Confronting the Ghost of Madrid

(A sequel to The Ghost of Johnny Madrid)

Page 6

by  Buttercup


Episode VI

The Journey


The next two days passed quickly.  Once Johnny had told Murdoch that he wanted to go home, and fought with DarkCloud over the wisdom of that decision, it wasn’t long before the town got word of their gunfighter’s imminent departure and so the plans for the fiesta were on.

Although DarkCloud still cautioned waiting a little longer, Murdoch sided with Johnny and promised the doctor that all precautions would be taken to keep Johnny’s discomfort to a minimum.  Johnny, for his part, was disgusted with the whole preparation, irritatingly resigned to the party and slowly becoming morose.  Scott couldn’t blame him.

On the eve of the party, the town boasted the entire inhabitants of the surrounding area, including the railroad workers who had been invited with the simple idea that the more the merrier.  Scott watched with interest as his brother made his rounds.  He could see by the way that Johnny was working through the crowd that his brother had in mind to do his duty as fast as possible, then make an escape.  Scott chuckled; it was the same as it was back home.

Rosti’s was crowded with revelers, though the main bulk of the party had set up outside in the street, local musicians filling the night air with assorted songs and ballads from their makeshift platform.  Food covered five tables and the drinks flowed quite freely, and it wasn’t long before the noise from the festivities threatened to exceed that of the musicians.

“Now, this is a party.”

Scott turned and smiled at Tucson who was holding up two filled mugs.  The sheriff thrust one toward Scott.

“I’m taken care of,” Scott said as he held his up.

“Yeah, but it’s half empty,” Tucson chided as he pushed the filled one into Scott’s free hand. 

“I also need to be able to ride up to Salinas in the morning,” Scott argued.

Tucson shook his head.  “’Fraid you’re gonna need a better excuse than that tonight.”

Scott laughed, “Is that so?”

“Yup.  Anyone caught without a drink in hand this evening will be immediately locked up.”

Scott chuckled.  “Far be it from me to do anything illegal, Sheriff.”

Tucson laughed and took a long, satisfying drink from his own mug.  “Now this is a party.”

“I’d venture to say, the town’s never seen one like it,” Matthew said as he pushed his way up next to Scott.  “Or likely will any time soon.  Oops, sorry,” he apologized as a reveler jostled him, splashing some of his beer.

“Johnny seems to be enjoying himself,” Tucson remarked with a nod across the crowd to the other side of the street where Johnny could be seen shaking hands with one of the area ranchers. 

“Enjoying himself?” Scott grimaced.  “I don’t know about that.  This really isn’t his idea of a good time.”

“No?” Tucson asked then frowned.  “What’s he gonna do once Angelou starts his speech?”

“Angelou’s giving a speech?” Scott asked.

Matthew nodded.  “Angelou always gives a speech.  He’s sort of our unofficial mayor.  Which works out really quite well.  He likes to give speeches, the town lets him, and since he’s not a real mayor, we don’t have to pay him anything.”

Scott chuckled.  “Works out well all the way around, huh?”

Matthew nodded.

“I don’t suppose the chances are very good that Mr. Angelou will keep his speech simple and short.”

Matthew shook his head.  “What do you think?”

“I think someone ought to warn Johnny,” Scott replied with a chagrined glance toward his brother.



“Jamie!” Johnny greeted, a truly genuine smile replacing the forced one he’d been wearing as he spotted the young boy who was making his way towards him through the crowd.

“Hey!  You’re looking a lot better,” Jamie stopped in front of Johnny, crossed his arms and nodded his appraisal.  “Much better.”

“I’m glad you approve,” Johnny chuckled. 

“Are you feeling better, too?”

Johnny nodded.  “Practically good as new.”

“Good.”  Jamie smiled then his face became serious.  “I don’t want you to leave tomorrow.”

Johnny put his hand on Jamie’s shoulder and knelt down.  “I’d like to stay, too.”

“Then why don’t you?  I heard DarkCloud says you oughta wait a few more days.”

“Ah, Jamie.  You know DarkCloud.  If he could, he wouldn’t let me leave ‘til next year.”

“That’d be fine by me.”

Johnny chuckled.  “Yeah, but I think Scott and Murdoch would get antsy just sitting around watching us play cards for the next few months.”

“Well, we could do more than just play cards, Johnny.  Now that you’re better, we could go fishin’ and hiking, and I could take you up to the hot springs in the mountains, and you could show me how you shoot so fast and I could show you the secret fort Zito and I built, and—”

“And if I’m well enough to do all those things, don’t you think I’m well enough to go home?” Johnny finished.

Jamie sighed, nodded his head then looked down at the worn toe of his boot.  “Yeah, I guess so.  I just would rather have you stay.”

“I’ll miss you, too, Jamie.  You’ve been a real good friend.”

Jamie glanced back up.  “Do you think you’ll ever come back?”

“I plan to.”


Johnny shook his head.  “I don’t know.  But as soon as I’m able.  It’s not every day I find someone who can give me a run at cards.”

Jamie smiled.  “It’ll probably be nice to get home and sleep in your own bed, huh?”

Johnny nodded.  “I guess so.  But it won’t be the same without my little brother around.”

“I like that,” Jamie grinned.

“Then that’s what you are,” Johnny grinned back as he tousled Jamie’s hair.  “If anyone ever asks, you tell them you’re Johnny…” he hesitated a moment, forced the smile to stay on his face, “…Madrid’s brother.”

Jamie cocked his head to the side.  “You wanted to say Johnny Lancer’s brother.”

Johnny slowly nodded.  “Yeah.”

“Then why’d you say Madrid?”

“I—I thought you would prefer it.”

Jamie grimaced.  “Well, it’d be okay, but after Scott told me about how it can be difficult being Madrid’s brother, having people showing up wanting to kill you or trying to hurt your family, and how you always have to watch for other gunfighters… Well, I guess I’d just prefer to be Johnny Lancer’s brother.”

“Scott told you that, huh?”

Jamie nodded.

Johnny shook off his hesitation, let the smile find its way back onto his face.  “Have I ever told you you’re a wise kid?”

Jamie grinned, reached out and ruffled Johnny’s hair.  “I take after my brother.”

Johnny laughed.

“Madrid.  Mr. Madrid!  There you are.”

Seeing Angelou pushing his way through the crowd, Johnny shot Jamie a pained expression and rolled his eyes.  Jamie covered his mouth and giggled as the self-appointed town spokesman made his way to Johnny’s side.

“Mr. Angelou,” Johnny greeted as he stood up.

“We’re all ready,” Angelou announced importantly.

“Ready for what?”

“Why, the speech, of course.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow in alarm.  “I have to give a speech?”

“Oh, goodness, no.”  Angelou chuckled.  I do.  On behalf of the town.” Angelou nodded with satisfaction, then gestured.  “If you’d like to follow me.” 

Johnny glanced at the dismantled wagon box where the musicians were belting out a rather frenzied number.  “Speeches aren’t necessary,” he said.

“Of course they are, Mr. Madrid.  We need to thank you properly.”  Angelou waved a hand, began bellowing as he moved through the crowd to the platform, “Quiet, please! Quiet, everyone!  Silencio!  If I may have your attention!”

Johnny watched, suppressing a smile at the man’s self-confidence, as Angelou strutted importantly to the small stage.  The crowd moved back to make way for their mayor while the band immediately quieted and began to make their way off the end of the make-shift stage.

Angelou waited importantly, delaying until he was sure he’d secured his audience’s attention. “This is a celebration of a momentous occasion in our town’s history, the dawning of a new era of prosperity and contentment,” Angelou began, his voice loud and clear.  “We are soon to be the southernmost terminal of the new rail line.  We no longer have to worry about land grabbers terrorizing us or our families.  Our town will be prospering and we’re now the authors of our own futures.  And we owe all of this to one man.  Johnny Madrid.”

Applause erupted as everyone turned and smiled appreciatively in Johnny’s direction.

Johnny was acutely aware of Murdoch and Scott in the crowd.  Once again he found himself wishing they weren’t around.  It was awkward enough.  It was one of those moments when he had no choice in the part he would play.  He had to be Johnny Madrid.  He owed the people of the town that much.  It was what they expected, what they needed to see.  They had no interest in Johnny Lancer, but it meant a lot for them to say they’d met Johnny Madrid, the famous gunfighter, the man who had saved their town.

Johnny took a quick breath, cooled his expression, gave a slight nod, and became Madrid for the crowd.

“Gosh, how does he do that?” Scott heard Matthew murmur next to him.

Scott shook his head.  He knew exactly what Matthew was talking about.  He’d often thought the same thing.  “I don’t know.  Years of experience, I guess.”

“Too many years of experience,” added a strained, low voice.

Scott turned to find Murdoch standing behind him.  Scott smiled sadly and nodded before turning back to watch Angelou.

“To think that it was just a short while ago that we became, as a town, the beneficiary of Madrid’s talents,” Angelou was saying. “We were ready to cave into Wakeman’s demands.  There’d been property loss and killings.  We had nowhere left to turn.  Then Providence brought the answer to our prayers in the person of Mr. Madrid.  Even injured as he was, he took on our cause, fought for us and won, despite odds that most men would have thought daunting.  But that’s what Mr. Madrid is good at.  Taking the impossible and turning it into something possible. 

“And from now on, Soledad will be known as the town Johnny Madrid saved…and where Providence repaid that act by saving him.  Let no one forget we are here because of Mr. Madrid.  Let no one forget, man, woman or child, that without him, Soledad wouldn’t have had a future, we wouldn’t have had a future!  Let no one forget what would have been without Johnny Madrid!”

Applause erupted again, while Johnny remained deliberately impassive. 

Angelou waved back the cheers, cleared his throat.  “As you all know, Mr. Madrid asked for very little when we first hired him.  A place to stay, food, a new horse…  But one could hardly call that adequate compensation for the job he did or the risks he took.  So I asked him a couple days ago what we, as a town, could give him to thank him properly.  ‘Nothing,’ was his answer.  I pressed him on the subject, and finally, after much coercion, he reluctantly gave me an answer.”

Angelou gestured to someone standing behind the platform, and the crowd pressed closer to see what it was Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter, had asked for in payment for services rendered.  A young man made his way around to the steps and ascended.  In his arms a squirming, fluffy bit of energy wiggled and panted.  A chuckle washed through the crowd, slowly building to a roar as Angelou tried to take the puppy from the young man’s arms.  But the puppy had other ideas and wiggled out of his embrace.  Though the young man kept a firm grasp on the leash, the puppy quickly dashed between Angelou’s ankles, effectively tying up his legs and threatening to spill him to his rear-end.  After a few close calls, the puppy was once again secured, though Angelou made no further attempt to take the puppy from the young man.

Adjusting his clothes, Angelou straightened up and cleared his throat with as much dignity as he could muster. 

“Yes, well,” he gestured, “this is what Mr. Madrid requested.  A puppy.”  Angelou straightened his shoulders, patted the front of his jacket again.  “I’m not sure why, but since this is what he requested, I personally went all over the area, checking to see who had puppies and picking out the very best of all the litters.  I’m quite sure Mr. Madrid will be happy with my choice.  Mr. Madrid,” Angelou motioned for Johnny to join him.

Johnny forced a smile down, though his eyes crinkled in amusement as he made his way up to the platform.

“Mr. Madrid, your puppy,” Angelou announced grandly.

Johnny put a hand to his mouth, wiped away a smile that he was having a hard time containing.  “Mr. Angelou, the puppy wasn’t for me.  It was for my brother.”

“Your brother?” Mr. Angelou’s surprise could not be mistaken.

In a corner of the crowd, Murdoch bent forward and whispered, “Scott?”

Scott turned, eyes widening in surprise as he shook his head, his hands raising in denial.  “I never said I wanted a puppy,” he protested in a low voice.

Murdoch’s reply was cut off when Johnny called out, “Hey, Jamie!”

Scott and Murdoch looked up to see that Johnny had gathered the squirmy ball of energy into his arms, the puppy showing its exuberance by covering Johnny’s face with a wet tongue.  The crowd laughed in merriment, while Jamie clambered up on to the platform.  “Here you go, little brother,” Johnny announced as he slid the ball of fluff into Jamie’s outstretched arms.  “He won’t replace Digger, and he can’t play cards, but I figure he’ll have to do ‘til I get back.”

Jamie giggled in delight as the puppy transferred its wet affections without prejudice.  “This is great, Johnny!  Thanks!”

The crowd roared its approval, clapping and hooting.

“I thought the puppy was for you!” Angelou protested.

The crowd burst into more laughter at the look on Angelou’s face, his wounded dignity obvious as the unofficial mayor’s mouth dropped open.  

“Nah,” Johnny shrugged.  “But I knew Jamie needed a new friend.”  He turned and hopped off the platform, leaving Angelou standing beside Jamie, who was beaming with happiness as the crowd clapped their approval and the puppy smothered him with kisses.

Murdoch and Scott watched as Johnny made his way through the crowd toward them where he stopped, a sheepish expression on his face.

“A puppy, huh?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny nodded.  “You probably wouldn’t have let me keep it anyway.”

Murdoch chuckled. “If it would have taken a puppy to make you happy, I would have let you keep it.”

“I could always ask for another one,” Johnny grinned.

“I wouldn’t push it,” Murdoch warned.

Johnny chuckled, glanced back toward Jamie and Angelou.  “It was better seein’ the smile on Jamie’s face.”

“Even better seeing the look of surprise on Angelou’s face,” Scott added under his breath.

Johnny wiped away a grin.  “I hadn’t meant it to happen that way.  I didn’t know ‘bout the speech.  I just thought he’d find me a puppy.”

Murdoch chuckled.  “Mr. Angelou will get over the shock.  Look, he’s already making the rounds.”

Johnny glanced back over his shoulder again to see that Murdoch was right in his appraisal.  Mr. Angelou was making his way off the platform, shaking hands as he descended.

“He’s not one to let a small setback spoil his limelight, is he?” Scott asked.

“I should probably go thank him,” Murdoch said.  “He has done a lot for us.”

Johnny nodded, smiled wryly.  “Tell him I didn’t know there was gonna be a whole to-do about it, okay?”

Murdoch chuckled.  “I’ll tell him.”

After Murdoch had left, Scott motioned toward the crowd of people.  “Quite a gathering.”

Johnny nodded.  “And quite unnecessary.”

Scott shrugged.  “Ah, don’t let it all go to your head.  The town was just looking for a good reason to get drunk.”

Johnny chuckled.  “Thanks.”

“And what’s my favorite twosome up to?” DarkCloud asked as he stepped up onto the boardwalk to join them.

“I was just going to inform Johnny here, that I’ve been told by Tucson that it’s a jailable offense if you don’t have a drink in hand this evening.”

“Oh, I’ve got that covered,” DarkCloud said as he held out a mug to Johnny.

Johnny accepted it with a grin, which quickly changed to skepticism as he gave the liquid a sniff.  “It smells suspiciously like tea.”

“That’d be because it is,” DarkCloud nodded as he raised his own mug in toast.

“I thought you’d let me off for good behavior,” Johnny argued.

DarkCloud chuckled.  “Think of it as a last one for the road.”

“I think I’d rather eat the road,” Johnny muttered.

“Then just do it because I’m your favorite doctor and you always follow all my instructions.”

Scott laughed as Johnny rolled his eyes. 

“DarkCloud,” Johnny said as he shook his head. “I am gonna miss you.  Why?  I’ll be damned if I know, but I’m gonna miss you just the same.”

“Same here, Johnny,” DarkCloud smiled and nodded.  “If nothing else, you’ve taught me what a really difficult patient is like.”

Johnny laughed.  “Yeah, well, sorry about that.”

“No, he’s not,” Scott chuckled.  “He enjoyed every minute of it.”  At Johnny’s raised eyebrows, Scott laughed, drained the last of his beer, and nodded formally.  “If you’ll excuse me, I seem to be empty.  And since I have no desire to end up in jail this evening, I better go get a refill.”

Shaking his head wryly, Johnny watched as Scott made his way to one of the tables set up for serving drinks.

“He’s happy to be getting you home,” DarkCloud observed.

Johnny nodded.  “Yes, he is.”

“How are you doing with it?”


“Just okay?”

“It’ll be fine,” Johnny sighed, lowering his gaze to the mug in his hands.

“But what?”

Johnny shrugged.  “I’ve got to figure a few things out yet.”

DarkCloud studied Johnny a moment.  “Nothing that’s apt to put in jeopardy any of that healing I worked so hard to secure, I hope.”

Johnny raised his eyes, snorted softly his amusement, but didn’t reply.

“Will you let me check over your wounds one last time before you leave for Salinas in the morning?”

Johnny nodded.  “If it’ll make you happy.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” DarkCloud replied with a hint of a grin.  He was quiet a second then asked, “Any more symptoms?”

“The morphine, you mean?”

DarkCloud nodded.

Johnny let his attention wander out toward the crowd.  “Not often…mostly at night.  I—” he paused, turned back to DarkCloud, “I wake up sometimes, sweating, my heart racing…can’t sleep.”

Though DarkCloud pursed his lips unhappily, he didn’t seem surprised by the information.  “From what I’ve read, it’s not uncommon.  But it should pretty well abate within another week, two at the most.  It doesn’t happen often, does it?”

Johnny shook his head.  “It happened last night, but before that, it’d been a couple days.”

“Good.  Though I’m afraid it could make the trip back uncomfortable.  You might want to consider waiting just a little longer.”

Johnny shook his head.  “Are you kidding?  And risk having to go through this again?” he gestured toward the celebrating crowd.

“Okay,” DarkCloud nodded.  “But I’m sending along some extra bandaging, some of that ointment I’ve been using, and some tea leaves that Scott can prepare for you if the symptoms do get a bit rough.”  At Johnny’s look of distrust, DarkCloud continued quickly, “It has nothing to do with laudanum.  It’ll simply help relieve a bit of the nausea, nothing more.”

“Is that what this is?” Johnny lifted up the mug.

“That and the tonic I use to fight off infection.”  DarkCloud chuckled.  “Call it my last ditch attempt to keep you healthy.”

“It’s appreciated,” Johnny smiled and took a sip of the tea.  As he drew the cup away, he chuckled, “You know, it doesn’t really taste all that bad.”

“You’re just saying that because you know, after tonight, you won’t have to drink it anymore.”

Johnny laughed.  “You sure got that right!”

Scott walked up, a filled mug in his hands.  “So, what’s so funny?”

“DarkCloud’s kindly offered to send back a year’s supply of tea for us.”

At Scott’s alarmed look, DarkCloud burst out laughing and patted Scott’s shoulder. “He’s all yours, Scott.  I give him to you in fairly good health; try to keep him that way,” he said as he turned away.

The sound of barking interrupted any reply Scott had, as they were soon inundated with a small furry ball jumping up and down about their legs.  Jamie and another young boy were attached to the other end of the puppy’s leash.

“Johnny!  Isn’t he great?” Jamie asked.

Johnny nodded, sat down at the edge of the boardwalk and began to rub the puppy’s belly as it rolled back and forth in the dirt.  “That’s what I asked for.  A great dog.”

Jamie laughed, then looked up.  “Hi, Scott!”

Scott smiled and waved.

“This here’s Zito, Zito Ramirez,” Jamie continued as he pointed to the boy who stood nearby.  “I told you about him.”

Johnny nodded.  “The friend who taught you that card game you keep beating me at.”

“Yup.  He wanted to meet you.”

Johnny smiled and turned to Zito.  “Hello, Zito.  Jamie’s told me a lot about you.”

Zito, a few inches taller and about twenty pounds heavier than Jamie, just stood, his mouth open, staring for a moment.  Then, after what seemed to take a lot of willpower, he managed to close his mouth and swallow heavily.  “You’re Johnny Madrid,” he whispered.

Johnny nodded.  “So I’ve heard.”

Jamie giggled as Zito continued to stare. 

“My brother says you’re the fastest gun alive.”

“Your brother’s exaggerating a bit,” Johnny protested.

               “No, I don’t think so,” Zito shook his head seriously.  “He’s seen you.  And he says you’re the fastest gun alive.”

Scott, watching the exchange, made his way to a porch post, where he could lean against it and quietly observe.

“Fast isn’t all that important,” Johnny replied.

“It ain’t?”

Johnny shook his head. “Accuracy’s more important.”

“Remember, I told you ‘bout the rat in the barn,” Jamie said, “and how Johnny shot Digger’s old ball practically out of Angelou’s hand.”

Zito nodded.

“Well, that’s accuracy,” Jamie stated.

“Wow,” Zito breathed, his eyes growing even larger.  “I’d love to be able to do that.”

“Johnny actually doesn’t want to be a gunfighter anymore,” Jamie continued importantly.  “He says it’s no fun.  He’s always worryin’ about people tryin’ to kill him or showin’ up wantin’ to hurt his family.”

“But I think it’d be wonderful!” Zito said, looking back at Johnny, his eyes still wide with respect.  “Everyone knows who you are, treats you respectfully, and, well if you want a dog—”

“Jamie’s right,” Johnny interrupted.

“Really?” Zito asked, dumbfounded.  “But I mean—look at this party!  My mom says there’s never been a fiesta like this since forever.  And Father Alvarez talks about you at Mass, says a saint actually saved you.  And Jorge thinks you’re the best—”


“My brother.  He said he wished he could be just like you!  He rode with you on a couple of those raids against Wakeman.”

Johnny slowly nodded.  “Jorge Ramirez.  That’s right.  I remember.”

“Yeah!  And he and his friends, they were helping out the day of the shootout.  They were watchin’ out of those windows and saw it all.”

Johnny sighed deeply, nodded again.  “Saw it all, and still want to be a gunfighter, huh?”

Zito nodded, his eyes still wide with wonder.  “My brother and Jamie told me all about it!  It’s so exciting.  Better’n any story I read in any book.  Even better’n that serial story my brother cut out of the San Francisco paper three years ago!”

“Well, don’t believe everything, Zito.  People like to elaborate.  Heck, I barely recognize stories I hear about myself and I was there.”

Zito grinned sheepishly, glanced furtively at Jamie before he added,  “My brother said you were so calm, said you coulda talked a drummer outta his wares.  Kincaid couldn’t even come close to keepin’ up with you.”


“The other gunfighter.”

Johnny blinked, slowly nodded.  “That was his name, wasn’t it?  I’d forgotten.”  He sighed.  The puppy started to whimper, and Johnny glanced down, realizing he’d stopped rubbing its belly.  He gave the exposed belly another quick pass, then brought his hand into his lap.

“Mr. Madrid?”

Johnny looked up and nodded.

“I’m glad you saved Jamie.  He’s my best friend.”

Johnny smiled, glanced at Jamie.  “He’s my friend, too.  So I guess that makes us friends, also.”

Zito grinned, straightened up.  “Wow.”  Then his face suddenly fell.  “Ah, shucks!”

“What is it?” Jamie asked.

“My mom,” Zito groaned.  “She’s over there waving to me.  I’m gonna have to leave.” He rolled his eyes and lowered his voice.  “She told me I shouldn’t talk to you too much.”

“I don’t mind,” Johnny said.

“Nah, I know that,” Zito muttered.  “Jamie said you were okay.  But my ma’s afraid you’ll go fillin’ me with bad judgments, or some such nonsense.”

“Oh,” Johnny nodded.  “Then you’d better go on before she gets upset.”

Zito nodded sadly.  “I’ll try to stop by later.”

Johnny smiled, put his hand out.  “Nice to meet you, Zito.”

Zito shook Johnny’s hand and grinned with pleasure.  “Nice to meet you too, Mr. Madrid.”

Johnny and Jamie watched Zito hurry down the boardwalk to join his mother.

“Thanks, Johnny.  Zito really wanted to meet you.”

“Glad to help,” Johnny said as he leaned over to begin scratching behind the puppy’s ears.

“Hey, Johnny,” Jamie said as he sat down beside Johnny.  “I haven’t told nobody, but you know…that shoot-out…”

Johnny nodded.

“Well,” he lowered his voice.  “It was sorta scary.”

Johnny pursed his lips, glanced down at the puppy, gave the small head another rub, then sat back.  “I was scared, too, Jamie.”

“You were?”

Johnny nodded.  “I was worried enough about Wakeman having you, but when he showed up with the other two hostages, I didn’t know what I was going to do.”  He sighed, shook his head.  “I was close to panicking.”

“You didn’t look it.”

“But I was,” Johnny replied quietly.

“How’d you keep from showin’ you were scared?”

“I just had to, or I knew Wakeman would know he had somethin’ on me.  I had to let him think I wasn’t riled.  But just ‘cuz I managed not to show it doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared.”

Jamie was silent a moment.  “I won’t tell anyone.”

“Our secret, huh?”

Jamie nodded, paused again.  “Hey, Johnny?”

“What, you got another secret?” Johnny chuckled.

Jamie didn’t return the grin, but instead nodded somberly.  “Yeah.”

The smile faded from Johnny’s face as he folded his hands in his lap.  “What’s wrong?”

Jamie sighed, reached out to pull the puppy into his lap.  “After Scott came runnin’ out…you know…when you were shot…?”

Johnny kept his attention steady, nodded.

“Well,” Jamie hesitated, glanced down at the puppy for a moment then looked back up.  “I got really scared.”

“I’m sorry you had to see all that, Jamie.”

Jamie shook his head.  “I thought you were gonna die.” He wrapped his arms around the puppy who began nuzzling under his chin.  “Everyone thought you was gonna die,” Jamie whispered.  “Scott, he looked close to cryin’, and your father, he turned whiter’n a sheet.  And DarkCloud—I ain’t never seen him look like that…”

“It’s just things were happening so fast, it caught everyone unprepared,” Johnny assured.

“Yeah,” Jamie nodded weakly.  “But—but I could see you were sayin’ something.  I tried to get close to hear, but everyone was running all over and Matthew was tryin’ to keep me away.”  He hesitated, glanced up.  “I sorta got mad at him and pushed him away.  I—I got close enough to see you.”  He stopped, rocked to the side so that he inched closer to Johnny.  “You looked dead, Johnny,” he whispered.

Johnny bit his lip, put an arm around Jamie’s shoulder.  “I wasn’t though, was I?”

“But you looked…” Jamie wavered, moved a little closer.  “And Scott was all covered in blood.  I thought he’d been shot too, at first.  I mean, more’n the graze on his arm.  And the front of his shirt and his hands—there was blood all over.”  He bent his head, his voice growing even softer.  “Your dad—his back was to me, but I could see there was blood on his hand, too.  And he was holding the bandana that’d been around your neck…just sitting there, holding it, not moving.”  He took a quick breath.  “That’s when I hear Scott whisper, ‘God, please…’ and he—he puts his hand on your chest, and…and he…and he’s crying.”  Jamie stopped, made a curt wipe at his face.  “But then he suddenly jerks—like he’s been stung or somethin’,” Jamie stopped again, sniffed.  “And he leans down and puts his ear to your chest.  Then DarkCloud asks what’s goin’ on, and Scott yells, ‘He’s alive yet!  I can feel his heart!’  And DarkCloud, he grabs your shirt and rips it open.”

Johnny closed his eyes, leaned his cheek against the top of Jamie’s head.  “Oh, Jamie.  I hadn’t realized you’d seen all of that.”

Jamie paused as he leaned in closer, letting Johnny’s arms envelope him.  “Everyone just sorta stopped then,” Jamie continued, his voice muffled against Johnny’s chest. “They just froze and stared at you.  Your father, he says, ‘Good Lord, what is that?’ and Scott, he looks up—there’s blood on his cheek— and he says, ‘The medallion.  Murdoch, it’s the medallion!” and he reaches out.  But DarkCloud pushes him away and starts yelling for the men to go get a litter from his office.  And suddenly everyone’s movin’ again.  And Matthew and Grace try to make me leave, and I—I think I kicked Matthew.  Then I see Harley rush past; he kneels down by you, too.  Then the men show up with the litter.  And DarkCloud gives everyone orders, says to be careful when they pick you up, and when Scott tries to help, DarkCloud tells him to move away, but your brother gets mad and yells back at him.  There—there was a lot of yelling goin’ on.”

Feeling Jamie falter, Johnny opened his eyes and looked down to study the small head buried against his chest.  “I’m sure it was difficult to understand what was happening, Jamie.  I don’t think people were mad at each other.  I just think—I think things were chaotic, and DarkCloud—well, he was just trying to take control of the situation.”

Jamie gave a hesitant nod, swallowed back a sob.  “It seemed—it seemed like the whole town was out there watching.”  He paused again, gave a small shudder and leaned in closer.  “When they picked you up…you…you moaned.  I even saw your eyes open for a second.  And I heard your father yell, ‘Don’t hurt him any more.’  And I—I think maybe he was startin’ to cry.  And Scott, he was helping them move you, and he looked just awful, Johnny.  And you moaned again when they got you on the litter—it sounded like you were in a lot of pain—and—and the look on his face...  Then Harley, Scott and Matthew carried you into the hotel.  I tried to follow, but Grace wouldn’t let go of me.  She made me go with Harley’s wife and Wes, then she went to help.”  He swallowed heavily, hazarded a quick glance up as he whispered, “I tried to go along, Johnny, but they wouldn’t let me follow.”

“I’m glad they didn’t,” Johnny murmured as he closed his eyes and gave a dismal shake of his head.  “It wasn’t something little boys should see.”

“I’m not a little boy,” Jamie sniffed, wiped his shirt across his nose.

“In this case, you were.  Matthew and Grace were right not to let you go up.”

Jamie was silent a moment, then leaned away just far enough so that he could look up.  “Johnny?  Were—were you in a lot of pain?  It looked…and…when they tried to move you…”

“Jamie,” Johnny hugged the young boy in closer, “I don’t really remember.”

“You—you don’t?” Jamie pulled away, his brows knit in doubt.

Johnny shook his head.  “No.  It’s kinda like when I lost my memory before, you know, how I couldn’t remember some things?  Only this time, I don’t really remember being shot, or really much of anything until almost a week later.”

“You don’t?”

Johnny shook his head again.  “No.  So, I don’t want you worrying about it, okay?  Besides, you know now that I’m just fine.”

Jamie smiled, nodded his head, but then his expression became downcast and he lowered his eyes.  “Johnny?  I tried really hard not to cry, but I did a little bit anyway.”

Johnny patted Jamie’s back, then reached out to rub the puppy’s ears.  “Hey, from the sounds of it, I wasn’t doin’ so well myself.  Heck, to hear DarkCloud talk, he’s never had a worse patient in his life.  I moaned, groaned and carried on somethin’ awful.”

Jamie looked up and grinned.  “Ah, Johnny.  You’re joshin’ me again.”

They sat silently a moment, then Jamie looked up.  “You know, Johnny.  I think it’s a good idea not bein’ a gunfighter any more.  I think…I think maybe you’ll live longer.”

Johnny smiled and nodded.  “A lot longer.”

Jamie nodded, let the puppy jump off his lap where it began to pull at the leash.  “You know, Saint Francis had those angels around to help him this time, but…well…they might be busy doin’ other stuff for God next time.”

Johnny nodded seriously.  “I think you’re right.  Definitely a good reason to stay out of gunfights.”

Jamie smiled.  “And you promise you’ll come back and see me?”

“As soon as I can,” Johnny replied, then nodded toward the puppy. “So, have you named him yet?”

Jamie grinned.  “Yeah, I did.”

“So, what’s that good-lookin’ puppy’s name?”

Jamie chuckled.  “Lancer.”

Johnny raised his eyebrows, then grinned back.  “Good choice,” he said as he reached out to give the puppy’s head a rub.  “Lancer, it is.”

Jamie grinned, suddenly reached out and put his arms around Johnny.  Johnny returned the hug.

“I better go find Grace,” Jamie said.  He pulled away and looked up at Johnny.  “She hasn’t met Lancer yet.”

“I’m sure she’s at least heard about him by now,” Johnny laughed.

“Yeah, but I think she was hoping to get a cat,” Jamie grimaced.

Johnny laughed.  “You’d better go find Grace.”

Jamie nodded and stood up.  “I’ll say goodbye before I leave, okay?”

“You’d better.”

Johnny watched as Jamie loped off, the puppy following close at his heels, then he leaned back, placed his palms on the boardwalk behind him and looked up at the night sky.  He gave a deep sigh, then tiredly closed his eyes.  The aftermath of the gunfight, as seen from Jamie’s eyes, had left him mentally drained.  He had hoped someone had managed to get Jamie away from the carnage before he’d had the chance to see anything.  And it didn’t help hearing Zito’s impressions and how Jorge and his friends idolized Madrid.  It always seemed to grow out of hand.

Suddenly, a thought occurred to him, and his eyes flashed open as his chest constricted.  For a second he didn’t move as he felt the blood drain from his face, then slowly he turned his head.

Scott stood, unmoving, watching in silence, his eyes weighted with sadness.

“Oh…damn,” Johnny groaned, closed his eyes as he leaned forward to rest his forehead in his palms.  “Scott, I—I forgot you were there.”

Scott looked down at the now empty mug in his hands and drew in a deep breath, forcing himself to remain calm as he walked forward and sat down in the spot so recently occupied by Jamie.  “Johnny—”

Johnny shook his head, sighed, “I’m sorry, Scott.  In all of this, all that’s happened…  I forgot what it’s been like for you.”  He took another deep breath, slowly lowered his hands, but his attention remained fixed forward.  “When I worried about what you saw…I was more concerned that… that you saw me as Madrid, the gunfighter.”

“I know,” Scott said simply. 

“I forgot…what it must have been like…at the shoot-out…for you…”

“Jamie was right,” Scott replied softly and evenly.  “We all thought you’d been killed.”

“If not for the medallion.”

“Johnny,” Scott inhaled deeply, let his own head tilt back to look up at the night sky.  “I see it over and over again, in my dreams, too.  When you—when the impact of that bullet sent you backwards into me, in that moment, I wanted—hoped some stray bullet would take me too.  That bullet might as well have been put through my chest.  I didn’t want to live anymore, if you weren’t going to be around.  I quit caring about everything else that was happening around me.”

“I’m sorry all of this happened.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, yes, unfortunately it is. It’s all my fault.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  Is it your fault you lost your memory?”

“Yes,” Johnny nodded.  “Because it’s my fault I have bounty hunters trailing me.”

“But you said you can’t go back to Kansas.”

Johnny shook his head.  “No, I can’t.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

Scott was quiet a moment, then said, “Johnny.  I don’t know if you know, but Murdoch told me that he paid the Pinkertons three thousand dollars to keep it quiet about where you were for three years.”

Johnny accepted the information without any sign other than a deep sigh.  In the quiet that followed, he bowed his head, drew his clasped hands up against his forehead. 

“You don’t seem surprised.”

Slowly Johnny shook his head side to side.  “No.  No, I’m not.  I guess I always suspected Murdoch would have had to do something about the Pinks.  It just stood to reason.”  There was another sigh.  “Another thing my being here has messed up.”

“Johnny,” Scott put a hand on Johnny’s back, but his brother didn’t acknowledge the action.  “Murdoch did what he did because he believed in you.  He didn’t think you were guilty and he hoped to give you another chance.”

“Yeah, well,” Johnny dropped his hands to hang limply between his knees as he tilted his head to fix his brother with a grim look, “it’s not going to make much more of a difference.  If the Pinkertons decide to let me drop through the cracks, Stanton won’t.  He’ll send more bounty hunters.”  He chuckled dryly.  “You said I was running away from Madrid.  Well, Scott, maybe you were right.  But I’m afraid I’ve run out of places to hide.”

“Johnny,” Scott interjected, panicked by his brother’s lackadaisical attitude.  “Before you go getting any ideas, let’s get back to Lancer, get you healed up.  It’ll give Murdoch a chance to see what our options are, maybe check with his lawyers or with the authorities in Kansas.”

Johnny shrugged, shook his head.  “I don’t think it’s going to make any difference.”  He repeated with a sigh as he glared across the crowd gathered in the street.  “Damn, this had to happen.  I wish I had gotten rid of that gun a long time ago.” He paused, looked at Scott for a moment before turning back to stare morosely out at the crowd.  “I almost succeeded, you know…to be Johnny Lancer.  But it seems, no matter how hard I try, something happens to wrench it out of my grasp.   And I got so close—so damn close.   And now you heard what Zito said.  How Madrid’s become a hero.  And that’s exactly what I was trying to avoid, exactly what I didn’t want.”

“Why you planned your death.”

Johnny nodded.  “But, now Madrid’s a hero again.  And a whole ‘nother group of boys thinking the life of a gunfighter is something to desire.”

“Well, maybe for Zito and his brother, but from what it sounded like to me, Johnny Lancer’s become Jamie’s hero.”

Johnny sighed, shook his head sadly.  “There’s too many mistakes to be made when you’re a hero, Scott.  Way too many.  And eventually you make them all.”

“Do you speak from experience?”

“Unfortunately, I do,” Johnny replied wearily.


Scott nodded congenially to the lady in front of him.  She was rocking an infant on her hip while a little girl of about seven stood nearby holding the hand of a toddler.  The two small children appeared anxious to get back to the festivities of dancing and music, but stood quietly beside their mother.  Scott had noticed the lady watching him earlier, and had gathered that it had taken her some time to work up the courage to approach him.  It appeared that her real goal was to convey her appreciation to Madrid, the gunfighter, but that she was too shy to approach him directly, so she had waited for an opportunity to speak to Madrid’s brother.  Scott had a sneaking suspicion she didn’t even know his name.  She’d even referred to him as Sir, along with a hesitant ‘you’re Madrid’s brother, right?’

Scott had smiled pleasantly and allowed the lady to apprise him of her knowledge about Johnny’s background (rather spotty), her understanding of the gunfight (obviously heard second or third-hand, full as it was of overly dramatic references and details), and her belief of the intervention by Saint Francis (the ardent declaration of which would have sent Johnny into an equally fervent and vehement denial).  As Scott allowed the lady to proclaim her gratitude, he tried to keep Johnny within his sight.  He could see that Johnny was trying to live up to his duty as graciously as possible, but knew fully well that his brother had probably reached his limit.  It wasn’t long before Scott’s assessment was proven correct, for as soon as the young lady had taken her leave, Scott saw Johnny send him a look of weary defeat along with a motion toward Rosti’s; Johnny had had enough.  Scott smiled reassuringly, returned the nod with a slight wave and watched as Johnny casually made his way into the saloon. Deciding that it would be best to let Murdoch know that Johnny had packed it in for the evening, Scott started threading his way through the crowd, still large and boisterous given the late hour.  He spied Murdoch not too far away, engaged in conversation with a man Scott didn’t recognize, and worked his way toward the two of them.

“Murdoch,” Scott greeted and added a friendly smile to the gentleman.  His well-dressed and groomed appearance stating he was not one of the local ranchers.

“Scott,” Murdoch welcomed.  “I’d like you to meet Mr. Stern.  He’s here as a representative of the new rail line.”

Scott nodded and put out his hand in greeting, then turned to Murdoch.  “I don’t mean to interrupt, but if I could just have a second of your time.”

Murdoch nodded, raised a hand to Mr. Stern.  “If you’ll just give me a moment, I’ll be right back.”

“No problem,” Mr. Stern said.  “In fact, I was planning to get myself a refill.  May I bring you back one, too?”

Murdoch glanced at his empty mug and nodded.  “That would be nice.  Thank you.”

“And you?” Mr. Stern asked Scott.

“No, thank you.  I’m doing fine.”

After Mr. Stern had left for the refreshment table, Scott turned to Murdoch. “I just wanted to let you know that Johnny’s gone up to his room.  He was looking tired, and I think he’s about had enough of the celebration.”

Murdoch nodded.  “I’m surprised he stuck around as long as he did.”

Scott smiled.  “I thought I’d make a few rounds yet for another hour, and if anyone asks, just say that Johnny was tired and needs to get a good night’s sleep before the trip up to Salinas tomorrow.”

“Which I hope he does,” Murdoch agreed.

Scott nodded, then motioned toward the crowd.  “It is a bit intimidating, all these people showing up for this.”

Murdoch turned, scanned the mingling crowd, the dancers near the makeshift stage, the musicians playing in whole-hearted abandon.  “All here to pay their respects to Madrid, the gunfighter,” he murmured.

Scott nodded, glanced down at his mug.  “It’s a good thing celebrations have never been Johnny’s favorite thing, otherwise it might be hard to give up all this adoration and the sort of life that produces them.”

Murdoch sighed sadly, tried to force a smile on his face. “Or maybe he avoids them because he’s afraid of enjoying them too much.”



As Johnny made his way up the stairs to his room, he tiredly rubbed his face with one hand while the other trailed along the banister.  At the top, he paused, then gave a sigh before walking the length of the hallway to his room.  He was inordinately glad that he was located at the back of the hotel tonight.  The rooms above the street were going to be very noisy and distracting.  It was hard enough dwelling on what the next few days were going to be like without all the commotion going on outside his window.

As he pushed open the door to his room, he was startled to see a seated figure turn toward him.  He froze, one hand dropping to his hip at the same moment that he recognized the figure of Father Alvarez.

“Padre,” Johnny greeted wryly as he pushed the door closed.  “Another private visit?  I figure I’m either in big trouble or you’ve come to tell me I’m the recipient of another saintly miracle.  I hope I’m in trouble.”

Father Alvarez laughed as he stood up.  “Nothing quite so dramatic, my son.  I’ve simply come to wish you Godspeed on your return journey.”

Johnny regarded the priest for a second then smiled. “So, you decided to skip the festivities, Padre?”

Father Alvarez chuckled.  “Oh, I’m afraid that having the local priest walking about would put a damper on the more high-spirited celebrating, and this being a rather important occasion for the town, I thought it best to meet you quietly.”

Johnny glanced about the room.  “Can I get you anything?”

Father Alvarez shook his head.  “I already helped myself to a cup of your water.”

“Sorry.  It was probably pretty warm.  I can go down and get some fresh from Rosti.”

“No need.  It was still plenty wet,” Father Alvarez replied.

Johnny walked to the table, idly rested a hand along the back of the unoccupied chair.  “So, is there anything I can help you with?”

Father Alvarez shook his head.  “No.  But I had hoped before you leave that I could help you.”

“With what?”

“I’d like to see if there isn’t some way to help you come to terms with that side of yourself called Madrid.  The side you seem to be running from.”

“Running from?” Johnny raised an eyebrow. 

Father Alvarez nodded.  “I’m hoping you can see that the prayers of those around you and those who have known you continue to surround you.  That there are many people who pray that you’ll find the acceptance and happiness that you deserve.”

“Deserve?” Johnny chuckled bitterly.  “That is an odd thing comin’ from a priest.  There’s many a man who would say I deserve a one-way ticket to Hell, and they’d be only too glad to punch it for me.”

It was Father Alvarez’ turn to raise an eyebrow.  “Are there really that many who would like to see you dead?”

“It only takes one.”

“I think you overestimate the extent of your enemies.”

Johnny laughed loudly as he sat on the corner of the table and brought a foot up to rest on the chair.  “Padre, I always overestimate my enemies.  That’s why I’m still alive.”

“No, you’re still alive because Saint Francis saved you.”

Johnny groaned, threw up his hands in irritation.  “Back to that blasted medallion!”

“I see you’re wearing the one I gave you,” Father Alvarez countered.

Johnny grimaced sourly.  “I decided to humor you.”

Father Alvarez chuckled.  “Whatever the reason, I’m glad you are wearing it.  Padre Simon would be pleased, too.  He wanted so much for your life to get back on the path it was meant to follow.”

Johnny sighed, crossed his arms and was quiet a moment before he nodded.  “He was adamant,” he admitted with a smile. “Sorta reminds me of you.”

Father Alvarez nodded.  “I take that as a compliment.”

“You should.”

“His prayers were with you until his end.  He hoped, someday, his influence would be felt in your life.  This,” Father Alvarez gestured, “seeing you with a family, people who care, a future…would have brought him great joy.”

Johnny nodded, then glanced at the lamp flickering on the table.  “I wish…” he paused, sighed again. “I remember one time, Padre Simon told me that the Devil was on my horizon.”  He hesitated, glanced up to meet Father Alvarez’ gaze.  “I told him I didn’t care about the Devil, that he didn’t bother me none.”  Johnny glanced back at the flame where he continued in a barely audible voice, “I wish he’d warned me instead about the ghosts.”

Father Alvarez nodded sadly.  “Don’t let your ghosts tear you from your future, Juanito.”  He reached out and put a hand on Johnny’s arm, and in a soft voice he added,  “You have a good heart.  Don’t bury it while burying your ghosts.”


Scott turned the corner, leaving the noise of the revelry behind him.  The festivities hadn’t reached this street, though an occasional echo of laughter and music, along with some of the residual light, testified to its continued presence.

Scott walked to the center of the street and stopped, drew his hands to his hips and stared out at the shadows of the Santa Lucias, purplish-black in the moonlight.  He drew in a deep breath, closed his eyes, and stood silently a moment.  Then abruptly he exhaled and looked down at the ground at his feet.

This is where it had happened.  Though Johnny might not have remembered the exact spot, it was forever engraved in Scott’s memory, because he relived it night after night.  This is where he was standing when Johnny was shot, this is where he held his brother in his arms as the blood spread across his chest, this is where he felt his own heart stop.

He’d been avoiding this street ever since that afternoon, and had needed to force himself to come down it when he’d seen Johnny standing in its middle a few days earlier.  He had been jarred to see his brother standing out in the street in an attitude so reminiscent of the gunfight that Scott had felt as if the breath had been knocked out of him.  The conversation, too, had been difficult, full of memories for both of them.  He’d had a hard time falling to sleep that night, as the nightmares had come back full force, haunting him with their feeling of veracity.

But before they left for home, he’d wanted to come back here, by himself, to think.  All that had happened: the gunfight and its aftermath, Johnny’s difficulties healing, the Judge, the letters, Harley, the stories his brother had shared, and the realization that he had finally confronted his brother in the person of Johnny Madrid, all seemed too much to comprehend sometimes.  Then added to this was the fear that, at moments when his brother reached out to him like had happened earlier in the evening, or when they’d stood out here in the street, Scott really had no idea if he was saying the right thing.  Was he helping matters or making them worse? 

Part of the difficulty lay in his distressing need to see all sides of an issue, to understand what made everyone feel the way they did.  Johnny, Murdoch, DarkCloud, Father Alvarez, Harley, Tucson, Jamie, even a lady with a couple of young children in tow at a party given for a gunfighter.  They all had viewpoints and opinions, some similar, some drastically different.  And he tried to decipher them all, hoping he’d find a key, a word or a phrase, which would be just the thing that his brother longed to hear in order to bring him the peace he so desperately sought in his life.

Scott suddenly brought a hand up to rub his forehead, then reached into his pocket and drew out the medallion.  He let it swing freely for a second, watching the moonlight glance off the twisted metal.  He vaguely wondered if Saint Francis could be called upon to help him find the perfect words, which would heal Johnny’s invisible wounds.


Scott turned around to find DarkCloud watching him with furrowed brows, the doctor’s attention caught by the swinging medallion.

“Oh, hi,” Scott greeted, giving the medallion a flip into his hand.

“What are you doing out here?” DarkCloud asked, one eyebrow raising.  “Tired of the party already?”

Scott chuckled, nodding toward the sounds of the fiesta.  “You’d think they’d be ready to call it a night by now.”

“Well, something like this doesn’t happen every day.”

“You mean, something like my brother?”

DarkCloud nodded, then his expression became pensive.  He inclined his head toward Scott’s closed fist.  “And how are you handling its effects?”

Scott glanced down at his hand, slowly opening it to reveal the medallion.  As he did so he gave a slight shake of his head and looked back up.  “I have a feeling you’re asking how I’m handling having an ex-gunfighter brother whose desire for atonement initiated a response of saintly intervention.”

DarkCloud laughed loudly.  “You do have a way with words, Scott.”

Grinning wryly, Scott shook his hand, the chain jingling.  “A way with words,” he laughed.  “That’s what I’m hoping.”  He slipped the chain back in his pocket, turned to glance down the street as he crossed his arms.  “To be honest, I don’t know, DarkCloud.”  He took a deep breath, gave a loud sigh.  “I have a feeling Murdoch is looking at this all a little bit more optimistically than I am.”

“You’re expecting problems?”

“I think it’d be naïve not to.”

DarkCloud walked up next to Scott and let his attention wander out toward the dark night and the Santa Lucias in the distance.



“It’s really hard.  I know Johnny’s trying to strike a balance; that he’s trying to find a way to live with his past while gaining a future he never knew was there, but…  I tell you, DarkCloud, it’s so hard to know if I’m saying what Johnny wants to hear.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Scott,” DarkCloud said, his eyes never leaving the darkened silhouettes crouched along the valley floor, “You’re telling him what he needs to hear, and that’s more important.”


The next morning was cool and foggy.  Johnny, Scott and Murdoch rose early and ate a hearty breakfast, made up special by Rosti’s wife.  Rosti himself, though suffering from a rather nasty hangover, managed to still get up and help with preparations.  Solero and Angelou, along with a large showing of men from the town, gathered around outside to see the party off.  As Murdoch prepared the buggy he’d purchased in Salinas, Matthew drew up in a wagon, Grace and Jamie seated next to him.  Jamie immediately jumped out, his new puppy in his arms, and asked for Johnny.  With a smile, Murdoch sent him on into the saloon.

“Needing any help?” Matthew asked as he helped Grace down from the wagon box.

“Nope.  We’re about ready to leave.”

“So am I.”

“What?” Murdoch asked.  “You’re coming?”

Matthew nodded.  “Tucson, DarkCloud and Angelou are coming, too.”

“What for?”

“Well, for one thing,” DarkCloud interjected as he stepped off the boardwalk and approached Murdoch, a grin on his face, “I never did get those medicines I needed.”

“And I plan to look into getting supplies ordered for the jail,” Angelou stated as he followed DarkCloud.

“And you?” Murdoch asked turning back to Matthew.

Matthew shrugged.  “’Cuz I’ve got a wagon?”

Murdoch shook his head with a smile.  “Don’t tell me.  Tucson needs to send a telegram.”

“Hey,” Matthew grinned at DarkCloud and Angelou.  “That’s a pretty good reason.  Let’s tell Tucson to stick with that one.”

DarkCloud chuckled.  “We’re pretty obvious, huh?”

Murdoch nodded.  “There’s really no need for you to come along.  We’ll be fine.”

“Let’s just say, after what the Judge did, we’ll all feel better if we know for sure you’ve gotten on that stage,” DarkCloud said.  “Plus, to be completely honest, I’m still not comfortable with Johnny leaving just yet, and this gives me an extra day to check him over.  It’s going to be a rough trip back and I’d like to make sure he’s in good shape when he starts it.”

Murdoch nodded.  “In that case, I welcome the company.  But you’d better stick with the medicine and building supplies tale when Johnny finds out.”

“Finds out what?” Johnny asked as he came out of Rosti’s, Jamie in tow.

“We’re having company on the way up,” Murdoch replied.

“Oh.  Who?”

“Well, me, for one,” DarkCloud replied then quickly added, “I still need those supplies.  And Angelou is seeing to the materials for the new jail.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, really?  Hmmm.  Jamie here told me you all thought you’d better come along to see that we don’t end up taken by the Judge.”

“Ah, darn!” Matthew smacked his forehead with his palm.  “I forgot to tell Jamie it was a secret!”

Murdoch chuckled and shot a grin at Scott, who was standing off to the side, attempting without much success to hide his own amusement.

Twenty minutes later, all were gathered to leave.  Jamie hadn’t left Johnny’s side and by the time had come to say their good-byes, Jamie’s face was streaked with tears. 

“You take care of Grace and Lancer,” Johnny said, kneeling down to give Jamie a hug.  “I heard they’re gonna start a school next spring.  And I’d better hear you’re at the top of the class.”

Jamie sniffled.  “I’d rather go with you.”

“Ah, there’s nobody else your age around.  And Murdoch there, he makes us just work, work, work, from morning ‘til night.”

Jamie glanced up at Murdoch and grinned shyly.  “Ah, I don’t think he’s that bad, Johnny.  I mean, he always smiles nicely at me and once he bought me some rock candy.”

“He did?” Johnny feigned surprise, glanced up at Murdoch.  “He never bought me rock candy!”

“I’ll buy you some in Salinas,” Murdoch replied seriously. 

Johnny turned back to Jamie.  “Now, you’ll do as I said, right?  You’ll study hard and take care of your sister and new puppy, right? And you’ll help your brother, too.”

Jamie nodded.  “And you’ll write me and let me know when you can visit.”

Johnny nodded.  “I promise.”

Jamie swallowed back a fresh set of tears, bent down and picked up the puppy.  “Thanks for Lancer, Johnny.”

“You’re welcome.  I thought the best kid in the world deserved the best puppy in the world.”

Jamie smiled.  “You’re the best, Johnny.”

“Our secret, right?”

Jamie nodded.  “Our secret.”

Johnny tousled Jamie’s hair then stood up.  Murdoch had already climbed in the buggy while Scott sat astride the horse he’d originally rented in Salinas.  With a quick glance at Barranca, who was tied to the back of the buggy, Johnny climbed up next to Murdoch. Tucson and DarkCloud swung up onto their horses; Angelou and Matthew, already seated in the wagon, were ready to go.

With final waves all around, the group headed north toward Salinas, the morning still gray with fog.  The trip was uneventful.  By late morning the fog suddenly lifted, the sun heating the air and ground, sending the birds and small wildlife into the cool shadows of the few bushes and trees.  Cattle from the scattered ranches grazed in the distance, close up to the foothills of the mountains or near the riverbed of the Salinas.  They stopped for a longer rest at noon, allowing both men and animals to rest from the mid-day sun for an hour.  And by mid-afternoon the town of Salinas was before them.

Murdoch immediately headed them toward the better part of town, where he checked the party into the same hotel they had stayed in earlier.  Johnny found himself under strict orders to rest up before taking on the next leg of their journey, while Scott saw to the return of his horse and the care of Barranca.  Murdoch headed out to purchase tickets on the next day’s stage while Matthew, Tucson and DarkCloud went to get the supplies for the town.

 Later that evening, after supper, the men were gathered together for a round of drinks when Harley entered.  His dark beard split open to show his white teeth as he made a beeline for their table, grabbing a chair from a less-occupied table and dragging it with him as he approached.  “Johnny!  You’re lookin’ a sight better ‘n when I last saw you!”

“Harl,” Johnny moved his chair over to make a spot for his friend, “how’d you know we were up here?”

“Scott stopped by.  Told me you were headin’ back home tomorrow.”

Johnny glanced quickly at his brother, smiling at Scott’s faint shrug.  “Oh, he did, did he?”

“Yeah,” Harley chuckled as he accepted a beer from Tucson.  “Seems he’s anxious to get you away from Jamie.  Says the kid’s turnin’ you into a regular cardsharp.”

“Me?” Johnny scoffed and turned a raised eyebrow on Scott.  “And who was it I found playin’ with Jamie late last night when I couldn’t get to sleep ‘cuz of all the noise, huh?  I’ll tell you who,” he turned back to Harley and hooked a thumb in Scott’s direction.  “It was ol’ blond and innocent over there.”

“Broke and innocent, you mean,” Scott chuckled.  “I swear, someday I’m going to write all those rules down Jamie makes up and hold him to them.”

“He’s a great kid,” Harley nodded as he took a sip from his mug.

Johnny nodded.  “How’s Mary?”

“Wishin’ you’d stopped by.”

Johnny glanced down at the table.  “Probably better for you if I didn’t.  No need to rub the Judge’s nose in it.”

Harley shrugged.  “I’ve had worse.”

Johnny looked up.  “Maybe, but you weren’t responsible for a family then, Harl.  With a little luck, we’ll leave tomorrow and things’ll have a chance to settle down.  But I want you to let me know if there’re any problems, okay?  In fact, I’m plannin’ on getting a letter each month.”

“Geesh, Johnny!” Harley exclaimed.  “You can’t be serious.  A letter every month?”

“And if I don’t get one, I’m headin’ straight over here.”

Harley rolled his eyes.  “Oh, I’ll see if Mary’ll help.  She likes that sorta thing.  But I really don’t think there’s gonna be a problem.  The Judge’s reputation took a bit of a beatin’.  He don’t dare go and make any other mistakes.  Not if he hopes to stay in good with Sacramento.”

“Well, don’t go giving him any opportunities, Harl.”

Harley shook his head.  “I won’t.”  He then held out his mug.  “Now, let’s change the subject to somethin’ more enjoyable.  Like maybe findin’ a suitable wife for Johnny here.”

Scott laughed at Johnny’s surprised look.

“Not me!” Johnny interjected.  “Ol’ Boston Blondie’s the one with all the ladies pinin’ after him back in Morro Coyo.”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind either one of you settling down,” Murdoch said, his expression deadpan.  “Another woman around would give Teresa a bit of a break with the household chores and maybe even improve some of the table manners.”

“He’s talking about you,” Scott pointed at Johnny.

“Nah, he’s referring to you,” Johnny replied.  “Who was it knocked the wine decanter all over the table?”

“I knocked the decanter over only because you threw a biscuit at me.”

“Well, you asked for one.”

“I said, ‘pass me a biscuit.’  I didn’t say, ‘throw me a biscuit.’”

Johnny shrugged.  “Well, I got you your biscuit.  And it was a good throw, too.  You didn’t hafta jump and grab for it.”

Murdoch started chuckling.  “See what I have to put up with?” he asked.

DarkCloud smiled, nodded.  “Believe me.  I’ve long wondered how you’ve kept your sanity.”

Johnny and Scott glanced at each other.  The relaxed banter felt therapeutic after the difficulties of the last few weeks.  Scott, especially, was glad to see Johnny smile as he had noted a change in Johnny’s manner when they entered Salinas; he’d become quiet and edgy.  Scott was sure that he knew what was bothering his brother. Salinas now held too many memories, none of which were good.

After an hour of talk and drinks, the men began to wander up to bed.  It had been a long ride up and the draw of a good night’s sleep was strong.  After Harley had left, Johnny headed upstairs, following DarkCloud, Tucson and Matthew, while Murdoch went to pay the bill.  Scott waited until Johnny had disappeared up the stairs before approaching Murdoch.  “I’ll be up in a few minutes,” he said.

“Where are you going?” Murdoch asked as Scott headed toward the door.

“I’ll be just a moment,” Scott answered vaguely as he hurried out the door.

Outside, Scott glanced quickly up the street.  The form of the muscular blacksmith could be seen about a block away.  Scott took off at a lope, his long legs eating up the distance between them.  He was within a few yards when Harley turned a corner.  As Scott reached the same corner, a large, beefy arm snaked out to grab him, pinning an arm behind his back.

“Whoa!  Harley!  It’s me!”

Immediately Harley released his hold and stepped back.  “What the—?  Scott!  What are you doing?”

Scott put out his hands and laughed.  “Obviously not trying to wrestle with you.”

Harley chuckled heartily.  “Sorry, Scott.  Didn’t mean to grab you like that.”

“I should have called out,” Scott replied.  “But I wanted to talk to you.  Privately.”

Harley cocked his head to the side then slowly nodded.  “You wanna go get a drink?”

“No,” Scott replied.  “I know you need to get home, too.  I just—well, I just wanted to thank you, I guess.  What you did back in Soledad, when you gave me the letter, told me it was time to confront my brother, to face him—you were right.  If it wasn’t for you, I don’t know what would have happened.  I do know I would have missed an important opportunity.  You gave us something we needed.”

Harley smiled.  “I’m glad it worked out.” Then he grew serious, his large fists settling on his hips.  “There’s something that worries me, though.”

“About Johnny?”

Harley nodded.  “What really happened with the Judge?”

Scott shook his head unhappily.  “It got pretty bad, Harl.  The Judge really messed with him, tried to use his past as a way to split us.  He brought up things better left buried…even dragged Kansas into it.  He threatened to send Johnny back under the bounty.”

Harley took a deep breath, groaned.  “Damn.  It’s never gonna let him go, is it?”  The blacksmith turned, paced a few steps to one of the porch posts then grasped it in one massive hand as he leaned his weight against it and sighed. 

“Harley, what do you know of Kansas?”

Harley sighed again, deeper.  “Probably not much more ‘n you do.  I know it led to his tryin’ to make for the border which ended with him stopping in that town in Texas and gettin’ shot up instead.  But any real details...” Harley shrugged and turned around.  “He wouldn’t talk about it.  He wouldn’t talk about anything there at first.  He was pretty angry.  He was mad that Wes and I took him to Cisco’s, then he was mad at Cisco for not bein’ all he’d led us to believe, and he blamed us for his bein’ shot up—said we shoulda been there.  But that was all nonsense.  He just wanted an excuse to yell at us…” Harley paused, and with a grimace he shook his head.  “Yeah, he did a lot of yellin’.  It was a long few weeks there, I tell you.  Wes and I even left for a few days.  Havin’ us all around seemed to be settin’ him off, Cisco thought.  When we got back, things had calmed down a bit, but not much.   He was still difficult, but had come around enough so’s you could talk to him a bit.  He still had it in for Cisco, though.  I mean, I was just as surprised as anyone about Cisco, you know, findin’ out he lived like he did…comin’ from a rich family and all…landowners down in Mexico.  Then springin’ on us that he’d been studyin’ for the priesthood, planned to go back to sem’nary…well, if that weren’t a shock.   But where I kinda saw the humor in it, Johnny…well…the humor of the situation just sorta missed him.”

“But you really don’t know what happened in Kansas, then?”

Harley shook his head.  “Laura, the boss’s daughter, was killed and Johnny was blamed for it.  Also, Chet Riley, another hired gun, was killed.  Johnny’s wanted for that, too.  There’s a lot more to it, but what that is,” Harley shrugged, “I wish I knew.  I don’t think he shared much more with Wes, and well…given how things were with Cisco, I doubt he told him anything.  But whatever happened, it changed him…or maybe it was gettin’ all shot up that done that.  But things weren’t quite the same with him.  I thought maybe it was me—I’d had enough of that life—had been wanting to settle down for awhile.  But I don’t think so now.”

“So that’s when you all split up?”

Harley nodded.   “After what happened to Johnny, and then with Cisco’s decision, well, it was all I needed to go back to California and ask Mary to be my wife.  Now Wes, well you know, he and Johnny managed to hook up now and then through the next few years, but Johnny pretty well rode alone after that.  His purpose…” Harley paused, frowned as he searched for the right word, “I guess that’s it.  His purpose changed.  Or maybe I should say, he lost it.  Cisco tried to talk to him—get him to leave the business, you know…but Johnny,” Harley shook his head, “he just seemed to darken, become…” Harley grimaced as he shrugged. “He’d always had an edge to him…you know that gunfighter side.  But after we got him back on his feet at Cisco’s, I never could quite find the Johnny I was familiar with again.  I hate to say it, but when I said goodbye to him, I really didn’t think I’d ever see him again.  He’d never been one to worry much ‘bout the future, but I had a feelin’ he’d even quit worryin’ ‘bout the present.” Harley paused as he searched for the right words.  “I kinda felt like he was mad we’d made him live.  He was angry, angry at everything and everyone.  He didn’t want our help, just wanted to be left alone.  And I think his need for the medicine had little to do with pain when we found him.  It was…well, I think it’d become a way to lose himself.”

Scott was quiet a moment before replying, “That’s how Johnny was feeling after he lost his memory…the Johnny we encountered when we first got here.  And that’s why he was so difficult at first.”

Harley shrugged.  “Yes and no.  There is one big difference.”

Scott frowned and shook his head.

“This time he asked for help.  From you.”

Scott hesitantly smiled. 

“And askin’ for help ain’t somethin’ Johnny does easily,” Harley added.

Scott chuckled and smiled.  “No, not hardly.”

Harley smiled back, then his expression grew serious as he pointed a finger at Scott.  “You’re the only one who’s gonna be able to help him with that Kansas mess.  There’s no one else he can turn to—no one else I think he would turn to.  It’s gonna be up to you.”

Scott took a deep breath.  “Well, I’ve tried to talk to him about it, but I get nowhere.”

“Then push harder.  Johnny’s no idiot.  He knows it’s all gonna break soon.  Somethin’s gonna have to.  If Stanton’s really gone and raised that bounty, well…” Harley shook his head.  “A bounty that high won’t stay quiet.”

“But what if he refuses to talk to me?  Or just takes off like he’s done before?”

Harley was silent a moment.  “It’s gonna take a lot of trust, Scott.  Johnny…well, Johnny’s been burned; he don’t trust easily.  It kinda goes with his askin’ for help.  But you came through for him when he needed it, Scott.  And I think that was really important.  He trusted you and you didn’t let him down.”

“And I owe it to you,” Scott replied.

Harley shook his head and smiled.  “No, I owed it to Johnny.”  He suddenly thrust his hand out, his smile widening.  “I’m glad I got to meet you, Scott.  Johnny’s got himself a damn fine brother.”

“Glad to have met you too, Harley.  Johnny’s got himself a damn fine friend.”

Harley grinned, nodded.  “Watch his back, okay?”

“I will,” Scott replied seriously, then waited as the blacksmith turned and walked down the dark street toward home before heading back to the hotel.



Back at the hotel, DarkCloud had quickly checked Johnny over to reassure himself that no damage had been done on the trip up along with adding an admonition to take things easy, which Johnny accepted without argument, having long since decided DarkCloud’s advice was much like his tea: easier to take if you didn’t think about it too much.  As DarkCloud was finishing up, Murdoch stuck his head in to check on things.  When Johnny asked where Scott was, Murdoch replied that he’d be up shortly.  After DarkCloud and Murdoch left, Johnny decided to go downstairs and find Scott.  His brother, however, was nowhere to be found.  Deciding to make a trip out to use the facilities, and thinking it was a good possibility that Scott was there, Johnny continued on through the back hallway to the rear of the hotel.  At the back exit he met an older man carrying out a tub of garbage.  With a friendly nod he opened the door to let the man go through first.  Out on the back porch he paused to glance about in the darkness for some sign of Scott, but was forced to step to the side as another man appeared with yet another container of garbage.  The restaurant and bar were evidently getting ready to close up for the night.

After making quick use of the facilities, Johnny headed back to the hotel.  He’d only gone a few steps when he noticed a man standing in the shadowed darkness of the porch, leaning against the building, a lit cigarette glowing between his lips.  Without breaking stride, Johnny approached. 

The man inhaled deeply before straightening up and releasing a gray cloud into the night.  “Madrid.”

Other than stopping, Johnny was careful to allow no other response to show.  But already the gunfighter in him had assessed the man, evaluated the chances that other men were hiding in the dark, and judged the outcome of four different possible scenarios.   “You have business with me?” he asked coolly.

“Not yet,” the man murmured as he dropped the cigarette and rubbed it out with the toe of his boot.  “But I plan to.  Soon.  But for now, the Judge sends his compliments.”

The voice seemed vaguely familiar, but in the darkness, Johnny couldn’t make out the man’s face.  He inclined his head slightly, allowed a vague smile to cross his lips.  “My, that’s generous, seein’ as that’s ‘bout all that’s his anymore.”

The man chuckled slightly.  “Still the same, Madrid.”

Johnny squinted, but didn’t reply.

“Don’t remember me?  San Pedro, Reveles… been awhile.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow.  “Jackson Lord.”

The man nodded, the moonlight catching a corner of his face.  “So, you do remember.  That’s good.  Heard your head took a good knock, lost your memory.  I’d’ve been disappointed if you hadn’t remembered me anymore…all the fun we had.”

“How could I ever forget my first confrontation with two-legged vermin?  Especially when you lost so graciously.”

Lord smiled icily.  “That was a number of years ago, Madrid.  Heard now you’ve been laid up pretty bad, was using the laudanum again.  Aren’t you getting tired of bein’ shot full of holes by now?”

“Aren’t you gettin’ tired of using my old lines?  But, hey, that’s right.  You always were tryin’ to imitate me.” Johnny shook his head.  “But you never could quite make it, could you?  Always in my shadow.”

“I don’t have to imitate you,” he replied coldly.  “I got all the reputation I need.  Enough to demand more ‘n you ever got for killin’ a man.”

Johnny returned the icy smile. “And what man might that be?”

The smile was returned.  “You, of course.”

“Oh, really?” Johnny replied in cool unconcern.  “You think you can take me this time?”

“In a heartbeat.”

“Whose?” Johnny asked with a hint of a smile,  “Yours or mine?  ‘Cuz I can hear yours right now.”

“Don’t waste your breath, Madrid.  I ain’t fallin’ for that crap this time.”

Johnny inclined his head, raised an eyebrow.  “Then what are you fallin’ for?  Besides my bullet, I mean.”

“You’ve got it all wrong, Madrid.  I’m takin’ you down this time,” Lord replied arrogantly.

“Oh, really?  And when can I expect this remarkable event?  I mean, ‘cuz I’d really hate to miss it.”

Lord shook his head.  “Unfortunately, for the moment, you’re been put off limits.  The Judge doesn’t want you dead—just yet, anyhow.  Says it’ll create some problems.”

“Lucky me.”

Lord laughed, pointed a finger.  “And don’t go lookin’ for no saint medallion to save your life this time.  I’m aimin’ right between the eyes.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Johnny replied, paused just a second, then leaned forward, his voice calculated to intimidate.  “But you might want to look into a medallion for yourself, because I will be aimin’ for your heart.”  He paused again, allowed a hint of a smile. “Hear it’s an interesting way to go…  You can actually feel your heart explode.”  He let the smile flicker a beat before turning for the door.

“Madrid,” Lord said, his voice hard.  “You return to Salinas, you’re dead.  That’s your warning.”

Johnny turned slowly, deliberately, could tell Lord was still attempting to gain the upper hand.  “How long you been workin’ for the Judge?”

A second of discernment flicked across the gunfighter’s face before he thrust his chin out belligerently.  “Received word a couple weeks ago, got in town two days ago.  What’s it to you?”

Johnny tilted his head back, chuckled in private amusement.

“What?” Lord demanded.

Still chuckling, Johnny shook his head as if the joke were too good impart.  “Knew you were still tryin’ to imitate me.”  He paused, his attitude condescending.  “That’s about the time I turned him down.”

Lord’s eyes narrowed into a glare.

“Though I was offered a partnership.  How ‘bout you?”

“I will finish you off.”

“Heel, boy.  Remember, you’re under orders.”  Johnny smirked at Lord’s barely contained anger, then pivoted and entered the hotel. 

Once inside, he went straight to his room, closing the door firmly.  There, alone and in private, he inhaled deeply, then closed his eyes and leaned his weight back against the door. 

        I’ll never be able to escape…  It’s always…always…gonna be like this…

Slowly he released his breath and looked up.  Thank God Murdoch and Scott weren’t around to see…

Johnny pushed away from the door, then weary with the effort of battling a ghost, he crossed to the bed and sat down.  He was just rubbing his hands tiredly across his face when he heard Scott’s footsteps in the hallway, the signature knock soon following.


“Come on in,” Johnny answered, straightening his shoulders and adopting a more amicable expression.

Scott stepped in, smiled.  “Ready to head home tomorrow?”

Johnny nodded.  “I’m ready for Teresa’s cooking, that’s for sure.”  He patted his stomach.  “You think she’ll make me up some pies?”

Scott nodded, grinned as he crossed his arms and leaned against the door.  “Oh, I’m quite sure she’s going to spoil you horribly.  But as long as I get at least one piece from every pie, I won’t mind.” 

Johnny smiled, then glanced down at his hand still resting on his stomach.  He gave it a self-conscious rub, then glanced up uneasily.  “Scott?”


Johnny gave a vague shrug.  “Teresa…Jelly…what do they know?”

Scott pursed his lips, then straightened up, his arms dropping to his side as he took a step closer.  “Nothing really,” he replied, keeping his gaze steady.  “Murdoch let them know you were okay and we were returning.  He didn’t want them to worry unnecessarily and also he didn’t think it wise to trust the telegraph office.”

Johnny acknowledged the decision with a wry nod.  “The Judge.”

Scott nodded.

“They don’t know anything about what’s happened, then?”

“No.  And I’m pretty sure Murdoch’s leaving the decision about what to tell them up to you.”

Johnny grimaced.  “Teresa’s gonna take one look at me and know I’ve been shot up.”

“Yeah, you’d have a hard time hiding that,” Scott agreed.  “Well, think of it this way.  It’ll garner you more sympathy, and sympathy, with Teresa, comes in the form of pies.”

Johnny chuckled slightly then his expression became serious again.  “How ‘bout the laudanum…the morphine?”

Scott shook his head.  “That’s up to you, Johnny.”

Johnny was quiet a moment.  “You know, if something should happen…” he paused as he noticed Scott’s look darken.  “I mean, I could get a hang-nail or something,” he added gravely.

Scott chuckled.  “I suppose you could.”

“They can be painful,” Johnny paused meaningfully before continuing, “And I wouldn’t want Teresa or Jelly to go giving me anything for it.”

Scott hesitated, kept his gaze steady.  “I know what you’re saying, Johnny, but—”

“No, Scott.  You don’t understand.  I don’t want to do this again.  The last few years, when I got hurt those couple times, well, no one knew, so you’d manage to get some medicine in me.”

“We knew you didn’t like it.  We also knew that as soon as you were conscious enough of what was going on, there was going to be no more getting you to take any.  But you did take some, to no ill effect.”

Johnny shook his head.  “But it’d been a number of years, Scott.  It’s too fresh right now.  If—” he held up a hand to stop Scott’s interruption, “if anything should happen, I don’t want anyone giving me anything, okay?”

“Listen, Johnny.”  Scott took another step closer until he was standing directly in front of his brother.  If you should get a really bad hang-nail, then you’re going to have to take something for the pain.  I’m sorry, but we’re not about to leave you suffering.”  At Johnny’s disappointed look, Scott added, “It’ll be okay, Johnny.  I’ll be there.  It wouldn’t be the same as this time.  There were a lot of other factors.”

Johnny shook his head, closed his eyes as he rubbed a hand across his forehead then trailed it back through his hair.  “I remember too much now.  How it was back when Harley and Wes found me, took me to Cisco’s.”  He paused, opened his eyes as he shook his head.  “I wasn’t exactly easy to get along with.”

Heart pounding at the opened subject, Scott sat on the bed beside Johnny.  “Listen.  I know that was a pretty awful time.  But you said yourself, you’d been using the laudanum for quite awhile before they found you.  You started out needing it to handle the pain from the gunshot wounds, but later, after your back healed up, I think there was still a lot of pain in your heart.”

Johnny turned his head to look at Scott.  “You’re goin’ poetic on me again.”

Scott shook his head.   “No, Johnny.  I’m just trying to get you to realize that if something should happen, if…if you should get hurt, I don’t think taking some laudanum to handle the pain is going to cause any harm.”

“I’d still rather not.”

Scott nodded.  “Then I’ll see to it you don’t have to take any more than absolutely necessary.  And if it’s not absolutely necessary, I’ll make sure you won’t take any at all.”

Johnny smiled wryly and sighed.  “Thanks.”

Scott put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “Not at all.”

Johnny looked back down at his lap.  “Scott?”


“I don’t want to tell Teresa and Jelly.”

“Then don’t.”

“No, I mean,” Johnny looked up, “I don’t want to be the one to tell them.  It’s too…” he shook his head, glanced back down, “…too embarrassing.”

“You want us to say something?”

Johnny nodded.  “I just don’t want to be around, okay?  I just don’t want to hear the details.”

Scott nodded.  “We’ll take care of it.”

“And Scott?”


Johnny looked up again, a lopsided smile on his face.  “You think you could not make it sound too bad?”

“A watered-down version?”

Johnny nodded.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Suddenly Johnny’s smile widened, his eyes crinkling in amusement.  “Though feel free to tell Teresa I was amazingly brave.”

Scott laughed. 



The next morning Murdoch, Scott and Johnny stood waiting to board the stage.  Once again it was one of the lighter mail coaches.  While they were faster, they were smaller and didn’t offer a very comfortable ride.  Murdoch was disappointed to find out that they were going to have to share it with a family with three children.  He’d hoped they’d been able to have the coach by themselves and had entertained the idea of buying up all available tickets, but knew the gesture would not be received by Johnny in the manner in which it was intended. 

Scott moved to stand next to Murdoch as they watched the couple with the children climb into the stage.  Besides the man and wife, there was a girl of about fourteen, a boy about thirteen, and a small infant of indeterminate sex.

“I’m going to sit with the driver,” Scott said.

Murdoch shook his head.  “That’s not necessary.”

Scott grinned.  “Actually, it’s going to be a nice day, and I’d just as soon enjoy the countryside and fresh air.  We’ll be making stops and I can always switch later.  Besides, with the younger ones in there, the extra room might be appreciated.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if my seat becomes much sought after if the baby turns out to be fussy.”

Murdoch smiled wryly.  “The extra room will be better for Johnny.”

“Don’t tell him,” Scott responded with a smile.

“Scott, he’ll have that one figured out without my help.”

Scott shrugged.  “Okay, but don’t confirm it.”  He glanced over at Johnny, who was nodding as he listened to something DarkCloud was relating.  “Doesn’t appear like DarkCloud’s going to let him go without a list of instructions.”

Murdoch chuckled.  “He already went over them with me earlier this morning.”

“You too, huh?” Scott smirked.  “I think he was actually giving me a verbal quiz.”

“How’d you score?” Murdoch smiled.

“I guess I passed.  He let me go anyway.”  Scott stopped, gestured as he saw Matthew walk toward them from around the stage, Tucson and Angelou following.

“Well, we’re ready to take off, too,” Matthew said. “We just finished picking up the supplies to begin the jail.”

“We’ll be puttin’ those plans of yours to good use,” Angelou beamed with a nod at Scott.

“Glad I could be of some help,” Scott said.

Tucson smiled.  “Next time you’re in Soledad, we oughta have a real fine jail.”

“I’ll be looking forward to seeing it.”

“Let’s finish gettin’ loaded,” the driver’s voice boomed through their conversation.  “I got a schedule to meet.”

Johnny walked up, put his hand out to Matthew.  “Take care of Jamie, okay?”

Matthew nodded and chuckled.  “I’ll do my best to keep him out of the gamblin’ houses.”

Johnny smiled, then nodded toward Tucson.  “Tucson.”

Tucson nodded back, a smile creeping along his face.  “Been a pleasure gettin’ to know you, Johnny Lancer.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow and chuckled.  “Tryin’ to turn into a politician, too, Tucson?”

Tucson grinned.  “Sheriff today, who knows what tomorrow.”

“Now don’t hesitate to keep us apprised of the situation here,” Murdoch added.

Matthew nodded.  “And please know you’re welcome to stay with us any time you’re down our way.”

“Will do,” Murdoch replied, then gestured toward the stage.  “We’d better get on before we’re left behind.”

Johnny gave a nod to DarkCloud, then climbed up into the stage.  Scott gave a quick wave before clambering up to the seat near the driver as Murdoch stepped up to DarkCloud.

“Thanks for everything,” Murdoch murmured.

DarkCloud smiled.  “I’m glad things turned out well.”

Murdoch nodded.  “I’ll send a wire after we reach Lancer, just to let you know how Johnny’s doing.”

DarkCloud glanced toward the stage.  “He’ll be fine.  Just don’t let him out of the house—or out of your sight—for a few weeks.”

Murdoch chuckled, turned and climbed up into the stagecoach.  Johnny had already slid up against the far window, his back wedged up into the corner, arms folded across his chest, eyes closed beneath the brim of his pulled-down hat.  Murdoch gave a nod to the man and woman seated on the opposite side, then settled into the other corner of the bench.  He’d no sooner tilted his head to glance out the window than the stage lurched forward, and the men from Soledad quickly disappeared from view.

As the stage rolled through Salinas, heading north to get to the pass, Murdoch attempted to adjust his large form into the corner.  He quietly conceded a certain amount of envy at Johnny’s apparent ability to sleep in any surroundings, while at the same time recognizing that it probably had to do with the fact that Johnny had always been on the move.  He also noted that Johnny was wearing his jacket, though the coach was sure to become warm as the day wore on.  Matthew had informed him that all of Johnny’s clothes, except for his jacket, had been ruined in the shootout in the hills.  The jacket, along with Johnny’s belt and weapons, had been discovered among the items they’d found in the saddlebags of the horses Matthew and a couple of other men had managed to catch.  They hadn’t realized it was Johnny’s jacket until Matthew had thought to bring it into town one day and ask. 

Murdoch had long ago noticed that the jacket had an interesting inside pocket.  Now with the disclosure of the modified revolver, Murdoch realized that the pocket had been designed for it.  With the few discussions he’d had with Matthew and Tucson, he’d come to understand that Johnny preferred to keep the revolver hidden in the belt along his back, under cover of his jacket.  But in situations where such placement would be uncomfortable or impractical, Murdoch surmised that Johnny made use of the concealed pocket, which was placed in such a way that the left arm could obscure the extra bulk while allowing the right hand easy access.  Murdoch conceded that that was probably where the revolver was now, as Johnny was sure to have known it’d eventually become too warm in the coach to wear the jacket.  And while the passengers, including Johnny, had handed over their sidearms, Murdoch had no doubt Johnny still had the modified one with him.

Receiving a kick to his shin, Murdoch’s thoughts were interrupted.

“Paul, apologize now!”

Murdoch smiled as the boy in front of him squirmed in his seat.  “Sorry, Sir.”

“No need.  I’m afraid my legs take up more than their share of the space,” Murdoch replied kindly.

“He should still watch himself,” Paul’s father stated.

Murdoch nodded warmly to the man, noticing for the first time the clerical collar of a pastor.

“I should introduce myself,” Murdoch said, leaning forward to offer his hand.  “My name is Murdoch Lancer.  This is my son, Johnny, and my other son, Scott, is riding up with the driver.”

The man’s nod was reserved and proper.  “I am Reverend Pearson, my wife, and children, Anna, Rachel and Paul, whom you’ve met.”

Murdoch smiled again at Paul, who nodded shyly.  “So, where are you people heading?”

“We are on our way to the town of Green River where I am to oversee the construction and care of the Congregational Church.”

“Oh, really?” Murdoch chuckled.  “We live not far from Green River.”

“You do?” the lady interjected.  “Is it…it’s not as desolate as they say, is it?”

Murdoch smiled.  “Well, that depends on what you think is desolate.  Green River is a growing community.  It’s not San Francisco, or Salinas for that matter, but I believe you’ll be happy there.”

Reverend Pearson snorted slightly.  “I certainly hope it’s not like Salinas.”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment.  Deciding that a change of topic was perhaps called for, Murdoch ventured, “So, where are you from?”

“We came on the train!” Paul interjected enthusiastically.

“Paul,” Reverend Pearson admonished.  “Mr. Lancer was not speaking to you.”  The reverend nodded to Murdoch.  “Excuse my son.  There has been so much for him to see since we left the East.”

“The East?  Whereabouts?”

“Connecticut.  Hartford, to be exact.  We left almost two months ago.  We spent a couple weeks with colleagues in San Francisco, then arrived in Salinas a week ago.”

“My, you have been all over, haven’t you?” Murdoch acknowledged with a wink to the young man, his tone one of admiration.  “I can see where a fella like you would be excited.”

Paul smiled with pleasure, but didn’t reply.


Johnny, for his part, had dozed off about ten minutes after the coach began rolling out of town.  He hadn’t slept well the night before, his thoughts occupied with the confrontation with Jackson Lord and with the discussion he’d had with Scott.  He’d been momentarily tempted to confide in his brother what had transpired, but had decided, on further thought, that it was something best kept to himself.  They were, after all, leaving town and this would all be behind them soon.  He hoped. 

Unfortunately, finding out that the Judge had hired on a gunfighter of some repute told him all he needed to know.  The Judge was not one to make another mistake, at least where his dealings with Madrid were concerned.  He’d lost too much already.  Johnny knew, without a doubt, returning to Salinas would precipitate a bloody fight…and he wasn’t too sure that the Judge was beyond sending his new hired gun to take care of the problem at the source, once his son’s trial was wrapped up. 

As the coach hit a pothole, Johnny let out a soft grunt and opened one eye.  He noticed the young boy was watching him intently.  Opening the other eye, he wrinkled his nose in acknowledgement.  Paul grinned widely back. 

Suddenly Johnny was reminded of Jamie.




The stage rolled to a stop.  Scott stretched out one leg and groaned, then smiled sheepishly as the stage driver grinned a wide, toothless smile.

“Bet your butt’s sorer ‘n a blister on a pimple.”

Scott chuckled.  “You sure do have a way with words, Mr. Sunnifeld.”

“Sunny,” the old driver grumbled with a shake of his head as he stood up.  “I keep tellin’ ya, just call me Sunny.”

“Sunny,” Scott responded, though inwardly he chuckled.  There was nothing sunny about Mr. Sunnifeld.  But as Scott climbed down off from the stage, he had to admit that the old man had kept the trip interesting with his tales, mostly a combination of pure fabrication and outlandish stories. 

Scott dropped to the ground just as Johnny climbed out of the stage.  It appeared his brother had waited until everyone else had exited, as Murdoch was standing near the step, patiently waiting.  They’d only made two stops along the way, and the second time, when they’d taken a break for lunch, Scott had found Johnny with both hands placed against a tree, leaning forward, his head bowed.  When Scott had asked how he was doing, Johnny had reluctantly admitted that the rough ride was proving to be hard on his chest muscles, but in the next breath had asked Scott not to say anything to Murdoch.  Scott hadn’t, convinced that Murdoch probably already knew.

Johnny winced slightly as he stepped to the ground, though he still managed to give Scott and Murdoch a smile.  “Please tell me we aren’t going any further today.”

Murdoch smiled.  “Nope.  And by the looks of things, there’s nobody else here at the way station, so hopefully the rooms will not be crowded tonight.”

“Last time, the sleeping arrangements were less than ideal,” Scott admitted then pointed toward the two-story building.  “Why don’t the two of you go in, and I’ll see to Barranca.”

“That’s a plan I can live with,” Johnny said then turned and started for the way station.

“I’ll go get things taken care of,” Murdoch added, then bent down and grabbed up a valise that the driver had placed on the ground.

“I’ll be just a minute,” Scott said as he walked to the back of the stage where Barranca was tied.

He’d no sooner finished untying him and was walking to the barn when the owner of the way station walked up to him.

“Needin’ to bed him down tonight, eh?  Your father just paid me board for him.  Looks like a fine animal.”

“He is,” Scott replied as he paused.  “Is there a specific stall you’d prefer to have me use?”

The man hooked his thumbs in his pants and shook his head.  “Nah.  Don’t really matter none.  The other stage horses are all in the corral in back.  Use whichever one you prefer.”

“Thanks,” Scott replied.

“Once you get him situated, I’ll get him fed.  If you need anythin’ though, I’ll be out helping un-harness the stage.”

“Thanks again.”

Scott watched the man return to Sunny and his stage, then turned back to lead Barranca into the barn. 



Teresa set the vase on the table, the fragrant spray of flowers an explosion of color in the otherwise dark, somber great room of the Lancer hacienda.  She stepped back, a finger pressed to her chin, as she viewed its effect.  She cocked her head, took another step to the side to check its angle, then returned to rotate it a quarter of an inch.

“You know, I thought it was better the other way.”

Teresa chuckled as she turned around to see Jelly observing her with amusement.

“You don’t think I’m overdoing it, do you, Jelly?”

“Nah.”  He shook his head.  “That is, unless you’ve got a mind to start spreadin’ petals ‘bout the floor.”

“Oh,” Teresa feigned disappointment.  “You think that would be a bit much?”

Jelly laughed then dropped his eyes in chagrined embarrassment.  “Not really.”  Slowly he withdrew an arm from behind his back to display an assortment of flowers.  “I was sorta walkin’ past the garden…”

Teresa laughed.  “I’ll put them to good use, Jelly.”

“Don’t tell Murdoch.”

Teresa walked forward and accepted the flowers.  “You knew I wanted to put a bouquet on the mantel, didn’t you?”

Jelly nodded as he slid his thumbs into his suspenders and rocked back on his heels.  “That’s right.  A bouquet on the mantel is what the room was still lackin’.”

Teresa grinned.  “Great minds think alike, Jelly,” she said as she turned and walked to the kitchen.

“Huh?” Jelly asked, quickly following.

In the kitchen, Teresa took another vase out of the credenza where the better pieces of china and glassware were kept then carried it and the flowers to the sink pump.  Jelly reached out for the pump and drew water, while Teresa filled the vase.  Finished, Teresa smiled as she placed the flowers in the vase, arranging them to her satisfaction.

“It’s going to be so nice to have them home again, Jelly.”

“Yes, ‘em.  It will be,” Jelly agreed.

Teresa then sighed, glanced at Jelly before turning and carrying the arrangement out to the great room. 

Jelly followed her out to the room, standing back as she adjusted a rose that had shifted in the transportation. 


Jelly heard a soft sigh, saw Teresa lower her head, then draw her slender arms up in a gesture of disconsolation.  Stepping forward, he laid a weathered hand on her shoulder.

“You’re worried about what Sheriff Crawford said.”

Teresa’s small brown head nodded.  There was a tight sigh then she turned around, looking up with wide, anxious brown eyes.  “I wish we knew what was wrong.”

Jelly gave her shoulder a pat then stepped back, sliding his hands into his pockets.  “I’m sure Murdoch’s got his reasons.”

Teresa pursed her lips unhappily.  “For not telling us anything?”  She frowned, turned back to face the mantle.  “The few wires we received from Murdoch were always very vague.  I mean,” she glanced over her shoulder, “it was good to know when they’d found Johnny, but…well, there was so much it was obvious he wasn’t saying.”

Jelly nodded hesitantly, uncomfortable with trying to second-guess Murdoch.  “I’m sure he just didn’t want us worryin’ fer no reason.”

“Well, according to Sheriff Crawford, there is a good reason.”

Jelly’s expression became serious.  “Teresa, it’ll do you no good gettin’ worked up about it now. By tomorrow night, Johnny’ll be home.”

Teresa sighed.  “I just wish I knew what was really wrong.”

“You’d best get some sleep,” Jelly said.

Teresa nodded.  “I suppose you’re right.  I want to get up early and help Maria get some pies baked before we go into town to meet the stage.”

“What type?” Jelly grinned.

“What would you like, Mr. Hoskins?” she asked with a deferential air that brought a shy grin to the older man’s face.

“I’ve an appetite for apple.”

Teresa nodded.  “I’m sure we could arrange to bake a couple of apple pies.”

Jelly’s eyes twinkled.  “You, Miss Teresa, have made one man’s belly eternally grateful.”

Teresa laughed.  “I’ll see you in the morning, Jelly.”

Jelly nodded.  “Tomorrow.”  He paused, met her eyes meaningfully.  “Things’ll be clearer tomorrow.”

Teresa sighed as Jelly headed for the door, turning to give her one last encouraging wave.  After the door closed, Teresa rubbed her arms up and down along her sleeves.  She then turned back to the mantle and stepped closer.  The fire was small, throwing more light than actual heat.  But the nights were getting cooler.  Teresa bent down, took another log, poked the embers with one end, then added it to the fire.  She turned as if to head for the stairs, then seemed to change her mind and sat down on the rug near the fire.  There she sat, quietly watching the flames eddy and twist. 

It had been difficult not hearing often from Murdoch.  She had originally been so relieved when they received the first message reporting that Johnny had been found that she hadn’t realized how vague the message had actually been.  Then, after not hearing anything for a while, she had come to realize that the letter had really told them nothing other than that the men would be returning as soon as possible.  It wasn’t long before she had found herself increasingly unsettled by its indefinite message, especially given that Murdoch’s as soon as possible seemed to be very different from Teresa’s idea of the expression.  Eventually they received another wire, but this one proved to be as vague as the first.  It simply stated that things were taking a little longer than expected and it would be a little while yet before they could return.

Then just the night previous, Sheriff Crawford had ridden in late in the evening carrying a new telegram.  He’d taken it upon himself to make sure they received any wires as soon as they came in to the telegraph office.  At first Teresa had been surprised and a little concerned to see him at such a late hour.  But the news proved to be good news, as the telegram informed them that the Lancer men would be returning on the Green River stage in two days.  She and Jelly were ecstatic at the news.  But then Teresa noticed that Val, though smiling, also seemed strangely subdued.   Immediately Teresa became suspicious and pressed for the sheriff to tell her what was wrong.

Val had been clearly uneasy in discussing his lack of exuberance.  “Teresa,” he had said, “you know I had that friend out there lookin’ for Johnny, too.”

Teresa had nodded.  “Sheriff Hawkins, right?”

Val nodded.  “Well, we had an understanding not to mention Johnny’s name, you know…the Kansas thing….”  He left the sentence dangling awkwardly.  “Well, awhile ago Bill sent me a wire that said the man he was lookin’ for had been found, but was in bad shape.”

Teresa’s eyes had gone large.  “Bad shape?  How?  What happened?  Are you sure he meant Johnny?”

Val put up a hand to halt Teresa’s questions.  “Yes, he was talkin’ ‘bout Johnny.  Because I also received a wire from Murdoch that said basically the same thing, also not mentioning him by name and with no other information than what I’d already gathered from Bill.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Val grimaced.  “Murdoch asked me not to.”

Teresa raised her eyebrows.  “What?”

Val nodded uncomfortably.  “I think he wanted to see how Johnny was doin’ before he got you upset.”

“So why are you telling me now?” Teresa asked hesitantly.

Val glanced down for a second and sighed.  “Murdoch’s wire said to let you and Jelly,” he indicated the older man with a awkward nod, “know that Johnny’s pretty weak, and that he’s still not feeling well.”

“What happened to him?” Jelly asked.

Val shrugged dismally.  “I really don’t know.  But if it’s what was keepin’ them from returning right away, and he’s still not recovered, then it has to have been pretty serious.”

Teresa studied the sheriff, her brows knitting.  “Is there anything else?”

Val hesitated then shook his head.  “No, not really anything else ‘bout Johnny.  But Murdoch, well, he said Bill, Sheriff Hawkins, had been killed.”

“Killed?” Jelly asked.

Val nodded. “I don’t know how.  I had a feelin’ from Murdoch’s wire that there was a lot he needed to tell us, but it needed to be done in person.  Somethin’ tells me he wasn’t comfortable ‘bout sending a message where others might be able to get a hold of it.”

“In Green River?” Teresa asked, somewhat surprised.

“Or in Salinas.”

Teresa and Sheriff Crawford looked at each other.

 Jelly rubbed his beard thoughtfully.  “Somethin’ tells me there’s gonna be quite a story to tell ‘bout Salinas.”


A snap and an echoing crack from the burning log drew Teresa out of her reverie.  With a sigh she rubbed her eyes tiredly and pushed her hair back over her shoulders.  It was time to get to bed.  There were pies to be made, a huge beef roast to prepare and Johnny’s room to dust.

She smiled to herself.  She looked forward to having Scott home to chide her about her thorough dusting.  Then her smile faded and her gaze lifted up toward the rooms above.  There were also ointments and bandages to have at hand, for she had a sinking feeling they might be required.




Supper was over and evening had settled solidly in the small valley that sheltered the way station.  While Murdoch engaged Sunny and the hosteler with a discussion of the growing stage business, Johnny excused himself.  The lure of fresh air was too hard to resist after the confines of the small, smoky dining area.  The sleeping quarters had been no better, dank and heavy with the perspiration and odors of its previous guests.  The hosteler and his wife had mentioned during the course of the meal that a large group of twelve had been at the way station the night before.  Johnny was quite certain that he could smell every single one of them.  Scott and he had opened the windows to air out the room after they had finished eating, then while Scott said he was going to sit by the fire and read, Johnny decided to go take a short walk outside.  The quiet proved to be short-lived as he’d no sooner stepped off the porch than the minister’s son bounded around the corner, almost running into him.

“Oh, sorry, Sir.”

“No problem,” Johnny answered.  “Plenty of space out here for both of us, if I just watch where I’m standing.”

The young man laughed.

“I don’t think I ever caught your name,” Johnny said.


“I’m Johnny.”

Paul nodded.  “Your father introduced you, but I believe you were asleep.”

Johnny chuckled.  “I probably was.  I didn’t get much sleep last night.”  He turned and sat down on the edge of the porch, stretched out his shoulders gingerly.  “So, did you enjoy the trip today?”

Paul nodded and sat down.  “Actually, I did.  There’s so much to see out here.”

“You’re from the East, right?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“My brother’s from the East.  Boston, actually.”

“Your brother?” Paul looked puzzled, then shook his head.  “But I take it you’re not, right?”

Johnny shook his head then chuckled and flicked his hand in a dismissive wave.  “Long story.  So, what do you think of California so far?”

Paul cocked his head thoughtfully.  “Well, a lot of it looks dead…very dry and dead.”

Johnny nodded.  “Sort of a big old desert ‘til those rains start up in another month or so.  Then you might get two weeks of solid rain without let-up.  Things’ll green up in a hurry then.”

Paul suddenly laughed and lowered his voice, “Hope it doesn’t rain for forty days and nights, or my father will think God’s passed judgment on the state.”

Johnny chuckled along.  “I was getting the impression he’s not too pleased to be here.”

Paul shrugged.  “He’s talked of coming to California since I can remember.  He says it’s a blemish on the soul of the country.”

“Ah-ha,” Johnny nodded slowly as he leaned forward to clasp his hands between his knees.

“I like it, though,” Paul continued. “It’s so open, free and exciting.  I didn’t even want to leave Salinas.  I wished we could have stayed.”

Johnny couldn’t help but chuckle.  “I take it you enjoyed the town?”

Paul nodded enthusiastically.  “We were there a week.  When did you arrive?”

“In Salinas?”

Paul nodded.

“Well, we came up to catch the stage last night.”

“Then you missed all the excitement, too,” Paul sighed, his disappointment evident.


“Oh, my, yes.  Billy, he’s fifteen—the son of my dad’s friend.  We stayed with them.  Anyway, he got to see it first-hand.”

“See what?”

“The gunfight.”

Johnny blinked, lowered his gaze to his hands.  For some reason he wasn’t surprised.  It was as if he’d known all along that the conversation would turn to the gunfight.  Like it was something inescapable…trailing him even back to Lancer.  He forced himself to nonchalantly stretch his back out, welcoming the bite of pain that shot along his side and chest as he glanced toward the door.  “Well, I—”

“I wish I could have seen it,” Paul interrupted with a sigh, his attention fixed on some unseen point in the dark.

Johnny looked back, pursed his lips with a small shake of his head.  “You don’t wanna go seeing stuff like that.  It’s mostly all a bunch of tall tales anyway.”

“You think so?” Paul asked.

Johnny nodded.  “I know so.”

Paul sighed deeply.  “Well, maybe.  But Billy seemed quite excited about having seen Johnny Madrid in action.  I guess he’s quite the gunfighter.”

Johnny closed his eyes, slowly inhaled, then let his shoulders and head slump forward.  “Madrid, huh?”

Paul nodded.  “Have you heard of him?”

Johnny rested his elbows on his knees, cradled his forehead in his palms.  “Oh, maybe…”

“To hear Billy tell it…wow…” Paul spoke the last word softly and simply, encompassing his awe and respect more thoroughly than a loud exclamation.

“Paul, I really don’t think there was all that much to it.”

“Not much to it?” Paul scoffed.  “Billy said he was on his way to school when all of a sudden he noticed people running the other way, yelling about a gunfight.  He followed, and sure enough, found two men standing out in the middle of the street, facing each other down.  He says he’d just managed to get close enough to really see what was going on, when someone whispered that it was Johnny Madrid and some other new gunfighter, and that the younger gunfighter had called Johnny out.”

“Yeah, well…things like that’ll happen, but—”

“I guess Billy was standing in a great spot.  He could see everything.  He says he could look right at Madrid’s face, he was so close.  He said he wished he’d been able to write everything down they said, that Madrid was so cool, so calm, like he just knew there was no way in the world he could lose.  The other guy, though, he got scared.  Billy said you could sense it.  Madrid tried to talk the other gunfighter out of the fight, but he seemed determined to go through with it.  So Madrid told him to start the dance…” Paul stopped to chuckle.  “Can you believe that?  Dance?  How macabre, don’t you think…but so perfect?”

“I—I don’t know…  I mean…I wouldn’t know—”

“Then, bam! It was finished.  Billy said, even though everyone knew it was coming, knew what to expect, it still happened so fast that you weren’t sure you had really seen it.  But their guns were drawn and the other gunfighter was lying flat on his back in the dust.  Then, before anyone has had a chance to react, a bunch of ambushers on the rooftops—”

“A bunch?” Johnny straightened up.  “A bunch?”

Paul nodded.  “Yeah, but it didn’t matter.  Madrid started weaving about, firing up into the rooftops, knocking them off with the help of one of his gang—”

“Whose gang?”


Johnny’s brows knit.  “Madrid’s got a gang?”

Paul shrugged.  “I guess so.  That’s what Billy said.  Anyway, this other man came running out of the crowd opposite of where Billy was standing, and he and Madrid blasted away at the ambushers, eventually killing them all.”

“I doubt there were really that many.”

“I didn’t really ask, but I think there were quite a few.  Then—now you’ve got to hear this—this is the good part.  This horse was shot in all the gunfire, and it starts bucking and rearing and kicks Madrid, sending him right to the dirt.  Everyone thought Madrid was dead.  Billy, too.  I guess he looked a mess.  In the meantime, this other gang member and then this blacksmith from the town came out of the crowd and forced the crowd away.  Billy went to a corner and watched, though.  He saw the blacksmith pick Madrid up and carry him into the hotel.  Billy said that he still thought Madrid was going to die, as that horse had kicked him real good.  But later that day, after school, Billy found out that Madrid had gotten right up just a short while later, went and bought drinks for everyone in the saloon, sat around and talked and all, and then rode right on out of town.  Do you believe that?  Isn’t that amazing?  After being all stomped on by a horse?”

Johnny ran his fingers back through his hair.  “Yeah, pretty amazing.”

“There’s even more.”

Johnny closed his eyes, winced.  “You don’t say.”

“Billy found out later that the men who’d tried to ambush Madrid worked for this ill-tempered fellow by the name of James Wakeman.  His dad’s a pretty decent man, I guess, but James is pretty skunky…at least that’s how Billy put it.  I guess Billy’s dad’s had some bad dealings with him.  Anyhow, Billy’s father heard that Wakeman had tried to hire Madrid earlier, but Madrid made a fool of him and turned him down flat.  That made Wakeman mad—no one turns him down, I guess—so he wanted to get even with Madrid.  So he gets his army together—”


“Yeah, all the guys who work for him.”


Paul shrugged.  “Oh, well, maybe not all, but a lot…like thirty or something, I’m guessing.”


Paul frowned.  “Don’t you want to hear the rest of the story?”

Johnny hesitated, chuckled wearily.  “I guess I’d better.”

Paul grinned.  “Well, you’ll be glad you did when you hear this next part.  Wakeman and his men ride on down to Soledad.  And they’ve taken three hostages…a woman, a child and a boy.”

“Got somethin’ right,” Johnny muttered.



Paul shrugged.  “Anyway, they ride into town, planning to kill Madrid.  Only he’s waiting for them.  He’s been expecting them, you see, because he knows the type of man Wakeman is.  Wakeman’s brought along another gunfighter, but he proves to be no match for Madrid.  Madrid could have taken him out with his eyes closed.  Wakeman then tries to use the hostages against Madrid, but Madrid’s too smart for him.  He outfoxes Wakeman to give up one of the hostages.  Then just when things look like they’re at an impasse, that there’s no way Madrid can win against such overwhelming odds, another one of his gang comes dashing out to help him just as everyone starts shooting.”

“Paul, there could not have been two men against thirty.”


Johnny shook his head.  “No way.  Not possible.  It never happened.”

Paul frowned. “I suppose you’re right.  Billy might have exaggerated a bit.  What do you think, maybe twenty?”

“I think Billy exaggerated a lot, and it’s probably closer to half-dozen.”

“Six?” Paul grimaced.  “I’m sure it was at least fifteen.”

“Come on, Paul.  Add up the bullets.”

“Maybe Madrid had two guns.”

“Even if he had, which I doubt, that’s still only twelve bullets—”

“And that friend of his.”

“Okay, eighteen.  But that’s not leavin’ much margin for error.  That means every single one of those shots gotta be made...and they gotta be made before the other guys make theirs.”

“Well, Madrid’s good.”

“He’s not that good.  I mean, when you’re dealin’ with a group of people in a volatile situation like that, well, people are gonna react differently.  There’s no way to predict everyone’s movements, everyone’s behavior, who’s gonna panic, who’s gonna stand their ground…and with having to take those hostages into account…” Johnny stopped as he realized Paul was studying him with a raised eyebrow.  “I mean… there’s…there couldn’t’ve been no fifteen…  C’mon…”

Paul smirked.  “Does it really matter that much how many men there were?”

Johnny sighed, gave a tired shake of his head, let his hands cover his face again.  “I guess not, but humor me and get the numbers down a bit, okay?”

Paul’s smirk widened.  “Yes, sir.  There were under fifteen men.”

Johnny nodded resignedly.

“Then,” Paul continued, “the most interesting thing took place.”

“Everyone died.”

Paul laughed.

“No, huh?” Johnny asked, tilted his head to look at Paul.  “Let me guess.  Good triumphed over evil, miracles were performed and there was much singing and dancing in the streets.”

Paul laughed even louder.  “Mr. Lancer, you sure have an interesting sense of humor.”

“I s’pose that’s one of the nicer things that’s been said about me recently.”

“Well, don’t know as there was much singing and dancing, but good did triumph over evil.”

“It did, did it?”

Paul nodded.  “You see, during the shootout one of the bullets had been aimed straight at Madrid’s heart.  But you’ll never guess what happened.”

“He ducked.”

Paul chuckled.  “No.  He didn’t duck.  He was wearing a religious medallion and it protected him.  It saved his life.”

“It sounds like this Madrid was darn lucky.”

Paul shook his head.  “I don’t think luck had anything to do with it.  I think it was Providence, an act of God.”

Johnny snorted.  “Well, I believe it was luck.  Think about it.  Madrid’s a hired killer.  God’s gonna go out of his way to save him?”

Paul nodded.  “I think so.  Madrid wasn’t just acting as a hired killer.  He was protecting people who were weak and helpless.  He was trying to rescue hostages and was defending property and rights.  Wakeman was the one with evil intent.  He was the one who went down there with malicious vengeance in his heart and using helpless children and a lady for his own gain.  I think Madrid was doing God’s will.”

“God’s will?” Johnny shook his head and sighed.  “Paul, there were men killed that day.”

“It is written: Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.  Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.  Psalm 82.”

“Yeah, well, it also says, Thou shalt not kill.”

Paul smiled.  “You sound like my father.”

“I do?”

“Yeah.  Reverend Braxton, that’s Billy’s father, and my father debated the idea of divine intervention in regard to Madrid.”

“They did?”

“Oh yes.  On a number of occasions.”

Johnny shook his head wryly.  “So, tell me.  What was their decision?”

Paul chuckled.  “They decided to agree to disagree.”

“Your father did not subscribe to the divine intervention idea, huh?”

Paul grimaced.  “He says gunfighters are Satan’s spawn.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow.  “Well, though maybe the language is a bit strong, I think I tend to agree with him.”

Paul cocked his head.  “You don’t think Madrid’s motives redeemed his actions?”

Johnny expression turned incredulous.  “His…what?  Where’d you get those ideas? 

“Well, they’re my own, but I agree with Reverend Braxton’s observations.”

“Come on, how old are you?”

“Thirteen.  I’ll be fourteen next month.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I can’t believe I’m discussing…”


Johnny looked at Paul.  “You talk too much like Scott.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Depends.”  Johnny paused.  “Fourteen, huh?”

Paul nodded.  “Father’s hoping I’ll return back East next fall to begin studies in Theology at Harvard.”

“Harvard?” Johnny laughed.  “Now I know why you sound like Scott.”  At Paul’s confused look, Johnny added, “That’s where he went to school.”

“He did?” Paul cocked his head thoughtfully.  “I’ll have to discuss it with him.  However, I’m afraid, after seeing what it’s like here, I’d rather not go back East.”

“So what do you want to do?”

Paul shrugged.  “Well, I want to work for the church, but more as a missionary—an explorer.  More like Reverend Braxton.  He came out here to California over twenty years ago.  He and my father both were attending seminary together.  My father says that the entire time they were in school together, Reverend Braxton talked of nothing else than coming out here.  I’m hoping, after we get settled in Green River, that Father will let me return and study with him for a few months.  I think I could learn a lot from him.”

“Hold it!” Johnny interjected as he put out a hand to stop Paul.  “Where did you say you’re heading?”

“Green River.  My father’s going to be the pastor for the new Congregational Church that’s being built.”

“Oh, hell,” Johnny mumbled.


Johnny’s answer was cut off as the door opened and Scott stepped out onto the porch. 

“Well, here you are.  I wondered where you’d gone off to.” Scott smiled at Paul.  “So, what have you two been discussing?”

“I was just telling your brother about the gunfight that took place in Salinas,” Paul said.


Johnny quickly stood up, masking a quick gesture of his hand with his body.

“Yes, there was a gunfight a couple weeks ago,” Paul replied, unaware of Johnny’s motions. “I didn’t see it, but my friend told me all about it.  It was between Johnny Madrid and another gunfighter?”

“Johnny Madrid?” Scott repeated, glancing at his brother then back to Paul.

“Yeah.  Have you ever seen him?”

Scott looked at Johnny, saw him give a short, curt shake of the head.

“Seen him?” Scott repeated again, pursed his lips as he took a deep, measured breath.  Carefully he met Johnny’s gaze.  “I think if I’d met Madrid, I’d remember.”

Paul sighed, “Me, too.”  There was a pause, then Paul continued,  “Billy—that’s my friend, the one who got to see Madrid—he says he wishes he could be like him.”

Scott watched Johnny close his eyes, his clenched jaw visibly working to hold back a torrent of words.

“I guess he’s a bit of a legend out here,” Paul continued, unaware of the effect his statement had made on the man standing near him.

Johnny turned.  “Legends aren’t always what you want them to be,” he stated, his words holding a harsh edge to them.  “Sometimes they’re just men caught in a web of fabricated stories and unfortunate events.” 

Bewildered, Paul raised an eyebrow and stood up, but Johnny turned curtly away. 

“Scott, I need to talk to you,” he hissed in short, clipped tones as he headed back into the building.

Scott shrugged apologetically.  “Would you excuse us, Paul?”

Paul nodded hesitantly, his eyes darting toward the door.  “Did I say something wrong?”

Scott shook his head.  “Johnny’s had a rough few weeks.  He’s just anxious to get home.  We all are.  We’ll see you later.”

“Are you’re sure I shouldn’t go in and apologize, Mr. Lancer?”

“Scott.  You can call me Scott.  And no, don’t worry about Johnny.  He’s fine.”

“If you’re sure…Scott,” Paul said shyly and smiled. 

Scott nodded.  “I’m sure.”  He turned and headed back into the dining area.  Murdoch and the Reverend were still seated at the table, along with the hosteler and Sunny.  Johnny was nowhere about.  Assuming his brother had gone on upstairs, Scott gave a quick wave to Murdoch and headed for the steps.

At the top of the stairs was a landing with two doors.  The room to the right was for women who stayed at the inn and the other was for the men.  Scott could hear Mrs. Pearson humming a faint tune.  Behind the door to the men’s room, Scott could hear his brother’s unmistakable pacing.  Johnny was clearly agitated.

Scott pushed opened the door, Johnny stopping in his tracks to wait impatiently as Scott closed the door behind him.

“Did you hear what he said?” Johnny asked.

Scott nodded.  “I’m assuming you’re referring to the gunfight.”

“Yes, I’m referring to the gunfight,” Johnny grumbled as he immediately began pacing again.  “Lord, Scott, do you see what happens?  And you didn’t really hear it all.  He’s had the whole story told to him by that friend of his.  Everything from the damn gunfight in Salinas all the way to the shootout down in Soledad.” Johnny paused, turned curtly and added, “By the way, you’re in it, too.”

“I’m what?” Scott asked as he rested his hands on his hips and watched his brother resume his pacing.

“Yeah, well, don’t get too excited,” Johnny replied.  “You’re not mentioned by name.  You’re just one of Madrid’s gang.”

“Madrid’s gang?” Scott raised an eyebrow.  “You have a gang?”

“I do now,” Johnny answered dryly.

“Do you pay well?”

Johnny turned and stopped his pacing.  “This isn’t funny.”

“No, no,” Scott drew a hand across his mouth and shook his head, “I don’t suppose it really is.  But you have to admit, Johnny, there is a humorous side to this.”

Johnny glared sourly.  “Scott, there is no humorous side to all of this.  You heard how that Reverend Pearson thinks, the way he was talking at supper and in the coach this afternoon.”

Scott shook his head.  “I’m afraid I didn’t.  Remember, I was up with good old Sunny all day?  And really, at supper, the conversation was pretty well monopolized by those two roving cowboys and their tales of Virginia City.”

“Yeah, well, you heard how he rode them about their business, the wickedness of the places they’d visited, their failings in being unable to settle down to a normal life.”

“Okay.  Yeah, so?”

“You obviously didn’t hear where the Pearsons are heading.”

“No,” Scott answered slowly.

“Green River.  Reverend Pearson is supposed to be the pastor of that new Congregational Church that’s being built.”

“The Congregational Church?  The one that…”

Johnny nodded.  “The one that Murdoch is largely responsible for.  The one he pushed for the town to build and support.”

Scott mouthed a silent ‘oh.’

Johnny nodded then sighed as he began pacing once more.  “So, once again, I’ve done it.”

“Done what?”

“Put Murdoch in a difficult position.  Damn!” Johnny punched fist to hand, turned and paced the other direction.  “I’ve gotta talk to him.  Warn him that he’s bound to run into difficulties with that new reverend.”

Stepping up beside Johnny, Scott tried to keep up with his brother’s pacing.  “Why do you just assume there’s going to be problems with Reverend Pearson?”

Johnny stopped for a moment.  “You didn’t hear what Paul said his father calls gunfighters.”

Scott worried his bottom lip warily.  “Do I want to know?”

“Satan’s spawn,” Johnny replied and resumed his pacing.  “An apt description.  But one that clearly shows how well he is going to view Murdoch once the truth is out.  And here Murdoch’s been heading up the committee to bring more stable businesses and churches into town.” Johnny pivoted.  “Remember Murdoch’s big speech to the council members about how, if Green River wanted to have a future, it needed to start looking ahead to families and stability and needed more than eight saloons, a jail and one church?”

Scott nodded.

“Well, this is gonna go over great!”  Johnny turned back to his pacing.

“Would you sit down and stop barreling about the room like that, swinging your arms all over the place!  You’re going to hurt yourself.”

“I’m fine,” Johnny snapped.

“Sit down anyway.  It’s hurting me to watch.”

Johnny glanced sourly at Scott before turning away to rest his hands on the open windowsill.  “I need to talk to Murdoch.  ‘Cuz it won’t take long for the good reverend to discover that the very outspoken proponent of respectability has the rather dubious honor of also being the father of one of the more notorious gunfighters.”

Scott stepped forward, hand outstretched.  “Johnny—”

“Damn!” Johnny interjected, slamming his open palms down on the sill.  He sighed heavily, hung his head a second, then slowly straightened up and turned around.  

Scott immediately noticed his brother was looking pale.  “Johnny?”

Johnny shook his head, took in a shaky breath.  He then closed his eyes and placed one hand on the wall near the window.  “I don’t feel so good.”

“I knew you’d go and injure something the way you were tearing around this room,” Scott muttered as he put an arm around Johnny’s shoulder.  “Sit down, would you?”

Johnny nodded, took a tired step and lowered himself to the side of one of the small cots in the room.  “I didn’t injure anything,” he argued, paused to take a quick breath, leaned forward to rest his head in his palms.  “Just feel sick.”

Scott pursed his lips, caught a tremble under his hand, could feel the shirt was already damp with perspiration.  “The morphine?”

Johnny gave one faint nod, swallowed. 

“DarkCloud said it might come back to bother you for a few weeks yet.”

Johnny once again gave a nod, then drew a hand through his damp hair.  He tried to straighten up, decided against it, inhaled slowly and deeply, exhaled through his mouth. After a moment, he tilted his head back to look at Scott, his expression one of discouragement.  “Why can’t I even just make it back to Lancer without dragging along Madrid?”

Scott bit his lip, put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “I’m sure it’s not as bad as you’re thinking.  We’ll talk to Murdoch together, let him know that the new reverend is a bit fervent in his beliefs.”

Let him know my past has claws deeply sunk.

Johnny closed his eyes and sighed.



The opportunity to speak to Murdoch that evening didn’t materialize.  The reverend appeared in the room to prepare for bed while Johnny was still feeling shaky and weak.  Clearly uncomfortable with the reverend being about, Johnny made his way back downstairs, Scott trailing closely.  On the stairs they passed Paul, who nodded a greeting, his eyes flicking questioningly at Scott.  Scott smiled back in reassurance before continuing after Johnny.  Murdoch was engaged in a discussion with the hosteler and the two cowboys, and knowing that Johnny was not really up to conversation at the moment, Scott propelled him out the door to the front porch, in the hope that the fresh air would bring him some relief.

It seemed to take Johnny fifteen minutes or so of sitting quietly, head down between folded arms, before Scott heard him inhale deeply and straighten up.  Wordlessly they returned inside, only to discover that Murdoch had gone on upstairs to bed.  Realizing there was no way to talk to Murdoch until the morning, Johnny decided to let it go. 

The next morning everybody awoke at the same time and went on down to breakfast together.  Sunny had already eaten and was preparing the stage for departure.  Johnny managed, between a couple of mouthfuls of scrambled eggs, to convey to Murdoch that he’d like to speak to him.

While Murdoch took a few minutes to let the hosteler’s wife know of his satisfaction with the accommodations and the meal, Johnny and Scott went out back to use the facilities.  As they walked to the waiting stage, they found Murdoch standing near the coach engaged in conversation with the two cowboys.  The cowboys already had their mounts saddled and appeared ready to leave.  As Scott and Johnny headed across the yard, they saw Reverend Pearson and his wife approaching, their children following a few paces behind.

“Think I’d rather sit up with you and Sunny,” Johnny muttered to Scott under his breath as they headed toward Murdoch.

“Now, Johnny.  Besides making a certain doctor in Soledad really angry, don’t you think it would be rude of you to deprive the reverend of your company?”

Johnny snorted.

They were still a few feet away when they heard one of the cowboys say, “Yeah, we heard there might be a range war brewing in Salinas.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “No range war, sorry.”

“But we heard there was a call out for men,” the other cowboy said.

“Don’t tell me you are one of those spawn of the Devil!” Reverend Pearson exclaimed, striding up to Murdoch and the cowboys. 

“What?” the first cowboy asked.

“Selling your soul, dealing in death, all for a few dollars to peddle on whores and drink.”

Abruptly Johnny stopped and shot a quick glance at his brother.  “Scott,” he murmured.

“Johnny,” Scott whispered firmly as he put out a hand.  “Just keep calm.  Let Murdoch handle it.”

“Now wait here,” the second cowboy said.  “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout, but we were just askin’ about findin’ a job in Salinas.”

“Salinas,” Reverend Pearson spat, then turned abruptly and signaled his wife and children to continue on into the coach.  He pivoted sharply back.  “Salinas is awash in decadence and depravity.  Gunfights, brothels, drunks on every street, the continuous threat of violence.  God will eventually pass His judgment on such a place.”

“Well, that’s where we’re headin’ anyway,” the second cowboy replied as he mounted up.  “Sounds like a hell of a lot more fun than where you’re goin’, that’s fer sure.”

The first cowboy laughed.  “I like a place with a few gunfights.  Keeps a person on their toes.”  He winked at Murdoch, then swung up onto his own horse.

“Gentlemen,” the second cowboy mocked with a tip of his hat and spurred his horse around, the first cowboy following him out of the yard and toward the west.

Reverend Pearson hissed.  “What wretched souls.  God gives us life not to be abused and squandered but to use in honor of Him.”

“Well, some men have a more difficult time accepting that.  They haven’t been given many opportunities to witness acceptance and respect, so it’s difficult for them to see themselves in that light.  Perhaps,” Murdoch paused carefully, “perhaps it would help if you were to remember that out here, things aren’t quite the same as where you came from.  There are many varied backgrounds, not all of which have had the luxury of good beginnings.”

Reverend Pearson shook his head and crossed his arms.  “You talk like my friend in Salinas, Reverend Braxton.”  He sighed deeply and once again shook his head.  “He and I got into a rather lengthy discourse on a certain event which took place back there and the people who were involved.”

“Oh, hell,” Johnny muttered under his breath.

Scott reached out and grabbed Johnny firmly by the upper arm then added a look that told him to stay where he was.  Then releasing his hold, Scott hurriedly strode toward the two men in hopes of diverting the conversation.

“Hey, Murdoch,” Scott greeted.

“Scott,” Murdoch smiled and turned.

“Ready to go?”

Reverend Pearson put up a hand.  “You were in Salinas, correct?” he asked, turning on Scott.  “Were you there when this gunfight took place?  I hear a gunfighter of some repute was involved…a Johnny Madrid.”

Scott looked at Murdoch, fully aware that their father was oblivious to the fact that Johnny was standing just a few yards behind him.

“We were there,” Murdoch answered calmly, turning fully on the reverend.  “We happen to have arrived right after the gunfight you are referring to, the one in Salinas.  However, we were around for the one that took place later down in Soledad.”

“You were?  I heard—” Reverend Pearson stopped, narrowed his eyes.  “So you actually witnessed this Madrid, this man who sells his ability to kill for monetary gain?” He pressed a palm to his chest in an attitude of revulsion.  “I can’t imagine the sort of man that would do that, who would willingly peddle his soul to the Devil.”

“Is that how you see him?” Murdoch asked without emotion.

Scott could see Johnny walking forward, though still out of Murdoch’s line of sight.  He glanced back at Reverend Pearson, wondered frantically if there wasn’t something he could say to divert the present conversation.

“Yes.  That’s how I see him,” the reverend nodded with grim finality.  “Tell me, how did you perceive him?  As a man without a soul, without scruples, to whom killing was a job?  Or did you see him as my colleague claims, as a man who wished to use his unfortunate talent for good, who was worthy of being saved from death by the hand of God, as is claimed by some?”

Scott felt the blood drain from his face as he looked to Murdoch, his eyes unable to turn away, wondering how their father would react to the question.

Murdoch, however, gave a simple shake of his head; he didn’t appear shocked nor angered by the question.  “I saw him as neither,” he answered quietly and calmly, then paused.  “I saw him as my son.”

Reverend Pearson’s eyes narrowed with confusion then went wide with alarm as he glanced accusatorily at Scott.

“It’s me you’re lookin’ to condemn,” Johnny replied coldly as he pushed up between Scott and Murdoch to stand in front of the reverend. 

“Johnny,” Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder then faced Reverend Pearson.  “This is my son, Johnny Lancer.  This is also my son, Johnny Madrid, of whom you were just speaking.”

Reverend Pearson took a step backward and raised a finger.  “Your son…he’s…  You would allow a son of yours to traffic in death?”

“Murdoch has nothing to do with this,” Johnny snapped.  “The choices I made were mine, not his!”

“Johnny!” Murdoch urged then turned.  “Reverend Pearson, there are circumstances of which you are unaware, and if I was of a mind to, I’d explain them.  However, I doubt it would make very much of an impression on you, therefore I am not going to waste my breath.”

Reverend Pearson glared coldly.  “I doubt there’s anything you could say to make me change my mind about anyone who would willingly choose to follow a path of such wanton destruction and disregard for the sanctity of life.”

“As I said,” Murdoch stated coldly, then turning he gave Johnny’s arm a slight pressure.  “Johnny,” he murmured with a nod toward the coach.

Reverend Pearson quickly stepped forward to plant himself in front of Johnny. “You are doomed to eternal damnation.”

Murdoch released his hold on Johnny and confronted the reverend with an expression of bitter disillusionment.  “Since when were you made God?”

Reverend Pearson glared.  “What blasphemy are you implying?”  

“Last I was aware, God stands in judgment over our souls.  I wasn’t aware that you’d been so elevated.”

Scott, standing behind the reverend, had to quickly turn away to hide the smile that came to his face as the reverend turned a deep shade of crimson.

“How dare you!” he sputtered indignantly.

Ignoring the reverend’s outburst, Murdoch continued toward the coach, propelling Johnny from behind.

Paul stood at the door to the stage, watching the proceedings.  He smiled as Johnny and Murdoch approached.

“Get in that coach with your mother!” Reverend Pearson commanded sternly.

Paul gave a quick nod to Johnny and disappeared inside.

“I hope you don’t think I’m going to allow my family to be seated in the company of such a vulgar scoundrel!” Reverend Pearson demanded.

Murdoch turned calmly.  “I wouldn’t know.   Where do you plan to sit?”

“Murdoch,” Johnny murmured softly.  “I’ll go sit with Scott.”

“No, you won’t,” Murdoch replied firmly.  “You’re going to sit in the coach as you did yesterday.” Then he turned sharply on the reverend and continued, “And if you have a problem with that, then you can go sit up with the driver.”

“I will not be so inconvenienced!  I demand that he sit up with the driver,” the reverend pointed.

“You know,” Murdoch replied calmly, one hand managing to keep a firm grip on Johnny’s upper arm, “I almost purchased all the tickets for the coach, as I really wanted to return to Lancer without incident and as quietly as possible.  However, I knew that might inconvenience other people.  Now, if you have a problem with sharing the coach with us, then I shall be glad to purchase the rest of your trip from you and you can wait for the next stage to come through.”

The reverend’s eyes shot to Johnny and he glared with open disgust.  “I can not believe you would force me and my family to sit with a man who hires himself out for blood money.”

“What I can’t believe,” Murdoch answered with a sad shake of his head, “is that I’m forcing my son to sit with such a odious, loud-mouthed, ignorant fool.”

Johnny, mouth dropping open in complete shock, shot Murdoch a look of such unguarded surprise that Scott had to cover his mouth.  

Scott saw Johnny flash him a quick look, and as he felt the smile behind his hand threatening to burst out in a full-fledged laugh, he quickly turned away.

“Now get into that coach,” Murdoch commanded with a slap to Johnny’s rear as if he were a young child.

Johnny, still in shock over Murdoch’s rebuke, raised an eyebrow then wordlessly turned and climbed into the stage.

Mrs. Pearson and the children were already in their places.  With a restrained wince, Johnny ducked across to the end of the coach where he’d sat the day before, opposite Mrs. Pearson.  Murdoch entered behind him, but instead of sitting in the other corner of the bench, this time Murdoch placed himself firmly in the center, nearer Johnny.  The reverend entered last, his eyes raking Johnny with undisguised abhorrence.  Once in the door, he made a curt gesture for his family to slide down the bench toward him.  In seething anger, he pushed his way to the opposite end and sat down, directly across from Johnny.

Johnny pulled his hat down over his eyes in a perfected show of disinterest.  But as he crossed his arms against his chest he could feel the uncomfortable pounding of his heart.  He had no trouble keeping his face impassive— it was a studied reaction near flawless— and even managed to feign at least a semblance of restful composure, but inside, deep in his chest, he had the uncomfortable feeling that he was about to explode.  The events of the last few minutes had come up so unexpectedly and so quickly.  And Murdoch’s reaction had come as nothing less than a complete and overwhelming surprise.   

And now Johnny felt guilty.  He had sincerely hoped to be able to forewarn Murdoch about the reverend’s feelings.  But events had precluded such an opportunity.  And now he was brought to the unhappy conclusion that once again, he’d been responsible for forcing Murdoch into an awkward position in the community, among the people he needed to work with and do business with.

Inwardly he sighed. 

The stage pulled out, jostling the passengers with the sudden jerk.  Johnny kept his eyes closed and wished he were sitting anywhere but in that coach.

He wondered at Murdoch’s reaction, had been surprised by the calmness with which the older man had met the accusations, and even more surprised by his responses.  Privately he acknowledged that Murdoch was capable of the unexpected.

As the stage tumbled down the road, jarring its occupants, Johnny’s thoughts were compelled to turn to his discomfort.  The fact that he hadn’t slept well for two days, along with the rough ride of the day before, combined with the reality that in the confinement of the stage he hadn’t been able to stretch out to relieve cramped muscles.  The fact of the situation was, he ached.  And if truth be told, the ache was turning into full-fledged pain.  Each lurch of the coach wrenched painfully across his chest muscles and side, dragging along uncomfortable thoughts of the relief laudanum would provide.  He wanted to move, shift his position, but was reluctant to do anything that would bring any extra notice his direction.  He tightened his arm across his chest, could feel the shape of the modified revolver in his pocket, which instead of bringing him the usual peace of mind now made him feel all the more like the killer the reverend accused him of being.

As the first hour wore on, warmth added to the throbbing pain, and it began to be more difficult to keep his breathing regular.  He knew he’d feel better if he removed his jacket, but hated to do anything to draw attention. He hazarded to open one eye just a slit, careful to keep his face in the shadow of his hat brim.  He could see Murdoch, his face turned toward the window.  He then noticed Paul glance his direction.  Quickly he closed his eye.  He would have liked to return the fleeting smile he’d seen on the boy’s face, but knew any overture from him would only aggravate an already difficult situation.

He tried to keep still awhile longer, but knew it was only a matter of time before he was going to have to take his jacket off.  Perspiration was beading along his hairline, down his back.  Careful to keep any show of discomfort in check, Johnny straightened up, keeping his attention solely fixed on the task of removing his jacket.

“Would you like me to hold it?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny glanced over and shook his head as he roughly folded up the garment.  “No.”

Murdoch glanced across toward the reverend.  “One of you could sit by the window here if you’d like.  It appears the day’s going to be hotter than yesterday, and you might like to spread out a bit.”

Reverend Pearson jutted his chin out firmly.  “We shall stay on this side.”

Murdoch shrugged, then slid closer to the window, turning on the seat slightly so that he could stretch out one leg and draw the other, bent-kneed, up onto the bench.  “You might as well make yourself comfortable, Johnny,” he said as he settled into the corner.

Wordlessly, Johnny mirrored Murdoch’s image, managing to find a position a little less uncomfortable than the rest, and closed his eyes.  Though he tried to force sleep to come, knew in reality that he needed it, sleep remained elusive.  For the next few hours, though to outward appearances he seemed relaxed, he was, in actuality, wound as tight as a piece of wet leather dried in the sun.


Hours later, the stage finally rolled to a stop.  Other than the soft murmurings by Mrs. Pearson to the infant, and a couple of loud outbursts from said child, the entire ride had elapsed in silence.  Murdoch and Johnny waited as the Pearsons filed out of the coach, then Murdoch glanced back at Johnny.

“How are you doing?”

Johnny shrugged tiredly.  “I’ll admit I ache.”

Murdoch nodded grimly.  “We still have the rest of the afternoon before we get into Green River.”

Johnny sighed, winced, then nodded.  “I know.  I’ll make it.”

Murdoch smiled, reached out to pat Johnny’s knee.  “Yes, you will.  Teresa and Jelly will be waiting—pretty impatiently, I’m sure.”

Johnny smiled, waited for Murdoch to exit, then followed.  Scott was waiting for them, a grin on his face, his arms crossed patiently.  The Pearsons were nowhere to be seen, though Sunny was un-harnessing the horses with the help of another man and a teen boy.

“Already went in for lunch,” Scott replied to their unasked question with a nod.  “Was the trip as cheery as Reverend Pearson’s pleasant smile would lead one to believe?”

Johnny snorted wryly.  “Yeah, like a stone in your boot at a dance.”

Scott nodded with amused chagrin.  “That’s what I thought.”  He turned and nodded toward the small wayside inn. “Ready for some lunch?”

“I’m really not hungry,” Johnny said.

“Well, you’re going to eat something anyway,” Murdoch replied.  “I haven’t seen you eat much of anything for the last few days.  You barely picked at your breakfast this morning.”

“I ate all the eggs.”

“You had one small helping of scrambled eggs,” Scott protested.  “I’d hardly call that a regular Johnny-style breakfast.”

“Let’s see what they’re serving,” Murdoch said as he ushered the boys toward the building.  “Maybe something’ll strike your fancy.”

The way station was small and cramped.  One large table stood in the middle of the room.  The Pearsons were already being served soup and bread.  A woman and a girl, apparently the lady’s daughter, were serving the food.

Since the Pearsons had already been seated at one end of the table, Murdoch and the boys went to the other end.  Murdoch ordered up three more lunches along with three beers.  Though Johnny did his best to eat, he ended up picking at his food.  The discomfort he’d been feeling all day was building in severity, making it impossible to concentrate on eating.  The luxury of taking a deep, pain-free breath without wincing had become hopeless, and the familiar nausea was returning along with alternating chills and sweats.  After eating all that he could force down, he pushed away from the table. 

“I’m gonna go outside.  I need some fresh air.”

Murdoch and Scott both looked at him with concern.

“Do you want some company?” Scott asked.

Johnny shook his head.  “No.  I’m fine.  I just can’t sit any longer.”  He stood up.  “Finish your meal.  I’ll see you outside.”

Scott watched Johnny’s retreating form before turning to Murdoch, his voice low.  “He’s not looking well again.”


“I think we should have waited a few more days.  The trip up to Salinas, then this getting home, it’s wearing him down.” Scott hesitated, then added with a shake of his head, “And when he tires, those symptoms seem to come back.”

Murdoch grimly nodded his understanding.  “As soon as you’re done, I’d like you to go out and check on him?”

Scott nodded.  “I planned to.”


Carrying his jacket over his arm, Johnny made his way to the back of the way station.  He could feel the sweat trickling down his back and chest, seeping into the bandages.  He had meant to ask Scott to tighten them with the hope that the extra support would help his breathing.  The idea of sitting in the stage, bouncing and jostling around for another five hours or so, just seemed impossible to endure for the moment.

His stomach was cramping up, his lunch unwilling to settle.  He barely made it to the outhouse before his stomach heaved and he lost everything.   He’d forgotten how much pain there was from his wounds when he got sick.  For a few moments he couldn’t even open his eyes.  Then slowly he made his way out of the outhouse, walked a few more weak steps before simply deciding he didn’t care, and lowered himself to the ground to slump against a tree.

Suddenly he felt chilled and began to shiver.  He wanted to put his jacket on.  The whole idea, however, seemed like too much work.


It was an effort of force to get his head to tilt back, but he managed to look up in time to see Scott dropping to one knee beside him.  “Scott,” he greeted dully.  “How was lunch?”

“Fine,” Scott smiled.  “How was yours?”

Johnny jerked his head toward the outhouse.

“Lost it?”

Johnny nodded.  “Think it and my breakfast didn’t get along.”

Scott sighed, rubbed his hand down his chin.  “I think you just weren’t ready for this kind of a trip, Johnny.  You’re body’s still reacting to all you’ve been through.”

“I just want to get home,” Johnny murmured wearily.

“We’ll get you home,” Scott assured.  “Even if I have to carry you home on my back.”

Johnny grimaced a wry smile, then he leaned his head forward to rest on his knees.  “I don’t want to sit in that coach with that reverend glaring at me.  Especially not feeling this way.”

“Oh, come on,” Scott said as he put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “He’s not so bad.”

“Easy for you to say.  You don’t feel like your head’s gonna explode and your chest just caved in.”

“Do you want to stay here?”

“No,” Johnny sighed, groaned as he sat up straighter.  “I just wanna complain for a minute.”

“Your minute’s up.”

“Good.” He drew a leg under and slowly pushed himself to a standing position, one hand reaching out to grab a hold of Scott while the other found purchase on the tree.  “I’m actually lookin’ forward to throwin’ up on the good reverend’s lap.”

Scott chuckled as he helped Johnny steady himself.  “Good to see you didn’t lose your sense of humor along with your lunch.”

Johnny gave Scott a slow sidelong look.  “Who says I’m kiddin’?”

Scott laughed then turned just as Murdoch came around the corner of the building.  Seeing Johnny wobbling weakly, even with Scott’s added support, he hurried forward.

“What happened?”

“We’re just a little indisposed,” Scott said lightly.

I’m indisposed, he’s fine,” Johnny grumbled as he drew his arm out of Scott’s grasp.

“And some of us are just a little bit ornerier than others,” Scott added.

“Can you make it?” Murdoch asked.  Then before even waiting for an answer, he turned to Scott. “Did he injure something?”

Johnny waved Murdoch’s questions away.  “I’m fine.  It’s just all the bouncing around in that blasted stage.  I just want to get back and crawl into my own bed for about two weeks.”

“And that’s exactly what you are going to be doing once we get you home,” Murdoch replied firmly.  “Let’s get you settled in the coach.  Why don’t you take the side I was on.  Paul likes having his shade open, so it’s airier.  Mrs. Pearson, I noticed, usually keeps her closed.”

Johnny nodded gratefully, then dropped his eyes.  “And thanks, Murdoch.”  He glanced up hesitantly. “I mean, you know, for earlier…with the reverend.  I had wanted to let you know that…well…I’d heard from Paul he might be…”

“Vocal?” Murdoch supplied with a small smile.

Johnny nodded, looked back down.  “I—you didn’t need to go get him all upset with you.  I’d have been fine…it wasn’t really necessary, but—”

“Yes, it certainly was,” Murdoch replied adamantly, then waited until Johnny looked up.  “I didn’t need him telling me what he thought about my son and his actions.  I saw it myself and I know what I believe.”  In a hesitant motion, one which conveyed his awkwardness, he reached out to grasp Johnny firmly by the shoulder.  “You did right by those people in Soledad.  Johnny Madrid—my son—did right by them.”

Johnny suddenly felt the pain melt away in a wave of unreality.  He blinked, stole a quick look at Scott whose own smile threatened to consume his features, then back to Murdoch.  Murdoch gruffly cleared his throat, dropped his hand back to his side, then pivoted and nodded toward the front. “We better get back to the stage.  Sunny’ll be getting the fresh team hitched up by now.  And I’m sure we’re all in a hurry to get back home.”

Johnny stood silently for a few seconds, watching Murdoch’s retreating back.

“So, are we just going to stand here, or are you still in a hurry to throw up on the reverend’s lap?”

Johnny smiled, managed a weak but real chuckle.  Slowly he started after their father.  “So, do you think he’s gonna hold me to that two weeks of bed rest?”


“I was afraid of that.” 



They were an hour out of their last stop.  Johnny had found that sitting where both windows were open did indeed help relieve some of the nausea, which in turn helped ease his tension and consequently the discomfort brought on by taut, sore muscles.  He was still a far cry from feeling well, but at least now he thought he just might be able to live through the rest of the trip.

Murdoch, after seeing Johnny’s condition at lunch, was concerned.  He knew Scott was uncomfortable with admitting that Johnny’s episode wasn’t just caused by his wounds, but also by their earlier decision to suddenly stop the morphine.  DarkCloud had privately warned him that fatigue and physical distress would only exacerbate the problem.  At least he hoped that was the case, otherwise he had an even worse worry that Johnny was developing another infection from a wound that hadn’t healed as well as they’d thought.  For while Johnny seemed more relaxed now, Murdoch had caught him shivering a couple of times, even though the coach was, if anything, warm and oppressive.

After a while, Murdoch’s thoughts turned toward the ranch.  He wondered how things looked, what projects had been completed, which ones still needed to be done, and how Jelly and Teresa had fared all the while they’d been gone.  He knew he should never have left the ranch unsupervised for so long a time, but then…  He would never, now, choose differently.  The ranch may have suffered some, but it had been necessary for him to go to Salinas, to see firsthand what had transpired.  Teresa had been right.  It had been a matter of life and death…his and his son’s.  If he had chosen to stay, then he would never have seen that look of gratitude on Johnny’s face as he had just an hour ago, or been able to hear those words uttered by his son when he lay bleeding in Scott’s arms…  You came… 

I came. Murdoch mentally nodded to himself.  Teresa was so right.  If I hadn’t gone along, and something had happened to Johnny, I would have forever wondered…regretted…like I’ve done for years over Maria.

A yell, a sudden slowing of the coach, another voice calling from up the road, all sent the occupants of the coach craning their necks to get a look out the window.

“A man’s hailing us for a ride,” Sunny called down. 

Johnny turned and stuck his head out the window.  His narrowed eyes took in the friendly wave, the holster worn high and tied down, the hands, the clothes, age and stance.  In a heartbeat he had turned back to Murdoch.  “It’s a trap.”

“How do you know?”

“Holster’s tied down high and right, he was just on horseback, but no horse is around, he’s waving left, and he’s standing just so’s his right side’s facing away, hiding his action.”  He turned quickly toward the Pearsons.  “If you’ve got anything of value, I’d suggest hiding it immediately.”

“What’s he talking about?”  Reverend Pearson demanded as he glanced about with confusion.

“You’d better listen to my son,” Murdoch cut in.  “He’s probably right.”  Quickly Murdoch took out his wallet, withdrew most of the bills, and hid them in the space between the bench cushion and side of the coach.  It only took a second for the reverend to follow his example.

Johnny glanced at Mrs. Pearson.  “Ma’am, if you don’t want to lose that ring, I’d take it off and hide it.”

Mrs. Pearson glanced quickly at her husband before doing as instructed.  Then Johnny slipped a simple silver band off his own finger and thrust it toward her.  “Put this on.”

“My wife’s not –”

Johnny interrupted the reverend with a glare.  “Fine!  But those men out there aren’t about to accept the fact that she’s married and has no ring!”

“There’s only one man,” Paul cut in.

“There’ll be more,” Johnny replied tersely then turned back to Mrs. Pearson.  He could feel the coach slowing down. “Now take this and put it on.”

Mrs. Pearson gave a quick smile of thanks and slipped the silver band on her finger.

“Damn!” Johnny hissed, glancing toward the window.  “I don’t like Scott bein’ up there.”

“You’re not in any shape to go doing anything, so stay out of it, Johnny,” Murdoch warned sternly.

Johnny glanced at Murdoch as he quickly drew on his jacket.  “I have no plans on adding to my problems,” he replied.  “Two weeks is long enough.”

Murdoch smiled wryly at Johnny before turning back to the Pearsons.  “Let them take what they want, then they’ll let us go on.”

“I can’t believe such lawlessness—”

“Reverend,” Johnny interrupted tersely.  “It might be best if you don’t say anything.”

“Whoa!” they heard Sunny as the coach drew to a full stop.

Seated beside Sunny, Scott was watching with mild interest the middle-aged man who had hailed them.  Inexplicably, his mind went back to the time when he was on his way to Lancer and the coach he was in was stopped by a young Mexican cowboy who later proved to be his brother.  The memory always produced a smile and a chuckle.  Things had changed a lot since then.

“You needin’ a lift?” Sunny asked, leaning forward in his seat.

The man looked up, smiled congenially.  “Not really.  What I need’s your box, your guns and for your passengers to come on out.”

Before Scott had barely registered what the man had said, he found himself staring at the barrel of a revolver while the crack of a gunshot echoed over his head.  Automatically he ducked, Sunny freezing with his hand outstretched toward the rifle he kept at his feet.

“I’m fine!” Scott quickly yelled as he put his hands up, fear that the rifle shot might produce a hasty reaction from his brother. 

“Only if you don’t make any stupid moves!” Came the reply from behind.

Scott turned in his seat and looked.  Three more men on horseback came out from the treeline, rifles cradled in their arms.

The man who’d originally hailed them moved up to stand off to their right.  He appeared to be the leader. “Now, if you’d be so good,” he said with a motion of his revolver toward the rifle at Sunny’s feet.

Sunny reached down with one hand and threw the rifle over the side.

“Now the strong box,” the man said.

Sunny sighed, nodded toward Scott.  “Help me get it down.”

Careful to keep his hands in the open, Scott helped Sunny maneuver the heavy chest to the side where they tossed it down into the dirt.  It landed on its side with a loud thud.  About the same time, two of the other three men had dismounted and walked to the side of the coach where they thrust their rifles through the window, solemnly urging the occupants to come out.

As Scott jumped to the ground, he saw that Murdoch and Johnny were already standing off to the side, their arms raised, while the Pearson family slowly exited, Mr. Pearson helping his wife down from the step as she held her child close.

The fourth man remained on horseback, holding the reins of the other horses, a rifle resting across his lap. 

“Any of you men armed?” the leader asked.

“All the weapons are in the boot,” Sunny motioned.

“Get them,” the leader motioned to the older of the two men who were covering the passengers.

With a quick nod, the older man went to the back boot where he took out all the weapons.

“And you,” the leader added with a nod to the second man, “see to the horses.  And make sure to grab that palomino.  I want him.”

The younger man nodded, headed to the stage horses and began to un-harness them while the older man deposited the weapons he’d found into their saddlebags before returning to stand next to the leader, his rifle raising menacingly.

The leader walked up to Mr. Pearson.  He appeared older and heavier than the rest of the bandits and had cruel dark eyes that showed years of hard living; the smile he wore was strained and unnerving.  He gestured callously with his revolver.  “Now you come across as quite a gentleman.”

Mr. Pearson drew himself up haughtily.  “I’m a reverend.  Reverend Pearson.”

“A reverend?” the man chuckled, turned slightly.  “Lookee here, boys!  We got ourselves a God damn reverend.”

A hoot of amusement was the response.  “A real reverend.  My-o-my!  Now, a man such as yourself must know the value of time, right?  I bet you got yourself a fancy timepiece.”

Reverend Pearson glared but made no move.

“If you have a watch, I’d give it to him,” Murdoch murmured. 

“And you too, Pops!” the leader commanded with a quick flick of his revolver.

Murdoch nodded as he carefully reached into his pocket.

The leader reached down into the front of his shirt and produced a small knapsack.  “Here,” he said thrusting it toward the reverend.  “I’m givin’ you a new commandment.  Give ‘til it hurts.”  He chuckled loudly, the other men joining in.

Reverend Pearson hesitantly took the knapsack, held it out for Murdoch to drop his watch in. 

“Now yours,” the man pointed his revolver at the reverend, then called over his shoulder to the mounted bandit holding the horses.  “See what the old man has on him, then shoot open that strong box.”

With clenched teeth, Reverend Pearson watched for a moment as the man dismounted and walked up to Sunny.  Then his eyes flicked back to the leader with disgust.  “This behavior is reprehensible.”

The leader laughed, leaned forward with a leer.  “Which would you rather I do?  Take your watch or put a hole in your head?”

The reverend pursed his lips together tightly, then reached into his pocket and produced his watch.  With a hiss he dropped it into the sack.

“Now any of you two boys?” he asked with a pointed look at Johnny and Scott.

Scott nodded, slowly reached for his own watch, which he dropped into the sack that the reverend held out.

The leader then walked up to Johnny, studied him with narrowed eyes.  “How ‘bout you, boy?”

Johnny met the man’s look, slowly shook his head.  “I don’t have a watch.”

“You got any money?”

“Some change.”

“Then get it.”

Johnny nodded, slowly reached for the few coins he had on him.  He knew Murdoch and Scott were watching him with some trepidation, concerned that he would react harshly.  But he knew even better than they did, that at this point he was in no shape or position to begin something.  Indeed, he was quite as willing as they were to let the bandits have what they wanted so they could get on their way.  He was too painfully aware that he was in no condition to start gunplay, especially with innocent, unarmed people standing about, for not one of the other travelers had a weapon with which to back him up.

The sound of a shotgun blast and a curse momentarily turned everyone’s attention toward the man trying to open the strong box. 

“Try it again,” the leader ordered, then stepped up closer to Johnny, a smile curling his lip.  “You don’t look so well, Boy.”

Johnny smiled coldly back.  “You aren’t so beautiful yourself.”

The leader chuckled, grabbed the coins from Johnny’s hand and thrust them at the reverend.  Then he walked up to Murdoch.  “I’m sure you’ve got more ’n a watch.  Where’s your wallet?”

Murdoch slowly reached into his jacket and produced a small leather pocketbook.  The man grabbed it from his hands and flipped it open.

“How much?” the man who was standing behind the leader, covering the group, asked.



“Yup,” the leader said as he dropped the money into the sack.

“Well, that’s pretty good,” the man who’d been bent over the strong box said as he straightened up.

“Should be even better,” the leader replied as he glanced once more at the wallet.

“Why’s that?”

“This here’s Mr. Murdoch Lancer.”


“Yup.  That’s what it says here.” The leader cocked his head as he held the wallet up.  “You Murdoch Lancer?”

Murdoch nodded.

“Twenty-one don’t seem like hell of a lot for you to be carrying.”

“We’re returning from a trip.”

“We’re…?” The leader glanced over to Scott and Johnny.  “These boys with you?”

Murdoch nodded.  “They’re my sons.”

“And these others?” He gestured toward the Pearsons.

“The new pastor and his wife for Green River.”

The leader chuckled, tipped his hat toward Mrs. Pearson.  “Hope you enjoy your stay, Ma’am,” he laughed.

“You leave my wife alone!” Reverend Pearson demanded.

“And you’d best keep your mouth shut!” the leader yelled back, flourishing his revolver in the reverend’s face.

The reverend glared, but kept silent.  Satisfied, the leader then pivoted on Scott.  “You look like you oughta be carrying some money.”

Scott nodded, reached into his jacket and produced his wallet.  The leader took it, chuckling as he opened it.   “Here’s another twenty-four.”

“Doin’ better!” came the pronouncement from the man covering the proceedings.

The leader then turned back to Johnny.  “Let’s see your wallet, boy,” he commanded as he pushed a finger into Johnny’s chest.

Johnny grunted, biting back a moan of pain.

“Hey!” the man exclaimed as he ran his fingers down Johnny’s shirt.  “What’s this?”

“What d’ya mean?” the younger man who was unhitching the horses asked, raising his rifle in alarm.

“I think we’ve got someone hiding a pile of money.”

“It’s not money,” Murdoch interjected quickly.  “It’s just bandaging.”

“What better place to hide money, huh, old man?”

“There’s no money,” Johnny replied.  “I was injured.”

The leader snorted.  “We’ll see.”  Keeping the revolver pointed at Johnny’s face, he reached out, grabbed a firm hold of the top edge of Johnny’s shirt and ripped it downward a few inches.  The first three buttons popped off to expose the top of the bandaging along with bruises of a greenish-yellow hue, stark visual evidence of the damage that was hidden beneath. The leader raised his eyes and chuckled.  “You been gettin’ into a bit of trouble of your own, huh, boy?”

“Saloon brawl,” Johnny replied with a faint shrug.

The leader pursed his lips, his eyes settling on the bandages.  “What’s this?” he asked as he fingered the chain, drawing it up to reveal the medallion.

“You can have it,” Johnny replied indifferently.

The leader squinted, sneered.  “Looks religious.”  He glanced up.  “Is it gold?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Don’t know.  Doubt it.”

The leader pursed his lips again as he held the medallion in his palm a moment, then looked back at Johnny suspiciously.  “Somethin’ ‘bout you,” he murmured.

“Was thinkin’ the same thing,” Johnny said.  “Then it occurred to me that it’s probably just your breath.”

The leader leaned in closer as he jerked the medallion off Johnny’s neck, eliciting a clenched wince.  “You have a pretty big mouth.”

Johnny bit back the discomfort, met the warning with a sardonic smile.  “So I’ve been told.”

Another rifle blast interrupted any retort, giving Scott and Murdoch an opportunity to exchange worried glances, as neither liked the attention Johnny seemed to be drawing.

“Did it open?” the leader called over his shoulder.

“Yup,” the man replied.  “Throw me a sack,” he commanded the young man who was just finishing up with the horses.  The man nodded and went to his mount where he dug out another sack. 

Murdoch took the opportunity to divert the leader’s attention from Johnny. “You’ve got everything we have of value.  Take the strongbox and go.”

The man glanced at Murdoch, his eyes tight, his expression dissatisfied.  “In a hurry to get rid of us, aren’t you?”

“We just want to be on our way.”

“Well, maybe I’m not in a hurry.  And maybe I don’t like this boy of yours,” he stated with an ominous jerk of his revolver.

“Now that really hurt,” Johnny replied with a sneer.

The leader turned back on Johnny.  “You’re hidin’ somethin’, boy.  I can tell.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow, a sarcastic half-grin on his face.  “Well, it can’t be my disgust for you.  I think I’ve been pretty open about that.”

Scott grimaced, closed his eyes and said a quick prayer to whatever saint might be responsible for enabling brothers to keep their mouths shut.

“I’m done!” the man by the horses called out as he waved his hat at them, sending them scattering down the road. 

“Yeah, let’s get going,” said the man standing behind the leader.  “We’re spending too much time.”

“Just a minute.”  The leader clenched his jaw in irritation, pushed the barrel of the revolver into Johnny’s chest, producing a swallowed grunt of pain.  “Unbutton that shirt the rest of the way,” he commanded.

Johnny glared at the man sourly as he carefully lowered his arms and unbuttoned the front of his shirt.  The rest of the chest bandages were exposed, then a few inches of skin before another set of bandages appeared at the bottom of the ribs. 

The man laughed in mocking approval.  “That mouth of yours, wasn’t it?”

Johnny smiled sardonically.  “Over a floozy in a saloon.”

The man chuckled.  “Did you get the girl?”

Johnny shook his head.  “Lost to a six foot two, two hundred and twenty pound sailor from Monterey.”

The leader laughed loudly, stepped back.  “You are trouble, ain’t ya?”  He turned to Murdoch as he gestured toward Johnny with his revolver.  “This one keeps ya awake at night, don’t he?” he asked.

Murdoch glanced at Johnny, but didn’t reply.

The leader laughed again, turned to the other men.  “Let’s get this taken care of.”  He gestured toward Reverend Pearson, who had been standing off to the side, the sack still clutched in his hand.  “Your wallet, good Reverend.”

Reverend Pearson clenched his teeth, pulled out his wallet and held it out to the leader who flipped it open.  The leader looked up skeptically as he produced a couple of bills.  “Only five dollars?  That’s not much for a family beginning a new life.”

“The church will provide for us,” Reverend Pearson answered firmly.  “We spent all we had coming here.”

The leader grimaced, tossed the wallet back and grabbed the sack from the reverend.  Then he dropped the few bills into it before turning on Mrs. Pearson.  “Ma’am?”

Mrs. Pearson opened her eyes in surprise.

“Yes, you.  Your ring, your jewelry.  Let’s have it.”

“I said to leave my wife alone!” Mr. Pearson said, stepping forward.

The leader turned his revolver on the reverend.  “And I said for you to shut up!”

“She’s got a ring,” Johnny interrupted, then added as the leader turned to look at him with suspicion.  “I saw it,” he answered with a vague shrug.

The leader smiled with amusement as he noticed the reverend shoot Johnny a look of confusion.  He then turned back to Mrs. Pearson.  “Your ring, Ma’am.”

“My ring?”

“Yes.”  He reached out, grabbed her hand, forcing her to juggle the infant to one hip.  He hissed in disgust as he saw the small silver band, but yanked it off anyway.  “This?” he held it out to Johnny.

Johnny shrugged.  “Hey, I just said I saw it.  Is it my fault the preacher man’s a tightwad?”

The leader laughed, tossed it into the sack then turned back to Mrs. Pearson.  “Bracelets, necklaces, your brooch.”

Mrs. Pearson’s hand went to the brooch that clasped the scarf about her neck.  “My mother gave me this.”

“I don’t care if you got it from the Queen herself.  Drop it in the sack.”

With a quivering lip, Mrs. Pearson undid the clasp and dropped it into the sack.

The leader then turned to Paul and looked him over.  “What about you, kid?  Feelin’ generous?”

Paul glanced at Johnny before reaching into his pocket and producing one coin and a length of yarn.

“Wonderful,” the leader snickered sarcastically.  “Now we can retire, boys.”  He then turned to the girl and smiled as he reached out to finger a lock of her hair.  “Now you’re a pretty one, ain’t ya?”

“Leave my daughter alone,” Reverend Pearson commanded.

The leader turned threateningly on the reverend.  “You don’t know when to shut up, do you?  It’d be best if you keep in mind, padre, that there ain’t no one here to keep me from pluggin’ you full of holes.”

Reverend Pearson balled his fists.  “I refuse to suffer this humiliation on my family any longer!  God’s wrath will be called down upon you!”

“By who? You?” the leader snickered.  “Maybe,” he paused, his eyes glittering menacingly, “maybe we’ll just have to take a hostage with us.” An ominous smile spread across his face.  “You know, that might not be such a bad idea.  What do you say, boys?” he called over his shoulder. 

“Only if it’s of the female kind!” the man who was kneeling in front of the strong box snickered as he stood up.

“You wouldn’t dare!” Reverend Pearson yelled.

The leader took a step up closer to the reverend, leaned in so that the reverend flinched backward.  “Actually, I would.  Just to make you mad,” he glowered.  “Your kind makes me sick, actin’ so high and mighty.”

“You dare to threaten me and mine?  I tell you, I am in service to the Lord!”

“You’re in service to yourself,” the leader retorted angrily. 

“What?” Johnny interrupted.  “You’re gonna impress everyone by beatin’ up on an old fool and kidnappin’ a little girl?”

The leader turned with irritation.  “No, maybe I’ll just beat you up.”

“Johnny,” Murdoch hissed in a low voice.

Johnny ignored Murdoch, kept his focus on the leader, his amusement unconcealed.  “You have got to be the biggest windbag I ever did meet.  Bigger even than that fool of a preacher.”

Glaring, the leader stepped up to Johnny.  “You’re just like him, aren’t you, rich boy?  Thinkin’ you’re so much better ’n everyone else.”

Johnny snorted.  “Lord, no.  Not better ’n everyone, just better ’n you.”

The leader raised his fist.

“Come on!  Leave him be!  Let’s grab the girl if you want, but we gotta get goin’!” the man still holding cover urged.

The leader started to lower his arm as he yelled over his shoulder.  “Grab her!”  Then he turned back to Johnny, lowered his voice threateningly.  “One well-placed blow,” he hissed.

“I doubt it,” Johnny purred back.  “When I said I lost to the sailor, I guess I didn’t add that at least he had balls…”

The arm arced out, ripping upward to land solidly against Johnny’s upper abdomen, a mingled grunt of pain and forced air escaping as Johnny collapsed to the ground.

Johnny had seen the blow coming, had expected it and planned for it.  And until the very last second, he harbored the vain hope that the blow would be anywhere but near his wounds.  But he knew the type of man he was up against, had run into his kind often.  Hell, he’d even found himself in the position of having to work alongside some of them.  Which is why it hadn’t taken him long to see that this stage robbery could turn uglier than most.  But with his hands up in the air, unarmed passengers standing about, and covered by three loaded and aimed weapons, it would be impossible to drop his hand down to the inside pocket of his jacket without being blasted full of holes before he had it drawn.  And he’d had quite enough of bullet holes. 

So the hope had been that the blow wouldn’t knock him out, but would enable him to hide the movement he needed to make in order to reach for his weapon.

But the blow had been right below the ribs, a bone-jarring crack, which sent him diving to the bottom of a maelstrom of velvet stars.  He was not even aware of when he hit the dirt.  In the fringes of the pain, Scott’s voice could be heard, and it was that which he clung to, used in order to pull himself out of the blackness.

He could hear the young girl screaming, the belligerent shouts from Reverend Pearson, sobs from his wife.  He could taste the dust in his mouth, opened his eyes to the view of the wheels and underside of the stage.  He blinked, heard another scream, heard Murdoch’s voice, knew he had to move before someone did something foolish—or more foolish.  He could feel the hard metal of the revolver pressed between his side and the inside of his arm.  Shakily he pushed himself up out of the dirt with his left hand as he slid his right toward its goal.  Transferring his weight from one knee to the other as he rotated his torso, he looked up to see the leader forcefully shoving the reverend to the ground while one of the other men was dragging the girl to the horses, his rifle tucked absently under his left arm and pointed downward.  The man with the sack was backing up, his rifle still covering the group while the last man had already swung into his saddle, his rifle replaced, but his revolver now drawn.

It was still going to be messy, but now there was no other option.

“Forgot to introduce myself,” Johnny yelled as he yanked the modified revolver out of its position and pushed back onto his knees.

The leader swung his attention around, surprise registering in his open expression.  He pivoted, leveling his own weapon on Johnny.

“It’s Madrid!” Johnny yelled as he fired.

The leader fell backward, gurgling blood, his jaw and the back of his head blown away.

“Down!” Johnny tersely commanded as he pushed himself to his feet, adrenaline now his partner.

The man dragging the girl shoved her off to the side to give himself the room needed to swing his rifle around to fire.  Johnny gauged the man’s position along with that of the man with the sack and detected an opportunity.  Both hands now on his revolver, he launched himself to the side, aware that he had to get off his first shot in mid-air before transferring his weapon to his left hand.  Both rifles swung toward him, arcing around to follow his course.  He fired at the man in front who had been covering them, just as the bandit fired at him.  The shot resonated along his back, echoing in his ears, before exploding into the stage behind him.  But Johnny’s aim had been better, and the bandit fell backward, screaming in agony.  Unfortunately his partner had also taken aim and fired just as his partner fell toward him.  As Johnny’s bullet sent the man reeling backward in agony, the blast from the other bandit’s rifle tore through his partner’s back, exploding out from his chest, covering the Pearsons in blood.

In another inescapable assault on his body, Johnny landed solidly on his injured side, knocking the air out of him.  He managed to keep control of his weapon long enough to fire off another bullet at the shocked bandit who had just blasted a hole through his partner.  He never witnessed the aftermath, however, as darkness washed through his brain, numbing him to all sights and sounds.


Scott had been bewildered by Johnny’s behavior, couldn’t figure out why his brother seemed so intent on provoking the bandit leader.  His belligerence was just screaming out for a confrontation, and as the inevitable blow connected, Scott shouted in anger, launching himself forward.  But Murdoch had grabbed him, forcefully thrusting him back and out of the way. 

As Scott regained his balance, he saw Johnny drop to a heap in the dust, and he swore loudly, causing the leader to turn toward him.

The leader, his flashing eyes settling on Scott with a look of challenge, swung his revolver around to cover any other movement.

Scott stood, stance spread, hands out to his side in readiness, heart thumping madly, murder in his thoughts.

“Give me a reason!” the leader screamed.

“Scott, don’t!” Murdoch yelled, his hand still firmly gripping Scott’s arm.

The two men glared at each other a second, then the reverend ran toward the bandit who was dragging his daughter toward the horses.  The screaming from the girl and the threats from the reverend served to divert the leader’s attention.  He pivoted toward the reverend, and with one swing, sent him sailing backward into the dirt.

It was then Scott noticed a movement from Johnny, saw that his brother had forced himself to hands and knees.  “Forgot to introduce myself!” Scott heard Johnny yell as his brother straightened up.  “It’s Madrid!”

The modified revolver appeared in Johnny’s hand at the same second that it was fired.  In a cry of pain muffled under a blanket of blood, the leader fell backward, blood and tissue splattering the ground.

Johnny then hauled himself to his feet, a terse scream of ‘down’ his next words.  Scott threw himself against Murdoch, could see the man, who’d been dragging the girl, toss her to the side in an act meant to free up his rifle, while the other bandit, who’d been covering the group, was already drawing a bead on Johnny.  As he and Murdoch tumbled to the ground, Scott saw Johnny dive to his right.  The sound of his brother’s revolver, along with the blast from a rifle, echoed quickly in succession.  In panic, Scott jumped to his feet to find three bandits dead, the fourth bandit galloping away at breakneck speed.

Johnny lay immobile and limp, legs askew, his head resting in the crook of his outstretched right arm, the palm open, his left arm extended toward the bandits, the small black gun still clutched in his hand. 

“Johnny,” Scott breathed as he dropped to his knees, one hand tentatively reaching out to touch his brother’s back.  In the background, he could hear hysterical sobs and tense whispers from the Pearsons, but his concern was focused on the man lying in the dirt.

“I’ll get some water!” Sunny yelled as he climbed back up onto the stage.

“Was he shot?” Murdoch demanded, his voice low and heavy with anxiety.

“I don’t know,” Scott replied with a worried shake of his head.  “I know at least one rifle shot got off.  But he is breathing.”

“Everyone move back,” Murdoch commanded as he turned and waved away the Pearsons who had begun to inch forward.  “Johnny?” he murmured softly, reaching out to tentatively stroke his son’s dark hair, now streaked with gray dust.


Johnny felt something on the back of his head, heard a voice call his name.  He winced, groaned as the events slowly trickled back in.  And though he understood why it hurt like hell to breathe, knowing didn’t make it any less painful.  I gotta quit doin’ things like this…

“Johnny.”  Scott’s voice.

“Son.”  Murdoch.

He groaned, hoped it was adequate to get the idea across.

“Roll him carefully.”

“No,” he croaked, winced and swallowed as he tilted his face.  Dirt, rocks, knees floated into view.  He blinked, turned his head, followed the knees to hips, to chests and eventually to faces.  Scott’s worried smile and Murdoch’s tense concern met his bleary gaze.

“Were you hit?” Murdoch asked as he slid his hand down Johnny’s back.

Paul suddenly dropped to the ground within Johnny’s view.  “Are you okay?”

Johnny managed to shake his head before turning a forced smile on Paul.  “This time I ducked,” he murmured.

A tentative smile crossed Paul’s features, then grew.  “I’m glad.”

Johnny nodded, winced again as he slowly tried to push to hands and knees.  “Ay, Dios,” he groaned, halting halfway up.

“Where do you hurt?” Murdoch asked as he gripped him under the arm.

“All over,” Johnny mumbled.

Sunny suddenly appeared and knelt down beside Scott.  “Here’s the water, plus I have some medicine I always carry with me,” he said as he produced a bottle with the label proclaiming the amazing therapeutic benefits of Dr. Weidenbaum’s Elixir.

Scott glanced sharply at Sunny as the older man began to uncork it.  “He won’t need that.”

“But, he looks like he could use—”

“I’ll be fine…just give me a minute,” Johnny said with a weak shake of his head.

Sunny looked dubious.  “He don’t look good.”  He then turned to Murdoch.  “Is he really Madrid?”

Expressionless, Murdoch nodded.

“I heard—” Sunny hesitated as he noticed Johnny glance up.  He turned to meet Johnny’s look.  “So, it’s true?”

Johnny shrugged, winced, tried to straighten up further.  “Depends on what you heard.”

Sunny shook his head, changing the subject.  “That fella,” he said with a nod toward the dead leader.  “He pummeled you pretty good.  Sure you don’t want a dose?  I think it’d do you some good.”

“He’s sure,” Scott said firmly.  “Just give me the water.”  He reached out and took the canteen from Sunny’s grasp, poured a small amount into the cup the old man had brought along then held it out to his brother.  Johnny accepted it with a grateful nod and slowly sipped.

“What the devil were you thinking?” Murdoch demanded softly.  “You could have gotten yourself killed.”

Johnny lowered the cup with a weak sigh.  “Yeah, and I coulda let them take the girl, but I didn’t.”

“You were pushin’ for a fight before that,” Murdoch argued, keeping his voice low.

Johnny lowered his eyes to the cup, brought it once more to his lips before answering, “I know his type, Murdoch.”  He looked up.  “He was gonna start something with someone.  Better me than the reverend.”

Murdoch pursed his lips and sighed.  Then he met Johnny’s gaze fully and nodded his understanding.

Johnny closed his eyes, breathed slowly, felt Murdoch rest his hand on his shoulder.  He tried to draw in a deep breath but was driven back by a wall of pain at each endeavor.  He hated to succumb, but knew he needed Scott to check his bandages.  Taking the leader’s blow then landing on his chest and side had been unwise but unavoidable.  And now he was paying the price. 

“I think we should check you over,” Scott said softly.

Johnny opened his eyes and nodded his head.

Scott glanced at Murdoch, his concern elevated by the fact that Johnny had offered no argument.

“Is there something I can do to help?” Mrs. Pearson asked.

Scott and Murdoch turned as Johnny glanced up to see the reverend’s wife standing, wide-eyed but resolute, her previously neat and proper dress now torn and stained with blood.  The reverend stood at her side.  Johnny sighed and lowered his eyes, expecting a condemnation of his role in the bloodbath.

“My wife’s had some training working with wounded after the war,” the reverend stated evenly.  “If she can be of service.”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow, his surprise evident in his inability to answer immediately.

Johnny blinked, looked to Scott to see whether his brother seemed surprised.  He wasn’t sure he’d heard right.  He looked up again to the reverend’s wife, tried to reply that he didn’t need any other help, but found himself unable to answer as a wash of gray clouded his vision.  He felt himself slumping forward, hands reaching out to draw him back, Scott’s face, Murdoch’s face, the discomforting but familiar heat spreading across his body.

“We need to lay him down,” Murdoch tersely stated as he cradled Johnny’s shivering body against his own.

“That trunk,” Mrs. Pearson turned quickly to Sunny and pointed to the top of the stage.  “There in back.  Open it.  There’s a blanket lying on the top.”

Sunny nodded and climbed up.

Mrs. Pearson then lowered herself to Johnny’s other side, glanced at Murdoch and Scott before reaching out to smooth the dusty, damp hair.

Johnny looked at her, blinked wearily, raised a hand.  “I’ll be fine,” he mumbled.

Scott couldn’t help but smile.  “Don’t listen to him.  He’s always saying that.”

Mrs. Pearson smiled back, then drew her hand down to Johnny’s cheek, felt his flushed face.  “You look anything but fine,” she said softly.

“—looked worse,” came Johnny’s barely audible reply.

“Now that you can believe,” Scott said as he poured another small amount of the water into the cup and held it out to Johnny’s lips.

Mrs. Pearson studied Johnny a moment.  “So…so he is the man my husband and Reverend Braxton were talking about?”

Murdoch nodded.  “We were trying to get him home.”

Mrs. Pearson’s eyes dropped to the bandages.  “He took a chance with those wounds.”

Murdoch nodded again, then looked up as Sunny suddenly appeared with the blanket. 

“Where do you want it?” he asked.

Mrs. Pearson pointed to a spot a few feet away where a large oak stood near the road, its branches casting a wide circle of shade.  “There.  We won’t have to move him far.”

Sunny nodded then went to the area and spread the blanket out.

Mrs. Pearson turned back to Johnny “Mr.—” She stopped, her brows drawing together in a frown.  She glanced at Murdoch, then back to Johnny, her expression puzzled.  “What do I call you?”

Johnny shook his head without interest.  “Doesn’t really matter,” he said as he attempted to push away Murdoch’s help.  Though Murdoch didn’t try to hold him, Johnny found he couldn’t sit straight without help, and reluctantly allowed Murdoch to keep one hand on his shoulder.

“Well, Mr…Lancer,” she paused slightly as if making up her mind as she addressed him, “let’s get you into the shade.”

Scott reached out to grip him by the arm. “Need some help?”

“Just a little,” Johnny answered weakly as he slowly got himself to his knees.

Sliding one hand around Johnny’s back, Murdoch firmly gripped him under the arm with the other.

“I can make it,” Johnny muttered then hissed and halted halfway to his feet.  He leaned over, swearing softly. 

“Lean on me,” Scott said, moving in closer.

“I can walk,” Johnny retorted, then winced.

“Walking is on two feet,” Scott replied.  “What you’ve got going is known as a crawl.”

Johnny tilted his head to glare, but didn’t offer up a retort as Scott worked a shoulder under his arm.

“Think about it,” Scott continued as they shuffled over to the blanket, Murdoch supporting on the other side, Mrs. Pearson trailing along behind.  “It could have been a lot worse.”

“You think so?”

“DarkCloud could have been here.”

Johnny managed a weak chuckle.  “Yeah, that is a scary thought.”

When they reached the blanket, Murdoch stepped out of the way as Scott helped Johnny to a comfortable position. 

“I’m gonna go try to catch them horses,” Sunny said as he approached Murdoch.  “It’s gonna take a couple hours before we’ll be able to get a move on.  Needless to say, we’re not gonna make it into Green River on schedule.  If we get too late though, they’ll send someone for us, unless we’re lucky enough for someone to come along.”  The old man stopped, glanced at the sun in the west as if calculating the time.  He then turned and made a curt motion toward the three dead bodies, then gestured toward the coach as he began walking toward it.  “I guess I’d better repack things atop, as we’ll have to carry them back with us, I s’pose.”

Murdoch nodded, joining Sunny as he walked.  “I’ll help in any way.  Scott, too.”

“Well, let me go get them animals first.  They know me.  Hopefully they didn’t get too far.”

“You let us know what help you need when you get back.  And if you’d like my help or Scott’s in tracking down the horses...”

Sunny nodded.  “Right now, you just get that boy of yours ready to go.  Damn fool thing he did, but I’m grateful.”  Sunny smiled hesitantly then shook his head.  “Damn, if I didn’t have Madrid on my stage and I didn’t even know it.”  He chuckled then took off down the road.

Murdoch inhaled deeply, glanced over at Scott and Johnny.  Mrs. Pearson was walking toward him, leaving Mr. Pearson under the shade of another tree with Anna and the youngster.  He was relieved to see that the young girl had calmed down considerably. Paul, he noted, was cautiously working his way toward Scott and Johnny. 

“Mr. Lancer, how serious are your son’s injuries—the original ones, I mean?” Mrs. Pearson asked as she approached.

Murdoch pursed his lips, reluctant in confiding any extra information.  He glanced toward Scott and Johnny, the older brother bent protectively over the younger one.  “We almost lost him,” he answered softly.  Then suddenly realizing his words held more truth than Mrs. Pearson could ever guess at, he tore his gaze away from his sons.

“Scott said Johnny couldn’t have anything for the pain. He said it makes him sick?” Mrs. Pearson looked doubtful.

Murdoch nodded.  “We do have some tea leaves that the doctor gave us.”

“Good.  Then that’s what I’ll make up.  Are you able to get to them?”

Murdoch nodded.  “They’re in our trunk.  We have some extra bandages, too.  Would you let Scott know I’m getting them both?”

Mrs. Pearson smiled.  “I’ll let him know.”

“Thanks,” Murdoch replied then turned to the stage.

Mrs. Pearson glanced back at her husband.  He was watching her from the shade of the tree, Anna seated near him, baby Rachel in her lap.  She could tell by the look on his face that he was still trying to come to a verdict on the situation they had found themselves in.  She knew that about him.  He liked things neat.  Hartford had been neat.  Neat and orderly.  California, however, had proved to be very unorthodox and filled with characters who were anything but neat and orderly.  She smiled and nodded, and he returned the nod, but not the smile.  California would either make her husband into the Christian leader he so wanted to be, or it would prove to be his undoing.  There would be no middle road.

With a sigh she turned and walked back toward the two young Lancer men.  Unorthodox young men, for sure.

Johnny was lying on his back, his earlier pale coloring now flushed, his eyes half closed as if he were too tired to stay awake.  As she walked up, Scott was feeling gingerly around under the bandages.

“Would you quit doing that?” Johnny grumbled irritably as he attempted to push Scott’s hand away.

“I’m trying to see how your ribs are doing.”

“They hurt!” Johnny mumbled.  “Can we leave it at that?”

Scott drew away his hands and leaned back onto his heels. 

“Can I be of help?” Mrs. Pearson asked.

Johnny’s eyes opened in alarm.  “No.  We’re fine,” he said as he attempted to roll to his side, then pulled up short with a hiss.

Scott smirked.

Mrs. Pearson turned her attention to Scott.  “Well, your father asked me to tell you that he’s going to get me some leaves for some tea, and that he’s also getting you some new bandages.”

“Thanks,” Scott smiled.  “I think I need to rewrap the one around his chest.”

“Oh, hell,” Johnny grimaced, then grunted as he carefully pushed himself to a sitting position.  “Not the tea again.”

Scott chuckled.

“I’ll be glad to make it up for you,” Mrs. Pearson offered.  “I’ll ask Paul to help me start a small fire.”

Johnny closed his eyes while Scott nodded thankfully.  Then as Mrs. Pearson walked back toward the stage, Scott turned to his brother.  “Now, let’s go ahead and get this old bandage off.  You’ve got it all askew anyway and it’s loose over here.  It’s not doing you any good this way.”

Johnny nodded wearily, then allowed Scott to help him work his arms out of the sleeves of his shirt. 

Scott watched Johnny closely.  He noticed that when his brother twisted or tried to sit upright, the pain seemed to bite sharply.  He was worried that the broken ribs that had barely had a chance to heal had been re-injured in either the bandit’s well-placed punch or Johnny’s dive to the ground.  And though Johnny was attempting levity, he could tell his brother was in reality having a hard time keeping the pain under control.  His face went pale every time he attempted to move, and he seemed to be alternating between episodes of sweating and shivering.

Scott had removed the old bandage just as Murdoch walked up with some new strips.  The elder Lancer bent to one knee and gave Scott the length of cotton fabric.  He then glanced wryly at Johnny and shook his head. 

Johnny grimaced back.  “Two weeks?”

“Johnny, two weeks aren’t even going to come close,” Murdoch replied with a soft chuckle. 

Despite the discomfort, Johnny managed a dramatic sigh, then had to hold his breath and close his eyes for a moment.  He gave a soft grunt, winced again, then blew out through his mouth.  “Where’s the reverend?”

“Sitting over there,” Murdoch nodded to an area behind Johnny.

Johnny’s eyes trailed to the corner but he didn’t turn around.  Whether because of the wounds or from choice, neither Murdoch nor Scott could tell.

“I’d rather we were doing this in the stage,” Johnny murmured.

“Well, it’s rather warm in there, plus it would be cramped.  Don’t worry.  The reverend’s not even bothering with us,” Scott assured.  “He has his hands full with their youngest.”

“I should have gotten the ointment too,” Murdoch said as he observed an area of abrasion where the one set of bandages ended before the other began.  He turned to Scott.  “Shall I go find it?”

Scott shook his head.  “Let’s just worry about getting those ribs supported.  We’re almost home.  We can mess with all the rest later.”

“Mr. Lancer,” Mrs. Pearson suddenly appeared, her eyes trailed to Johnny, lingered on the site of the wound on his chest.  She hesitated, seemed to forget what she was about to say, then shook herself and firmly faced Murdoch in a tactful effort to remain composed and unconcerned over the sight of the still angry-looking wound. 

Seeing Johnny’s dismal look at Mrs. Pearson’s hesitation, Scott shot his brother a reassuring smile; however, the smile was not returned and Johnny glanced away.

“What do you need?” Murdoch asked, standing up in order to keep Johnny out of sight.

“I wanted to ask how strong the tea should be made up.  I know there are some medicinal herbs that one is supposed to be careful of, regarding the quantities used.”

“What I gave you should be just fine for one kettle.  We’ll put what’s left in a canteen and bring it along.”

Mrs. Pearson nodded.  “I also wanted to offer another blanket.  I wondered if —” she started to glance toward Johnny, caught herself, and quickly continued, “if your son would like one for his head.  He might be more comfortable.”

Murdoch glanced toward Johnny, but Johnny shook his head.

Murdoch smiled.  “No.  He’ll be fine.  But thank you for the offer.”

Mrs. Pearson nodded, turned and went back to the fire that Paul had just started.  As she poured the water from a canteen into a kettle and dropped in the three leaves that Murdoch had given her, her mind returned to the brief glimpse she’d had of Johnny’s chest wound.  She’d heard the stories while staying in Salinas, of a gunfighter who had stood up against overwhelming odds, who despite being already injured, had faced down a contingent of men, victory assured when the Lord himself sought to save his life.  A religious medallion.  Odd, she thought to herself as she adjusted the kettle over the fire.  Odd that a gunfighter would wear such a symbol.  But then…hadn’t she been surprised to find out that the quiet young man who had ridden the stage with them just the day before was supposed to be a hired killer?  He hadn’t seemed at all like the sort of man who would kill for money, who viewed death as merely a job. And his concern—her hand went to the wedding ring, now back in its place on her finger—his willingness to place himself in danger, to suffer, for those who had so recently ridiculed and despised him.

She shook her head.

“What’s wrong?”

Mrs. Pearson glanced up from the fire.  Paul was watching her.  She smiled.  “Oh, I’m afraid I was just trying to make sense of this Johnny Lancer.”

Paul nodded, glanced for a second toward the oak tree before turning back to his mother.  “I think he’s still trying to figure it out himself.”

Mrs. Pearson studied her son thoughtfully before replying, “Why would you say that?”

Paul made a vague shrug.  “Something he’d said to me last night while we were talking, before I knew who he was.  I don’t think he’s comfortable being a gunfighter, but I don’t think he’s comfortable being a Lancer, either.”


It took Scott and Murdoch a while to get a new bandage around Johnny’s chest.  The area just below the rib cage was very sore and already showing a new bruise from where the leader’s fist had made contact.  Also, it became apparent as they proceeded that Johnny had indeed been re-injured, as his inability to mask the pain only increased with their ministrations.  Eventually he tried to pull away from their attentions, putting up a hand to ward them off, his eyes closed, face tight in agony, breath held.

“Son?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny shook his head, remained as he was a moment longer, then slowly opened his eyes.  Perspiration was running down his face and neck.  There was no longer any levity in his eyes.   “Can we—just get this done?”

Murdoch nodded solemnly, took the last bandage from Scott and finished wrapping.  Though he had no desire to hurt his son, he knew support was necessary if they were going to finish the trip.  There was one more groan from Johnny, then Murdoch was finished.  “You can lie down now,” he said, one hand now on Johnny’s upper back where he added a pat of encouragement. 

Johnny nodded weakly, eyes already closed as he allowed Murdoch to help him lie down.

Once Johnny was settled, Murdoch leaned back onto his heels and regarded Scott with heavy concern.  He shook his head, glanced at Johnny again, then back at Scott before quietly mouthing, “Let’s get him home.”

Scott’s reply was a wordless nod. 

Murdoch stood up and walked over to Mrs. Pearson and Paul.  “How’s the tea coming?” he asked.

Mrs. Pearson looked up, adjusting her torn skirt as she stood.  “It should be ready in just a few minutes.”  Her eyes wandered over to Scott and Johnny.  “How’s your son doing?”

“He’ll be fine,” Murdoch answered.

“That—that wound…” she hesitated, looked square at Murdoch.  “It looks pretty bad.”

“It could have been a lot worse.”

Mrs. Pearson was quiet a moment as she realized the truth of the statement, then clasping her hands in front of her, she turned to Paul.  “Would you go see if your father needs help with Rachel?”

Though there was hesitation in the young man’s eyes, he turned and walked away.

“Mr. Lancer,” Mrs. Pearson said softly.  “May I ask you a question?”

Murdoch let his hands settle on his hips as he regarded Mrs. Pearson without emotion.  “You’re wondering about Johnny.  Specifically why I have a son who’s a gunfighter.”

With an embarrassed nod, Mrs. Pearson glanced down.  “I don’t mean to pry, Mr. Lancer.  But, well, it seems we’re to be neighbors of a sort, and, well…” She looked back up.  “Back in Salinas, he seemed well known—as this Madrid, anyway.  But then, on the stage, the driver, the bandits who held us up, they didn’t seem to know who he was, as a Lancer, I mean.  But it seems you know what he does—”

Did,” Murdoch interrupted firmly, caught himself, forced a smile.   He shook his head, glanced over to his sons, then back to Mrs. Pearson.  “It’ll all make more sense when you get to Green River, but basically the truth of the matter is, Johnny’s mother ran away with him when he was just a couple years old.  I tried to find them for a long time, but didn’t meet with success until few years ago.  By that time, his reputation as a gunfighter was pretty well established.  He’s been trying to put it behind him ever since.”

Mrs. Pearson smiled sympathetically.  “It seems as if that hasn’t been so easy.”

Murdoch shook his head, his attention drawn to his sons, his expression growing more somber.  “You have no idea, Mrs. Pearson.”

Mrs. Pearson turned toward the fire.  “I believe the tea should be ready now.”

“Good,” Murdoch replied, smiled.  “I’d like to get Johnny to take some, then see if he won’t rest before we get under way.”

“I’ll have it in a minute,” Mrs. Pearson said as she knelt down by the fire.  Using her skirt to protect her hand, she grabbed the kettle and drew it off the fire.  Then she picked up the cup and filled it halfway.  Standing up, she held it out to Murdoch.  “If you need more, just let me know.  Otherwise we can put the rest in the canteen as you suggested.”

“Since Johnny probably won’t thank you for the tea, I will,” Murdoch said as he accepted the cup, then went on to explain,  “I’m afraid he’s had to drink quite a bit of it recently.”

Mrs. Pearson smiled.  “I, too, need to thank Johnny for what he did for me…for us.”

“Don’t worry.” Murdoch returned the smile.  “He knows.”


An hour later Scott had managed to goad Johnny into drinking two half-filled cups of tea before allowing him to lie back and rest.  Sunny, meanwhile, had returned with the stage horses. Murdoch and Scott then set about helping him put them back into their harnesses, after which they turned to the task of repacking the luggage to make room for the three dead bodies.

As they were finishing up, Johnny slowly woke from the heavy sleep, disoriented and lethargic. It took a moment for him to remember where he was and why his chest and side were so sore again.  Fleetingly he thought that perhaps the whole thing had been a dream, that he was still in Soledad.  Then as his eyes found their focus, he saw the stage on the side of the road, the horses now harnessed and waiting, Murdoch and Scott moving about, following Sunny’s orders on how to rearrange trunks and other gear.

It was then that his eyes trailed downward to the shrouded forms lined up near the wheels of the stage.  Dead bodies.  Always dead bodies.  If they didn’t fill his dreams, then they haunted his waking hours.

He closed his eyes, sighing as he rubbed fingers across his brow. 

“May I speak to you?”

Johnny opened his eyes, frowned as he met the face of Reverend Pearson looking down at him.  Putting a hand out to shade his eyes from the few rays that were managing to penetrate the thick canopy of leaves, Johnny gave a curt nod, then rolled to his left side and gingerly pushed himself to a sitting position. He managed to keep any groan from escaping, but was not so successful in his attempt to fight back the accompanying grimaces.   He was aware of it, not proud of it, but accepted it as inevitable. 

“I think we’ll be ready to go soon,” Reverend Pearson said with a glance toward the stage.

Johnny nodded.  Aware that departure details were not what the reverend wished to discuss, and uncomfortable sitting while the other man stood over him, Johnny gingerly rose to his feet.  This time he was unable to hold back a couple of low moans.  In surprise, he felt the steadying touch of the reverend to his elbow.  He looked up.  For a moment their eyes met.  Uncomfortably they both dropped their gaze, the reverend stepping back as Johnny drew his arm away.

“We’ll all be relieved to get under way,” Johnny said as he moved toward the trunk of the tree and gingerly leaned against it.  He hoped the movement looked casual, but doubted it. The tight bandaging made standing upright difficult, plus he found his head swirling dizzyingly.

“Before we leave,” Reverend Pearson continued, “I feel I need to thank you.”  As Johnny brought up a hand to wave away the overture, the reverend resumed, “However I find myself in a quandary.”  He stopped, studied Johnny with consternation.  “I’m not sure what to make of you.  I’m not sure what to make of those dead men you left over there or the tales I’ve heard in my short time here in California.  On the one hand you seem like a typical young man—for California, in any case.  But underneath that guise hides the reality that you are a man who hires himself out to kill.  I have heard of men who kill in cold blood, have even met some during my visits to the prisons.  But they are different from you.  They lack…” He shook his head.  “There’s a coldness in their eyes, a lack of conscience or remorse.”

Johnny straightened up, met the clear gray eyes.  “I did what needed to be done.”

“So you feel no remorse?”

Johnny didn’t answer.

“See, that’s where I have a difficulty,” Reverend Pearson said. “Did you kill those men from a desire to protect my family and myself?  Or was it simply an excuse you use to prove your power over life and death?”

“Your daughter was not harmed and you’re alive,” Johnny stated curtly.  “Let’s leave it at that.”

“And who should I thank for this deed?” Reverend Pearson asked.  “Johnny Lancer, whom we met on the stage?  Or the man who dramatically announced that he was Madrid just before he killed?”

Johnny pursed his lips, remained expressionless.  “Take your pick.”

The reverend’s gray eyes grew hard.  “No, Johnny.  I think it’s you who needs to pick.”  He turned and walked away, leaving Johnny leaning against the old oak. 



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