This story belongs to my Reminiscences series.
Rated NC-17 for adult themes which some may find disturbing.
He reached over and held her hand. “You haven’t changed your mind about the weekend? You’ll still stay over with us?” He still didn’t understand he had her in his thrall. Looking into those blue eyes she’d have agreed to anything, anywhere, anytime.
“Of course. I’m rather looking forward to it. Teresa and I have so much still to decide upon and we’re running out of months.”
His head dropped as he murmured, “I was wanting you there for me.” It was painful to see how easily hurt he was even after all this time and all their shared promises. She smiled as she put her finger under his chin and raised his head slightly to meet her gaze.
“You, my love, are far too easy to tease.” She moved closer and lifted her lips to meet his. Ah, yes, that liquid feeling to her insides. How she hoped it would never stop.
He pulled back – once again – and grabbed for his hat. “I’ve gotta get going. Jelly’s waiting for me to help load the wagon. I’ll pick you up in the buggy Friday after work. Oh, will there be enough room in the buggy for your luggage or should I bring the wagon?” he quizzed mischievously. She threw the shirt she’d been sewing at him as he fled laughingly out the door.
= = =
Dinner on Friday night began as a somewhat subdued affair, each of them having put in a long day’s work. It was lucky Teresa was there. She had so much to say about their upcoming nuptials that in no time they were all trying to have their say on what planning still remained. Scott proposed he take Johnny shopping for the clothes appropriate for a man to be wed in and that led to a whole lot more joking and arguing between all three stubborn Lancers and the women who loved them. She felt so blessed to be joining this family and pondered once again how close these people had become in such a relatively short period of time.
They finally drifted from the table to gather around the fireplace – not that a fire had been needed for some time. It was hot even for this time of year. Teresa was the first to head for bed, after checking their guest was right for the night, that she had everything she needed. Johnny, normally happily sprawled by the fire, had been having trouble sitting still. Finally, he jumped up and exclaimed, “I have to check on Barranca.” He looked at her and her alone when he added, “Would you like to come?”
Murdoch and Scott shared a look that consisted of raised eyebrows and barely concealed smiles. Murdoch added, “You won’t be long, will you? I’m sure our guest would appreciate her rest. Don’t forget you do have all weekend together.”
“We won’t be long, Murdoch.”
They headed out to the barn and looked in on Barranca, Johnny automatically reaching for the brush. She stood back, watching appreciatively how strong and fluid his movements were. Suddenly, she found herself foolishly jealous of a horse of all things. Look what this man did to her.
He softly uttered, “You know, I didn’t ask you here to watch me.”
He put the brush down and he turned to face her. Once again she stepped boldly into his embrace and met his kiss with passion of her own. He was not quite the first man she had ever kissed, after all she had been making her own way in the world for three years now since her parents’ deaths, but no-one else had ever left her feeling this way. She didn’t know how she was going to bear the wait for the wedding. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was waiting for but she knew there had to be more.
Yet again, though, he pulled back and she thought she might scream with frustration – if it hadn’t been for the fact she was certain any scream would have brought at least Murdoch, Scott and Jelly running to her defence.
She knew with Johnny that it was always best to let him start the talking. He got around to it in his own sweet time and simply would not be drawn out if he didn’t feel like it. But she couldn’t stand this any more. She had to ask.
“Johnny, what’s wrong?”
“Not true,” she countered. “Every time we… get close… you almost push me away. I’m starting to think that maybe the way I feel for you is not…” At this she felt she could hardly go on. Her throat constricted, her mouth dried and she felt the pricking of tears. Dammit, this was not going to get her any answers. “Johnny, I’ll understand if you’re having second thoughts.” Why did she say that? She couldn’t understand. How could he not feel the same about her? How could he have changed his mind about all those things he had said?
“Oh, Phoebe, precious darling Phoebe, I love you more than life itself. I don’t want to live without you. I would give anything, anything, for you. Please don’t doubt me, now or ever. I never mean to give you cause to.”
She saw in his eyes the hurt he felt at having her doubt him. “Then why?” she whispered.
He smiled a sad, slow, crooked smile. “I love your innocence, querida. But it makes it kinda hard to talk about certain things. You see, when I hold you, when I look at you, when I touch you I feel like… like I’m gonna lose control.”
“Would that be such a bad thing, dear heart?” She looked at him pleadingly.
“You gotta try to understand. I can’t do that to you. You are different to every other woman I have ever known. I have to make you know that somehow. I need to show you somehow that you’re special, that you’re the one I intend spending the rest of my life with. And the only way I can figure to do that is to wait until I have that wedding band on your finger. That will make you different.”
“I see,” she whispered. “So you do still want me?”
What was that look in her eyes? “Querida, ‘til my dying day.” Their kiss this time was quiet and gentle and short but their embrace lasted what seemed a lifetime.
“We should go in, before Murdoch comes out.” Which of them had ventured that?
= = =
They returned to the Great Room and Scott and Murdoch, who were waiting for them, stood as they entered.
“I’ll be going to bed now if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. Good night, my dear.” Murdoch kissed the top of her head as she passed and headed to her guest room.
“Good night, princess,” Scott added. Together they watched her poised departure.
“I’m goin’, too.” Johnny stated flatly. He headed out the French doors.
“Going where, brother?” quizzed Scott.
“To bed, Boston. In the bunkhouse.” He spat the words out as he practically fled into the night.
“Well,” said Scott, chuckling, as he watched his brother stalk off into the darkness, “he’s well and truly smitten, isn’t he? I’ve never seen him like this before. Do I understand this to mean that he doesn’t trust himself to stay under the same roof?”
“I think we understand it to mean that he is a man of honour and integrity who is keen to practise self control,” sighed Murdoch happily. Who would have thought?
Saturday started early. Over breakfast they all planned their days, or had their days planned for them. At least Murdoch conceded that lunch could be shared by all back at the house. Johnny and Scott headed for the south paddock, leaving the morning for Teresa and Phoebe to go over further details for the wedding planned for early autumn. If Teresa had her way the house would be unrecognisable and Murdoch driven into bankruptcy. Much as Phoebe and Johnny had stressed how simple they wanted everything to be they acknowledged that the wedding was important for the rest of the family too and they had no wish to deny them their celebration. Besides which, Teresa’s enthusiasm was infectious and Phoebe was happy to have someone to share her joy with. It slightly lessened the sadness she felt knowing her parents could not be with her on that special day.
Before lunch she watched fondly as Scott and Johnny bowed graciously to Teresa’s demands they clean up before coming inside to eat. She knew this scene had been played out countless times before and she was keen to watch it again and again. Besides, not only did she get to witness their easy familiarity, she knew it would be followed by seeing Johnny douse himself with water – a sight sure to get her trembling with anticipation. Whatever was happening to her, she wondered, that such simple actions drove her insane with desire? What she could not know, because he could not bear to tell her, is how he, also, was driven to a frenzy watching what to her were simple, carefree actions on her own part. The way she tucked that constantly straying wisp of hair behind her ear, the way she chewed on the inside of her cheek when troubled, the way her hips lightly swayed as he followed her. To him these things made every day a delight.
The afternoon was spent closer to home by the brothers so the young women joined them at the corral, cheering them on as they broke horses and branded stock. Johnny and Phoebe managed a few minutes alone together before it was time to get ready for dinner. Those precious minutes were not wasted on small talk.
= = =
Dinner became a much larger affair than planned when first Sam and then Val turned up. Dear friends always knew they were welcome at the Lancer hacienda and there was always more than enough food to go around. Unfortunately, being a Saturday night, Val had to leave early to get back to town as there was bound to be work for the lawman. He didn’t leave, however, until he had delivered one more warning to Phoebe about the man she was soon to marry and had gallantly offered once again to take his place. Her throaty chuckle as she watched her beloved ‘throw’ his friend out the door caused Johnny’s chest to clench. If just the sound of her could do this to him, what would the very sight of her do? It amused him that he, a hard-bitten gunhawk who’d been around, could be brought to his knees by this slip of a girl. No, that’s wrong, he thought, she’s certainly no girl.
With Val’s departure Scott took over the role of ‘champion’, declaring his unswerving devotion to his ‘princess’ and his willingness, nay, his obligation, to slay all who might wish her harm. Their laughter filled the night as similar antics abounded. Both Johnny and Phoebe delighted in the warmth with which she had been welcomed into his family.
Sam stayed longer and was enjoying a drink after the meal when circumstances left him alone briefly with Phoebe. He had long wanted to say something to her and he thought this might just be the time to do it. “You look very happy, my dear.”
“I am,” she nodded. It was stated plainly and without apology.
“I’m glad to hear that. It pleases an old man to see people he cares about happy. You know, I knew Johnny before his mama took him away and he was the happiest child you could imagine, inquisitive like you wouldn’t credit. It cut to the bone to see him return after so many years a different person. He was so angry and hurt and had such a chip on his shoulder. It was frightening to see what kind of man the boy had become, the kind of man he had been forced to become in order to survive. But slowly, in good time, with lots of patience and a perhaps a modicum of understanding, all that started dropping away from him and we started to see a Johnny we could recognise. My dear, what I really want to say is ‘thank you’. You have finished the job that we have all been working on for the last few years. You have finished bringing back that boy. And the fact that he makes you so happy too helps this old man believe in fairy tales again.”
Johnny re-entered the room to see Phoebe walking to Sam and planting a kiss on his forehead. “Woman, if it’s not one friend of mine it’s another. I think I’m gonna have to tie you up if I want to keep you all to myself.”
“Ah, but if you did that, dear heart, think of how many men I’d have coming to my rescue. So instead of getting yourself shot unnecessarily could we come to some arrangement where you’ll just agree to trust me?”
How good it felt that she could joke about him being shot and he could accept it as just that – a joke and not some terrible foreboding. “It’s a deal, honey.”
Teresa returned from the kitchen with the coffee, Murdoch and Jelly came back from speaking to some of the hands and Scott strode back in with the book he had gone to fetch for Sam. They talked of everything and nothing and passed a very agreeable evening. Sam was encouraged to spend the night, an offer he readily accepted as he had already left word as to where he could be found should his services be needed. He liked being around this happy family and was glad he had taken the opportunity to talk to this special young woman.
The night was drawing to a close as first Jelly, then Teresa and finally Sam all took to their rooms. Upon their departure Scott nudged Murdoch and gave him a significant look before stating, “Why brother, isn’t it time you were checking on Barranca, before it gets too late?”
Johnny knew when he was being ribbed and accepted the playful banter with good grace. “You know Boston, I was just about to ask you to join me but it sounds like it might be too much for you at this hour. Guess I’ll have to go alone.”
“I’ll come again.” It wasn’t said loudly, but neither was it said softly. It was just stated clearly, as a matter of fact. And with that they walked out together, leaving Scott and Murdoch to contemplate where Johnny would be spending the night this time.
As they approached the barn she wondered why he kept falling behind instead of walking next to her. “What’s the matter, cowboy? Do you want to be alone with your horse?”
“Nope. I wanna be alone with you, though.” And he reached for her. How he delighted in her willingness. Never did she pull back or shy away. There was no pretence of coyness. Just honesty and openness, a touch of naivete and an endearing, trusting curiosity.
Their kiss was long and languorous and after a time, as one, they felt the need to stop and draw breath. She leaned her head against his chest and was pleased it seemed to be heaving at the same pace as hers.
“Don’t s’pose there’s any chance of a mid-summer wedding?” That brought a smile to her lips and a shine to her eyes.
“Honey, I’m going to treat that as a joke, not because I wouldn’t welcome it but because it would be the death of poor Teresa. But I’m glad you too feel that way.”
He buried his face in her hair and delighted in her fragrance. This was such sweet agony for him. The trouble was, just lately he had been doubting himself. He so wanted to make her first time something amazing, to be remembered forevermore with joy and wonder. Never before had he had cause to doubt his ability with the fairer sex – quite the contrary in fact – but this woman was something else again. He questioned being able to live up to his own expectations. The anticipation was devouring him.
She noticed a change had come over him and querulously looked up into those amazing blue eyes of his. “I bet they’re worth more than a penny,” she ventured.
“Not tonight, querida.” And she lay her head back against his chest.
= = =
They returned to the Great Room, knowing Murdoch and Scott would be waiting, and she left the Lancer men to talk.
“So, brother, off to the bunkhouse again?”
Sunday began much as the previous day had but this time they could plan their whole day together. They decided to take their usual weekly ride out to what they had begun to think of as ‘their’ mesa. They enjoyed the fact that no-one knew where they were headed or when they’d be back. They’d packed lunch, courtesy of Teresa and Maria, then begged their leave for time alone together. In Johnny’s words, “Courtin’ sure is hard work” and they treasured every opportunity to be alone together, despite Murdoch’s stern looks and cautionary words. Instead of riding out today on horseback they had decided to take the buggy which meant Phoebe had a chance to wear a skirt. She put great thought into which skirt and blouse combination was best and from the look Johnny gave her as she joined him outside it had been worth it. As they waved goodbye Johnny yelled, “Hey T’resa. Don’t hold dinner for us, we may be late.”
“Not too late, young man. You’ve got to get Phoebe home at a reasonable hour.” Who else but Murdoch would be thinking such a thing when they had the whole blissful day ahead of them?
= = =
She loved riding with him. His fluid grace on that fractious palomino was a joy to behold and she often held back just a little so she could watch them moving as one. It never lasted long, of course, as he always reined Barranca in to rejoin her when he noticed she wasn’t keeping up. One day she’d have to tell him just why she wasn’t keeping up. Occasionally, he’d accept her encouragement and give his golden horse his head and she thrilled at studying the power they shared. Today, however, the buggy was a pleasant change as it gave them more chance to talk.
They finally reached the mesa and she knew Johnny would release the mare and care for her first so she pulled out the rug for them to sit on once he was through. They nestled in and once again marvelled at how well they fit together. They had a good view from up there and they soaked in the vision that was Lancer as they talked of the future. The near future, the distant future, their shared future. A future together forever. Somehow their appetite was not for the packed lunch in the buggy.
Lunchtime had come and gone long before they stirred themselves but rather than eat there they decided to move on to be nearer the river. The view was not as good but it felt cooler down by the water and the one thing they needed now was to cool down.
Blissful hours of togetherness by the riverbank passed seemingly in moments until they knew, without words, that it was time to head back. He harnessed the horse as she packed their things then he lifted her lightly into the buggy and settled in close beside her. They still had not eaten.
They had barely gone any distance when the horse managed to find the only gopher hole this side of the river. The horse went over and left the buggy tilting precariously while the mare’s panicked struggles failed to free herself. After lifting Phoebe down Johnny went over to check on the horse. He cut the tangled reins and examined the damage. His head hanging, he came back to her and said, “You may want to walk over that way a bit.”
“Her leg is broken?”
He nodded numbly and she thanked God that they hadn’t been riding that day. What if he had had to shoot Barranca as he was now going to have to shoot the mare? It didn’t bear thinking about. They really should have been paying more attention to where they were going and less to each other.
“I’m okay, Johnny. I know what you have to do.” She stood her ground as he made his way morosely back to the struggling horse. She knew this was going to distress him and she wanted to be close.
The single shot echoed across the valley.
He sank to his knees as the echoes faded and she ran to be by his side. But of course there never is just one gopher hole anywhere and as she flew towards him she was mindless of where she trod and found herself repeating the actions of the poor horse. She cried out in alarm and pain and before she could blink he had turned, crouched and drawn his gun, cool eyes searching for the danger. “I’m okay, cowboy. Just twisted my ankle. Are you going to shoot me too?”
At least it brought a half a smile. He returned his weapon to his holster and picked her up ever so gently, carrying her down to the water’s edge where he delicately removed her boot and stocking and held her foot in the icy water, hoping to bring down the swelling that had already started.
“I like it when you carry me, Johnny. I feel so… safe? Protected? I’m not sure what I feel. But I like it.”
“Then I promise to do it forever, any time you want to feel safe. Or protected. Or whatever.” He was frowning.
“I’m sorry, Johnny.”
“Nothin’ to be sorry for.” He massaged her ankle under water.
“You’re looking thoughtful. What are we going to do? There’s no horse now and I can’t walk far on this foot.”
“Well, I did just promise I’d carry you anytime. And I will.”
“I am not going to let you carry me back to the house, Johnny. It took hours to get here in the buggy. Why, even walking without carrying me would take you an age.”
“Sure am pleased ta hear you say that, honey. It wasn’t something I was relishing.”
She smiled. “So what do you propose?”
“Well, there don’t seem to be too many options. I could probably carry you up to the nearest line shack but I don’t reckon that’s such a good idea.” He hadn’t told her where he had spent the last two nights. Or why. “No way I’m gonna walk back to get help and leave you here alone. Nope, I reckon all we can do is set up camp and wait for help to find us. Murdoch will have a posse out on my tail in no time. They’ll see the fire we light.”
“Johnny, you do remember telling Teresa we may be late for dinner?”
“So it’s likely to be some time before they come looking for us.”
“In fact, looking for us in the dark without even knowing the direction we headed in is probably foolish.”
“And that’s why you’re setting up a camp, before it gets too dark to see?”
“Will you kiss me now, my man of few words?”
“Yep.” And he did. Nothing slow there.
= = =
She stayed soaking her ankle in the icy stream while he went about gathering wood and water. He started a fire and made coffee for them then set out their lunch, which had become their dinner. Luckily Maria often spoiled Johnny and had once again sent him off with more than enough food for what they had planned. He had their blanket a cosy distance from the fire and he carried her back from the river and placed her down on it gently.
“Here, let me take off your other boot too,” he urged.
“Do you really think that will make a difference to the swelling of this ankle?”
“Nope. But it will let me look at both your bare legs.” She obliged him, though strangely felt a little shy at knowing his eyes were blatantly soaking in the sight of her body. It sent sharp tingles down her spine that weren’t at all unpleasant. Maybe this was the night for answers to questions she didn’t know how to ask.
= = =
The sun was setting and still no-one had come near them. There were no cries, no shots being fired to get their attention. Not that they’d expected it yet. Murdoch had probably made noises about sending someone to find them but Scott would have urged patience. After all, trouble might have a habit of finding Johnny but things always worked out fine in the end.
For the fifth time Johnny leapt up to fetch more wood or stoke the fire or do anything other than stay where he was. His desire for the woman lying under the blanket had been at war with his love and respect for her and, despite his resolve, he had questioned his usually firm control. Keeping his distance seemed the only logical solution to his dilemma. It didn’t help that she was now looking at him with a hunger and a need that matched his own.
“Johnny, please come back to me.”
“Don’t think that’s a good idea, my love.”
“I do, Johnny. Please. I’m not afraid. I need you and I want you here.”
“I can’t. I don’t want to hurt you,” was all he could offer by way of explanation.
“Oh Johnny, how can you not understand yet? I know what you’re trying to do but I’m a big girl now and I know what I want and what I need. What I don’t need is a wedding band on my finger in order to know you love me. I don’t need anything other than here and now.” She paused, then slyly smiled. “Oh, wait. I see. Well, it’s understandable that you’d be nervous, your first time and all, what with wanting to get it right,” she teased. “Guess maybe you haven’t been paying enough attention around the ranch each spring, cowboy.”
He chuckled quietly, but kept his head bowed as he slowly, sadly, shook it. “You know that ain’t it. I’ve told you more than enough about my life for you to know full well you ain’t the first. And right now my love, I’m kinda sorry about that.” He risked raising his head ever so slightly and looking at her through his unruly hair that had fallen like a veil over his eyes.
“Don’t be sorry. Just think of all the best times you’ve had and we’ll make this time better. Please? Don’t make me beg you Johnny. It’s demeaning and I’m beginning to think that you don’t want this as much as I do.”
“You can’t believe that.” His voice was thick with emotion.
“Show me I’m wrong then,” she challenged. He rejoined her under their single blanket, despite his misgivings.
“Phoebe, love, I just want so much for your first time to be perfect for you. Not here, not now.”
“Johnny,” she murmured, as she rolled onto her back and snuggled closer to him. His arm encircled her as he leant down to take in her delectable perfume. “What do you feel under us?”
“Packed earth… and more than a few rocks.”
“Johnny, that’s not just any earth, that’s Lancer earth. Now is there any place more beautiful, more special, than Lancer? Could there be a better place than here?”
“I reckon not.”
“Now look up. Do you honestly think there could be a better time?”
Slowly he raised his eyes and he could see what she meant. The warm night was perfect. The moon was only a sliver of light and the stars were sprinkled thickly across the night sky. Dios, he was strong, but even he wasn’t that strong. He silently cursed himself for not having vowed he would wait. Instead, he had arrogantly assumed he’d just be able to remain in control of himself. But her arguments were very convincing. There had never been a better time or place. While she waited quietly he lay there lost in his thoughts for a very long while, before finally reaching around his neck and carefully removing his cherished medallion. With a look full of promise he reverently placed it around her neck. She didn’t need to hear his words to know that this is what would make her different, special. They simply looked into each other’s eyes and read the promises they contained. After an eternity he bent over and kissed her tenderly. She responded eagerly and they quickly found themselves lost in their longing at last.
= = =
Murdoch, Scott, Jelly and Cipriano had headed four search parties looking for them around dusk but they realised the task was pointless so they gave up before too long, knowing that whatever had happened Johnny would keep them both safe until morning. Murdoch wasn’t even unduly concerned for Phoebe’s reputation. He had studied his younger son’s behaviour over the last few days and felt Phoebe was safe with him. It didn’t necessarily sit well with him but he acknowledged that Scott’s arguments in favour of waiting until morning were convincing.
Murdoch had the search parties out again at first light but unfortunately the couple had kept very quiet about where they were headed off to and so they were forced to send men in all directions.
= = =
In the morning they were slow to rouse themselves from under the blanket. It hadn’t taken much encouragement for them to repeat last night’s efforts though this time in bright sunlight not soft starlight. They discovered a new dimension to their love-making.
“Come on,” he said finally, patting her bottom, “time to get dressed. We don’t want to be found with our pants down.”
“I’m glad you were first,” she whispered. “Thank you.”
“Oh no, querida, you don’t get away with that. I’m the one to be thanking you. That gift you gave me was priceless.” He held her hands in his and kissed the tips of her fingers. “But there is one thing you have to do for me now.”
“Wait ‘til you hear what it is, sweetheart. We’re not going to do this again until after the wedding. This was a wonderful, wondrous time. But we’re not repeating it until then. I’m not going to go skulking around behind Murdoch’s back, trying to snatch moments with you. We have to be able to do this as freely and openly as we have here. I’m not going to let this become crude and cheap. And if that means we have to wait just a few more weeks then so be it. Will you agree? Because that’s my compromise.”
It was the least she could do for him after he had given her so much. “Agreed,” she nodded. Then smiled, “But I don’t reckon it will be easy.”
“You ain’t wrong there.”
They started breaking camp.
Despite the soaking in the icy stream her ankle had swollen to twice its normal size and there was simply no way she was walking anywhere. At least last night had left her with little chance to dwell on the ache in her ankle. She winced as she got to her feet and he noticed, rushing to her side in a flash. “Are you okay? How’s your ankle?” He lifted her and started carrying her back to the river.
“Darling, thank you, but it’s not my ankle that’s hurting.” He looked at her sharply then realised what she meant.
“Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry. I tried to be so gentle.” There was the hurt in his eyes again.
“Hush, silly. You were remarkably gentle.” She put her fingers to his lips. “It’s not a complaint and it’s really not that bad. In fact, it’s quite a pleasant sensation. It reminds me of where you have been. Of where we have been.” She really had to stop looking at him that way. And he at her.
Finally they heard horses coming from over the ridge, the direction away from the hacienda, but he figured those searching for them must have ridden around in a circle hoping to zero in on the missing couple.
Johnny whistled to them. “Hey!” he yelled. “Over here.”
Johnny looked expectantly at the three horsemen but with the sun in his eyes he had trouble identifying them. They were almost upon them before Johnny realised they weren’t Lancer hands, just drifters looking for work. They looked like brothers and something about them had set off warning signals even though he was sure he’d never seen any of them before. Not wanting to alert them to his concerns, he started manoeuvring himself so that he could casually reach his gun yet leave Phoebe out of the line of fire. With his gun within reach he was quite certain the three of them could pose no threat whatsoever. Chances are they were keen to help them get home anyway as it would improve their chances of being offered work on the ranch. All he had to do was reach his gun without alerting them to that fact.
“Freeze, mister.” Those two simple words chilled him to the bone. With them came the realisation that there wasn’t going to be any easy way out of this. A split second to make a decision and he prayed it wouldn’t be the wrong one. He dived for his gun. He almost made it too. But not quite. The bullet found its mark and he had just long enough to think <<not again>> before he lost consciousness. The pistol whipping he received was just for good measure.
= = =
“It’s about time you came ‘round. Didn’t want to start without you,” one of the strangers sneered. With those disturbing words Johnny’s eyes sought her out. She was lying there, arms bound and tied to the buggy with a gag in her mouth. She was lying still, much too still. The oldest one walked over and kicked her in the side. This drew a response which, while relieving Johnny to see she was still alive, caused him intense pain to see her abused in that way. He started furiously trying to work loose the ropes that bound his arms around a tree.
“Wake up darlin’, it’s time to have us a little fun.” The eldest stranger pulled out a knife and sliced her blouse open. He liked what he saw and warned his younger brothers to watch Johnny, promising that their turns would come. He then proceeded to raise Phoebe’s skirt and the ache in Johnny’s eyes was heart-wrenching to see.
While the others laughed he had his way with her, only pausing to taunt Johnny. “Hey, boy, you had her like this yet?” She moaned and writhed but Johnny prayed she was not fully conscious. He doubted she was because at one point they untied and ungagged her, laughing that she was in no state to go anywhere.
Johnny’s wrists were rubbed raw to the bone, his hands slick with his blood, from his efforts to free himself. But still the bonds held tight.
Three times he could do nothing but watch as they had their fill of her and his helplessness almost killed him. His felt his heart had been shredded and ripped from his chest by their brutality towards her and he was beyond torment at his futile attempts to free himself. He couldn’t stop his useless tears from coursing down his cheeks.
Suddenly, something inside him snapped and the eyes that looked up were no longer those of Johnny Lancer but of Johnny Madrid, whom he had hoped would never have to surface again. He memorised every inch of their captors, their shared fairer than fair hair, their cleft chins, their build and height, their dark lifeless eyes. Yes, he’d recognise them again – from a thousand yards on a dark, dark night. They’d never be able to hide from him.
“You’re gonna die for this,” was all he softly said.
“Don’t look that way from here, young fella,” laughed the eldest brother. “You’re the one tied up. Still, mebbe you are a might miffed and we’d be better off finishing the job proper like.” In Johnny’s mind they’d live to regret their mocking – but not for long.
Willy, the youngest, was chilled by what he saw in those cold blue eyes. “C’mon Hank, we oughta be gettin’ outta here.”
“First Willy, you’re gonna fill our water bottles while Bruce fetches the horses. They’ve been nicely rested and we’ll make good time. I’ll take care of business here.”
Johnny knew that unless he did something soon he, and probably Phoebe too, hadn’t long to live.
When Willy and Bruce took off in opposite directions to do as they’d been told, Hank started gathering up their saddles. Johnny could see Hank was far enough away to risk whispering to her. He could see she was in fact conscious, but didn’t seem aware of where she was or what was happening. “Querida, his knife is just near your left hand. Get it and cut these ropes now. Please, querida, please,” he begged her. “Phoebe, honey, can you hear me?” This said a little more stridently as he struggled to control his rising panic. “Phoebe! You gotta do it now. We may not have another chance.”
Her eyes were hollow but something he said seemed to get through to her and he watched her slowly seek out the knife. She reached for it and stood up, swaying with the effort.
“Good girl. Now get over here and cut these ropes. Quickly. Before they see you.”
She moved, but not towards Johnny. “Phoebe, darling love, please come back here now,” he pleaded. Instead, she headed towards the eldest brother as if in a trance and Johnny felt something in his chest turn into a small hard lump.
The eldest brother heard her as she was almost upon him and he spun around with his gun ready. But when he saw her he laughed mirthlessly and lowered his weapon. He realised she was in a kind of stupor. She posed no threat to him – that is, right up until she plunged the knife into his neck, all the way to the hilt. He gurgled and looked shocked as his blood spurted from between his fingers, but within seconds he had crumpled and fallen to the ground noiselessly.
She looked down at him dispassionately with the knife still clutched in her hand for far too long before responding to Johnny’s frantic whispers to her to free him. She turned in his direction and he watched the trail of blood slowly drip from the knife into the dust as she tottered towards him. Each drop was a remnant of her innocence being drained away and discarded. As if in a dream she spliced the ropes restraining Johnny, barely registering the state of his torn and bloodied wrists and the blood seeping from his side and his head.
Suddenly, both other brothers returned to the campsite and took in the carnage. It happened in a flash.
As Bruce raised his gun Johnny dove for his and came up shooting. Bruce was dead before he had hit the ground. At the same time Phoebe had thrown the knife she was still holding at the youngest one, Willy, who was coming from the opposite direction. Not even realising what she was doing, she had just hit out at one of the men who had hurt her. He fell to the ground writhing with the knife poking out of his stomach. He wasn’t dead, not yet. Johnny had spun around ready to take him out but saw he was already on his way down and trying in vain to scramble backwards away from them. Johnny walked over to him and considered what pleasure it would bring him to watch this man’s lifeblood seep into the dust as the lethal stomach wound slowly robbed him of his life, before he calmly shot him between the eyes.
He methodically checked all three men were dead then whirled back to face her. “Are you alright?” Stupid question. Why had he asked it? Of course she wasn’t alright. Maybe nothing could ever be alright again. “C’mon Phoebe, we can take their horses to get back to the ranch.”
She didn’t move. He looked at her. She was shaking uncontrollably but had had the sense to wrap a blanket around herself. Why hadn’t he thought to do that for her? What was wrong with him? He had to get her back home immediately. He knew he was losing it. He gathered the reins of two horses. Dios, he’d never felt this angry in his life and the worst of it was that his anger was all directed at himself. He had to get a grip on himself and get her back to safety. He could barely think straight. Where was Johnny Madrid now? He rapidly saddled two horses then bundled her up and hoisted her as gently as possible on to one. It still caused her to cry out in pain and torment and his tears returned unbidden. This was no longer any pleasant sensation for her. Oh what had he done? Was it fair that she pay the price for his lack of control? If there was judgement to be had then he was the one who deserved it. He was getting little response from her so he took once last appraising look at their abandoned campsite then threw himself into the other saddle for the long ride back to Lancer, knowing he had to get them to help as soon as possible. He couldn’t stay here and wait for help to find them - she needed help now. He could barely hold the reins with the condition of his wrists, and his wounds had left him light-headed, but he had to get them both back to the house. He was certain she had gone into shock and all he could think was <<Please, Sam, please be there for her still.>> It never occurred to him that he may be going into shock as well.
They rode as fast as their horses and their injuries would allow them. He couldn’t ease up on her, he just had to get her home. How did she look? What would they tell the others? Could you tell just from looking at them what had happened? Would she be okay? How had he let this happen? Why…? Why…? Why…? The questions came too fast to answer.
The whole way home she wouldn’t answer his questions, wouldn’t even lift her head. There was just one moment on the long ride when he thought he heard her softly sigh, “I’m glad you were the first.” Or perhaps it was only what he wanted to hear her to say.
His feelings of guilt were overwhelming. He had let her down. And Dios, that was putting it mildly. He’d never felt such anguish before. He hadn’t been able to save her and now he couldn’t face her. Hell, she’d done more to save herself than he had. Her innocence was well and truly lost. And all he had to show was a graze on his side, a bump on his head and two sore wrists where he’d try to struggle free. It was pitiful when he thought of the beatings and injuries he’d survived in the past. What had happened this time? His shame threatened to overwhelm him so he maintained his focus on just getting her away from the scene of his shame and back to safety and the comfort of other people who loved her.
Her feelings of shame were overwhelming. He’d witnessed what had happened to her and she couldn’t face him. She couldn’t blame him for not being able to look her in the eye. Hell, she could understand that because she couldn’t face herself either. Why hadn’t she fought harder? How could something that started out so beautiful end up so corrupted? She started believing that this was God’s judgement, a judgement she deserved for forcing an honourable man to do something against his better judgement. She deserved what had happened. She deserved the pain that every stride of the horse was causing her. She deserved her shame. She deserved it all.
Johnny’s relief as the hacienda came into view was palpable. Help was finally at hand. They had been met back down the road by some of the hands and, as they too were on horseback, without a wagon that would have made her journey easier, he opted to send them galloping ahead to find his family and warn them that they were coming.
They were almost there when she suddenly reined in her mount. He pulled up and came back to her. “Phoebe, come on. We’re almost there.”
“I can’t.” She shook her head without raising her eyes.
“Sweetheart, you need attention.”
“Oh no, you’re wrong. Attention is the last thing I need now. I just want to go home.” She made to turn her horse’s head but Johnny reached over frantically and snatched her horse’s bridle.
“I can’t let you do that. You need to see a doctor. Sam will still be there, waiting for us.”
“I can’t face them.” She felt wooden.
“Let me help you.” He freed the reins from her clenched fist and cast an eye over her. The blanket, still wrapped around her shaking shoulders, concealed her torn blouse. And her bare feet, her beautiful bare feet? A sob rose unbidden to his throat. Well, no-one would be much disturbed by bare feet. After all, she had hurt her ankle. They’d all be too pleased to see them back safely to worry. Safely? He shook his head to clear the thought but it only increased the throbbing that had become his constant companion.
“Come on, Phoebe. Let’s get it over with.”
= = = = = = =
Somehow they made it through the swirl of madness that greeted them on the patio and as Phoebe was led to her guest room by Teresa, Johnny got out the main points of the story – the horse and buggy, the sprained ankle, and finally that they had been bushwhacked. He warned Murdoch where to find three bodies that needed to be taken care of, but he refused to be drawn into discussing it any further.
Sam had stayed, naturally, and the copious amount of Johnny’s blood on his shirt and down his hands made it appear that he was the injured one so Sam moved directly to him.
“No Doc, I’m fine. Please see to Phoebe.”
He was used to being brushed off by this patient for whom admitting to pain or injury was close to impossible. But something in Johnny’s look stopped him from arguing this time and instead he made his way to Phoebe’s room, where Teresa had already escorted his next patient. Sam knocked and entered the room to see Teresa’s attempts to remove the blanket from Phoebe’s shoulders being firmly rebuffed.
“It’s okay, Teresa. I’ll take over here. Could you please go see to Johnny? He needs a lot of cleaning up before I can check him over. And you know what a difficult patient he can be. I’d be grateful for your help.” The young woman looked worriedly at Phoebe, who still showed no signs of moving, then acquiesced to the doctor’s wishes.
After Teresa closed the bedroom door Sam sat down on the edge of the bed. He had been a doctor long enough to have some notion as to what Phoebe’s problem was.
“Dear girl, I think I have some idea of what you’ve been through. I know you don’t want me to, but I have to examine you.”
She shook her head violently. “I’m fine.”
Lord, where had he heard those words before?
“You really need to let me judge that. There’s a chance you may need stitches or dressings and I’d rather do it before Teresa returns. Remember, Phoebe I’m your doctor and anything we say or do is a secret between us. I’ll never tell anyone. You’re safe now.”
She looked at him and found a measure of trust so she lay back on the bed. She shrugged off the blanket and he examined her bruised body as she turned her head and cast her gaze out the window. The bruises were painful and unsightly but they would heal. The ribs didn’t feel to be broken. Nor her ankle. But the rest of her? “Phoebe, I’ll take your blouse with me and dispose of it. Do you understand what I’m saying?” She nodded feebly, tears welling at his kindness. “Okay, good girl,” he murmured soothingly. “You’re doing well. Now, I need to lift your skirt.” Back came that haunted look to her eyes as she dragged herself painfully to a sitting position and struggled to put distance between herself and the doctor. Again she shook her head violently.
“As soon as we’ve done this I’ll make sure we run you a nice, deep, hot bath. Don’t you think that would help? I’ll stay with you as long as you need and help you in any way I can. Johnny’s in good hands. Now let me help you.”
Too exhausted to fight him any longer she let him lift her skirt. She closed her eyes.
= = = = = = = =
Scott and Murdoch entered Johnny’s room as Sam was finishing treating his injuries. The fresh bandages on Johnny’s head, side and wrists were silent testament to what he had suffered. “Alright Johnny, we’ve given you time. Now I want some answers.”
“Sometimes, Murdoch there just aren’t any answers. Least none that make sense.”
“Why don’t you just start at the beginning for us?” cajoled his brother.
“Nothin’ more to tell. We went for a ride, horse went down a gopher hole, had ta shoot it, Phoebe went down a gopher hole, didn’t shoot her.”
Murdoch was dangerously close to blowing steam from his ears. “This is no joke, son. We got that part of the story before. I want to know what do you think you were doing keeping that girl out all night? And how did we end up with three dead men on our land?”
Johnny leaped off the bed, his eyes flashing, his body trembling with barely controlled rage. Ominously he moved toward his father. As his son's actions threatened to erupt in violence, Murdoch took one hesitant step backwards, once more widening the distance between them. Never before had Johnny's fury with his father escalated to such a fevered pitch.
“And what exactly would you have had me do, Old Man? Come on, tell me, ‘cos I can’t think of any other way out of it. And believe me, I’ve tried. Would it have been better if I’d left her there alone up there and walked back? Would it? Leave her alone for three strangers to find? Or maybe I should have carried her. With that option we might have been within sight of the house by about this time tomorrow. Would that have made you happier? Oh, I forgot, what about carrying her to the line shack? Now there’s a good idea. Why didn’t I consider that one, I wonder? Ah, what the hell, I shoulda just shot her and made my own way back.” Johnny’s voice had risen in both volume and tempo as he went on. Why was it that with Murdoch Johnny always slackened his customary restraint?
Scott laid a gentle yet restraining arm on his brother who violently shrugged it away. Sam alone could understand what was driving Johnny so, but he knew he could say nothing now.
“Leave me alone Scott. I’m in no mood for your peace-making ways now.”
“I just wanted to say Johnny that the decision you made was, in hindsight, the best option. There really was no other choice, you had to wait for us to come to you. I just want to apologise for us not finding you sooner.”
Much as Johnny was in no mood to hear it, he was grateful for his brother’s support. Again. He dropped his head as much of his anger subsided and was replaced by fatigue and pain.
It must have worked on Murdoch too because his next question was much gentler and revealed more concern than anger on his part. “We just need to know what happened out there so we can report it to Val. Clearly those men attacked you and you had to defend Phoebe. Nobody’s going to blame you for that. But for God’s sake Johnny, be reasonable. You’ve killed three men and we need to set the record straight.”
His head remained bowed as he wondered, not for the first time, what to tell them. He didn’t mind one little bit letting them think he’d done all the killing. It’s what they all expected anyway.
“I wanna talk to Phoebe first. I gotta see that she’s okay.”
Sam spoke up. “I’ve already told you several times Johnny, she’s fine. I’ve checked her over and helped her have a good long soak in a hot tub. That did her a world of good. She is bruised from where she was kicked and bound and she was in shock but nothing’s broken and now she’s resting.” <<Why was the boy being so obtuse? Couldn’t he read between the lines?>>
“Johnny, honestly, she is okay,” ventured Scott gently. “Just now she wants to be alone. All of this must have been very draining on her so naturally she wants to rest. She doesn’t want to see or speak to anyone other than Sam. Not Teresa, not us, and…” At this he hesitated, not wanting to cause his brother any further pain.
“And not you, Johnny. She just wants time alone.” He hated to hurt his brother this way, but it had to be said.
Johnny’s anguish was poised to engulf him again. His body shuddered and threatened to betray him. So she didn’t want to see him. He could understand why. He deserved it. He figured she was waiting to see him alone, working up the courage to tell him she could no longer consider marrying such a useless, pathetic man. <<Damn her pretty lies. Well let’s get it over with.>> He still loved her deeply and wanted to make it as easy as possible for her. She’d been through enough hurt and he didn’t want to be the cause of any more. He wouldn’t cause a scene. Johnny stormed out of the room, leaving his family with their questions unanswered.
Her door was closed. He knocked tentatively at first, but receiving no reply, he banged on the door harder. It sounded impatient, leaving her with little doubt as to who it was.
“Johnny, please leave me be. I don’t want to see you right now.” Phoebe’s voice was faint but clear.
He entered her room anyway and closed the door behind him, leaning back against it, arms across his chest, head drooping. She was sitting up in bed. She sighed, as she could guess what was coming and she didn’t feel up to any more hurt today. As she looked up at him she took in the fresh white bandages across his tanned skin, thinking once again what an unbearably handsome man she loved. The bandages were clear signs for all to see how valiantly he had struggled to help her. She had never loved him more than she did at that moment and she dreaded hearing him voice his disapproval of her.
Now that he was here, with her alone, he didn’t quite know where to begin. All he wanted to do was hold her in his arms for the rest of his life. His love knew no bounds but it was obvious his intrusion now was unwelcome. He had come to get it over with so he drew a deep breath.
“I guess the wedding oughta be put off for a while.” He chanced a glance in her direction.
With those words something inside her chest turned into a small hard lump. All she could do was nod numbly. How could she have hurt so badly this faithful man she had sworn to love and cherish her whole life?
“I’ll let my family know.” She nodded to that too.
He stood there, she sat there, yet they may as well have been continents apart.
Finally she could stand it no more. She started to get out of bed. “Please ask Sam to wait for me. I’ll head back into town with him, if that’s okay. I just need to pack my things.”
“If that’s what you want. You know Murdoch and the others would be much happier if you stayed here for a bit.” Only Murdoch and the others?
“I think it would be for the best. I need to finish Mr. Andersen’s shirt so he can pick it up tomorrow, as I promised.” Did she always keep her promises?
They both stood in the room for what seemed an eternity, neither looking into the other’s eyes to see the pain they shared. The six feet between them may as well have been a yawning chasm for neither could bridge it.
He finally tore the door open and escaped the scene of their despair.
= = =
Johnny had let all of three and a half weeks pass before venturing into town again, though he’d allowed his family to believe he’d been checking on Phoebe all along, just so they wouldn’t worry. He knew Sam was doing all he could for her and that gave him some measure of relief. Besides, his family had been driving him mad with their concern. He didn’t want to foist that upon Phoebe on top of everything else she’d been through. He truly believed that by giving her time he was doing the right thing by her. His bandages were off now but his injuries were going to take much longer to heal.
His first stop was the sheriff’s office. There he found out from Val that the men ‘he’ had killed were indeed brothers, named Broughton, who had warrants out against them. There were no charges to be laid as it was clearly a case of self-defence. He thought of how many men he had killed whose names he would never know and wished the Broughton brothers could have been numbered with them. Instead he feared the name would haunt him forever. He thanked Val for the news but declined his offer of coffee, or anything stronger. He had something more important to do.
He considered stopping to see Sam but he’d been so short with the kindly doctor in recent weeks, despite the old man’s encouragement to talk, that he felt too embarrassed to go to him now.
With the news of their attackers in hand he steeled himself to face Phoebe for the first time since she had left the ranch. He figured by staying away so long he had allowed them both more than enough time to consider what they had to say to each other so there’d be no misunderstandings. But as he approached her door he still had no idea what he wanted to say. Beg her forgiveness and plead with her to come back to him? He’d gladly have done that to keep his dearest love. Why, he’d have done that crawling on his hands and knees over an ocean of broken glass if that’s what it would take to get her back into his arms. But if she didn’t want him, he could not make it hard on her. He owed her that much. He had no idea what to expect. He knocked anyway.
She opened the door and the change in her body when she saw it was him answered his question as to what he should say. She still couldn’t look him in the eye. In frustration he pounded the wall beside him which caused her to flinch. Never before had he seen her cringe or shy away and the sight of that simple action tore him apart. So much had changed. Was it only him she feared and drew away from now, or was it how she faced the world?
“Are you gonna ask me in?” This was said more with sadness and weariness than expectation.
She hesitated, only for a fraction of a second, but it was long enough to convey a message Johnny didn’t want to hear.
“Of course, come in.” She stood well back to let him pass then followed behind, moving on to the kitchen to make coffee for them. She noticed he was standing in the doorway watching her every move. She didn’t know he was hungrily drinking in the sight of her after so long apart because her shame stopped her from meeting his gaze. She kept making coffee as it gave her something to do.
Where to begin? “I told them to postpone the wedding.”
What could she say to that? It had been so long since she had last seen him, did he even realise they had been due to be married in just four days time? Silence hung in the air for far too long. Without a response he felt compelled to continue.
“Should I have said ‘cancel’ it?”
Of course, she knew he couldn’t marry her after this. She knew this day would come. She strove to retain her dignity and to remain strong. She had to get him out the door before she lost control and threw herself into his arms, begging his forgiveness, pleading with him to hold her and never let her go.
“It’s probably for the best.”
“I’ll take care of it. Teresa will be happy to help.” He grimaced. He hadn’t actually meant to say ‘happy’ but it’s just the way he always thought of Teresa – as happy.
Another interminable pause. This seemed like all there was between them since… since that day. How could they break the deadlock? The memory of that precious night had fled and all that was left for each of them was memory of the morning that had followed.
Another knock on the door shook them out of their contemplations.
Phoebe gratefully accepted the opportunity to flee the tension in the room and returned from answering the door with Mrs Turner in tow.
“Thank you so much my dear for sewing those trousers at such short notice. Why just the other day I was telling… Oh, Mr Lancer, how nice to see you. It’s been quite some time since your dear father has …”
He didn’t hear the rest of what she had to say. He snatched up his hat, pushed it firmly on his head and with a barely polite, “Scuse me, ladies,” he fled the house. He was dreading the scene to be played out at Lancer on his return but even that would be a welcome respite from the scene he had just left.
Being left alone with Mrs Turner, Phoebe ushered the older woman out the door as quickly as she could. She knew she was losing her self-control and wanted to be alone when it hit her. Once the door was firmly closed and she found herself alone at last, she gave herself up to her grief. She sank to the floor and remained there sobbing for… minutes? hours?
After a time she stood up, and feeling cramped and sore, went back resignedly to making the coffee she had started so long before. Suddenly she flung the coffee pot at the wall. She had so much to say to him yet she’d said nothing. Instead, all she could think of was what she hadn’t told him, couldn’t tell him and wouldn’t tell him, at least not yet.
She was ‘late’ and had strong suspicions she could be expecting. But whose baby was it she was expecting? She had survived the loss of her mother, her father and her home but never before had she felt quite this alone.
Four weeks later.
If there had been uproar at Johnny’s news that the wedding was to be ‘postponed’, it was nothing compared to the storm that surrounded his announcement it was now ‘cancelled’. Johnny refused to be drawn on the cause of this decision. He steadfastly maintained that it was a private decision that he and Phoebe had made together. Finally his family reluctantly agreed to leave the couple alone.
That Johnny refused to answer their questions left them either fuming or perplexed, or indeed both, and created a tense environment for them all. Meal times in particular were difficult with unasked questions hanging thickly between them. Johnny’s words and actions had raised questions but his family knew that much as they may rant and rail and wheedle and cajole that the shutters were firmly closed and nothing, but nothing, would be had from the mouth of Johnny Lancer.
To spare Johnny some of the heartache he was so obviously feeling, Murdoch and Teresa graciously took over the unpleasant task of cancelling the wedding and fielding questions from the already invited guests. But without knowledge as to what had happened they really had no other recourse than to repeat Johnny’s line that it had been a private and mutually agreed upon decision. Silently, each member of the household was praying that the old adage that time heals all wounds would prove correct in this instance.
The only one who refused, albeit it silently, to accept this turn of events was Scott. He had not reached the bottom of it yet but he intended to keep trying. He’d seen the love with which they looked at each other and he couldn’t believe it could die overnight. There must have been more to the story of that day… and night. And, knowing what a tough nut to crack Johnny was, he turned his attention instead to Phoebe.
For weeks now Scott had been visiting Phoebe in town without telling Johnny. He was sorry to be deceiving Johnny in this way but he felt compelled. Unfortunately, Phoebe was proving to be just as retractable as his stubborn, pig-headed, uncommunicative brother.
On this day Scott and Jelly had just returned from town, a job they shared exclusively now that Johnny had developed an unnatural disinclination to make the trip. Scott left the job of unloading the wagon to Jelly who was punctuating the task with his highly vocalised complaints. The news Scott had for Johnny couldn’t wait. He found his brother alone. So much the better.
“Phoebe’s left town. There’s no news of where she’s headed.”
He could tell this information had hit home from the way Johnny stiffened.
“You’ve got to go after her.” It came out as an order and that’s exactly as he’d meant it.
Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm and twisted it, almost viciously, to make his brother face him. “You can’t mean to just let her go. You’d be a fool to do that. Look, I know you still love her.”
“And that, brother” he spat out the epithet, “is precisely why I am letting her go. She’s too good for a pathetic, useless …” He dropped his head.
“Oh, pray, don’t stop there, little brother. Let’s wallow some more in all this self-pity.”
Johnny spun on his heel and strode away.
“Oh no you don’t. Not this time.” He chased after his younger sibling and stood barring his way, gripping his arms and looking him in the eye.
“This has gone on long enough. For once in your life Johnny, let me in. Let me help. Trust me. Tell me what happened that day. My life has changed too because of it and I don’t know how to support you because I don’t know what happened. All I have are suspicions and rumors and I won’t act on those. Please? Please, Johnny, talk to me.”
“It’s too hard, Scott.” It was uttered as a whisper.
“Can we try? Please?”
He waited. He knew he had pushed enough for now.
It turned out to be worth the wait. “I let her down.”
Scott took a moment to digest these four simple words. He pushed his hat far back on his head. At last his brother was opening up to him and one false move on his part could bring down an impenetrable barrier between them. He tried to choose his words carefully.
“Johnny, when you were with her that night, did you… did you end up doing what you’d been trying so hard to avoid doing?”
All he could do was allow his head a single, almost imperceptible, nod.
“Johnny, I know you’re an honorable man and I know how hard you tried to show you respected her. You went to commendable lengths to do that. But I don’t believe for a moment that Phoebe would have seen that action as a betrayal. In fact, the way she used to look at you brother I’d even suggest, meaning no disrespect at all for that exceptional lady, that she may have found it something of a relief herself. At any rate, that would be all the more reason to go ahead with the wedding, not cancel it and let her walk out of your life.”
“That ain’t all I let her down in Scott.”
“The Broughton brothers?”
“Johnny, we all saw your wounds when you came back. You’d obviously done all you could.”
“Of course, it was enough. You got Phoebe back here safely.”
He slowly shook his head at Scott’s words. He knew he was dangerously close to betraying her trust.
Scott stopped to think.
“Do you mean to say, you didn’t get her back here safely?”
There was no reaction Johnny could make to this. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, go any further – for her sake. He was already overcome with the enormity of what he had done – assisting Scott to make these accurate assessments of that fateful day.
“Oh Johnny. They didn’t.” Scott had finally put it together. “Oh that poor, sweet girl.” Repugnant images flitted through his brain as he pictured the manner in which his brother had acquired his wounds. He looked down sadly at his brother’s scarred wrists. He felt an overwhelming need to offer his acceptance of Johnny’s actions. “It’s no wonder you killed them.”
Johnny laughed mirthlessly. “Scott, even that wasn’t the end of my betrayal. I couldn’t even do that for her. She was on her way to doin’ that all by herself. All I could do was clean up the mess a bit at the end. She sure lost her innocence that day.”
He felt Scott’s arm heavy around his shoulders. For now, that was sufficient.
= = =
Scott had been to town trying to find a forwarding address for Phoebe. He was prepared to do anything to bring his brother and the woman he loved together again. Casually engaging many of her customers in polite conversation, he began to suspect she may have headed north. He decided the best way to approach this was in person, as discreetly as possible. His family had had enough dealings with the Pinkertons to his way of thinking.
He approached Murdoch that night. “Murdoch, I have to go away for a few days. I’d rather not go into it right now if your don’t mind but I can reassure you I’ve settled my duties around the ranch as best I could and that I will return as soon as humanly possible.”
He waited for the argument that didn’t come. The older man was weighing up his son’s words thoughtfully. He was tired of secrecy and silence but desperately wanted to build bridges between himself and his sons. “Alright Scott. I’m sure you have good reason and provided you stay safe I think we can cope without you. Only briefly, mind you.” Murdoch smiled benevolently. He was determined to try to treat his sons as the men he knew them to be.
“Thank you, sir.” Scott took his leave to prepare for an early departure.
= = =
In the morning he hoped to get away without seeing Johnny but his trip to the kitchen to gather some supplies found Johnny already ensconced, hoeing into biscuits and coffee. Johnny took in the sight of the slightly bulging saddlebags draped artlessly over Scott’s shoulder. “Where ya off to, Boston?”
He quickly grabbed what he could so as not to give Johnny time to ask too many questions. “I’ll only be gone a few days.” He headed out to the door to an already saddled Charlemagne. Johnny followed his brother outside, grabbing his hat on the way. “Cover my chores ‘til I’m back, little brother?”
“Sure. But you’ll owe me.” The tilt to Johnny’s head and his quizzical expression were the only signs that he had concerns regarding his brother’s actions. But given the reluctance he had shown at answering questions himself lately he knew better than to ask. Besides, it was probably some pretty senorita Scott had eyes for. He’d find out soon enough. It took Scott only a moment to stow his gear. Then after he had mounted Charlemagne, Johnny swatted the horse’s rump with his hat as his brother left him in the dust.
= = =
Scott returned a few days later, as promised, but with an air of despondency. He would not say where he had been but a few weeks later he took off again. His mysterious behaviour was at least taking some of the pressure off Johnny, who chose prudently not to push Scott for answers.
Twice more Scott vanished for a few days. He knew that he couldn’t keep doing this forever and desperately hoped this latest attempt would be successful.
= = =
“Murdoch, I’m leaving again but before you say anything I want to reassure you that this will most probably be the last time I’ll need to. I’m going to Mattingly this time.”
“Scott, this has gone on for months now. I wish you’d let me in on what is troubling you.”
“I expect to have it all sorted out by the time I get back. I’ll fill you in on everything then, sir. Just once more.”
Murdoch sighed in exasperation but knew nothing would be gained by not trusting his elder son.
“Very well, until then.”
= = =
“Scott! What are you doing here? How did you find me? Is Johnny with you? How is everyone?” Phoebe’s exuberant reaction indicated she was obviously delighted to see him.
“Slow down, slow down, princess. How about you give me a big hug and ask me in?”
She crushed him to her and he jumped back with alarm at what he’d felt.
“Sorry,” she stammered and dropped her gaze. “I suppose I should have said something. Warned you or something. I was just so pleased to see you.”
“No worries, Phoebe.” He started to casually remove his gloves, one finger at a time. “How far along are you?”
“Want to do the maths, huh?” She had gone from exaltation to desolation in moments, her bitterness distressing to see.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Phoebe. How rude of me. I just meant… How are you doing? You look well. Are you well?”
“Yes. I was a little sick in the first few months and I dare say that the couple to come may leave me a little awkward and uncomfortable. But I’m fine.”
“How are you… are you making do?”
“I’m still sewing. Fortunately, I’ll be able to do that right up until the birth, and even after, so money is no problem. Thank you for asking Scott, in your own oblique way.”
“I know Johnny would never see you short.”
“What should this have to do with Johnny?” She was beginning to regret having dropped her defences. Her eyes flashed defiance.
“There’s no point dissembling Phoebe. I know the two of you… , er… , gave expression to your love that night. I’d like to say Johnny told me about it, and all that happened the next day too, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. In his own way he is a gentleman. The gaps I had to fill in for myself.”
“Then if you do know everything Scott you should also know that there is no guarantee that this baby is Johnny’s. Oh my, I wonder how often one woman has had so many possibilities for father of her unborn child.” Her voice was tinged with equal portions of regret and bitterness.
“Johnny still has a right to know. He’d want to know. You must understand that Phoebe.”
“I intend to tell Johnny, after the birth. If, and only if, it appears he should know. I would never keep a child from his father. You have to trust me on that, Scott. But please promise me you won’t tell Johnny I’m pregnant. Promise me Scott, I mean it. I know what he’s like and I can’t let him do what his misguided sense of responsibility would cause him to do. Unless I can be certain that this baby is his I will not bring it up with any knowledge whatsoever of Lancer. I couldn’t do that to any of you.”
“So, this is why the wedding was cancelled?”
“Partially, yes. But there was more between us than just this. Once I was positive that I was expecting under such questionable circumstances I knew I couldn’t go ahead with the wedding. But Scott, we’d been headed in that direction anyway. Tell me, do you think he has gotten over the shame he used to feel when he looked at me? He witnessed it all you know. I’m so sorry to have put him through that. I didn’t blame him at all that he couldn’t look me in the eye anymore.”
“Oh Phoebe, princess, you’ve got it all wrong. Johnny still thinks he’s the one at fault. He thinks you can’t bear to face him after he let you down.”
She thought on that for a moment then shook her head resignedly. “It doesn’t really matter anymore. What’s past is past. We have to let this run its course now. Que sera, sera. I can’t see that there is any viable alternative for me. I just have to wait.”
Scott proposed an alternative and somewhat surprising course of action.
“Phoebe, will you marry me? I’ll take good care of you no matter whose child you are carrying. I’ll provide for you and protect you and raise your child as my own. And you won’t need to worry that you’re marrying me under false pretences. I know exactly what I’m in for. I know the baby is not mine.” He even had the grace to drop to one knee before her. She placed her hand tenderly along his cheek and smiled weakly.
“Oh, Scott. Dear sweet Scott. Of course you’d offer me that. Anything to preserve a lady’s honour. But you know I can’t accept. I can’t marry the wrong brother.”
“I’d do all I could to make us both happy, Phoebe.”
“I know you would. But Scott, if I can’t let Johnny do what his misguided honour would cause him to do, do you truly think I would let you? Besides, even if I were to agree, where would we go? Certainly not back to Lancer – your home and your family. Please stand up. I love you dearly, but not that way, more like a very special big brother. Save your selflessness for someone more deserving.”
“You’re not even a little tempted by my proposal?”
“Oh Scott, yes it’s tempting. Why just look at you. You have so much to offer a woman. You are without doubt one of the most handsome men I have ever met and nobody can make a set of clothes look better than you can. You’re tall and well-educated, upright and well-bred. You would make any woman happy. But I’m not the woman for you. It’s like Johnny’s all prickles and you’re all silk. Sadly, I think I could only be happy being prickled. No Scott, I see you with a more mature woman, maybe a widow. Leastways a woman with a sorrowful past. You would be the man to bring happiness back into her life. Oh, Scott, what you’ve just given me is a choice. Up until now I haven’t felt as though I had any choice. Now I have. For that I can’t thank you enough. But I have a choice and I’ve chosen.”
“Phoebe, I can’t bear the thought of your child growing up a …”
“I know you don’t want to say the word Scott but it’s okay. I’ve been using the title Mrs since coming here and the kind folks in town all think I’m a grieving widow. It’s a cruel deception – the widow bit, not the grief - but I couldn’t face the censure of the townsfolk. This way is much better.”
Scott was only marginally relieved at this. It still didn’t change the fact that this baby would be born without a father. And could indeed stay that way.
She saw the way his thoughts were headed. “I mean it, Scott. Don’t dare tell Johnny I’m pregnant or I vow I will never speak to you again. What those men did to me was… wrong. But what I really could never forgive them for was what they did to Johnny. He’s had enough heartache to last a lifetime and I have vowed that I would do everything in my power to protect him from any further anguish. I can’t let you leave here until you promise me you won’t tell him I’m expecting. Do I have your word?”
He reluctantly agreed not to tell Johnny she was pregnant. He’d have to think of another way to reunite the couple. He’d come too far to give up now.
“Johnny, you have to go see her. Mattingly is not really that far. You could make it there and back in just a couple of days. Just go see her,” Scott pleaded, for the fourth day in a row. He was determined to wear down his little brother one way or another while still keeping his word to Phoebe. He knew he was having an effect when Johnny used his knife to spear an apple with an action that he suspected Johnny would rather be aiming in his direction. His assault on the apple as he bit into it confirmed it.
“I’ve said it before Scott. No use. We’ve already said all we could to each other.”
“I don’t know that either of you has said enough, actually. Maybe time has changed things. Please, Johnny, don’t make me beg you. Just go see her.”
“Why are you so anxious for me to go, Scott? That’s a chapter of my life that’s over and if it’s alright by you I’d just as rather leave it that way.” Another irritated bite.
“But Johnny, it may not have to be over. She’s changed,” <<in more ways than you could imagine>>, “and I know for a fact she doesn’t blame you at all for what happened that day. Give her another chance. I’m sure she’d welcome it. <<Lord, I hope she’ll welcome it.>> I know you still love her and you can’t mean to just let her just walk out of your life forever.”
“Okay, brother, we’ll see.”
“Might. You owe me an awful lot of favors after all the running around you’ve been doin’ lately. Seems we know why now. So, might be it’s time I took a few days off. And if you’re lucky I just might make it to Mattingly. Maybe. Not yet, maybe soon. We’ll see. Just drop it for now, will ya?”
Scott left it at that for now.
= = =
Johnny rode into Mattingly as he’d ridden into countless flea-bitten, dust-ridden towns before. Subconsciously he was assessing the layout and scrutinising the inhabitants with his trademark deceptively insouciant look. As the wind howled around the corner of a building he turned up his collar and pulled his hat down lower.
Scott had told him how to find Phoebe’s place but he felt the need to let the dust settle first so he headed for the saloon. Through the batwing doors, surreptitious evaluation of the dark interior, beer ordered and paid for, door near a corner, facing the street. Old habits die hard. Especially since that morning less than a year before when Johnny Madrid had been reawakened with a vengeance.
Well, he’d made it this far, as he had assured Scott he would, but he still doubted Scott had read Phoebe’s intent correctly. She may not have blamed him for what happened that day, but he was certainly at fault for everything that had happened since. Would she really welcome his visit or had he already hurt her too much to ever be forgiven? He had to know and there was only one way to find out. The anticipation of it left him feeling decidedly uneasy. He considered ordering another beer but knew all that would achieve would be to delay the inevitable. Instead, he got out of the chair, swiped up his wayward hat, fixed it firmly on his head and strode out into the thin morning sun. The rising wind whipped his hat off his head in seconds so he left it hanging by its stampede strings down his back.
= = =
His knock on her door elicited a cry of, “Who is it?”
She knew now what was meant by the word ‘swoon’ for that’s exactly what she thought would happen to her. His voice was more lovely than the sweetest music she’d ever heard.
She knew it would come as something of a surprise for him as she flung open the window instead of the door, but under the circumstances, and at such short notice, she couldn’t think of any other way to avoid the confrontation she dreaded. He’d caught her unawares and already knew she was at home. She had to do something.
“Hi,” she uttered anxiously.
“Hi yourself,” he replied, a slight frown wrinkling his forehead as he stepped back from the door.
To Phoebe the intervening months had only made him more handsome to look at. How she’d missed his mop of unruly dark hair. His beautiful blue eyes that she felt herself being drawn into. Those strong arms, that broad chest. He was so achingly gorgeous she felt she could cry.
She felt his eyes stray appreciatively to their medallion snuggled between her breasts and flushed in reply, holding her shawl more closely to her throat, as she leaned closer against the window frame.
“Somethin’ wrong with your door? Want me to fix it for you, or should I just climb in the window?”
“No Johnny. There’s nothing wrong with the door. And I definitely don’t want you climbing in my window.” This wasn’t a good start.
Johnny dropped his gaze. “Sorry to intrude, Phoebe. It’s just from what Scott said I didn’t think you’d mind a visit.”
“What exactly did Scott say?” Not for a moment did she suspect Scott had broken his word, but she had to know how much her dear, sweet Johnny had guessed.
He shook his head. “Nothin’. Just that I oughta see you.”
She hardened herself for what she knew had to come. She could tell he hadn’t guessed her condition and, now that the birth was so close, she wanted to keep it that way. Any day now she anticipated having the answer to the question uppermost in her mind. Why, oh why, did he have to turn up today? Couldn’t he have waited just a little longer? Then she may have known just how to handle things.
“Well, Johnny, there’s nothing much to see. I’m here, I’m well. It’s a nice town. I don’t think it would be appropriate to invite you in. I need to protect my reputation. You understand how it is. Now I’m sorry to be so abrupt but you’d best be on your way.” <<My dear, dear, sweet Johnny.>> “I’m sorry but I have so much work I’ve got to do here and I need to deliver this suit to the undertaker before he goes home today so I’d appreciate it if you’d let me get back to it. Please give everyone my best when you get home. It might be nice to visit them again one day. Soon, I hope,” she finished breathlessly.
She closed the window and stepped back, gnawing on her fist, fearful that he’d leave and fearful that he’d stay. She waited anxiously to hear the gate slam shut for only then would she succumb to her grief. And only after her grief was spent would she question the appropriateness of her actions today.
He stood outside the door for a while, bewilderment creasing his brow before aggravation took over. He’d always considered himself able to judge a person in a split second from the look in their eyes, their bearing, and a hundred other tiny clues. But this woman had him flummoxed. He doubted he would ever understand what was happening between them. From her first cry of ‘Who is it?’ he had felt his insides turn to liquid, desiring to hear that carefree timbre once again as she whispered in his ear. He had been touched to see her still wearing their medallion and thought that had to be a good sign. But then her hurtful, dismissive words led him to believe he must have misread the look in her eyes. It was the look he used to see – right before they kissed. Why couldn’t he figure out what was going on? What had this woman done to him? From that fateful day he felt his life had been nothing but a torment. Damn Scott and his meddling. Eight months he’d been working on overcoming his pain and this stupid, futile visit had brought it all to the surface again. He turned and headed back out the gate to where Barranca was waiting. He swung himself effortlessly into the saddle and started riding out of town at breakneck speed - angry, heart-broken and confused.
He was almost at the town outskirts when a young boy ran out into the road and Johnny’s efforts to pull up Barranca caused the horse to rear up dangerously. He managed to maintain control then jumped down to check the young boy was not hurt. He watched as the boy’s mother dragged him away by the arm, promising him all the way down the street that he was going to have his backside paddled when his pa got home. Damn, that had been a close call. He decided he needed a drink before he took off again and headed back to the saloon.
“Another beer, young fella?” offered the barman.
“Not this time thanks. I’ll have a tequila.”
“Right you are.”
Johnny settled into the same seat he had occupied before and gazed out into the street waiting for his drink. He sat that way nursing his first and then his second drink. He promised himself that he’d leave right after one more drink because there was no way he wanted to spend a single night in this god-forsaken hole.
With that he saw a familiar silhouette moving away down the boardwalk across the road. It caused him to strain forward in his chair. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever known and he could not take his eyes off her. As he watched her a slight furrow creased his brow. There was something different – a slight change to that sway of her hips he had always admired. Then it hit him like a bolt from the blue. He fell back in his chair with a thud, his realisation knocking him more than any bullet he had ever taken. So this was why Scott said he had to ‘see’ her. How could he have been such an idiot and missed all the clues? His immediate impulse was to run out into the street after her but for some time now his impulses had led to nothing but hurt for both of them. He was going to have to think through this one very carefully if he wasn’t going to spoil their chance at happiness. He ordered another drink.
= = =
He passed through her gate, strode up to her door and banged on it. “Come on out Phoebe or I’m comin’ in.”
She opened the window again.
“Oh no, not this time, honey. Are you going to open this door or do I have to kick it in?”
She didn’t move fast enough, rooted to the spot as she was by indecision.
He took one step back and kicked the door in.
She was standing back from the window, eyes downcast, ready to weather his scorn when the next thing she felt was his firm embrace as he enveloped her in his arms. She exultantly breathed in his unmistakable scent.
“Phoebe, darling, my love, my life. Forgive me. Please. I’m so, so sorry.”
For the first time since that fateful morning she looked him in the eyes. They said all she needed to know. She smiled through the tears that began welling. “Johnny, darling Johnny, it’s me who needs your forgiveness.” His embrace felt like he’d never let her go again.
“How ‘bout we call it a draw?” His slow, sexy drawl was back. She nodded as the vision of him blurred through her tears. Everything was going to be all right. He strained forward, kissing away her tears, anxious to taste the sweetness of her kiss once again.
= = =
On their way back to Lancer they’d had plenty of time to talk. Their easy familiarity and gentle teasing had returned. The intervening months slipped away to nothingness. They felt fully at ease with the decision they had made. This child she was carrying was theirs, regardless.
Phoebe had pleaded with Johnny to take a detour and, despite his misgivings, he soon pulled the buggy to a halt at the side of the river – the scene of their rapture and their subsequent suffering. He helped her down then checked on Barranca who had been trailing behind the buggy as she took her time taking in the scene of their campsite. Strangely, there was nothing to distinguish this particular location from any other along the riverbank. No visible sign of their ecstasy nor their agony.
“I don’t know about this, Phee. I feel mighty uncomfortable here.” Johnny’s hand hovered over his right thigh as he scanned the horizon in each direction.
She walked up to him and placed her hands on either side of his face, forcing his gaze to meet hers. “I think we have to, Johnny. This is the land you love. Do you want to spend your life never again visiting this beautiful corner of it because of something you had no control over? I don’t know about you, darling, but I choose to remember the good that happened here. I want to recapture those moments. I need to chase away the demons.”
“I think that’s easier said than done.” His gaze swept over the horizon again as he stepped away from her grasp.
She smiled, unperturbed, as she slowly unbuttoned her over-sized blouse that now fitted snugly over her swollen belly. When he looked back he stopped thinking of the horizon as his discomfort evaporated.
“I’m sorry, Johnny my love, but I don’t think I’m quite up to getting down on the ground at the moment. Think we could try something else?”
Smiling, he stepped towards her, kissed her tenderly, then gently spun her around so she was leaning back against him. “Have I told you what a wonderfully wise woman you are, querida?” She smiled, knowing the healing that had started in Mattingly was continuing here. “I think I’m starting to remember the good that happened here,” he murmured as his hands and mouth and eyes drank in every inch of her body and they chased away their demons and re-conquered the land.
= = = = =
“Johnny, would you rather a boy or a girl?”
He knew he wasn’t going to get away with some trite comment about it not mattering. “Phoebe honey, I honestly do not mind one way or another. I promise I’ll love him, her… or it. But if I did have a choice I’d want a girl, a beautiful baby girl who takes after her mama. Then we could call her Rebecca, after your mama. That’s what I’d like.”
How she loved him at that moment. All had been forgiven between them. All was understood between them. “Well, that’s it then, a girl it must be. But if I had my way, Johnny, I’d really rather she look just like you.”
“Don’t matter what she looks like, Phee. She’s ours and she’ll be gorgeous.”
Very soon now they would crest the hill and Phoebe would have her first view of Lancer in over eight months. How she had missed it, and the people who lived there, the people she thought of as family. Her thoughts turned to them now.
“You know, we really do have a lot to thank Scott for, Johnny. Without him we would still be going our separate ways. Without his persistence who knows what would have happened between us. He believed in our love even when we doubted it.”
He nodded. “I know, you’re right. He stood by us when we didn’t have the sense to so much as look at each other. But you better be the one to tell him ‘cos I ain’t going to. I can’t bear the thought of him saying ‘I told you so’.”
“Johnny, I want you to promise me something.”
“Not this promise, you haven’t. And it’s a big one. I want you to promise we will always talk about whatever we are thinking. Always. Forever.”
“No, Johnny. Stop and think about it before you answer. Think about what that will really mean to you, to us. No more running off alone. No more avoidance. Talk, really talk about everything. I know it’s asking a lot but I think it’s important. I don’t ever want to go through this sort of thing again. No more misunderstandings. Life is just too short for it.”
“Okay. I’ll think about it and tell you later. But the answer will still be ‘okay’ Phee ‘cos I promised I would never do anything to risk losing you again. And if talking is what it takes, then so be it.”
They settled back into the trip home and contemplation of the news they bore. Though their wire had advised the anticipated time of their arrival, they really hadn’t gone into any more detail than that. And knowing his brother well, Johnny had no doubt that Scott had kept his knowledge to himself. The look on Murdoch’s face promised to be priceless and the questions from the family numerous. Very soon now all would be revealed.
Chapter 10 (Conclusion)
Waiting to welcome them home, as expected, were Scott, Murdoch, Teresa and Jelly. The wire they had sent advised the family of when to expect them but that was all.
Phoebe’s condition, which Scott had not prepared the others for, was clear to all as soon as Johnny lifted her down from the buggy. Scott had figured it was their news and it was only right and proper that he leave it up to them as to how they delivered it. Besides, he wasn’t brave enough to confront Murdoch with that piece of information – even for his dear brother’s sake. He had to leave some of the work to Johnny.
They were all momentarily speechless until Scott graciously stepped forward and kissed Phoebe’s hand, welcoming his princess back home to Lancer. This was enough to break the tension and the others rushed forward to add their greetings.
They had barely made their way through the pleasantries, each wondering how best to broach the subject uppermost in everyone’s mind, when Johnny swept Phoebe up into his arms to carry her over the threshold. But he didn’t stop there, as the others crowded in behind them. He ran straight up the stairs towards his bedroom with her still in his arms, leaving her to call out laughingly over his shoulder at their family gathered below, “It’s okay Murdoch, we’re married.”
The group at the door was left with little to do but stand there, mouths agape, each with their own thoughts as to what the implications of this particular piece of news were.
Murdoch’s thoughts turned to the feasibility of building a house for the newlyweds – after all, if Johnny approached his husbandly duties in the same boisterous manner in which he tackled every other task of his, it was likely there’d be little peace in the Lancer home for the rest of the family.
Jelly’s thoughts were much simpler. <<Well if that don’t take the cake… it looks like that boy’s gun ain’t the only thing he’s quick with.>>
Only Teresa gave voice to her thoughts, haltingly, and with more than a touch of embarrassment. “Should they be doing that, I mean, you know, with Phoebe in that condition?”
Scott chuckled, so happy to have his brother finally at peace, and answered her with, “Teresa, honey, you should know that love will always find a way.”