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Winj

 

Salvation

 

 

 

WARNING: Seriously, folks. Take Heed. This story deals with subject matter of a religious nature as well as torture. Those with strong religious beliefs may be offended. This is the only warning that will be posted.

The young man rode slowly down the dusty street of the village with his head lowered and his hat hiding his face. The reins hung loosely in his left hand giving the appearance he was not really controlling the animal he sat. The horse turned as it neared the last structure, faced it directly and came to a stop.

Many villagers stepped out of their homes with trepidation and followed the horse at a safe distance.

The door opened with a creak and a brown-cloaked man stepped out followed by a second, older one of similar dress. The first approached the rider and found his eyes.

"I want him," the rider said barely above a whisper.

The younger priest waved the older over and the man approached with something akin to contempt in his eyes. The rider looked at him then reached back with his right hand and opened his saddlebag with some difficulty.

Finally, he withdrew an item and the villagers who had surrounded the three of them gasped. Many crossed themselves and dropped to their knees in prayer. A few dared to look upon the scene.

The rider grasped the heavy object and rested it on his thigh for a second before holding it out for the priest to take but the man hesitated to accept the gift.

"It's a little heavy," the rider drawled.

The padre stepped up and took it, his eyes never leaving those of the rider. "How did you get it?" he asked suspiciously.

The rider smiled at him, his eyes dancing with humor but it did nothing for the pallor of his face. "Con mi sangre," he replied then turned the horse. (With my blood)

But the animal went no further and the rider sat perfectly still for a long second before tilting to the left and sliding out of the saddle. He hit the ground with a thud and no other sound. He didn't move again.

 

TWO WEEKS EARLIER

Johnny left the saloon in Morro Coyo and walked across the street to his horse. His gait slowed a little and he dropped his head. His right hand stopped swinging and stayed at his side. As he neared Barranca, he turned swiftly to find two young Mexicans following him. They stopped when he turned and glanced nervously at each other, seeming to have a silent conversation.

Finally, one approached and the other stayed a step behind him. With sombrero in nervous hands, the young man spoke quietly.

"Senor Madrid, we have need of your services," he said respectfully.

"I don't do that anymore," Johnny replied, a hint of irritation in his tone.

"Por favor, Senor. It is muy importante," the boy said hurriedly.

"It always is, kid," Johnny retorted then sighed. "Tell me and make it fast."

"Gracias, Senor. Perhaps we could speak privately?"

Johnny raised a brow then shook his head. He stepped on the boardwalk then turned down an alley. "This is as private as it gets," he said as he perched on some empty crates.

The young men, boys really, stood before him silently. Both seemed in awe and Johnny was getting annoyed again. He sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. This seemed to break loose their tongues.

"It is our village, Senor. Our church. The banditos, they came and took it!"

"Took what?" Johnny asked, his heart plummeting as his head made the connection it had to make.

"The crucifix, Senor," he said and they both crossed themselves.

"You're from Santa Luis?"

"Si, Senor. You know of that which we speak?" the other boy asked.

"Yeah, I know it. Is that dam ..... is Padre Benito still there?" he asked, curbing his tongue.

"Si, he is as well as a newer padre. A younger one," the first boy answered.

"Who sent you here?"

"Our fathers, Senor. Padre Benito was angry at the suggestion but our papas saw no other way."

"I'll just bet he was," Johnny mumbled. "Well, what do you expect me to do about it?" he asked irritably.

Both boys took a step backwards and grabbed each others arms.

"I'm not gonna hurt you," Johnny sighed.

"Our fathers have said to tell you we will pay you well to return the crucifix to the church."

"Pay me with what? Tortillas?" Johnny stood up, his hands going to his hips as he paced away.

Both boys waited for him, too frightened to speak.

Johnny stopped and turned to face them. "Go home. Tell your fathers I said no. I don't hire out anymore. I'm not gonna get sucked into this!"

With that, he turned on his heel and strode out of the alley. The boys followed after a beat, turning the corner just in time to see him riding out of town fast.

*****

Johnny rode hard the first few miles then slowed down to an easy canter. He fumed silently. Damn it! Why can't they leave me alone? Murdoch would have my head if he knew about this. Well, maybe. Afterall, I did say no.

He blew out a harsh breath as he allowed himself to understand he couldn't say no. He couldn't turn his back on them. Well, he could probably turn his back on Padre Benito. Self-righteous ass! But the villagers; he knew how much that crucifix meant to them.

It was said it held the spirit of the Holy Ghost. Johnny thought it was a bunch of bull but if there was one thing that kept those people going, it was that cross. He wasn't surprised it had been stolen, only that it had taken this long. He reckoned even most bandits were afraid of its supposed power. Evidently, one bandit wasn't. It was made of pure gold, for heaven's sake. Surely they're not surprised someone took it!

He groaned audibly as he thought of how to explain this one to his father. Murdoch would take the roof off, he was sure. Start spouting off about Madrid and the past and why couldn't Johnny just stop. Well, he could stop the gunfighting but this was something all together different.

The people of Santa Luis had saved his life and he owed them. He reckoned it was a good thing Padre Benito was such a devoted priest because he was having nothing to do with Johnny Madrid. Would have probably sold him out to the rurales when they'd come looking if it weren't for his parishioners.

Johnny grimaced a little remembering the priest admonishing him as evil and sinful and telling him to repent before it was too late. He'd looked the man dead in the eye and informed him it already was too late and he didn't need some old man telling him how to run his life.

He rode up to the hitching post and dismounted, tethering Barranca and hoping he wouldn't need him for a quick escape. Smiling a little at that thought, he went inside.

*****

Scott and Murdoch had their heads together at the desk and Johnny took his hat off, letting it land wherever he tossed it.

"How was town?" Scott asked without looking up.

"Fine. What's going on here?"

"We're just looking at this area of the ranch. I'm trying to convince our father to fence it off for grazing," Scott grinned.

Johnny returned the smile and looked at the map, not terribly interested at the moment.

"You make it sound as if I never listen to you, Scott," Murdoch grumped lightly.

Johnny watched his father's face and noted he was joking. That was good. It meant he was in a good mood. Still, he was hesitant to bring up his news.

"Do I?" Scott retorted with a small laugh.

"What do you think, son?"

Johnny looked at his father then back at the map. "Sure," he shrugged and walked over to the sofa, plopping down with a grunt.

Scott and Murdoch shared a concerned look then both walked over to sit in chairs opposite Johnny.

"Something troubling you, John?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny picked at his conchos. "Yeah, there is." He looked up at his father then his brother then back at his pants.

Scott raised a brow. "Are we to guess?"

Johnny smiled a little. "I ran into two men, well, boys in town. They came looking for me."

"Why?" Scott asked.

"Wanted to hire me."

Johnny could actually hear Murdoch's teeth grinding and he looked upon the stern veneer.

"Seems someone stole their church crucifix and they want me to get it back for them," he went on.

Silence reigned over the room for long moments.

"I'm sorry if this sounds, well, dense, but why?"

Johnny smiled at his brother. "Might be because it's made of pure gold but I suspect it's because the people believe it holds the spirit of the Holy Ghost."

"Crucifijo el Espiritu Santo?" Murdoch asked and Johnny nodded.

"You know about this?" Scott asked.

"Yes, it's quite a relic so the church believes," Murdoch replied.

"Reckon they should've sent it to the Pope, then," Johnny sighed.

"Well, I can sympathize, brother, but why you?"

Johnny glanced at his father. "Because I owe them my life. They took care of me once when I was hurt and the rurales were after me. They hid me. I can't ignore that."

"Are you saying you're going to do this?" Murdoch asked in surprise.

"I know you don't approve, Murdoch, but like I said, I owe them."

"Johnny, isn't it dangerous for you to go to Mexico?" Scott asked.

"Maybe," he shrugged.

"Maybe? Maybe?! There's no maybe about it!" Murdoch raged as he took to his feet and began pacing the room. "Johnny, it's suicide for you to go down there and you know it. Will these people hide you again? Will they even get the chance? No, it's too dangerous. Do you even know who took the crucifix or where they are?"

Johnny didn't answer, mainly because he didn't know which question to answer. He let his father simmer, hoping he'd tire out soon but that was wishful thinking.

"Well?"

"Well, what, Murdoch? Yes, it's dangerous and no I don't know who took it yet but the villagers probably do. I didn't ask."

"Why not?" Scott enquired.

Johnny sighed. "Because I told them no. But, it's important to them. They think the crucifix protects them. It's a sacred thing, Scott. I have to help them."

"Then, let me go with you."

Murdoch threw his hands in the air and went back to pacing.

"No, brother. You'd be in my way. I'm sorry but it's the truth. I know you want to help and I appreciate it but you'd only slow me down. Anyway, I need to take care of Barranca," he said and stood up. He looked at Murdoch but his father had his back to them. Johnny hung his head and walked outside.

"You're just as crazy as he is," Murdoch grouched.

Scott couldn't help but smile. "I'm trying to support him, Sir. Johnny feels a sense of duty to these people. I know it's dangerous but yelling at him isn't going to change his mind."

"What will?" Murdoch asked quietly.

"Nothing, I'd imagine. I'm still going to talk him into letting me tag along, though. He shouldn't be down there without back up."

Murdoch frowned at him, desperate to keep Scott here. He knew his older son was quite capable but this was unknown territory to him.

Another part of him wanted Scott to go, to help bring his younger son back home. He didn't know what to do. All he knew was he hated the whole idea.

*****

Scott spent the rest of the evening trying to convince Johnny to let him come along. He wasn't getting anywhere and every time he looked to their father for help, Murdoch avoided his gaze. He also avoided the conversation, burying himself behind the newspaper most of the night.

Frustration finally got the better of Scott. "So, you're just going to go down there alone and take on how many bandits?"

Johnny looked bored and he was. Bored to death with the relentless argument. "Yeah, Scott. I'm just gonna ride down there, stand on top the church and challenge whoever took it to a duel. I think that'll work real well."

"You know there's probably a gang of them. Why do you always think you have to do things alone? Why can't I show my gratitude to those people for saving your life, too?"

Johnny smiled at that one. It was pretty good. "Like I said about a million times already, I appreciate the offer but no thanks. Now, I'm going to bed," he stood and stretched.

Murdoch laid his paper down then and regarded his younger son. "When are you leaving?"

"In the morning," Johnny answered after a pause.

Murdoch let out a harsh breath. "You know I don't want you to go but I can't stop you, either. Just be careful."

"That's it? That's all you're going to say to him? Murdoch, make him take me along!" Scott demanded.

Cocking a brow, Murdoch looked upon his elder son's stern face. "I can no more make him take you than I can stop him from going, Scott. And maybe it's selfish of me but I'd like at least one of my sons home and safe."

"That's a smart idea," Johnny grinned.

"You're both impossibly stubborn!" Scott vented and stood to face his brother. Wagging a finger at him, he warned, "Don't even think about going down there and getting yourself killed for a piece of metal, Johnny. Just make sure you come home intact."

Johnny stared at him for a second then dipped his head before looking back up, his eyes alive. He smiled and started to walk past his brother. He reached out and laid a hand on the side of Scott's neck then let it slide to his face, patting his brother softly on the cheek. Without a word, he went upstairs.

Scott swallowed hard and walked over to the French doors, staring out into the night. "I have a bad feeling about this," he whispered throatily.

*****

Johnny tied down his saddlebags and patted Barranca's neck then walked back inside to breakfast. They were all sitting there looking like lost pups and he sighed to himself. He hated this but he had no choice as far as he was concerned. He'd always paid his debts and this was no different. They'd just have to accept that and get past it. He slid into his seat and poured a cup of coffee.

"How long will it take you to get there?" Scott asked.

"Four days, I think."

"So, you'll be gone a couple of weeks?"

"I guess so. Depends on what I find when I get there. Why?"

"Oh, I'm just trying to calculate how long I should wait before I start to tear my hair out," Scott snipped.

Johnny set his jaw and stared at his brother. Then, he relaxed and a crooked grin slid up his face. "About two weeks, I'd reckon. But, take it easy. I don't think you'd look too good bald."

Scott rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Why must everything be a joke to you?"

"You take things too seriously, Scott. You need to relax."

"I might relax, Johnny, if you took things seriously at all!"

"Boys!" Murdoch growled.

They both looked at him then stared at their plates.

"I'm sure Johnny will be careful and come home as soon as he can. I'm also sure he'll wire us when he gets there and when he leaves," Murdoch said, giving Johnny a look that made his request a demand.

But Johnny shook his head. "I'll wire you at the town closest to Santa Luis, Murdoch. There's no telegraph in the village."

Murdoch sighed. "Of course. I'm sure I knew that before I lost my mind," he muttered.

"You didn't lose it, old man. We drove it away," Johnny grinned.

"We?" Scott asked, perturbed.

Johnny made a face at him and stood up. "Guess I'll be going."

"You didn't eat," Murdoch noted.

"Not hungry," he said quietly and walked to the door.

Murdoch sighed, shot Scott a look and threw down his napkin. They both walked out the door as Johnny was tightening his cinch.

"Hey," Scott called softly.

Johnny turned to look at him; well, toward him.

Scott stepped up closer. "I'm sorry. I'm worried about you. I didn't mean to make you feel bad, Johnny. I just don't want you doing this alone."

"I understand, Scott. Mostly because you've said it over and over and over," he smiled briefly. "Sometimes, a man has to do a thing. It's not right to pull anyone else into it. How do you think I'd feel if something happened to you down there because of me? Don't ask me to do that, brother."

Scott bowed his head then caught his brother's eyes. "Come home."

"I will," Johnny smiled and gave him a light jab to the arm.

Murdoch waited for the brothers to have a moment. When Scott stepped back, he walked up to Johnny. He put a hand on his son's shoulder and gave a gentle shake. "Please, be careful. No unnecessary chances."

"I promise," Johnny smiled a little.

"I hope these people appreciate what you're risking for them."

Johnny looked in his eyes, his brows drawing together. "They do, Murdoch. They do."

Murdoch held his gaze, his hand never moving. He didn't want to let go. That would mean Johnny leaving. He stood there for what seemed an eternity.

Johnny looked in his eyes, knew what he was doing and appreciated it more than he could ever express in words. He smiled and raised an expectant brow finally.

Murdoch chuckled and patted his shoulder then, reluctantly, let his hand slide away.

Johnny mounted Barranca and looked back down at them. Tipping his hat, he grinned. "See ya," he said and turned the animal toward the road.

Scott and Murdoch stood watching as he rode further and further away. Once he hit the arch, Johnny spurred Barranca into a gallop.

"Murdoch?"

"Yes, son?"

"I feel like I'm never going to see him again," Scott said, a flutter in his chest that he recognized as fear.

"Scott, please," Murdoch responded with a heavy tone.

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to sound so maudlin but I can't help it," Scott said then walked inside, knowing his fears would be rebuked.

He'd had this feeling once before and it had held true then. The day he and his company were captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. He wasn't likely to forget the dread that washed over him that day and the night before as well. The same dread he felt last night and again this morning, more tangible as he watched Johnny ride away.

*****

He'd called it right. Four days later, Johnny rode into Santa Luis slowly, his eyes scanning the village. The doors and windows were closed but he felt the people. He smiled a little but it really saddened him that they lived in such fear. These villages were easy targets for all manner of bandito and rurale alike. They took and took and Johnny had never understood it. They had so little but it was easy pickins, too. It was worth the small gains to not worry about retribution or attack by the villagers.

He rode straight up to the mission church. His throat tightened with anger at the thought of Padre Benito but he wasn't about to hide nor would he ignore the man. A grin lifted the edges of his mouth.

He dismounted and tethered Barranca then heard the doors opening slowly. Heard the soft footfalls as the people came out of their homes. Knew they recognized him and had no fear.

The heavy door creaked open and a priest walked out, his hands folded into his robe. He was surprisingly young with warm brown eyes and a small smile of contentment on his face. Quite the change from the dour Padre Benito. Johnny watched him approach with a touch of amusement.

"I am Padre Matteo. May I help you?"

"No, but I think I can help you, Padre. I'm Johnny Madrid," he answered softly.

The priest stared openly, his mouth gaping and Johnny almost laughed out loud.

"Oh, forgive me, my son. I expected someone ..... older and not quite so ...... congenial," he stammered.

Johnny nodded and smiled. "Guess it don't really matter, Padre."

The priest started to speak but instead turned toward the door of the mission when he heard it open. He turned back to Johnny and was stunned by the change that had overcome the young man. He was no longer congenial. His eyes were frightening, his face rigid and his stare deadly.

Padre Benito had lost what little hair he'd had and his shoulders were a little more stooped but he was still a forceful presence. He walked right up to Johnny and stared at him.

"Have you come for absolution, Juanito?"

Johnny ground his jaw then found his calm. "No, Padre, and I think you know I don't like being called that. Now, I understand you have a problem," he spoke in a flat tone.

The old priest shrugged. "We have no problems here. No one sent for you."

He smiled and leaned toward the man as he spoke. "Si, they did and behind your back, I believe."  

The priest's face fell into an even harder glare as he stepped back. "Then deal with them. The church has no use for you."

"Padre!" the young priest exclaimed.

"Oh, it's alright, Father. Me and Padre Benito have no love lost between us, do we?" Johnny said, still smiling.

Padre Benito huffed a little and walked back into the church hurriedly. Johnny shook his head at the man.

"Forgive him, my son. I do not know what has come over him," Padre Matteo said.

"No need, Padre. We rub each other the wrong way. Besides, he's just an old grouch."

The priest put a hand over his mouth to try and hide the smile. "May I help?"

Johnny shook his head. "Don't get yourself in any trouble. These people sent for me and I intend to get their crucifix back. If he don't want it, they do."

He turned then to face the villagers all standing a respectable distance away. Johnny walked up and looked them over. He recognized many of them and his face was warm with fondness.

His eyes rested on one man and he approached him. "Manuel, como es ta?"

The man bowed quickly. "Bien, Johnny. Gracias, muchos gracias."

"Don't thank me yet, amigo. I ain't done nothin," Johnny grinned.

"Please, honor us by staying in our home," Manuel offered, his hand extended to show the way.

Johnny nodded and started to turn to Barranca when the reins were placed in his hand by a boy of no more than ten years old. He smiled at the child and followed Manuel.

The boy was following Johnny as they walked to Manuel's home. Johnny glanced back at him a couple of times, a frown of thought on his face. When they walked into the small house and the boy followed, Johnny remembered.

"Javier?" he asked.

The boy smiled brightly and nodded.

"Boy, you're nearly grown! I didn't even recognize you."

This made the boy smile even wider and Johnny laughed and ruffled his hair. Manuel would ordinarily send his son from the room for being such a distraction but he knew how Johnny felt about the children so he said nothing.

Johnny settled at the table and soon heaps of food was set before him. He sighed a little knowing full well it was more than they could afford to give. That the children may have less to eat because of it. He hooked his finger at Javier and put the boy on his knee when he came close.

"Where are the rest of your kids?"

"They are in San Paulo with my sister. Javier went as well but he ran back home," Manuel explained. His displeasure with his son's disobedience was evident.

"You ran home? Most kids run *away* from home," Johnny teased.

"I wanted to see you," the boy replied simply.

Johnny smiled then turned to Manuel. "And the others? Have they all sent their children away?"

"As many as could. We did not know what may happen."

Johnny nodded and looked over at Manuel's wife, Rita. She was smiling at him but he could see the terror on her face.

"Tell me everything."

"His name is Soladar. He and his men came here two weeks ago and took the crucifix. He has come before but never had he gone to the church," Manuel began.

"How many men does he have?" Johnny asked, the name meaning nothing to him.

"Ten, maybe fifteen. Muy mal, Johnny. He is el diablo."

Johnny sighed. "What makes you think he hasn't sold it already?"

Manuel shook his head. "No, he did not want it to sell. He wants the power it holds. He thinks he can use it somehow."

Johnny wanted to roll his eyes but he didn't. Superstitions! "How do you know that?"

"Some of us went to Sonora trying to find you and we heard his men talking in the cantina."

"They go there a lot?" Johnny asked.

"Si, always some of them are there."

Johnny nodded, his mind racing.

"He keeps the crucifix close to him. He has a tent for him only and his ..... women," Manuel provided, lowering his voice with the last part and glancing at his son in Johnny's lap. Javier was busy with a tortilla and the man hoped he hadn't heard.

Johnny glanced at the dark head and smiled a little. "Okay, I'll ride to Sonora tomorrow and see what I can find. In the meantime, keep everyone near their homes until you hear from me."

Manuel nodded and put a hand on Johnny's arm. "We can never repay you, mi amigo."

"You don't owe me anything, Manuel. I'm the one with a debt to pay."

*****

Johnny headed for Sonora first thing the next morning, long before anyone else stirred. He didn't want to waste any time settling this. As he rode, his mind went over several possible plans but really, he could decide nothing until he saw for himself what he was facing.

Soladar. No, he didn't know the name but it didn't matter. They were all pretty much the same. Some more evil than others but, in the end, all the same. Selfish, greedy and heartless.

By noon, he rode into the small town. He knew it well and headed straight to the cantina. His eyes roamed the street, doorways and alleys as he passed but he felt nothing untoward. He dismounted and slapped the reins around the hitching post then strolled inside.

He didn't expect much of a crowd so he wasn't disappointed by the two men playing cards at a table. The bartender sized him up, saw the face as he neared and smiled a little to himself.

"Hola," the man hailed.

"Hola. Tequila," Johnny replied softly, not a hint of recognition on his face.

The bartender nodded and reached deep under the bar until his hand found the neck of a bottle. He pulled it out and set it and a shot glass in front of Johnny then slid bowls of salt and lime in front of the man.

"Gracias," Johnny said softly.

The man only nodded.

Johnny poured and took a shot before filling the glass again. "Soladar," he said quietly.

The bartender raised a brow and shook his head a little. "Not lately. Tonight, tomorrow. He's due," he shrugged.

Johnny looked into his eyes and waited.

"Five miles south at Devil's Hand," the man added with a frown.

Johnny smiled and nodded then took the bottle to a table and settled in.

Shortly, the bartender brought over a plate of tamales and beans, set it down and walked away without a word. Johnny ate slowly, taking his time. He would wait until late afternoon before doing any more.

Two more men walked into the cantina a couple of hours later. Johnny watched them from under the brim of his hat, his eyes going to the bartender when neither new arrival was paying attention. The look he received made him take further notice.

They were both Mexican, burly and of average height. They settled two tables from Johnny and he almost smiled. Then, he listened as they had a rapid-fire conversation in Spanish.

What he heard relieved him. It seemed tonight would be Soladar's night to visit the cantina. Though he got no sense of how many men were in this gang, he figured he'd find out soon enough.

Johnny stood slowly and resettled his hat low over his eyes. He paid the bartender without so much as a glance at the man then strolled outside. Saddling up, he turned south and rode out of town at an easy gait.

He took his time and listened closely. Having no real concern of being followed, he nevertheless took nothing for granted. Three miles out, he turned off the road and up into the hills.

Alfonso had been a good friend over the years and a good source of information. The bartender was also extremely discreet and Johnny had often marveled at the man's total lack of enthusiasm over anything. No matter what happened, and plenty had in that cantina, he remained impassive. Even when he was busting heads. Johnny laughed softly at the thought.

He stopped and dismounted. Tying Barranca off in a clump of trees, he scaled up the side of the cliff.

Devil's Hand was a rocky cropping of granite that spiked into five points resembling gnarled fingers. Thus, the name. It was also treacherous climbing but Johnny was fairly familiar with it so the decreasing light wasn't a problem. Of course, coming back down may prove more difficult but he memorized the hand holds along the way.

He settled between the 'thumb' and 'index finger' and rested a few minutes before pulling the scope from his jacket pocket. He smiled a little as Scott came to mind. His brother was proud of that scope, explaining how its design prevented the lens' reflection off the sun. Johnny could just see Scott's face right then. Cocky yet appreciative of the humor his detailed explanation provided.

Shaking those thoughts from his mind, Johnny focused on the camp below. It wasn't pretty. He counted seven horses plus the two in town made nine. Still, there could be more out on patrol. No one would bother coming up here, though. They probably figured, and rightly so, only a fool would scale these heights. Johnny grinned.

He pushed the scope back into itself and pocketed it then leaned back and rested his head, staring at the growing darkness above him as the stars began to glitter. He could get into the tent. That was no problem. Getting out and away might be depending on whether Soladar had anyone staying in there with him.

He might be able to charm her, he might not. It was always a crap shoot and he wasn't in the mood for that kind of gamble. The only way to know for sure would be to get in there.

*****

The wind picked up substantially and his eyes went upward again. Damn it! he thought as dark clouds rolled in quickly. The weather in this area was always unpredictable. The standing joke was; if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes. But, he found no humor in it tonight. Still, he raised a brow, this might just work to his advantage. A slow grin turned his mouth up. Yep, might be just what I need.

Distant sounds mixed with the wind and he looked back down at the camp. Several men were mounting up and he used the scope again. It looked like five of them were going and he figured his luck was holding. Now, there'd be only two, hopefully. He decided he'd better climb down before the rain came, if it came. He didn't want to get caught up here in a downpour. He'd break his neck for sure.

He took his time and made it down unscathed. Just as he settled in the saddle, the sky opened up with a deluge. Fat, wet drops pounded him mercilessly. Johnny shivered and moved Barranca down the trail and across a small open meadow. He moved through the trees as the thunder clamored overhead. Lightning crackled and sizzled too closely.

He stopped and dismounted, leading the horse the rest of the way. He'd come across no guards and he thought that odd. His eyes were everywhere at once, it seemed, as he kept himself as quiet as possible. He was two hundred yards from the camp when he tied Barranca to a low hanging branch. By now, he was sodden and muddy. His feet squished in his boots as he labored through the muddy ground.

Finally, he made it to the perimeter. He was now directly behind the tent. Looking all around, he reached into his boot and pulled out the knife. Johnny forced the point of the knife into the tarp then waited for the next burst of thunder. When it came, he ripped open six inches of the heavy material. He peered inside and found it dark as slate. Leaning back, he took another look at the surrounding area.

He saw and heard nothing and knew that was wrong, too. But, he was here now and he couldn't walk away. As he looked back through the opening, lightning illuminated the interior. He found it empty and smiled a little. Using his knife, he ripped a larger opening and stepped inside. He kept to the back of the room in case lightning decided to betray him with the next strike and show his shadow to the rest of the camp.

Johnny crouched low and used his keen sight to discern several objects including an actual bed. Not a cot, but a bed. He shook his head at the man's headiness. Must be hell travelin with all this junk, he thought. Then again, maybe they didn't travel. Maybe this was home. He shook the thoughts away and concentrated on what he sought.

As he moved to the left corner he heard the sloshing of boots in the mud. Johnny's eyes darted around and found a large trunk nearby. He ducked behind it and waited with breath held.

The tent flap opened and a lantern swung left to right and back again. His eyes went to the cut in the back of the tent and he knew he'd made a mistake. All he could do was hope the man hadn't seen it. The light disappeared and he chanced a peek over the trunk. The flap was closed and all was quiet again as much as he could tell.

Johnny let out his breath and gave himself a few seconds. His hands were on the trunk and he fingered the intricate carvings. Peering closer, he saw they were religious carvings and he eased the trunk open.

There, on the very top it sat. Johnny's hand trembled as he touched it. He shook himself and berated his ridiculous actions. He picked it up, it was quite heavy, and closed the lid.

He stayed crouched there a while longer until he was certain no one was right outside the tent then he moved toward his self-made door. He poked his head out and looked then stepped fully outside. The rain pelted him once more causing him to shiver even more. Hunching his shoulders, he moved into the tree line.

He turned when he heard the shouts. The tent was lit up now and he saw someone pull at the rip in the back of the tarp. Cursing to himself, Johnny increased his pace. But the mud made it hard going and he slipped and slid most of the way, going down on one knee twice.

He made it to Barranca and stuffed the cross into his saddlebag then leapt into the saddle. The palomino took exception to the uneven weight on his side and wasn't being cooperative. Johnny jerked hard on the reins then and Barranca responded as shots exploded in the night.

They took off at a dead run. Johnny leaned over the horse's neck and asked him for everything he had. As they reached the open meadow, Johnny saw the guards he'd managed to avoid earlier. More shots were heard. Johnny drew his gun, turned and fired back even as he galloped full out.

They were almost to the narrow trail out of the canyon when Johnny arched his back and felt the fire. But, he didn't stop, never even slowed down.

*****

// The rider smiled at him, his eyes dancing with humor but it did nothing for the pallor of his face. "Con mi sangre," he replied then turned the horse. (With my blood)

But the animal went no further and the rider sat perfectly still for a long second before tilting to the left and sliding out of the saddle. He hit the ground with a thud and no other sound. He didn't move again. //

Manuel stepped out of the crowd and crouched next to his friend as did Padre Matteo.

"We will take him home."

"No, my son. Soladar will come for him and the cross, no? We will take him in the church. He will be safer there," Padre Matteo countered.

"You will not," Padre Benito stated loudly.

Padre Matteo stood and slowly turned to face his elder. "Brother, will you let one of God's children die? Will you leave him to be slaughtered?"

"He is a sinner," the old priest stated.

Padre Matteo looked past him to the church and a strange smile came over his face. He looked back at the old man. "Then the church is *his* home."

He said no more and returned to Johnny. He and Manuel carried the injured man inside the church and into Matteo's chamber as Benito looked on with a scowl.

Manuel sent for his wife and Rita went to work tending him quickly. "Fiebre," she sighed.

Manuel nodded solemnly and crossed himself. Padre Matteo stood at the foot of the bed and prayed.

*****

Murdoch stared out the huge window behind his desk, his hands clasped behind his back. Dusk was settling, the light waning quickly and still he stared. Scott watched him for a while before trying to read his book. He wasn't having much luck. He'd been reading the same chapter for a week and couldn't say what the book was about to save his life.

After a minute, he gave up and slammed the book closed before tossing it on the sofa next to him. He stood and stretched out before starting to idle toward his father. As he reached the man's side, Murdoch turned his head slightly to acknowledge the presence.

"How much longer do you want to wait?" Scott asked.

The rancher inhaled deeply then exhaled slowly before turning to face his son. "I don't want to wait at all but, Johnny said two weeks."

Scott nodded slowly. "Yes, that's what he said. Still, it's close to that now and we haven't heard anything since he wired he was close to the village. Look, I know he's capable of taking care of himself but it never hurts to have some back up."

Murdoch's face twitched a little as he considered his son's words. Words he'd silently argued in his own mind for several days now. "He'll be angry."

"I can live with that," Scott countered.

Murdoch fought a smile. "My worry is getting down there and unknowingly causing him problems, son. If we were to say the wrong thing, speak to the wrong people ....."

"Sir," Scott interrupted, "I understand your reservations but I can't pretend nothing is wrong. I can't sit here and wait while my brother may well be dead!" His frustration finally being allowed to vent a little, Scott scowled at his father.

Murdoch looked hard at him then his face seemed to relax a little. "We'll leave at first light."

*****

Soladar trashed the tent once he found out what was missing. His men watched, some with abject fear, some with hidden amusement as he ranted.

"I want to know who had the cajones to walk right into my camp and steal from me! I want his head on this table!" he shouted as he kicked said table across the room.

He leered at each man in turn. "Find him and find that cross. Bring him to me alive! Any man who kills him before I look in his eyes will replace him under my boot! Comprende?!"

They all nodded and hurried outside to their horses. All but one who lingered at the door, unfazed by Soladar's rage. His arms were crossed over his chest as he regarded the big Mexican.

Soladar glared at the gringo who dared to stand there. "Well? What do you want?"

The man shrugged, his green eyes alight with amusement. "Who knows you had the cross? Who would dare come in here after it? Or, who would dare hire someone to come after it?" He asked the questions calmly, almost bored, in his usual soft yet slightly gruff voice.

Soladar considered him and his questions. Of course! No one else would know he possessed the prize. He began to pace again, this time in thoughtful consideration.

"Stop the men. I will have to think this through carefully. We know where it is and we know he was shot last night. He won't go far."

"Reckon he won't even leave the village," he commented then turned to leave.

"Wait," Soladar called and the man stopped. "Do you know who he is?"

The gringo turned slowly and looked into the Mexican's eyes. He shrugged. "I'm not one to start throwin around accusations til I know what's what." With that, he left the tent to stop the rest of them from riding out on a fool's errand.

He wondered why he stayed with Soladar. The man was scum. It was only meant to be short work. A few weeks that had turned into a little over a month. He hadn't been there for the raid on the village but Soladar had bragged plenty about his prized possession. But, he knew why he'd stayed this long only, it wasn't panning out as he'd hoped. These men knew nothing that would help him. He'd discovered that just recently.

He'd been planning on lighting out pretty soon but now, things had gotten interesting. If he was right, he knew he'd have to make a decision. One that may well get him killed. But, that wasn't exactly something he ever worried about anyway. He knew it would come in it's own time. One way or the other.

For so long now he'd been wandering without purpose. No, that wasn't true. He had a purpose but it was a seemingly impossible one. Now that this had happened, he was forced to make up his mind. Just as well, he figured. Time to stop sittin' the fence. If he was wrong about who this man was, he would simply disappear. Soladar wouldn't miss him certainly. If he was right, a friend was in trouble and he wouldn't be able to stay out of it.

*****

Soladar sat in his tent alone the rest of the day. Many of his banditos waited nervously for his orders. Their anxiety was more due to wanting to spill blood than Soladar himself. He had a target and it wasn't them. That was enough to satisfy their fear of the man.

The gringo sat off alone as he always did, unwilling to try and get too friendly with anyone. It was his way of life now. He'd found out the hard way not to depend on many people and certainly no one in this bunch. They were all cutthroats who would kill a man for his hat. 'What the hell am I doing here?'

Soladar emerged at dusk and sauntered over to the campfire with a satisfied smile on his face.

"Emilio, tomorrow you will ride into Sonora and ask after any strangers. Find out who has been around recently and who has been asking questions about me," he ordered then turned to the white man. "Perhaps, our gringo friend here will recognize a description and feel assured of who our prey is. Perhaps, he will share that information with us," he grinned.

The gringo looked up from under his black stetson and simply nodded once.

*****

Johnny moaned and turned his head side to side but he never fully awakened. Padre Matteo wiped his brow and laid the cool cloth to his forehead, all the while praying.

Rita returned from a break with her son who had begged to help. She knew he could do little but she hoped that, perhaps, his voice would get through to Johnny. She remembered with fondness how Johnny had always treated her children with love, affection and respect. Most of all with respect.

She feared for them all, knowing Soladar would return. Padre Benito had hidden the cross well but she knew he would hand it over willingly to stop any bloodshed. She would never understand the old priest's hatred for Johnny. Any priest hating any human being was a mystery to her. Padre Matteo had been a godsend to them two years ago. Padre Benito was just too old to continue ministering properly to the people.

The young priest had brought with him renewed energy to a failing community faith. His vigor and willingness and most of all his love for the people had lightened their hearts and souls. Until Soladar had come. She didn't blame him of course. There was nothing any of them could have done against the armed men. She was grateful no one had been killed but part of her was disappointed none of them had even tried to stop him. It was foolishness on her part, she knew. They stood no chance.

But, as she looked at Johnny's flushed face, she wondered where was the courage? Courage this young man displayed in such large supply. Courage, she was ashamed to admit, she didn't see in her people. She shook her head in self-disgust. They were farmers not fighters. They had no experience or use for guns. She could not fault them and she prayed for forgiveness for her uncharitable thoughts.

Padre Matteo touched her shoulder and she gave him a small smile for his concern. Such a blessing was this man.

"I do not know what else to do for him," the priest said.

"We can do only what we have been, Padre. Nurse him and pray for him."

They both turned as the door opened and Manuel stepped in. Rita went to her husband with the question in her eyes.

"What are you doing, husband?" she asked as her eyes went to Johnny's rifle.

"Protecting him. Soladar will come soon. If he discovers Johnny's presence, he will kill him. He has done so much for us. I will not hand him over."

Rita's heart swelled as tears welled in her eyes. Here. Here is the courage she had wondered about. But, her own fear multiplied tenfold. What would happen to their children if their father were killed? How would she support them?

"Put it away."

The silence between husband and wife was all that allowed them to hear the whisper from the bed. Both turned to find the glassy blue eyes staring at them. They rushed to the bedside.

"Put it away, amigo," Johnny repeated.

"You need protection," Manuel argued.

Johnny shook his head slowly and it was evident he was struggling. "Don't need your death on my conscience. Got enough of those to last a lifetime."

"Johnny, you cannot defend yourself. Soladar will come and he will want revenge."

"I know," he sighed out. "I need my gun."

Javier touched his other shoulder and Johnny turned to the child. He produced the Colt and laid it in Johnny's hand.

"Gracias, amigo. Now, all of you get outta here and go on about your business. When Soladar comes, tell him you ain't seen me. Go ahead and tell him you hired me to get the cross back but I never returned. He'll believe that."

"We cannot leave you to the wolves, my son," Padre Matteo spoke up as he sat beside Johnny.

His strength, what little he had, was waning quickly. Johnny focused on the young priest. "If he believes I'm not here, we'll all be safer, Padre. Please, I know what I'm talking about."

Padre Matteo looked into the blue depths and saw the fear. Not for himself but for these people. He sighed lightly and nodded his understanding. "No one will know you are here. If anyone asks about Johnny Madrid, we will ..... disavow you," he said and swallowed hard.

Manuel and Rita bowed their heads and crossed themselves to seal their promise as well. Johnny looked over at Javier and could see he wasn't convinced.

"Come here, Javier," he called softly to the boy. "I know it's a lie but sometimes, a lie that saves lives is worth telling. God will forgive you, won't he, Padre?"

Javier looked to the priest who smiled and laid a hand on his small shoulder. "Si, Javier. God will forgive us all."

*****

Emilio walked into the cantina and scanned the occupants then set his sights on the bartender. He sauntered over and ordered a tequila. Alfonso served him with a scowl. He picked the coin up with his towel and wiped it before placing it in his pocket. Emilio was unperturbed by this.

"Have there been any strangers in town lately?" he asked.

Alfonso shrugged. "Si, many."

"Any asking after Soladar or a crucifix of gold?"

Once more, the bartender shrugged. "I cannot recall any."

Emilio's eyes narrowed as he glared at the man. "It is not an every day occurrence, I would think."

The bartender smiled a little. "You would not think so, Senor. I know nothing of a crucifix and no one has asked about Senor Soladar."

Emilio nodded but he didn't believe the man. He shot the tequila then tapped the bar for another. Alfonso reached under the bar and pushed the bottle he'd first used away, grabbing one behind it and filling the man's glass.

Emilio turned to face the door as he sipped the drink. Two minutes later, he was on the floor.

Alfonso walked around the bar and shook his head. "Some men cannot hold their drink, si?" he said loudly.

The cantina patrons laughed as the bartender grabbed the man under the shoulders and dragged him into the back room. He figured the fool would be out the rest of the night at least. After that, he could do no more. He only hoped he'd bought his friend a little time.

*****

Soladar paced the tent once more as two of his men watched. "Where is that fool? If I find him in some whore's bed, he will wish he had never been born!" he spouted.

The gringo lowered his head and smiled a little at that. The other man was not amused.

"Emilio would never do that, Soladar. He is loyal to you - always!" the second man avowed.

Soladar glanced at him then nodded. "Si, he has been. Perhaps this man found him. We will give him tomorrow. If he has not returned by then, we will ride into the village. I want that crucifix back!"

*****

Murdoch and Scott rode into the small village of Santa Luis tired and worried. They'd stopped in two larger towns briefly on the way with no luck. No one had seen Johnny, or, they wouldn't admit to it. They'd ridden hard for three days to make it there as quickly as possible.

"Where should we start?" Scott asked.

"The church," Murdoch replied assuredly as he headed for the structure.

Both men dismounted and stretched out, saddle worn, dusty and exhausted. Scott walked in first, removing his hat. It was cooler inside and he appreciated the relief. He glanced to his side as Murdoch joined him then they started down the main aisle.

"May I help you, gentlemen?"

They turned to the right as the young priest stepped out of the confessional with a dust cloth.

"I hope so, Padre. We're looking for a man named Johnny La .... Madrid," Murdoch spoke.

Scott noted the brief look of surprise or maybe something else on the man's face before a contented smile replaced it.

"Madrid? The name is not familiar, Senor," he answered, his hands behind his back now, his fingers crossed. It was a childish gesture, he knew, but he couldn't help himself.

"Are you sure, Father? He's a little shorter than me with dark hair and blue eyes. Very blue eyes. He's half-Mexican?" Scott pressed.

Padre Matteo frowned in thought then shook his head. "I have seen no one of mixed blood, Senor. May I ask why you seek this man?"

Murdoch and Scott exchanged a glance. "Thank you for your time, Padre," Murdoch said and turned to leave.

Scott hesitated a moment, surprised by his father's actions. He caught up with Murdoch as they reached the door. Once outside, he asked.

"He wasn't going to tell us anything, Scott."

"He was lying, Murdoch. A priest. Why would he do that?"

"I don't know but I'm going to find out. Come on, let's talk to some of the villagers."

*****

Padre Matteo walked up to the alter and dropped to his knees, crossing himself and bowing his head.

"Do you think he will forgive you, Padre?"

The young priest's head came up as he met the eyes of the older. "I can only pray, Padre. What would you have me do?"

Padre Benito shook his head. "You have brought this evil upon the people. It is up to you to banish it. I will not be part of this deception."

Matteo came to his feet and stared at the man. "Por favor, Padre. If you tell of his presence it will be a death sentence to him and, perhaps, the entire village."

Padre Benito sighed and looked sadly at the younger man. "I will only answer that which is asked directly of me, Padre. I will not lie. Not for you or anyone."

"Not even for our Lord? How many lied to protect him in his pilgrimage?"

"This is hardly the same, Matteo! Madrid is a killer!"

"He is a child of God as are we all," Matteo countered.

Padre Benito threw up his hands and walked away. Matteo knew he could not count on the old man and he feared for Johnny's safety. Whatever had caused this intense hatred from the priest, Matteo understood he could very well get them all killed.

He entered the small cell that was his home and smiled at the woman at the bedside. "How is he?"

"I think the fever is better. He has been awake and drinks well. Still, he is .... haunted, Padre," she said sadly. "Always, he has been haunted."

Matteo frowned and sat on the other side. He took Johnny's hand in his own and prayed softly.

"Wastin your breath, Padre. You can't save me. Didn't that old man tell you already?"

Matteo looked up at the smiling eyes. Yet, he saw what Rita had seen. "Two men were here just now asking for you. They were not with Soladar, though."

"You sure?" Johnny asked, now fully awake.

"Si. They were white men. One older and very tall with gray hair. The other younger with light hair. Both with blue eyes."

Johnny's eyes widened at this. "Find them, Padre. They're my family - my father and brother," he said as he raised up and grabbed the man's frock. "Find them and bring them here. They're in danger!"

*****

Soladar watched as his men saddled the horses and readied for battle. He was a proud man. These men were loyal to him. All except the gringo who he still was unsure of. He watched that one like a hawk but, so far, he had caused no trouble. Still, there was something about that one. Something that drove him. Something beyond greed. Something very personal and painful. Soladar knew how to read a man and that one had lost his soul.

Ordinarily, this would please him but, there was a difference here. He hadn't been able to decipher exactly what that was but he would in time, he knew.

The gringo walked over to him and Soladar noted once more the easy and confident stride. The eyes that feared nothing, not even him. He always wore black. Soladar wondered if he thought it made him seem more dangerous.

"About ready," he said softly. "How do you want to do this?"

"I will see the old priest. He can be reasoned with. If this man is there and I'm sure he is, the priest will hand him over. He is muy cobarde," he grinned.

The gringo only nodded, there was no mirth in his eyes and he simply walked away.

Soladar regarded him, frustrated now with the not knowing. Once this was over and he had regained his treasure, he would find out what drove this man and he would use it to destroy him. A wicked grin came upon his face.

*****

Padre Matteo walked quickly through the village, his eyes seeking out every doorway and field. He located the two men and strode quickly to them.

Manuel was ignoring them as they tried to speak with him and Scott had about reached his limit. He was ready to do more than ask polite questions when he spied the priest.

"Senors, por favor, you must come with me quickly."

"Why? Are you going to lie to us again?" Scott asked sarcastically.

"Forgive me, Senor. I did not understand. Please, you will come with me now," Matteo repeated and he tugged lightly on Murdoch's sleeve.

Manuel watched it all with great interest, wondering why the padre was willing to help these men. He knew they couldn't be with Soladar but he assumed they were still up to no good. As he watched them walk away, he made the decision and ran to his home.

Matteo walked around the church and entered through the back door. He moved quickly down the hall and stopped outside another door.

"Senors, I did not know who you were. Johnny is here but I must warn you he has been injured. He has been very ill but seems to be recovering though he is still very weak."

The tension in their bodies shot up. "Just take me to my son, Padre," Murdoch managed.

He nodded and opened the door then stepped aside. Murdoch entered the room almost hesitantly, afraid of what he might find. He saw the woman who rose as they entered and stepped away from the bed. Then, he saw Johnny. Murdoch's feet moved of their own accord as he went to his son. Scott's own journey was remarkably similar as he made his way to the bed, sitting near the foot just behind his father.

Murdoch took Johnny's hand and called his name. He watched his son awaken and look at him with a warm smile that quickly turned to a frown.

"Why are you here?" was his first question.

"To find you, son. How do you feel?"

"Better but still a little weak," he grimaced.

"What happened, brother?" Scott asked as he placed a hand on Johnny's knee.

Johnny smiled at him. "Forgot to duck."

Scott was about to make a comment to that when the door swung open and a man entered brandishing a gun.

"No!" Johnny yelled.

Padre Matteo was standing just inside the door and grabbed Manuel's arm. "No, Manuel. You do not understand."

The man looked confusedly at the priest then at Johnny then back at the priest. "They do not wish him harm?"

"No, my son. These men are Johnny's familia. His papa and hermano," he explained quietly.

Manuel looked suspiciously at Murdoch and Scott then turned to Johnny.

"It's true, amigo. This is my family and I thought I told you to put that away," Johnny said, exhaustion quelling his upset.

Manuel look duly reticent and leaned the rifle against the wall. Johnny smiled appreciatively at him for his efforts.

"Where are you hurt?" Murdoch asked as he returned his full attention to his son.

"Right lower back. It went straight through but we got more pressin problems right now."

"Like?" Scott asked.

"Like Soladar will be here any time now to get that crucifix back. I'm surprised he hasn't gotten here yet."

"That's why the priest lied to us. He was protecting you," Murdoch surmised.

"Yeah, everyone has been really great," Johnny smiled.

"How many men does he have?" Scott asked, ready to formulate a plan.

Johnny grinned as he read his brother's mind. "Ten to fifteen."


"That's not so bad."

"Against three? No. Against one, it coulda been ugly," Johnny quipped.

Scott frowned at this. "Three? You mean to tell me these people won't help?"


"They are farmers, Senor, not fighters. They have no weapons. The rifle is Johnny's. This is why we asked for his help. We cannot fight Soladar and his men," Matteo explained.

Scott didn't like that answer but he looked at his brother and his anger lessened. Johnny understood whatever he was missing. To Scott, if a man's family and land were being threatened, he stood and fought. Period. He figured Johnny would explain it to him later. He realized he should just be grateful his brother was alive.

"I told them to tell Soladar I never showed up with the crucifix. Figured he'd leave them alone and run off to find me," Johnny went on.

Murdoch nodded. "He knows it was you?"

"No, but he'll find out easy enough, I reckon."

Murdoch saw he was tiring and smiled gently. "Get some rest, son. Scott and I will talk it out and come up with a plan. Maybe the padre here can help us with that."

"Just don't make any plans that don't include me. I may not be able to stand up but I can still fight," Johnny said firmly then closed his eyes to avoid the argument.

*****

Padre Matteo took the two men into the garden behind the church where they saw an old man weeding. The young priest made no effort to introduce them.

"What will it take for these people to fight for what's theirs, Padre?" Scott asked.

"You must understand, Senor, these people do fight. Every day they fight the weather, drought, insects and, yes, men. They fight to put food on the table for their families and a roof over their heads."

"We understand, Father, but I'm not going to just stand by while this man tries to kill my son again. You asked him here. You asked for his help and now you're willing to do nothing?" Murdoch growled.

"The men who asked him here do not stand before you, Senor. If you want help, talk to the men of the village. The church did not hire a gunfighter!"

Murdoch turned to stare at the small old man who had walked up behind him.

"This is Padre Benito. Senors Lancer, Padre. They are Johnny's familia," Matteo explained.

Benito snorted loudly at this. "Johnny Madrid has no use for familia, Padre. Perhaps these men ride with him."

Scott's jaw clenched then released. "My *brother* came here to get back what was stolen from the church. He was repaid with a bullet."

"As I said, Senor," Benito interrupted, "we did not ask him here. I did not want him to do anything but leave which is what you should all do. Leave our village in peace."

"I don't understand any of this. Johnny said a crucifix was stolen. How is that not of concern to the church?" Murdoch asked.

"It was the village men who sought your son's help, Senor, not the church as the padre has explained. However," Matteo cast a glance at his elder, "I will help in any way I can."

Scott looked at the older priest with a mixture of confusion and suspicion. "Where is the crucifix now?"

"It is safely hidden," Benito answered.

"I see. So, even though you didn't want Johnny's help, you didn't turn it down when he gave it. Is that the way it works, Padre? What exactly do you have against my brother?"

The old brown eyes looked into the young blue ones but Murdoch intervened.

"This is getting us nowhere. We need to figure out a plan. We don't know how much time we have, Scott."

Scott scowled once more at the old priest then turned his attention to his father, giving him a nod of agreement.

"Soladar will come straight here. He will want the crucifix first and foremost. Then, he will look for Johnny," Matteo told.

"Then we make our stand right here. Unless, of course, you want to give him the crucifix?" Murdoch asked as he looked at Benito.

"Johnny thought perhaps if we told Soladar he never returned with the crucifix, he would believe it and leave us in peace," Matteo said.

"That might work," Murdoch said distractedly, his mind working furiously.

"And if it doesn't, we need a backup plan," Scott imparted.

*****

Johnny didn't think much of the plan but it wasn't as if they had many alternatives. In fact, he knew they had none. He told his family as much as he knew about Soladar which wasn't a lot. There was no mistaking the anger and hatred in his voice for this man and any like him.

"I still don't understand why these people won't fight," Scott groused.

Johnny sighed and looked at his brother. "I'm sure the padre already explained it."

"Sometimes, you have to lay down your hoe and pick up a rifle, Johnny. Sometimes, you have to fight for what's yours."

"That's how you see it and so do I, Scott. That ain't how it works here. If they don't fight, they don't die. They stay alive to keep working and supporting their families. This is all they've ever known. This is how it's always been. You're not going to change them."

Scott nodded but he still didn't like it. He also knew he couldn't waste time dwelling on it. They had three rifles and three pistols between them and not a lot of ammunition. Johnny couldn't get out of bed so that left the two of them. Bad odds to say the least.

"It's almost noon. We should try to rest while we can. There's nothing more to do in way of preparation," Murdoch wisely suggested.

Johnny grew solemn and they both knew what was coming. Scott decided he didn't need to hear it.

"We would have come a lot further to get you and you would have done the exact same thing, Johnny. I didn't want you doing this alone and now you're not. We stand together - always."

The young man nodded, his eyes lowered. "I should've stayed home."

Murdoch sat on the bed and laid a hand on his thigh. "No, you couldn't have done that. It's not in you, son."

Padre Matteo stood by the door taking it all in. His heart was lifted by this display of love and affection. He had known there was something special about the young man who had rode into their village with a chip on his shoulder. He only wished he could understand why Padre Benito had such loathing for this man. He had risked his life simply because someone had asked. It was evident to the priest he had risked much more as well. He stepped forward, hesitant to break the moment but feeling a need to offer his services.

"If any of you feel the need for confession, I am available."

Johnny laughed at this, his eyes alight. "You tryin to tell us something, Padre?"

*****

Two hours passed quietly. Johnny had napped off and on but Scott and Murdoch couldn't seem to relax. The youngest Lancer's head came up with a jerk as he cocked it to one side.

"He's here," was all he said.

Scott and Murdoch were on their feet, rifles in hands as they geared up for battle. Johnny slid his Colt from under the pillow and checked it. As his father closed the door behind them, Johnny took a deep breath and flung the covers off.

Slowly, he sat on the side of the bed and waited for the dizziness to pass. His hand came up as did his head when the door opened. He sighed and relaxed when he saw Manuel.

"Where are my pants?" he asked immediately.

Without a word the man moved to the dresser and passed him his clothes. He helped Johnny dress and put his boots on for him. All the while watching the young man's face closely. He was pale and sweaty and Manuel wasn't sure he could do this. He had not seen any blood on the bandages but that could change as Johnny moved about. He was certain the man intended on standing beside his family and he couldn't blame him for that. He felt the flush of shame on his cheeks.

"I could take the rifle," he offered.

Johnny looked up slowly and smiled a little. "And do what with it? Have you ever even fired one? No, amigo. We can't waste any bullets while you figure out how to aim it right." He patted the man's arm. "But, thanks for the offer. Help me to the door."

Manuel knew he was right. He'd never fired a weapon in his life and would probably shoot his own foot off. He eased Johnny to his feet and half held him up as they reached the door.

"Your familia will not be happy about this."

"That's okay. They never are," Johnny said.

He tried to laugh but breathing good was too much of a chore right then. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes for a few seconds then reached deep within. As his eyes opened, Manuel saw a change in him. It was subtle and he couldn't put a finger on it but it was there all the same. Johnny seemed - well. Healthy almost. If it weren't for the pallor of his skin, Manuel would think him fine.

Johnny opened the door and stepped out. He walked straight and erect down the hallway then made his way around to the back of the alter where the heavy curtain hung.

*****

Padre Matteo knelt in front of the alter and prayed. He heard the door open and the heavy footsteps, the jangle of spurs as someone walked toward him. He crossed himself then stood and turned to greet the visitor, all the while his heart thundered in his chest. His eyes went past Soladar to the three men standing near the doors then back to the figure looming closer.

Soladar strode down the aisle as if he owned it. A wicked smile lit his face as he neared the priest.

"Buenos sartes, Padre," he hailed loudly.

"Buenos sartes, my son. How may I help you?"

"You can give me back what is mine, Padre," Soladar replied.

Matteo frowned and shook his head. "I am sorry, I do not understand. There is nothing left here of any value."

Soladar stood over the young priest and glowered down at him. "I want my crucifix back, priest. Now!" he shouted, no longer amiable.

"Senor, you took the crucifix yourself. It is not here."

Soladar stared at him then looked toward the ceiling. He paced in front of the priest for several long seconds. "Who did you hire to steal it from me?"

Matteo's eyes dropped as he thought. He shouldn't be too eager, he knew. Yet, he didn't want to play with this man, either.

"I have no patience, Padre, and no faith. Tell me who or I will burn this church to the ground!"

Matteo's eyes came back up with a hint of defiance. He took a deep breath then spoke loudly and clearly. "Johnny Madrid."

Soladar's eyes widened then he burst out laughing. In fact, he was near hysteria. Finally, he brought himself back under control. "And where is Senor Madrid?"

Matteo looked embarrassed as he answered. "He has not returned, Senor."

*****

At the doors, the gringo frowned. He had hidden any reaction he'd had to the name but this last statement by the priest made no sense to him. He didn't believe it. He only hoped Soladar would.

Murdoch and Scott both held their breath from their hiding place to one side of the pila el agua bendita as they listened to Padre Matteo lie through his teeth. They both knew what this was costing the young man and Scott had to wonder if he wasn't the most courageous man in this town. They kept close watch on the three men at the door. One moved slightly, subtly, away from the others but they didn't seem to notice.

Soladar wasn't sure if the priest was telling him the truth and this only lent to infuriate him. "Where is Padre Benito?"

Matteo swallowed hard. "He is resting, Senor."

"Get him."

"Por favor, he is an old man, Senor. He knows nothing more than I have told you."

Soladar advanced on the priest and Johnny tensed as he watched through a slit in the curtain. He raised the Colt and waited.

"I said get him now!"

"I am here, Senor."

Johnny rolled his eyes and readied himself to be betrayed by the hateful old man. Still, he waited and could only hope Padre Matteo had the sense to duck.

"Where is my crucifix, old man? And where is Madrid?" Soladar demanded.

Padre Benito shuffled closer to the two of them and looked down the aisle at the other three. "I do not know where Madrid is, Senor. I have not seen him and I do not wish to. He is not welcome here anymore than you are. The church did not ask for his assistance nor will it be accepted."

Soladar eyed him then started laughing. "You have guts, Padre. Perhaps Madrid did double-cross you. I will stay in the village a while to see if he shows up. Perhaps, he is lying in a ditch somewhere. He has a bullet in him. It could well be we are both rid of him." He leered at the two priests then stalked back down the aisle and out the door.

Scott watched as the one man lingered a few seconds, his eyes scanning the interior of the church before following the others outside. He gave his father a sidelong look before both men showed themselves and walked over to the priests.

"I know that wasn't easy, gentlemen, thank you," Murdoch said.

"Easy? I thought the roof was gonna cave in! What gives, Padre?"

"Johnny! What are you doing out of bed?" Scott demanded as his brother appeared.

"Backing you up," Johnny shrugged. He turned to Benito. "So, why'd you lie for me?" he asked, more interested in the answer than his family's wrath at the moment.

"I did not do it for you. I saw no reason for these men to die in your name."

Johnny grinned and shook his head but Murdoch wasn't amused.

"You did it to save your precious cross. I don't know what your problem is, Padre, but you are the worst excuse for a priest I have ever seen. Where is your compassion, man?"

"Forget it, Murdoch. We have more important things to think about. Soladar might not buy that I never showed. We need to keep a close watch on him."

"One of those men wasn't acting quite right. He kept looking all around and he hesitated before leaving," Scott imparted.

"I couldn't see him," Johnny frowned. He didn't like that. If one of Soladar's men was suspicious, they were definitely in trouble.

"I'll go to the bell tower and keep an eye out," Scott said.

"I'll relieve you in a while, son. YOU are going back to bed, young man," Murdoch stated as he took Johnny's arm.

Johnny sighed as he settled back propped up with pillows. Murdoch sat beside him with a scowl.

"Why does he hate you so much?" he finally asked.

Johnny dropped his eyes and played with the blanket.

Murdoch grimaced and wondered if he'd get an answer. Like so many things in his son's past, Johnny probably wouldn't talk about it.

"When I was here before, there was a young man who helped me. He kind of looked up to me, I guess. Anyway, he'd been an alter boy in the church and Padre Benito was real fond of him. He thought Raphael would go into the priesthood. The kid talked about it alot but, he decided he wanted to see some of the world first. I ..... I encouraged him to. I was just a kid myself, didn't know any better. I didn't think he should make such a big decision if he still had questions. He had a lot of questions." Johnny stopped and smiled as he remembered the boy.

"When I left, he decided to leave, too. We crossed the border and he thought about getting work on a ship so he could see the world."

Murdoch watched his fingers as they worked harder and harder at the frayed blanket. "What happened to him?"

Johnny looked up, his eyes drowning with sorrow. "He got himself killed in San Diego. Someone was messing with him, teasing him. He got scared and ran. He fell off the pier and broke his neck in the shallow water," he told as his voice nearly left him.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly then laid a hand over his son's frantic ones. "I'm so sorry, son. And Padre Benito blames you?"

"Yeah. Said I should've stayed out of it. Minded my own business and he was right. I ..... I brought him back here to be buried. I figured that's what he would've wanted. He didn't have any family just the padre."

"How old was he?"

Johnny looked back down again. "Sixteen," he whispered.

"How old were you?"

He shrugged. "Eighteen, I think."  

Murdoch nodded. "Well, you're right about one thing. You were just a kid yourself. You couldn't have known what would happen, son."

Johnny looked him square in the eye. "But, you think I was wrong to let him come along."

Murdoch chewed his lip for a few seconds. "I think if he really was that set on leaving here, he would have done it one way or the other. Maybe he was enamored with your free lifestyle, I don't know. I can't lay the blame at your feet, son. You were young and pretty wild, I'm guessing."

"Don't excuse it. I never had much use for priests and maybe I just did it because he didn't want me to. I don't know. I liked Raphael. He was a good kid but he was innocent, ya know? He didn't have any idea what was out there or how ugly people can be. I made a mistake and it cost him his life."

Murdoch didn't know what to say to that. Yes, Johnny made a mistake but a priest of all people should be able to forgive him. He was no more than a boy himself. A boy who'd had no discipline or guidance for many years by then.

*****

Scott removed his hat as he peered over the bell tower. He spotted Soladar easily as he set up shop across from the church. He already had a chair and half a dozen people waiting on him hand and foot. Scott's teeth ground together as he watched the villagers. It was easy to see their fear. He could almost smell it.

His eyes found the man he'd noted in the church. He was sitting by the well in the center of town and he'd pushed his hat off his head. He was white with light hair but that's all Scott could see. He was certainly relaxed as he lazed in the sun. Scott was surprised to see he was reading a book.

The gringo kept his head down slightly as his eyes roved all around. He could feel Madrid and figured he was in that church. The only problem was getting to him without being seen. He decided to wait until dark. Soladar wasn't going anywhere. But, he'd felt something else in there. He'd felt like someone was watching him. More than one, too. So, what was he walking into? Were the villagers helping Madrid? It was possible, he supposed, but unlikely. In his experience, these farmers never put up a fight. Well, he'd just have to tread softly.

Murdoch grunted as he took the last step into the tower. He settled beside Scott with his back to the wall.

"Anything?"

Scott pulled a face. "He's set up court across the street but nothing is really happening. That one man from the church I mentioned? He's been sitting by the well all day reading and napping. I don't know what to make of him."

"Maybe he's the cautious type. Soladar seems reckless to me. As if he's untouchable."

"That's probably because no one has tried to touch him," Scott said sourly. He would love to be the one to do just that. "Still, that white man - there's just something about him, Murdoch. Something ...... different."

Murdoch sighed. "Scott, we don't have the luxury of wondering what makes these men tick. We need to get Johnny out of here."

"He won't go and you know it. Not until Soladar is dealt with," Scott said harshly.

Murdoch looked hard at him in the failing light of day. "I have a feeling he isn't the only one."

Scott had to smile a little. "Well, Sir, I must say I wouldn't mind a crack at him myself. Is Johnny asleep?"

"He was a few minutes ago."

Scott nodded and moved toward the stairs, still crouched. "I'll sit on him."

Murdoch watched him go then took a peek at the scene below. Soladar and his men were growing louder as the tequila flowed more freely. He glanced at the well but there was no one there now. He supposed the man Scott was so concerned with had joined the party.

*****

The gringo watched as the rest of the gang got drunker and drunker. He shook his head at their idiocy. They were sorely underestimating Madrid. They really had no clue who they were messing with but he did. He nonchalantly stood and walked into one of the homes nearby then right out the back window.

Johnny was sitting up when Scott walked in. He passed the bowl to Rita and thanked her for the meal. She rose and smiled at Scott then left. Within a few minutes she was back with another bowl for the older brother.

Scott thanked her and she left them to talk.

"This is delicious," Scott remarked as he dug in.

Johnny thought to tell him it was a good thing the children were all but gone. Otherwise, that meal he was enjoying would mean an empty belly. He wasn't so sure that wasn't true anyway but he wouldn't lay that guilt on his brother's shoulders. Scott didn't know this life and Johnny hoped he didn't see a great deal of it. Lord knew, he didn't want to see that sympathy in the pale blue eyes.

"How are you feeling and tell me the truth," Scott said.

Johnny grinned at him. "I'm still pretty weak. Side aches some but I can fight," he answered determinedly.

Scott nodded but he was a little doubtful. Not that Johnny couldn't fight but of how bad he felt. "Remember that one man I was worried about?"

Johnny frowned then nodded. "Yeah, at the door."

"Yes, I don't know about him. He seems different from the rest. For one thing, he's the only white man in the group."

Johnny shrugged. "Don't mean anything. Like I said, I didn't get a look at him."

"Well, now's your chance."

Scott swung around to see the man leaning against the doorframe, his hand went to his gun but Johnny grabbed his arm. He turned back with a look of disbelief on his face.

"It's okay, Scott. He's a friend," Johnny explained.

"He's the one I was telling you about," Scott argued.

"Well, that does make sense," Johnny said with a soft laugh.

The gringo nodded, "Johnny. Who's this?"

Johnny smiled fully, his eyes dancing as he answered. "This is my brother, Scott Lancer. Scott, I'd like you to meet a real good friend of mine, Chris Larabee."

Larabee studied Scott closely for a long moment then shook his head. "Don't see it."

Scott had a look of indignation as he gave the stranger as close a look.

"Half-brothers," Johnny explained.

"So, did you come to help us or your boss?" Scott asked.

Chris just looked at him without expression then pushed off the doorframe and walked over to the bed, hand extended.

Johnny shook hands and smiled at him again. "What are you doin with the likes of Soladar?"

Chris sat down and crossed one leg over the other knee. "Good question. I'm lookin for someone. Thought he or his men might know something. They don't. I was ready to leave when this stranger had the balls to break into Soladar's camp and steal from him. When I found out what was taken, I had a pretty good idea of the who," he smiled a little.

"So you decided to hang around a little longer, huh?"

"Something like that," he replied.

Scott listened to the conversation still a little put off by this man. He seemed very cold to Scott. Somehow, he didn't equate this as the type of friend Johnny would have.

Johnny lowered his eyes for a few seconds before looking back at the black-clad man. "What's Soladar thinkin?"

Chris raised a brow. "He's thinkin he's going to get that crucifix back and he's probably not very happy it isn't big enough to hang you from."

Johnny nodded and sighed. "Well, he ain't."

"There's only one way to stop him," Chris said unnecessarily.

Johnny's eyes grew dark as he looked at his friend. "I know."

"There's no reason to keep a lookout, either. Soladar's done for the night," Chris said nonchalantly.

Johnny laughed and shook his head. "I take it you're the only one who noticed?"

Chris nodded then looked at Scott. "Brother, huh? I didn't know you had one."

"Me neither. It's a long story. Scott, maybe you should give Murdoch a break and tell him to come down? Chris is right. Nothin's gonna happen tonight."

Scott nodded and left the room, still ticked off.

Johnny looked down then glanced back up. With a grin, he said, "Murdoch is my father." It was worth seeing the expression on his friend's face. A face that seldom gave anything away.

"You'll have to tell me about that sometime," was his only verbal response.


"Sure, as soon as Soladar is taken care of. Speakin of which, how many men does he have?"

"Ten but one of them is missing. He was sent to Sonora to see what he could find out about you. Well, they didn't know who at the time. He never came back." Chris gave him a sidelong look when he saw the smile erupt on Johnny's face. "I take it you know what happened to him?"

"I've got a pretty good idea."

Chris gave him only half a smile but his eyes were amused. He took his hat off and tossed it on the foot of the bed. "So, how much can I count on?"

"I can do what needs doin. Scott and Murdoch will fight hard and they can both shoot good."

"How good?"

Johnny grinned. "Not as good as me but Scott's a crack shot with that rifle and the old man can handle himself." His face took on a serious expression as he locked eyes with his friend. "I trust them both with my life."

Chris nodded once and stood. "Good enough. What about the villagers?" he asked as he paced about the room.

"They'll stay low and out of the way."

Murdoch and Scott walked in just then and Johnny introduced his father to Chris. Murdoch sized him up and shook his hand, unsure of a man who rode with the enemy.

"I'm gonna check on Soladar. I'll be back in an hour or so," Chris said and took his leave.

Murdoch didn't waste any time and Johnny wasn't surprised.

"I've known him a couple of years now. He's good with a gun."

"Can we trust him, Johnny? I mean he is riding with that .... man," Scott asked firmly.

Johnny looked at his brother and thought to explain but he also knew Chris would not appreciate having his business broadcast. "He had his reasons, Scott, and they're good ones. I know him and I trust him. He knew it was me as soon as he heard about it but he didn't say anything to Soladar. He was gonna ride out but he stayed to help me."

Scott relented and nodded his head. He knew if Johnny trusted the man that was good enough. He'd have to take his brother's word for the rest and he didn't find that difficult at all.

"Well, does he have a plan?" Murdoch asked.

"We haven't talked about it. Look, the only way to get out of this is all out war. Can you handle that?" Johnny asked bluntly.

Murdoch inhaled deeply even as Scott's stance stiffened and he set his jaw in determination.

"I'll do whatever is necessary to get you home safely. Both of you."

Johnny lowered his eyes. "I hate that you both got caught up in this. I wish you'd stayed home."

He felt the big hand on his arm and looked into his father's eyes.

"Johnny, you know I didn't want you to do this but I understand why you did. We're a family and we stick together in the good times and the bad. Any one of us could have been in a bad situation and you wouldn't think twice about jumping in with both feet. Why shouldn't we do the same?"

"Seems like my situations tend to be a might more dangerous," he said softly.

Scott chuckled and sat beside his brother. "That only makes life more interesting, brother. Why, before you, my biggest worry was what to have for dinner. You've certainly made things more exciting and I wouldn't change a thing. Well, except for that hole in you." He patted Johnny's leg and turned serious. "You aren't the only one who's gotten into trouble, Johnny. We've all been there and we've all helped each other through. Life is one big chance anyway. If I've learned anything from you it's to enjoy every moment as if it's my last because it may well be. Anything can happen and it doesn't have to be something like this. It can be something as simple as a spooked horse."

Johnny smiled at him. His appreciation shone in his eyes as he looked at his brother. "That's a good way to look at things, I guess."

*****

Murdoch took the opportunity while they waited for Larabee to return to change Johnny's bandages. The wound was still a little red but there was no drainage. He knew his son was putting on a show for them and he wondered if that would ever stop. If Johnny would ever really understand that they wouldn't think less of him were he to actually admit a weakness. As much as he wondered about that, he also wondered if his son would ever be truly free of his past. He knew Johnny didn't want this life but it just didn't seem to want to let him go. He wondered at the perplexities of life itself as he tied off the bandage and helped his son back into his shirt.

Johnny bore it well though he felt like a dishrag. He couldn't control the perspiration on his face, though, and he hated showing any weakness even to his family. He leaned back and closed his eyes for a minute and allowed Scott to wipe his face with a cool cloth. Looking into his brother's face, he gave him a smile and a thank you.

"I'd like to know how you intend to stand and fight, brother. You look done in," Scott remarked.

Johnny only shrugged. "I'll do what's necessary."

The door opened then and Chris returned quietly. He took in the family all together and marveled inwardly. But, he shook it off and got down to business.

"They're all pretty much passed out now. We have a couple of options. Wait for them to wake up, leave while we have the chance or take them out now."

Scott was more than surprised at the last suggestion. He knew he wasn't able to kill a drunken man who couldn't defend himself no matter how dangerous he may be.

"How long you think it'll be before they start comin around?" Johnny asked.

Chris leaned against the wall and shrugged. "Dawn, usually. Not too many of them ever have a hangover."

"Too bad," Johnny smiled a little. "Well, reckon we should hit them at dawn then."

"How?" Chris asked.

Johnny stared at the man who already knew the answer. "Mano a mano."

All three nodded in agreement. They would not sneak in like thieves but face these men in the street. Two more than familiar with this type of fight, two more ready and willing to stand and fight with them.

"You should get some rest, son. We all should," Murdoch suggested knowing there would be precious little sleep coming to any of them this night. Yet they all attempted to relax. They had several hours to while away.

*****

Padre Matteo joined them late in the evening and Johnny told him of their plans. He wasn't happy about it and couldn't talk them into just leaving. They knew the village would be even worse off if they left. Soladar would burn it to the ground in retribution for what he would see as an act of betrayal.

They all finally managed to doze. All but Johnny. He couldn't settle, his mind on other things and another man. Silently, he slid out of bed and moved to the door, opening it and slipping through. He didn't bother with his boots.

Larabee cracked his eyes open as the door softly shut. Shaking his head, he repositioned himself on the floor and closed his eyes again but it didn't last long. He was sure Johnny wasn't going to try something foolish but his curiosity and concern got the better of him and he left the room as well.

Just as he knew would be, Johnny saw the light under the door to Padre Benito's room. He stood outside for a minute, feeling unsure which only served to anger him. With a deep breath, he tapped lightly and waited. He heard the shuffling feet of the old man then the door opened and the flat expression turned to a scowl.

"What do you want?"

Johnny sighed lightly. "Time to talk it out, Padre. I might be dead soon so I figured we best get to it," he replied and walked in without being asked.

Benito closed the door and rounded. "There is nothing to discuss."

Johnny was fed up but somehow, he held his temper. "I know what I did and I know it was wrong. I'm more sorry about that kid than you'll ever know. But, there's nothing I can do to change that, old man. If you want to go to your grave hating me that's your business. But, I ain't spending the rest of my life hating you."

Benito looked at him in astonishment. "Hating me? You have no reason or right to hate me, pistolero. You destroyed that boy. You killed him as if you had thrown him to his death yourself. If you had left him alone, he would be alive now. He would be a priest. He would still be with me."

"I know that!" Johnny shouted then reined himself in. "I know that. Raphael wasn't as sure as you'd like to think he was. He kept asking me about life away from here. He wanted to see the world. I know I should've watched him better. I should never have let him out of my sight. But, he wanted to leave here. He was gonna get work on a ship so he could see that world. He was so excited," he stopped, the pain so raw now, his voice husky.

Looking at the priest, he asked softly. "What do you want me to do? How should I pay for it, Padre? What is my penance?"

The priest turned away and stared at the wall. Johnny walked up behind him. "Tell me, old man. Look at me and tell how I can pay for what I've done."

"You will pay in the end. You will pay with your soul," the old man said in a whisper.

"I already have. What else?" Johnny asked, still waiting for the answer he needed. "I want to hear it from your mouth, priest. Tell me what you want from me," he tried again, more insistent this time.

Benito turned to look him in the eye. "I want you to die."

*****

Chris hung his head and shook it slowly as he listened at the door. Damn that old man! He moved quickly down the hall into the shadows as he heard the footsteps nearing the other side of the door. He pressed himself into the wall until Johnny was out of sight. Not back to the room, but headed for the church. Most likely to come to terms with the padre's demand, he thought bitterly.

He moved quickly to the door again and opened it without knocking. He stepped inside and closed the door as he glared at the old man staring at him.

"Who are you? What do you want?" Benito demanded.

"It sure ain't absolution cause you don't have any right to give it to anyone. You are some piece of work. You're supposed to tend the sick and heal the spirit. All you can do is judge people and send them to their deaths. How do you think your God will like that, Padre? Do you think he'll appreciate you bein judge, jury and executioner for a man's life and soul? Did they teach you to hate and be unforgiving? You're worse than Soladar. At least he don't hide behind a collar."

Chris took a breath and stepped closer. He pointed behind him as he leaned in, a mere breath from the old man's face. "That man out there has saved more lives, done more good for people who couldn't do for themselves than you ever thought about. You're no priest! You're a bastard who uses his power to do whatever he wants then spouts off that it's God's law. Now, you've told him what you want as payment for some kid's life and you know what? He'll probably let it happen. Oh, he won't do it on purpose maybe. But you put the thought in his head that the only way he can pay for making that one mistake is to give up his own life.

"Tell me something. Would this kid want Johnny to die because of a decision *he* made? Does Johnny's family deserve to lose him because of your selfishness? Doesn't he get forgiveness when you'd be glad to give it to the likes of Soladar? I'll make you this promise, old man. If anything happens to Johnny in the morning because of your words, you'll wish you'd never seen my face!"

He didn't wait for a response. He walked out slamming the door behind him. Chris walked out into the garden to settle down before he did something he probably would not regret.

Padre Benito sat on the bed, his hands trembling as he made the sign of the cross and prayed for guidance. Raphael had been like a son to him and he indulged the boy, he knew. He had been as proud as any father and he knew that in itself was a sin. He could never condone the life of a gunfighter but the strangers words assaulted his mind and heart and he knew what he had done.

He stood shakily and made his way to Matteo's room, quietly waking the young priest and taking him back to his own room. For two hours he talked and made confession then asked for guidance.

*****

Johnny sat in the pew for hours staring at the crucifix on the wall behind the alter. He didn't pray, knew it was a exercise in futility. He watched as the room lightened into soft hues as the sun pinked and overshadowed the night. The colors were subdued through the stained glass. He had always thought it a fancy church for such a small community.

He stood and adjusted his gunbelt then walked back to Matteo's room for his boots. It was almost time for this showdown and he was as ready as he'd ever be, he thought.

Chris met him in the hallway but neither man spoke. They entered the room together and saw Matteo gone. They thought nothing of this and Johnny put his boots on, checked his Colt then his rifle and woke his family.

Scott and Murdoch were ready quickly and after a brief discussion on the merits of breakfast, they all agreed to forsake the morning meal. It was time to move.

As they made their way toward the front of the church, Benito stepped out of his room followed by Matteo. He called to Johnny and the young man walked over begrudgingly.

"My answer to you last night was wrong. The correct answer is live. Live and help those who may stray toward a life they will regret. Help others by giving them the wisdom of your experience." He placed a hand on Johnny's arm and cast a glance behind him at Chris.

"Forgive me, my son. My heart has been bitter for many years now. Last night, a mirror was thrust before me and I did not like what I saw. I have spent this night in deep contemplation and have come to find peace. I pray you will as well. I pray for your success and God's speed to you all."

If no one else saw it, Chris did. The tension in Johnny melted a little.

Johnny could only nod at the man as he was speechless for once. He smiled at both priests and walked away. Murdoch and Scott stared at the old man for a second, both more than relieved by his words. Johnny needed no guilt on his shoulders this morning. Nothing to sway his focus.

When the four of them got to the door, they made once last check of their weapons and looked at each other. With a nod of his head and deep breath, Johnny opened both doors wide and stepped into the street.

*****

Soladar stretched and yawned as he stood outside the small home he had taken over. His men were moving about as well and he smiled. A frown quickly replaced it as he counted. Someone was missing. The gringo. He growled a little but shrugged it off. Perhaps he had found a senorita to spend his time with.

His eyes went to the church as the doors opened with a loud squeak. His mouth fell open when he saw Larabee with three other men. He knew instantly who the one beside the gringo was and his anger erupted.

But, his quick mind took over and he relaxed, even grinned. He glanced at his men and nodded then strolled over, the rest of the gang following closely.

"Buenos dias, Senor Madrid! You have come to your senses, eh?"

"Didn't know I'd lost them," Johnny drawled.

Soladar kept the grin on his face. "I see you have recovered from your injury. Bueno! Now, you will return what you stole from me."

Johnny grinned, too, then cocked his head to the side. "Stole? You mean that hunk of metal? Well, now, I just returned the favor, Soladar. You stole it from them so I recovered it." He kept his eyes on the man but watched the others move into position from his periphery.

Chris and the Lancers watched the rest of them settle into place and readied themselves. Murdoch was fascinated with the repartee going on but he made himself watch while he listened.

Soladar was laughing. "Everything in this village belongs to me, Madrid. Even you."

Johnny laughed softly at that. "I don't think so."

Soladar lost his sense of humor and scowled at the man. "I will have that crucifix and I will nail you to the church doors."

"I doubt it," Johnny said flatly.

Soladar stood there eyeing him then looked at Chris. "And you, gringo. What is your stake in this?"

"Just helping out a friend," he replied in a cold voice.

"Si, you said you might know who had done this. So, you betray me now, eh?"

"I have no loyalty to you, Soladar. Never did. Now, you want to stand there and chat all day or do you want to resolve this problem?" Chris asked, his eyes devoid of expression.

The Mexican's face turned dark and his eyes narrowed dangerously. He said nothing but one slight move from him and all hell broke loose.

Bullets flew through the air in both directions as men scattered to find some cover. Johnny and Chris moved to the left as Scott and Murdoch went right. Soladar had retreated to the house and crouched behind a rain barrel.

Johnny took out two men and Chris one as Scott and Murdoch made a dent on the other side. Within a matter of two minutes, the odds had turned dramatically in their favor. Chris hunkered down behind the well and reloaded as Johnny fell beside him.

"This is fun."

Johnny grinned. "I know. Ready?"

Larabee nodded and they both stood as one, emptying their guns. Johnny took a second to check his family and saw no sign of damage there. With relief, he sat back against the well wall and reloaded his Colt rapidly.

"Three left. Soladar and two more."

"One's his lieutenant," Chris informed him.

"Of course, his best shot is still alive," Johnny snorted.

It grew quiet then and they waited while they caught their breath.

"Madrid!"

"Now, how did I know this was comin?" Johnny asked rhetorically.

Chris laughed and shook his head. "How do ya want to play it?"

Johnny shrugged. "What?" he shouted.

"If I did not hate you so much, I would offer you and your friends a job. But, now we must come to terms," Soladar yelled.

Johnny felt a rock hit his leg and he leaned around the wall. Scott was holding up his fingers. Johnny moved back to his position.

"Scott says there's four left."

Chris frowned and peeked over the well the dropped back down. "He's right. Dammit! Where's the other one?"

Both men studied the surrounding area then froze when they heard the scream. Then they heard Soladar laughing.

"Gentlemen, I believe you will drop your guns and come out now," Soladar said though it was more a demand.

Johnny looked over the well and saw Rita being held tightly by one of Soladar's men. He had a gun to her head and she was crying hysterically. He sighed and gave his friend an apologetic look. Chris could only shrug and stand up as he tossed his gun out.

The Lancers all did the same as they stood and came together once more. Johnny gave them both the same look he'd given Chris.

"Now what, cobarde?" Johnny asked as Soladar walked up to them.

His head snapped back as the Mexican backhanded him across the face. Johnny only looked back at him with a small smile.

Soladar nodded to his right hand man and he took off to the church. Within a few minutes he returned with both priests and the crucifix.

"Tie them up. All but him," Soladar ordered as he grinned at Johnny.

Murdoch and Scott had remained silent but both felt panic rise up at this latest development. Once they were all tied securely and made to kneel in the dirt, Soladar walked up to Johnny. He looked at him then turned to his man. "Find the largest nails around. As big as railroad ties if you can."

Then, he looked over at Rita and his other man. "Let her go. Take him to the church doors." He leaned into Johnny and grinned. "I told you I would crucify you, mestizo."

The two men grabbed Johnny and dragged him backwards to the church doors which they closed and tied together with rope. More rope was used to tie Johnny's hands above his head, secured on a hook above   the doorway. Murdoch and Scott started to move but were stopped by Soladar's gun in their faces.

He looked at the two men curiously. "Who are you?"

Both looked at Johnny who shook his head at them.

"They're friends of mine," Chris piped up.

Soladar glanced at him then back at the Lancers. "Well?"

"You heard him," Scott said.

"I do not think so, gentlemen. You were with Madrid. I will only ask once more then I will put a bullet in Larabee's head. Who are you?"

"I'm Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Scott."

Soladar nodded. "What are you doing with Madrid?"

Murdoch's eyes went to his younger son as his mind worked furiously. "He works for me. He and Scott have become friends and my son was worried when he took off to come here. We thought he might need some help."

Johnny finally did pray; that Soladar would believe his father.

The man seemed to consider this. He wasn't sure it was the truth but he didn't much care either. "Well, that was a mistake, Senor."

"Yes, it certainly was," Murdoch growled and threw Scott an angry look.

Soladar burst out laughing. "I think you will see the woodshed, if you live long enough, Senor," he said to Scott who managed to look reticent.

*****

The Mexican had taken a seat as he waited for his man to locate some nails. He didn't know why it was taking so long. Johnny was held at gunpoint by one man as the other stood watch over Scott, Murdoch and Chris who were made to sit on the ground in the hot sun.

"Anyone got any ideas?" Chris asked softly.

"Be quiet! He'll hear you," Scott admonished.

"Don't matter. He doesn't speak English," Chris replied sharply.

"We need to do something and fast!" Murdoch spoke, hearing the fear in his own voice. He looked over at the two priests who Soladar had allowed to sit on chairs near him. He could see them both pleading with the man but he waved them off with a sharp and threatening look.

"We may not be able to do anything. You both have to accept that," Chris was saying.

"I am not going to sit here while that animal nails my son to a door!" Murdoch growled lowly.

"Silencio!" the guard spat.

Murdoch gave him an icy look then dropped his eyes.

"My ropes are loosenin up but I don't know if I can get free," Chris said.

"Why doesn't he just kill us?" Scott asked.

Chris looked over at him and felt some sympathy. He didn't want this to happen to Johnny either but to watch your brother or son be tortured .... he shook it away. "Because your old man is right. He's an animal. He's teachin the villagers a lesson to never cross him again."

Johnny was watching everything, especially the man guarding him. The day was growing hotter and the man was looking a little pale. Too much fun last night, he reckoned. He studied the layout and was worried about the priests who were closest to Soladar as they were in more immediate danger. Still, that sun was also beating down on him and he hadn't felt real chipper to begin with. He felt the cold sweat on his brow, the nausea threatening and closed his eyes for a second. What he wouldn't give for some water right then. Sucking in a breath, he refocused on the priests.

He caught Padre Matteo's gaze and tried to convey his message. The priest nodded infinitesimally and Johnny hoped he did indeed understand.

"Senor, Padre Benito is an old man. May I get him some water? This heat, it is hard on him," Matteo asked respectfully.

Soladar was about to answer when he saw his man coming down the street carrying a basket and looking excited. He stood as the man approached and spoke rapidly in Spanish. Soladar grinned and patted him in the back then looked over at Johnny. Without glancing back at Matteo, he did answer.

"I think the old one can wait, Padre. You will come with me. Madrid may need you," he grinned and walked to the church.

*****

"My men are very resourceful, Madrid. It was worth the wait and gave me time to think about the situation. I have decided to alter my plans slightly."

Scott and Murdoch were about to lose any decorum they had left. Their guard was watching the church and they all worked furiously on their ropes, their eyes never leaving Johnny.

Johnny remained quiet, his affect flat, his arms stretched high above him on either side. He tried to ignored the pain in his side, but it wasn't an easy chore. He felt awful and his stomach still protested. The heat only intensified the illness he felt. His arms throbbed and his legs felt like noodles, barely holding him up. Still, he would not give this man the satisfaction of knowing he was sick.

Matteo stood beside Soladar. "Senor, por favor, do not do this. He was only trying to help us. It is I who should be punished. Please, this is sacrilege!"

"Oh, you will be punished, Padre. Do not worry about that. Right now, you should be offering your services to Senor Madrid. He may want to pray?"

Johnny looked coldly at him and only shook his head.

Soladar laughed. "Si, why start now, eh?" He stepped forward and ripped Johnny's shirt open, exposing the now bloody bandage around his torso. "What is this? Perhaps you are not as healed as I had thought?" he grinned and pulled a knife, cutting away the bandages.

He bent down and looked closely at the wound then began poking it with his finger. Johnny flinched and ground his teeth together.

"Hmmmm, I do not think this is healed, Senor," he mused then stuck his finger in the wound.

Johnny groaned and bucked a little, sweat running down his face.

"Oh, did that hurt? Perdonme," Soladar laughed.

When he looked back up, Johnny spat in his face. The Mexican turned red and he smashed his fist into Johnny's face three times before controlling himself. Johnny's head hung down as blood poured from his mouth.

Soladar stepped back breathing heavily. "Agua," he ordered and one of his men brought a bucket. He lifted it and flung the water at Johnny, bringing him back to full consciousness.

Johnny sputtered and spit blood on the ground before raising his head and glaring at the man.

"You have cajones, Madrid, but that will not help you now. Everyone will know and be reminded to never go against me again." He reached into the bucket and pulled out a long, heavy nail and held it in front of Johnny.

"I think this will do nicely, Senor. And you already have a hole for me to put it in. Very considerate of you," he grinned. He stopped and turned, seemingly just then remembering his other prisoners. He walked over to Scott and smiled.

"Perhaps you will choose your friends more wisely in the future, Senor."

Scott bit the inside of his mouth to keep from saying anything that may bring more abuse to his brother. He couldn't imagine what that might be but he was pretty sure this animal could.

"And you, Senor Larabee, will suffer a similar fate as your amigo," He grinned then returned to Johnny.

"Wait!"

Soladar's hammer-laden hand was raised, the nail poised at the wound. He paused and turned with some aggravation at the interruption.

"How much will it take to let him go?" Murdoch asked, his mouth arid as he licked his lips.

The Mexican dropped his arm to his side and turned fully toward the rancher. "Que?" he asked, unsure exactly what Murdoch was offering.

"I'll pay you ten thousand dollars if you let us all go free."

Soladar raised a brow then looked at Johnny. The gunhawk's eyes were murderous as he glared at the gringo.

"Why would you care about him?" Soladar asked.

Murdoch's eyes darted from Johnny to Soladar. "I just want to get out of here, Senor."

That didn't seem quite right to the bandito and he considered the answer for long seconds. "What is he to you? I have not said I would kill you or your son. Why do you barter for his life?"

Murdoch grunted a little as he repositioned himself on the ground. "You got what you came for. If you let us all go, you'll get much more. What difference do my reasons make?"

Johnny was livid. His father was about to get Scott and himself killed. He could tell Murdoch saw his mistake but it was too late now. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath.

"Don't make any deals for me, old man. Besides, this piece of garbage will steal you blind then kill you anyway. He has no honor," Johnny spat.

Soladar turned back slowly, his eyes mere slits as he took the one step to bring him face to face with Johnny. They stared at each other for what seemed an eternity then, Soladar smiled. Johnny clamped his jaw closed and prepared as best he could for what was about to happen.

Without turning, Soladar gave the order. "If any of them say one more word, shoot them in the head."

Johnny relaxed a modicum then looked at Matteo. The priest had tears in his eyes and Johnny smiled at him a little then, he looked back at Soladar.

The Mexican was impressed with Madrid's bravado but he knew it wouldn't last much longer. He stepped to Johnny's right. Once more, he set the nail and raised his arm far back. With a forceful swing, metal met metal.

Johnny could no more stop the shout of pain than he could stop what was happening. The searing fire erupted in his side as hot blood ran in a river from the wound. The back of his head banged against the door as his body was nailed securely to the wood. He sucked in breath after breath and closed his eyes, fists clenched tightly above him, legs scrambling to hold some of his weight as his knees threatened to buckle.

Soladar watched him in fascination as he fought for dignity.

Scott's shout was lost in Johnny's, intermingled with almost as much pain as his brother's. He stared disbelievingly as the nail was driven into his brother's side. His heart seemed to stop when the bandit pulled another nail from the bucket.

Murdoch's head went down in defeat and prayer. Johnny couldn't survive this. They couldn't stop any of it from happening and he'd never felt so completely useless in his life. He had failed his son and he knew he couldn't live with that knowledge. He had denied Johnny and, even though he knew the why, that didn't help now that his son was suffering so.

Chris refused to watch. It was bad enough to hear. His eyes searched frantically for the priest, his ropes nearly frazzled apart as blood saturated the hemp and his hands. He worked even more furiously as Johnny cried out, determined Soladar die the worst possible death.

Johnny slowly opened his eyes, no longer able to hide the pain that seemed to tear him apart. He felt the hand grab the back of his head as it drooped and pulled his hair, jerking his head up. He found Soladar's glare with emotionless eyes.

Soladar nodded in satisfaction that he was still conscious and stepped to the other side. The priest's mumbled prayers were wearing on his nerves but he ignored it now as he placed the nail against the skin of Johnny's left side.

"Por favor, I beg of you. Do not do this," Matteo pleaded.

"You should have thought of that before you sicced your dog on me, Padre," Soladar spat then pulled the hammer back again and pierced Johnny's skin savagely.

Johnny prayed to die once he could put a thought together again. He had no awareness of time passing; knew not how long his scream had echoed through the streets. His eyes went heavenward and he silently prayed for forgiveness. He was well aware he had no right to die this way. No right to suffer this particular punishment.

His eyes fell on his family and his heart broke at the sight. Murdoch was nearly completely on the ground as his grief weighted him down. Scott sat on his knees, head bowed and shaking slowly side to side. Tears leaked from Johnny's eyes but he was unaware as he bowed his head and tried to make his peace.

Scott felt physically ill as his prayers went unanswered. He silently raged against Soladar, God and everyone else in the world. He wasn't able to look at his brother again, unable to watch his best friend and confidante die slowly and painfully. He only managed to briefly glance at his father before returning to his own misery.

Murdoch wasn't sure he wanted to live any longer. He thought over and over about launching himself at Soladar and choking the life out of him even as the bandits filled him with bullets. It would be worth death to take this man to hell. The only thing that kept him still was Scott. Knowing his son would need him when this nightmare was over was all that kept him still. His ropes were loose enough, his rage raw enough to free his hands, he surmised.

Soladar watched Johnny in fascination for several minutes as the blood flow slowed and the man's head dropped to his chest. Then, he turned and walked over to the well, jumping up on the ledge and looking out onto the village. His back was to the rest of them.

"I know you are all there watching and waiting. All of you cowering in your homes wetting your pants! This is what happens when you defy me. When you dare to turn against me! Your savior has been crucified for your sins though I doubt any of you will remember his name in a month!"

Larabee straightened out his legs as the guards all watched their leader with humor. Scott noticed his movements and their eyes met. With one small nod of the head, Scott understood and positioned himself to move however he could. He managed to bump Murdoch's arm hard and gain his father's attention. His eyes told the story and he was relieved to see Murdoch set his face in grim determination. Padre Benito walked brazenly toward the three prisoners, his hands inside his robe. He stood beside Chris and handed the gun to the man now crouched on one knee. The priest moved away as Chris cocked the hammer.

Their guard turned at the sound and Larabee killed him then turned to the two men with Johnny. He took one out as the other was bringing his gun to bear. He went down with a bullet in the chest as his own shot went wild.

Soladar turned, surprised written all over his face as he drew his gun and fired at the exact same time as a bullet struck him. He stood there, eyes wide with disbelief for several seconds as they lowered to watch the blood stain spread out from his groin before he fell to the ground in a puff of dust.

Scott and Murdoch turned back to back to loosen their ropes during the firefight then both stumbled to Johnny, their legs cramping and weak.

Chris clutched at his chest as he watched the Lancers go to his friend. He got to his feet slowly and staggered over to Soladar. He fell to his knees over the man as he tossed the gun lying limply in the bandit's hand aside.

Soladar looked up at him in horror and agony. His lower lip trembled as he tried to speak. "Por favor, kill me," he whispered.

Larabee looked at him unsympathetically as he shook his head slowly. "I don't think so. I think you should lay there and think about what you've done. I've a mind to save your sorry ass just so you can spend the rest of your life balless. Then again, that's nothin new, is it? Only a coward uses a woman to win his battles."

Soladar swallowed dryly and reached up, grasping Larabee's shirt limply. "I'll see ..... you in ..... hell, Larabee," he ground out.

"Yeah, you will. But, don't save me a seat. If there's a way, I'll make you suffer even more down there. That's a promise," Chris spat.

Soladar opened his mouth then closed it as the pain erupted again in his groin. His hand fell away from Chris' shirt as he slumped to the ground and breathed out one last time.

"Bastard," Larabee whispered. He groaned as he moved away a few paces before falling to the ground only to find Padre Benito kneeling over him.

Scott stood and stared at the sight, unsure how to free his brother. He leaned over to see Johnny's face then touched his cheek and slowly raised his brother's head up. Johnny was unconscious and he felt some relief from that though not much. His eyes sought out his father who was staring at the nails.

"How are we going to get him loose?" Scott asked in a voice unfamiliar to his own ears.

Padre Matteo touched Scott's shoulder and felt the tension rise immediately. When the deadly glare of the elder Lancer brother fell on him, he fought to keep from shrinking away. Swallowing hard, he managed to speak.

"We must pull them out, my son. Straight out and quickly," he said.

Scott held the stare for another three seconds before nodding. He turned to his father who could only nod as well. They positioned themselves, each on one side and grasped the blood-slicked metal. Murdoch quickly surmised this was not going to be easy and he stepped back and pulled his kerchief from his pocket then wrapped it around the nail to soak up the blood. Scott mimicked his actions then looked over at his father, hoping for and receiving some strength. From where it came, Scott hadn't a clue and couldn't think about that right now. He focused on the task at hand, his stomach roiling.

"On three," Murdoch strangled out.

Scott set his stance to lean back when he pulled and sucked in a breath. "One, two, three!"

Johnny groaned loudly as his body was released from it's entrapment. He frowned deeply as the pain brought him up from the depths of the abyss. Murdoch saw the sash offered in front of him and glanced at Matteo then grabbed the cloth and wrapped it tightly around his son's midsection.

Scott waited until his father was ready and, without words between them, he pulled out his pocket knife and cut the ropes holding Johnny's hands and body up. He slumped forward and Murdoch bent down to catch him over one shoulder. Unceremoniously, the father carried his son into the church and back to the bed he'd so recently left.

As Murdoch laid his precious cargo on the mattress he marveled that it had been only a few hours since they'd walked out the front doors of the church to face the evil that was Soladar.

Scott began issuing orders to Padre Matteo that he fully expected to be obeyed. Hot water, bandages, any medicines they may have were to be brought to him immediately. When the priest left the room, he walked over and slumped in the chair beside the bed, leaning forward and taking his brother's hand.

Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed opposite him stroking his son's cheek and whispering reassurances while they waited. Both men looked up when the door opened wider to admit Rita and the priest.

She couldn't meet their eyes and silently brought the supplies to the bedside. Once she'd lain it all out, Scott stood up, towering over the diminutive woman.

"We'll take it from here," he stated in an unfriendly voice.

She glanced up at him with tear-filled eyes then ran out of the room.

Murdoch paid no attention to any of this as he began to thoroughly clean his son's wounds, pouring the water into the gaping holes as Johnny groaned and moved slightly under his ministrations.

"I wish Sam was here," Murdoch muttered.

Scott only ground his jaw and said nothing as he tended the other side.

Thirty minutes passed in this silent way until the wounds were cauterized and bandaged and Johnny's wrists were cleaned and dressed as well. Murdoch wet a cloth and placed it on his son's forehead as a token comfort. He knew there would be fever soon. He could only pray they'd gotten the wounds clean enough to stave off the worst of it.

Scott stared at his brother's face as his mind replayed the whole sordid mess. His stomach flipped each time he heard that sound in his mind. The tinny ping as the hammer struck the head of the nail. He swallowed down the bile in his throat and closed his eyes for a moment. Only then did he remember.

"What happened to Larabee?" he asked anyone as he raised his head.

Murdoch looked at him with surprise as he'd not thought of the man either. Matteo, who had stayed in the corner praying and watching, stepped forward.

"Padre Benito is tending him in his cell, Senors."

"Tending him? Was he hurt?" Murdoch asked.

"Si, he was shot by Soladar. His last evil deed," Matteo responded sadly.

Scott was quite sure he could take no more of the man's quiet demeanor. No one could be this damned stoic! He stood quickly, startling the others. "I'll go check on him. It's the least I can do for the man who saved our lives," he mumbled and walked out.

Murdoch watched him go then turned back to Johnny. He leaned close to his son's head and turned the cloth over, checking his cheek for fever. Not yet, he thought and sighed.

Padre Matteo watched the gentle actions of the big man and wondered at the love he saw in the simple gesture. He wondered at this family, obviously so new and fragile. Johnny could not have been with them long if he'd been a gunfighter such a short time ago. He stepped closer and sat in the chair, his own exhaustion catching up with him.

*****

Scott didn't bother to knock but walked right in. Padre Benito was standing over Larabee as Rita washed his wound. Scott stopped at the foot of the bed.

"How is he?"

"He has a bullet in his upper right chest, Senor. I do not know if he will survive," the padre answered.

Scott sighed and walked over as Rita stood and moved quickly aside.

"It has to come out. I'll need hot water, bandages - everything you brought for Johnny plus another knife," he ordered as he turned up the lamp wick and prodded the wound.

Rita hurried to retrieve the items and Scott sat next to the ill man. Green eyes fluttered open and a soft groan filled the silent room. Chris took it all in quickly and Scott marveled at the familiar gesture. When the gunfighter's eyes fell on him, he gave a small smile.

"Johnny?" Chris asked in a whisper.

"We've cleaned and cauterized the wounds. Now all we can do is wait and see. There's no fever yet," Scott reported. "Now, I need to dig that bullet out of you, Mr. Larabee. That is, if you want me to."

Chris gave him a long, hard look. "Yeah, alright."

Scott nodded and said nothing as Rita returned with his supplies. He removed the chimney from the lamp and laid the knife across the flame. His glance behind him was enough to send the woman from the room. He soaked a cloth in the hot water then hesitated.

"I have to confess I've only done this twice before. The good news is, both men survived," he told.

Larabee suppressed a grin and nodded. "Guess that makes you the closest thing to a doc around here. Go ahead only " he stopped and took a deep breath as he considered his next sentence. "If I don't make it, just tell Johnny thanks. He'll understand."

Scott raised a brow at that then spoke his thoughts. "It's Johnny - and me - who should be thanking you, Mr. Larabee. But, I'll tell him if I have to. Now, let's both make sure I don't have to."

Before he subjected the man to more discomfort, Scott uncorked the bottle of Tequila Rita had brought and gave Chris a large dose.

*****

Two weeks of torture ensued as Johnny hung onto life through the raging fever that beset him, racking his body with anguish brought on by more than physical pain. Murdoch spent hours listening to his son whisper and shout in Spanish as he brought forth the demons of his past.

More than once, he'd sent the others from the room when Johnny began revealing his secrets. No one needed to hear this - not even him, he knew. But, someone had to be there and Murdoch made sure it was he.

He thought he would never recover from what he learned of his son in those weeks. Some of it shocked him to his core but he could do nothing but weep in the privacy of the small room; rage at the injustices of life and try to forgive himself and his son for the things Johnny spoke.

He would never tell a living soul, including Johnny, what he'd heard. He would take it to his grave. For he owed his son that and much, much more. His own torture at denying his son to Soladar ate at him every minute of every day. But as the fever subsided and Johnny regained lucidity, he shoved his own emotions down deep and focused on his son's recovery.

Chris recovered much more quickly and began sitting with Johnny to relieve the Lancers. Scott would have no one other than the family sit with him and Murdoch didn't protest. But, they allowed him to stay.

He sat in the chair, his long legs stretched out before him as he read a book. A small smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he slowly dropped the tome and looked up at the blue eyes watching him with a similar expression.

"About time."

Johnny's smile grew a little. "I'd say."

Chris sat up straight then poured water and helped him drink it all. "Good boy. If you keep this up we'll get you a cookie, maybe even two."

Johnny laughed softly. "Where is everyone?"

"Resting." Larabee grew solemn, then shifted in the chair. "Scott dug a bullet out of me. Saved my life."

Johnny stared at him for a beat. "Bet that pissed you off."

Chris rolled his eyes then slapped Johnny's arm lightly.

*****

One week later, Johnny and Chris walked in the gardens behind the church. Both were quiet for some time. Johnny indicated a bench and they sat down.

"I never thanked you for savin my family," Johnny said.

"I owed you," Chris replied.

"For me, yeah, but not them. So, I still owe you," Johnny grinned.

Chris said nothing but shook his head.

"Feelin alright?" he asked.

"Sure. I'm ready to ride."

"Where to?"

Chris looked over at him and smiled just a little. "Wherever I need to."

Johnny nodded and studied the ground. He leaned over and rested his forearms on his knees. "I'm not one to tell a man what to do with his life and I know you've got a mission, Chris. Sometimes, if you stand back from a thing, try to focus on something else, it helps. You might think of somethin you hadn't before or remember somethin that might help. I don't know. I know what I'd do in your situation."

Chris frowned, feeling uncomfortable as always talking about this but he allowed it with Johnny. Not many men would he broach this subject with. "What would you do?"

Johnny turned his head and looked at his friend. "Exactly what you're doin. Probably wouldn't listen to anyone else either. Look, it's just a suggestion and you can tell me to shut up if ya want. I know you don't want to hear this but I hate what happened to you. If there's anything I can ever do to help, you just send for me, amigo."

"You've got a whole new life, Johnny."

He straightened up and put his hand on his friend's arm. "I'm tellin you I'll be right there if you ever need anything. Comprende?"

Chris smiled and nodded. "Thanks. Well, I could use a cup of coffee."

Johnny smiled back. "Go ahead. Think I'll sit here a while longer."

*****

Murdoch found him right there on the bench half an hour later. He sat down and rested his arms on the back. "Ready to leave tomorrow?"

"More than ready."

Murdoch smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. "Your friend seems ....... haunted."

Johnny looked painfully at him then lowered his eyes and shook his head sadly. "He's been through hell. Yeah, haunted is a real good word. I wish I could help him."

"But he doesn't want it?"

"Nothin I can do. What he needs to know ... well, I wish I had the information he needs, is all."

"Can you tell me about it?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny shook his head. "Not mine to tell and he wouldn't appreciate me tellin it anyway. He's a very private man. I wouldn't have known from him. I heard it from someone else. Chris don't want sympathy."

"What does he want?"

Johnny looked into his father's eyes. "Revenge. And you would, too."

Murdoch raised a brow but he could only imagine one thing that would drive him to such a state of hatred. He realized this must be Larabee's torment. He'd lost his family. "Well, I'm sorry he's having such a hard time."

"Yeah," Johnny sighed out. His heart ached for his friend but he couldn't do much and that only made it rougher.

*****

Chris looked down from the saddle and tipped his hat. "Adios, Johnny. Take care."

Johnny stepped up and met his gaze. "Remember what I said. Anytime, just give a yell."

"Right." Without another word, Larabee rode off heading north.

Scott walked up beside his brother and put his hands on his hips. "He doesn't talk much, does he?"

Johnny smiled. "Nope. Come on brother, let's go home."

Neither Scott nor Murdoch were sure Johnny was truly up to the trip but they'd talked it over and agreed to take it slow on the way back. They knew Johnny would stay no longer.

They mounted up then watched as Johnny said goodbye to the priests.

Padre Matteo laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled warmly at him. "Peace be with you, my son."

Johnny bowed his head for a second before meeting the peaceful countenance. "Thanks for everything, Padre."

"It is we who should thank you, Johnny."

He looked past Matteo to the old man speaking. Padre Benito stepped up as Matteo moved away. "I only hope God will forgive me for my sins against you."

Johnny frowned at this. "Doesn't he forgive everything?"

Benito smiled. "Si, if we ask and are sincere."

Johnny smiled back. "Then you have nothin to worry about, Padre."

"We can never repay you for all you have done, all you have sacrificed for us," the priest said.

"Yes, you can. Forget about me," Johnny said, his eyes piercing the other man's.

Benito only nodded his understanding. Though none of them would ever forget what this young man had done for them, never again would they ask for his help. He was no longer Madrid. "Adios, Johnny Lancer," he said.

Johnny grinned and mounted Barranca. He looked back down and tipped his hat. "Adios, Padre."

*****

The morning past without conversation. Johnny kept his eyes wide open, taking in everything around them. Scott and Murdoch shared more than one worried look. Just past noon, they stopped for a break.

Murdoch handed off some sandwiches Rita had made for them and they sat by a small brook listening to the world around them.

"How are you holding up, son?"

Johnny looked over at his father and shrugged. "Fine."

Scott rolled his eyes though Johnny didn't see. "We thought we should just take our time, no hurry to get back."

Johnny turned to look at him and frowned. "Ranch won't run itself."

"Jelly can handle things for a few more days. We'll wire him when we get to San Diego."

Johnny stood up with a slight grunt and walked to the water's edge before turning back to face them both. "I can handle it."

Murdoch came to his feet. "I'm sure you can but there's no reason to push yourself now."

He took them both in and quickly realized they'd already talked this through. He knew he could argue but it would do no good. His stubborn told him he could just leave them in his dust if he really wanted to. But, he didn't so he only nodded and walked to the horses.

The first night was spent quietly by the campfire. None of them were in much of a mood to chat. All still mulling over what had happened.

Johnny struggled with it. He didn't know what to do with all the emotions churning around inside him. Part of him needed to talk about it, part needed to bury it. He didn't know which to listen to but he figured sooner or later, one side would win out. All he had to do was wait for it. He could concentrate on getting better back in the village. He could push the thoughts away then as his family hovered and kept him occupied. Now, out here in the quiet with no emergencies to deal with, his mind and soul were in turmoil.

Murdoch watched his face change in the firelight from one expression to the next. He knew what his son was thinking about but wasn't sure he should try to get it out of Johnny. Experience had taught him a thing or two about this son - both really as they were the same in this area. Neither would talk unless or until they were ready.

So, he said nothing and settled into his bedroll as his boys did the same. Maybe tomorrow, he thought as sleep took him.

*****

Scott cracked his eyes half open as his senses took in his surroundings. Smell was the first to awaken, then hearing. The bacon made his stomach grumble, the noise made him wince at the early hour. His stomach won out as he slowly sat up and rubbed his eyes. He watched Johnny in profile as his brother moved the bacon around the skillet. He realized there really wasn't any noise, it just sounded loud in the dawning. His eyes strayed to Murdoch still asleep.

"Mornin."

The softly spoken greeting brought his eyes back to his brother and he licked his lips before answering. Scott threw the covers off and got to his feet then disappeared in the bushes. When he returned, Johnny was dishing out the bacon along with beans.

"Should we wake him?" Scott asked as he took a plate and settled by the fire.

Johnny shrugged. "Let him sleep a while longer." After a few quiet moments, he spoke again. "There's no need to baby me, Scott. I can handle the ride."

Scott swallowed and took a sip of coffee before answering. "We know you can handle it physically, brother. It's the rest. We both thought you might need some extra time to sort things through before facing the ranch again."

Johnny considered this for a while. "I don't know if I want to talk about it or not."

"You don't have to talk as long as you can deal with it. That doesn't mean we won't listen," Scott offered.

Johnny nodded, a small smile of appreciation flitting across his face. Still, he didn't look at his brother, focusing on his now empty plate. A frown replaced the smile when he did turn to Scott.

"Chris told me I was talkin a lot with the fever. Said Murdoch made everyone leave a few times. I guess I was sayin some pretty bad things."

"He was trying to protect you, Johnny."

"I know and I appreciate it. Still, he heard it," Johnny said, pain and some embarrassment in his tone.

Scott sighed lightly and laid his plate down beside him. "I'm sure if you wanted to talk he'd listen, too. And if not, he won't say a word about it."

Johnny looked at him briefly before staring into the fire. "I can't," he whispered.

Scott reached out and pressed a hand on his shoulder. "It's alright, brother."

Murdoch heard the pain in their voices and decided to let them know he was awake. He rolled a little then stretched, pretending to just now awaken. As he sat up, he looked over and smiled. "Smells good."

"Best get to it before it gets cold," Johnny said dully.

They broke camp and headed out again. Murdoch continued his vigil of watching Johnny as Johnny watched everything else. His heart felt like a boulder in his chest as he considered all his son had endured in his short life. He wanted desperately to talk through some of the things he'd discovered if only to ease his son's tortured soul. Murdoch realized just how much hell his son had dealt with now and he knew that knowledge would haunt him almost as much as it haunted Johnny and for the rest of his life. That his son had to endure this was almost too much to accept.

*****

They spent the night in San Diego and sent a wire to Jelly. The response was fairly quick and they were glad to know the ranch was in one piece. Now, they could take their time. Somehow, sometime Johnny needed to talk and both other men were determined he be allowed that time if he so chose.

It was late afternoon when Scott slowed and fell behind them as he looked toward Remmie's right hind leg twice before whistling them to a stop. He dismounted and checked the leg as Johnny and Murdoch rode back to him.

"It's a rock," Scott explained simply as he dug the offending item out of the shoe with his knife.

Johnny walked over and rubbed the animals leg as Scott released it. "Feels a little tender. We should let him rest a while."

Murdoch looked at the sky. "We may as well find a campsite, then."

Johnny jumped into the saddle. "I'll ride ahead. Be right back."  

Murdoch walked with Scott until Johnny returned. He dismounted and they made the short distance to a grove of trees with a nice sized stream nearby.

"You always seem to find the good spots," Scott smiled.

Johnny grinned and shrugged. "Just lucky, I guess." The smile faded quickly as he ducked his head and took the horses over to the trees.

They spoke little as they set up camp but Murdoch was pensive, his shoulders hunched nearly to his neck. Johnny felt his apprehension and knew the why of it but he still wasn't sure if he could do this. Truthfully, he wasn't feeling all that well. It was nothing specific, he just felt drained.

Scott poured another round of coffee and produced a bottle of whiskey, waving it in the air with a mischievous grin. All three laughed and accepted a little extra bite for their brew. Not long after, Johnny excused himself and disappeared into the trees.

Ten minutes passed before Murdoch became concerned.

"Go after him," Scott said quietly and gave him an encouraging nod.

Murdoch got to his feet and started to the trees, his guts in a knot.

*****

Johnny stood by the stream staring across at the meadow beyond. His arms were wrapped across his chest, his shoulders slumped. His head came up with a jerk as he whirled around, hand on gun before he even thought about it. When he saw his father, he let out a breath and relaxed though his frown was easy to see in the waning light.

"Sorry, I got worried," Murdoch explained.

Johnny turned back to the water. "No need."

"I disagree," Murdoch replied as he came to stand beside his son. "I know how hard this has all been, son. I want you to talk to me but I understand if you can't."

The young man said nothing, just kept staring straight ahead. After an indeterminable length of time, he began.

"I don't know what I could say. You were there. I'm more worried about that than anything."

"It was the hardest thing I've ever been through, I'll admit. I kept thinking about just jumping Soladar and killing him with my bare hands. I knew I'd die doing it but I didn't care. The only thing that stopped me was knowing Scott would pay for it, too."

"I'm glad you had enough sense to realize that. I was a little ticked off when you tried to bribe him," Johnny said flatly.

"I know it was a mistake. I didn't think it through. I was desperate, you see."

Johnny looked over at him with appreciation. "It had to be hell watching that."

Murdoch bowed his head and walked away a little before stopping. "I didn't watch it, son. I ..... I couldn't watch."

Johnny breathed - finally. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. "Thank God," he mumbled.

Murdoch looked sharply at him then took the few steps that separated them. "Is that what you've been so worried about? That I saw it? THAT is what's got you torn up the most?" he asked incredulously.

Johnny's head came up slowly, a quizzical expression on his face. "One of a hundred things. But, yeah, I guess that was at the top of the list. I couldn't stand thinking about what you and Scott were going through. I know what it feels like to be helpless to stop something that's tearing your guts out, Murdoch. I know what it's like to watch someone you love die and not be able to do a damned thing about it. There's no worse feeling in the world."

Murdoch stared at him for a moment then reached out and put a hand on each shoulder, squeezing gently. "All I could think was that part of me was dying, too. It's all still so fresh and raw. I've been struggling with trying to get you to talk it out. It may be too soon, I just don't know. That's something you'll have to decide."

Johnny nodded. "I know you heard some things. Things I said when I was sick. Chris told me you made everyone leave the room sometimes. If there's anything you want to ask me about ......" he left it there.

"I do but I won't. It was hard, I won't deny that. But, those are your secrets, son, and I feel guilty for having heard them. If I could have turned off my hearing, I would have for your sake."

Johnny pulled back and turned away, unable and unwilling to let his father see the raw emotions so near the surface. Murdoch misunderstood and faltered a little.

"I ... I'm sorry, Johnny."

Shaking his head, Johnny managed to speak. "No, you have nothing to be sorry for. I just ..... I guess I just assumed you wanted to know everything there was about my life. That you wanted to know all those things. I could never tell you and knowing you know kills me. I'm ashamed of ......" he stopped when he felt the big hands on his shoulders again.

"Don't. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Yes, I was shocked to the core by some things, broken hearted by others. But, Johnny, I would never expect or demand that you tell me anything you don't feel comfortable telling. I do want you to know you *can* talk to me if you want or need to. That's all I'm saying, son."

Johnny sniffed and turned into the arms of his father. Murdoch embraced him tightly, resting his chin on Johnny's head as he relished the contact.

"I just wish it would stop," Johnny said in a muffled voice. "God! I wish it would stop!"

Murdoch held him even harder, his throat tight. "I wish it would, too. I wish none of it had ever happened. I'm so sorry, Johnny. So very, very sorry."

*****

Scott stared into the fire as vivid images danced in the flames. Images of that day and his own inability to stop what had happened to his brother. He would never forget this. Never forgive himself and never stop feeling inadequate. He had always promised himself he'd watch out for Johnny. Since the beginning, he'd made himself that vow. No one had asked it of him, he'd never voiced it and he knew it was not expected. Still, it was his responsibility as he saw it, to keep Johnny safe. To help his brother fit into this new life and have everything he so richly deserved.

His stomach turned as he tried to stop the vision from replaying. He wished he'd never seen any of it but he hadn't been able to look away. Had kept praying right up to the last second that somehow, someone would stop this. Anger boiled in his veins as he thought someone could have stopped it. Several someones could have done something yet they hadn't. They'd cowered behind doors and probably thanked the heavens it wasn't them. They'd caused it all by dragging his brother into their troubles. No debt was worth what Johnny had endured. Scott reinforced his personal vow with the promise that not even Johnny himself would stop him from ensuring his brother's health and welfare ever again.

He also knew Johnny would not appreciate these thoughts - any of them. He would not blame the villagers but Scott did. He would not want Scott to "interfere" in his problems. While he acknowledged to himself it wasn't his place and he couldn't run Johnny's life he, nevertheless, intended to keep his promise if only to himself - and for himself. It was completely selfish he realized, but he didn't care. After what had happened, Scott was ready to face even Madrid's wrath. A wry grin flitted across his face.

It wasn't a surprise to him that he loved his brother. At one time, when he'd first allowed the thought to develop, it had shaken him a little. Then, he'd accepted it easily and naturally. Of course he loved his brother. Had they grown up together, it would have been a given. That they hadn't was the only reason it had surprised him. For Johnny was quite loveable; he grinned at this thought. His zest for life, his pure enjoyment at life's little quirks and his humor, misplaced as it was at times, were the very things that made his brother so easy to like - and love.

He actually chuckled a little as he thought of some of the ladies in the valley who tried so hard to catch the illusive Johnny Lancer. Scott was pretty quick himself but he figured Johnny would be a bachelor long after he himself had settled down. In fact, he thought Murdoch would have a better shot than Johnny. That made him laugh out loud.

Soft voices and approaching footfalls snapped Scott back to the present and his mood fell once more. He braced himself for whatever condition the two of them were in. He wasn't sure the length of time they'd been gone told anything of how well things had gone. When he saw their faces, he knew time had nothing to do with it.

Scott smiled softly when they stepped into the firelight, both faces fairly relaxed. At least there were no scowls present so he had to assume things had gone relatively well.

Not much more was said and they settled in for the night. Johnny stared at the stars and hoped the nightmares would leave him be tonight. At least he hadn't bothered his family with them so far. Or, they hadn't said anything about it. He now knew they wouldn't have even if he'd disturbed them. The talk with Murdoch had been, well, shocking was a good word. He thought the old man would lay into him sooner or later, demanding answers. That he didn't and had no intention of doing so was like a balm to Johnny's weathered soul.

He sighed lightly and blinked the tears away. He was so tired of feeling like he was going to start bawlin at any moment. He still had a lot to face but he felt he could now that so much of the burden had been lifted. It would be hard; harder than anything, but he'd just have to deal with it somehow. Johnny closed his eyes and drifted off.

*****

The three men sat their horses as they looked upon the scene in the valley below. It all seemed so normal, almost boring to the less appreciative eye. Yet, these three men looked upon the visage with more than appreciation. Three sets of eyes full of love for the land and each other smiled at the scene.

A small laugh escaped the youngest man as the old wrangler below chased the honking goose. Two more voices joined the sweet sound. As they looked at each other with smiling eyes, understanding was thick in the air.

Murdoch took a deep breath. "Let's go home, boys."

Scott looked at his brother with a wicked gleam. "Shall we?"

Johnny smiled fully and nodded then spurred Barranca down the hill just behind his brother.

Murdoch laughed at them, knowing full well they were headed straight for Jelly and Dewdrop, ready to cause the old man some grief. His eyes went heavenward as he grew solemn.

"You know better than anyone what he's gone through. You know most of it was undeserved; none of it of his making. Please, don't punish my son for the mistakes of his parents. He was taken from me for so long. Please, let him come home once and for all. Please, let him have peace. Amen."

Blinking at the moisture and swiping at his eyes, Murdoch Lancer slapped the reins and headed down the hill towards home. A smile lit his face as he saw his sons chasing Dewdrop with Jelly hot on their heels and raising the dead with his grousing.

 

~end~
2006

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