The Ghost of Johnny Madrid
Episode 5: Discoveries
James Wakeman nervously adjusted his vest as the older man walked across the room to an ornately carved sideboard table and picked up a brandy bottle. An uncomfortable silence permeated the richly decorated room as the man, handsome and vigorous looking despite his age of 65, proceeded to pour the liquor into two snifters. As was his proclivity, he took great care in all his movements. Pouring a couple of glasses of brandy received the same attention to detail as entering into a land partnership agreement. This was the man everyone called The Judge.
Finished with his task, he turned and held out one of the glasses to his son, who accepted it with an uneasy look.
“So, if I understand you correctly,” the Judge began in quiet, moderated tones, “this gunfighter pretty well played you for a fool.”
“He isn’t just any gunfighter! That town went and hired Johnny Madrid!”
The Judge’s expression didn’t change. “He still made you look like a fool—in front of the entire populous of Salinas and your own men.”
Wakeman dropped his gaze to the brandy in his hand and took a long sip before answering. “He—he’s impossible to fight. He’s everywhere at once and—”
The Judge settled a severe look on his son, effectively stopping his explanation. “He played you for a fool,” he reiterated coldly. “I would think you’d have been able to handle one lone gunfighter while I was gone.”
“They originally had three! And I did hire one away from them!” Wakeman argued.
“Yes,” the Judge took a sip of his own brandy and turned to walk away from his son. “That was ingenious. Hire a young kid to take on a seasoned gunfighter and then plant your own men to finish the job if he fails.” He pivoted slowly, regarding his son with a decidedly sour expression. “Which would have been fine, if it had worked. But it didn’t. Did it never occur to you to go to the top right from the beginning, instead of to one of his underlings?”
“I tried,” Wakeman replied. “I offered him more money and position than that town could possibly have been able to provide. But he turned me down.”
The Judge shook his head. “Then you don’t know how to read him correctly. A man as resourceful and as shrewd, not to mention proficient in his chosen profession as you claim he is, isn’t to be trifled with. Every man has his price; you obviously don’t know how to do business with a person of his caliber. Knowing you, you did not afford him the respect he clearly deserved or believed he deserved, in any case.” The Judge thoughtfully took a sip of his brandy and slowly began to pace the floor. “Is there anything else I should know about?”
Wakeman shifted uncomfortably. “Well, he, uh, seems to have gotten a hold of a paper that outlines how my brand fits over a number of the smaller local brands.”
The Judge stopped short and gave his son a long look of disbelief before he quickly finished off what was left of his brandy. Then he stalked slowly to the decanter and poured himself another. “Okay, let me make sure I have this all, now. Please feel free to add any other trifling details you feel I should be apprised of,” he stated sarcastically. After taking a deep, calming breath, he continued, “This Madrid shows up, hired by the town. He comes to Salinas with a couple of other gunfighters and takes the supplies back to Soledad, managing to eliminate a number of your own men when they try to ambush them along the trail. Then Madrid proceeds to poison wells, run off cattle and a corral full of horses along with breaking into your house in order to steal the ring I sent you to give to Jane, along with a certain piece of paper I can’t believe a son of mine was stupid enough to keep around in the first place.” The Judge’s eyes narrowed pointedly. “Then he cuts the support for your good buggy, puts a snake in your coffee pot, and gives the ring to Jenny. Next he shows up here where he picks up yet another Soledad shipment. You attempt to hire him, but he turns you down. Then the young kid that’s with him offers his services, only to fail spectacularly. And,” The Judge gestured emphatically, “and not only does this Madrid take down the kid, but also two of your own men, in a glorious display witnessed by the entire city, destined to be discussed for years to come at every formal gathering and two-bit bar. Have I pretty well covered everything?”
Wakeman shuffled to his opposite foot. “Well, he also put sand in my bed and put a bandana in the outhouse.”
The Judge’s eyes narrowed to slits. “How could I have forgotten the sand and bandanas?” he asked derisively.
“He also was injured in the attack in the streets,” Wakeman added.
“That’s only because one of the horses was shot and went wild; not because of your Judas gunfighter, or because of the men you sent.”
“Well, the horse did kick him pretty good, from what I hear. People even thought he was dead at first.”
“But he wasn’t, was he?” the Judge asked pointedly. “The end outcome is all that matters.” He then paused and took a slow, thoughtful sip of his drink. “Struck by a horse, though…” He mused. “What exactly have you learned about that?”
Wakeman took a slow, deep breath. “Well, from what my men have found out, he looked in pretty bad shape at first. Not moving or anything. That Matthew fella from Soledad and the other gunfighter, Tucson, came running out. Then another man came out of the crowd to help them, and he picked Madrid up and carried him into the hotel. The sheriff didn’t speak to Madrid, but talked to Tucson instead. And the doctor did go to visit him, but I heard he was turned away at the door. The doctor claimed that Madrid was standing up and said he didn’t need to be tended to and that he was fine. The proprietor of the hotel even claims that Matthew and Madrid came down not long after and had a drink at the bar before heading out.”
The Judge walked away to stand at the velvet draped window, then turned slowly back. “You said another man came out of the crowd to carry him into the hotel. Who was it?”
Wakeman scowled in annoyance. “I don’t know. Why?”
The Judge rubbed his chin. “Why indeed,” he intoned, then thoughtfully took a sip of the brandy.
Walking slowly across the courtyard, warm in his palm the medallion…the medal of St. Francis…and burning through his thoughts…a wish that he not die alone…
He turned slowly and reluctantly, wishing he’d been quicker to leave. He had no desire to face Cisco—Padre Francisco—and have him read in his eyes how much Padre Simon’s words weigh on him. But that was Cisco’s true talent—the ability to read through the various masks men wore to uncover their hidden thoughts—a wonderful asset if he happened to be working with you, but…
As Johnny’s gaze rose up to meet Cisco’s eyes, he fleetingly wondered if he should even bother to wear his own mask. But he’s comfortable with it—and it fits well, so…
He’s surprised to see Cisco’s cautious smile, and the absence of the dark, searching look he usually gave his prey.
“Juanito.” Cisco raised a hand in a small gesture. “I’m glad I caught you before you left.”
Johnny offered a small nod…the medallion tucked uncomfortably in his palm.
Cisco’s eyes searched Johnny’s a moment. “I know Padre Simon wants you to stay—”
“Don’t worry,” Johnny interrupted as he glanced quickly toward his horse. “I won’t be.”
“You could,” Cisco replied softly.
Johnny turned back, raised an eyebrow, Cisco’s words catching him totally unprepared.
In silence they regarded each other.
“I thought you were against my being here,” Johnny replied softly, carefully trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. No need to start another argument now. He was leaving, after all.
“I was against Padre Simon’s idea of having hired guns protect the church’s relic. I was not against you.” Cisco dropped his own gaze before continuing. “In fact, I was relieved when you showed up. I knew…I knew Padre Simon and the relic would be safe with you in charge.”
“So, a few dead bodies left out in the desert don’t bother you?”
Cisco looked up, the eyes now dark and searching. “Yes, they bother me…like they bother you.”
Johnny dropped his eyes and looked away. The point is made.
“Will you stay?” Cisco asked cautiously.
“Why?” Johnny paused and glanced toward the squat adobe structure where the Padres live. “Because of the revolt Padre Simon expects?”
“Juanito, the revolt will come. If not in the next couple of months—then in the next couple of years. Everyone will be forced to take a side.”
A sardonic grin slowly spread to the corner of his face. He knew he was being cruel, but he couldn’t help it. “Padre Simon doesn’t need me. Not when he’s got Cisco to handle any problems.”
“I won’t raise a weapon against another man.”
“But I can,” Johnny replied, his tone taking on a hard edge before he could stop it. Bitterly, he turned to leave.
“Johnny.” Cisco took a step and caught the sleeve of Johnny’s jacket. “I—this isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”
“No?” Johnny turned his head to look at Cisco. “You just got done saying you were against hiring a killer to protect your church’s relic—yet you claim you want me to stay.”
“I never said you were a killer.”
“Not today,” Johnny shook his head, then slowly opened his palm to reveal the medallion. “The very reason I need this,” Johnny let the medallion slip through his fingers, the chain catching on his thumb to swing lazily back and forth. “A medallion of a Saint meant to protect me from dying alone—is the same reason you want me to stay.” He glanced up once more to look at his old friend. “It’s always the same. I’m too damn good at what I do, and what I do damns me.”
As he had once every fifteen minutes or so for the last couple of hours, DarkCloud opened the door to his shop and paused in the doorway to glance north out of town. His eyes strained off toward the distance, hoping to see the faint outline of an approaching wagon. But as before, he saw nothing. No wagon, no riders, no movement at all. He glanced across the darkening street toward Rosti’s saloon, the sounds of men talking and laughing still filtering into the night. They were still waiting expectantly and in good spirits, not even entertaining the thought that anything could go wrong, especially after the party’s triumphant return from their last Salinas foray. But then, none of them knew what DarkCloud knew. None of them had seen the wounds—or the look on their gunfighter’s face. Not one of them stopped to think what the trip might have cost Johnny.
DarkCloud sighed deeply in an attempt to dispel his heavy thoughts, but it didn’t work. He glanced up toward the window of Madrid’s room. He’d been wrestling with himself all day over the strong urge he had to go up there and look for….what?
DarkCloud dropped his gaze to the dusty street. For what you fear—and know—you’ll find.
Suddenly he glanced north once more, the grim determination on his face taking on the aspect of a challenge. Resolutely he slammed the door to his shop behind him and strode defiantly across the street. With any luck, Johnny would show up while he was searching his room and they’d have the opportunity to yell at each other in complete abandon and total unrestraint—something that would be good for both of them.
Once in the saloon he barely nodded to the dozen or so men sitting around and instead went straight up to Rosti. The proprietor glanced up at him and smiled.
“No,” DarkCloud replied evenly. “Do you have the key to Madrid’s room? I need to leave him a note regarding some information on the Pinnacle’s Tribe and I’m afraid I might miss him tonight.”
“Here, leave it with me.” Rosti quickly poured a beer and slid it down the bar to the waiting hands of a thirsty patron.
DarkCloud didn’t flinch, though he immediately made a mental curse on Rosti’s thoroughness as an innkeeper. “No, no. It’s rather confidential—and I also have some different medicine I made up for that…that toothache he has,” he finished with what he hoped wasn’t an obvious lie.
“Ah.” Rosti nodded. “Sure.” He deftly reached under the bar and tossed a key to DarkCloud. “Here you go. Make sure I get it back, okay?”
“Will do,” DarkCloud nodded, then turned and headed for the stairs, relieved that Rosti was busy enough with the saloon patrons to be too bothered with DarkCloud, and consoling himself that it hadn’t all been a lie. He had heard from the Pinnacles Tribe after all.
Once upstairs in the dimly lit hallway, DarkCloud quickly inserted the key into the lock and entered Madrid’s room. Stepping in, he struck a match and crossed to the small table where he lit a lamp. Then, carrying the lamp with him, he crossed back to the door and closed it firmly, shutting out what faint light was provided by the hallway lamps.
With the lamp in his hands, DarkCloud glanced quickly around the room. All looked as he’d remembered it. Then his eyes caught a glint flashing from the table near the window, a sparkle reflected by the light of the lamp.
DarkCloud walked over to the table and set the lamp down. The fragments of dark colored glass lay heaped in a pile—glass from a laudanum bottle.
DarkCloud stared at the remnants a few seconds before closing his eyes from the scene. With a heavy sigh, he crossed the room and sat down wearily on the bed. As he did so, his eyes fell on a bar glass left lying on the bedside table, a small amount of liquid yet remaining. Reluctantly, and with a heavy heart, DarkCloud reached out and picked up the glass. He needed only to bring it near his nose before he could smell the unmistakable odor of laudanum. Sadly he set the glass back on the table and lowered his head into his hands.
There was no way to avoid the truth. He was responsible for Johnny’s current situation—his need for the laudanum and his desire to keep it a secret. If only he hadn’t been so confrontational with Johnny, if he’d been more of a doctor and less of a friend…and less of one more self-centered town citizen. Johnny had been his patient, and DarkCloud should have treated him as such. To Hell with Wakeman and the town. He should have exposed Johnny’s true condition and let Tucson handle the job as had originally been planned. But no. He, just like the rest of the town, saw Madrid’s appearance as a wonderful opportunity to be exploited. He was no better than the men celebrating down in the saloon. Who really cared about the gunfighter as long as he got the job done?
DarkCloud rubbed his face tiredly. What was he going to do now? Was it too late to help Johnny, or had the damage already been done? With a heavy sigh, he glanced about the darkened room, his hands wearily falling to his lap.
If only Johnny wasn’t so hard to reach, his manner so constantly guarded and controlled, his face veiled in ever present shadows. It seemed to DarkCloud that no sooner would he manage to shine a little light through to find the real man behind the disguise, when the shadowy mask of the gunfighter would promptly appear, once more shrouding the real Johnny.
But he shouldn’t have let that get in the way, deterring him from confronting Johnny about some hard facts. He should have spent less time trying to make Johnny a friend and more time being his doctor. And now they were both paying for that mistake.
The last of the daylight was quickly disappearing as Matthew climbed into the back of the wagon to give Johnny the last of the tea before it became too dark to see.
Tucson had climbed up behind Matthew, ready to offer assistance if needed. But except for the shallow, strained breathing and the sporadic tremors running through his body, Johnny made no movement to show he was aware they’d even stopped.
“It’s gonna be real slow goin’ from now on in this darkness,” Tucson remarked.
Matthew nodded. “I know,” he muttered as he opened the canteen.
Tucson glanced thoughtfully south. “I figure we’re still two, possibly three hours away.”
Matthew shot a quick look around. “Three,” he said.
“And that’s only if we don’t have to stop again,” Tucson added.
Matthew cast a disgruntled look at Tucson, but in the growing darkness he knew Tucson had missed the look. “That’s right,” he replied with a hint of sarcasm. “Bring me down when I’m trying to be optimistic.”
“I’m just bein’ realistic.”
Matthew groaned a response, then shifted the canteen to his left hand. “Here, help lift his head, will you?”
Tucson crawled along the side of the wagon, then knelt beside Johnny’s head.
As Matthew slid his palm under Johnny’s cheek, the gunfighter flinched and moaned sluggishly. “Cisco?”
“No, Johnny. It’s not Cisco,” Matthew replied quietly.
“Tell Padre Simon that I’ll be fine…and I’ll wear the medallion,” Johnny mumbled, almost incoherently.
Tucson glanced over at Matthew. “What’s he sayin’?”
Matthew shook his head.
“I can’t,” Johnny continued in a barely audible voice. “It’s probably best if I stay away…maybe if the revolt comes….”
“Johnny.” Matthew attempted to bring him around. “I have some medicine here for you. Can you take it?”
“Yes,” Matthew replied quickly, drawing a confused look from Tucson. Matthew shook away the look and nodded for Tucson to lend a hand. Between the two of them, Matthew managed to get Johnny to drink what was left of the tea.
As they carefully lay Johnny’s head back on the floor of the wagon, he mumbled softly, “I miss Harley.”
“I know,” Matthew replied softly.
“I don’t understand,” Tucson whispered.
“Think maybe he’s dreamin’,” Matthew replied, then stood up and carefully stepped to the back of the wagon and jumped off. After Tucson joined him, they pushed the gate back in place and secured it.
“I’ll be happy to get back to town,” Tucson whispered with a glance at the dark mountains bordering them on each side.
“So will I,” Matthew replied.
Wakeman fiercely slammed the door to his town apartment and strode immediately across the room to his private bar.
“Damn that Madrid! Damn him to Hell!” he hissed as he brutally grabbed the first liquor bottle available and took a long drink from it. As the liquid fire hit his belly, he felt the roaring in his head turn into a caustic fire—a fire of pure hatred. It had been bad enough to be humiliated by Madrid in front of his men, the town and Jenny, but now—in front of The Judge….
There was a knock on his door.
“Go away!” Wakeman shouted.
“Mr. Wakeman. It’s Swain. Just wanting to—”
“Get in here!” Wakeman roared.
Swain entered, his eyes widening with surprise as he encountered Wakeman, fiercely clutching a half-empty bottle of whiskey with abnormal malevolence.
“I want Jenny brought here immediately,” Wakeman hissed.
“Tonight?” Swain asked with a raised eyebrow.
Wakeman’s glare was full of undisguised sarcasm. “I said, ‘immediately’ and, well…let’s see…it’s night time…so try to figure that one out yourself.”
Swain nodded weakly, then backed out the door.
Wakeman turned back to the bottle and took another swig, savoring the burning sensation, the heat caressing his body.
As Wakeman drew the bottle away from his lips, a curl began in the corners and worked its way to the middle, where it crawled up to meet his eyes. He’d take care of Jenny first…and then see to Madrid. A bit of sport before the real hunt. Then he’d show The Judge that he could play Madrid’s game.
Scott walked through the great room, chagrined to see Murdoch immediately rise from his seat by the fire, an expectant look on his face.
“You were out for quite some time,” Murdoch observed.
Scott nodded. He watched Murdoch take a couple of steps toward him and was bothered to notice that Murdoch’s gate was stiff. Every so often, if he’d been sitting for any length of time in one position, the old injury from Pardee made itself known. It was obvious, then, that Murdoch had been waiting some time for him.
“I was talking to Teresa,” Scott replied. “We…there were a number of shooting stars tonight and I began to explain them…to…her,” Scott finished weakly. The whole conversation now seemed ridiculous.
“She came in a half hour ago,” Murdoch stated, setting down the book he had been reading.
Scott opened his mouth to reply that he was certainly old enough to stay outside for awhile after dark, but held his tongue. That wasn’t the issue, and he knew it; they both knew it even if Murdoch was reluctant to admit it.
“I’m heading to bed,” Scott replied instead. “I want to get up early.”
“So that you can finish up in order to go look for Johnny,” Murdoch added.
Scott held his breath. Here it comes…take cover…the enemy is approaching…
“Yes,” he replied evenly.
Murdoch nodded, then took another couple of steps. “I know,” he answered softly. “I do understand, but I…” he glanced away, then suddenly turned and paced to his desk. “What happens if you don’t find him?” he asked without turning around.
“I will,” Scott answered calmly, keeping his voice from revealing a growing belligerence he felt heating up in his chest.
Murdoch nodded his head thoughtfully, then glanced up toward the Lancer map. “I’m concerned…” Murdoch’s voice trailed off. “What happens if you do find him, and he refuses to return?”
Scott didn’t hesitate. “I don’t think that will happened.”
“What if it does?” Murdoch repeated, turning to look at Scott. “What will we—you do then? Try to force him back? Or will you accept his decision?”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out if it happens. But I don’t think it’s going to. I still think something’s keeping him from coming home.” He paused, uncomfortably aware that they both knew the increased bounty now made that even more of a possibility. “I don’t think he left with the idea of never returning. He may have been angry and upset, but I think it was something he hoped to work through.”
Murdoch walked to his desk, then with back still turned, absently clenched his right hand into a fist and tapped it thoughtfully on the desktop. “Perhaps he didn’t leave with the idea of not returning, but…but once he’d gotten away, he…” Murdoch straightened up stiffly, drew his hand back in toward his side and turned to face Scott. “Perhaps he felt it was better not to return.”
“Is that what you think?” Scott asked.
“I don’t know what I think,” Murdoch replied rigidly, but there was pain in his eyes. “We all know it’s been difficult for him here. It’s not an easy life, always at the mercy of weather and the cattle’s needs, and the constant upkeep needed to keep the place running. There’s a lot of responsibility connected to a place this size.”
“Johnny’s had to be responsible, too. He’s been in charge of his own life since he was young,” Scott argued.
“Yes,” Murdoch agreed
sadly. “But that’s a different type of responsibility. It’s one thing to be
responsible for yourself, and quite another to be responsible to others. And
Johnny’s never taken well to having his actions planned for him. He’s taken off
before, and I’m not just referring to what happened a couple of months after he
got here. I’m taking about other times, like when he was down in McCall’s
Crossing. He was gone two weeks, and never sent a word that he was okay or what
was going on. Or the time that he got caught up in that mess in Turloh—”
“Yes,” Scott cut in. “And if Mrs. Normile hadn’t shown up trying to bribe us, Johnny would have been hung at the end of a rope, or how about when he got blinded by those damned idiots up in the hills. He needed our help, and if you—,” he caught himself, “if we hadn’t been so worried about old Lem then we would have never gone up there. Johnny and Mattie woulda both burned to death in the cellar of that house!”
“No, Murdoch. No argument you can offer is going to change my mind. I will be leaving the day after tomorrow to look for my brother, with or without your blessing.”
Murdoch looked down at this desk. “I know that, Scott. I’m just worried what you might find. I don’t want…” He looked back up. “I don’t want you to be hurt.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve told Teresa that I’ll send a weekly telegram so that you’ll—”
“No, Scott,” Murdoch shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. I don’t want Johnny to hurt you.”
Scott looked with surprise at Murdoch. “I’m not sure…”
Murdoch studied his son carefully, a haunted look appearing in his eyes that Scott had seen echoed before in Johnny’s. “I mean,” he replied softly. “I don’t want you to be hurt if he tells you he doesn’t want to return, that he doesn’t—” Murdoch faltered, swallowed, “—that he doesn’t need you.”
Scott looked at his father, uncomfortably aware that Murdoch was telling him something very important, something that was painful for him to say.
“Johnny’s not turning away from us,” Scott replied softly. “I’m sure of it.”
Murdoch slowly looked away. “I hope you’re right.”
Scott pulled the curtains aside and looked out the window of his bedroom. The stars were bright, the outlines of the buildings black against the purple-grayness of the night. No shooting stars were to be seen.
With a heavy sigh, he turned away to scan the room without interest. As his gaze fell on the bed, the covers strewn about, he grimaced sourly. He hadn’t been able to fall asleep, the words Murdoch had spoken to him running ceaselessly through his thoughts. He was bothered by Murdoch’s open acknowledgement of the pain Johnny’s mother had inflicted on him, and his fear that Johnny would do the same. Murdoch, who seemed afraid of nothing, an emotionless pillar of righteousness, feared most that his son didn’t want him.
And what would Scott do if he did find Johnny, only to have his brother tell him in that cold, impersonal way of his, with that gunfighter mask he could so quickly put on, that he wanted no part of his family? Would Scott be able to reach him at all? Would he, as Murdoch had asked, be able to accept Johnny’s decision?
He thought back to the time when Johnny had left two years earlier and Scott had found him in the saloon. Johnny had been downright maddening with his cold, uncommitted attitude of nonchalance toward his life…and death. It had taken every ounce of strength Scott possessed not to grab him by the ears like a little brat, hog tie him, and toss him—roughly—into the back of a wagon to be hauled home.
Scott smiled. Well, if that’s what it took this time, he’d do it.
The wagon slowly rumbled into town. Matthew and Tucson weren’t surprised to see that most all of the windows of the few scattered stores and houses were dark, except for a faint light coming from Rosti’s and, Matthew was relieved to note, a glow coming from DarkCloud’s shop.
“Thank God, it looks like DarkCloud’s around yet,” Matthew mumbled, half to himself and half to Tucson, as he headed the wagon down the street toward the light.
Tucson didn’t have the chance to reply before the door to the shop swung open and DarkCloud appeared. As Matthew guided the wagon closer, he could see DarkCloud staring at the trailing horse with large, worried eyes.
“Where is he?” DarkCloud demanded, striding quickly toward the wagon before it’d even had a chance to pull up in front of his shop.
“In the back of the wagon,” Tucson replied as he wearily dismounted.
“Oh, Lord, no,” DarkCloud breathed.
“He’s alive,” Matthew quickly added as he set the break and jumped out. “But he’s…he’s not well.”
DarkCloud suddenly looked around, his brows furrowed in confusion. “Where’s the Kid?”
Matthew hissed curtly, “Dead.” Ignoring the doctor’s surprised look, Matthew grabbed his arm and led him to the back of the wagon where Tucson was pulling down the gate.
“He drew on Johnny,” Tucson explained quietly.
“What?” DarkCloud asked. “When?”
“This morning,” Tucson explained.
DarkCloud shook his head. “I got a feeling there’s a long story in there, but it’s going to have to wait for now.”
Tucson nodded then stepped to the side as Matthew and DarkCloud jumped into the back of the wagon.
DarkCloud immediately knelt next to the unmoving form, noting that Johnny’s dry, raspy breath sounded weak and uneven. “Can he be moved?”
“I—I supposed so…” Matthew replied, but his tone expressed doubt.
“Was he shot?”
“No, but he was kicked pretty badly by a horse.”
“There doesn’t appear to be extensive rib damage, but there’s been bruising for sure, possibly a broken rib,” Tucson added from his position at the foot of the wagon.
“Kicked?” DarkCloud asked.
Matthew nodded curtly. “The right side and the back.”
“Figures,” DarkCloud muttered. “I suppose it pulled open the stitches I had put in and what healing had managed to take place.”
“’Fraid so,” Matthew replied. “He’s also running a fever…he’s got an infection.”
DarkCloud sighed. “Okay, let’s get him up to the room. I can’t see anything out here anyway. Come on.”
Carefully, Matthew and DarkCloud used the blanket that Johnny was lying on to drag him to the end of the wagon where they’d be better able to pick him up.
“Tucson and I’ll carry him in. You go get the doors…and let Rosti know we’re going to need some hot water,” DarkCloud instructed Matthew as he slid his arms carefully under Johnny’s shoulder and waist.
Matthew nodded and quickly made for the saloon, relieved to have DarkCloud around to take over the responsibility of caring for Johnny. As Matthew pushed open the door, he noticed Rosti sitting at one of the tables with Solero. They both looked up as he entered.
“They’re back,” Rosti smiled.
“And we need help,” Matthew cut in quickly, his haggard expression stopping Rosti’s smile.
Rosti pushed away from the table and stood up. “What’s wrong?”
“Madrid,” Matthew answered, just as DarkCloud entered carrying the unconscious gunfighter, with Tucson beside him offering extra support under Johnny’s injured back.
“¡Dios mío! ¿Qué le pasa?” Solero exclaimed.
“Not now,” DarkCloud responded curtly as they continued toward the steps.
“We need some hot water,” Matthew ordered, running up the stairs ahead of the three men.
Rosti shot a worried look at Solero, then promptly turned and left for the back room, leaving Solero standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.
“Carefully,” DarkCloud instructed as they laid Johnny on the bed.
“That’s what I’m doin’,” Tucson replied, then glanced meaningfully at Matthew before adding, “You sound like Matthew.”
Matthew shook his head and signaled for Tucson to step back to give DarkCloud some room.
As the doctor sat down beside Johnny, the two men looked on, their expressions troubled, while the shallow, strained breathing of the gunfighter echoed in the small room.
“Tucson,” DarkCloud said, his tone clipped and urgent as he gingerly untied the bandages, “I want you to run over to my shop. Go into the back room and you’ll see some bandages laid out along with two containers of salve. There’s also a black medical bag sitting on the shelf in the corner. I’m going to need those things.”
“I’ll be right back,” Tucson assured, shooting Matthew a look of encouragement before hurrying out the door.
As DarkCloud pulled away the last of the bandages, Matthew heard him emit a hiss of despair. “Damn, that horse did get him good, didn’t it?”
Matthew nodded uncomfortably as he explained, “It’d been shot, was bucking wild through the street.”
DarkCloud glanced up with a raised eyebrow, then with a shake of his head he turned back toward his patient. “The swelling’s pretty bad. It’s hard to tell where the infection ends and the swelling from the kick begins.” He shook his head again as his fingers ran along the edges of the inflammation, then looked up at Matthew. “Looks like you opened the wound here in the back.”
Matthew shuffled uneasily. “Yeah, I’m not sure…”
DarkCloud smiled. “It’s okay. You did what I would have done.” He looked back down at Johnny and continued to probe the area. “The poison needs to drain—”
Suddenly Johnny groaned. “Irse! No!”
Matthew knelt down beside DarkCloud. “He’s been talking in Spanish the last few hours.”
DarkCloud nodded, then turned back. “Johnny. Esta DarkCloud.”
Sluggishly Johnny opened his eyes, but DarkCloud noticed that he seemed unaware of his surroundings.
“Lo siento,” Johnny whispered. “Lo siento mucho, Laura…”
“Johnny, esta DarkCloud,” DarkCloud tried again, but Johnny’s eyes closed and he moaned softly, no acknowledgement given. With a dismal sigh, DarkCloud turned to Matthew. “How long has he been like this?”
Matthew shook his head. “I don’t know. Hours. Since noon, or before. It was difficult for him riding out of town—”
“He rode out of town?” DarkCloud asked incredulously.
Matthew nodded. “We thought maybe it wasn’t a good idea, but he insisted.”
“He would,” DarkCloud muttered as he laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
Without warning Johnny began to shake convulsively. His eyes opened again, but once more seemed unfocused. Then suddenly his breathing came fast and strained, the spasms causing him visible pain.
“Johnny—” DarkCloud whispered as he put a hand along the gunfighter’s upper back. “Johnny, it’s okay.
Johnny moaned, the shaking continuing to wrack his body painfully.
Abruptly, DarkCloud’s eyes rose to the glass of liquid near the bed. Clenching his jaw in resolve, DarkCloud took a deep breath and closed his eyes a second before reaching out and grabbing it. “Here,” he commanded. “Help me support his head. He needs some of this.”
Matthew gave a sigh of relief. “I was worried you didn’t know about the laudanum.”
“I didn’t,” DarkCloud replied curtly without glancing at Matthew.
“It’s too late now,” DarkCloud interrupted tersely, “to do anything about it.”
With an uneasy glance at DarkCloud, Matthew helped support Johnny’s head as the Indian carefully dribbled a small amount of the laudanum into Johnny’s mouth. Though Matthew kept an anxious eye aimed at the grim profile of Soledad’s doctor, DarkCloud ignored him.
Val leaned tiredly on the bar at Lolita’s Cantina. It had been another long day; not because of anything dangerous, exciting, or otherwise taxing, but because the load of pigs that Johansen was hauling to the ferry in Sacramento got loose out of the back of his wagon. Thirteen screaming, squealing porkers dashing up and down main street, into stores, shops and private homes, not to mention the really unfortunate scene with Widow Benson’s wash, had ultimately taken it’s toll on Green River’s finest. He was beat.
After finishing up some paper work, namely Widow Benson’s claim against Johansen for certain female undergarments that had been damaged beyond repair (which, of course, she denied anyone from having a look at to see for themselves) and then Johansen counterclaim, since she refused to offer proof of said damage—had about left him ready to take up a different line of work. Anything where he didn’t have to work with people.
He had gladly accepted his drink and was heading for a quiet corner where they could be properly introduced to each other, when he heard a word that made him stop dead in his tracks—all thoughts of drinks, pigs and Widow Benson gone from his mind.
He turned quickly and glanced around the room. It was late, and as there weren’t many people in the saloon, he quickly focused his attention on a table halfway across the room where three men sat, two of whom he knew from town, but the other was definitely not local. He narrowed his gaze on the third man and slowly made his way toward the table.
“Damnest thing you ever saw!” He heard the man say. “I was lucky t’get outta there alive, I say! Damned Wakeman threatened me, but I’d rather face him than that gunfighter any day!”
“Gunfighter?” Val interrupted with a smile. “Who’s that you’re talkin’ ‘bout, might I ask?”
The newcomer looked up lazily, clearly enjoying being the center of attention in his tale. “Who wants to know?”
Val smiled, then nodded toward the bartender. “Hey, Whitie, bring us another bottle, will ya? Got a story I need to hear.”
Val turned back toward the seated man who smiled shrewdly at him.
“Ah, I see you’re interested in this man, too,” the man stated, then his smile wavered when his gaze fell on the rather tarnished star Val wore at his breast. “Could be you’re wantin’ to get your hands on this gunfighter even worse than ol’ Wakeman wanted him.”
“Depends,” Val replied evenly. “And could be you might find yourself an extra bottle of rye, a bed for the night, and a coupla dollars to see you on the way…if you play your cards right. Or else you might find yourself with just the bed…one that happens to be behind bars.”
The man’s smile froze on his face. “You can’t just arrest me.”
Val raised a sardonic eyebrow. “I ain’t never let a few rules stop me from doin’ a job that needs to get done. ‘Sides, I got a feeling you’re gonna be arrested for being drunk and disorderly and causing a bar fight.”
“I ain’t fightin’ nobody,” he retorted angrily.
Laying his palms on the table, Val leaned forward until he was inches from the man’s face, his own expression becoming hard and cold. “You will be,” he threatened softly.
The man tried to hold Val’s eyes, but found himself no match for Green River’s sheriff. Dropping his gaze, he uttered, “Madrid.”
“Where?” Val demanded icily.
Part 2: Reckoning
DarkCloud stared across the small room to the bed occupied by the fevered gunfighter. Except for a few instances of half-conscious moanings, Johnny had been mostly oblivious to his surroundings throughout the entire night. Dawn was slowly breaking over the eastern horizon, and DarkCloud had begun to notice a gradual lightening in the room. Stretching out his cramped muscles, he leaned away from his chair and blew out the candle on the table near him.
It had been a long night, one he was relieved to have behind him, but he feared the day wasn’t going to be much better. Immediately after having tended Johnny’s wounds, DarkCloud had sent Matthew home. He knew Grace would be worried, though he’d had a bit of a problem convincing Matthew that there really wasn’t anything more the young man could do. He was surprised to see how concerned and vigilant Matthew had become regarding Johnny’s well-being. Then on further thought, it wasn’t so remarkable, as Matthew had been mostly responsible for him since they’d left for Salinas.
The next problem had been what to do about Rosti and Solero. DarkCloud, in his remorse at not having exposed Johnny’s injuries in the first place, had planned to tell them everything, but Tucson and Matthew both argued adamantly against the idea. Unwilling to waste time debating what might very well end up being a moot point, DarkCloud agreed to wait until morning before making a decision. So, instead, they had fed Rosti and Solero the story that Madrid had been injured in a horse riding accident—a bit of a stretch from the truth—and that he’d broken a rib and would need complete bed rest for the next couple of days.
That was unless he died first….
DarkCloud leaned back in his chair and rubbed his face tiredly. “Oh, Johnny,” he whispered with a shake of his head. “I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. I should have stood my ground. The others, they didn’t know. But I did. Yet I stood by and let the farce be perpetrated.”
There was a slight moan from the bed, a punctuation among an endless line of labored breathing. DarkCloud glanced up, then rose from his seat. He went over to the bed and sat carefully at the edge. The trembling was beginning again. Resolutely he picked up the dark brown bottle, a bottle he’d gone himself to get from his shop, and cradling Johnny’s head in one hand, he poured a few drops between the gunfighter’s lips.
“It’s okay, Johnny,” he intoned quietly. “We’re gonna get you well.”
Thankfully Johnny didn’t open his eyes to see that DarkCloud’s expression was not one of conviction.
A saloon….hazy…laughter…he enters and sees his brother sitting at a table, slouched down in his chair…hat tossed on the table….a drink in front of him….
Scott takes off his gloves and absently folds them into his belt as he walks purposely across the room toward the table.
“Brother,” he says.
Johnny looks up at him, not with the cool, detached look he’s expecting, but with pain and despair, his eyes accusatory. “Why did it take you so long?”
Scott feels Johnny’s dark gaze of anguish penetrating him. “I—I didn’t know…”
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Johnny replies, his eyes slowly breaking contact to stare morosely at his hands folded on his lap. “For so long.”
“I came as soon—”
“It’s too late,” Johnny slowly shakes his head. “Too late.”
Scott’s reply is strangled in his throat as he notices a crimson trail dripping to the floor under Johnny’s chair. “What’s that?!”
“I told you it was too late,” Johnny replies as he sadly studies the growing pool of blood.
Scott tries to move forward, to grab his brother, but he’s frozen in his spot. “Stop it, Johnny! You can’t bleed to death! Stop it, now!”
Johnny listlessly raises his eyes to look at Scott again, though his eyes now appear lifeless and void. “I thought you’d come in time.”
“Johnny, don’t! You can’t!! Please!!!”
With a shudder, Johnny’s head rolls back and his hands drop to his side, exposing a gaping hole in his belly.
Scott felt a scream rip from his body.
Blind with panic and confusion, Scott groped his way out of his bed to stand, disoriented, in the middle of the room, his heart beating thunderously in his chest, his eyes darting in desperation about the room in an attempt to convince his brain that it had all been a dream.
In surprise, he spun around to glare toward the open window, a faint grayness outside indicating it was soon to be morning. He could hear banging coming from the front door downstairs. “Wha—?”
“Val,” he breathed as he felt a weight drop through his chest.
Grabbing his pants, he struggled into them as he made his way to his bedroom door and flung it open. He was fumbling with his trouser buttons as he dashed into the hallway just as Murdoch appeared from his room. They looked at each other a split second, each attempting to read the other’s eyes.
“What is it?” Teresa appeared from the far end of the hall, her arm struggling to find its way into her dressing gown.
“It’s Sheriff Crawford,” Scott replied, shooting her a look that seemed to hold extra significance.
“Johnny,” she breathed, stunned, her eyes growing wide in alarm.
“That’s what I aim to find out,” Scott said as he turned and quickly made his way to the stairs, Murdoch and Teresa following closely behind.
The banging increased as Scott cleared the stairs in seconds and dashed across the Great Room. There he yanked the door open to find Sheriff Crawford, breathless, fist raised, mouth open, ready to begin pounding and yelling again.
“It’s Johnny,” the sheriff announced, his eyes widening with surprise as he realized he’d spoken louder than he’d meant to. He took a short breath and repeated in a quieter tone, “It’s Johnny.”
Weighted by apprehension, Scott moved aside to let the sheriff enter.
Val stepped into the Lancer great room, then dropped his eyes uncomfortably as he noticed Murdoch’s stern gaze and Teresa’s frightened one. He didn’t know why he was surprised to see them, as it suddenly occurred to him that his yelling and pounding had probably been loud enough to wake the dead—or at least anyone asleep upstairs.
Quickly Val took off his hat and nodded a greeting to Murdoch and Teresa, then turned to Scott. “I know where Johnny is—or was—a week or so ago.”
Scott exhaled in relief.
“He’s alive,” Teresa murmured.
“Yes.” Val glanced in her direction.
“Where?” Scott asked.
“How’d you find out?” Murdoch asked.
Val looked at both men. “He is—or was—in Salinas. Ran into a man at the saloon this evening who claims to have been working for someone by the name of James Wakeman over in Salinas. He says he and four other men were supposed to stop a wagon of supplies from going south. When they tried to stop it,” Val paused meaningfully, “Johnny, another gunfighter, and a third who was hidden in the wagon, took exception to their orders. Seems the two parties opened fire on each other, and Wakeman’s men came out second best.”
A hint of a smile crossed Scott’s face, only to have it quickly cut short by Murdoch’s interruption.
“How’d they know it was Johnny?”
Val shifted his attention. “The fella, name of Bridger, said Johnny came up to him and specifically told him his name was Johnny Madrid.”
“Madrid?” Murdoch asked, his voice tensing.
Val glanced quickly at Scott before answering. “Yes, yes, he told this Bridger to tell Mr. Wakeman that it was him.”
Murdoch didn’t reply. Instead he walked toward the center of the room, his arms crossed stiffly in front of him.
“Val,” Scott drew the sheriff’s attention back. “Anything else?”
“Well, this Bridger said he was damned lucky to get away alive. I guess once the smoke had cleared, two men lay dead and two were wounded.” He paused, then added. “And when he told me he’d never seen anything so fast or smooth as Madrid, that he used a—” Val stopped and glanced quickly at Murdoch, his furtive look telling Scott the gun had been seen. “I knew it had to be Johnny, not just someone trying to get mileage out of the name. The description fit, too.”
“So, he’s in Salinas?”
“No, actually, he’s been hired by a small town south of there, called Soledad.”
“Hired?” Murdoch asked.
“Yes,” Val nodded with an apologetic glance at Scott. “That’s what I was told. Seems this Mr. Wakeman’s been trying to get his hands on the land down around there.”
“And this was only about a week ago?” Scott asked again.
Val nodded. “I figured if I got here right away, you’d be able to leave immediately and get to Los Banos where you could grab that direct stage to Salinas.”
“Thanks, Val.” Scott smiled. “That’s exactly what we’ll do. I’m gonna go get ready to leave.”
Teresa stepped forward. “I’ll get some breakfast started. Why don’t you stay and eat with us, Sheriff Crawford?”
Val smiled awkwardly and twisted his hat brim. “Uh, thanks, Miss Teresa. That would be nice.”
Scott took a step toward the stairs, then looked at Murdoch. “You are coming?”
Murdoch turned slowly and shook his head. “No. And I don’t think you should either.”
“What?” Scott asked in surprise. “But we now know where he is!”
“I heard,” Murdoch replied stonily, his arms still tightly crossed. “I also heard that he’s chosen to go by Madrid, not Lancer, and that he’s working in his old profession—hired out his talents for money.”
Scott took a step in disbelief toward his father. “Yes, but—but it sounds like what he’s doing is helping a town from being taken over by some greedy, two-bit land pirate.”
“We know he’s alive, and he knows where we are. I doubt whether he’s going to welcome our intrusion into his little party.”
“We don’t know the whole story.”
“No, we don’t,” Murdoch snapped, bitterness coloring his words. “I happened to also know there’s a well-known, retired judge by the name of Wakeman in Salinas. Met him up at Sacramento a couple of years ago. I wonder how that fits into your ‘Madrid saves the town’ scenario.”
Scott glared in disbelief. “You’re wrong. I know you’re wrong! And I can’t believe you’re not going to go to him, especially now that we know where he is.” Scott took a step forward. “Doesn’t he at least deserve to know about the bounty?”
Murdoch turned stiffly away. “If you’re so determined to go to him, you can tell him. And you can let him know that if he wants my help, he knows where I am.”
Scott hissed. “I can’t believe this! I can’t believe you! You sure are capable of being a cold-hearted sonuvabitch, concerned more about your own wounded pride than your son’s life.” He turned and stormed up to his room.
Val and Teresa looked at each other uncomfortably as Teresa measured flour into a large mixing bowl.
“It’s, ah—” She glanced awkwardly down at the bowl and began to stir. “They’ve been disagreeing about Johnny.”
Val nodded, then looked down at the hat he still held in his hands. “So I’ve heard.” When Teresa glanced up at him quizzically, he added, “From Scott.”
Teresa smiled sadly, then paused in her stirring. “Murdoch’s wrong this time, you know.”
Val nodded again. “I—I think he has a hard time trusting Johnny not to take off like—”
“—like Maria did,” Teresa finished for him.
“He needs to go to Salinas; he needs to show Johnny that he wants him back—and he needs to show Scott, too.” Teresa stated firmly, yet softly.
Val watched as Teresa’s face became thoughtful.
“Sheriff Crawford, how are you at making flapjacks?”
Val smiled. “Miss Teresa, I am a man of many talents, just one of which is flapjack making.”
Teresa smiled widely, slid the bowl toward Val and gave him a swift and unexpected hug. Then she quickly left the kitchen, leaving Val staring after her in surprise.
Teresa walked pass the great room, a quick glance telling her Murdoch wasn’t there. Determined, she headed up the stairs and down the hall to her guardian’s bedroom door where she took a steadying breath and knocked.
“Who is it?”
“Teresa,” she replied. “I need to talk to you.”
Murdoch looked at himself in the mirror and sighed. His face was slathered with shaving cream. “I’m shaving. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“It can’t wait!” Teresa replied.
“I’m sure a few minutes won’t make a difference,” Murdoch answered as he resumed his shaving.
“Yes, it will!” Teresa’s voice rose. “It’s a matter of life and death!”
“Ouch!” Murdoch exclaimed as he jerked, nicking himself with the razor. “What?”
Murdoch quickly set his razor down and went to the door. When he opened it, Teresa stood, eyes bright with tears.
“What’s wrong? Whose life?”
“Mine,” Teresa replied sadly.
Murdoch’s eyes opened in surprise. “Wha—?”
“Mine,” Teresa repeated, “And yours, and Johnny’s…and Scott’s.”
“Teresa,” Murdoch admonished with a shake of his head.
“It’s true,” she continued, her hazel eyes searching Murdoch’s face. “You have to go with Scott and help him bring back Johnny.”
“Teresa,” Murdoch shook his head. “That is not the best thing to do. Johnny—”
“Johnny needs you to come after him!” Teresa cut in. “He needs his father to want him,” she added quietly. “And Scott needs to know this, too.”
“I do,” Murdoch replied in a soft voice, his hand coming up to rub her flushed cheek.
“Then show them,” she continued quietly. “You went after Maria; you tried to bring her back.”
“But even if I had brought her back, it wouldn’t have worked out,” Murdoch said sadly.
“But you don’t really know that, do you?” Teresa’s eyes searched deeply. “And that’s why you cried out for her when you were wounded a couple of years ago. You still wonder.”
Murdoch dropped his hand and took a breath, ready to turn away, but Teresa put a hand on his arm. “You still wonder if you had found her, if things might have been different. Well, this time, you’ve been shown where to look. Don’t spend the next twenty years wondering if you had gone after Johnny, if things would have worked out differently.”
Teresa paused, her hand still on her guardian’s arm, waiting expectantly. She could see the war going on under the surface of his stern shell. He was a man of wide raging passions constantly held in check from years of practice. Finally, she saw a crack in the armor, a tiny one that was enough to tell her that she had won the battle.
“Oh, Teresa, I can’t turn you down.”
“Oh, thank you, Murdoch! Thank you!” Teresa jumped up and gave her guardian a big hug and kiss.
As she drew away, the small chink in Murdoch’s armor cracked totally and Teresa found herself the recipient of a huge grin. With a hint of embarrassment he reached out and wiped shaving cream off her cheek with his finger. “This might be explainable if you were frosting a cake in the kitchen.”
Teresa laughed and swiped at her face. “Sorry.”
Murdoch brought his smile under control. “Forgiven. Just one thing, though.”
Teresa looked up.
“You tell Scott I’m going. I don’t think I can do that.”
Teresa nodded and smiled.
Wakeman studied himself coolly in the mirror and ran an appreciative hand along his newly shaved cheeks. Already he felt better, more confident.
It had been satisfying to quash Jenny’s girlish sentiments, to physically show her just how insignificant she really had been to him. Even more satisfying to watch her reaction as he bluntly told her to hand over the ring, as it had never been meant for her in the first place. He had relished laughing at her shocked and hurt expression as he told her that she was so far beneath his station that the mere thought that he would even entertain the idea of marrying her was absurd...
…and well, laying the black eye on her when she got hysterical was an added bonus of pleasure. Sure it got a bit rough, shedding another bitch usually did, but his men were well paid to look the other way and no one in town would bother with the disgraced trollop’s complaint anyhow.
Life could be good.
There was a knock at the door.
Wakeman turned from the mirror and casually walked toward his desk, which was centered against the wall. When the knock was repeated, he demanded, “Who is it?”
“Swain, Sir. I’ve got some of the men with me as you requested.”
Swain, Wesley, Friezen, and another man stepped into the formal parlor of Wakeman’s town apartment. The fourth man, whom Wakeman couldn’t recall having seen before, glanced around, his eyes wide with appreciation of the surroundings.
“About time,” Wakeman said as he looked from man to man with carefully modulated disdain, until he came to the new man. “You’re new,” he stated in a tone that conveyed that he expected an explanation.
The young man nodded quickly, though without fear. “Yes, Sir.”
“He’s been working the lines, but it just recently came to my attention that he may be just what we’re needing,” Swain explained.
“And what is that?” Wakeman demanded.
“I’m good with my gun,” the young man answered before Swain had a chance, drawing Wakeman’s raised eyebrow.
“Is that so?” Wakeman asked.
“Well, I’ve been told that before, only to be supplied with the wrong dead body.”
The young man returned Wakeman’s caustic look without flinching. “Well, I’m willing to give you—and Johnny Madrid—my best.”
Wakeman paused, then gave a half-smile of appreciation. “I expect no less.” Then he looked at the other men. “I want you to revisit all the places Madrid stopped at while he was here each time, talk to anyone who might have had any contact with him, especially anyone who saw him after the shoot-out yesterday. I want you to talk to each man that was supposed to have been in the saloon when they stopped for a drink before leaving town, every person who saw the shooting. I want details on everything that happened, even if it seems insignificant.”
“And then what, Mr. Wakeman?”
“And then what?” Wakeman smiled sardonically. “Why, I want to see Johnny Madrid dead. Hell, I want to see him hanged…his cold carcass swaying in the breeze.”
DarkCloud jerked awake at the sound of someone at the door. With a quick glance toward the bed where Johnny still lay asleep on his side, DarkCloud pushed out of his chair and went to the door.
DarkCloud unlocked the door and stepped to the side, allowing the gunfighter to enter. In his hands he held a tray of food.
“Ah,” DarkCloud smiled appreciatively. “People are bringing me breakfast now.”
“Ha!” Tucson interjected as he crossed to the table. “It’s mine and it’s lunch. But if you’re good, I just might share my extra sandwich with you.”
DarkCloud snorted and closed the door, relocking it.
“How’s he doing?” Tucson asked with a glance at the bed.
DarkCloud shrugged. “Pretty much the same, I’m afraid, so I guess that’s to the good.”
Tucson sat down on one of the chairs and picked up a sandwich. “Well, I’m feelin’ a helluvalot better after a few hours sleep.”
DarkCloud nodded and dropped into the chair he had earlier occupied. “You and Matthew looked a bit rough last night.”
“Yeah, it was a long night. Matthew done well—really came through. I’m glad he was along.” Tucson nodded as he chewed. He swallowed, took another bite, when suddenly he grinned. “Madrid was somethin’, though. You shoulda seen him. He had ol’ Wakeman beggin’ like a puppy.”
DarkCloud raised his eyebrow. “Begging? For what?”
Tucson laughed slightly. “We went out to this fancy restaurant—Johnny got us our meals free, too—and Wakeman came in all full of himself with his hired goons and tried to get Johnny to hire on with him.” Tucson paused, shaking his head appreciatively. “You shoulda seen the way Johnny played him. Had him lookin’ like an ass, he did. It was great.”
“Yup. No matter what Wakeman had to offer, Johnny turned him down in such a way as to make him look like an idiot. I nearly split a gut keepin’ from laughin’ out loud.”
DarkCloud’s gaze turned toward the bed where it lingered a moment on Johnny’s back, then he shook his head.
Suddenly there was another knock. Tucson and DarkCloud glanced at each other.
“What is this?” DarkCloud muttered to Tucson. “A stage depot?”
Tucson smirked and took a bite of his sandwich.
“Who is it?” DarkCloud demanded.
DarkCloud quickly stood up, unlocked the door and let Matthew in. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I came as soon as I got up,” Matthew replied as he shot a look in Johnny’s direction. “How is he?”
“No better, no worse,” DarkCloud replied.
Matthew crossed to the side of the bed where he studied the flushed, tight face and listened to the strained breathing.
“Has he woken at all?”
DarkCloud shook his head. “I’m keeping him sedated.”
“Huh?” Matthew asked, confused. “How?”
“I have a stronger medicine that should pretty much keep him sleeping.”
Matthew’s brow knit. “How come? I’d think you’d want him to wake up.”
DarkCloud snorted and sat back down in his chair. “Matthew, if he wakes up, what will he do?”
“Why, he’ll…” Matthew paused, chagrined, “say he’s fine and try to get up.”
DarkCloud nodded. “Hence the medicine.” Then he reached over and nabbed a half of one of Tucson’s sandwiches. “It’s the best thing for him for now. The only thing for him. I can keep the wound clean, put on the ointments and give him that tea, but really it’s up to him. He has to fight off that infection and heal himself.”
“How long you plannin’ to keep him under?” Tucson asked.
“At least today…maybe tomorrow. Then I’ll see how he’s doing, and probably cut it back to only in the evenings.”
“How ‘bout if Wakeman comes?” Matthew asked.
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow. “In his condition, do you really think it’s going to make any difference if he’s medicated or not. He wouldn’t have the strength to stand up, much less face Wakeman right now.”
Matthew bit his lip in concentration, then noticed the bottle of laudanum sitting near the bed. “I see you’re still giving him that.”
DarkCloud sighed and set his sandwich down, his voice taking on a bitter tone. “I haven’t a hell of a choice. In the shape he’s in, I can’t very well stop giving it to him now. Especially not knowing how long or how much he’s been taking.”
“Oh,” Matthew replied awkwardly. “You’re really upset about him taking it.”
DarkCloud rubbed his face tiredly then dropped his hands to his lap before replying in a softer tone. “I’m mostly upset with myself. I should have noticed he was taking it, and helped him out with some different medication, or given him the laudanum and monitored how much he was taking. He paused and slammed the arm of the chair. “Hell, I should have put an end to this entire fiasco before it ever had a chance to start.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” Matthew cut in. “I was all too willing to tell him our troubles in the hope of getting his help. I started the whole thing—and I knew that he’d been shot and lost his memory.”
“The two of you can go beatin’ yourselves over the head,” Tucson interrupted. “But there’s more’n enough blame to go around. Hell, I could tell somethin’ was up with him, but I was more interested in seein’ that I got to improve my reputation by workin’ with Madrid.”
DarkCloud smiled wryly at the two men, then leaned back further in his chair. “Looks like there’s plenty of blame to go around.” Then he closed his eyes and sighed.
“And you gotta admit,” Matthew added. “Johnny’s pretty stubborn himself. He’ll do what he wants and make his own decisions.”
DarkCloud didn’t open his eyes. “Yeah, but we didn’t have to go giving him the choices.”
Scott shifted in his seat, trying to find a way to sit so that the hard lump in the barely cushioned bench was more bearable. The stage had stopped to change horses and to let the travelers out for a short snack and to use the facilities, and when they’d been called back onto the stage, Scott had been last to enter. He found the seat he’d earlier occupied taken by the one other man, beside himself and Murdoch, on the trip. Slightly surprised, but unconcerned, he’d taken the empty seat next to the elderly lady. However his rear quickly became concerned...and bruised. And there was no way, other than sliding in to the middle and sitting right up next to the rather plump, severe-looking matron, of avoiding the distress to his posterior. Nothing he could do but grin and bear it—and vow to be first aboard the stage after the next stop.
He’d been surprised when Teresa informed him that Murdoch was going to come along. Surprised—then nervous—about spending two days traveling in close quarters with the man. But, after their five-hour dash to get to Los Banos where there was a stage to take them to Salinas, they’d found themselves with two traveling companions; a development that was a relief to Scott as much as it was to Murdoch.
Scott looked across at Murdoch, whose eyes were already shut, his arms folded across his body in order to take up less space.
Scott had been relieved when they’d arrived at Los Banos in time to catch the stage. It was certainly going to be faster on this route and cutting through the Pacheco Pass, but this stage only went twice a week. If they had missed it, they would have had to go it on horseback the whole way, and though Scott could have probably kept up a pretty good pace and arrived there in about the same time, he was quite certain it would have been rough for Murdoch. High speed dashing through hills and mountain passes had long ago quit being his father’s preferred means of transportation.
Scott adjusted position again and sighed. Though the man who had taken his seat also had his eyes closed, Scott could have sworn he saw the corner of his mouth twitch.
Scott glanced out the window at the rushing, dry countryside. A couple of days and he’d see Johnny—and finally get the chance to ask him why he left.
DarkCloud sat on the edge of the small bed, the laudanum bottle in his one hand, his other hand grasping Johnny’s shoulder in an attempt to bring him relief from the spasms of pain.
After a few minutes, the shuddering suddenly left the gunfighter’s body, leaving the skin clammy and even more flushed. The fever still seemed to be winning.
DarkCloud had redressed the wound twice during the day, and though it looked no worse, he still feared that he was fighting a losing battle.
DarkCloud sighed and looked toward the window, the afternoon sun streaming in, oddly illuminating an otherwise depressing scene. He had a bad feeling about the whole thing—one he’d been unable to explain to either Matthew or Tucson—a feeling that whatever he did, it would ultimately make no difference. If Johnny didn’t die now from the infection, and DarkCloud allowed him to regain consciousness, he feared the gunfighter would find some other way to end his life. Deep down, he felt Johnny had long ago lost the will to live.
The Judge looked up from where he sat behind his massive mahogany desk, an imposing sign of obvious wealth and power that he took an innate amount of pride in. Every morning, just before he entered his office promptly at seven o’clock, he had orders that the desk was to be polished and straightened. He liked things that could be polished and straightened. He liked order.
“Good evening,” James Wakeman greeted his father formally.
“That remains to be seen,” the Judge coolly replied.
Wakeman allowed himself a small smile. “I think it is.”
“Oh?” The Judge leaned back in his chair and folded his hands. “Enlighten me”
Wakeman glanced at one of the two empty chairs that sat rigidly in front of the massive desk, but stood where he was; he hadn’t been invited to take a seat. “I believe I have some information that may prove useful against Madrid.”
“I sent my men around town to talk to anyone who may have had contact with Madrid. They found out that the sheriff never did talk to him or even see him after the shootings; the other gunfighter, Tucson, filled the sheriff in on all the details instead. And the doctor never saw Madrid up close either, as Tucson and Matthew quickly escorted him away from the room. My men talked to the owner of the hotel where Madrid was staying and found out the names of the men that were at the bar with him. They’ve since tracked down two of those men to talk to, and though it does appear Madrid came down and had a drink with them before leaving, he did appear to walk stiffly and slowly. He also didn’t talk much, which probably isn’t surprising since he was kicked by a horse twice. He also left his beer half full, and Matthew seemed in a big hurry to leave, which could indicate Madrid wasn’t in the best of shape. I also had it confirmed that Madrid was definitely bleeding and never regained consciousness while he was out in the street. Given that he did manage to walk out of the hotel under his own power, I doubt he had broken ribs, but it remains a possibility that we shouldn’t discount at this point. Also, as you suggested, I found out who the man was that came out of the crowd and carried Madrid up to the hotel room. He’s a local blacksmith by the name of Isaac Harley. I have two men checking into him further.
“My thinking, at this point, is that Madrid may be laying low in Soledad recuperating. If those ribs weren’t broken, they certainly are giving him a lot of pain and I doubt he’s looking for a showdown any time soon.”
The Judge leaned forwards, rested his elbows on his desk, then slowly steepled his fingers and regarded his son. “So, that’s your thinking?”
Wakeman nodded. “I suggest we go down there and trap Madrid while he’s in too much pain to move.”
“I see,” The Judge replied with a raised eyebrow. “Just go on down there and start blasting away, right?”
“Well,” Wakeman shifted uncomfortably. “I would think—”
The Judge abruptly stood, cutting off his son. “That’s just it, you don’t!” He walked around his desk then stopped a few feet away where he regarded his son with disappointment. “You can’t afford another mess-up. You have to make sure of your strengths—and his weakness. I suggest checking into this Harley character carefully.”
The Judge shook his head and sighed. “You need a trump. You need something to hold over Madrid—to make sure he meets you under your terms and not his. You’ve been playing this game under his rules and it’s time to take control; it’s time to make him play by your rules.”
“Something to hold over him,” Wakeman murmured to himself.
The Judge turned and headed to a small cabinet where he housed a various assortment of liquors that he used for entertaining clients and prospective business partners. He selected a mediocre brand of brandy. “Tell me about this local man, Matthew.”
“Him?” Wakeman watched his father pouring the brandy. “Well, there’s not much to tell. Small farmer east of the town. Lives with his sister and kid brother. The Kid I hired to—” Wakeman stopped, his eyes suddenly glowing.
“Hmmm?” The Judge walked up and handed his son one of the snifters.
“The Kid—the gunfighter I hired to turn on Madrid—mentioned Johnny had originally stayed with that family when he first came to town and seemed to have grown rather fond of the young boy, Matthew’s brother.” He paused and added, “The Kid also seemed to think he would have the advantage on Madrid as he had learned he’d been injured when he first came to town…that’s why he was at Matthew’s house. He was recuperating.”
“Well, he seems to have recuperated better than that green gunfighter you hired ever suspected. I wouldn’t put too much stock in that at this point. But as for Madrid’s tie to that family,” The Judge smiled. “Now you’re thinking along the lines of what we need. But just to keep our hand well padded, follow through on the blacksmith and this injury some more. You can never have too many aces, son.”
Wakeman smiled at his father and the two rose their glasses in a mock toast.
Scott’s head lulled forward, his arms crossed against his chest. Though he was exhausted, cramped, dusty and sore, his posterior was greatly relieved to be rid of the hard lump. An hour earlier the stage had made another stop, and this time Scott went up to Murdoch and told him about the situation and asked if they couldn’t talk to the elderly lady and ask her to switch sides of the coach. That way, if Scott and Murdoch sat on the lumpy side, Scott wouldn’t feel as uneasy about sliding toward the middle to sit next to his father. Regardless of the disagreement over Johnny, comfort was comfort, and sometimes drastic measures needed to be taken.
Scott was relieved when Murdoch readily agreed to the plan and even suggested that it would probably be more appropriate if he approached the elderly matron. This made Scott feel a certain amount of remorse over his earlier idea of first arranging it so that Murdoch had to suffer the lumpy seat, a rather childish plan that he knew he’d never have followed through with, but one that had kept him entertained during his ordeal.
Now, rear satisfied, he began to doze.
Murdoch leaned his shoulder against the side of the stage and rested his chin against his chest. The driver had said it’d be another three hours before they stopped for the night.
Murdoch still thought the whole thing was a mistake. He never should have let Teresa talk him into going along. He should have let Scott go by himself, for Scott would know what to say to Johnny; he’d know how to reach him. The coming confrontation filled Murdoch with dread, overwhelming him with the idea of once more having to face his son as Johnny Madrid, sending his thoughts to those dark moments of his life he’d just as soon forget. And Murdoch knew, no matter what he said, it’d be the wrong thing; it was always the wrong thing.
How do you truly bring a prodigal son back home—especially if the prodigal son’s past has such a tight grip, and you harbor your own ghosts regarding its creation?
Murdoch thought back to when Warburton threatened to destroy the entire local economy by flooding the market with the cattle he had grown tired of raising, a bored soldier of fortune looking for a new and more rewarding activity than tending to cattle.
Johnny, to his father’s shock and dismay, had sided with Warburton against his father. He hired on as Johnny Madrid, so that he could keep an eye on things, and when Warburton was mortally wounded, Johnny vowed to make sure the cattle got to market as he’d been hired to do.
Murdoch’s mind wandered to the unnerving scene of the two, cold-hearted gunfighters, their eyes vacant and lacking any semblance of humanity, bent on killing Murdoch simply because they had been hired to. Not out of hatred, not out of some petty argument, even, but simply because he was a job to be taken care of. The knowledge that Johnny had been like them was heartbreaking to Murdoch…and at the same time made his blood run cold. But Murdoch had one consolation, one small hope to cling to in his grief of having a gunfighter as a son—the words spoken by the two hired killers regarding Johnny: “We’re fallen angels, brought down to Hell, the Good Book says. Men beyond redemption… If it’s any comfort…Johnny—he never quite hit the bottom.”
Murdoch sighed. How depressing to find comfort in such eerie words spoken by men with no soul.
And then the shock of having Johnny show up, once again using his gun, but this time to kill one of his own to protect his father, and then the words spoken out of heartache and despair…and truth. “That’s all I wanted to be at one time. Johnny Madrid, good at my trade.”
Murdoch almost shuddered.
And that’s what Johnny had been, for so many years. Maybe a family, a ranch and a home had merely been a diversion for him, while the lure to be Johnny Madrid—good at his trade—had been too strong to resist.
Murdoch suddenly felt a weight on his shoulder. In surprise he opened his eyes. A neatly trimmed, ash-blond head appeared, blocking his vision, a soft snore indicating his eldest son was asleep; asleep with his head on his father’s shoulder.
Murdoch closed his eyes and fought back a lump forming in his throat. Then he leaned his own head carefully to the side so that his cheek rested against the blond head. As he did so, a thought formed in the back of his mind. Oh, God, please, someday let Johnny rest his head on my shoulder…
Wakeman rode in to the yard of his ranch and dismounted. One of his men quickly appeared and took the reins from him to lead his horse toward the stables. Wakeman pulled off his gloves and slapped them against his leg, then strode quickly into his house. He had left the Judge’s office, quickly imparted another set of orders to Swain who had been waiting outside the door, and headed toward his own ranch. Things were looking up with the definite prospect of Madrid’s imminent death visible on the horizon.
He took off his jacket, tossed it on a chair, and immediately headed for his own liquor cabinet. After pouring himself a drink, he went to the kitchen to scrounge up something to eat. It had been an incredibly long day, but one that had proved fruitful. A plan was in the works, and he was back in the Judge’s good graces—or at least in an improved situation.
He had just heated up some salted pork, cut himself a couple slices of bread from a loaf left by his part-time housekeeper and was entering the living room when a knock sounded at the door.
Taking a bite of his food first, he set it on a table then crossed to the door and opened it. The new man, Kincaid, stood outside the door, Wesley with him.
“Come in.” Wakeman gestured then went back to pick up his plate of food. “What’d you find out?”
“I stopped in and tried to talk to the blacksmith, but he was about as easy to get information out of as a priest in a brothel,” Kincaid replied.
“I thought he might be able to get more information as he’s a new face,” Wesley added with a nod at the new man. “But the blacksmith wasn’t able to give us any information on Madrid.”
“Didn’t want to, is more like it,” Kincaid said. “However, we did find out he has a wife and small child.”
“Oh, really?” Wakeman chuckled. “Now that could prove helpful.”
“And given how tight-lipped he was about Madrid, they gotta have some history,” Kincaid continued. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s definitely something there.”
Wakeman looked thoughtful. “I do believe we’ve found another ace, boys.” He turned and walked to his liquor cabinet. “Can I get you boys a glass of brandy, or some whiskey, perhaps?”
“A brandy for me.” Kincaid smiled.
Wesley nodded his head in agreement.
As Wakeman turned toward the cabinet, the front door banged open.
“What the—?” Wakeman froze.
Standing in the doorway stood Gerald O’Connor, wild-eyed and tense, his hands tightly gripping a revolver—a revolver pointed straight at Wakeman.
“You sonuvabitch! You sonuvabitch!” O’Connor screamed, his eyes maniacal. “You just used her and threw her away—like garbage!”
Wakeman stiffened and his eyes flicked to where Wesley and Kincaid stood off to the side. Both men were staring at O’Connor.
Wakeman, mindful of keepig his hands in the open, tried to smile. “Oh, Gerald, it’s not such a big deal as she probably made it out to be. Put your gun down and have a drink with us. I’ll talk to her tomorrow and straighten every—”
“You sonuvabitch, she’s dead!” O’Connor howled, his face white with fury, his eyes a strange contrast of blood-shot red. “She told me what you did, what you said! Then she killed herself! Killed herself! All for you, you cheatin’, cold-blooded devil. And now I’m gonna kill you!”
“Hey, Gerald,” Kincaid interrupted, his voice quiet and calm, eerily breaking through the disturbed ranting.
O’Connor jerked his attention toward the young man, causing the revolver in his hand to shift its aim minutely. But before he’d even had a chance to truly register the face of the voice that called out to him, he felt himself propelled backward, a slug exploding through his heart. He was dead before he’d hit the ground.
“Nice shooting,” Wakeman commented as he turned back to the liquor cabinet.
Kincaid holstered his gun. “Sorry about the mess, though.”
Wakeman shrugged, continuing to pour out three brandies. “As long as it gets cleaned up quickly, it won’t leave a stain.” He turned and held out a glass to Wesley. “You’ll see to that, won’t you?”
Though Wesley nodded, he was unable to keep from glancing uncomfortably at the dead body sprawled in the middle of the floor.
Wakeman sighed dramatically. “Shame about Jenny, though. But they were both trash.”
“Lot of that going around,” Kincaid replied as Wakeman handed him his glass of brandy.
Wakeman smiled. “Glad to see you in action, Kincaid.”
“I aim to please.”
Kincaid and Wakeman studied each other a second, then lifted their glasses in a toast.
“To Madrid,” Wakeman stated.
“And his untimely death,” Kincaid added.
Darkness…blindness…fear…smoke…no way to escape…darkness…scared…fire…want to protect…can’t…too much smoke…nobody will come to save me…nobody knows where I am…sorry Mattie…
DarkCloud stood at the window and looked out at the dark, quiet street. The few inhabitants of the small town all seemed to have turned in early for the night. Even the saloon down below sounded quiet.
Tucson had stopped in earlier and the two had shared a supper in the room together, as DarkCloud didn’t feel he could leave Johnny more than a few seconds. Then Tucson had excused himself to have a last drink before heading to bed. DarkCloud could tell that the last Salinas ordeal had left both Tucson and Matthew exhausted. After assuring Matthew that Johnny was no worse, and that the best and only course of action at the moment was to let him rest, DarkCloud had sent Matthew home with orders to get to bed early.
And now, all was quiet, save for the labored breathing of the wounded gunfighter lying curled on his side near the wall.
DarkCloud turned, walked to the bed and laid a hand on Johnny’s forehead. It was obvious to the eye that the fever still held its grip, yet DarkCloud still needed to feel for himself the amount of heat that radiated in the hope of discerning an improvement, even if slight. But sadly, there appeared to be no change.
DarkCloud sighed, grabbed one of the chairs and pulled it up close to the bed. He might as well get some rest while he had the chance. He’d given Johnny a small amount of both the medications, which ought to keep him sleeping soundly for awhile. It was hard to tell, though, as Johnny’s sporadic and incomprehensible moanings clearly showed that his sleep was all but restful.
DarkCloud settled into the chair and closed his eyes. He hoped Johnny’s dreams were more peaceful. It’d be nice if at least one of them got a good night’s sleep.
Grace set a mug of warm milk on the table in front of Matthew then sat down opposite of him. “Okay, Matthew. Now are you going to tell me what happened? And not the ‘everything went just as Johnny planned’ story that you told Jamie. I know that’s not true.”
Matthew looked down at the mug steaming in front of him and picked it up. After blowing on it, he carefully took a sip. It was hot. He glanced up. Grace was sitting rigidly in front of him, her eyes narrowing at his obvious stall tactics. She could be a tough customer when she had the mind to. He glanced over to the sleeping form of Jamie on his small cot and sighed… Oh, the truth…
Sadly he looked back at Grace. “All didn’t go as planned,” he admitted quietly.
“So I gathered by your face when you showed up this morning at four o’clock.” She paused. “So, what did happen? Is Johnny okay?”
Matthew dropped his gaze and shook his head. “No, he was injured when the Kid tried to draw on him.”
“What? He’s been shot?”
“No,” Matthew quickly looked up. “He wasn’t shot. But he was injured by a horse that went wild when it was wounded in all the shooting. Some of Wakeman’s men were planted up in the roof line, and they began firing down, too.”
“Wakeman had men up on the roofs?” Grace asked.
Matthew nodded. “It seems to me Wakeman must have had a hand in the Kid’s attempt to outdraw Johnny, or else why would his men be up there positioned to lend a hand? Only things didn’t go as Wakeman planned either. Before the stray bullet hit the horse, Johnny easily took care of the Kid.”
Grace was silent a moment. “How bad is Johnny hurt?”
Matthew shook his head. “Not good. The horse got him twice pretty hard, re-injuring his wounds and bruising his back and side. Totally knocked him out. Grace, I—I even thought he was dead at first.” Matthew sighed before continuing. “Then this old friend of Johnny’s showed up and helped us get him back to the hotel room where Tucson and I, along with this Harley, hurriedly did what we could for him. Then when Johnny finally did come to, he insisted on leaving immediately. He was worried that Wakeman would come for us.” He paused and looked down at his mug. With another sigh he closed his eyes for a second before continuing. “He wasn’t doing well, though. He could barely walk or even breathe…yet he was worried about getting me home safely. He insisted on riding out of town under his own power so no one would suspect that he’d been badly injured. But outside of town he finally collapsed. The rest of the trip back he was unconscious, and now his wounds have developed a bad infection. DarkCloud’s doing what he can, but it doesn’t look good.” He stopped and dropped his head into his palms.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?”
Matthew nodded without looking up, his voice subdued. “He’s been a lot worse off than we suspected. He’s been…” Matthew looked up hesitantly and his voice dropped even lower. “He’s been taking laudanum for awhile in order to keep going. DarkCloud’s really upset about it.”
Grace put a hand to her mouth and looked away.
“Grace,” Matthew’s voice was strained. “It really doesn’t look good. He may die, and it’d be all my fault. I should never have tried to get him to take this job knowing he was already injured. I took advantage of him…”
“Oh, Matthew.” Grace dropped her hand then leaned across the table to take her brother’s hand into her own. “You mustn’t say that. You didn’t know—”
“No, Grace. I should have listened to you. You were right. It was wrong to try to solve this problem with guns. We should have found another way to handle it. Something that didn’t require the sacrifice of human life. But I was too concerned with our problems to think about what the greater consequences would be…or how my desire to hold on to this insignificant piece of land might be responsible for the death of the man I wanted to hire. He was just a gunfighter and it was his job. Why should I care what it cost him?”
“Oh, Matthew, you wouldn’t have suggested the town hire him if you knew it’d cost Johnny his life—”
“Yes, I would!” Matthew cut in sharply, his eyes flashing. “At the time, if I had thought Johnny would get killed getting Wakeman off our backs, I wouldn’t have hesitated. All that mattered to me was taking care of our problem. That was all that mattered to any of us! Johnny’s death would have barely caused a ripple in my conscience.”
Grace bit her lip sadly, struck by the conviction of Matthew’s confession.
And in the corner of the small cabin, a young boy shed a tear of sadness for his friend…who just happened to be a gunfighter.
Harley put away the last of his tools. Then he picked up a bucket of grain and the lantern and walked toward the back door that led to the corral. He was done caring for the two horses he owned and now wanted to check the status of the new addition. It was a beautiful animal, an extravagance he shouldn’t have indulged in, one that Mary rolled her eyes at, but he hadn’t been able to resist.
He pushed open the door, cautiously stepped into the small paddock, and held up the lantern. In the far corner the golden animal raised its head to study the intruder with wide, intelligent eyes, the light from the lantern shining off its pale coat. With quiet murmurings of assurance, Harley walked forward slowly, careful to keep all his movements unhurried and deliberate. When he reached the golden horse he opened his palm to reveal a carrot. The animal looked at him cautiously for a moment before stretching its neck out to work his lips around the tasty treat. Then with a wary eye, the animal crunched the offering.
Harley reached out and slowly rubbed his fingers through the horse’s forelock, then took one step closer so that his fingers could rub along the animal’s neck and mane.
Finished with the carrot, the horse snuffled loudly, conveying its willingness to linger long enough to allow the man to touch him.
Harley continued to run his hand along the horse’s back, murmuring quietly the entire time. His eyes appraised the beautiful animal, a golden palomino with a beautiful pale mane and tail. A trader coming up from the south had found him about two weeks earlier, wild and lost, partially lame from an infected hoof. He’d been saddled and bridled, though both were in poor condition and the horse’s mouth was sore from the constant wearing on the bit. If there had been a saddlebag with identification of its owner, it had been lost in the horse’s wild roamings.
The trader had needed some work done at Harley’s before he continued on north. Harley had immediately noticed the horse as a fine looking specimen despite its recent neglect, and had learned the trader’s story. The trader mentioned he was going to ask around about selling the animal, as even though he’d like to have kept him, the horse was in no condition for the long trip the trader had planned and had already slowed him down considerably. When all had been said and discussed, the trader had left with his repairs completed and his two cart horses reshod; and Harley had acquired the palomino.
Harley gave the animal one last lingering rub, his hand coming to rest on the brand on the horse’s flank, the brand of a Circle L…a brand unknown around the Salinas Valley.
Harley dumped the grain into the feed trough, checked the water, closed and locked the back door to the smithy, went through the side gate of the small paddock and crossed a small area of yard to his house. On the porch he took off his dirty overalls, shook them out and hung them on a hook. Then quickly he washed up in a basin of water. It was a silly request of Mary’s, one she had made of him when they first got married and one he saw no reason to make an issue of, as she always did her part in making sure a large, satisfying meal was waiting for him when he came in.
He opened the door and was immediately met with a squeal of delight and a dark headed blur dashed at him, throwing its body against his leg, its small hands clasping the fabric of his thin under leggings.
Harley stooped and gathered the young boy in his arms, tickling the youngster with his beard. “I’m a big, hungry bear and I’m gonna eat a little boy!” Harley growled and the little boy squealed with renewed laughter.
“Oh, Harley,” Mary admonished and bit back a smile. “That boy’s never gonna learn proper manners when you carry on with him so.”
Harley laughed loudly. “There’s plenty of time for manners.”
Mary suppressed a grin and began to ladle out the soup into bowls.
Harley set the young boy on a bench, then pulled out his own chair and sat down, just as Mary put the bowls of soup on the table. Fresh bread was already waiting.
Once the meal had been finished, Harley took the young boy and held him on his lap while Mary gathered her knitting and sat in front of the fire.
Mary looked up from the baby blanket she was knitting.
“You remember what I said about Johnny last night?”
Mary laid her knitting down in her lap. “Yes, Isaac,” she answered, her thoughts going back to the memory of the dark-haired, blue-eyed gunfighter she once met briefly in Fresno before she and Isaac had been married. A strangely discerning gunfighter, with a way of looking at a female that seemed to make them melt to his will. She recalled with a certain amount of satisfaction, pretty and vain Sally, her curly, long blonde hair the envy of every young girl in the city, trying her best to interest the dark young man with her charms. But the gunfighter, though polite, left her pinning, love unrequited, after he had stopped for his short visit to see his friend, Harley.
And now he’d shown up to work in the area, and her husband was concerned about him. She’d heard about the gunfight that had taken place the day before and knew from Isaac that the gunfighter had been hurt worse than people suspected by a horse gone wild, but he hadn’t revealed anything else.
“Mary, are you listening?”
Mary blinked. “Yes, Isaac. I’m listening.”
“Do you remember how I asked you not to say anything to anyone about my knowing Johnny?”
Mary nodded. “And I haven’t.”
“Well, I did have someone stop by at the shop today; someone I didn’t recognize. And they were asking questions ‘bout Johnny. I just want you to be careful. I’d rather you not leave the house, at least for the next coupla days.”
“That’s going to be a little difficult,” Mary replied.
“Please,” Harley adjusted Wes on his lap. “If there’s something you need, let me know. And don’t let anyone in the house.”
“I never let anyone in the house,” Mary responded, a pout to her lips.
“I know, I know,” Harley quickly assured. “But Johnny was right. Wakeman’s getting desperate and if he ever suspected the close ties he and I share, well,” he paused and looked down, unable to have his wife see the foreboding in his eyes. “I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you and little Wes.”
“Oh, Isaac,” Mary murmured softly. “You’re such a good, loving man. We will be fine, and so will your friend. And when this difficulty is over with, I want you to bring him to our house where I can thank him properly.”
Harley glanced up with some surprise.
Mary smiled. “I’m not totally naïve, honey. If Johnny Madrid hadn’t been your friend, I know you wouldn’t be alive today—just as you once told me Wes saved your life.” Mary paused and glanced at their son happily playing with the buttons of his father’s shirt. “I know you prefer to keep a lot of those two years to yourself, that you’re somewhat ashamed of them, but they helped form you into who you are, the man I chose to marry and whom I love today.” Then she grinned a little wider. “And I also know Madrid knocked some sense into you one time when you briefly considered returning to that life, so I believe I owe him a huge debt; one that I would like a chance to try to repay.”
Harley chuckled. “Oh, Mary, you are a treasure.”
Mary picked up her knitting, her eyes twinkling. “And don’t you forget it.”
Scott stared up into the darkness. He could hear snoring from the three other men who shared the room with Murdoch and him. As was common in many way stations, the upstairs was divided into two large rooms, one for men and one for women. Another stage was being held over an extra day for repairs to a damaged wheel, so another set of travelers on their way north were all spending the night along with the Salinas-bound party.
Scott had been unable to sleep. Tomorrow night he would be just hours from Salinas, and the next day they were scheduled to reach their destination.
He was disgusted with himself for being so anxious. A day ago, he’d have been thrilled to just know that Johnny was alive and where he could locate him. But now that he knew where his brother was and was actually underway, he found himself horribly impatient and every scheduled stop had him counting the seconds they were wasting.
Murdoch, however, looked as composed as usual. They could have been on their way to settle the sale of a shipment of cattle for all the emotion he seemed to show. Scott found that this lack of either enthusiasm or nerves bothered him.
But at least Murdoch was going along. At least he cared enough to go after Johnny.
Grace looked up as Matthew entered the house, her arms wrist deep in dough.
“I’m running into town,” he announced as he grabbed his belt from where it hung near the door.
“I thought DarkCloud said for you to stay around here today. That he’d let you know if anything happened with Johnny.”
“I know,” Matthew replied quietly as he buckled on his belt.
Grace sighed, her mouth turned up in a small smile. “You can’t stay away.”
Matthew shook his head. “I have the chores done that needed to be, as I’ll probably get back after dark.”
“Why don’t you take Jamie with you?” Grace asked.
Matthew quickly shook his head. “I don’t think Jamie should see Johnny right now. I don’t think Johnny would want him to, either.”
Grace paused in her kneading. “Are you sure? Isn’t this maybe just what Jamie should see?”
Matthew regarded his sister sadly, sighed, turned and left.
DarkCloud opened the door. “Matthew, I told you to stay away for a day,” he said, stepping aside to allow the young man to enter. “There’s nothing more you can do here. You should be tending to your farm.”
Ignoring DarkCloud’s reprimand, Matthew entered. “How’s he doing?”
“Matthew,” DarkCloud’s chastisement accompanied a wearied shake of the head. “I told you I’d tell you if there was any change.”
The look Matthew turned on DarkCloud was acrid. “I know you said that, but I can’t stay away. Besides, if he doesn’t get better, I probably won’t have a farm anyway.” He crossed to the small bed and sat on the edge, his hand immediately reaching out to feel Johnny’s forehead. He looked up with some surprise. “I think he feels cooler.” Then his expression turned guarded. “Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.”
DarkCloud shook his head and came over to the bed. “No, I’ve been thinking the same thing. I’m not sure though. I’m waiting to see if he breaks a sweat. I just thought I noticed it in the last hour or so.”
“You’ve kept him medicated all day?” Matthew asked, standing up.
DarkCloud hesitated before nodding. “His back is so badly bruised, there’s been a lot of bleeding under the skin. With the extent of what I can see, he must have cracked ribs. I can’t risk his moving around. And that’s before I consider the infection and earlier wounds that have never been given the proper time to heal.”
“You gonna pull him off it tomorrow?” Matthew stepped over to the table where a pitcher of water sat and poured a drink.
“I don’t know.” DarkCloud turned away. “I don’t want to. I also think we need to tell the town what’s happened. We can’t be expecting him to handle any more than what he’s done already. He’s in no shape to push this with Wakeman any further. We’re going to have to rely on Tucson…and ourselves.”
Matthew nodded. “You’re right. We should call a meeting. It’s time we start planning how to finish this.”
DarkCloud sighed and glanced toward the bed. “He’s probably not going to like us doing this.”
Matthew smiled. “I got a feeling he don’t like much of what’s good for him.”
Wakeman opened the door; Swain walked in, the smile on his face spreading immediately to his boss.
“Good news, I take it,” Wakeman greeted.
Swain nodded. “Yes. Diligence and patience has paid off. We’ve got a connection to Madrid.”
Wakeman’s smile widened. “Then this is good news.”
“We’ve been able to put Harley, that blacksmith, with Madrid a number of years ago. They rode together down near the border.”
“Just what we were looking for.” Wakeman nodded with satisfaction.
Swain paused, letting his boss fully appreciate the news.
“Too bad I couldn’t have told Friezen and Wesley. I just sent them down this morning.” Wakeman continued thoughtfully, “But then, as the Judge says, sometimes it’s best if the opposition doesn’t know you’re holding all the aces.”
“When do you want us to move?” Swain asked.
Wakeman paused, thoughtfully considering his options. “Tomorrow morning, just before we leave for Soledad.”
As DarkCloud and Tucson walked down the stairs, Matthew, Rosti, Angelou, Calientes and Solero glanced up expectantly. Without formalities or greetings, DarkCloud approached the table and sat down. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked Matthew to bring you men here.”
“Has something to do with Madrid, doesn’t it?” Rosti asked.
“Why?” Angelou looked around the table.
DarkCloud leveled Angelou with a serious gaze. “Johnny was badly hurt—”
“When?” Angelou interrupted, disgruntled at appearing uninformed. “In Salinas?”
DarkCloud shot Matthew a quick look before proceeding. “Yes, but even before that.”
Angelou raised an eyebrow and looked around the table. “Well, we all know he’d been injured when Matthew found him.”
“Injured isn’t probably the right word for it,” DarkCloud responded grimly, then nodded at Matthew.
“He’d been shot clear through his right side. Jamie saw him then fall off a cliff, hitting his head pretty hard. It affected his memory—he couldn’t remember where he was, or the year. He seems to have lost all memory of the last couple of years—”
“And that’s not all,” cut in DarkCloud. “The wound he suffered was pretty serious. He was lucky the other guy was such a poor shot, or he’d be dead. He missed having a belly wound by a mere inch.”
Angelou’s expression grew skeptical. “You mean to tell me, when he was shooting at me that day, he was suffering from a debilitating gunshot wound and a loss of memory?”
Matthew and DarkCloud looked at each other before nodding.
“Damn! He’s good,” Rosti murmured under his breath.
Angelou fixed Rosti with a crippling scowl.
“Hey! Don’t go glaring at me!” Rosti argued. “I thought we were talking about Madrid’s broken ribs.”
“What broken ribs?!” Angelou demanded, his temper flaring.
“When we were up in Salinas, the Kid drew on Johnny—”
“What?” Calientes exclaimed.
“Why?” Solero asked.
Tucson intervened with a wave of his hand. “Wakeman musta hired him away, from what we can gather. He tried to get a name for himself by drawing on Johnny.”
“Johnny was shot?” Rosti asked.
“No,” Matthew answered. “It was as we said earlier; he was kicked by a horse. He took out the Kid, but Wakeman had a couple of his men up in the rooftops waiting to pick him off. Tucson ran out to help, but one of the shots went wild and hit a horse causing it to go out of control. It struck Johnny twice.”
“So, he does have broken ribs,” Solero ventured, his tone conveying his confusion.
DarkCloud shrugged. “It’s hard to say. They’re badly bruised, but the real problem is that he has an infection that he’d been fighting off from his earlier wound, and now it’s full-blown. The damage caused by the horse also tore open what healing had been done. He’s been unconscious since he came back.”
The men looked at each other in silence.
“The real issue here is that Johnny should have never been working in the first place,” DarkCloud continued. “He was in no shape to take on this job, and I knew it. Yet I looked at him as the answer to our prayers.”
“And I laid out our troubles to him, hoping he’d feel like he owed us something.” Matthew looked down, his face growing hot. “Owed us for saving his life.”
No one spoke a minute.
“He’s in pretty bad shape then?” Angelou asked somberly.
DarkCloud nodded. “I half expected he wouldn’t make it through the first twenty-four hours. There could have been internal damage that I wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about.” DarkCloud gestured helplessly. “Then the infection…he’s been in a lot of pain for quite awhile, but he kept pushing himself when he should have been taking it easy and healing.”
“Because he felt he owed us something,” Matthew added grimly.
DarkCloud wiped the sweat from Johnny’s forehead with a cool cloth then watched as Johnny moaned softly, his eyelids fluttering and tensing. The fever had finally broke just as night fell. Matthew had stuck around, unwilling to leave despite DarkCloud’s insistence that he get home before dark, as he’d wanted to see for himself if Johnny was indeed winning the battle against the fever.
So instead, Matthew had helped DarkCloud change Johnny’s bandages and then administer two separate does of medicine. He watched how DarkCloud would wait until Johnny seemed to be coming to, his incoherent moanings and trembling signaling his return to semi-consciousness. DarkCloud would take the opportunity to get some tea into him first. Then he would get him to take two mouthfuls of broth before he would administer the medicine.
And now DarkCloud sat beside the town’s gunfighter, wiping the sweat from his face and neck, wondering if the end hadn’t just been postponed.
Scott felt the stage slowing down. The final stop of the day. He opened his eyes in time to see the barren scenery being replaced by the brown, stucco siding of a forlorn building situated in the middle of nowhere, as way stations were generally placed.
Scott waited to leave until last. There was something depressing about getting out of the stage when he was so close. About another three hours, not really too far away, just through more rough, hilly country.
So close, yet a whole nighttime away.
Scott paused outside the stagecoach and glanced southwest.
You should have come by yourself. You could have done it in the dark. You would have gotten there yet this evening….
“I know you want to keep going,” Murdoch’s voice suddenly cut into his thoughts. “But the last leg of this journey can be mighty rough. You certainly don’t want to be going through this area in the dark, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the country.”
Scott raised an eyebrow and regarded his father with mild surprise.
“I’m afraid your disgust at having to stop was written all over your face.”
“Then I guess I’d better go wash up,” Scott replied, the hesitant grin on his face reminding Murdoch of a little boy whose big secret has been discovered. He then looked down at his feet. “It’s just that we’re so close.”
“Soon you’ll see Johnny and you’ll be able to chew him out for leaving and we’ll drag him back, even under duress if we have to,” Murdoch replied gruffly. “I didn’t make this trip for nothing.”
Scott looked up and smiled.
“Jamie!” Grace stood on the porch and called into the growing twilight. “Jamie!”
Hearing no reply, Grace walked around the small ranch house, still calling.
“Where is that child?” she muttered to herself, then paused and put her hands on her hips. “You don’t suppose Matthew went and took him after all?” She stomped her foot and headed for the outhouse. After seeing that it was indeed unoccupied, she headed toward the barn. “It would be just like him,” she muttered louder. “Men!” She pushed open the door to the barn and called out again, but once more there was no reply. Grumbling even more loudly, she started out the back of the barn toward the corrals. “But that doesn’t make sense. I’m sure I heard Digger and Jamie earlier after Matthew had left,” she continued talking to herself.
Grace stopped at the back of the barn and looked around, straining her eyes in the grayness of the approaching dusk.
“Where is he?” she asked, a note of panic beginning to surface. Her heart starting to thump uncomfortably, she turned and strode back into the barn. It was then that she saw a figure hanging stiffly from the rafters, off to the side of the door she’d first entered, now catching some of the light spilling from the house through the open door.
The figure’s eyes were wide open in alarm, swollen tongue hanging grotesquely to the side of its mouth. Not the slightest movement could be seen; not a twitch of paw or a ripple of fur.
Grace’s mouth opened to scream, but no sound came out. She simply stared in shocked silence. Where was Jamie?
Matthew had barely reached the fence line of their small farm when he heard Grace screaming his name. Shocked, he reined up, then saw his sister’s figure on the porch. Screaming Matthew’s name once more, she jumped off the porch and started running down the dark path that led between the two fields.
In panic, Matthew slapped his horse and galloped toward her.
Grace had barely gone a few yards from the house before Matthew yanked his horse to a stop in front of her, clearing the saddle before the dust had settled.
“Grace!” he yelled, grabbing her in his arms. “What is it?! What’s wrong?!”
“Jamie! Jamie! It’s Jamie!” Grace sobbed hysterically. “Digger—in the barn!” She pointed, collapsing against him.
Abruptly, Matthew shot a panicked look toward the building, then pushing Grace gently away, he ran to the barn.
A horrendous banging erupted through DarkCloud’s sleep, startling him to his feet, his eyes wide in alarm. “What the hell—!”
“DarkCloud!” Matthew’s voice screamed from the other side of the door and the banging started again. Shocked at Matthew’s agitated voice, DarkCloud quickly went to the door and yanked it open. Matthew stood outside, his face white with anxiety, tears in his eyes. “They’ve got Jamie,” his voice cracked with the effort to keep some semblance of control. “They’ve got Jamie,” he repeated, ending in a strangled sob as he held out a crumbled note.
DarkCloud grabbed the paper and yanked Matthew into the room where he pushed him into a chair.
While Matthew hid his face in his hands in an attempt to hide his tears, DarkCloud quickly read the note out loud. “Tell Madrid I expect to meet him tomorrow at five o’clock on the street that runs west out of town. And tell him to bring a certain paper that belongs to me. If you and he want Jamie alive, you’ll see that Madrid comes alone.”
DarkCloud glanced at Johnny’s inert body, then at Matthew’s hunched form, rocking gently in the chair. “Tell me what happened?” he commanded.
Matthew looked up at DarkCloud. “They must have taken him after I left to come here. Grace never heard a thing. She had no idea they’d taken him ‘til she went looking for him when it got dark. She found Digger hung in the barn. When I cut him down, I found this note attached.”
DarkCloud glanced absently at the note again before looking at Johnny and shaking his head. “You know he won’t be able to face Wakeman and his men—not by five.”
Matthew glanced up dismally. “I guess I know that, but I—,” he paused, then bowed his head, “but I had hoped…something…maybe he could tell us what to do. I don’t want them to kill Jamie.” He looked back up. “He’s just a kid. It’s not fair.” There was a long pause before Matthew added quietly, “Maybe he could just tell us what to do.”
“Matthew,” DarkCloud responded dismally. “Johnny’s been off the sleeping draught since early this morning.”
“He—,” Matthew’s head jerked back in surprise. “You haven’t given him any of that medicine?”
“Yet, you said—”
DarkCloud shook his head sadly. “I didn’t want you to get your hopes up.”
Matthew regarded Johnny silently a moment before turning to look at DarkCloud, his expression one of despair. “What are we gonna do?”
DarkCloud answered evenly as he fought to hold his gaze steady. “We’ll do what we need to do. You go back to Grace. I’ll begin searching Johnny’s room for that paper Wakeman wants.”
“How ‘bout Tucson?”
DarkCloud quickly shook his head. “Let him sleep the rest of the night uninterrupted. I have a feeling he may have a big day ahead of him tomorrow.”
On a hill looking down on a valley…a ranch lays sprawled before him…warming in the early morning sunshine…
But instead of enjoying the scenery, his mind’s on something else…
Moving…Drawing…shots fired…Day Pardee…
The other gunfighter falls...twisting and clutching at his shoulder as Johnny launches himself onto a horse.
The self-control that he possessed when he faced any draw was suddenly replaced with only one thought…The need to reach…the ranch….the ranch…
An unfamiliar panic clutched at his chest…he felt like a small child desperately trying to reach the safety of…of…home?…?…
The horse pounding…shots fired…noise of man and animal…a fence in his way…the horse soars through the air effortlessly…home?…
But another fence…the animal gathers its strength and launches again…they land on the other side, so close to…home?…
A force blasts him from his saddle…the familiar pain of bullet ripping into flesh…he sees the ground reaching up toward him…silence and blackness descending before his brain has a chance to absorb the shock that he isn’t going to make it…
DarkCloud climbed the steps, his mouth set in troubled concentration. His eyes appeared to be focused on the tray of food he held in his hands, but in reality he hadn’t even noticed that some of his coffee had splashed over the rim of the cup and now ran in tiny rivulets along the bottom of the tray. As he reached the top of the stairs, a crash sounded from Johnny’s room. With no concern for the food on the tray, DarkCloud sprinted down the hall and threw open the door.
Johnny lay, sprawled face down on the floor, gasping for breath, his left hand grasping along the floor as if reaching for something.
DarkCloud unceremoniously dumped the tray onto the table and dropped to the floor beside his friend. Clasping the roving hand in a tight reassurance, he put his other hand on Johnny’s upper back, the heat radiating from the gunfighter’s body causing his palm to sweat. In a low, tense voice he whispered, “Johnny.”
Johnny gave a shudder followed by an aborted gasp. “Jamie…Ranch…Home…”
“Shhh.” DarkCloud tightened his grip. “Johnny, it’s okay. I’m here.”
“No.” Johnny shook his head as he shakily hauled himself to his knees. “No.”
“What are you doing?” DarkCloud demanded, shifting back onto his own heels while maintaining a hand on Johnny’s back.
“Gettin’ up,” Johnny slurred.
“Great job. You got right up and flat onto the floor,” DarkCloud retorted angrily. “I’m getting you back in bed.”
“No.” Closing his eyes, Johnny stubbornly shook his head as he weakly sat back, pulling his arms in against his body. “I need to get up.”
“The hell you do.” DarkCloud gripped Johnny’s upper arms tightly, lending much needed support as he helped Johnny to his feet.
“DarkCloud,” Johnny mumbled, his breath tight and raspy as he fought to gain control of his senses. “Jamie. Gotta help Jamie…”
Johnny collapsed heavily against DarkCloud’s chest, almost dragging him back to the floor.
Closing his eyes, DarkCloud leaned his head against Johnny’s with a sigh. A barely audible noise caused him to glance toward the door.
Tucson stood, his expression serious. “What’s happening?”
Matthew rode slowly up the lane to the small farmhouse. The gray morning was heavy with a fog that had suddenly settled on the valley. He glanced up at the heavy sky and wondered if God had changed the weather just to match the heaviness in his heart.
As he reined his horse in by the corral, the door to the house opened sending a shaft of warmth streaming through the chilly air. His eyes automatically followed the light to its source and saw Grace standing in the doorway, her eyes visibly red even from this distance.
She closed the door and went out to the corral as he methodically unsaddled his horse.
“What are we going to do?” she asked, her voice a thin echo in the fog.
Matthew sadly shook his head. “We’ll do what we can. DarkCloud’s gonna search Johnny’s room for the paper and he’s gonna tell Tucson and the men in town what’s happened. Maybe we can still reason with Wakeman.”
“Reason with him?” Grace exclaimed. “How can you reason with someone who kidnaps a nine year old boy?”
Matthew shrugged again dismally.
“How about Johnny?” Grace suddenly asked.
Matthew shook his head. “DarkCloud said he hasn’t come to since he’s been back, which I knew. But I thought DarkCloud had been keeping him on that sleeping drought.”
“Nope.” Matthew turned and looked at Grace, his eyes red with his own tears. “He’s been off it since yesterday…to no effect.”
Grace bit her lip in an attempt to hold more tears at bay.
“There’ll be no Johnny Madrid to count on this time,” Matthew murmured, then glanced at the house. “Make a quick breakfast if you could while I see to the animals. After Chester here’s had a chance to rest up, I’m gonna hitch up the wagon. I think we both need to be in town.”
Grace nodded silently and headed back toward the house, a fresh line of tears trailing down her cheeks.
Jamie shivered in the early morning fog. Silently he watched the two men sitting in front of the small fire, each sipping a cup of coffee.
“Wanna cuppa coffee?” One of the men grinned rudely. “Or do you just want your momma?”
“My mom is dead,” Jamie answered defiantly, sticking his chin out bravely.
“Oh, my!” The man chuckled. “So’s mine.”
The other man joined in the laughter as he leaned back against the base of a tree.
Jamie sat up straighter. “Johnny’ll take care of you. He’s my friend.”
The man’s smile curled sarcastically. “That’s just what we’re counting on.”
stood, hands on hips, his face expressionless. “So, that’s where we’re sittin’
DarkCloud nodded. “I need you to watch over him,” he nodded in Johnny’s direction, “while I go talk to Rosti. I’ll see if he can’t gather some of the men for a meeting so we can figure out our options.”
Tucson shook his head. “Damn! This is gonna make it difficult with them holding Jamie. Changes everything. And now with Madrid down, they’ve got us over a barrel.”
DarkCloud nodded. “We still have that paper Wakeman wants. That, and the fact that Wakeman doesn’t know the shape Johnny is in, are our aces.”
“Do you have any idea where that paper is?” Tucson asked.
DarkCloud shook his head. “After I talk to Rosti I’m going to start tearing this room apart.”
Scott stood beside the stage absently tapping his foot as the elderly lady paused at the doorway of the wayside inn and complemented the owner’s wife on the fine breakfast meal she had served.
Scott was convinced she was delaying the trip on purpose.
“Don’t glare,” Murdoch admonished.
“I wasn’t,” Scott shot his father a surprised and reproachful look.
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “Well, if the back of Mrs. Hughes’ hat starts on fire, my point will be proven,” he whispered, then quickly left Scott to walk toward the small group yet on the porch.
Murdoch gave a small nod and held out his arm. “Mrs. Hughes. May I be of assistance?”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Lancer.” The elderly lady beamed at him, her earlier conversation suddenly forgotten.
Scott watched with amusement as his father guided the matron toward the stage. Then giving a proper bow as they approached, he stepped aside to allow his father to lend the lady a hand into the stage.
“You owe me one,” Murdoch whispered as he climbed in after the matron.
“And I’m sure you won’t let me forget it,” Scott whispered back as he joined his father on the lumpy bench. “And thanks.”
Murdoch smiled to himself.
Grey fog…smoke…swirling mist enveloping him…red flames surround him…
I need help…I need out…
He looks up and sees Jamie, screaming and reaching toward him…from the other side of the flames. He lifts his hand toward the wall of fire, preparing for the sensation of burned flesh…but instead it’s bitter cold…
Jamie sees him…calls his name…reaches again…
He tries once more…but the cold is so intense…it cuts to his heart…it cuts to his head…it numbs his hand…
I can’t do this anymore…not by myself…I should feel the heat…I can handle heat…I can’t handle the cold …I can’t do this alone…Everything’s gone so wrong…
DarkCloud slammed his hand on the table and glared around the room. Where was it? Where would Johnny hide a piece of paper? He’d looked everywhere he could think of.
As his eyes panned the room once more, he noticed with alarm that Johnny had rolled to his back and his left arm was reaching out, his breathing irregular and rapid.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud said as he crossed to the bed and sat down, grasping Johnny’s hand firmly in his own. “Johnny, I’m here.”
“Scott,” Johnny murmured, his voice slurred and sluggish.
“Johnny, it’s DarkCloud. Can you hear me?”
“Cisco?” Johnny asked, his voice clearer and stronger.
DarkCloud watched as Johnny gave a deep shudder, then opened his eyes. “DarkCloud,” he whispered.
“Johnny.” DarkCloud managed to smile, though he carefully avoided direct eye contact.
“Where?” Johnny looked past DarkCloud’s face to focus behind him. “Soledad?”
Johnny closed his eyes and tried to push away the fog filling his brain. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He swallowed tightly, causing a small groan to escape. “Happened?”
“Do you remember Salinas? The horse that kicked you?”
Johnny closed his eyes, then slowly nodded. When he opened them, his look was filled with regret. “Kid.” His gaze drifted toward the wall. “I killed him.”
“I know,” DarkCloud replied softly. “But he drew on you.”
Johnny didn’t reply.
“You need something to eat.” DarkCloud gave Johnny’s shoulder a small squeeze in an attempt to change the subject.
Johnny looked back at DarkCloud. “How long’s it been?” he mumbled thickly.
“You collapsed on the way back from Salinas. Which, by the way, is probably the stupidest thing you’ve done. What in blazes were you thinking, attempting a trip like that in your condition?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed slightly. “No choice.”
DarkCloud bit back a retort. “That was three days ago.”
“Three?” Johnny asked. “Wakeman?” As he contracted his muscles and shifted his left arm on the bed to sit up, he gasped.
“What’s wrong?” DarkCloud demanded.
“Hard t’breathe,” Johnny replied weakly, pain beginning to seep into his voice.
“Let’s get you onto your side.” DarkCloud shifted around and supported Johnny as he rolled to his side.
His breath catching in his throat, Johnny hissed softly, “Damn.”
“You’re fighting off a nasty infection,” DarkCloud admonished. “And a number of bruised and cracked ribs.”
Johnny closed his eyes. “Gonna chew me out now, s’pose.”
“Well, you have made quite a mess of my handiwork,” DarkCloud replied. “But, no.”
Johnny studied DarkCloud out of the corner of his eyes, his look becoming suspicious. “What’s happened?”
“First we’re going to get some solid food into you,” DarkCloud said as he stood up. “Then we’ll talk.”
Johnny’s suspicion only seemed to increase, however, and he pushed himself up to his elbow, groaning as his whole body began to shake in protest.
“You’re no match for me this time, Madrid,” DarkCloud snapped as he moved to stand at the foot of the bed where he could deliver, with full effect, the glare he aimed at his patient. “You’ve been days without solid food. Your earlier bullet wound, besides being all torn up again, is infected. You’ve been kicked by a horse which gave you some nasty bruises and cracked ribs that you need to avoid moving…” DarkCloud paused, gathering his resolve to continue, “And then there’s the problem with the laudanum.”
Johnny quickly strove to cover his surprise at the sudden outburst, but in his pain and weakness, it took longer than usual to slide his mask into place.
“Though I’ve continued to give you the laudanum in order to keep from adding to your problems, you give me any trouble and I will withhold it,” DarkCloud continued firmly. “And if you think you have got some big secret you still need to protect, don’t bother. I’ve told the entire town and they all know about your injury, so there’s no need to be pigheaded and push yourself. Now, we’re going to start with some food.”
Johnny blinked, still slightly dazed at DarkCloud’s belligerence. “I’m not hungry,” he retorted, bristling under the tirade.
DarkCloud’s eyes narrowed. “Too damn bad. You’ll eat anyway.” Then with a final glare, DarkCloud turned on his heel and left.
Johnny sucked in his breath and closed his eyes, shivering as a sheen of sweat rapidly covered his body. He felt dizzy, sick.
He shook his head. Something wasn’t right…he felt sure of it. In his confused state and with DarkCloud’s unexpected eruption, he just couldn’t put his finger on it. If he could just clear his mind of the fog and the constant burning pain that made it difficult to draw breath, he felt sure he’d be able to remember what it was. There was something DarkCloud wasn’t telling him. He’d been able to see it in the doctor’s eyes.
Matthew glanced across at Grace seated in the wagon next to him, her hands clenched tightly into two small fists. Her cheeks were dry, but her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy.
“Do you think DarkCloud will find the paper and,” her voice cracked, “…and that Tucson will be able to take on Wakeman?”
Matthew raised an eyebrow. “Hopefully we’ll be able to talk to Wakeman—settle this without Tucson.”
Grace didn’t answer.
Scott angled his head in order to get a better view of the approaching scenery. They were just leaving the last of the rugged, wooded hill area and the growing city of Salinas loomed on the horizon to the southwest, the gateway to the Salinas Valley—a long strip of narrow land cradled on each side by the Santa Lucia Coastal Ranges to the west and the Diablos to the east.
A barely visible gap in the Coastals led toward the Monterey Bay, but it was the approaching city of Salinas that held Scott’s attention. Here is where the fresh trail of Johnny Lancer—or Johnny Madrid—could be found. And, Scott hoped, some questions could be answered.
Scott glanced at his father out of the corner of his eye. Murdoch sat, quietly reserved, shoulder pressed against the side of the coach, head tilted forward, hands folded in his lap, eyes mere relaxed slits. He wondered what was going through his father’s mind. Was he as anxious as his son? Scott doubted it.
Inwardly Scott sighed. He should never have made such a fuss about Murdoch coming along. What had he been thinking? If Johnny decided to be mule-headed, difficult, or had truly gone back to being Johnny Madrid, things were going to blow up to the likes of which the valley had never seen before. It was going to get downright ugly.
Scott glanced around at the other travelers. All seemed asleep. No one else cared that they were less than an hour away from Salinas. Though Scott had to admit to himself, they seemed hardly likely to get too excited as the one man was switching over to a northbound coach and the elderly lady was heading on to Monterey to see a sister.
Scott’s gaze fell to his lap where his fists were clenched into white-knuckled balls. Mentally he forced his hands to relax while he took a deep breath and calmed his racing heart.
There was a heck of a lot more of Johnny Madrid in him than anyone knew. He’d just learned how to control it at an early age.
“Ah, Brother.” The quiet words escaped Scott’s thoughts without him even realizing he’d said anything.
But Murdoch heard.
He, too, was corralling his anxiety and fears. But he had even more years of practice than any of them. Many, many more years. Plenty of time to learn how to control his younger passions and fire, his easily bruised ego and sense of pride, which had many times gotten him or someone he loved into trouble. Being spiritually and mentally torn up for a man as openly passionate as he had first been when he came to this country had done a lot of damage. He’d stopped trusting, and except to a chosen few, he’d become cold and unyielding, stern and demanding. He’d learned to emotionally survive the best way he could. Until, eventually, his mask had become more comfortable to wear than his original face. There was more of Johnny Madrid in him than he’d ever admit—even to himself.
And now, though a battle of anxiety, fear and dread was firecracking throughout his emotions, his expression and body language gave no hint. He had no idea his carefully orchestrated reserve was ripping his older son apart right next to him.
Harley gave Mary a kiss then gave the small boy curled up in his mom’s arms a quick kiss on the back of the head. “Remember, no visitors,” he said, his expression serious.
Mary smiled. “I remember. Now, you better go over and get the shop opened, or neither of us will get a thing done today.”
Harley smiled back, gave her an extra kiss and walked out the door. Mary watched him cross the small expanse of yard between their home and the shop, watched him open the small back paddock and give the beautiful palomino a soft rub on its nose, then cross to the back of the shop and unlock the large doors.
She gave the young boy a hug, then turned and shut the door behind her. Time to get the bread for supper started.
Harley opened up his shop as usual. As he was tying on his work apron, he heard a noise in the back paddock. He walked to the large, open doors and looked out, yet only the palomino was visible, along with the thick morning fog.
Harley took another step out the door and looked around, but nothing seemed out of place.
As he was turning to walk back into the shop, he suddenly noticed the palomino’s ears point forward and its head jerk up. But it was too late for him to react to the information, as Harley never saw the intruder who lowered a blow with the butt of a gun to the back of his head. He fell to the ground soundlessly.
“Take him into the back room and tie him up. And don’t forget to close the shop back up. Don’t want anyone walking in and finding him until it’s too late.”
Johnny jerked awake at the touch to his shoulder. The movement caused his muscles to contract, which sent him gasping as the pain from his injured side and ribs flooded his brain.
“I’m sorry,” DarkCloud apologized. He straightened up and regarded the bent dark head, the heavily bandaged back. “I didn’t realize you’d fallen asleep. But I brought you something to eat.”
The smell of the food immediately assailed Johnny’s senses, sending his stomach into an instant roll. Closing his eyes, Johnny gave an imperceptible shake of his head.
“You need to eat something, Johnny. You’ve been living on nothing but a little broth, tea,” he paused, “and laudanum for the last couple of days.” DarkCloud waited for some response, but Johnny didn’t move. “You feel sick because you haven’t had anything proper to eat in a long time. Now try some of this, will you?”
With a soft, bitter sigh, Johnny opened his eyes and turned his head to get a look at DarkCloud’s face.
“Here, let me help you sit up.” DarkCloud put the tray on the side table, then leaned down to put one hand on Johnny’s upper back while the other slid under his arm. Slowly he helped Johnny to a partial reclining position. “How’re you doing? How’s your breathing now?”
Johnny gave DarkCloud a pained expression. “If I turn blue, you’ll know why.”
“Enough of that, Madrid,” DarkCloud snapped. “I’m asking a valid question.”
Johnny’s expression turned sour. “More difficult—to breathe— on my back,” he replied tersely.
“Hard to eat on your side, though,” DarkCloud said as he fetched the tray.
“Said I didn’t want anything.”
“But you’ll eat,” DarkCloud firmly stated as he sat on the bed, careful not to jar it. He picked up a fork and put a small helping of scrambled eggs on it. “Now, I realize it’s a bit humiliating having someone feed you, but you need to get up your strength. And I promise I haven’t spilled on any of my patients…recently anyway…” DarkCloud’s voice trailed off as he noticed a strange expression come over Johnny’s face, his eyes becoming large and dark, seemingly focused on a point beyond the outstretched fork. “Johnny?”
“What’s wrong?” DarkCloud asked, concerned.
Johnny gave a small shake of his head, then suddenly glared at the fork. “I can feed myself.”
DarkCloud raised a doubtful eyebrow in response.
Johnny reached out with his right hand, tensing as the pain in his side flared. He took the fork from DarkCloud, but his hand began shaking so badly that most of the eggs immediately landed on the bedding.
“Damn!” he swore as he closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, dropping his hand to his lap.
“No!” Johnny snapped angrily, then hissed through his teeth as the sharp retort bit into his wound. He glared down at his hands, the fork still clenched in his right, the left lying flat on the top of the thin covers. Both were shaking uncontrollably.
Slowly Johnny looked up at DarkCloud, his eyes suddenly becoming hard.
“I know what you’re thinking,” DarkCloud responded, his tone harsh. “Eat first, then I’ll give you some—laudanum, enough to help with the shaking in any case.”
Johnny’s expression didn’t change. “Give me the laudanum, then I’ll be able to eat.”
DarkCloud drew his hands onto his lap. “You’re eating first.”
Johnny’s expression remained dark, perspiration beginning to show on his face. “I’ll eat if you tell me what’s really going on. ‘Cuz there’s something you’re not telling me.”
The accusation hit DarkCloud so unexpectedly that he knew his expression had given him away. He tried to cover it, but knew he’d lost not only this skirmish, but the battle. Abruptly he stood and walked toward the table by the window where his black medical bag sat. Reaching in, he produced the dark bottle of laudanum and a spoon. When he turned around, Johnny’s expression had taken on a suspicious look.
“Even laudanum won’t buy you time,” Johnny spoke quietly.
DarkCloud stood rigid, spoon in one hand, laudanum in the other, his eyes held firmly under Johnny’s tight glare. Mentally he chided himself—Madrid was the one lying injured in bed, yet somehow he’d managed to take the upper hand once again.
The tension in the room splintered apart as Tucson unexpectedly walked in. “You find that paper—?” He halted in mid-sentence as he took in the two polarized occupants of the room. “Johnny,” he faltered, then glanced quickly at DarkCloud, noticing immediately the laudanum.
DarkCloud looked down at the bottle in his hand, then nodded toward the tray of food. “I’m trying to get some food—”
“What paper?” Johnny interrupted, turning his heated glare on Tucson.
“The—” Tucson looked at DarkCloud for direction, but DarkCloud shook his head, his eyes narrowing in disappointment.
Johnny took a deep breath, then slowly, using his left hand, he began to slide toward the edge of the bed, his right hugging up close to his body.
“What do you think you’re doing?” DarkCloud demanded, striding across the room to stand defiantly in front of his patient.
“I’m gonna,” Johnny closed his eyes, his voice catching, “find someone who can tell me,” he paused again, clenching his jaw, “what the hell’s going on.”
“You can’t be moving around, Johnny!” DarkCloud stated fiercely as he put a restraining hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“Listen to the doc, here,” Tucson stepped up alongside DarkCloud. “You ain’t gonna do Jamie no—”
“Jamie?” Johnny’s head jerked up, his eyes flashing angrily, then with a slight moan he bent forward, tightening his arm in against his side. Head bent, he hissed through clenched teeth, pausing as he caught his breath between words. “So help me, DarkCloud, you tell me what the hell is going on!” He lifted his head to glare with unmasked fury.
Tucson groaned and shot an apologetic glance at DarkCloud. “I thought he just didn’t know about the paper.”
DarkCloud sighed, then with a shake of his head, he signaled for Tucson to leave the room.
Reluctantly Tucson turned and left, closing the door quietly behind him.
“If you get back into bed and have something to eat, I’ll give you a dose of laudanum and tell you what happened.”
Johnny’s blue eyes iced over until they looked pitch black with fury. “I ain’t bargaining with you DarkCloud. Give me the God-damned laudanum and spill the details!”
Johnny’s look and words stung DarkCloud with such ferocity that he took a step back. Reluctantly, and under Johnny’s cold glare, he poured a dose of the laudanum into the spoon, then held it out. Without taking his eyes off DarkCloud, Johnny accepted the medicine.
Recorking the bottle, DarkCloud sighed heavily, then turned and carried the items back to the table where he set them down. When he turned around, he noticed Johnny hadn’t moved, his glare still hard and unyielding, though he noticed the gunfighter’s breathing had become more strained and rapid, his face flushed with perspiration at the exertion the confrontation was costing him.
“Jamie was kidnapped last night by Wakeman. He sent a note. He wants that paper of his brand back and—” DarkCloud stopped.
“And,” Johnny prompted, his eyes still unwavering, though DarkCloud could see the tightly controlled position he held was causing him enormous pain.
DarkCloud dropped his gaze before answering. “He expects to see you at five o’clock this evening.”
There was silence.
When DarkCloud looked back up, he saw that Johnny had his head tilted back to stare at the ceiling, the earlier intensity and anger now replaced with leaden disbelief.
“Because of me,” he heard Johnny whisper.
Mary rode silently in the middle of the group of six men. No one rode with her. She even held the reins to her own horse.
But there was no fear on their part of her escaping. They held her son.
She dipped her head lower in an attempt to keep the sun off her face. Grabbing a bonnet had never entered her mind—or theirs—as she was being dragged from the house. And now that the morning fog had lifted, she found herself wishing she’d brought along some sort of bonnet…a silly, irrational feeling, yet one that helped to give her something else to think about besides murdering the men who held her and her son captive.
Though her outward disposition seemed one of defeat, her eyes glared with an intensity of hatred that would have chilled Wakeman to the bone if he’d bothered to turn around and look. He had awoken the fury of a mother bear.
Grace and Matthew quietly entered Rosti’s. As soon as they walked in, Rosti came over, his expression one of concern.
“Matthew, Grace, I’m so sorry.” He put a hand on Matthew’s arm. “I just heard from DarkCloud. I’m getting a group of men together to decide what to do.”
Matthew nodded his thanks, but didn’t smile.
Grace kept her eyes downcast, all energy seemingly drained from her.
Catching Matthew’s worried look, Rosti motioned toward a table then turned back toward the bar.
Matthew took a hold of Grace’s arm and guided her into a seat, only looking up when Rosti reappeared, two glasses in his hands. Rosti set one in front of Grace then handed the other to Matthew. Matthew accepted his with a nod of thanks, but Grace merely stared blankly at hers.
Matthew put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze, but Grace gave no notice of the action.
Rosti stood unobtrusively to the side until Matthew glanced back up. Then, with a slight jerk of his head, he motioned for Matthew to follow him toward the bar.
Matthew nodded his understanding, bent down and whispered in Grace’s ear before giving her shoulder another squeeze. Then with a sorrowful expression, he straightened up and followed Rosti.
“She’s kinda in shock,” Matthew explained as he ran a hand through his dark hair, trailing it to rub tiredly across his face. “I guess we both are.”
Rosti nodded then leaned closer. “I thought you’d like to know. DarkCloud just came down. He’s in the back getting some soup for Madrid.”
Matthew’s head jerked up in surprise. “He’s awake?”
Rosti nodded. “DarkCloud came down for scrambled eggs and a sausage earlier, but I guess it didn’t go over too well.”
Matthew glanced at the stairs then turned back again as the door to the kitchen opened.
“DarkCloud.” Matthew quickly made his way toward the doctor.
DarkCloud glanced up with mild surprise. “Matthew? When—?”
“Just got here,” Matthew replied then nodded toward the table where Grace sat, still unmoving.
DarkCloud’s eyes followed Matthew’s nod. Grace’s grim, defeated posture echoed his own emotions so closely he was forced to look away or betray his own feelings of impending tragedy.
“How’s he doing? Can he meet Wakeman?”
DarkCloud shook his head. “He’s in no shape to face a ladies’ sewing bee much less Wakeman’s hired guns.”
Matthew looked down, obviously disappointed. “Does he know? Did you get the paper?”
DarkCloud pursed his lips before answering. “He knows.” He then sighed and glanced down at the soup he held in his hands. “I haven’t managed to get the paper, but right now I’m concentrating on getting some food into him. He’s very weak and in a lot of pain.”
Matthew nodded grimly, then glanced at Grace before saying, “I’ll be up in a minute. I wanna see to Grace first.”
“Good idea,” DarkCloud replied with a tired smile.
Johnny lay on his side, face toward the wall, eyes starring unseeingly at a crack, his thoughts heavy with the information DarkCloud had related.
What was he going to do now? Everything had become such a mess.
He closed his eyes, but the vision of Jamie laughingly beating him at cards appeared before him, causing him to open them to stare darkly at the wall. Once again the curse of death and destruction was going to foul the best thing he’d found in so long. Even when he tried to give back some semblance of pride to the name of Johnny Madrid, it was all going to backfire. He couldn’t even plan his exit correctly.
Clenching his jaw, he bit back bitter tears of remorse, his expression taking on a hard, calculating edge.
Jamie would be counting on him. And if he concentrated hard enough, if he numbed the rest of his thoughts and feelings, perhaps he could pull it off—perhaps he could go on a few hours more. That’s all he really needed. Just to make it to five o’clock. After that—well, what did it matter?
But to do that, he was going to need some help; he was going to need the laudanum.
Closing his eyes, he methodically and systematically relaxed his body. Then he took a long, deep breath, forcing it past the comfort area, past the wall of pain that sprang up each time he tried to breathe.
See. It hurts, but it ain’t gonna kill you…not this anyway…you’ll pick your time…your place…your show…but it won’t damn well be lying in a bed waiting for Wakeman to pick you off…
Then, slowly, he gathered his shaky and weak muscles and pushed himself a few inches off the bed. Next he rolled to his front where he could gather his legs under him and use his left arm for support as he kept his right clenched tightly against his side. Each action carefully planned, he slid his feet off the bed as he worked his left arm up the bedpost where he then paused, sweat beading down his back and chest.
The room began to fade, stars sprinkled the outside edges of his vision, and he felt his balance begin to give way. Keeping a firm grip on the bedpost, he lay his forehead on his arm and tried to regulate his ragged breathing.
Long seconds seemed to pass before the sudden rush of heat left his body to be replaced by a sickening cold sweat. But the stars and dizziness were gone. Now he just wanted to throw up. Unable to afford to let go, he gingerly raised his right arm from its protective position and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He had no doubt that he looked as shitty as he felt. Mindful not to move too quickly, Johnny turned cautiously to face the table near the window and the bottle of laudanum that sat there.
He knew he could still get the job done.
Without warning the door opened and DarkCloud stepped in, his face registering complete shock, then anger at the sight of Johnny standing hunched beside the bed.
“What the God-damned hell do you think you’re doing, Madrid?” he demanded, all semblance of earlier restraint vanished.
“Doing my job,” Johnny answered simply.
“Are you crazy?” DarkCloud cried.
“Get the hell back in bed!”
“I can’t,” Johnny replied tightly as he paused to catch his breath. “I’ve got a five o’clock appointment to keep.”
Jaw firm, DarkCloud set the tray down on the dresser near the door and faced his patient. “No you’re not.”
“If I don’t, who will?” Johnny asked.
Johnny snorted and weakly shook his head.
“Do you honestly think you can take Wakeman on in your condition?” DarkCloud argued. “Hell, you can’t even let go of the bedpost!”
“I could if you’d just give me that damn bottle of laudanum.” Though Johnny spoke softly, his voice was callous.
“Well, I’m not going to give it to you!” DarkCloud countered heatedly, then walked across the room to place himself firmly in front of the table near the window, arms crossed.
“So, you’re gonna force me to meet Wakeman’s guns without it?” Johnny asked, his face showing the signs of the battle of pain he was waging on another front.
“You’re not facing Wakeman or his guns,” DarkCloud stated firmly.
“The hell I’m not. It’s the job I was hired to do.”
“Then, you’re fired!”
“Doesn’t work that way,” Johnny replied then caught his breath. He closed his eyes a second before adding, “I always finish a job.”
“You’re a fool! You’re just gonna get you and Jamie killed.”
“Jamie will not die.”
DarkCloud paused, his eyes narrowing. “And what about you?”
Matthew walked over to the table and touched Grace’s shoulder. Receiving no indication she even knew he’d touched her, he pulled a chair up closer and sat down.
“Grace, I’m gonna go upstairs a few minutes, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Grace slowly turned her head, her eyes strangely vacant.
“Johnny?” she murmured.
Matthew hesitated. “Yes.”
“He’s awake?” she asked, her eyes taking on a hopeful spark.
Matthew nodded slowly. “Yes, but he’s in pretty back shape. I’m gonna go up and help DarkCloud for a few minutes. We’ll get that paper Wakeman wants and—”
“I’m going with you,” Grace suddenly stated.
Matthew bit his lip. “I—I don’t know if you should. He’s—he doesn’t look well and maybe—”
“I need to see him. I need to talk to him,” Grace interrupted and stood up.
Matthew seemed to deliberate, then slowly stood. “Let me go in first, okay?”
Reluctantly, Matthew turned and led the way up the stairs.
They had almost reached the top landing when DarkCloud’s raised voice could be overheard, its exasperation and fury carrying through the partially open door into the hallway. Matthew glanced quickly at Grace, then took the last two steps to the top where he hesitated as DarkCloud’s anger continued to reverberate.
“Hell, you can’t even let go of the bedpost!”
“I could,” Johnny’s quiet voice answered, “if you’d just give me that damn bottle of laudanum.”
Matthew glanced quickly at Grace as the tone of DarkCloud’s irritation increased.
“You’re not facing Wakeman or his guns!” they heard DarkCloud snap back.
“The hell I’m not. It’s the job I was hired to do.”
Matthew turned to Grace. “I need to go in there. I gotta stop them,” he whispered. “Stay here. Don’t come in.”
Grace watched him turn away and start for the door, DarkCloud’s voice still raised in anger and Johnny’s voice soft, strained, yet firmly committed.
“You’re a fool! You’re just gonna get you and Jamie killed!”
“Jamie will not die.”
“And what about you?”
Matthew strode into the room. “What’s going on here?” he demanded, quickly taking in the tightly wound DarkCloud standing belligerently in front of the small table near the window and Johnny, pale, weak and visibly shaking, one arm pulled in against his side while the other clung to the bedpost.
“This fool thinks he can still take on Wakeman!” DarkCloud growled.
Johnny drew a ragged breath and let go of the bedpost. Then with a sound that bordered on a moan, he wrapped his arms tightly around his injured side and with eyes closed, leaned his shoulder against the bedpost. “DarkCloud, please, let me have it. I—I can get the job done then.”
“DarkCloud,” Matthew softly interjected, but DarkCloud cut him off with a glare of such ferocity that Matthew physically felt as if he’d been hit.
Johnny opened his eyes and looked past DarkCloud to where the laudanum bottle sat. Then, with jaw clenched in grim determination, he took a step forward.
While a cadence of drumming and thundering smashed unrelentingly through his brain, all energy fighting to stay focused on the laudanum bottle before him, Johnny struggled to force his feet forward. One step, his side burned…two steps, mouth dry, sweat covered his body…three steps, his eyes blurred and he lost his focus…
With a moan of pain, Johnny collapsed to the floor.
“Johnny!” Matthew cried out, taking a step forward.
“Don’t move!” DarkCloud commanded, drawing Matthew up short in confused disbelief.
Matthew turned to DarkCloud, his eyes wide with anxiety. “What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to save his God-damned life!” DarkCloud roared back.
Johnny, from his hunched position on the floor, replied in a voice barely above a whisper, “I never asked you to.”
DarkCloud looked down at the bowed figure shaking uncontrollably.
Johnny lifted his head, his eyes void of the earlier fire, his face pale and strained as he attempted to control the torturous shaking. “You and I both knew it was going to come to this.”
“No,” DarkCloud’s voice cracked with emotion.
“Yes.” Grace stood in the doorway, her eyes intense with their own passion.
Matthew spun around, his mouth dropping open in surprise as Grace pushed past him and then past DarkCloud, leaving the doctor too stunned to even put out a hand to stop her as she came to stand in front of the table. Wordlessly she picked up the laudanum bottle, then taking a deep breath, she turned around and looked at Johnny. She was acutely aware of the two men standing near her in stunned disbelief, the sudden silence filling the room more profoundly than even the earlier raised voices.
Johnny, breathing heavily, was leaning forwards on his knees and right palm while his left hand pressed in against his side. He blinked, trying to focus on Grace’s wavering form, the beating of his heart and the ringing in his ears replacing the silence of the room. He watched as Grace slowly turned toward him, the bottle of laudanum clutched closely against her chest. He glanced up at her eyes and she met his look unflinchingly, though he read the dark sadness and knew what she was going to say, even before she did.
Without taking her eyes off Johnny, Grace walked forward and held the bottle out to him. “I want the bastard dead. Kill him for me, Johnny.”
Go on to Part 6