldn't have ridden in for fear Val would hear. They put the knife in the rain barrel, a very easy task and got back here by six o'clock."

"Those footprints were small enough to be a woman's," Johnny imparted.

Scott nodded. "Yes, and there was plenty of time to wash up and change clothes. But, they would have to be pretty gutsy to walk into Val's house and stash that shirt."

"What shirt?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny glared at his brother and Scott grimaced. "Later, Sir." He snapped his fingers then. "Or, they could have stashed the knife, returned to town then waited until Val was brought in then gone back and stashed the shirt. Maybe, not thinking about the shirt until later since they were still wearing it."

"That makes more sense," Johnny agreed, though still perturbed his brother had mentioned the shirt at all.

*

Murdoch leaned back in the chair and tapped his right index finger on the armrest. "If you can believe a mother capable of killing her own child, it's a plausible theory." Johnny snorted loudly at that and Murdoch gave him a sharp, yet curious look before going on. "The problem is proving it. So far, all the evidence points to Val."

Scott moved back to his original position at the edge of the desk. "There must be something, some clue she left. Something she didn't think of. We need to search her house."

"WE don't need to do anything. The two of you will be staying right here. We'll run this by Gabe and, if he agrees, he and I will do the search."

"Murdoch..."

"No arguments, son. Anything you find could be compromised by your friendship with Val. She's already spouted off about you planting evidence against George."

Johnny lowered his eyes, knowing his father was right. He simply nodded.

"Now, tell me about this shirt."

Johnny's head came up and he scowled at his brother who wore a most apologetic look. "I found an old shirt of Val's stuck in a bucket under his sink. It was covered in blood. She probably wore it just so she could get blood on it."

Murdoch leaned close to his younger son. "Where is it now?"

"Right where I found it, old man."

"And you weren't going to tell Gabe about it, I can assume."

"No, I wasn't."

Standing, Murdoch towered over his son, a look of pure frustration on his face. "Do you realize you could be arrested for that? You could end up facing a murder charge right alongside Val?"

Johnny glanced up at him briefly. "My brilliant brother did point that out but I don't care." He stood and looked up into his father's face. "I'm not going to let them hang Val, Murdoch. I don't care what I have to do."

Murdoch drilled him with his eyes and slowly shook his head a little. "I know how fond you are of Val but I'm very sure he wouldn't want you to pay for this crime."

"Why not? One innocent man or two. What's the difference? It's not like anybody out there gives a damn about the truth. They're all too busy lappin up all the gossip!"

"I don't give a hang about 'anybody out there'! I'm talking about you and this family! We don't want to lose you over some ill-conceived act of loyalty." Murdoch drew in a breath and lowered his voice. "I know you'd do anything for Val but, Johnny, not give your own life."

"Yes, Murdoch, give my own life if I have to. That's what you don't seem to understand. Or, maybe, you don't want to understand it. I would die to save Val's life just like I'd die to save your's or Scott's." He took a step closer. "Get it now?" He didn't wait for an answer but moved away to stand by the window.

Yes, Murdoch thought, yes, I think I get it now, son. Why didn't I before? How blind could I be? Val isn't just a friend. He sighed and looked at Scott who was watching him with a fascinated expression. He wondered what his older son thought of all this. Scott's eyes told him he understood Johnny's loyalty to the sheriff but somehow, Murdoch didn't think he had before. Did Scott, like himself, always think of Val as some old friend Johnny used to hang out with because he was simply around? Scott shrugged at him and Murdoch gave him a quick smile then turned and walked over to Johnny.

"I'm sorry, son. Maybe I didn't realize before just how much Val means to you. I still don't like that you hid evidence."

"I didn't hide it. I just didn't say I found it. Gabe's comin back and he looks pretty miserable." Johnny peered across the street. "Looks like he managed to run the old lady off somehow."

*

Gabe walked into the office looking ready to kill someone his own self. He glared at each man in turn then walked over to sit behind the desk. "If I didn't respect Val Crawford so much, I'd send for a marshal or something to deal with this. That woman is one hundred percent pure spite!" He grabbed his hat off his head and slammed it on the desk.

"She may be more than that," Scott said then proceeded to tell Gabe their theory.

He took it calmly which surprised them all but, more than that, intrigued them.

"Well, what'ya think Gabe?" Johnny asked.

Inhaling deeply, he looked at the man. "I think I need a really good excuse to search the house of a woman whose son was just murdered."

Johnny bowed his head then looked at his brother. "Well?"

Scott's eyes widened. "Well, what?"

Waving a hand toward his sibling, Johnny smirked. "You're the one that knows all about the law, Boston. Come up with a good reason."

From the back room, the voice shouted out. "Might want to think about askin me!"

No one moved for a moment. Chagrined with himself, Johnny had forgotten Val was back there with the door wide open and probably had heard every word said. He walked over to the desk and held his hand out, curling his fingers a few times at Gabe. The sheriff jerked the desk drawer open and tossed him the keys. Johnny disappeared into the back and returned a few seconds later with Val.

Crawford scowled at them all then walked over to the stove. "A man could die back there and nobody'd offer him a cup of coffee!"

"A man did die back there. I doubt he got any either," Johnny quipped. "You got an idea, now's the time to spill it."

Val took a long drink of the brew and sighed out. Only then did he look at his friend. "McIntyre never got to trial and the case was never closed. You could say you're searchin for more evidence. Maybe, even convince her you're lookin for something that'll show he didn't do it if ya don't want to rile her."

"I've already riled her so that chore's done," Gabe said bitterly.

Murdoch ran a hand through his hair. "I don't suppose it makes a difference. Nothing we say to her will placate her. It doesn't matter, anyway. Val's right, Gabe. You can tell her you're continuing the investigation."

Scott shrugged. "And you don't have to tell her which investigation. Besides, if you work it right, she'll let you in."

*

Gabe stopped just in front of her yard and turned to Murdoch. "I hope this pans out. If it doesn't, I'm going to arrest Johnny." He turned and walked up, rapping loudly on the door.

Murdoch stared at his back a moment then fairly growled as he made his way onto the porch.

Mrs. McIntyre pulled her shoulders back and raised her chin when she saw who her visitors were. "What do you want?"

Gabe removed his hat and gave her a small bow of the head. "Ma'am. Since I'm taking over here for the time being, it's my job to continue any outstanding investigations. I've read Sheriff Crawford's report on your boy's arrest and, well, I think there might be some discrepancies."

She eyed him suspiciously then glared at Murdoch. "Why is *he* here?"

Murdoch tipped his hat and played his part, hating every word that came from his mouth. "To be frank, Mrs. McIntyre, I've never much trusted Val Crawford. I'm not happy that he hangs around my boys so much and, if he's been up to no good, I want to know about it. That's the only way to convince Johnny, especially, that Crawford isn't an honest man."

She harrumphed at them both and sneered. "I've been telling anyone who would listen that exact thing since that man came to this town, Mr. Lancer. But," she paused and looked back at Gabe, "you didn't tell me any of this while you were ordering me off the boardwalk a while ago."

Gabe never flinched or looked away. "Ma'am, I have to uphold *all* laws, not just the felonies. What you were doing was illegal even if you didn't know it at the time. It's as simple as that. Anyway, I need to search for any evidence or lack of evidence."

She stood there unmoving for a long moment. Both men could tell she was thinking things through. Just as Gabe was about to insist, she nodded her head and moved to one side, opening the door wider. As the men stepped inside, she headed down the hallway. "George's room is back here."

Gabe followed her as Murdoch took in what he could see which wasn't much. The parlor was off to his right and the dining room to his left. He could see another door there which he assumed went to the kitchen. Her room must be in the back of the house, as well.

She opened the door to George's room but Gabe stopped and looked to his left. "And that room, ma'am?"

"Oh, that's my room. George never went in there."

Gabe nodded as he watched the fine beads of sweat pop out on her forehead. "I'll need to look, anyway."

"What on earth for? I told you he never went in there."

"That you know of, ma'am. I mean, you can't be sure. I have to search the entire house, Mrs. McIntyre."

"No! Absolutely not! Get out of here immediately!"

*

Gabe almost smiled but he managed to keep the same sedate look on his face. "I can't do that, ma'am. I am going to search this house. Now, why would you care if I searched your room?"

She backed up to the door of her bedroom. "I ... I, well, good heavens! What woman wants a man plundering through her personal things? It's outrageous!"

"I'll try to be discreet, ma'am. Just don't think of me as a man, think of me as the law." Gabe's expression changed then to a look of determination as he advanced on her. "Step out of the way, Mrs. McIntyre."

Murdoch stood behind Gabe, impressed with the sheriff. He cleared his throat. "I'll check the kitchen."

She looked at him and moved toward the hallway. "My kitchen is spotless! I don't want you rummaging about, moving things from their rightful place!"

As she addressed Murdoch, Gabe entered her bedroom quietly and started looking through the wardrobe.

"I'll be careful," Murdoch was saying.

"You have no right. You aren't the law!"

Murdoch smiled a little at her and moved his vest aside to show the deputy's badge. "I am now. Gabe needed some help. You know so much has been going on lately so he swore me in less than an hour ago. Now, if you'll excuse me."

He turned and walked away, leaving her staring at his back then whirling around to find her bedroom door open. She didn't know which way to go at first then, she gathered herself and went after Gabe. Finding him knelt down in front of her wardrobe, she nearly squealed. "Get out of there! How dare you go through my private things?!"

Gabe stood up slowly then turned, a blue dress in his hands. "Spill something on yourself, ma'am? This looks like blood to me."

"Blood? Don't be absurd! Why, it's tomato juice. I spilled an entire jar all over myself."

"When?"

She flubbered and stomped her foot. "Yesterday, I think. I don't remember."

Gabe gave her a most disbelieving look then heard Murdoch call out for him. He skirted around her, hanging onto the dress and heading quickly for the kitchen.

Murdoch stood near the sink with a wash basin in his hands. Gabe peered inside and saw the bloody towels. With a sigh, he turned to her.

"Well? Is this tomato juice, too? Mrs. McIntyre, I'm going to have Dr. Jenkins look at these. He'll tell me if it's blood so why don't you just start telling us the truth now."

*

Johnny jumped Val's checker and snatched it away with a victorious grin which faded as he looked into his friend's face. "I win again. You're makin this too easy, Val."

"Ain't in the mood, I guess."

Sighing, Johnny leaned back on the stool, the back of his head pressing against the cell bars. Val sat hunched over on the cot looking like he'd lost his best friend.

"Hungry?"

Val shook his head and scooted back. "Why do ya reckon she'd kill her own kid?"

Shrugging, Johnny looked at him through half-closed eyes. "To keep her precious reputation as a lily white Christian woman, I guess. She knew what he was, knew he'd been in trouble back east. He was arrested for breakin into some girl's home back there."

Val's eyes came up then narrowed as he cocked his head and looked sidelong at Johnny. "What else ain't ya told me?"

Johnny never moved except to take a deep breath. He relayed all Mrs. Simons had told he and Scott about George McIntyre and his mother. "She was going to tell you but she wanted to give you some time after the funeral," he finished then dropped his eyes.


"She's a nice woman. Her husband's a good man, too. Kind of surprised me I'd like 'em since I never cared much for the church and all."

A smile lit Johnny's face momentarily. "That who was gonna marry you two?"

Val's face fell, his brows drawing together as he simply nodded.

Contritely, Johnny muttered, "sorry."

Val just waved him off then leaned back against the wall and looked at his friend. "I couldn't hear everything but I heard enough. Your old man was right. I wouldn't let you go to jail or hang for me, Johnny."

"My choice," he clipped.

"No, it ain't. You shoulda gave that shirt to Gabe. I'd a told ya that before but I didn't get the chance. Were you the one that thought she was the killer?"

Johnny looked over at him. "Just some things that didn't make sense. Like, why she was dressed all in black before she was ever told George was dead and the way she said some things when she was rantin at us. Plus what Mrs. Simons said. Scott's the one who laid it all out."

"I never would have thought of her as a suspect, though." Scott stood in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest as he leaned against the frame.

"Yeah, you would have at some point, brother. After all, you're the expert." Johnny looked through the bars and grinned at him.

Scott dipped his head, a small breathy laugh escaping as he shook his head at his brother.

"Well, whoever did what ... thanks. You both did a lot to help me and I know I didn't show ya but I do appreciate it."

"We understand, Val." Scott pushed off and walked over to the cell door hanging wide open. "In fact, I think I understand a lot of things much better now."

*

She wouldn't budge. Her mouth clamped shut as she sat on the settee where Gabe had practically dragged her. He sat in front of her, leaning in as Murdoch stood to his right side.

"Where did the blood come from?" Gabe asked.

She turned her head away.

He looked up at Murdoch who nodded, suspecting what he was thinking somehow. "We've talked to Mrs. Haverty and Mrs. Simons. They both had some interesting things to say, especially the reverend's wife. She told all about George's troubles back east. All of that would've come out in a trial and you just couldn't stand to see your name sullied. You knew he killed Hannah. Maybe knew it before anyone else did. You knew he'd get convicted so why bother with a trial? You killed him to keep your name clean."

Murdoch had never wanted to believe this. Never wanted to believe a woman could take the life of her own child and for no more reason than he'd embarrassed her. He couldn't fathom it and her lack of reaction to the accusation made him sick to his stomach. "What kind of woman are you? What kind of mother?" he spouted.

Her lower lip trembled and she swallowed audibly but she never looked at either man. "How would you feel knowing your only child was so sick and twisted? George was a good boy when he was very little but, the older he got the more I saw the meanness in him. He tortured small animals and the other children made fun of him because he ... he maybe wasn't so attractive but that wasn't his fault. He didn't have any friends. Hannah was sweet and he liked her so much but, he was so shy in public. He had to tell her, make her understand what a mistake she was making but she wouldn't listen to him. She screamed and he had to make her stop. I was going to send him away again like I had to send him away to school after ..." She stopped and closed her mouth tightly.

"After what?" Gabe asked, leaning in a little more. "What happened to make you send him away?"

Suddenly, she burst into tears, pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve and twisting it in her chubby hands.

Gabe leaned back and sighed then looked up at Murdoch. He was at a loss.

Murdoch walked around the sheriff and sat beside her, laying his hat on the coffee table. "Mildred, sometimes our children do things we don't like and we can't watch them all the time. If George was ... disturbed somehow, that wasn't your fault. What did he do?" He kept his voice level, his tone soft as he spoke to her, hoping kindness would loosen her tongue.

"Oh, Murdoch! We hid it from everyone. My husband and I, we just didn't know what to do. We thought it best to send him away. He was old enough for school and he was always so intelligent! Despite everything, he was smart as a whip. He was accepted at Yale just in time. No one ever knew what became of the Olsen girl."

Murdoch leaned back, his mouth falling open. He remembered the incident well. It was about six or seven years ago when Shirley Olsen simply vanished. She was a wild girl and her parents couldn't control her. They'd searched for her long and hard but, finally, everyone began to believe she had run away. "What did happen to her?"

She sniffed then blew her nose before glancing up at him. "He didn't mean to do it. She was a whore and everyone knew it. But, she wouldn't lay with him and he got so angry he simply .... he didn't realize what he'd done until it was too late. Henry wanted to tell her family but I convinced him no good would come of it. She was a burden to her poor parents as it was. Don't you see? It was better if they thought she'd run off. We buried her far out in the country but the strain of it ... a week after George left for school, my Henry died. You remember, Murdoch."

"Yes," he said in a distant voice. "Yes, I remember when he died." He blinked then looked at her. "And you were going to let an innocent man hang for what you did?"

"Innocent?! Val Crawford is hardly innocent! Why, he's a scourge to this community and that son of yours keeps anyone from getting rid of him. Everyone is so afraid of Madrid, they won't stand up to Crawford!"

"That's a load of ... that's ridiculous, ma'am." Gabe caught himself though he didn't know why he bothered. "Val Crawford is a fine man and I respect him as a sheriff and as a man. He's got a lot of guts and he doesn't need Johnny or anyone else to stand up for him. You don't like him because Hannah chose him. But, not liking a man doesn't give you the right to set him up on murder charges. It also doesn't give you the right to keep quiet when your son was hanging around Hannah's store and you knew what he was capable of."

"No! He said he'd changed! He said Yale had been so good for him that he understood things so much more clearly," she argued.

"Is that why he was arrested back there for harassing some woman?"

Murdoch had a sudden and chilling thought. "That's why you came to the ranch after the funeral and made that scene. And after George was dead, you kept it up, telling anyone who'd listen of Val's guilt and accusing my sons in the bargain. You were setting them up before you ever killed George. You planned it all out."

Again, she pressed her lips tightly and refused to reply.

Gabe sighed and shook his head then stood up, extending his hand. "Let's go."

She looked at the hand and frowned. "Go where?"

Murdoch stood as well. "To jail, Mildred. You killed your son and tried to frame someone else for it. You have to pay for that. And you have to pay for Shirley Olsen."

*

Johnny came to his feet when he heard the front door open. He and Scott walked out of the cell, leaving it open and heading out front. Both young men pulled up short when they saw Mrs. McIntyre, red-eyed and pale being led by Gabe Henshaw.

"Johnny, let Val out of the cell," Murdoch said.

Johnny leaned back around the door and waved Val forward. He stepped through from the cell room and locked his eyes on the short woman.

"Gentlemen, if you'll set aside, I need to lock up my prisoner," Gabe said as he led the woman toward them.

Johnny and Scott stepped to the right as Val stepped to the left. When she came abreast of Val, she stopped, pulling at Gabe's arm. He stopped and waited for a sign from Val but Crawford was staring at her as she looked up at him. She opened her mouth but no sound came forth and she dropped her head. Gabe pulled her arm gently and she followed him inside.

"What happened?" Scott asked immediately.

"She confessed after we found her bloody dress and some bloody towels. I guess she was too busy telling anyone who would listen that Val was guilty to clean up after herself properly," Murdoch reported.

Johnny leaned back against the wall and sighed with relief then he looked over at Val who was staring at Murdoch.

"Can't believe you got her to talk at all," Val said.

Murdoch sighed then looked down at his shirt and took off the badge. "Scott's idea worked. Telling her I wanted you away from my sons and that I didn't believe you worked wonders. Gabe was very convincing as well. But, when she realized we were going to search the whole house, she panicked."

Gabe came back out and tossed the keys on the desk. "Johnny, the next time I ask you to guard a prisoner, do you think you could actually lock them up?"

"Depends on the prisoner, Gabe," he shrugged.

Gabe rolled his eyes then looked at Murdoch. "Did you tell them about the other?"

"What other?" Scott asked.

Murdoch proceeded to tell them about Shirley Olsen. He finished with, "I should ride over and tell her parents. They'll want to know the truth."

They were all quiet for a moment then Val sucked in a breath. "Well, if ya don't need me anymore." He didn't finish and headed for the door.

"Just a minute, Sheriff. You have a prisoner to look after," Murdoch said.

Val stopped with the door knob in his hand but he didn't turn around. "I don't think so." With that, he walked out.

"What does that mean?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny pushed off the wall and headed for the door himself. "You put Gabe in charge of Green River, Murdoch."

"That was temporary."

"Yeah, well, maybe not as temporary as you think." Johnny turned back to face his father. "The way Val sees it, you didn't trust him to watch his own house. He'll get over it in time. Besides, he shouldn't be workin right now, anyway. Not like he's had a lot of time to mourn." He looked at Scott and nodded then walked out, too.

*

Scott went with his father to the Olsen farm. He thought about going after Johnny but knew his brother would be with Val or, at least, close by. This chore was as bad. Telling a mother and father that their daughter had been murdered all those years ago when they'd held out hope she'd simply run away and was at least alive, gave him shivers.  

As they rode, Scott thought about the day, this very long day and couldn't quite believe it had only been a day. He also thought about the conversation Johnny and Murdoch had earlier about Val. He could see enlightenment come to his father's face and was glad Murdoch had apologized to his brother. He, too, had not fully understood the relationship between Johnny and Val until today. Now, he wondered at it.

"I'm glad Gabe agreed to stay on for a while."

Murdoch glanced over but only nodded.

Scott sighed lightly to himself. "I guess I didn't really understand before. Val has been like a brother to Johnny."

Murdoch's jaw twitched. "When did you 'get it'?" he asked, using Johnny's phrasing.

Smiling, Scott looked over at his father. "Earlier today, I played devil's advocate about Val. Johnny was upset but I think, more hurt that I would entertain the idea of Val's guilt. Nothing could have convinced him of it and I started to realize, he would act the same way if it were you or me. So, I asked him."

"Asked him what?"

"If Val was like a brother to him. He said yes." Scott smiled softly. "He asked if it bothered me. I said a little. I had a friend like that in Boston at one time."

Murdoch nodded, relieved things were fine with his boys. "Maybe, you could invite your friend to visit sometime."

Scott only nodded, not wanting to get into the whys of his friend never coming out west. Before the war, they'd been very close, thick as thieves. But, afterwards, Scott had done a great deal of maturing and seen too much to go back to the fanciful days of his youth. His friend had never surpassed that stage and they'd drifted apart. Still, he had fond memories of the times they'd spent together and that was enough.  

He focused back on the present as they arrived at the Olsen farm.

*

Johnny rode up to Val's house knowing he wasn't there. He unsaddled Barranca and rubbed him down then turned him out in the small corral behind the house. Walking inside, he headed for the kitchen. As he started cooking, he wondered how long Val would be. It didn't matter. He'd make a stew and that was easy enough to heat up. It was untelling how long it had been since Val had eaten more than a bite or two.  

He stopped and sighed, leaning against the counter. Was it just yesterday they'd had the funeral? He suddenly felt bone weary. So much had happened in just a few days. He rubbed his eyes and stretched his back. Then, he remembered the shirt. Grimacing, he pulled out the bucket and walked out back. He really shouldn't burn Val's shirt. Gabe might want it as evidence against the widow. Still, he wasn't about to leave it in the house. He walked into the barn and stuffed the shirt in his saddlebags then nodded. He'd take it into town in the morning. He headed back inside to fix the meal.

Johnny sat in the leather chair, boots off and waiting for Val. He was almost asleep when he heard Milagro well after dark. Coming to his feet, he limped into the kitchen and put the stew over the fire. His feet hurt, hell his whole body hurt from all the strain of the past few days. He couldn't imagine how Val felt.

When he walked back in the main room, Val was standing in the doorway, gun drawn. "Don't shoot me until after you've tasted the stew," he said, raising his hands in the air.

Val holstered his gun and closed the door. "What're ya doin here, Johnny?"

"Feeding you. And don't tell me you're not hungry." He blatantly ignored the red-rimmed, hollow eyes of his friend.

"Ya movin in or what?"

Johnny smiled a little at the grouch. "Or what. Look, I knew you wouldn't bother eatin unless it was right under your nose. It'll be hot in a few minutes. Meantime," he walked over to the cupboard and grabbed the bottle of whiskey, "we can start with this."

Val plopped into his chair and stretched his legs out. "You don't have to hang around here. I'd just as soon be left be."

Johnny poured two glasses and handed one off then sat in a chair at the table. "I'll leave after you eat somethin. And I never do anything I don't want to do."

Val snorted then lifted the glass, taking a sip. "Unless your daddy tells ya to."

Johnny smirked. "Sometimes, not even then."

Val gave him a sidelong look. "Things alright with you two? I know ya been growlin around each other."

Shrugging, Johnny swallowed a drink and sighed. "We're fine. We always growl around each other. Don't mean a thing." He set his glass down then went to the kitchen returning with two bowls of stew.

*

Val devoured his stew then sat back and belched loudly. Johnny just shook his head. "Not bad, amigo. When'd you learn to cook?"

"Watched Maria a lot while she was spinnin tales for me."

"Spinnin tales about what?"

Johnny dipped his head then pushed his own bowl away and picked up his glass. "About my mother, Murdoch, how things used to be back in the day. Told me all about her family. Stuff like that. She likes to talk."

"And you like to listen to her."

"I guess. Mostly, I like to watch her cook." Johnny grinned.

Val nodded and stared into his glass as if the amber liquid held his answers. "Reckon you could find someone to take over for me?"

Johnny leaned forward and stared at his bowed head. "Nope."

Val looked up, his eyes completely open to Johnny. "For a couple of months or so, I meant."

Johnny looked into those brown eyes and nodded almost without conscious thought. "That I can do. Goin somewhere?"

"Yeah, and before ya ask, no place in particular. Just ... away."

"Okay. I'll talk to Murdoch." He stared at the table top, pushing his glass back and forth. After a minute of quiet, he looked at Val and made the offer. "Need some company?"

Crooking a one-sided grin, Val shook his head. "Thanks but, no. Just need to be on my own awhile."

Johnny nodded. "I know. Still, if ya need anything or change your mind about that company." He left it there.

*

He eased the front door open then closed it as quietly. Boots in hand, Johnny walked softly toward the stairs. He stopped cold with his head down and listened for what he thought he'd heard. Smiling a little, he turned and headed into the darkened living room.

"How is he?"

The disembodied voice emanated from within the blackness and Johnny squinted to locate the source. From the sofa, he could start making out the silhouette. "Not good." He walked further into the room, to his father's desk and lit the oil lamp, keeping it low. "He needs some time away. Wants to know if we can get someone to take over for him a spell."

"I'm sure that can be arranged."

Johnny sighed at the tension he heard in that voice and wondered when his father was going to cut Val a break. "That's what I told him. He's leaving in the morning." He turned then and walked to a chair across from the sofa and fell into it.

"Tired?"

"Yeah, tired and sore."

Murdoch moved, shifting forward and settling his forearms on his thighs. "Are you alright with him taking off?"

He looked at his father and shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It's what he needs to do. I understand that."

"Because it's the way you deal with things sometimes, too."

Irritation was starting to be replaced with anger. Johnny sucked in a breath. "Sometimes, a man needs to be on his own to figure things out. The only thing I worry about is if he'll come back at all. Somethin eating at you?"

Murdoch's eyes came up and he stared at his son for a beat. "The Olsens took it very hard."

Johnny dropped his eyes and nodded. "Look, I know this has been rough on everyone and I know I came down on you pretty hard a couple of times but, it just seemed like you weren't real happy about me helping Val."

Murdoch sighed loudly in the quiet room. "I know I haven't done things the way you would have liked. I know I didn't fully understand how you feel about Val but, I do now. I also understand how it could come to be that way. I'm not unhappy about your friendship with the man, if that's what you're getting at."

Johnny deflated and leaned back in the chair. "Okay." He smiled a little. "You did alright, by the way. I mean, you worked the widow really well."

"Scott had a good plan."

The grin widened. "Yeah, every once in a while he manages to come up with a good idea." He started laughing even before he finished the sentence.

Murdoch smirked. "Yes, once in a while. Why don't you take the morning off and see Val before he goes?"

Johnny shook his head and leaned forward, scooting to the edge of his seat. "Already said what needed saying. I'd just as soon try and have a normal day for a change. I was thinking about Steve Watkins. He's always been good at helping Val out and he'd make a fine sheriff for the short term."

"I'll talk to the association tomorrow and, if they agree, I'll offer Steve the job. If he wants it."

"I don't know about wanting it but, I'm sure he'll do it for Val."

Murdoch frowned in thought. "The trial should be over before he gets back. Do you think that will be a problem for the judge?"

Johnny came to his feet and stretched, yawning widely. "Guess you should ask. Val said he'd keep in touch so I'd know where to find him. I'm goin to bed."

"I don't think I'll ever understand how a mother could take her own child's life, even a child like George."

Johnny stood there, glad his father couldn't see his face as his back was to the low burning lamp. "Some people have no business having kids, Murdoch. Should be some law or some license you have to have for that."

Murdoch looked up, wishing he could see Johnny's face. He opened his mouth then thought better of asking. "Goodnight, son."

Johnny started toward the stairs then stopped halfway across the room. He turned his head to the side. "Thanks, Murdoch. 'Nite."

*

Scott looked at the sky and sighed. It was barely five o'clock and already it was getting dark. That was the one thing he didn't like about Fall, the shorter days. Otherwise, it was his favorite time of year. Well, at least in Boston where they actually had seasons you could discern. Yes, it was cooler now but nothing like the crispness of a fall day on the Common with the leaves turning gold and red. The sweet smell of wood burning in thousands of fireplaces and the anticipation of a nice hot toddy in the evening when the sun set and the air really cooled was a memory that caused him to smile.

Johnny glanced up from the fence line and saw his brother daydreaming. He smiled and shook his head. "What's this one's name?"

Blinking rapidly, Scott was brought back to the present. He turned and frowned at his brother. "I'm sorry?"

"Whoever you're daydreamin about. What's her name?"

Scott laughed a little and pulled the post from the wagon bed. "Autumn."

"Pretty."

Grinning widely, Scott amused himself. "Yes, very pretty."

Johnny stopped with the hammer in midair and Scott waited to see if his brother realized he was teasing him. But, Johnny didn't look at Scott, he turned in the opposite direction and watched. Scott knew then he'd heard something. He'd swear to anyone who would listen that his brother had a dog's hearing. He laid the post on the ground, walked over to stand beside Johnny and waited, too.

A few seconds later, the black stallion appeared on the rise then loped down the gentle hill. Scott looked over and saw the genuine smile of delight of his brother's face. He smiled, as well, and walked over to the wagon.

When the rider got closer, Johnny waved and called out, "Val!"

Reining to a stop under an oak tree, Val dismounted and walked over to his friend, shaking hands and patting each other on the back. "Johnny, good ta see ya."

"Welcome home, amigo." Johnny studied his face, searching for some clue as to Val's state of mind. He saw nothing much and knew Val didn't want him to. "Been what, three months now?"

"About that." Val took his hat off and slapped some dust from his pants.

"So, where'd you go and what did you see?"

Val chortled a little. "Oh, just visited some old haunts. Didn't see nothin new." His face fell and he sighed lightly. "Stopped by town and Steve told me it was over."

Johnny bowed his head and nodded. "Yeah, a few weeks ago. Reckon they couldn't bring themselves to hang an old woman but, she won't be gettin out of prison, either." He looked back up and smiled. "Good to see you."

Val smiled tightly at him then looked over at Scott giving him a nod and receiving one in return. "Well, just wanted to let ya know I'm back. Headin home to dust out the cobwebs. Told Steve I'd be back on the job first of the week if it's still mine."

"Of course it's still yours. Steve will be glad to give it back, too, I'll bet. Hey, come over for supper tomorrow night."

Val looked long at him then shrugged. "Yeah, okay. Well, I'll see ya."

Johnny watched him ride away, a distant look in his eyes as he thought about his friend. He felt Scott come up beside him and looked over.

"He still looks so sad," Scott remarked.

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "But, he'll be okay now."

"How can you be so sure?"

Johnny turned to face his brother fully. "Because," he shrugged, "I saw it. Come on, time to pack it in. We won't be able to see in another few minutes anyway."

Scott nodded but stayed where he was as Johnny walked away. He looked out at the rise, Val long gone now, and sighed. Yes, it seemed Johnny knew Val very well. With a soft laugh, he realized about as well as Johnny knew him and vice versa. If he thought about it in the right light, Scott had found himself not only a brother he didn't know he had, but a sort of stepbrother, as well. That idea brightened his mood and he moved to help his brother pack up for the day.

*

Val knelt beside the grave now covered with browning grass. He sniffed and wiped his nose as he stared at the headstone. It was the first time he'd seen it set and, he had to admit, it was nice as far as headstones go.

"Well, honey, I'm back just like I said I'd be. I know ya ain't really in there but, if I went around talkin to ya in the streets, I reckon they'd finally lock me up like they tried to. Guess I don't really blame 'em for that still, I hafta say, I'm not over bein mad. Guess most of that is just bein mad about the whole thing. I could've stayed gone. I really could have if not for you and Johnny. Of course, like I said, I could talk to you anywhere but, not Johnny. And, reckon I need him about now."

He sat down properly and crossed his legs Indian-style. "Now, I'm not about to tell him that but, I don't have to. I never really told ya much about Johnny, did I? I mean, when he came home and all. We talked about it a lot when I got here. He told me the only reason he stayed at first was because of Scott. I understand that. Only reason I'm stayin around here is because he's the only friend I got worth a damn. It's gonna be hard walking past that store all the time and all the places we used to go. The cafe and the hotel restaurant and, well, all those places. I thought it'd be easier if I wasn't around here but, to tell ya the truth, it wasn't. Didn't matter where I went, you were still there. Reckon you always will be. And, maybe, some day, I'll be able to feel the good without the hurt. Leastways, that's what the preacher said.

"Yeah, I went to see Reverend Simons. I knew you'd want me to and, it did help some. Course, all that stuff about givin it time and time heals all wounds is a load of crap to my thinkin. I know I'll never get over losin you. We never even got a chance to start, did we? Reckon I should be grateful for what we did have and I am but, I wanted more. I wanted everything, I reckon. Nothin wrong with that, is there?" He stopped and pulled his kerchief out, wiping his face and sniffling.

"Told Johnny I'd have supper at the ranch tomorrow. Reckon he's gonna want to babysit me now. Well, reckon I can let him do that a little bit. Makes him feel useful." Val snorted. "Never could lie to you. Makes me feel better just havin him around but, you know that. You understood me and Johnny right off. I think, if things had worked out, you and him woulda been as good friends as me and him are. Anyways, reckon I should get back to that shack of mine and clean it up some."

He sat there a moment, a crooked half-grin coming to his face. "Of course, if Johnny was that good a friend, that old shack would be clean as a whistle when I walk in there." His face fell again and he took a deep, shuddering breath. "Okay, I'll be back and I'll bring ya some flowers next time. Some of them daisies ya like so well." He stood and clutched his hat in his hand as he looked down on the headstone. "I love you," he whispered.

*

Val dismounted heavily in front of the shack, his vision blurry, his focus on the front door. He tied Milagro off, promising to take care of him in a bit then, walked up on the porch. With a sigh of dread, he pushed the door open and stepped inside then froze.

There wasn't a cobweb in sight, the table had a high polish on it, the bed was made and he could smell the scent of pine and soap in the air. The setting sun's light shone brightly through the window glass, so clear it was hard to tell there was even glass there. The curtains were new, tied back neatly to let in the light. He stepped on into the kitchen and found the stove clean with a half cord of wood sitting in the bin and a new coffee pot sitting on top. Val chuckled softly then shook his head as tears welled in his eyes once more.

His throat tight, he whispered, "Gracias, hermano de sangre."

 

 

~end~
2008

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