The Ghost of Johnny Madrid
Episode 4: The Parting
“No!!” Matthew screamed in anguish as he threw himself in the dirt beside the body of his friend. “No...” The word escaped from his throat as a strangled sob, making it difficult to breathe.
Tucson, gun still drawn, dropped to the ground on Johnny’s other side; the gunfighter now lying curled up on his left side. Tucson and Matthew both looked at each other in shock. “Matthew,” he whispered, a sense of urgency in his voice.
With an exhalation of stunned dismay, Matthew glanced down at Johnny’s inert body before forcing his attention up. The noise from the gathering crowd suddenly registered, crashing through his senses in a loud rush, the carcass of the horse that had struck Johnny visible in the street a short distance away. Vaguely he remembered hearing Tucson shoot it as they were rushing to reach Johnny.
His eyes still wide with shock, Matthew tentatively put a hand out. “Johnny,” he whispered as he slid a hand under the jacket. Instantly he felt the sticky warmth of blood and quickly drew his hand away, the action flipping the jacket back, exposing a large, red stain along the side and back of the shirt.
“He’s been shot!” someone exclaimed. “Madrid’s been shot!”
Matthew glanced up, both the curious and concerned suddenly pressing in even closer. He looked down at his bloodstained hand and then at Johnny’s still unmoving form and was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to hide Johnny from the prying eyes—a wish to protect him from becoming the next topic of conversation in the local saloons.
“That other guy—that kid—musta got him before he went down,” he heard a man behind him say.
Clenching his teeth in a fierce and unexpected resolve, Matthew glanced around at the crowd. “He’s not shot. The horse caught him, knocking him out. Where’s the hotel owner? I want to get him up to his room.”
“I’m here.” A man, whom he recognized as the hotel’s proprietor, pushed through the crowd.
“Get that room ready and heat up some water,” Matthew commanded, surprised at how authoritative he managed to sound.
The propietor nodded and quickly disappeared.
“I’ll go get a doctor,” someone else offered and hurried away.
“How’s the kid?” Matthew demanded tersely.
“He’s dead,” another man announced.
Matthew nodded curtly and looked back down at Johnny.
“Matthew?” Tucson whispered, concern in his voice.
Matthew shot him a hard look, then glanced back up at the crowd. “Someone else better go get the sheriff if they haven’t already, and then I need—”
“Johnny?” a strained, deep voice called out and the crowd parted as Harley shoved his way through to the front. Out of breath and flushed, the blacksmith stopped, his face registering disbelief as he took in Matthew and Tucson kneeling in the dirt beside Johnny’s blood-stained body. “I—I just heard,” he explained weakly.
Matthew clenched his jaw as he felt his own resolve falter in the face of the shell-shocked expression on Johnny’s old friend. “Harley, he’s not shot. A horse kicked him, but we need to get him up to the hotel room,” he stated firmly.
“Not Johnny, too,” Harley dully pleaded as he dropped to his knees beside Tucson.
“Harley,” Matthew hissed urgently. “He’ll be fine, but we need to get him up to the room. Now.”
Harley blinked, met Matthew’s eyes for a moment. Abruptly his expression changed to one of determination and giving a curt nod, he rose to his feet. Turning to face the crowd, he yelled out, “Okay, that’s enough now! Go on back to your business! The sheriff’ll handle matters when he gets here.”
Under Harley’s severe eye and rather impressive stature, the crowd slowly began to disperse, mumbling among itself. Once the gapers had pretty much cleared away, Harley knelt back down. “How’d it happen?” he whispered.
“The Kid tried to draw on him,” Tucson replied.
“The Kid?” Harley asked.
Matthew jerked his head down the street. “He was supposed to be working with us.”
Harley glanced down the street at the fallen body of the young man. Then with a quick sweep, he took in the dead horse and the body of another man who lay sprawled in front of a store. With a shake of his head he turned his attention back toward Tucson and Matthew and noticed Matthew pulling Johnny’s jacket back in place in an attempt to hide the stain of blood.
“The hotel owner’s getting things ready,” Matthew said. “But we need to get him to the room.”
“I can handle him. Won’t be the first time,” Harley stated grimly as he began to gather up his friend’s limp body with exaggerated care. “But what I’d like to know, is what the hell really happened here?”
Matthew stood up and moved out of the way as he watched the large man easily pick up Johnny’s inert body. He knew Harley was waiting for an answer, but chose to ignore him, heading instead toward the hotel. A desire to get himself and Johnny out from under curious eyes and into the hotel room where he could be treated was Matthew’s only real concern at the moment.
Matthew pushed the door to the hotel open and let Harley through. Then he quickly headed for the stairs, Tucson at his heels, and flung open the door to the room they had been in just the night before. With Johnny still cradled in his arms, Harley went to one of the beds and gently lay his burden down.
“How bad is he?” Tucson asked.
“He looks awfully pale,” Harley added as he backed away.
Matthew sat on the edge of the bed. Though he could see a slight rise and fall to the chest, he was concerned by the lack of any other movement. “Help me get his jacket off,” he ordered.
Harley leaned down and helped Matthew remove Johnny’s jacket as carefully as they could. Then after tossing it to the side, Matthew began working on the buttons of the shirt. “Where’s that hot water?” he mumbled under his breath.
“I’ll go—” Tucson stopped in mid-sentence as the hotel’s proprietor hastened in with a basin of steaming water, a handful of rags and a saddlebag.
“I went as fast as I could. The doctor ain’t here yet, but I think I just saw the sheriff out in the street,” he said as he set the basin and rags on the floor next to Matthew and then held out a saddlebag. “Isn’t this yours? It was downstairs.”
“Oh, good,” Matthew replied as he took the saddlebag and put it on the floor nearby. “I’m gonna need that.”
“Is there anything else I can do?”
Matthew shook his head. “Just keep everyone away, okay? Johnny’ll be fine.”
The owner looked doubtful, but nodded.
“And close the door on the way out,” Matthew instructed.
Matthew watched the owner leave and close the door before turning his attention back to Johnny. As he drew open the unbuttoned shirt, he heard Harley hiss at the sight of the bloodstained bandaging. “What the hell?!”
“The Kid was right,” Tucson murmured, slightly awed.
“What do you mean?” Harley demanded harshly, a tight and suspicious glare cast at the other gunfighter. “Right about what?”
Tucson looked at Harley in surprise, then glanced down at Matthew. “The—well, the Kid thought Johnny weren’t well. That…that somethin’ was wrong with him. He mentioned it a coupla times.”
Harley turned his icy glare on Matthew. “You seem to be the only one here who knows what’s goin’ on.”
“Tucson’s right. Johnny was shot a few weeks ago. We—Jamie, my kid brother, actually found him,” Matthew explained hurriedly. “Now, if you don’t mind, do either of you have a knife ‘bout you? I need to get this bandage cut off.”
Tucson quickly reached into his boot and produced a short knife. “Now I know why you were brought along.”
Matthew gave Tucson a sour look, then took the knife and began to cut through the bandages. He peeled them away, exposing the angry looking wound. Then he lifted Johnny’s arm away from his side to find a deep, oozing cut, which had been caused by the horse’s hoof.
“I need to move him in order to get rid of these old bandages and take a look at his back,” Matthew explained curtly as he grabbed up a new piece of bandaging and placed it over the seeping cut and the old wound for protection.
With a hurried nod at Tucson, Harley moved over, the other gunfighter moving in to lend a hand.
Matthew quickly pulled away the old bandages and stood up. “Now carefully roll him to his stomach,” he instructed as he held the new bandage in place.
Slowly, the three men rolled Johnny over. Then Matthew sat back down and lifted the back of Johnny’s shirt. The old wound, raw with infection, was now bleeding freely. Another deep cut from the horse’s hoof was visible just inches above it. Matthew cursed under his breath, then quickly picked up the saddlebag and opened it.
“Good Lord! What the devil has been going on here?” Harley demanded loudly as he knelt down next to the bed. “Why the hell’s Johnny working in this condition? He shoulda been layin’ low for awhile! Who shot him? Would someone tell me what’s going on?”
While Matthew took out some more bandages and the ointments from DarkCloud, he shook his head unhappily. Then turning his attention back to his patient, he replied evenly, “We—the town—hired him to protect us from Wakeman and his men, who’ve been trying to take over Soledad.”
“Well, I know that! But, injured as he was, why—?” Harley stopped, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You knew he was injured! What were you doing hiring him in this condition? And why would he accept?”
Matthew carefully began to clean around the wound, avoiding the menacing glare coming from Johnny’s friend.
“I asked you a question!” Harley growled ominously.
Matthew paused and leaned back. “When he was wounded, he lost his memory—”
“What?” Harley and Tucson both exclaimed.
Harley quickly shot Tucson a surprised look, then glared once more at Matthew.
Matthew glanced uncomfortably at both men. “Not totally, but the last couple years are a blank to him. He doesn’t recall how he got hurt, either. Jamie saw him being shot by another man and he fell off a cliff, hitting his head pretty hard. We didn’t even know who he was at first. There had been four other men up in the mountains with him—all are dead—even the one who shot him. We caught a couple of the horses, and in one of the saddlebags found his gunbelt and a reward poster for him.”
“Bounty hunters,” Harley whispered.
Matthew nodded. “So it appears.”
Matthew regarded Harley with a raised eyebrow, then nodded.
“Damn!” Harley hissed, then paused and fixed Matthew with a tight look. “But that don’t explain why you hired him—and why’d he accept in his condition. If he was so badly wounded, Johnny’d know better than to take on this kinda job.”
Matthew glanced back down at the subject of their discussion. “We needed someone to protect us and he—”
“And he conveniently fell in your lap, injured, no place to go, but needing help and money to get away from bounty hunters on his trail,” Harley supplied bitterly.
“It’s not quite like you think,” retorted Matthew.
“Yes, I think it is. Helpless, with no memory, no money, no means…and no choice!”
“We offered him a job and he took it,” Matthew argued. “We were desperate!”
Harley snorted. “More desperate people and lost causes. Just what he needed!”
Matthew clenched his jaw. “You can sit here and pass judgement on us all day if you like, but while you’re wasting time, Johnny’s still bleeding. So either move out of the way or help!”
Harley glared menacingly in reply, then turned back toward Johnny’s form on the bed.
Matthew managed a glare of his own, then returned to the task of cleaning around the wounds. Within seconds, however, there was a knock at the door, causing all three men to jerk toward the sound.
“Who is it?” Matthew quickly called out.
Matthew turned to Harley and Tucson. “Johnny didn’t want anyone to know he’d been injured earlier.”
Harley snorted quietly. “Little hard to hide it now.”
Tucson suddenly put out a hand to stop another argument. “Look. I’ll go handle the sheriff. I was also there when it all happened. You two take care of Johnny.” He paused and added, “And I won’t say a thing about Johnny having been shot earlier.”
Matthew smiled and gave Tucson a thankful nod.
Tucson went to the door and opened it. “Sheriff Watkins. Good to meet you. While Johnny’s being taken care of, let me tell you what happened, as I was one of the other men out there in the street during that entire fracas,” he said as he quickly walked through the door and pulled it closed behind him.
“You said it’s been a few weeks,” Harley mentioned after the door closed.
“Three weeks now, actually,” Matthew replied as he took out the containers of ointment from the saddlebag.
“It don’t look like he’s healin’ up too good.”
Matthew shook his head. “Our doc explained to me that this back wound is having a hard time healing. The bullet clipped the end of the ribs here, where it exited,” he explained as he put a small amount of the ointment on the old wound and the one made by the horse’s hooves, Harley watching him closely. “And every time he moves, the ribs rub along here, irritating it.”
“What’s that stuff,” Harley asked suspiciously as Matthew opened up a second container.
“The first was a salve that helps numb the pain and this one here is supposed to keep away infection,” Matthew explained quickly, anxious to be done.
“Don’t look like it’s been doing its job,” Harley observed sarcastically.
Matthew ran his fingers carefully along the wound directly caused by the horse’s hoof. “Our doc’s been trying. He even made up a tea for Johnny to drink that fights off infections, too. While he was staying with us, Grace—that’s my sister—made sure he got plenty. But after he went into town…” Matthew gave a slight shrug. “DarkCloud says he hasn’t been taking care of himself like he should.”
“DarkCloud?” Harley asked. “He’s an Indian, ain’t he?”
Matthew nodded curtly then pulled his hands away. “Damn. I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
Matthew shrugged. “I’m trying to see if any ribs are broken, but I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Move over,” Harley commanded.
Matthew slid over, making room for Johnny’s friend to sit down. The big man, his large hands dwarfing Johnny’s back, carefully slid his fingers along the back ribs. He made a few passes, pausing to gently push, then sighed. “I don’t think any are actually broken. These two here, though, may be slightly cracked, as there’s more give than there oughta be, but it’s kinda hard to tell. His back got pretty messed up a few years ago. Ribs never healed proper-like.”
“So we gathered,” Matthew replied dryly.
“He’s definitely badly bruised, but I don’t think they’re broken. He’s gonna be hurtin’ for quite some time, though. I’m actually more concerned about them old wounds. That infection don’t look good to me, and I think he’s runnin’ a fever. He seems really warm.”
Matthew put a hand to Johnny’s cheek and sighed. “I had a feeling yesterday he may have been running a fever, but I wasn’t sure. It’s hard to tell with him.”
Harley nodded understandingly. “Hell, I was fooled by him last night. Thought maybe somethin’ weren’t quite right, but I never suspected nothin’ like this.” He shook his head. “Johnny always was one to be able to feel like shit yet look like he was ready to go a coupla games of poker.”
Shaking his own head, Matthew sighed regretfully. “Let’s get this finished before he does come to.”
With a nod of agreement, Harley helped Matthew cover the wounds then they laid a longer strip across his back.
“We need to get him turned now. I have to finish with the front and we gotta get this bandaging tightened. He’s gonna need some support for those injured ribs.”
Harley nodded grimly and stood back up. Carefully the two of them turned Johnny onto his back.
“Now I just gotta finish with these front wounds,” Matthew murmured as he leaned down to grab a fresh bandage.
Suddenly Johnny’s body shook and he gasped for air. Startled, Matthew watched as Johnny, his eyes closed and his body tightly rigid, began to painfully gasp.
“Move!” Harley commanded, shoving Matthew to the side. Quickly he sat down and put a large palm on Johnny’s upper chest. “Johnny! Juanito! It’s me, Harley. Don’t fight it, Johnny! Relax. Remember, relax. It’s okay. I’m here. Just relax… Come on, Johnny, little breaths…”
Matthew could do little but watch as Harley’s voice seemed to calm Johnny’s breathing, the gunfighter’s taut body slowly relaxing as beads of perspiration lined his face and chest.
“It’s okay, Johnny. Don’t fight it. There, that’s better now,” Harley continued, his voice dropping lower.
Johnny’s eyes slowly opened, his face lined with such open pain that Matthew, who had stepped back behind Harley, was momentarily stunned.
“Harl…” Johnny barely mouthed.
“I’m here, Johnny,” Harley quietly answered, his hand still resting on Johnny’s chest.
Johnny’s eyes appeared strangely unfocused and vague. “Harl, wha…?”
“Shhh… Try not to talk. You’re hurt,” Harley continued, his voice barely a whisper.
Johnny blinked, his expression a mixture of pain and confusion. Slowly his eyes trailed to Matthew where they blinked again in an attempt to focus. “Cisco…?” he mouthed.
“Shhh, Johnny. Francisco’s not here…not this time. This is Matthew, remember?”
Johnny blinked, his body tensing once more.
“Relax, Johnny, relax,” Harley quickly intoned, the great palm gently patting Johnny’s chest.
Johnny nodded weakly. “Matthew,” he whispered.
Matthew dropped down beside the bed and hesitantly put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We need to finish getting your wound tended, Johnny.”
Matthew watched as Johnny nodded then swallowed tightly, seeming to force himself through the haze of pain that was shrouding him. “Kid?” he whispered hoarsely, his eyes suddenly searching for an answer from either man.
Matthew glanced quickly at Harley, then back. “He’s dead, Johnny,” he replied quietly.
Johnny nodded dully and closed his eyes, his jaw clenching.
“Johnny,” Harley murmured, “he drew on you, remember?”
Johnny nodded imperceptibly, though his eyes remained closed.
“Let me get this taken care of,” Matthew said to Harley as he picked up one of the containers of salve.
Harley slid over enough to allow Matthew access to Johnny, yet he still kept one hand on his friend’s chest.
Matthew carefully pulled off the piece of cloth he’d put on to protect the wounds when they had turned him onto his stomach. Then while he spread on a thin coat of the salve, Harley continued to talk to Johnny in a low voice. “We’ll be done in a second, Johnny. Matthew tells me this stuff’ll help with the pain. Just slow, easy breaths, now. Relax. Don’t fight it. Good.”
Matthew breathed a sigh of relief when he’d finished and quickly replaced the containers in the bag. Then he turned to Harley as he carefully covered the wounds with a new strip. “Gotta bandage this kinda tight, now, don’t we?”
Harley nodded to Matthew, then leaned in closer to Johnny. “Okay, Johnny, we’re gonna tighten your bandage here. The horse got you pretty good in the ribs. ‘Fraid you’re gonna be sore for quite awhile.”
Johnny opened his eyes, and this time Matthew saw a hint of the Johnny he’d come to recognize. “Understatement,” he heard him whisper.
Harley picked up the loose ends of the long strip of bandaging while Matthew checked to make sure it was still positioned correctly along Johnny’s lower back. Then Matthew took the ends from Harley and quickly bound him, while Harley guided the strips into place, both men checking to make sure the fit was tight.
As the pressure tightened, Johnny clenched his eyes shut, a moan of discomfort escaping.
Finished, Matthew abruptly straightened up. “Your medicine! Would that help, Johnny?”
“Medicine?” Harley asked.
Without waiting for an answer, Matthew grabbed up Johnny’s jacket from where they’d tossed it earlier, and reached into the pocket, drawing out the small flask.
“What’s that?” Harley asked as Matthew pulled off the small cork.
“Some medicine from DarkCloud,” Matthew replied with a shrug.
Harley grabbed it out of Matthew’s hands, put a finger over the hole, and quickly tipped it over to coat the tip of his finger. As he did so, Matthew noticed that Johnny’s expression turned grimly wary.
As soon as the tip of Harley’s finger touched his tongue, the blacksmith’s look darkened. “Johnny?”
Johnny’s expression hardened. “Harl,” his voice, though weak, held a note of defiance.
Matthew watched, confused, as Harley took a deep breath and shook his head. “Why, Johnny?”
Johnny closed his eyes a second, then opened them, a determined glint visible as he made a shaky move to push himself up.
“Johnny,” Harley quickly put his hand back on Johnny’s chest. “You can’t get up yet.”
Matthew quickly added his agreement. “He’s right, Johnny. The doctor’ll be here in a few minutes.”
Johnny jerked his attention to Matthew. “Doctor?”
Johnny tried once more to sit up. “No doctor!” The hissed command ended in a gasp as he rolled away to support himself on his left elbow, his right arm hugging his side.
“What the hell is going on with you, Johnny?” Harley exclaimed heatedly as Johnny continued to ignore his attempt to keep him down. “What are you trying to prove, anyway? You’re not goin’ anywhere in your condition!”
Johnny paused, his face drenched in sweat as he leaned his temple against the wall, his breathing heavy. “I got a job to do, Harl,” he gasped between breaths. “You, of all people, should understand that.” He then closed his eyes as he steadied his breathing.
“A job?” Harley retorted. “This isn’t a job, Johnny! It’s suicide!”
Johnny’s eyes flashed open, icing angrily. “Harl,” he warned in a low voice.
“How about this?” Harley spat back, holding up the flask.
Johnny opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. Tucson entered, quickly pulling the door closed.
“The sheriff’s taken care of, but now the doctor’s comin’ up,” Tucson urgently explained.
“Damn,” Johnny moaned.
“You’d better let him look at your side, Johnny,” Harley stated.
Using the wall to lean against, Johnny slowly slid his legs around, the movement forcing Harley and Matthew to their feet. “I said no doctor,” he hissed, visibly fighting to control a wave of pain as he pushed himself to the edge of the bed.
Matthew turned to Harley in anxious concern, only to find Harley glaring at his friend in growing anger and disbelief.
“Tucson,” Johnny continued, pausing to hunch over and close his eyes while he took another ragged breath. “I want you to go make sure everything’s ready to go.”
Tucson glanced with dismay at the other two men. “Go where?” he asked, bewildered.
“And Matthew,” Johnny continued as he glanced up at the younger man, “I want you to go take care of the doctor.” He closed his eyes as his breath caught painfully in his chest. After a few seconds, he continued, “Thank him, but tell him I’m fine, that we won’t be needing his services. Got that?”
Matthew nodded hesitantly, but neither he nor Tucson made any move to leave.
Johnny tiredly bowed his head. “What didn’t you understand?” he sighed.
Harley slid the flask into his pocket and crossed his arms. “I think they can’t believe you’re foolish enough to be thinkin’ of leavin’!”
“Well, we are,” Johnny replied as he looked back up at the bigger man.
“Johnny,” Matthew took a step forward. “Perhaps we’d better wait until—.”
“Until what? For Wakeman to realize he’s got us over a barrel? It’s only gonna be a short time before he decides he might as well take care of us now, espec—” Johnny suddenly stopped, sucked in his breath and leaned over with a low moan. Harley immediately dropped to his knees beside the bed and put a supportive hand on Johnny’s shoulder. For a few seconds Johnny didn’t acknowledge the action, then slowly he opened his eyes once more and shifted his focus onto his old friend. “Harl”, he whispered urgently. “We gotta leave. I gotta get them back to Soledad. Wakeman won’t waste any time if he suspects I’m hurt.”
Though Johnny physically looked a mess, Harley saw the determination in his friend’s eyes, the glint which told him that a decision had been reached and nothing he could say was going to prevent Johnny from following through. Reluctantly, Harley bowed his head in defeat. “Matthew, Tucson, go do as he says.”
Matthew glanced quickly at Tucson, then down at the large man kneeling on the floor beside the small bed, one hand resting on his friend’s arm. Though his request was clear, Harley’s bowed head and intonation both showed a lack of conviction.
“Do you think that’s wise?” Matthew persisted. “I mean, let’s at least have the doc take a look. I haven’t any idea if I did the right thing with—”
“You did fine,” Johnny interrupted as he managed to give Matthew a smile of reassurance. “But we gotta get out of here, and I can’t afford to let the doc see the other injury.” Johnny closed his eyes, brought his arm in closer to his body, and held his breath a second before continuing, his voice gathering strength. “Word can’t get out. Wakeman can’t know or it’s all over.”
“But Johnny,” Matthew attempted once more. “You were kicked by a horse; everyone saw it.”
“Yes, but the other injury is hardly common knowledge, is it?” Johnny replied. “No one expects me to come out dancin’, but I gotta show that I’m okay…”
“But you’re not,” Harley snapped.
“Johnny,” Matthew said quietly, trying to temper Harley’s fiery argument. “Perhaps Harley’s right.”
“We leave now—or you never make it back to Soledad alive,” Johnny replied, his eyes turning darkly on Matthew.
Harley raised his eyes to look at his friend. “Yeah, but a lot of good you’re gonna be to them…if you even manage to make the trip back down—which I doubt.”
Johnny gave his friend a lopsided, yet weary grin. “What, no faith, Harl?”
“That was Cisco’s specialty, remember,” Harley responded dryly, then he shook his head and looked away, his disapproval of Johnny’s plan apparent.
Johnny put his left palm down on the bed and slowly adjusted his position, dropping both feet to the floor. The simple action once again left Johnny gasping for breath, his face quickly draining of color. Harley stood up, automatically putting a supportive hand on his friend’s shoulder.
Matthew watched the exchange uncomfortably, feeling useless and confused. Should they leave? Should they stay? Everything had been going so well before the Kid decided to draw on Madrid. Damn him anyway! And with Johnny in such pain, why the hell was Harley just holding on to his medicine? Couldn’t he see Johnny needed it?
Harley waited until the pain had subsided and Johnny had opened his eyes again. “If you’re so determined to go, then I’m going with you,” he stated firmly.
Johnny shook his head. “No, you’re not, Harl.”
“Johnny, you need someone else—”
A knock at the door immediately stopped the conversation.
“It’s Doctor Wells,” a voice announced from the other side of the door.
“Now what d’we do?” Tucson asked quietly.
Johnny turned to Tucson, his jaw set determinedly against the pain. “Now you’re gonna go get the wagon and horses ready like I told you. I want to leave in a half-hour.” Then he turned to Matthew and took another slow breath before continuing. “And you’re gonna take care of the doctor, while you,” he looked at Harley, “are gonna help me get my shirt buttoned and stand up.”
“What?” Harley hissed incredulously.
“Since the doctor’s now waitin’ outside the door, I’d better look like I’ll live if Matthew’s supposed to convince him I am,” Johnny replied dryly as he attempted to button his shirt with his left hand.
In dismay Harley noticed Johnny’s hand was shaking badly, making the attempt at buttoning a pitiful one. Quickly Harley reached out and did up the buttons. “You’re a damn fool, Madrid,” he murmured.
Johnny snorted softly. “Yeah, I’ve been told that a lot lately. Now give me a hand.”
Harley leaned over and helped Johnny to his feet, supporting him tightly as the movement brought a fresh assault of pain that left Johnny once again breathless and flushed.
“You look like hell,” Harley remarked quietly, after Johnny had stopped shaking.
With a tired smile, Johnny took a swipe at the sweat covering his face.
“Oh, yeah, now you look much better,” Harley snorted.
Johnny quietly shook his head, pushed unsteadily away from his friend, then nodded at Matthew. “Door,” he instructed.
Matthew went to the door and hesitantly opened it to find a short man carrying a doctor’s bag, a concerned expression on his face. The expression immediately turned to one of surprise as he noticed Johnny standing beside the bed.
“It looks like my patient is already up!” he announced with a smile.
Matthew looked at Johnny, yet held his position in the doorway. He noticed that Johnny had kept his right side away from the doctor’s view in order to hide both the large stain of blood and the fact that he was supporting his injured side with his arm.
“Yes, my friends took care of me just fine,” Johnny replied, returning the smile.
“Well, since I’m here, why don’t you let me take a look anyway,” the doctor made as if to move into the room.
Quickly Matthew and Tucson both headed through the doorway, effectively blocking the doctor’s entrance.
“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Matthew assured him.
“Johnny’s just fine,” Tucson added quickly.
“They really don’t have the time.” Harley walked to the door, leaving Johnny standing near the bed. “They’re plannin’ on leavin’ soon.”
“Won’t take but a few minutes,” the doctor replied, confused.
Matthew put an arm around the doctor’s shoulder and steered him away from the door. “That’s kind of you, Doctor Wells. But really, Johnny’s just fine and we do need to be gettin’ a move on anyway.”
Tucson put an arm around the doctor’s other shoulder and they began escorting him down the hall.
“Horse just knocked the wind outta him, is all,” the other gunfighter added amicably. “Not like it kicked him in the head or anything.”
Harley closed the door, grumbling under his breath, “If it’d kicked him in the head, it mighta knocked some sense into him.” Then sighing heavily, he turned around.
Johnny was blinking tiredly, wavering unsteadily on his feet. Quickly Harley crossed the room and put one hand under Johnny’s left arm and the other carefully around his back. “Johnny,” he whispered. “Will you tell me what’s goin’ on?”
Johnny closed his eyes and sighed shallowly. “I don’t know anymore, Harl.”
“You can’t make it back to Soledad alone, you know that,” he continued.
Johnny opened his eyes. “I can if you give me back my medicine.”
“The laudanum, you mean,” Harley replied as he drew the small flask out of his pocket, his voice rising slightly. “I can’t believe you’re taking that stuff again, Johnny. Not after the mess it left you in last time.”
“Harley,” Johnny swallowed, catching his breath again, the constant pain now openly visible on his face. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Well, you do now. I’m comin’ with you.”
Shaking his head, Johnny pulled away unsteadily, his left hand searching out the wall for support as his right hugged close in to his body. “No, Harl, you’re not. In fact, you’re leavin’ immediately,” he said as he dropped his gaze, the strain of the last few minutes having visibly drained him.
“What are you talking about?” Harley asked as he took a step forward, his confusion apparent.
Johnny looked up, his eyes deep with his own physical pain, yet filled with worry for his friend. Quietly his whispered, “Mary.” The word arrested Harley’s movement. “Mary’s what I’m talkin’ about, Harl. And little Wes and the new baby on the way. You can’t afford to have Wakeman find out we know each other.”
“No buts, Harley. You know what I’m saying is true. If Wakeman finds out we’re old friends, how long do you think it would be before he puts the squeeze on you…used Mary or your child to get to you…and then to me? I can’t cost you that.”
Harley dropped his gaze, his eyes falling on the laudanum he held in his hands. “But this’ll get you through, huh?” he asked, a hint of sarcasm lacing his question. “I suppose that’s what got you through last night.” He looked back up at Johnny. “I shoulda suspected something. Sorry to tell you this, Johnny, but you looked like shit. I wondered if maybe you’d been drinkin’ heavily or something, last night when I saw you. In fact, I’m thinking maybe Matthew’s right. You’re not takin’ care of yourself at all.”
“I’ll be fine, Harley.”
“No, Johnny. I don’t think you will.” Harley paused and continued gravely. “Matthew told me what happened. That you’ve lost your memory of the past couple years, that bounty hunters were probably on your trail, how you were injured and all. But you don’t need that job now, Johnny. Stay here with Mary and me. We’ll take care of you, get you back on your feet. Then help you get back to Mexico or something. Let ol’ Wakeman have Soledad.”
“No, I can’t do that, Harley. I made a promise.”
“A promise? A promise to who?” Harley continued severely. “People who were all too willing to take advantage of your helplessness and misfortune. You don’t owe them, Johnny. But you said it yourself, we’re friends…old friends. And I do owe you. I owe you a lot.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, Harl. Because we’re friends, I won’t let you get involved in this mess.”
“But, Johnny. We always said we’d be there for each other. We also made a promise, remember?”
“That was a long time ago, Harl. We were young. Things changed, remember?”
“We may have been young, Johnny, but we were also friends. Four very good friends.”
“And you and Cisco both have a new life—”
“—and Wes is dead,” Harley added, pausing for emphasis while Johnny looked away. “And where does that leave Johnny Madrid?” he continued quietly, his voice catching with emotion.
“Harley, the life I lead, it’s not your life anymore,” Johnny replied softly as he looked back up at his friend. “You found what you really wanted—what you were searching for. A wife and a family. And that’s what’s important now, Harl. Not an old ghost from your past.”
“Johnny, if you’re uncomfortable staying with me and Mary, just take a couple days and we’ll get a hold of Francisco. You could go stay with him for awhile. He’d be—”
“Oh, sure, Harl.” Johnny gave a quiet snort. “That’s just what Cisco would like. A gunfighter from his past showing up on his doorstep. That’d go over great with his parishioners.”
“No, Johnny, not a gunfighter, an old friend.”
“I think you overestimate the extent of our friendship.” Johnny sighed heavily, closed his eyes and leaned his shoulder against the wall. “This is gettin’ us nowhere, Harl. You’re not goin’ with me, I’m not staying, and I need you to give me that medicine—now.”
Johnny opened his eyes and continued, “And you are leaving immediately. And if anyone, anyone, asks you if you know me, you tell them you don’t. I don’t want to get you involved in this mess.”
“I think I already am.”
“No, you’re not. You get home to your wife and kid and forget all about me, Harl. You have a real life, now. Don’t do something foolish to mess it up.”
“But we’re friends—,”
“No, we’re not! I’m a gunfighter and you’re a blacksmith. That’s it! There’s nothing—” Suddenly Johnny doubled over with a groan of pain.
Harley made a grab for his friend then helped him to his knees on the floor.
Wrapped in the larger man’s embrace, Johnny huddled over, clutching his side, fighting to control his breathing again. “Damn it, Harl, give me that laudanum,” he hissed through gritted teeth. “I can’t fight you, too.”
Harley closed his eyes and clenched his jaw as he felt his friend struggle for control against the pain. After a long moment Johnny relaxed, though Harley could still sense his friend trembling under his hands. As he opened his eyes to study the dark, bowed head, Harley feared it wasn’t only the wound and the infection that was causing the shaking.
“Please go back to your wife and child, Harley. Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be,” Johnny said as he turned a pleading look toward his friend.
“But I want to help,” Harley barely whispered.
Johnny held his gaze steady, though his body continued to shudder under his friend’s comforting hand. “Then leave…please.”
Drawing away, Harley leaned back on his heels as he rubbed his face tiredly. He needed to collect his thoughts before he could face the dark, intense eyes of his friend. “I’ll leave, if you promise me one thing,” he finally reponded.
Johnny’s expression remained fixed.
“When you’re done in Soledad, promise me you’ll come and stay with us for awhile.”
Johnny sighed and looked down at the floor. “Harl, give me the medicine and leave.”
“No. First you promise me you’ll either stay with us or go see Cisco.”
Harley watched as his friend kept his face averted, his breath coming in short, labored gasps, his left arm clutching around his stomach as his hand pressed tightly into his right side. For a few seconds, nothing was said, then Johnny slowly looked up. The intensity was gone, replaced with a tiredness that spoke of defeat. “Harley, you thought I had died in Mexico. In a way, I did. I don’t remember anything since then, but all I’ve learned of the last few years are things I’d rather not know.” He paused, catching his breath. “I’m happy for you, Harley. I’m glad you’ve found what you were looking for. I’m glad Cisco found his place. But I’ll always be a gunfighter; that’s what I am and that’s who I am. Now let me do something—,” he paused as he gripped his side even tighter, “something good again.”
“And kill yourself in the process?”
Johnny looked away once more. “Perhaps I’m living on borrowed time, Harl.” He suddenly looked up, the half-grin Harley was well familiar with appearing on his friend’s weary face. “Cisco might say it was a miracle the town even found me. Otherwise I woulda been dead up in those mountains. But I’ve been given this last chance, Harl. Let me do something with it.”
Harley tilted his head back to stare up at the ceiling. “There’s nothing I can—”
“There’s nothing, Harl. Please go now. I need—I need to get ready to leave.”
“You need a chance to let the laudanum take affect,” Harley replied bitterly. “Dammit!” He slammed his hand on the floor. “Dammit!” Then with a growl, he brusquely stood up, the laudanum clenched in his hand. “I think you’re making a mistake, Madrid!” Harley glared at Johnny, who still knelt on the floor in visible pain, though his eyes watched in silence—all the defiance Harley had come to expect strangely absent.
“I’m not fighting you, Harl,” he replied softly.
“Shit!” Harley swore. Then taking the flask, he slammed it down on the small table. “You win anyway, Madrid!”
Turning abruptly, Harley tore open the door and strode through it, slamming it shut behind him. Once in the hallway, he swore to himself again, then leaned his arm against the wall.
“Why, Johnny, why?” he murmured, shaking his head. Then in regret, he leaned his head against his arm. Johnny was right, though. He had Mary and a family. Cisco had his calling. Wes was dead. What did that leave Johnny? Dammit, anyway! Why did he have to be right? Tonight Harley would go home to his wife and child and be thankful he had managed to get out of that life. It had been fun at one time, but the excitement had quickly gotten old. At least for him.
He heard the scrape of a chair and a small groan coming from within the room. Without thinking Harley turned back toward the door, ready to enter, when he caught himself and mentally forced his hand away from the doorknob. In a sigh of defeat, he put his face in his hands. Then steeling himself, he purposely turned away and walked down the steps and into the small saloon. Then without looking for either Tucson or Matthew, he quickly crossed the room and pushed through the doors to the outside morning sunshine.
He marveled that the sun could be shining so brightly when inside he felt so heavy and dark.
Johnny remained kneeling on the floor for only a few seconds after Harley left the room. The small flask of laudanum, sitting on the tabletop, became his immediate goal, as the excruciating pain and the constant trembling were making it difficult to think coherently. He knew if he could just get a hold of the medicine, he’d be able to bring some of the pain under control.
And the laudanum better be able to do more than that if you really think you’re gonna be able to walk out of this hotel room under your own power and get on a horse and ride out of town, all the while under Wakeman’s watchful eyes.
Laboriously, Johnny crawled forward the two feet he needed in order to reach the small table. An old, armless chair stood next to it, and Johnny gratefully leaned his head against it. Then taking a slow breath, he leaned back on his heels, raised his head and carefully reached for the laudanum. With a catch of his breath, he realized he’d never be able to reach it with his right arm, the slightest stretching and pulling sending him into an immediate sweat. With a mental curse, he pulled his right arm in against his body and slowly reached up with his left hand. Relieved as his hand clasped the flask, he slumped against the chair, exhausted and shaking.
It was some seconds before he lifted his head again to look at the flask he held in his hands. He figured there were about two small doses remaining, enough to have gotten him back to Soledad earlier. But was it enough to get him on his feet now? Was it enough to give him the strength and control he needed in order to block the pain and keep his mask in place?
He flipped the top off with his thumb, his right arm still hugging his side, and downed the entire contents.
He just needed a little time now. Just a little time and he could get Matthew safely back home. Clenching his teeth against the pain and trembling, he leaned his head on the chair seat.
Damn it, anyway! Why’d I let Matthew come along? What was I thinking? So worried about having someone around who knew about this damn injury and could help me if I needed it. How stupid.
And the Kid? How could I have missed that—not seen it coming? I knew he was obsessed with being a gunfighter. I should’ve expected something. I would’ve if I’d been more careful… I’ve messed up everything now…
Harl. He’s upset now. But I needed to get him to leave. He couldn’t stay. He’s got something good now. He always was too generous. Couldn’t see when it was time to just take care of himself. He’ll get over it…
God, I hope I’ll be able to pull this off. I know word’ll get back to Wakeman soon…gotta make him think I’m still okay…
Damn it, shouldn’t I be feeling better by now? God, it still hurts so bad. I’m never gonna make it out of this building much less out of this damn town…
Matthew quickly went through the list in his head as he started for the stairs. The wagon was ready, the horses were saddled and Tucson was waiting out front with them. He’d seen to the hotel owner and made sure he felt compensated for his room and supplies. Tucson had talked to the sheriff, the doctor was no where to be seen; as far as Matthew could tell, everything had been taken care of.
When he reached the door, he paused and mentally went through everything again. Was there anything—anything at all— he had forgotten to do? He hoped not. He was acutely aware that he was the reason Johnny felt pressured to get out of town, and desperately wanted to be of some help, not just a hindrance.
He gave a small knock, announced who he was, then entered the room. His gaze immediately dropped to the floor where Johnny knelt beside a chair, his head resting on the seat, the flask of medicine dropped beside him. Harley was no where to be seen.
Quickly Matthew closed the door, disconcerted to see that Johnny remained unmoving. Concerned, but undecided, Matthew glanced about the room as if it could tell him the course of action to take. The saddlebag, basin of dirty water, rags, Johnny’s jacket, were all as he’d left them. Only Johnny had moved, and obviously drank all the medicine that had been left in the bottle.
Matthew quietly stepped to the chair, knelt down and picked up the small flask. Tentatively he put his tongue to the neck, instantly drawing it away as he tasted the unmistakably sharp, bitter taste of laudanum.
Matthew glanced at Johnny, apparently asleep against the chair, though his raspy breathing sounded anything but relaxed. Why would DarkCloud give Johnny laudanum? It made no sense. He wouldn’t do it, unless—unless Johnny was in a lot worse shape than Matthew had ever suspected. Or…or unless DarkCloud really didn’t know Johnny was using it.
With a sigh, Matthew put the flask back where he’d found it and leaned back on his heels. Tucson was down with the wagon and horses, and it would look mighty strange if he were left sitting out there for hours. He needed to make a decision, even if it was that Johnny just couldn’t make the trip.
Matthew rubbed his face tiredly. Okay, well, if that was the case, then he could at least have Tucson try to make it back to Soledad and let everyone know what had happened. Red Deer’s people were hopefully keeping a look out and could help if there was any trouble.
Mind made up, Matthew cautiously touched Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny. Johnny, it’s—”
With a grunt of surprise, Johnny struck out with his left arm, sending the old chair toppling backward as his right, which had been pressed up against his side, reached for his gun.
“Johnny!” Matthew exclaimed.
Johnny blinked, his breath coming in short, tense puffs. “Matthew?” He squinted.
Matthew nodded, his brows knitting at the sight of Johnny’s face. Where before he’d been pale, he now looked flushed with fever. And the eyes, once focused, appeared strangely bright and intense. “Are you okay? Do you think you can make it?”
Johnny blinked again and licked his lips. Weakly he nodded.
“Tucson has the horses and wagon ready. I took care of the hotel owner, too.”
Johnny nodded, then gave Matthew a smile. “Good…good thinking.”
Matthew returned the smile. “Thanks. Can I help you up?”
Johnny took a hesitant breath, then nodded with annoyed embarrassment. “I think that’d be best.”
Matthew reached carefully around Johnny’s back and slowly helped him to his feet. “How’re we doing?” he asked as Johnny swayed unsteadily.
“Compared to what?”
“Oh, I don’t know…a two day old dead skunk?” Matthew joked.
Johnny grinned wryly. “Make it at least a two week old dead skunk and we’re gettin’ close.”
Matthew chuckled, then suddenly sobered. “Sure you want to do this, Johnny?”
Johnny looked at Matthew carefully. “Want to? No. Have to? Yes.” He paused as Matthew became uneasy. “Don’t worry, Matthew. I’ll get you back home.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about,” Matthew replied.
Johnny pulled away from Matthew’s hold and turned toward the door, his expression becoming grim. “You ought to be.”
Matthew hesitated, still unsure if they were doing the right thing. Glancing once more around the room, his eyes fell on the jacket. “Here,” he walked over and picked it up. “You’d better put this on. Might help hide…” he gestured weakly toward Johnny’s side.
Johnny gave a wry smile. “Thinking again, Matthew.” Carefully he slid his arms into the jacket, holding his breath, then grunting as the movement seared along his ribs and side.
Matthew stepped away. Even with the jacket now covering the stain of blood, Johnny still looked unwell. With the flash of an idea, he looked around the room for Johnny’s hat and saw it lying in the corner. He wondered if Tucson or Harley had tossed it there when they came in the room. He couldn’t remember. He grabbed it up and handed to Johnny. “Here, put this on. It’ll help hide your face.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “I look that bad, huh?”
“Well,” Matthew hesitated.
“Never mind,” Johnny interrupted. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Matthew bit back another advisement of caution and nodded instead. He grabbed up the saddlebag lying on the floor, then slowly walked to the door, opened it and looked out. “No one’s around.”
Johnny nodded and carefully followed Matthew out the door and into the hall. They’d only gone a few steps when Johnny had to stop and lean against the wall. “Matthew.”
Matthew stopped and quickly turned around. “It’s not gonna work, is it?”
Johnny took a slow breath. “It’ll work. It has to. Just give me a second before we do the steps.” He paused and closed his eyes. “How many steps can I take before someone’ll be able to see me?”
Matthew turned and looked at the stairs leading down to the small saloon. “Oh, ‘bout three, I guess. There were only a couple people in there when I came through.”
Johnny nodded and opened his eyes. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
“You sure?” Matthew asked, his expression doubtful.
Johnny nodded and pushed weakly away from the wall.
Matthew looked down at the saddlebag he held in his hands. “How ‘bout on the way down, I act like I’m looking in the bag for something. That way I’ll be walking slower, you know…not wanting to trip on the way down. If you stay behind me, it’ll give you more time to manage the stairs.”
Johnny managed a weak chuckle. “What’d I tell you, Matthew? Thinking again. Next time I’ll put you in charge of the operation.”
Matthew gave a depreciating snort, then shook his head. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Johnny smiled back. “Let’s get going, and don’t you dare trip ‘cuz I’ll never be able to pick you up.”
Matthew smiled at Johnny’s attempt at humor.
At the steps, Matthew paused as Johnny carefully made the first three steps, using the railing and wall for support. Considering how heavily he seemed to rely on both, Matthew strongly doubted Johnny would be able to make the trip down the stairs under his own power.
When Johnny reached the third step, he paused and took a steadying breath. Then he gave the saddlebag a pointed look. Immediately Matthew understood and opened it, ready to play his part of rummaging around for some elusive item. When he looked back up, he noticed Johnny had his head tipped forward, eyes closed. Matthew hesitated a second, unwilling to disturb what was obviously Johnny’s attempt to prepare himself for the rest of the descent.
Suddenly Johnny opened his eyes, startling Matthew with their intensity once more. For once the unexpected appearance of the gunfighter’s face didn’t surprise him as it had so many times before. He watched as Johnny wiped the sweat off his face with the back of his sleeve, took another measured breath and licked his lips.
Matthew gave a tentative smile. “You still look like hell,” he whispered.
Johnny smiled back sardonically. “Don’t let me fool you. It’s all an act. I’m goin’ for the warmed-over-death look.”
Matthew suppressed a chuckle. “Damn! You are good, then!” he said as he turned around and slowly began to descend the rest of the steps, all the while rummaging around in the saddlebag.
Johnny took one last deep breath, pulled his arm in against his side, and carefully followed Matthew down the stairs. Though Matthew took it as slow as he could, and Johnny kept his left hand on the banister, it was all Johnny could do to keep his concentration centered on the back of Matthew’s head. The fire in his side and back screamed out for attention and the effort of keeping his breathing calm and even was causing the blood to roar in his ears.
As they reached the bottom, Johnny gave a small hiss of surprise, almost losing his footing. Matthew turned quickly to look at him, but Johnny jerked his hand away from the banister and with narrowed eyes, gave him a curt nod to continue on.
Matthew immediately turned and started for the door. Self-consciously he noted that the hotel owner and three men who were seated around a table were watching them with interest.
“Hey, Madrid!” the owner called from behind the bar. “Good to see you’re okay.”
Johnny turned and gave the man a brief, hooded nod from under his hat brim.
“Yeah, took care of that kid with no problem,” one of the other men remarked.
“Sure did!” the man sitting across from him added enthusiastically. “Don’t that deserve a drink, Len?”
The owner grinned and held up a bottle. “Sure enough does! Step on up, Madrid, and we’ll set you and your friend up with a drink.”
Matthew turned to Johnny, his eyes wide in alarm, which only increased when Johnny seemed to ignore him.
In silent amusement Johnny noticed Matthew’s desperate expression, his friend’s eyes dashing back and forth in a covert attempt at relaying his opinion that such an endeavor was to be avoided at all costs. Nonetheless, Johnny gave the men at the table, then the owner, a slow nod. “Sounds like a good way to start a long and dusty trip.”
As Johnny stepped around Matthew, he was seriously tempted to laugh out loud at the shocked and almost hysterical look on his friend’s face. Only the knowledge that doing so would have sent him straight to his knees in agony enabled him to keep his face totally expressionless as he crossed slowly to the small bar. All he could do was hope Matthew would take the hint and play along quickly so they could continue on their way.
“Mighty fine work, Madrid,” the owner said as he set a beer in front of Johnny, then poured another for Matthew. “Quite a sight it was.”
“Sure was!” enjoined the first man from the table as he came up to stand along side Johnny at the bar. “That kid didn’t stand a chance.”
“Hell, he never even knew what hit ‘im!” a second man said as he walked up to the far side of Matthew.
“Yeah, did’ja see his expression as he went down?” The other man from the table also walked up to join the group.
Matthew shot a quick glance at Johnny, but the mask of the gunfighter was all that was visible under the shadow of the hat brim.
“Damned bad luck with that horse, though, Madrid,” the first man continued. “Thought he’d put you down for good.”
“It’d’ve been a helluva way to go, eh, Madrid?” the man at the bar added. “Trampled by a horse.”
“Neither the horse or Wakeman gotcha this time,” the bartender grinned. “Take more’n that to keep down Madrid, right?”
Johnny numbed the sounds of the men talking and concentrated on the glass of beer sitting on the bar. Just the look of it made him want to retch. His insides felt on fire and the last thing he really wanted was to add liquor to his belly, but he knew to refuse would have been unwise.
Keeping his right arm against his side, Johnny used his left to grasp the mug and bring it slowly to his lips. He knew Matthew was watching him, but he couldn’t afford to focus on more than the one action. He took a cautious sip—the lukewarm beer catching in his throat—and briefly wondered if turning down the offer of a drink and the ensuing speculation about his health would have been a better option than losing his breakfast all over the bar.
Through his concentration on the beer, he became aware of having heard his name spoken. Carefully he adjusted his stance, avoiding movement at the waist, and glanced stonily at the man who had spoken. In a display of vague interest, he raised an eyebrow.
“Do you think Wakeman had anything to do with it—that kid drawin’ on you, I mean?” the man was saying. “I know for a fact that was two of his men you left lying out there.”
Johnny cocked his head slightly to the side. “Guess the Kid took the answer to that with him to Hell,” he replied slowly, then carefully took another sip of the beer and shifted his attention to Matthew. He noticed Matthew had just finished his beer—the look on his face one of magnified anxiety. Poker was obviously not one of Matthew’s games, Johnny surmised.
“You ready?” Matthew asked as he fidgeted from one foot to the other.
As Johnny nodded, the door opened and Tucson strolled in.
The other gunfighter quickly masked his surprise on seeing Johnny and Matthew at the bar. “I—uh—I thought we were ready to leave,” he said, raising a tentative eyebrow in question.
“Hey! How about another round of drinks?” the man standing next to Johnny suggested with a gesture to the bartender.
A wide grin crossed Tucson’s face. “Sure,” he said, stepping forward, hand raising in acceptance, when he was pulled up short by Matthew’s wide-eyed, threatening glare. “But—uh,” he paused and glanced quickly at Johnny then back to Matthew who was practically scorching him with his eyes, “then again, maybe…not…” He hesitated, still captured by Matthew’s murderous look. “I think…I think we need to be gettin’ a move on… right?”
Matthew gave Tucson a look that suggested he had responded wisely and perhaps saved himself from immediate death.
Johnny gave Matthew a slight nod. Then he set his half-empty beer back on the bar. “Thanks for the drink, but Tucson’s right. We do need to get movin’.”
“Of course.” The owner nodded. “Good luck to ya. And take it easy on the way back.”
Johnny gave a brief nod to those at the bar and headed toward the door.
Giving both Johnny and Matthew a curious look, Tucson turned and preceded Johnny outside, Matthew taking up the rear.
Once outside, Tucson paused and murmured, “Care to enlighten me?”
“Not now,” Matthew replied, shooting a worried glance in Johnny’s direction as he noticed the gunfighter pause near the hitching post.
Johnny stopped at the edge of the boardwalk, struck by the brightness of the sunshine. He tilted his head down, casting a darker shadow over his eyes, as he casually rested his left hand on the hitching post. He was fully aware that both Matthew and Tucson had also stopped and were looking at him. Keeping his head down, he closed his eyes and took a long, slow breath, giving his senses a chance to catch up.
“You wanna take the wagon instead?” Matthew asked.
Without looking up, Johnny shook his head. “I came in on a horse. I’m leaving on a horse. Get in the wagon.”
Matthew glanced quickly at Tucson, who shrugged back.
“I’ll make it. Let’s just get goin’,” Johnny sighed, took a deep breath, then raised his head.
Once out of the dark saloon, Matthew was not encouraged by Johnny’s appearance. The gunfighter’s jaw was now set tightly, clenching back obvious pain, his face was flushed with fever, and his eyes almost glowed with an unnatural brightness that didn’t match the rest of his appearance.
“You’re not gonna be able to sit a horse,” Tucson remarked quietly.
Johnny shot Tucson a look of annoyance. “I’m more worried about getting’ on,” he retorted, as he started for his mount.
Tucson glanced quickly at Matthew, who with a grim nod of his head motioned toward the other horse before heading to the wagon.
Johnny was aware that the street was fairly busy, though he was relieved to note that most people only took a passing interest in the three men leaving the hotel. He hoped it stayed that way, but he felt certain that at least one of the casual looks they were receiving was from someone in Wakeman’s employ. He also hoped the right arm that hugged his side was perceived as merely a wary gunfighter keeping his hand close to his sidearm, and not a man trying to hold his insides intact.
He stepped purposely off the boardwalk, gave a hooded glance down both sides of the street, then proceeded to his mount. Putting his left hand on the pommel, he took as deep a breath as he was able to stand, then held it as he quickly put his foot in the stirrup. The pain immediately began exploding across his back and side. Clenching his teeth, he held the cry in, closed his eyes and threw his leg over the saddle. For a split second, he felt himself blacking out as the pain thundered through his body and roared into his head—a red-hot explosion that numbed all sense of balance and feeling. Hearing a strangled gasp and knowing it had to be his own, he clawed his way through the pain back to consciousness, forcing his eyes open. He was surprised to find himself still in the saddle, Matthew and Tucson both watching him with concern.
Heart pounding and his body drenched in a sudden sweat, Johnny was unable to do more than give a curt nod. He was relieved when Matthew seemed to read his thoughts and quickly slapped the reins, his relief further magnified when his mount easily followed behind the wagon with minimum guidance. However, he was troubled when Tucson suddenly appeared, hovering by his side.
“In front,” Johnny commanded in a tightly controlled whisper. With no argument other than a frown, Tucson kicked his horse ahead to lead the way out of town. That left Johnny able to concentrate solely on managing his pain, which was difficult, as every step of the horse sent a spasm twisting hotly through his body. And though he felt chilled, he could feel his back drenched in a sweat under his jacket.
Just get out of town…out of town…how many blocks? A small breath…follow the wagon…out of town…breathe slowly…out of town…
Harley stood, arms crossed tightly against his chest in the shadow of a doorway and watched the three men leave the hotel. As he watched the dark-haired gunfighter, his face became gradually more distressed and he had to control the urge to run out into the street to help when he saw Johnny mount his horse. He knew his old friend well and saw through the tightly controlled actions to the underlying agony hidden beneath.
After Johnny regained himself, Harley let out a sigh of relief and continued to watch until they turned out of sight. Then he closed his eyes, shook his head and silently prayed. Lord, please let Mary have a girl. I don’t want to name another child after a dead friend.
Dreams & Wishes
Scott dismounted, gave Charlemagne a pat, then stretched out his back. He’d been up since before dawn to put together a small group of men to help him finish the new eastern corral. By mid-morning they were pretty well done, so Scott had left two of the men to finish up and collect the equipment while he rode back to the ranch to grab an early lunch. Next on his agenda was to get work started on the irrigation ditch. He was opening the yard corral when Jelly called to him in greeting.
“Hi, Jelly,” he replied as the older man walked up. “Could you take care of Charlemagne here? I’m going to be leaving again in about half an hour or so. Just want to grab a sandwich and get some supplies first.”
Jelly nodded as he accepted the reins. “Glad to. How’s the new corral comin’?”
“Should be pretty well finished as we speak.” Scott took off his hat, wiped his brow and glanced off toward the hills to the west. “I left two men with just pretty much the cleaning up to do.” His eyes did a quick scan of the yard before turning toward the hills in the distant south. “I plan to go stake out the irrigation ditch so that I can have a crew starting on it tomorrow.”
Jelly raised an eyebrow at Scott’s distracted manner. “Where’s the party?”
Scott furrowed his brows as he looked with confusion at the older man. “Huh? What party?”
“The one you’re so dang worried about gettin’ to.”
Scott gave Jelly a disgusted look. “It’s not a party I’m going to—it’s a brother I’m looking for,” he replied tersely as he strode off toward the house.
Jelly watched Scott leave. Shaking his head, he gave Charlemagne a pat. “For his sake and yours, I hope Scott finds him soon, otherwise you’re gonna end up with more miles on you than a train headin’ to Maine.”
At the door to the house, Scott paused to quickly wash up before entering the kitchen. As he was drying off, he glanced out toward the garden and noticed Teresa among the tomato plants. Laying the towel down, he headed toward the garden. Teresa, her back to him, didn’t noticed Scott approaching as she tried to balance a full basket of tomatoes in her arms and still bend down and grab a couple extra ripe ones.
“I think your basket’s full,” Scott remarked with a grin.
Teresa, quickly recovering her surprise, raised her eyebrows haughtily. “Well, then, Mr. Lancer. If you’re planning on eating any fresh tomatoes or enjoying any canned tomatoes this coming winter, I’d suggest that you wipe that grin off your face and offer to help.”
With a properly contrite expression, Scott took the overflowing basket from Teresa’s arms as she continued to fill her apron with the ripe ones still hanging on the vine.
“Hadn’t expected you back ‘til supper,” Teresa remarked as they walked toward the house.
“I was up early and we almost have the new corral finished. I thought I’d grab a quick sandwich and pick up those notes on the irrigation ditch Johnny—” Scott paused uncomfortably as Teresa’s hazel eyes turned toward him. “—Johnny made last July.” He looked away and opened the door to the kitchen.
Teresa’s gaze lingered on the older Lancer brother a second longer, noting the sadness in Scott’s eyes at the mere mention of Johnny’s name. After giving him a small smile of reassurance, she entered the kitchen. At the counter, she lifted her skirt slightly and let the ripe tomatoes roll onto the surface, then turned to Scott as he came up beside her and set the basket on the counter. Wordlessly he left the kitchen, leaving Teresa watching him sadly.
With a soft sigh, Teresa went to the sink pump to wash up. Absently she watched the water running over her hands as she fought her own internal battle. She wanted to ask Scott to stay. She knew, deep down, that it wasn’t possible, that he needed to look for his brother and she understood that. She knew how important it was to him—to all of them. Johnny had to be found. He had to be. And Scott was the only one who could do it. Who was willing to do it. But the thought of him being gone still hurt. It would feel so lonely, so strange, to have both the boys absent—especially under such strained circumstances.
Bringing her thoughts back to the present, Teresa grabbed the cake of soap, quickly washed her hands and grabbed up the towel. Then she folded it neatly and put it where it belonged before she began making Scott’s sandwich.
As she was cleaning up the counter, Scott re-entered, a paper in his hands.
“Took awhile to find it,” he remarked as he folded the paper and put it in his pocket. “I’m hoping to get most of the markers placed before nightfall. I probably won’t be able to get them all, but I’ll get as many as I can before it gets too dark to see. Don’t hold supper on me, okay?”
Teresa nodded and watched as Scott grabbed up the sandwich in one hand and downed the glass of water with the other.
“I’ll just take this with me,” he smiled and held up the sandwich. “Thanks, Teresa.”
“I just—I just want to help,” Teresa replied softly.
By the way Scott gazed at her, she knew he understood what she meant. He gave her another knowing smile, then turned and headed out the door.
Matthew turned and glanced back at Johnny, but the gunfighter rode, head down and hat drawn over his eyes making it impossible to see his face.
As soon as they had left the outskirts of town, Matthew had suggested that Johnny get down and join him in the wagon. But Johnny had tersely replied that someone in Wakeman’s employ was probably watching and it’d be best to get as much distance as they could between them and the town before Johnny dismounted; so they rode on in silence. No one had spoken for quite some time, the uncomfortable feeling that any casual discussion would be unwelcome by Johnny as an interruption to his focus.
Matthew, however, was now becoming concerned. They had left the town a good hour earlier, the sun was rising high in the sky, the day was getting hot and oppressive, and he was sure it must be taking every ounce of effort Johnny possessed in order to stay in the saddle.
Tucson, for his part, had kept a vigilant eye on the surrounding countryside, but other than seeing one other rider in the distance not long after leaving town, they had met no one else on the trail heading south.
Unknown to the other two, however, Johnny had long since ceased being concerned about his surroundings, or of even being seen at all for that matter. Somewhere along the line his brain had latched onto remaining in the saddle as its only goal. All else had ceased to matter to him—or even become a fleeting thought. At one point, he had counted the steps his mount had taken, telling himself that first one hundred, then five hundred, then a thousand, was the goal that must be met. But not long after, his mind numbed and he lost all track of counting—distance ceased to matter. Staying on did.
The effects of the laudanum had mostly worn off, his mouth was dry, his labored breathing a macabre echo of the horse’s steps. Though the pain had reached such intensity that he wondered why he hadn’t passed out, he never let out a cry, simply because he couldn’t draw in enough air. All breathing now came in choked, painful quick gasps. And he was cold, so very cold.
Suddenly his horse drew up. Vaguely he wondered why, but didn’t have the energy to look up or even enough interest to care.
Then a voice echoed from somewhere, a discordant resonation, which reverberated around in his brain. A small part of him questioned why and where it came from, but mostly it didn’t matter to him.
Then he heard another voice, a different tone. At one time he might have given it some thought, but now he felt only apathy.
Then something touched him on the shoulder and then another on the leg. Because his whole body was in barely controlled, searing agony, he did care. His eyes flashed open, but all was a blur. He blinked and tried to focus, but was disconcerted to find that he needed to keep breathing and seemed to have lost the ability to do both at the same time.
“I think we’d better stop,” Tucson said, drawing his horse up along side Matthew. He gave the hunched figure following behind a concerned look. “I just rode over to him. Tried to ask him if he wanted to stop for a rest, but he didn’t answer. And his breathing,” Tucson shook his head, “it don’t sound good at all.”
Matthew quickly pulled the team up and jumped off the wagon seat as Tucson reined his horse around toward the rear.
Though Johnny made no move to stop his horse, his horse pulled up anyway at Matthew’s approach.
“Johnny,” Matthew called out cautiously. “Johnny.” He looked at Tucson as the other gunfighter rode up.
“Hey, Madrid. Ready for a break?” Tucson asked.
There was still no response other than the raspy, labored breathing, eerily paced in exacting intervals.
Tucson put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder as Matthew put a hand on Johnny’s leg in an attempt to break through his trance.
“Johnny, can you hear me?” Matthew asked, moving closer.
Suddenly Johnny’s eyes opened, but Matthew was shocked to see no recognition behind them.
“Johnny?” He tried once more, giving the leg a slight squeeze.
The eyes seemed to stare blindly, then suddenly Johnny gave a shudder and gasped, his eyes blinking rapidly.
“Johnny, Johnny, you okay?!” Matthew’s voice rose in panic.
Johnny’s eyes finally came to rest on Matthew’s face. “I—I think—it’s time—to—stop,” he murmured, then silently fell forward as Matthew grabbed for him and Tucson leapt from his saddle to help.
“Damn it!” Matthew swore as he and Tucson managed to safely lower Johnny to the ground, his labored breathing sounding uncomfortably close to a death rattle.
“I don’t think he’s gonna make it,” Tucson murmured.
Matthew shot the other man a sharp look. “He has to make it.”
Tucson stood up. “Well, there’s not a hell’ve a lot we can do for him out here!” he exclaimed.
Clenching his fists, Matthew rose to his feet. “He just put himself through hell gettin’ us outta that town! Now we’re gonna get him the rest of the way to Soledad.” He narrowed his eyes. “Now you get over to the wagon and get it repacked so we have a place to lay him. Take the blanket off his horse to lay him on. And try to create some shade with the tarp. I’m gonna try to get some water into him,” he commanded.
Wordlessly, Tucson turned and walked to the wagon where he began rearranging the supplies.
Matthew slipped the canteen off Johnny’s saddle then knelt down and put a hand to Johnny’s face. He was shocked to discover how hot his friend was. He tried calling his name, but received no response. He then tried to moisten Johnny’s lips with water from the canteen, but he doubted it was doing much good. As a last resort, he retrieved a bandana from the saddlebag, wet it, and attempted to cool Johnny’s forehead.
As Tucson walked up, he noticed Matthew worrying his bottom lip back and forth in indecision. “Wagon’s ready,” he announced. “Somethin’ wrong?”
Matthew looked up ruefully. “I’m just thinking I should take a look at his wounds again.”
“And,” Tucson prompted.
Matthew shook his head then sighed. “I’m also worried about his medicine. I don’t think there had been much left to begin with, but what he had he took in order to get out of town. I—I’m afraid he’s gonna be needing something for the pain.” Matthew sighed again, then stood up. “Let’s at least get him moved to the wagon. And carefully.”
Tucson knelt down and together the two men gently moved Johnny onto the wagon and positioned him among the supplies.
After arranging the tarp between some of the larger crates in order to cast some shade over Johnny’s face, Tucson cleared his throat and glanced uncomfortably at Matthew. “Matthew, I didn’t mean it like it sounded. I didn’t mean we oughta just leave him or something. It’s just that, well,” he spread his hands out in each direction. “Out here there’s not much we can do for him.”
Matthew looked down at the unconscious figure and sighed. “I know. I’m sorry I jumped on you.” Matthew put a hand over his face and shook his head sadly. “Damn. It just can’t end like this.”
Tucson looked away as the younger man buried his sorrows behind his hand. After a few seconds, Matthew took a deep breath and looked back up. “We’ve got a full day’s ride ahead of us and we’re making slow time, but I do think I should take a look at his wounds again. He’s also burning up with fever and the day’s gettin’ hotter. Up ahead, maybe ‘bout thirty minutes or so, there’s a small grove of shade trees. I could get the wagon underneath, get him in some shade. It won’t be as convenient to water the horses, but if you individually walk them down to the river for a drink while I see to Johnny, I think it would work best. We need to get him out of this sun and I’d rather not move him no more’n we have to.”
Tucson glanced down the road and nodded. “Sounds good then. Let’s get going.”
Close to an hour later, Matthew carefully guided the wagon in amongst the shade afforded by the grove of scraggly eucalyptus trees. The trip had taken longer than Matthew had originally planned, as once he had Johnny as part of his cargo, he’d become extremely aware of every rut and imagined hazard lurking along the worn trail. At first, every sharp jostle caused him to quickly glance back into the wagon box, but the injured gunfighter made no movement or sound.
Once he’d drawn the wagon up under the trees, Matthew jumped out of the wagon and ran around to the back. “Help me move a few of these sacks out of the way,” he instructed after unlatching the rear panel and jumping up. “I’m gonna need some more room to work.”
Tucson swung out of his saddle, looped his hat around his pommel, and immediately set to work helping Matthew stack some of the supplies over to the far side of the wagon box.
After they were done, Tucson hopped to the ground while Matthew knelt down beside Johnny and put his hand to his forehead. With a heavy sigh, Matthew slowly drew his hand away, unsure what he’d thought he’d gain from the gesture, as it was obvious by just looking at Johnny that the fever was winning the battle this time.
Tucson, his forearm resting along the side of the wagon box, observed Matthew’s dismay. “I can bring you back some water when I take the horses down,” he offered helpfully.
Matthew glanced up and leaned back on his heels. “Yeah, I’m gonna need more water than what we’ve got in the canteens. I need a fire, too.”
“A fire?” Tucson gave Matthew an amused look. “In this heat?”
“DarkCloud always told us never to clean off wounds with river water unless we’d heated it. Jamie once got a nasty gash on his leg and DarkCloud specifically said the water we used had to be heated,” Matthew stated firmly.
Tucson cocked his head, still amused. “How hot you need it?”
Matthew shrugged. “Boiling,” he said. “There’s something about the heat. Must clean better or something.”
Tucson laughed. “That Indian of yours got some peculiar notions, but whatever you think is best. I’ll get a fire going, then take care of the horses.”
Matthew smiled his thanks, then looked up at the trees. “Can you help me get his jacket off first? Even in the shade it’s hot, and we gotta get his temperature down.”
Tucson nodded and climbed back into the wagon. Carefully the two men slid Johnny’s jacket off, Matthew advising caution with each movement. Once finished, Matthew balled the jacket into a makeshift pillow to be used for later, while Tucson hopped back out to go gather the needed wood for a short-term fire.
While Tucson took care of the fire, Matthew climbed over to the wagon seat and retrieved Johnny’s saddlebag and canteen from where it had been tossed after unsaddling Johnny’s horse. He rewet the piece of cloth and put it on Johnny’s forehead, then poked around among their supplies until he’d found a container Tucson could use for heating water.
About the same time Matthew had gathered his items, Tucson had the fire started. He then came over to pick up the container, grabbed the halter of two of the horses and set out for the river.
Matthew watched Tucson leave before focusing on Johnny. There was no escaping the next task—checking the wounds.
Taking up the knife Tucson had left him, Matthew cut away the shirt. The large crimson stain had ruined it beyond all repair, and he didn’t think Johnny was in any shape to argue. Next he cut away the old bandage and pulled it carefully away from Johnny’s side. The front wound from the earlier gunshot looked no worse than it had earlier. The bruise on his side from the horse’s hooves was now very swollen and red, a darker purple coloring appearing around the edges. But what concerned him most was an angry red inflamed area he could just make out spreading up from Johnny’s back. He needed to get Johnny on his side so that he could take care of both areas properly.
There was nothing, total oblivion—then suddenly he was drowning. He tried to gasp for air, but none came. He tried to claw his way to the surface, but he couldn’t seem to reach it. Somewhere there had to be air—somewhere!
Matthew was wiping his hands on his pants, mentally preparing himself for rolling Johnny to his side—and what he feared he’d find—when suddenly Johnny’s hands grasped frantically, clawing the air. As the labored breathing quickly turned into strangled gasps, Matthew tried to grab for Johnny’s hands to restrain him, but was surprised at the strength with which Johnny fought back.
“Johnny! It’s Matthew! Johnny!! What’s wrong?”
Johnny grabbed at Matthew’s arm, clutching at it in an effort to pull himself up, his eyes wide as he frantically gasped for air.
“Tucson!” Matthew cried. “Tucson!”
Hearing Matthew’s plea for help, Tucson quickly grabbed up the reins to the horses and took off for the wagon, the container of water splashing haphazardly against his leg.
Disoriented and in pain, Johnny vaguely realized he wasn’t under water, but the intense pressure on his lungs still continued. Frantic for breath, and despite the searing fire in his back, he made another attempt to sit up.
Matthew, reading the desire in Johnny’s eyes, quickly put an arm around his friend’s shoulders and began to help him up. With the pressure off his inflamed and bruised back suddenly gone, Johnny gave a shudder and gasped, his breath coming fast and short.
“Johnny?” Matthew’s voice was tight with worry.
His face a contrast of uncontrolled pain and relief, Johnny trembled as he rolled on to his left side. “Back,” he whispered in a strained voice.
“No breath,” he managed to gasp out.
Tucson came running up. “What’s wrong?”
“I—I’m not sure.” Matthew sat back on his heels, his eyes wide in alarm, afraid to touch his shuddering, gasping friend. “He can’t seem to breathe.”
Tucson glanced over the side. Johnny’s back was to him, and where part of the bandages had fallen away, he could see the old wound was yellow with infection and the bruise from the horse’s hoof had turned the rest of the right half of his back into a mass of purple, swollen flesh. “I’m not surprised. He’s a mess.” Tucson nodded for Matthew to look for himself. “We’re gonna have to keep him off his back.”
Matthew turned away from the sight and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw Tucson still watching him. Aware that Johnny was now conscious, Matthew tried hard to keep the panic out of his voice. “Did you get the water?”
Tucson glanced at the buckets and nodded wryly. “Well, most of it, anyway.”
“Good. Go get it heating,” Matthew instructed then turned his attention back to Johnny. He noticed the gunfighter’s eyes were open, fixed intently on some object as he struggled with each breath.
“Johnny,” Matthew adjusted his position so he could lean in closer. “Johnny, do you hear me?”
Johnny weakly nodded, his eyes still staring fixedly.
“We’ve stopped for a break. You passed out earlier, do you remember?”
There was no response at first, then Johnny mouthed, “Potatoes.”
“What?” Matthew leaned his ear closer.
Sluggishly Johnny licked his lips, forced his eyes toward Matthew, and whispered, “Potatoes.”
Matthew blinked again, confused. “Potatoes?”
Johnny gave a barely discernible nod toward the sack near his head. “I’m gonna—die—among—potatoes.”
Glancing at the sack, Matthew repressed a smile as he read the bright red lettering. Then he turned a stern look on his friend. “No, you’re not.”
Johnny moaned softly and closed his eyes.
“Tucson’s heating up some water so I can clean your wound.”
“Again?” he hissed.
“I’m afraid it’s infected, Johnny. We need to get you back to Soledad so DarkCloud can take care of it properly.”
Johnny swallowed, attempted to speak, but was cut off by a spasm of pain. Clenching his jaw against it, he waited until he had gained control once more, and tried again. “How—far?”
“Uh, if you mean where are we, we’ve gone about eight miles.”
“Time?” Johnny whispered.
“Time now?” Matthew asked.
Johnny gave a hint of a nod, unable to speak.
“Well, I figure it to be around noon.”
Johnny drew in a slow breath and gave a slight shake of his head. “Too—slow.”
“We can’t go very fast. Not and get to Soledad with you alive anyway,” Matthew replied dryly as he began to open the containers of ointment.
“No,” Johnny stated in a hiss that brought a shudder of pain.
“No? What d’ya mean, no?” Matthew demanded.
Johnny managed to turn his head enough to fix feverish eyes on Matthew. “I—got you—outta Salinas—don’t—don’t mess it up.” Closing his eyes, he bit his lip, yet a groan still escaped.
“Yeah, well, you maybe got us outta Salinas, but now we’re gonna get you home!” Matthew declared hotly, bringing a curious look from Tucson who was hunched over the fire nearby.
Johnny shook his head again, exhaled slowly through his cracked lips then took another slow breath. “I need—I need you to leave me—here. Get—,” he paused and swallowed tightly. “Get to Soledad. Wakeman—Wakeman’s men—”
“And do what when we get there?” Matthew retorted. “Without you, we’re back where we started!”
“No,” Johnny cut in sharply, then gasped. “No,” he whispered more softly. “I can’t—do—anymore. I’m holding—you up. You’ve—you’ve got Tucson.”
Hearing the discussion, Tucson walked up. “Oh, no you don’t, Madrid. You’re not leavin’ me with this mess.” Though his tone was combative, the quick reassuring smile he shot at Matthew revealed his true intent. “You got Wakeman all hot for a showdown, and now you want out. Well, nothin’ doin’, Madrid. We plan to get your ass back to Soledad where DarkCloud can fix you up proper. Then you can finish what you started.”
Johnny closed his eyes. “You’re—both—idiots,” he hissed quietly.
Tucson smiled wryly, leaned over the wagon and gave Johnny’s leg a pat. “Save your insults for DarkCloud. I gotta feelin’ you two are gonna be seein’ a lot of each other.” He glanced up at Matthew. “Water should be ready now.”
Matthew nodded. “Thanks.”
As Tucson returned to watch the fire, Matthew took the damp cloth that had fallen from Johnny’s forehead and rewet it.
At the touch of the cool cloth, Johnny gave a shudder and opened his eyes. “Cold,” he breathed.
“You’re runnin’ a high fever,” Matthew explained, then glanced up as Tucson appeared with the hot water.
“How can I help?” Tucson asked as he placed it near Matthew.
Matthew gave Tucson a helpless shrug. “I’m gonna clean this up best I can and get some more medicine on it.” He paused for a second, glancing down at Johnny, who had his eyes closed. When he looked back up, his dark eyes were heavy with resolve, though his words were strangely calm. “Heat this up.” He held out the knife that he’d used to cut away the bandages. “Then I’m gonna have you make up a DarkCloud Special while I’m taking care of Johnny,” he continued conversationally.
“No—tea,” Johnny muttered between clenched teeth.
Tucson gave Matthew a nod of understanding, took the knife, then headed for the fire.
“Don’t mess with me, Madrid. It’s been a hard day,” Matthew retorted.
The response drew a wane smile across Matthew’s face, but it was short-lived as Matthew set to work cleaning away the sweat and dirt that had accumulated around the wounds. The wounds, though crusted with dried blood, were still oozing, especially the wound on Johnny’s back. Careful though he tried to be, Matthew felt Johnny inhale sharply, biting back moans at the slightest touch.
After a minute, Tucson returned with the hot knife. Matthew took it reluctantly, then keeping it from view, nodded to Tucson to be ready to lend a hand.
Tucson, understanding the need to keep out of Johnny’s sight, quietly climbed up the side of the wagon. Then at a signal from Matthew, Tucson grabbed Johnny’s shoulder and hip to keep him from rolling onto his back as Matthew quickly cut away a piece of the dead, infected skin.
Johnny arched his back, a strangled scream cut off in mid-cry as he ran out of air, his eyes wide in alarm and pain.
In a matter of seconds, Matthew quickly tossed down the knife and added his own weight to keep Johnny from rolling over. “Johnny! It’s over! I’m done!” Matthew cried as Johnny struggled to throw off their combined weight.
“Damn you!” Johnny gasped savagely as he turned his head to fix Matthew with a cold stare.
Matthew forced himself to return the glare. “I had to do it. The infection’s spreading bad, Johnny. The wound—it needs to drain.”
“Get—off—me,” Johnny hissed coldly.
“Promise to stay still ‘till I get done. I need to clean it up and put some of DarkCloud’s—”
“Damn it, Matthew.” Johnny blinked, his feverish glare seeming to cloud over. “Don’t you—understand—I—I don’t care…”
Matthew’s chest tightened at the words as Johnny’s eyes slowly rolled back and his head fell limp to the floor of the wagon. For a few seconds, neither man moved, then Matthew slowly released his hold and sank back heavily onto the floor of the wagon box.
Tucson quietly drew his hands away and regarded Matthew. “I don’t—I don’t think he meant it. It was the fever talkin’.”
Matthew shook his bowed head. “No, he meant it. You didn’t see his eyes.”
“He’s just in a lot of pain,” Tucson made another attempt to console.
Matthew snorted quietly and took a deep breath. “Yeah.” He looked up at Tucson. “Make that tea up like I said. If he wakes up, I plan to force some down him.”
Tucson nodded firmly and jumped back out of the wagon.
Relieved that Johnny had lost consciousness, Matthew turned to the grim task of cleaning and rebandaging the wounds. The horrible sense that he really hadn’t any idea of what he was doing, the gnawing fear that he was really only making things worse, threatened to overwhelm him.
He was securing the new bandages as Tucson returned from the river with the horses he’d unhitched from the wagon.
“Did he come to?” Tucson asked after hobbling the animals.
Matthew shook his head as he put away the last of the supplies then picked up the saddlebag and climbed out of the wagon.
“Probably just as well,” Tucson gave a reassuring smile. “He needs the rest.”
Casting a somber glance at the wagon, Matthew chewed his lip unhappily. “He needs more’n that—more’n I can do for him.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re doin’ all you can. Heck! You sounded just like DarkCloud back there.”
Matthew ran his hand through his hair and looked down at the ground. “He needs more’n me or DarkCloud can give him. He needs something else. I don’t know what it is, but…” He shrugged despondently and looked back up at Tucson. “But I’m gonna try my best to get him back to Soledad. We all owe him that much.” He paused and drew his hand wearily across his face. “I’d like us to rest here an hour or two, ‘til the winds start up and cool things. It’d be best to keep him in the shade ‘til then.”
Tucson raised an eyebrow. “At the rate we’re goin’, we won’t be gettin’ back to town ‘til late this evening. We’ll have to cover the last part in the dark.”
“Can’t be helped,” Matthew replied, glancing through the canopy of leaves toward the sun. “He needs a chance to rest quietly, and with the fever he’s running, we gotta keep him out of this heat.”
Tucson nodded. “Okay, you’re the boss.”
Matthew looked at Tucson sharply. “Don’t say that. I haven’t a clue what I’m doing.”
Tucson shrugged and grinned. “Coulda fooled me.”
Matthew sighed dismally. “I’m gonna sit by him and try to keep him cool. Why don’t you catch a short nap while we’ve got the chance? It’s bound to be a long day.”
“How ‘bout you?”
“I couldn’t sleep if I wanted to. Nah,” Matthew shrugged. “I’ll feel better if I stay next to Johnny in case he awakens. Really want to get some of that tea into him.”
Tucson snorted. “Bet he likes that.”
Matthew smiled. “You don’t know the half of it.”
Tucson grinned back, then his expression turned thoughtful and he nodded toward the wagon. “This has been goin’ on some time, hasn’t it?”
Matthew nodded and sighed heavily. “Yeah, quite awhile.”
“And that trick I heard he pulled on ol’ Mr. Angelou. He did that just after bein’ injured, didn’t he?”
A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of Matthew’s mouth. “Yeah, only ‘bout a week later. You shoulda seen him. And not a person suspected.”
Tucson shook his head. “Damn, he’s good.” He glanced again at the wagon. “The Kid was a fool for tryin’ him.”
“Yeah.” Matthew sobered and dropped his eyes to the ground, his voice barely a whisper. “He was.”
“Let me know if you need anything, then,” Tucson said. “I’m just gonna find me a nice patch of ground over here.”
Matthew watched Tucson saunter around absently until he’d found a suitable place to lie down, then he turned his attention back to Johnny. First thing needed, was to refill one of the canteens with cold water from the river so he could keep a cool rag on Johnny’s forehead.
Matthew picked up the canteen he’d been using earlier and walked down to the river, his thoughts pre-occupied with the fear that he’d be returning to Soledad with only the body of Madrid.
Matthew spent the next hour sitting in the back of the wagon under the filtered shade of the trees, passing the time alternately between self-recrimination and doubt, punctuated with the routine action of reapplying the cool rag to Johnny’s feverish brow. The heat of the noonday sun, though filtered, the lack of sleep and the gradual decrease in adrenaline had left him lethargic. Despite his claim of not being able to fall asleep, he did, eventually, manage to doze off.
“Matthew. Hey, Matthew!”
Matthew jerked awake with a start. “What?”
Tucson stood beside the wagon, grinning. “Looks like you got some shut-eye after all.”
Matthew stifled a yawn. “Sorry, I hadn’t meant—” He shot a worried look at Johnny as he quickly pushed himself to his knees. “How is he?”
Tucson put a hand up. “Don’t worry. He’s breathing.” Then he gestured. “But the wind’s picked up. Thought we better get a start soon.”
Matthew quickly looked about. The sun had started its slow journey west and the wind had indeed come up. Matthew shifted closer to Johnny and put a hand on the gunfighter’s skin. With a shake of his head, he looked up at Tucson. “I don’t think he’s any better.” He glanced vaguely toward the ashes of the dead fire. “While you get the horses ready, I’m gonna see if there’s enough heat in those ashes to warm up the tea. It’s supposed to help with the pain, too, and he’s gonna really be needing something if he wakes up.”
“Won’t take me long,” Tucson replied.
Matthew picked up the tea they had made earlier and climbed out of the wagon. Taking a stick, he stirred up the ashes enough to find a hot spot, then cradled the tin cup in amongst the ashes.
It didn’t take long to heat up the small amount of tea Matthew decided to use, as he felt he’d be lucky to get Johnny to take even a few sips. Grabbing the handle with his shirt, he carried it back to the wagon.
Johnny hadn’t moved from his left side. The sound of the breathing, still heavy and shallow, immediately constricted Matthew’s chest with worry. He balanced the cup on a box then climbed over the side and knelt down.
Johnny felt a tug pulling him out of the heavy darkness. At first he was able to ignore it, but then it became increasingly insistent, sinking its claws deeply into his flesh in a demand for attention.
“No,” Johnny uttered in a raspy voice.
“Johnny.” The voice echoed in increasing intensity, amplifying throughout his whole being.
“No,” he groaned again.
He felt the claws rip completely as his consciousness was painfully forced through the blackness, and he moaned in agony as his raw senses were suddenly exposed.
“Johnny, I need you to drink a little of this tea before we get started,” the voice slurred through his brain.
Johnny sluggishly opened his eyes. Matthew’s face wavered sickeningly back and forth in front of him. He opened his mouth to protest, but all he uttered was another moan. He felt a hand slide under the side of his face, felt his head tilted upwards. At the same time, he felt a warm liquid dribbled between his lips. Dehydrated from the fever, he involuntarily gulped the liquid, but immediately his stomach rebelled, and he began to retch painfully.
Matthew quickly set the cup down and put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and back in an attempt to calm him. “Shhh—it’s okay. Keep it down, Johnny. You gotta keep it down.”
“No,” Johnny groaned.
“Just a little. You can do it. We gotta get some liquids in you. And you know that tea’ll help with the infection and pain.”
“No,” Johnny replied thickly.
“Yes,” Matthew persisted and picked the cup up again. “Try it slow. Just a bit, okay?”
Johnny tried to shake his head, but lacked the strength. Once again he felt himself supported enough to allow a small amount of liquid to pass into his mouth. This time, though his stomach recoiled, the fear of the pain that would ensue if he allowed himself to get sick was enough to give him the strength to force it down.
Once Matthew seemed satisfied that he’d taken some of the tea, Johnny felt his head lowered carefully back onto the rough blanket.
Johnny blinked hazily. “You’re—tryin’—too—hard,” he murmured.
“You’re givin’ up too easy,” Matthew retorted testily, though the accusation clung heavily on him as he watched Johnny slowly succumb to oblivion.
Scott stood up and surveyed his work, pleased with his progress. It’d taken him awhile to get the supplies gathered and loaded onto a packhorse. It was slower going with the extra horse in tow, but eventually he reached the area where a few months earlier he and Johnny had discussed the feasibility and advantages of having an irrigation ditch dug.
Scott stretched out his cramped back muscles and looked at the line of short stakes he’d already laid out to indicate where the work crew was to begin digging. He hoped to get most of it laid out before nightfall so that he could return in the morning with the men and get them started while he finished laying out the lines and made sure the crew boss clearly understood the job.
Scott smiled to himself and roughly ran his gloved hand through his ash blond hair. Then he’d be able to leave the next day. He was already packed and ready.
He was a man with a mission—and that mission was to find his brother.
A hazy, smoky room… A numbness that engulfed his entire being. A round, dirty table in front of him, and the all-important glass of the light-amber liquid. Sometimes he mixed it with tequila, and sometimes, if the pain and the shaking were especially bad, like it was tonight, he drank it straight.
The numbness was a welcome relief this evening. He’d managed to finish his day’s work for a local rancher he’d hired on to. Although the toll had been great, he took comfort in the fact that he had been able to finish out the day. He wasn’t always able to. Sometimes the pain got too much to handle, or the shaking became uncontrollable without the help of the medicine. Somedays he just couldn’t even get out of bed….
You’re getting’ old, Madrid. Old, slow, shaky, always in pain… Hell, who wants to live to twenty anyway?
For some reason the thought amused him. Twenty. Shit, there was a time he didn’t think he’d make it to thirteen. He picked up the glass and took a sip. Maybe he just needed a change of scenery. A chance to concentrate…
But, no. Whenever he thought too much, he’d remember Laura and the look in her eyes as she died in his hands.
Half-breed gunfighters don’t deserve happiness. They only deserve the death that eventually is waiting for them.
….Pretty girls and gunfighters don’t mix….
Suddenly a voice from the past drew his attention sluggishly from the glass in his hand.
Harley and Wes stopped a few feet from the table where their friend, barely recognizable with his dirt-worn clothes and his emaciated features, was sitting.
Harley looked at Wes, his expression a mixture of confusion and relief, before turning back to the table. “Madrid?” His bewilderment growing by the seconds, Harley watched as the man in front of him, a man he knew had to be his friend, turned vague, unfocused eyes toward him.
“Ain’t no one here by that name,” the man stated thickly, then turned back to the drink in his hand and took a long sip.
Harley, knowing Wes’ propensity for sticking his foot in his mouth, quickly put a restraining hand on the other man’s arm, then gave him a curt warning look to hold his tongue. Wes looked at him with some puzzlement, but then nodded his head reluctantly in understanding as the glare he received became increasingly lethal.
Harley cautiously walked to the table, pulled out a chair and sat down. “Johnny,” he intoned quietly. “Juanito, it’s me, Harley. What’s wrong? We been lookin’ for you.”
“Well, now you found me, so you can leave,” Johnny retorted as he set his glass down heavily on the table.
“We heard you got shot,” Wes whispered as he also pulled out a chair.
Harley narrowed Wes with the lethal look again, and Wes promptly closed his mouth.
“So, does that mean you’re surprised to see me, or disappointed?” Johnny asked thickly as he looked once more at Harley.
“Johnny,” Harley leaned in closely. “We been tryin’ to find you—”
“Not very long, I hope. Hate to have wasted your time,” Johnny replied as he leaned shakily forward to grab the bottle and refill his glass.
“We heard what happened in Kansas—”
“You don’t know everything, Wes,” Johnny replied as he turned ice-cold eyes on his old friend, while Harley made shin-contact with the toe of his boot.
“Wes, go get us some glasses,” Harley commanded tersely.
Chagrined, Wes stood up and limped exaggeratedly to the bar.
“Johnny, we came as soon as we’d heard. We thought you might need us,” Harley said, keeping his voice low, while he continued to study his friend closely. A man, that if he hadn’t known him so well, he never would have taken as being Johnny Madrid. His entire appearance lacked the subtlety and shrewdness in manner Harley had come to expect. Something was wrong, very wrong.
Wes appeared, setting two more glasses on the table. “Hey, there, Johnny,” he said as he sat down again and reached for the bottle on the table. “Mind sharin’ a nip with your old friend?”
Johnny snorted. “Doubt it’ll be to your liking.”
Wes and Harley shot each other a curious look, then Wes picked up the bottle and poured some into his glass. He put it to his lips, then quickly drew it away, his face suddenly losing its cocky look. “Laudanum,” he mouthed quietly to Harley.
“Laudanum,” Johnny mimicked back. “That’s what they usually give a useless gunfighter when he’s all shot up to hell, since no one was around to watch his back.”
“Then I heard right,” Wes said as he set his glass on the table, suddenly very serious. “I was in Texas when I’d heard you’d been shot. Got word to Harley and we traced you to Santa Rosa, but by the time we’d got there, you were gone.”
“Wonderful little town, wasn’t it?” Johnny retorted sarcastically. “Warm, friendly people—helpful, too. Especially the way they turn the other way when you’re about to be bushwhacked. But then, I supposed it don’t matter to you much, does it?”
Harley furrowed his brows. “Come now, Johnny. We had no way of knowin’. Hell, you and Wes were the ones to take off for Kansas. Cisco and I wanted to stay in Texas. And as Wes tells it, you were the one hot to stay in Kansas when he decided to return…eyes for the boss’s daughter and all—”
“Whatever,” Johnny interrupted with a sharp retort. “Doesn’t matter anyway, now does it?”
Harley watched, concerned and confused as Johnny pushed unsteadily to his feet, a small groan escaping as he straightened up, the shaking seeming to increase with the exertion.
“Juanito, I think we need to get you fixed up—”
“I ain’t broken,” he snapped, then put a hand on the table quickly as his knees began to buckle.
“That’s it,” Harley stood up and grabbed Johnny around the waist. “We’re findin’ Cisco and gettin’ you some help.”
“I don’t need your help,” Johnny retorted hotly as he tried to push Harley’s hands away. “I can take care of myself.”
“And a stunnin’ job you’ve done of it, too,” Harley replied evenly, his hands refusing to budge. Then he turned to Wes. “Cisco’s supposed to be from near here, if I remember. He said he was returnin’ home ‘til the spring.”
Wes nodded. “Yeah, place near Juarez as I recall, just over the border. Take us a few days to get there.”
“Harl, let go of me, or I’ll kill you,” Johnny hissed, his speech slurring heavily. Then his eyes suddenly lost their focus and he collapsed.
“If I had a nickel for every time you promised me that,” Harley chuckled as he easily lifted his friend into his arms. As he did so, he was uncomfortably aware that Johnny weighed considerably less than the last time he’d had to pick him up.
Matthew hauled up on the reins, the urgency in Tucson’s voice causing him to set the break and leap out of the wagon all in one abrupt movement.
When Matthew reached the back of the wagon, Tucson was already dismounted and pulling open the gate.
“He’s convulsing or somethin’!” Tucson said, clearly worried as Matthew climbed quickly into the back of the wagon.
Johnny still lay on his side, but the trembling was now so severe that his entire body was shaking in great spasms that seemed to hit in waves. As he knelt down, Matthew was surprised to see Johnny’s eyes open, though he noticed they lacked depth and focus.
“Johnny,” he whispered, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Johnny, can you hear me?”
Johnny emitted a wounded groan. “Harl, let go of me, or I’ll kill you.”
“Johnny, it’s Matthew, not Harley.”
Though Johnny turned glassy eyes toward him, there was no sign recognition. Then suddenly another spasm hit leaving him moaning and gasping for breath.
“What’s wrong?” Tucson asked.
“Shit,” Matthew swore as he put his other hand along Johnny’s back in an unconscious desire to be of some support. “The medicine’s wore off and he needs some more. Damn! I wish he hadn’t used all his up. And I don’t think we’re hauling any back with us; there wasn’t any on the list we gave at the warehouse anyway, I already checked. Damn it! I don’t have a thing to give him for the pain other than that stupid tea.”
Tucson pursed his lips. “I’d ride on ahead to Soledad, but I don’t know if that’s wise, either. We haven’t received any signals from Red Deer that Wakeman’s men are around, but I hate to take a chance and split up.” He paused and looked out toward the coastals of the Santa Lucia Range. “Wonder if they’re out there watchin’ us. Be damn nice if they decided to lend a hand.”
Matthew shook his head. “Johnny was explicit in his instructions that they weren’t to get involved in any way other than to signal us if Wakeman’s been spotted. Johnny was serious about not gettin’ them caught up in this any more than was absolutely necessary. He doesn’t want Wakeman going after them.”
Tucson’s expression soured. “Seems to be overly concerned about them Indians, if you ask me.”
Matthew leveled Tucson with a tight glare. “Might do well to remember who you’re talkin’ to. I have Indian blood.”
Tucson put a hand up. “Really? I didn’t know. You don’t act like no Indian.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t act like you’ve got any brains,” Matthew retorted strongly as he turned back toward Johnny.
Tucson shook his head and sighed. “Sorry, I had that coming.”
Matthew shrugged, then rubbed his face tiredly. As he did so, he noticed with relief that Johnny’s bout of spasms seemed to have subsided, at least for the time. “No, it’s okay. We got more important things to worry about. Let’s get as much distance behind us as we can. Let me know if he starts convulsing again, and we’ll see if we can’t get him to take some more of the tea. I put what was left in his canteen. He seems to be resting again, so I’m gonna let it go this time.”
Tucson nodded and backed up as Matthew jumped out of the wagon. Together they put the gate back up. Then Tucson quickly mounted while Matthew jumped back up into the seat and released the break. With a slap of the reins, the men continued southward.
Warmth…softness…comfort beyond anything he’d ever known… He groggily forced his eyes open…the finest lace billowed gently before his bleary vision…
“How’d the hell I end up in heaven,” he thought.
“Wait ‘til I tell Mother that one!” A voice laughed. “That’ll please her no end!”
Shocked to find he’d not only spoken his thoughts out loud, but that they had been heard, Johnny turned to look for the face behind the voice. But his eyes seemed to have a hard time focusing, and it wasn’t until a young man, tall, thin, darkly handsome with penetratingly deep black eyes, walked out of the corner and into the light that Johnny recognized him.
“Cisco,” Johnny murmured, confused…the disorientation making everything seem unreal.
The young man smiled broadly. “Welcome back, Juanito.”
Johnny tried to push himself to a sitting position and was stunned to find his muscles immediately begin shaking and intense pain shooting up along his back. He gasped in surprise.
“Whoa, there, Juanito. Take it easy,” Cisco admonished as he sat down on the side of the bed. He then picked up a pitcher from the bedside table and poured a glass of water. “Think you’re up to it?” he asked as he held it out.
Johnny blinked in bewilderment, his confusion seemed to grow along with the ridiculousness of the scene. “What happened? Where am I?”
Cisco lowered the glass to his lap and studied Johnny intently a second before answering. “What do you remember? I mean, we’ve been through this a few times already, and I’m getting a bit tired of explaining the same thing over and over.”
Johnny blinked again, suddenly feeling like he was caught in some sort of macabre nightmare.
Cisco watched quietly as Johnny’s eyes slowly surveyed the room, lingering intensely on certain objects before coming back to look at Cisco. “I—I think I’ve—I’ve been here before.” There was a slight rise to Johnny’s voice, giving the sentence more of the quality of a question than a statement.
Cisco laughed and held the water out again. “I guess you could say that. For the last two weeks at any rate.”
Johnny frowned, making no move to accept the water. He didn’t like puzzles or mysteries, and Cisco well knew that, yet he was allowing this unreal scene to continue to play out.
Johnny looked at the water with a certain amount of trepidation. His mouth felt decidedly thick and actually numb. And he had an uncanny desire to locate a mirror so he could check to see if the skin on his face was still there, as his entire body felt strangely dislocated.
“Where am I?” he repeated.
“My hacienda—or rather my parent’s,” Cisco replied.
Johnny’s eyes opened in astonishment. “You live—here?”
Cisco smiled and wriggled a finger at Johnny. “Now it’s my turn. What do you remember?”
Johnny brought his gaze slowly up from Cisco’s finger to his face. It suddenly occurred to him that Cisco looked different. There was no stubble on his chin, his moustache was gone, and his hair was cut considerably shorter.
Johnny lowered his eyes to gaze at the intricate design on the white linen coverlet. The pattern reminded him of something. He touched one with a shaky finger… “Laura,” the word rose out of him painfully. “Laura’s dead.”
Then in a sudden rage, he grabbed the coverings and threw them off to the side. As he did so, a sharp pain knifed along his spine causing him to grasp for it with one hand while the other clutched for something to hold onto.
Cisco immediately reached out to support him, and as Johnny, eyes closed and teeth gritted against the pain which was exploding across his back and up to his skull, waited for the agonizing hold to be released, the arm continued to offer its support.
Finally he could open his eyes. Blinking back sweat, and with jaw still tightly clenched in an attempt to calm his breathing, he looked at Cisco with sudden understanding. “I—I’ve been shot.”
Cisco standing, arms crossed, his normally controlled features displaying his growing anger as he glared at Johnny sitting in the bed of the opulent Ortega hacienda
“So, let’s get this straight,” Johnny retorted, feeling his own confusion and suspicion, along with a fuzzy weakness and trembling, the remnants of the laudanum releasing its final hold. “So, you left all of this,” he waved a hand vaguely, “for what? Why? To get back at your father? To have a go at playin’ poor boy? For the thrill? For a joke? Or maybe just to see if you enjoyed killin’ a man as much as savin’ his soul!”
“That’s enough!” Cisco snapped back. “I needed a chance to think. To get away from the pressures here.”
“Oh, yeah, this is some real nasty pressures to deal with,” Johnny retorted sarcastically. “Which shoes shall I wear today? I wonder if I’ll have to choose between beef roast or pork roast tonight. I sure hope there ain’t two parties at the same time this Saturday—”
“You don’t understand—”
“You’re damn right I don’t understand!” Johnny shot back vehemently. “I thought you were one of us!”
Cisco dropped his arms. “But I am, Juanito. That’s what I’m trying to get you to understand. You, me, Harley, we weren’t cut out for that life. It’s not really us—”
“Us?! How can you say that when you don’t even know who you are?”
“You’re wrong. I’ve always known who I was; I just had a hard time admitting it. Just like you won’t admit who you really are.”
“I know who I am,” Johnny replied icily. “I don’t need to hide behind a mask.”
“Oh, really?” Cisco asked meaningfully as he stepped up close to the bed. “Just who are you, then?”
Johnny glared menacingly for a reply.
“Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter?” Cisco prompted.
“That’s right,” Johnny shot back. “And nothing more.”
“That’s a lie,” Cisco replied softly. “You forget that I’ve seen your face after you’ve had to kill a man.”
Johnny dropped his eyes for a second, quickly hiding his unease behind anger. “And you seem to forget too easily your own past. How do you reconcile that with being a priest, huh?”
“What we did was to protect people…to help them. It was never my intention to kill—”
“Oh really? Are you sure?” Johnny retorted with a glare. “Roberto?”
Cisco’s eyes narrowed. “That’s unfair.”
“Maybe. But you damn well know how to aim a gun and you left plenty of men wounded, to die later from infection. And though you rarely used a carbine, how do you know for sure given the distance that you were shooting from? How are you going to get that to all fit into your new and nicely ordered life, huh?”
“I’m not a killer, Johnny, and I never was. And neither are you. You and me, we don’t have a killer’s soul.” He paused and put out a hand imploringly. “Please listen to me. You can stop. You don’t have to continue on that destructive path.”
“Yes I do. It’s the only path I have, seeing as I don’t think I have what it takes to become a priest,” Johnny sarcastically spat.
“Listen, Juanito. After what happened in Las Cruces…then Sierra Blanca…” Cisco paused, shook his head. “It got me thinking. I can’t go on like that. And you can’t either. You’re letting death eat away at you, Johnny. But it doesn’t need to end that way for you. You can change—”
“How ‘bout Wes?”
“Wes?” Cisco asked surprised.
“Yeah, Wes. All this talk about you and Harl and me. That we’re different. How ‘bout Wes?”
Cisco sighed and shrugged unhappily. “I like Wes. I do. But he hasn’t got more sense than an old hound dog. If you stay with him, eventually one or both of you will get killed, and probably from his own foolhardiness.”
“Oh, now that really sounds like a priest talking about a friend behind his back,” Johnny mocked.
“Oh, come now, John. It’s the truth, and you know it. He won’t change because he hasn’t the sense to change. But you can. You don’t have to destroy lives anymore—yours included.”
“Tryin’ to buy your way into heaven by saving some souls, huh, Cisco. Well it’s gonna take a hell of a lot of souls, and I ain’t plannin’ to be your first,” Johnny replied as he shakily gathered his protesting muscles and began to slide out of the bed, his breath catching raggedly as the wounds in his back objected to the sudden movement.
“What are you doing?” Cisco demanded.
“Leavin’,” Johnny answered as he unsteadily pulled himself to his feet, the ordeal of the past few weeks having left him weak and shaky.
“Are you crazy?! You’re not well enough to leave yet!”
Johnny narrowed his eyes dangerously as he took a deep breath, carefully standing upright. “I’m clearly not good enough to stay, either.”
Matthew climbed into the back of the wagon and knelt next to Johnny. They’d gone another hour’s worth of travel before Johnny began to regain consciousness, shaking and convulsing from the fever, lack of medicine and the difficulty in breathing. Matthew studied the flushed face and cracked lips of the gunfighter. Though his eyes were open, they didn’t seem to be focusing on any concrete object.
“Tengo frio,” Johnny whispered. “Tengo mucho frio.”
“What’s wrong?” Tucson asked.
“He says he’s cold,” Matthew replied. “Help me get some of this tea into him while we’ve got the chance.”
Matthew opened the canteen while Tucson moved behind Johnny to support his head.
“Irse,” Johnny mumbled. “No quiero, no…”
Tucson raised an eyebrow, but Matthew shook his head. “It’s okay,” he assured. Then he carefully dripped some of the tea through Johnny’s parched lips.
“Irse. Go away. No,” Johnny weakly tried to shake his head.
“Tu debes, you must, Johnny,” Matthew quietly intoned.
Lacking any strength to fight, Johnny accepted the lukewarm tea. At first his stomach tried to rebel, but Matthew persisted calmly and painstakingly, dribbling small amounts into Johnny’s mouth. Every few seconds, Matthew had to stop and carefully support him as the spasms continued off and on, each one leaving Johnny moaning and breathless.
Finally, after Matthew saw that Johnny had slipped back into unconsciousness, he recapped the canteen and sighed. Aware that Tucson was watching him, he shook his head and gazed up toward the light blue sky. “It ain’t gonna work, is it, Tucson? We ain’t gonna get him back—alive anyway.”
“He’s tough,” Tucson replied, then looked off down the road to the south. “He made it this far, I think he’ll make it the rest of the way.”
“Then you’ve got more confidence than me,” Matthew sighed wearily as he climbed out of the wagon and looked back the way they’d come. “Thank God no one’s come after us. I don’t know what we woulda done.”
Tucson jumped out of the wagon and pushed the gate back up. “See, you’re lookin’ on the bright side. We ain’t been attacked.”
“Yet,” Matthew replied darkly, then let a smile spread sheepishly across his face. “I’m gettin’ tired, aren’t I?”
“We all are. We just gotta keep movin’.”
Matthew sighed once more and turned to look to the west. The sun was close to the tops of the Coastals. “It’s gonna be a lot later than I’d hoped it would be.”
“I don’t think we can go any faster,” Tucson remarked.
“No,” Matthew agreed. “We’re gonna need more water, though. Why don’t you fill the other canteens again and catch up to me. Leave Johnny’s, though. There’s still a little of that tea in it, and I’d rather he have that.”
“Sure,” Tucson nodded and grabbed up the reins to his horse.
Matthew walked to the front of the wagon, picked up his own canteen, then threw it to Tucson as he rode up.
“Catch you in a coupla minutes.”
“Yeah, at the rate I’m goin’, I don’t suppose there’s much chance of me losin’ you,” Matthew laughed.
Then as Tucson wheeled his horse around to head to the river, Matthew gave one last look at the still figure in the back of the wagon. He hoped Tucson was right, that they would make it back in time. But right now he was beginning to feel damn pessimistic.
He pulled himself up into the wagon seat, released the break, and slapped the reins.
Padre Simon….weak and shaking….hand reaching out to place something in Johnny’s palm….
Johnny looks down, confused…a round medallion, beautifully engraved…
In the corner of the room, he’s acutely aware that another pair of eyes are watching him.
“Saint Francis,” Padre Simon smiles weakly, his eyes crinkling sadly.
Johnny manages to catch himself in time before he’s had a chance to glance toward the corner, toward Cisco…Father Francisco….
“I think you may need it more than me,” Padre Simon continues.
Johnny shakes his head. “No, you should keep—”
“No, please, Johnny. I want you to have it. Wear it for me and...” though his voice trails off, Johnny understands the intent…feels himself flush with embarrassment…and the eyes in the corner continue to watch…
Johnny purses his lips, unsure, then looks back down at the medallion, the shiny metal glinting off rays of sunshine that stream in through the window. He feels Cisco’s eyes watching him from the corner, uncomfortable to be so openly exposed in front of someone who had once been a close friend…a very close friend…
“My time is about done here, and I won’t need it,” Padre Simon explains quietly as he gestures around the darkened room. Though Johnny looks up, he carefully avoids glancing in Cisco’s direction. “As you can see, I am among family here, so I don’t need the Patron Saint against dying alone.”
Surprised at the insinuation of the words, Johnny looks at Padre Simon and self-consciously bows his head, unable to speak the words he’s wanted to say to the man who had befriended him, helped him to feel alive again—a man now dying.
“But I worry about you, Johnny. I pray that some day you will find your way.” The old priest pauses to catch his breath. “I don’t think you are on the path meant for you, but no one can make that decision for you except yourself. And until then, please wear this. Make an old priest…” he pauses, his dark eyes flicking meaningfully toward the corner, “and an old friend…happy.”
Scott walked out into the cool darkness of evening and stepped off the porch. He took a deep breath and held it, enjoying the sensation of filling his lungs with the night air. As he exhaled, he closed his eyes and tilted his head back, resting it against one of the columns. He’d needed a few minutes respite from Murdoch. All through the meal, which he’d been disappointed to find they’d held for him, Murdoch consistently implied that it would be advantageous if Scott stayed a little longer. Different jobs, responsibilities, errands, chores—it seemed that any little menial task Murdoch had ever entertained as needing to be completed someday—he suddenly decided just had to be seen to and now.
Murdoch’s behavior partially amused Scott and partially irritated him. It was such an obvious attempt to keep Scott from leaving, and Scott could see Murdoch restraining himself from actually demanding Scott stay. At the same time, Scott had his mind made up, was anxious to leave and wanted to do so with the least amount of strain to their relationship. Murdoch didn’t seem to see that. Or perhaps he did, but his pride and headstrong manner wouldn’t allow him to let go so easily.
Scott sighed, opened his eyes and pushed away from the column to start across the courtyard. He had almost reached the wall that enclosed the courtyard when he heard the sound of the door to the house open and saw a flash of light cut through the darkness.
Dreading the idea that it might be Murdoch, Scott continued on his way, fighting the urge to suddenly break into a run, where he could hide in the darkness.
When he reached the wall, he put both hands on it, gripped it tightly and stared down at his feet. The steps he heard approaching, however, were not Murdoch’s.
“Scott,” Teresa greeted.
Scott tilted his head slightly to smile up at Teresa, all the tenseness draining from his body as he released his hold on the wall and straightened up. “I didn’t know it was you.”
“Obviously. By the looks of the stranglehold you had on that wall, I thought you were trying to break it in half.”
Scott chuckled. “Oh, goodness, no. This old wall and I are good friends.”
Teresa laughed lightly, then tilted her head up to look toward the purplish-black sky. “It’s so beautiful this evening. The sky is so clear and bright. Doesn’t it look like you could just reach up there and pluck one of those diamonds out of the sky?”
“Diamonds?” Scott looked puzzled.
“You know,” Teresa grinned. “Like the nursery rhyme. Twinkle, twinkle, little star…”
Scott continued to look at Teresa with amusement. “Twinkle, twinkle? I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that.”
“You’re kidding.” Teresa raised an eyebrow, sure that Scott was teasing her.
Scott shook his head and looked away. “No. Grandfather had little use for children’s nursery rhymes.”
Teresa stood, mouth open, unsure what to say. It didn’t happen often, but every once and awhile something was said to indicate that Scott’s younger years weren’t all the rest of them assumed it had been. With Johnny they had come to expect the unexpected, to even be cautious around certain subjects or topics, but with Scott it tended to come out of the blue.
A little thing like a nursery rhyme.
Teresa moved to stand closer to Scott. “There must be hundreds of them up there.” She glanced back up at the sky once more.
Scott tilted his head to share her view. “I hadn’t really noticed this evening, but you’re right,” he stated. “Though actually there are thousands, maybe millions of stars.”
“Really?” Teresa asked.
“I took a class that covered astronomy—the study of stars,” Scott replied, his tone conveying his relief at the change of subject. “I had a very knowledgeable professor. We’d go out at night and study the stars and their movements with telescopes. And I was amazed to find out that there are many, many more stars which can’t be seen except with a telescope.”
“And you saw them?” Teresa asked as she squinted heavenward.
Scott nodded. “We had a couple of different telescopes to use at the university.”
Teresa turned her head to study Scott’s face. “Did you look at anything else?”
“Oh, the planets and the moon. The moon was very interesting. We could make out dark crater-type areas and other areas that appeared rough and mountainous.”
“Hmmm,” Teresa mused as she shifted her gaze toward the moon rising over the top of the Sierras in the distance. “Why’s it glow like that?”
“It’s reflecting the light from the sun,” Scott replied, grinning to himself.
the stars. Are they reflecting light, too?”
“No, our professor said he believed they are suns like our sun, only really, really far away. Except for the stars that are actually a planet, that is. Those ones are probably reflecting light.”
“Oh, my,” Teresa sighed. “I think I’ll go back to pretending they’re diamonds.”
Scott chuckled. “Well, I suppose that works, too.”
Teresa laughed good-naturedly.
Suddenly a flash of light shot across the sky, winking out in the distance.
“A shooting star!” Teresa exclaimed. “Oh, I love shooting stars! If I were a star, that’s what I’d want to be. Flying through the heavens, flashing brightly for everyone to see, an object of dreams and poetry, stories and fantasy… Oh, how exciting and fascinating! What a wild and carefree life!”
“It’d be a short one,” Scott remarked.
“What?” Teresa tilted her head to look at the young man beside her, whose gaze was still in the distance where the shooting star had disappeared.
“Shooting stars aren’t stars at all. They’re meteorites.” Scott tilted his head to give her a quick smile before looking back. “Chunks of dirt from out in space that are going so fast that they actually start on fire and burn up. All that excitement and fiery brilliance you think you’re witnessing is really that meteorite rushing to its death. Their life is fast, but short.” Teresa heard Scott’s voice turn thoughtful. “Oh, that shooting star may seem interesting and exciting, but I’d chose to be the moon if I were you. You’ll still be here tomorrow.”
Teresa took a deep breath and sighed, a hidden grin on her face. “Boy! You’re just determined to be gloomy tonight, aren’t you?”
“I’m not gloomy,” Scott replied, slightly hurt. “I was just explaining what everything really is.”
“I guess so, but sometimes reality is too depressing,” Teresa replied sadly. She crossed her arms tightly and looked out toward the black outline of the San Benitos in the west. After a pause, she murmured, “Murdoch won’t even talk to me about Johnny.”
Scott nodded. “He’s having a hard time dealing with this too.”
Teresa bit her lip then looked thoughtfully at Scott. “You seem to be getting along better.”
Scott gave a slight snort. “I’m learning better to control my words—and I’m trying to realize that I have to accept some things that happened whether I like them or agree with them—from both Murdoch and Johnny. It’s necessary if I hope to find Johnny and get him to return. He’ll need my help with Murdoch, so it does neither of us any good if I’m at odds with our father.”
Teresa looked back out at the night. “Murdoch really doesn’t want you to go.”
“Murdoch’s having a harder time dealing with Johnny’s disappearance than I first thought. He’s—he’s blaming himself.”
“Well, I don’t want you to go, but I want Johnny to be found and I know you’re the one to do it. I can’t bear the thought of him not coming back. When he showed up—I don’t know—everything changed.” She turned back to Scott. “That’s not to say you didn’t change things, too. But I knew about you. I’d heard Murdoch read Harlan’s twice-yearly letters about you—”
“Twice-yearly?” Scott interrupted.
Teresa raised an eyebrow and cocked her head to the side. “You didn’t know?”
Scott shook his head. “I knew he wrote, but not twice a year.”
Teresa smiled widely. “He certainly did. Just like clockwork. Spring and Fall, every year.” She laughed lightly. “When I was very little, I used to think Harlan’s letter meant it was time for the round-up.”
“I didn’t know that,” Scott replied thoughtfully.
Teresa was quiet a moment. “And then, once a year, at Christmas, we’d get this other letter. It wasn’t from Harlan, but from someone else. Those letters were so much more fun than Harlan’s.”
“Someone else wrote, too?”
“Yup. Every Christmas. It was like Murdoch’s Christmas present. Twice I remember the letter didn’t arrive until a number of weeks after Christmas, and Murdoch was out of sorts until it did arrive. And there’d be a picture you’d made or a poem or story you’d written for school, an article from the paper…”
Teresa gave Scott a playful shove with her shoulder. “I like the story about the boy building his own ship and sailing out to sea where he discovers an island with talking animals and….”
“What?!” Scott’s eyes had grown large. “Who sent you that?”
Teresa shrugged. “I told you, I don’t know who sent those letters. Murdoch probably knows. I just knew those were the best ones. Much more interesting than Harlan’s,” Teresa paused and began mimicking: ‘Scotty is doing wonderful. He is the top of his class and excels in all he does. I expect he will take over my business some day as he has a head for numbers. He has impeccable manners and will someday become an integral part of Boston society, and most probably President’.”
“President?” Scott voice became incredulous.
“Oh, okay, so he never actually said president,” Teresa laughed, “but you could tell he was thinking it. Murdoch kept all the letters, though. Had them all neatly filed in a folder…”
“By correct date.”
“Of course,” Teresa smiled. “I used to see him take them out and reread them, over and over. And sometimes, if things were quiet, he’d read me his favorite parts.” She paused and lowered her head. “As you can see, I was prepared for you and even felt, to a small extent, that you were an old friend that I just hadn’t seen in a long while. You were the prince destined to reclaim his birthright someday. And Murdoch was prepared for you—and was actually excited, despite first appearances, to meet you. Oh, he was concerned because you didn’t really know each other, but every time he spoke of you it was with warmth and pride…”
“But Johnny?” Scott prompted.
“But Johnny,” Teresa murmured as she looked down and shook her long, dark hair. “He was an unexpected surprise—the missing piece to a puzzle that I never thought would be found. And he blew in, turning everything upside down and round about, especially at first.” She looked up again and smiled. “But now he’s a part of us. I’d miss his jokes and his different way of seeing things…”
“And his past,” Scott added quietly, his thoughts turning to the folder of highly anticipated letters Murdoch kept about him—and the folder of a dark past Murdoch had on Johnny. A strange contrast.
“That too,” Teresa agreed with a sigh and looked down at her small feet, barely visible in the darkness beneath her long skirt. “The past that won’t let go.”
Scott bit his lip thoughtfully at Teresa description. The past that won’t let go. Always there, relentlessly pursuing, reminding, forcing its way back into his life. Unwilling to let him change direction… Teresa was more right than she even knew. Would Johnny ever be able to escape the path he’d earlier been forced on? Would they ever, really be able to get the puzzle piece of Johnny to fit into their lives securely? Only time would tell, and unless he found Johnny soon, that time was running out.
“And now that he’s gone,” Teresa continued, unaware of Scott’s bleak thoughts. “Everything seems so—oh, plain.” She paused then added weakly. “Oh, I don’t know. He just seemed to brighten everything up.”
“I know what you mean.” Scott put a hand on Teresa’s shoulder and gave her a small hug, dispelling his own dark musings. “I can’t imagine not having a brother now. He has a way of giving things a different perspective. And I like his energy.” Then Scott laughed. “Well, most of the time. Yes, things just wouldn’t be the same.”
Suddenly another flash crossed the sky and immediately burned out.
In the darkness, the same thought occurred to both of them, yet it was Teresa, hugging herself tightly despite Scott’s protective arm around her shoulder, who put their thoughts into words.
“Is Johnny a shooting star?”
Scott didn’t answer.
In the next valley, a couple hundred miles away, a wagon followed by two horses, one of which was riderless, continued its slow journey south toward the faint lights of Soledad.
The man on horseback was more concerned about the surrounding area than looking at the stars. The stars weren’t hiding possible ambushes or obstacles, so they were of little interest to him.
The young man guiding the wagon through the darkness, his face lined with worry, never noticed the shooting star either. He was too concerned about the ground in front of his wagon and the precious cargo in the back. In fact, he kept glancing backward periodically, straining both his eyesight and his hearing in an attempt to console himself that indeed the man lying in the back was still alive and breathing.
The third man, the man in the wagon, never saw the shooting stars either. In a time earlier he would have noticed them and smiled, but now he was unconscious of their existence. And he had neither the energy nor the desire to even open his eyes. He no longer cared about shooting stars.
Go on to Part 5