The Ghost of Johnny Madrid
Episode 7: Endings
Nice to have met you, brother….
Kill time, amongst other things….
But that’s all you got going for you…
You sold it all out for a row of postholes…
Kill time, amongst other things…
But when you go, you won’t even leave a ripple…
Nice to have met you, brother…
Kill time, amongst other things…
That’s all you’ve got going for you…
Listen and listen hard. I don’t need you, now or ever…
Nice to have met you, brother…
Kill time amongst other things…
DarkCloud stood outside the door to Johnny’s room, a new supply of bandages, his medical bag, and a warm cup of tea that he’d had Rosti make up fresh, cradled in his hands. He adjusted the items in his arms until he could free his right hand for a moment, and without knocking, quietly entered the room. After setting the items on the table, he closed the door as silently as he could.
With a sigh of dismay, his eyes made a rapid scan of the room, disgusted that he’d been unable to find the paper that Wakeman had wanted. If only he’d kept Madrid sedated… If only he’d found the paper… If only he’d stopped this before it had ever begun…
A faint murmur of a moan broke into his self-recrimination and he glanced over at the bed. Johnny, his breathing growing more rapid, moaned again. Quickly he crossed over to the bed and put a hand on the gunfighter’s forehead.
“Scott,” Johnny murmured, then suddenly jerked, gasping for breath, his eyes flashing open, his disorientation clearly evident as his eyes quickly darted about the room before coming to rest on DarkCloud’s face. “Wha—?”
“It’s almost three o’clock,” DarkCloud explained quietly.
Johnny nodded weakly and took a slow breath. “Tucson?”
“I told him. He should be up in a few minutes,” DarkCloud replied as he turned toward the table to pick up the tea. “Here, I just had this made up for you.” He held out the mug.
Johnny gave a faint sigh. “I thought, perhaps, we could dispense with that.”
DarkCloud looked morosely at the mug in his hands. “Humor me, okay?”
Johnny gave an imperceptible nod, then slowly hauled himself to a sitting position. DarkCloud waited as Johnny slid his legs over the side of the bed before handing him the mug. Johnny accepted it without comment, sighed and took a tentative sip.
DarkCloud turned away and stared despondently out the window, his hand resting on the medical bag sitting on the table. “Johnny.” There was a tightness, a hesitation in the voice, that immediately drew Johnny’s attention. “There’s really nothing to prove. There’s no need to be a hero.”
“I’m not a hero,” Johnny replied, his voice tinged with quiet bitterness. “I’m a legend, remember?”
DarkCloud turned slowly; his eyes sadly studying the disillusioned gunfighter in front of him—abused and battered by the hand life had dealt him, now ready to fold and leave the game. “Johnny—”
He was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“It’s Tucson,” announced the voice from the other side.
Johnny met DarkCloud’s haunted look with a slight shake of his head before responding, “Come in.”
Tucson walked in, smiled hesitantly at both DarkCloud and Johnny before closing the door. “DarkCloud said you wanted to see me.”
Tucson regarded Johnny thoughtfully, noting the other gunfighter didn’t stand, but stayed seated on the edge of the bed, both hands firmly around a mug of what he surmised was the tea DarkCloud was always making him drink. He also made a mental assessment of Johnny’s flushed and drawn face, the dull, tired eyes, and the tight, labored breathing. Lastly he observed that a tremor seemed to pass sporadically through the other man’s body, causing him to wince visibly.
In that moment, Tucson came to the conclusion that he was looking at one sick gunfighter. And despite what he’d witnessed earlier down in the saloon, he knew there was no way Johnny was going to be able to handle Wakeman in just a couple hour’s time.
Tucson glanced at DarkCloud questioningly, but the look he received was a far cry from being optimistic.
“Johnny, have you reconsidered?” Tucson ventured. “I’m quite willing to try negotiatin’ with Wakeman. All he really wants is that paper.”
“And the town,” Johnny cut in.
“And you—dead,” DarkCloud added tersely.
Johnny gave DarkCloud a sharp look of warning.
“Hey, come on.” Tucson waved his hand in an effort to dispel the sudden tension. “Why don’t you let me have a go at it, Johnny? That’s what I came for; that’s why I was hired.”
Johnny shook his head. “What? And have your death on my conscience, too?” He paused and looked down at the mug in his hands. “Despite all your talk, Tucson, you ain’t never handled anyone like Wakeman before. He’s gonna show up here with a small army, I’m guessing six to eight men. And, I suspect, a new gun. No one he had on his payroll that I saw was probably worth the money he’s been payin’ them. Else he wouldn’t have been so eager to hire the Kid—and he certainly woulda had better men up on those roof tops.” Johnny stopped to catch his breath as he brought his attention squarely on Tucson. “But while Wakeman likes a show of force, he also likes to make things look fair, so he’s got someone tagged for the part of his hired gun. So, first you gotta handle his new man before you even get a chance to deal with Wakeman and his army. And you ain’t up to it—no slight intended.”
“And you are?” DarkCloud cut in sharply.
Both Johnny and Tucson looked at DarkCloud; Johnny with a look that signaled the doctor was treading on sandy soil, Tucson with disbelief at his boldness.
“How can you possibly sit there and say you’re more fit to face Wakeman in the condition you’re in than Tucson here?” DarkCloud countered heatedly, jabbing a finger in Tucson’s direction. “In fact, if I were Tucson, I’d take this as a personal insult.”
“But you aren’t Tucson, are you?” Johnny glared pointedly at DarkCloud. “’Cuz Tucson knows when to keep his mouth shut.”
Tucson’s attention darted between the two men, one eyebrow raised at DarkCloud’s forceful words and Johnny’s ominous undertone. “Well, I don’t know—” he began, coming to an immediate halt as Johnny shifted his penetrating stare. Tucson swallowed, embarrassed at how easily he had faltered under the sharp scrutiny of the wounded and sick gunfighter.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud said, his voice suddenly soft. “Why are you so hell-bent on racing to your death?”
Awkwardly shifting his feet, Tucson found himself wishing he could tear his eyes from the two men, as Johnny turned back to study the doctor.
“DarkCloud,” Johnny softly replied. “Let it go.”
DarkCloud sighed heavily and turned away, as Johnny turned back to Tucson with a wry smile. “Beside, I need Tucson, here, for something else.”
Mentally, Tucson heaved a sigh of relief.
“I’m gonna need a back-up plan. I’m figurin’ that Wakeman’ll have Jamie with him. He’s a bona fide lily-livered coward if there ever was one, and hidin’ behind a kid ain’t gonna be beneath him. I figure after I dispatch Wakeman’s gun that I’ll have enough time to take care of him, too. My thinkin’ is Wakeman’s men’ll panic and scatter, leavin’ Jamie. But there’s always the possibility that someone’ll have the presence of mind to grab him and run—and that’s where I’m countin’ on you.” He leveled Tucson with a hard look. “I want you to be hidden up the road. I noticed there’s a place along the west side of the road with a grove of eucalyptus and brush and an old outbuilding nearby about a half hour from here.”
“I remember seein’ the place.” Tucson nodded.
“I want you to hide your horse in the building,” Johnny instructed, then added solemnly, “And if you see anyone—anyone— leavin’ for Salinas with Jamie, I want you to nail the bastard in the back.”
Tucson nodded without hesitation. “What if I see someone heading toward Soledad?”
Johnny shook his head. “You won’t. Wakeman’s gonna be comin’ at us out of cover of the foothills.”
“But he might be plannin’ to attack from different directions,” Tucson argued.
Johnny paused, seeming to consider the idea for a second before shaking his head. “Won’t make any difference. I still gotta handle it from here. I don’t want you out there startin’ something with Wakeman’s men and no one to back you up. No,” Johnny added as he shook his head again. “I only want you doing the job I’m sending you for. Don’t start anything else.”
Tucson nodded reluctantly.
“I suggest you get going,” Johnny prompted with a nod toward the door.
Tucson glanced at DarkCloud—his look conveying his silent apology.
DarkCloud, however, gave a small shake of his head and looked away.
With a solemn nod to Johnny, Tucson turned and left.
After the door clicked shut, DarkCloud turned his attention back to the hunched figure seated on the edge of the bed. “Why are you chasing death so hard?” he repeated softly.
Johnny lowered his gaze to the cup in his hands. DarkCloud’s quiet repetition, a plea for some answer, disturbed him. Without looking up, he replied in an even voice, “I’m not chasing death, DarkCloud. I’m trying to chase away ghosts.”
DarkCloud bit his lip, unable to reply. He turned around to face the small table, the medicine and bandages he had brought spread out. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath then held it a few seconds before slowly letting it out. Through the window he could see the shadows lengthening—time was running out.
“I—I could use some medicine,” Johnny’s voice cut sharply through DarkCloud’s own thoughts.
DarkCloud turned around, noticing that Johnny, true to his word, had finished most of the tea, but his earlier flushed face had paled considerably, and his grip on the mug was white-knuckled and trembling. The simple exchange with Tucson had already left him debilitated.
DarkCloud met Johnny’s eyes for a fleeting second before he had to look away.
“I—I need help, DarkCloud,” Johnny continued, pausing to lick his lips. “The medicine,” he closed his eyes and tilted his head back while he took a slow breath, “it’s not gonna do the job.” He stopped to open his eyes, focusing on some distant object. “Not for what I need to get done, anyway.”
DarkCloud looked at Johnny again, but the gunfighter’s attention was now centered off in the distance. “Johnny, there’s only so much—”
“Then,” Johnny blinked and forced his gaze back to DarkCloud. “Then give me more of that stronger medicine you brought.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “Johnny, if I give you what you need to manage the pain, it’ll knock you out.”
Johnny groaned softly, “Just what I need.” He then lowered his head for a second, took a shallow breath and slowly pushed himself upright. “Oh, shit,” he moaned as he held his arm in against his side and grabbed for the bedpost to steady his buckling legs.
“Johnny!” DarkCloud exclaimed. “Please don’t do this. I can still catch Tucson, get him to—”
“No,” Johnny shook his head.
“Dammit!” DarkCloud swore, slamming his hand on the table. “God! You’re such a stubborn ass!”
Johnny gave a tired snort. “I thought I was a mule and gave in too easy.”
DarkCloud spun around on his heel and once more faced the window. “Damn it!” he hissed. With clenched teeth, he grabbed up the bottle of laudanum he’d brought earlier and curtly handed it to Johnny, who accepted it unhesitatingly. But this time he forced himself to watch as Johnny took a long swallow of the medicine.
“Why does it have to taste so god-damned awful?” he asked, making a wry face as he lowered it.
DarkCloud shook his head, his expression one of grim resolve, as he took the bottle from Johnny’s hands.
Leaning heavily against the bedpost, Johnny studied DarkCloud with faint amusement. “You’re still hoping I’ll change my mind.”
DarkCloud rubbed his face tiredly before he nodded and sighed. “I had hoped you’d change your mind,” he agreed.
“I’m not going to,” Johnny said, then added softly, “I’m sorry you got dragged into this.”
DarkCloud gave a sarcastic snort. “Dragged into this,” he mocked. “Yeah, well, this whole damn situation goes against everything I believe in, everything I work for. I don’t like it at all—and I certainly don’t like what you have planned.”
“But I do,” Johnny replied, the corner of his mouth twitching into a crooked smile—one that almost reached his eyes. “I do,” he repeated. “Perhaps in some way I’ll be able to chase away all those old ghosts and find a part of my soul that I thought was lost.”
“How? By your death?” DarkCloud asked.
Johnny looked down at the floor.
“That is what you’re planning, isn’t it?”
Johnny glanced back up. “Why do you keep pushin’? What do you want from me?”
“I want you to admit it out loud. I want you to look me in the eye and tell me that you’ve been planning your own death all along and that nothing I can do or say—or could have done—is going to change a thing.”
Though Johnny took a deep breath, his gaze never wavered. “There was nothing you could do, DarkCloud. Nothing. It’s totally out of your hands.”
DarkCloud closed his eyes, the words of absolution, words he thought he wanted to hear, washing over him, but they brought him no peace. When he opened them again, they glistened with moisture. “I can’t help you kill yourself,” he whispered.
“I’m just asking you not to interfere,” Johnny replied softly.
Bitterly, DarkCloud turned away to stare darkly out the window, his arms tightly crossed against his chest.
“I’m gonna need a shave and a new shirt,” Johnny quietly continued. “I’d also like to get someone to place a rocking chair on the porch of Solero’s house.”
“Rocking chair?” DarkCloud asked as he turned around, one eyebrow raised as to the sudden change of conversation.
Johnny nodded, a lopsided grin appearing on his face. “I do well in rocking chairs.”
“Anything else?” DarkCloud asked bitterly, his eyes dropping away from Johnny’s gaze.
“Yeah, there is. That corral you said the Pinnacle Tribe had discovered. Find some men who can go up there and quietly keep a watch on it for the next day or two.” Johnny paused and took a slow breath. “I just want another back-up plan. They’ll be useful witnesses if things don’t go well and Wakeman pulls out. Just tell them to stay hidden, but keep track of anything that might go on. I’m guessin’ it’ll be pretty quiet, as Wakeman’s got his hands a bit full right now.”
DarkCloud’s brows knitted, then he gave a slight shake of his head. “I’ll go down and see what I can do.”
Johnny smiled. “That’s all I ask.”
DarkCloud walked out of the back room of his apothecary shop and stopped, surprised to see Grace waiting for him. With a scowl, he set the bandages and bag he was carrying on the counter and went to the shelves where he reached to the top for a small bottle and placed it beside the other items.
“What’s this?” Grace asked picking up the bottle.
DarkCloud frowned, his eyes narrowing as he took the bottle away. “Something I hope will help Johnny manage the pain, now that he’s determined to see this to the end.”
Grace dropped her eyes under the hardness of DarkCloud’s scowl. “I wish you wouldn’t be angry.”
“Angry?” DarkCloud visibly forced his mouth shut in order to interrupt the tirade that threatened to spill out. He shut his eyes and took a measured breath before opening them again. “Grace,” he began, his voice tightly clipped. “You’ve put me in the position of helping a friend commit suicide. Excuse me if it puts me in a disagreeable mood.” Curtly he gathered the items in his arms and brushed past.
“DarkCloud,” Grace whispered as she turned, following the Indian with her eyes.
DarkCloud stopped, his body rigid. “Don’t worry,” he replied without turning around. “I’ll do what needs to be done.”
“Please,” Grace’s voice sounded hopeful, wistful.
DarkCloud shook his head. “No, Grace. No more. I’ll play my part in this charade. Johnny’ll be ready to meet Wakeman.”
Without turning around, DarkCloud continued on his way out the door.
A lone rider galloped north from Paso Robles. He’d started out two days earlier, headed toward a town he barely knew the name of, but which the cryptic telegram from an old friend urgently begged him to go to.
The three men were moving at a fast canter, the realization that their goal was just now appearing on the distant horizon. Scott, particularly, was apprehensive.
No, not just apprehensive…worried…filled with fear…nervous…tense…a feeling of dread beyond description…God, if anything’s happened to him, what am I gonna do?…
Scott glanced quickly to his right where Harley and his father rode side-by-side. Neither face betrayed any emotion other than urgency. Scott vaguely wondered if every one of his emotions were visible on his own face.
Tucson heard riders heading south.
“Madrid was wrong about one thing,” he muttered to himself.
Peeking out from his hiding place, Tucson took quick note of the three riders heading in at a fast pace. Cursing under his breath against the order that he do nothing, Tucson risked another quick glance at the riders. It was then that he noticed one of them was Harley.
“What the—?” Tucson muttered to himself, then leapt from the low depression, hidden among scrub brush and trees, and charged toward the road, waving one arm frantically, the other clutching his rifle.
“Harley! Harley!” Tucson called out.
Tucson watched as the three riders drew up in a cloud of billowing dust, which was quickly born away by the afternoon wind.
“What the—?” Harley exclaimed, surprised.
“What are you doing here?” Tucson asked before glancing with open suspicion at Harley’s two companions. The one to Harley’s right was an older gentleman, whose tightly pursed lips and narrowed gaze immediately conveyed that he wasn’t pleased about being detained—and that an explanation had better be forthcoming. The other, a blond young man, seemed to have already taken note of Tucson, found him unimportant, and had turned his gaze toward the distant outline of Soledad. His horse, though winded and covered with sweat, was prancing nervously sideways, sensing his rider’s desire to be on the move.
“I never figured I’d see you out here, Harley,” Tucson spoke up.
“We’re headin’ to Soledad,” Harley explained hurriedly.
“You are?” Tucson asked. “Why?”
The older man suddenly interrupted by urging his horse between them. “As much as I’m sure you’d like to converse with your friend here, I think we need to get moving,” he intoned meaningfully.
Harley gave the older man a look of amusement. “This ain’t a friend of mine. This here’s the other gunfighter hired on with Johnny.”
“Tucson?” the young man asked, ripping his gaze from the view of the south.
Tucson nodded and raised his eyebrows. “You heard’a me?”
“We know you were hired by Soledad along with Johnny,” the older man responded.
“How’s Johnny?” the young man interrupted, his tone demanding, his eyes sharp and piercing.
Tucson took a step back and cocked his head, his eyes narrowing warily. “What’s goin’ on here?”
“This is Murdoch, Johnny’s father, and Scott, his brother,” Harley quickly explained.
Tucson gave a derisive snort. “You bought that?”
“He,” Tucson nodded toward Scott, “sure as hell don’t look at all like Johnny.”
Scott grimaced. “Different mothers,” he answered curtly.
Tucson studied Scott before turning his attention on Murdoch. For a moment he scrutinized the older man, attempting to meet the intense stare, before he found himself dropping his gaze. Abruptly he turned back to Harley. “You tryin’ to get to Johnny, huh?”
Harley nodded. “Wakeman’s kidnapped my wife and son and—”
“Shit!” Tucson suddenly spat, then shook his head as he pivoted on his heels to glare southward, his free hand coming up to rub his forehead. “Wakeman’s kidnapped Jamie, too,” he said as he turned back to Harley. “The young kid who found Johnny up in the mountains.”
“Damn,” Harley grimly uttered before meeting Tucson with a hesitant look. “How—how is Johnny?”
Tucson shook his head. “He ain’t dead…but he’s got a death wish.”
“What?” Murdoch demanded while Scott pressed his horse in closer.
“He’s gonna be facing Wakeman at five o’clock…and he’s not well. He won’t be able to take him,” Tucson paused and glanced at both Murdoch and Scott. “And he knows it.”
Scott closed his eyes and swallowed hard, forcing down a scream of frustration that threatened to erupt.
“He’d been unconscious since we left Salinas and just recently came out of it. DarkCloud thought we’d lost him for awhile there—I did, too.” Scott heard Tucson’s voice carry on, the words continuing to wash over him like ice water, sending a chill up his spine; he visibly shuddered.
“He still remembers nothing?” Murdoch asked. Scott could hear a note of hope in his father’s voice, but for some reason the feeling couldn’t seem to find its way into his own grim thoughts.
Scott opened his eyes. “We gotta get down there.”
Tucson nodded. “And as fast as you can. He needs to know about the other hostages. I’m s’pose to stay here and stop anyone who tries to make an escape with Jamie. Or any other hostage now, I guess,” he added with a bleak nod to Harley.
With a discouraged sigh, Harley returned the acknowledgement and started to swing his horse out of the tight group.
“It’s gonna be gettin’ late. Johnny might not even be at the hotel when you get there,” Tucson quickly added.
“Where’s the showdown?” Harley glanced back over his shoulder.
“There’s only one street running west out of town. That’s where they’re s’posed to meet,” Tucson answered.
Harley gave a curt nod, then with a jerk of his head toward the other two he urged his horse forward. “Come on.”
Scott whipped his horse around, tight on Harley’s tail. As they kicked into a gallop, he heard Tucson call out, “I hope you make it in time!”
Johnny watched the door close. DarkCloud had sent Rosti up to deliver a new shirt and help him with a shave. As Johnny wryly studied the new shirt lying on the bed, he wondered if DarkCloud or Calientes had chosen the black color. Mindful of his side, he picked the shirt off the bed with his left hand and walked to the window.
Outside, the few inhabitants he saw seemed to be actively going about their everyday business, unconcerned that a bloody gunfight was soon to erupt on their streets.
Johnny sighed and wondered at the ironic nature of man. How he could become so intensely caught up in a personal moment, action or feeling, unable to understand how others could be so unsympathetic and callous when disaster was striking. Yet once his own tragedy had passed, able to go on with his own life without regard to his neighbor’s own suffering and anguish when they were in distress.
He glanced back down at the shirt he held in his hand and shook his head sadly.
Today would he finally find his own peace, find his answers? Or, at the close of the scene, would he find that it had made no difference…that he truly was beyond redemption?
A quiet knock at the door startled him, causing him to flinch in surprise. With a raised eyebrow, he turned. “Who’s there?”
There was a pause before he heard a feminine voice. “It’s me. Grace.”
Johnny looked back down at the shirt and sighed. “Just a minute.” He carefully slid his right arm into the sleeve, then hooked his left arm around and shrugged his shoulders in. The action caused him to wince, but the stronger dose of laudanum was still working enough to keep the edge off.
“Come in,” he said.
Hesitantly Grace pushed open the door to Johnny’s room. Eyes downcast, she quietly closed the door behind her. Slowly she lifted her gaze to study the face of the dark-haired gunfighter, his deep blue eyes regarding her intently. The new black shirt hung open just enough so that she could make out the bandages underneath.
“Johnny, I—” Grace faltered.
Johnny’s face broke into a pacifying smile. “Don’t worry, Grace. I’ll take care of Wakeman. You’ll have Jamie home tonight.”
“I know,” Grace responded promptly, surprising Johnny with her earnestness. “I know you will,” She repeated more quietly. “But, but DarkCloud’s angry with me for—”
“Oh,” Johnny cut in with a dismissive chuckle, “DarkCloud’s pretty well mad at everybody ‘cept for two little ol’ ladies in Sacramento and retired basket weaver from San Diego.”
Grace found herself smiling even though she knew Johnny’s levity was contrived to shift the conversation. Mentally shaking herself, Grace dropped her gaze and gathered her focus. “No, Johnny,” she said as she raised her eyes once more. “That’s not what I mean. DarkCloud says…he says that you’re going into this knowing you’re not going to come out. That you can’t take on Wakeman and you know it, and—”
“Talkin’ too much seems to be a rampant local disease,” Johnny retorted, his humor evaporated.
Grace pulled her arms in close to her side as her heart began pounding. “Is it true?”
“Grace,” Johnny shook his head. “Don’t go workin’ yourself up for nothing. This is out of your hands, just as it’s out of DarkCloud’s. I don’t want you to have no regrets. No fears. I got none. You helped me, and for that I’m grateful.”
“I’m a gunfighter, remember? I was hired to take care of Wakeman. And I have no intention of backing out, especially when he makes it personal.”
“Johnny…” Grace closed her eyes for a second and bowed her head. “I owe you an apology.”
“You don’t owe me—”
“Yes, I do,” Grace interrupted, raising her head and stepping forward while Johnny watched her warily. “Yes, I most certainly do. I owe you an apology for all those awful things I said to you, for my behavior earlier, for how I treated you. I had no right judging you like I did. You were worth saving and…and you aren’t a soulless man—”
“Don’t.” Johnny held up his hand, cutting her off. “Don’t. You’re trying to turn me into something I’m not. Don’t do that.”
Grace took another step closer, the action causing Johnny to back up. To his chagrin, he found himself pressed up against the small table in front of the window.
“Johnny, you’re not at all what I expected…what I thought you’d be like. You’re not cold and filled with hatred…someone who sees killing as a sport. Instead I see someone who’s bothered by all the death and injustice he’s seen, who—”
“Grace, stop it.” Johnny put up both hands, wincing as he pulled at his right side. He dropped his gaze to the floor, unable to meet the quiet respect that now shone in Grace’s eyes. “You’re trying to turn me into some sorta hero. Don’t—I’m a gunfighter. That’s all.”
“Yes,” Johnny clenched his jaw, steeling himself, preparing the hard and icy glare before he looked up. “Were you there when I killed my first man? Do you know I was twelve when I shot him? How about my second? Shot him dead in the street. That I’ve—”
“Stop it!” Grace cried out. “Stop it! You can’t fool me! I see right through you, Johnny Madrid, so you can take that mask off! You’re not at all like you pretend to be!”
Johnny blinked, surprised at her vehemence.
“I don’t know what your life has been like and I don’t care. I see what you are, deep down where it counts. You’re not a cold-blooded murderer and I don’t believe that you killed that girl in Kansas, either.”
Johnny swallowed and looked away.
“In fact,” Grace took another step, placing herself firmly in front of Johnny. “I think I know the only thing you are afraid of.”
Johnny, pushed up against the table, was shocked to feel Grace’s hand unexpectedly press up against his chest. Eyes wide in alarm, he looked down and saw that her hand rested over the medallion hanging from his neck.
“I wondered to myself,” Grace murmured softly, “why a gunfighter would wear a medallion of Saint Francis.” She paused. “It took me a while to figure it out, but I finally did.” She gazed up, her eyes blinking back tears. “You wear it as protection against dying alone, don’t you?”
“I—I was given it,” Johnny replied thickly. He could feel his heart pounding uncontrollably under Grace’s hand; acutely aware that she had to know—had to feel—how accurate she was.
“Yet you wear it,” she continued softly.
Johnny tried to shift to the side, yet Grace’s hand remained firmly on his chest, her eyes still holding his.
“Johnny, you don’t have to be alone.”
After having relayed Johnny’s request for a rocking chair to Solero and making a quick detour to his shop, DarkCloud stalked dismally into Rosti’s, the handle of his black medical bag clasped tightly in his fist. A quick glance confirmed that Rosti was back in his usual place behind the bar, informing him that Johnny was done with his shave. He drew his pocket watch out and snapped it open, much as he’d found himself doing every five minutes or so since he’d left Johnny to take care of errands.
“Just a little past four,” DarkCloud grunted to himself. As he looked back up he noticed Rosti wave him over. With a sigh and a glance toward the stairs, DarkCloud headed toward the bar area, Angelou and Ramirez moving down to make room for him.
“Wanted you to let Madrid know we’re placing men around town in case Wakeman’s got something else planned,” Angelou said.
DarkCloud nodded. “Why don’t you tell him yourself?”
Rosti looked askance at Angelou.
“We thought maybe it’d be better if you went up,” Angelou said uncomfortably.
“Why?” DarkCloud asked suspiciously.
The two men glanced at each other with obvious reluctance.
“Well, Grace went up there right after I came down,” Rosti said with an apologetic shrug.
“Damn that woman!” DarkCloud growled as he turned a dismal eye toward the stairs. “Can’t she mind her own business?”
DarkCloud turned to find Matthew approaching.
“Grace,” DarkCloud replied hotly. “She’s up there with Johnny. Can’t you do something with her?”
“You forget; she’s my sister, not my wife,” Matthew responded grimly.
DarkCloud mumbled under his breath and started toward the stairs just as Grace appeared.
Pausing at the foot of the steps, Grace was uncomfortably aware that the men at the bar were closely watching her and that DarkCloud, who had just reached the bottom of the steps, was regarding her with open disappointment.
“DarkCloud,” she greeted softly.
DarkCloud pursed his lips. “Just couldn’t let it be, could you, Grace?”
Grace dropped her eyes. “DarkCloud, don’t.”
With a grunt, DarkCloud brushed past Grace and headed up the stairs.
Outside Johnny’s room, DarkCloud took a deep breath before giving the door a fast rap.
For a second he closed his eyes as he sucked in another deep breath, tensing every muscle in his body. Then letting it out, he forced himself to relax as he pushed open the door. Once inside, his eyes quickly assessed Johnny, who was standing in front of the window table, hunched over, right arm pressed up against his side, while his left, which was supporting his weight against the table, was shaking visibly from the effort. He also made quick note that Johnny’s breathing was raspy and there was a dark stain of perspiration along the back of his black shirt.
Johnny lifted his head, but didn’t turn around.
“Please tell me you’ve changed your mind,” DarkCloud said softly as he closed the door.
Johnny slowly shook his head, but didn’t move.
Disturbed, DarkCloud crossed to the table and put his free hand on the gunfighter’s shoulder. In the afternoon light that streamed in from the window, he could see the white, drawn expression on Johnny’s face, the jaw clenched in pain. “Johnny, what happened? What’d she say?”
“Nothing,” Johnny started to raise his hand off the table, then put it back down. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine,” DarkCloud replied dryly, letting his hand drop away.
“It’s all an act to get more sympathy.” Johnny gave a half-grin and once more tried to stand up. This time he managed to get his weight off the table, though he was still hunched to the side in pain, tremors hitting regularly. Shakily he picked up the laudanum bottle from the small table. “It’s not working, DarkCloud,” he said tiredly as he looked at the bottle. “I oughta be able to—”
“What?” DarkCloud snapped. “You’re sick! You’re injured! You’ve been unconscious for the last three days! There’s only so much I can do!”
Johnny closed his eyes bitterly. “I know,” he sighed, then caught his breath as he had to lean his weight once more on the table.
DarkCloud watched helplessly as Johnny fought to gain control, a choked moan escaping, ending almost in a whimper. A few moments passed before Johnny raised his eyes, his face drenched in sweat, gaunt and pinched from the constant suffering. The openness of his exposed distress enveloped DarkCloud’s chest like a tight vise and he found himself having to force his own breathing to remain even.
Johnny opened his mouth to speak and faltered, swallowing back a cough. “You’re doing what you can.”
Closing his eyes and clenching his teeth, DarkCloud turned around and took a deep breath, holding it until he felt he’d explode. “I have something else,” he finally whispered in a strained voice.
“Hmm?” Johnny asked. It was taking almost all of his concentration to blink through the haze.
“Dammit!” DarkCloud spun back around, his eyes glaring. “I said, ‘I have something else.’”
“Something else?” Johnny asked, confused by DarkCloud’s ferocity.
DarkCloud’s unyielding posture seemed to suddenly melt away, leaving him looking tired and defeated. He took another long breath and tilted his head to gaze sadly at the ceiling. “I have something stronger for the pain, Johnny.”
Johnny watched, dazed, as DarkCloud continued to glare at the ceiling, conspicuously avoiding Johnny’s eyes. Then abruptly he turned away and walked to the larger table where he opened the medical bag. He hesitated for a moment before pulling out a linen-wrapped object and placing it on the table. Next he opened up a small vial of liquid. Johnny wanted to step closer, to see what it was DarkCloud had, but his grip on the table was necessary, and the tremors were growing worse. He tried to take a couple of steadying breaths, but the nausea was rising with each inhalation, causing him to involuntarily hold his breath in between. He closed his eyes, wishing DarkCloud would hurry. He wanted to sit back down, but lacked the strength to even let go of the table; it had become a solid refuge in the waves of pain and nausea that wracked his senses.
“It’s an infusion,” he heard DarkCloud say.
Johnny opened his eyes, but was disconcerted when he wasn’t able to bring DarkCloud’s face into focus. “Just give it to me,” he mumbled.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud examined the gunfighter carefully, wondering if he wasn’t acting too rashly. Perhaps he had only to wait another few minutes and Johnny would collapse, releasing him from a decision he was loath to make.
Johnny abruptly shook his head and blinked, his eyes suddenly finding DarkCloud’s. “You gotta give me something. I can’t do this by myself. If you don’t, I’m gonna go out there and get shot by Wakeman’s damn hired gun and I’m gonna be pissed as hell if I go out like that.”
“Listen,” Johnny cut in thickly. “I can barely lift my damn gun arm, but I am going out there. Now if you have what I need to get past Wakeman’s gun, you’d better give it to me, otherwise I’m not gonna live long enough to free Jamie. Your choice.”
DarkCloud grimly nodded his head. “Okay. But it’s not something you can drink.”
Johnny gave a tired snort. “I don’t give a damn if I have to smoke it. Just give it to me.”
DarkCloud gave a shake of his head. “It’s an injection, Johnny.” At Johnny’s vague and puzzled expression, DarkCloud added, “Morphine.”
Johnny took a shaky breath and blinked vaguely as he attempted to keep focus. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talkin’ about, DarkCloud. Just give it to me, and it better be good.”
“Well, you’re gonna have to let go of the table first and come sit down.”
“I can’t,” Johnny murmured.
“Then I can’t help you,” DarkCloud retorted.
“Oh, hell,” Johnny sighed. He weakly pushed away from the support of the small table and immediately began sinking to his knees. DarkCloud grabbed him carefully around the shoulders and guided him to the edge of the bed.
“Johnny, we can still—”
“Just get it, okay, DarkCloud?” Johnny cut in then swallowed with difficulty. “I’m runnin’ out of time.”
DarkCloud gave a bitter nod before turning back to the larger table. There, sitting on the cloth, was a syringe filled with the new drug, a very powerful and strong opiate. With it, Johnny would be able to face Wakeman. And although that was what Johnny wanted, was that really what was best?
With a heavy sigh, he picked it up and turned around. Johnny sat hunched over on the edge of the bed, his left hand pressed into his side, his breathing labored, his hair matted around his face from the perspiration.
Steeling himself, the resolve leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, DarkCloud walked back to the gunfighter and knelt down beside him. “Johnny, I—I need to talk to you about this first.”
Johnny weakly opened his eyes, but didn’t respond.
DarkCloud held out his hand, the glass and metal syringe lying forbiddingly on his open palm. Johnny looked at it in hazed bewilderment. “This is a syringe, Johnny. It has medicine in it…morphine.”
“Morphine?” Johnny asked.
DarkCloud nodded. “Yes. Morphine. It’s like the laudanum you were taking, only a lot stronger. It was used during the War…or rather the doctors started experimenting with it for pain relief. But there’s a lot we don’t understand about it, yet. It’s…it’s powerful stuff, but—” DarkCloud shook his head.
Johnny looked up at DarkCloud. “It can help me.”
DarkCloud nodded grimly. “I think so. I—I just—” he stopped to shake head. “This isn’t how I planned to use it.”
“Why do you have it, then?” Johnny asked.
“For—for terminal patients,” DarkCloud replied.
Johnny gave a quiet snort and closed his eyes. “Then, DarkCloud, I’d say it’s still being used for its original purpose.”
“No,” Johnny interrupted, then leaned over with a moan as a painful contraction jarred his body. “Please, DarkCloud… Just do what you need to with it, okay,” he panted after the spasm of pain had passed.
DarkCloud nodded. “I need to get your shirt off again. I—I want to inject a small amount in your arm and a small amount near your wound.”
From his hunched position, Johnny raised an eyebrow. “My arm? My arm ain’t injured.”
“Yes, I know,” DarkCloud nodded. “But I want to get it into your muscle, where it can be carried throughout your body. Then I’m hoping the amount I inject near that old wound will numb it totally.”
Johnny grimaced a smile. “You might wanna give it an extra dose.”
DarkCloud quickly shook his head. “No. I have to be careful how much I give you. Too much will totally knock you out, could even put you in a coma.”
“I’m kinda tryin’ to avoid that,” Johnny snorted sarcastically.
DarkCloud shook his head. “Do—do you still want me to give it to you?”
Johnny gave a curt nod.
DarkCloud turned and set the syringe on the round table before grimly unbuttoning the few buttons that were done up on Johnny’s shirt. Together they carefully worked Johnny’s arms out of the sleeves, the movement bringing stifled moans from the gunfighter, while DarkCloud noted with grim pessimism that Johnny’s skin was very hot to the touch; the fever was once again gaining ground.
Once finished with the chore, DarkCloud straightened up and assessed Johnny’s condition. The shivering and ragged breathing, the heat radiating from the gunfighter’s body, the painful tremors that seemed to hit in regular waves, all combined to make DarkCloud hesitate, reluctant to continue.
The sudden pause, however, drew Johnny’s attention. “What’s wrong?”
DarkCloud shook his head. “I just don’t know, Johnny. I—I don’t know if the amount I feel safe giving you is going to be enough to get you through.”
“I don’t need to get through, DarkCloud,” Johnny replied. “Remember, just get me there. Give me more if you need to, but I gotta be able to handle the first few minutes. After that, you and I both know it ain’t gonna make no difference. Just get me past the other gunfighter so that I can handle Wakeman. That’s all that’s important.”
DarkCloud gave a grim nod. “I’m gonna pull the table over. It’ll give you something to lay your arm on and it’d help me.”
Johnny nodded with half-hearted interest.
DarkCloud stood up, grabbed the edge of the table and slid it a few feet until it was positioned in front of Johnny. Then he grabbed the chair and yanked it into place near Johnny’s left.
Once the table had been pushed into place, Johnny had lowered his forehead onto it and closed his eyes, his breathing coming in tightly controlled, short puffs.
DarkCloud sat down and regarded the dismal scene. He glanced at the syringe on the table, the ointments, the medical bag and bandages, and shook his head hopelessly.
Without lifting his head off the table, Johnny rolled it to the side until his right cheek came into contact with the cool wood. Then, slowly he opened his eyes. “Now what?”
“Now give me your arm,” DarkCloud replied bitterly.
Johnny gave an imperceptible nod and laid his left arm out on the table. “You done this before, right?”
DarkCloud snorted sarcastically. “Oh, yeah, many, many times.”
“You’re a…lousy…liar,” Johnny managed to grimace a smile, then quickly closed his eyes as he fought back a contraction of pain. His vision was blurred from the constant discomfort of nausea and raw throbbing. He swallowed tightly and tried to focus his attention on what DarkCloud was doing. But the pain along his back and side was now unrelenting and unmerciful. He really didn’t understand what DarkCloud was planning, but was beyond caring. Strangely detached, he watched as the doctor picked up the syringe and paused to study him.
“Now, I need to poke this into your arm, Johnny. You understand?” DarkCloud asked softly.
Johnny blinked, unable to nod anymore.
DarkCloud turned his attention to the syringe he held in his hands. Grating his teeth, he took a breath and put his other hand on Johnny’s arm. Carefully he positioned it, his left hand sliding up to clasp under Johnny’s bicep. He could feel Johnny watching him. Self-consciously he hesitated, then met Johnny’s eyes once more. “Johnny, we don’t…”
“Do it,” Johnny whispered tightly.
DarkCloud gave a bitter nod then quickly inserted the needle and pushed down on the plunger. He heard a slight hiss as he felt Johnny’s arm tighten in his hand. As he withdrew the needle, he glanced up, but Johnny’s eyes were closed, his face unreadable.
Matthew gave a sad shake of his head and walked across the saloon to the forlorn figure of his sister, who stood looking out the window.
Grace turned around, her eyes red-rimmed and puffy.
Matthew put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “It’ll be okay. Jamie’ll be okay.”
Grace gave her brother a half-hearted smile, then turned back to the window. “I hope so,” she whispered. “DarkCloud’s really upset with me.”
Matthew paused before answering. “Well, he doesn’t think Johnny’s up to taking on Wakeman. And, well, I think DarkCloud took it upon himself to see to it that Johnny got better, and Johnny keeps over doing it, and—”
“DarkCloud thinks Johnny wants to die, and that I just made it easier for him,” Grace interrupted.
/Matthew paused. “I know he doesn’t think Johnny should be doing this, but…I mean… the idea of…”
Grace turned around slowly and studied her brother. “I think he’s right,” she replied quietly. “I don’t think he has any intention of living past this showdown. I think Johnny knows there’s no way he can make it through…and…and he’s relieved.”
Matthew took a deep breath, but didn’t answer.
“And I just helped him commit suicide when I gave him that laudanum,” she choked back a sob and turned away. “But I—I just want Jamie back so badly.”
“We all want Jamie back,” Matthew said. “We’re all hoping Johnny can put an end to this problem with Wakeman for us.”
her head and looked down at her hands clasped tightly in front of her. “He
seems so sad… so lost….”
“Grace, he was going to face Wakeman with or without your help. You know that, I know that, even DarkCloud knows that. Don’t blame yourself.”
Grace gave a quiet sigh. “That’s what I told DarkCloud,” she replied, then looked back out the window. “And I can almost make myself believe it.”
“Grace,” Matthew gave his sister’s shoulder another squeeze. “Don’t torture yourself. It all might turn out okay. We’re putting men in the livery and in Solero’s house, and we’ll have men planted around the town.”
“It won’t make any difference,” Grace said as she turned back to her brother once more. “Not if he really wants to die…he’ll find a way…” Without warning she broke away and started for the stairs.
“Where are you going?”
“To see if there isn’t something I can say to change his mind,” she replied firmly.
Matthew shook his head. “I think you’d better leave it alone.”
Grace spun around, mindful of the stares they were receiving from the men at the bar. “How can I leave it alone? Not when—when something I say may yet reach Johnny.” She abruptly turned and hurried up the stairs, determined to do something, anything, to dispel the awful feeling that she was going to be partially responsible for the death of the gunfighter.
At the door she hesitated and bit her lip as she frantically searched for the right words. Words to give Johnny some hope and a will to live, and thereby wiping away the feeling of condemnation she felt for her part in the events. As she raised her hand to knock, she took a long, deep breath, determined not to back away. Quickly she rapped on the door and before she could change her mind, she grabbed the handle and pushed the door open.
“Johnny, I—” She stopped, stunned.
“Dammit woman!” DarkCloud cursed as he jerked at the sound of the interruption.
The movement caused Johnny to flinch and echo DarkCloud’s expletive as the needle prodded deeper than necessary.
“DarkCloud!” Grace exclaimed in bewilderment. “What are you doing?”
DarkCloud gave Grace a curt glare of warning before turning his attention back to Johnny. “Sorry,” he murmured quietly.
“I need to ‘member to lock that door,” Johnny groaned softly, his eyes still closed.
With a tired shake of his head, DarkCloud finished withdrawing the needle and pressed his finger against the tiny dot of welling blood. He held it for a few seconds, then clenching his jaw in anger, he slowly rose from his seat and turned toward Grace, who stood, mouth open and eyes widely staring in bewilderment at the syringe he held in his hand. “What the hell are you doing here?” he snapped savagely.
“I—I,” Grace faltered then suddenly glared back. “What are you doing?”
DarkCloud’s eyes darkened until Grace was sure there was no white left in them. “I’m doing just what you wanted. I’m making sure Johnny can take on Wakeman.”
“DarkCloud,” Johnny’s voice murmured softly. “Be nice.”
DarkCloud glanced disconcertedly toward the desolate figure still slumped against the table, the arm now resting limp on the table. Sighing, he turned back toward Grace, who stood in the open doorway. “I think it’d be best if you leave,” he stated gruffly.
Grace studied DarkCloud’s face a second before she dropped her gaze once more to the syringe. “What is that? What are you doing?”
“Grace, I told you to leave!” DarkCloud snapped angrily.
“I—but,” Grace gestured weakly toward Johnny. “I—I wanted to talk to—”
“Don’t you think you’ve done enough talking?” DarkCloud retorted.
While the impromptu and unwelcome exchange continued, Johnny tried to listen, but the illusion of less pain that was washing over him, bringing him a level of relief that he hadn’t experienced for so long, commanded all of his attention. But DarkCloud’s hostile tone finally broke through, and he forced his eyes open.
“DarkCloud…you sound like….someone…I…I…just can’t…remember…who…,” Johnny murmured so quietly, DarkCloud turned back in concern.
“Johnny.” DarkCloud sat back down and leaned toward the still figure. “Johnny, how are you doing?”
“I—I’ll be fine, once you finish.” Johnny managed to give DarkCloud a jaded grin before closing his eyes again.
It took DarkCloud but a moment to notice that Johnny’s breathing was indeed deeper and that his face had lost some of the tight lines of pain. Pursing his lips, DarkCloud turned toward the door. “Are you leaving, or staying? Either way, close the door,” he instructed curtly.
Grace blinked and turned around, putting her hand on the doorknob. However, she stopped in mid-action. For a moment she didn’t move, then grimly she pushed the door closed and turned back to meet DarkCloud’s astonished expression.
“I’m staying,” she stated firmly.
DarkCloud’s astonishment changed to an expression heavy with warning. “I don’t think you really want to do that.”
“Maybe I don’t want to,” Grace replied stubbornly. “But I need to.”
DarkCloud shook his head in resignation. “Then if you’re planning to stay, you’re going to help.”
Grace nodded, her eyes returning DarkCloud’s dubious look with one of determination. “Just tell me what to do,” she said as she crossed the room to stand behind DarkCloud.
Johnny gave a sigh and opened his eyes. “Was this turned into a party, and I just wasn’t told?”
DarkCloud turned back. “Shall I make her leave?”
Johnny weakly shook his head, then with a soft moan, he slowly pushed himself upright and gave Grace a crooked smile. “I think it’d be best if you go wait for Jamie. Won’t be long now.”
“But—but I want to help,” Grace replied persistently.
“I’m giving Johnny morphine,” DarkCloud interrupted. “That’s what’s in this syringe. It works like laudanum, only stronger and faster. There really isn’t anything you can do.”
Grace nodded, her eyes wandering once more to the object in DarkCloud’s hand. “Johnny,” she said, pulling her attention away to focus on the gunfighter. “If you want me to go, I will. I just came because I—I hoped to—I wanted to tell you that—I need you to return.”
Johnny shook his head, forced a wry smile. “No, you don’t. But thanks. Now it’d probably be best if you left.”
Grace hesitated. “Isn’t there something I could do to help? Anything at all?”
DarkCloud sighed loudly. “Well, we’re running out of time. So, if you really want to help, go over there and get the bandages ready. The ointments, too. I’ll be needing them in a minute.”
With a grateful nod, Grace went to the small table where DarkCloud had left the bandages. As she carefully unrolled them, she closely watched DarkCloud’s movements.
DarkCloud gave Johnny’s forearm a pat then leaned over. “I’m going to inject some of this into your back, now. Okay?”
Johnny nodded. “I s’pose you need me to move.”
DarkCloud smiled. “Would help. You can have the chair.”
Slowly Johnny rose from the edge of the bed while DarkCloud slid the chair a few inches closer for him. As Johnny turned to sit in the chair, Grace let out a stifled gasp. Immediately DarkCloud shot her a glare of reproach.
Shocked at the sight of Johnny’s bruised and injured back, she stood frozen, unable to move, her hand pressed tightly to her mouth. The scars of old bullet wounds that had so disturbed her a few weeks earlier appeared as nothing compared to the fresh raw damage she now saw. Suddenly she felt empathy for the old scars, a realization that they weren’t just evidence of a hard and dangerous life, but also a reminder of suffering and pain.
Her lips clenched tightly between her teeth, Grace held her breath and watched as Johnny leaned forward onto the table, his back exposed. Then after giving Johnny’s left shoulder a quick, reassuring touch, DarkCloud bent down and positioned the syringe near the site of Johnny’s inflamed wound.
Johnny felt DarkCloud settle his palm near the swollen area of his back. However, he was more mesmerized by the tingling warmth that continued to spread throughout his body, enshrouding the piercing agony that had been his constant companion in a blanket of well-being. Even the idea of the sharp needle that was soon to penetrate his skin near a site of pure agony held no apprehension for him. He was simply enjoying the first moments he’d had of relief from constant torment. As the needle pierced his skin, he fought back the urge to tense up and instead held his breath, closed his eyes, and totally relaxed.
“Done,” DarkCloud murmured as he withdrew his hand. “You should be feeling better very quickly.”
Licking his lips, Johnny slowly pushed up until only his elbows rested on the table, then he glanced up at DarkCloud. “I—I feel better already,” Johnny said, then tilted his head back and closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply.
DarkCloud hesitated, unable to find a positive response. Instead he turned toward Grace. “You have the bandages ready?”
Nodding mutely, Grace hurriedly grabbed up the strips of cloth and ointments. As she went to the table with the supplies, she felt her eyes gripped by the sight of Johnny’s back, unable to look away. Self-consciously she laid the supplies out then forced herself to meet DarkCloud’s eyes, her breath thick in her chest at the tragic and disheartened expression on the doctor’s face.
“I’m going to put the bandages back on,” DarkCloud quietly informed Johnny.
“Tight, remember?” Johnny replied, his eyes still closed.
DarkCloud grabbed up the first container of ointment, scooped a liberal amount on the tips of his fingers and began to gently apply it to the wound. After he had finished and was picking up the second container, Grace gathered up the bandages and held them ready. She noticed Johnny’s breathing tensing as DarkCloud applied the ointment, though Grace could tell that the doctor was being as careful and light with his touch as possible. As soon as DarkCloud had finished, Grace handed him a square of cloth, which he placed over the seeping wound.
“Can you help me here?” DarkCloud asked as he kept one hand on the square of fabric.
With a quick nod, Grace took an end of the bandage and put it over the square of cloth. Together they carefully wrapped the bandage around Johnny’s back and side, DarkCloud checking the tautness with his fingers as they went.
Once finished, DarkCloud straightened up, hazarding a glance at Grace. He was disturbed to see that tears were streaming down her face, though she uttered not a sound.
Noting DarkCloud quietly scrutinizing her, Grace quickly turned away, occupying herself with closing the containers.
“What time is it?” Johnny suddenly asked.
Forcing his attention away from Grace, DarkCloud grabbed out his pocket watch and flipped it open. “It’s four-thirty.”
Johnny glanced toward the window. “I should leave in fifteen minutes. I need to get ready.”
“Tell me what you need,” DarkCloud said.
Johnny nodded toward the bedpost, a wry grin appearing on his face. “My holster, for one thing.”
Grace watched DarkCloud cross to the bed and unhook the belt, noting that he stared at it a second before turning and setting it on the table in front of Johnny.
Johnny slowly lifted his left arm and grasped the belt. “I need my gun. It’s in the saddlebag.”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow. “But there’s one in there.”
“I need a different gun,” Johnny replied.
With a baffled expression, DarkCloud went to the saddlebag and opened it. Putting his hand in, he immediately felt the touch of cool metal. Slowly he drew the object out. He looked at it, expressionless for a few seconds, its ominous, solid black matte finish, its shortened barrel and slightly curved grip instantly confirming that this was, indeed, a different gun—a gunfighter’s weapon, a weapon meant to kill quickly and without remorse.
DarkCloud turned around, the gun flat on his palm. “This is a strange looking piece.”
At the statement, Johnny’s eyes momentarily lost focus. Then he shook himself and blinked, bringing his attention back to DarkCloud.
“Nothing,” Johnny replied with a curt shake of his head. “Give it here.”
DarkCloud held out his hand.
As Johnny lifted the gun off the outstretched palm, the tremors he had been fighting suddenly ceased. His fingers instinctively curled into place, gathering strength and reassurance from its familiarity. He studied the weapon in silence for a moment, his left thumb reaching out to rub along the barrel.
“You’ve had this gun awhile,” DarkCloud stated quietly.
“Too long,” Johnny murmured as he forced his gaze up, his eyes narrowing as if trying to focus on some far distant object. Johnny swallowed and blinked. “I—I need to get my shirt back on.”
DarkCloud gave a somber nod and picked up the black shirt while Johnny laid the gun along side the holster. Then positioning both hands at the edge of the table, Johnny slowly pushed himself to a standing position, only a small grunt of pain evidence of his discomfort.
Grace found herself holding her breath as DarkCloud carefully helped Johnny guide his arms into the sleeves. Then as DarkCloud reached out to help with the buttons, Johnny waved him away and painstakingly began to do up his own buttons.
“If I can’t button my own shirt, I sure as hell won’t be able to outdraw Wakeman’s gun,” he replied laconically. “And I’ll need a new bandana.”
“I’ll—I can get that,” Grace cut in, anxious to dispel the eerie sense that she was taking part in some sort of last rites. “Where are they?”
Johnny pivoted slowly to regard her with a look that told her he had momentarily forgotten she was even there. “In the other side of the saddle bag,” he instructed.
Grace quickly nodded and hurried to the saddlebag where she retrieved a new, red silk bandana. She held it quietly in her hands as she watched Johnny check and load the chambers of his weapon. Satisfied that all was as it should be, he then slid the modified revolver into the holster lying on the table.
Keeping his eyes downcast, Johnny picked up the belt and in slow and even movements, slung it around his hips. The action still caused him to wince, but the groan this time managed to stay buried. Silently he cursed his weakness, irritated to have DarkCloud standing in front of him, watching him like a hawk…no, like a soaring eagle, remember? And you’re the mule…
“It’s still early,” DarkCloud said. “Why don’t you wait a few more minutes?”
Johnny glanced up after he’d finished with the buckle. “I’d hate to get to the party late. And at the rate I’ll probably be moving, that’s a possibility. No,” he smiled wryly. “I’d rather be early. Can’t do with showin’ up, doin’ a slow shuffle, and havin’ Wakeman witness it and then know for a fact I’m not up to playin’ my part. ‘Sides, that’s why I got you to put a rocking chair there.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “Johnny, why do you insist on acting like this is some sort of party? It’s not.”
“Yes, it is,” Johnny contradicted darkly. “It’s a wake. Only no one knows what their part’s gonna be ‘til it’s over.”
DarkCloud shot Grace a hooded look before he muttered, “Only I guess we all know who’s got the lead role of corpse.”
Johnny glared at DarkCloud, then gave an unexpected snort. “That’s good.” With a crooked grin that wrinkled the corner of his eyes, he walked over to Grace and took the bandana away from her.
Grace had to force herself to release her hold on the red fabric, her mouth opening to speak as she felt Johnny’s eyes on her. “Johnny,” she forced the words out of her mouth. “Please don’t die.”
Johnny’s eyes softly settled on her, a wry grin spreading slowly across his face. “Grace, you may know what I’m a’scared of, but I know what you’re a’scared of, too.”
Grace’s eyes quickly searched out DarkCloud’s for a second, where she saw a questioning look on his face. “Johnny, I—I just—”
“I may be a’scared of dyin’ alone,” Johnny said as he raised his hand to touch her chin, “but you’re a’scared of death…and of bein’ wrong.”
Grace looked down, burned by Johnny’s touch and his words.
Johnny dropped his hand and turned away. Silently he walked over to the saddlebag, his face no longer taut and lined with pain.
DarkCloud gravely realized the morphine was doing just what it was supposed to do. He stepped over to Johnny and watched as the gunfighter reached into the saddlebag and produced a glove. Without acknowledging DarkCloud’s presence, Johnny folded it and slipped it into his belt.
“Johnny, please. You can still change your mind about this.”
Johnny’s brows knit in bemusement. “Why? Your medicine’s working. I’m feelin’ fine now.”
Putting a hand on Johnny’s arm, DarkCloud looked into the intensely bright eyes of the gunfighter. “But you’re not fine. You need to understand that.”
Johnny gave a disgusted shake of his head and tried to pull away, but DarkCloud maintained his grip. “You must understand this, Johnny. You aren’t okay. You’re feeling okay for now. But this morphine…it’s not healing you, it’s just masking your pain. The wound’s still there. The injured ribs are still there—”
“Okay, DarkCloud,” Johnny shot back, wrenching his arm away. “I get it! Enough already.”
DarkCloud stepped back and shook his head dismally. “Johnny, I won’t be able to pick up the pieces this time.”
Johnny dropped his gaze a few seconds before returning a hard-edged expression. “I don’t expect you to.”
Clenching his jaw, DarkCloud grunted with frustration, his hands balling into tight fists. “God, Madrid! You’re the most stubborn man I ever did meet!”
“Funny, I was gonna say the same about you,” Johnny replied with a crooked grin.
Biting back a scathing tirade, DarkCloud turned abruptly away and pushed past Grace to pace toward the window. “Johnny—”
“DarkCloud, please. It’s okay. You’ve done all anyone could expect and more. There’s no regrets, really.”
“Why don’t I believe you?” DarkCloud murmured then wearily dropped his head to his hands. Sighing, he rubbed his forehead in a gesture of defeat. As his hand fell away from his face, his eyes landed on two letters lying on the small table. “What’s this?”
Averting his gaze, Johnny bit his lip before forcing himself to stand more erect. Then he took a breath, careful to keep his tone even. “Some letters I’d like you to see get delivered for me.”
DarkCloud turned around, his expression having changed to horrified disbelief. “Johnny, you can’t want—?”
“The name’s on the outside,” Johnny continued. “One’s just up in Salinas. A blacksmith. Tucson or Matthew will know who to deliver it to. The other’s—” Johnny faltered, “the other’s a priest, Father Francisco, just over the border in Mexico. The address is there.”
“I wish you’d do this for me,” Johnny added, his eyes indicating that no questions be asked. “Please,” he added quietly.
DarkCloud glanced quickly at the letters, an unreal feeling washing over him…a sense of the macabre…of being in a nightmare over which he had no control. “I’ll—I’ll do it,” DarkCloud whispered, then glanced sadly at Grace before he looked at Johnny once more. “But—but isn’t there someone else? Some—some family?”
DarkCloud saw a look of despair…a look of sorrow …pass over the gunfighter’s face. A look DarkCloud knew he was only seeing because Johnny was still too weak to hide the emotion behind his mask.
“I have no other family,” Johnny replied evenly, once the mask was in place once more.
“My mother’s dead.”
“Then a father—”
“I have no father,” Johnny replied hotly, surprising DarkCloud with the vehemence in his tone.
“Everyone has a father.”
“Well, I don’t,” Johnny retorted, then gave a quick intake of breath, wincing as his tense movements caused a flare-up of pain.
DarkCloud instinctively took a step forward, but Johnny’s narrowed eyes brought him up, the darkly contracted pupils indicating the medicine was in full effect.
“The man who sired me, I curse. I don’t care whether he lives or dies, and I certainly don’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing his inconvenient mistake is dead.”
DarkCloud blinked, feeling the anger of the words hit him. Yet it was the unthinkingly blatant revelation that Johnny planned to die, made in front of Grace, that stunned him the most. DarkCloud continued to stare at Johnny a few seconds, realizing that the gunfighter hadn’t been aware of what he’d just revealed so openly in front of another person.
DarkCloud swallowed, closed his eyes and turned back to the table. “I’ll—I’ll take care of it,” he said without emotion.
“Thanks,” Johnny answered. Then he gave Grace a nod and slowly turned toward the door.
DarkCloud heard the footsteps and then the sound of the doorknob. He turned. “Johnny—”
Johnny hesitated, then pivoted halfway around, giving DarkCloud a sidelong look, his eyebrow arching questioningly.
DarkCloud faltered, every argument had been tried, every reason had been given—he had nothing left to say.
Johnny gave DarkCloud a melancholy smile before nodding over his shoulder toward the window. “Don’t watch,” he said.
DarkCloud tried to look away, but couldn’t, his eyes tightly locked under Johnny’s coolly reserved, dark blue gaze. “I couldn’t,” he whispered.
Johnny nodded and quietly left the room, leaving DarkCloud alone with a syringe and heavy thoughts of failure, while Grace quietly cried behind her hands.
Johnny paused at the top of the stairs, aware that his entrance in the saloon below would generate immediate excitement and speculation. And though he would have liked to avoid it, he also knew from past experience that it was inescapable. There was no way for the gunfighter to make his appearance unnoticed; it was the way the game was played.
He took a deep, cleansing breath, testing the support of the bandages and vaguely commending DarkCloud’s choice of medicine. The relief at being able to draw a breath without the constant searing pain had given him an immediate sense of well-being and energy he hadn’t had in a long time.
As he descended into the saloon, a group of seven men were standing about, their voices low, their nervousness visible in their fidgeting movements. It only took one man to notice Johnny’s entrance, and every conversation came to an immediate cessation.
Matthew, who was standing at the bar with Rosti and Calientes, watched Johnny closely. Though he knew DarkCloud was under the impression that Johnny wasn’t up to taking on Wakeman, Matthew was surprised by how composed and convincing Johnny appeared. The mask of the gunfighter was in place…covering any pain or discomfort he was feeling.
Johnny’s eyes traveled leisurely around the room, though he appeared to take no notice of anyone; the look was compassionless and void of emotion. Without even a nod of recognition given to anyone, Johnny continued to the door.
After making a quick note that neither Grace nor DarkCloud were appearing, Matthew turned and quickly followed Johnny out the doors and into the street.
“Johnny!” Matthew called, catching up to him outside the saloon.
Johnny paused and turned around. “Matthew,” he greeted simply.
Matthew stepped back, suddenly uncomfortable under Johnny’s blank gaze. “Uh, Grace went to see you,” he ventured.
Johnny nodded. “I saw her.”
“Did…did DarkCloud tell you that we’ve placed men both north and south of town incase Wakeman plans to send another group in behind?”
Johnny shook his head and gave a vague glance down the street. “I doubt he’ll try anything else; he doesn’t really need to.”
“We…uh…we also got some men placed in Solero’s house and in the livery…but you might know that already.”
Johnny nodded, then turned and continued down the street, Matthew, once again, hurrying to catch up.
A wooden boardwalk connected the dozen buildings, assorted businesses and homes on what could be called the main street of Soledad. But the single road that ran west out of town was just a indistinct collection made up of Solero’s Livery, his home and barn along the north side of the street with Calientes’ store on the south corner along with two other houses and assorted corrals.
Johnny stepped up onto the boardwalk on the opposite side of the street from the saloon and turned north. He heard Matthew’s footsteps following. When the boardwalk ended in front of Calientes’, he paused again and turned. “Something else, Matthew?” he asked coolly, mindful to keep the mask in place lest Matthew make any connection to the small part of his soul that craved the friendship Matthew so obviously wanted to foster…an act that would only serve to make the ending more painful than it had already proved to be.
Matthew squared his shoulders bravely. “I want to do something, Johnny. I want to help.”
Johnny gave a soft snort while he yielded a slight curl to his lips. “You’re not gonna be up in one of them windows, are you?”
Matthew shook his head.
“Good. That’s of immense comfort right there.”
“Johnny,” Matthew’s voice conveyed his exasperation. “Please…it’s my brother. You’ve done so much—I—”
“You’ve done more than you know,” Johnny replied. Then his smile softened. “There is one thing you can do for me.”
Matthew looked up expectantly.
“You can tell DarkCloud where the paper is that Wakeman wants.”
Matthew’s eyes rose in disbelief. “You don’t have it?”
“Of course not…or not all of it in any case,” Johnny replied. “Half of it is hidden in the hem of the curtains in my room and the other half is hidden in the pocket of my belt.”
“Your gun belt?”
“No,” Johnny looked down and fingered the two buckles on the ornate belt he wore under his gun belt. “This piece, between the two buckles, has a slit behind it. It’s hidden there.”
“Why’d you tear the paper in half?”
“Because it’s still your protection… incase things go wrong. It and the men I sent up to the corrals.”
Matthew nodded, his lips pursed unhappily.
“I also need you to keep everyone away from this street. I don’t want anyone hit by a stray bullet.”
Once again Matthew nodded. Then desperate to prolong the inevitable, he asked, “Anything else?”
“Yes,” Johnny paused. “Get Jamie to safety as soon as…as soon as you can,” he let his voice trail off.
“I will,” Matthew replied grimly.
Then as Johnny made to leave, Matthew added quickly. “Good luck, Johnny. We’ll—I’ll—”
“It’s okay, Matthew. Really,” Johnny cut in.
“No—I—” Suddenly at a loss for words, Matthew stuck his hand out.
Johnny raised an eyebrow, then clasped Matthew’s palm firmly. For a split second, he looked Matthew in the eye, the mask dropped. Then just as abruptly, he turned toward the corner and headed down the dusty street to Solero’s house.
As Matthew watched Johnny leave, he whispered, “We’ll keep you in our prayers.”
Mary stood next to her horse, little Wes snuggled happily in her arms, as the group waited to be joined by two more men riding toward them. As the horses drew nearer, Mary could see that a young boy rode in front of one of the men.
As they reined up, Mary and the young boy looked at each other. She was amazed at the lack of fear in his eyes and smiled reassuringly.
The other men dismounted. Then the young boy was roughly lifted off the horse and handed a canteen while the men began to confer among themselves. Mary waited a moment before casually stepping closer.
“Are you okay?” she asked quietly.
The young boy nodded and continued to regard her without fear—just eyes wide with interest.
“My name’s Mary. This is Wes.”
Jamie glanced at the young child, then back up at Mary. “I’m Jamie,” he replied softly. “Are you another friend of Johnny’s?”
Mary smiled again. “Yes. Yes, I guess I am.”
“Don’t worry then.” Jamie smiled back. “He’ll save us.”
Harley, Murdoch and Scott galloped toward the desolate and sequestered buildings that made up the insignificant town of Soledad. The horses were covered in a dusty lather while the men didn’t look much better than their mounts.
The consuming realization that just as he was about to reach the goal of finding his brother, he was in danger of having him snatched away by death, preyed on Scott’s thoughts as the drab buildings slowly drew closer.
Murdoch, also, was tormented with the thought that the son he had never been able to reach or understand might once again be ripped from him. Only this time it was to a place no Pinkertons would be able to locate.
Harley, a fear for his wife, child and friend weighing on him, dwelled on dark thoughts he’d thought he’d buried long ago in the past.
As the riders came up to the first building, three men unexpectedly dashed out to the middle of the street, the business end of their rifles pointed toward the riders’ chests. Dismayed and startled, the riders pulled up their horses.
“Where d’ya think you’re goin’?” the man in the middle demanded threateningly.
“We need to see Madrid,” Harley hurriedly spoke up, pushing his horse forward.
“Hear that?” the man called to the others with him. “They wanna see Madrid!” He looked back at the three riders, his rifle aimed squarely at Harley. “Well, he ain’t receivin’ no new visitors today.”
“Please,” Murdoch tried.
“Enough!” the man roared tersely. “Off your horses now! If Wakeman thinks we’re fool enough to let him sneak in and attack Madrid from behind, too—”
“We’re not with Wakeman!” Scott retorted. “We just want to see—”
“I said, ‘Off!’ Now!”
Harley, Murdoch and Scott looked at each other in silent agreement that further argument with the three men brandishing guns was unwise. With a nod from Harley, they dismounted, though Scott had to clench his teeth to keep from spewing out a number of useful obscenities he’d picked up during the war.
Murdoch walked up to the man in the middle. “My name’s Murdoch Lancer and—”
“Sure you are, Pops. But that don’t make no never mind. You ain’t seein’ Madrid.”
“We’ve got information about two more hostages that Wakeman’s got,” Harley insisted.
“What?” one of the men asked. “He’s got someone besides the Viera kid?”
“Yes,” Murdoch replied and pointed at Harley. “His wife and child.”
“So we need to see him now,” Scott added, taking the reins of his horse and starting down the street. “Where is he?”
“Now hold it there!” the leader ordered. “How do we know you’re tellin’ the truth? Why would Wakeman take his wife and kid?” He shot a look at Harley.
“Because Harley’s a friend of Johnny’s,” Scott retorted harshly. “And I’m his brother!”
One of the men snorted. “Now that’s a good one!”
“I’ve damned well had enough of this!” Scott exploded, the pent-up anxiety and frustration of four weeks erupting beyond his control.
“Scott,” Murdoch warned, putting out a hand to stop his son.
“We really need to talk to Johnny—or,” Harley paused as he quickly had another thought. “Is Matthew around?”
“Matthew? Jamie’s brother?” the leader asked.
Harley nodded. “Could you take us to see him?”
The man seemed to consider the idea as he shot a questioning glance toward his companions.
“Think it’s a trick?” one of them asked.
“Dunno,” the leader answered. “Kinda doubt it, but Wakeman’s sly as a ferret near a hen house at supper—”
“Oh, hell!” Scott retorted in full fury as he tore his arm out of Murdoch’s grasp. “While these idiots discuss what to do, Wakeman’s gonna murder my brother!”
“You just watch your mouth, Boy!” the man closest to Scott threatened.
Scott turned his sweat-streaked face toward the man, his eyes flashing with exasperation and rage. “Make me!”
“Scott!” Murdoch jumped forward, too late, as the man took a swing at Scott with the butt of his rifle.
Scott dodged the blow and came up from behind the man, his agility obviously not hampered by the arduous journey, and landed a strong blow to the back of the man’s shoulders, sending him face forward into the dirt. Unfortunately, Scott had less than a second to enjoy his victory as a blow from the leader’s gun landed him in the dirt beside his earlier opponent…
…while down the street and around the corner…Johnny paused momentarily at the sound of raised voices…. He thought… but no…for a second he thought one sounded familiar…. Whatever was going on, he hoped they had the sense to stay away from the west side of town….
DarkCloud sat glaring morosely across the room, a full-fledged scowl leveled at the dark medical bag and the syringe lying on the table. Other than the medical items, one would be hard pressed to know Johnny had even been there. It was like he’d evaporated.
Grace, unable to get any response from DarkCloud, had left soon after Johnny. Her stifled sobs had seemed to irritate DarkCloud, and he thought he’d be relieved when she was gone. But now the silence seemed oppressive…too full of visions of what he knew was going to happen out in the street…and too darkly colored by a couple of letters lying on the table. Letters to be delivered posthumously. DarkCloud wondered if he should add a note of his own. Would it alleviate grief…or only make things worse?
A blacksmith and a priest.
DarkCloud stood up and walked to the table. The letters lay, folded neatly one on top of the other. DarkCloud read the name on the first. Padre Francisco Ortega. He picked up the top letter and saw the one to the blacksmith. Isaac Harley, he silently read to himself.
He reached out and picked it up—and was numbed with shock as he realized there was a third letter. The Soaring Eagle Who Sees Everything.
DarkCloud blinked and subconsciously glanced out the window.
“Shit!” he swore softly. “Damn you, Madrid.”
Gingerly he picked up the letter and unfolded it. He gazed at it, not registering the words, but noting that the letters showed only a slight unsteadiness. He marveled at the control it must have taken for Johnny to complete all three letters.
DarkCloud took a deep breath and began reading:
I felt I needed to write to you to try one last time to get you to understand that I’m doing what I want to do. I don’t want you to continue to believe that there was something more you could have done to stop me. There wasn’t. You did everything you could—more than anyone has done for me in a long time. So don’t blame yourself for today. I’ve been expecting this for a very long time, so I got no regrets and neither should you. In fact, Reveles would say I’ve lived as long as I have because I didn’t care one way or another. He always said that when you start to care, that’s when you get too cautious and make a mistake. The quickest way to get yourself killed is to try too hard to stay alive. So, I guess if I’d been so worried about staying alive I’d have been dead long ago.
Enough said on that.
Thank you for taking care of the other two letters. Harley’s known me a long time and he’ll tell you himself that he gave in easier than you did—as far as riding my back about this—so that should tell you something.
There’s another favor I need to ask of you, though. I would have mentioned it to Matthew, but I don’t think he’d be able to handle it. I think I can count on you to do it for me, however.
I want you to collect on the $4,000 bounty from Kansas. It’s sitting there anyway, and I’m sure I’ll take care of Wakeman just fine, and I’ll be damned if I want anyone else collecting on it, so I’d appreciate it if you took care of it. I think I can trust you to do this for me.
I would like you to take $1000 of it and get the town to build a proper jail and see if you can’t get Tucson to hire on as sheriff. That’d really help Soledad with that new railroad being completed here soon and give Tucson some sort of a real future.
Then I’d like you to give $1000 to Matthew, Grace and Jamie. I’d like to see them get their place fixed up better and have some money to see that Jamie grows up with what he needs. I’d like to see he gets an education, too. He’s a smart boy.
That follows with what I’d like you to do with another $1000. Get the town to build a school and hire a proper teacher…Grace could certainly do the job. I want the kids here to have some real learning so they grow up knowing they’ve got other options.
Then I’d like you to take $500 to cover your own expenses and time. God knows I’ve taken up enough of it already.
Lastly, I’d like you to give $500 to the local mission priest. Perhaps he could say a Mass for me.
Thank you for doing this and I leave it to your discretion if you need to change some of the amounts. I’ve never been much good at handling money, but I gotta feeling you are. You’ll do right.
Give Matthew my best wishes and please keep an extra eye out on Jamie for me, will you? Don’t tell him any fanciful stories about me or let Matthew either. I don’t want that. And try to make amends with Grace. She was just trying to do what she thought was best, like you were.
Thanks again for trying to help. I think I finally met someone as stubborn as me. I have a better sense of humor, however. And I am sorry about the manure.
PS Tell Jamie I’m sorry I couldn’t return to play cards.
DarkCloud took a deep breath and refolded the letter. Then he closed his eyes, tilted his head back and slowly exhaled. With a tired shake of his head, he mumbled, “Damn you, Johnny.”
Murdoch and Harley were led under guard into the town toward a building with a bright red sign proclaiming it as Rosti’s Hotel/Saloon while Scott was slung unceremoniously over one of their captor’s shoulder. The third man had been left to continue to stand guard. Both Murdoch and Harley scanned the street, but other than a few small groups of men talking, no one was to be seen.
“Hey, Rosti!” the man with the rifle called as they entered the saloon. “You seen Matthew?”
Rosti looked up from the act of gathering empty mugs, studying the men and their apparent hostages with interest. Murdoch noticed the saloon was empty, though a number of used mugs sat around on various tables.
“He followed Madrid out,” Rosti replied then jerked his head toward the stairs. “DarkCloud’s still here. He’s in Madrid’s room.” He gave a nod toward the three under guard. “What’cha got there, Vince? Some of Wakeman’s men?”
Vince shrugged. “Ain’t sure yet. They claim to be friends of Madrid.”
Rosti cocked his head. “I’d get up quick and talk to DarkCloud. He’ll know what to do.”
Vince nodded and pointed his rifle toward the stairs.
Murdoch took the lead. The slow burn that had been ignited in his belly at the news that his son had returned to being a gunfighter was growing. And every mention of the name ‘Madrid’ seemed to add more fuel to the fire, stoking it until Murdoch felt he wouldn’t be able to control his own temper any more.
At the top of the steps, Vince instructed Murdoch and Harley to move off to the side.
“Hey, DarkCloud! You in there?” Vince called.
There was the sound of footsteps, then the door was pulled open and Murdoch found himself standing face to face with a man of obvious Indian descent, his dark, penetrating eyes widening in surprise at the sight of the group outside his door. “What’s going on?”
“We found these fellas comin’ down the Salinas road—and they were in a mighty big hurry,” Vince explained.
“Salinas?” The Indian’s eyes once again studied Murdoch before moving on to Harley.
“Hey, I’d like to set this one down,” the man in the back called. “He’s gettin’ mighty heavy.”
“We had to cold-cock one of them,” Vince explained as he jerked his head toward the back of the group.
With an expression that had slowly changed from surprise to dark suspicion, the Indian moved out of the way to allow the group to enter, while the man carrying Scott went to the bed and roughly dumped his burden.
“Watch it!” Murdoch warned.
The man gave Murdoch a sour look and straightened up.
“Now what’s going on?” DarkCloud asked.
“We were hopin’ to find Matthew,” Vince replied. “This one here,” he nodded at Harley, “says Matthew’ll be able to vouch for them.”
“Why do you want Matthew?” DarkCloud asked.
“We really want to see Johnny,” Murdoch replied gruffly.
Harley held a hand up in caution.
Narrowing his eyes at Murdoch, DarkCloud walked up. “Madrid? Why?”
“We need to tell him that Wakeman’s got other hostages,” Harley cut in, pushing his way up next to Murdoch.
“Hostages?” DarkCloud exclaimed with a sharp glance at Vince.
“That’s what they’re claimin’,” Vince acknowledged.
There was a sudden groan from the bed and all eyes turned toward Scott as he weakly pushed himself to a sitting position.
“Scott.” Murdoch quickly brushed past Vince to reach the bed.
Scott groaned and rubbed the back of his neck. “What hap—” Abruptly his head snapped up. “Johnny!” He looked up at his father. “Where is he? Did you find him?”
“Johnny?” DarkCloud shook his head in confusion, then walked up to Murdoch. “Okay, why don’t you just tell me who you are and what the devil you’re doing here! And how come you’d know if Wakeman has other hostages!”
Murdoch turned around, one hand remaining on Scott’s shoulder. “I’m Murdoch Lancer, and this is my son, Scott, and—”
“And you?” DarkCloud cut him off as he turned to the large, burly man.
“I’m Harley. Isaac Harley, and it’s my wife and kid Wakeman has—”
“Harley?” DarkCloud’s eyes opened wide. Abruptly he turned and walked to the table near the window and picked up a folded letter. He glanced at it quickly then studied the man’s face a second before he asked, “What do you do for a living?”
Harley appeared taken back by the question, but replied, “Well, I’m a blacksmith. Why?”
DarkCloud looked down at the letter he held in his hands, his manner eerily subdued. “Johnny left this for you,” he replied softly.
“Johnny left…” Murdoch said, glancing at the letter in DarkCloud’s hand.
Harley looked at the letter then back to DarkCloud, and their eyes connected in a mutual understanding of the situation. Stepping forward, Harley grimly accepted the letter.
“He’s gonna…” Harley paused and glanced back down at the writing on the letter. Then slowly he looked up at DarkCloud. “His condition?”
“Even if he had any intention of living….” DarkCloud finished with a sad shake of his head.
“What do you mean?” Scott bolted to his feet, wavering as the quick reaction sent his head reeling in protest while his knees threatened to buckle. He was surprised, though relieved, when he felt Murdoch’s hand firmly grip his upper arm.
“He’s meeting Wakeman now, isn’t he?” Murdoch asked tersely.
DarkCloud looked at the two other men. “Neither one of you look like a padre, so who are you?”
Harley raised an eyebrow at the question, then realized there was another letter lying on the table—one he felt fairly certain he knew to whom it was addressed.
“I told you, I’m Murdoch Lancer,” Murdoch replied stiffly. “And—and Johnny’s my son.”
There was a moment of stunned silence as DarkCloud and the two men from town looked at each other in surprise.
“Your son?” DarkCloud asked. “But Johnny—” He glanced at the letter on the table, then back at Murdoch, his eyes tightening. “Other than once indicating his intense hatred of you, he’s never mentioned a father.” Then he looked at Scott. “And I know he’s never said anything about any brother.”
Harley stepped forward. “When Johnny was up in Salinas, I found out he’d lost his memory. Is that right?”
Hesitant at first, then grimly, DarkCloud nodded.
“Well, apparently in that coupla years he forgot about, he reunited with his family.”
“So, you know these men?”
Harley looked at Murdoch and Scott. “I met ‘em this morning. But I believe they’re tellin’ the truth.”
“Of course we’re telling the truth. Why wouldn’t we be?” Scott demanded.
“I can think of a number of reasons,” DarkCloud replied.
“Well, you’d be wrong,” Scott retorted. “I need to see my brother. And I refuse to stand here while Johnny is out there being slaughtered!”
DarkCloud studied Scott’s face, the desperation clearly visible. “I trust you,” he said. Then he glanced toward the window. “But I’m not sure what we can do.”
“We’ve got to warn him that there’s other hostages, for one thing,” Harley stated. “And then see if we can’t put an end to this whole mess.”
DarkCloud nodded dourly. “If it’s not too late already.” He then turned to Murdoch and Scott. “But I don’t know about you two.”
“What do you mean? What about us?” Murdoch demanded.
Worrying the bottom of his lip, DarkCloud considered Murdoch before turning to Scott, his expression softening slightly. “He doesn’t remember you…at all. When he left…he wasn’t planning on coming back. He’s—he’s not well,” DarkCloud paused, gave a slight shake of his head. “And in a lot of pain. The missing gaps in his memory have been haunting him, as well as what he has managed to remember.” DarkCloud sighed, his hesitation obvious. “I’m afraid that when he left, his plan was to save Jamie and put an end to his suffering,” there was another slight pause as DarkCloud’s expression became grim, “the physical and the mental.”
Scott could feel his heart pounding in his chest. “You sound like you’ve given up on him!”
“No.” DarkCloud shook his head dismally. “He’s given up on himself.”
Harley gave a soft groan. “I had a feelin’ that’s what was up when I found out he was taking laudanum again.”
DarkCloud nodded. “He’s living with the help of it now, but it’s killing him, too.” He turned back to Scott and Murdoch. “Maybe it’d be best if you stayed here.”
“The hell I will!” Scott exploded while Murdoch put a restraining hand on his arm.
“Laudanum?” Murdoch asked, with a confused shake of his head. “Killing Johnny? I don’t understand.”
Harley and DarkCloud looked at Murdoch, DarkCloud’s expression turning wary as he took a step closer to the older man.
Murdoch regarded the Indian with some surprise as he felt himself critically viewed.
“You claim to be his father, yet you don’t know about his problem with laudanum?” DarkCloud asked, a hint of mistrust in his tone.
Though Murdoch returned DarkCloud’s glare, he hesitated before replying, “There’s a lot I don’t know about my son.”
DarkCloud turned to Scott. “How about you?” he asked.
Scott opened his mouth then shook his head weakly. “I—I know he doesn’t like to take it…but I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe Teresa or Jelly….” He gestured almost apologetically, his eyes darting toward his father in confusion.
“The Pinkertons didn’t supply this piece of information, huh?” Harley asked rather sarcastically.
Anger colored Murdoch’s face, but he didn’t reply.
“Pinkertons?” DarkCloud cut in.
“He hired them to find Johnny,” Harley supplied.
“So you know about the bounty, then?” DarkCloud asked.
Both Scott and Murdoch nodded.
DarkCloud clenched his jaw tightly and continued to glare at Scott and Murdoch another second before he shook his head. “Okay. We don’t have any more time for this. I want to get down there, but I want these two,” he gestured toward Scott and Murdoch, “kept under guard. And if I find out you’re actually bounty hunters come for Johnny, I’ll shoot you myself.”
The threatening look DarkCloud leveled on both Murdoch and Scott left no room for doubt that he meant what he said.
Johnny walked toward the rocking chair sitting on the porch of Solero’s house. His mind was full of Matthew’s last words to him, DarkCloud’s parting look, the sounds of Grace’s quiet sobs, and the letters he’d left to be delivered. He needed to sit down and clear his mind before he played out his concluding role.
He lowered himself into the chair, relieved at how well the medicine DarkCloud had given him was working. Studying his right hand, he flexed it a couple of times before cautiously stretching it outward. Just a slight hitch in his side. Sure, he could sense that the pain was vaguely there, that his breathing wasn’t quite as comfortable as he would have liked, but he’d made it all the way from the hotel under his own power and the pain hadn’t consumed him, or taken over his actions. He was still in control. He mentally thanked DarkCloud.
He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. As he cleared his mind, he could feel the apprehensive and curious stares of the men positioned in the windows of the barn across the street and from the livery nearby. He had no doubt they were wondering why their gunfighter was sitting in a rocking chair.
Johnny smiled. It was an old trick he’d used many times before. Nothing rattled a man like seeing that his enemy harbored so little anxiety about a coming showdown that he felt he could relax for a nice, quiet rock. Besides, in its way, it also helped him release excess energy that he would have had to expend by pacing—and pacing didn’t fit with the character he had created.
Johnny took a deep breath and tested his limit. There was still a sting and his lungs felt thick and constrained, yet he could now force a deep breath. That was good. He’d need it.
He opened his eyes and glanced toward the west. Nothing yet, but the sun was shining brightly over the top of the coastals, effectively blinding any good view of the far distance. Part of what he assumed was Wakeman’s plan. Smart to have the sun at your back when you make an entrance.
He closed his eyes, put his head down, and slowly began to rock.
God, he’d be relieved when they finally showed. The wait would be over and he’d be able to make those last-second plans—exactly how many, positions, height, weight, left-handed, right-handed, had Wakeman indeed found himself a gun, and most importantly, where Jamie was situated.
He was good at those split second decisions. The waiting he wasn’t so good with…thus the rocking chair.
He opened his eyes once more and glanced toward the west. Nothing. He continued to rock.
He felt sure he could take out two, perhaps even three. It would depend on whether Wakeman hoped to redeem his authority after the disaster with the Kid by hiring himself a real gunfighter. If he had, Johnny had no doubt that Wakeman would rather take control by showing he had the better gun on his payroll. It would give him more prestige and power if he were able to say his man had taken care of Johnny Madrid. No messy bloodbath to irritate the Judge or locals. Just a clean gunfight—and one dead body.
Only Johnny wasn’t going to oblige. He strongly doubted Wakeman had been able to find a gun that quickly who could actually take him—even given his injuries. He knew he was good, and it was a knowledge born not of cockiness, but of fact—cold, dead facts.
Johnny squinted toward the west once more. Then he closed his eyes and continued rocking.
His only real fear was getting Jamie to safety. The thought of a stray bullet hitting his young friend gripped him with a panic that he had to constantly fight to keep down. He couldn’t dwell on that, or it would immobilize him and he wouldn’t be able to function as well as he needed.
Briefly he wondered if the padres were right. That the ultimate sacrifice of one life for another guaranteed you a place in heaven. Then he’d get to see Laura once more….
But he doubted that it applied in a case such as his. He didn’t have enough lives to offer to achieve that.
Why’d he ever start on this path? How did he really come to this end, here in this town? Being chased by bounty hunters up in the mountains? Fighting in a revolution he had no expectations of winning? Being shot up in Texas? Having the love of his life die tragically in his arms? Teaming up with Cisco and Wes and Harley? Breaking it off with Reveles and going it alone? Shooting the man when he was fifteen in his first gunfight? Being found by Reveles and trained by him? Living a sporadic, hand-to-mouth existence between orphanages and on the street? Picking up that gun and killing the man who had murdered his mother? Having the only real father he knew murdered in the room above him as he huddled with his mother in a hidden cellar for tequila bottles? Being tossed out like garbage by his mother’s first husband—Murdoch Lancer? Which was the real beginning to this path? Where did the thread first start? He knew where and how it was going to end, but he felt a sudden desire to know where, how and why it began.
Nice to have met you, brother….
Kill time, amongst other things….
But that’s all you got going for you…
You sold it all out for a row of postholes…
Kill time, amongst other things…
But when you go, you won’t even leave a small ripple…
Nice to have met you, brother…
Kill time, amongst other things…
That’s all you’ve got going for you…
Listen and listen hard. I don’t need you, now or ever…
Nice to have met you, brother…
Kill time amongst other things…
But when you go, you won’t even leave a ripple…
Johnny jerked and opened his eyes.
God, if you aren’t more careful, you’ll fall asleep and miss your own death, Madrid.
Johnny licked his lips. His mouth was beginning to feel dry and his heart was pounding. The effects of the medicine, no doubt.
He squinted into the distance—and was rewarded with movement. Wakeman was coming. And soon it would be over.
The lone rider galloped into the south end of town and was immediately detained by three men with rifles. In no mood for explanations, he quickly dismounted and reached for his badge. Curtly he demanded answers to some questions and was relieved to receive coherent answers. Though he would have preferred to have arrived a few hours earlier, he had to admit it was better than arriving too late. He demanded that one of the men accompany him to where the action was going to take place, and together they headed up the street.
Johnny watched with seeming disinterest as the group of riders approached. As they drew near, he was immediately struck with the knowledge that not only was Jamie with them, but a female as well. And as they reached what could roughly be called the outskirts of the town, Johnny was alarmed to see that what he’d first taken to be some sort of sack was instead a small child riding in front of one of the men.
With a sinking feeling he realized he wasn’t faced with one hostage, but three. And the only plausible explanation was that Wakeman had discovered his connection to Harley.
His eyes made a quick scan of the grouping as he continued his rocking. He took small comfort in the fact that he was right about the numbers. There were eight. He noticed immediately that all the hostages’ hands were tied in front of them, and that Wakeman rode in the middle with Mary in front of him. He had obviously decided she was a larger shield to hide behind. The man on Wakeman’s left held the small boy—young Wes. The man on Wakeman’s right held no hostage in front of him, but the next man over held Jamie.
Johnny could feel Jamie’s eyes on him, but he carefully avoided any eye contact. It would not do to let Wakeman know Johnny felt unsettled by the turn of events, or that he felt any emotion one way or the other regarding the hostages. Indifference was one of a gunfighter’s greatest cards.
Johnny allowed his gaze to trail lazily across the faces of the men, then smiled to himself. He’d been correct again. The man beside Wakeman. A gun. Or fancied himself to be, in any case.
Wakeman held up his hand for the men to halt. As the horses pulled up, Johnny continued his quiet rocking, eyes partially hidden by the shadow cast by his hat.
Wakeman paused, his face quickly showing his annoyance as Johnny continued to rock on the porch. He waited for some acknowledgement from the gunfighter, yet none came. Finally, he nodded to Kincaid.
Kincaid grinned fleetingly, his eyes bright and flashing with adrenaline. This was his chance to make a name for himself. To be the man who killed Johnny Madrid. And the knowledge that Madrid was seriously injured only made it more amusing…a game to be played. He almost regretted it was going to be so easy.
He urged his horse forward, away from the rest of the riders, then drew up once more.
Madrid continued to rock.
“I’m callin’ you, Madrid!” Kincaid brashly declared.
Madrid continued to rock. Kincaid glanced back quickly at Wakeman, then firmly squared his shoulders and called out again, “I said, ‘I’m callin’ you out!’”
The rocking abruptly ceased. Kincaid watched as Johnny slowly raised his head to make full eye contact. “I heard you the first time,” he drawled evenly. “I just didn’t figure you merited my notice.”
Kincaid’s jaw dropped open slightly as he felt himself stung by the words of indifference. Hiding his embarrassment, he called back, “I’m calling you out, Madrid. Unless you’re too weak and feeble…or too much of a coward.”
Not a flicker of emotion showed across Johnny’s face as he made a quick mental note that, indeed, Wakeman was aware of his injuries and was counting on them to slow him down.
He allowed a slight curl to appear on his lips. Wakeman didn’t know everything, however. Johnny had his own ace. DarkCloud’s medicine. He allowed his cold smile to linger on the other gunfighter for a brief moment as he sadly pondered how young the other man was. Why were they always so young?
Because only the really good ones lived past their first gunfight, and only the best lived more than a few years.
In that split second he sadly realized that the Kid, and now this gunfighter, were no more than a few years younger than he was, yet the difference felt like a lifetime. For Johnny had made it past the first few years, emerging on the other side as a full-fledged gunfighter with all the reputation and notoriety that went with it…and the nightmares, despair, loneliness and an eternally scarred soul.
So much death, so much pain. God he felt old sometimes. So very, very old.
But unfortunately circumstances had already pre-ordained that this new kid wasn’t going to make it to the other side. He was going to have to die here and now. Grimly, Johnny mused that the young gunfighter ought to be thanking him for cutting his path short.
Johnny regretted that he wouldn’t be able to try to just wound him. Under normal circumstances, he would. But in the ensuing melee that was to come, Johnny couldn’t afford to have an unknown variable unexpectedly find the strength to pick up a gun and begin shooting.
So the young, fledgling gunhawk was dead—he just didn’t know it yet.
Johnny reckoned that it was about time to tell him.
He took a regulated breath, cocked his head to the side and turned his attention to Wakeman. “You wanted to see me?” he asked, ignoring the young gunfighter.
Wakeman’s mouth dropped open a second, surprised at Madrid’s coolness in dismissing his gunfighter. “I—I,” he hesitated, feeling his men watching him. “You’ve been called out, Madrid!”
Johnny slowly nodded. “I said I heard. I’m just tryin’ to give the fool a chance to change his mind and live.”
“I ain’t changin’ my mind, Madrid!” the young gunfighter exploded as he jumped off his horse. “Now I’ve called you out fair, so unless you want me to shoot you where you sit in that god-damned, old man’s rockin’ chair, then I suggest you get your ass out here! Get out here and face me now!”
Johnny allowed one eyebrow to arch in amusement. Slowly he gathered up his muscles and rose smoothly out of the chair, once again praising DarkCloud’s choice of medicine. There was simply a numbness along his back and side now—hardly any pain. He felt his breath still catch, but otherwise he was ready.
Kincaid watched as Madrid stood up, an ominous figure in his black outfit—the red bandana tied around his neck in a flagrant needle at Wakeman. He was surprised to see not even a hint of the gunfighter’s supposed injury. He wondered if Wakeman had his information wrong.
As Johnny slowly raised his hand to push his hat back off his head, Kincaid noticed that he was wearing one glove on his left hand. An unnecessary trademark, yet one that showed that he meant business. Madrid may have been sitting in a rocking chair, but he had been ready all along.
Johnny, continuing to feign amused disinterest, stepped lightly off the porch. Though he felt the eyes watching him from the nearby buildings, he silently commended the men’s cool heads, which had kept them from showing any hostility, as any such action would only precipitate a premature exchange of gunfire—one that would surely cost hostages their lives.
As he reached the center of the wide, dirt path that ran out of town, he slowly rounded on the young man. He made mental note of the sun’s position, calculating the time until it would no longer hamper his vision. Wakeman may have known the old trick of using the sun to advantage, but Johnny had learned early in his career how to control the situation by quickening or slowing down the pace of the drama to fit his own timetable. The last rays of sun that were in his eyes didn’t overly concern him with regard to the young gunfighter he faced. That would be mere ritual—a task that had been completed so many times in the past, both for real and in dry runs, that he could perform it in his sleep…and often did. It was the next step that bothered him. Figuring out some way to get three hostages free. Wondering if, once the gun was taken care of, would Wakeman just start shooting, would he panic, would there be the time to try to get a hostage released…. Wakeman’s reaction to his gunfighter’s death was the unknown variable.
“So you think you wanna dance?” Johnny called lazily.
“I’m sure I could manage to hum a few bars for your funeral,” the young man called back in a voice filled with bravado.
Johnny rewarded his opposition with a faint smile, regretting that the young gunhawk wasn’t going to leave anything behind but a good line.
“Seems we ain’t been properly introduced, though,” Johnny replied.
The young man looked at him with disdain, his fingers twitching like he had an itch that needed immediate relief. “Kincaid,” he answered, his tone hinting at his nervous impatience.
“Kincaid, huh?” Johnny repeated with a nod. “Thanks,” he paused a beat. “I prefer to keep accurate records.”
Kincaid’s eyes narrowed. “I’m gettin’ tired of this, Madrid.”
“I’m sure I could wait while you take a nap,” Johnny replied with a smirk, his eyes silently registering that the sun had dipped behind the coastals, no longer hampering his vision, while Kincaid was ripe for action. He waited a second, then added, “Why don’t you admit you’re outta your league, Kincaid, and look into another profession? Hear they’re hiring manure spreaders down south. With a little training, I’m sure you could learn to do the job…eventually.”
Johnny watched, his eyes mocking, as Kincaid’s face reddened with fury. It was simply a matter of timing and responses to get the show started when he wanted. And he was ready.
Kincaid took one step forward, adjusted his stance and spread his fingers. He glared deeply across the arid expanse toward his opponent—and was unnerved to see that the look Madrid was giving him was the look one might give the runt of a mongrel liter just seconds before it was drowned.
It was then that Kincaid knew he was already dead.
And Johnny saw the alarm of realization flash across Kincaid’s face as the young man saw his death loom before him.
Johnny wanted to call out to him, to offer him one last chance to change his mind, but he knew it would make no difference. The song had already begun and the dancers were in their places. There was no choice for either of them than to go ahead with the number.
A look of determined desperation signaled Kincaid’s move and the show was begun. As his hand found the grip of his revolver, Johnny’s had already cleared. As Kincaid pulled his from its holster, he saw the barrel of Madrid’s rise toward him, the black, round hole beckoning him. And as death exploded from its end, hurtling toward him, Kincaid automatically fired. His bullet hit the ground two feet from where his boots pointed toward the sky.
Scott felt the heightened tension emanating from the entire group as they hurried out of the room and down the steps. At the bottom of the stairs, he suddenly realized he had no gun, and neither, he quickly noted, did Murdoch or Harley.
“Where’s my gun?” he demanded loudly as he continued across the saloon.
“They took it while you were unconscious,” Murdoch answered.
Scott went through the door first, then paused. Though he had an intense desire to break out running, he had no idea in which direction to go.
As DarkCloud came through the door, Scott said, “I need a gun.”
DarkCloud gave a small snort. “I don’t trust you that much.”
Suddenly they heard a voice call out, “DarkCloud!”
Turning, Scott saw a young man of dark coloring like Johnny, but of a taller and slighter build like himself, sprinting across the street.
“Matthew!” Harley stepped forward.
“Harley?” Matthew jerked up, confusion flashing across his face. “Why—”
“You know him?” DarkCloud demanded as he shoved his way to the front.
“That’s Johnny’s friend,” Matthew replied, pointing.
“Give him a gun,” DarkCloud commanded Vince, who quickly pulled out a revolver he had stuffed in his belt under his jacket.
“How ‘bout us?” Scott asked.
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow. “I think I’ll wait on that.”
“DarkCloud,” Matthew grabbed the doctor’s arm. “Wakeman’s here. And he’s got two other hostages with him besides Jamie!”
“Shit!” DarkCloud swore, his eyes darting across the street toward the corner.
“Dammit! We’re too late,” Harley hissed.
“How many men has he got?” DarkCloud demanded.
“Eight,” Matthew replied quickly. “And it appears he’s got himself a gunfighter, just like Johnny said he would.”
DarkCloud stepped off the boardwalk and quickly sprinted across the street, the men tightly grouped around him.
“How’s Johnny lookin’?” Harley asked, apprehension constricting his voice.
“He’s lookin’ better’n I’ve seen him in a long time,” Matthew replied.
“He ought to,” DarkCloud muttered.
“What?” Harley asked.
“I wonder who those other hostages are,” Matthew continued.
“My wife and child,” Harley supplied grimly as they stepped up onto the boardwalk.
As he stepped up on the boardwalk, Scott found his concentration shifting from the conversation to the faint echo of a voice. As they neared the corner, he knew the voice was the one he’d heard long ago. Not the voice of his brother Johnny, but the voice of Madrid, the gunfighter.
“You wanted to see me?”
His mouth suddenly dry, Scott continued toward the corner, drawn toward the sound, caught in its frightening familiarity, its terrifying meaning.
“I—I…you’ve been called out, Madrid!” he heard an unfamiliar voice reply.
Just as Scott reached the corner, he felt a firm grip pull him up short as the voice of Madrid answered cockily, “I said I heard. I’m just trying to give the fool a chance to change his mind and live.”
The coldness of the voice stung Scott and he whipped around angrily, ready to wrench free from the grip on his arm. “Let go!”
“We can’t all go barreling down the street without starting a lot of wild gunplay,” DarkCloud hissed. “And Johnny’s in the middle of it! Now, get in here.”
DarkCloud pushed Scott toward the door of the drygoods store while Scott realized with chagrin that everyone else had already entered. Without argument, Scott followed DarkCloud into the store, Matthew hurriedly leading the way toward the back.
“Calientes’s not here. He’s over in Solero’s livery,” Matthew explained as they reached the back storage room and nodded toward a pair of windows situated in the corner of the room. “I was watching from over here.”
With a pounding heart, Scott headed toward the window that directly faced the street, his attention instantly captured by a black-clad figure standing in the middle of the street. He didn’t need to see the man’s face to know it was Johnny.
Frantically his eyes searched further down the street. At his angle, he could just barely make out another man facing Johnny and four more men on horseback, quickly calculating that there must be three more he couldn’t see.
But his attention was immediately drawn back to the dark figure just as he heard the man’s voice coldly remark, “Kincaid, huh? Thanks… I prefer to keep accurate records.”
Scott instantly felt a shiver go up his spine; instinctively he pressed his palm to the glass. The coldness and nonchalance of the voice, the stance, the angle of the head… he realized that more than just a pane of glass separated him from his brother. The ghost of Johnny Madrid had truly returned.
“I’m gettin’ tired of this, Madrid,” Scott heard the man answer as he felt a hand grasp his shoulder. He automatically turned to find his father next to him, the expression on his face one of dread.
Scott quickly looked around and saw that Harley was standing on his other side while DarkCloud, Matthew and the two other men were watching out a different window in the back corner. Their window was open, allowing the voices to carry into the room.
“I’m sure I could wait while you take a nap,” Scott heard the voice of Madrid reply sarcastically.
Scott’s eyes immediately were drawn back to the scene. A scene he had a hard time admitting was taking place. After a month of searching, wondering, and apprehension, to find Johnny in the middle of a gunfight, and to know that he was suffering from serious injuries…and didn’t even know his brother was there, wanting to help—or even that he existed.
“Why don’t you admit you’re outta your league, Kincaid, and look into another profession? Hear they’re hiring manure spreaders down south….”
“Dammit!” Scott hissed. “What’re we going to do?”
“Nothing,” Harley grimly muttered back.
Scott brought his other hand up to press on the glass. “Nothing,” he repeated as he continued to stare, transfixed out the window. He knew Harley was right. Nothing to do, but watch as one man lived and one died.
The thought had barely registered when it was all over.
And Johnny stood, the bullet from his smoking gun having exploded through Kincaid’s heart to become firmly wedged in the back of his rib cage.
Scott felt his father’s grip tighten and heard his sharp intake of breath…then realized he, too, had been holding his breath.
“He’s alive,” Murdoch murmured.
Scott turned to DarkCloud. “I gotta get out there!”
Johnny indifferently looked up from the dead body of his former opponent to study Wakeman with calculated scrutiny. This was where the real decisions and the real drama took place. And Johnny was not pleased with the odds—not pleased at all. But he was completely aware that he couldn’t let Wakeman know that.
If only it were just Jamie…. Three hostages. I can’t get three hostages free…. Do I take out the man holding little Wes on the right…an easier shot, more target area, then go for Jamie’s man? But then Wakeman’ll be left standing by the time the bullets start flying…and I can’t guarantee I can get another… I gotta take out Wakeman, or the hostages and town will not be free. But Mary’s larger…I couldn’t afford even the smallest mistake…it’d take more time… I might not even get the chance to get off another shot before….
…God, I can’t get all three away safely….
Please back down, Wakeman.
God, he’s gotta back down. I can’t save them all. Who do I choose?
Wakeman and Johnny stared at each other in icy silence for a few seconds, the hatred smoldering lethally behind Wakeman’s cold glare.
Johnny held his stance, his gun still drawn. “Didn’t go too well for you again, did it, Wakeman?” Johnny drawled sarcastically. “Sure hope you’re payin’ your men enough money to die for you.”
Wakeman tightened his stare, acutely aware of the men shifting nervously beside him, their eyes darting to him for orders. He couldn’t afford to fold in front of Madrid. Not again.
“Things just always seem to go wrong with your plans, don’t they?” Johnny smiled with a flick of his eyes toward the men flanking his opponent. “You were plannin’ that I’d be in no shape to take you on, yet here I am. And well,” he gave a curt nod toward the body of Kincaid, “there’s another dead gunfighter of yours. Such a shame, Wakeman, this string of bad luck you seem to be havin’. You just might wanna call it a draw, leave the hostages and head on home.”
“I wish that damn horse had kicked your brains in, Madrid,” Wakeman snapped.
“Get a horse to do what your men obviously can’t,” Johnny drawled.
“You’ve only got five bullets left, Madrid, and there’s seven of us,” Wakeman snorted.
“True,” Johnny nodded impassively. “It’ll be interesting to see just which of your two men are left standing. ‘Cuz you’re goin’ for sure. But, well, two out of six ain’t too bad of odds, is it boys?” He once again flicked his eyes around Wakeman’s gang, gratified to see more than just a few anxious looks. “Four of you dead with two of you left to collect on your wages. Course I ain’t sure who’s gonna pay you after your boss here is dead. Gotta feelin’ the Judge won’t take too kindly to the turn of events down here either. But, what the hell! That ain’t my problem.”
“Dammit, Madrid! You may have one smart mouth, but there’s no way you’re going to get away. You’re going to be dead. And I don’t know how the hell you’ve managed to pull off your recovery, but I gotta feeling—”
“What?” Johnny cut in, a half-smile forming. “Could be you’re right, Wakeman. Could be I’m messed up pretty bad and I’m barely able to stand here holding this gun. Could be the only thing keeping me going is a hell of a lot of medicine and an intense desire to see you dead. Could also be I sold my soul to the devil if he’d just put me back on my feet long enough to kill you. And that, Wakeman, is what you truly have to fear. ‘Cuz I have no illusions of gettin’ out of this alive like you do—which makes me much more formidable than your worst nightmare.”
For the first time, Johnny saw a flicker of fear cross Wakeman’s face, his grip tightening around Mary’s waist. Now was the time to really push it, to try to get Wakeman to fold. He allowed a hint of an ominous smile to cross his face. “You know, Wakeman,” he said with a calculated pause, “they say every man bleeds the same. Shall we see if that’s true?”
“Shit,” Wakeman hissed to himself. He could feel his resolve giving way.
How can Madrid be doing this? He’s one man. One goddamned man, standing on foot in front of seven on horseback. Hell! I have the hostages! Hostages! Yet there Madrid stands, acting for all the world like he’s in control of the whole damn show! There’s no way he can do it. He can’t possibly shoot you. He wouldn’t dare try it. Not with his friend’s wife sitting in front of you. He’s bluffing. He’s bluffing! Call his bluff—dammit!
“You talk a big game, Madrid!” Wakeman abruptly retorted. “But I think it’s all empty air. I’ve got the hostages and you’ve got nothing. Oh, I know you’ve got some men placed in the windows, but they don’t dare fire for fear of hitting the hostages. And you won’t dare try it, either, Madrid. It’d been nice if Kincaid had taken you out clean, but it was just one hand in the game. I didn’t place my entire bet on him.” Wakeman gave Johnny one of his own cool smiles. “No, Madrid, I figure these three hostages will help me reach my main goal—and that’s simply to see you dead. And once you are, everything else will fold naturally, and this dirt-poor, backwater town will be mine.”
Johnny slowly lifted his glove-clad left hand to nonchalantly rub his chin. “Hmmm. Well, Wakeman, once again I see you’re gettin’ a bit premature with your plannin’. You seem to forget the town has certain information regarding how you’ve acquired some of your cattle. Sorta ties you in to some recent murders, too. Information that might not go over well up in Sacramento.”
Wakeman clenched his jaw and forced himself to take a breath. “Where’s that paper, Madrid?”
“Gee, I forget,” Johnny replied innocently.
“I told you to bring it,” Wakeman growled.
“Yeah, well, you also mentioned only one hostage.”
Wakeman glared. Without the paper, everything could still be ruined. There had to be some way…
“If you give me that paper, I’ll release one of the hostages,” Wakeman hissed.
Inwardly Johnny sighed. His gamble had paid off. He took a moment to seemingly consider the offer before slowly nodding his head. “Okay. But I gotta send someone for it.” He paused, then without turning around, he called out, “Matthew! Go get Wakeman’s paper!”
Wakeman’s eyes swept down the street, searching for movement.
“It’ll only take him a few minutes,” Johnny informed Wakeman casually. “Long enough for you to decide what you want on your headstone. I’ll be glad to have Matthew write it down for you when he gets back.”
Madrid,” Wakeman gave a sarcastic snort. “I am so going to enjoy seeing you
laid out—cold and dead.”
Johnny smiled back. “And I’m lookin’ forward to introducing you to the devil.”
“Could be I already know him,” Wakeman replied sarcastically.
Johnny raised a cool eyebrow and his lip curled on one side. “So that was why he spoke of you so highly.” His eyes crinkled, showing his amusement. “And here I thought it was by reputation alone.”
Wakeman paused as an icy smile froze on his face. “I am going to love seeing that mouth of yours closed permanently.”
“Likewise,” Johnny answered simply.
Silence echoed in the street as the two sides faced each other: Johnny, his stance at the ready, while Wakeman and Jamie’s man each kept one arm tightly across their hostage’s waist and the other hand free to make a move.
Johnny noticed with slight amusement that Harley’s son was getting restless and the man holding him was beginning to have difficulty keeping him still. They hadn’t gagged him or tied him and he was beginning to whimper softly. Johnny had a feeling he knew which hostage was going to be released. It was probably just as well. Even if he took care of the man holding little Wes, the boy was far too young to get himself clear of the horses and gunfire.
Johnny swallowed. He suddenly realized he was very dry, and his eyes felt full of sand. He noticed, too, that his skin felt hot and itchy. He tried to take a deep breath, and though the overwhelming pain that had constantly been present was no longer there, he felt like he couldn’t get in enough air. He had the uncomfortable feeling of drowning. He began to wonder how long it had been since DarkCloud had given him the morphine. He hadn’t really asked if there was a time limit; he’d assumed he’d be done before it ever had the chance to wear off.
He started to wish Matthew would hurry. He could not afford to lose control. The slightest mistake would mean Jamie or Mary’s life.
Scott turned to DarkCloud. “I gotta get out there.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “Just hold on.”
“Johnny did it!” Matthew exclaimed, the surprise in his voice drawing Scott’s attention. “I didn’t think he’d be able to…. I mean…he could barely move this morning.”
At Matthew’s words, Scott noticed DarkCloud avert his eyes, his expression dismal.
Matthew’s attention, however, remained riveted on the scene out the window, as Johnny’s voice drawled, “Didn’t go too well for you again, did it, Wakeman?”
“He’s got to have taken a whole bottle of that stuff,” Matthew continued, transfixed in awe.
Scott saw DarkCloud shift his focus out the window, but the doctor’s expression was not one of wonder, but rather of discouraged acceptance.
“You gave him something else, didn’t you?” Scott suddenly asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “What was it?”
DarkCloud glanced at Scott, his dark eyes lowering once again as he shook his head. “Morphine. I gave him a morphine injection.”
“Morphine?” Scott demanded. Then shrugging his shoulder out of his father’s grip he quickly crossed the small room. “What the hell are you giving him morphine for, after what you said about the laudanum?”
DarkCloud’s eyes rose to meet Scott’s, and though they flashed angrily, there was an anguish present in them that brought Scott’s own hostility in check. “If I’d have given him as much laudanum as he needed to make his way out there to face Wakeman, it would have slowed him down too much. He would have lost that gunfight,” DarkCloud replied with a jerk of his head toward the window. “And if I didn’t give him anything, he would have been in such pain when he got out there, he wouldn’t have been able to stand, and he still would have lost that gunfight!”
“He shouldn’t be out there at all!” Scott hissed as he heard the cold voice of Madrid continuing to echo out in the street.
“Don’t you think I know that?” DarkCloud snapped back. “But he can be a very stubborn man when he’s of a mind to.”
Scott blinked as the reality of DarkCloud’s words hit home. Grimly he turned to look out the open window. No pane separated him now, and though the angle was sharper, he was now able to make out all of Wakeman’s men and hostages and clearly hear Wakeman’s voice hissing in anger; “I wish that horse had kicked your brains in, Madrid.”
“Will it work?” Scott whispered.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw DarkCloud shake his head. “I hope so. I injected a small amount into his back and a small amount into his muscle.” His voice dropped. “I tried to keep the dosage to a minimum, but—but with his injuries, I just don’t know how long it’ll last or—or if it’ll suddenly slow him down.” DarkCloud closed his eyes, blocking out the scene in the street. “He hadn’t planned to live long enough for that to become an issue.”
The words uttered by the doctor settled in Scott’s chest, making his next breath difficult. For a few seconds all he could do was stare out the window, his mind numbly accepting the bizarre scene outside, the dark-clad figure of Johnny Madrid, his brother, facing down seven men on horseback, purposely facing certain death with the hope of freeing hostages.
Scott briefly wondered if Murdoch felt any pride in Johnny’s self-sacrifice, or if the difficulty their father had in accepting Johnny’s other life colored the greater good. Scott glanced quickly at their father, but could tell nothing by the older man’s tense expression.
Scott’s thoughts were brought to an abrupt end as Johnny’s voice could be heard, tauntingly cool, “What? Could be you’re right, Wakeman. Could be I’m messed up pretty bad and I’m barely able to stand here holding this gun…”
“What’s he sayin’ that for?” Matthew hissed.
“Shhh,” DarkCloud commanded with a terse wave of his hand.
“Could also be I sold my soul to the devil if he’d just put me back on my feet long enough to kill you—”
“Johnny,” Murdoch whispered sadly.
Scott glanced quickly at his father, but Murdoch’s gaze remained firmly fixed on the scene outside.
“’Cuz I have no illusions of gettin’ out of this alive like you do—” the voice of Madrid coldly continued, sending shivers up Scott’s spine. “You know, Wakeman. They say every man bleeds the same. Shall we see if that’s true?”
“No, Johnny,” Murdoch whispered once again, a soft pleading in his voice which Scott found unsettling.
Scott tore his gaze away from his father. “We’ve got to do something,” he hissed.
“No,” Harley shook his head. “He’s playing with Wakeman. See. Wakeman’s startin’ to panic.”
Everyone immediately quieted, drawn to the scene outside their window. Even at the distance they were at, it was easy to see Wakeman’s hesitation, the uncertainty and fear that quickly chased across his face at Madrid’s threat. Then he abruptly seemed to get a hold of himself.
“You talk a big game, Madrid—”
Scott shook his head. “It’s not going to work. And I’m not going to just sit here and watch my brother get blown to pieces.” He turned to DarkCloud. “I want my gun. I’m going out there.”
“And do what?” DarkCloud retorted. “Have Johnny shoot you on sight?”
At Scott’s puzzled look, DarkCloud continued sharply, “He doesn’t know you, remember!”
Scott’s first reaction was to vehemently deny DarkCloud’s allegation. But the look in DarkCloud’s eyes, the sadness he saw reflected there told him just how much Johnny had come to mean to the other man, and drove home the painful realization that Johnny’s memory was indeed a blank.
Scott and DarkCloud stared at each other a few seconds before Murdoch interrupted.
“I assume there is some sort of a plan,” the older man said thickly, breaking contact with the scene outside and turning. “Did he bother to share it with anyone?”
“We have men in that house across the street there—the one with the rocking chair on the porch. There’s also men up in the livery stable.” DarkCloud pointed. “Then there’s some men in the barn back of here, too.”
“But we ain’t gunfighters,” Matthew broke in. “And Johnny specifically stated that no one was to start any firing until he’d gotten Jamie free—”
“But Johnny only thought there’d be one hostage,” Harley reminded.
DarkCloud nodded. “He figured Wakeman would have Jamie and once he’d taken out Wakeman, Jamie could run to safety while—”
“While Johnny covered him,” Harley finished. “And it would have worked that way if there’d only been the one hostage, but now there’s three. And what I saw of Johnny a few days ago, there’s no way he can get all three free, regardless of what sort of medicine you gave him. He’s sick and he’s weak, and there ain’t no gettin’ around those facts,” Harley bleakly stated.
“Which brings us right back to doing something to help,” Scott cut in, while he kept an eye on the proceedings outside.
“Just before it looks like things are gonna erupt, I’ll dash out there—” Harley began.
“Hold it!” Scott cut him off sharply. “Why you? I’m his brother.”
“Yeah,” Harley retorted. “But in his state, I’m the closest thing to a brother he remembers.”
“Matthew!” Johnny’s voice suddenly rang out, terminating the argument as everyone turned back to their windows. “Go get Wakeman’s paper!”
Matthew turned to face a half-dozen raised eyebrows.
“You know where it is?” DarkCloud asked.
“Then go get it fast,” DarkCloud ordered.
Without a word, Matthew dashed from the room.
“What’s he doing?” Scott wondered out loud.
“Trading for a hostage,” Murdoch murmured softly.
Scott paused, listening to the exchange with Wakeman—the nonchalance with which Johnny spoke of death. Then suddenly all was quiet. Scott found that his palms were sweaty, his heart beating heavily against his chest.
“Something’s wrong,” Scott murmured.
DarkCloud and Harley pushed up closer to the window, while Scott moved quickly over to the one where Murdoch still stood. However Murdoch didn’t move over—seemed unaware of Scott’s presence. His right hand remained fiercely gripping the sill, his eyes never wavering from the scene outside. The effect of seeing his son as Johnny Madrid, and all the realities and truths it validated about his son’s past life, seemed to have left Murdoch almost incapacitated.
“Damn,” Scott cursed. “I can’t see his face. But there’s something wrong, I can feel it.”
“I think Scott’s right,” Harley agreed grimly. “He ain’t sayin’ anything. And Johnny loves a verbal battle—enjoys pullin’ his opponent’s ropes.”
“It’s taking too long,” DarkCloud stated grimly.
Scott looked across at DarkCloud. “That’s it!” He started for the door. “Regardless of whether Johnny knows me or not—I’m going out there. Someone give me a gun, now!”
Harley stepped forward, blocking his path. “No, Scott. I know better what’s goin’ on out there than you do.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Scott replied. “But you have a wife and kid that Johnny’s expecting you to take care of and I have a feeling he’s going to be mighty put out with me if I let you get hurt.”
Harley took a deep breath. Then with a clearly strained expression, he motioned for Vince to give Scott his gun.
Suddenly Matthew appeared, a piece of folded paper clutched in his hand. He glanced around the group, his eyes wide, his face flushed. “Now what do I do?”
“You take it out there,” DarkCloud stated. “And help whichever hostage Wakeman decides to release.”
“It’ll be my son,” Harley said as he glanced out the window. “He’s gettin’ to be more trouble than he’s worth.” He snorted and shook his head. “Wakeman shoulda known better’n try to take a two year old hostage.”
“Yeah, but,” Matthew glanced at DarkCloud imploringly.
“What?” DarkCloud demanded.
“I only got half of the paper,” Matthew said with a grimace as he held up the paper as evidence.
“Johnny tore it in two. He’s actually got the other half.”
Pursing his lips, DarkCloud ran his fingers across his brow as he shot a grim look out the window. “Okay, then. Just take it out folded like you have the whole thing and do whatever Johnny tells you to do.”
Harley stepped up to Matthew. “Once you’ve cleared out of the way with my son, I got a feelin’ all hell’s gonna break loose.”
“I’ll get him clear,” Matthew grimly assured the large man.
Harley, his eyes heavy with worry he was trying hard not to show, gave Matthew a grateful nod as he clasped him on the shoulder. Then he turned to Scott and continued, “And Johnny’s gonna have to take out Wakeman first. He’s gonna know he can’t take a chance of losing him.” Harley took a breath in an attempt to regain control of his thundering heart. “Wakeman’s the difficult shot to make and…and he may not have time to make another.”
Scott studied Harley’s eyes, read how badly the blacksmith wanted to go to his friend’s aid while realizing he had no choice, aware that he needed to be ready to help his own child and wife to safety. Scott was also both intrigued and troubled by Harley’s insight of the situation and of his knowledge of what Johnny was thinking—another uncomfortable reminder that there truly was a whole side of his brother that he didn’t honestly know, but others did. This was the side of Johnny they’d all been trying to avoid for over two years; the side called Madrid.
Scott gave a nod of understanding to the blacksmith, then turned to Matthew. “I’ll be ready to go as soon as you’re clear.”
Scott turned around. Murdoch stood, one hand still on the sill, his eyes heavy with the sudden realization that he stood a chance of losing both his sons.
“You know I have to do this,” Scott stated. “I have to. For Johnny and for myself.”
Murdoch closed his eyes and nodded, then slowly turned to look back out the window.
Scott turned to Matthew, who gave him an apprehensive nod. Then with the paper clenched tightly in his hand, Matthew went to the side door that led directly out to the street. There he paused, affording himself a last backward glance before opening the door and going out.
“I’m here!” Matthew called. “And I have the paper!”
Johnny had to quickly mask his relief at hearing Matthew’s voice. He had begun to wonder whether he was going to be able to stay on his feet much longer. The rigid posture, the need to hold his gun steady, and the verbal sparing was taking all his energy and concentration. He could feel the sweat beginning to run down his back and chest, and he had the uneasy feeling that he’d pulled open his wound in the earlier draw, though the entire area still felt thick and numb. He’d begun to wish he’d left his hat on in order to hide his face. He was starting to feel decidedly dizzy and his vision kept graying out of focus. The first vestiges of doubt began to creep into his thoughts. Not doubt of his own future, but doubt whether Johnny Madrid was going to be able to pull off one more miracle.
He quickly licked his lips and without taking his eyes off Wakeman, he called, “Come up here, Matthew.”
He heard the sound of footsteps and then Matthew appeared off to his side.
“You got it?” he asked without taking his eyes from Wakeman.
“Hold it up,” Wakeman commanded.
Johnny held his breath, hoping Matthew understood what was required of him.
Wakeman watched as Matthew slowly lifted up a folded piece of paper. Then in exaggerated care to keep his hands in view, Matthew unfolded it part way and held it out.
“That’s it,” Wakeman nodded. He jerked his head toward the man holding the small boy. “Friezen, exchange it for the brat.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny noticed Matthew cast a hesitant glance in his direction. “Go,” he commanded curtly, his eyes still locked on Wakeman.
Matthew took a breath and headed toward the man on horseback. Up close, he’d been able to tell that Johnny was starting to show the strain of the last hour. Was there going to be any way to save him? Had Johnny’s brother and father come all this way, only to have him gunned down in the street in front of them? He had such a strong desire to say something, but knew it would only cause confusion, and probably alarm Wakeman into reacting prematurely.
Matthew felt alone and naked as he walked up to the man on horseback, the paper clutched in his sweaty palm. He’d been out in the street but a minute, and the strain and tension was already threatening to overwhelm him. He marveled that Johnny had been able to appear so calm and unflustered. Yet he knew the stress was going to start showing.
He halted next to the man on horseback and looked up. The squirming two-year-old’s whimpering had been increasing and he cast a furtive glance toward the mother, but he only saw on her face the relief of knowing that her child was soon to be out of harm’s way.
Friezen lowered the boy down, belly cupped in his large palm, as he reached for the paper with his other. Matthew grabbed for the child and no sooner had him in his possession when he heard Johnny command, “Move!”
Making a quick exit foremost in his mind, Matthew hastily turned and made for Solero’s house nearby, it’s location putting it closer than the store he’d come out of.
Wakeman watched Matthew dash off toward the house, quickly calculating his risk in making an immediate attack now that he’d secured the paper. As he drew his attention back to the black-clad figure, his hand and brain busy with the process of coordinating an attack, Friezen called out, “It’s half gone!”
Wakeman jerked his attention around, his grip tightening around his hostage. “What?!”
Friezen held up the torn paper. “It’s torn, Mr. Wakeman. Half of it’s gone!”
Wakeman turned back to glare at Madrid. “What the hell’s this?” he exploded. “Where’s the other half?”
Johnny gave a grimace and tapped a gloved finger to his forehead. “Oh, my! Did I forget to mention I tore it in half? Damn sorry ‘bout that.”
“To Hell with you, Madrid!”
At Wakeman’s bellowed curse, Johnny knew the final scene had begun, and he prayed Mary would know what to do. “Down!” he yelled as he leveled his gun.
Wakeman, his left arm positioned tightly across Mary’s waist while holding the reins, drew his arm up quickly across Mary’s shoulders, effectively stopping her from leaning forwards. At the same time the action caused his horse to jerk its head up, blocking Johnny’s shot, while his right hand dropped down to his own hip.
In a crushing instant, Johnny knew his necessary shot was blocked and he had but a second to remedy the situation. As he lunged to his right, he grimly noticed Jamie’s man hadn’t been as prepared and was caught in the open when Jamie had leaned forward. In that flash, Johnny fired off a shot and the man was falling backwards, dragging Jamie with him.
During the next heartbeat, Johnny had panned back toward Wakeman, firing off another shot on the way…and another man went down in a scream of agony.
Johnny was now aware that five pistols were all in varying degrees of beading on him and he was down to a second or two, at the most. There was no extra help—the men in the houses didn’t dare open fire until he had the hostages freed, and if he couldn’t get Wakeman dropped, then all was for nothing and the town would eventually fold.
Ignoring the other guns for a fragment of a second, he noticed that Wakeman was having problems aiming his gun as Mary was struggling against him. Her movements made it impossible for Johnny to take aim, but it also kept Wakeman from getting off a shot.
Johnny sprang toward his left, hoping to buy another second as he tried to find an opening. Three bullets left and as he hated to leave any wasted, he picked off another man just as he saw the barrel explode in his direction. The man flew backwards off his horse, his mouth open in surprise, as Johnny felt the bullet graze the side of his neck.
It was then that he heard it.
And at that moment, time stood still for Johnny Madrid.
The voice ripped through his vision, reverberated through his chest and dragged him backward through a tunnel of darkness that echoed over and over again in his brain.
Everything froze in that instant. He saw a man to his right, revolver drawn but not yet aimed, he saw another man whose mount appeared to be panicking, fighting to gain control of his horse, he saw Wakeman, revolver now aimed, eyes glowing with anger, left hand gripping Mary in a stranglehold around her neck as she clutched wildly to free herself, while the last man’s pistol was pointed ominously in his direction.
Yet none of this mattered. All thoughts but the voice were wiped from reality and memory, to become a distant echo.
His arm went limp to his side, his pistol suddenly forgotten as he numbly turned toward the voice that called out to him as from a long-forgotten dream.
A young man was racing toward him, screaming like an avenging angel, his gun drawn, his blond hair dusty and sweat-streaked. But it was the flurry of detonating emotions that were running across the young man’s face—panic, hatred, vengeance, helplessness, fear and horror—that drew Johnny’s attention—that spoke to his soul. All of a sudden, Johnny felt as if he were seeing himself—and all the horrible emotions that he was in constant battle against.
But it wasn’t himself he was seeing. It was…
The word came out in a choked gasp. Johnny’s eyes locked onto his brother’s as Scott continued racing down the street toward him.
Scott, whose only thought when Johnny flinched backward when the bullet creased his neck was to kill every bastard who was pointing a gun at his brother, could now only watch in panicked horror as Johnny turned and stared at him, a glazed look sliding over his face as he lowered his gun arm.
“Johnny!” Scott yelled. Though he was running as fast as he could, he knew he wasn’t going to reach his brother in time. And Johnny just stood there, seemingly frozen, as four guns were aimed at his back, the small smear of blood eerily matching the red bandana about his neck.
Without warning, Johnny’s eyes locked onto his and Scott saw him mouth his name…Scott…the glazed look on his brother’s face being replaced by confusion.
He saw rather than heard the word.
But there was no time to reply. Scott fired off a shot as he continued toward his brother, sending one man slumping forward in his saddle.
“Johnny!” Scott screamed again, trying to draw his brother back to his senses.
Then he heard an explosion and felt the sting of a bullet as it ripped past his upper left arm, tearing his shirt and leaving a trail of beading red blood.
“No!” Johnny suddenly bellowed, his eyes growing wide. “Damn you, not my brother!”
Scott was just a few feet away when Johnny suddenly drew up his gun, both hands clasping it tightly, and pivoted.
“No!” he heard Johnny scream again.
His own heart pounding in horror, Scott saw the remaining three guns all leveled toward his brother. Scott screamed his own rage, “No!” The bellowed words echoed around the street, magnifying as they bounced off the buildings, filling the dusty air with palpable anguish.
Scott and Johnny both fired off another shot as the three guns exploded in their direction.
And Scott watched in stunned disbelief as Johnny was propelled backward toward him, landing solidly against his chest.
“No!” Scott screamed again as he dropped his gun and clutched Johnny tightly to him. “No,” he repeated with a sob.
Suddenly the street was swarming with movement and people. Voices, screams, people and horses erupted in confused pandemonium, while Scott was riveted on the dark head pressed against his neck.
“Johnny,” he moaned. “Johnny.”
Urgently he shifted Johnny’s weight and position so that they faced each other. As he did so, Johnny moaned heavily and his eyes slowly fluttered open. Scott held his breath as Johnny fought to bring his face into focus, blinking dazedly. Then his brother opened his mouth in an attempt to speak, but no sound emerged other than a soft moan.
“Shhh….don’t talk,” Scott implored, his eyes filling with tears as he noticed the stain of red that was slowly spreading in the middle of Johnny’s chest.
Johnny, his body already heavily limp in Scott’s arms, suddenly tensed, his eyes begging for help as he grasped for the strength to drag his gloved hand up toward his brother’s shoulder.
Scott read the desperation on Johnny’s face—the intense desire to say something, to be heard—and leaned his face next to his brother’s.
“I… I’ve… been….. gone…..… so…..…. long……..”
Seeing the fire start to fade in his brother’s eyes, Scott frantically clutched him closer. “Johnny!” the raw cry was ripped from his gut.
Then he saw his brother’s eyes suddenly focus again, but this time behind him as Scott felt a hand shakily grip his shoulder. Scott quickly looked to his side and saw Murdoch, his face devoid of color, his expression one of exposed suffering.
Wordlessly Murdoch added his help in supporting Johnny, and between them they carefully lowered him to the ground. Then Murdoch reached out and hastily began to untie the red, bloody bandana from around Johnny’s neck.
A small moan escaped from Johnny as he blinked in an attempt to keep his eyes focused on his father’s face. “You… came,” they heard him murmur. Then his eyes glazed over and rolled back in his head.
A sob ripped from Scott’s heart as he closed his eyes and lowered his head to his chest.
Desolately, Scott walked out onto the porch of Rosti’s saloon. He’d hoped that the cold night air of the Salinas Valley would shock his system back to life, yet it had no effect. He felt weak and sapped of all energy, an adrenaline crash of immense proportions.
He almost stumbled as he walked to the edge of the porch where he leaned his full weight onto one of the supporting porch posts. He closed his eyes, listening to the sounds of the night: the wind, the animals settling down, a distant coyote…and under it all, the low rumble of voices coming from Rosti’s.
Vaguely he realized he was leaning on his wounded shoulder, and it hurt. Eyes still closed, he gave a snort of relief that he could feel something other than the debilitating numbness that had washed over him in the ensuing hours after the shoot-out.
He slowly lowered himself to the edge of the boardwalk and sat down, his right hand clutched tightly around a hard object.
The wide range of emotions, the decisions that now had to be made, the news to be relayed back to Lancer—all seemed to have become too much to absorb. Everything had happened so quickly. A month of tense expectation and dread, of anguished hope and the knowledge of Madrid’s return, all culminating in this one explosive and cataclysmic event.
Suddenly there was the flash of light as the door to the saloon opened.
Scott glanced up into the face of a young boy—the young boy Johnny had saved.
“Jamie, right?” Scott asked softly.
Jamie nodded somberly. “What’re you doin’ out here?”
Scott shrugged vaguely and turned his attention back toward the darkness. “Just thinking, I guess.”
Jamie sat down next to Scott. “You’re sad, aren’t you?”
Scott glanced at the young boy, then nodded. “Yes, I guess I am.”
Jamie nodded again. “I guess I am, too.”
Scott smiled wryly as he put an arm around the young boy’s shoulders. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be getting you upset.”
“It’s okay,” Jamie smiled timidly, then dropped his voice to a whisper. “I’m a little afraid, too.” Then he straightened up and thrust out his chin. “But I wasn’t afraid before—at all. I knew Johnny would save me. He’s the fastest there ever was.”
Scott felt the innocent words tighten around his chest, yet he managed to force a smile. “I always thought so.”
Jamie nodded, considering Scott’s words. “Scott?”
“What’s it like being Johnny Madrid’s brother? I mean, that must be the best!” Then Jamie gave an embarrassed smile and added, “I used to like to pretend that he’d stay with us and I could be his brother. That woulda been so great.”
The brother of Johnny Madrid… Scott inhaled slowly, his eyes gazing through the darkness as his thoughts turned back to the only time he’d been forced to face the fact that he was truly Johnny Madrid’s brother. The weekend Drago showed up. Not a memory he cared to revisit…
No, mostly Scott tried hard to avoid acknowledging that he was the brother of…what? A famous gunfighter? A legend? A hero? A man wanted for murder in Kansas?
“I—I guess I never gave it much thought,” Scott quietly answered.
“Why not?” Jamie asked, his smile turning into a frown. “Nobody’d ever pick on you or try to hurt you and everyone would wanna be your friend and they’d probably give you presents and—”
Scott couldn’t help but smile, a soft chuckle following. Then he gave Jamie’s small shoulder a squeeze. “I’m afraid it’s not quite like that.”
“It ain’t?” Jamie asked, clearly disappointed.
Scott shook his head. “No. Instead people start showing up who want to hurt you or want to hurt your brother so that they can say they’re the fastest and best. And you never know when they’re going to appear, so it can make you nervous.”
Jamie took a deep breath and bit his lip. “That wouldn’t be fun.”
Scott sighed. “Yeah, it can be difficult sometimes.”
The saloon door opened and both Scott and Jamie turned around to look.
Grace stood, outlined by the bright, inside lights. “Jamie, what are you doing here?” she asked.
“I came to sit by Scott,” Jamie answered. “He’s feelin’ bad.”
Grace glanced at Scott before turning her attention back to Jamie. “Well, I think it’s time you came back in. It’s getting cool out here and you don’t have your jacket on. Besides, Rosti’s made up some supper for you.”
Jamie looked at Scott with a wry smile and rolled his eyes slightly. “She thinks I’m gonna catch a cold,” he whispered. “She always thinks I’m gonna catch a cold.”
Scott smiled, then gave a nod. “You’d better go do as she says.”
Jamie sighed. “That’s what Johnny always said.” Slowly he stood up, then paused. “Hey, Scott. Do you like to play cards? I gotta game I learned from my friend Zito and I’m really, really good at it. I bet I could beat you.”
Scott looked at Grace, then gave Jamie a smile. “Sure. Later. Not just now, though, okay?”
Jamie nodded. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Scott returned the nod. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Scott turned back to stare out at the darkness as the light was once more engulfed by the night. Tiredly he leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, and stared at his hands. One hung empty, the fingers drooping toward the ground. The other was a tightly clenched fist, gripping an object in an anxious embrace.
Suddenly Scott heard a noise and realized he wasn’t alone. He glanced up. In the faint light that spilled out from the saloon windows, Scott made out the form of Grace still standing near the door.
“Scott?” Her voice was hesitant.
“Yes, Miss Viera?” he answered as he began to stand up.
Grace quickly stepped forward. “No, don’t get up. Stay, please. I…I…DarkCloud asked me to take a look at your wound while he’s busy.”
Scott raised an eyebrow, then noticed that Grace held a small bowl in her hands. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it, Miss Viera,” he said with a shake of his head.
“It’s Grace, just Grace,” she said as she stepped closer. “And—and, I also wanted to talk to you.” She paused and took a breath. “I feel I owe you an apology. I’m to blame for what happened this afternoon.”
“No,” Scott immediately interjected. “Don’t blame yourself. You couldn’t—”
“No,” Grace insisted as she dropped to her knees beside Scott. “You don’t understand. I’m the one who gave him the laudanum this morning…” she faltered, bringing her hand up to her forehead. “Gosh, it was this morning, wasn’t it? It seems so long ago.” She set the bowl of water down and shook her head. Then with a loud sigh, she turned once more to face Scott. “This morning, your brother couldn’t even move across the floor of his room. He’d been unconscious for a number of days, in pain, unable to move…and I gave him the laudanum…I started the whole thing…”
Scott watched as Grace gave a small sob and lowered her head into her hands. Tentatively he put a hand on her shoulder. “Grace, you didn’t start anything. Johnny…if Johnny wanted to do something, nothing would have been able to stop him, and I think this is one of those things that—that would have brought out that stubborn streak in him.”
Grace gave a sad shake of her head. “But I gave him—”
“He was already taking the laudanum,” Scott interrupted. “DarkCloud told me that. He’d already made the decision to start taking it again—”
“But DarkCloud had found out about it and was trying to keep Johnny from taking too much. He was also trying to keep him from taking on Wakeman, until I interfered.”
“No,” Scott shook his head. “No, Grace. If you hadn’t given the laudanum to Johnny, he would have found a way to get a hold of it himself. There may be a lot I don’t know about my brother… Hell! There may not be much I know at all! But his determination is the one thing I am certain of!”
Grace stifled another sob and wiped at her eyes. “I just wish—”
“Grace, don’t torment yourself over this,” Scott continued. “There’s no need. You aren’t responsible for what happened. You didn’t create the situation. You weren’t responsible for the run-in he had with the bounty hunters or his being shot. You weren’t responsible for his losing his memory. You weren’t responsible for his leaving…” Scott’s voice trailed off. Suddenly he sighed and looked down.
Grace followed Scott’s gaze to his tightly clenched fist. There she noticed small, golden metal links twisted about his fingers. “You took it,” she stated quietly.
Scott stared at his hand, the chain visible between his fingers.
“To think—” Grace put her hand over Scott’s tense grip.
The coolness of her touch shocked Scott and he blinked, caught unprepared by the contrast to the sensation of scorching metal in his palm.
“Can I see it?” Grace asked.
Scott stared at his fist a moment before he found the strength he needed to force it open. The fingers, strained from their tightly cramped grip, seemed to protest the movement, but finally he managed to make them obey. And as they unfurled, Scott found himself staring, once more, at the object of his overwhelming sense of conflicting emotions—Johnny’s medallion.
For a split second, the scene of anguish and sorrow, defeat and failure, flashed to life in front of him, and he caught his breath.
…Johnny, dying in front of his very eyes….his heartbreaking sob of anguish….Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder…noises….people….Harley…DarkCloud forcing his way through the crowd to reach Scott’s side, uttering his own grief-stricken cry….watching, helpless, as the Indian grabbed the front of Johnny’s shirt and forcefully ripped it open…and then the debilitating comprehension as the three of them stared at the deformed medallion imbedded in Johnny’s chest, blood oozing around it’s corners, bullet flattened against the concaved metal… The realization that his brother wasn’t dead…yet…
Grace reached out to touch the metal with a finger, noticing even in the darkness that it was still stained with blood. She looked up at Scott, but he seemed oblivious to all except the object in his hand. Moved by Scott’s behavior, she realized he must have picked it up immediately after DarkCloud had removed it from Johnny’s chest. She looked back down at the medallion, cupped in Scott’s palm, her forefinger resting lightly on the edge. “To think that this medallion, of all things, saved his life,” she said softly, her voice tinged with awe.
“Or just prolonged his death,” Scott murmured, his shoulders stooped in weary defeat.
“Yet it did save him from what he was afraid of most.”
Scott looked up, puzzled. “Afraid of most?”
Grace raised an eyebrow. “You know. Saint Francis of Assisi,” she hesitated, waiting.
Scott shook his head. “It’s just a medallion he wore when he first came to Lancer.”
Grace looked back down at the medallion, the image of Saint Francis now obliterated beyond recognition, and drew her hand away. She knew then that Scott was unaware of Johnny’s greatest fear.
“What about the saint,” Scott insisted.
Grace sighed and looked up into the blue questioning eyes of Madrid’s brother. When she answered, her words were soft, respectful. “He wore it as a protection against dying alone.”
“Dying alone,” Scott whispered as the enormity of the words added its weight to his already overloaded senses. “Dying alone,” he echoed, the medallion once more drawing his focus.
Grace put her hand on Scott’s shoulder. “But he’s not alone. He never was. He just couldn’t remember.” When Scott didn’t look up, Grace continued. “He’ll be okay, Scott. I just know it. He’ll make it. DarkCloud’s doing everything—”
“He was trying to die, though,” Scott shook his head dismally. “He planned to die.”
“No,” Grace replied. “Not really. He was just tired of living and felt he had nothing to live for. But now he does. We tried to give him a reason to live, we tried to show him that we wanted him to live, but…” Grace shook her head sadly. “What he needed, we couldn’t really give him. He wanted a family, a place to belong. And though we tried to offer him a place here…he knew that he’d always be Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter—a tool, to us. We couldn’t give him the reason to live. But now you’re here. You’re his reason.”
Scott sighed heavily. “I hope you’re right,” he replied, but his voice lacked conviction.
How could he explain his doubts? The uncomfortable issues that would still have to be resolved… Why did Johnny really leave…? Why did he take that gun…? What had happened with the bounty hunters…? What was his history with the laudanum…? Had he planned to return…? And then, if he had, why would he be wearing a medallion of a Saint meant to protect him from dying alone…?
“I know I’m right,” Grace continued firmly. “He’s so different from what I first thought. I’m ashamed of the way I first acted and the things I thought of him when he first came here. I was horrible to him. I could cry with the shame of it. I—I went so far as to suggest we should never have saved him up in the mountains—that he was just a killer, soulless and not worth our trouble.” Grace swallowed tightly as she looked down. “I am so ashamed of myself.”
Scott suddenly gave a quiet snort and straightened his shoulders. “Oh, we’re a pair here, aren’t we? We could grab a couple of glasses, a bottle of Rosti’s best wine, and turn this into a really proper Gloom and Self-recrimination Party.”
Grace laughed quietly and looked back up. “How about the Melancholy Sarsaparilla Party?”
Grace found herself returning the smile, pleased to see an improvement in Scott’s mood. “But first,” she said with a dramatic nod and a raised finger, “I have to take care of your arm, or DarkCloud’ll be upset with me. And the last thing I want to do is give him any more reasons to give me those ominous looks of his.”
“Why don’t you let me see to it,” Murdoch’s voice cut into the conversation, startling both Scott and Grace. Eyes wide in surprise, they turned around to find Murdoch standing behind them.
Scott wondered when he’d appeared, as he couldn’t remember seeing any flash of light from the open door, but he had to admit that his concentration had been otherwise occupied.
Grace smiled hesitantly at Murdoch and stood up.
“Jamie is asking for you, anyway,” Murdoch continued with a nod to Grace. “He says he doesn’t want to eat anything green.”
Grace sighed. “I have a feeling it’s time for us to go.” She reached into the apron she was wearing and pulled out a small container and a ball of bandaging. Scott could see, now that she was facing the light, that her apron was stained with blood—probably Johnny’s blood as well as the other three men lying wounded upstairs. She handed the container and fabric to Murdoch, then nodded toward the bowl sitting on the porch. “There’s clean water in there.”
Murdoch nodded. “Thanks, I’ll take care of it.”
Grace turned back to Scott and gave him a smile. “Johnny’ll be okay.”
Scott nodded, but Grace sadly noted that Scott’s earlier troubled look had returned.
After Grace reentered the saloon, Scott turned back to stare out at the darkness. “Sorry I left. I just couldn’t stay any longer.”
He heard Murdoch’s heavy steps on the porch as his father walked around behind him then stepped off the porch on his left and tiredly sat down, a heavy sigh following. “It’s been one hell of a long, long day, hasn’t it?”
Scott closed his hands once more around the medallion. “A helluva long day,” he agreed. Then he leaned tiredly forward, his head drooping wearily.
Murdoch unwound the bandage then opened the small jar of ointment. “DarkCloud seemed pretty adamant about using this. Supposed to keep away infection, or some such thing.”
Murdoch merely heard his son grunt in indifference.
Carefully, Murdoch began to pull away the dried-on fabric from around the wound. Once he’d loosened it, he pulled out a pocketknife and began cutting away at the sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” Murdoch said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Scott replied. “This shirt has seen better days.”
“Not the shirt,” Murdoch replied. “I’m sorry I didn’t want to come with you to find Johnny.”
Scott turned his head to look at his father, but Murdoch busied himself with removing the sleeve.
“I’m glad you came, too,” Scott said, turning his head back toward the empty street. He wondered if his father had an easier time talking if no one was looking at him. He knew it was easier for him if his father wasn’t watching his every move.
“If I—” Murdoch hesitated and took a breath. “Johnny recognized me,” he stated quietly as he began to clean away the dried-on blood from around the graze mark caused by the bullet. “He knew I was here, that I had come.”
Scott nodded. He’d heard Johnny, too. He’d seen the recognition suddenly fire in Johnny’s eyes after the first agonizing seconds of blank confusion that seemed to have rendered his brother immobile.
Vaguely, Scott felt the sting of the cloth as Murdoch tried his best, in what Scott was sure weren’t ideal conditions—sitting crouched in the dark on the porch—to clean up his wound. But Murdoch was trying.
Yes, and while Scott had run off to hide, Murdoch had stayed behind to help DarkCloud and Grace take care of Johnny.
Scott sighed and lifted his head. “I should have stayed up there, helping.”
“There were more than enough hands,” Murdoch replied as he dipped a finger into the ointment.
“It doesn’t matter. I should have stayed anyway. He might have come to.”
“He didn’t. And if he had, I would have sent for you,” Murdoch said calmly as he carefully applied the ointment.
“It was so hard…” Scott heard his voice crack, and he swallowed heavily. “He looks so different…so old and tired…and the pain…it’s in is face…” Scott faltered again. “And that wound he suffered…God! And those bruises… Yet he was still going to play his part to the end! He was still forcing himself out there! The gunfighter in him wasn’t going to back down, was it? And I saw him…Madrid. He was there. The gunfighter was there!” The words began tumbling out, the emotions of the last hours, the last few weeks, bursting out in a jumbled string of thoughts, unlike Scott’s normally precise phrasing. And Murdoch quietly let him go, let the anger and revelations rush forth. “He was so real. He wasn’t a story! He was cold and lethal. Yet he planned to die to save those hostages. And I told myself, from the moment Harley said that Johnny was Madrid again, I said it just couldn’t be true. And even if it were, that Johnny was still my brother! That it wouldn’t matter! But it does, Murdoch. It does!” Scott turned anguished eyes on his father. “Johnny Madrid isn’t my brother. Johnny Lancer is. I don’t know Johnny Madrid! I don’t know him!” He shook his head and looked back down at the chain in his hands. “Here all along I’d thought I knew who he was, but Johnny had only been showing me brief glimpses, protecting me, letting me think I knew who he was, but I had no idea. None at all. And to have to accept that now, to know, for a fact, that Madrid really exists. The killer for hire…with blood on his hands…and men who want him dead…who will be looking for him, hoping to add his reputation to their name. Never knowing when he’s gone for a few hours, if he’s coming back, or if someone tracked him. Did bounty hunters show up, did an old enemy with a score to settle shoot him in the back as he was checking on cattle?” He glanced up once more. “God! How do you do it, Murdoch? How do you reconcile the two halves?”
“I haven’t been able to,” Murdoch replied quietly. “That’s why…that’s why he runs away.”
Scott took in a deep breath and held it, feeling suddenly exposed by all the emotions that had erupted. Embarrassed, he glanced back down at his hand, the one that held the medallion. “I’m—I’m sorry I fell apart up there…in the room. I just couldn’t… When DarkCloud said that he was more worried about Johnny’s will to live than even the infection or his injuries, I just…” Scott paused and looked up. “I had no idea about the laudanum, Murdoch. None at all.”
Murdoch grimly shook his head. “Neither did I.”
“Yet,” Scott sighed and gestured vaguely toward the saloon. “They knew. In fact,” he suddenly held out the hand with the medallion. “Grace just told me what this meant to Johnny. And I didn’t even know that. It seems they all know more about Johnny in one month’s time than I do after two years.”
“That’s not true,” Murdoch replied. At Scott’s unsatisfied expression, Murdoch continued, “They may know Madrid better, but they don’t know Johnny Lancer at all. You do.”
Scott shook his head. “But that shouldn’t matter. I should have found out about these things, too. I should have known what this medallion meant, I should have known about the laudanum, I should have known about the people and events in his life.”
“No,” Murdoch put a hand on Scott’s arm. “I should have known. I had the Pinkerton report and the resources to push for more information. You had only what Johnny would reveal—”
“But even then, I turned away, don’t you see? Little things, like his telling me once when I was in jail that he’d been in tougher spots, or his knowing about the scars left by leg irons, or…or his once mentioning about being careful about sticking up for a town, as it’d easily turn on you… All those opportunities I let go…I didn’t want to ask…I didn’t want to know…”
“Don’t blame yourself, Scott. We’re all in shock over this whole thing. It’s been difficult dealing with his leaving and then finding him like this. Everything looks bleaker right now, I’m sure. But we’re here now, and Johnny’s still alive, and he’s going to need us.”
Scott sighed and looked back down at the medallion. “I’m glad you’re here. I don’t think I could have handled this alone.”
Murdoch put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “You would have handled it fine, but I am glad I’m here.”
Suddenly the saloon door was pushed open.
“DarkCloud sent me to get you,” Harley said as he stuck his head out. “He thinks Johnny may be coming around.”
With a quick glance at each other, Murdoch and Scott headed into the saloon.
Tucson looked up from his plate of food as Scott and Murdoch dashed through. “What’s up? Johnny?” he asked Harley worriedly.
Harley gave a quick nod. “He may be comin’ around.”
Tucson started to stand then forced himself back down. This wasn’t a time for him, much as he wanted to see Johnny. This was a time for Johnny’s father and brother. He picked his fork back up and absently began to eat, saying an awkward prayer that Johnny would still manage to pull off a recovery. He had, after all, performed other miracles.
Taking the steps two at a time, Scott bolted up the stairs, Murdoch right behind him and Harley taking up the rear.
Outside Johnny’s room Scott took a deep breath, then quietly opened the door. Inside the room was dark except for two kerosene lamps, one on the wall and one on the large table. DarkCloud, sitting on a chair near the bed, looked up at the sound of the door opening.
Scott paused inside the door, then stepped to the side to let his father and Harley enter. The few feet which separated him from where his brother lay, propped up by blankets and pillows, seemed an incredibly long distance. An expanse Scott suddenly wasn’t sure he could traverse.
“He’s waking up?” Murdoch asked.
DarkCloud stood up and rubbed his face. “I’m hoping so.”
“I thought maybe you’d keep him sedated,” Murdoch stepped closer to the bed, his throat constricting at the sight of the pale, lifeless form of his youngest son, a constriction forming in his chest as he tried to keep his tone calm, as much for himself as for Scott.
DarkCloud shook his head. “I will, but I need to see how he’s doing. You said you thought he’d regained his memory.” DarkCloud turned to look at Johnny’s still form. “That might be really important to his recovery.” He then sighed. “So, I haven’t given him anything recently, hoping he’ll come to. However, when he does, he’s going to be in tremendous pain. He may not even be able to speak. He’s going to be dealing with a badly bruised chest, some cracked ribs, and that neck of his is quite swollen where he was grazed.”
Murdoch nodded. “I thought you were more worried about the infection from the first wound,” he said as he thought back to DarkCloud’s dismal prediction as he’d taken off the old bandage from around Johnny’s side and back, displaying just to what extent the injuries were his son had been suffering from, and just how necessary the laudanum and morphine had been. The gruesomely embedded medallion which had cut deeply into Johnny’s chest was nothing compared to the extent of the damage of the first wound which had never been given the proper time to heal. And Murdoch had been stunned that even with the help of DarkCloud’s medicine, that Johnny had been able to function at all.
“I am,” DarkCloud agreed. “We have to get that healed, but that doesn’t mean the other wounds are any less serious or painful. He was having a hard enough time getting a decent breath before taking that last bullet.” He shook his head sadly. “And that graze to his neck, while not serious in itself, is a nasty bruise and not going to make it any easier to breathe or swallow.”
“What are you going to give him…for the pain, I mean?” Murdoch asked.
DarkCloud sighed. “I haven’t much choice. The morphine works well. I’m going to keep him on it for awhile. I’ll just have to experiment on the dosages. And with those injuries, I don’t want to keep having to wait until he’s coherent enough to drink before I can relieve the pain. Plus it takes so much longer before the laudanum really starts to take affect, and at this point,” he shrugged sadly, “I’m just hoping to get him well.”
Scott vaguely listened to the exchange. He felt like a stranger in the room. But he wasn’t a stranger. He was Johnny’s brother. And Johnny had recognized him, he was sure of it. But if he hadn’t, did that mean he’d die? Scott shook his head and forced himself to walk the distance to the bed. He wanted so to touch him, but he was afraid to. He was so bandaged and pale and weak looking…even the arm furthest from him had a big ugly bruise on it, signs of the morphine injection. And in order to relieve both the pressure on his back and now the bruised and battered ribs to his front, DarkCloud had Johnny propped up until he looked like he was practically sitting in bed…sitting in bed, yet still as death, except for the shallow, raspy breathing.
“How’s your wife doing?” Murdoch asked Harley quietly as he glanced at Scott approaching the bed.
“Fine,” Harley said. “She’s just fine. She and Wes have already turned in for the night. They’re at the end of the hall. Little Wes was exhausted.”
“Not surprising,” DarkCloud said then added apologetically. “I should have checked him over earlier.”
“You were busy enough and he’s just fine,” Harley appeased.
Scott hesitantly sat down on the chair, vaguely aware of the conversation behind him.
“We sure were lucky that Paso sheriff came up when he did. It’ll make it a lot easier to deal with the Judge,” Harley said as he, too, kept Johnny in his view. “You say he was sent by a friend of Johnny’s?”
Murdoch nodded. “Sheriff Crawford.”
“A sheriff.” Harley chuckled quietly. “Johnny always did seem to make friends with the most unlikely characters.”
Murdoch turned to DarkCloud. “How are the other men doing?”
DarkCloud shrugged grimly. “Wakeman and his two injured men aren’t going anywhere for a few days, but at least they’re still alive…the dead ones I can’t do much about.” Then he turned and walked toward the bed.
Scott heard the footsteps coming up behind him.
“The next few days are critical,” DarkCloud stated somberly. “I’ve got to get that infection cleared up.”
“Do you think that’s possible?” Scott asked, his voice catching in his throat while his hands gripped more tightly on the medallion.
DarkCloud sighed. “I don’t know. He’s quite weak. But—” DarkCloud suddenly put a hand on Scott’s shoulder, drawing Scott’s attention away from his brother. “But now you’re here. And that could make the difference.”
Scott smiled faintly, but without hope.
Suddenly there was a faint gasp and a moan. With a jerk, Scott turned back to his brother, his hand subconsciously clutching the medallion as if it were some sort of talisman of security.
…pain….unbelievable pain…God, how can there be so much pain?….Where am I?….Is this Hell?…. It must be Hell…. The Lake of Fire, the padres called it… even the air is on fire…. I can’t breathe….Is it possible to die in Hell?…. God, I hope so…. Maybe then I could finally feel nothing…
…Where’d that moan come from?… Was that me?…. I gotta get my eyes open…. I’d prefer to know what I’m facing… Where are they?…Where are my eyes?…Don’t I have eyes anymore?…. God, everything hurts so bad, I can’t even find my eyes….
…Shit!…I’m moanin’ again…Why the devil a person gotta breathe if they’re in Hell anyway?…
…Who’s that talkin’?…Someone’s talkin’…. They said my name…But the pain, it’s in the way…
Scott watched, distressed, as Johnny’s body began tensing, fighting to draw a breath. Without a word, Harley quickly moved in beside Scott to lean over Johnny. The large man then put a hand on Johnny’s chest, careful to stay away from his injury.
A feeling of helplessness overcame Scott as he heard Harley quietly intone Johnny’s name over and over, a quiet repetition interspersed with hushed commands to relax. Uncomfortably Scott realized that Harley must have done this before—before Johnny knew he had a brother. And he remembered Harley’s grim look, when he too came dashing out of the crowd to see Johnny lying in the middle of the street, a look that seemed to show just how close their relationship was—a relationship that did not include Scott.
Scott watched as the large man’s touch seemed to work. The moaned gasps gradually lessened. And then Johnny opened his eyes.
Everything was a dark, gray blur. Clouds and pain were all Johnny’s senses could register. He blinked, trying to find a thread of color to focus on. Then slowly, a face seemed to congeal where a large brown cloud had earlier been, and Johnny discovered the face of Harley.
…Harley’s in Hell, too… No, that doesn’t make any sense… I last left him in Salinas…What’s he doing here?
Johnny tried to speak, but found he couldn’t even open his mouth. He wasn’t quite sure where it was anymore. He managed to swallow with difficulty.
Scott watched, feeling inadequate and dismayed at Harley’s ability to calm Johnny and bring him around. Then Harley shifted his position to sit on the edge of the bed, his hand still resting on Johnny’s upper chest.
“Johnny, it’s okay. It’s Harl. Can you understand?”
Scott waited tensely, aware that Murdoch and DarkCloud both stood behind his chair, each hoping for some sign of recognition from Johnny. But Johnny only stared blankly at Harley’s face.
“Johnny, it’s Harl,” Harley continued softly. “Harley. Remember me? You’re gonna be okay, now, John. You’ll see. Harley’s here. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with Juanito as long as I’m around. Okay? You just gotta take it easy. We gotta get you well. You understand?”
Scott watched Johnny’s eyes blearily attempt to focus. He could see a sheen of sweat along his brother’s forehead and neck, the effects of his fight to breathe and maintain focus.
Suddenly Johnny managed to swallow and blink, his eyes finally latching onto Harley’s.
Harley smiled. “Good, John. You’re doin’ fine. Don’t try to talk yet. It’ll come.”
Johnny watched as Harley grinned. Such a large, lovable man, Harley was. Such a good friend. There was something comforting about knowing he was around.
But still, something seemed to be missing. What was it?
Tiredly he tried to keep his eyes open. He wanted to ask Harley what he’d forgotten. Harley’d know. But he couldn’t seem to keep his eyes from rolling off to the side. He wished they wouldn’t do that. It was unsettling.
Johnny forced his eyes to blink again and opened them wide. It was then that he noticed a pale object just in the corner of his vision.
He mentally cursed his inability to turn his head. He swallowed thickly, and as he did so, he forced his brain to connect to his neck and managed to turn his head an inch to the side. Just enough to bring a blond head into his field of vision.
Scott watched as Johnny slowly tightened his neck muscles and swallowed, then laboriously tilt his head to the side. His eyes, no longer fixed on Harley, seemed to be searching in Scott’s direction, blinking in a desire to find some focus.
Johnny was looking for him.
With a sharp intake of breath, Scott pushed to the front of his seat and leaned forward. “Johnny. Johnny. It’s Scott. I’m here.”
Harley moved down the side of the bed to allow Scott more room, though the blacksmith kept a hand placed firmly on Johnny’s knee.
Murdoch watched, his heart pounding, as his younger son fought to stay ahead of death while his oldest son tried to give his brother a reason to win. He closed his eyes, praying that they would find each other.
“Johnny. It’s Scott.”
Johnny blinked as the face wavered sickeningly across his vision; pain throbbed through his body with each beat of his heart.
Slowly the face took on a concrete shape. And it was…Scott.
But a Scott Johnny barely recognized. He was thin and pale, and his face was lined with worry. His hair was long and untrimmed. And his eyes…they were filled with panic…and fear. What was he afraid of? What was scaring him?
…I gotta find out what’s wrong… Something’s really wrong… What is it?… Scott’s scared of something… I’d take care of it if he’d just tell me…
…There’s just so much pain….
….There…that groan…I’ve got a mouth…I just gotta find it….
Scott watched, distressed, as Johnny’s eyes wavered weakly back and forth—no sign of recognition in them. Then gradually, Johnny’s body began to tense up again, sending spasms of pain tumbling through the battered body—and a moan escaped.
“Johnny, no,” Harley leaned in again. “Relax. Don’t fight it. Breathe slow.”
…Harley, dammit! Can’t you see Scott’s upset? Find out what’s wrong!
Scott turned his head to DarkCloud and his father. “I don’t think he recognizes me.”
Murdoch bit his lip, unable to reply, while DarkCloud shook his head and walked to the table where a syringe sat, ready.
Sadly Scott turned back to Johnny, his brother’s face tense and filled with pain, his breathing growing more rapid and strained despite Harley’s attempts to get him to relax.
“Johnny,” Scott tried again. “I’m here. Please come back to us. I need you.”
Scott’s words echoed around the pain.
…He’s a’scared…He needs me…
God! Why am I in such pain?…What happened?…
I’m here brother…I’m here…I’ll help…
As DarkCloud touched Scott’s shoulder, Scott suddenly saw Johnny swallow and lick his lips—his eyes still vaguely focused on Scott.
“Just a minute,” Scott said as he curtly put out a hand to stop DarkCloud. “Johnny. Can you hear me? It’s Scott.”
Johnny swallowed again, then his muscles tightened and slowly his right hand lifted off the bed a few inches, the fingers stretching outward. Scott quickly slid his hand into his brother’s grasp and was immediately rewarded with a firm grip.
“Bro…ther,” Johnny murmured.
The word sent a shock of hope into Scott and he put a tentative hand on Johnny’s shoulder with his other hand. “Yes, Johnny. Scott. Your brother. I’m here. You’re gonna be fine now.”
Johnny swallowed again and blinked slowly. “Bro…ther,” he murmured again, more weakly though. “Don’t…leave…” Johnny’s eyes fluttered closed.
Scott sucked in a deep breath and held it, calming his pounding heart.
He remembered. Johnny did remember. Perhaps everything would work out. Perhaps he would make it. That simple, haltingly-uttered word gave Scott hope he hadn’t felt just moments earlier.
As Scott slowly released his breath, he let his gaze travel down to the sun-darkened hand enveloping his, the grasp now limp yet still warm and reassuring; and suddenly he realized that while Johnny’s hand had gripped his, his own still clutched the medallion. A medallion of a saint meant to save a troubled gunfighter from dying alone and friendless. Scott silently mused that it had indeed worked. The medallion had saved Johnny for his family—giving them the chance to protect him now. And while Johnny had no more use for it, Scott realized he did. It had now become his symbol…his reminder…for when the path ahead got rough. He could look at it and remember just how close he had come to losing his brother—and what his brother’s only real fear had been all along.
Scott would make sure that never happened.
He felt his brother’s grasp tighten again and Scott quickly looked up into the dark blue eyes steadily focused on his face. He saw his brother swallow thickly, then blink, trying to convey that he wanted to say something. Understanding, Scott quickly leaned down, his face inches from his brother’s mouth. Then, each labored exhale producing a single word, Scott heard his brother’s message.
“You. Look. Like. Hell.”
Instantaneously the tension, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair that had been relentlessly pressing down on Scott’s thoughts and soul melted away, and he suddenly gave a hearty chuckle, surprising the rest of the room’s occupants. “So do you!” he grinned.
A ghost of a smile crossed Johnny’s face and he closed his eyes once more, his hand resting comfortably on his brother’s hand.