Confronting the Ghost of Madrid

(A sequel to The Ghost of Johnny Madrid)

Page 3

by  Buttercup


Confronting the Ghost of Madrid

Episode 3


Teresa smashed her fist into the dough with a force contrary to her slight build.  And what further made her action even more astounding was that she repeated the exercise at every opportunity.

Unknown to her, Jelly was halted in the doorway, his eyes widening at the sight of such a brutal attack being perpetrated on the hapless bread dough.  He watched the spectacle in front of him for a full minute, amazed at the beating the innocent dough was being forced to endure until he finally felt compelled to intervene.

“You want me to get a shotgun and just fill it full of holes for ya?”

Teresa drew up short, one fist raised ready to strike with all her pent-up fury on the helpless dough mounded in front of her.  Sheepishly she turned her flour-dusted face toward the doorway.  “Jelly,” she murmured, embarrassment coloring her cheeks.

Jelly stroked the whiskers on his chin thoughtfully and entered the kitchen.  “Yup.  Had me a mighty fearsome pile o’ dough once.  Intent on escaping to Mexico, it was, where it could rise in comfort and ease, but after hours of spectacular combat, the object of which is still the talk in Albuquerque, I managed to subdue it and turn it into a tin of fairly decent raisin biscuits.”

Teresa’s contrite expression suddenly bubbled forth with amusement and she began laughing, putting her flour-clad hands to her face, which only served to add handprints to her already comical visage.

“Oh, Jelly,” she said when she finally managed to get her breath back.  “Aren’t you as anxious as I am?”

Jelly smiled warmly and put his arm around Teresa in a fatherly hug.  “Course I am,” he murmured then smiled.  “But I know Murdoch, and he’ll let us know more about what’s goin’ on as soon as he can.”

“But that last telegram—”

“Told us they’d found Johnny,” Jelly stated calmly.

“But it was so vague and we’ve heard nothing since,” Teresa countered.

“Murdoch ain’t one givin’ to much extra detail unless he feels there’s a reason for it.  And obviously he didn’t think we needed to know any more than that they’d found Johnny.  That’s all we were hoping for anyway, right?  And they said they’d be returnin’ soon as they could.”

“As soon as they could,” Teresa echoed with a sigh.  “That implies there’s something keeping them from returning immediately.”

“For all we know, Murdoch decided to stay and conduct a bit o’ business.”

“In Salinas?” Teresa shook her head.  “Jelly, you’re just making excuses.”

Jelly shrugged.  “Try not to go gettin’ yerself all worked up ‘til we know for sure there’s somethin’ to get worked up about, okay?”

Teresa sighed and nodded her head.

Jelly gave her shoulder a pat, then indicated the mound of dough in front of her.  “And go ahead.  Looks like that dough’s got itself a mean disposition.  I’d give it another round o’ lessons in manners.”

Teresa smiled and gave the dough a playful punch.  “Thanks, Jelly.  Wouldn’t want it to go getting fresh on me.”




DarkCloud sat at a table in the center of the room quietly sipping a cup of very hot, freshly brewed coffee.  Though he heard the sound of someone descending the stairs from the second floor, his attention was captured by the appearance of Rosti bearing a large plate of warm, steaming pancakes.  The idea of finally getting the opportunity to eat and actually finish his food while it was still warm greatly appealed to him.

Rosti sat the plate down in front of DarkCloud then looked up and smiled.  “Hey, Scott. You ready for some breakfast?”

DarkCloud glanced toward the stairs where Scott stood, alternately stretching and rubbing his left shoulder.

“Maybe in a little while, Rosti.  I need to catch Murdoch first.”

DarkCloud studied Scott, his eyes running along the young man’s arm, coming to rest on the spot where Scott was massaging his shoulder.  

Scott saw the look, smiled sheepishly and dropped his hand.  “Must have slept on it wrong.”

DarkCloud gave a short laugh, which left no doubt of his belief of Scott’s statement, then leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands.  “Okay, I just have to ask a question that’s been bothering me since I fixed you up.  Are all those scars from one round of buckshot or does your shoulder just have a natural ability to attract lead?”

Scott shook his head and laughed good-naturedly.  “Heck if I know.  It’s like some higher power has determined that if bullets are flying my way, this shoulder always manages to get in the way.”

“I’m surprised that you can even use that arm any more,” he said as he shook his head in wonder. “You and your shoulder, Johnny and his back.  You’re quite a pair,” DarkCloud chuckled before becoming serious.  “I would like to take a look at it again, if you don’t mind.  It’s been a few days.”

“Later, okay?”  Scott glanced toward the door.  “I’d like to catch Murdoch if he hasn’t left yet.  I didn’t hear him get up.”
               DarkCloud shook his head.  “No, he just walked out before you came down.  He asked Rosti to get him some breakfast before he heads up to Salinas, so I expect him back in soon to eat.  Matthew’s not here yet, anyway.  Why don’t you sit down and wait?”

Scott shook his head.  “No, I’d really like to catch him privately,” Scott paused, seemed ready to add something then shook his head again.  “I just checked on Johnny.  He’s still asleep.”

DarkCloud smiled.  “Go catch up to your father.  Since I haven’t been called out for baby duty, I thought I’d enjoy a warm breakfast for once.”

Scott grinned.  “Better eat fast while your luck holds.”  He gave a wave to Rosti, turned and headed outside.

Everything had a yellowish-gray cast to it, the sky cloudless except for a faint layer of ocean fog in the west.  It was going to be a rare, clear early morning for the Salinas valley.

Scott headed to Solero’s, guessing that Murdoch had decided to get his mount saddled and ready to go before grabbing something to eat.  He knew his father wouldn’t want to keep Matthew waiting once the young man arrived and would just as soon grab some biscuits and bacon that could be eaten on the go.  His father wasn’t a man who liked to keep others waiting, just as he didn’t appreciate anyone keeping him cooling his heels.

Upon entering the stables, Scott found his father adjusting the bit on his mount.  Solero, who greeted him with a wave, was sweeping out a stall at the far end.

“Scott,” Murdoch acknowledged.  “Hope I didn’t wake you when I got up.”

Scott shook his head.  “No.  But I had wanted to catch you before you took off.”

“Oh?” Murdoch’s attention was still fixed on the bridle adjustments.  “I’ll just be a few minutes if you want to catch some breakfast with me.”

“No.  I’ll eat later.”  Scott waited, took a deep breath as he reached into his pocket for the two letters.  “After you went up to see Johnny last night, I waited downstairs.  I thought maybe you’d be back down.”

Murdoch stopped what he was doing but didn’t turn around.  “No.  After leaving Johnny, I went straight to bed.”

Scott nodded, looked down at the letters in his hands.  “Yes, I know.  You were asleep when I went up later.”

Murdoch pursed his lips, careful to keep his expression hidden.

“I had wanted to talk to you,” Scott continued.  “I—”

“Scott,” Murdoch turned around, “I tried to talk to Johnny.  I did.  But it always seems to come out wrong.”

Scott looked up at his father then back down at the papers he held in his hand.  “That’s not—Murdoch, I need to show you something.”  Scott thrust the two letters toward his father. “Johnny…he wrote these before the shoot-out.  One to Harley and one to a Father Francisco.”

Murdoch looked down at the envelopes, making no move to accept them.

“Harley gave me his just before he rode out,” Scott continued.  “And,” he dropped his gaze uncomfortably, “Last night, I asked DarkCloud to give me the other one.”

Murdoch clenched his jaw, feelings carefully hidden.  “I have DarkCloud’s.”

“I know,” Scott replied with a slight nod.  “DarkCloud told me.”   He paused, sighed.  “They’re hard to read—difficult knowing it was how Johnny was feeling and thinking.”  His expression clouded, became grim and burdened.  “But when Johnny says something now that hurts to hear, that makes me want to respond in anger and frustration, it helps me to read his words so that I can remind myself how things looked to him not too long ago.”

Murdoch nodded, gave Scott a sad smile.  He reached deep into his vest pocket and produced another rather crinkled, worn envelope.  He fingered it a moment before handing it over.  “I didn’t know if it was a good idea for you to read this.”

Scott nodded as he accepted the letter, while Murdoch reached out tentatively for the other two.  “I know.  That’s why I hesitated to show you Harley’s.”

Murdoch looked at his son, gave a shake of his head and sighed.  “I guess we have enough problems dancing around Johnny without dancing around each other.”

Scott chuckled.  “Yeah.  And it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.”

Murdoch walked toward the livery entrance, leaned against the large, wooden frame and began to open the letter from Harley.  Scott walked to the other side, leaned his back against the rough wood and took out DarkCloud’s letter.

The two men quietly read, each absorbed in the words written by Madrid a mere week and a half earlier.

Finished, Scott closed his eyes. 

So matter of fact.  So calm.  There’s a bounty on my head and here’s how I want you to split it up…

Hearing the rustle of paper, Scott looked up.  Murdoch had angled farther away, his face totally hidden in shadow, but Scott could see that his father was returning Harley’s letter to its envelope and was opening the one written to Father Francisco.  He waited, knew his father understood Spanish much better than he did.

No noise was heard other than the swish of Solero’s broom back among the stalls.  Murdoch never moved a muscle as he read.  Finally he pushed away from the doorframe, slid the letter into the envelope.  His face still obscured, Murdoch sighed deeply, tilted his head back to gaze out at the sky.  He then cleared his throat.  “He…he must have written DarkCloud’s letter first.  The letters get harder to understand, they…they get more illegible…”

Scott looked down at the note he still held.  “Yes, I know.  They don’t get any easier to read, either, do they?”  He hesitated, then added, “Especially Harley’s.”

Murdoch still didn’t turn around, but instead Scott watched him bow his head.  “Scott, I…” He stopped, his voice cracking.  “It hurts so much knowing these words were written by my son.  We almost didn’t get here in time.”  He paused again, the quiet declaration of his next statement conveying just how deeply he was affected by the words in the letters.  “I almost didn’t come.”

“But we did—you did.  And we have these letters to help us understand Johnny, so that we can help him find his way back to us.”

Murdoch slowly turned around, yet he kept his eyes averted.  “I know that.  I just feel bad that,” he took a deep breath and shook his head with regret, “that I couldn’t find the right words again last night.”  He looked up, his eyes glistening.  “I’ll try again when I get back from Salinas.”  A small, hesitant smile crept onto his face.  “Two long days traveling without nothing better to do, I ought to be able to come up with the most eloquent, perfectly worded speech in the history of fatherhood.”

Scott grinned back and nodded.  “I’m sure you will.  I’ve never seen you fail at any job once you’ve set your mind on it.”

“Ah, a polite way to call me stubborn,” Murdoch chuckled.  “Father Alvarez was right.  Nice manners.”

Scott laughed.  “A product of Grandfather’s exceedingly dull and boring dinner parties.”

Murdoch nodded, a rather sad smile on his face.  He handed the letters back.  Scott took them and handed back DarkCloud’s letter.

“You keep them,” Murdoch said.

“No, you’d better keep yours.  Might help you while you prepare your perfect speech.”

Murdoch nodded wryly.  “I suppose.”  He tucked the letter back in his pocket.

Scott looked down at the two letters in his hand.  “I have a question for you.”

“Yes?” Murdoch asked.

Scott held up the letter addressed to Father Francisco.  “This letter.  Who is this Father Francisco?”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow.  “Someone Johnny used to ride with at one time.”


Murdoch nodded.

“But isn’t he a priest?”

Murdoch gave a vague shrug.  “Well, he wasn’t a priest when they rode together.  But soon after they broke up, Cisco entered seminary.”

Scott shook his head in a gesture of incredulity.  “Well, I guess that does explain the references in those letters and some other things Johnny has mentioned.  An odd turn of profession though, don’t you think?”
               Murdoch shrugged.  “I don’t really know the details, just the information provided in the reports I received.”

Scott nodded, glanced across the street toward Rosti’s.  “This Father Francisco, rogue priest, intrigues me.”  He looked at his father and smiled.  “I guess I’ve discovered what the next topic of conversation with Johnny is going to be.”

Murdoch put a hand on Scott’s shoulder as they started back toward the saloon.  “I’ll be interested to hear the full story.  Never known you not to accomplish something once you’ve set your mind to it.”

Scott laughed.  “A polite way to call me stubborn.”



A wavering face, undulating pain tearing through his body…

Chest on fire…

Could feel the warmth of his blood spreading, a sensation he was sadly familiar with…

He fought back the black pain, managed to bring the face into focus…


“Shhh…don’t talk,” he heard his brother murmur, a sob catching in his throat, tears glistening, pooling, until they began to flow down his cheeks, small rivulets discolored by the sweat and grime of trail dust.

And it all came back to him...

And he remembered.  He knew.  This was what he’d been searching for.  This was what was important.


He needed to let Scott know.  He had to tell him...had to tell him that he’d found what he was missing.


The pain stopped him; he gasped, struggled, tried to find some way to let his brother understand.

But everything was beginning to blur… 

He was running out of time…

His brother sensed it, leaned down, knew also that this was the end.  Johnny could see it in his eyes, torment laid bare.


Scott’s expression changed, became even more tragic.

But there was someone else.

Someone else watched his death.

He managed to keep the darkness at bay long enough to move his eyes that fraction of an inch…

And he found…

His father.

His father was there…

His father had come…

Johnny opened his mouth, a moan escaped before he could get in a breath…

Just one last thing he needed to say…just one last thing…

Please give me another second…


Pain exceeded its limit…

And he knew no more.


Johnny woke up.  For a moment he didn’t move as he tried to separate the dream from reality.  He put a hand on his chest, could feel the muffled pain throbbing contentedly under what felt like layers and layers of cottony gauze, yet his brain felt clearer than it had in a long time.

Maybe I just needed a few nights of decent sleep.

He sighed slowly, glanced up at the ceiling again.

Suddenly it came back to him and he remembered the parting words from his father…I’m glad you weren’t killed.

Unaware that he suddenly looked like a kid who’d just received the present he’d always longed for, Johnny smiled, closed his eyes, put his hand to his mouth in an unconscious gesture to capture and hold the grin, to keep it where he could take it out and savor it.

Murdoch had said it.  He’d actually said it.

Johnny’s eyes darted open as he had the sudden urge to bolt upright.  He contained the surge of energy, stored it away and cautiously sat up.  As there was no mug of tea or plate of food, and he could see the rays of early morning light filtering in through the curtains of his window, he knew someone was probably down in the saloon right then getting together a breakfast.  And he felt hungry.

Johnny got up slowly, steadied himself, crossed to the large dresser and looked in the mirror.  He smiled, noticed a bit of color under the stubble of his beard.  He rubbed a hand across his face.  “Might have to get the Boston Barber to give me another shave already.”

He glanced down at his chest, the bandages almost totally enveloping his torso, then let his eyes travel to his longjohns.  “I also think it’s about time we find some clothes.”

He opened the top drawer, but found it empty.  He slid it shut, winced slightly as the injured muscles protested the use, then pulled open the next drawer.  Inside he found his pants, but no shirt.  “You’d think Scott would have picked me up a new shirt by now,” he muttered.  “I’m gonna have to give him a hard time about that.”  He lifted out the pants then glanced down at his stained longjohns.  “I wonder if I could get DarkCloud to okay a bath and a shave.”  A real bath would be nice.  Something with water that actually splashed, something more than a soaking wet sponge…

As he cast an uncomfortable look toward the bed, his thoughts came to an uncomfortable halt.  The fever and a vision of DarkCloud sponging down his body, the feeling of being lifted, turned over.  Someone would have had to help.

He closed his eyes, concentrated, but couldn’t draw out any more visions.  He wondered if Scott had helped or his father.  He cringed, then grasped at a comforting possibility.  Perhaps it had been before Harley left.

He opened his eyes, gave his reflection a disgusted look.  “Your mind’s still full of holes,” he grumbled.

Giving the pants a short toss to one of the chairs, he pulled open the third drawer.  It was empty.

Putting one hand on the top of the dresser to steady himself, he gingerly bent over and slid open the last drawer.  His boots.  Nothing else.  He straightened up, groaning as he did, then slid the drawer closed with his foot.  He took a step away from the dresser and pivoted slowly, his eyes scanning the room. 

Where is it? 

It was then that he noticed the bedside table.  He shuffled toward it, sat down on the edge of the bed then grasped the handle of the one drawer and pulled.  It jammed.  His lips curled in disgust and though the movement pinched his side wound, he leaned farther over, grasped the drawer with his left hand as he stuck the fingers of his right along the crack.  But he couldn’t reach in far enough to touch whatever it was that had jammed the drawer.

He gave the offending compartment a shake, but it still wouldn’t budge.  With clenched teeth, he imagined picking it up and slamming it on the floor.  It was an enjoyable vision, one that brought a grin of satisfaction to his face.  He grasped the handle firmly once again and gave it a solid shake.  This time he was rewarded as the drawer suddenly released.

There they were.  His holster and pistol had been tightly wound together, the result of which had managed to get it in the drawer but also contributed to its getting stuck.  He lifted it out, noticed that his modified revolver was stored in the back of the drawer.  He sat the holster and revolver on the top of the small table and lifted out his other weapon, Madrid’s gun.  He held it in his hands, found himself studying it, appraising it, the weight, the feel, the indentations, the balance, all designed to make it perfect.  And it was.  Perfect and deadly.

A part of him wanted to swear and toss it out a window, to blame it for everything that had happened in the past month.  But instead he bent his head over it sadly, like a father with a sick child, and cradled it on his lap.

It had been an easy excuse.  Blame the gun for his inability to truly release his ties to Madrid, his need to keep his gunfighter’s mask close at hand.  It was hard to admit, but the truth was, the gun had little to do with it.  It had simply been a crutch, a physical link to a former life that he couldn’t find the strength to let go of, for then it would only be a memory. And then what would he have left?  What would become of him?  What would all those years mean?  What would all those…deaths…mean?

There was a soft knock on the door and it opened.

Johnny looked up as Scott entered.  He saw his brother do a fast inventory of the items: pants, belt, holster and guns before closing the door.

Johnny lowered his eyes as Scott approached.  “Someone’s cleaned it,” he said.

Scott lowered himself onto the bed.  “I did,” he replied softly.  “I—it gave me something to do while….  I know how you are with your guns, the care you give them.”

“Thanks,” Johnny murmured.  There was a pause.  “Could you…get Murdoch for me?”  Johnny looked up.  “I need to tell him something.”

“Oh,” Scott grimaced.  “I’m afraid he just left.”

“Already?”  Johnny looked surprised and stood up.  “I thought he’d stop in before—” He took a step toward the door.

Scott stood up, put a hand on his brother’s arm.  “He left as soon as Matthew got in.  He was anxious to get a start.”

Johnny looked at his brother then glanced down at the revolver in his hand.  “I wanted to tell him—” He shook his head, sighed, looked back up.  “It’s nothing.”

Scott studied his brother with tactful suspicion as he wondered if he should ask Johnny what he had meant. 

“I don’t like him going up there, Scott.  He should have waited—or gone up earlier with Harley.”

“But Matthew—”

“I like Matthew,” Johnny cut in.  “I do.  But he’s not going to be any help if there’s trouble.”

“Why should there be any trouble?”

“I don’t know.  But I got a feelin’ that judge father of Wakeman’s just a skunk wearin’ fancy perfume.”

Scott couldn’t stop a smile from appearing.  “Now who sounds like an old mother hen?”

Johnny returned Scott’s grin with diluted sarcasm.  “You can’t tell me they don’t have any corrupt judges in Boston.”
               “Of course they do.  And they give some of the best parties.”  Scott’s grin widened despite Johnny’s derision.  “Now why don’t you quit worrying about the old man.  He’ll be back before you know it.”  He paused and glanced meaningfully at the pants hanging along the back of a chair.  “In the meantime, looks like you have a few ideas of your own.”

Scott watched a sudden smile creep into the corners of Johnny’s mouth, his eyes crinkling slightly.  Almost sheepishly he bent his head and Scott caught a glimpse of the Johnny he knew, or had felt he’d known but had lost touch with since the whole ordeal had taken place.  He forced himself to contain the sudden exuberance the unguarded smile produced as he swallowed the urge to grab his brother in a massive hug and cry out, You’re back! For he feared any reaction on his part would chase away that small glimpse of his Johnny back behind the recesses of Madrid’s mask.

“Yeah,” Johnny replied, “I kinda thought I’d see if DarkCloud would let me have a bath.  I’d like a chance to change, get dressed…do something besides sit in this room.”

Scott raised an eyebrow, mused how quickly his brother’s attitude had changed.  Just the day before, Johnny had seemed to want to remain hidden away in his room.  “Don’t know about a bath. DarkCloud’s been rather adamant about keeping your wound clean and dry—”

“Sheesh, Scott,” Johnny retorted.  “If I followed every rule DarkCloud spouted at me, I’d die an old man in bed.”

Yeah, but you’d actually live to be an old man… Scott pursed his lips, held the reply in check.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Who knows, maybe he’ll take pity on my olfactory senses and agree with your request.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed askance.  “I have a sneakin’ suspicion you just used some of them Harvard words of yours to say I stink.”

Scott feigned shock.  “Johnny!  I’d never—”

“Only if you thought you could get away with it,” Johnny retorted.

Scott laughed.  “How about some breakfast?  DarkCloud should be up in a few minutes and we can ask about the bath then.”

Johnny nodded, then looked down, his expression immediately changing as he remembered that he still held the revolver in his hands.  He turned and walked back to the small table where he placed the weapon in the drawer and closed it.  Then he picked up his holster and pistol and looped it over the bedpost.

Scott watched the motions, felt a desire to bring up the gunfight, the revolver and the letters, but hated to destroy the first glimpse he’d seen of the brother he knew, and made a quick decision to hold his questions.  Instead he attempted a bit of levity.  “You know, that isn’t necessary.  There’s nobody around here who’s going to bother you.  And even if there were, nobody’s getting past DarkCloud and me…or this town, in fact.  They’d probably get pretty nasty if someone came to pick on you, you know.  You’re their hero.”

Johnny turned around, but he seemed far from amused.  “Shows how much you know,” he replied dryly, then nodded toward the pants.  “How about a shirt to go along?”

“What do you need a shirt for?”  Scott asked, confused by Johnny’s comment, but determined to give levity another try.  “I thought you were going for that mummy look that’s becoming so popular in San Francisco.”

Johnny glanced down at his chest and gave a soft laugh.  “Yeah, kinda looks that way, don’t it?”

Scott smiled.  “I’ll take care of the shirt, don’t worry.  Have a preference as to color?”

“Yeah,” Johnny smiled.  “Anything but black.”

Scott met his brother’s eyes before he nodded.  “Understood,” he replied.



Since no one was in the saloon when he came down the steps, Scott continued on outside.  After doing a quick glance down both sides of the street, he headed for Calientes’ shop. 

Calientes was helping an elderly lady pick out a bolt of fabric, but spied Scott and gave him a friendly wave.  Scott nodded back, pointed toward the corner of the store devoted to men’s articles of clothing, and made his way to the shirts.  He’d just picked out what he felt was a tastefully simple pale blue crisp linen shirt when Calientes walked up.

“For yourself, Mr. Lancer?”

“Oh, no,” Scott shook his head.  “For my brother.”

“Madrid?” Calientes’ thick, gray eyebrows rose doubtfully.  “Are you sure that’s what you’re looking for?  I mean, it doesn’t quite seem Madrid’s style.”  He looked once more at the shirt Scott held, shook his head in an action that left little doubt to his feelings on the matter, and pivoted sharply on his heel.  After moving around a few shirts at the table nearby, he turned briskly and held up an elaborately embroidered red shirt with black accented cuffs and stitching.

This time Scott’s eyebrows rose.  “I think,” he surveyed Calientes’ choice with practiced solemnity, “that this time we’ll stay with something more simple.”

 Though Calientes’ lips were pursed in disagreement, his years of running a retail business kept him from saying anything more on the subject.  Giving a curt nod of concession, he put the red shirt back on the pile and took the blue shirt from Scott.  “Is there anything else, Mr. Lancer?”

“No—Yes,” Scott paused, his eyes darting to the shelf of pants.  “I think a new pair of pants would be a good idea, too.” 

Calientes turned to look.  “Why, of course, Mr. Lancer.  There in the corner is a pair that I think would do quite nicely for Señor Madrid,” he said as he walked over and lifted out a pair of black pants trimmed with a row of silver conchos tied on with strips of rawhide.  He turned expectantly toward Scott.  “Perfect, don’t you think, Mr. Lancer?”

Scott cocked his head, a pained expression on his face.  He grimaced apologetically, “I was thinking more of, perhaps,” he passed his hands over a couple pair, paused with his fingers wavering slightly, searched, spied and attacked.  “These.”  He held up a pair in light gray twill.

“Oh, no!” the words escaped before Mr. Calientes managed to put his hands to his lips.  He cleared his throat and continued, “I don’t think that’s what Señor Madrid would wear.”

“Perhaps not.  But it is,” Scott replied in clipped tones, “what Johnny Lancer would wear.”

Mr. Calientes’ expression showed his surprise at Scott’s words, then he nodded reluctantly.  “I see what you mean.”  He put the black pair back on the pile, then his own hands wavered a second before he picked up a dark brown pair.  “Perhaps, though, these would work better.  You will find that the pair you are holding were meant for someone much taller and heavier than your brother.”  He smiled and leaned in closer.  “I ordered those with Mr. Angelou in mind.”

Scott looked down at the gray pair, chuckled at the thought of Johnny wearing a pair of pants meant for Mr. Angelou, and replaced them back on the stack.  He smiled.  “The brown pair it is.”

Mr. Calientes added the shirt on top of the pants and headed toward the purchase counter.

Scott started to follow then noticed a small display of hats.  He picked one up, tried it on, seemed to consider it unsatisfactory, replaced it, picked up another, adjusted it, then shook his head and put it back.

“He’s got a big head,” he mumbled to himself, then realizing he’d spoken out loud, he looked over at Mr. Calientes who was standing at the counter waiting for him.  “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

“Try the black one,” Calientes replied.

“No black,” Scott shook his head.

“Then that dark brown one just behind it with the light brown band.”

Scott picked it up, tried it on, nodded his satisfaction and walked to the counter where he sat it on the pile.  “Give me a pair of socks and a pair of longjohns too, okay?”

Calientes nodded, went to the back room and returned with the items.  “Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of at the moment,” Scott replied.  “So, how much do I owe you?”

Calientes shook his head.  “Why, nothing, Mr. Lancer.”

“No, really.”  Scott reached into his jacket for his wallet.  “What’s the total?”

Calientes put up his hands.  “You owe me nothing, Mr. Lancer.  I am only fulfilling my part of the bargain we made with Madrid—I mean your brother.”

Scott clenched his teeth, took a deep breath and forced a pleasant smile on his face.  “Appreciated, Mr. Calientes,” he replied stiffly.  “I’ll be sure to pass on the word to Johnny.”

Mr. Calientes smiled pleasantly as Scott picked up the items and left the store.

Once outside, Scott did a quick glance up and down the street, then headed for the apothecary shop.  At the door he shifted the items to one hand so he could navigate the door.  The small shop appeared empty.

“DarkCloud,” he called toward the back as he walked in and sat the items on the counter.  Receiving no answer, he pushed back the curtain that led to the back room, but it, too, was empty.  “DarkCloud,” he called out again.

Hearing the front door open, Scott turned around just as the doctor entered. 

“Scott,” DarkCloud greeted with mild surprise.  “What can I help you with?”

“I was looking for you.”

“I’m here,” DarkCloud announced then noticing the pile of clothes, chuckled, “Ah, shopping, I see.”

“New clothes for Johnny.”

DarkCloud appraised the pile dubiously.  Our Johnny?”

Scott sighed with annoyance.  “Yes, our Johnny.”

“Hmmm,” DarkCloud gave a skeptical shrug.  “If you say so.”

Scott put a hand on the pile in an almost protective stance.  “He needed a shirt,” he explained, then with a shake of his head he abandoned the subject.  “I didn’t come here to get your opinion on my brother’s attire.”

“You probably should have,” DarkCloud replied dryly, then allowed a soft chuckle.  “I was just up to see Johnny.  Hetold me your plan—the bath.”

“That’s why I stopped by.  I wondered if you had any objections.”

“Well, you know my feelings on getting those wounds wet.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Scott replied quickly.  “But Johnny’s up, he’s feeling pretty good, he’s acting like his old self.  I don’t know if it’s because of a couple of good nights’ sleep, or if he’s thrown off that fever, or what, but I think it’s wonderful.  It’s the first time since we’ve arrived that he’s seemed…I don’t know…alive.”

DarkCloud shook his head.  “I know you’re relieved.  And I’m glad Johnny’s feeling better. But you know just like I do, that he’s always pushing the line.  It’s up to us to keep him from overdoing it.  You can’t count on Johnny to use self-restraint.  If he feels good, then he assumes he’s ready to take on the world.”

“I’m talking about a bath, here, DarkCloud.  Not a trip across the desert.”

DarkCloud’s expression remained determined.  “Okay, then, regardless of how he feels, I still don’t want to risk starting an infection again or opening up those wounds all over.”

“Fine,” Scott agreed. “How about if I promise to keep the whole thing short.  And I’ll make sure that the wounds are well dried off after we finish.”

“Okay, okay.” DarkCloud put up a hand.  “You really think it’s that big of a deal?”

Scott nodded.  “It’s not so much the bath itself as allowing Johnny the opportunity to return to some normal activities.  I think he needs that.”

DarkCloud crossed his arms, was silent a few seconds.  “Okay then,” he smiled slowly.  “I’ll agree.  But you keep an eye on those wounds.  And,” he held up a warning finger,  “I don’t want to risk his getting a chill, either.  I want that water level low to minimize the length of time those wounds are submerged and I want you to allow them to air dry for a good half hour or so before applying the ointments.”

Scott nodded solemnly and he picked back up the stack of clothes.  “Thanks, DarkCloud.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see about that.”  He shook his head and sighed.  “I’ll leave you in charge here for a few hours.  Since nothing appears to be happening with Mrs. Wilkinson, I’m going to run just west of town to Mrs. Sanchez.   She’s expecting her first in about two or three weeks.  Her husband was by yesterday asking if I’d stop in.”

“The baby business seems to be booming,” Scott laughed.

“Christmas babies,” DarkCloud replied.

“Christmas?  It’s only September—” Scott halted at the looked he received from DarkCloud.  “Oh, I get it.”  He chuckled.  “Never mind.”

“I won’t be long.”  DarkCloud walked into the back room and returned a moment later with a leather case.  “Now, I just gave Johnny another dose of the morphine.  And I left you some breakfast, too, by the way.  He should be fine until I’m back, but you know what to do if I’m not.”

Scott nodded.

“Then I’ll see you in a few hours.”  DarkCloud started for the door, Scott following.

Outside, DarkCloud paused.  “Now, don’t let your brother go soaking for two hours.”

Scott shook his head with a smile.  “Won’t happen.  And if he gets difficult, I’ll keep a bucket of cold water handy.”

DarkCloud laughed.  “Good thinking.”  He gave a nod and headed toward the livery while Scott continued toward Rosti’s.

When Scott arrived at the saloon, he found Rosti engaged in the task of sweeping.  However, it took only a second to realize that this otherwise mundane chore was being performed in a rather intricate fashion.  Curious, Scott paused in the doorway to watch.  Then, in ever-increasing amusement, Scott realized that Rosti was actually dancing with his broom while he hummed a rather vague and dissonant tune.

Scott was actually debating the wisdom of quietly exiting and re-entering in a more warningly loud fashion, when Rosti suddenly looked up.  Immediately the proprietor blushed all the way past his receding hairline while Scott made the hasty decision that silence was the better part of valor in a case such as this.

“Hey, Rosti,” Scott greeted as he walked toward one of the center tables and sat his burden of clothing down.  “I was hoping you could get a tub moved into Johnny’s room and set some water to heating.”

“Ready for a bath, huh?” Rosti said as he casually leaned against the broom.  Then he glanced at the clothes on the table.  “Bought yourself some new duds, huh?”

Closing his eyes, Scott sighed.  “No,” he replied.  “These are for Johnny.”

“They are?” Rosti straightened up, took a step closer, his expression dubious.  “You sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!” Scott retorted, exasperated.  “I wish everyone would quit asking me that.”

“Well, it’s only ‘cuz,” Rosti hesitated, grimaced as he touched the fabric of the pale, blue shirt that laid on the top, “it don’t quite look like Madrid, you know.”

“Yes, I do know.  That’s the point,” Scott grumbled as he gathered the pile back up into his arms.  “Now, how about the bath or do I need to wait until you’re done with your Virginia Reel?”

Rosti suddenly blushed again and cleared his throat.  “No, I’ll get the water going right away, then I’ll get someone to help us with the tub.  It’s down at the end of the hall in the storage room.”

“Good,” Scott nodded firmly, turned and marched up the stairs.

He found Johnny sitting at the table, picking at a plate of eggs and bacon.  After shoving the door closed with his foot, Scott went to the bed and set the clothes down.  “Eating without me, I see.”

“No, I was waitin’.  There’s a plate for you too,” Johnny said, then his gaze narrowed on the clothes.  “What’s that?”

“The new clothes you ordered, sir,” Scott replied with a grin as he laid them out on the bed.

Johnny stood up and walked over.  “Clothes for me?” There was a pause.  “Scott, these are going-to-church clothes.”

“They are not. They’re everyday clothes,” Scott replied, crossing his arms in exasperation.  “I’m sure they’ll look great on you.  You just need to give them a try.”

Johnny glanced at his brother, studied the firmly set jaw, the scowl on his face. It was obvious Scott was trying to help him gain respectability and acceptance as Johnny Lancer, hoping a change of clothes would alter how people perceived him.  With a soft chuckle, Johnny shook his head.

“You don’t like my choice in clothing, do you?” Scott asked, his voice now soft, losing its earlier pique.

Johnny took a step closer, nudged his brother with an elbow.  “You’ve got fine taste in clothes, Boston.  And I know you’re just trying to make me as pretty as you…”

Scott turned to look at his brother, could see in the look he was receiving that Johnny was fully aware of his motives. 

“But you know, Brother, it’ll take more than clothes to really change things.”

Scott sighed, looked away.  “I know.  But we could start with the clothes, couldn’t we?”

Johnny grinned, leaned carefully over to finger the material of the shirt.  “There’s no embroidery, no conchos, no ribbon—”

“Nothing at all to make you stand out or to draw attention.  Isn’t that what you mean?” Scott retorted, irritation creeping into his voice.

“Scott, it don’t matter what I wear.  Somebody’ll always know who I am.”

“Well, you don’t have to go around making it so blasted easy!”

“Sometimes, Scott, it’s better to just let everyone know, not try to keep it a secret.  That way, if it’s no mystery, you can concentrate your energy instead on watching for trouble.  If you go keeping it a secret, it always seems to leak out anyway, and then you get people actin’ funny and you don’t know if it’s just ‘cuz they know but they’re tryin’ not to let on, or if they know and they want to kill you.  It’s easier to pick out trouble if everyone’s in on the information.”

“Is that’s why, at times, you’ve been so open about having been Madrid?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged indifferently.  “Like I said, it’s easier to spot where the trouble’s gonna come from.  Their eyes are liable to give them away from the beginning.”

“You sound like you’re talking from experience.”

“I am, Scott.  It doesn’t pay to try to hide who I am.  Someone’ll always find out.  And I prefer to face my enemy out in the open.”

“But, Johnny, now with the rail connection finished to California, and the bounty—”

“I know.”

“Those bounty hunters found you.”

“And there’ll be more now,” Johnny finished.

“There has to be something we can do.”

“There is,” Johnny sighed, then he turned, a grin appearing.  “So, do these new and fancy clothes mean a bath has been ordered?”

Realizing the subject had been changed, Scott returned the smile with a hesitant nod.  “I expect Rosti up soon.  We’ll move the tub in here.  So you might want to finish that breakfast of yours.”

Johnny glanced warily at his plate.  “I’m not fond of cold scrambled eggs.”

“Then you should have eaten them while they were warm,” Scott replied as he went to the table and sat down.

Johnny walked over and gave his plate a sour look.  “They weren’t much better when they were warm. Too plain.”

Scott scooped up a forkful from his own plate.  “It’s not Rosti’s fault.  DarkCloud specifically ordered him to keep your meals from being overly seasoned—”

“Tasteless, you mean.”

Scott laughed.

“I don’t know what you find so funny,” Johnny replied as he lowered himself into his chair.

“You,” Scott answered with a half-grin.  “You must be feeling better.  You’re complaining.”

“I’m not complainin’,” Johnny muttered as he forked in a mouthful of the eggs.  “I’m merely statin’ my preference for food with a bit more taste.”

Scott laughed again, a grin remaining on his face as he finished his breakfast and watched as Johnny completely devour his for the first time in days.

After finishing, Scott was in the process of picking up the dishes when Rosti appeared at the door to announce that he’d secured Tucson’s help in moving the tub.  Between the three of them, they managed to move the large tin vat into Johnny’s room.

Scott then took the dishes downstairs and helped Rosti and Tucson carry up six buckets full of hot water after which they went back down and grabbed six more that had been keeping warm next to the stove.

“I’ll have four more for you in just a few minutes,” Rosti assured Scott.

“Thanks,” Scott clapped the man on the back.  “That should do it, then.”

“Hey!” Johnny interjected.  “You couldn’t drown a cat in there.”

Scott crossed his arms and turned to his brother.  “Why?  You planning on drowning some poor kitty?”

“No,” Johnny groaned in irritation.  “I just think it’d be nice to have a bit more water.”

“DarkCloud’s orders,” Scott explained, then turned and waved Rosti and Tucson out the door.

“What do you mean, DarkCloud’s orders?” Johnny asked.

Scott closed the door and turned around.  “I had to promise we’d be very careful of your wounds.  I’m not to let you soak too long and before I bandage you back up, I’m supposed to let everything air dry really well.”

Johnny raised a disgruntled eyebrow.  “Anything else?”

“I’m also not to let you catch a chill.”

“That it?”

Scott seemed to consider the question a moment then slowly nodded his head.  “Yes.  I think that pretty much covers it.”

Johnny sat down on the corner of the bed.  “Do you see what I mean?  That fella enjoys his work way too much.  He must spend hours thinking up with more ways to make me crazy.”

“Oh, I quite believe it,” Scott agreed seriously.  “Noticed a book on the table in that back room of his titled, The Doctor’s Companion to Making Your Patients’ Lives Miserable.

Johnny laughed and shook his head.

“You know,” Scott continued more seriously, “he only has your best interests at heart, Johnny.  So let’s follow the rules, okay?”

“Yeah, but you know me ‘n’ rules.”

“Johnny,” Scott warned.

Johnny nodded with an exaggerated sigh.  “I’ll follow the rules.”

“There,” Scott grinned as he crossed his arms and regarded his brother gravely.  “Now that we have that settled, let’s get those old bandages off and strip you down.”

“Oh, the fun part,” Johnny sighed peevishly.

“Just stay there and I’ll cut off the old ones with a scissors.  There was one in the medical bag DarkCloud left,” Scott said as he turned to the table and took out the scissors.  Then he sat down on the bed and carefully cut away the bandages from Johnny’s chest and side.  He was relieved that his brother kept his gaze down during the process, as he couldn’t help grimacing at the sight of the wounds.  As he finished wadding up the last strip from Johnny’s back, Scott forced levity into his voice.  “Well, those bruises sure look a lot better, Brother.  But if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times.  You’re supposed to ride the horse, not the other way around.”

“You know,” Johnny looked up.  “I kept telling myself, ‘there’s something else about horses Lieutenant Scott told me,’ but I just couldn’t remember what it was.”

“Well, you won’t forget now, will you?” Scott said as he tossed the old bandages onto the floor then got down in front of Johnny and began to pull off his socks.

“Nope, I’ll never forget—hey!  What are you doing?”

“Taking off your socks.”

“I can take off my own socks.”

“Oh, please.  You can barely lean over,” Scott scoffed.

“Come on, let go now.  I ain’t kiddin’!”

“And neither am I.  Give me your foot and save your posturing for when I help you with those filthy longjohns of yours.”

“Oh, hell!”

“There…phew!  When the devil did you last wash your feet?”

“Last month,” Johnny replied haughtily.  “How about yours?”

“Can’t compare.  My feet never stink.”

“Probably inherited that from your grandfather, huh?” Johnny quipped as he gave Scott’s bent head a playful shove.

“Good one,” Scott stood up and tossed the socks into the pile with the rags.

“Hey!  Those were new.  DarkCloud just put them on yesterday when my feet were cold.”

“I got you new ones,” Scott replied.  “Now for the—”

“Unh-uh,” Johnny interrupted and slowly stood up.  “I will do this by myself.”

“Fine,” Scott agreed.  “But you keep one hand on that bedpost, then.”

“You’re sounding like that mother hen again, Scott.”

“You would, too, if you had promised DarkCloud he could have your head on a platter if anything happened.”

“Your head on a platter, huh?” Johnny said as he carefully began to slide his long underwear off while Scott went to the tub and tested the water with his hand.

“Yeah, he’d probably put an apple in my mouth and sprigs of parsley in my ears,” Scott said as he picked up the cake of soap which Rosti had supplied.

Johnny gave a grunt of irritation as he stepped on the end of one leg of his longjohns while he pulled his foot out of the other.  He then realized that Scott was watching him and knew he was probably making quite a spectacle of himself, but seeing no other way, he pulled the other foot out in the same manner.

“See, I did it,” he remarked with a hint of triumph.

“Enjoyed the dance, too.  Especially the little shimmy at the end,” Scott grinned and waggled his finger.

Johnny glowered.  “Scott, there’s a nasty streak under that cool and calm Boston exterior that I’m just beginning to discover.”

Scott returned the look innocently.  “Why, Brother, how can you say such a thing?  And after all I went through to produce this bath for you.”

“The only reason I’m getting the bath is ‘cuz you think I stink.”

Scott chuckled.  “Come on.  Let’s get you in the tub,” he said, reaching out and grabbing Johnny by the elbow.

“I can get in by myself.”

“Hey, I relented on the pants, but I draw the line on getting in the tub.  You slip and re-injure something, and it’s my head, remember?”

Johnny sighed but allowed Scott to support him as he stepped into the warm water.  With a hiss mixed of pleasure and discomfort, he managed to get himself down into the tub and gingerly leaned back against the cold metal.  “Sure been nice to have more than six inches.”

“There is more than six inches.  You’re complaining again.”

“Okay, eight.”

“Twelve,” Scott argued.  “Now here’s the soap.  You wash what you can and I’ll get the rest.”

“Wish Rosti would hurry up with the rest of that water.”

“I’m sure he won’t be much longer,” Scott grinned then pulled one of the chairs over from the table and sat down.  “Always like a bath myself.  Refreshing.  Feels like more than just cleansing the body.  It’s a chance to relax and cleanse the soul.”

Johnny frowned.  “What are you talkin’ about?”

“Oh, I enjoyed baths back in Boston.  Grandfather was big on them.  The main bedrooms in the house each had their own private bath.  I used to take a bath sometimes three, even four times a week.  Funny,” he mused, “don’t think I actually needed them when I compare what I did back then to work on the ranch.  And now I’m lucky if I get one twice a week.”

Johnny laughed and shook his head.  “That sure does explain a lot, Boston.  Always thought you were a bit of a stickler about stayin’ clean.  But if you think about it, it doesn’t really make much sense, now does it?  Not when you just go gettin’ dirty again the next day.  Waste of time, water and energy, I say.”

Scott opened his mouth to argue, but closed it as the appropriate response failed to materialize in the face of such profound logic.

“Never had seen a tub myself ‘til I was, oh, ‘bout nine, maybe ten years old,” Johnny continued.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope,” Johnny shook his head.  “First time I saw one, I thought it had something to do with the devil, or at the very least, witches.”

“Why would you think that?”

“It’s kinda funny, now when I think on it. We never had one, you see, never needed one.  While we were with Papa Jose, we had the old creek back of the house.  That did just fine.  Then after we left—”  Johnny became quiet for a second before continuing.  “Well, the next few years we moved around a lot.”  He paused again, held the soap between his hands, seemed to be studying it.  “My mama, you know, she was beautiful.  Very beautiful.  They would tell her ‘Chica, you are an angel.’  She would laugh.  Everything amused her.”  He looked over at Scott, seemed to have forgotten where he was in the story.

“I’ve seen her picture, Johnny.  She was truly a rare beauty.”

Johnny simply nodded, looked back at the soap.  “She would get scared though…and then she would drink.  The drinking made the fear go away and then everything could be good times again.  But eventually the drinking could no longer drown the fear and she even lost hope.”  He suddenly gave a shake of his head, began to rub the soap vigorously between his hands.  “She made friends with this other woman, Betina.  Betina got us a little place behind where she worked.  My mother told me Betina was getting her a really good job there.  My mother could sing, you see.  The voice of an angel, Papa Jose had called it.  She told me she would sing and people would pay her for it.  But she told me I must never go over to where she worked.  That she’d get in trouble if her whelp was there.  Then she told me that the back rooms of the grand building were evil and I must never, ever go there.  I thought that was odd.  My mother, with the voice of the angel, singing in a place that had evil rooms.

“After a few weeks, though, I got to making a few other friends among the other boys.  We were always daring each other, swiping a roll from the panaderia, filling the pockets of the hanging laundry with dirt, unhitching the mules from their carts…” He gave a slight chuckle before his expression turned somber.  “Anyway, the grand building came up and I mentioned how my mother said there was evil in the back.  The other boys laughed, thought it was funny that I was scared to go near it.  They dared me to go in the back door, enter one of the rooms and swipe something to show I’d been there.

“I was scared, but I knew I had to prove I could do it, or my friends would quickly become my tormentors.  They hid and watched as I entered.  I had hoped the door would be locked so I would be able to avoid going in, but it wasn’t.  I remember quickly glancing back and seeing the four pairs of eyes watching me from under an old corral fence.  I remember wondering if I would ever see anyone again, so convinced was I of my mother’s claim that the work of evil took place in those rooms.

“I entered a hallway with doors.  I listened at a couple ‘til I found one that sounded empty. Slowly, I opened it, barely daring to breathe in case the devil himself was waiting for me inside.  It was real dark, just a few candles glowin’.  I waited for my eyes to adjust.  Then I saw it.  This enormous cauldron set in the middle of the room, frothing and steaming, and a man’s head bobbing around on top.

“I followed my first impulse, which was to let out the longest, loudest holler I’d ever let loose in my life.  This caused the eyes to flash open, which didn’t add to my sense of security none, and I screamed again, if possible, even louder than the first.  Next thing I know, someone’s come up from behind me and is lifting me right up, while I’m screaming hysterically.

“I heard a voice, realized it was my mother’s friend, Betina, and she’s laughin’ and holdin’ on to me as I’m screamin’ away, my legs kicking, ready to hit the ground at a full gallop.

“I was so stunned to see her that I stopped my screamin’, then realized another woman was standing next to her.  ‘Oh, it’s little Juanito,’ Betina laughed.  ‘What do you say, Señor Borello?  Shall we toss him in, too?’

“At this point, I think I was done for, sure they were boiling poor Mr. Borello into a stew and I was gonna to be added in for flavorin’.  I pushed with all my might against Betina and landed in a heap on the floor.  I tried to make a dash for the door, convinced they were all trying to grab me for their evil concoction, but I slipped on some water and fell against a chair, knocking it and some clothing that had been piled there, onto the floor.  I managed to get myself untangled and ran into the hall then out the door.  I guess I looked a sight.  Someway, while tryin’ to get out of the room, I’d managed to get Señor Borello’s pants wrapped about my neck.  As I ran past the boys, who were all standing and gaping at me as I came running out, a number of people in hot pursuit, Señor Borello, too, I realized I had something around my neck.  I pulled it off and threw it at Pedro, never breaking stride.  With all the screamin’ going on the four boys took off after me, but they never came close to catchin’ up.  And the whole time we lived there, I never had any problem with them boys, as I had done somethin’ no other boy had ever done.  I had swiped the mayor’s pants.”  He was quiet a moment then added with a grin, “However, that may have also contributed to the reason why we left a short time later.”  Johnny laughed suddenly and looked at Scott.  “Now, I bet my tub story beats any you can come up with.”

Scott grinned and nodded.  “I’m afraid, Johnny, when it comes to bathtub stories, your version of the head bobbing in the devil’s cauldron will always win.”

“Yeah, it took me a number of years to get those tub things figured out.  I remember Revelez always liked to go into town, paid for a clean bath and a bit of company.” There was a hesitation before he added, “Yeah, Revelez always told me, ‘Always pay for a clean tub.  Doesn’t pay to wash up in another man’s dirt.  If you can’t afford the clean water, it ain’t worth havin’ a bath.’”

A knock at the door announced the arrival of Rosti with the extra buckets of water.  Tucson stood behind him carrying two more.  Scott relieved Rosti, then Tucson, of their buckets, placing them on the floor next to the tub while the two men waited at the door.

“Enjoyin’ a good soak, huh, Madrid?” Tucson asked.

“Would enjoy it more if DarkCloud let me have more water,” Johnny replied with a quick glance at the door.  “Not enough water to drown a cat in here.”

“There you go again, drowning the poor kitty,” Scott huffed as he sat the last bucket near the tub and went back to the door.  “What is it you’ve got against cats?” he called back over his shoulder.

“Nothin’,” Johnny replied.  “Just an expression.”

“Just an expression,” Scott mimicked, rolling his eyes.  “I’ll have you know one of the best friends I had while I was growing up was a cat.”

Tucson and Rosti chuckled, then Rosti asked, “Need anything else?”

Scott noticed that both Rosti and Tucson had glanced furtively at Johnny, but seated as his brother was in the tub, back to the door, Scott knew other than the old bruising, the wounds were not visible.  Just as well. Scott shook his head.  “No, we’re fine now.  Thanks for your help.”

Rosti nodded.  “Let me know when you’re done.”

Scott smiled.  “Will do.  Thanks.”  He gave a parting wave to Tucson and Rosti, then closed the door.

“Your best friend was a cat?” Johnny asked dubiously.  “What, didn’t you have any friends?”

“I said, one of my best friends,” Scott emphasized as he went back and sat down on the chair.

“Oh.” Johnny raised an eyebrow.

“Let’s get your hair washed.  I’ll do it; don’t want you pulling and reaching.  Remember that peculiar affinity I have for keeping my head.  Now, give me the soap,” Scott commanded, reaching out.

“What was his name?” Johnny asked as he handed the cake of soap back.

“Huh?” Scott asked as he balanced the bar on the edge of the tub.

“The cat.  It had a name, didn’t it?”



“Yes, she was a sweet coal-black kitten with quite an attitude of deity and,” he paused for added emphasis, “she expected complete devotion and total obedience from her subjects.”

“You talked to her like that?” Johnny looked askance at his brother then added under his breath, “No wonder she ran away.”

“She did not,” Scott replied firmly.

“She didn’t?  Hmmm, perhaps she was deaf.”

Scott shook his head with a sigh, then picked up a bucket of water.  “Close your eyes,” he directed as he dumped the contents on Johnny’s head.

Johnny sputtered, swiped at his face with his hands.   “How long d’you have her then?”

“Well,” Scott picked up the soap and began working up a lather between his hands.  “I’d always wanted a cat, but Grandfather didn’t like them.  He preferred hunting dogs…though he really didn’t do much hunting, either, but that’s what everyone owned, you know.”  Scott commenced working the lather into Johnny’s dark hair.  “He said cats were nasty, sneaky little beasts.”

Takes one to know one. Johnny swallowed the observation.

“Anyway, about my seventh birthday, I got the pox.  I was really sick, I guess.  Everyone feared I wouldn’t pull through.  Grandfather would sit by me.  And at some point—” Scott paused and grabbed the cake of soap, rewet it and worked up more lather.  “You gotta get a haircut, Johnny.  Someone’s going to mistake you for a girl.”

“They do, I’ll shoot them,” Johnny replied without humor. “Now would you finish?  I got soap in my eyes.  And what happened to you?”

“Huh?  Oh, yeah, Grandfather was with me when I came out of my fever one night.  I remember being disoriented and confused.  He was talking to me, promising me things, talking to God, not aware that I was awake.  Anyway, he said something about promising me anything if I’d just live.  Well, I remember hearing this, and the first thought I had was, I want my own cat.  Well, I guess it came out of my mouth, too.  Grandfather looked at me, thoroughly startled to find me awake.  And I repeated, ‘I want my own cat.’”  Scott chuckled.  “You know, that whole time I kept getting everything muddled up in my brain, what day it was, who was there, where I was…  But I always remembered that Grandfather had promised me a cat if I got better.”

Johnny laughed.  “Held him to that promise, huh?”

“You bet,” Scott affirmed.  “About a week later, I was still weak and spending a lot of time in bed.  Grandfather got me my kitten, and I was trying to think of a name for her.  Well, while I had been recovering, Mr. King was—”


“Mr. King.  My manservant.  He was great.  I’d say, ‘Hey, King.’ And he’d say, ‘What can I do for you, Prince?’” Scott laughed then stopped as he noticed Johnny looking at him askance.  “Never mind.  I guess you’d have to have been there.”

“I guess.”

“Well, anyway, Mr. King was reading to me some of Shakespeare’s plays and the day I got my kitten, he was reading Caesar and Cleopatra.  I thought it was the perfect name for my kitten, and so she became Cleopatra.”

Johnny craned his neck around to look at his brother with a mixture of disbelief and pity.  “While you were recovering from being sick, someone read you Shakespeare’s plays?”

Scott nodded.

“On purpose?”


Johnny shook his head.  “I’m sorry.  I had no idea your childhood had been so traumatic.”

Scott laughed, picked up a bucket.  “Close your eyes.”  He dumped the bucket, then picked up another.  “One more,” he announced.

“I’m drowning,” Johnny sputtered.

“Can’t,” Scott replied.  “You’re larger than a cat.  Now hold still.  Yup, there’s still soap behind your ears.”

“Leave my ears alone.”

“You’re complaining.”

“Well, you’re giving me something to complain about.”

“Eyes!” Scott warned as he dumped the last bucket.

Johnny sputtered again, swiped his hands back through his hair, splattering the room and Scott with a spray of water.

“Hey, careful there,” Scott said, standing up.

“Simply payback,” Johnny grunted.  “Gettin’ the feeling this may have been DarkCloud’s idea right from the beginning.”

“Let’s get you out,” Scott navigated a quick change of topic as he picked up the cotton towel that Rosti had supplied.

“I don’t know, Scott,” Johnny said, a grim set to his jaw.

Scott assumed an obsequious pose and gave a bow.  “It is time for his lordship to retire from his bath.”

“That’s all very fine, Scott.  But I don’t think I can stand up,” Johnny remarked, all humor gone.

“What?” Scott straightened up and came to the side of the tub.

“Everything’s cramped up on me,” Johnny explained.

“Come on,” Scott quickly draped the towel around his brother’s shoulders, grabbed him securely under the arm and across the back.  “Lean on me, now,” he cautioned.  “And don’t you dare think about slipping and falling and injuring anything.  I have no desire to be beheaded just because you’re clumsy.”

“Oh, it’s great to know you care so much,” Johnny grunted as he hauled himself to his feet, his legs swaying though he fought to keep a steady grip on Scott’s arm.

“You bet I care,” Scott continued, guiding a shaky Johnny out of the tub.  “My head and I have been a lot of great places together and I plan to keep it that way.”

Johnny started to laugh, then bent forward with a pinched groan.

“Come on.  Sit on the chair and we’ll get some clothes on you before you catch a cold, which, with my luck, would turn into pneumonia, and then DarkCloud would behead me for that, too.”

Johnny’s managed a forced smile, but even his enjoyment of Scott’s good humor couldn’t bring any color to his face, which had been gradually growing more pale and pinched. Without resistance, he let Scott guide him to the chair where he sat down with an audible groan, hunched over, the towel wrapped tightly about him. 

Scott went to the bed, grabbed up the new pair of underwear.  “Let’s get this on you and then some socks to keep you warm—”

“I’m too hot already.”

Scott stood in front of his brother, an eyebrow raised quizzically.  “How can you be too hot?  Your teeth are chattering?”

“Don’t know,” Johnny replied curtly.  “But I am.”

Scott put a hand to his brother’s forehead.  “You don’t feel hot.”

Johnny gave Scott a tight glare and shook off the outstretched hand.

“Okay,” Scott said as he pulled away, his earlier amusement thoroughly dampened.  “Let’s get some clothes on you and have you lie down.  We probably over-did it.”

“Over-did nothing,” Johnny grumbled between chattering teeth.  “And give me my longjohns.  I can put them on by myself.”


“I said, hand ‘em over,” Johnny interrupted, one arm snaking out from under the towel, the leveled look and the outstretched palm leaving no doubt that Johnny expected to become the recipient of one pair of long underwear.  When Scott didn’t oblige, Johnny sighed, “Scott, there’s very little dignity I got left.  So, give me my blasted underwear.”

Scott reluctantly draped the new longjohns over his brother’s open palm.

“Thanks,” Johnny muttered.

Scott hesitated, unsure whether his brother was really capable of putting on his own pants, but then with a nod to his brother’s perseverance and plain stubbornness, Scott backed off.  Instead he decided to busy himself with filling the four empty buckets with the dirty water from the tub, so that it could be taken out and dumped later.

As he busied himself with the chore, he kept a watchful eye as discretely as possible on Johnny’s manipulations.  He noticed it took his brother a number of tries before he managed to work his two feet into the leg holes, the strain of bending over eliciting a couple of hissed epithets.  Once Johnny had managed to pull his feet through, he worked the longjohns up past his knees then shakily stood up, drawing the waistband up with mostly the effort of his left hand, the right preferring to remain against his side.  Even as he tied the drawstring, Scott noticed he kept his elbow pressed in tightly.

Johnny, finished with his task, shot his brother a self-satisfied though tired expression.  It was then that he caught Scott looking at him, concern and sadness in his face.  In the process of all the maneuvering, the towel had fallen away, exposing the bruised, swollen chest wound, and the dark, scabbed hole in his side.  He knew that the reason for such a look was from the sight of his wounds, and he had an uneasy feeling of glimpsing just how difficult the past couple weeks had been for his brother.

Johnny looked down, suddenly uncomfortable. 

Scott noticed the reaction, knew that his brother had read the discomfort in his eyes and in his face.  When the bandages were on it was easy to imagine they only covered a nasty scrape or a rope burn, or a bout of poison oak.  Even changing the bandages, one could concentrate on one wound at a time, focus on the task.  However to glance up unexpectedly to see his brother turn to him, his pale face lighting up with a lopsided grin of self-satisfaction while such brutal injuries stuck out on a body now thin and weak, hit Scott like a paradox of crude proportions.

“I feel better than I look,” Johnny mumbled as the grin on his face crumbled.

Scott shook himself to action and straightened up.  “Of course you do.  You’re going to be jumping on Barranca and leaping fences any day now,” Scott assured.

“That sounds good.” Johnny forced a dismal smile as he wrapped his arms across his chest, the action followed by a tight, short cough.  “Now I feel cold.”

Scott smiled.  “Sit down.”  He leaned over and picked the towel up off the floor.  “Let’s get a blanket around you.  I can’t re-bandage you for a while yet.”

Johnny lowered himself to the side of the bed once more, wincing as he adjusted his position.  “You realize we could just have DarkCloud come up here and talk for a bit.  That’d dry everything off in half the time.”

“There you go again, maligning the good doctor’s name when he’s not even here to defend himself,” Scott chuckled as he draped the damp towel along the back of the chair.  He pulled a blanket off from Johnny’s bed and wrapped it around his brother’s shoulders.

“Don’t like bein’ sick, Scott,” Johnny stated tiredly as he leaned against the bedpost and closed his eyes.

“I know you don’t,” Scott replied gently.  “Are you warm enough?  Need another blanket, or some hot tea?”
               With eyes still closed, Johnny gave a slight shake of his head.  “Nothing.”

“I’d like to let you lie down, Johnny, but I’m supposed to dress those wounds again in a bit,” Scott apologized.

Johnny tiredly opened his eyes and gave a faint smile.  “I know. Just didn’t expect a bath to be so exhausting.”

Scott nodded a quiet understanding then sat down beside his brother.  Johnny looked so young again with his wet hair and closed eyes, his head drooped against the bed post, like a tired youngster ready for bed after his Saturday night bath.  Scott folded his hands in his lap, carefully stretched back his neck and shoulders, then lowered his head with a quiet sigh.  He wished he’d known his brother back when he was young; so many things would have been different then, for both of them.

He took a breath.  “Johnny, when did things fall apart with your friends?  When did Cisco leave?”

Johnny tilted his head against the bedpost until he could look at his brother without actually having to raise it, his expression incredulous.  “You’re lookin’ for a story now?”

“I thought perhaps, while we waited…”

“Nothin’ doin’, Boston,” Johnny replied, drooping his head to its former position, closing his eyes and pulling the blanket in tighter about his shoulders.  “I just done gave you a wonderfully amusing bathtub story.”

“Well, I told you about taking baths three times a week.”

“That ain’t even close,” Johnny retorted.  “It may be a sin of overindulgence, but it surely ain’t no story.”

“Well, I did tell you about my cat.”

Johnny just looked at Scott.  “I repeat, your turn.”

Scott sighed loudly.  “My, we are getting bossy, aren’t we?”  He stopped to grin, then continued, “Okay, give me a second to think.”  He cocked his head to the side, gazed about the room for a few seconds, his face dancing among a number of emotions as he mentally raced through a list of different possibilities.  “Okay, okay.  I got one,” he said.  “You’ll like this one, for sure.”

Johnny merely grunted.  “If it’s about bathing your cat, you better come up with something different.”

Scott rolled his eyes, but began, “I was young, about eleven or so.  I had this friend a year older than me, Peder was his name.  He was the son of our cook, a nice Norwegian lady—made the best lefse—”

“Lefse?” Johnny opened one eye.

“Imagine a tortilla made with mashed potatoes.”

Johnny’s brows furrowed.  “You’re makin’ this up.”

Scott shook his head.  “No, I’m not.  It’s Norwegian.  She’d sneak Peder and me each one when they were just warm off the stove, with a bit of melted butter and sprinkled with some sugar.  At the time, I was quite convinced there was nothing better in the whole wide world than Martha Bjerkelo’s lefse.”

“That’s your story?”

“No.  I was just explaining about the lefse.”

“Hmmm,” Johnny mumbled.  “Go on.”

“Well, Peder was simply the greatest, at least in my young opinion.  He seemed to know everything, been everywhere, done it all.  He’d crossed the ocean when he was nine, he could run around barefoot all summer, he never had to sit through boring grown-up parties, he could wear pants with holes in them and even get dirty.  And, get this, he didn’t have to take a bath but once a week…and in the winter, he said he once went a whole month without a bath!”

“Shameful,” Johnny deadpanned. 

“I thought it was wonderful!” Scott exclaimed with a laugh.  “He could do absolutely everything I couldn’t.  He was a breath of fresh air and a world of forbidden excitement for me.”  Scott paused thoughtfully, gave another chuckle with a slight shake of his head.  “Well, one day we were practicing our rotten apple throwing—”

“Your what?” Johnny opened his eyes and levered his head about to once more fix his brother with an incredulous look.

“Rotten apple throwing,” Scott repeated smugly, then assumed a superior attitude.  “Now, I know you think you’re mighty handy with that gun of yours, but I’m here to tell you, I was once the All-time Boston Rotten Apple Thrower.  Peder even said so.  Told me himself that he’d never seen anyone lob an apple with such force and precision, able to attain just the right speed and angle to send the bits of juice and pulp at such an outward arc and tangent to cover the most area.”

Johnny’s dubious look never wavered.  “You are making this up.”

“I am not,” Scott said with injured pride.

“Tangents and arcs?  What—this eleven year old friend of yours said that?”

“Well, okay,” Scott conceded with a sniff.  “I’m expounding upon his own very eloquent description a bit.”

“I have no doubt of that.”

“Hey!” Scott interjected.  “I’ve got bragging rights here.”

“Fine,” Johnny muttered as he pulled the blanket tighter about his shoulders.  “Is there any more to this story than a vivid description of your amazing rotten apple throwing abilities?”
               “I’m getting there.”

“Taking the scenic route again, I see.”  Johnny positioned his head more comfortably against the bedpost and closed his eyes.

Scott suppressed a smirk before continuing.  “Anyway, it was a late afternoon, just nearing on dusk, and Peder and I had been shooed out of the kitchen as Martha was very busy preparing for a dinner party.  So we decided to go down to our favorite corner and practice lobbing a few rotten apples at passing coaches.”

Once again, Johnny’s eyes opened and a frown appeared.  “Scott, I fear you’re in danger of coloring my opinion of you permanently.  Does Murdoch know about this?”
               Scott shook his head and waggled a finger.  “No, he doesn’t.  And I’m trusting you not to share this with a soul.  Heck, I haven’t even gotten to the good part.”

“I don’t know, Scott.  This is getting to be pretty heavy information.  Are you sure you want to continue?”

“I think I can trust you.”

“I’ll try not to let you down.”

“Good,” Scott nodded firmly as he kept his face deadpanned. “Okay, now we were taking turns with the apples.  Peder had gone first, nailed a fancy, cream-colored carriage smack in the rear.  Left quite a big mess.  It was a great shot.  The next coach was mine.  And I’m ashamed to say, when it appeared, I lost control.  It wasn’t my fault, really.  I had picked a juicier than usual apple and it affected the trajectory.”


“Okay, I missed.”

“The King of Rotten Apple Throwing, missed?”
               “Yes, I know.   It’s hard to believe it even now.  Peder was stunned.  So was I.  But my endeavor landed smack against a fence on the other side of the road.  Peder kindly offered to let me have the next shot.  I readily agreed, as I was eager to reclaim my standing.  So we waited for the next coach to appear.  It seemed to be forever in coming, but perhaps I was a bit overly anxious after my recent disastrous showing.  But eventually we heard the clip-clop of horse’s hooves as they came down from around the corner.

“As the horses and coach appeared, rounding the corner, I prepared and wound up.  I was intent on my target, all else was forgotten, as the light blue carriage became the center of my world.

“Then as the target lined up in my sights, I threw the largest, most pulpy pomme d’ammunition I had been able to procure.  It sped toward its intended mark with a speed and grace unmatched to this day.  Peder and I froze, observed with bated breath the beauty of the magnificent pitch, Peder uttering an exclamation of total wonder and delight.

“Then, in pure undiluted enjoyment, we watched in awe as it reached its objective, just as a head popped out of the coach window to address the driver.

“Smack!  The mealy pulp struck, covered the man’s entire face, knocked off his hat, and still had enough substance to make a nice ring around the open window.”

Johnny, who had slowly been straightening up during the narration, stuck a hand out from under the covers and waved it in irritation.  “Scott!  You—what happened next?”
               Scott gave a lopsided grin.  “Well, Peder let out a scream and ran for home while I stood frozen in my spot in utter disbelief.  You see, it was the Mayor of Boston on his way to our house for a dinner party with Grandfather.  He’d been there often enough to know who I was, so it didn’t pay to make a run for it.”  Scott sighed with dismay.  “Yeah, he must have just gotten a new carriage.  I didn’t recognize it.”

Johnny’s face contorted as he tried to control the laughter that was threatening to erupt.  With one hand pressed against his chest and the other against his side, he alternately groaned and laughed.  “I’d say your rotten apple throwing story is better than my bathtub story.” 

“Oh, I don’t know.  I’d say we both gave a couple of mayors a really good reason to remember us.”

“Yup, I can see it now.  Scott and Johnny, wanted for terrorizing unsuspecting mayors,” Johnny chuckled.  “I tell you, Boston.  You surprise me.”  He gave another chuckle, then suddenly hissed sharply, leaned forward and closed his eyes, his lips white with tension.

Scott put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “You okay?”

For a second there was no reaction, then Johnny slowly straightened back up and gave a weak smile.  “Yeah, just catches me by surprise sometimes.”

“It’s starting to wear off, isn’t it?”  Scott pursed his lips unhappily. “Here, let me take a look at—”  He stopped at the sound of a knock at the door.  “Who is it?”  Scott asked sharply.

               “Rosti.  Wonderin’ if you want me to empty the tub.”

               Scott sighed, gave Johnny’s shoulder a light pat.  “I’ll get this taken care of.  Then we should be able to get you all patched up again.”

               “Can hardly wait.”

               Scott picked up two of the filled buckets and went to the door.  “Here, I’ll grab the other two,” he informed Rosti, then turned back to the room, picked up the others, nodded to Johnny and left the room.

Johnny huddled down further among the folds of the blanket.  He seemed to be getting colder all the time, yet he could feel his heart beating harder, as if he’d just been running.  The feeling was uncomfortable, giving him the sense that he needed to take in larger gulps of air, yet each breath was causing more discomfort.  He was glad he’d gotten up, moved around a bit, cleaned up, but the total lack of energy he felt now, and the inability to get his breathing and racing pulse under control, had left him very unnerved.

Though he wished he hadn’t taken the laudanum in the first place, he was honest enough to admit that without it, and the added benefits of DarkCloud’s morphine, he would never have been capable of taking on Wakeman and his men.  It just seemed ironic however, that the same medicines that gave him the ability to get through a gunfight now seemed to render him so useless that a bath was enough to exhaust him.

He watched with as Scott and Rosti carted away the bath water, then Tucson showed up and the three of them moved the large tub out of the room.  For their benefit, he tried to look better than he felt, but as they kept shooting him hooded looks of concern, he knew he wasn’t pulling of the deception as well as he’d hoped. 

A few minutes later, Scott returned.  “Rosti moved it into one of the now empty rooms,” he said as he closed the door.  “I figure I could use a bath and Murdoch will probably appreciate one after he returns.”

Johnny merely nodded.

Scott paused in front of his brother, eyed him thoroughly.  “I think it’s time I checked over your wounds and got you bandaged up.”

“I’d rather not move,” Johnny murmured.

“You don’t need to,” Scott replied as he went to the table and gathered up the needed supplies.  “You stay right as you are and I’ll do all the moving.”

“Your hands are probably cold.”

“I’ll warm them up.”


“I’ll stick them under my arm pits.”

“They’d better be cold when they touch me.”

Scott laughed as he walked to the bed.  He sat down next to Johnny, one leg folded under him, and put the bandages and ointments nearby.  “Let’s get this out of the way,” Scott instructed as he put a hand to the blanket near Johnny’s neck.  When Johnny didn’t release his hold, Scott sighed, “Come on.  I can’t do this if you won’t get the blanket out of the way.”

“But then I’ll be colder.”

Scott sighed loudly.  “Are you this disagreeable with DarkCloud?”

“Even worse.”

“Now I know why he wants to keep you sedated,” Scott grumbled.

Johnny turned his head to fix Scott with a wounded look.  “That was kinda low.”

“You’re right.  Sorry.  Though you have to admit, you’re not the easiest of patients.”
               “I know,” Johnny dipped his head down and turned away.  “It’s just hard letting…” he hesitated, the sentence unfinished.

One hand still resting on the fabric at Johnny’s neck, Scott regarded his brother’s profile.  He knew what had been left unsaid.  He’d heard it in his brother’s voice.  It’s just hard letting someone else take care of me.  “I know,” Scott replied softly, gave the hunched shoulders a reassuring rub.  “How about I do the front first?  You can keep the blanket around you that way.  Won’t be so cold.”

Johnny nodded simply, releasing his tight grip on the blanket edges.

Scott slid off the bed to kneel in front of Johnny on the floor, dragging the supplies with him.

Johnny kept his eyes closed, heard the clank of the ointment jars hitting each other as Scott positioned them within reach.  Next came the metallic snip as Scott cut a number of bandage strips.  Johnny had no doubt they would all be the perfect size.  It seemed like such a ‘Scott’ thing to do.  Prepare everything, take the time to plan ahead, do it right the first time before going on to the next phase.

There was quiet for a couple of seconds as everything seemed to have been readied, then Johnny felt the blanket drawn out of his hands and away from his front.  He had to control the urge to open his eyes, didn’t like not being able to see what was going on, but decided seeing the look on his brother’s face would be even worse.

The hands were warm, thankfully so, as they carefully and gently applied the ointments. Briefly he thought of kidding Scott about having put his hands under his armpits, but somehow the joke didn’t seem so amusing anymore; the mood had changed.  He wished he and Scott could pick back up the earlier thread of banter.  It’d been enjoyable, a huge mental release from the solemnity of the last couple of days—heck, the whole, entire last month.  Everything had almost felt normal again, if there was such a thing as normal for him.

At one point he had to hold his breath, the edges of the wound were still so painful to the touch.   Then he felt the tips of the fingers work their way outward, pausing to press gently against the chest muscles and ribs.  This time he wasn’t able to contain the grunt of discomfort and involuntarily his eyes opened.

“Sorry,” Scott apologized.  “I’m just trying to see how things are healing.”

“I think I’d heal up faster if people quit poking at me.”

Scott managed a smile, but Johnny saw that the twinkle in his brother’s eyes that had been there earlier had disappeared and the smile was now heavily forced.  He found himself wanting to apologize for his words.

“Can you hold this?” Scott asked, placing a small square of cloth over the wound.

Johnny nodded and put one palm on his chest.

“I’ll get your back now, then we’ll get it all wrapped up.”

Johnny nodded again, amused that Scott felt he needed to explain everything, as if Johnny hadn’t any idea what was going on.  Or as if I were a small child.

Scott hauled himself back up, pushed the supplies toward the center of the bed and sat down once more.

This time Johnny allowed Scott to draw the blanket away from his shoulders, then sat stiffly as Scott applied ointment to the side wound.  At one point, he hazarded a glance at his brother, but Scott’s expression was impassively grim as he went about his work.

“Can you turn just a bit, so I can reach better?” Scott asked, angling himself around.

Johnny adjusted slightly, drawing one leg up on the bed.  He waited, disquieted, as he felt no movement from Scott for a few moments.  Then he felt, more than heard, a sigh released.

When Johnny had turned his back toward Scott, Scott had had to pause and close his eyes for a second, block out the sight of the back—of the scars—of earlier and recent damage.  With a firmly set jaw and pursed lips, he forced his eyes open once more and glared at his hands.  They were shaking.  Shaking like Johnny’s.  But what’s your excuse?  He clenched his hands, slowly inhaled, and as he forced himself to focus on his brother’s back, he controlled a heavy sigh.

Picking up the jar of ointment, he applied it to the exit wound, puckered and shiny.  He could make out DarkCloud’s attempts to sew the edges in order to keep Johnny from further damaging himself with rubbing and pulling against his ribs, but evidence of ripped stitches attested to Johnny’s stubbornness.

With quick efficiency, he forced himself to remain on task, and once done, he finally let his eyes wander upward.  The bruises, so dark and angry-looking just over a week ago, were fading gradually away. Where the horse’s hooves had struck, the cuts were much improved.  However, it wasn’t the bruises from the horse’s flailings which bothered him, it was the two pinkish-white spots, evidences of a much more deadly trauma that stood out in glaring detail among the multicolored bruises.  Colorless oasis among the myriad of hues spread about his back.

Two old bullet wounds.  Wounds from a much earlier time.  Wounds that should have ended his brother’s life right there, wherever and whenever that had been.

Two wounds.

Scott had trailed a forefinger up to one of the scars before he’d even realized he’d done so.

“What are you doing?” Johnny asked.

Scott blinked, frozen.


Scott swallowed, labored to keep his voice steady.  “Your back’s looking much better.”

“I can tell,” Johnny answered.  “Doesn’t hurt so much, even when the medicine is wearing off.  Couldn’t even lie on my back for awhile there.  Hated that.”

Scott hesitated, his hand spread out against Johnny’s back, one finger still centered on one of the old wounds.



“This.” He drew away his hand, yet let one finger remain positioned on the old scar.  “When did this happen?”

Imperceptibly, Scott felt Johnny stiffen.

“You mean those old bullet wounds?”

“Yes,” Scott answered with grim resolve.  “I’ve seen them; I’m sure you know we all have.  They’re a little hard to hide whenever you take your shirt off.”

For a moment Johnny didn’t answer, then Scott felt him inhale, saw his head tilt back.  “It was a long while ago, Scott.”

“So it appears,” Scott replied.

“They don’t really hurt much anymore.  Skin’s actually numb there.  Pinches inside sometimes.”        

“That’s not what I asked, Johnny,” Scott pressed.  I need to know these things.  Please, Johnny, help me fill in the gaps.  I look at you and there always seems to be this large black shadow trailing behind you.  The shadow of your past…

“Scott, I—”

“Johnny, tell me.  I want you to tell me…” His voice dropped as he added, “I need you to tell me.” Fill in that shadow, Johnny.  This time Scott heard Johnny sigh.  “Did this have something to do with Kansas?”

“No, it was after. A few years before I came to Lancer.”

A few years before we met…  That would make him, what? Eighteen, nineteen, twenty?

“How…how old were you?”

Johnny raised an eyebrow, seemed baffled by the question.  “Old?  I don’t know.”  He shrugged.  “Eighteen, I think…or nineteen.  I don’t know.”

Scott pursed his lips.  Of course he wouldn’t know.  He didn’t really celebrate birthdays.  One day was the same as the next…  Just surviving…

“Where were you?” Scott asked cautiously, afraid that Johnny would clamp down, become irritated with the questions.

“Texas,” he answered shortly, brought a hand up to rub tiredly at his eyes.  “It wasn’t that long after the war.  Cisco, Wes, Harl…they weren’t with me.  I came into this one town… on my way to the border.” Johnny paused.  “I came into this saloon, hoped to get a bite to eat, catch a bit of rest, you know.  Noticed right away an uneasiness ‘bout the town—put me on my guard, but I soon realized it had nothing to do with me.  There were these three fellas—carpetbagger brutes.  You know the type…after the war.”  He shrugged, winced, shook his head.  “Apparently they had come upon the town a few months earlier, moved in and set up shop.  A lot of the men folk—well, I guess they’d been in some regiment that had taken quite a beating.”  There was a pause and Johnny started to turn his head toward Scott, but drew his gaze away before he’d made contact.  “I wasn’t there but a half hour and I started to piece together some of what was going on.  Town mostly consisted of women, children, older folks and a few men who’d been wounded in the war, but not much else.  It was a town just beggin’ to be taken over.”

There was another pause and Scott feared Johnny was re-evaluating the wisdom of continuing the story.  “So, there were a bunch of bullies, huh?” Scott finally prompted.

Johnny nodded.  “Yeah.  I—I was having a steak, a drink, minding my own business.  They were noisy, obnoxious, but weren’t botherin’ me none.  Then I noticed they’d gotten louder.  One of the men made as if he’d fallen off his chair, began yelling that he’d broken his leg and needed some doctorin’.  But it was all a joke, everyone knew it, his buddies were all laughing.  Nobody made a move to get a doctor, so the fella got up, went over to one of the older men standing at the bar and grabbed him.  Said he had a broken leg and the old man had better go get a doctor quick.  Then he added that the old man better make it sound good, or else.

“I wondered what was up.  There was something in the threat.  Wasn’t but a few minutes later, this old doctor appeared, dashing in like he had the devil on his tail.  A young bit of a girl was running along beside him, carrying his medical bag.  I watched, wonder how it’d play out, as the fella obviously didn’t have no broken leg.  But he was lying on the floor, moaning like he did.  The doc was pretty old, needed the girl’s help to even get on the floor.  

“’Bout this time I decided something more was up than a simple joke at an old man’s expense.  The other two fellas, they started givin’ each other a look I’d long since learned to recognize.  The man on the ground began to groan louder as the doc made to cut away the pant leg.  The girl leaned in, thinking to help hold the man down.  That’s when the atmosphere changed.  I sensed it immediately.  The joke had become serious…lethal.  The two thugs seized the doc from behind, while the man on the floor grabbed the girl, pulling her down on the floor with him.  Men in the bar, who’d been silently watching, either made for the exit or stood rooted in their spot, unmoving.  The old man began yelling, pleading with them to leave the girl alone…his granddaughter, I learned.  The three fellows, they began hooting and hollerin’.  Became obvious they’d well planned out what fun they aimed to have, and it was clear at whose expense.

“The man on the floor grappled with the girl, pinning her down, then straddled her.  He had one hand clutched to her blouse to rip it off.  I—I hadn’t planned to get involved.  I already had enough trouble doggin’ me, but...but I never could stomach bullies.  So I stood up and fired off a shot.

“The shot had the effect you’d expect.  It gained everyone’s attention pretty quick.  For a second they were surprised, not having any opposition for a long time’ll do that.  But it didn’t take long for them to add up the tally and decide that three with hostages beat one in any game.  Within seconds their surprise had turned to amusement.  One of the men who’d been holding the old man stepped away slightly…an action that would soon send him to Hell first.  The other was standing behind the old man, his gun drawn.  I guess he had a bit more brains.  The man with the girl stood up, dragging her along to use as a shield.  They all thought they had me…thought they knew what they were facing.  But they didn’t.  Been interesting to tell them, to see their reaction…their faces…but I never had the chance.

“I told them to let the old man and the girl go…that they’d better high-tail it out of town.  They thought that was mighty funny.  I didn’t.  The man who’d stepped away went for his gun.  He was on the floor in a pool of blood before the other two knew what had happened.  Then all was over in seconds.  The fellow behind the old man reacted in surprise…I knew he would.  He flinched, as did the old man.  Just enough to allow me a shot.  He was down.  Then the guy holding the girl jerked sideways to watch the body fall—reflex, you know.  Gave me a clear shot and it was over.  Nothing to do but clean up the mess.”

Johnny suddenly stopped.  Scott frowned, waited for the rest.  There was obviously more.  “Doesn’t sound like they got the jump on you,” he said, the unasked question was in his tone.

Johnny shook his head, sighed more heavily.  He tilted his head upward, seemed to study the ceiling before slowly letting his head droop forward once more.

“It was the same.  I was the hero or something.  Fine supper.  Wonderful room for the night.  Congratulations and thanks unending…   Got up the next morning, ate, headed toward the livery, sensed instantly that something was wrong by the look I received as I stepped out the door, but I reacted too late.  No one had bothered to warn me that there had been a fourth man in the group who had missed out on the previous night’s activities.  I took it in the back—but I managed to take him with me before I passed out.”

Scott sat, stunned, trying to fathom the emotionless way with which his brother spoke of something so grisly.

“Never trust a town,” Johnny murmured.

“But,” Scott paused, “that’s not always true.  Look at Soledad.  They’d build you a monument smack in the middle of town if you requested it.  They think you’re heaven sent!”

Johnny gave a bitter snort.  “That’s now.  I took care of what I was hired to do, and all is well.  Have problems start, especially me in this condition, and watch how fast they change their tune.  A gunhawk with clipped wings ain’t worth protectin’.  It’s a fact.  I’m a hired gun.  Welcome as long as I do a job and do it well.”

“You sound sure.”

“I’m simply relating the rules of my profession.”

Scott shook his head, studied the pale scars again, wanted the story to end differently.  “But…but what happened next?  You—  Good Lord, Johnny!  You should have died and you didn’t.  They must have nursed you back to health.”

There was another derisive snort.  “They figured I was dead.  The old doctor and the girl, they took me in.  He did what he could—got to give him credit for that.  I did live.  For at least a week he figured I wouldn’t, though.  I don’t remember much.  I’d float in and out of consciousness…couldn’t piece anything together…even thought I was back in Kansas…” Johnny abruptly stopped, swallowed, continued in a voice so soft that Scott had to lean forward to hear.  “I can’t really remember it, Scott.  Dreams.  But I know…I remember waking up sometimes, thinking Laura was with me…but…but then I’d realize where I was, see that it was the young girl who was sitting by me.  She…she ended up taking care of me.  She always seemed to be there.  It was almost a month before I was well enough to move, and I knew I’d already pushed it by staying there as long as I had.  I knew I had to get moving, that I was running a real risk of being caught.  I discovered no one knew who I was however, which probably had helped.  The doc, he…he had me on a lot of pain medication…laudanum…  I couldn’t even move without it.  I…I told them I had to leave.  They asked me to stay…said I needed to heal more.  She, the girl, she begged me to.  But I knew it would be dangerous for me, and them, if I stuck around.  I tried to explain that.

“The day I left, the doctor gave me a couple of bottles of laudanum.  Told me it ought to see me through the month.  Told me to get where I needed to go and to hole up for awhile ‘til I was fit again.  I remember the girl, pretty young thing, had latched onto me like some sort of stray puppy.  She asked to come with me.  Can you imagine?  I gave her a peck on the cheek, thanked her for taking care of me and mounted up to leave.  She suddenly grabbed my leg, asked me what my name was, said she needed to know.  I…I thought about making something up, but decided it probably didn’t matter anymore.  So I told her.

“I left then.  Got less than a week behind me before I’d drunk up almost all the medicine that was supposed to last me a month.  Ended up in some town just south of the border, don’t even know where.  I basically passed out for a few weeks.”  He paused, shook his head, glanced at Scott furtively.  Then with a low voice, he continued, “ I was a mess, Scott.  I couldn’t hardly sit a horse…the pain was so bad.  I couldn’t work, I couldn’t…  I don’t know.  All became a blur for a few months.”  He stopped again, put a hand to his face, rubbed it, then shook his head.  “Eventually Harley and Wes found me.  Took me to Cisco’s.”

Scott waited, even though he knew Johnny had finished and there would be no more to the story.  In the quiet, he became aware that he’d forgotten to breathe.  He quickly exhaled, drew in a deep breath.  Then his eyes searched out the scars once more and he frowned as he felt a sudden need to offer them a badge of honor.

“The young girl and the old man, though.  If you hadn’t come along, who knows what would have happened?  It’s a good thing you were there when you were.”

Johnny gave a faint, bitter chuckle.  “You might not think that if you knew…”

“Knew what?”

“The girl’s name.”

Scott waited, but before the word left Johnny’s lips, he realized he did know.  “Violet,” he whispered.

“Violet,” Johnny echoed.

Scott felt his heart stop, his entire body contract, as he relived his own nightmare in a flash of a second.

Johnny’s head dipped in a silent apology. 

Scott opened his mouth, wanted to say something, anything, to help the situation, but everything paled in the sudden revelation.  He bent his own head.  Tried to find words, but they eluded him.

Should have expected something like that.  It just fits.  That’s what you get when you ask the questions.  You get the truth.  Well, Scott, you better learn to handle it.  And you’d better find something to say…  Your brother needs your support…your affirmation.  So get your Boston Butt moving.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Johnny’s breath catching in his throat.  He looked up, realizing some moments had passed while he’d tried to come to terms with the new information..

“Johnny, there’s no way for you to have known that years later—”

“Another ghost would return?”

Scott pursed his lips.  “Don’t tell me about ghosts.  Have you forgotten Lt. Cassidy?”

“But you weren’t guilty of leading those men to their death,” Johnny replied, his fatigue audible in his voice.

“No.  No, I was not guilty of that.  But I did not escape the war unscathed. I have my share of ghosts.”  He paused a moment, then picked up the length of cloth.  “There is no blame in what happened with Drago.  It was unfortunate, but it’s past.  And Johnny, I am glad you were there to save Violet and her grandfather.”  He paused, then curtly added, “But if I could change anything, I would wish that I had been there so that I could shoot that bastard before he shot you.”

Johnny turned. “My, Scott.  I wasn’t aware there was so much hostility in you.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.”  Scott smiled, enjoying the faint flicker of humor in his brother’s eyes.  “Now let’s get you bandaged up,” he added as he unrolled a length and placed it along Johnny’s back.  He held it in place with one hand then came around to cover the side wound before moving toward the front.  “Can you turn back a bit?” he asked, his attention occupied by the bandaging.  When there was no immediate movement, Scott looked up.  What he saw was disquieting.  Johnny’s eyes were closed, his lips thinly pressed and white, the jaw clenched in an effort to hold something back, not daring to breathe lest it escape.  “Damn,” Scott swore softly.  “John, I’m sorry.  We’ll get this done quickly, then we’ll get you some medicine and you can lie down.”  Pressed for time, Scott hastily wrapped the bandages, aware that Johnny was now fighting back tremors of pain.

After Scott had secured the tail end of the last bandage, he stood up.  He’d hoped DarkCloud would have shown up, but he hadn’t yet and it was apparent that Johnny was barely able to stay ahead of the pain.  He had yet to open his eyes and his breathing was ragged and forced, held at moments when Scott could see his brother visibly stiffen.

Realizing he had no other options, Scott went to the table and readied a dose of morphine.  As he turned around, he found that though Johnny hadn’t moved, his eyes were following Scott’s every movement. Seeing a silent plea contained within, Scott quickly knelt on the floor in front. “I’m hurrying—”

“Scott, don’t.”

The words caught Scott unexpectedly, confusing him.  “What?  Johnny, I have it ready.  I can do it.”

“That’s not it.”  Johnny swallowed, shook his head as he drew his arms up against his body.

“I don’t—” Scott gritted his teeth in frustration.  “Are you just trying to be stubborn?  Because if you are, I don’t find this funny.”

Johnny shook his head, closed his eyes as he swallowed thickly, then focused on Scott.  “Scott,” he paused, his voice cracking.  “Don’t.  No more.”  He stopped, shivered, clenched his jaw tightly, took a breath.  “It’s time to stop.  I don’t need it.”

Scott’s eyes widened incredulously.  “Don’t need it?  Come on, Johnny.  Look at you.  You’re shaking, you can barely draw a breath…   You need it so you can rest and heal—”

“And continue in this hell,” Johnny interrupted raggedly.  “I don’t like it.”

“I know you don’t.  I don’t either.  But we don’t have a choice right now.  You know what damage has been done—”

“I do have a choice.  And I want to stop.  Now.”

Scott shook his head.  “Johnny, it’s not worth it.  There’s no need to put yourself through that right now.  It wouldn’t be good for your injuries.  DarkCloud’s reducing the medicines slowly.  Give it a little more time.”

“A week?  A month?”  Johnny shook his head.  “I know about the pain.  I’ve handled it before.  I don’t need the medicine to hide behind.  There’s no reason to.”  He paused again, caught his breath, swallowed.  “It’s a long nightmare, Scott.  And I’m ready for it to end.  And I—I need to be able to think clearly, decide…” He paused, seemed to gather his concentration to glare at the syringe in Scott’s hand. “I just can’t do that while I’m fighting those damn drugs.”

“So having you heaving your guts out, re-injuring some of those cracked ribs, throwing yourself willfully into needless agony…that’s going to help you think clearly?”  Scott hissed with irritated sarcasm.  “What are you trying to prove?”

“Nothing.  Nothing,” Johnny shook his head.  “Scott, I’m always in pain anyway.  Reducing the amount…the pain never quite goes away.  And when it does wear off, the attack is unexpected.  I’d rather face a few days of hell full-on, instead of this.”

Scott shook his head.  “I don’t know, Johnny.  I think DarkCloud understands better than we do what he’s doing.”

“Scott, I can do it.”  Johnny paused, caught his breath.  “I just need your help.”

Scott dropped his gaze to the syringe in his hand.  End the pain or let it continue?  Ignore his brother’s plea or help him?  Yet helping could put Johnny in even worse condition than he was.  He heard a stifled moan and looked up.  Johnny’s eyes were closed again and he had hunched forward, his arms now crossed tightly against his chest.  “Johnny,” Scott paused until his brother had opened his eyes to look at him.  “It hurts to see you in pain, especially when I know I can stop it.”

“I don’t want you to stop it, Scott.  I want you to help me get through it.”

Scott set his jaw grimly, looked down once more at the syringe…


…DarkCloud hurried up the stairs, privately chastising himself for the time it had taken him to run out to check on Mrs. Sanchez.  It wasn’t that he was worried so much as curious as to how the whole bath episode had worked out.  Privately he felt that Scott had found out the whole thing had been a lot more difficult to do than he’d first imagined, and that Johnny had found himself quickly exhausted and in a lot more pain than he’d felt recently.

He pushed open the door, took one step, and froze.  Scott knelt before Johnny, a stricken look of indecision on his face.  Johnny, for his part, created a picture of agony under restraint, his face drawn, pinched, pale, beads of sweat lining his forehead.

“What the—?” DarkCloud exclaimed, slamming the door, striding forcefully into the room.  “Don’t keep him waiting!”

Scott leapt to his feet, one hand outstretched toward Johnny.  The hand holding the syringe he pulled back behind him, an attitude akin to defiance, which DarkCloud found abnormal.

“DarkCloud, I’m not sure—”

DarkCloud stepped up closer, lowered his voice.  “Give it here.  I know it makes you uncomfortable, so I’ll do it.  But you can’t back down.  I’m counting on you to take care of this if I’m not here.”

“I know,” Scott replied, keeping a firm grip on the syringe.  “That’s not the problem.”

“Then what is?”

“I asked him not to,” Johnny replied in soft, halting words.  He opened his eyes, drew in a ragged breath, the palm of one hand rising to press against his chest, as if by doing so, he could force back the pain. 

DarkCloud took in his own deep breath, rubbed his forehead.  “I don’t think I’ve ever met two more stubborn and uncooperative people in all my life.”

“He doesn’t want the medicine anymore,” Scott explained.

DarkCloud shook his head as he crossed his arms.  “And you’re going to listen to him, I suppose?”

“He doesn’t think he needs it,” Scott reiterated.

Raising both eyebrows, DarkCloud gave a nod in Johnny’s direction.  “Does he look like someone who knows what’s best for him?”

“I think we should let him try.”

DarkCloud glared at Scott with disbelief and pointed at Johnny.  “He can’t even breathe!” he retorted, exasperated.

“I’m…breathing,” Johnny hissed, though the sound of his voice catching in his throat, and the arrested moan that followed gave the whole statement a plaintive quality that bordered on ironic.

DarkCloud turned to him sarcastically.  “Oh, I can tell,” he retorted before turning back to Scott.  “You haven’t any understanding of what’s going to happen if he just quits the medication now.”

“Yes, I do,” Scott argued.  “I saw enough morphine addiction from the war.”

“Just like you helped out the doctors?” DarkCloud asked derisively.

Scott’s jaw tightened for a second before his gaze wavered.  “Okay, I’ve mostly heard about it,” he replied defensively.

“Well, hearing about it and dealing with it are two totally different things,” DarkCloud countered.  “With those wounds he has, not only are you setting him up for a great deal of unneeded pain, but you’re very much in danger of causing a punctured lung from a broken rib.  Now, is that what your goal is here?”

Hesitating, Scott glanced at Johnny. 

DarkCloud saw the hesitation, put his hand out, lowered his voice.  “Scott.”

Scott forced his gaze away from his brother, unable to meet Johnny’s beseeching look, felt as if he was turning traitor.  Grimly he laid the syringe in DarkCloud’s palm.

DarkCloud gave a sympathetic nod before turning to Johnny.

Johnny raised his eyes to meet DarkCloud’s.  He knew he was defeated, had enough sense to know in his condition he’d barely be able to stand up.  He also knew DarkCloud was right about the pain, as each breath felt like the jaws of death were crushing his ribs.  And the shivering waves of nausea already threatened to prove DarkCloud right by throwing him into the agony of losing his breakfast.  Yet he was tired of needing the medicine.  He wanted to face the pain full on and not hide anymore.  There was no longer a reason for it.  Without much hope, he attempted one last time.  “Don’t, DarkCloud,” he whispered as the doctor knelt down in front of him.

DarkCloud studied him, shook his head.  “Johnny, you know—”

“Please.”  He had to stop, press his hand tightly to his chest as he tried to grab some air.  “I’ve done this before.  Scott’s here.”  He halted, closed his eyes a second.  “I chose to use the laudanum, because I needed it.  We used the morphine, because we had no choice.”  He swallowed, sucked in another breath, but the movement etched a line of pain on his face that didn’t disappear.  “There was a job to do.  There’s no job now.”

“Yes, there is,” DarkCloud replied softly.  “My job.  And that’s to see that you get well with the minimum amount of discomfort.  And then it won’t be too much longer and you and Scott will be able to go dashing about the countryside, doing whatever it is you Lancer boys are best at, which probably is getting into trouble.  I’m just hoping it’s back in the San Joaquin.  Now, let’s get this done.”

Scott turned away, unable to confront the look on his brother’s face as his own emotions, relief and dread, were already raw with conflict.  Part of him wanted DarkCloud to give him the medicine, wanted to see the pain removed from his brother’s features, yet part of him felt guilty for allowing it to happen, felt he should have argued harder, made a more determined stand.  Torn by his decision, and feeling useless by his own indecision, he stood stiffly and silently.

“I want to talk to you, Scott.”

Scott turned around just as DarkCloud was standing up.  He hazarded a quick glance at his brother.  Johnny’s eyes were now closed…and the pain was visibly melting.  Scott couldn’t stop a sigh of relief from escaping.  He looked at the doctor as DarkCloud walked to the table, took out the alcohol and began to clean the syringe.  After wrapping it in its cloth, he gave Scott a hard look.  “We need to talk.”

“I’d rather stay here with my brother.”

“I’ll be fine.”  Johnny opened his eyes, forced a smile.  “Go ahead.”

“Johnny…I’m sorry.”  Scott stepped forward.

Johnny shook his head.  “It’s okay, Scott.  Really.”  He blinked vaguely, licked his lips.  “Go talk to DarkCloud…or listen, more likely.  I gather you’ll get an earful.”  He smiled again.  “I’ll be here.”

Scott smiled back, but knew it lacked any conviction. 

Johnny closed his eyes in resignation and slowly leaned back onto the bed.

“Come on,” DarkCloud crooked a finger and went to the door.

Grimly, Scott followed as DarkCloud led the way to his room.  Once the door was closed, Scott gave a heavy sigh.  “I know what you’re planning to say, so I’ll save you the trouble.  You think I’m being foolish, and maybe so.  But you saw how it was, DarkCloud.  Johnny asked me.  He wanted my help.  That’s important.  That’s important to me.  You’ve got to understand that.”

“I do understand,” DarkCloud replied.  “You want to help.  That’s fine.  You’re helping now.  You’re helping him to get healthy and that’s what we all want.”

Scott growled softly, turned toward the window.  “But I want to do more.”  He paused before turning around.  “DarkCloud, he told me what happened…how he got shot up so bad…about those scars on his back.  He told me the doctor didn’t think he’d live and… and how he ended up needing the laudanum.”

“Then you must realize that the other time Harley, Wes and Cisco dealt with the implications of the laudanum, it had been a number of months since he’d been injured.  His wounds were mostly healed.  They didn’t have to deal with fresh wounds reopening or cracked and weakened ribs.”

Scott clenched his jaw, turned back to the window, grabbed hold of the sill with locked elbows and leaned his weight against it.  “He’s ready though.  And he’s—he’s giving me a chance—a way to help him.”

“That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?”

Scott didn’t move from his position, his head still bent between his two rigid arms.  “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.  It’s important to both of us.  I need this chance, DarkCloud.”  Scott slowly straightened up and turned around.  “And deep down, I think Johnny senses it, too.  It’s time we started facing ghosts.  I had the opportunity before when Johnny…when we ran into Reveles a few months back.  But I let it go.  I was afraid.”  He looked down, added softly, “I’m still afraid.  But I’m more afraid of losing my brother.”

DarkCloud drew in a deep breath, brought both hands up to rub his face.  For a few seconds he was quiet. “Okay.  How about this?  Give it a couple more days, let me get this baby business behind me, then we’ll look at getting it done faster.  It won’t be fun though.”

“No, I don’t suppose it will.  But at least Johnny will feel like he’s moving forward.  And I’ll know I was able to help him when he asked me to.”

“Oh, he’ll need a lot of help, that’s for sure,” DarkCloud replied with a sigh.


As the sound of DarkCloud’s footsteps receded in the hallway, Scott walked to the bed and sat down. With a heavy sigh he leaned forward and rested his forehead in his palms, his elbows perched on his knees.  He remained there a few moments, quiet, unmoving, a futile attempt to clear out his thoughts and find some sense to all the upheaval that had been happening in his life.  But order and reason failed to emerge, and he admitted with a heavy heart that chaos and indecision still reigned.

He then groaned, leaned back and placed his palms on his knees, and glared up at the ceiling as if it were totally responsible for all his woes.  Yet his eyes weren’t really focused on the ceiling, but on some nameless mystery that continued to elude him and mock his attempts to identify and therefore, control it.

“Oh, shit,” Scott hissed softly to himself, brought one hand up to rub tiredly at his eyes.  “Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  I seem to be always missing pieces.”  He gave a derisive laugh.  “There you go again.  Back to puzzle allegories.  Well, Scott, you can’t do a puzzle until you know what the picture originally was.”  He reached into his pocket, withdrew the golden, misshapen medallion and the two letters.  He held them in his hands, studied them silently a moment.  “Letters, the medallion of a Saint, and a few reluctantly shared stories.  Not much to go on, I suppose.  But the trick is to get the pieces to hold together long enough so that you can start to fill in the harder parts.  And reaching through to Johnny, connecting to him, having him see that I’m here to stay no matter what, that’s going to be the glue.  I just know it.”

He slipped the objects back into his pocket, then stood up and left the room.  Out in the hallway he paused for a moment in front of Johnny’s door and gave it a soft rap.  There was no reply.  Quietly he opened the door and peeked in.  Johnny lay on his left side, his back to the door.  There was no movement or sound, other than his breathing.  Scott stood in the doorway a moment, disappointed though not surprised.  Between the medication and the recent physical exertion, it only made sense that Johnny would be tired.  Without even being aware of it, Scott made a quick assessment of the fact that Johnny was lying on his side once again, and privately hoped the physical strain of the bath hadn’t exacerbated his brother’s condition, increasing the amount of pain he was in.  Johnny on his side, especially with his back to the door, was uncharacteristic and at best an unlikely prospect, except for when he’d been too ill to know how or where he was lying.  Over the last few days, Scott had noticed that Johnny had gotten back into the habit of lying on his back.

Deciding that it was best to leave him to get some rest, Scott closed the door and headed down to the saloon, a thought occurring to him.


Just moments before, Johnny had been lying on his back, his left arm resting across his forehead as he wondered what DarkCloud was saying to Scott.  He felt sorry for his brother, as he knew from first-hand experience just how intimidating DarkCloud could be once he’d gotten his feathers ruffled.

He took in a deep breath, felt the tightness of bruised ribs, felt the one section of his rib cage move as his lungs expanded outward, winced at the pain, but was able to disregard it for the enjoyment of breathing deeply.

The sound of footsteps out in the hallway reached his ears.  He immediately recognized them as DarkCloud’s, listened as the doctor paused briefly outside the door before continuing on down the hallway. 

He breathed again deeply, a part of him wanting to fight back against the medicine, desired to find some pain to prove that he still had some control, that the morphine wasn’t all-powerful.  However at the same time he was privately relieved that DarkCloud had stood his ground and forced Scott to allow the morphine to be given.  And this is what really bothered him. 

For which was it?  Did he want Scott’s help or not?  He hadn’t exactly fought DarkCloud about the medicine—hadn’t for a while now.  It was getting too easy to accept the help, to passively escape the suffering.  And the relief was too familiar, too reminiscent, and it was getting harder all the time to resist.

He heard a door open and Scott’s footsteps could be heard approaching.  Impulsively, Johnny rolled to his side, managed to calm his breathing just as the footsteps paused outside his door.  He heard a soft knock, then the door opened.  He sensed Scott looking at him, could almost hear his brother deciding whether he should call out or let him be.  But Johnny knew Scott wouldn’t bother him, would be too concerned about his health and need for rest.  In a moment Scott proved Johnny correct in his assessment and quietly left, closing the door softly behind him.

Johnny sighed, unsure why he’d pretended to be asleep.  Scott had probably had an earful from DarkCloud and it had been Johnny’s fault.  It had been unfair of him to spring that on Scott like he had, especially without more of an explanation or warning.

Johnny rolled onto his back again and blinked.  Squinting, he let his eyes trail over to the window.  He sure wished the curtains were thicker, damned sunlight made it hard to get any rest.  Not that he needed any.  He was feeling great, better than ever…

…thanks to the blasted morphine.

He closed his eyes and wondered where Murdoch was.




Murdoch adjusted his seat, found it didn’t help much, leaned forwards slightly straightening his legs thereby relieving some of the pressure off his posterior and lower back, all the while keeping an eye on Matthew who rode just slightly ahead of him.  It was at times like these that he felt a desire to call a curse upon Pardee’s head.

Matthew turned back, caught a glimpse of Murdoch leaning forward in his saddle before the older man had had the opportunity to straighten up.

“Ready for a break?” Matthew asked.

Murdoch shook his head and gruffly answered, “I’d just as soon get another hour behind us.”

Matthew turned back to the road ahead, could tell that Murdoch was getting tired.  They’d already ridden three hours without a stop, though they’d been taking their time.

“Well, if you don’t mind, I’d just as soon stop up here a ways.  I drank way too much coffee this morning.”

Murdoch smiled, glanced down at his hands, recognized the younger man’s attempt to save him embarrassment.  He would have done the same thing himself, years back.

“I took a bullet in the lower back a few years ago.  Sit too long and it starts to bother me,” he said in a vague attempt at an explanation.

Matthew glanced back, slowed his horse down just enough so that they walked even.  “Wish you’d told me.  We can stop any time.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “I’m fine.  I just need to stretch it out once in awhile.”

“Well, there is a good place to stop in about ten minutes.”

Murdoch nodded.  “That’d be fine.  I had quite a bit of coffee, too.”

Matthew laughed.  “You’ve got a sense of humor just like your son’s.”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow.  “Scott?”

Matthew glanced at Murdoch with amusement.  “No.  Johnny.”




Scott stepped down into the saloon, took a quick look around, but other than two older men at a table, he found it empty.

“Either of you men seen Tucson?”

The men looked up, paused in their conversation, glanced at Scott and shook their heads.  “Nope,” one replied.  “Ain’t see him, but we only just came in.”

“Who are you lookin’ for?”

Scott turned around as Rosti entered from the back room.


Rosti jerked a thumb toward the door.  “He headed outside not long ago.  Don’t know where he was going, though.”

“Thanks,” Scott answered and gave a polite nod toward the older gentlemen.

Outside Scott immediately spied his quarry across the street talking to Calientes.  He stepped off the boardwalk and made for the pair who greeted him as he approached.

“Hey, there, Scott!  Don’t tell me you want the tub moved again,” Tucson chuckled.

“Nope,” Scott laughed.  “It can stay right where it is as far as I’m concerned.”

Tucson laughed, then suddenly paused and nodded toward the corner.  “There’s another one comin’ this way.”

Scott turned and looked to where Tucson indicated.  A Chinese gentleman, clothes and face dusty, yet a pleasant smile on his face, approached.

“They showed up this mornin’,” Calientes explained quickly.  “Startin’ in on the pit for the turn table right down the block on the west side of town.  “They’ve been comin’ by for supplies and opening a line of credit.”  Calientes smiled, gave the Chinese gentleman a polite wave into his store.  “God bless Madrid,” he grinned at Scott and Tucson before he followed the customer into his shop.

Tucson hooked his fingers into his belt.  “Things are gonna be jumpin’ ‘round here from now on, I suppose.”

“You ready for it?” Scott asked.

Tucson cocked his head to the side.  “Hope so. Certainly will be different now, me havin’ this here job and all.  Wouldn’t have even given somethin’ like that a thought just a short time ago.”

Scott nodded, paused.  “Can I buy you a drink, Sheriff?”

Tucson grinned, almost blushed at the title.  “I’m tryin’ to get used to that.”

“It’ll come.”

Tucson looked up.  “Got a better idea.  How ‘bout I buy Madrid’s brother a drink?”

Scott managed to keep the smile on his face.  “I think I’d like that.”

The two walked back toward Rosti’s.  While Scott headed toward a corner table, Tucson went up to the counter.  Scott took off his hat, sat it on the table, leaned back in his chair and waited while Rosti supplied Tucson with a couple mugs of beer.

“Thought about gettin’ a whole bottle of whiskey,” Tucson apologized as he approached the table, “but then I thought that probably wasn’t appropriate for the town’s sheriff to be seen downin’ a bottle of whiskey ‘fore noon.”

Scott smiled, accepted the mug with a nod of thanks.  “See, you’re getting the hang of it already.  The beer’s just fine.  I’m sure to have a long day ahead of me, too.”

Tucson settled into his chair and relished a long draught before sighing.  “Yeah, tryin’ to get in the habit of thinkin’ of things like that.  Never worried before what I drank or when I drank it.”  He gave a nod up the stairs.  “Not like that brother of yours.  He seems to like to think everything through ahead of time… prefers to remain in control.”  He cocked his head thoughtfully.  “Probably why he’s still alive.”  Tucson’s eyes opened as he realized what he’d said, looked down embarrassed. “Didn’t mean it to come out like that, Scott.  Sorry.  Can’t even blame it on drinking too much.”

Scott waved his hand dismissively.  “No need to apologize.  I’m afraid the same thought has occurred to me before.”

Tucson looked up.

“In fact,” Scott sat his mug on the table.  “That’s really what I’d like to talk about.”

Tucson’s surprise turned to confusion.  “What?”

“Your line of work.  I’d like to ask you a few things.”

Tucson sat his own drink on the table, regarded Scott curiously.  “I gotta feelin’ you don’t mean the sheriff job.”

Scott gave a grim shake of his head.

“You wanna ask me about bein’ a gunfighter.”

Scott nodded.

“Okay,” Tucson replied slowly, folded his hands in his lap.  “I can’t see what I could possibly tell you.”

Scott leaned forward, moved his mug off further to the side.  “The town originally hired you, right?”
               Tucson nodded.  “Yeah, that’s right.  That Señor Angelou made the trip down to Paso and hired me.”  He gave a crooked grin.  “If he’d known Madrid had just fallen into their laps, though, he wouldn’t have bothered with the trip.”  He shrugged.  “But, he made me a deal and I showed up not knowin’ Madrid was around ‘til I got here.  That was some surprise, I tell you.”

“He was here when you showed up?”

Tucson shook his head.  “Not really.  He was out at Matthew’s place when I came into town.  I showed up a bit early and old Angelou was mighty anxious to put us to work, so he moved up the meetin’.”

“The meeting?”

Tucson nodded.  “Yes.  They’d set it up with Matthew and Madrid to meet here at Rosti’s.  He’d been stayin’ out at Matthew’s place.  Knowin’ what I do now, I see that DarkCloud and Matthew had actually maneuvered it in such a way to give Johnny some extra days of rest from his injuries.  No one but them knew how badly he was hurt at this point.  Guess he put on quite a show for some of the townsmen just a few days earlier.  But knowin’ how things were with him, it musta cost Madrid quite a lot to play out that little scene.  But he got their respect and managed it in such a way that if they wanted him in the deal, they had to put him in charge of the operation.  Didn’t make no nevermind to me.  Heck, when I heard Madrid was in on the game, I gotta tell you quite plain and honest, I was plumb thrilled just thinkin’ how workin’ with him was gonna boost my reputation.  Workin’ one on one with Madrid, well—” Tucson grinned, picked up his beer and took a drink.  “’Course when the Kid showed up, it looked like it was gonna be a threesome.  But I had no problem with that.  Do have to admit to a bit of concern regardin’ your brother’s reputation for taking out guns he was hired to work with.  Also, since I didn’t know about his lost memory or his injury, when he didn’t appear quite well, I did start worryin’ that he’d taken to drinkin’ or that he weren’t feelin’ well, but I never imagined…” Tucson shrugged again.  “But I gotta be honest.  There at first, I was just lookin’ at it from the viewpoint of how he was gonna help me and what I was gonna get out of it.”  Tucson suddenly grinned.  “And I gotta tell you.  Gettin’ this sheriff job was not what I expected to come outta this!”

“So, Johnny managed to hide his condition pretty well?”

“Pretty well?!” Tucson snorted loudly.  “Hell, I’d spent time with him, ridin’ out with him to set up some of his schemes— As I said, I thought maybe a bit of drinkin’ or something.  I mean, it ain’t uncommon in the profession, you know…drinkin’.  But it never entered my mind, you know, that he was injured like he was.  I tell you,” he shook his head.  “Up in Salinas, when I saw him go down under that horse’s hooves, I thought he was done for.  Didn’t think he could possibly be alive.”  Tucson paused before fixing uneasily on Scott.  “Then Harley came barreling out of the crowd.  Never seen nothin’ like it.”  He paused again, squinted as if he were trying to bring the scene to mind again.  “That blacksmith—didn’t know who he was at the time—but saw the look he gave Johnny as he lay there in the dust, and well…” Tucson swallowed, looked down.  “I done near cried myself.  Knew immediately and without a doubt, this was someone who knew Madrid, knew him like a brother.  Thought he was gonna break down and cry right there in the middle of the street.  Then he just scooped Johnny up like a small child and carried him into the hotel.”  Tucson shook his head. “Damn good thing Harley was around, though.  Don’t know what we woulda done otherwise.  He bought us some time, helped us get Johnny back on his feet and out of town.  Don’t think he was real happy about it, but he knew what needed to be done…he knew the score.”

Tucson shrugged and continued, “Anyhow, that’s when I first saw that bullet wound.  Shocked, I gotta tell you.  Even finding out about the laudanum, I’m still surprised Johnny managed to pull off all he done.”  Tucson reached for his drink, took a long swallow.  “But he managed to ride out of town.  He was worried, and rightly so, about Wakeman finding out and havin’ the time to put together an attack.  Madrid knew our safety depended on him appearin’ to be in control.”  Tucson took another quick sip and sat the mug back on the table.  “But he was in bad shape.  Really bad shape.  That’s when his fever started to get outta hand.  Both Matthew and I feared we weren’t gonna be bringing him back to Soledad alive.  I gotta tell you, Scott, it was one of the longest nights of my life.”

Scott managed to keep the emotion from showing in his face.  “So, only DarkCloud and Matthew knew how badly he was wounded before that?”

“Yeah, not even Harley had been aware, though I tell you, he ‘bout near had a fit in that hotel room when he learned what was goin’ on.”  Tucson nodded emphatically.  “I understand now some of the stuff that was being said, things that appeared at the time rather odd…stuff between Johnny and DarkCloud, I mean.  Makes sense now.  DarkCloud, I guess, had been rather upset with the risks Madrid had been taking, the position he’d put himself in, how he was pushing himself.”

Scott smiled wryly.  “Oh, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what our good doctor thought of the way Johnny chose to do things.”

“Yeah, I remember thinkin’ to myself as we were comin’ down the road that night, here I’d been hopin’ to add to my reputation by working with Madrid, and instead I was gonna find myself known as the fella who was with him when he died.  Not quite what I was hopin’ for when I heard I was gonna be working with the legendary Madrid, not quite the way I wanted to be remembered.”

Scott pulled back a bit, seemed to reconsider, leaned forward while he idly picked up his mug.  “You speak of my brother as a legend.  Why?”

Tucson’s brows went up.  “Well, he is—among the profession, anyway.”  He cocked his head thoughtfully.  “You grew up back East I heard.”

Scott nodded.  “Yes, Boston.  Moved out here about two and a half years ago.”

Tucson nodded, seemed to consider the information.  “Makes sense then, I suppose, you not hearin’ talk of Madrid.”

“He’s that big of a deal, then?”

Tucson snorted, emptied his mug, pointed at Scott’s.  “Need a refill?”
               “No.  No, I’m fine,” Scott replied.

Tucson turned to Rosti who was idly leaning against the bar reading a newspaper. “Hey, Rosti.  Can I have another?”

“Sure,” Rosti nodded, folded the paper and walked around the bar.  “How ‘bout you, Mr. Lancer?”
               Scott shook his head again.  “I’ve got a long day, yet.”

Rosti nodded, picked up Tucson’s mug and carried it back to the bar.

Scott studied Tucson for a moment, worried his bottom lip as he tapped his own mug with his fingers.  “Tucson,” he said, then waited until he had the man’s attention.  “You were saying that working with Johnny was that important to you.”

Tucson nodded, grinned.  “You could say so.  I mean, maybe you ain’t heard of Madrid out in Boston, and oh,” he shrugged, swept his hand around the room in a gesture of inclusion.  “Perhaps up here in the north he ain’t known by name to everyone, but anyone in the business—either side, I should add—is gonna have heard of him.”

“Either side?”

“You know, them hiring or hirin’ out, or those in the business of preventin’ that sorta trouble.”

“The law, you mean.”

Tucson nodded.  “’Course, it’s hard to know what’s genuine and what’s just talk.  There can be a lot of plain noise in our business, you understand.”

Scott nodded.

“Hey, Rosti.”  Tucson called out, swinging around in his chair to gesture.  “What was that you heard ‘bout Madrid just awhile ago?”

Rosti walked toward their table, a filled mug in hand.  “You mean what I heard from that drifter who came through here awhile back?”

Tucson nodded as he accepted his mug.

Rosti grinned, put a foot up on a vacant chair and leaned an elbow on his leg.  “Oh, that fella said he’d been working over near McCall’s Crossing, I think it was.  Said he worked for some rancher named Marvin or Melvin, something like that.  He said Madrid came in hired by the other big rancher in the area.  Scared most all of the men shitless, I guess you could say.  Ran rings around their organization.” Rosti snorted, slapped his leg.  “At the time, figured he was stretching the truth some for a free drink, but I tell you, after witnessing Madrid in action for myself, I’d believe anything about him now.”

Scott’s expression turned reflective.  “McCall’s Crossing?”

Rosti nodded, straightened up.  “Yup. That was the name of the place.”

“And you say it was when?”

“Well, the drifter came through here, oh, I don’t know, think it was nine months ago or so, and I assume the fella had been on the move for awhile, so,” he shrugged,  “perhaps a year, I’d guess.  But that’s a guess.”

Scott’s gaze trailed down toward his hand clasped around the mug.  He tapped it with his thumb, nodded his head then looked up at the proprietor.  “Thanks, Mr. Rosti.”

Rosti shrugged.  “Glad to help.”  He started to turn away then hesitated.  “I’m headed back to the kitchen.  Checking on lunch.  Give a holler if you need anything else.”

“Will do,” Tucson waved.

Scott gave a nod, then turned back to study his mug.

“I gotta tell you, Mr. Lancer.  There ain’t no one I ever met anywhere who plays the part so well.” Tucson shook his head, raised his mug for a quick sip before continuing.  “I told myself that first time, though that only lasted a couple of days, that if I ever had the chance, I had to find a way to work with Madrid again.”

“Again?” Scott looked up, eyebrows raising in surprise.  “You knew Johnny from before?”

“Well, yeah.  I met him…sorta,” Tucson gave a quick expression of chagrin.  “Not really met, I guess.  More like, watched him.  He didn’t remember me at all, I’m afraid.  But me and my friend didn’t stick around after those ranchers hit Warburton.  Sexton Joe was crazy and I weren’t gonna go workin’ for no nut.”

“Warburton?”  Scott’s eyes widened.  “You met Johnny at Warburton’s camp?”

Tucson shrugged wryly.  “Like I said, not really met.  I was just one of a bunch of other guns Warburton had hired, but when we heard Warburton had put Madrid on the payroll, most of us were mighty impressed, though it appeared Warburton didn’t really understand what he’d managed to hire himself.”

“You say ‘most of you’?”

Tucson nodded.  “Oh, there was that Sexton Joe I mentioned.  He was a black one.  You ask me, he weren’t all there.” Tucson touched his temple knowingly.  “It was apparent from the get-go he didn’t like Madrid bein’ around.  Think it was professional jealousy, myself.  He wanted to be head dog and it quickly became apparent in camp we, the rest of us I mean, preferred Madrid to be callin’ the shots.  This seemed to irk Sexton Joe somethin’ fierce.”  Tucson paused to take another sip.  “Madrid and Isham, now, appeared to be friends or had a workin’ acquaintance at least.  Learned later, though, that your brother took him down a day or two after I left.  Got to admit this worried me a bit when I heard he was here as word is it’s happened before.”

“Happened before?” Scott asked.

Tucson nodded.  “Those hirin’ with Madrid and those doin’ the hirin’ better be playing with a true deck around Madrid, or they just might find themselves on the other side of his barrel.”

“I still don’t think I understand,” Scott said, brows knitting in confusion.

“Just this.  If someone’s lookin’ to hire Madrid, they better be givin’ him the full story, or it’s liable to blow up in their faces.  I’ve heard of a couple instances, don’t know how much of it is true, where the fella who hired Madrid for a particular job found himself gettin’ just a bit more than he paid for.”  Tucson chuckled.  “Seems Madrid brings out either the worst in people or the best.”
               “And it seems like you’ve gotten to be quite an authority,” Scott commented, a bit more peevishly than he’d meant to.

“Authority?  Me?”  Tucson shook his head, gave a soft snort.  “No, Scott.  I just watched him carefully, studied him.”  He dropped his eyes to his mug, picked it up and drained half of it.  After setting it back on the table, he looked up.  “I’ll tell you plain how it is.  I ain’t a big name.  Oh, for awhile there, when I was younger, I mighta fancied I could be…with a bit more practice, a bit more,” he shrugged, “a bit more guts…  But I think, deep down, I knew I didn’t have what it’d take—what it’d take to be good, really good.”

“What would it take?” Scott asked.

Tucson nodded, his expression losing the last remaining semblance of relaxed banter. For a moment he was quiet, then he leaned forward and rested his arms on the table.   “See, Scott, there’s basically two types of gunfighters.  There’s the guys like me.  We got a bit of a talent, kinda fall into it for lack of anything better, a way to make some money.  But we’re more talk than action.  We brag about our exploits, make most of them up, pray that if we watch our backs close enough and learn when it’s best to duck, we just might live long enough to get ourselves hired onto some rich rancher where we can watch his cows ‘til retirement.  Or if we’re really lucky, land a sheriff’s job where the most dangerous thing we have to do is to throw the local drunks in the hoosegow while the lies we’ve spread about our past will, hopefully, be enough to keep any hot heads from tryin’ anything.”

Tucson paused, audibly sighed as he took another sip.  “But, of course, that’s wishin’ for a lot.  Some of us, you see, get to believin’ our own stories and make some stupid mistake.  But mostly, we wanna live too much to be really good.  And killin’…well, we find that killin’ ain’t quite as much fun or easy to live with as we let on.”  He let his gaze drop uncomfortably to the mug in his hand.

“What’s the other type of gunfighter?” Scott asked after a quiet moment.

Tucson, his eyes fixed on his mug, took another slow sip then swallowed and shook his head before looking back up.  “It’s the type that scares the hell outta gunfighters like me.  It’s the ones who look at killin’ like a sport.  They feed on the power it gives them…the ability to decide life and death.  And each death is easier than the one before.  Friends, enemies, they’re all the same.  All that’s important is the job and the kill.  That’s why my friend and I lit out.  Sexton Joe was like that.”  He glanced down, his voice growing soft.  “The Kid, he woulda been like that too, I see now.”  He picked up his mug, studied it, but didn’t move to take a drink.  “They’re the true dangerous ones.  They were born without a soul, I think.  You can look inside their eyes and see that they’re already dead.  So, you see, they ain’t afraid to die.”  He quickly finished what was left of his drink and looked up.  “That’s how you tell.  If you look into their eyes and see they’re already dead, then it’s time to run—to be afraid, to be really afraid.”

Scott felt a heaviness in his chest, feared to ask the next question.  He had to take a slow breath.  “Which one do you think Johnny is?”

Tucson’s gaze never wavered.  “See, there.  That’s what’s so interestin’ about Madrid.  Why he’s so different.”  He gave a hint of a shrug.  “Both.  Neither.  I don’t know.  His eyes aren’t dead…but I never saw someone so unconcerned about his own death.”  Tucson gave Scott a slight nod, tapped his finger on the table.  “Maybe you oughta ask him.”
               Scott tried to hold Tucson’s gaze, felt a challenge from the gunfighter, a challenge he hoped he was up to.

A flash of sunlight was suddenly released into the dimly lit saloon causing Scott to react sharply, and he turned around to blink just as the light was abruptly cut off.


DarkCloud strode purposely toward their table.  With a half nod to Tucson, the doctor leaned down next to Scott.  “I’ve got a delivery to make.  Going to have to leave you two.  Can you handle things here?” he asked softly, his eyes fixing Scott with a pointed look of understanding.

Scott nodded.  “We’ll be fine.”

DarkCloud’s eyes flicked toward the stairs.  “He won’t be needing any medicine for a couple hours,” his voice lowered so that Tucson couldn’t hear.  “I don’t know how long I’ll be, though.”

“We’ll be fine,” Scott reiterated.

DarkCloud held his position, narrowed his eyes.  “Scott, don’t go doing anything foolish.”

“DarkCloud, you go take care of your patient.  I’ll take care of my brother.”

DarkCloud’s jaw tightened as he raised a finger.  “Scott Lancer, you mess up my patient—”

“And it’s my head on a platter.  I know, I know already.  Now get going.”

DarkCloud gave a shake of his head, started to straighten up then leaned down once more.  “That’s our last bottle.  Careful with the amount.”

Scott nodded and watched as DarkCloud left, the daylight once again flashing momentarily into the room.  Scott then turned and glanced toward the steps that led to the upper rooms.  Upstairs his brother lie; upstairs Madrid, the legendary gunfighter lie.  Which one waited for Scott?  Which one needed Scott the most?



               Rocking back and forth, his arms tightly crossed against his chest, Murdoch’s footsteps could be heard pacing behind him.  The atmosphere heavy…weighted…full of condemnation and shame.  Another life had been taken with the gun of Johnny Madrid…

               He wanted to crawl into a hole and die…death had always seemed the preferable alternative at this point…after the fact… But back then he’d had the chance to go bury his self-loathing in a bottle of whiskey in the solitude of some upstairs hotel room.  Now he didn’t have that luxury.  Instead, his actions were under scrutiny, and not from the local sheriff… He’d always been careful to keep that from developing into a difficulty, if at all possible.  No, this time, the scrutiny came from something much worse.  From a father who demanded answers and expected faultless behavior…a man who styled himself a paragon of the moral right. 

               In an attempt to hide his shame, he fell back on what he knew…and that was to be Madrid.  “What do you want from me?  You saw what happened!  He drew on me!”

               And his father walked up to him, looked at him, a stricken look of grief in his eyes.  “Johnny.  You could have been killed.  Thank God you’re alive.”

               And Murdoch reached out and enveloped him in a hug, a hug that chased away darkness, chased away pain…gave him back his soul…

               …and Johnny Madrid cried…



Scott shifted the tray he held and knocked on Johnny’s door.  Hearing what sounded like a mumbled answer, he entered.  As he stepped into the room, he glanced at his brother, but paused for a second as he realized Johnny was still asleep.


He was cut off as his brother flung out one hand, another string of lowly uttered words following.

He’s dreaming again.

Scott quietly closed the door then sat the tray on the table before going to Johnny’s bed.  He leaned down and put a slight amount of pressure on his brother’s shoulder.  “Johnny.  Johnny.  It’s Scott.”


Scott jumped back as Johnny bolted upright, both hands outstretched, eyes wide and confused.  “Where’s—” The word was cut off as Johnny gave a shuddered moan and leaned forward, closed his eyes, one hand dropping to steady himself on the bed.  “Oh, hell…”

Scott put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder, this time gripping it in tight support.  “You okay?”

Johnny gave a tight nod, swallowed, took in a breath as he mentally forced his racing heart to slow down.  “I gotta learn to quit doin’ that.”

“At least for a few more weeks,” Scott added lightly.

Johnny nodded, opened his eyes, but Scott saw confusion still in them as his brother looked about the room, squinting toward the window.

“Is—is Murdoch back yet?”
               Scott held his position, shook his head.  “He just left this morning, remember?”

Johnny looked at Scott, saw the apprehension on his brother’s face.  “Sorry.”  Shaking his head, he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.  “Sometimes I—” He sighed, dropped his hand and looked up, blinked.  “I lose track of time when I fall asleep.”

Scott smiled, relieved.  “You haven’t been asleep long.  I think the bath wore you out.”

Johnny smiled wryly.  “Oh, great.  Worn out by a bath.”

“We’ll say there was so much water in the tub, that you had to paddle the whole time just to stay afloat,” Scott quipped.

Johnny rolled his eyes.  “We’ll say nothing.”  He pushed himself to the edge of the bed, Scott drawing back to allow him to swing his legs over the side.  Once positioned, he took long breaths, gave his head another shake as if still trying to clear it of the last vestiges of dreams.  “It’s just been a couple of hours, you say?”

Scott nodded and walked to the table.  “It’s just after noon.  I’ve brought you up some lunch.”

“Oh, Scott,” Johnny shook his head.  “I’d really rather not eat.  Not right now.”

“Well, that’s too bad,” Scott replied as he positioned the two chairs around the table.  “See, DarkCloud’s just left to go deliver that baby he’s been waiting on, and he put me in charge here, with the explicit directions that you were to eat, and eat heartily.”

Johnny groaned.  “Wonderful.  The cloud of darkness reaches far.”

Scott laughed, stepped to one of the chairs and patted its back.  “Come on, Brother.  Your food’s getting cold.”

Johnny slowly stood and walked to the chair.  “What is it?”

“A stew, fresh baked bread, sliced tomatoes…and…” he paused and waved his hand toward the mug.  “La piece de resistance.”

“La what?” Johnny asked sourly.  “It’s tea again, ain’t it?”

Scott feigned a wounded look and picked up the mug.  “Come on.  Give me a little credit here.  I am your brother, after all.”  He offered the mug to Johnny.

Johnny took one quick sniff.  “Beer!”  He grinned.  “I take back everything bad I ever said about you.”

“You said something bad about me?  I am truly wounded.  When did this happen?”

“Doesn’t matter now, does it?” Johnny asked with a half-grin.  “I took it all back.”  He raised the mug in toast, took a long, gratifying sip, then sat down in the chair.

Scott sat down in his own chair, cut off a chunk of bread and passed it to Johnny.  “Feel better after a bath and a nap?”

“Bath and a nap,” Johnny grumbled sourly.  “There you go again.  Enjoy twisting those screws, don’t you?”

Scott swallowed a grin.  “I was just asking.”  He spooned up some soup, blew on it before putting it into his mouth.

“I know,” Johnny grumbled, spooned up some of his own soup.  “Dang!  That’s hot!”

“Blow on it first,” Scott cautioned.

“Blow on it first,” Johnny mimicked.

“The afternoon’s young and you’re already testy,” Scott commented between bites.

“I’m not testy,” Johnny grumbled, then sighed as Scott arched his eyebrows in disbelief.  “I’m not.”

“Okay.  Fine.  You’re not testy.  In fact, I’ve never seen you in a more agreeable mood.  I’d even go so far as to say, you are downright amiable and jovial this afternoon.”

“Okay, that’s enough.  You’ve made your point,” Johnny cut in, but his eyes crinkled in amusement.

Scott laughed softly.

For a few minutes they ate in silence, though Johnny still seemed to dawdle over his food.  Scott was debating the wisdom of admonishing his brother about his eating habits, when Johnny paused, his head cocked to the side.

“What’s that banging I keep hearing?” he asked.  “I’ve heard it off and on today.”

Scott nodded toward the west.  “The rail line.”

“The rail line?”

“Yes, one of the reasons the town hired you,” Scott replied evenly. “They’ve started the turntable.  Calientes, by the way—heck, the whole town, actually, says to thank you for all you’ve done.  For, you know, without you—”

Abruptly, Johnny stood up and walked away from the table, his expression stony.

“What’s wrong?” Scott asked, setting down his spoon.

“You don’t approve of what I did here.”

“I never said I didn’t approve—”

“Disappointed, then?” Johnny asked sharply as he turned around and crossed his arms.

“No, I’m just…” Scott sighed, stood up and gestured toward the chair.  “Johnny, come on and sit back down.  I don’t want to start an argument.”

“I’m not arguing.  I want to know.  I want you to tell me.  What do you think about what happened here?”

Scott sighed, could see no way to avoid the subject.  “It’s hard, Johnny.  I’ve seen that it’s not just what I believe, but…”

“But what?”

Scott rubbed his forehead before he gestured toward the window.  “It’s what others believe.  I’ve seen what happens, what it’s like now to have—” He stopped as he saw Johnny’s expression waver, a split second of anguish instantly replaced by a cold mask.

               “You’ve seen, so now you think you know everything, huh?”

               “Johnny!”  Scott interrupted, stepping forward.  “Listen, okay?  Just listen.”

               Johnny’s crossed arms tensed, the shield was up and as impregnable as ever.  “I’m listening.”

               Scott regarded his brother silently a moment.  “Johnny, what I’ve seen—what I’m referring to—is just how much this life must have meant to you—what it gave you.  I’ve seen, in just this one little instance, how an entire town’s future can be changed—affected for the good.  And the sense of satisfaction it must have given you, to know you made a difference.  You’ve got an entire town here unable to speak your name without adding their blessing.  You’re revered here as some sort of a gift from the Almighty!”

               Johnny snorted derisively.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how you were saved by a saint—”

“You must be joking.”

Scott shook his head.  “The word around town is that Saint Francis saved you.  You were wearing his medallion.”

Johnny’s expression turned incredulous.  “Father Alvarez briefly mentioned something, but I didn’t think he was being serious.”  Johnny studied Scott a moment, waited for his brother to corroborate his belief.  “Scott, you’ve got to put a stop to talk like that.”

Scott shook his head. “Far be it from me to argue with miracles and saints.”

“You don’t believe that nonsense?”

Scott shrugged.  “I do know I’d make a very poor dissenter.” Without dropping his gaze, Scott slowly reached into his pocket.  “Looking at this, I have a hard time believing there wasn’t some sort of miracle performed that afternoon,” he replied softly, letting the mutilated medallion swing free of his grip.

Johnny blinked, stunned, watched the swaying chain a second before forcing his gaze upward to meet his brother.  “What are you doing with that?”

Scott drew the chain back up into his palm and studied it.  “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.  I probably have some sort of holy relic in my possession now,” he replied, though his tone lacked the flippancy of the words.  He sighed.  “I have it to remind myself of just how close I came to losing my brother.”  He hesitated then slowly looked up. “Why’d you do it, Johnny?  I saw what happened.  I know the choice you made.  I know you well enough to know that you saw every weapon there and its target.  And I know, too, that you could have hit any of them.  Why’d you make the choice you did?”

Johnny stepped back, turned toward the window.  “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

“You chose to take that bullet.”  Scott waited, but Johnny didn’t reply.  “You chose your target, Johnny.  And you knew you’d die for that decision.”

There was an imperceptible sigh.  “I couldn’t do anything else, Scott,” Johnny replied softly, his back still turned.  “You’re my brother.”

Scott walked up behind Johnny and laid a hand on his shoulder.  “And I’m your brother.”  Scott paused, closed his eyes a second before continuing, his expression changing to one of resolve.  “That’s why I’m going to help you.  If you still feel strongly about stopping the morphine, if you’re sure you want to try to go without it, then I’ll see to it that you don’t have to take any more.”

Johnny slowly turned around, his expression guarded.  “Why?” he asked slowly.

“Because I think I know why it’s important for you to quit now.”

Johnny didn’t reply, but there was an air of challenge in the look that he leveled at his brother.

“Murdoch’s gone now,” Scott continued simply.  “And you don’t want to be pulling off the stuff when he’s around.”

Johnny nodded hesitantly.  “I owe it to him, too.  He said—” he stopped, shook his head.  “I think it would help things between us.”

Scott nodded.  “But there’s another reason, isn’t there?”

Once again, Johnny didn’t reply, but stared coolly at his brother.

“It’s getting too easy to take…and that scares you.”

A flicker of surprise showed on Johnny’s face before he dropped his gaze uncomfortably.  “You have no idea how bad it can get, Scott.   I’ve been there already, and I know what hell it hides.  I can feel it sucking me back, trying to dig its claws in again.  I want to get away from it, before its hold gets too strong, too comfortable.  The other time,” he hesitated, his gaze flicking up for just a second.  “I’d been on the laudanum for so long, I didn’t want to quit.  I fought them…Cisco, Harley, Wes…I don’t want to go through that again…I don’t want to end up fighting you.”

“Then you’re not going to.”

Johnny glanced up, met Scott’s eyes, gave a hesitant smile.  “Are you sure you want to?  I mean, DarkCloud and all.”

“That’s what brothers are for,” Scott smiled then shrugged.  “Though I’m hoping you’ll lend me your head once and awhile.”

Johnny snorted softly then sighed with chagrin.

“Now what’s wrong?” Scott asked.

“You couldn’t have told me this before I ate lunch?”




Matthew stepped up onto the boardwalk and leaned against the post column. A minute later, Murdoch walked out of the telegraph office and nodded a greeting.

“Got your wire sent?” Matthew asked.

Murdoch nodded again, glanced down the street.  “I told them they could be expecting us in two weeks.”

Matthew straightened up.  “You think Johnny’ll be ready to travel by then?”

Murdoch shrugged.  “I don’t know.  But I had to tell them something, and if he’s not well enough yet to travel, then I’ll just have to send another wire.  If I didn’t give Jelly and Teresa a tangible date here soon, I have a feeling they’d take it upon themselves to show up and see for themselves what is going on.”

“Teresa.  You said that was your daughter, right?”

“Ward,” Murdoch corrected.  “Her father was my foreman.  He was killed a few years back.”

Matthew nodded, then grinned.  “Who’s Jelly, though?”

Murdoch suddenly smiled.  “That’d be a hard one to explain,” he chuckled.  “Jelly’s…Jelly works for me, but he’s more friend than anything else.”  Murdoch paused.  “He’s been a good friend to Johnny when he’s needed one.”

Matthew nodded.  “Then I’m sure it’s been hard for him, not knowing what’s been happening.”

Murdoch agreed, glanced away.  “In some ways, I wonder if it’d been better if I’d sent him along with Scott.  It might have been easier for Johnny…he might have been more comfortable with Jelly around.   But,” Murdoch paused, “I’m glad I came.  It was good to have seen what was going on around here…what Johnny was doing, what he meant to you people.  I don’t know as I agree with it, but it’s helped me to understand.”

“Without Johnny, Wakeman would have eventually owned this valley.”

“I know,” Murdoch looked back.  “It’s just…I don’t agree with the use of violence.  It seems there should have been another way to handle the situation.”

Matthew shook his head.  “We had tried everything, Mr. Lancer.  Honest.  We aren’t violent people either.  But sometimes…sometimes, Mr. Lancer, you run into men where violence is the only thing they understand or respect.  And when that happens, someone like Johnny is a godsend.”

Murdoch sighed then gestured across the street.  “So, did you get the morphine?”

Matthew shook his head.  “Nope.  They were out, too.”

“What?” Murdoch questioned.  “That’s two apothecary shops out of morphine.  That seems a little odd, doesn’t it?”

Matthew shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I asked this last owner and he said he hadn’t received his shipment, that there was some sort of shortage.”

Murdoch’s brows furrowed.  “Where’s another shop?”

“Well, I only know of one other.  It’s about two blocks north of here, up near the warehouse where—”

“Warehouse?  They should have the morphine, shouldn’t they?”

Matthew nodded.  “That’s where our town would receive many of its goods from.  DarkCloud received a good number of his medical supplies from there.  In fact, I know when we were up last, we brought back laudanum and such.”

“Then that’s where we’re going.”  Murdoch stepped off the boardwalk and grabbed the reins to his horse.  “Stores are going to be closing here soon, and I want to get this taken care of so we can leave first thing in the morning.”

Matthew quickly followed Murdoch’s lead.  He’d learned that once the elder Lancer had his mind made up, it was useless to waste any more breath on the subject.



The warehouse looked just as it had a few scant weeks earlier.  For some reason, Matthew felt it ought to look different.  He wasn’t sure why, but decided it was because so much had happened in that short amount of time.  Chuckling to himself, he turned toward the elder Lancer with the intention of relating the story about the confrontation between Johnny and James Wakeman in the restaurant, when the sudden thought occurred to him that Murdoch might not appreciate the humor of the situation.  Resigned, he turned his attention back to the warehouse, deciding that it was probably one of those times when it was best to have been there firsthand in order to really appreciate it.

After dismounting, Murdoch and Matthew entered the warehouse, calling to the first worker they saw to show them back to the manager’s office.

Mr. Hanson was just as nervous and flushed as Matthew remembered him, mopping his brow continuously.  While Murdoch inquired about the morphine, Matthew privately mused on the probable number of handkerchiefs the stocky owner went through in one day.

“Sorry, uh…Mr. Lancer, you said your name was?”

Murdoch nodded.

Mr. Hanson shook his head, pressed his ‘kerchief to his forehead.  “Yes, well, we seem to be all out of morphine at the moment.  There’s been a shortage recently.  We should have some in stock again, oh, in a week or two, I should say.”

Murdoch’s brows furrowed and he crossed his arms.  “You’re out?  Then could you tell me who might have some we could purchase?”

Mr. Hanson shook his head.  “Sorry.  I really don’t know of anyone who might have some.  You could check the apothecary shops in town, but I suspect they are out.”

“They are,” Murdoch answered curtly.

“Yes,” Mr. Hanson nodded.  “I expected as much.  Well,” he shrugged, “If you really need some, you could try over in Monterey.”

“Monterey?” Murdoch asked.

“That’d take us another day to get there, then two getting back to Soledad,” Matthew added.

“There must be another source.”

“Well,” Mr. Hanson seemed to consider.  “Have you checked with the local doctors?  They might have some.  Though, once again, with the shortage, they may be unwilling to part with any of it.”

Matthew could tell that the elder Lancer was not pleased, yet he nodded politely.  “Then perhaps we’ll have to try that,” he said.  “Thank you for your time, Mr. Hanson.”

Mr. Hanson smiled and wiped his brow again.  “Sorry I couldn’t have been of more help.”

“That’s all right.  We’ll just have to keep looking.  Come on, Matthew.”

As Murdoch turned to go out the door, Matthew nodded a quick farewell to Mr. Hanson, amused at how uneasy he appeared.

It’s a wonder that man can conduct business with anyone, the way he sweats and fidgets, Matthew mused to himself as he followed Murdoch out the door. 

Next came a bone-jarring crunch, a loud grunt of pain, exploding stars, and the feeling of a cold, hard floor before blackness claimed him.




“How much longer I gotta sit here waitin’ for you?”

The words were accompanied by someone vigorously shaking his shoulder.  He’d have been able to ignore the voice, but the shaking sent his head to spinning, and a backwash of exploding stars lit up the nerves behind his eyes and he automatically groaned a plea.

“Good.  You’re awake.”

Matthew thought to contest the statement, but hadn’t the energy.  He forced his eyes open.  A pair of dusty boots appeared.  He frowned.  He must be dreaming one of those strange dreams like Jamie talked about.  He’d have to remember this one.  He’d get a kick out of it.  Talking boots.

The boots moved.

He laughed.  “I wonder if they can dance, too,” he murmured.

“Dance?  You’ll be dancing before too long!  Come on, now.  Sit up!”

Abruptly Matthew found himself hauled to a sitting position, his head flopping to the side as he tried to keep the world from spinning.  Slowly the waves of color solidified and he found himself looking up into a dirty, unkempt, bearded face with the spittle from tobacco juice clinging to the hairs around its chin.


“You ain’t askin’ the question, Boy.  The only reason you’re still alive is to be a messenger.  So shut up and listen.”

Matthew blinked then allowed his eyes to travel past the form in front of him.  He was in a small room.  The one window in the room was dark, indicating that night had fallen. 

“The Judge, he ain’t happy with you,” the man stated as he leaned closer, his tobacco stained teeth grinning with unconcealed amusement.
               “The Judge?”

The man shoved Matthew in the chest, pushing him up against the wall.  “I told you.  All you gotta do it listen.  Now shut up!”

Matthew blinked, looked at the man with trepidation.

“Now it’s like this.  The Judge, he ain’t a happy man.  You got something he wants, and that’s Madrid.  And he’s got something Madrid wants, and that’s Murdoch Lancer.  Now your job is to high-tail it back to Soledad and tell Madrid that the Judge expects him up here day after tomorrow.  The Judge’ll be expecting him at his office at five o’clock.”


Matthew’s words were cut off by a sudden smack across the side of his face.  He shook his head in an effort to remain lucid.

“I told ya, Boy, to shut up and listen!  Now you got this room for the night.  Your horse is in the stable out back.  We brought you in dead drunk, you see, and you’re sleepin’ it off.”  At the mention of being drunk, Matthew realized he did indeed reek of alcohol.  Glancing down, he noticed the front of his clothes were wet and smelled of whiskey.  He suddenly had the uncomfortable feeling there wasn’t much his captors had left to chance.  “Now, in the morning, you’re to head back down to Soledad and tell Madrid what we told you.  If he has any hope of seein’ Murdoch Lancer alive, he’ll be up here as expected…and alone.”  The man leaned in even closer, almost gagging Matthew with his smell.  “I’d suggest he does as requested.  The Judge can be very disagreeable when he’s crossed.”

Matthew bit back a question, knew it’d only get him another smack alongside the head, and nodded his understanding.  With a grunt of satisfaction, the man stood up, took a step toward the door, then turned back with a malevolent grin.  “Ya know, ya really need to watch how much you drink.  It can turn into a bad habit.”

Matthew watched the door close then sighed with relief.  The only thing he was sure of was that he had to figure out some way to leave tonight.  Getting to Soledad early would give Scott and Johnny that much more time to figure out what to do.




Scott sighed, leaned against the chair and arched his back as far as it would go.  Then closing his eyes, he brought both hands to his face and made a cursory attempt to rub away the fatigue.  After a moment, he glanced over toward the bed.  Johnny lay curled on his side, finally asleep.  He didn’t know if it would last long, but Scott was relieved to see his brother getting some rest.  Outside the sky showed signs of the approaching night.  The last few hours had seemed especially long, and Scott knew an even longer night was just beginning.  Johnny’s discomfort was clearly growing, the pain had pretty much taken hold, along with the reaction to his need for medicine.  Each breath now seemed an agonizing chore for his brother, the shakes and sweats had begun, and true to his prediction, Johnny had lost his lunch.

In an effort to help his brother remain calm and focused, Scott had at first related a story about how he’d made the decision to join the war.  He’d described in rather elaborate detail how his grandfather had been mortified when his ‘Scotty’, for whom he’d already paid a conscription fee for a replacement, had come home from college, half-way through his second year, and announced his intention of enlisting.  Harlan had been outraged.  When reasoning with his headstrong grandson hadn’t worked, he tried bribery and threats.  But even the possibility of being cut off financially did nothing to deter Scott’s determination.  So, faced with the inevitable, Harlan did the only thing he could.  He bought Scott a commission.  Scott originally had every intention of turning it down, until, after some thought, he realized that as an officer, he’d have more power to make decisions and a greater chance of actually making a difference in the coming conflicts.

It wasn’t until after he’d been assigned that Scott realized just how far Harlan’s reach went when he found that he’d been assigned to one of the medical units, which were kept far behind the lines.

But Scott could be just as stubborn as his grandfather.  A smile crossed Scott’s face.  And just as stubborn as your father and brother.

Within a few weeks he’d managed to get himself transferred to a cavalry unit.

The story had elicited a grin from his otherwise subdued brother, who had even managed to laugh at the description of Harlan trying to bribe and bully Scott into submission. 

“Knew you weren’t no easy push-over, Brother.  Proud of you,” Johnny had remarked.

Scott smiled at the memory, then pushed himself out of the chair, stretching out his cramped and tense muscles.  He hoped Johnny would stay asleep long enough for him to go empty the chamber pots and make a run to the facilities for himself.  Then he planned to grab a plate of whatever it was Rosti had cooking and ask him to make up a fresh batch of the tea.  DarkCloud had all along emphasized that the tea was helpful for the pain as well as the healing benefits it produced, and from what Scott could see, Johnny could use any help available along those lines.

It didn’t take Scott long to run the chamber pots out to the back, empty and rinse them out.  And after seeing to his own needs, he hurried back into the saloon.  There he requested a plate of food and a new batch of DarkCloud’s tea.  Scott could tell by the look that Rosti gave him that the proprietor was puzzled by Scott’s manner and knew, despite his best efforts, that the strain he was under was affecting his behavior.  However, Rosti, if nothing else, was discrete and knew when to keep his questions to himself.

Arms full with empty chamberpots and a plate of food, along with a promise of a fresh batch of tea in the works, Scott quickly headed back to the upper room.




Sitting by the stream…the reflections of the massive oak stretching across the slowly moving river…a noise behind him…he smiled as he felt something touch his hair.

“There, this should fit.”

Johnny turned expectantly.  Laura, her small, delicate face framed with wavy brown hair and crowned with a ring of white flowers, laughed joyfully. 

“You should wear a crown of flowers all the time!”

Johnny leaned forward, reaching out to grasp her hands.  “Only if you wear one with me.”

Laura laughed and pulled away, stepping just out of reach.  Suddenly her smile faded and she regarded Johnny in tragic sadness.

“What’s wrong?” Johnny demanded, a sudden tenseness flooding across his chest.  “Laura, what is it?  What’s wrong?”

Laura shook her head, began to shimmer like morning fog.

Johnny lurched to his feet, sprang forwards in an attempt to capture her in his arms, but his embrace was met with nothing but cold emptiness. 





As Scott reached the top of the stairs, he heard the noise of something falling to the floor in Johnny’s room, along with the disconcerting sound of a muffled groan.  Panicking, Scott dashed for the door, the two chamberpots clanking in one hand while his supper slid precariously about on the plate.  As he reached the door, he made the quick decision that his supper was more important than the pots, and dropped them to the floor to give him a free hand. 

“Johnny!” he called as he flung open the door.

Johnny lay, gasping painfully on the floor, his eyes tightly shut.

“Johnny!” Scott quickly dropped to the floor beside his brother, distractedly pushing his plate off to the side as he put his other hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “Johnny.  Breathe slowly.  Slowly.  Look at me.  Come on.  It’s okay.  Just take it slow.”

Johnny moaned, gritted his teeth then forced his eyes open.  Another groan erupted, though this time he managed to cut it off, force it back down.  He tried to give his brother a sign of acknowledgement, but the effort seemed to cost him too much concentration and he had to close his eyes.

Scott gripped his brother’s shoulder with his free hand then moved his right down along Johnny’s back, mindful of the bandaging and bruises.  For a few moments he held his position, hoping the simple contact was enough to help his brother gain the control he needed.  Gradually Johnny’s breathing relaxed and he opened his eyes once more.

“What happened?” Scott asked softly.  “I leave for just a moment and when I return, I find you sprawled out on the floor here.”

Johnny regarded Scott with a forced smile, his pale face drenched with perspiration.  “Thought I’d go get us a new deck of cards.  Sure you got the other ones marked.”

Scott laughed softly.  “Oh, is that what you were doing?”

Johnny’s smile tried to widen, but he had to swallow back a groan.  “Had a dream,” he admitted in a whisper.

“Can I ask what about?”

Johnny barely shook his head.  “Don’t remember,” he said and closed his eyes.

Scott raised an eyebrow, but didn’t pursue the subject.  “How about we get you back up on the bed?”

“Kinda like it here.”

Scott bit back a grin.  “Fond of the floor, huh?”  He leaned back, releasing his tight embrace and regarded the surrounding area appraisingly.  “Well, I suppose I could find myself a spot.”

“This one’s taken,” Johnny murmured without moving, his eyes still closed.

Scott rested his arms on his knees and studied his brother for a moment.  “Would you like to sit up?”

Johnny’s head gave an imperceptible shake.  “No,” he mumbled.  “Don’t wanna move.”

“Okay.”  Scott sat down, slid his plate along the floor until it was in front of him.  As he picked it up, Johnny’s eyes opened and he looked at Scott with disbelief.

“And you’re gonna eat in front of me?”

“What?  You want me to go downstairs?  Heck, I’m afraid if I leave you alone again, I’ll find you trying to crawl out the window next time.”

Johnny groaned and closed his eyes.  “You are cruel.  Least you could do is go sit where I can’t see you.”

With a chuckle, Scott nodded and stood up.  “Okay.  Probably should go pick up the chamberpots anyway.  I left them outside the door in the hall.”

Johnny groaned again.  “Thanks for reminding me.”

“No problem,” Scott replied as he set his plate on the table then went to the door, which was still partially opened.  He picked up the dropped containers and brought them back into the room, closing the door firmly behind him.  “Rosti should be up any moment with some tea for you.”

Johnny’s only answer was another groan.

“It’ll help,” Scott replied as he sat the pans down and walked to the table.  “In the reading I did, and from what I learned from DarkCloud, having the small amount of laudanum in that tea of his will help ease the discomfort caused by discontinuing the morphine.”

“Still think it’s just draggin’ out the inevitable,” Johnny replied, began to push himself to a sitting position, faltered and hissed a curse. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Need the pot?”

Johnny tilted his head enough to shoot a withering look at Scott, then continued to push himself to all fours.

“Hey!  I said I’d help,” Scott exclaimed with a hint of irritation as he dropped once more to the floor and reached out to grasp his brother’s shoulders.

“I can—” Johnny’s reply was cut short with another hiss of pain. 

Scott felt Johnny tense, his breath arrested.

“Slow, Johnny.  Slow.  Don’t fight it.  Small breaths through your mouth.”

Johnny’s reply was a throaty growl, and for a second he remained on hands and knees, eyes closed as he fought to regulate his breathing.  After a moment, Scott felt the muscles relax and Johnny lifted up his eyes.  “It hurts, Scott.  Lord, it hurts.”

“I know, Brother,” Scott whispered, leaned in closer, enveloping Johnny in his arms.  “I know.  I’m here.”

In quiet wonder at his brother’s impulsive reaction, Scott witnessed Johnny lean into his embrace, moving just enough so that he rested a shoulder in his lap.  As Scott gently rubbed his brother’s upper back, he pictured the other time, and wondered if Cisco had once done the same thing that he was doing now.  Is this what it had been like?  Did he turn to Cisco or Harley?  Who held him when the pain got too much to handle alone?

A knock at the door brought his thoughts to a crashing end and Scott gave a sigh of incredulous disbelief at the uncanny ability of people to interrupt at the most inopportune moments.  A second knock brought his attention around and he glared for a moment at the door before responding with a curt, “Who is it?”

“Rosti.  I have the tea you wanted.”

With gritted teeth, Scott gave another sigh.  “Okay.  Just a moment.”  He leaned down toward his brother.  “I gotta get up,” he whispered.

“Heard,” Johnny mumbled.

Scott smiled forlornly.  “What’s the chances we can get you to sit up so you don’t quite look like you’re dying?”

“But I am,” Johnny responded softly, eyes remaining closed.

Scott’s grin widened.  “Yeah, well, you don’t have to look like it, though.”

Johnny groaned, opened his eyes.  “Help me up, then.”

Scott kept one hand around his brother while he reached up on the bed and grabbed hold of the two blankets.  As Johnny got himself to a sitting position, Scott bunched up the blankets to put behind his brother’s back as support against the bed.

“How’s that?”

Johnny gave a weak, pale nod.  “Terrific.”

Scott chuckled softly, reached out and patted Johnny’s knee.  “Just a second, now.”

“Like I’m going anywhere.”

With a grin of shared amusement, Scott stood up and went to the door.  He opened it only partway, knowing without a doubt that the action would only serve to pique Rosti’s curiosity, but also aware that Johnny would be adamant about keeping his condition private.  Scott, personally, saw no reason other than embarrassment to do so, but knew from experience that, for Johnny, embarrassment wasn’t the reason; his motive had deeper roots born of years of honing a survival instinct and the avoidance of doing anything that might put him in the position of appearing weak.

Scott quickly thanked Rosti for the tea and closed the door.  Then he carried the tea to the table where he picked up the bottle of laudanum and added a small amount to the dusky, brown liquid.  Finished, he carried the concoction back to his brother and sat down next to him.  Johnny sat, chin to chest, weakly hugging himself, his breathing shaky, arrested at intervals by tremors that sporadically seemed to appear.

“Hey,” Scott said softly.  “You want me to hold this for you?”

Johnny opened his eyes and looked up.  “I can—” he stopped to catch his breath, “do it.”

Scott nodded and carefully deposited the mug in Johnny’s trembling hands.  He watched, one hand remaining cautiously in the air ready to reach out to catch the mug if his brother dropped it.  

Slowly Johnny brought it to his lips, the grimace in his expression revealing his distaste of the brew, but he managed, after catching his breath, to take a couple of swallows.  After lowering it to his lap, he raised an eyebrow at Scott.  “You can relax,” he murmured.  “I’m not gonna spill.”

Chagrinned, Scott lowered his hand to his own lap and leaned back against the bed.  “How are you feeling now?”

Johnny shook his head, started to sigh, but grimaced as it was accompanied by pain, then leaned his head gingerly back against the thin mattress on the bed and closed his eyes. 

“Johnny—?” Scott put a hand out.

“Hurts, Scott.”  He faltered, forced down a swallow.  “Can’t breathe.  Hurts...hurts to move my side.”  He stopped again, opened his eyes without raising his head, yet he searched out Scott’s gaze.  “I’m having...” he took a breath, “…having a hard time controlling…” he stopped, closed his eyes.

Scott reached out, grasped his brother’s upper arm with one hand and cradled the other hand around one of Johnny’s as it clutched the mug.  “Do you want to change your mind?  We don’t have to do this right now.”

“No,” Johnny replied quickly, opened his eyes, raised his head, his jaw tightening as he bit back a groan of pain.  “I need to do it now.  You know that.”

Scott nodded.  “I just wanted to be sure.”  He gave his brother’s arm a squeeze of reassurance then patted the hand that held the mug. “Drink up.  The medicine will help with the pain and it should help relieve some of the symptoms.”

“Won’t help if I throw it all up,” Johnny replied sullenly.

“You won’t throw it up.  Your body needs it.  It’ll know that,” Scott said as he guided the mug back to Johnny’s lips.

With tired annoyance, Johnny allowed Scott to help him with the mug.  Then with continued persistence on Scott’s part, Scott managed to get his brother to finish all the tea before it’d even had a chance to get cold. 

“Now, then,” Scott said as he took the mug out of Johnny’s hands, stood up and carried it to the table.  “Isn’t it your turn?”

“My turn?” Johnny looked up, blinked blearily.  “My turn for what?”

“A story.”

Johnny stared at Scott for a long moment.  “Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  There’s any number of things I’d like to hear about.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed warily.  “What d’you wanna know?”

Scott hesitated, forced his gaze to remain steady.  “The Presidio bounty.  The man responsible for you almost being lynched.  Why is he out for you?” 

Johnny raised both eyebrows, seemed to want to laugh.  “The Presidio bounty?  That’s what you want to know?”

Scott nodded.

Johnny shook his head weakly, brought one hand up to rub tiredly at his eyes.  “Long story, Scott.”

“I believe we’ve got the time,” Scott replied with a hint of amusement as he settled back against the bed.  “And I’m not planning on going anywhere anytime soon.  How about you?”

Johnny’s look turned incredulous.  With a tired, broken sigh, Johnny shook his head again before lying back against the bed.  He stared at the ceiling a moment.  “Presidio,” he finally murmured and closed his eyes.  “Number of years back.  ‘Bout a month after the four of us started to ride together.”  He paused.  Scott sat motionless, waited for Johnny to continue.  After a moment, Johnny cleared his throat cautiously, opened his eyes, but his gaze remained fixed upward toward the ceiling.

“Heard a man named Forbes was hiring guns to guard shipments.  Big name…owned half the county, ran the other half.  Got hired on.  Weren’t long before we found ourselves guarding gun shipments over the Rio.  Didn’t think much of it…  Not exactly a rare job…  And it paid.

“We were guarding our third shipment.  Had just crossed the Rio, got a mile or two behind us, when we saw a band of ‘bout twenty to twenty-five comancheros.  There were only seven of us and by the time we managed to get ourselves and the wagon to a place that was defensible, we’d lost a man.  We were holding them off, but running out of ammunition.  We had no recourse but to break into the guns we were hauling.” Johnny stopped, closed his eyes again, his jaw tensing from pain.  After a moment, he opened his eyes and once more stared at the ceiling.  “That’s when we made an interesting discovery.  Seems the guns were no good.  Not all of them, of course.  Forbes would be too smart to know he couldn’t pull that.  No, but the shipment was inferior…the ammo, too.

“We were kept cornered for a whole day.  Lost another man.  Harley was wounded.  Finally decided we’d try to make a deal…let the comancheros have the goods.”

Johnny paused again, held his breath a second, swallowed thickly.  Slowly he lowered his head, his gaze meeting Scott’s.  “We barely managed to escape with our lives.  When we got back to Forbes, he was furious about losing the shipment, though not too concerned about his lost guards.  I demanded to know about the guns, as they’d cost us two men.  Hell, they’d ‘bout cost us all our lives ‘til we figured out something was wrong with ‘em.  However, it proved to be no surprise to Forbes.  He knew what he was trading was flawed and he was doing so on purpose.”  Johnny’s voice tightened.  “His idea of helping along the Anglo border cause.

“That’s when I decided to make his life hell.  I didn’t care one way or another if I went it alone, but Cisco, he was all for it.  So the four of us, we laid on him thick.”

Johnny suddenly gave a tired, lopsided grin.  “Put an end to his salt smuggling, spread the word about his inferior guns, and I guess you could say, we helped some of his cattle find their way back ‘cross  the border.  Yes, we managed to irritate him.  And I enjoyed it tremendously.”

“So that’s why he put out that reward?”

Johnny nodded, swallowed, adjusted his position slightly.  “Pretty much.”

“You must have really pushed him.”

“Every chance I could get.”




The Judge looked up at the sound of a knock on his office door.  He carefully straightened up and leaned back in his chair, his well-manicured hands resting lightly on the paperwork in front of him.

“Come in.”

Murdoch Lancer, a guard grasping each arm, was led into the room.  Though he sported a badly bruised jaw and a cut above his right eye, he appeared otherwise unharmed.

“Well, well!” Judge Wakeman smiled widely and spread out his hands in welcome.  “You must be Mr. Lancer.”  He stood and made his way around his desk.

Murdoch regarded the Judge coldly and silently.

“I am so glad you were able to see me.”

“I didn’t seem to have a hell of a lot of choice,” Murdoch snapped in irritation as he shook off the hold the two men had on his arms.  “What do you want?”

“Why, to get a chance to talk over mutual business matters.”

“I have no business with you.  Where’s Matthew?”

“I believe he’s at a hotel ready to head back to Soledad in the morning.”

“I demand that you release me.”

“Release you?  What are you talking about?  Why, you’ve just accepted my invitation to visit and now you want to leave?”

“I accepted nothing.”

“On the contrary, I have three eye-witnesses who saw you accept an invitation to meet with me.  Would you care for a drink?”

“I don’t imbibe with my kidnappers.”

“There you go again.  I’m trying to get to know you, make conversation and be hospitable, and you’re resorting to name calling and slander.  Isn’t that rather childish for a man of your age?”

“And isn’t branching into kidnapping rather foolish for a man of your position?”

The Judge regarded Murdoch with disappointment.  “I can see you’re tired and hungry from your arduous journey.”  He turned his attention to the two men.  “Please show Mr. Lancer to his room, and see that he gets a proper meal.”  He regarded Murdoch coolly.  “We’ll talk again tomorrow, when your disposition has improved.”

“My disposition was just fine before I was attacked and kidnapped,” Murdoch snapped.

The Judge gave a nod to the men who grabbed Murdoch by the arms and forced him out the door.

“Stubborn,” the Judge murmured to himself as he went to the cabinet to pour himself a drink.




Scott wearily rose to his feet, walked to the window and looked out.  Darkness had stolen across the valley and a few scattered lights shone from the windows of a handful of buildings that were situated on the eastern side of the town.  Though it was only about nine o’clock, all seemed quiet.  Scott was certain that a few men must be downstairs in the bar, but the room Johnny had been moved to had been the quietest, coolest room Rosti had, as it was situated not over the bar proper, but over the back storage room.

Scott turned from the window and gazed at his brother with a feeling of sudden impotence.  He sucked in a long, deep, cleansing breath in an attempt to force the feeling of inadequacy away.  Now is not the time to falter.

Things had been manageable the first hour, as the small amount of laudanum seemed to kick in, allowing Johnny a chance to regain some control.  But the benefits seemed to quickly dissipate, and by the second hour, Johnny had been reduced to lying on his side, alternately shaking and sweating, eventually throwing up what little was left in his stomach.  The pain quickly increased, leaving Johnny groaning in agony.  Scott began to worry that the severity of the contractions associated with the vomiting, and the spasms from the shaking and sweating, might be causing more injury to his brother’s wounds as DarkCloud had warned.  So finally, as a last recourse, Scott forced a small amount of laudanum into Johnny, convinced no worse harm could come of it.  Then whether from the medicine or simply from sheer exhaustion, Johnny finally fell into a restless sleep on the hard floor.

Scott contemplated the wisdom of leaving, but wanted to rinse out the chamberpot, see to his own needs, and ask Rosti for another mug of the tea.  He knew that Rosti would have it ready and brewing and wished he knew of a good way to keep it hot so that it would be immediately ready when Johnny awoke. 

He picked up the pot and the mug before cautiously checking over his brother’s now silent form.  Then after checking the one lamp that sat on the center of the table, he left the room, quickly making his way through the saloon and out to the back, where he took care of the chamberpot and himself before re-entering and heading straight to Rosti. 

“Need some more of that tea, Rosti,” he said.  “And do you know any way I could keep it from getting cold so fast?”

Rosti seemed to consider the question.  “Well, I could give you some in a larger container with a lid on it.  Then you could wrap it up in a blanket.”

Scott nodded.  “That will be perfect.”

Rosti went into the back, returning after a moment with an earthenware container.  “There’s enough for two or three mugs in here,” he said, handing it over.

“Thanks,” Scott replied as he accepted the item.

“Do you need a blanket?”

“No, I’ll go grab one from my room.”

As Scott turned to go, Rosti put out a hand.  “Hey, Scott.  Is…is there something wrong with Madrid?”

Scott paused, hesitating for a second.  “No, no, he’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” Rosti look unconvinced.  “I mean, with DarkCloud gone and all.  Do you want me to send someone to go get him?”

Scott quickly shook his head.  “No. Really.  Johnny’ll be fine.  Just a bit of an upset stomach, is all.”

“Hey, what’d you feed him, Rosti?” a man standing nearby at the bar asked with a chuckle. “What ever it is, I don’t think I want any.”

“Hey!” Rosti exclaimed.  “I want you to know, me and my wife don’t cook no bad food here!”

“No, of course not,” Scott interjected.  “It wasn’t your food.  Just simply a reaction to getting used to eating regular again after being so sick.”

“See,” Rosti nodded obstinately at the man. 

“In fact,” Scott added.  “It’d be a great help to me if, before you closed up for the night, you’d bring me up a sandwich or some soup…anything you might have handy in the kitchen.  And also some more tea for Johnny.  Would you do that?”

Rosti nodded, a pleased expression on his face.  “I can make you up something special, if you like.”

“No.  No, that’s not necessary,” Scott replied. “Whatever you have handy, would be great.  Thanks so much.”  With a nod at the other men at the bar, Scott turned and made his way back up the stairs to Johnny’s room.

Inside all looked the same.  A soft moan came from Johnny as Scott sat the chamberpot on the floor, then put the container on the table.  Silently he left, made a quick trip across the hall to his own room, where he retrieved three blankets.  One he used to cover the container, another he used to lightly cover his brother.  Then he sat in the chair and pulled the last blanket over himself.  He hoped he’d have the chance to catch a few moments of rest before the cycle started again.




An enclosed garden, a few hardy roses, two olive trees, assorted cacti, a few stalwart shrubs and a number of herbal plants were arranged about a large, wooden cross…

“You are not following the right path, Juanito.”

Johnny turned.  Padre Simon stood, his worn, brown face, soft and lined like old leather…his arms tucked into his sleeves…a compassionate smile on his face…but his eyes were sad…

“I’m following the only path I have.”

“No,” Padre Simon shook his head.  “No, it is not.  And you know I speak the truth, Juanito.  It is not your only path.  I give you another one.  Francisco, he gives you another one.  Our path can lead you back.”

“Back to what?” Johnny snapped.  “Poverty?  Ridicule?  Dependence? Weakness?”

“Oh, Juanito.”

Johnny turned.  Cisco approached, shook his head ruefully.  “When did you care about money?  Huh?  And when did you ever really care what people thought?  And aren’t you more dependent now than you ever were before?”

“I am NOT dependent on anyone!  I live just how I want to live, do what I want to do, go where I want to go, without having to answer to anyone!”

Cisco glanced at Padre Simon, and they both shook their heads in despair.

“Is that what you think?”

Johnny whipped around.  Reveles stood, hands on his hips, a cold look on his face.  “Is that what you really think?  Is that what you think you learned from me?” he demanded, then laughed bitterly.  “Think on it, Johnny.  Think on it well.  I neither lived nor died how I wanted to.  I could only do what I was hired to do, what would bring in the money…jobs for men too weak to take care of their own messes.  I went where the jobs were, where death was waiting.  And I shall answer to God for my actions!”

“Think on it well, Johnny.  There’s still time.”

The fog suddenly rolled in, and he was alone.




Scott jerked at the sound of a moan.  He quickly pushed himself forward, the blanket sliding to the floor.  Johnny was shuddering, moaning softly, seemed to be trying to rise.  At once Scott stood up, uncovered the container of tea, and poured some into the mug.  He noticed with satisfaction that the container still felt warm to the touch.  Next he added a small amount of the laudanum.  Then, while he was still near the lamp on the table, he took out his pocket watch and checked the time.  It’d been an hour.  He put the watch back into his pocket, picked up the mug and carried it over to his brother.

“Johnny?” Scott whispered and put his hand gently on his brother’s shoulder.

His answer was another soft moan.  Slowly Johnny rolled his head and opened his eyes.  He blinked, seemed to need a moment to bring things into focus.  “Scott?”

Scott smiled.  “Mmm-hmmm.  Expecting anyone else?”

Johnny’s smile was weak.  “Don’t feel well.”

“Here.  I have some tea for you.”

Johnny started to roll to his side, halted with a hissed intake of breath.  “Damn.” The word was barely audible, distorted with pain.

“Slowly,” Scott reminded.  He set the mug on the floor then helped Johnny move himself into a sitting position.  He watched uneasily as he noted that all color had drained from Johnny’s face, his lips starkly white, eyes seemingly dark and sunken, and his entire body trembled, building into small spasms that turned his brother’s face into a tight, pain-filled mask.  He heard, too, the sharp change in Johnny’s breathing.  As the night wore on it had been gradually growing more unstable, faltering in mid-breath, the suffering growing more apparent.  Scott had tried to keep his anxiety in check, but now he realized it could no longer be ignored. The pain had obviously become unbearable.

Scott helped his brother lean back against the bed.  Weakly, Johnny let his head droop back to rest against the side of the thin mattress.  He closed his eyes, gulped, clenched his jaw, seemed to fight down a cough.

“Johnny, I need you to drink this,” Scott said, lifting the mug up.

Johnny barely opened his eyes to slits, not even bothering to lift his head.  “Can’t,” he murmured.

Ignoring his brother’s protest, Scott put a hand behind Johnny’s head, lifted it and put the cup to his lips.   Scott’s concern grew when Johnny offered no protest, but merely allowed Scott to pour the liquid between his lips without so much as a dark look, an act very uncharacteristic for his brother.  The Johnny Scott knew would have resisted being fed like a child.  Or even if he’d allowed Scott to do so, he would have at least offered up some sort of strong verbal retort along with a look that had been so perfected, it would have curdled fresh milk.  Scott began to fear they were making a mistake.

With the tea half finished, Scott pulled the mug away, letting his brother’s head once more lie back.  He took his own deep breath and pursed his lips.  He knew from experience that it was going to take some time for the tea to start working.  He glanced about the room, wished there were something more he could do.  He took the couple blankets that Johnny had been lying on and tried, without moving his brother too much, to put them behind his back.  The third blanket that he’d gotten earlier from his room, he tried to draw up around Johnny, but Johnny opened his eyes and gave a slight shake of his head.

“Too hot,” he murmured.

Scott raised an eyebrow, but pulled the blanket back off.  He couldn’t see how Johnny could be hot.  It was cool in the room, as the window was open slightly allowing the night air to enter.

Johnny moaned softly.

“What can I do?” Scott asked.

“I feel sick,” Johnny answered.

“You’re not allowed to get sick,” Scott replied.  “I just got that medicine into you.”

Johnny opened his eyes again, but didn’t say anything.

“You up to a story?”


“A story.  I had been telling you how I got into the war, right?”

Johnny nodded slightly.

“Well, I didn’t tell you what made me so adamant about joining.”

“Figured it was ‘cuz… you wanted… to drive your grandfather crazy,” Johnny replied between hesitant breaths.

Scott shook his head.  “No, I’m afraid that wasn’t the reason.”

“Woulda been… good ‘nuff reason… for me,” Johnny replied meaningfully and closed his eyes.

Scott inwardly smiled to himself, but felt alarmed by the evident distress his brother was under.  “Johnny,” he stated softly, then leaned forward and touched his brother’s upper chest.  “I’m worried about these wounds.  The pain…it’s not all from the medicine, you know.  You can barely draw breath.  It’s not going to get any better, not for quite awhile.  The discomfort from stopping that medicine, that’ll eventually abate, but you’re going to be left with pain at every breath.”

Johnny slowly opened his eyes and nodded.  “The laudanum…helps.”

Scott sighed.  “It takes so long, though, and it’s not as strong.”

“I know,” Johnny murmured, closed his eyes once again.

Scott leaned back, shaking his head at the ceiling.  Of course he knows that.  He’s the one who’s been wounded; he’s felt the pain return each time the morphine starts to wear out.  But it was more important for him to do this when Murdoch wasn’t around.  To show Murdoch that he didn’t need it.  To prove to him… oh, I don’t know…  Scott sighed again, looked back at his brother.  You’re always trying to prove something, aren’t you, Brother?  If we could only get you to realize you needn’t prove anything to us… Or not to me, anyway.  I need nothing, other than you to return to Lancer.  That’s all I need.

“The story.”

“Hmmm?” Scott looked puzzled.  “What?”

“I’m waitin’.”

“Oh.” Scott shook his head, cleared his thoughts and smiled.  “I’ll make you a deal.  Drink up the rest of the tea as I tell you about it.”

Johnny opened his eyes and lifted his head.  “You’re usin’ bribery.”

“Of course,” Scott acknowledged.  “I’ve always been a firm believer in bribery.  Especially when it works to my advantage.”

“There’s more of your… grandfather in you… than I thought.”

Scott grinned.  “Is it a deal?”

Johnny nodded sourly.

Scott held the mug out, waited for Johnny to take it.  When he didn’t, Scott’s look turned puzzled.  “John—”

“Can’t,” Johnny whispered with difficulty.

Scott looked down, noticed Johnny’s hands trembling.  He watched as his brother attempted to lift one hand up.  It started shaking uncontrollably.  Without hesitating, Scott laid his own hand on top of Johnny’s, calming the tremors.  “It’s okay.  I’ll help,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Johnny’s gaze flicked up, and Scott saw a hint of bitterness in his eyes.  Though he ignored it, Scott was relieved.  The irritation showed a hint of the old Johnny.  Without fuss, Scott brought the tea to Johnny’s lips, helping him to take a few sips.

“My decision to join in the war stemmed from many occurrences in my life,” Scott began. 

“Stemmed?  Occurrences?” Johnny cut in, his voice halting as he stopped to catch his breath.  “Are you gonna talk like this… the whole time?”

Scott raised his eyebrows, shot his brother a haughty look.  “Am I telling the story, or are you?”

Johnny sighed, wordlessly leaned his head back.

“Thank you,” Scott replied.  “Now, as I was saying.  There are a number of moments that contributed to this ultimate decision.  The first being, my manservant.  He was a black freeman and he’d been with me forever.  He helped raise me.  He was articulate, smart, well-read…why, he was even responsible for my early education.”

“He’s the one… read you Shakespeare… when you were sick,” Johnny said.

Scott nodded.  “Yes.  Mr. King.  He was actually like a father to me.  Grandfather was gone often for business.  I had Mrs. Osborne, of course…

“Mrs. Osborne?”

“My nanny.”  At Johnny’s raised eyebrow, Scott added, “Everyone in the East has nannies.”


“You know what I mean,” Scott countered.  “Anyway, Grandmother died when I was only two, so I had Mrs. Osborne and Mr. King to raise me.  Gradually Mr. King took over more and more of the responsibility of taking care of me as I grew older.  Grandfather preferred that I be raised by men and not women, so when I was eight he also hired Mr. Linder as my tutor.”

“You had a tutor?”

Scott nodded.  “You know, at this rate, I’ll never get on to the important part of the story.”

Johnny forced a weak smile.  “Go on.”

“Mr. King, as I already stated, was like a father to me.  Mr. Linder was nice enough, but he was a teacher; Grandfather did not hire him for his warm personality.  But Mr. King, he was a wonderful father.  He taught me to catch and to ride.  He taught me to play games and he took me fishing.”  Scott grew quiet for a moment.  “Because of Mr. King, I didn’t mind quite so much that Grandfather was gone so often.”

Johnny nodded understandingly.

“Well,” Scott cocked his head, took a moment to get his thoughts back on track. “Mr. King’s wife worked as a cook and downstairs maid for Grandfather.  She was very nice, too.  They had a son about my age, Ted.  We played together often—”

“When you couldn’t find… your cat,” Johnny cut in with a ragged smirk.

Scott feigned a hurt look, but was cheered to see his brother’s sense of humor slowly returning.  He eyed his brother and shook his finger warningly.

“Sorry,” Johnny mumbled, though the grin was still present.

“Anyway, they were a part of my family.  I thought of them that way, in any case.  Then sometime when I was about twelve, we had some visitors from Charlottesville.  The man was a business associate of Grandfather’s and he had brought along his wife, two children and a slave. It was about fifty-seven, I believe—just a couple years before the beginning of the war.  Tensions were running high between the two factions.  The man, he was a rather loud, blustery fellow, I remember.  I didn’t like him at all.  Grandfather had a small dinner party the first night they arrived and this fellow started in talking about some book that had been written and how it had turned normal people’s thinking upside-down and it was the curse of the land and ought to be banned, and so on.  Grandfather tried to get the man to change to a different topic, as it was obvious the man was making others at the table uncomfortable.  Eventually, I remember one of Grandfather’s other business associates loudly berated the fellow in front of everyone, then the women at the table managed to calm things down enough so that everyone could eat without getting into a heated argument.  I believe they turned the topic to fashion, or some such thing.  However, I can remember there was still a strong undercurrent of hostility in the room.

“After eating, the two other boys and myself were excused to go play.  Mr. King accompanied us and helped me get out my soldiers and the fort—”

“Soldiers and fort…?” Johnny asked, then continued,  “I know.  Be quiet.”

“Anyway, before he left, he reminded me that everything needed to be picked up again before bedtime.  After he left, we were setting the figures up, when the older boy asked me how I could let a slave talk to me like that.  I told him that Mr. King wasn’t a slave.  He was a freeman and my friend.  The two brothers started laughing, called me a nigger lover and began to refer to Mr. King as Uncle Tom.  Well…I didn’t really know what they meant by that, but I didn’t like the sound of it, so…” Scott hesitated, rubbed his chin.  “I guess you could say we got into a bit of a scuffle.  Actually,” he grimaced, “it got pretty darn ugly.  I broke the younger boy’s nose, the older boy gave me two black eyes and Grandfather lost a business associate.”

Johnny chuckled, then grimaced.  “My brother…the Boston Bruiser…”

Scott smiled.  “There’s more to the story.  Later, I asked Mr. King about what the boys said and what they meant by Uncle Tom.  He told me there had been this book written a few years earlier called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and it had gotten people all worked up about the slavery issue.  Then, he went on to explain that his wife, Jenny, was an escaped slave from Mississippi.  When she was in her teens, she’d come North with the family that owned her.  They were on their way to visit relatives in New York when the father of the family took deathly ill on a train.  They had to get off in Ohio and in all the commotion, she ran away.  She took shelter in a church where a Methodist preacher found her and hid her for a few months until he could arrange for her to get to the East Coast where he had contacts who could forge papers for her.  Grandfather didn’t even know that she was an escaped slave.  Mr. King then told me that, even though it had been twenty years since his wife had escaped, she still had nightmares about it and feared that someday someone would come and take her back.”  Scott paused thoughtfully.  “This all affected me deeply.  I loved Mrs. King, too.  She was a very kind, warm woman.”  He was quiet for a moment before continuing.  “Then an even more interesting event occurred.  The man who’d berated that Southerner at Grandfather’s dinner table, Mr. Owens his name was, heard about the fight I’d had with the other two boys…” Scott grinned sheepishly.  “Actually, there probably wasn’t a person in the entire house who managed to escape hearing our row; we weren’t exactly quiet about it.”  He confessed with a chuckle.  “Well, I guess my action impressed him for some reason, because six months later, he comes calling with an invitation to dinner for Grandfather and me, and the guest of honor was to be none other than that lady who wrote that book, Harriett Beecher Stowe.”

“You got to meet the writer of that cabin book?”

Scott rolled his eyes.  “Johnny.  It wasn’t a book about a cabin.  It was a book about this black slave named Tom, who belonged to this family by the name of Shelby in Kentucky.  He has a wife and three small children and they live in one of the slave cabins.  And this other female house slave overhears Mr. Shelby making arrangements to sell her son and Tom to a slave trader—”

“Gotcha.  You can calm down now,” Johnny said, raising one shaky hand as if to ward off the continuation of Scott’s lengthy explanation.

“Yeah, but he’s sold to this nasty guy by the name of Simon Legree and—”

“I’ll read the book sometime, Scott.”

Scott stopped, took a deep breath.  “Well, uh, Mrs. Stowe was a magnificent lady, I want you to know.  So quiet, yet strong in her convictions.  She said it was actually her sister who got her to start the book, and that the idea came for it while she was in church at a service.  It was all very interesting.  It was obvious, though, that she was deeply troubled that her book was being used by some to call for war.  She didn’t want a war to happen.”

“But it did.”

Scott nodded, then shrugged.  “I think, regardless of her book, a war would have been inevitable.  There was too much at stake for the South to willingly change its traditions.  It was an issue that was going to have to be forced.”

Johnny nodded.  “So when the war started…”

“I was going to find some way to get into it,” Scott stated with a firm nod.  “Regardless of how Grandfather felt.”  A hint of sadness touched Scott’s eyes.  “I have to confess, Grandfather didn’t see the war as I did.  It wasn’t that he was a Southern sympathizer, but he did look at it through the eyes of the bottom line, how it was going to affect his business.  I’m afraid he’s one who prefers that all people fit into proper categories, and that they should understand this and abide by society’s stringent rules regarding appropriate behavior and attaining upward mobility.”

“You mean, he’s a stuffed shirt.”

The smile reappeared on Scott’s face and he nodded.  “But don’t you ever tell him I agreed with you.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I won’t.”

Noticing that during his story, Johnny had managed to get the mug to his own lips without help, Scott pointed at the tea.  “You still have another swallow there.  Plus, it’s now your turn.”

“My turn?”

“A story from you.  Only fair.”

Johnny glared at the mug a second, slowly brought it up with both hands and finished it off.   Scott then took it from him, stood up, went to the table and began to refill it.

“There’s more tea?”

Scott turned around and nodded.  “It’s not really hot, but Rosti helped me figure out a way to keep it fairly warm.  I’m just going to get some more ready for you, in case you want it.  He should be coming up later with some more.”

Johnny sighed, irritation showing as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.  Scott went back to pouring the tea, added a small measure of the laudanum, then returned and knelt beside his brother.  Johnny didn’t open his eyes.  Scott waited a second before placing the mug between them on the floor just loud enough so that Johnny would hear, then he sat down and leaned back against the bed.  “I’m ready.”

He heard a soft sigh escape from Johnny before his brother lifted his head.  “I don’t feel—”

“Johnny,” Scott cut in.  “I know you don’t feel like telling stories, but I think it helps to give you something else to concentrate on.”

Johnny let his head droop forward before bringing one hand up to rub across his face.  “Okay,” he conceded.  “What do you wanna know?”

Scott’s eyes opened wide in surprise at the statement.   Though the temptation was great, he bit back the urge to begin a list.  “What…what is it you’d like to tell me about?”

“Nothin’.” The word was out before Johnny could rein it in.  Looking up, he saw the hurt on his brother’s face.  “Didn’t mean it that way, Scott.  Just meant…just meant I can’t think of nothin’.  I can tell…  I’m not dumb…this trading story bit…”

Scott nodded.  “Yeah.”  He looked away a moment, then suddenly turned back.  “How about what I asked about before?  What pulled you all apart; you, Harley, Cisco, and Wes?”

“What pulled us apart?”  A flicker of bitterness crossed Johnny’s pallid face as he tilted his head to the side, giving Scott a long look, as if considering the wisdom of opening up an old wound.  “Couldn’t you ask an easy one for once?”  There was a pause.  “It was a number of things,” he finally stated, surprising Scott with the control in his voice, no hint of pain or discomfort in his even tone.

“So, you just drifted separate ways after awhile?” Scott asked tactfully.

“Yes…no…  It got complicated,” Johnny sighed, looked down at his lap. “I know you asked if things fell apart with Cisco when there was that hanging attempt.”

“And you said, no.”

Johnny nodded.  “But something else happened that…well, that changed things…for Cisco anyway.”

Scott waited as Johnny sighed again and closed his eyes for a moment, seemingly reluctant to continue.  When he opened them, he glanced at the mug of tea sitting nearby.  He reached out, picked it up in one shaky hand.  Scott considered helping, but knew this time the overture would be unwelcome, so he remained unmoving as Johnny managed to get both hands around the mug so that he could get it to his lips.  Scott watched as he took a long drink, wondering if his brother had decided drinking the tea was a better alternative than sharing the story and was just using the action to delay.

“Johnny, if you’d rather talk about something else—”

“No.”  Johnny shook his head, brought the mug to his lap, and leveled his brother with a look of determination.  “No.  I’ll tell you.”  He tried to clear his throat, wincing as the attempt brought a jab of pain to his chest.  He then licked his lips and took a breath.  “It was a few months after the hanging attempt.  We were in California working for a rancher.  Harl had wanted to head to California; he always wanted to head to California as he had family out that way.  Wes, he never cared where we went as long as he made some money and there was a town nearby where he could spend it.”  A hint of a smile came to Johnny’s lips.  “You know how Wes was.”

Scott nodded.  “He did enjoy a good time.”

“Yeah, Wes was fun to have around.”  Johnny gave a soft chuckle, glanced down at the mug, brought it up for a small sip.  “You know, Cisco used to call Wes our jester.  Also called him Porthos.”

“Porthos?” Scott asked, surprised.

“Yeah, Cisco called us the Quatro Caballeros.”

“The what?” Scott chuckled.

“Some Spanish story, Cisco said.  About these four friends: Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan, who ride together in service of the king.”

“Johnny,” Scott laughed.  “It’s a French story, not a Spanish story.  Les Trois Mousquetaires, written by Alexandre Dumas.”

Johnny raised one eyebrow.  “Yeah, I know all about that French guy.  Cisco said he stole the story from its original Spanish.”

Scott bit back a smirk, nodded as seriously as he could.  “I wasn’t aware of that.”

“Now you are,” Johnny replied, took another sip.

Scott waited, feared Johnny wouldn’t pick up the thread of the story he’d begun.  “So, what happened that changed things?”

Johnny blinked, glanced at the mug again, set it to the side, then tilted his head back and closed his eyes.  He took in a long, even breath through clenched teeth.  Scott watched him release it slowly, wondered briefly if having Johnny relate stories took too much out of him.  He was considering telling him he needn’t continue, when Johnny opened his eyes and smiled tiredly.

“I’m okay.  Just need to get in a breath.”  He blinked, his eyes vaguely trailed about the room, coming to rest in the far corner.  “We were done with the rancher…were lookin’ to move on…when I got a wire from the Corteverez brothers.  They were a couple of brothers we’d worked with a few times before when we’d been down around the Texas border.  Pistoleros.  They said there was an outfit down around Sierra Blanca that was lookin’ to hire on men…paid well.  They’d suggested me.  I really had no interest, didn’t care for the area, didn’t care much for the elder Corteverez, Carlos.  Last time I’d worked with him, I hadn’t fully trusted him.  There’d been a bit of bad blood between us.  I’d been put in charge of the last job we’d worked on together and he’d taken it as an insult.  He’d felt he should have called the shots, being older and, in his opinion, more experienced.

“Anyway, I’d not planned to go, but Cisco had wanted to check it out.  He’d gotten along fairly well with Roberto, the younger brother.  They had known each other for a number of years, I guess.  I believe they came from the same region of Mexico.  Wes was all for going…the idea of good pay always interested him, but Harley had wanted to stay in California.  I really didn’t care to stay in California,” Johnny paused, shot his brother a hooded look.  “I—I generally tried to avoid California whenever I could.”

Scott nodded his understanding.

Johnny returned the nod with a grim bow of his own head, then he took a slow breath and continued, “Well, we headed toward Sierra Blanca.  Took most of two weeks to make the journey.  ‘Bout three days away, Cisco sent on a wire to let Roberto know to expect us.

“Rode into town late in the afternoon.  We were tired.  It’d been a long trip.  Planned to spend the night in town, get a good meal, bath, pick up a few supplies, listen in on the local news and then head out to the Double D Ranch where we were supposed to have our jobs waiting.  We headed for the saloon first,” Johnny said, his voice dropping softly as he let his head lean back once more to rest on the bed.  He closed his eyes…


Johnny scanned both sides of the street thoroughly before dismounting.  He hadn’t been aware that he’d done so, not really.  It was now an old habit—simply the way one entered a town, especially a new town.  It’s not that he felt a new town was any more dangerous than a familiar town.  On the contrary, the inherent danger of one in his business actually increased the longer one stayed in the same place.  But the unknown factors, the tone of the town and local law enforcement, positioning and placement of windows, doors, alleys, all needed to be carefully inspected, categorized and placed in his memory.  It was, if he’d been asked, simply a healthy respect for the unknown.  Johnny didn’t like surprises.

While his hand rubbed the length of his horse’s neck, he stood beside his animal another couple of seconds.  He was aware that Wes, Harley and Cisco had all dismounted and were now waiting for him in front of the saloon doors.

Wes rolled his eyes toward Cisco, a comical smile on his face as he nodded at Johnny while Cisco returned it with a curt shake of his own head.

Slowly, Johnny turned, ducked under the railing and stepped up onto the boardwalk.  “So, wasn’t it Wes who distinctly said he was buyin’ a round for everyone?”

“Me?” Wes laughed.  “You must be imagin’ things, Johnny, my boy.”

“No, I think I heard that, too,” Harley chimed in.

Wes groaned.  “You guys are the reason I never have any money.”

Johnny laughed, knocked Wes’ hat down his back.  “You ain’t got any money, Wes, ‘cuz you spend it on any red-head who looks your way.”

Johnny ducked from Wes’ playful jab then Cisco stepped to the side to allow Johnny to enter the saloon first.

Though Johnny, to those who didn’t know him, seemed relaxed and intent on Wes and Harley’s discussion on the merits of redheads, Cisco had quickly learned that the young gunfighter’s attention was elsewhere occupied as they entered the saloon.  There was no doubt in Cisco’s mind that within seconds every man, every corner, every door, every sidearm and every look, had been noted and grouped according to possible trouble.  And this was something which bothered Cisco, producing a sense of guilt as he reluctantly acknowledged his own part in the creation of his friend’s behavior.  Though Cisco tried to comfort himself with the reminder that Johnny had already developed the art before they’d met, he knew he was largely responsible for its continued development, perfection and the need.  Before Cisco, Johnny Madrid had been a regional name, known locally both sides of the border for his skill.  In the year and a half since, Johnny Madrid’s reputation had expanded across a half-dozen states and deep across the Mexican border.

With a sigh, Cisco briefly thought back.  It hadn’t seemed such a bad idea, not at first.  The three of them had agreed it’d be best if they found another partner, someone able to really handle a gun and handle it well.  Cisco had been uncomfortable with the decision, but was savvy enough to realize it had become a necessity if they were going to continue as a group. 

Then it had seemed providence when Wes and Harley had come across Madrid down around that border town, to find out that the gunfighter he’d heard talk of, the gunfighter who had found a way to be both deadly accurate and still have a conscience, really existed.   Cisco quickly conceded that Johnny had already created his part, knew how to play his role to attain the effect he desired and had done it remarkably well, especially in one so young.  Most young guns came across as brash caricatures, a bit of gaudy flash and attitude that elicited half-concealed smirks along with whispered appraisals regarding the wisdom of allowing babes to carry arms and references to their having more bullets in their guns than hairs on their chests.  But despite Madrid’s young age, allusions to his lack of experience was seldom, if ever, mentioned and certainly not within earshot.  Though part of this stemmed from the fact that Madrid was that good in his profession and at playing his part, Cisco privately believed it was mostly because of his eyes.  If you looked into Madrid’s eyes, forced yourself to hold their gaze, if for even more than a second, you quickly forgot how young he was.  Most men found themselves dropping away from those eyes, uneasily admitting to themselves that Madrid had seen more, lost more, suffered more, than they would probably ever experience in their lifetime.

But now, Cisco found himself reluctantly acknowledging his own part in its development, and it had become an uncomfortable issue for him.  What had started out as a simple decision to find a gunfighter, had slowly but ultimately forced Cisco to realize he, as well as Harley and Wes, were using Johnny just the same as the people they hired out to.  Cisco hadn’t noticed it at first, and only now was able to reluctantly admit that from the beginning, he had seen Johnny as a tool to be used to his own ends.  But now Johnny’s role amongst them, while of benefit to their safety and reputations, was methodically destroying that which Cisco had been drawn to in the young gunfighter from the first time they’d met…his soul.  The more jobs they took on, the more difficult situations they found themselves in and looked to for Johnny to get them out of, the darker and heavier the cloud of unease seemed to settle on him.

Increasingly, Cisco had noticed it.  While Wes enjoyed the job for its monetary rewards and Harley seemed to enjoy the excitement and camaraderie, Johnny seemed to vacillate between an intense desire to find a cause, to a total lack of aspiration or design for his future.  While strangely, at all times, he seemed unconcerned for his own well being.  In fact, Cisco privately felt Johnny’s increased alacrity and prudence was less a product of his own survival instinct as a desire to take care of his friends.

And then there’s your own reason for doing this…

Cisco abruptly shrugged off the thought, turned and gave Wes a playful shove.  “Why don’t you guys go get us a table while I order up some drinks.”

“Ah, so you’re buying!” Wes laughed and grabbed Harley by the arm.  “Quick!  Before Cisco realizes he’s spending money!”

Cisco laughed good-naturedly then turned to Johnny who was watching Harley and Wes with amusement.  “Go ahead and join them.  I can manage the drinks.”

A half-smile crossed the gunfighter’s face as he raised one eyebrow.  “Been too long out in the sun, Cisco?”

“Nah, just feeling generous,” Cisco grinned, clapped Johnny on the shoulder and thumbed toward the table where Wes and Harley were dragging out chairs.

Johnny nodded.  “Find out where we can get a good meal and a decent bed for the night.”

“And a bath,” Cisco added.

Johnny smirked.  “There you go again.  Always with the bath.  Just had one three days ago.”

“I hardly call jumping into a mud hole, a bath.”

Johnny shrugged, a smile on his face.  “Works for me,” he replied as he headed toward the table where his friends had arranged four chairs and were settling in.

Johnny barely made note of the fact that Wes and Harley had left open the chair that backed up to the wall and faced toward the door and front window.  The behavior had become ingrained in them all.  Johnny always faced the door.  It was the way it was, and no one ever mistakenly took his seat.  And if it were still light out, then they chose a table near enough to the window so that they could see who approached from outside.  And conversely, if it were dark out, they chose a table far from the window, preferably in the darkest corner.  Johnny had explained it to them in simple and direct terms soon after making their acquaintance: 

“I ain’t got no plans to make it easy to be gunned down, and sittin’ by a window all but frames you for easy pluggin’.  You can sit there and make yourself an accommodatin’ target, but I plan on finding a quiet corner.”

The point had been made.

As Johnny settled into his chair, Harley gave him a grin.  “Well, what do you know, Johnny.  If it ain’t Wes’ number one weakness.”

Johnny turned slightly to focus across the room where Harley was pointing.  A voluptuous redhead in a green, low-cut dress was sashaying toward the bar where Cisco was giving his order to the bartender.

“Oh, I’m in love!” Wes blurted enthusiastically, his palms pressed to his heart.

“But I think your heart’s desire’s got eyes for our good friend,” Harley remarked.

“She’s got eyes on the mark with the funds,” Johnny observed dryly.

Wes feigned hurt.  “How can you talk so about the woman I love?”

Harley looked at Johnny, then back at Wes and laughed.  “Wes, I bet you five dollars you can’t resist that redhead.  I bet that before the night’s over, you’ve not only talked to her, but tried to bed her.”

Johnny snorted and leaned back in his chair.  “Hell, Harl.  That ain’t much of a bet.  He’s already in love and all she had to do was throw a little hip, and it weren’t even in his direction!”

“A lot you know!” Wes harrumphed and crossed his arms.  “I can resist just fine.  But it’s a shame to deprive such a gorgeous creature of the finest specimen of manhood she’ll probably ever meet.”

Johnny made a gagging noise.

Wes shot him a look of disdain.  “And look who’s talkin’!  Mr. I’m-too-good-for-a-workin’-girl!” Wes nodded his head in the direction of the redhead who had now sidled up right next to Cisco.  Cisco, however, was ignoring the saloon girl’s endeavor to start a conversation as he attempted to pick up the four mugs of beer. Though not to be outdone, the redhead positioned herself between him and the mugs, smiling seductively.

“Poor gal,” Wes continued with of a shake of his head.  “Someone really ought to tell her she ain’t got a chance with Cisco.”  Then he turned a morose expression on the men at the table.  “The lot of you ought to be priests.  I’m just trying to keep up the group’s averages.  But if you insist on making the poor girl suffer, I suppose…” He looked at Harley and cocked his head.  “You did say five bucks, right?”

Harley nodded.

Wes nodded again, his attitude one of despondency and grief, as if he’d just received word his best friend had died.  “You’re on.  Though I hope you know you’ve probably just destroyed that poor gal’s one chance for complete happiness.”

Johnny chuckled.  “I guess it’s a chance we’ll take, just to watch you squirm for an evening.”

“Why’s Wes gonna be squirming?” Cisco asked as he placed the mugs on the table.

“A gentleman’s bet,” Harley answered.

“Gentlemen? What gentlemen?” Cisco asked.

Johnny snorted and sipped his beer.

“And who might you handsome young men be?” the redhead said as she oozed her way between Cisco and Wes.

Harley looked at Johnny and almost choked on his beer.

“Just some gentlemen with a thirst,” Johnny replied as he picked up his mug.

The redhead stroked her hand through Wes’ hair and leaned over him.  “I bet you got an enormous thirst that needs quenching, don’t you, handsome?”

“That he does, ma’am,” Harley smirked.

Egged on, the redhead let her hand trail down along Wes’ neck.  “Enjoy a good time, too, I bet.”

“Oh, he sure does at that, ma’am,” Harley agreed while he avoided meeting Wes’ agonizing look.

“And he plans to again, as soon the doctor says he’s cured,” Johnny added.

“Cured?” the redhead straightened up abruptly.

Johnny smiled.  “You know.”  He dropped his voice and leaned across the table.  “The disease.  Don’t like to talk about it in polite company, you understand.”

“Huh?” She scanned the faces around the table quickly.

“Johnny,” Wes pleaded, his face reddening.

Johnny reached out and patted Wes’ hand.  “Just tryin’ to help, Wes.  Hate to see you embarrass yourself.”

The redhead quickly pulled back her hand as if bit, her eyes wide.  “Uh, I think I just remembered some drinks I need to get delivered.  I—uh—I’ll see you boys later.”

“Lookin’ forward to it,” Cisco grinned and gave the sashaying rear a pat, which elicited a squeak from the redhead as she hurried away from the table.

Johnny and Harley laughed as Cisco settled into the empty chair.
               “I have a feeling I missed something good,” Cisco remarked.

“Ah, but you managed to still jump in right at the appropriate moment,” Johnny observed drolly as he picked up his mug.

Wes took a long swallow and morosely studied his beer.  “I may never, ever, ever, live this down.”

“Probably not,” Harley grinned.  “But you’ll be five dollars richer.”

“It ain’t worth it,” Wes grumbled, then his expression changed to panic.  “Oh, no!  We’re gonna be here awhile, right?  Oh, Lordy!  Let’s move on to another job!  I ain’t never gonna be able to spend my money here, anyway!  This’ll be no fun at all!”

Harley laughed.  “Just think of the savings you’ll have, Wes.  You’ll probably have enough to buy a ranch or start a business…”

“What good are those?  Huh?  Life is for livin’ and you jus’ cut off the best part!” Wes cried with a moan.

Cisco chuckled, shook his head, then looked at Johnny.  “I found a decent hotel that also serves meals.  Bartender said it was just down the block, turn west and it’s the second building on the left.  He also said the livery that we passed on our way in, the one across the street, is the best.”

Johnny nodded.  “You want to go set up the rooms while I take care of the horses?”

“I’ll go with you,” Harley announced.

Johnny accepted the offer with a nod and took another sip.

“S’pose I’ll go with you, Cisco,” Wes said then quickly downed the rest of his beer and stood up.  “Let’s go.”

“In a bit of a hurry, aren’t you?” Cisco asked, his expression carefully nonchalant.

“He just doesn’t want to tease the redhead with something she can’t ever hope to possess,” Johnny remarked before finishing off his own beer in one swallow.

“Damned thoughtful of him,” Harley announced, drained the last of his beer and lowered the empty mug with a thud.

“If I’d have known you all were gonna chug it, I would have asked to have the bartender water it down.  What a waste.” Cisco shook his head and finished off his.

Johnny stood up, groaning as he did so.  “I’m hungry and ready for a soft bed.  Stiffenin’ up after that ride.”  He rubbed at his eyes.  “Feels like I got a pail full of grit in my eyes, too.  That wind storm yesterday was the worst I’ve seen in a long time.”

Harley stood up.  “Hard on the horses, too.  They’ll be glad for the extra care and feed they’ll get tonight.”

The four men left the saloon, Johnny leading the way, his left hand swinging open the door as his right remained free near his side.  On the boardwalk they paused.

“Hotel’s down around the corner, there,” Cisco pointed then stepped off the boardwalk and began to untie saddlebags and bedrolls, Wes helping.

“Did you find out directions to the ranch?” Johnny asked.

“Yes.  The Davis place is about ten miles south-east of town,” Cisco replied.

Johnny nodded.  “We’ll see you in a half hour.  Order me up a large, rare steak, jalapeno sauce on the side.  Come on, Harl,” he said as he unhitched the reins.  “Let’s get these horses bedded down.”

Harl untied his and Wes’ horses and followed Johnny toward the livery as Cisco and Wes turned and headed toward the corner.

Johnny and Harley found the proprietor of the livery and quickly arranged for four stalls and feed.  They then set to taking care of their tack and each went over the two mounts, giving them a good rub-down.  Harl had finished up with his and Wes’ horses as Johnny was finishing up on Cisco’s.

“Hey!” Johnny leaned down, pressed his shoulder in against the horse’s side and picked up the back hoof.  “Looks like Cisco’s shoe’s comin’ loose.”

“Better tell him.”

Johnny released the hoof and stood up.  “You go on over to the hotel.  I’m gonna find the owner here and ask if he takes care of loose shoes or if we need to get to a blacksmith in the morning before we head out to the ranch.”

“I can wait for you,” Harley offered.

“Thanks, but I’ll be along in a minute.  No need your supper gettin’ cold, too.”

Harley grinned back.  “You sure you wanna trust me to look after your lonely meal?  You know, me’n food are like Wes and redheads.”

Johnny laughed.  “Yeah, but you have better taste.”

Harley guffawed loudly, made a smacking noise and patted his stomach.  “Don’t be too long.”

“If I catch you trying to take my supper up to your room, I’ll shoot you,” Johnny called after the retreating figure.

Harley laughed again and disappeared out the door.  Then Johnny gave Cisco’s horse a pat and headed toward the corner of the barn where the proprietor had a small office.

A few minutes later, Johnny had arranged to have the horse’s shoe looked after and had stepped out of the livery.  Dusk was not far away, the shadows were long and dark, reaching all the way across the wide street to fall on the fronts of the opposite buildings.

Tired, Johnny stretched out his sore back before heading along the boardwalk, the regular chink of his spurs ringing rhythmically as his boots clinked a staccato beat on the wood.  He hoped his supper would be ready when he reached the hotel.  He looked forward to eating and sleeping.  They’d pushed it hard to make it to this next job.

Johnny grimaced to himself.  He really hadn’t wanted to come.  He rather dreaded working with Carlos again.  The one positive thing was that Carlos was quite familiar with how they worked and the sort of jobs they took on—knew their preference to pick jobs not solely on monetary gain, but also on merit.

“Hope Cisco was able to get us private rooms,” Johnny muttered to himself.  All day on the trail, Johnny had noted Cisco’s hooded glances weighted with serious thoughts, and knew all too well what that signified.  Cisco was gearing up for one of his lectures on justification and self-worth.  Johnny shook his head.  He couldn’t quite figure Cisco out.  One minute he’d be looking to Johnny for his ability with his gun, accepting jobs or setting up situations where their very survival would depend on Johnny’s expertise, then the next minute he would corner him and lecture him long and hard on the merits of finding a more suitable profession, on finding some other way to use his talents.

Johnny had laughed right out loud the first time Cisco had started in on him.  “Another way to use my talents?!  Doing what?!  Trick shootin’ at a sideshow?  Or perhaps you got in mind, Johnny Madrid, famous coyote hunter!”

But Cisco had looked at him without amusement.  “It’s not good for your soul, Juanito.  There’s more for you than death and killing.”

“Death?  Killing?  Soul?  What the devil are you talkin’ about, Cisco?”

“This is not a good life, Juanito.  Continue on this path, and I fear it’ll eventually end in destruction.  I fear you’ll lose your soul.”

“Lose my soul?” Johnny humor slowly dissipated.  “Cisco, I done lost that a long time ago.”

“Not yet, you haven’t.  But you will, if you continue.”

“Dammit, Cisco,” Johnny groaned, irritation now clearly present.  “If I ain’t worried ‘bout my soul, why should you be?  In fact, before you go worryin’ about me, I suggest you do a little soul preservation of your own.”

Cisco’s look had turned dark and he’d stalked away.

Johnny sighed to himself, brushed off the memory.  Well, if there were only two rooms available, he’d choose Harley.  He snored like a steam engine, but Wes talked in his sleep and he’d be darned if he was up for one of Cisco’s sermons.

Johnny rounded the corner toward the hotel.


Harley stepped through the doors of the hotel, his thoughts already on the meal awaiting him.

“Don’t move.”

Abruptly, Harley stopped, his mouth opening in silent surprise.

Cisco and Wes stood, their arms raised, while three guns pointed in their direction, a fourth, a Winchester rifle, now aimed at Harley’s own chest.

Harley stared at the end of the barrel a second before he blinked and forced his gaze upward.  His surprise quickly turned to shock.


Though the other man grinned, Harley was hard pressed to find any humor in it.  “I’d love to chat with you, Harley.  But unfortunately, I don’t have the time.  Now tell me where Madrid is.”


Carlos’s look darkened.  “Harl, I never thought you were much on brains.  But you don’t have to go provin’ it so completely.  Yes.  Madrid.  Remember him?”

Closing his mouth, he shot a confused look at Cisco before answering, “What do you want Madrid for?”

With an epithet of rage, Carlos struck out, cracking the barrel of his Winchester against Harley’s head, sending the larger man reeling to the floor in a groan of pain.

“Hey!” Cisco took a step forward, but was drawn up short as the rifle swung around to point at him.  “There was no need to do that.”

“I ain’t got no time for this!  Where’s Madrid?  Why ain’t he here with you?”

“I don’t know,” Cisco replied tersely, teeth gritted.

 Carlos turned abruptly and signaled toward Harley’s limp body. “Roberto, Tega.  Tie him up, and good!”  He then turned and held coverage on Cisco and Wes while the two men quickly went over to Harley and bound him, hand and foot.

“What are you trying to prove here, Carlos?  Madrid ain’t got no quarrel with you,” Wes stated.

“True.  But he does with Forbes.”

“Forbes?” Cisco asked.

“Yes.  Forbes, “Carlos smirked, adjusted his stance.  “Oh, that man sure does hate Madrid.  A full thousand dollars’ worth of hate.”

“A thou—” Cisco swallowed back his exclamation.  Time enough to think about that later.  “You’re doin’ this for Forbes?” he asked, disbelief still colored his tone.  He flicked his eyes quickly toward Roberto, but the younger man had turned his face away, suddenly intent on checking the knot at Harley’s wrist.  “I don’t know what you’ve got planned, but I can tell you now.  It’s not going to work.  Madrid’s always been better than you and you know it.”

“Perhaps,” Carlos conceded with a nod.  “But I figure, after pushin’ it to get here, he’s tired, hungry and his reflexes will be a bit slower…and that’s all I need.  Just that bit…oh, and the advantage of surprise.” He gestured curtly toward Tega.   “The window.”

Tega nodded and hurried over to take a position at the window.

“This whole thing—the wire—the job—it was all just a set-up to get Johnny?” Wes asked.

Carlos turned back with a snort of amusement.  “Catchin’ on, aren’t you, Wes?  The ranch is real enough.  Friend of Forbes owns it, just in case you went straight there, but I knew your habit of entering a town first, your preference to look things over from the outside before signin’ on.  Just a matter of sittin’ and waitin’ for you to put in your appearance.”

“He’s comin’!” Tega announced.

Carlos turned.

“Just turned the corner,” Tega added over his shoulder.

“Here,” Carlos thrust his rifle into Roberto’s hands, patted the Colt hanging from his hip, then pointed to the door.  “You know what to do.”

Roberto nodded solemnly.

Cisco looked at Wes in alarm as Carlos went out the door.  He then turned to Roberto. “What does he mean, you know what to do?”

Roberto looked uncomfortable, shifted his gaze toward the other man who was still holding a gun on Harley and Wes.  Without answering, Roberto walked to the door, which his brother had left open a crack.  Cautiously he peered through, seemed to find the angle he wanted, then lifted the rifle to his shoulder.

“Dammit!” Wes shouted.

“Silence him,” Roberto growled in a low voice.

Without warning, the man guarding them threw a solid punch into Wes’ gut, which sent him straight to his knees.

Rigidly, Cisco stood his ground, aware that any movement on his part would bring the same response.

“Roberto,” he pleaded.  “You can’t really be planning on shooting Johnny.  This isn’t like you!”  When he received no reply, Cisco continued, “Roberto, please.  Johnny’s our friend.  Don’t do this.”

“Carlos is my brother,” Roberto replied simply.

Cisco closed his eyes, felt a strange sense of loss and failure.  Hearing a groan, he opened his eyes and saw that Harley was staring at him.  Though the large man’s face was pale and smeared with blood, his eyes were filled with a frantic energy.

“Cisco,” Harley beseeched. 

The words of frustration seemed to rake the coals of Cisco’s own horror.  Closing his eyes, he drew in a quick breath and bellowed in pure animal rage as he launched his body through the air.


Johnny turned the corner and in the space of a heartbeat noted, with no visible emotion, Carlos stepping down off the boardwalk in front of the hotel, his look and gate sending a clear signal as to his intention.

“So, you finally decided to show your face, Madrid,” Carlos called out as he reached the center of the rutted street.

Johnny paused at the lip of the boardwalk, the look he imparted carefully orchestrated to show just the right amount of disdain and contempt, colored by a hint of arrogant amusement.  “If you’d been less of a coward and informed me of what you had planned, I wouldn’t have kept you waitin’.”

Carlos’ eyes narrowed with unconcealed malevolence.  “That’s what I always hated ‘bout you, Madrid.  Your mouth.  It’s gonna get you killed.”

“Probably,” Johnny replied matter-of-factly as he stepped down onto the dirt road.  “But that’ll be a hell of a long time after I’ve killed you.”

“Don’t count on it.”

“Why?” Johnny coolly raised an eyebrow.  “You finally learned how to shoot?”

Carlos grinned eerily and made what Johnny perceived to be an odd, unnecessary step to the side, at the same time that his hand dropped to his hip.  At the same instant, Johnny noticed a faint glint from the partially opened hotel door.  Within the breath of that moment, Johnny knew the plan and cursed his inability to finish off whoever it was at the door and take on Carlos before the lead would be coming.  But Carlos was coming along on this ride.  Of that he would make sure.

With his own feint to the right, Johnny dropped to a crouch, the revolver already a part of his hand, as Carlos’s revolver also appeared.  At the same instant as the two Colts fired at each other, a savage scream echoed from the hotel followed by a quick succession of gun blasts.

Johnny threw himself into the dirt on his left side as he got off his shot, the sound of Carlos’s bullet ringing over his head as he rolled on his side, bringing his revolver to bear on the hotel door.  He fully expected to feel the impact of a rifle slug ripping through his body before he got off his futile attempt.  But as his finger tightened on the trigger, there followed another couple of gun blasts and the door slammed closed with a thud, the body of a man crashing through the front window, littering the boardwalk and street with broken splinters of glass.

Momentarily stunned by the turn of events, Johnny glanced toward Carlos, made a cursory note that he was motionless and silent.  Then jumping to his feet, he raced, half-crouched with gun in hand toward the hotel door, casting only a perfunctory glance at the dead body sprawled on the boardwalk.  There, he reached out and cautiously pushed at the door, keeping his back pressed up against the front of the building.  The door opened only a few inches before hitting on a solid object.  Johnny pushed harder, then froze, as a lifeless, bloody hand appeared in his view.

Feeling an uncomfortable sense of panic, Johnny thrust his shoulder against the door.  “Harley!  Wes!  Cisco!”


It was Wes’ voice.  Johnny paused for a second, took a breath, and shoved against the door once more.  This time the object budged enough for him to squeeze through.

Blood was splattered across the wall and sill of the broken front window.  Harley lay on the floor, the side of his face badly beaten, but he appeared to be coming around as Wes was bent down beside him, untying cords that bound his wrists and ankles.  A dead body lay nearby, its unseeing eyes glazed over, its mouth open in a silent gape of shock and near the body stood Cisco, gun in hand, eyes wild, face ashen, the look of fear and horror on his face.  But the dead body at his feet wasn’t what held his focus, neither was it Johnny, nor even Wes or Harley.  Instead Cisco stared at the floor behind Johnny.  Johnny quickly turned and saw that Cisco was staring at the same object that had impeded his entrance; the dead body of Roberto, the throat smeared red, eyes wide with panic, mouth foamed with blood.  It had been his hand, covered with blood from the gaping wound in his neck, which had dropped into Johnny’s view.  The fight had been short-lived and death had won. 

Johnny looked back up at Cisco, who still stood strangely frozen, almost unaware of where he was.  “Cisco,” Johnny said, stepping forward.  “What happened?”

Cisco blinked, shook himself, looked up dully.  The gun in his hand fell to the floor with a resounding smack.  He looked down at it, seemed surprised at its appearance.

“Cisco,” Johnny repeated and reached out.

Cisco flinched, stepped away.  He closed his eyes, pressed one hand to his mouth, then slowly took a breath and opened his eyes.  “You were right,” he whispered.

Johnny’s brows furrowed.  “What are you talking about?”

“My soul’s in danger… God help me.”

Before Johnny could react, Cisco roughly brushed past Johnny, almost stumbling in his haste to leave.

Johnny stood unmoving, his uncertainty visible in his outstretched hand and in his expression of confusion.

“He went loco.”

“Huh?” Johnny turned.

Wes yanked away the last of the cords from Harley’s wrist.  “Cisco.  I ain’t never seen him like that.  Damned if I’ll ever understand how he didn’t get himself killed.”

“What happened—?”

“Carlos had it set up.  Forbes was paying him.”

“Forbes again?  I thought I’d taught him a lesson he wouldn’t forget.”

“Well, seems he ain’t got such a good memory.  Or else he just likes throwing a thousand dollars around.”

“A thousand?”

“That’s what he’s offered for your head.”

Johnny glanced out the window where he could just make out Carlos’s body in the fading light.  “They got the drop on Cisco and me after we checked into the rooms.  Carlos was waiting for us all along.  Then Harl came in and they took him, too.  ‘Fraid they got wild and knocked him about some.”

“I’ll be okay,” Harley mumbled as he rubbed tenderly at his jaw. 

“Watch it there.  Think you may need some stitches,” Wes said as he pulled a bandana out of his pocket and pressed it against the side of Harley’s face.

Harley mumbled something indistinct, his voice muffled by the kerchief.

Keeping one hand on the cloth, Wes swiveled to look at Johnny.  “They’d taken me down, too.  Cisco was the only one standin’.  And when he found out Roberto was supposed to make sure you were taken out, well…” he shrugged.  “Like I said, I ain’t never seen Cisco like that.”

Harley pushed the kerchief out of the way.  “Roberto was Cisco’s friend,” he said as his eyes searched out Johnny’s, conveying his next words before he said them.  “It was awful what he had to do, but if he hadn’t, you woulda been dead, Johnny.”

Johnny glanced again at the two bodies and the blood-smeared window.  That Cisco had taken his captors by surprise was apparent, and that his aim had been deadly accurate was also unmistakable.

“We better get out of here,” Wes announced.  “Carlos said that Davis, who owns the ranch, was in on this, too.  Most probably the sheriff also, else he wouldn’t of tried a stunt like this in town.”

“You’re right,” Johnny nodded, glanced toward the window.  “Let’s get our gear and get out of here.  I don’t think we’re in any shape for a fracas right now.”

“I’ll go get the saddlebags, you guys head for the horses and find Cisco,” Wes said as he stood up and made for the stairs.

Johnny nodded, leaned down and gripped Harley by the arm, hauling him up to his feet.  “You gonna be okay?”

Harley nodded, the bandana red with soaked up blood.

“Think you’ll have to do without stitches,” Johnny said as he helped Harley to the door.

“I’m gonna have one ugly scar, aren’t I?”

“Grow a beard,” Johnny replied as they made their way around Roberto’s dead body and out the door.  There, they stopped.  Finding Cisco was not going to be a problem, as he was standing outside the hotel door, staring at the setting sun.  Johnny immediately noted a few people watching from the doorway of their shops, and even more faces looking at them from various windows.  Wes was apparently right.  The ranch owner and the sheriff were probably in on the whole plan, and Johnny knew well how that went.  Wealthy landowners were the law, made the law, abused the law… 

“Come on, Cisco,” he said urgently.  “We gotta get out of here.  Harley’s hurt and—”

“I can’t do this anymore,” Cisco whispered.

“Well, I can’t get Harley to the livery by myself,” Johnny replied with some irritation.  “He can barely walk.  Now, I need your help.”

Cisco turned, his eyes dark, heavy with pain.  “I can’t do this anymore, Juanito.”

Johnny met his look, braced himself to remain cool, focused on the task at hand; and that was to get the hell out of this town.  “Cisco,” he said, his voice dropping.  “You’re gonna do this, ‘cuz we have to get out of here.  Harley’s hurt.”  He saw Cisco’s gaze momentarily flick to Harley and back.  “Carlos betrayed us, and you saved my life.  That’s what’s important, Cisco.”

Cisco turned unfocused, dark eyes on Johnny.  “How…how can you continue…?  How do you look at someone and kill them?”

Johnny clenched his jaw, felt his chest contract.  But there was no time for this.  No time for self-recrimination.  “We need to leave now, Cisco.  We’ll talk about—”

“No,” Cisco shook his head.  “You don’t understand.  I had to—”

“You had to do what you had to do,” Johnny cut in sharply.  “Now grab Harley’s other arm, and get moving!”


Scott watched as Johnny took a deep breath, winced with irritation then slowly opened his eyes.  Scott waited for him to say something, but he simply stared, his jaw flexing as if he were holding back a torrent of words. 

“We made it out of town,” he finally continued, “But things were never the same.”

“Cisco was really bothered by—”

“Cisco was a fraud,” he spat as he turned toward Scott, his eyes flashing angrily.  Then in an unexpected movement, he suddenly lunged to his feet.

The movement caught Scott totally unawares, and before he’d had a chance to reprimand his brother, Johnny was already bent over, groaning.  Jumping to his feet, Scott grabbed his brother by the upper arm.

“Let go,” Johnny protested as he tried to pull his arm away.

 “What the hell are you doing, jumping up like that?” Scott snapped.

“I said, let go!”

“Quit being such a jackass, or I will let go,” Scott threatened as he guided Johnny toward a chair.

“Tired…of…sitting,” Johnny muttered, his complaint ending in a groan as his legs began to buckle beneath him, though he still attempted to pull away from Scott’s grip.

“This will be different,” Scott replied patiently.  “You’ll be sitting in a chair for a change.”

Johnny mumbled a phrase in Spanish, which Scott gleaned by the intonation was something his brother probably wouldn’t care to repeat in English.

Despite Johnny’s protest, Scott managed to get him into the chair.  As he did so, Scott could feel his brother’s muscles contracting under his grip, waves of spasms that each extracted a stifled moan of pain.  He found himself glancing toward the wrapped pot of tea.

“I’m afraid the tea will be pretty cool by now.  If you give me a moment, I can run down and get a fresh pot.”

Johnny huddled down further in his chair, his arms gripped tightly against his chest and abdomen.  He groaned as he laid his forehead down on the table.  “Why’d he have to lie?”

Scott blinked, hesitated, unsure whether an answer was expected—or would even be welcome.  Taking a breath, Scott pulled the other chair closer to Johnny’s and sat down.  “Who lied?  Carlos?”

“No,” Johnny said, rolling his head slightly.  “Cisco.”

“Cisco? What did he lie about?”

Johnny tilted his head until he could look at his brother.  “Everything,” he answered in one strained breath, closed his eyes, his jaw tightening as he moaned softly, then rolled his head back until his forehead was pressing against the hard wood of the table.

Scott worried his bottom lip.  He wanted to press the subject, find out what the long-buried story was surrounding the enigma named Cisco.  A corner of yet another puzzle piece had been uncovered, but Scott wasn’t sure it was wise to try to fit it in just yet.  He had a feeling it was a difficult piece, and if he wasn’t careful, he could fracture the puzzle again.

He tentatively reached out, was inches from Johnny arm, when a knock at the door caused him to jump.

“Rosti,” he muttered to himself, then looked at the door.  “Rosti?” he called.

“Yup.  Got that tea you had asked me to bring up, and some food for you.”

Scott gave Johnny’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll be right back,” he assured, but his brother made no move.  Standing up, Scott drew out his pocket watch and checked the time before heading to the door.  “Didn’t expect you for at least an hour,” he stated as he opened the door.

Rosti, a tray in his hands, smiled.  “Well, things have gotten rather quiet this evening, so I’ll be closing up a bit early.”

“Thanks a lot for doing this,” Scott said as he took the tray.

“How are things going?” Rosti asked, his neck craning to the side to get a look behind Scott.  “Feeling better, is he?”

Scott shrugged noncommittally.  “About the same,” he replied as he made to shut the door.

“I left some of the tea on the stove.  It should stay warm for you all night if you’ve need of it,” Rosti quickly added.  “I’ll be up for about another hour just cleaning up and stuff, if you need anything else.”

“Thanks.  I’ll let you know, but I think we’ll be fine,” Scott nodded and closed the door.  He quickly carried the warm pot of tea to the table, then picked the mug up off the floor.  As he was filling it, he realized Johnny had tilted his head again just enough to be able to watch him. 

“I wish… you didn’t have to… add that stuff,” Johnny murmured haltingly as Scott picked up the laudanum bottle.

Determined to show no indecision, Scott poured a measure of the medicine into the mug.  “We’ve been through this before,” he replied.  “I’m agreeing to help you do this, as long as you agree to take DarkCloud’s tea and some laudanum in order to help keep the symptoms under control.”  He slid the mug toward Johnny’s face.  “Drink up.”

Johnny lifted his head off the table.  In the light thrown by the lamp, Scott saw that his brother’s face had gone white, the lips pressed thinly, and pain had taken control of how fast and how deeply he could breathe.

“Johnny,” Scott sat down again, put one hand on his brother’s shoulder and picked the mug up with his other.  “Let me help you.”  Surprisingly there was no rebuttal to his offer.  Instead, Johnny closed his eyes, cutting off communication in an act just as effective, even though he parted his lips enough to allow Scott to bring the mug to his mouth.  He took two measured swallows, then drew his head away, though his arms remained firmly tight about his chest.  There he remained without moving for a few moments.  Scott sat quietly, holding the mug, waiting for some indication from his brother.  He was beginning to worry about the suffering Johnny was displaying from the lack of medicine.  He knew, first-hand, how badly the wounds looked, and had no doubt their pain was intense.  For a second he had to look away from the exposed misery he saw on his brother’s face in order to check his ambiguous feelings regarding his decision.  He knew it would be foolish to change his mind, but he couldn’t help the sudden and intense notion that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea, especially when Johnny looked like he did.

Johnny felt the laudanum-laced tea reach his belly.  He hoped it would quench the fire burning there, but doubted it.  He was having a hard time swallowing, kept feeling like his stomach was just looking for a reason to heave again, an unpleasant occurrence at any time, but one that now brought with it eye-watering pain.  It was only at those moments that he questioned if he really knew what he was doing, as he felt like his wounds were being ripped open from the inside.

He briefly wondered at his outburst regarding Cisco, wished he hadn’t spoken so in front of Scott.  It really shouldn’t have mattered so much to him.  The whole thing had happened so long ago.  But his feelings, in relating the story to his brother, surprised him.  He had thought he was over it.  But bitterly he acknowledged that he still felt betrayed by how things had turned out.  The others: Wes and Harley, they hadn’t seemed as bothered by Cisco’s deception.  But perhaps that was because they’d had something else to look forward to, and Johnny had been the only one left standing with nothing but a cold gun for a friend.

He felt Scott’s arm tighten briefly on his arm, a signal of his support.  He opened his eyes, but felt his stomach begin to lurch. 

“Take short, even breaths,” Scott commanded in a low voice. 

Unable to do anything else, Johnny closed his eyes and obeyed, yet he had to clench his teeth against the rising bile.

Scott watched Johnny try to fight against the pain and the rising nausea.  He felt that if he could get some more tea into him, some more laudanum namely, it would help ease the symptoms.  He watched Johnny take a few uneven breaths before putting the mug to his brother’s lips.  “Drink some more.  You need this.”

Johnny tried to draw his head away, but Scott kept the mug to his lips until he’d taken another couple sips.  Then he released his hold and allowed Johnny to lower his head to the table again.  He was quiet a few moments, then mumbled something, which Scott couldn’t make out.

“What?” Scott leaned down.

“Story,” Johnny whispered, his eyes still closed.  “Your…turn.”

Scott smiled, but hid it behind his hand in case his brother should suddenly open his eyes.  “A story, huh?  What type?”

Johnny was quiet a moment, except for the tightly forced puffs of breath that signaled he was still having to fight to remain in control.  “College.”

“A story from college, huh?”  Scott mused.  “I’m assuming you’re referring to more than an accounting of my courses and their corresponding grades, along with my appraisal of the differing techniques and approaches to the methods of teaching between the varying teachers I encountered.”

Johnny opened his eyes to mere slits, but he still managed to convey his exasperation.  “You… ever flunk?”



Scott grinned.  “Well, let’s see now.  Oh, I know.  Here’s a good one.  My best friend and I—”


Scott chuckled.  “No.  His name was Leo Mason.  His father was one of Grandfather’s business partners.  We went to school together, then entered Harvard at the same time.  He was going into Engineering.  Anyway, Leo was always coming up with new ideas to try, especially if there was some way to possibly make a bit of money.  Well, he gets it in his head that we need to start a Harvard bowling team, only when he approaches the administration about the idea, they say Harvard has enough extracurricular—”


“Things going on that aren’t directly related to courses of study, like fencing and swimming teams, things like that.”

Johnny made a slight nod with his head.

“So, Leo’s quite taken with this idea of starting bowling teams.  I track down a few sets of pins and balls through Grandfather’s import business and Leo comes up with the idea of using the halls of our dorms as the lanes.  We sign up teams, charge the players five cents to play, and set up six teams—three playing at a time, one on each floor of our dorm.  We made pretty good money at first.”

Johnny raised his head slightly.  “Then…what happened?”

“Well, the balls are pretty heavy, you know.  They banged up the walls and woodwork pretty badly. The few kids who weren’t on teams complained that the noise was interfering with their studying—”

“No sense of fun.”

Scott nodded his agreement.  “Yeah, well, the administration then stepped in,” he sighed.  “And after we’d paid for the damages, we ended up about a dollar in the hole.”

               Johnny gave a short chuckle, winced, yet managed a weak smile.  “What…” he stopped, swallowed heavily, “What else…did Leo try?”

               Scott’s expression suddenly became somber and he picked up the mug.  “That would be another story,” he replied evenly.  “And since you’re not up to taking your turn, why don’t we take a break.  You could use another drink and I’ll eat the sandwich Rosti made me.”

“Just not…in front of me, okay?” Johnny replied dryly.



Murdoch sat at the edge of the bed in the small windowless room…cell, he mentally corrected himself.

He gingerly felt his jaw, knew he was sporting a fat lip.  Grimly he surveyed his surroundings.

What Judge Wakeman thought he was going to accomplish eluded him.

Perhaps he’s hoping to intimidate me into dropping the charges.  But the sheriff was there, too.  He can’t just dismissed testimony from a sheriff.  And so were Scott and Johnny…  Oh, Lord, when Matthew returns to Soledad alone— Scott and Johnny are—are going to come up.

Murdoch rested both hands on his knees.

That’s exactly why the Judge is doing this.  He’s hoping to get a hold of my sons, too—especially Johnny.  Johnny’s the one who ruined his plans, tainted the family name, embarrassed his son…  Only—only the Judge isn’t aware of the shape Johnny’s in.

Murdoch shook his head, his shoulders slumped.

Sure hope Scott has the sense to keep that brother of his chained to his bed.  The last thing we need is for Johnny to go dashing up, getting himself into more trouble, or endangering the healing that’s finally taking place.  Plus, to be honest, while the morphine DarkCloud’s giving him might cover some of the pain, it makes him irrational and confused.  Not the best way to meet up with the Judge.  No, Scott just has to keep Johnny from finding out what’s going on.  He has to keep him down in Soledad.




Scott was on his way back through the saloon when he found Rosti extinguishing the lamps.

“All set then, are you?”

Scott nodded.  “Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and grab some fresh tea while I’m down here.”

Putting his hands on his hips, Rosti regarded Scott thoughtfully.  “You sure you don’t need some help up there?  I mean, I’m a bit concerned about Madrid.  If you ask me, he does not look well.”

Scott quickly shook his head.  “No, no.  He’ll be fine before long.  Just an upset stomach, like I said.  You know, it’s been so long since he’s eaten anything solid…”

Rosti didn’t look convinced.  “Yeah, well, he ain’t exactly been eating anything today, either, from what I can see.”

Scott met Rosti’s skeptical look, was in the process of producing a credible smile, when the door to the saloon opened.

“I’m closed,” Rosti announced loudly as he and Scott turned toward the door.

A young man stood in the doorway, breathing heavily.

“Oh, Jacob,” Rosti smiled.  “How’s your mom?”

The young man took off his rather battered hat and grinned.  “She’s doin’ just fine, Mr. Rosti.  I got me another little brother.”

Rosti smiled, looked at Scott.  “This here’s Jacob Wilkinson.  His mom’s the lady DarkCloud went over to take care of helpin’ with the delivery.”  He turned back to the young man again.  “So, all went well, eh?”

The young man nodded again.  “Yeah, but he sent me to see a Mr. Scott Lancer.”

“That’d be him,” Rosti thumbed in Scott’s direction.

“So, you’re Madrid’s brother,” Jacob greeted, a grin on his face as he stepped forward.  “I heard all about what happened.  After little Benjamin…that’s my brother,” he quickly added, “was delivered, we set up some food for the doc and all, and he’d no sooner eaten and was gatherin’ his stuff up to leave, when Mr. Sanchez came riding on in.  Seems his wife’s gone into early labor.  So, DarkCloud had to leave straight away.  He wanted me to come in and let you know that.  He said if there’s any problem, or anything he should know about, that I’m to carry a message to him.”

Aware that Rosti was looking at him, Scott was careful to appear unconcerned by the news.  “Well, that’s considerate of you, Jacob.  But we’re doing just fine.  I feel sorry for your good doctor, though.  He sure has had his work cut out for him recently.”

Jacob smiled and nodded his head.  “Must be the moon, my dad said.”

Scott chuckled.

Jacob turned to Rosti.  “I could use a quick drink before I head back—just some water,” he added hastily.  “Dad’ll have my hide if I show up with liquor on my breath.”

Rosti made a quick motion toward the bar.  “Come on.  I’ve got some water, some weak beer, sarsaparilla or some rather interesting tea concoction of DarkCloud’s brewin’ in the back kitchen.  Which do you prefer?”

“Well, I’ve had some of DarkCloud’s tea once, enough to make me swear off ever gettin’ sick again!”

Rosti chuckled.

“And though I’d rather have the beer, weak though it might be, you’d better give me the sarsaparilla.”

Rosti nodded.

“Mind if I go back and get some of that tea?” Scott asked.

Rosti shook his head.  “Help yourself.  As I said earlier, I’ll leave it on for you.”

“Thanks,” Scott nodded then went into the back kitchen.

After he’d filled the container with enough tea for two or three mugs, Scott headed back into the saloon.  Rosti and Jacob were discussing the new acquisition to the Wilkinson family, Jacob extolling the virtues of boys over girls.  Scott, anxious to get back upstairs and hands full of the tea container and the chamberpot, just gave Rosti a quick nod and continued across the room.  He was relieved when Rosti seemed more interested in his discussion with Jacob than with engaging him in any further conversation.

It’d been a difficult last hour.  Scott’s efforts to get a little of the medicine into Johnny had proved futile, as his brother had been unable to keep the laudanum down.  Scott wondered if it was better to get Johnny to drink more of the tea quickly in order to get the medicine into him faster, or if he’d be better off continually sipping at it.  Either way, he felt his brother needed to keep a small amount of the medicine in his system.  This time, when Johnny had gotten sick, Scott had been dismayed at the severity.  Afterwards, he’d been unable, no matter what he’d done, to get his brother to focus on any sort of conversation, much less a story.  Johnny’s condition was rapidly deteriorating.  Eventually, he’d managed to get a very small amount of the tea into his brother and then helped him over to the bed.  After getting Johnny as comfortable as possible, Scott decided he had enough time to run down to get the chamberpot cleaned out again and to get some fresh, hot tea. 

At the door to Johnny’s room, Scott paused and took a deep breath.  Morning felt like it would never come.

Once inside, he closed the door quietly, put the pot on the floor, then carried the container to the table where he wrapped it up tightly.  Johnny was curled on his side, his breathing strained and low.  Suddenly he jerked, mumbling incoherently.  Immediately Scott went to his side.




A small worker’s cabin, dark, but cool, made of adobe bricks.  He’d just spent the night there after finishing his job. Now it was time to move on again.  Finish the job…move on…that was the order of things.

Johnny gathered up the few articles he hadn’t already put in his saddlebag, rolled them neatly in his blanket roll, and tied it efficiently.  Done, he cast one look out the window at the large, old church.  It had been an interesting job; that was for sure.  It’d been strange the way he’d heard of it, and though he knew he’d have had a better paying job waiting elsewhere, he’d still been drawn to check it out.  

And so strange to see Cisco all these years later—Francisco—Father Francisco.  Johnny smiled to himself.  Padre Francisco.  Now if that hadn’t come as a surprise.  A surprise he hadn’t quite been able to determine his own feelings on.

He heard a noise outside the door, a sharp knock, then the door opened slowly.


Johnny looked up, expressionless.  “Cisco.”

Cisco’s eyes narrowed slightly; someone who didn’t know him well would have missed it, but Johnny didn’t.   He’d expected it…

“Father Francisco, sorry,” Johnny made an elaborate attempt to hide a smile.  “Have a hard time remembering that.  What do you want?”

“I’d like to talk to you,” Cisco replied.

Johnny raised an eyebrow, amused.  “Sure that’s wise?  Aren’t you afraid of someone wonderin’ what Padre Francisco could possibly have to talk about with a gunslinger?  Could make a rather untidy little mess for you if someone were to discover your little secret.  Though I s’pose you could always say you came to hear my confession.” 

“Johnny,” Cisco shook his head sadly.  “I’m not here to fight.”

“Oh?” Johnny looked surprised, then seemed to consider the statement.  “Let me guess then.  Came to try one last time to save me from my sinful life.”

“I’d just like to save you from yourself,” Cisco replied quietly.

Johnny shook his head and chuckled, then picked up his saddlebag and adjusted it over his left shoulder. 

“Johnny, I—” Cisco stepped forward, hesitated, his hand outstretched.  “I wanted to thank you for taking the job.”

Johnny paused, his expression carefully guarded.  “I seem to remember you weren’t too happy with Padre Simon hiring me.  Seems you don’t quite hold me in the regard you used to…in the old days.”

“My opinion has never changed of your ability,” Cisco replied.  “I didn’t want Padre Simon to hire guns, but he felt it was necessary to protect the Church’s artifact until we could get it moved safely.  And when I saw you…well, it was a shock, you must admit.  But then I knew it must be Providence.  If there was to be trouble, I felt you’d be able to handle it.”

“Ah, so it’s quite all right to leave a few dead bodies behind me, as long as it’s in the name of the church?” Johnny asked, his voice tinged with sarcasm.

Cisco shook his head.  “No, Johnny, that’s not it.  I had confidence in your ability to handle the problem in the best way.  I knew you would not use your gun just for the fun of seeing someone die, like I know many gunfighters would.  But if you had to use it, I knew, if there was any possible way, you’d try not to take a life.  So if Padre Simon thought we needed a gun, I preferred we hired one who didn’t take killing too lightly.”

Johnny looked down and picked up his bedroll.  “You’ve got too high an opinion of me.  There’s still four dead men out there.”

“There’d have been more; Padre Simon would be dead and the artifact would have been stolen, if you hadn’t been along.”  Cisco paused, waiting for a response, but none came.  “Johnny.”

Johnny cautiously looked up, his jaw set stubbornly.  “I need to get going, Cisco…Padre Francisco,” he added with thinly veiled sarcasm that he knew would not go unnoticed.

“I’d like you to stay.  Padre Simon would like you to stay.”

Johnny glanced out the window, across the garden toward the small, aged, yet well cared for, church.  It’s one large, round, stained-glass window reflected the early morning light.   “I can’t.”

Cisco looked down at his folded hands.  “Johnny.  Padre Simon…  He isn’t well.  He had another attack last night.  He asked me to come get you.”

Johnny turned sharply, the tense irritation in his earlier expression and manner abruptly replaced by concern.  “What happened?”

Cisco shrugged.  “I don’t know.  The doctor thinks it is his heart.  He says Padre Simon is too old to be worrying so much and making trips across the desert.  He has been trying to get him to retire for two years now, ever since I came here.”

“But he won’t?”

Cisco gave a weary half-grin.  “I seem to know a lot of stubborn people.”

“Where is he?”  Johnny asked, avoiding Cisco’s jibe.

“In the house.  The doctor gave him orders to stay in bed for the next couple of days.  I found him trying to get out of bed this morning to see you before you left.  He says he needs to talk to you.”  Cisco paused.  “He seems to have taken quite a liking to you.”

Johnny looked down at the bedroll he now held in his hands.  “I like him, too.   He’s one of the good ones.”

“Then stay,” Cisco insisted.

Johnny shook his head.  “And do what?  Help you fix the place up?  Press olives?  Make wine?”

“No, Johnny.  You could take the opportunity to find something else that you’re good at.”

“Like what?” Johnny demanded as he drew his pistol out of its holster and thrust it between them.  “Teaching the local children how to use a gun?”

“Johnny!” Cisco interrupted then shook his head sadly.  “There’s still so much anger in you.  Can’t you see it’s destroying you?”

“I’m gonna go see Padre Simon,” Johnny stated as he re-holstered his weapon and abruptly pushed past Cisco.

Cisco turned quickly and tried to grab for Johnny’s arm, but Johnny swung around, his eyes leveled and expression tightly controlled.  “You don’t know when to give up, do you?”

“And you don’t know when to admit I’m right.”  

“You are right about one thing.  There’s a lot of anger in me; and if you know what’s good for you, Padre,” Johnny’s expression turned cold, malevolent, “you won’t get in the way of it.” The chill in his eyes never leaving, Johnny pivoted sharply and walked out the door.

Once outside, Johnny hurried across the yard to the padres’ modest dwelling, making a mental note to get an extra canteen of water, as the day was starting out exceptionally hot.  Or maybe he was just feeling hot.

At the door to the padres’ house, he paused and knocked.  After a moment, the door opened and Padre Andres met him, his normally sour expression deepening at the sight of Johnny standing outside the door.

“Who is it?” he heard Padre Simon’s voice from inside the dark room.  “Is it Juanito?”

Padre Andres’ lips curled with open disgust, but he answered evenly, “Yes, it’s Madrid.”

“Send him in.  Send him in.”

Padre Andres sighed disdainfully before backing out of the way for Johnny to enter.  Johnny took a step into the doorway, lingering just a moment with his own icy smile.  He thought he ought to feel bad about taking such pleasure in tormenting a priest, but where Padre Andres was concerned, he enjoyed giving the man the full benefit of his pistolero persona.

Padre Simon was lying on a high wooden bed, his face appearing twenty years older than it had the day before.  Upon seeing Johnny, however, the older priest broke into a wide smile and patted the bed next to him.  “Juanito, my son!  I was so afraid I’d miss you.”  He then turned his attention to Padre Andres, who had followed Johnny into the room.  “You may go, Andres.  Juanito and I, we need to talk.”

Andres gave Johnny a cold look before nodding to Padre Simon and backing out of the room.  Once the door was shut, Padre Simon winked at Johnny and lowered his voice.  “Always looks like he’s been sampling the raw olives, don’t it?”

Johnny chuckled, then nodded.  “Yeah, he’s certainly got that look about him.”

Padre Simon nodded to the small wooden chair next to the bed.  “Sit down a minute.”

Johnny glanced uncomfortably around the room before setting his bedroll and saddlebag on the floor next to the chair and taking the seat.

“Looks like you were planning to get an early start,” Padre Simon said with a nod at the articles.

Johnny nodded.  “Job was done.  No need to stick around.”

Padre Simon paused thoughtfully.  “Are you sure?”

Johnny nodded then glanced down at his hands folded in his lap.  “Best to get an early start.”

Padre Simon nodded, seemed to consider the thought.  “You know, Johnny, sometimes if you start out too early, you may not be able to see clearly and end up on the wrong path.”

Johnny looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“You know Francisco pretty well, don’t you?” Padre Simon abruptly asked.

At Johnny’s hesitation, the old priest smiled.  “You can tell me.  I’m not trying to get him into any trouble.”

“We’ve…met…” Johnny answered vaguely.

With a shake of his head, Padre Simon’s smile turned to amusement.  “I’m not blind.  I saw the look he gave you when you first showed up to take the job.  Only time in two years I saw him almost lose his composure.  He’d also been quite vocal in his arguments against hiring what he referred to as ‘a gun’ to protect our holy relic.” 

“Perhaps gunfighters make him uncomfortable,” Johnny replied.

“Well, I spent almost a month with you getting that relic to safety and then traveling back here; I know the type of man you are.  And you don’t make me uncomfortable.”

Johnny glanced down uneasily.

“I would like to see you stay here with us.”

A hint of a smile crossed Johnny’s face as he glanced back up.  “That’s not possible.”

“Has Francisco asked you to stay?”

Johnny bit his lip, dropped his gaze to study his hands firmly clasped in his lap.

               “How well did you know each other?”
               Johnny regarded the priest cautiously.  “I think you’d better ask Cisco that.”

               Padre Simon’s eyebrows raised at the reference to Cisco, but he covered it and smiled.  “I’m asking you.”

               Johnny shook his head.  “And I can’t answer.”

               Padre Simon adjusted himself on the bed so that he could study Johnny more closely.  “I’m guessing it was pretty well.  Well enough for him to know that you don’t belong doing what you’re doing.”

               “Perhaps your padre thinks it’s easy to just change, to choose—”

“To choose to leave behind death and destruction?”

Johnny took in a deep breath, straightened up in his seat and met the older priest’s penetrating look with unwavering resolve.  “I have worked too long and too hard to earn my reputation to just go throwing it away.”

               “Maybe,” Padre Simon nodded.  “But is it a reputation worth keeping?”

               “You may not think so.  Cis—Padre Francisco may not think so.  But it’s all I’ve got.  And I plan on keeping it.”


               “What do you mean?”
               “Why keep it?  I’ve seen the look on your face after you’ve killed, remember?  Why zealously guard a reputation you’re not comfortable with?”

               “’Cuz it’s who I am.”

               “Is it?  Is it truly?”
               “Quit playin’ word games.”

               “I will.  When you quit playing life games.”



“Padre…Simon…” Johnny murmured, groaned.  “Padre…”

Scott sat down on the bed beside his brother and gently laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Johnny,” he whispered softly.

“Padre…” Moaning, Johnny shook his head.  His face was flushed and hot, his breathing rapid and strained.

“Johnny,” Scott tried again. 

“Cisco…” Johnny moaned louder this time, started to roll to his back, then gasped as if struck by a sharp force.

“Johnny,” Scott raised his voice slightly and gave his brother’s shoulder a squeeze. 

Johnny’s eyes opened and he wildly searched about the room, one hand flinging outward if to strike. 

“Johnny, it’s Scott,” Scott said, grabbing the flailing hand tightly between his own.

“Where’s…where’s…Cisco?” Johnny gasped, blinking in confusion.  He then let out a groan and wrapped himself into a tight ball, edging Scott off the bed.

Confused by his brother’s erratic behavior, Scott quickly went to the table and readied a mug of tea and laudanum.  Then he perched on the edge of the bed and put a hand behind his brother’s neck.  Though the damp hair was cool to the touch, Scott was surprised at the heat radiating from his brother’s neck.  And while Johnny’s eyes were open, Scott had the oddest sensation he wasn’t really aware of his surroundings.

“Come on, Johnny.  I need you to drink this.”

Shaking his head, Johnny groaned and tried to push away.

“Come on, Brother.  We’re working on getting you well, remember?  Don’t fight me now,” Scott insisted, forcing a small amount of the tea between his brother’s lips.

Johnny felt the liquid dribble into his mouth, compelling him to swallow.  As the taste of the laudanum reached his brain, he put out his hand and shook his head.  That taste… It made no sense.  Why was Cisco…?  But it wasn’t Cisco, was it?  He blinked, tried to focus, and slowly Scott’s face wavered into view.  As it did, he saw his brother give him a reassuring smile and the mug was drawn away from his lips.  Everything seemed distorted…out of place.  Hadn’t he just been with Cisco…? But no, that didn’t make sense, either.  Cisco was another time…right?  He put a hand to his head, tried to force the disorganized thoughts to settle down into some sort of pattern, but they insisted on careening wildly through his brain.  He tried to open his mouth, to tell Scott that he needed some help, but could only produce a grunted syllable of confusion.  Irritated, frantic to escape the swirling disorder in his brain, the flaming heat in his belly and the unrelenting, searing pain across his chest and side, he pushed his brother away and managed to roll out of bed, grabbing the bedpost to keep from falling to his knees. 

A loud cry of pain, which he immediately recognized as his own, was quickly followed by someone latching on his arm.  Irked, he turned and tried to pull his arm away, but the culprit had a tight grip. 

“Let…go!” he growled. 

But the words weren’t followed by any attempt to further extricate himself, for the simple hissed command produced a crushing wave of pain that drove through his chest, reducing him to a whimper, leaving him with one hand clutching frantically at the bedpost while the palm of the other pressed against his chest.

“Johnny, it’s okay—”

Johnny searched out the voice.  “No,” he rasped, then shook his head.

It wasn’t okay.  Nothing was okay.  There was too much pain.  He couldn’t think, he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t breathe.  And Harley was gone and Cisco was gone…but Scott was here, right?  But that made no sense.  Scott wasn’t supposed to be here…not at Cisco’s…  Johnny blinked, looked around at the small, faintly lit room.  But he wasn’t at Cisco’s either.  He shook his head.  Everything was jumbled, an accumulation of scenes and incidents in no coherent pattern.  This wasn’t working.  DarkCloud had been right…DarkCloud.  DarkCloud.  Yes, he remembered.  DarkCloud had tried to tell him to wait…right?  But Murdoch was gone…when…a day ago…a week ago?  Wasn’t he supposed to be back?  How long had he been doing this?  It seemed like forever.  He was never going to be without pain again.  This was never going to end.  He was so tired of the pain.  He wanted to breathe, to think, to feel something other than pain.

He lifted his head, and as he did so, the table swam into view, and his eyes were drawn to the black medical bag DarkCloud had left.  The medicine.  He had to stop the pain; something had to stop the pain.  DarkCloud had stopped the pain.

He couldn’t think straight anymore.  And he needed to be able to think.  He tried to take a step, but the hand on his arm tightened, hindering his progress.  He turned, confused, Scott’s concerned face wavering into view.

“Where’s…Cisco?” he asked, noticed a bewildered look come to his brother’s face.  He felt the need to explain further, but he couldn’t remember what it was he’d said.  He shook his head, tried to pull away from the firm grasp, then impulsively he released his own hold on the bedpost to push away at the hand that held him.  “Let…go,” he mumbled thickly.

This time the hand fell away, releasing him to turn his attention back to the table.  It took all his will to keep his balance long enough to stagger the two steps needed to reach his goal, before he crashed heavily against the table, his hands reaching out toward the medical bag.

“Johnny!” he heard Scott’s voice beside him, but ignored it as his hand clutched at the bag.  Then he gave a sudden cry as he felt a burning pain to his arm.

Scott had been unprepared for Johnny’s sudden lurch for the table, and had been at first unaware that his brother’s goal had been the medical bag.  He had trailed Johnny’s jerky movements to the table, concern keeping him close to his brother’s side, though Johnny appeared unaware that he was being so tightly followed.  Then in bewildered surprise, he watched as Johnny lunged across the table to grab at the bag with one hand.  Immediately Scott noted that Johnny’s other arm was positioned dangerously near the lamp.  He tried to reach it in time, but was too late as Johnny cried out in pain, and drew the burned arm in toward his chest.  Yet despite the pain, Johnny still kept a firm grasp on the medical bag.

“Johnny!” Scott commanded as he grabbed hold of the bag.  “Let go!”

“No,” Johnny tried to pull the bag away, but lacked the strength and balance, and Scott easily ripped it out of his hand.  “Give…it…to…me!” Johnny hissed as he tried to steady himself against the table.

“Why?” Scott demanded.

Johnny faltered, gripped the table with both hands as he wavered unsteadily.  “Please, Scott…I…I…can’t…it’s not working…”

It took all of his strength to get the few words out.  He felt a need to say more, but could find neither ability nor concentration.  His words reverberated like viscous mud, thick and unnaturally heavy, sending his mind into a nauseating spin.  For a second he was attacked by a wave of vertigo, accompanied by a severe cramp that threw him forward into Scott’s arms.  He groaned loudly, then suddenly everything went numb…his legs ceased to exist, his arms ceased to exist, all that was left of him was the searing in his lungs and side.  Blackness engulfed him for a moment, and the familiarity of it, an intimacy of death glimpsed, was welcomed, and he slid into the darkness…

The relief was short-lived, for abruptly the darkness exploded into bright, blinding pain, and the numbing obscurity was jarringly exchanged for shrill clarity.  As each nerve blazed to abrupt awareness, his mind instantaneously pieced the broken fragments together, and he realized where he was and what he’d done.  He knew he’d been trying to reach the morphine, remembered Scott had tried to stop him, remembered collapsing…  And now he was on the floor, his face on Scott’s lap while he could sense every placement and every location of his brother’s touch; one hand tightly, yet cautious of his wounds, gripped him along the upper back and arm while the other supported his forehead.  His stomach was in upheaval, and in embarrassment that bordered on the ludicrous, he was suddenly distressed with the idea of throwing up on Scott’s lap.  In that split second, his mind roared with sadistic glee, You can’t breathe, yet you’re worried about throwing up on your brother!  The attempt to bring himself to his hands and knees, to pull away from his brother’s hold, was arrested in mid-breath, and his body convulsed with a shudder as nausea overpowered him.

Scott was close to panicking.  As Johnny had collapsed into his arms, disoriented and agitated, Scott found himself thrown into doubt over his decision to assist with his brother’s desire to get the morphine out of his system.  His resolve was not encouraged by the unexpected behavior from Johnny; the evident desire to reach the medicine, the way he’d struggled even, to reach it.  The chaotic state of his brother’s thoughts had signaled a warning to Scott, a warning he found himself gravely deliberating as he’d struggled to lower his brother’s sudden dead weight carefully onto the floor. 

Anxious, he drew his brother’s head into his lap; the skin was pallid and clammy.  “Johnny,” he said as he cradled his brother’s head, the hair black and damp against the temple, contrasting sharply with the pale skin.  As Scott put a hand across Johnny’s back and under his arm, he felt an abrupt transformation from unconsciousness to intense energy.  He heard his brother make a throaty gasp for air, felt him try to lift his head, knew by the sudden tensing of every muscle that Johnny was fighting back nausea.

“It’s okay,” Scott murmured.  “Short breaths.”

Johnny pushed away, tried to steady himself, but his arms failed him, and he collapsed into Scott’s embrace as his body buckled with the reaction to its urgent need for the medicine.  After what seemed to be an eternity of dry heaves, he finally fell back into Scott’s lap, alternately moaning and gasping for breath.

An icy chill suddenly replaced the blazing heat that had engulfed him as he’d fought through the episode of retching, and his body reacted to the sudden change in temperature with intense tremors, contracting in agonizing pain, straining his already overly taxed muscles and wounds.  He groaned and gasped for air, his chest screamed out for relief, and he found himself holding his breath in a futile attempt to stop the torturous breathing—to find some escape.  But necessity forced him to succumb, and with a wretched moan he inhaled.  He felt Scott’s embrace tighten with compassion, then one hand was lifted momentarily from his skin, and within seconds he felt the warmth of a blanket drawn across his body.


The word was barely discernible, but the meaning was clear, and Scott smiled sadly to himself.  He could feel the coursing tremors, the spasms surging sporadically, felt Johnny’s muscles go rigid as he gasped for each breath of air.

“God…it…hurts,” Johnny managed to force the words through clenched teeth.

Though Johnny couldn’t see it, Scott’s expression mirrored his brother’s feelings of helplessness and suffering.  He wanted to respond with empathy, to offer more than just support; he wanted to say that he understood, that he knew what Johnny was going through.  But Scott knew he didn’t…he hadn’t any comprehension at all.  Support was all he had to offer.   “I’m with you, Brother.  I’m here for you.”

Scott felt his brother lift his head, draw in a breath as if to respond, but the response was lost, drowned by a shuddering spasm once more.

Distressed, Scott looked about the room for some way to alleviate his brother’s agony…and found one. 

“Try to hang on,” he whispered, then carefully shifted his brother’s head to the floor and stood up.  He grabbed the laudanum bottle, picked up the empty cup he’d used earlier, and poured a small swallow into it, gauging the amount to be just less than what was usually put into a full mug of tea.  If the mixture of the tea and laudanum was going to make Johnny sick, maybe a small amount of only the laudanum would sit better in his stomach.  He studied the liquid for a moment, securing in his mind his decision.  Then resolutely, Scott sat back down on the floor and drew Johnny’s head back onto his lap.  “I’m back,” he said.  “I want you to take this.”

Johnny, eyes closed, shook his head.

“There’s no tea,” Scott explained.  “It’s just a swallow.  Let’s see if this helps the symptoms.”

When Johnny still refused to open his mouth, Scott tilted his face to the side, lifting it gently, and brought the mug to his lips.  As the laudanum reached his lips, Johnny jerked, gasped, the small amount of liquid flowing into his mouth; he swallowed instinctively.

The undiluted laudanum sat heavily in his throat, its familiar, bitter tang startling him.  Flashes, moments, scenes, death, blood, danger, betrayal…pain…all came back to him.  He tried to push up, but was held in a firm embrace. 

“A little more,” Scott said, forcing the mug between his brother’s lips. 

“No…Texas…Promised Cisco…” Johnny murmured incoherently, tried to turn his head away.

“Shhh,” Scott calmed as he kept a firm hold on his brother’s chin, coercing the last few drops of laudanum into Johnny’s mouth.  He kept a tight grip, watched carefully to see that Johnny swallowed as guilt and indecision suddenly surfaced, now that it was too late.  “But I can’t watch you suffer so,” Scott murmured softly as he closed his eyes and tilted his head back.  He took a deep breath, calmed his irresolution, then opened his eyes to focus his attention on his brother.

Johnny’s eyes were still closed.  His breathing was sharp, short and tense, his face contorting in a painful grimace with each reluctant, agonizing inhalation. Concerned at the intense pain, pain not just from the cessation of the morphine, but from the wounds, made Scott again question his decision.  His left hand was under Johnny, cupping his face, the right wrapped around his back and shoulder, keeping the blanket in place.  Anxiety that they’d caused more damage seemed an all too real possibility, and Scott reluctantly determined that he was going to have to check his brother’s wounds.

Johnny felt the beginnings of the familiar numbness spread along his limbs, easing the uncontrollable spasms and the gut-wrenching fire.  The pain still remained in command, yet he could finally control his thoughts.  He knew it was the laudanum acting, suppressing the leading edge of the severest of the symptoms, yet he knew they were still poised and ready to return unannounced. 

“How are you doing?”

Johnny heard his brother’s question, detected the worry in his voice.  He nodded his head, concerned that if he replied, he would add in a plea for more of the medicine.

You wanted to feel, dammit!  So, now you’re feelin’!  Get used to it!

Scott saw Johnny jerkily nod his head, yet his eyelids remained firmly closed.  He wondered if he’d given his brother enough medicine, or too much.  He quickly calculated that it was going to be a number of minutes before the medicine would be at full effect and he could attempt to check on Johnny’s wounds as he had no desire to do so until Johnny was as comfortable as possible.

Scott sighed.  Lord, he wished it were all over.

He felt Johnny shiver, the action bringing odd thoughts of cold and snow unexpectedly to mind.

“Don’t think I ever told you about the great snow fort I had one year,” he began in a low voice, surprising himself with how self-assured he sounded. “We have this big yard, you see.  And on the far side, behind the carriage house, there’s a large expanse of open area with some trees which Grandfather let me use to run around and play in.  It was away from the front of the house and the gardens, so I was free to do what I wanted. 

“Well, this one year, we had a whopper of a snowstorm, the granddaddy of them all.  It was a blizzard for three whole days without letting up.  By the time it was over, I was just bursting with energy to get out of that house and go play in it.  Mr. King went with me, of course, and he and I made the requisite snowmen and all, complete with old scarves and hats and such.  We were just finishing up when this neighbor boy, Chester his name was, comes by, wanting to know if I could go play in his snow fort he’d made.  Mr. King said I could, so I went over to Chester’s yard. 

“Well, Chester had this big, round snow fort, with these walls about three feet tall.  These other boys came over and we had a great time taking turns playing defenders and attackers.  Well, that night at supper, I asked Grandfather if I could build a snow fort.  At first he was opposed to the idea, thought it would entice rowdy kids to enter the yard,” Scott paused and smirked at the thought.  “But Mr. King happened to walk in at that time, overheard what we were talking about, and he suggested it might be a good idea.  He further went on to say that, if it were done correctly, it could be used as a valuable lesson in planning and constructing.  Mr. King’s argument enticed Grandfather, as he was always in favor of anything that could be used for a two-fold purpose, especially if one of the purposes was to teach a lesson, or make some money,” Scott laughingly added as an afterthought.  “Well, Grandfather called Mr. Linder into the room, and proceeded to explain to him that he wanted me to work on a design for a snow fort and that Mr. Linder was to oversee it as part of my schooling.” 

Here, Scott paused, chuckling to himself.  “You should have seen Mr. Linder’s face.  I tell you, he changed three shades of red, then added in some interesting tints of purple, before he was done sputtering in indignation.  In fact, I had never seen Mr. Linder speechless before.  It was quite obviously not his idea of proper schooling.  Besides which he abhorred the idea of going out in the snow himself.  ‘A vexation of magnificent slop and hazards,’ he called it.  He also said the cold air was responsible for most all forms of consumption and ill health known to man.  He was always stating that some day he was going to move south where civilized man didn’t have to deal with the indignity of such an inconvenience.” 

Scott paused, studied his brother a moment, noting with satisfaction that Johnny’s breathing had improved.  He rewet the cloth and wiped Johnny’s brow.  “Well, I can tell you, I was so excited about the whole project.   I stayed up most the night drawing up plans, designing and positioning… At one point, Mr. King, who had given up trying to get me to go to sleep, sat with me and discussed the best type of fort to make.  He looked at some of my plans, kindly pointing out that some of them were just not feasible.”  Scott laughed lightly. “I had one that was a castle, which wouldn’t have been too bad if it hadn’t had six rooms and a parapet, and another plan shaped like a boat, which Mr. King pointed out would be difficult to defend from a straight frontal assault.  By morning, however, I had the perfect idea.  I was going to pile all the snow into one huge mound and then dig tunnels in it.  Mr. King helped me plan out my tunnels, and with Mr. Linder’s grudging reluctance, we went out into the snow to begin construction. 

“After about an hour of using just shovels, Mr. King said he was going to go secure some help, and he returned not long afterward with Mr. Barker, who took care of the grounds and such.  He hooked up the snow-drag to one of the horses and worked up a really nice pile for us.  We worked on it the entire day and all the next.  It was quite an amazing feat.  There were two levels and two entrances and was about ten feet around.  I had strategically placed openings in order to watch for the enemy and to hurl the snowballs from.  And you’d be amazed at how warm it was inside!  Really!  Grandfather was quite impressed.  Well, that is until all the neighborhood boys discovered it and began coming over at all times of the day.  While the battles were glorious and I had the best time, Grandfather was not pleased with the broken second story window of the Carriage house, the snapped tree limb from his favorite apple tree and the general disarray the boys caused about the place.” 

Scott paused thoughtfully.  “Yeah, it was the best winter I ever had.  Mr. King’s son, the one I told you about, and I played in that fort all winter.  We had a secret code and everything.”  He shook his head and smiled ruefully.  “I wish…I wish you could have seen it, Johnny.”

“I wish…I had…too,” Johnny replied softly, swallowed, then seemed to steel himself before he opened his eyes and turned his head far enough to catch sight of Scott. 

Scott smiled with reassurance.  “How you doing, Brother?”

Johnny tried to grin, but was unable to produce a convincing one, his discomfort still too great to mask.  “I—I guess I’ve had—better times.”

Scott chuckled and patted his brother’s back before allowing his expression to turn serious.  “I think I need to check your wounds, Johnny.  I’m a bit worried about them.”

Johnny seemed to take a moment to curb a strong retort before swallowing and giving a reluctant nod.  “I—s’pose—you’re right.”

Scott nodded.  “I’ll be quick and gentle—” he stopped as Johnny gave a quiet grunt of disbelief.  “I will,” he reiterated.  “I just want to make sure we haven’t ripped something open.”

“We?” Johnny grunted, then began to push himself up.

Hearing Johnny inhale sharply, Scott quickly restrained him, noting how the simple movement seemed to aggravate his brother’s difficulty in breathing.

“Easy, Johnny,” Scott said.  “You don’t need to move.  Let me do the work.  Just stay as you are.”

Scott balled up one of the blankets into a rough pillow.  Then once his brother was situated, Scott stood up and went to the medical bag, which lay on its side, partially open on the table where he’d tossed it as Johnny had collapsed into his arms.  He quickly found the needed ointments and new bandaging. hoping he wouldn’t need either.  He planned to just pull off the old bandaging enough to see if there was any new bleeding present.  If there wasn’t, which he hoped was the case, he planned to leave well enough alone.  Supplies gathered, he sat back down on the floor next to his brother.

“Okay, Johnny.  I’m going to take this slow.  Let me know how you’re doing?”

Johnny nodded and closed his eyes.

Carefully, Scott pulled away the bandaging around Johnny’s back and side.  He had to maneuver the tail of the bandage under his brother, but with care he managed to do so with a minimum amount of movement necessitated from Johnny.  He’d gotten toward the end when he noticed a small stain of blood.  He’d hoped they’d made it through without doing any more harm, but the evidence was to the contrary.  He sighed unhappily, then conceded it could have been worse.  He finished unwrapping the bandage, carefully checked the entrance wound, saw that it looked pretty much the same as the day before, reapplied ointment to both, then rewrapped the wounds.  Lastly, the chest wound.  But that meant having Johnny move, at least enough so that he could get to it.  It would be easier if Johnny rolled onto his back, but Scott had a feeling his brother would prefer not to have to position himself on his back.

“Guess you’re…wantin’ me…to move,” Johnny mumbled as Scott was deliberating how to get to the chest wound.

Scott winced apologetically.  “If you could just roll to your side a bit, I’ll do my best to get this over with.”

Johnny’s shoulders rose in a halting sigh.  “Scott,” he said.  “Don’t…make no dif’rence.  I ain’t…I ain’t takin’ the medicine.”

Sighing, Scott leaned back onto his heels.  “I know.  But, well, I’m wondering if it would help to bandage it tighter—perhaps give you some more support.”  He hesitated before adding, “It seems to me like it’s what’s causing you the most pain.  I’m a bit worried that you may have re-injured those cracked ribs.”

There was no reply from Johnny for a second.  Then he gave a short nod.  “I know,” he whispered.  “May have…  The ribs sorta…took a beatin’.”

Scott nodded.  “I think it’d be a good idea, then, if we bandaged it up tighter.”

Johnny gave a reluctant nod, then slowly rolled to his side.  His dark hair was plastered to his face, his lips thin and pinched.  Scott gathered up a long length of cloth, then gave his brother an apologetic smile.  “You ready?”

Johnny managed to return a weak smile of his own.  “Let’s…get it…over with.”

Scott gave Johnny an understanding nod, then carefully began to work the bandage under and around, binding the bruised ribs with more support.  Johnny inhaled sharply, but otherwise managed to keep his discomfort swallowed while Scott finished with the chore.  Once done, Scott stood up and put the supplies back on the table.  When he turned back, Johnny was shakily pushing himself to a sitting position.

“Whoa, there.”


“You don’t really expect me to believe that.”

 Johnny rewarded Scott with a sour look, yet managed to get rolled around to a sitting position, his legs out in front of him.  He then closed his eyes, slowly straightened up, winced as he drew in a breath.

“How are you feeling now?”

Johnny nodded.  “Better.”

Scott raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything.  Johnny looked anything but better.  Even by the faint light, it was easy to see that his face was devoid of any color, and his eyes looked strangely bright and feverish. 

“I wish you’d take just a bit more laudanum.”

Johnny gave a curt shake of his head.

“Just an idea,” Scott replied with outstretched hands.  He smiled and sat down beside Johnny.  “So, then, isn’t it your turn for a story?”

Johnny kept his gaze averted.  “I’m…outta…stories.”

Scott cocked his head and studied Johnny’s profile before venturing, “How about telling me about Padre Simon?”

Johnny turned sharply, his eyes narrowed.  “Padre…how’d you…?”

“You said the name…earlier.”

Johnny dropped his gaze to his folded hands.  “Oh.”

Scott waited a moment, then quietly asked, “Who was he?”

Johnny gave a half-hearted shrug of his shoulders, then leaned his head back.  “Someone…” he hesitated, then shook his head. “It was…after the break-up… I was riding alone…between jobs,” he said, his words slow, carefully chosen, his breathing frugally measured.  He glanced at Scott, seemed to consider something, then gave a weak smile before closing his eyes.  “I’d originally planned to hire out to the salt mines…”


It’d been a good year as far as work was considered.  He’d made good money and happened to have lived to enjoy it.  He had bumped into his old friend, Wes, at the beginning of the year and they’d ridden range protection for almost a month for an outfit up just north of the border before Wes got the wanderlust and decided to take off again.  Though Wes tried to convince Johnny to go with him, Johnny had declined.  The pay was good, the owner of the ranch was smart enough fellow to let Johnny do his job without too much interference and the local cantina girls were better looking than average.  But, eventually, Johnny, too, had gotten tired of the routine and started to look for other work.

He’d been on his way to hire out for protection for the salt miners when he’d heard of a job that piqued his interest.  He’d been having a drink in a saloon when the discussion at a nearby table had turned to the rumor of some priests who were said to be looking to hire guns.

“What the hell do priests need protection for?” one of the men laughed.

“For protection against them pretty local girls!”

“It’s gotta be a joke,” the first man continued with a shake of his head.

“No, honest, Hert.  I heard it from a guy just three days ago in Agua Pieta who’d heard it a few days earlier from a fella who heard it first-hand in San Basilio.”  There was general laughter at this pronouncement, but the speaker ignored it and continued.  “Seems they got some holy relic they wanna move somewhere else.  What with the tempers runnin’ high between the rurales and the peasants…”

“That fella was pullin’ your leg, Warren,” another man interrupted.

“Was not!” Warren retorted.  “He was damned serious about it.  Said he was gonna go check it out for himself.”

“Gotta be some might strange priests, if you ask me, then.”

Warren shrugged.  “I’m just tellin’ you what I know.”

Hert laughed as he sat his mug down on the table.  “What type’a gun would wanna take a job like that anyway?  Can you imagine?  A coupla old priests breathin’ down your neck, watchin’ every move and everything you say.  Errrr.”  He shook himself dramatically.  “Kinda makes the blood run cold, don’t it?”

The men laughed loudly.

“Hell, can you imagine what they pay?”  Warren joined in the laughter, stood up and assumed a proper, pious pose.  “Well, we ain’t got much in the way of gold, my son.  But we’d be glad to pray for your soul.”

The small crowd erupted into another burst of laughter.

Johnny had quietly sat, slouched in his chair, listening, nonchalantly sipping his beer.

Yeah, who would take a job like that?  The salt miners would certainly pay better…  Yet it would be something different.  And he always was looking for something different…


An hour later, Johnny was on his way to San Basilio to check out the story for himself.

It was late in the evening, three days later, when Johnny rode into the small, dusty village.  The town itself was like all others found not far south of the border, long dead dreams turned to dust in the unyielding heat of the Mexican sun.  In the center of the small village was the familiar square with a rather impressive looking church, given the size and condition of the rest of the town.

As Johnny rode closer, though, he noticed the church was showing signs of having seen better days.  It, too, was slowly deteriorating under the constant erosion of the sun, wind and heat.

Johnny dismounted, let his eyes travel the length of the village square.  Most everyone had stopped to stare at him as he’d entered town.  He wasn’t surprised.  He’d have been more concerned if they hadn’t.

He took his time, unconsciously plotting the entire town he’d ridden through in his memory, stamping each darkened corner with a mental red flag.  As he started toward the steps that led to the church, he was met by a priest on his way out.  The priest, tall and thin with a long, narrow face, paused and looked at Johnny with mild surprise.   Johnny was sure he’d caught a flash of disdain before it was quickly covered by a deferential attitude. 

“May I help you?”

Johnny pushed the hat off his forehead with a finger and smiled.  “I was gonna ask you the same thing.”

The priest’s lips pursed as his eyes dropped to take in Johnny’s low-slung holster.  “One of Padre Simon’s notions,” the priest mumbled.

Johnny cocked his head to the side, an amused grin appearing on his face.  “Padre Simon, huh?  Then I guess that’s the man to see.”

The priest’s expression turned irritated, yet he stepped back and gestured toward the doors.  “If you’ll follow me.”

Johnny followed the priest into the dark, cool interior.  The priest paused inside the door, dipped his fingers into the holy water then crossed himself before walking along the back of the church.  The priest’s leather-clad feet barely made a sound on the tile as he walked along the perimeter of the nave, passing a couple of confessionals, while Johnny’s boots echoed loudly, snapping and jingling with each step. Flickering candles placed at the Stations of the Cross danced shadows along the walls.  Unconsciously Johnny found himself studying the statues and paintings, his eyes drawn to the face of the Lord.  Suddenly uncomfortable, he forced himself to concentrate on the back of the priest’s tonsured head.

They had almost reached the front pew when the priest took a turn into a corridor.  After passing two doors, he came to a stop; with bent head, he knocked softly.

“Come in.”

The priest opened the door, then stepped aside for Johnny to follow.

Inside, seated before a cluttered and rather worn desk, was another, older priest.  The priest looked up, the warm smile on his face a drastic contrast to the sour, irritated look on the first priest.  He stood up, walked around the desk, his hands outstretched in welcome.

“How may I help you, my son?” the priest asked pleasantly.

The first priest interrupted before Johnny could answer.  “I’m afraid this is another one of them, Padre Simon.”  The emphasis brought the barest flicker of amusement to the elder priest’s eyes, yet his expression remained unchanged as the first priest continued, “And I believe it’d be wise to send him on his way as you did the others.”

Johnny watched closely as Padre Simon stepped forward.  He had a round, friendly face and wore a brown, homespun robe that appeared to have seen better days, though it showed obvious care in that it was meticulously clean and neat. He was a good six inches shorter than Johnny, and a good foot shorter than the first priest, yet the elder padre still seemed to command the room.  Unflinchingly, Johnny met the dark eyes with his own blue ones, and though he was careful to keep his expression prudently guarded and controlled, he had a feeling the old priest could see in to every corner of his thoughts.  Without meaning to, he blinked and dropped his eyes.  The action disconcerted him and he forced himself to look back up.  Padre Simon smiled at him.

               “So, shall I send him on his way, or what?”

               “Goodness, no, Padre Andres,” Padre Simon replied without taking his eyes from Johnny.  “I believe I have found just what I need.”

               “You can’t be serious?” Padre Andres exclaimed.

Padre Simon’s smile widened and he turned to look at the younger priest.  “But I am quite serious, Padre Andres.  You may go now.”

“Go?  What?  And leave you alone with him?” Padre Andres voice rose even higher, echoing in the small room.  “You don’t know anything about him at all!”

Padre Simon’s expression suddenly turned distressed and he turned back to Johnny, his clasped hands rising in an overture of concern.  “Oh, my!  Padre Andres is quite right.  Please forgive me, but we haven’t been properly introduced.  I am Padre Simon and this is Padre Andres.  And what, my son, is your name?”

Johnny paused, glanced at Padre Andres, whose sour expression had become downright bitter.  “My name’s Madrid…Johnny Madrid.”

Padre Andres emitted a hissed sound of disgust and shook his head, while Padre Simon continued to look at Johnny with open sincerity.

“Johnny,” Padre Simon smiled, reached out and clasped Johnny’s hands in his own.  “I like that.  A good, strong name, like our beloved St. John the Baptist.  It is Providence, don’t you think, Padre Andres?”

This time Padre Andres snorted faintly, yet said nothing.

Padre Simon, his hands still firmly gripping Johnny’s, turned to Padre Andres.  “You may go now.  I’ll explain our needs to Señor Madrid, and hopefully he will be willing to help us.”

Padre Andres shook his head, gave a sigh of disbelief, turned and left the room, leaving the door open behind him.

Padre Simon smiled at the retreating figure before turning to Johnny.  “I apologize for Padre Andres.  He is as much irritated with me as he is with you.” 

“Then you are looking to hire protection?” Johnny asked.

Padre Simon nodded.  “Yes, but not for us.  Tempers are flaring; an uprising is a certainty.  There are only four of us here and I worry about the church’s holy relics.  I would like to get them safely delivered to Caborca.”

“So why do you need to hire a gunfighter?  Are they that valuable?”

Padre Simon nodded.  “Follow me and I’ll show you.”

Johnny followed Padre Simon back into the hall and out to the nave.  There, the Padre crossed in front of the altar, pausing to bow before continuing to the far side where he entered a small chapel.  Two rows of pews faced an unpretentious altar above which a diminutive rose window allowed a faint glow into the room.  The altar was of a common wood, but showed careful attention in its construction and care.  On the center of the altar sat a rough, wooden box.  Johnny stopped in the back of the room and crossed his arms as Padre Simon walked up to the altar, bowed, then put a hand on the box.  He turned around and looked at Johnny.  “This,” he nodded, his face alight with reverence, “is the holy relic I’d like you to protect.”

“A wooden box?” Johnny asked in obvious dismay.

Padre Simon gave a sudden, soft laugh.  “Oh, my.  It’s not the box so much as what it contains.”  He cocked his head and glanced at the small chest, his hand still resting on it.  “The box is valuable, of course.  It is over five hundred years old.”  He reached out his other hand, rubbed the top of the wood with quiet veneration then slowly lifted the lid.  He reached inside, and gently lifted out a plain, cream colored wrap of fabric.  He then turned toward Johnny.

Johnny raised an eyebrow, his stance unchanged.  “You need me to protect some cloth?”

Padre Simon smiled and nodded.  “Yes, but not this that you see.  But this.”  He delicately proceeded to unwrap the piece of fabric until he had the large, square of cloth open on his two palms.  In the center lay a small tan frayed square of rough weave, no larger than two inches square. 

Johnny squinted, glanced up at Padre Simon, then took a step forward.  “That?”

Padre Simon nodded vigorously.  “Yes.  Isn’t it unbelievable?”

Johnny made no attempt to hide his skepticism.  “Yeah, that you’d be willing to pay to have it protected.”

Padre Simon shook his head.  “Oh, my!  Señor Madrid.  You don’t understand.  I am sorry.  It is all my fault.  I am not explaining this well at all, am I?”

Johnny continued to stare dubiously at the small piece of nondescript cloth.  “I guess not.”

Padre Simon chuckled and shook his head.  “I’m so sorry.  I sometimes get carried away.”  He stepped forward and held the fabric up closer for Johnny’s inspection.  “This, Señor Madrid, is said to be a piece from the robe of St. John, the Baptist.”

Johnny glanced up at the priest.  “You must be joking.”

“Oh, goodness, no!” Padre Simon shook his head.  “It is no joke at all.  And that is why I need someone to accompany me when I take this to Caborca.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I guess I still don’t understand.  I can’t imagine why anyone would bother to try to steal it.” 

Padre Simon sighed and began to wrap the small square of cloth back up in its fabric case.  “We are situated in the middle of a boiling cauldron of fiery tempers—the rurales, the landowners, the peasants…  Animosity and resentment are running high.  I am afraid that any excuse that either side could use to destroy the other’s following will be employed.  And if stealing the church’s relic and blaming it on the other can bring the revolt to an early beginning while giving the instigators an edge, well…” He paused and shrugged his shoulders sadly.  “I am an old priest.  I have seen it all.  A relic, no matter how sacred, will not be safe if it can be used to further men’s greed and hunger for power.”

Johnny gave a slight nod toward the entrance of the chapel.  “But it seems like Padre Andres does not share your view.”

Padre Simon nodded sadly.  “I have no wish to quarrel with Padre Andres.  He will follow as I say.”  Padre Simon turned and gently replaced the fabric in the box and closed the lid.  “But I am afraid he thinks it is folly to take the relic to Caborca.  He does not believe it is in any danger.”

Johnny regarded the priest’s back, his stooped shoulders suddenly giving him the appearance of great age.  Then the priest straightened up, turned around and smiled.  “But now that you are here, I feel much more assured of my decision.”

It was Johnny’s turn to give an indulgent smile.  “And what makes you think that I am what you are looking for?  I heard Padre Andres say I should be sent away like the others.  How many other guns have you had here lookin’ for a job?”

Padre Simon crossed his arms.  “Oh, we’ve had a few men who have come by, asking about this holy task.  However, none of them possessed the necessary qualification.”

Johnny raised his eyebrows.  “And what is that?”

“A conscious.”

The answer caught Johnny by surprise and his expression turned guarded.  “What are you talking about?”

Padre Simon stepped up to the younger man.  “You see, when I look into your eyes, I see there is something in you besides pride and hate.  Tell me, Señor Madrid.  Are you good at your profession?”

Johnny swallowed, still uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken, then nodded curtly.  “I am.”

Padre Simon tilted his head, his eyes searching Johnny’s face.  “I know,” he murmured softly.  “I can see it in your eyes.  You are good at what you do…and that is what makes you unhappy.”  He nodded sympathetically.  “That is why it bothers me to ask you to do the favor of taking the job.  I wish I didn’t have to, but I really have no choice.”

Johnny, his composure regained, held the padre’s gaze a moment.  “You don’t even want to see a demonstration first?” he asked calmly.

Padre Simon shook his head, an expression of bemusement appearing on his face.  “No, Señor Madrid.  I know all I need to know.”  Then he paused and sighed.  “However, perhaps you need more information.  We haven’t discussed your fee.”

It was Johnny’s turn to look amused.  “Let me guess.  You’ll pray for my soul.”

Padre Simon nodded somberly.  “Until the day I die.”

Johnny laughed softly, glanced down at the floor and shook his head.  “I gotta tell you, Padre.  I’m gonna need more than that.”

“And I thought it was more than you’d ever been offered before,” Padre Simon replied smoothly.

Johnny glanced up sharply.

“However, if you insist,” Padre Simon continued. “I can promise you three meals a day, a place to sleep while we prepare for our journey, and twenty-five dollars gold when we reach Caborca and another twenty-five if you accompany me back here.”

“Fifty and food, huh?” Johnny cocked his head to the side, a half-smile on his face.

“And I’ll still pray for your soul,” Padre Simon added.

Johnny laughed and put out his hand.  “I guess, Padre, you just hired your relic some protection.”

Padre Simon smiled and reached out to draw Johnny’s hand in his warm clasp.  “Thank you, my son.  May I call you Juanito?”

Johnny nodded.

“Then next,” Padre Simon released Johnny’s hand and gestured out of the chapel.  “I should introduce you to the other priests here.  There are two others beside Padre Andres and myself.  The other two are new novitiates just recently arrived.  I generally care for the local parishioners and Padre Andres tends to those who are sick or who live too far away to make it in for Mass regularly.”

Johnny followed Padre Simon back out to the nave where the elder priest once more crossed in front of the altar, pausing to genuflect, then continued on to the hallway.  Johnny followed closely, suddenly uncomfortable wearing his holster in the quiet place of worship. 

Padre Santiago would have your hide for carrying a gun into the house of the Lord.  But then, he would have expected something like this from the son of the local prostitute, wouldn’t he?

“We have a very nice garden in the back,” Padre Simon said as they walked along the hallway.  “I, myself, am partial to roses, but we grow many varieties of flowers and flowering fruit trees.  We also have a wonderful vegetable garden that supplies many of our needs,” Padre Simon continued.  “Padre Andres enjoys cooking, and our new novitiate, Brother Martin, has shown a wonderful aptitude for creativity in the kitchen.”

Johnny smiled, amused by Padre Simon’s ramblings.  At the end of the hall, Padre Simon opened a door, and the scent of a number of different fragrances immediately wafted in.  Padre Simon was obviously correct in his appraisal of their garden.

Where the town and the church all showed signs of their battles against time and nature, the garden was a splendid rainbow of colors and odors.  The trees and the bushes were all well tended and healthy, the trees laden with fruit and the bushes brimming with flowers.  Johnny paused to scan the surrounding area, enjoying the sudden extravagance, then quickly caught up to the elder priest as he wandered about the path, pointing out the various varieties of trees.

As they walked into a small, round clearing, Padre Simon suddenly paused.  “Ah, there he is!” he announced.  “I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

Johnny glanced across the clearing to where a bent figure was mulching around the base of a vibrant red, rose bush.  “This is one of our new novitiates,” Padre Simon introduced, continuing to walk toward the figure.

As the young padre stood up, Johnny inhaled sharply.  Before his brain had even made the connection, his heart had already sensed the familiarity of the shape and movement, and his mouth had formed the name from out of his past before Padre Simon spoke.

“Brother Francisco, I would like you to meet the man who will accompany me on my task.  Señor Madrid.”

Johnny felt himself take a step backward before he managed to convince his body to stand its ground.  He saw Cisco’s lips form the word ‘Juanito’ in a surreal copy of his own reaction.  And for a second, they stared at one another, each trying to grab at an appropriate greeting.

“Madrid, is it?” Cisco spoke first; his voice even, though Johnny could tell the smile was strained and he began to rub the thumb of his right hand against the first two fingers, the one way Johnny had learned to read that Cisco was tense.

Johnny nodded curtly. “Padre Ci…Francisco.”

Cisco narrowed his eyes just enough to convey his irritation, though someone who didn’t know him well—didn’t know him as Johnny did—would have missed it entirely.

Padre Simon, who had bent over to check a rose, glanced up at Johnny.  “Yes, Padre Francisco is a wonder with our garden.  He has quite a talent in this area.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow coolly.  “Oh, really?  A hidden talent, huh?  Who would have ever guessed?”

Padre Simon cocked his head to the side then glanced at Cisco.  “Well, I’m sure our new brother has many such talents.”

“Oh, you can be assured of that,” Johnny replied dryly.

Cisco sent a covert glare in Johnny’s direction before he turned to Padre Simon.  “You aren’t seriously going ahead with that plan of yours?”

Padre Simon nodded.  “I am.”

Cisco glanced at Johnny out of the corner of his eyes before continuing to Padre Simon.  “I wish you’d reconsider.”

Padre Simon nodded thoughtfully, his hands tucked piously into the folds of his long robe.  “Brother Francisco.  I know you and Padre Andres are concerned about my decision, and don’t share in my opinion on the current state of unrest.  And to be perfectly honest, I must confess that up until Señor Madrid appeared, I had begun to think that perhaps your misgivings had merit.  However, I now believe this is the right thing to do.”

Cisco stepped up closer to the priest and lowered his voice.  “Please, Padre Simon, I wish you would reconsider.”

Padre Simon shook his head.  “Brother Francisco, my mind is made up.  And I wish to hear no other argument about it,” he stated firmly.

“Perhaps your newer priest is concerned about my ability to handle the situation,” Johnny said, shamelessly enjoying Cisco’s discomfort.  He nodded deferentially to Cisco.  “I’m quite willing to offer a demonstration, if you’d like.”

Cisco turned with annoyance.  “I have no need of a demonstration,” he remarked icily.

Johnny put back his head and laughed.  “Oh, this is truly remarkable.  No one wants a demonstration.  I guess either my reputation has spread or you are both remarkably trusting.”

“Rest assured, your reputation precedes you, Señor Madrid,” Cisco replied tightly.

“Johnny,” Johnny responded with a benevolent smile.  “You can call me, Johnny.  And perhaps I could call you Ci—”

“Padre Simon,” Cisco interrupted sharply, turning his back on Johnny to face the elder priest.  “I can see you are set on your decision.  In that case, would you consider letting me go instead?”

Padre Simon looked surprised. “Brother Francisco, I know you are concerned.  But I can not allow you to go in my stead.  If anything were to happen to you, I would never forgive myself.  No, it is I who will be going with Señor Madrid.”

Cisco sighed, glanced at Johnny.

“Don’t worry, Brother Francisco,” Johnny replied, adding a slight emphasis to the word, ‘brother.’  “I shall deliver both your artifact and Padre Simon safely.  I have already given my word, and for your information—I keep my word.  Beside,” he paused and smiled, “Padre Simon has offered to pray for my soul.  How could I turn down such an offer?”

Cisco clasped his hands, his expression composed.  “Then I shall add my supplications to his.”



“Padre Simon was a kind…remarkable man, really…” Johnny said, stopped to take a breath, a wince accompanied a soft groan.  “He feared…rightly so…for the safety of their relic.” He paused again, took another breath, had to clear his throat before beginning.  Scott worried that the laudanum was wearing off.  “He went to show me around…there were gardens…and that’s when I found out…” He suddenly stopped, tensing up, his eyes opening.  “I took the job,” he stated curtly.  “I got Padre Simon and the relic safely delivered as I promised I would.”  Without warning, he thrust a hand out toward the bed and began to stand up.

“Hold it!” Scott jumped to his feet. 

In answer, Johnny moaned, leaned over with his hand to his chest, then gingerly turned, placed his other hand on the bed, and carefully sat down.  His face had gone pale, perspiration shown in the lamp light, and he gave a tense groan.  “I—gotta—quit—doin’ that.”

Scott nodded, his hands on his hips.  “Would be a smart idea.”

Johnny tried to glare, but it came off as a weak grimace.  He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the bedpost.

“Johnny,” Scott said.  “That young priest, that was Cisco wasn’t it?”

Johnny’s eyes opened and he studied Scott was a mixture of apprehension and suspicion.  “What are you talkin’ about?”

“I’m talking about Cisco.  You rode with him at one time.  He was a good friend of yours, wasn’t he?  Then he became a priest and you seem to harbor a lot of resentment against him.  Why?”

“Because he lied.”

“About what?”

Johnny shook his head and closed his eyes.  “Everything.”

Scott continued to regard his brother for a few minutes, his expression dissatisfied.  He wanted to ask more, but could tell by Johnny’s color and breathing that now was not the time to push the issue.  He sighed, turned to glance toward the laudanum bottle.  “Joh—”

“But he was right…”

Scott turned back.  Johnny hadn’t moved, other than to open his eyes. 

“Cisco was right,” he murmured again.  “And I shoulda listened to him.”  He gave a soft groan, closed his eyes, held his breath against a wave of pain.

“Johnny?” Scott reached out.
               “I’m gonna…be sick.”

Scott sat down quickly, put his arm around his brother. “I’m here, Johnny.”

Johnny moaned.  “God, I feel like hell, Scott.”

Scott nodded, drew Johnny into his embrace and rested his cheek against the top of Johnny’s head as the tremors once more descended.


Four hours later, Scott tiredly ascended the steps to Johnny’s room, chamberpot in hand.  Outside the door, he paused wearily, stretched out his back and sighed.  After Johnny’s revelation, his symptoms had quickly returned, deteriorating his condition such that the ensuing hours were miserable and tortuous for both Scott and him.  Stories, indeed any real conversation, had become impossible.  But finally, after hours of gut-wrenching agony that left even Scott worn out, the symptoms had abated enough for Johnny to fall asleep.  Or perhaps exhaustion just finally won out.

Scott quietly opened the door, placed the chamberpot on the floor near his brother.  Johnny had once again ended up on the floor.  Scott had tried to get him to remain on the bed, but in his agony, Johnny had once again found a sort of refuge on the hard, wood floor.

Scott walked to the table, reached out and lowered the flame on the lamp.  It would be morning soon.  He briefly wondered when DarkCloud would show up, and speculated on the doctor’s opinion of their course of action.  Scott surmised that ‘congratulations’ was not going to be the first thing out of his mouth.

Scott rubbed his eyes tiredly, then brought his hand around to massage the back of his neck.  A soft moan from Johnny quickly brought his attention around and he stepped quietly to his brother’s side. 

“Padre…” Johnny murmured.

With a pensive smile, Scott lowered himself to the floor next to his brother.



“Thank you, Johnny, my son, for waiting until I could properly see you off.”

Johnny looked down as Padre Simon warmly grasped his hand.

“Padre,” Johnny mumbled.

“Ah, Juanito, my son.  Why can’t you look me in the eye?  You did good.  As I knew you would. The church’s relics are safely delivered and you even managed to protect a foolish, old man.  I wish you would stay…even just a little longer.”

Johnny looked up at the old priest’s dark, soft eyes, and quickly dropped his gaze once more.  He shook his head.  “You know I can’t, Padre.  It wouldn’t be right.  I wouldn’t be…it’s just not possible.”

“I shall miss you,” Padre Simon replied sadly.  “I was honored to travel with you, Juanito, my son.  I would be honored if you stayed.”

Johnny shook his head again, hazarded a quick glance up.  “It would not be good for Cis—Padre Francisco.  I—I would make him uncomfortable.”

“So, make him uncomfortable,” Padre Simon chuckled.  “Contentment is poison to the soul.”

Johnny couldn’t help a bitter, laconic smile.  “Ah, if that were true, my soul should be pure as mountain water.”

Padre Simon chuckled again, squeezed Johnny’s hand once more before dropping it.  “You know the revolution will come soon.”

Johnny nodded sadly.

“It will be neither good nor fair.”

Johnny nodded again.  “No, it won’t.”

“We will need you.”

Johnny’s eyes traveled off to the distance.  “I don’t like to lose.”

“Perhaps with you, we wouldn’t.”

Johnny turned his attention back to the old priest.  He smiled slightly as he read the truth in Padre Simon’s eyes.  “Yes, you will.  We both know, with or without me, it will end the same.”

Padre Simon sighed and nodded.  “You are right, Juanito.  Each man must choose his path…follow the dictates of his soul.”  He paused a moment, put a hand on Johnny’s arm, securing his attention.  “But beware of the devil, Juanito.  He is on your horizon.”

Johnny gave a soft snort.  “Oh, I’m not too worried ‘bout the devil, Padre.  I figure he’s already been following me around for quite some time.”

“No,” Padre Simon shook his head.  “Not yet, he isn’t.  But he’s waiting.”




It was early morning, the town people well into their assorted chores and tasks when Matthew reined his horse up, sliding off the animal’s back before it had even stopped.  Both man and beast were covered in sweat and dust.  The horse, its sides heaving and knees quivering, hung its head and appeared ready to drop where it stood.  Matthew, however, dashed with frantic energy up onto the boardwalk and barreled into Rosti’s saloon.

“Hey, Matthew!” Rosti called as he came out from behind the bar, his expression changing from greeting to anxiety as he took in Matthew’s bedraggled appearance, the bruise along the side of his face.  “You’re early.  Where’s—?”

“Not now, Rosti!” Matthew said as he hurried toward the stairs.  “I gotta see Scott and Johnny!”

Rosti hurried after him. “Where’s Mr. Lancer?”

“Up in Salinas,” Matthew answered curtly.

“Why did he stay up in Salinas?”

“It wasn’t by choice.”

“What wasn’t by choice?”

Rosti and Matthew turned toward the entrance.  DarkCloud stood in the open doorway, his hand holding the door open.  He looked tired, but the fatigue left his face as Matthew turned around.


“DarkCloud,” Matthew barely nodded a greeting, then turned back toward the steps.   “I gotta go talk to Scott and Johnny.”

DarkCloud hurried across the room, grabbing Matthew’s arm as the young man reached the first step.  “What happened?” he insisted.  “We didn’t expect you until later this afternoon.  And where’s Murdoch?”

“He’s been taken,” Matthew answered bluntly.


“By who?” Rosti interrupted.

“The Judge.  And he wants Johnny.”

“Wants Johnny?” DarkCloud echoed.  “I don’t—”

Matthew shrugged out of DarkCloud’s grip.   “They took him.  I don’t know where he is.  But they want Johnny.”

“Johnny’s in no—”

“I know that!” Matthew snapped.  “I gotta let them know what’s happened, though.  It’s their father.”  He turned and hurried up the steps, DarkCloud and Rosti following closely.

“Johnny can’t go makin’ no trip up to Salinas, not givin’ how sick he was last night,” Rosti stated as they reached the top of the steps.

“What do you mean, sick?” DarkCloud said as he came to an abrupt stop and rounded on Rosti.

“Yeah, he was sick all night—”

“Oh, Lord!” Matthew exclaimed.  He had reached the door first, opened it, and now stood transfixed in the doorway.  “They’re dead!”

Looking at each other in alarm, Rosti and DarkCloud dashed to the doorway, pushing their way past Matthew into the room.

Johnny lay curled on the floor, his skin pale, his lips thin and white, while Scott was sprawled nearby, his back up against the bed, head lolling off to the side, one hand curled in his lap while the other rested protectively on Johnny’s foot.

“What happened here?” DarkCloud demanded, his eyes rapidly traveling over the scene, then narrowing as they reached the table where the medical bag lay.  “Scott,” the muttered word had the quality of a curse to it.

As if in response to the sound of his name, Scott flinched, his eyes opening quickly, squinting in confusion as he looked from face to face.  As his gaze fell on DarkCloud, his eyes widened in alarm, and he immediately pushed himself to his feet, stepping defensively in front of Johnny’s still prostrate form.

“DarkCloud!” he exclaimed then quickly lowered his voice.  “When did you get back?”

“Obviously not soon enough!” DarkCloud snapped.  “What’s been going on here, Scott?”

“Scott!” Matthew pushed forward and grabbed him by the arm.  “They’ve got your father!  They’ve got Murdoch!”

“What?” Scott exclaimed, his attention momentarily drawn away from DarkCloud’s lethal glare.

“The Judge!  He’s got your father!  He wants Johnny!  And he wants him up there tomorrow at five o’clock!”

“The Judge took Murdoch?  But that…” He shook his head and made a pass across his forehead as if collecting his own disorganized thoughts.  “Why would he do that?”

“To get to Johnny,” Matthew repeated.  “The Judge wants him up in Salinas tomorrow!”

“But Johnny can’t—” Scott faltered, glanced quickly down at his brother’s form and put a hand out as if to keep anyone from approaching.  Lowering his voice, he continued, “Johnny can’t go—he’s—” Scott paused, forced his gaze back to the doctor.  “He’s in no condition to make that trip.”

“You did it, didn’t you?” DarkCloud demanded, his voice dropping to a low growl, eyes flashing in uncharacteristic anger.  “You did exactly what I asked you not to do.  You just couldn’t wait, could you?”

Scott grabbed DarkCloud’s arm and herded him toward the door, Matthew and Rosti trailing.  “I did what was right for Johnny,” Scott hissed.  “He needed to get this behind him.”

“What are you talking about?” Matthew asked, confused by the heightened irritation between the two men.

“Yes, but at what cost? He’s not going to be able to function for days!” DarkCloud retorted.   “Without the morphine, the pain from those wounds he has is going to be too much for him to handle. And then just stopping like you did, well…it’s going to be a long time before he feels well enough to do anything—to make any decisions.”

“He wanted to get this over with, and we had no way of knowing that Murdoch was going to be kidnapped.”

“Regardless, did you even think about his wounds, the damage that could have been inflicted by your decision?”

“We were careful.  I’ve been with him constantly.”

“What are you two talking about?” Matthew interrupted.  “Did something happen to Johnny?”

“You could say that,” DarkCloud hissed, his eyes still on Scott.

“Even if we hadn’t stopped the morphine,” Scott continued tersely, “Johnny would have been in no condition to make that trip or to make a responsible decision.”

“Morphine?” Matthew asked, glancing quickly at Johnny.  “He quit taking the morphine?”

Scott shot a curt nod toward the younger man.

“That’s why he’s been sicker’n a dog,” Rosti murmured with a quick glance back at Johnny’s form.

“I’m not implying he would have been able to make that trip—or even that he should,” DarkCloud countered heatedly.  “But he’s going to be pretty useless now as far as even helping out in any decision that needs to be made regarding how to deal with the Judge’s kidnapping of your father.”

In a desire to defuse the tensions flaring between the two men, Matthew hurriedly interjected, “There wasn’t any morphine to be had anyway.”

Scott turned sharply.  “What?  Everyone was out?”

“Everyone seemed to be, or they said they were in any case.  We’d gone to the warehouse as a last resort.  That’s where we were jumped.  And when I came to, I was in a small hotel room on the edge of town with this fella sent by the Judge.  He told me to get down here and tell Madrid that they have Mr. Lancer and if he wants to see him alive, to get up there by five o’clock tomorrow and to come alone.”

“Well, he’s not going,” Scott stated firmly.


“I’m going,” Scott said as he positioned his hands on his hips.

“Scott,” DarkCloud leaned in.  “You can’t go.  It’s not you the Judge wants.”

“No, it’s not.  But it’s me he’s going to get.  I’m Murdoch’s son, too.  And since we all agree that there’s no way Johnny can make it, I’m the only other choice.”

“I think you’re making a mistake.”

“It’s mine to make.  Now, come on.” Scott shoved Rosti and Matthew out the door.  “We’ll discuss this downstairs.”

 “I need to check on your brother first,” DarkCloud said as he started toward Johnny.

“Later,” Scott snapped as he pivoted in the doorway and grabbed DarkCloud by the shoulder, his voice lowering again.  “I need to get things ready to leave, and I don’t want anyone bothering Johnny until after I’ve left.”

DarkCloud turned on him.  “You know that the Judge is going to eat you alive tomorrow.  He’s obviously reached his limit if he’s done something like kidnapping Murdoch.”

Scott nodded.  “While it’s a bold move, it also shows some advance planning.  He must have contrived the whole morphine shortage.  Someway he knew—” His gaze flicked to where Johnny lay.  “It’s just all too convenient.”

“Which means he must know that Johnny’s in no condition to give him any real trouble,” DarkCloud stated.  “He was counting on him arriving up there in poor shape.”

“The whole thing was a trap,” Matthew muttered from where he stood in the hallway.

“Which means this will be,” DarkCloud added.

Scott nodded.  “I know.  But I certainly can’t just ignore the fact that he has taken Murdoch.  Hopefully, if I show up, explain to him that Johnny is not coming, he’ll see that his scheme is futile and that there’s nothing to be gained by playing this sort of game.”

“Not likely,” Rosti muttered.

Scott gestured toward the hallway, his eyes making a quick assessment of Johnny before he joined Matthew and Rosti.  Reluctantly, DarkCloud followed as Scott quietly pulled the door shut.

“I don’t want Johnny to hear about this,” Scott said as he turned to face the men, his expression gravely set.  “I want your word.  No one tells my brother a thing.”

“When are you leaving?” Matthew asked.

“After I talk to Tucson.”

“And you think Johnny’s not going to notice that you’re gone?” DarkCloud asked with a shake of his head.

Scott shot him a sour look.  “Of course he’ll notice.  But it’ll be awhile before he does.  He’s pretty disoriented right now and weak as a newborn kitten.  There’ll be nothing he can do.”

“He’ll be madder’n a hornet when he finds out,” Matthew put in.

“Yeah, well, I’ll figure out what to do about that later.  Right now, I need to take care of Murdoch.”

Everyone fell silent at the sound of a door opening.  Tucson stepped into the hallway and yawned.  “What’s going on?  Hey, Matthew, you’re back.  How’d it go?”

At the general disgruntled look he received, his eyebrows rose and he straightened up.  “Okay, so it looks like I’ve been missing out on something important again.  You know, this has gotta stop if I’m to be the sheriff around here.  Anyone mind telling me what’s goin’ on?”

“Downstairs,” Scott signaled curtly.


First he thought he might be dead, the darkness was so deep and cold, so horribly complete.  Then the pain grabbed the darkness, turned it inside out until it flamed a bright, searing red; and the only thought he clung to, was that he wished he were dead.  He sought refuge in the knowledge that such agony had to be a close companion to death.

Then syllables, discordant and jumbled, pierced through the haze of pain.


He tried to ignore the words; he was living heartbeat to heartbeat…words had no reality for him.  But they continued, echoing in irritating consistency.

……no condition……at what cost……jumped……tell Madrid……see alive……I’m going…Scott …It’s not you the Judge wants……

And the words began to take hold, grabbing his attention, and though he seemed to have no control over his body, couldn’t even open his eyes, his ears focused in on the words with a strange intensity.

…….kidnapping Murdoch……Johnny’s in no condition to give him any real trouble……a trap……whole thing was a trap……

Murdoch?  Taken?  The Judge?

He tried to reach through the flames, connect to the outside world, to demand more information, but the torture of his every breath seemed to render it impossible.

……he has Murdoch……go up……explain to him that Johnny’s not coming……

No! he wanted to scream, yet the pain held him under its control.  No, Scott!  You don’t know what you’re doing!  You don’t understand men like the Judge!

Then he heard the click of the door as it closed.

No, Scott!  No!  You can’t go alone!  Just give me a minute!  Wait!


The word tore through his chest, rendering him so completely in drowning agony that he gasped, his eyes flying open, and the guttural groan that accompanied the action left him breathless.

He could still hear the soft rumble of voices out in the hallway.  He tried to force himself up off the floor, but the few inches he managed to gain became a mockery of his inadequacy and he fell back to the floor with a groan, his body drenched in a cold sweat, his stomach contracting, threatening to send him into another wave of gut-wrenching agony.

He gasped, closed his eyes, tried to hold his breath until he’d found some small amount of relief, but it never came, and he gave in with a cry, gulped in the much needed oxygen as pain shot up through his chest, exploding behind his eyes.

“Scott,” he whimpered, forced his eyes open and glared at the closed door.  “Scott.”

……no condition……no condition……the Judge has Murdoch……Johnny’s in no condition……God, why now?……I can’t help……I can’t even get off the damn floor……But Scott’s not ready for someone like the Judge……I gotta do something……I gotta do something……there has to be some way……

The morphine……

Johnny tilted his head just enough to glance up toward the table.  He could barely make out the top of the medical bag.  If it were still there, then…then the morphine might still be there.  But he had to reach it first.

He drew in a deep breath, almost blacking out as the pain clawed at his chest muscles, then in agonizing slowness, he forced himself to his hands and knees.  The battle was almost lost, though, as the pain intensified beyond endurance, and he let out a pitiable moan, his arms and legs shaking in their effort to hold him up.

Please, he silently prayed.

Eyes closed, he inched toward the table, until his head came into contact with a hard object.  He opened his eyes, saw he’d reached a chair.  He leaned his head against the wood, then slowly shifted his weight to one hand and lifted the other upward until he felt the seat.  He grasped the edge, held his position a minute as he forced down the rising bile in his throat.  Then he sucked in a small breath, closed his eyes, and raised his other hand to the edge of the table as he slid his head onto the chair seat.

There, the wood felt cold against his hot cheek, a strange contrast to the perspiration running down his back.  His stomach began to contract again, sending white-hot needles across his chest, and he began to pant with small measured breaths. 

Once he’d gained control of the nausea, he moved his hand toward the black bag.  Grasping it with the tips of his fingers, he drew it toward the edge then adjusting to a firmer grip, he brought it down onto the chair seat. 

Silently he looked at the dark leather, prayed that his relief, Scott’s help and Murdoch’s life, was in there.

Suddenly he began shivering, his body temperature seeming to plummet drastically.  He tried to control the tremors, keep the muscles from contracting, but his body refused to obey.  His face tight with agony, he thrust his trembling hand into the bag, grasping until he felt a cold, hard bottle.  He drew it out, saw it was the morphine, and positioned it next to his head.  Then he put his hand in again, felt the cloth that wrapped the syringe, and drew that out.  Impatiently he shoved the bag onto the floor and laid the cloth on the chair, then with an aborted groan, he forced himself back onto his heels. 

Sweat was now dripping along his face and chest, running into the corners of his eyes.  He blinked as he tried to focus on the two items on the chair. Taking a small gasp of air, he squinted, then slowly unfolded the fabric.  Once he had the syringe uncovered he reached out for the morphine bottle. 

Disconcertingly, he realized he was starting to lose control of his vision.  He blinked, tried to bring the bottle into focus, yet it remained fuzzy.  With a shaking hand he picked up the syringe, had to blink twice before he could see well enough to thrust the needle into the bottle and draw a measure of the medicine into the syringe.  He felt himself start to black out, quickly set the bottle on the chair and closed his eyes while he leaned his head against the chair once again as he sought out some small amount of reserves with which to continue. 

The nausea was rising again, and he clenched his teeth together while he tried to keep his breath short and even.  When he opened his eyes, his hand, which held the syringe, was just a wavering blur before his face.  He blinked, tried to discern the amount in the syringe, but couldn’t be sure he was seeing what he was looking for.  He remembered how much he’d been given before, had seen that DarkCloud was slowly decreasing the amount.  He brought the instrument closer to his eyes, tried hard to bring it into focus.  He hazarded a guess that he needed to take about half of his earlier dose, enough to take away the pain, yet not so much as to cloud his thoughts.

With his thumb he pushed on the plunger end as he’d seen DarkCloud do.  It should now be ready.

He forced himself back onto his heels again, groaned as he was hit with a strong wave of tremors.  Hissing between his teeth, he waited until he could open his eyes again.  As the tremors subsided, he quickly opened his eyes, stared at the syringe.  He passed it to his right hand, brought his left arm up close to his body, tried to focus on his shoulder muscle.  Irritated and desperate, he clenched his teeth and jabbed the needle in a vague hope that he’d hit the right spot, quickly releasing the medicine with his thumb.   

Closing his eyes, he moaned softly, withdrew the needle, and leaned forward until his head lay on the chair seat. 

I’m not letting you go, Scott…I’ll be able to make it…Just give me a moment…I didn’t know…I thought I was done…thought I could rest…

I just thought the gunfighter was finished with his job…



Submission Guidelines