Slowly Johnny pushed himself to his knees, his head still ringing from the blow. He swiped a hand over his cheek, dusty where he it had met the ground, and then raked his dark hair over the tender spot above his ear. His exploring fingers held no traces of blood. The rest of him did not hurt. Nothing serious then, except the loss of time, precious time. Swiftly he rose to his feet, beat at his dirty shirt, at the dust clinging to his pants.
The alley was warm and quiet with heated afternoon sunshine. But it whispered, remembering…
One of them had said something about Scott, about the vet…
Those bastards had hurt him. Somehow he’d sought help, had made his way to town…
And now he was back on the run, still hurt, on the run for his life with Cassidy still dogging him.
“Not for long,” Johnny said softly aloud.
They’d pay – they’d pay for the hurt and the pain they had caused Scott.
Johnny moved, started walking. Barranca, ground-tied at the end of the alley, whinnied anxiously as he approached.
“We’re gonna find out,” he said to the relieved animal and hopped up into the stirrup.
Doc Hildenbrand bolted up off his chair as the door chattered open to admit the man rushing through.
“Johnny!” he declared.
“Doc...” Johnny rocked to a stop, dropped his hands on his thighs to gulp some air. “What happened to Scott?”
“They were here,” Hildenbrand began as Johnny straightened. “Two men with guns – looking for him…” He spoke faster, his face furrowed with worry. “I don’t know how--”
Johnny grabbed him by both arms, re-settled him into the chair. “Easy, Doc – you all right?” He swallowed the impatience threatening to burst inside him, the worry already gnawing a hole inside him. “Please tell me what happened. Where’s Scott?”
“He was in the back bedroom – he must’ve heard those men.” The doc nodded behind him. “He was gone when they checked – the window was open. But they saw the blood…”
Johnny asked the question over the fear now clamping off his heart. “How bad was he hurt?”
Hildenbrand swallowed. “Shot – through the left shoulder,” he reported. “Bad enough wound…”
Shot – for a moment the world pressed down, turned the edge of Johnny’s vision black. His ears buzzed, drowning out the doc’s voice, drowning out everything but his own raspy breathing, his banging heart.
His brother shot – hunted like prey by that bastard Cassidy. Wounded and maybe bleeding…And now on the run again, trying to find someplace safe…
The world came back with a rush of sight and sound. “…needs rest,” the doc was saying. “Came in pretty weak.”
“I’ll find him,” Johnny told him. Morro Coyo wasn’t that big. Then that thought dragged a chilly finger of dread across his ribs. Cassidy was out looking, too, and he’d already tried killing. “Gotta go, Doc,” he said, straightening. “Thanks.”
He thrust his hat back on his head and sprinted out.
“Which room is the Cassidys’?” Johnny gasped to the hotel clerk, grabbing the counter with both hands to check his momentum. “Which one?” he demanded with a wheeze, cursing the air that would not stay in his lungs.
“Eight – number eight,” the middle-aged clerk stuttered. “But--”
Johnny ran for the stairway.
Sweat gathered under his collar, rolled down his back, pinned his shirt to his skin. He could barely breathe. Number two, number three…where? Number five and Number six – around a corner---
The door was ajar. The Colt materialized in Johnny’s hand, cocked, ready to use.
There was a smear of blood drying on the doorframe, rusty but there, at about the height where a shoulder might hunch in pain. Johnny pushed the door inward and followed it, gun pointed.
The room and the adjoining one beyond were empty but disturbed; the bed rumpled, drawers gaping, a water glass half-filled, sheets of writing paper askew on a desk. And the air held something – the presence of people…
A Colt lay discarded on a blue upholstered chair.
“Dammit, Brother, where are you?” Johnny pleaded to the emptiness.
“He left with the Cassidys,” the clerk said from the doorway.
Johnny whirled. “What?”
“Your brother – he left with the Cassidys.”
Johnny leaped forward, grabbed him. “Where’d they go?” he asked, his eyes glittering blue fire.
“I don’t know.” The clerk shook his head. “The Cassidys were packed.” He paused. “He get hurt or something? He didn’t look too well…had a sling on one arm…”
“He was just with the Cassidys? No one else?”
“Just them. Mrs. Cassidy had asked earlier about the stage schedule – maybe he was seeing them off?”
No, no stage – it wouldn’t be that easy. Johnny’s eyes strayed back to the Colt.
No, not the stage.
Someplace else then.
The livery – had to be…
But where were Cassidy’s other two compadres?
“They rented a buckboard,” Tom confirmed to Johnny. The bigger man laid aside the harnesses he’d been ready to put away. “Threw everything in and rode out.”
“Did you see which way?” Johnny asked. Something, please, he prayed silently. So close, but just not enough…
“Out toward your place – Scott said they was friends of his. Say, how’d he get hurt? Looked like he could use his bed…”
Home – he was trying to get home.
But why was he bringing the Cassidys?
And where were the other two?
“Murdoch!” Johnny jumped off Barranca even as the horse slid to a stop. He flung the reins to a waiting Julio. “¿Está mi hermano aquí?” he asked the stable hand. Was Scott here? He had to be…where else could be have gone…?
“Sí, señor,” Julio nodded. “A la casa.”
In the house – gracias, Madre mio, Johnny thanked the angel surely riding on his shoulder, and ran into the house.
The old man was pacing in the great room, his face worried with a frown.
“He’s here,” his father nodded, whirling at the hurried and anxious bootsteps. “The Cassidys brought him. They’re staying--”
The fear in Johnny broke through as fury. “No!” he shouted. “Cassidy tried killing him! He--”
“They’re after Cassidy now,” Murdoch told him grimly. “Scott didn’t sell out the escape, Cassidy did…” He sighed in relief at his own words, seemed to sag.
Johnny’s gut was still churning; he still wanted to argue, hit something, hit someone… “Cassidy has no right--”
“Scott asked that we protect him.”
“D’you know what that bastard--?”
“Go to your brother, John – he’s been asking for you. And we’ll talk after.”
Yes, they’d talk –
But first Scott…
“Hey, hermano mio…”
The blue-gray eyes opened, their colored blended with pain and lethargy. They’d given him laudanum, Teresa said. He’d been shot the night before – almost twenty hour hours ago…
Scott blinked twice, swallowed. “Johnny…” he breathed, lips barely moving in his pale face. His right hand moved from its slack position on the blankets, crept over across his ribs, searching.
Johnny eased himself onto the edge of the mattress, mindful of the carefully placed left arm. He took the other trembling fingers and curled them into his warm palm. “Right here,” he confirmed with a tiny smile, trying not to stare at the bandages already stained at the shoulder. “You gave us all a scare, Brother.”
“Cassidy…” Scott started sluggishly, his eyes closing just briefly.
“I know,” Johnny told him so that he wouldn’t have to say any more about it.
“N-need to tell you…
“Not right now,” Johnny hushed. He brushed away a bead of sweat trickling toward Scott’s left eye. Dios, he looked so exhausted – so haunted. There was something else – more than the wound. “We’ll take care of it,” he soothed further. “You just rest.”
“Promise me…” Scott whispered.
“Murdoch says he’s staying.”
“Yes, has to…”
No, he doesn’t, Johnny thought with a look this time at Scott’s bandaged shoulder. Leave him to his own wolves.
“Johnny, don’t,” Scott got out, his long fingers slipping out of Johnny’s hand to close over his wrist instead. His head came up off the pillow – it was soaked where he’d lain against it.
Quickly Johnny pressed a hand to his perspiring forehead, eased him back. “All right,” he promised, giving the heated skin a few strokes. His brother was home and safe – that’s all that mattered for the moment.
They’d deal with the rest soon enough.