Standard disclaimer applies. Don't. Wish I did. No money made. No infringement intended.
Prejudice causes problems for Johnny.
Johnny Lancer hated Stockton. He had been here for five long days and he was ready to go home. These folks were too fancy for his taste. But, the loan was paid in full and those papers needed to be signed. After drawing the short straw, he got the job. The thought occured to him on the stage ride north, that the whole thing had been rigged. Scott had a new girl and Murdoch had some new stock coming. Neither wanted to leave, so, evidently, they made sure Johnny took the trip. He would repay in kind someday, somehow.
Leaving the hotel with his bags in hand, he had one more stop to make before finding the stage headed home. One more signature stood between him and the home he never dreamed he would have. A father, a brother, a ranch. Johnny Madrid, a landowner. Many thought the only land he would ever own would be a small plot on boot hill in some hell-hole of a town.
"Hey Mex, get outta my way!" a bald man screamed at Johnny after nearly knocking him down. "Pay attention to where you're going!"
So much for his good mood. God, he hated people sometimes. Prejudice was an ugly thing. How could a man look at another and judge them for what they looked like or where they came from? Johnny had learned the hard way not to rely on what a man 'seemed' like. What a man did with what he had was what a man should be judged by. Color and social status were not a true picture of a man. How does he treat others, or take care of his own? Actions and motive were the true sign of a man.
"Johnny? Johnny Lancer?" a young woman's voice asked.
Looking up, he found himself lost, again, in the deep blue eyes of Audra Barkley. Those blue eyes never failed to take his breath. He had only met the family on one occasion, when he, Murdoch, and Scott had come to a cattleman's meeting in Stockton and stayed the whole week at their ranch. The Barkley's owned the largest ranch in this area and were prominent leaders in the cattle industry here. Run by Victoria Barkley and her sons, Jared, Nick, and Heath, they used their influence to make positive changes for the land and the people.
"Johnny?" Audra repeated.
"Miss Audra!" Johnny stammered, quickly removing his hat. He was thankful he had taken the time to clean up this morning before heading out.
"How good to see you!" her smile lit up her face. Grabbing his arm like she had known him all her life, she steered him clear of the traffic on the boardwalk. "How long are you going to be in town?"
Johnny managed a smile. His best smile. "I'm headin' home today, as a matter of fact." He had finally found his footing.
"Oh, what a shame. How long have you been here?" She returned his smile.
"Five long days." He drawled, ducking his head.
Audra increased the pressure of her grasp. "And you haven't called on us? Mother will be so disappointed."
"Oh, it's just me. Murdoch and Scott didn't make the trip this time." he explained, putting an emphasis on his brother's name. He figured Scott and Audra had hit it off pretty well. They did have alot in common.
"That is no excuse, Johnny Lancer!" Audra scolded. "Any Lancer is welcome at our table."
"Yes ma'am." Johnny answered, ducking his head again.
"Mother! Look who I found!" Audra yelled, dragging Johnny down the walk toward her mother, who was coming from one of the shops.
"Johnny!" Victoria beamed. "How good to see you. What brings you so far north?"
Surprised she had not asked about Murdoch or Scott, he replied, "I came to get some papers signed. Took a few days, but 'bout to get it sorted out."
"You must come and have dinner with us." Victoria offered.
"Like I told Miss Audra, it's just me." he explained again.
Seemingly ignoring his explanation, Victoria grabbed his other arm, "I bet you haven't had a decent meal since you've been here!"
"To tell ya the truth, I haven't." Johnny admitted. He was beginning to like having these two women on his arm. Some of the looks he was getting were pure envy.
"That's what you get for sneaking out of town before coming to see us!" Audra teased.
"Well," the drawl was back again, "It's just me and I didn't think..."
Victoria stopped their forward progress and looked him in the eye, "Since when is Johnny Lancer not welcome in my home?"
At a lose for words, Johnny just shrugged his shoulders.
"How long before your stage leaves, young man." Victoria asked.
"I'm afraid it leaves in about an hour. See, I've got one more signature to get and then I'll be headin' home." he answered, hoping that would put an end to it. Not that he wouldn't welcome their company, but he sure didn't want to delay his homecoming.
"Johnny!" Audra swung him around toward her. "There is another stage that leaves tomorrow morning. Come stay the night with us and leave tomorrow! I know Heath and Nick would love to see you."
Yeah, I bet ole Nick would just love to see me. Johnny felt the disapproval of Audra's hot-headed brother from the moment they met. Nick looked him up and down and Johnny knew he was not fooling this man. Nick had probably heard of Johnny Madrid and even if he hadn't, he had made his assessment quickly and formed his opinion. "Well, Miss Audra..."
"What a splendid idea! Won't you come?" Victoria added.
"Please, Johnny!" Audra pleaded, pulling him even closer.
He couldn't say no. Why was it when a woman turned those pleading eyes on him he couldn't refuse them. Oh, hell! "Okay, okay. Just let me get this last signature."
"Wonderful!" Victoria smiled. "We can find more shopping to do while we wait."
"Oh, no ma'am." Johnny replied. "I'll get a horse from the livery. You two ladies go on. Never know how long these bankers will keep me waiting."
"Johnny, you're not going to make a run for it when we leave are you?" Audra teased.
"No ma'am." Johnny laughed. "I'll be not more that an hour behind you."
"Promise?" Audra asked, looking directly into his sapphire eyes.
"Promise." he answered, as he swallowed the lump in his throat.
"Very well." Victoria patted his arm.
Johnny watched as the two ladies climbed gracefully into the carriage. He returned their wave as they drove by smiling. How did this happen? He was such a pushover. He shook his head as he headed toward the bank.
Forty-five minutes later, Johnny was headed toward the Barkley ranch. Having secured the last signature, his job in this town was finally finished. Good riddance, he thought. The livery horse was acceptable but definitely not a Barranca. He sure missed that horse, and now, he would be delayed even longer. He hoped the meal was worth it. The night would be spent exchanging pleasantries and small talk, under the ever watchful glare of Nick. Heath he could relate to. They were cut from the same cloth, with barely a claim to their inheritance. He was thankful that Heath had been accepted into the family and his brothers treated him as such. Much like he and Scott. He and Heath were lucky men.
Heading to the Barkley's at a comfortable pace he reflected on the family. They were not what you would expect from such wealth. They seemed to be fair, open-minded people, good to their cowhands and the people in the community. Realizing his false assumptions of what to expect from them were nothing more than the prejudice he so despised, he determined to take them for what they were, nice folks.
Johnny drew up short when he saw the Barkley's carriage pulled to the side of the road, nobody in sight, the ladies packages scattered. The hairs on his neck began to prickle. He dismounted and stealthly walked around the carriage, gun drawn. He followed a trail that led from the carriage to the woods.
"Dios!" he whispered when he found Victoria nearly unconscious. Her mouth was bleeding and her dress torn. "Ma'am." he patted her face.
Victoria began slapping at him, "No! Leave me alone!"
"Easy, it's me. Johnny." he crooned, trying to calm her. "Where's Audra?"
"Johnny, they took her!" Victoria cried, finally recognizing him.
"Who took her?" he asked.
"I don't know who they were." she answered. "Please!"
"Easy, Mrs. Barkley." he said softly. "I'm gonna follow this trail. I want you to get in that carriage and head home, now. I'll find her." he ordered, raising her to her feet.
"No, I won't go without her." Victoria was weeping now.
Frustrated, Johnny conceded. "Alright. Go to the carriage and wait. Be ready to head out fast." Lifting her face to his, he asked softly, "How bad are you hurt?"
She shook her head.
"How long have they been gone?" he asked.
"Not long." she managed just before collapsing.
Johnny carried her back to the carriage and layed her gently on the seat. Checking his cartridges, he headed back into the woods, hoping he wouldn't find what he was afraid of.
Quietly picking his way through the wooded terrain, he heard men laughing. Dumb bastards. Couldn't wait!
The men were arguing now over who would get to have some fun first and didn't see him approach them. Three men stood in a huddle. Audra was curled in a small ball on the ground just to their left. Thank God I got here in time.
Johnny quietly stepped between the men and Audra. "Can I throw my hat in the ring?" he said, deadly calm.
The startled men turned quickly but cautiously. "You best be gettin' outta here, mister." one hissed.
Audra raised to her knees behind Johnny. "Oh, Johnny!" she cried.
Without taking his eyes from the men, Johnny helped her to her feet. "Go back to the carriage and get your mother home."
Audra backed away from the scene, hating to leave him but wanting to get to her mother. "Johnny..."
"Don't look back, honey." he ordered.
"I'm gonna kill you, mister. This was none of your business." the second man snarled.
Still deadly calm, Johnny answered, "I'm makin' it my business."
"And just who the hell are you?" he asked.
"Madrid. Johnny Madrid." He was always amazed at the look in a man's eyes when that name was mentioned. In times past, it gave him great pleasure to see the fear cross a man's face. Today was no exception. It might give him an edge.
"What are you doin' so far north, Madrid?" the third man finally joined in. "'Sides, I heard you was dead."
"Not yet." Johnny smiled.
"Maybe today's your day." the man smiled.
The smile left Johnny's face. "Maybe mine, yours for sure."
"I don't think..." the man drew. Followed closely by the others.
Johnny's right hand dropped an instant sooner. The pistol bucked in his hand as the men fell to the ground. A familiar burn touched his left side, and then it was all over.
Making sure the men were done, he quickly headed back to the road. The carriage was still there. He found Audra and Victoria huddled on the seat, clinging to each other.
Victoria startled when she heard him approach. "Oh Johnny, it's you!"
"I told you to get outta here!" he admonished.
"Audra didn't want to leave you." Victoria replied holding her despondant daughter.
"How is she?" Johnny asked.
"I think she'll be fine. She seems to be in shock." Victoria answered. "We heard shots, Johnny. Are you alright?"
"I'm fine." he lied as he tied his horse to the carriage. He could feel the blood running down from the wound in his side. "Let's get you two home."
Taking the reins from Victoria, Johnny clucked to the horses and headed quickly to the Barkley ranch. He would sort through this mess later.
Finally arriving at the house, Johnny pulled up and took Audra from Victoria. "Let's get her in."
Frightened, Audra began fighting Johnny. "No!" she cried.
"Audra, it's me. Johnny!"
Suddenly, Johnny was pulled roughly from behind by Nick Barkley. "Lancer, leave her alone!" he yelled as he threw his best punch into Johnny's middle, followed closely by an uppercut to the face.
Johnny sprawled backward into a painful heap.
"Nick, no!" Victoria yelled, grabbing her inscensed son. "It's Johnny!"
"I know who it is!" Nick replied as he turned to Audra. "Sweetheart, did he hurt you?" Noticing her torn dress and bloody face, Nick went at Johnny again, pulling him up by his shirt. "Lancer, I'm gonna kill you!" he snarled as he began pummeling the injured man.
Heath came from nowhere and pulled his brother off of Johnny. "Nick, listen, will ya?"
Hitting the ground hard, Johnny moaned and rolled to his side, trying to catch a breath. Victoria knelt beside him and noticed the blood staining his shirt. "Oh, God, you've been shot!"
Turning to her sons, she began barking orders. "Heath, go get the doctor and wire Murdoch. Tell him Johnny is injured and is staying with us. Nick, help me get him to the house.
"Mother, I..." Nick began to protest.
"Nick, we will talk about this later!" Victoria seethed. "Now help him!"
Johnny was already climbing to his feet. "Don't need your help, Barkley."
"Nick you get Audra, I'll help Johnny." Victoria ordered as she wrapped her arms around Johnny's waist and led him into the back door.
Johnny made it all the way to the large staircase before stumbling. "Nick!" Victoria yelled as Johnny began falling.
Nick caught him just before he hit the floor. Scooping Johnny up, Nick carried him up the stairs and to the guest room. He glared at the unconscious man. What had he done to his sister?
Victoria entered the room. "I've got Audra settled. I think she may be coming around."
"Mother, what happened!" Nick shouted, then pointed at Johnny, "And what in the hell is he doing here?"
Victoria carefully opened Johnny's shirt and gasp at the sight. "Bring me some clean cloths."
"Nick." Victoria interrupted. "I will talk about this later. Right now I want to get him as comfortable as I can. Johnny helped us today, maybe saved Audra's life."
Nick was astonished. God, what had he done? Silently, he began to help his mother with her ministrations. They successfully removed the bloody shirt and cleaned the wound. Bruises began to color on Johnny's body from the beating he had taken and his left eye was swelling shut.
Nick quietly left the room. He walked to Audra's room and found her sleeping. What had happened and what did Lancer have to do with it? He needed some answers.
"Nick." the small voice stopped him as he turned to leave.
"Yeah, sweetheart." he said softly to his sister.
"Johnny didn't hurt me." she said weakly, tears streaming down her face.
"What happened?" Nick asked as he gently brushed the hair from her eyes.
"Mother and I were attacked by some men." Audra said quietly, reliving the events as she spoke. "They took me into the woods and were going to..." she sobbed.
"Take your time, Audra." Nick reached for her and pulled her up into his arms. "Shhh."
"Johnny came for me, Nick. I think he killed those men." Audra trembled in Nick's arms. "He saved me."
Nick began rocking his sister. Her words hitting him like a hammer. He jumped to conclusions, as usual. No, he didn't like Johnny. Why? Because of who he was or what he was? Well, no matter the reason, he was beholden to him for helping his mother and sister. Realizing Audra was asleep, he gently tucked her in and walked back down the hall.
Victoria was still working with Johnny. "Nick, come help me. We've got to slow this bleeding."
Nick bent and applied pressure on the cloth covering the wound. Johnny groaned in pain but was still unconscious. "Audra told me what happened." he said softly, guaging his mother's reaction.
"How is she doing?" Victoria asked.
"She is asleep now." Nick answered.
"Probably the best thing for her right now." Victoria reasoned.
Nick walked over to the window. There were so many unanswered questions and they all revolved around the man in this bed. Seems trouble always followed men like Johnny Madrid.
His thoughts were broken by the arrival of Heath and the doctor. "They're here."
"Thank God!" Victoria breathed. "I can't stop this bleeding."
"Mother!" Heath was yelling as he ran up the staircase.
"In here, Heath." Victoria answered.
"How's Audra?" Heath asked, breathless from his sprint.
"She's asleep." Nick answered.
"Johnny?" Heath noticed Johnny was unconscious.
"Not good." Nick replied, grimly.
"Victoria?" the doctor called. "What in blazes happened?"
"It's a long story, Will. This is Johnny Lancer and he's been shot." Victoria backed away from the bed to give the doctor room.
"And apparently beaten." the doctor added, and noticed Nick had left the room.
"Victoria, I trust you have some hot water?" he asked.
"Yes, and some clean bandages." she replied.
"Let's get started then." the doctor said as he began an exploration of Johnny's injuries.
"How is Audra?" he asked as he continued his assessment.
"Will, she's been through hell, but I think she's fine." Victoria answered.
"And how are you?" he asked.
"Besides shaking, I'm fine." Victoria was a strong woman. She was sure she would feel the effects of this day later but for now, she had to remain strong for those around her.
"Looks like the bullet went through, but there is a nasty furrow here. Stitches won't stop the bleeding, I'm afraid." the doctor said, knowing there was only one option.
Victoria stared at the man for a moment. She hated this. She had seen it done many times but the violence of it, not to mention the horrid smell of burning flesh, made her stomach revolt. "I'll get the poker heated."
The doctor finished cleaning the wound and wrapped the injured ribs tightly. He prepared his patient for the cauterization. The wound looked clean, and hopefully there would be no complications.
Victoria returned carrying a red hot poker and a bottle of whiskey, followed closely by Heath. She hurried to the doctor's side, knowing it had to be done before the poker cooled.
"Heath, hold him down." the doctor ordered while pouring the whiskey on the wound. Johnny began squirming under the restraint. As the poker was placed on the wound, Johnny swallowed the scream that fought to escape his mouth. The acrid smell of burning flesh filled the room. His rigid body collapsed against the bed as he finally sank into the painless blackness. Finishing the procedure, the doctor backed away, satisfied he could do no more.
Victoria dropped into the chair by the bed. "I think I'll go visit Audra." she said as she drug herself out of the chair, suddenly feeling more tired than she ever had in her life.
The doctor turned to her, placing his hand gently on the woman's shoulder. "Why don't you lie down, Victoria. I can finish this up. Then, I will be in to check on Audra."
Victoria silently nodded as she left the room and prayed, God, please be with Johnny. I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't been there today.
Heath helped the doctor bind the wound and straighten Johnny up in the bed. "Will he be okay, doc?"
"Given time, yes." he replied.
"He's one tough hombre. Isn't he?" Heath smiled, looking fondly at his friend. He had felt the connection with Johnny the first time they met. Their past lives were much the same except, Heath thought ruefully, he didn't carry the weight Johnny did. "Must be tough being a legend." he said softly as he watched his friend's ragged breathing. "Glad you were around today."
Murdoch Lancer looked up from the ledger he had been balancing for the last two hours. "Senor! Telegram!" Lopez ran into the room, holding the message up. "I think is bad news, Senor."
"Bad news?" Murdoch asked, frowning."It's from Heath Barkley."
"Murdoch?" Scott said as he came into the room. "What's all the commotion?"
"Telegram from Heath Barkley." Murdoch replied opening the message.
To Murdoch Lancer, Morro Coyo
Johnny injured. Stop
Staying at the ranch. Stop
Don't worry. Stop
"Scott, pack light." Murdoch said, knowing there was no other option than to go to his son.
"Stage or horses." Scott asked on the way up the stairs.
"Horses. I think it will be faster." Murdoch replied.
"Agreed." Scott said as he disappeared at the top of the stairs.
Within 20 minutes, the two were on their way to Stockton, three days away. Murdoch decided to stop in Morro Coyo and send a return telegram to the Barkley's letting Johnny know they were on their way. It would be the longest three days of his life.
Strange voices filtered through his mind as he was slowly drawn to the light. His body was on fire, his head pounded. Why couldn't he catch his breath? His reaching hand was captured by a soft gentle grasp. "It's okay, Johnny."
He moaned as he tried to move toward the voice. "Please be still." the voice pleaded. "Open those eyes for me, Johnny."
He felt a cool cloth on his head. He leaned into it's comfort. "That's it. Wake up for me." That voice again. Who was it?
He was drifting above an unknown place. Where was he? "Johnny." The voice tried to call him back. "No." he moaned. He didn't want to come back. Why did it hurt?
"Johnny, wake up, please." Audra pleaded with him. It had been two days. The fever was lower and Johnny seemed to have more color today. He had looked so pale. Audra was afraid he would die. The doctor was concerned about the infection and of pneumonia from the broken ribs Nick had given him. "Oh, Johnny." Audra buried her head beside him on the bed.
"You okay?" Johnny's voice cracked.
"Johnny!" Audra smiled. "You're awake!"
"Course I am. How could I sleep with all that ruckus?" he laughed weakly.
Audra jumped up and ran out of the room. "Mother!"
Johnny eased himself up in the bed with a groan. "Hold up, Johnny." Heath said as he entered the room. "You don't need to be moving."
"My butt hurts! Gotta move somethin'." Johnny answered.
Heath helped Johnny scoot around to relieve the pressure on his backside. "That better?"
"Little." Johnny replied with a grimace. "How long I been here?"
"Two days." Heath smiled. "Two long days!"
"Very funny, amigo." Johnny laughed and immediately regretted it. "Oh, don't make me laugh!"
"Murdoch and Scott are on their way." Heath told him as he adjusted the pillows to help keep Johnny straight in the bed. Then checked his forehead for fever, frowning when he felt how warn his friend's head felt.
"Yeah?" Johnny seemed surprised. "Man, that's a long trip."
"Johnny! You are awake!" Victoria gleemed. "How good to see those blue eyes."
Johnny ducked his head, suddenly embarrassed.
Audra followed her mother into the room carrying a tray. "Brought you some broth."
"I was hoping for a little better than that." Johnny grinned.
"You keep this down, and you can have anything you want." Audra challenged with a big bright smile.
Turning serious, Johnny asked softly, "You okay?"
"I will be, thanks to you." Audra looked him directly in the eye.
"We all are indebted to you, Johnny." Victoria said.
Johnny drug his eyes from Audra's. "Just lucky I didn't waste time in town. Guess I shoulda took you up on that ride. None of this woulda happened."
"Oh Johnny," Audra grabbed his hand, "You can't be blaming yourself."
"No, I guess I'm not." Johnny ducked his head. "Just wish..."
"Oh, if wishes were horses!" Victoria patted his arm. "You were there and I shudder to think what might have happened if you hadn't been!"
"Eat." Audra ordered, holding a spoon of broth to his mouth.
Obeying, Johnny was pleased with the taste. "Barkley beef makes pretty good soup."
"It's the best!" Audra replied and continued feeding her patient.
After several more spoonfuls, Johnny signaled enough, patting his stomach.
"Get some rest, honey." Victoria said. "That's the best thing for you right now. Audra." She motioned for her daughter to leave.
"Yes ma'am." Johnny smiled, watching the two women leave quietly. Finally alone and conscious, he assessed his wounds. Rubbing his hands gingerly over his battered ribs, his temper flared when he remembered the beating he took at the hands of Nick Barkley. He had to admit it must have looked odd and if it were Teresa in the same shape, he might have jumped to the same conclusions.
He would think about this later. His head hurt and he wasn't at all sure that broth was going to stay where it was supposed to. He layed back against the pillows and closed his eyes. It didn't take long before he drifted off to sleep.
Nick Barkley leaned in the doorway, watching Johnny sleep. What was it about this man that riled him so much? He seemed like a decent, caring rancher, not a vicious, heartless gunhawk. Mother and Audra sure liked him. And Heath had formed a bond with Johnny that was as strong as a brother's. But, he had seen many men who could sway people with charm, and that Johnny had in bucket fulls. Deep down, though, he was a dangerous, deadly man, and Nick didn't want his family to get too close to him. Shaking his head, he slipped away down the hall.
Johnny was running. God, it was hot! Where was Audra? No, they took her. Gotta help her. Three men, "No!"
"Johnny, it's a dream." He felt soft hands push him back down. "Easy." A cool cloth was place on his head. "You're burning up."
Johnny tried to open his eyes. His heart felt like it was going to pound out of his chest. "Gotta help her." he croaked.
"Help who, Johnny?" a vaguely familiar voice ask.
"Audra, they took her!" he bolted up from the bed, only to be pushed back. "Help her!" he yelled.
"She's alright, Johnny." Those hands again. They weren't strong enough to stop him. He had to go now!
He fought his way up ready to fight all challengers, when suddenly, the floor hit him square in the face.
"Heath, Nick!" Victoria yelled.
Nick ran into the room and saw Johnny on the floor. "Mother, what did he do?"
"He's delirious. He tried to get up to help Audra." Victoria replied. "Help me get him back in bed."
"Help Audra?" Nick questioned.
"He thinks they still have her." she answered. "Easy with him. We've got to get this fever down."
Nick finally got Johnny back in bed and Victoria straightened the pillows around him.
"Nick, please get me some cool water." Victoria was breathless from the effort.
Nick left the room without a word and ran right in to Murdoch Lancer.
"Where is he?" the big man asked.
"I'll show you." Nick replied. "You made that trip in a hurry."
"Didn't seem like a hurry to us." Scott said, dryly.
"Mother, the Lancer's are here." Nick watched as Murdoch and Scott moved slowly to Johnny's side. Murdoch gently touched his son's head and looked quickly at Scott.
"Fever?" Scott asked.
"Yes, very high." Murdoch responded, grimly. "Victoria, what happened?" he ask as he turned to her.
She wrapped her arms around him. "Sit. You two must be exhausted." she motioned to the chairs in the room and began her explanation.
"Audra and I ran into Johnny in Stockton and persuaded him, with great effort, to have dinner with us." she paused and visually trembled. "After relunctantly agreeing, Audra and I started home to get everything prepared. Some men attacked us and took Audra."
"Is she alright?" Scott asked.
"Thanks to Johnny, yes." Victoria continued. "Johnny came along and found me. I told him they had taken her and he went after them." Her voice faltered. "I heard gunshots just as Audra came running back." She paused again to regain her composure.
"Take your time, Victoria." Murdoch said softly as he rose and put an arm around her slim shoulders.
"She was hysterical. She kept saying, 'They'll kill him! We can't leave him!" Tears were rolling down her face as she remembered the panic and fear in her daughter's eyes.
"Johnny came running from the woods and drove us home. I didn't know he had been injured until we got home." Victoria chose to keep Nick's part quiet for the moment. Her friend didn't need to hear that now.
"Looks like he fought them too." Scott gently touched his brother's bruised face.
"No, he fought me." Nick said from the doorway.
"You?" Scott said, stepping toward the larger man.
Murdoch put a hand on his son's chest. "Scott, wait for the explanation."
Scott looked up at his father and relunctantly nodded.
"I'm sorry but I rode up just as Johnny was taking Audra out of the buggy. All I saw was her fighting him and her torn clothes." Nick paused.
"And?" Scott asked, not hiding the contempt in his voice.
"Well, I went after him." Nick confessed. "I'm sorry, but I jumped to conclusions."
"Why do you think Johnny would hurt Audra?" Scott shouted.
"Audra. Help her." Johnny said weakly.
"Johnny!" Murdoch went to his son. "Wake up, Son. Scott and I are here."
Scott crawled on the bed beside his brother. "Johnny, open those eyes, will ya?"
"Scott? You really here?" Johnny asked.
"Come on, Brother." Scott pleaded. "Talk to me."
Johnny tried desperately to open his eyes. His eyelids felt weighted down and heavy. "Scott, gotta help Audra."
"Audra's fine, Johnny." Scott had no control over his broken voice or the tears that welled up in his eyes.
"Fine?" Johnny breathed, barely a whisper. He was wearing down fast.
Murdoch turned to Victoria. "Do you think Audra feels like coming in here?"
"Splendid idea, Murdoch." Victoria agreed. "I'll go get her."
"Johnny, Audra is here." Murdoch's strong hand kept his son on the bed.
"Johnny!" Audra came into the room. Going to his side, she picked up his hand and held it gently to her chest. This man had saved her from unknown horrors. He had to be alright. "I'm here."
Johnny opened his eyes to barely a slit. "Audra, you okay now?"
"I'm fine. Thanks to you." Her tears rolled down her cheeks as she gently pushed the dark hair from his sweaty brow.
"Your mother?" he asked.
"She's fine too, Johnny." Audra tried to assure him, hoping he could understand.
"Gracias a Dios." he whispered, finally letting go and sinking back into sweet oblivion.
"Johnny!" Audra panicked.
"I think he's just sleeping." Scott said as he pulled Audra to her feet. She looked like she had been through hell. "Go back and rest, sweetheart."
Audra looked at Scott and nodded. Victoria led her out of the room and back to the solice of her own bed.
"God, Murdoch." Scott shook his head. "Why in the hell does this always happen to him?"
"Scott, he cares a great deal for people." Murdoch replied quietly as he looked down at his youngest son. "You know that."
"Yeah, and he cares too damn little about himself!" Scott spat. "You know, he told me once that what happened to him didn't matter because you would always have me. Why can't he see how important he is to us?"
Murdoch put a heavy hand on Scott's shoulder. "I don't think it would have changed this situation, son. Johnny did what he had to do, just like he always does. You would have done the same."
"I know." Scott conceded, hanging his head. "I would probably be dead, though."
Murdoch shuddered. How fragile was life? He had missed so many years with his sons. And now, because of the caring man Johnny had become, he could lose him.
"The doctor said Johnny has a good chance." Victoria broke into his thoughts. "Murdoch, I can't tell you how grateful I am to Johnny." she said as she put her arms around Murdoch's waist.
Murdoch returned the embrace. "Are you sure you two are alright?"
"Oh, yes, we're fine. It's just going to take a little time." Victoria answered, releasing him and turning to Scott.
"You need some rest, young man." She hooked her arm in Scott's and led him to the door. "Silas has a wonderful meal prepared."
"No, thank you, ma'am." Scott slipped out of her grasp. "I'm staying right here. I want him to see I'm here when he comes to."
"Very well, then. I'll have Silas bring something up." Victoria knew it was a losing battle, but she felt she had to try. The man was exhaused.
"Murdoch, surely you will not refuse such a gracious invitation?" she smiled. Victoria knew full well what turmoil her friend was going through. More than once she had sit at one of her own child's sickbed, praying for recovery.
"Go on, Murdoch." Scott nodded. "We will take turns."
"Okay, Son." Murdoch half smiled. "I'll be back up soon."
Scott scooted the chair closer to the bed and settled down into it. No, he practically fell into it. He couldn't remember a time when he had been more tired. He was spent emotionally and physically. Leaning forward, he grasp his brother's hand and laid his head on the bed. Sleep came unbidden.
Someone was here. He could hear them breathing. Where was he? Nothing looked familiar. He looked to his left side and smiled at the sight. Scott had fallen asleep on his arm, holding his hand. Careful not to wake his brother, Johnny reached over and touched Scott's head, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming again. He was real.
"Johnny?" Scott raised his head.
"I'm here, brother." Johnny croaked. "You came a long way." he smiled.
"Did you expect us to stay home while your sorry hide was laid up?" Scott teased.
Johnny gave a small laugh in answer and quickly regretted his action. "Damn. Gotta remember not to do that." he gasped, gingerly clutching his side.
"Easy, Johnny." Scott jumped up.
"I'm fine, Boston." Johnny closed his eyes and tried to breathe normally.
"I hate it when you say that." Scott teased. "The only time you say it is when you are definitely not fine."
"How 'bout I'm finer than frog's hair on a bull's..."
"Johnny!" Murdoch interrupted just in time. "You are a guest in this house. Watch your language."
"Murdoch." Johnny smiled. "Sorry about this trouble."
Scott threw his hands up in exasperation and left the room.
"What's that all about?" Johnny asked.
"He's just tired and worried, Johnny." Murdoch replied. Scott was right. They would have to work on Johnny's opinion of himself. "Are you in pain?" Murdoch ask as he put a hand to his son's head.
"Naw. Not much. Long as I'm still." Johnny answered. "How are the ladies?"
"Victoria is resilient as ever, and Audra is going to be just fine." Murdoch answered. "She is still a little shaken up."
"Johnny!" Audra bounced in, followed closely by Scott. "You're awake!"
Johnny tried to catch his brother's eye, but Scott evaded his stare.
"You look mighty nice today, Miss Audra." Johnny gave her his best smile.
She did the same, and as usual, Johnny found himself at a loss for words. "Why thank you!" she gushed. Turning to Scott, "You two certainly know how to make a girl feel special."
Scott did look at his brother then, his eyes threatening, silencing any response that Johnny may have had. Johnny couldn't help but smile. They would make a nice couple.
"Johnny, how about some nice broth!" Audra offered.
"Well, I.." Johnny began to decline but was cut short.
"Fine!" Audra beamed. "Now, everyone out. Let's let him rest." She ushered everyone from the room then turned back to the patient. "I will be right back with that broth."
Johnny was left in silence. Audra reminded him so much of Teresa the way she handled everyone. She must have inherited that tenacity from her mother.
"Now, Johnny Lancer." Audra came in carrying a steaming bowl of broth. "You need to eat as much of this as you can. It will help you get well."
Johnny couldn't stifle his groan as he slid up in bed. Audra quickly plumped up the pillows behind him and sat beside him on the bed.
"Thanks." Johnny said, closing his eyes. He wasn't sure if broth was such a good idea right now, but he couldn't refuse Audra. He sure wouldn't want to hurt her feelings.
"Here, take small sips." she held a spoon of broth to his lips. He allowed the hot liquid to run down his parched throat.
"Audra, I don't know if I can eat all of that." Johnny tried to be polite.
She smiled and touched his arm. "Just eat what you can. You need to get your strength back."
"One more spoonful." he declared.
She looked at him skeptically. "Is that all?"
Johnny ducked his head. "Let's make sure this stays down and then I'll eat the whole cup."
"Deal." she smiled and placed the cup on the nightstand. Turning serious, she asked, "Johnny, how do you really feel?"
Johnny put his hand on her arm. "I'm fine. Just give me a few days and I'll be good as new."
"That's good to hear, Lancer." Nick said as he walked into the room. "Audra, honey, I think Mother was looking for you."
Audra stood up straight and glared at her brother. "I'll be right back, Johnny."
Johnny watched Audra stomp from the room. Boy! He sure wouldn't want her mad at him. He said nothing as he turned his gaze to Nick.
Nick cleared his throat, his discomfort evident. "Look, uh, I'm sorry about the, uh, misunderstanding."
Johnny couldn't resist. "Not near as sorry as I am."
Nick looked at Johnny, not knowing exactly how to read him. "I, uh..."
"Look, Nick, I woulda probably done the same thing if Teresa was fightin' off some no account cowboy." Johnny made his point, letting some of his anger show. Nick had never liked him and Johnny had no problem figuring out why. He had grown up with prejudice, so Nick's attitude was not surprising. He couldn't help adding, "I know my place, Barkley."
"Well, I am sorry." Nick repeated and walked to the door. Johnny met his gaze and held it. Nick looked away and left the room.
"You two have a problem?" Scott said, noticing Johnny's expression.
"Nah, nothing unusual, Boston." Johnny smiled. He was tiring quickly. "Hey, Scott, help me here, will ya?"
"What do you need?" Scott jumped to his brother's aid.
Johnny was frustrated with his helplessness. "I wanna lay back down. I can't breath too good like this."
Scott helped his brother get settled into a comfortable position. "Just take it easy for a while." Scott ordered and turned to walk away.
Johnny grabbed his arm. "Scott, why you mad at me?"
Scott looked at his brother. Johnny's pain was so evident on his face. His heart softened, "Johnny, I'm not mad at you."
"Scott." Johnny tightened his grip. "Truth."
Scott never could refuse his brother. Something about that look in his eyes. "Johnny, I just wish you knew how important you are to the people who love you."
Seeing the confusion on Johnny's face, he continued. "You are under this impression that your life and the part you play in ours is expendible. That, as long as some good could come of it for us, you would sacrifice yourself and we would be better off." Scott jerked his arm away from Johnny's grasp. "And, frankly, I don't appreciate that."
"You sayin' I shouldn't have saved Audra?" Johnny asked.
"No! I would have tried the same thing." Scott tried to control his voice. "What I'm saying is your attitude toward yourself stinks! You have lived with prejudice for so long you've started to believe the lies. And by doing that, you make us out to be the most prejudiced of all!"
"Scott, how am I doin' that?" Johnny asked.
Scott lowered his face to within inches of his brother's. "By thinking we care more about ourselves than we do for you. That you bother us, or waste our time. Johnny, you are worth something to us. Do you understand that?"
Johnny just stared at his brother, trying to let Scott's words sink in.
Scott sat down on the bed. "Johnny, it wasn't a bother for us to come to you. You would've done the same thing if it were me or Murdoch. Would it have been trouble, as you called it, to you?"
"Course not, Scott." Johnny looked away. He was beginning to understand what Scott was trying to say.
"Johnny?" Scott waited until he had his brother's attention. "You are my brother. I love you. I would do anything I could for you, and I know you feel the same."
"I do Scott. Sorry." Johnny ducked his head. "It's just hard to get used to havin' somebody there for you, ya know?"
Scott mussed his brother's already unruly hair. "I know first hand. Now get some sleep. We will talk about this later." He rose and sat down in the chair.
"You stayin' here?" Johnny asked, smiling.
"Any objections?" Scott returned the smile.
"Nah. Just hold the noise down, will ya?" Johnny pulled the quilt up around his chin and settled in.
Scott shook his head and picked up the book he had found in the Barkley's library. "Sweet dreams, little brother."
Ten long days later, the Lancer's were heading home. The doctor had declared Johnny well enough for the long ride on the condition that they would take their time and travel slow. The sheriff had taken Johnny's statement and along with Victoria's and Audra's, the case was closed.
Johnny was nearly as good as new and was ready to bust from all the pent up energy. Murdoch warned him that he would need all the strength he could muster for the long ride home. The horse they had borrowed from the Barkley's was sure not Barranca.
Murdoch and Scott were mounted, waiting for Johnny to say his goodbyes.
Victoria smiled at Johnny and wrapped him in a huge hug. "You take it easy, young man." She then put his face in her hands. "Thank you, Johnny."
Johnny kissed her cheek. "You're welcome. Just glad it turned out alright."
Heath gently bear-hugged his friend. "Take it easy, amigo."
Johnny smiled and nodded. "Why don't you come down our way sometime?" He patted Heath firmly on the back.
"Just might surprise you one day, Johnny." Heath laughed.
Nick walked up and stuck his hand out. Johnny took the proffered hand and shook it sincerely. "I appreciate what you did, Lan..uh, Johnny."
"Come down with Heath. We'll get some good hunting in." Johnny offered.
"Maybe we'll both surprise you." Nick smiled.
Johnny turned to the last Barkley. "Audra." He paused, not knowing what to say or do.
Audra walked up to him and removed his hat. She turned, handing it to Nick with a scowl. Turning back to Johnny, she tiptoed up and kissed him square on the mouth. Her arms found their way around his neck as she pulled him closer. He slowly closed his arms around her waist, holding one hand up behind her to still her brother, and returned the kiss for all he was worth.
Finally pulling away from him, Audra calmly snatched his hat from Nick and placed it back on Johnny's head. "Bye, Johnny. And thank you." She then turned and walked to her mother, all the time scowling at Nick.
It took Johnny a moment to get his bearings. He then smiled at Nick. "I sure appreciate putting me in the middle of this argument you two are having. Mercy!"
Nick couldn't help but smile. The man was likeable. He had seen Johnny in a different light these last few days. "Get outta here." he laughed and gave Johnny a friendly pat on the back. "Don't forget to return that horse!"
"Might just bring him back in person." he winked at Audra.
"You come back anytime, Johnny Lancer!" Audra replied.
Johnny mounted and turned to Murdoch and Scott. "Take me home."
The three Lancer's headed south to Morro Coyo and home.